/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Footfall

Larry Niven

The book depicts the arrival of members of an alien species called the Fithp that have traveled to our solar system from Alpha Centauri in a large spacecraft. The aliens are intent on taking over the Earth. Physically, the Fithp resemble man-sized, quadrupedal elephants with multiple trunks. They possess more advanced technology than humans, but have developed none of it themselves. In the distant past on their planet, another species was dominant, with the Fithp existing as animals, perhaps even as pets. This predecessor species badly damaged the environment, rendering themselves and many other species extinct, but left behind their knowledge inscribed on large stone cubes (called Thuktunthp, plural of Thuktun in the Fithp language), from which the Fithp have gained their technology. The study of Thuktun is the only science the Fithp possess. The Fithp are armed with a technology that is superior rather than incomprehensible: laser cannon, projectile rifles, controlled meteorite strikes to bombard surface targets, lightcraft surface-to-orbit shuttles the size of warships, etc. Nominated for Hugo and Locus awards in 1986.

Footfall

by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

THE DISCOVERERS

Linda Crichton Gillespie, a Washington debutante

Jeanette Crichton, her sister

Dr. Richard Owen, astronomer

Dr. Mary Alie Mouton, astronomer

Major General Edmund Gillespie, USAF astronaut

WASHINGTON

David Coffey, President of the United States

Mrs. Jeanne Coffey, First Lady

The Honorable Wesley T. Dawson, a Congressman from California

Mrs. Carlotta Trujillo Dawson, his wife

Roger Brooks, Special Assignments Reporter, Washington Post

James Frantza, White House Chief of Staff

Henry Morton, Vice President

Dr. Arthur Hart, Secretary of State

Hap Aylesworth, Special Assistant to the President for Political Affairs

Ted Griffin, Secretary of Defense

Admiral Thorwald Carrell, National Security Advisor

Peter McCleve, Attorney General

Tim Rosenthal, Secretary of the Treasury

Connie Fuller, Secretary of Commerce

Arnold Riggs, Secretary of Agriculture

Jack Clybourne, Presidential Protection Unit, Secret Service

THE SOVIETS

Academician Pavel Aleksandrovich Bondarev, Director, Lenin Institute

Lorena Polinova, his secretary and mistress

Marina Nikolayevna Bondarev, his wife

Boris Ogarkov, Party Secretary at the Institute

Andrei Pyatigorskiy, Assistant Director, Lenin Institute

General Nikolai Nikolayevich Narovchatov, Party Third Secretary, later

Party First Secretary

Chairman Anatoliy Vladimirovich Petrovskiy, Chairman of the Supreme

Soviet

Ilya Trusova, Chairman of the KGB

Dmitri Parfenovich Grushin, KGB officer

Marshal Leonid Edmundovich Shavyrin, Marshal of the Long Range Strategic

Rocket Forces

SURVIVORS AND OTHERS

Harry Reddington, unemployed minstrel

Jeri Wilson, Senior Editor, Harris Wickes Press

Melissa Wilson, her daughter

William Adolphos Shakes

Kevin Shakes

Miranda Shakes

Isadore and Clara Leiber

George and Vicki Tate-Evans

Jack and Harriet McCauley

Martin Carnell, Show-dog breeder

Ken Dutton, Bookstore manager

Cora Donaldson

Sarge Harris, friends of Ken Dutton

Patsy Clevenger

Anthony Graves

Maximilian Rohrs, general contractor, Bellingham

Evelyn Rohrs, former Washington socialite

Ben Lafferty, Sheriff Whatcom County, Washington

Leigh Young, Deputy Sheriff

Whitey Lowenthal, welder

Carol North, citizens of Lauren, Kansas

Rosalee Neill

KOSMOGRAD

Colonel Arvid Pavlovich Rogachev, Commander of Kosmograd

Nikolai, onetime Sergeant, Red Air Force

Allana Aleksandrovna Tutsikova, Deputy Commander

Dr. Giselle Beaumont, French scientist

The Honorable Giorge N’Bruhna, Nigerian politician

Captain John Greeley, USAFU astronaut

THE FITHP

Herdmaster Pastempeh-keph

Advisor Fathisteh-tulk

K’turfookeph, the Herdmaster’s mate

Chowpeentulk, Advisor’s mate

Fookerteh, the Herdmaster’s son

Attackmaster Koothfektil-rnsp

Defensemaster Tantarent-fid

Breaker-Two Takpusseh (later Takpusseh-yamp)

Breaker-One Raztupisp-minz

Fistareth-thuktun, priest and historian

Koolpooleh, male assistant to Fistarteh-thuktun

Paykurtank, female assistant to Fistarteh-thuktun

Octuple leader Pretheeteh-damh

Tashayamp, female assistant to Takpusseh (later his mate)

Octuple Leader Chintithpit-mang, sleeper

Shreshleemang, Chintithpit-mang’s mate

Eight-cubed Leader Harpanet

Eight-cubed Leader Siplistepth

Rashinggith, warrior (Year Zero Fithp)

Birithart-yamp, warrior in Africa

Pheegorun, warrior in Africa, died by spear

Thiparteth-fuft, guard officer

COLORADO SPRINGS

Sergeant Ben Mailey, U.S. Army

Sherry Atkinson

Robert and Virginia Anson

the Threat Team

Wade and Jane Curtis

Bob Burnham

Lieutenant General Harvey Toland, U.S. Army

The Honorable Joe Dayton, Speaker of the House

Senator Alexander Haswell, President Pro Temps of the Senate

Senator Raymond Carr, Senator from Kansas

WARRIORS AND PRISONERS

Nat Reynolds

Joe Ransom

John Woodward

Carrie Woodward, prisoners

Alice MeLennon

Gary Capehart

Ensign Jeff Franklin

Hamilton Gamble

Dr. Arthur Grace

“Tiny” Pelz, crewman

Michael Jason Daniels

Samuel Cohen

Roy Cuber, shuttle pilots

Jay Hadley

Commander Anton Villars, Captain, USNS Ethan Allen

Colonel Julius Carter, U.S. Special Forces

Lieutenant Jack Carruthers, U.S. Special Forces

Lieutenant Ivan Semeyusov, Soviet Expeditionary Force

Brant Chisholm, South African farmer

Katje Chisholm, his wife

Mvubi, Zulu warrior

Niklaus Van Der Stel, Afrikaner Commando

Juana Trujillo Morgan, wife of Major Morgan

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Halverson

Major David Morgan, Kansas National Guard

Captain Evan

Corporal Jimmy Lewis

Captain George Mason

PROLOGUE

Where are they?

—Enrico Fermi

The Fifth Part of the Year Three

Within its broad array of nested rings, the planet was a seething storm. It had always been so. Patterns chased themselves across its brown-on-brown face in bands and curlicues. The space around it churned with activity: billions of icy particles in a broad array of nested rings; eights of moons; streamers of dust whipped by powerful magnetic fields; all whirling around at terrific velocities, at several makasrupkithp per breath. Message Bearer maneuvered within that storm.

The Herdmaster’s Advisor, gazing raptly through the thick double window, seemed to notice only the beauty of the scene.

The Herdmaster found that irritating. His own domain included collisions, industrial operations, internal quarrels, and the peaceful integration of sleepers with spaceborn. He had quite enough problems without… that.

Message Bearer’s main telescope was the equal of any astronomical installation on the world they had left behind. The alien probe was close now, by astronomical standards, and the screen showed it in fine detail.

A circular antenna. A pod at the tip of a long boom radiated infrared warmth. That would be the power supply. Two more booms thrust instruments outward. Clasp digits with me, that I may know your herd! One extension held what had to be cameras, the other some kind of electronic sensing device.

Sixty-four sleepers, the Breaker’s team, were working now to infer what they could about the creatures who had built that machine. They hadn’t told the Herdmaster anything useful. When the camera platform began to turn, the Herdmaster’s digits flexed restlessly.

“You made your decision half a year ago,” Advisor Fathistehtulk said placidly. “You did not destroy it then. How can you destroy it now?”

“Here is where their fragile spy probe must pass through endless orbiting debris, It must survive collisions, radiation, orbital fluctuations, and any unreal danger the prey may imagine. Here is where some mischance is most likely to smash it!”

“We agreed that the probe will find no trace of us. Message Bearer is tiny on this scale. Surely the probe is not seeking us: it was launched long before we arrived. But if there were something to see, yonder camera might have seen it by now. Some evidence of our presence, vivid in their receivers … and now comes a flash of light, then silence from the probe, ever after. Would that tickle your suspicions?”

“If you were Herdmaster, would you continue to worry?”

That was cruel. At the beginning of things, Fathisteh-tulk had been Herdmaster. He had entered his death-sleep expecting to be Herdmaster again. In his present subservient position the concerns of a Herdmaster seemed not to bother him at all. Sometimes Herdmaster Pastempeh-keph wondered if he was being mocked.

“Were I Herdmaster,” the Advisor said placidly, “I would do as you have done. Rest quiet while the probe passes through. Make no attempt to move the ship, send no message to our work force on the Foot. Let the probe pass. When the second probe comes, we will be established on the Foot. Let them try to distinguish us against an unknown background.”

And he turned from the telescope screen, perhaps pointedly, to gaze on the great brown-patterned world and its vast rings.

The Herdmaster said, “I worry. For much of their history the prey must have studied this … great gaudy ornament in their sky. They would know what to expect better than we do after less than a year. What have we missed?”

Outside the broad main ring system, a narrower ring still roiled from the wake of Message Bearer’s drive.

November 1980

As she closed the gate and automatically picked up a scrap of paper that had blown into the yard, Linda Gillespie realized that she was beginning to think of this house — a typical California development split-level — as home. That would mike the second home since she was married. There had been three other places they hadn’t stayed in long enough to think about as homelike at all. Five moves in four years. The Air Force was a mobile service, especially for hot fighter pilots. The best place had been in Texas, when Edmund had been with the astronaut office, and they’d lived in El Lago.

But this couldn’t really be home. It was just a rented house, a place to stay during Edmund’s tour at the Space and Missiles Systems Organization in Los

Angeles. Now that he’d been assigned as a shuttle pilot, they’d move again. Back to Houston! That would be nice. Houston treated astronauts and their families very well indeed.

It was a gloomy Los Angeles November morning, chilly even through her cashmere sweater, with low clouds and fog. The air smelled damp, with a trace of the odor of smog. There was no sunshine, although by noon there would be. It wasn’t pleasant outside.

Inside was better. She poured coffee and sat at the kitchen table. Too early for Ed to call. He wouldn’t anyway. He never did when he was out of town. It’s all very well to be married to an astronaut hero, but it would be nice to have a husband at home once in a while. The Los Angeles Times lay on the table, and she thumbed through it.

She didn’t like to be alone at home, but she didn’t want to go anywhere, either. Ed could assure her she was perfectly safe, much safer than in

Washington, where she’d grown up, and she could believe him — but she knew

Washington, and Los Angeles was a mystery. One San Francisco columnist kept teasing Los Angeles about being invisible.

There was also the Hollywood Strangler, and a man alleged to be the Freeway Killer was on trial for the torture sex murders of a dozen young boys. Great place to raise children. She folded the paper. Time to wax the kitchen floor, she decided. Ed didn’t care much, but his colonel would come to dinner next week, and Colonel McReady’s wife was inclined to snoop. Besides, it wasn’t that hard to do floors.

Ed wouldn’t approve. Not now. She grinned and looked down at her stomach. Didn’t show a bit. She wasn’t sick, either, and if it hadn’t been for the missed periods and medical reports there’d be no reason to suspect she was pregnant. Even so, Ed treated her like she was made of Dresden china. He carried out the garbage, did all the lifting, and worried about hurting her during sex.

That thought made her frown. Ed went all gooey over her pregnancy, but it turned him off! Maybe I’ll lose interest in a month or so. I sure hope so, the way he acts.

Linda poured more coffee. The telephone rang, startling her so that she dropped the cup. It was Corningware and didn’t break, but it clattered loudly on the floor, spilling coffee everywhere.

“Hello?”

“Linda?”

“Yes?”

“By golly, it is you! It’s Roger.”

“Oh. How are you, Roger?”

“Great. Glad you haven’t forgotten me.”

“No, I haven’t forgotten.” You don’t forget your first, she thought. First love, first sex experience, first-a lot of firsts with Roger, back in high school and just after. And what should I say? That he hasn’t called in a long time, but that’s all right because I didn’t want him to? “Roger, how did you get our number?”

“We reporters have our ways. Hey, I’d like to see you. What about a really unusual experience?”

She giggled. “Roger, I’m a married woman.”

“Sure. Happily?”

“Yes, of course!”

“Good. Good for you and Edmund, anyway. What I have in mind is in Edmund’s line. JPL. The Saturn encounter. Voyager is out there getting pictures nobody understands, and we can see them firsthand.” He paused a moment. “It’s this way. I’m here in Los Angeles covering the Saturn story. Not exactly Pulitzer Prize material, but I took the assignment to get away from Washington for a while. So I’m out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the pictures come in. We get briefings from the scientists, and there’s science-fiction writers, and it’s a hell of a show. Let me pick you up on my way out, you’re almost on the way. I’ll have you home by dinnertime, and I won’t try to seduce you.”

And Ed was gone for a week. “It’s tempting. It really is, but I can’t.”

“Sure you can.”

“Roger, my sister is staying here!”

“So what? I’ll have you home before dinner.”

Linda thought about that. Jenny was off somewhere for the day. Saturn pictures. Reporters. It might be fun. “You said science fiction writers. Is Nat Reynolds there?”

“Yeah, I think so. Just a second, there’s a list — yeah, he’s there. Know him?”

“No, but Edmund likes his books. I bought one for his birthday. Think I could get it autographed?”

“An astronaut’s wife? Hell, those sci-fi types will turn flips to meet you.”

Nat Reynolds was hung over, and it was far too early to be up. It was a miracle he’d made it up the arroyo to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory parking lot and got the Porsche into the tiny slot the JPL guard had showed him.

There were cars parked for half a mile along the road leading to where JPL nestled in what had once been a lonely arroyo. The sweet immediately outside the press center was nearly blocked by TV vans, and a thick web of cables spanned the sidewalk to vanish through open loading doors. The press corps had turned out in force, bringing almost as many cameras and crews as they’d send to the site of a bank robbery in progress.

The von Karman Auditorium was a madhouse. Nearly every square foot of floor space was covered by someone: scientist, public relations, press corps, most holding coffee cups or carrying bulky objects.

The press corps was divided. There were the working press and there were the science-fiction writers, and no doubt about who was who. The press was there to work. Some had fun, but all had deadlines. The SF types were there to gawk, and be part of the scene, and absorb the atmosphere, and maybe someday it would get into a story and maybe not. Their world was being created and they were here to see it happen.

This is Saturn!

Huge TV screens showed pictures as they came in from the Voyager. Every few minutes a picture changed. A close view of the planet, black-and-white streamlines and whorls. Rings, hundreds of them, like a close-up of a phonograph record. Saturn again, in color, with his rings in wide angle. Sections of the rings in closeup. Shots of moons. All just as it came in, so that the press saw it as soon as the scientists.

At the Jupiter passings the pictures had come in faster, in vivid swirls and endless storms, God making merry with an airbrush, and four moons that turned out to be worlds in their own right. But to balance that they’d soon see Titan, which was known to have an atmosphere. Sagan and the other scientists weren’t saying they hoped to find life on Titan — but they were certainly interested in the giant moon, which had so far been disappointingly featureless.

The screens shifted, and the babble in the room fell off for a moment. A moon like a giant eyeball: one tremendous crater of the proportions of an iris, with a central peak for the pupil. Anything bigger, Nat thought, would have shattered the whole moon. He heard a female voice say, “Well, we’ve located the Death Star,” and he grinned without turning around. What do the newspeople think of us? He could picture himself: the idiot grin, mouth slightly open, drifting down the line of screens without looking where he was going, tripping over cables.

Nat couldn’t make himself care. A screen changed to show something like a dry riverbed or three twined plumes of smoke or … F-ring, the printout said. Nat said, “What the hell …”

“You’d know if you’d been here last night.”

“I’ve got to get some sleep.” Nat didn’t need to look around. He’d written two books with Wade Curtis; he expected to recognize that voice in Hell, when they planned their escape. Wade Curtis talked like he had an amplifier in his throat, turned high. Partly that was his military training, partly the deafness he’d earned as an artillery officer.

He also had a tendency to lecture. “F-ring,” he said. “You know, like A, B, C, rings, only they’re named in order of discovery, not distance from the planet, so the system’s all screwed up. The F-ring is the one just outside the big body of rings. It’s thin. Nobody ever saw it until the space probes went out there, and Pioneer didn’t get much of a picture even then.”

Nat held up his hand. I know, I know, the gesture said. Curtis shrugged and was quiet.

But the F-ring didn’t look normal at all. It showed as three knotted streamers of gas or dust or God knows what all braided together. “Braided,” Nat said. “What does that?”

“None of the astronomers wanted to say.”

“Okay, I can see why. Catch me in a mistake, I shrug it off. A scientist, he’s betting his career.”

“Yeah. Well, I know of no law of physics that would permit that!”

Nat didn’t either. He said, “What’s the matter, haven’t you ever seen three earthworms in love?” and accepted Wade’s appreciative chuckle as his due. “I’d be afraid to write about it. Someone would have it explained before I could get the story into print.”

The press conference was ready to start. The JPL camera crew unlimbered its gear to broadcast the press conference all over the laboratory grounds, and one of the public relations ladies went around turning off the screens in the conference mom.

“Hmm. Interesting stuff still coming in,” Curtis said. “And there aren’t any seats. I had a couple but I gave them to the Washington Post. Front-row seats, too.”

“Too bad,” Nat said. “What the hell, let’s watch the conference from the reception area. Jilly’s out there already.”

On the morning of November 12. 1980, the pressroom at Jet Propulsion Laboratories was a tangled maze of video equipment and moving elbows. Roger and Linda had come early, but not early enough to get seats. A science-fiction writer in a bush jacket gave up his, two right in the front row.

“Sure it’s all right?” Roger asked.

The sci-fi man shrugged. “You need ’em more than I do. Tell Congress the space program’s important, that’s all I ask.”

Roger thanked the man and sat down. Linda Gillespie was trapped near the life-size spacecraft model, fending off still another reporter who was trying to interview her: what had it been like, marooned on Earth while her husband was aboard Skylab?

She looked great. He hadn’t seen her since — since when? Only twice since she’d married Edmund. And of course he’d been at her wedding. Linda’s mother had cried. Damn near cried myself, Roger thought. How did I let her get out of circulation? But I wasn’t ready to marry her myself. Maybe I should have…

The trouble was, he wasn’t getting any story he could understand. People were excited, but they didn’t say why. The regular science press people weren’t telling. They all knew each other, and they resented outsiders at big events like this.

Roger doodled, looking up when anyone called a greeting, hoping nobody would want his attention. He hadn’t asked for this assignment.

He heard, “Haven’t you ever seen three earthworms in love?” and looked. A clump of science-fiction writers stood beneath a screen that showed… yeah, three earthworms in love, or a bad photo of spaghetti left on a plate, orjust noise. He wrote, “F ring: Three earthworms in love,” and tapped Linda’s shoulder. “Linda? Save my seat?”

“Where’re you going?”

“Maybe I can get something from the science-fiction writers.” Nobody else was trying that; it might get him a new slant. At least they’d talk English. “It looks like things are starting.”

Frank Bristow, the JPL newsroom manager, had taken his place at the podium. Roger had met him briefly when signing in. The regular press corps all seemed to know him as well as each other. Roger didn’t know anyone.

Bristow was about to make his opening statement. The Voyager project manager and four astrophysicists were taking their seats at a raised table. Brooks sat down again. He wished he were somewhere else.Roger Brooks was approaching thirty, and he didn’t like it. There were temptations in his job: too much free food and booze. He took care to maintain the muscle tone when his lifestyle didn’t. His straight blond hair was beginning to thin, and that worried him a little, but his jaw was still square, with none of the, softening he saw in his friends. He had given up smoking three years ago, flatly, and suffered through horrid withdrawal symptoms. His teeth were white again, but the scars between the index and middle fingers of his right hand would never go away. He’d been taken drunk one night in Vietnam , and a cigarette had burned out there.

Roger Brooks had been just old enough to cover some of the frantic last days in Vietnam , but he had been too late to get anything juicy. He had missed Watergate: his suspicions were right, but he was too junior to follow them up. Other reporters got Pulitzer prizes.

Something had changed in him after that. It was as if there were a secret somewhere, calling to him. Little assignments couldn’t hold his interest.

“He missed one chance to be played by Robert Redford,” one of his ladies had been heard to say. “He isn’t about to miss another.”

This was a little assignment. He wondered if he should have taken it, even for the chance to get to California , even though half the Washington newsroom staff would have sold fingers and toes for the chance. But nobody was keeping secrets here. Whatever Voyager One told them, they would shout it to the world, to the Moon if they could. The trick was to understand them.

No big story, maybe, but the trip was worth it. He glanced at Linda and thought: definitely worth it. — He twisted uncomfortably as old memories came back. They’d been so inexperienced! But they’d learned, and no sex had ever been as good as his memory of Linda that last time. Maybe he’d edited that memory. Maybe not. I’ve got to stop thinking about that! It’ll show … What in hell am I going to write about?

Another group was clumped beneath the full-size model of the Voyager spacecraft. They had to be scientists, because most of them were men and they all wore suits. A couple of the sciencefiction writers stood with them, more like colleagues than press. No reporters did that. Would that make an interesting angle? The sci-fi people didn’t pretend to be neutral. They were enthusiasts and didn’t care who knew it, while the reporters tried to put on this smug air of impartiality.

The briefing began. The Program Director talked about the spacecraft. Mission details, spacecraft performing well. Some data lost because it was raining in Spain where the high-gain antennae were located — was that a joke? No, nobody was laughing.

“Three billion miles away, and they’re getting pictures,” somebody said on his right. A pretty girl, long legs, slim ankles, short bobbed hair. Badge said Jeri Wilson, some geological magazine. Wedding ring, but that didn’t always mean anything. Maybe she’d be here the rest of the week. She seemed to be alone.

The mission planning people left the podium and the scientists, Brad Smith and Ed Stone and Carl Sagan, came up to tell what they thought they were learning. Roger listened, and tried to think of an interesting question. In a situation like this, the important thing was get yourself noticed, for future reference, then try for an exclusive. He jotted useful phrases:

“New moons are going to get dull pretty soon.”

“Not dozens of rings. Hundreds. We’re still counting.” Long pause. “Some of them are eccentric.”

“What does that mean?” someone whispered.

The sci-fi man in the khaki bush jacket answered in what he probably thought was a whisper. “The rings are supposed to be perfect circles with Saturn at the center. All the theory says they have to be. Now they’ve found some that aren’t circles, they’re ellipses.”

Other scientists spoke:

“May be the largest crater in the solar system in relation to the body it’s on …”

“There isn’t any Janus. There are two moons where we thought Janus was. They share the same orbit, and they change places every time they pass. Oh, yes, we’ve known for some time those orbits were possible. It’s a textbook exam question in celestial mechanics. It’s just that we never found anything like it in the real universe.”

Brooks jotted down details on that one; it was definitely worth a mention. Janus was the moon named for the two-faced god of beginnings—

He whispered that to Linda, and got an appreciative nod. The Wilson girl wrote something too.

“The radial spokes in the rings seem to be caused by very tiny particles, around the size of a wavelength of light. Also the process seems to be going on above the ring, not in it.”

Radial spokes in the rings! They ought to disappear as the rings turned, because the inner rings were moving faster than the outer rings. They didn’t disappear. Weird news from everywhere in Saturn system. Some of Brooks’ colleagues would understand the explanations, when they came…

Yet the press conference offered more than Brooks had expected. He had interviewed scientists before. It was the lack of answers that was interesting here.

“We don’t know what that means.”

“We wouldn’t like to say yet.”

“The more we learn from Voyager, the less we know about rings.”

“If we fiddle with the numbers a little we can pretty well explain why Cassini’s Divide is so much bigger than it ought to be.” Dramatic pause. “Of course that doesn’t explain why there are five faint rings inside it!”

“If I’d had to make a long list of things we wouldn’t see, eccentric rings would have been the first item.”

“Brad, what about braided rings?”

“That would have been off the top of the paper.”

Everyone up there looked happy, Brooks noted. Fun things were going on here. If Brooks didn’t have the background to appreciate them, who did?

A newsperson asked, “Have you got any more on the radial spokes? I’d have thought that violated the laws of physics.”

David Morrison from Hawaii answered, “I’m sure the rings are doing everything right. We just don’t understand it yet.” Brooks jotted it down. “Where I want to be,” Roger said, “is in a motel room with you.” They were walking the grounds of JPL: lawn, fountains, vaguely oriental rock gardens, a bridge, all very nice.

“That was years ago,” Linda said. “And it’s all over.”

“Sure?”

“Yes, Roger, I’m sure. Now be good. You promised you would. Don’t make me sorry I came with you.”

“No, of course I won’t,” Roger said. “It really is good to see you again. And I’m glad you’re happy with Edmund.”

Are you? Linda wondered. And am I? Of course I am. I’m very happy with Edmund. It’s when he goes off and leaves me to take care of everything and I’m alone all the time and I see these goddam romantic perfume ads and things like that that I get unhappy about Major Edmund Gillespie. I wonder if the feminists did us any favors, letting us admit we get horny just like men!

She grinned broadly.

“Yeah?” Roger demanded.

“Nothing.” Nothing I’d tell you. But it’s nice to see I could have some company if I wanted.

Lunch was in the JPL cafeteria. Roger and Linda were made welcome at the science-fiction writers’ table, but the writers didn’t know any more than Roger did. They were having fun with not knowing.

Someone passed a cartoon down the table. It showed hanging off to one side, either the Star Wars Death Star or Saturn’s moon Mimas, Saturn huge across the background. In the foreground a spacecraft used mechanical arms to twist the F-ring into a braid. The caption: “You’ve a wicked sense of humor, Darth Vader!”

Another writer looked up and yawned. “Oh. It’s just another goddam spectacular picture of Saturn.” That earned him appreciative laughter.

But no one knew, which made it a frustrating lunch. Saturn had secrets, maybe, but he wasn’t telling them, and the writers didn’t have any logical guesses about the strange pictures.

Halfway through the lunch Linda called to someone. “Wes. We didn’t expect to see you here!”

He was a trim athletic man in a faded baseball cap. Linda introduced him around the table. “Wes married Carlotta,” she told Roger. “You remember Carlotta. She was my best friend in school.”

“Sure,” Roger said. “How are you?”

One of the writers looked thoughtful. “Wes Dawson… You’re running for Craig Hosmer’s old seat.”

“Right.”

“Wes has always been for the space program,” Linda said. “Maybe you fellows will vote for him?”

“Not our district,” Wade Curtis said. “We live north of there. But maybe we can help. We’re always interested in people who’ll promote space.”

It was late afternoon when they got back to the house. Roger pulled into the driveway.

“You might as well come in and meet Jenny,” Linda said. “Remember her?”

“Sure I remember The Brat. I had to bribe her to leave us alone!”

“Well, she’s grown a bit now.” Linda led the way to the house and unlocked the door. It was strangely silent inside. She went to the kitchen and found a note held to the refrigerator by a tomato-shaped magnet. Roger was standing behind her, scanning over her shoulder, as she read it.

515: Had to run down to San Diego. Beach party. Charlene’s with me. Back tomorrow. Jenny

“She’s a freshman at Long Beach State . Anthropology. But she took up scuba diving in a big way. Her curient boyfriend is at Scripps.” Linda shook her head in dismay. “Mother will kill me if she finds out I let her go to an all-night party.”

Roger shook his head. “The Brat’s in college? Jeez, Linda, she can’t be more than, what, fifteen?”

“Seventeen.”

Roger sighed. “I guess it’s been longer than I thought.”

“Yes, it has been. Want some coffee?”

“Sure.”

She got out the filters and put water on. Roger hadn’t said anything, hadn’t done anything, but she could feel the vibes. Had Jenny planned this? But no, she didn’t know Roger was in/town, and she wouldn’t if she had. She’d always liked Roger, but she liked Edmund more. No, Jenny wouldn’t have deliberately ananged to leave her alone with a lover from the past.

It had been a long time, but she remembered every detail. Pampered Georgetown University freshman dating the reporter from the Washington Post. They’d planned it, a weekend together in her parents’ Appalachian cabin. It had been summer, and no one was using the place. The weather in the mountains had been perfect. There’d been a delicious thrill of anticipation as they drove up the twisting highway. She hadn’t had that feeling since.

Edmund was different. Edmund was older too, and more glamorous. Fighter pilot. Astronaut. Everything a hero should be. Everything but a great lover… That’s not fair, not fair at all.

There’d been anticipation when she met Edmund. It lasted all during their courtship — and died on their wedding night.

I’d forgotten all this, but I feel it now. Just as I did then. But — the coffee machine was set up and there wasn’t any reason to watch it any longer. She turned. Roger was standing very close to her. She didn’t have to move very far to be in his arms.

PART ONE: THE ROGUES

1. DISCOVERY

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

—SHERLOCK HOLMES in The Sign of the Four

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS SIX WEEKS

The lush tropical growth of the Kona Coast ended abruptly. Suddenly the passionflower vines and palm trees were gone, and Jenny was driving through barren lava fields. “It looks like the back side of the Moon,” she said.

Her companion nodded and pointed toward the slopes off to their right. “Mauna Loa . They say it’s terrible luck to take any of the lava home.”

“Who says?”

“The Old Hawaiians, of course. But a surprising number of tourists, too. They take the stuff home, and later they mail it back.” He shrugged. “Bad luck or no, so far as anyone knows, she — Mauna Loa is always she to the Old Ones — she’s never taken a life.”

Captain Jeanette Crichton expertly downshifted the borrowed TR-7 as the road began another steep ascent. The terrain was deceptive. From the beach the mountains looked like gentle slopes until you tried climbing them. Then you realized just how big the twin volcanoes were. Mauna Kea rose nearly 14,000 feet above the sea — and plunged 20,000 feet downward to the sea bottom, making it a bigger mountain than Everest.

“You’ll turn left at the next actual road,” Richard Owen said. “It’ll be a way. Mind if I doze off? I had a late night.”

“All right by me,” she said. She drove on.

Not very flattering, she thought. Picks me up in Kona, gets me to drive him up the side of a volcano, and goes to sleep. Romantic.

She ran her fingers along her shoulder-length hair. It was dark brown with a trace of red, and at the moment it couldn’t be very attractive since it was still damp from her morning swim. She hadn’t much of a tan, either. Sometimes her freckles ran together to give the illusion of a tan, but it was too early in the spring for that. Damp hair, no tan. Not really the popular image of a California girl.

Her figure was all right, if a bit athletic; the Army encouraged officers to run four miles a day, and she did that although she could get out of the requirement if she really wanted to. The medium-length skirt and T-shirt showed her off pretty well. Still, it couldn’t be looks that attracted this astronomer to her, any more than she was overwhelmed by his appearance. All the same, there’d been some electricity earlier. Now it was nearly gone.

He was up all night, she thought. And will be again tonight. Let him sleep. That should liven him up. God knows what I’d be like if I had to live on a vampire’s schedule.

They drove through alternate strips of pasture and lava fields. At irregular intervals someone had made crude stacks of lava rocks. Three or four rocks, each smaller than the one below, the bottom one perhaps two feet across, piled in a stack; she’d been told they were religious offerings made by the Old Hawaiians. If so, they couldn’t be very old; Mauna Loa erupted pretty often, and certainly this field had been overflowed several times during the twentieth century.

She turned left at the intersection, and the way became even steeper. The TR-7 labored through the climb. There were fewer fresh lava fields here; now they were on the side of Mauna Kea . “She” was supposed to be pretty thoroughly dormant. They drove through endless miles of ranchlands given by King Kamehameha to a British sailor who’d become the king’s friend.

Richard Owen woke just as they reached the “temporary” wooden astronomy base station. “We stop here,” he said. “Have some lunch.”

There wasn’t much there. Long one-story wooden barracks in a sea of lava and mud, with a few straggly trees trying to live in the lava field. She pulled in alongside several GMC Jimmy fourwheel-drive vehicles. “We could go on up,” she said. “I don’t really need lunch.”

“Regulations. Acclimatization. It’s nearly fourteen thousand feet at the top. Pretty thin air. Thin enough here at ten thousand It’s not easy to do anything, even walk, until you get used to it.”

By the time they reached the clapboard barracks buildings she was ready to agree.

There were half a dozen observatories on the lip of the volcano. Richard parked the Jimmy in front of the NASA building. It looked like an observatory in a Bugs Bunny cartoon: a square concrete building under a shiny metal dome.

“Do I get to look through the telescope?” she asked.

He didn’t laugh. Maybe he had answered that one too often. “No one looks through telescopes anymore. We just take pictures.” He led the way inside, through bare-walled corridors and down an iron stairway to a lounge furnished with chrome-steel office tables and chairs.

There was a woman in the lounge. She was about Jeanette’s age, and she would have been pretty if she’d washed her face and put on some lipstick. She was frowning heavily as she drank coffee.

“Mary Alice,” Owen said, “this is Jeanette Crichton. Captain Crichton, Army Intelligence. Not a spook, she does photo reconnaissance and that sort of thing. Dr. Mary Alice Mouton. She’s an asteroid specialist.”

“Hi,” Mary Alice said. She went on frowning.

“Problem?” Owen asked.

“Sort of.” She didn’t seem to notice Jeanette at all. “Rick, I wish you’d come look at this.”

“Sure.”

Dr. Mouton led the way and Rick Owen followed. Jeanette shook her head and tagged after them, through another corridor and up some stairs, past an untidy computer room. All mad, she thought. But what did I expect?

She hadn’t known what to expect at all. This was her first trip to Hawaii , courtesy of an engineering association meeting that invited her to speak on satellite observation. That conference was over and she was taking a couple of days leave, swimming the Big Island’s reefs and enjoying the sun. She didn’t know anyone in Hawaii , and it had been pretty dull. Jeanette began to make plans to visit Linda and Edmund before going back to Fort Bragg .

Then Richard Owen had met her at the reef. They’d had breakfast after their swim, and he’d invited her to come up to see the observatory. She’d brought a sleeping bag; she didn’t know whether Owen expected to share it with her, but from little things he’d said at lunch and on the drive up after lunch she was pretty sure he’d make the offer. She’d been trying to decide what to do when he did.

Now it was as if she weren’t there at all.

She followed them into a small, cluttered room. There was a big viewscreen in one corner. Dr. Mouton did things to the controls and a field of stars showed on the screen. She did something else, and the star field blinked on and off; as it did, one star seemed to jump back and forth.

“New asteroid?” Owen asked.

“That’s what I thought,” Dr. Mouton said. “Except … take a good look, Rick. And think about what you’re seeing.”

He stared at the screen. Jeanette came closer. She couldn’t see anything strange. You take the pictures on two different nights and do a blink comparison. The regular stars won’t have moved enough to notice, but anything that moves against the background of the “fixed stars,” like a planet or an asteroid, will be in two different places on the two different photos. Blink back and forth between the two plates: the “moving” body would seem to jump back and forth. That was how Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. It was also a standard photo reconnaissance technique, to see what had changed in the interval between two satellite photos.

“What’s the problem?” Owen asked.

“That’s moving too far for the interval.”

“It’s close …”

“Not that close,” she said. “I got the plates from a few weeks ago. Rick, I had to trace back damn near night by night, it’s moving so fast! It’s in a hyperbolic orbit.”

“Come on, it can’t be!”

“It is,” Dr. Mouton said.

“Excuse me,” Jeanette said. They both turned to look at her. They’d obviously forgotten she was there. “What’s a hyperbolic orbit?”

“Fast,” Owen said. “Moving too fast for the sun’s gravity. Objects in a hyperbolic orbit can escape from the solar system altogether.”

She frowned. “How could something be moving that fast?”

“Big planets can make it happen.” Richard said. “Disturb something’s orbit …”

“It’s under power,” Mary Alice Mouton said.

“Aw, come on!”

“I know it’s silly, but it’s the only explanation I can think of. Rick, I’ve followed that thing backward for weeks, and it has decelerated most of the way.”

“But …”

“Jupiter can’t do that. Nothing can.”

“No, of course it — Mary Alice?”

“The computer plot fits perfectly if you assume it’s a powered spacecraft.” Dr. Mouton’s voice had taken on a flat, dry note. “And nothing else does.”

An hour later. Two more astronomers had come in, looked at the plates, and left shaking their heads. One had insisted that whatever else they found, the early plates were genuine; he’d taken them himself. The other hadn’t even admitted seeing anything.

Owen used the telephone to call Arizona . “Laura? Rick Owen. We’ve got something funny here. Did any of your people happen to get pictures looking south of Leo the past few weeks?” He read off a string of coordinates and waited for a few moments.

“Good! Looked at them? Could you please go look? Yes, now. I know it’s not convenient, but believe me, it’s important.”

“You don’t really believe that’s a powered ship, do you?” Jeanette asked.

Mary Alice looked at her with haunted eyes. “I’ve tried everything else, and nothing fits the data. And yes, I remember the pulsars!” which meant nothing to Jeanette.

They drank coffee while Owen talketh. Finally he put down the phone. He looked flightened. “Kin Peak has seen it,” he announced. “Chap named Tom Duff, a computer type, spotted it. They didn’t believe it. It’s just where we saw it. Mary Alice, you may have a problem about credit for discovery.”

“Bother the credit, what is it?” Dr. Mouton demanded. “Rick, it’s big, and it’s under power, and it’s coming here.”

In California it would be three in the morning. Linda heard the phone ring three times, then the sleepy voice. “Yes?”

“Linda, this is Jenny.”

“Jenny? But — well, hello, is something wrong?”

“Kind of, Sis. I need to talk to your husband. Fast.”

“What?” There was a pause. “All right.”

“And get him some coffee,” Jenney said. “He’s going to need it.”

Presently she heard the newly awakened voice of Major General Edmund Gillespie. “Jenny? What’s wrong?”

“General, I have something strange to report …”

“General. Are you being official?”

“Well … formal. Yes, sir. I’ve already called my colonel, and he agreed that it would be a good idea to call you.”

“Just a second, Jenny. Linda, where’s that coffee? Ah. Thanks. Okay, shoot.”

“Yes, sir.” As she spoke, she tried to imagine the scene. General Gillespie sitting on the edge of the bed, growing more and more awake. His hair probably looks like his head is exploding. Linda pacing back and forth wondering what in the world is going on. Maybe Joel had been awakened. Well, there wasn’t any help for that. A lot of people were going to be losing sleep.

“Jenny, are you seriously suggesting that this is … an alien ship? Men from Mars and all that?”

“Sir, we both know there can’t be any men from Mars. Or anywhere else in the solar system. But this is a large object, it’s moving faster than anything that could stay inside the solar system, it has been decelerating for weeks, and it appears to be coming here. Those are facts, confirmed by three different observatories.” Suddenly she giggled. “Ed, you’re an astronaut. What do you think it is?”

“Damned if I know,” Gillespie said. “Russian?”

“No,” Jeanette said.

There was a long silence from the other end. “You’d know, wouldn’t you? But are you that sure?”

“Yes, sir. I’m that sure. It is not a Soviet ship. It’s my job to know things like that. I’ve been monitoring the Soviet space program for ten years, and they can’t build anything like that. Neither can we.”

“Jenn-Captain, if this is ajoke we’re all going to be in trouble.”

“For God’s sake, General, why would I joke about this?” she demanded. “I told you, I already got my colonel out of bed! He’s going through channels, but you can imagine what’s going to happen to a UFO report.”

“I can think of people to call,” Gillespie said. “I’m just having trouble believing it.”

“Yes, sir,” Jenny said dryly.

“Yeah, I know, so must you,” Ed Gillespie said. “But I see your point. If it’s an alien ship, we’ve got some preparing to do. Jenny, who is your C.O.?”

“Colonel Robert Hartley G-2 Strategic Army Command, Fort Bragg . Here’s the phone number.”

Linda watched as her husband put the phone down. He looked worried. “What’s my kid sister done now?”

“Maybe earned herself a medal,” Edmund said. He lifted the phone and began dialing.

“Who are you calling now?” Linda asked. “This is crazy!”

“Hello, Colonel Hartley? General Ed Gillespie here. Captain Crichton said you’d be expecting my call … Yeah. Yeah, she’s always had a level head. Yeah. Yeah, I believe her too. Okay, so what do we do about it?” This is crazy, Linda thought. Absolutely crazy. My kid sister discovers flying saucers. I don’t believe it. I will not believe it. Only … Only Jenny never pulled a practical joke in her life. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t take drugs, and … Aliens? An alien ship approaching Earth?

She saw that Edmund had put the phone down. “So now what?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Hard to think. Have to let people know. Have to let the President know. I’m not sure how to do that.”

“Wes Dawson could do it,” Linda said.

“By God!” He looked at his watch. “After six in Washington . Wes might be up. I’ll wake him up. You got his home number handy?”

David Coffey had always thought of himself as a night person, but that wasn’t possible now. The President of the United States couldn’t sleep late. It just wasn’t done.

He couldn’t even insist on being left alone for breakfast, although he tried. As he sat down on the terrace to enjoy the lovely spring day in Washington , the Chief of Staff said, “Wes Dawson. California—”

“I know who he is.”

“Insists on joining you for breakfast.”

“Insists?”

“He didn’t put it that way, but yes. Said he was calling in any favors he had coming. Vital, he said.”

David Coffey sighed. He felt the pressure of his belt. There was a cabinet meeting at eleven, and he’d hoped to get in a half hour swim before then. Tighten up the gut a bit. “Tell Congressman Dawson I’m flattered,” he said, “And ask the housekeeper please to set another place at the table.”

Flying saucers. Spaceships. Silly, the President thought. The sort of stuff the midwestern papers ran when there wasn’t any other news. Fakery. Or insanity. Except that Wes Dawson wasn’t crazy, had never been crazy, and even though he was acting manic, he wasn’t crazy now.

“Let me get this straight, Wes,” Coffey said. “The astronomers have seen a spaceship approaching Earth. It will be here next month. You want to go meet it.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“Wes, do you know — scratch that. Of course you know how goofy this sounds. All right, assume it’s all true. Why you?”

“Somebody has to,” Dawson said. “And the fact that I used up all my favors to be the first to tell you about it ought to show I’m interested.”

“Yeah, I give, you that.”

“I’m on both Space and Foreign Relations. You ought to have somebody from the Congress when we go out to meet them.”

“Why go out to meet them at all?”

“Because … it’s more fitting, sir,” Dawson said. “Think about it. Mr. President, they came from a long way off. From another star—”

“Sure about that?” the Chief of Staff asked. “Why not from another planet?”

“Because we’ve seen all the likely planets close up, and there’s no place for a civilization,” Dawson said patiently. “Anyway. Mr. President, they came from a long way off. Even so, they’ll, recognize that the first step is the hard one. We want to meet them in orbit, not wait for them to come here.

“Let me try to put it in perspective,” he said. “Would the history of the Pacific Islands have been different if the first time the Europeans encountered Hawaiians, the Polynesians had been well out at sea in oceangoing boats? Mightn’t they have been treated with more respect?”

“I see,” the President said. “You know, Wes, you just may be right. That’s assuming there’s anything to this.”

“If there is, do I get to go?” Dawson asked.

David Coffey laughed. “We’ll see about that,” he said. He turned to the Chief of Staff. “Jim, get hold of General Gillespie. Get him on a plane for Washington . And the Army captain who discovered this thing.” He sighed. “And get it on the agenda for the cabinet meeting today. Let’s see what the Secretary of State has to say about welcoming the Men from Mars.”

Wes Dawson walked back from the White House to his offices in the Rayburn Building . He didn’t really have time to do that, but it was a fine morning, and the walk would do him good, and he was too excited to work anyway.

The President hadn’t said no!

Wes strolled quickly through the Federal Triangle and along Independence Avenue . He’d done that often, but he still tended to gawk at the great public buildings along the way. It was all there. Government granite, magnificent buildings in the old classic style, built to last back when America had craftsmen able to compete with the great builders of old Greece and Rome. And more than that, The Archives, with the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence to make you misty-eyed and silent and remind you that we’d done things even the Romans couldn’t, we’d invented a stable government of free citizens. Beyond that was the Smithsonian, old castle and new extension.

The President hadn’t said no! I’m going to space! Only — only would President Coffey remember? It wasn’t an ironclad promise. No one had heard it but Jim Frantz. If the President forgot, the Chief of Staff would forget too, because Coffey might have had a reason to forget. Or … It’s too fine a morning to think that way. Coffey didn’t say no! I really could go to space!

Ahead was the Space Museum , with its endless traffic, the only building in Washington that drew crowds during weekend blizzards. Wes wanted to look in. Just for a moment. There was work to do, and Carlotta would be waiting in the office to hear what happened in his meeting with the President, and he ought to hurry, but dammit. Across from the museum was NASA itself.

Wes grinned from ear to ear, startling passersby who weren’t used to people looking happy. A couple of runners came past and returned the grin, although they couldn’t know what made him so cheerful.

“I know a secret,” he said aloud as he looked up toward the eighth-floor corner office of the Administrator, Have they told him by now? Maybe they’ll even have him at the Cabinet meeting.

But I’m the one who told the President, and I’ve got my claim staked … And I’m the right man. I’ve been waiting for this day all my life. I’m in good shape — well, reasonably good. I’ll be in better. I’ll run every day… He ran a couple of steps, realized that wasn’t practical for a man in a dark pinstripe three-piece suit, and grinned again. Starting this afternoon, he thought. And I’ll get to Houston for training. Real training. I’ve been there before. Good thing, being on the space committee …

Aliens! The full force of it hit him just as he reached the Capitol reflecting pool. They’re really here. Aliens. This is where human history breaks into two pieces. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is over, the aliens are coming… Take that. Bill Proxmire!

He climbed the hill to the Rayburn building and walked between the two monstrous statues that faced each other across the granite steps. They were the ugliest statues in Washington, crude attempts to portray the majesty and compassion of the law in Greek classical style but done by a very bad sculptor who hadn’t understood what the Greeks were trying to do — and who hadn’t known much about human anatomy either. Wes grinned as he passed them. It was obvious what had happened. Someone had insisted on statues, and some forgotten congressman had said ‘Al, my cousin Cindy Lou married a guy who makes statues…’

His aides hurried to intercept him as he entered his suite of offices. Wes knew he was late, but dammit! Now here came Larry with a fistful of messages. Wes waved him aside and went past the receptionist and into his office, bursting to tell Carlotta. She was seated in his chair. A dozen Boy Scouts from his district were draped on the other chairs and couches. Oh, damn, Wes thought, and put on his best smile.

Carlotta saw the fixed political grin on her husband’s face. but she could see beyond it to the glow of enthusiasm in Wes’s eyes. He didn’t need to say anything. After all, they’d lived together nearly twenty-five years, and had been married for twenty-two. She could tell.

Wes has a chance. A chance to be the ambassador of the human race. No, make that consul or whatever the hell they call the second in charge of an embassy. The Russians are likely to provide the ambassador. Thank God I made Wes learn some Russian, Her bed would be empty now, and that wouldn’t be so good, but he sure looked happy. Couldn’t wait to tell her about it.

But the Scouts were here. Bad timing, but the appointment was made weeks ago. How could anyone know Congressman Dawson would eat his breakfast at the White House?

The boys swarmed around Wes. He seemed friendly enough. Not too friendly. He wasn’t making many political points with this visit. Why couldn’t the damn kids go away?

That wasn’t really fair. She’d encouraged them to come herself. Carlotta liked boys. All congressmen welcomed visiting Bdy Scouts, but Wes and Carlotta were happier than most when they came to Washington . Not just Scouts. All boys.

If Simon had lived … Carlotta thought. But he hadn’t. Simon Dawson, age three months, dead of whatever it was that killed babies in their first year: Silent Killer, Crib Death.

The doctors had told her she couldn’t have more children. She’d gambled anyway, and very nearly died in childbirth. It was a month before she could hold her daughter in her arms, and another before she recovered, and it was obvious that Sharon would be the only child of the Dawson family, the only heir to two long and respectable lines. That was almost twenty years ago. Sharon was enrolled at Radcliffe now, and didn’t think much of her father’s career. Carlotta had never been able quite to understand why.

Doesn’t matter. All colleges teach nonsense. She’ll outgrow it. Carlotta got up and went to Wes. He was bursting to tell her, but he had control of his face now. “Hi,” she said. “This is Troop 112. Johnny Brasicku is the Senior Patrol Leader. Johnny, this is my husband, Congressman Dawson.”

They were nice boys, and they came from the district. Wes shook hands with each one of them. When he’d finished he gave Carlotta a rueful grin. She winked at him.

The most important news we’ve ever heard, she thought. Possibly the most important thing anyone ever heard. And here we’re chatting with Boy Scouts while the staff decides what we ought to think and how Wes ought to vote, and there’s nothing we can do about it. If congressmen spent any time being congressmen and thinking about the job, they wouldn’t have the job. It’s a strange way to run a country.

2. ANNOUNCEMENTS

Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.

—Thomas Paine, Common Sense

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS SIX WEEKS

“I really don’t think you should do that,” Jeanette Crichton said. Richard Owen paused with his hand on the telephone, then snorted. “Nothing you can do about it. The Army doesn’t have any jurisdiction over me.”

“I never said we did,” Jeanette said. “And why be paranoid? But you ought to think it over.”

“I already did,” Owen said. “The Soviets have to know. They may already, in which case it’s better if they know that we know about it. And you’re nice and friendly, but somehow I’ve got the feeling that if I wait very long a real spook might show up.” He lifted the receiver and dialed.

And now what? Jeanette thought. He’s right, the Army doesn’t have any jurisdiction, and the Russians probably know all about it anyway. If they don’t now, they’ll learn soon enough. They have a lot more in space than we do, with their big manned station.

“Academician Pavel Bondarev,” Owen said. “Da. Bondarev,” His fingers drummed against the desk, “Pavel? Richard Owen in Hawaii . Uh … yes, of course, I’ll wait,” He put his hand over the transmitter, “They have a policy,” he told Jeanette. “They’re not allowed to talk to Americans unless there are three of them together. Even somebody as high as Bondarev. Talk about paranoid, these guys own the copyright… Ah. Academician Bondarev? Your colleagues are there? Excellent. This is Professor Richard Owen, University of Hawaii , We’ve turned up something interesting I think you better know about…”

Pavel Aleksandrovich Bondarev put down the telephone and stared thoughtfully at the ceiling.

“Is it real?” Boris Ogarkov’s flat peasant lace was twisted into an inquiring frown, which made him look very unpleasant.

“Yes,” Bondarev said absently. Boris was the Institute Party Secretary. He was not well educated. Boris was from the working class. Uninspired but tireless Party activities had brought him to lie attention of his superiors He was one of those raised to a position of power, who knew that loyalty to the system was the only way be would ever be more than a menial. He had cunning enough to know that the Institute was important to the Soviet Union , and so not to interfere with its work. instead be busied himself with seeing that there was a portrait of Lenin in every office, and that everyone, scientist, secretary, clerk, or janitor, voted in every election. “I know this American well,” Bondarev continued. “We have published two papers together, and worked together when I was in the United States . He would not call me for a hoax.”

“Not as a hoax,” Andrei Pyatigorskiy said. “But could he be mistaken? We have seen no evidence of this.”

“Perhaps we have,” Bondarev said. “And perhaps not, As a favor, Anditi, will you please call Dr. Nosov at the observatory, and ask his staff to examine all the photographs that might be relevant?”

“Certainly.”

“Thank you. I need not say that Nosov must not speak of this to anyone. No matter what he finds.”

“I can call the Party Secretary at the observatory,” Boris Ogartov said. “He will help to keep this secret.”

Bondarev nodded agreement.

“But, Pavel Aleksandrovich, do you believe this story? Alien spacecraft coming to Earth?” Pyatigorskiy gestured helplessly. “How can you believe it?”

Bondarev shrugged. “If you agree that they did not lie, we have no choice but to believe it. The Americans have excellent equipment, and enough so that every observatory has comparators and computers. As you well know.”

“If we had half so much,” Pyatigorskiy said. Half the time he had to build his own equipment, because the Institute could not get the foreign exchange credits to obtain electronics and optics from the West, and unless it had been built for the military, Russian laboratory equipment did not work well.

Bondarev shrugged again. “Certainly. But there are many reasons why the Americans would see it first.”

“Perhaps it has been seen from Kosmograd.” Boris Ogarkov said.

Pyatiggrskiy nodded agreement. “Their telescopes are much better than those we have here.”

“I will ask,” Bondaiev said. And perhaps get an answer, perhaps not. Reports from the Soviet space station were closely guarded. Often Bondarev did not get them for months.

“We should see their photographs,” Pyatigotskiy said. “Instantly when they come in. And you should be able to call Rogachev and tell him where to point his instruments.”

“Perhaps,” Bondarev said. He looked significantly at his subordinate. Andrel Pyatigorskiy was an excellent development scientist, but his career would not be aided by criticizing policy in front of Boris Ogarkov. Boris probably would not report this, but he would remember…

“It is vital,” Andrei continued. He sounded stubborn. “If aliens are coming, we must make preparations.”

“Is it not likely that they know in Moscow ?” Ogarkov asked.

“Perhaps they have heard from Kosmograd, and already know.”

“I think not.” Bondarev said quietly. “It is of course possible. They know much in Moscow . But I think we here would have heard, if not what they know, that they have learned something of importance. In the meantime, it is vital that we look at our own photographs. If this object shows, then we know it is no hoax.”

He looked thoughtful. “No ordinary hoax, at all events.”

“So that’s that,” Richard Owen said. “They hadn’t seen it.” He walked over to the window overlooking the road up Mauna Kea .

“Or said they hadn’t,” Jeanette said.

“Yeah, that’s right.” He glanced at his watch. “Next thing is a press conference.” He looked at her defiantly.

She shook her head. “Richard, there’s nothing I can do to stop you I think you’re wrong, though.”

“Don’t the people have a right to know?”

“I suppose so.” she said. “Do you think the Russians believe you?”

“Why shouldn’t they?” Owen demanded.

“They don’t often believe anything we say. They see plots everywhere,” Jeanette said.

“Not Bondarev,” Owen protested. “I’ve known him a long time, He’ll believe me.”

“Yes. But will his superiors believe him? Anyway, it’s not my problem…”

“Sure about that?”

“What?”

“There’s a mess of cars coming up the road,” Owen said. “State police, and an Army staff car. I never saw anything like that up here before…”

Lieutenant Hal Brassfield was nervous. He couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, and he wasn’t sure who Jeanette was. Small wonder, she thought.

“Captain,” he said, “I don’t really know any more than that. The orders said to get you to Washington by first available transportation, highest priority, and we arranged that. A chopper will meet us down at the five-thousand-foot level. He’ll get you to Pearl . There’s a Navy jet standing by there.”

Jeanette frowned, “Isn’t that a bit unusual?”

“You bet your sweet — yes, ma’am, that’s unusual. Leastwise I never did anything like this before.”

She looked at the sheet of orders. They’d been hastily typed from telephone dictation, and looked nothing like standard military orders. She’d never seen anything like them. Come to that, she thought, not very many officers had. At the bottom it said “By order of the President of the United States ,” and below that was “For the President, James F. Frantz, Chief of Staff.”

“Those came in about an hour ago,” the lieutenant said. “And it’s all I know. We’re a training command, Captain.”

“All right, Lieutenant, but someone will have to go to my hotel. I have things there, and the bill has to be paid.”

“Yes, ma’am, Major Johnston said I’d have to take care of that. I’ll send your bags on to you, only I don’t know where to send them.” He chuckled. “I wouldn’t think the White House would be the right address for a captain. But that’s the only place listed on those orders.”

Jeanette nodded, more to herself than to the lieutenant. Whenever she was in Washington , she stayed at Flintridge with her aunt and uncle, so that was no problem. Only it was probably a “hurry up and wait” situation. There wasn’t any need for her at the White House. Not that urgently, and probably not at all. The President would want to confirm the sighting, but before she could get to Washington he’d have a dozen others to tell him about the mysterious — what? She giggled.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Richard Owen said.

“What do we call it?” she asked. “UFO? But it isn’t flying.”

Lieutenant Brassfield looked puzzled. “UFO? All this is over a flying saucer?”

“Yes,” Jeanette said.

“Hey, now wait a minute …”

“It’s all true,” Richard Owen said. “We’ve spotted an alien spaceship. It’s on its way to Earth. Captain Crichton called the Army.”

“Maybe I better not know any more about this,” Brassfield said.

Jeanette thought of Richard Owen’s upcoming press conference and laughed. “It won’t hurt. Lieutenant, do you have anyone in Kona? Or somebody who can get there fast?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Have him go to the Kamehameha Hotel and collect my bags. He’s to be careful with my uniform, but get it packed. All my stuff. Then drive like hell to meet us where that helicopter is picking us up. If I’m going to the White House, I am damned if I’ll go bare-legged!”

KGB Headquarters was across the city square from the Institute. It was a drab brick building, in contrast to the Institute’s pillars and marble facade. Pavel Bondarev walked briskly across the square. It was a pleasant day, warm enough that he did not need an overcoat.

A new man sat at the reception desk in KGB headquarters. He looked very young. Pavel Bondarev grimaced, then shrugged. What cannot be cured must be endured. He had learned patience, and he forced himself to be still, although he was bursting with the news.

A long line of citizens waited in front of the reception desk. Men in ill-fitting suits, women in stained skirts and scarves, farmers, workers, minor factory officials: they all held forms to be signed, permission slips of one kind or another. Today there were not so many farmers; in fall there would be hundreds wanting to sell the produce from their tiny private plots.

Bondarev shook his head. Absurd, he thought. They should be working, not standing in lines here. But it is typically Russian, and if they didn’t stand in lines they wouldn’t work anyway. They’d just get drunk.

If there were not residency controls, everyone would live in Moscow. Once while visiting Washington he’d heard a song at an American’s party: “How you going to keep them down on the farm?” It was evidently a problem for the Americans as well as the Russians.

He walked past the line. A man at the head of the line, roundfaced like Boris Ogarkov, glared at him sullenly but didn’t say anything. Bondarev stood at the desk. Two men were at another desk nearby. He thought he recognized the one who was typing a report on a battered machine of German make. Bondarev wondered idly if the typewriter had been brought to Russia by the Wehrmacht. It was certainly old enough. Provincial establishments, even KGB, did not often get new equipment.

The reception officer ignored him as long as possible, then looked up insolently. “Yes?”

You will be that way, will you? Bondarev thought. Very well. Bondarev spoke quietly, but loud enough so he was certain that the men at the next desk could overhear him. “I am Bondarev. I wish to see the duty officer.”

The desk officer frowned. The man at the next desk ceased typing.

“What is the nature of your business?”

“If I had meant for you to know, I would have told you,” Bondarev said. “Now you will please inform the senior officer present that Academician Bondarev, Director of the Lenin Research Institute of Astrophysics and Cosmography, wishes to see him and that the matter is urgent.”

The receptionist’s frown deepened, but his face lost the insolent look. A full Academician would have powerful friends, and the Institute was important in their provincial city. The officer who had been typing got up from the desk and came over. “Certainly, Comrade Academician,” he said. “I will go and tell Comrade Orlov at once.” He looked down sideways at the receptionist, then left.

“I am required to ask,” the receptionist said. His voice was sullen.

He has not long held his commission as an officer of the KGB, Bondarev thought. And he has rather enjoyed having everyone act respectful, even fearful. He did not expect to find someone to fear.

“This way, Comrade Academician.” The other agent indicated a doorway.

As Bondarev passed through, the receptionist was saying, “How should I know he was an Academician? He did not say so.” Bondarev smiled.

The office was not large. The desk was cluttered. Bondarev did not recognize the officer at the desk, but he was certain he had seen him before.

“Yes, Comrade Academician?”

“I must use your scrambler telephone to call Moscow, Comrade Orlov. Party Third Secretary Narovchatov in the Kremlin. It is urgent. No one must listen. It is a matter of state security.”

“If it is a matter of state security, we must record—”

“Yes, but not to listen,” Bondarev said. “Comrade, believe me, you do not want to listen to this call.”

It took nearly an hour to complete the call. Then General Narovchatov’s voice came on the line. “Pavel Aleksandrovich! It is good to hear from you.” The hearty gravel voice changed. “All is well?”

“Da, Comrade General. Marina is well, your grandchildren are well.”

“Ah. Another year, Pavel. Another year and you may return to Moscow. But hard as it is, you must stay there now. Your work is needed.”

“I know,” Bondarev said. “Marina will be grateful that it is only one more year. That, however, is not why I have called.”

“Then?”

“I have called from the KGB station in order to use the scrambler telephone. The officer on duty is watching to see that no one listens. It is a matter of great importance, Nikolai Nikolayevich. The greatest importance.”

General Nikolai Nikolayevich Narovchatov put down the telephone and carefully finished writing his notes in the leather-bound book on his desk. Once in Paris a wealthy lady had given him a score of the leather books, full of blank pages of excellent paper. That had been long ago, long enough that his baggage had been searched when he returned, and the border guards had wondered what sinister messages were written on the blank paper until the superiors he travelpd with had become impatient and the guards wordlessly passed him through. Each book lasted nearly a year, and now only two were left.

He stared at his notes. Aliens. An alien spaceship was coming to Earth. Nonsense.

But it is not nonsense, he thought. Pavel Bondarev would not have been my ideal of a son-in-law. I would have preferred that Marina marry a diplomat. Still, there is no questioning that the Academician is intelligent. Intelligent and cautious. He would not call if he were not certain. The Americans have seen this object — the Americans say they have seen this object. An American scientist calls a Soviet scientist. A friendly gesture, one scientist to another.

Could this be? Narovchatov stared at his notebook as if the notes he had taken could tell him something he didn’t know. Pavel Bondarev was intelligent, he knew this American, and he believed that this was real. But of course he would. The CIA was clever. Almost as clever as the KGB.

And more to the point: the KGB would not believe the Americans. He thought of the problems a provincial KGB officer would have in trying to notify Moscow of a development like this, and nodded in satisfaction. it would be hours before the senior officials of the KGB would know.

The Americans have seen something, or say they have. More important, now that they knew where to look, Russian astronomers at the Urals Observatory have seen it as well.

Not nonsense. It is real. Something is there. Could the Americans have done something like this? It didn’t seem likely, but the Americans had surprised them before.

I must do something. I do not know what.

Narovchatov’s ornately carved desk stood at one end of a long, high-ceilinged room. The inevitable portrait of Lenin dominated rugs covered the floor. The room was comfortable, full of quiet elegance, tasteful and restful, a room where he could work; but it was also a room where he could relax, as was necessary more and more often now.

He had first seen this room as a very young soldier at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. His special regiment had been assigned to guard duty in the Kremlin just before the Germans were driven away. It was not a long tour of duty. The OMSBON were sent to chase Germans soon after.

It had been long enough, and he had seen enough. Nikolai Nikolayevich Narovchatov would never return to Kirov, where his father worked in the hammer mill. Communism had been kind enough to Nikolai Narovchatov. It had taken him from the villages to Kirov, from the stolid peasant misery of a Russian winter to the comparative warmth of the city and industrial life. It had made his children literate. Nikolai never wanted more, but his son did. If that office came from Communism, then Communism was worth studying.

It took him thirty years, but he never doubted that he would arrive. Party work in the Army, then Moscow University, where he studied engineering and always took excellent marks in the political courses. He could have had better grades in his academic subjects, but he did not want to show up his friends, for he always sought out the relatives of high party officials. If you wish power, it is best to have friends in high places; and if you know no one in high places, meet their children.

Great Stalin died, and Khrushchev began his slow rise to power. Those were not easy years, for it was difficult to tell who would win in the inevitable struggle. Beria had fallen, and with him fell the NKVD, to be divided into the civil militia and the KGB… Nikolai Narovchatov chose his friends carefully, and kept his ties with the Party. Eventually he married the daughter of the Party Secretary of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, largest of the fifteen republics that together made up the USSR. Shortly after, Khrushchev fell, and the Party men became even more dominant.

From then on his rise was rapid. He became a “political general.” Mostly he despised that group, but the title was useful. it paid well, and gave him ties within the Army and the Rocket Forces; and unlike many political generals, he had fought in the Great Patriotic War, and elsewhere. He had earned his medals.

As I have earned my place, he thought. Party work, arse kissing, yes, enough of that, but I have also built factories that actually produce goods. I have helped keep the Germans helpless, cannot the Americans understand why we must? I have dismissed corrupt officials where I could, and minimized the damage of those I could not do without. I have been a good manager, and I have earned my place. A good place, with my son safely established in the Ministry of Trade, and my daughters well married, one grandchild in Moscow’s Institute of International Relations…

And now this.

At least I shall be the first to inform the Chairman. Marina, Marina, I did not approve your choice of a husband, but I see I was wrong. It was a good day when you met Pavel Aleksandrovich Bondarev. A very good day.

He pushed back his chair and stood, and feeling very weary, went down the ornate hall to the office of the Chairman.

The biggest story in history, and David Coffey was president when it happened. Aliens, coming here!

He sat at the center of the big table in the Cabinet Room. The others had stood when he entered, and didn’t take their seats until he was settled. It upset David, but he’d become used to it. They didn’t stand for David Coffey, but for the President of the United States.

Coffey was aware that at least half the people in the room thought they could do the job better than he could, and one or two might be right. They’d never get the chance. Not even Henry Morton. The political writers all like to talk about Henry being ‘a heartbeat away from the Presidency,’ but I never felt better in my life. The Party wanted Morton as Vice President, but he’ll never have a clear shot at this chair.

David was a little in awe of the Secretary of State. Dr. Arthur Hart had written a best-seller on diplomacy, made a fortune trading in overseas commodities, and was a favorite guest on the TV talk shows. Hart’s face was probably better known to the average citizen than the President’s. But he’ll never sit here either. Hasn’t enough fire in his belly. He’d like to be President, but he hasn’t the killer instinct it takes to get high elective office.

David looked around the table at the others. Certainly Hart was the most distinguished man in the room. It wasn’t an overwhelmingly distinguished cabinet.

“I don’t think I have it in me to be a great president,” David had told his wife the night he was elected. When Jeanne protested, David shook his head. “But then I don’t think the country wants a great president just now. The nation’s about worn out with great this and great that. I can’t be a great president, so I’ll just have to settle for being a damned good one — and that I can manage.”

And so far I have. It’s not a great cabinet, but it’s a damned good one.

“Gentlemen. And ladies,” he added for the benefit of the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of the Interior. “In place of our regular agenda, there is a somewhat pressing item which the Chief of Staff will explain to you. Jim, if you will …”

“It’s just plain damned crazy,” Peter McCleve said. “Mr. President, I will not believe it.” He turned toward the President in his place at the center of the big conference table. “I simply do not believe it.”

“You can believe it,” Ted Griffin said. The Secretary of Defense spoke directly to the Attorney General, but he talked mostly for the President’s benefit. “Peter, I heard it just before I came over.”

“Sure, from the same people who told Dawson,” McCleve said.

“They do seem to have checked it thoroughly.” Ted Griffin was a big man, tall and beefy and built like the football player he’d been. He looked as if he might shout a lot, but in fact he almost never did.

“You accept the story, then?” the Secretary of State asked.

“Yes.”

“I see.” Arthur Hart put the tips of his fingers together in a gesture he’d made famous on Meet the Press. Constitutionally, the Secretary of State was the senior Cabinet officer. In fact he was the fourth most important man in the room, counting the President as top. Numbers two and three (the order was uncertain) were Hap Aylesworth, Special Assistant to the President for Political Affairs, and Admiral Thorwald Carrell.

“Assume it’s true,” Hart continued. “I do. So the important thing is, what do we do now?”

“I suppose you want to tell the Russians,” Alan Rosenthal said. Arthur Hart looked at the Secretary of the Treasury with amusement. Rosenthal couldn’t always contain his dislike of Russians. “I think someone must,” Hart said.

“Someone did,” Ted Griffin announced. When everyone was looking at him, he nodded for emphasis. “I got that news just before I came over here. That astronomer guy in Hawaii called someone…” he glanced at a note on the table in front of him. “… a Pavel Bondarev at the Astrophysics Institute near Sverdlovsk. Yeah, well, who could stop him? He dialed direct.”

“How long do you suppose it takes a story like that to get from Sverdlovsk to the Kremlin?” the Attorney General asked.

“It could be quite a while,” Arthur Hart said. “I was thinking that the President might call the Chairman…”

“Moscow already knows,” Admiral Carrell said. His gravelly voice stopped all the extraneous chatter in the mom. “Payel Bondarev is the son-in-law of General Narovchatov. Narovchatov’s been with Chairman Petrovskiy for twenty years.”

Everyone turned to look at the Chief of Staff. Jim Frantz almost never said anything in Cabinet meetings.

“What prompted that, Jim?” Arthur Hart asked.

“I often wonder if any country in the world could operate if communications went only through channels,” Ted Griffin said. “So. The Russians know, and by the time we leave this meeting, the country will know.” He smiled at the startled looks that caused. “Yes, Captain Crichton said this astronomer chap was calling a press conference.”

“So we have to decide what to tell the public.” Hap Aylesworth was short and beefy, perpetually fighting a weight problem. His necktie was always loosened and his collar unbuttoned. He seldom appeared in photographs; when cameras came out, Aylesworth would usually urge someone else forward. As Special Assistant he was the President’s political advisor, but for the past nine years he’d given David Coffey political advice. The Washington Post called him the Kingmaker.

“There may be a more pressing problem,” Admiral Carrell said.

Aylesworth raised a bushy eyebrow.

“The Russians. I don’t know it would be such a good idea for the President to call Chairman Petrovskiy, but I think I’d better get on the horn to General Narovchatov.”

“Why?” Ted Griffin asked.

“Obvious, isn’t it?” Carrell said. He pushed back a gray pinstripe sleeve to glance at his watch. “One of the first things they’ll do once they’re sure of this is start mobilizing. Military, civil defense, you name it. Ted, I’d hate for your military people to get all upset …”

“Are you certain of this?” David Coffey asked.

“Yes, sir,” Admiral Carrell said. “Sure as anything, Mr. President.

“Why would they assume this…” Attorney General McCleve had trouble getting the words out. “… this alien spacecraft is hostile?”

“Because they think everything is hostile,” Carrell said.

“Afraid he’s right, Pete,” Arthur Hart said. The Secretary of State shook his head sadly. “I could wish otherwise, but that’s the way it will be. And they’ll very shortly be demanding an official explanation of why one of our scientists called one of theirs, instead of passing this important news through channels as it ought to be done.”

“That’s crazy,” Peter McCleve said. “Just plain crazy!”

“Possibly,” Secretary Hart said. “But it’s what will happen.”

“To sum up, then,” David Coffey said. “The Soviets will shortly ask us for our official position, and they will begin mobilizing without regard to what that position is.”

Admiral Carrell nodded agreement. “Precisely, Mr. President.”

“Then what should we do?” Hap Aylesworth asked. “We can’t let the Russians mobilize while we do nothing. The country won’t stand for it.”

“I can think of senators who would be delighted,” Coffey said.

“On both sides of the aisle,” Aylesworth said, “Doves who’ll say there’s never been anything to be afraid of, and will move resolutions congratulating you on your steady nerves — and hawks who’ll want to impeach you for selling out the country.”

“Admiral?” David Coffey asked. Admiral Canell was another advisor the President was in awe of. They’d known each other for more than a dozen years, since the day Vice Admiral Carrell had walked into a freshman congressman’s office and explained, patiently and with brutal honesty, how the Navy was wasting money in a shipyard that happened to be one of the major employers in David’s district.

Since that time, Carrell had become Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, then Director of the CIA. David Coffey’s first officially announced appointment was Dr. Arthur Hart to be Secretary of State, but he’d decided on Thorwald Carrell as National Security Advisor before his own nomination, and the announcement came the day after Hart’s appointment.

“I think a partial mobilization,” Admiral Carrell said. “We’ll need a declaration of national emergency.”

“This is senseless.” Commerce Secretary Connie Fuller had a surprisingly low voice for such a small lady. “If we believe this is really an alien ship — and I think we must — then this is the greatest day in human history! We’re sitting here talking about war and mobilization when … when everything is going to be different!”

“I agree,” Arthur Hart said. “But the Soviets will begin mobilization.”

“Let them,” Fuller said. Her brown eyes flashed. “Let them mobilize and be damned. At least one of the superpowers will behave like … like responsible and intelligent beings! Do we want these aliens? Mr. President, think of the power they have! To have come from another star! We want to welcome them, not appear hostile.”

“That’s what Wes Dawson thinks,” President Coffey said. “Matter of fact, he wants to meet them in orbit. He thought that might impress them a little.”

“An excellent suggestion,” Secretary Hart said.

“Couldn’t hurt,” Ted Griffin agreed.

“Except that we don’t have a space station,” Admiral Carrell said.

“The Soviets do,” Connie Fuller said. “Maybe if we asked them—”

“That’s what I planned to do,” David Coffey said. “Meanwhile, we have a decision to make. What do we do now?”

“Put the military forces on standby alert,” Admiral Canell insisted. “Get the A teams on duty.”

“That works,” Aylesworth said. “We can call in the congressional leadership before we do anything else.”

“Spread the blame,” Admiral Carrell muttered.

“Something like that,” David Coffey agreed. “I’ll call in the standby alert from the Oval Office.” He stood, and the others, after a moment, stood as well. “Mr. Griffin, I think it would do no harm to examine our civil defense plans.”

“Yes, sir, but that’s not in the Department of Defense.”

Coffey frowned.

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency is an independent agency, Mr. President.”

“Well, for God’s sake,” Coffey said. He turned to Jim Frantz. “Statutory?”

“No, sir. Created by executive order.”

“Then get out an executive order putting the damned thing under the National Security Council. Ted, I want you to stay on top of this. The news will be out in an hour, God knows what people will do. I’m sure some will panic.

“You’ll all want to call your offices,” Coffey said. “There’s no point in denying anything. I think the official policy is that we do in fact believe an alien spaceship is coming here, and we’re trying to figure out what to do.”

“Mr. President!” Hap Aylesworth was shocked.

David smiled. “Hap, I know you’d like the public to think I’m infallible, but it doesn’t work that way. The Pentagon gives out infallibility with the third star, and the Vatican’s got a way of handing it to the Pope, but it doesn’t come with the job of President. I think the people know that, but if they don’t, it’s time they found out. We’ll tell the simple truth.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Meanwhile, let’s figure on getting back together in two hours.” Coffey turned to the Chief of Staff. “Jim, I think you’d better get the crisis center activated. It looks to be a long day.”

3. FLINTRIDGE

Along a parabola Man’s fate like a rocket flies,

Mainly in darkness, now and then on a rainbow.

—ANDREI VOZNESEVISKY, “Parabolic Ballad”

COUNTDOWN:H MINUS SIX WEEKS

The moving belt came to life. Luggage spewed out of the bowels of Dulles International Airport. Jenny reached for her suitcase, but before she could get it, a fat lady in a yellow-flowered dress shouldered her aside to grab her own. “Excuse me,” the fat woman said. Why should I? Jenny thought. I’m supposed to defend a tub of lard like you? Why? She tried to move past the woman, but that wasn’t going to be possible. It had been a long flight. Jenny’s hair was in strings, and she felt sticky. She drew in a breath to speak, but thought better of it. No point, she told herself. She was resigned to letting her bag go around the carousel when she recognized Ed Gillespie. He reached past the fat woman and caught the suitcase before it could escape. It was big and heavy, but he lifted it effortlessly.

“Good morning,” he said. “Any other luggage?”

“No, sir,” Jenny said. He was wearing a dark blue blazer and gray flannel trousers, and didn’t look military at all. She giggled. “I don’t often get a general for a porter. And an astronaut at that.” Gillespie didn’t say anything, but the look on the fat woman’s face when she said ‘astronaut’ was worth a lot. “I hadn’t expected you,” Jenny said. “I got in from California about an hour ago. Called Rhonda and found out which flight you were on. Seemed reasonable to wait for you.”

Jenny opened her big purse and fished out the clear plastic strap for the suitcase. Gillespie snapped it on and led the way out of the baggage area, up the ramp to the taxi stands. The suitcase followed like a dog on a leash, which was the way Jenny always thought of it, As far as Jenny was concerned, wheels on luggage had done more for women’s liberation than most organizations. She didn’t mind letting a strong alpha male take care of her suitcase. She did have some misgivings about letting General Edmund Gillespie haul her luggage. Still, there was no point in telling her brother-in-law that she could take care of her own suitcase when they were both in civvies. If they’d been in uniform she’d have pulled her own no matter what he said.

They reached street level. Gillespie waved to a waiting taxi. His luggage was already in its trunk. The taxi was new, or nearly so. The driver was Middle Eastern, probably Pakistani, and hardly spoke English. They got into the backseat, and she sank back into the cushions. Then she took a deep breath and let it out.

“Tired?” Gillespie asked.

“Sure. Yesterday afternoon I was in Hawaii.” She looked at her watch. Seven-thirty A.M. “A Navy jet took me to El Tom. They stuffed me in a helicopter and got me to Los Angeles just in time to catch the red-eye.”

“Get any sleep?”

“Not really.”

“Try now,” Gillespie said.

“I’m too keyed up. What’s the schedule?”

“Early appointments,” Gillespie said. “At the White House.” He saw her look of dismay and grinned. “You’ll have time to change.”

“I’d better. I’m a wreck.”

The taxi pulled out of the airport lot and onto the freeway, putting the soaring structure of the terminal building in their view. “My favorite airport,” Jenny said.

Gillespie nodded. “It’s not too bad. I didn’t used to like it, but it grows on you. Except it’s so damned far out.”

“I like the building.”

“So do I, but it ruined the architect’s reputation,” Ed Gillespie said. Jenny frowned. “His name was Eero Saarmnen, and he didn’t build a glass box,” Gillespie said. “So they kicked him out of the architects’ lodge as a heretic.”

The taxi accelerated. A fine mist hung in the air outside, and the freeway was slick. Jenny glanced over the driver’s shoulder at the speedometer. The needle hovered around seventy-five. “I’m glad there’s not much traffic,” she said. “I didn’t know you were interested in architecture.”

“Umm. Tom Wolfe wrote a book about it.”

“Oh.” He didn’t need to explain further. After The Right Stuff, Wolfe had become required reading for the astronauts.

“How’s it feel to create a sensation, Jenny?”

“I’m too tired to feel anything at all. Was it a sensation?”

Gillespie laughed. “That’s right, you’ve been on airplanes.” He reached down into his briefcase and took out a Washington Post.

The headline screamed at her, “ALIEN SPACESHIP DISCOVERED.” Most of the front page was devoted to the story. They didn’t have many facts, but there was a lot of speculation, including a background article by Roger Brooks. Jenny frowned at that, remembering the last time she’d seen Roger. She glanced at Ed. He couldn’t know about Roger and Linda. My sister’s a damn fool, she thought.

There were interviews with famous scientists, and pictures of a Nobel cosmologist smiling approval. There were also pictures of Rick Owen and Mary Alice Mouton. Owen’s smile was broader than the cosmologist’s.

“Looks like Dr. Owen has made himself famous,” Jenny said.

“You’re pretty famous too,” Edmund said. “Your Hawaiian boyfriend took most of the credit, but he did mention your name. Every reporter in the country would like to interview you.”

“Oh, God.”

“Yeah. That’s one reason I waited for you. It’s a wonder the stews didn’t recognize you.”

“Maybe they did,” Jenny said. “I thought one of them was extra attentive. She didn’t say anything, though.”

The taxi wove through the sparse traffic. The freeway to Dulles had few on-ramps. Originally it wasn’t supposed to have any, so it would bear no traffic except airport traffic, but the politicians had managed to add a couple, probably near where they owned property. Wherever there were ramps a cluster of houses and a small industrial park had sprung up.

“What do you think they’ll be like?” Jenny asked.

Gillespie shook his head. “I don’t read much science fiction anymore. I used to when I was a kid.” He stared out the window for a moment, then laughed. “One thing’s sure, it ought to give a boost to the space program! Congress is already talking about buying more shuttles, expanding the Moon Base — to listen to those bastards, you’d think they’d been big space boosters all along.”

“What about Hollingsworth?” Jenny asked.

“He doesn’t seem to be giving interviews.”

“Maybe he does have some shame.” She leaned back in the seat. Senator Barton Hollingsworth, Democrat of South Dakota, had long been an enemy of the space program, and for that matter of every investment in high technology and almost anything else except dairy subsidies. Like his predecessor William Proxmire, the one thing Hollingsworth really hated was SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which he claimed was a ‘golden fleece’ of the taxpayers. Proxmire had once spent two days trimming one hundred and twelve thousand dollars for SETI research from the NASA budget, at a time when the welfare department was spending a million dollars a minute.

Toward Washington the traffic began to thicken. They came off the Dulles access freeway into a solid wall of red taillights. The driver muttered curses in Pakistani and began to weave through traffic, ignoring angry horns. They drove past a turnoff. A long time before, the sign at that turnoff had said “Bureau of Public Roads Research,” but now it admitted that the CIA building was invisible in the trees at the end of that road. Jenny paid it no attention. She’d been there before.

The aliens are coming, and I’m famous, Jenny thought. “Who are we seeing at the White House?”

Gillespie shrugged. “Probably the President.”

“Oh, dear. I don’t know anything,” Jenny said. “Nothing I didn’t tell you on the telephone yesterday.”

He shrugged again. “We’ll just have to play it as it lies.”

“Yes, but … Ed, I don’t even have any guesses!”

“Neither do I, but we’re the experts,” Gillespie said. “After all, we knew about it first…”

They crossed the Potomac and drove along the old Chesapeake and Ohio canal. The morning drizzle had stopped, and the sun was trying to break through overhead. A dozen or more joggers were out despite the chilly morning. Jenny closed her eyes.

Gillespie and the driver were in a heated argument. The driver didn’t understand anything Ed was saying. He was also getting nervous, while Gillespie got angrier.

“What’s the matter?” Jenny asked.

“Damn fool won’t follow directions.”

“Let me. Where are we?”

“Damned if I know — that’s the problem. We crossed a bridge a minute ago. One I never saw before. Had buffaloes on it.”

“Buffaloes? Oh. We’re near the Cathedral,” Jenny said. She looked around. They were in a typical Washington residential neighborhood, older houses, each with a screened porch. “Which way is north?”

Gillespie pointed.

“Okay.” She leaned forward. In New York, they had Plexiglas partitions to seal the driver away from his passengers, but there weren’t any here. “Go ahead, then left.”

The Pakistani driver looked relieved. They drove for a couple of blocks, and Jenny nodded satisfaction. “It’s not far now. We’re on the wrong side of Connecticut Avenue, that’s all.”

Gillespie was still angry. “Why the hell can’t they get drivers who speak English?” he demanded. “All the people out of work in this country. Or say they’re out of work. And none of the damn airport taxi drivers at our nation’s capital can speak English. The goddam politicians wouldn’t know that, though, would they? They have drivers to pick them up at the airport…”

Now that she’d dozed off, she wanted to sleep again, but she stayed awake to direct the driver. Finding Flintridge Manor on its hill in Rock Creek Park could be plenty tricky even if you’d been there before. “They won’t let Washington cabs pick people up at Dulles,” she said.

Which was strange, if you thought about it, since it was a federal airport, operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and reachable only by a federally constructed throughway. Why shouldn’t cabs licensed in Washington be able to pick up passengers at Dulles? But they couldn’t, and nothing was going to be done about it, just as nothing would be done about a hundred thousand other bureaucratic nightmares, and why worry about it? The government had more immediate problems coming at them out of the sky.

Then again, maybe the aliens would solve it all. Those advanced creatures could be carrying a million-year-old quantified science of government and a powerful missionary urge, and the government’s problems would be over forever.

Flintridge nestled in colonial splendor atop a large hill. There weren’t a dozen places like it in Washington. From its big columned porch you couldn’t see another house. Most of the woods surrounding Flintridge were part of Rock Creek National Park, which was perfect because no one could build there, while the Westons didn’t have to pay taxes on the park property.

Jenny directed the taxi up the gravel drive. Phoebe, the Haitian maid, came to the door, saw them, and dashed back inside. A few moments later her uncle came out.

Colonel Henry Weston had inherited most of the money; Jenny’s mother’s share had been useful, but hardly what anyone would call wealth. There were advantages to having a rich uncle, especially if you had to stay in Washington. Flintridge was much nicer than a hotel.

Jenny’s room was on the third floor, up the back stairs; Flintridge had a grand stairway to the second floor, but there weren’t enough bedrooms there. The top floor had once been a series of garrets. They’d been redesigned to be comfortable, turned into small suites with attached bathrooms, but the only stairway was the narrow twisting enclosed back stairs designed to keep servants from interfering with family.

Servants, not slaves. Flintridge wasn’t that old. Eighteen seventies. Jenny set her suitcases down and collapsed on the bed. Thank heaven Aunt Rhonda wasn’t up yet! She’d have gushed, admired Jenny’s nonexistent tan, asked about young men; now that Allan Weston was safely married and established in a New York bank, Jenny was the only possible target for Rhonda Weston’s tireless matchmaking.

Aunt Rhonda was lovable but very tiring, especially at eight in the morning when you had an appointment at the White house at eleven!

She glanced out the window toward the large arbor and gazebo, and almost blushed. It had been a long time ago, in that gazebo after a school dance… She shook het head, and lay down, sinking into the thick eiderdown comforters and pillows. The bed was far too soft and luxurious.

She could easily have grown up in this house. There’d been several times when Colonel Weston, U.S. Air Force Reserve and owner of Weston International Construction, had relocated semipermanently, leaving Flintridge vacant. Each time he’d offered the place to Jenny’s father.

Linda and Jenny always hoped to move into Flintridge, but Joel MacKenzie Crichton had too much of the dour Scot in him; living in Flintridge would be living conspicuously above his station, even though Colonel Weston would have paid the taxes and most of the upkeep. It was a great place to visit, and they could keep an eye on it for the Westons, but they wouldn’t live there, much to the girls’ disappointment.

“What would it look like for a GS-14 to live in that house?” Jenny’s father demanded. “I’d be investigated every month!” And after he left government service and became first moderately, then quite wealthy, Joel Crichton wouldn’t consider Flintridge.

He hadn’t much cared for the parties Rhonda Weston had thrown for his daughters, either. “All nonsense, this coming-out stuff,” he’d said, but he had enough sense not to try to stop them. First Linda, then Jeanette, had been presented to the eligible young men of Washington in grand balls held at Flintridge. A former President of the United States had come to Linda’s party. Jenny had to settle for two senators and the Secretary of State.

The morning after Jeanette’s ball, their comfortable house seemed shabby. It must have seemed that way to their father, too, because he quit his government job a couple of months later to become the Washington representative of a California aerospace company. There’d even been some talk of an investigation, but it never came to anything. The Crichtons had far too many friends in Washington.

No one who knew them was at all surprised when Jenny went into Army Intelligence.

Ed Gillespie turned the Buick Riviera into the iron-gated drive at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A uniformed policeman looked at Gillespie’s identity cards, then at a list on his clipboard, and waved them through. When they reached the garishly ornate building once known as Old State, then the Executive Office, and now called the “Old EOP,” a driver materialized. “I’ll park it for you, sir.”

A Marine opened the car door for Jenny, then stepped back and saluted. “General, Captain, if you’ll follow me, please …”

He led them across to the White House itself. From somewhere in the distance they heard the chatter of grade school children on a tour. The Marine led them through another corridor.

In all her years in Washington, Jenny had never been to the White House. Her parents and Colonel Weston had been to White House parties and even a state dinner; it seemed ridiculous for the Crichton girls to take a public guided tour. One day they’d be invited.

And this is the day, Jenny thought.

They came to another corridor. A young man in a gray suit waited there. “Eleven o’clock,” the Marine said.

“Right. Hi, I’m Jack Clybourne. I’m supposed to check your identification.”

He smiled as he said it, but he seemed very serious. He looked very young and clean-cut, and very athletic. He inspected General Gillespie, then Jenny.

They took out identification cards. Clybourne glanced at them, but Jenny thought he looked at them superficially. He was much more interested in the visitors than in their papers. Doesn’t miss a detail. Joe Gland, thinks he’s irresistible.

Finally he seemed satisfied and led them along a corridor to the Oval Office.

The interior looked very much the way it did on television, with the President seated behind the big desk. They were both in unifonn, so they saluted as they approached the desk.

David Coffey seemed embarrassed. He acknowledged their salutes with a wave. “Glad to see you.” He sounded as if he meant it. “Captain Jeanette Crichton,” he said carefully. His brows lifted slightly in thought, and Jenny was sure that he’d remember her name from now on. “And General Gillespie. Good to see you again.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” Edmund said.

Ed’s as nervous as I am, Jenny thought. I didn’t think he would be. She glanced around the office. Behind the President, on a credenza, was a red telephone. The phone, Jenny thought. At SAC headquarters the general in command had two telephones, one red to communicate with his forces, and one gold. This would be the other end of the gold phone…

“Captain, this is Hap Aylesworth,” the President said. He indicated a seated man. Aylesworth’s face seemed flushed, and his necktie was loosened. He stood to shake hands with her.

“Please be seated,” the President said. “Now, Captain, tell me everything you know about this.”

She took the offered chair, sitting on its edge, both feet on the floor, feet together, her skin pulled down over her knees, as she’d been taught in officer’s training classes. “I don’t know much, Mr. President,” she said. “I was at the Mauna Loa Observatory.”

“How did you happen to be there?” Aylesworth asked.

“I was invited to Hawaii to address an engineering conference. I took a couple of extra days leave. While I was swimming I met Richard Owen, who turned out to be an astronomer, and he invited me up to see the observatory.”

“Owen,” Aylesworth said pensively.

“Come on, Hap, we have confirmation from every place we logically could get confirmation,” the President said. He smiled thinly. “Mr. Aylesworth can’t quite get over the notion that this is a put-up job. Could it have been?”

Jenny frowned in thought. “Yes, sir, but I don’t believe it. What would be the motivation?”

“There must be forty science-fiction novels with that plot,” Aylesworth said. “Scientists get together. Convince the stupid political and military people that the aliens are coming. Unite Earth, end wars …”

“The Air Force Observatory reports the same thing,” Ed Gillespie said. “Now that they know what to look for.”

The President nodded. “As do a number of other sources. Hap, if it’s a plot, there are an awful lot of plotters involved. You’d think one would have spilled the beans by now.”

“Yes, sir,” Aylesworth said. “And I suppose we’re sure this isn’t something the Russians cooked up to get us off guard.”

Both Jenny and General Gillespie shook their heads. “Not a chance,” Gillespie said.

“No, I suppose not,” Aylesworth said. “My apologies, Captain, I’m having trouble getting used to the notion of little green men from outer space.”

“Or big black ones,” Ed Gillespie said.

The President eyed Gillespie in curiosity. “What makes you say that? Surely you don’t have any knowledge?”

“No, sir. But they’re as likely to be big and black as they are to be little and green. If we had any idea of where they came from, we might be able to figure something out.”

“Saturn,” Jenny said. “Dr. Mouton had a computer program.” Alice Mouton had wanted to lecture, and Jenny had listened carefully. “We don’t know how fast they came, and Saturn must have moved since they left, but if you give them almost any decent velocity, they started in a patch of sky that had Saturn in it.”

“Saturn,” Aylesworth said. “Saturnians?”

“I doubt it,” Ed Gillespie said. “Saturn just doesn’t get enough sunlight energy for a complex organism to evolve there. Much less a civilization.”

“Sure about that?” the President asked.

“No, sir,”

“Neither is the National Academy of Sciences,” the President said. “At least those I could get hold of. But the consensus is that the ship must have gone to Saturn from somewhere else. Now all we have to do is find the somewhere else.”

“Maybe we can ask them,” Jenny said.

“Oddly enough, we thought of that,” Aylesworth said.

“With what result?” Gillespie asked.

“None.” Aylesworth shrugged. “So far they haven’t answered. Anyway. Mr. President, I’m satisfied. It’s real.”

“Good,” the President said. “In that case, if you’d ask Mr. Dawson and Admiral Carrell to come in …”

Gillespie and Jenny stood. Wes Dawson came in first. “Hello, Ed, Jenny,” he said.

“Ah. You both know Congressman Dawson, then,” the President said.

“Yes, sir,” Ed Gillespie said.

“Of course you would,” David Coffey said. “You told Mr. Dawson about the alien ship. Have you met Admiral Carrell?”

“Yes, sir,” Ed said. “But I think Jenny hasn’t.”

Admiral Carrell was approaching retirement age, and he looked it, with silver hair and wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He shook hands with her, masculine fashion. His hand was firm, and so was his voice. His manner made it clear that he knew precisely who Jenny was. He waited until the President invited them to sit, then again until Jenny was seated, before he took his own seat. “Nice work, Captain.” he said. “Not every officer would have realized the significance of what you saw.”

Interesting, she thought. Does he take this much trouble with everyone he meets? “Thank you, Admiral.”

Congressman Dawson had taken the chair closest to the President. “How will Congress treat this, Wes?” the President asked.

“I don’t know them all, Mr. President,” Dawson said.

“Will I get support for a declaration of emergency?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Dawson said. “There will certainly be opposition.”

“Damn fools,” Admiral Carrell said.

“What makes you think the aliens won’t be friendly?” Wes Dawson demanded.

“The aliens may be friendly, but a Russian mobilization without reaction from us would be a disaster. It might even tempt them to something they normally wouldn’t think of,” Carrell spoke evenly.

“Really?” Dawson said. His tone made it less a question than a statement.

“Will they mobilize?” the President asked.

“We’ll let Captain Crichton answer,” the Admiral said. “Perhaps Mr. Dawson will be more likely to believe someone he knows. Captain?”

I’ve just been set up, Jenny thought. So that’s how it’s done. But I’ve no choice. “Yes, sir, they will.” She hesitated. “And if we don’t react, there could be trouble.”

“Why is that?” the President prompted.

“Sir, it’s part of their doctrine. If they could liberate the world from capitalism without risk to the homeland, and didn’t do it, they’d be traitors to their own doctrine.”

Admiral Carrell said, “They’re jamming all our broadcasts, and they haven’t told their people anything about an alien coming.”

“It’s too big to keep secret,” Dawson said. “Isn’t it?”

Once again. Admiral Carrell turned to Jenny. This time he merely nodded to her.

Is this a test? she wondered. “Whatever it is Sir, the East Germans and Poles are bound to find out. Unless the Soviets want to completely disrupt their economy, they can’t cut off all communication from the Eastern European satellites, so the news is bound to get to Russia. To the cities, anyway.”

The Admiral nodded behind half-closed eyes.

“Meanwhile, whatever the Russians are doing, there’s an alien ship coming,” the President said. “It may be that in a few weeks all our little squabbles will look very silly.”

“Yes, sir,” Wes Dawson said. “Very silly.”

“There are other possibilities.” Admiral Carrell spoke in low tones, but everyone listened. Even the President.

“Such as?” Dawson demanded.

“I want to assemble a staff of experts at Colorado Springs. One task will be to look at as many possibilities as we can.”

“Very reasonable,” the President said. “Why Colorado Springs?”

“The hole,” Admiral Carrell said.

NORAD, Jenny thought. The North American Air Defense Command base, buried deep under the granite of Cheyenne Mountain. It was supposed to be the safest place in the United States, although there were some arguments about just how hardened it really was…

“Will you be going out there?” the President asked.

“Not permanently.”

“But you’ll be busy. Meanwhile, I need someone to keep me informed.” The President looked thoughtful. “We have two problems. Aliens, and the Soviets. Captain, you’re a Soviet expert, and you discovered the alien ship.”

“I didn’t discover it, sir.”

“Near enough,” the President said. “You recognized its importance. And you already have all the clearances you need, or you wouldn’t be in military intelligence.” He touched a button on the desk. The Chief of Staff came in immediately.

“Jim,” the President said, “I’m commander in chief. Does that mean I can promote people?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Promote this young lady to major, and have her assigned to the staff. She’ll work with you and the Admiral to keep me briefed on what the aliens and the Soviets are doing.” He chuckled. “Major Crichton and General Gillespie are military. I can give them orders without going through civil service hearings. At least I assume I can?”

“Sure,” Frantz said.

Major Crichton. Just like that!

“Good,” the President was saying. “General Gillespie, Congressman Dawson wants to go meet the aliens in space.”

Ed Gillespie nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“You approve?”

“Yes, sir.”

Jenny smiled thinly. Ed would approve more if it was going to be him meeting the aliens. For that matter, I’d like to go.

“Help him do it,” the President said. “I want you to work with him. Go to Houston and personally see to his training. It’s possible you’ll go along, too, although that’s up to the Russians.” He grimaced slightly, then glanced at his watch. “They’re expecting both of you over at NASA headquarters. I wanted to see you before I made up my mind. If you hurry you won’t be too late”

“Yes, sir.” Ed glanced at Jenny but didn’t say anything.

The President stood, and everyone else stood with him. “The Soviet Ambassador has demanded an official explanation of why news of this importance was transmitted via private telephone call, rather than through official channels,” he said. “One of your first tasks, Major, will be to think of ways to convince them that this isn’t a trick.”

“That may not be easy to do,” Admiral Carrell said.

“I realize that,” the President said. “Others will be working on the problem.” He indicated dismissal: “Major, they’ll find you a place to work, Lord knows where, and don’t be shy about asking for equipment. Mr. Frantz will see that you get what you want. I’ll expect daily reports, sent through Admiral Carrell. If he’s not available you’ll brief me yourself.”

Jenny’s thoughts raced giddily. Here I’ve been promoted and am in the middle of one of the most unique events in history and I’ve been assigned to the National Security Council and personal Presidential briefings in the Oval Office! All because I went for a swim and let an astronomer pick me up in Hawaii. My friend Barb believes nothing is ever a coincidence. Synchronicity. Maybe there’s something to it…

“Now all I have to do is figure out where to put you,” the Chief of Staff was saying. “The President will want you in this building. I guess I’ll have to exile someone else to Old EOP.”

He was striding briskly down the hail. Jenny followed. They reached a desk at the end of the hall. The man who’d led her to the Oval Office was seated there.

“Jack,” the Chief of Staff said, “meet another member of our family, Major Jeanette Crichton. The President has assigned her to his staff. NSC. She’ll have regular personal access.”

“Right.” He studied her again.

“This is Jack Clybourne,” Jim Frantz said. “Secret Service.”

“I worry about keeping the chief healthy,” Clyboume said.

“Get word to all the security people, Jack.” Frantz turned to Jenny. “Major I’d like you to check in this evening about four … I should have some room for you by then. Meanwhile — oh. You came with General Gillespie. You’ve lost your ride.”

“No problem sir.”

“Right. Thanks.” He started down the hall, stopped, and turned his head but not his body. “Welcome aboard,” he said over his shoulder. He scurried off. Jenny giggled, and Clybourne gave her an answering smile. “He’s a worrier, that one.”

“I gathered. What’s next?”

“Fingerprints. Have to be suit you’re you.”

“Oh. Who does that?”

“I can if you like.” Clybourne lifted a phone and spoke for a few moments. Presently another clean-cut young man entered and sat at the desk.

“Tom Bucks,” Clyboume said. “Captain Jeanette Crichton … Next time you see her she’ll be wearing oak leaves. The President just promoted her. She’s the newest addition to NSC. Personal access.”

“Hi,” Bucks said. He studied her, and Jenny felt he was memorizing every pore on her face. They both act that way. Of course. Not Joe Gland, just a Secret Service agent doing his job.

Clybourne led the way downstairs and through a small staff lounge. “I keep gear back here,” he said. He took out a large black case and put fingerprinting apparatus on the counter of the coffee machine.

“You really have to do this? My prints are on file.”

“Sure. What I have to be sure of is that the pretty girl I’m talking to now is the same Jeanette Crichton the Army commissioned.”

“I suppose,” she said.

He took her hand. “Just relax, and let me do the work.”

She’d been through the routine before. Clybourne was good at it. Eventually he handed her a jar of waterless cleanser and some paper towels.

“How did you know the President had promoted me?” she asked.

“The appointment list said ‘Captain,’ and the Chief of Staff called you ‘Major.’ Jim Frantz doesn’t make that kind of mistake.”

And you don’t miss much, either.

She cleaned the black goo from her hands while Clybourne poured two cups of coffee from the pot on the table. He handed her one. “Somebody said you live in Washington?”

“Grew up here,” she said. “Which reminds me, can you call me a cab?”

4. BLIND MICE

Only one ship is seeking us, a black Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back A huge and birdless silence. In her wake No waters breed or break.

—PHILIP LANJARD, “Next, Please”

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS SIX WEEKS

“Sure. Where are you going?”

“Flintridge. It’s out Connecticut, Rock Creek Park area.”

“I know where it is.” He glanced at his watch. “If you can wait ten minutes, I can run you out.”

“I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble…”

“No trouble. I go off duty, and I’m going that way.”

“All right, then. Thank you.”

“You can wait for me at the main entrance,” Clybourne said. He took a memo pad bearing the White House seal from his pocket and scribbled on it, then took a small triangular pin from another pocket. “Put that in your lapel, and keep this pass,” he said. “I’ll see you in ten minutes.” He smiled again, and she found herself answering.

General Narovchatov paused at the door and waited to be invited inside even though Nadya had told him that Comrade Chairman Petrovskiy was expecting him. Petrovskiy did not like surprises.

The Chairman was writing in a small notebook. Narovchatov waited patiently.

The office was spartan in comparison to his own. Petrovskiy seemed not to notice things like rugs and tapestries and paintings. He enjoyed rare books with rich leather bindings and was fond of very old cognac; otherwise he did not often indulge himself.

There had been a time when Nikolai Nikolayevich Narovchatov was concerned that it would be dangerous to enjoy the trappings of wealth and power while the Chairman so obviously did not. He still believed that in the early days that concern had not been misplaced; but as Narovchatov rose in status, the gifts sent him by Petrovskiy had become more numerous and more valuable, until it was obvious that Petrovskiy was encouraging his old associate to indulge himself, to enjoy what he did not himself care for.

Narovchatov had never discussed this with Chairman Petrovskiy. It was enough that it was so.

Chairman Petrovskiy looked up. His welcoming smile was broad. “Come in, come in.” Then he grimaced. “I suppose it was not a joke. They continue to come, then?” He lifted his glass of tea and peered at Narovchatov over its rim.

“Da, Anatoliy Vladimirovich.” General Namvchatov shrugged. “According to the astronomers, at this point it would be difficult for them not to come. The rocket forces will be brought to full strength, and we are anticipating their arrival. They move toward us very fast.”

“And they arrive, when?”

“A few weeks. I am told it is difficult to be more precise because it is a powered ship. That makes it unpredictable.”

“And you continue to believe that this is an alien ship, and not more CIA tricks?”

“I do, Anatoliy Vladimirovich.”

“So, I think, do I. But the Army does not.”

Narovchatov nodded. He had expected nothing else. And that could be a great problem for a man who had no need of more problems. The Chairman looked old and tired. Too old, Narovchatov thought. And what might happen when … Perhaps the Chairman had read his thoughts. “It is long past time that you were promoted, Nikolai Nikolayevich, my friend. I wish you to have the post of First Secretary. We will elevate Comrade Mayarovin to the Politburo, where he can rust in honor.”

“It is not necessary.”

“It is. Especially now. Nikolai Nikolayevich, I have long hoped to be the first leader of the Soviet Union to retire with honor. One day, perhaps, I will, but not until I can give the post to someone worthy. You are the most loyal man I know.”

“Thank you.”

“No thanks are needed. It is truth. But, my friend, I may not be with you so long. The doctors tell me this.”

“Nonsense.”

“That it is not. But before I am gone, I hope to see us accomplish something never before done. To give this land stability, to allow its best to serve without fear of their lives.”

The czars had never done that. Not the czars, and not Lenin. This was Russia. “That requires law, Anatoliy Vladimirovich. Bourgeois lands have law. We have—” He shrugged expressively. “We have had terror. It is not enough. You will remember little of Stalin’s time, but I recall. Khrushchev destroyed himself in trying to destroy Stalin’s memory, and we shall never make that mistake; but Khrushchev was correct, that man was a monster, Even Lenin warned against him.”

“He did what was necessary,” Narovchatov said.

“As do we. As will we. Enough of this. What shall we do about this alien spacecraft?”

Narovchatov shrugged, “The Army has begun mobilization, constructing new space weapons.” He frowned. “I do not yet know what the Americans will do.”

“Nor I,” the Chairman said. “I suppose they will do the same.”

I hope so, Narovchatov thought. If they do not… There were always young officers who would begin the war if they thought they could win it. On both sides. “Also, we have warned the commander of Kosmograd. I scarcely know what else to do.”

“We must do more,” the Chairman said. “What will these aliens want? What could bring them here, across billions of miles? If they are aliens at all, and not a CIA trick.”

This again? “Such a trick would make our space program look like children’s games. It is alien, and powered. I would believe a spacegoing beast with a rocket up its arse before I thought it a CIA trick. But I think it must be a ship, Anatoliy Vladintirovich.”

“I do agree,” the Chairman said. “Only I cannot believe what I believe. It is too hard for me! What do they want? No one would travel that far merely to explore. They have reasons for coming.”

“They must. But I do not know why they have come.”

“No, nor will we, until they are ready to tell us. We know too little of this.” Petrovskiy speared Narovchatov with a peasant’s crafty look. “Your daughter has married a space scientist. An intelligent man, your son-in-law. Intelligent enough to be loyal. Intelligent enough to understand what your promotion to First Secretary will mean to him.

“Someone must command the space preparations. Who?”

He means something, Narovchatov thought. Always he means things he does not say. He is clever, always clever, but sometimes he is too clever, for I do not understand him.

Who should command? The news of the alien ship had brought something like panic to the Kremlin. Everyone was upset, and the delicate balance within the Politburo was endangered. Who could command? Narovchatov shrugged. “I had assumed Marshal Ugatov.”

“Certainly the Army will have suggestions. We will listen to them. As we do to KGB.” The Chairman continued to look thoughtful.

What is his plan? Narovchatov thought. The meeting of the Defense Council is in an hour. The heads of the Army and the KGB. The chief Party theoretician, Chairman Petrovskiy, and me because Petrovskiy has named me his associate. At that meeting everything will be settled, then comes the meeting of the entire Politburo, and after that the Central Committee to endorse what we have already decided. But what will we decide? He looked at Petrovskiy, but the Chairman was studying a paper on his desk. — What did Anatoliy Vladimirovich want? The Soviet Union was ruled by a troika: the Army, the KGB, and the Party with the Party the weakest of the three, yet the most powerful because it controlled promotions within the other two organizations. Other schemes had been tried, and nearly brought disaster. When Stalin died, Party and Army had feared Beria, for his NKVD was so powerful that it had once eliminated nearly the entire central committee in a matter of weeks.

Party and Army together acted to eliminate the threat. Beria was dragged from a meeting of the Politburo and shot by four colonels. The top leadership of the NKVD was liquidated.

Suddenly the Party found itself facing the uncontrolled Army. It had not liked what it saw. The Army was popular. The military could command the affections of the people. If the Party’s rule ever ended, it would not be the Army’s leaders who would be shot as traitors. The Army could even eliminate the Party if it had full control of its strength.

That could not be allowed. The NKVD was reconstructed. It was shorn of many of its powers, divided into the civil militia and the KGB, never allowed to gain the strength it once had. Still, it had grown powerful again, as always it did. Its agents could compromise anyone, recruit anyone. It reached high into the Kremlin, into the Politburo and Party and Army. Alliances shifted once again…

Here, in this room, origins did not matter. Here, and in the Politburo itself, the truth was known. No one of the three power bases could be allowed to triumph. Party, Army, KGB must all be strong to maintain the balance of power. Ruling Russia consisted of that secret, and nothing more.

Petrovskiy was a master at that art. And now he was waiting. The hint he had given was plain.

“I believe Academician Bondarev might be very suitable to advise us and to direct our space forces during this emergency,” Narovchatov said. “If you approve, Anatoliy Vladimirovich.”

“Now that you make the recommendation. I see much to commend it,” Petrovskiy said. “I believe you should propose Academician Bondarev at the Central Committee meeting. Of course, the KGB will insist on placing their man in the operation.”

The KGB would have its man, but the Party must approve him. Another decision to be made here, before the meeting of the full Politburo.

“Grushin,” Narovchatov said. “Dmitri Parfenovich Grushin.”

Petrovskiy raised a thick eyebrow in inquiry.

“I have watched him. He is trusted by the KGB, but a good diplomat, well regarded by the Party people he knows, And he has studied the sciences.”

“Very well.” Petrovskiy nodded in satisfaction.

“The KGB is divided,” Narovchatov said. “Some believe this a CIA trick. Others know better. We have seen it for ourselves. Rogachev has seen it with his own eyes, in the telescopes aboard Kosmograd. The Americans could never have built that ship, Anatoliy Vladimirovich.”

Petrovskiy’s peasant eyes hardened. “Perhaps not. But the Army does not believe that. Marshal Ugatov is convinced that this is an American plot to cause him to aim his rockets at this thing in space while the Americans mobilize against us.”

“But they would not,” Narovchatov said. “It is all very well for us to say these things for the public, but we must not delude ourselves.”

Petrovskiy frowned, and Nikolai Narovchatov was afraid for a moment. Then the Chairman smiled thinly. “We may, however, have no choices,” he said. “At all events, it is settled. Your daughter’s husband will take charge of our space preparations. It is better that be done by a civilian. Come, let us have a cognac to celebrate the promotion of Marina’s husband!”

“With much pleasure.” Narovchatov went to the cabinet and took out the bottle, crystal decanter, and glasses. “What will the Americans really do?” he asked.

Petrovskiy shrugged. “They will cooperate. What else can they do?”

“It is never wise to underestimate the Americans.”

“I know this. I taught it to you.”

Nikolai Nikolayevich grinned. “I remember. But do you?”

“Yes. But they will cooperate.”

Narovchatov frowned a moment, then saw the sly grin the Chairman wore. “Ah,” he said. “Their President called.”

“No. I called him.”

Nikolai Narovchatov thought of the implications of a deal. Petrovskiy was the only man in the Soviet Union who could have spoken to the American President without Narovchatov knowing it within moments. “Does Thisov know this?” he asked.

“I did not tell him,” Petrovskiy said. He shrugged.

Narovchatov nodded agreement. The KGB had many resources. Who could know what its commander might find out? “You will discuss this in the Defense council then?”

Nikolai Narovchatov poured two glasses of rare cognac and passed one across the large desk. The Chairman grinned and lifted the drink in salute. “To the cooperation of the Americans,” he said. He laughed.

Naruvchatov lifted his glass in reply, but inwardly he was confounded. This alien ship could be nothing but trouble at a time when had come so close to the top! But nothing was certain now. The KGB would have its own devious games, so twisted that even Bonderev would not understand. And the Army was reacting as armies always reacted. Missiles were made ready.

Many fingers hover over many buttons.

Nikolai Naruvchatov felt much like the legendary Tatar who had saddled a whirlwind.

The shows were over and Martin Carnell was driving home with his awards, one Best Bitch, three Best of Breed, and a Best Working. One more than he expected.

From behind him, from the crates in the back of the heavy station wagon, came restless sounds Martin flipped off the radio to listen. None of the dogs sounded sick. Barth was just a puppy, and he wasn’t used to traveling in the station wagon. His mood was affecting the others.

Martin was taking it easy. He stayed at fifty or below with half a minute to change lanes. You couldn’t drive a station wagon like a race car, not with star-quality dogs in the back. Otherwise they’d be ready to take a judge’s hand off by the day of the show.

Martin saw a lot of country this way. This had been a typical dog-show circuit. Two shows on Saturday and Sunday, sixty miles apart, five weekdays to be killed somehow, and three hundred miles to be covered; two more shows, much closer together, the following weekend; two thousand miles to be covered on the trip.

“Take it easy guys,” Martin said, because they liked the sound of his voice. He turned on the radio.

The music had stopped. Martin heard, “I have spoken with the Soviet Chairman.” It sounded like the President himself — that unmistakable trade union accent. Martin turned up the sound.

“We are also consulting on a joint response to this alien ship.

“My fellow Americans, our scientists tell us that this could be the greatest event in the history of mankind. You now know all that we know: a large object, well over a mile in length, is approaching the Earth along a path that convinces our best sc entific minds that it is under power and intelligently guided. So far there has been no communication with it.

“We have no reason to believe this is a threat.” Martin grinned and shook his head, wishing he’d heard the beginning of the broadcast. Whoever was playing the part, he sure had the President’s voice down pat. Martin laughed (as J started all three dogs barking) at a different thought: George Tate-Evans tuned in at the same moment he had; he wouldn’t know whether to bellow with the joy of vindication, or hide under the bandstand.

The Enclave was still going, Martin knew that much. He couldn’t understand now, how he’d got sucked into the survivalist mind set. Spent some real money, too, before he came to his senses. The only thing that little fling had ever done for him was to turn him from miniature poodles to Dobermans. He’d bought Marten burg Sunhawk because a Doberman might be better equipped to defend his house and found that he flat out preferred the larger dogs.

But the rest of the Enclave families must still be meeting on Thursday nights, all ready for the end of civilization on Earth. George and Vicki, what would they do? Warn the rest of the the Enclave and head for the hills, of course: their natural reaction to, any stimulus. And they say dog people are scary.

A newscaster’s rich radio voice continued the theme, speaking of war and politics. It introduced a professor of physics who also wrote science fiction and who predicted wonderful things from the coming confrontation. Martin, easing down old U.S. 66 with a load of prima donna dogs, began to wonder if he really was listening to a remake of “War of the Worlds.” He hadn’t found a plot line yet.

There was heavy traffic in the San Fernando Valley. Isadore Leiber cursed lightly, half listening to the news station, half worrying about how late he would be.

Isadore had simply forgotten. It wasn’t a Thursday. His brain hadn’t ticked over until four-thirty, and then: Hey, wasn’t something happening tonight? Sure, Jack McCauley called an emergency meeting of the Enclave. Probably has to do with that … light in the sky. I’d better call Clara, remind her.

Clara had remembered, and wondered where he was. He fought abnormally dense rush-hour traffic straight to the Tate-Evans place, one house among many in the San Fernando Valley. Clara met him at the curb, laughing, insisting that she’d followed him right in, in her own car. He grabbed her and kissed her to shut her up. They held each other breathlessly for a moment, then by mutual consent let go and walked up on the porch.

Clara rang the bell and they waited. In those few seconds Clara stopped laughing, even stopped smiling. “Do you think they’ll be angry?”

“Yeah. My fault, and I guess I don’t care that much. Relax.”

“They did tell us. Or Jack did.”

The door opened. George Tate-Evans ushered them inside. He wasn’t angry, but he wasn’t happy either. “Clara, Isadore, come on in. What kept you?”

“My boss,” Isadore lied. “What’s happening?”

George ran his hand over bare scalp to long, thin blond hair. He wasn’t yet forty, but he’d been half bald when Isadore first met him. “Sign of virility,” he’d said. Now he answered, “Jack and Harriet taped some newscasts. We’re playing them now. Clara, the girls are in the kitchen cooking something.”

Girls, kitchen, cooking something. What? This was serious, then; or else George was sure this was serious. Could it be? That serious?

Survivalism. Specialization. Wartime rules. Isadore made his way into a darkened living room. He knew where the steps and the furniture were; he’d been there often enough. The light of the five-foot screen showed him an empty spot on the couch.

There were only men in the room. The house belonged to George and Vicki Tate-Evans, but Vicki wasn’t present.

And Clara had gone to the kitchen. Clara! Ye gods, she thought it was real…

George waved him to a seat, then went to the Betamax recorder. “Here it is again,” he said.

The set lit up to show the presidential seal, then the Oval Office. The camera panned in on President David Coffey. The President looked calm and relaxed. Almost too much so, Isadore thought. But he does look very presidential…

“My fellow Americans,” Coffey said. “Last night, scientists at the University of Hawaii made an amazing discovery. Their findings have since been confirmed by astronomers at Kitt Peak and other observatories. According to the best scientific information I have been able to obtain, a very large spacecraft is approaching Earth from the general direction of the planet Saturn.”

The President looked up at the camera, ignoring his notes for a moment. He had a way of doing that, of looking into the camera so that everyone watching felt he was speaking directly to them. Coffey’s ability to do that had played no small part in his election. “I have been told that it is not possible that the ship came from Saturn, and that it must have come from somewhere much farther away. Wherever it came from, it is rapidly approaching the Earth, and will arrive here within a few weeks, probably at the end of June.”

He paused to look at the yellow sheets of paper that lay on his desk, then back at the camera again. “So far we have received no communication from this ship. We therefore have no reason whatever to believe the ship poses any threat to us. However, the Soviet Union became aware of this ship at the same time we did. Predictably, their reaction was to mobilize their armed forces. Our observation satellites show that they have begun a partial strategic alert.

“We cannot permit the Soviets to mobilize without some answer. I have therefore ordered a partial mobilization of the United States’ strategic forces. I wish to emphasize that this is a defensive mobilization only. The United States has never wanted war. We particularly do not desire war at a time when an alien spacecraft is approaching this planet.

“No American President could ignore the Soviet mobilization. I have not done so. However, I have spoken with the Soviet Chairman, and we have reached an agreement on limiting our strategic mobilization. We are also consulting on a joint response to the alien ship.

“My fellow Americans, our scientists tell us that this could be the greatest event in the history of mankind. You now know all that we know: a large object, perhaps a mile in length, is approaching the Earth along a path that convinces our best scientific minds that it is under power and intelligently guided. So far there has been no communication with it.

“We have no reason to believe this is a threat, and we have many reasons to believe this is an opportunity. With the help of God Almighty we will meet this opportunity as Americans have always met opportunities.

“Good night.”

The Oval Office faded, and news analysts came on. George switched off the set. “We can skip the analysis. Those birds don’t know any more than we do. But you see why I called an alert.”

They had called themselves the Enclave before there was anything more than four men meeting at George and Vicki’s house.

That was at the tail end of the seventies, when the end of civilization was a serious matter. There were double-digit inflation and a rising crime rate. Iran was holding fifty-odd kidnapped ambassadors and getting away with it. OPEC’s banditry regarding oil prices seemed equally safe. What nation would be next to see the obvious? The United States couldn’t defend itself. The value of her money was falling to its limit: a penny and a half in 1980 money, the cost of printing a dollar bill. U.S. military forces were in shreds, and the Soviets kept building missiles long after they caught up, then passed, the United States’ strategic forces.

If the economy didn’t collapse, nuclear war would kill you. Either way, there were long odds against survival of the unprepared. The Enclave was born of equal parts desperation and play-acting. Which was more important depended on the morning headlines.

Things looked better after Reagan was elected. The hostages were returned minutes after the old cowboy took office… but the Enclave continued to meet. The dollar ceased to fall, then grew strong. The economy was turning around, the stock market was showing signs of health; but there was no money for the military, and the Soviet Union kept building rockets. The Enclave made lists of what a survivalist ought to own, and checked each other’s stocks. A year’s supply of food, just like the Mormons. Guns. Gold coins. And they dreamed of a place to run, just in case.

The late eighties: Welfare had not increased to match inflation, and unemployment was down. There might have been a connection. Inflation had slowed too. General Motors had won its lawsuit against the unions, for damages done by a strike, and collected from the union funds; strikes ought to be less common in the future. The weapons of war had moved into a science-fictional realm, difficult for the avenge citizen to assess. But the Soviet space program had been moving steadily outward until they virtually owned the sky from Near Earth Orbit to beyond the Moon.

The Enclave continued to meet. They had grown older, and generally wealthier. Four years ago they had bought a piece of land outside Bellingham, a decaying city north of Seattle that had been a port and shipyard before the silt moved in and the trade moved south. It was as far from any likely targets of war as anyplace that seemed able to support itself. There had once been a navy shipyard, but that was long ago.

They all made money, but they weren’t rich. Their jobs kept them in Los Angeles. Over the years one or another had found wealth or peace or even both in small towns. The dropouts were replaced, and the Enclave endured, an aging group of middleclass survivalists unwilling to break away from Los Angeles and their not inconsiderable incomes.

All this time they had been meeting, every Thursday night after the dinner hour, like clockwork. Tonight was Monday; they had left work early, and Isadore was getting hungry; the dinner hour should have been just beginning. But the terrible strangeness of this night did not derive from that. Isadore Leiber sought for what it was that was bothering him, and it came, not in strangeness but in familiarity, as he reached for a cigarette.

Four years ago he’d given up smoking for the last time. He’d given it up, but he borrowed from his friends at every opportunity. Giving up smoking became his lifestyle. It got to where his friends couldn’t stand him: the sight of a familiar face triggered his urge to smoke; he would roll pipe tobacco in toilet paper if he had to. But he was giving up smoking, yes indeed. And he was getting ready for the end of civilization, yes indeed. But he’d been doing it for well over a decade, and that had become his lifestyle. Tonight was weird. No laughter, no complaining about fools in Congress.

Tonight they meant it.

“I hate the timing,” George said. “Corliss is about to graduate, and the rest of the kids won’t like missing the tail end of the school year, and if they do, I don’t.”

There were echoes of agreement. “I can’t go,” Isadore said.

The noise stopped. Jack McCauley said, “What do you mean, can’t?”

“I can’t quit my job. I can’t take leave, either. George said it, it’s timing. Travel agencies get hectic with summer coming on.”

Jack made a sound of disgust. George asked, “Sick leave?”

“Mmm … a couple of weeks.”

“Wait till, oh, the tenth of June. Jack, this makes sense.” George jumped the gun on an automatic protest. “We’re bound to forget something. We’ll keep Ia posted. Ia, you take your two weeks sick leave just before the ETI’s reach Earth. You come up then. Two weeks later you’ll damn well know whether you want to go back to the city.”

“It’s still costing us a pair of strong arms,” Jack groused.

Isadore decided he liked the idea. “I’ll ask Clara if she wants to take the kids up early. Maybe we’ll want to keep them in school as long as we can.”

“All right, it can’t be helped,” Jack said. “But the rest of us are going, right?” He snowballed on before there could be an answer. “Bill and Gwen are already up at the Enclave. We’ve got the second cistern system running, and he’s got the top deck poured on the shelter. Bill says the well has to be cleaned out, but we can do that with muscle when we get there.” He pursed his lips in a familiar gesture. “One thing, Ia. You come up a full week before the ETI’s get here. Cut it any finer, and you may not make it at all. When people really believe in that ship, God knows what they’ll do.”

“If the Soviets give us that long,” George said.

Jack frowned. “For that matter, if there’s any alien ship at all. Maybe this is something the Russians cooked up.”

They all shrugged. “No data,” Isadore said. “But you’d think the President would know.”

“And he’d sure tell us, right?” Jack said. “Ia, are you sure you want to wait?”

“Yeah, I have to.” Christ, he’s right, Isadore thought. Who the flick knows what’s happening? Aliens, Russians — a nuclear war could ruin your whole day. “I think Clara will go up early,” he said. “I’ll have to ask her.”

The others nodded understanding.

When they’d first started the Enclave, they made a decision. One vote per adult, but all the votes of a family would be cast by one person. The theory was simple. If a family couldn’t even agree on who represented it, what could they agree on?

There’d been a problem at first, because Isadore thought Clara ought to vote rather than him, but she didn’t get along with Jack, or maybe Jack didn’t get along with her. There’d been too many arguments. After the first year things had settled in, and only the men voted, but Isadore often went off to ask Clara’s opinion before making a decision.

“Who else goes?” Jack demanded.

The inevitable question struck each of them differently. Jack was already belligerent. George looked disconcerted, then guilty. “Well… us, of course,” he said. “Our wives and children.”

“Of course. Who else? Who do we need, who do we want? John Fox?”

Isadore laughed. “Hell, yes, we want Fox. He’s a better survivor than any of us. That’s why he’s not coming. I talked to him. He’ll be camping somewhere in Death Valley, and that’s fine for him, but he didn’t invite me along.”

“What if Martie shows?”

“Aw, hell, Jack.”

Martin Carnell had been with the Enclave for a time. He’d lasted long enough to help buy the house and land in Bellingham. Then… maybe he’d run into financial trouble. He’d quit. Later he’d moved further north into the Antelope Valley.

“You read me wrong, George. I just want to point out that he’s got some legal rights. We’re betting that won’t matter much, but suppose he shows up at the gate? Before or after the ETI’s get here.”

“We’ve turned that place into a fortress since he quit. Expensive.” Isadore grinned at them. “What he owns is something like half his fair share. Awkward.”

“Yah. Well, I see him sometimes, and he’s still single. There’s just him.”

“And those damn Dobennans,” George said.

“Is that bad? We can use some guard dogs. We’ll make him build his own kennels.”

“These are show dogs. They’re gentle and dignified and everybody’s friend. Anything else would cost Martie some prizes. They’re not guard dogs.”

“Would looters know that?”

A silence fell. Jack said, “Shall we let him in if he shows at the gate? Assuming he’s got equipment and supplies. But I see no reason to phone him up and invite him.”

There were nods, and some relief showed. George said, “Harry Reddington wants to come.”

Two heads shook slowly. Jack McCauley asked, “Have you seen Hairy Red lately?”

George hesitated, then nodded. “We used to be friends. I guess we still are. Hell, we took motorcycles up along the Pacific Coast Highway one time. Three hundred miles. We’d stop in a bar and Harry would sing and play that guitar and get us our drinks that way, and maybe our dinners. Hairy Red the Minstrel. I—”

“Lately?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him lately.”

“He looks like he’s about to have twins, and he has to use that cane. It isn’t because he had those accidents.” Jack shook his head in bewildered pity. “Rear-ended twice in two weeks, in two different cars, and neither of them had head rests! Typical of Harry. But that’s not the point. The insurance company’s been fastshuffling him for two years, and his lawyer tells him he won’t win if he’s too healthy when he gets on the stand.” Now Jack’s speech slowed and his enunciation improved, as if he were making a point for someone who didn’t quite understand English. “Harry Red has been letting his insurance company tell him to stay sick! So he doesn’t exercise, and he lets his belly grow like a parasite.”

“All right, all right. Ken Dutton?”

“He had his chance.”

“Interesting mind. He collects some odd stuff, and it all seems to make sense. Maybe we’re too much alike, the four of us.”

“George, you offered to let him in. He waffled. Now there’s something coming, and suddenly it’s not fun and games anymore. He could have got in when it was fun and games — Why didn’t he? Was it the money?”

“Oh, partly. Not just the dues for the Enclave, but the gear we make each other buy. He has to pay alimony… Only he’s got gear. It’s just not like ours. And partly it’s because he never really gets all the way into anything.”

“Hardly a recommendation. What has he got for weapons?”

George smiled reluctantly. “That crossbow. It’d kill a bear, that thing, and it’s advertised as ‘suitable for SWAT teams.’ And his liquor, he calls it ‘trade goods,’ and he really does keep an interesting bar …”

“A crossbow. And a rocket pistol! I’ve seen his little 1960s Gyrojet. How many shells has he got for it? It’s for damn sure they’ll never make any more. He could have been in and he didn’t pay his dues, George!”

Isadore said, “You could say the same about Jeri Wilson. We want her, don’t we?”

“You’re married, Ia. And I’m very married.”

“Martie isn’t. John Fox isn’t, and we’d take him. There are men we want besides us, aren’t there? Do we want the men seriously outnumbering the women? I don’t think we do.”

“We can’t invite the whole city,” Jack said. “We don’t have the room. Izzie, who else are you going to try to drag in? You knew we wouldn’t have Harry, and you wouldn’t want him anyway.”

“It’s just that a month from now … I can see us all being terribly apologetic.”

“The hell you say,” said Jack.

“This could be our invitation to join the Galactic Union. It could be a flock of… funny looking alien grad students here to give us cheap jewelry for answering their questions.”

George made a rude noise. Jack, at least, looked more thoughtful than amused. Isadore steamed on through the interruption. “…and who knows what they might consider cheap jewelry? Okay, so we’re going off to hide. Somebody has to. Just in case. But I can hear the remarks from some people I like, because we left them outside.”

Jack’s look was stony. “Remember a science-fiction story called ‘To Serve Man’?”

“Sure. They even made, a Twilight Zone out of it. About an alien handbook on how to deal with the human race.”

George smiled, “Some science-fiction fans actually published the cookbook,” and sobered. “Yeah. Somebody has to hide till we know what they want. And just in case, we do not take liabilities.”

5 SEE HOW THEY RUN

Do unto the other feller the way he’d like to do unto you an’ do it fust.

—EDWARD NOTES WESTCOTT, David Ilarum (1898)

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS SIX WEEKS

The Areo Plaza Mall was deep underground, with four-story shafts reaching high to street level. Around the corner from the government bookstore was a B. Dalton’s, and near that was a radio station with its control room in showcase windows. A few people with nothing better to do sat on benches watching the radio interviewer. His guest was a science-fiction author who’d come to plug his latest book but couldn’t resist talking about the alien ship.

The government bookstore had been crowded all day. Ken Dutton noticed Harry shuffling in, but was too busy to hail him.

Harry Reddington was still using a cane. Ken remembered him as a biker. He still had the massive frame, but it had turned soft years ago. He’d trimmed his beard and cut his hair short even before the two successive whiplash accidents. He might have lost some weight lately — he’d claimed to when Ken saw him last — but the belly was still his most prominent feature. He stopped just past the doorway and looked around at shelves upon shelves of books and pamphlets before he sought out Ken Dutton behind the counter. “Hi, Ken.”

“Hello, Harry. What’s up?”

Harry ran his hand back through graying scarlet hair. “I was listening to the news. Not much on the intruder. It’s still coming and I got to thinking how most of these books will be obsolete an hour after that thing sets down.”

“Some will.” Dutton waved toward a shelf of military books. “Others, maybe not. History still means something. Some will go obsolete, but which books? Maybe medicine. Maybe they’ve got something that’ll cure any disease and they’re just dying to give it away.”

“Yeah.” Harry didn’t smile. “I remember there’s one on how to take care of a car—”

“More than one.”

“Cars and bikes and… and bicycles, for that matter. Okay, maybe they’ve got matter transmitters. Talked to George today?”

“No. I guess I should have,” Dutton said. Hell’s bells. I should have joined that survivalist outfit when I had a chance. Now. “I’ll call after we close.”

“Good luck,” Parry said.

“You talked to them?”

“Yeah. They’re not recruiting. But they’re running scared. Scared of the aliens a little, and of the Russians a lot.” Harry looked thoughtful. “George mentioned a book on cannibal cookery. Supposed to be funny, but it was well-researched, he said—”

“We don’t carry it. And, Harry, I’m not sure I want to think you’ve got a copy.”

“Well, you never know Harry couldn’t keep it up, and laughed. All right, but maybe what we’ll need is survival manuals. I thought I’d come in and look around.”

The shelves had been seriously depleted. Harry chose a few and came to the counter. “There was a new book from the Public Health Service, on stretching exercises. Got it in yet?”

“Sure, but we’re out. Others had the same thought you did.” “Ken, you’re actually one of the Enclave group, aren’t you?”

Ken hesitated. “They invited me in. I haven’t moved yet.” And maybe it’s too late, maybe not. Jesus.

“Are you hooked for dinner?”

“I don’t know. Need to make a phone call.” He went to the back room and dialed George’s number. Vicki answered.

“Hi,” Ken said. “Uh-this is Ken Dutton.”

“I know who you are.”

“Yes-uh-Vicki, is there a meeting tonight?”

“Not tonight. Call tomorrow.”

“Vicki, I know damned well there’s a meeting!”

“Call tomorrow. Anything else? Bye, then.’ The phone went dead.

Ken Dutton went back out to the customer area and found Harry. “No. I don’t have anything on tonight. Let’s eat here in the plaza. Saves us worrying about rush hour.”

Jeri Wilson kissed her daughter, and was surprised at how easy it was to hold her smile until Melissa went up to her room. She’s a good-looking ten-year-old, Jeri thought. Going to be pretty when she grows up.

Melissa had Jeri’s long bones and slender frame. Her hair was a bit darker than Jeri’s, and not quite so fine, but her face was well shaped, pretty rather than beautiful.

Jeri waited until she heard the toilet flush, then waited again until the light under Melissa’s door vanished.

She’d sleep now. She’d be exhausted.

So am I. Jeri’s smile faded. It had been such a wonderful day, the nicest for weeks, until she came home to find the mail.

She went to the living room. An expensive breakfront stood there, and she took out a red crystal decanter and a matching crystal glass. We bought this in Venice. We couldn’t really afford the trip, and the glassware was much too expensive. God, that was a beautiful summer.

The sherry came from Fedco, but no one ever noticed the sherry. They were too enchanted with the decanter. She poured herself a glass and sat on the couch. It was impossible to stop the tears now.

Damn you, David Wilson! She took the letter from her apron pocket. It was handwritten, postmarked Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, and it wasn’t signed. She thought the handwriting looked masculine, hut she couldn’t be sure.

“Dear Mrs. Wilson,” it said. “If you’re really serious about keeping your husband, you’d better get out here and do something right away, ’cause he’s got himself a New Cookie.”

Of course he has a New Cookie, Jeri thought. He’s been gone almost two years, and he filed for divorce six months ago. It was inevitable.

Inevitable or not, she didn’t like to think about it. Pictures came to mind: David, nude, stepping out of the shower. Lying with David on the beach at Malibu, late at night long after the beach had closed, both of them buzzed with champagne. They’d been celebrating David’s Ph.D., and they made love three times, and even if the third time had been more effort than consummation it was a wonderful night. After the first time she’d turned to him and said, “I haven’t been taking my pills—”

“I know,” he said.

She liked to think Melissa was conceived that night. Certainly it happened during that wonderful week. Five months later, Jeri quit her job as general science editor for UCLA’s alumni magazine. David’s education was finished, he’d found a great job with Litton Industries, and they could enjoy themselves…

She sipped her sherry, then, convulsively, drained the glass. It was an effort to keep from throwing it on the floor. Who am I so damned mad at?

At myself. I’m a damned fool. She crumpled the letter, then smoothed it out again. Then poured more sherry. No matter how often she wiped her eyes, they filled again.

She’d had three glasses when the phone rang. At first she thought she’d ignore it, but it might be about Melissa. Or it might even be David; he still called sometimes. What if it’s him, and he says he needs me?

“Hello.”

“Jen, this is Vicki.”

“Oh

“You’ve heard the news?” Vicki asked.

How the devil would you know about David — “What news?”

“The alien spaceship.” What?”

“Jeri, where have you been all day? Hibernating?”

“No, Melissa and I drove up to the Angeles Crest. We had a picnic.”

“Then you haven’t seen the news. Jen, the astronomers have discovered an alien spaceship in the solar system. It’s coming to Earth.”

Aliens. Coming to Earth. She heard the words, but they didn’t make any sense. “You’re not putting me on?”

“Jeri, go turn on Channel Four. I’ll call back in half an hour. We have to talk.”

Saturn. They were coming from Saturn, and no one knew how long they’d been there. Jeri remembered a TV monitor at JPL. Three lines twisted into a braid, and David’s grip on her arm was hard enough to hurt.

That was a lot mote than ten years ago! I was about twenty. I had David, and everything was wonderful.

The phone rang just as the news program was ending. Jen lifted the receiver. “Hello, Vicki.”

“Hi. Okay, you watched the news?”

“Yes.” Jeri giggled.

“What?”

“Aliens from Saturn, that’s what! Vicki, I’ll bet they were there when the Voyager probe went past. I remember all the bull sessions after that probe. John Deming and Gregory and David and I, trying to think how an orbiting band of particles could be twisted like that. David even said ‘aliens,’ once. But he wasn’t serious.”

“Yes, well, that’s what we need to talk about,” Vicki said. “We’ve decided-the Enclave is going north. To Bellingham. You and Melissa are invited.”

“Oh. Why?”

“Well, for one thing, you and David were part of the group for a long time.”

“That’s one reason,” Jeri said. “What are some others?”

Vicki Taje-Evans sighed. “Because you know science-and all right, because you’re pretty and unattached, and we may need to attract a single guy.”

An interesting compliment. I’m glad they think I’m pretty, at my age I see. So I can be a playmate for Ken Dutton.”

“Jeri, he wasn’t invited.”

“Good.”

“I thought you liked Ken. In fact, I thought—”

You can keep that thought to yourself, Vicki Tate-Evans.

Of course it was true. Ken Dutton had invited himself to dinner with Jeri and David after his wife left him, and when David moved to Colorado, Ken continued to come over. She wasn’t interested in an affair, although it was pretty difficult sleeping alone. She missed David a lot, and in every way, and Ken wasn’t unattractive, and he was very attentive. The night she learned that David had filed for divorce, Ken had been there, and held her, and listened to her, and in a blind rage she seduced him. For a few days he’d shared her bed. Then she found out what he was thinking.

“He thought I’d be convenient,” Jeri said. “He wouldn’t have to drive far. Somehow that didn’t seem a good foundation for a relationship.”

“Oh.” Vicki laughed awkwardly. “Anyway, he’s not invited.

In fact I was supposed to tell you not to invite him. Well. That’s good. Jeri, we’ll be going up to Bellingham this week. Isadore and Clara will stay down here until a few days before the aliens come. We’d like you to come up with us, but you could wait and go up with Isadore if you want.”

“I see. Thanks, Vicki. Uh-I’ll get back to you, shall I?”

“You’ll have to. We need to go over your gear, find out what David left you, and what you have to take. I’ll help with that.”

“Thanks. There’s a lot of it here. I’ll get it out. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Sure. Bye.”

Jeri put the phone down and thoughtfully pulled at her lower lip.

Aliens. Coming here, soon.

And they hid at Saturn. No sign of them, nothing that made sense, anyway. They stayed hidden for more than a dozen years. Is that a sign of friendship?

Don’t be paranoid, she told herself. But it might be a good idea not to be in a big city when they came. Just in case.

She and David and Melissa had visited George and Vicki at the Enclave house in Bellingham. That had been nice, a good vacation. It had been their last vacation together. A month later, David was transferred to Colorado.

“It’s a big raise,” he’d told her. He sounded excited.

“But what about my job?”

“What about it, Jeri? You don’t have to work,”

“David, I don’t have to, but I want to.” When Melissa started school, Jeri needed something to do, and became an editorial assistant with the West Coast branch of a big publishing house. She’d been good at the job. Her experience with the alumni paper had helped. Within a year she’d become an associate editor, and then there’d been a lucky break: she’d discovered a woman who needed a lot of help, hand-holding and reassurances, and lots of editing, but whose first book became an instant best-seller.

After that, Jeri became a senior editor. “I’m important at Harris Wickes.”

“You’re important to me. And to Melissa.”

“David—”

“Jeri. It’s a big promotion.”

I was a damn fool. So was he. Why didn’t he tell me they’d fire him if he didn’t transfer? That a lot of eager young petroleum geologists were graduating from the schools, and the big firms would rather hire a recent graduate than a man so long out of school…

He didn’t tell me because he was ashamed. They didn’t really want him anymore, but he couldn’t tell me that. And he wouldn’t beg me.

Damn it, I begged him! But it’s not really the same, and David, David, why can’t I just call you and say I’m coming to you…

Why can’t I?

It was a beautiful spring day in Washington. The city was surprisingly calm, despite the headlines. It took a lot to shake up Washington people.

Roger Brooks walked from NASA headquarters back toward the White House. There’d been nothing for him at the NASA press conference. It was great for Congressman Wes Dawson that he was going to go up to the Soviet Kosmograd space station to watch the aliens arrive. It might even make a story, but Mavis would take care of the news part, and there was plenty of time to collect background.

For a minute he’d thought he had something. Jeanette Crichton discovers the satellite and Wes Dawson goes to the President… Not too many would know about the connection between Linda Crichton Gillespie and Carlotta Dawson. He was still thinking about that when the NASA press people explained it all in loving detail.

Captain Crichton calls her brother-in-law, who calls Congressman Dawson, who goes to see the President. All out in the open for everyone to see. Nothing hidden at all. Damn.

It was a good twenty-minute walk to the Mayflower. Even so, Roger got there before his lunch appointment. The grill at the Mayflower was convenient, even if the food wasn’t distinguished. Roger would have preferred one of the French cuisine places off K Street, but today he was meeting John Fox. Fox wasn’t someone you ate an expensive lunch with, no matter who was paying. Brooks ordered a glass of white wine and leaned back to relax until Fox showed up.

You can’t get anywhere in Washington, D.C., without a coat and tie. Sure enough, Fox was in disguise, in a gray business suit and a tie that didn’t glare. It wouldn’t have fooled anybody. His shirt cuffs gave him away: they were much larger than his wrists. Lean as a ferret, with bony shoulders and fat-free muscle showing even in the hands and face, John Fox looked like he’d just walked out of a desert.

Roger worked his way out of the booth to shake his hand. “How are you, John? Have you heard the news?”

“Yeah.” They slid into the booth. “I’m surprised you’re here.”

For a fact, this wasn’t the day a militant defender of deserts could get the public’s attention! Roger had toyed with the idea of chasing after news of the “alien spacecraft.” But those who knew anything would be telling anyone who would listen, and he’d be fighting for scraps.

For a while Roger had wondered. Aliens, coming from Saturn. It didn’t make sense, and Roger was sure it was some kind of trick, probably CIA. When he tried to check that out, though, he ran into a barrage of genuine bewilderment. If there were any secrets hidden inside the President’s announcement, it was going to take a lot more than a few hours to find them. And John Fox had given Roger stories in the past.

So he said, “The day I skip an appointment with a known news source, you call the police, because I’ve been kidnapped. Now tell me what you’re doing in Washington. I know you don’t like cities.”

Fox nodded. “Have you heard what they’re doing to China Lake?” When Brooks looked blank, he amplified. “The HighBeam.”

For a moment nothing clicked. Then: of course, he meant the microwave receiving station. An orbiting solar power plant had to have a receiver. “It’s just a test facility. It’s only going to cover about an acre.”

“Oh. sure. And the orbiting power plant only covers about a square mile of sky, and won’t send down more than a thousand megawatts even if everything works. Roger, don’t you understand about test cases? if it works, they’ll do it bigger. They’ll cover the whole damn sky with silver rectangles. I like the sky! I like desert, too. This thing has to be stopped now.”

“I wonder if the Soviets won’t stop us before you do.”

“They haven’t yet.” Fox looked thoughtful. “All the science types say this thing isn’t a weapon. I wonder if the Russians believe

that?’

Roger shrugged.

“Anyway, I thought I’d better be here. Flew in on the red-eye last night. But nobody’s keeping appointments. Nobody but you.” He glanced up to see the waitress hovering. “Bacon burger. Tomato slices, no fries. Hot tea.”

“Chef’s salad. Heineken.” Brooks made notes, but mostly out of habit. Of course no one was keeping appointments! Aliens were coming to Earth. “They tell me it’ll be Clean power,” Roger said. “Help eliminate acid rain.”

Fox shook his head. “Never works. They get more power, they use more power. Look. They tell you an electric razor doesn’t use much power, right? And it doesn’t. But what about the power it took to make the damn thing? You use it a few years, maybe not that long, and Out it goes.

“The more electric power we get, the more they’re tempted to keep up the throw away society. No real conservation. Nothing lasts. Doesn’t have to last. Roger, no matter how clean they make it, it pollutes some. They’ll never learn to do without until they have to do without.”

“Okay.” Brooks jotted more notes. “So they’ll clutter up the deserts and block the stars and give us bad habits. What else is wrong with them?”

Roger Brooks listened halfheartedly as Fox marshaled his arguments. There weren’t any new ones. They weren’t what Roger had come for, anyway. Fox could argue, but the real stories would come from learning what tactics Fox intended to use. He had loyal troops, loyal enough to chain themselves to the gates of nuclear power plants or clog the streets of Washington. Fox had led the fight against the Sun Desert nuclear power plant, and won, and his tips had put Roger in the right place at the right time for good stories.

Not today, though. No one was listening to Fox today. Not even his friends.

Not even me, Roger thought. This wasn’t going to make any kind of news. Brooks was tempted to put away his notebook. Instead he said, “This could be just a puff of smoke tomorrow, or later today, for that matter. Have you thought about what an interstellar spacecraft might use for power? By the time the aliens stop talking, these orbiting solar plants could look like the first fire stick, even to us.”

Fox shook his head. “Hell we may not even understand what these ETI’s are using. Or maybe it’s worse than what we’ve got. Anyway, nothing changes that fast. Whatever that light in the sky does for us, the High-Beam is going ahead unless I stop it. And I intend to. I had an appointment with Senator Bryant. He canceled, for today, so I’ll just wait him out.”

Brooks jotted, “John Fox is the only man in the nation’s capital who doesn’t care beans about an approaching interstellar spacecraft.”

“Hell, I wish I had something more for you,” Fox said’. “Thought I did.”

“It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not,” Fox said. “You’re like me, Brooks. A nut. Monomaniac.” He held up his hand when Roger started to protest. “It’s true. I love my deserts, and you love snooping. Well, heft, I’d help you get a Pulitzer if I could. You’ve always played fair with me.” He chuckled. “But not today. Nobody’s paying attention to a damn thing but that ETI comin’. Do you really believe in that thing?”

“I think so. You know that army officer who was in Hawaii when they saw it coming? I know her. I just don’t think she’s part of anything funny. No, it’s real all right.”

“Could be.”

“There are a lot of scientists in the Sierra Club,” Roger said. “Any of them have an opinion?”

“On High-Beam? Damn right—”

“I meant on the ETI’s, John.”

Fox grinned. “I haven’t heard. I will, though, and I’ll be sure to let you know.”

Jenny surveyed her office with satisfaction. The furniture was battered. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of it, because if there’d been more, the office couldn’t have held it all. She had a desk with nothing on it but a telephone. There were also a small typing table, three chairs, and a thick-walled filing cabinet with a heavy security lock. They said they’d get her a bookcase, but that hadn’t come yet. Neither had the computer terminal.

The room was tiny and windowless, in a basement, but it was the White House basement, and that made up for everything.

The phone rang.

“Major Crichton,” she said.

“Jack Clybourne.”

“Oh. Hi.” He’d come in for coffee after he drove her home. They’d sat outside under Flintridge’s arbor, and when they noticed the time, two hours had passed. That hadn’t happened to her in years.

“Hi, yourself. I’ve only got a moment. Interested in dinner?”

Aunt Rhonda would expect her to eat at Flintridge. “What did you have in mind?”

“Afghan place. Stuffed grape leaves and broiled lamb.”

“It sounds great. But—”

“Let me call you after you get home. No big deal, if you can’t make it, I’ll go to McDonald’s.”

“You’re threatening suicide if I don’t have dinner with you?”

“I have to run. I’ll call you—”

“I haven’t given you the number,” she said. “How will you call?”

“We have our ways. Bye.”

She put the phone carefully on its cradle. Holy catfish, I’m actually light-headed. Stupid. I just need lunch. But I was thinking about him just before he called.

The private phone on Wes Dawson’s desk was hidden inside a leather box. It rang softly.

“Yes?” Carlotta said.

“Me.”

“How’s Houston?”

“Hot and wet and windy. I’m in the Hilton Edgewater, room 2133.”

She made a note of the room number. “I miss you already,” he said, “Sure. You probably have a Texas girl already.” “Two, actually.”

“Just be careful. I’ve seen the Speaker. We’ll arrange for you to be paired whenever we can, so it’ll go in the Congressional Quarterly.”

It was standard practice: a congressman who couldn’t be present for a vote found another who intended to vote the opposite way, and formed a pair. Neither attended, and both were recorded as “paired” so that the outcome of the vote wasn’t affected, but neither congressman was blamed for missing a roll-call vote.

“Good. Can you ask Andy to look after my committee work?”

“Already did. What kind of administrative assistant do you think I am, anyway?”

“Fair to middling.”

“Humph. Keep that up and I’ll ask for a raise I suppose Houston’s full of talk about the aliens?”

“Lord, yes,” Wes said. “And the TV shows-did you watch the Tonight Show? Nothing but alien jokes, some pretty clever I think the country’s taking it all right.”

“So do I, but I’ve got Wilbur checking things out in the district,” Carlotta said. “So far nothing, though. Not even phone calls, except Mrs. McNulty.”

“Yeah, I expect she’s in heaven.” Mrs. McNulty called her congressman every week, usually to insist on protection against flying saucers. “Look, they’ve got me on a pretty rigorous schedule. Up before the devil’s got his shoes on. Physical training, yet! Ugh.”

“You’ll be all right. You’re in good shape,” Carlotta said.

“I’ll be in better in a month. You’ll love it—”

“Good. Call me tomorrow.”

“I will. Thanks, Carlotta.”

She smiled as she put the phone down. Thanks, he’d said. Thanks for looking after things, for letting me go to space. As long as she’d known Wes, he’d been a space nut. He’d even signed up to be a lunar colonist, and was shocked when she told him she wasn’t really interested in living on the Moon. His look had frightened her: he would have gone without her if he’d had the chance.

That chance never came. The U.S. Lunar Base was a tiny affair, never more than six astronauts and currently down to four. The Russians had fifteen people on the Moon-and they made it clear that a larger U.S. effort wouldn’t be welcome.

What would they do to the Americans sent more people to the Moon? President Coffey hadn’t wanted to find out. Maybe it wouldn’t matter now.

Carlotta went back to the papers on Wes Dawson’s desk. Aliens might or might not be coming, but if Wes Dawson wanted to remain in Congress, there was a lot of work to finish here in Washington.

6. PREPARATIONS

There are periods when the principles of experience need to be modified, when hope and trust and instinct claim a share with prudence in the guidance of affairs, when, in truth, to dare, is the highest wisdom.

—WILLLAM ELLERY CHANNING, The Union

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS FIVE WEEKS

Academician Pavel Bondarev sat at his massive walnut desk and flicked imaginary dust specks from its gleaming surface. The office was large, as befitted a full member of the Soviet Academy who was also Director of an Institute for Astrophysics. The walls were decorated with photographs taken by the new telescope aboard the Soviet Kosmograd space station. There were spectacular views of Jupiter, as good as those obtained by the American spacecraft; and there were color photographs of nebulae and galaxies, and the endless wonders of the sky

There was also a portrait of Lenin. Pavel Aleksandrovich Bondarev needed no visit from the local Party officials to remind him of that. Visiting Party officials might know nothing of what the Institute did, but they would certainly notice if there was no picture of Lenin. It might be the only thing a visiting Party official was qualified to notice.

He waited impatiently. Because he was waiting, he was startled when the interphone buzzed.

“Da”

“He has arrived at the airport,” his secretary said.

“There are papers to sign—”

“Bring them,” Bondarev said brusquely.

The door opened seconds later. His secretary came in. She carried a sheaf of papers, but she made no move to show them to him.

Lorena was a small woman, with dark flashing eyes. Her ankles were thin. One wrist was encircled by a golden chain which Pavel Bondarev had given her the third time they had slept together. She had been his mistress for ten years, and he could not imagine life without her. To the best of his knowledge, she had no life beyond him. She was the perfect secretary in public, and the perfect mistress in private. It had occurred to him that she genuinely loved him, but that thought was sufficiently frightening that he did not want to deal with it.

Better to think of her as mistress and secretary. Emotional involvement was dangerous.

She came in and closed the door. “Who is this man?” she demanded. “Why is Moscow sending an important man who does not give his name? What have you been doing Pavel Aleksandrovich?”

He frowned slightly. Lately she had begun speaking to him that way even at the office. Never when anyone was around, of course, but it was bad for discipline to allow her to address him in that way inside the Institute. A rebuke came to his tongue, but he swallowed it. She would accept it, yes, but he would be made to pay, tonight, tomorrow night, some evening in her apartment…

“It is not a difficulty,” Bondarev said. “He was expected.”

“Then you know him—”

“No. I meant that someone from Moscow was expected.” He smiled, and she moved closer to him until she was standing beside his chair. Her hand lay on his arm. He covered it with his own. “There is no difficulty, my lovely one. Calm yourself.”

“If you say so—”

“I do. You recall the telephone call from the Americans in Hawaii? It concerns that.”

“But you will not tell me—”

He laughed. “I have not told my wife and children.”

She snorted.

“Well, yes. Even so, this is a state secret. It is a matter of state security! Why should I deceive you?”

“What have we to do with state security? How can the state be affected by distant galaxies?” she demanded. “What have you been doing? Pave I, you must not do this!”

“But what—”

“You wish to go to Moscow!” she said. “It is your wife. She has never been happy here.” Her voice changed, became more shrill, accented with the bored sophistication of a Muscovite great lady, daughter of a member of the Politburo. “Yes, the Party found it necessary to send Pavel here for a few years. The provincial people are so inefficient. I suppose we simply must make the sacrifice.”

“I wish you would not mock Marina,” he said. “And you are wrong. This has nothing to do with a return to Moscow. Resides, when we do go back, I will take you with me. All Russians want to live in Moscow.”

“I do not want to go. I want to stay here, with you. Your wife is not so careful here. In Moscow she would be concerned, lest her friends learn her husband has a mistress.”

That was true enough, but it hardly mattered. “None of this is important.” he said. “Not now. Things will change soon. Sooner than you know. Great changes, for all of us.”

She frowned. “You are serious.”

“I have never been more serious.”

“Changes for the better?”

“I do not know.” He stood and took both her hands in his. “But I promise you there will be changes beyond our power to predict, as profound as the Revolution.”

Pavel Bondarev studied the papers he had been given, but from time to time he looked past them at the man who had brought them. Dmitii Parfenovich Grushin, a Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB despite his seeming youth. Grushin wore a suit of soft wool that fit perfectly, obviously made in Paris or London. He was of average height, and slender, but his grip had been very strong, and he walked with an athletic spring to his step.

The papers told him what General Narovchatov had already said. “I see,” Bondarev said. “I am to go to Baikonur.”

“Yes, Comrade Academician.” Grushin spoke respectfully. It was difficult to know what the man was thinking. He seemed perfectly in control of his face and his voice.

He brought a letter from General Narovchatov, inviting Marina and the children to Moscow, and enclosing the necessary travel permits. Marina would be pleased. “There is much unsaid here,” Bondarev said.

“Yes. I can explain,” Grushin said.

“Please.”

“General Narovchatov has become First Secretary of the Party.” Grushin said carefully. He paused long enough to allow the full weight of that to wash across Bondarev. “This will be announced within the week. The Politburo finds this alien ship a matter of some concern. Many of the marshals of the Soviet Union do not believe in aliens.”

“Then they think—”

“That this is a CIA trick,” Grushin said. “It cannot be.”

“I believe that. So does Chairman Petrovslciy.”

“And Comrade Trusov?”

Grushin shrugged. “You will understand that I do not often see the Chairman of the KGB however, I am informed that the vote of the Defense Council was unanimous, that a civilian scientist should command the preparations for receiving the aliens. You, Comrade.”

“So I was told. I confess I am not especially qualified.”

“Who is? I am trained as a diplomat. Yet what training is there, to meet with aliens from another star? But we must do what we must do.”

“Then you have been assigned as my deputy?” That would be common enough practice, to have a KGB officer as chief of staff to a project of this importance. Certainly the KGB would insist on having its agents high within the control organization.

“No, another will do that,” Grushin said. “My orders are to proceed to Kosmograd.”

“Ah. You are a qualified astronaut?”

“No, but I have been a pilot.” Grushin’s smile was thin. “Comrade Academician, I have been ordered by your father-in-law to trust you, to tell you everything I can. This is unusual. Stranger yet, Comrade Trusov himself instructed me to do the same.”

Strange indeed. So. The Politburo did take this alien craft seriously. Very seriously. And General Nikolai Narovchatov had said, “You will trust the man sent by KGB. As much as you trust any man from KGB.” What that could mean was not obvious.

“So,” Bondarev said. “What is there that I must know?”

“The military,” Grushin said. “Not all will cooperate, and not all will be under your command. You will need great skills at Baikonur to learn which marshals trust you and which do not. I need not tell you that this will not be easy.”

“No.” It was safe enough to say that much. Not more.

“It is also vital that the Americans do not learn the extent of our mobilization.”

“I see.” I see a great deal. Some of the marshals are out of control. They mobilize their forces regardless of the wishes of the Kremlin. The Americans can never be allowed to know this! “What else must I know?”

“The crew aboard Kosmograd,” Grushin said. “Who is there now, and whom we shall invite.”

“Invite—”

“Americans. They have already requested that we allow their people aboard Kosmograd when the alien ship arrives. The Politburo wishes your advice within three days.” He paused. “I think, though, that they will invite the Americans no matter what you say.”

“Ah. And if the Americans wish this, other nations will also.” He shrugged. “I do not know how many Kosmograd can accommodate.”

“Nor I, but I will tell you when I arrive there. As I will advise you of the personnel aboard. Of course you will also receive reports from Commander Rogachev.”

“A good man, Rogachev,” Bondarev said.

Grushin’s smile was crafty, like a peasant’s, although there was little of the peasant about the KGB man. “Certainly he has a legend about him. But he is not everywhere regarded as you regard him.”

“Why?”

“He is a troublemaker when he feels his mission is in danger. A fanatic about carrying out orders. Make no mistake, technically he is the best commander we have for Kosmograd.”

“But you doubt-doubt what? Surely not his loyalty?”

“Not his loyalty to the Soviet Union.”

“Ah.” There had been an edge to Grushin’s voice. Rogachev had not always shown proper deference to the Party. In what way is he a trouble-maker?”

Grushin shrugged. “Minor ways. An example. He has aboard Kosmograd his old sergeant, the maintenance crew chief of his helicopter during the Ethiopian conflict. This man lost both legs in the war. When it came time for this sergeant to be rotated back to Earth, Rogachev found excuses to keep him. He said that no better man was available, that it was vital to Kosmograd that this man remain.”

“Was he right?’

Grushin shrugged. “Again, that is something I will know when I arrive there. Understand, Comrade Academician. I am to be only a Deputy Commander of Kosmograd when I board. Thtsikova will be First Deputy. But I will report directly to you. If there is need, you may remove Rogachev from command.”

Bondarev nodded comprehendingly. Inside he was frightened.

I command this space station, but there are many technical matters. I will not know which are important and which are not. I require advice-but whose advice can I trust? He smiled thinly. That would be the dilemma faced by Chairman Petrovskiy and First Secretary Narovchatov. It is why I have been given this task.

It will be a great opportunity, though. At last, Pavel Bondarev thought, at last I can tell them where to aim the space telescope. And be able to see the pictures instantly.

It was a bright clear spring day, with brilliant sunshine, the kind of day that made it worthwhile living through Bellingham’s rainy seasons. The snow-crowned peaks of Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters stood magnificently above the foothills to the east. The view was impressive even to añative; it was enough to have Angelenos gawking. They stood near the old Bellingham city hail, a red brick castle complete with towers and Chuckanut granite, and alternately looked out across the bay to the San Juan Islands, then back to the mountains.

When Kevin Shakes saw a uniform coming toward them he wondered if something was wrong. His eyes flicked toward the truck-had he parked in the wrong place? A city kid’s reaction. In a small town like Bellingham you could park nearly anywhere you liked.

The uniform was brown, short-sleeved, decorated with badges and a gun belt. The man wearing it was three or four years older than Kevin’s eighteen. He was grinning and taking off his hat, showing fine blond hair in a ragged cut. “Hello. Miranda,” he called. “Is this the whole clan?”

“All but Dad and Mom.” Miranda was smiling, too. “Leigh, meet Kevin and Carl and Owen. We were just doing some shopping.”

Carl and Owen-thirteen and eleven, respectively, with identical straight brown hair but a foot’s difference in height between them-were looking mistrustfully at the uniformed man, who seemed mainly interested in Miranda. He said, “Looks like you bought out the store.”

Kevin said, “Well, maybe Miranda told you. we, don’t own the ranch all by ourselves. There are three other families, and they each own a fifth, and they’re all coming up for a vacation.”

“Won’t that be crowded?”

Kevin shrugged. Miranda lost a little of the smile. “Yeah. We’ve never done this before. The idea was to take turns, one week Out of five, a vacation spot, you know? But it never seems to work out that way. We’ve lucked out a lot. This time, well, maybe it’ll work out. The other families aren’t as big as we are. But I don’t know them very well.”

Miranda and the cop drifted away, and Kevin let them have their privacy. Later, when they were in the truck, he asked, “Who is he? How did you meet him?”

“Leigh Young. He was at the club and we played some tennis. He’s not very good, but he could be.”

“You like him?”

“Some.”

“I think Dad would approve of your dating a policeman. Useful.”

Miranda smiled. “It doesn’t hurt that he’s got good legs, either.”

Kevin looked back to be sure his younger brothers were settled inside the truck with the mounds of groceries before he started the truck. “Sure going to be crowded.”

“Yeah.”

“Rafidy, what do you think about all this? Is Dad right?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t used to think so. All our friends laugh at George, old Super-Survivor. I think Dad used to laugh at him, too.”

“You never know with Dad,” Kevin said. Miranda was only a year older than Kevin, and they’d become good friends as well as brother and sister. They both knew about their father’s half smiles.

He also kept their home computers busy analyzing the cost of everything they did. William Adolphus Shakes hadn’t wasted a nickel in years.

Gee, Kevin, there really is an alien spaceship.”

“Yeah. And Mrs. Wilson says it’s been hiding for a long time. Claims she was out at some lab when-when something happened. But nobody knew it was the aliens, then. Why would they hide out that long?’

“I don’t know.” She opened the glove compartment. “At least it’s pretty here,” Miranda pushed a tape into the player, and the stereo crashed out with the sounds of a new group. “Glad we have the tapes,” she shouted.

“Yeah.” There sure wasn’t anything on radio up here. William Shakes and Max Rohrs walked back toward the house, across the concrete apron Rohrs had poured last week. It felt dry and solid beneath their feet. Rohrs was a tall, broad-shouldered, muscular man. William Shakes felt like a dwarf beside him, though there wasn’t that much difference. Rohrs said, “Looks like we’re finished. If it gives you any trouble, you know my number.”

“Yeah. Thanks. I guess I’ll be seeing you.”

“I hope so. You’re good for business,” Rohrs said. “The way you’ve been planting pipe, I wonder if you’re planning to open up a hotel.” When Shakes didn’t react he said, “Just kidding.”

“Well, I’m not laughing. It’s going to feel like a hotel. We’ve got three more families coming up. I expect we’ve finally got enough septic tanks to keep everyone happy, and I know we’ve got enough beds.”

“That’s still a lot of elbows to be taking up your elbow room.”

Shakes nodded. A secretive smile lived just underneath his blank expression. Rohrs had built the septic tank last April. He’d been told that the second septic tank on the other side of the house was too old, too small. It was neither. Rohrs had just finished pouring this concrete apron; but he had no way of knowing that there was a second concrete apron under it, covered with rock and dirt. And under that, a roomy bomb shelter that nobody knew about.

William Shakes’ smile showed in Max Rohrs’ rearview mirror as Rohrs drove away.

Jack and Harriet McCauley had invited them into the Enclave six years ago. The Shakes had known pretty well what they were getting into. Jack and Harriet, and several others, were survivalists, perpetually prepared for the end of civilization. They collected news clippings on Soviet encroachments and economic failures and the national collapse of law and church and patriotism. They were bores on the subject.

Why had they picked on Bill and Gwen Shakes? Was it only because they lived in the neighborhood, or because they could afford the expense? Or because they were good listeners and never called the McCauleys fools? In fact neither Bill nor Gwen thought that any man was a fool to prepare for disaster. But disasters couldn’t be predicted. The Enclave was preparing for something far too specific. Reality would fool them when it came.

So the Shakes had not jumped at the chance. They had talked around the subject… until Bill realized what the Enclave group had in mind.

They joined. They paid their dues, a moderately hefty fee. They bought and maintained equipment as they were told to. Guns and spare food were good to have around anyway. They stored the pamphlets and books and even read some of them, and taught the kids firearms safety. At the Thursday meetings they argued strongly for buying a place of refuge in some near-wilderness area, preferably near some small agricultural village. Ultimately they found such a place, and when the rest of the Enclave agreed, the Shakes had paid 20 percent of the costs.

Bill enjoyed such games. It wasn’t as if he were cheating anyone. The Enclave was getting exactly what it had paid for. But Bill and Gwen Shakes now owned a vacation site for a fifth of what it would normally have cost them.

In dollars and cents-and Bill Shakes always thought in dollars and cents-it was more like 30 percent. The place wasn’t just being repaired, it was being turned into a refuge, and that cost in time and effort and money. But Bill and Gwen both liked working with their hands, and so did the boys. When they had the leisure they would drive the truck up to Bellingham-Miranda and Kevin were old enough to spell Bill at the wheel-and make order out of chaos, and play at turning the huge, roomy old house into a fortress. It backed onto a woods, with enough grounds for a garden. There was work to do, but also plenty of time out for goofing off and sailing their twenty-five footer in the San Juan Islands, some of the greatest sailing water in the world. By all odds the end of civilization would never come, or would come in some form the Enclave could never predict. Meanwhile the Shakes used the place more often than the rest of the Enclave families put together.

But this vacation hadn’t been planned.

When Bill got home two evenings ago, Gwen and the kids could talk about nothing but the approaching alien spacecraft. The eleven o’clock news featured fanciful sketches of what an interstellar craft might look like, reminding Bill of equally fanciful cartoons of the late forties: varying designs for a nuclear-powered airplane. That one had certainly come to nothing. But this…

When the telephone woke him at one in the morning, he had felt no surprise whatever. Gwen had said nothing, only turned on her side to listen while George Tate-Evans ordered the Shakes family to Bellingham.

I don’t take orders worth a damn. Bill thought, but he didn’t say it. He was already thinking, muzzily, of how his boss would react to Bill’s taking a sudden week or two off. Because George was right, and this was what the Enclave was for.

It was still a game, but they were playing for points now. Bill wasn’t sure how the kids were taking it. Miranda and Kevin were into the social scene; Carl and Owen were having trouble adjusting to a new school. They should never have been shifted this close to the end of the school year. But they all did their stints working in the vegetable garden and shopping for masses of groceries.

Bill tried not to resent the expense, the disruption. He couldn’t take this Star Wars stuff as seriously as the kids… or George and Vicki for that matter. Neither did Gwen, although she wasn’t so sure. “Vicki is really worried,” Gwen had said.

“Think of it as a fire drill,” he’d answered. “Get the bugs out of the system. If something real ever happens, we’ll know how to do it right.”

At that level it made sense.

What Max Rohrs told his wife that night was, “I think I make Shakes nervous.”

They were in bed, and Evelyn was reading. It wasn’t a book that took concentration. She said, “You said he was little?”

“Yeah.” Max Rohrs was a tall, broad-shouldered, muscular man, blond and hairy. He liked the occasional fight, and some men could see that. “Bill doesn’t quite reach my shoulder. His wife’s just his height, and a little wider, and his sons tower over him. Even so, he’s hiding something.”

“Bodies?”

She wasn’t all that interested, she was just being polite. Max, recognizing this, laughed. “No, not bodies-but there’s too many pipes. Too much plumbing. They keep adding to the septic tanks, and it doesn’t look like they’d have to. I think they’re survivalists. That house” — he rolled over onto his elbow — “it’s twice as big as it looks. Any angle you see it, it looks L-shaped. but it’s an X. Count on it, they’ve got guns and food stores and a bomb

shelter, too. I bet it’s under that tennis court I poured them. In some of the big cities there are bookstores just for survivalists.” He frowned. “They’ve sure been frantic the past week or so.”

“I heard from Linda today,” Evelyn said.

“Linda? And why are you changing the subject?”

“Gillespie. She’s back in Washington. The President sent Ed and Wes Dawson to Houston. They’ll train together. Wes Dawson finally gets to space—”

Max felt a twinge of envy. “That’ll be nice.”

“Linda’s at Flintridge. Her kid sister — you remember Jenny? — had something to do with discovering the alien ship.”

“Oh. Hey, that’s what set Shakes off! Sure, those guys are survivalists.” He knew his wife was smarter than he was, and by a lot, It didn’t bother him. What was amazing was that she was so obviously in love with him, and had been since the night they met in Washington. He’d been a sailor on liberty with no place to go, and somebody suggested a social club in a church up near the National Cathedral. There’d been girls there, lots of them, and all pretty snooty. All except Evelyn and her friends Linda and Carlotta. They were college girls, but they weren’t ashamed to be seen with a petty officer. Maybe it would have been better if she had been snooty, Max thought. But not for me.

Three weeks after they met, Evelyn was pregnant. There’d never been any discussion of an abortion. They were married in the church they’d met in, with a wedding reception at Flintridge. It was a nice wedding with a lot of Evelyn’s family, and Linda’s and Carlotta’s families too, important people who talked about Max’s future, and jobs he could get. It looked like he’d lucked into a great future,

And when he got out of the Navy he had to come back to Bellingham to look after his mother. Evelyn’s father helped a little, enough so that Max could open his own boiler shop, but there was never enough business.

That was almost twenty years ago. He glanced over at his wife. She was reading again. Her fancy nightgown looked a little ratty. Jeer, I gave her that four years ago! Where does the time go?

The kids were raising some moderate hell on the other side of the wall, not enough to bother them. Evelyn adjusted her position. The bed sagged on his side. Sometimes that would roll her toward him in the night, before she had quite made up her mind, and that was nice; but it made reading difficult.

She set the book aside and turned off her bed lamp. “A lot of people say this is survivalist country,” she said. “But nobody we know talks about it.”

“Yeah. Hey, I’m telling you, but that’s as far as it goes. They wouldn’t give me any more business if they knew I was shooting my mouth off.”

“All right, dear.”

“The shipyard’s been phased out for years, and there’s not much work there for steamfitters. The Shakes pay on time—” But Evelyn was asleep.

7. GREAT EXPECTATIONS

’Tis expectation makes a blessing dear, Heaven were not heaven if we knew what it were.

—SIR JOHN SUCKLING, “Against Friction”

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS TWO WEEKS

The bedroom was more than neat; it was spotless. Jack Clybourne’s entire apartment was that way-except for the second bedroom, which he used as a den. That one wasn’t precisely messy, but he did permit books to remain unshelved for days at a time.

The first time Jenny had visited Jack in his apartment, she’d remarked on its nearness.

He’d laughed. “Yeah, we get that way in the Service. We have to travel a lot, and stay in hotels, and we never know when the President’s schedule will change, so we stay packed. I remember once the maid saw all my stuff packed and the suitcases in the middle of the room, and the manager checked us out and rented the room to someone else.”

Despite the neatness, his bedroom wasn’t sterile. There were photographs, of his mother and sister, and of the President. Pictures of the Kremlin, and The Great Wall of China, and other places he’d been. Book club selections filled a tidy shelf along one wall. The shelves were full now, so when new selections came in, old ones went to the used book stores. The residue gave some clues to Clybourne’s reading habits: voracious, partial to history, but interested in spy thrillers.

Jenny got up carefully. She didn’t think she’d awakened Jack, although it was hard to tell. He slept lightly, and when he woke, he didn’t even open his eyes. She teased him about it once, and he laughed, and it wasn’t until later that she realized that kind of sleeping habit might be an advantage in his job. The Secret Service did other things besides protect the President.

She retrieved her uniform from the closet. The first time she’d come there, her clothes ended on the floor, but Jack’s apartment invited neatness… She took her Class A’s into the bathroom.

The bed was empty when she came out. She could hear the shower in the other bathroom. He’s certainly the most considerate lover I’ve ever had.

She didn’t much care for the word “lover,” but nothing else fit. He wasn’t a fiancé; there’d been no talk at all about marriage. No lieutenants should marry, but male captains could, and by the time they became majors most male officers were married; but marriage would be the end to a woman officer’s career.

He was certainly something more than a boyfriend. They didn’t live together, partly because both the Army and the Secret Service tended to be a little prudish even if they pretended not to be, and even more because Jenny wasn’t ready for all the explanations Aunt Rhonda would demand if she moved out of Flintridge. Even so, she spent a lot of time at Jack’s apartment. They both traveled a lot and worked odd hours, but it was definitely understood that when they were both in Washington and had free time, they’d spend it together.

While on trips she’d twice dated other men, but it wasn’t the same. Something was missing. Magic, she thought, and didn’t care to put another name to it. That it existed was enough, and it was wonderful.

“Ready for dinner?” His tie was perfectly knotted, but he’d left his jacket off.

“Sure. Want me to cook?”

“You don’t have to—”

“Jack, I like to cook. I don’t get a chance very often.”

“All right. We’ll have to shop, though. There’s nothing here.”

“Sure. I’ll get started, and you can go get—”

She stopped because he was shaking his head. “Let’s go together. We can figure out what we want on the way.”

“Sure.” She waited while he put on his jacket. As he always did before going out, he took his revolver out of the holster concealed inside his trousers and looked into the barrel, then checked the loads.

She’d never seen Jack angry, or threaten anyone, but Jenny never worried when she went out with him. The Post might be full of stories about Washington street crime, but no one ever bothered Jack Clybourne. Jenny wondered if it could be telepathy.

He lived in the newly rebuilt area off New Jersey Avenue,

where there were lots of apartments. It was on the other side of the White House from Flintridge.

She giggled. “Drive me home, he said. It’s on my way, he said,”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

She took his hand. “Yes, and I’m glad.”

“Me, too.”

They went toward Constitution Avenue and the Federal Triangle until they reached the wide park like Mall between Independence and Constitution Avenues. When they were in the middle of the Mall, he stopped. “Jenny, what in hell is going on?”

“With what?”

“This alien ship-look, being around the President, I hear a lot of things. I never talk about them. Not even with you, except it’s your job too-the President’s scared, Jenny. If you don’t know that, you’d better.”

“Scared? Jack-Oh, hell, darling. Let’s walk.” She led him along the path toward the great granite shape of the National Museum.

He wouldn’t talk about this in his apartment. Out here we ought to be safe if we keep our voices down and talk directly to each other. That’s silly. No one’s listening to us. Still, I shouldn’t talk to him about this, but he knows already — “Jack, what do you mean, scared? I’ve briefed him a dozen times, and he doesn’t act scared with me.”

“Not with you, not with the Admiral,” Jack said. “But with Mrs. Coffey. He’s worried because they don’t answer.”

“Well, we all wonder—”

“It’s no wonder; he’s scared! And I think he thinks the Russians are too.”

“Yeah,” Jenny said. “Of course we can only guess what they really think.”

“It’s true, though, isn’t it? Every nut with a transmitter has tried to send them messages, and they don’t answer…”

“Not just every nut,” Jenny said. “The National Security Agency, with our biggest transmitters. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Deep Space Net, with the big Goldstone antenna. The Russians are doing the same thing.”

“And nothing.” Jack shivered slightly, despite the warm June night. “Heck, maybe I’m scared too!”

She hesitated, then laughed.

“What?”

“Just thinking. If there’s anybody with a higher clearance than a man who’ll put his butt between the President and a bullet, I don’t know what it is.” There was no one around, but she lowered her voice anyway. “The Admiral’s getting worried too.”

“I guess the Soviets decided to mobilize.”

Jenny chuckled. “No. That’s like an Australian’s first reaction to anything is to go on strike.”

“Wha-at?”

“Or like the Watergate trials. The lawyers asked one of them, ‘Who ordered the cover’up?’ And he said, ‘Actually, nobody ever suggested there would not be a cover-up.’ Unless somebody actually says stop, the Soviets will mobilize.”

“Get enough of those weapons, and somebody’s likely to use them—”

“Yes. But things look reasonably stable over there. Their theoreticians are saying that any race advanced enough to have star travel would have to be economically evolved, meaning the aliens will all be good communists.”

“I wouldn’t think that follows.”

“Neither do I. We know for a fact it hasn’t helped the Russians communicate with the aliens. That ship isn’t talking to anyone.”

“Maybe it’s a robot ship.”

She shrugged. “We don’t even have any good theories, and the Admiral wants some.”

“Who has he asked?”

“Who haven’t we asked?” Jenny laughed again. “Anybody we didn’t ask has tried to tell us anyway. Out at the Air Force Academy we’ve got the damnedest collection of anthropologists, historians, political scientists, and other denizens of academia you ever saw. There’s even a psychic. But next week we go even further. The Admiral’s rounded up a collection of science-fiction writers.”

Jack didn’t laugh. “Actually that might not be such a bad idea.”

“That’s what I thought. Anyway, he’s done it. Most of them are at the Air Academy, but he’s taking a smaller group into Cheyenne Mountain. Guess what? I’m supposed to go out next week and help get them settled in. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

“Oh. Okay. But I’ll miss you.”

She squeezed his hand, then glanced around. It was dark, and nobody was going to see her behaving in an undignified manner while in uniform, and if they did, the hell with them. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. He was startled at first; then he held her close and they kissed again.

’We still haven’t got dinner,” she said finally. “No, What do you want?”

“Something we can cook fast.”

He laughed, “Yeah. There are better things to do than eat.”

“The Church has always considered the possibility of intelligence other than human,” Cardinal Manelli said. “Angels are one obvious example.”

“Ah. And of course C. S. Lewis played with aliens,” the Episcopalian bishop added. “Certainly the Christian churches are interested in this alien ship, but I can’t agree that the existence of the aliens refutes Christian revelation.”

Jeri Wilson looked thoughtful. She’d turned on the TV, something she almost never did on Sunday afternoons, and this program had been on. The Roman Catholic cardinal, the Episcopal bishop of California, two Protestant ministers whose faces she recognized, and a history professor from the University of California. Professor Boyd seemed to be acting as moderator, and also as a gadfly intent on irritating the others.

“Lewis points out that the existence of intelligent aliens impacts Christianity only if we assume they are in need of redemption, that redemption must come in the same manner as it was delivered to humanity, and that it has been denied them,” the Episcopal bishop continued. “I doubt we know any of that just yet.”

“What if they’ve never heard of Christianity?” Professor Boyd asked. “If they have no legends of gods, no notion of sin, no thought of redemption?”

“It wouldn’t change the facts of our revelation,” Cardinal Manelli said. “The Resurrection took place in our history, and no alien ship will change that. We’ll know soon enough. Why speculate? If you want to ask ‘what if?’ then what if they have both the Old and New Testaments, or documents recognizably related to them?”

That would be interesting, Jeri thought.

“I predict that what we’ll find will be ambiguous,” one of the ministers said. “God doesn’t seem to speak unequivocally.”

“Not to you,” Cardinal Manelli said. The others laughed, but Jeri thought some of the laughter was strained.

The doorbell rang. She went to answer it, a little unhappy at missing the program, which was interesting. Melissa raced down the hall and got to the door first.

The man at the door had red hair and beard fading to white. His gut spilled out over the top of his blue jeans. He’d never be able to button his denim jacket. Melissa stepped back involuntarily for a moment. Then she smiled. “Hi, Harry!”

Jeri didn’t encourage Melissa to call adults by their first names, but Harry was an exception. How could you call him Mr. Reddington? “Hello,” Jeri said. “What brings you here?” She stepped back to let him in and led him toward the kitchen. “Beer?”

“Thanks, yes,” Harry said. He took the can eagerly. “Actually. I was just over to see Ken Dutton, and thought I’d stop by.”

Melissa had gone back to her room. “Horse crap, Harry,” Jeri said.

He shrugged. “Okay, I have ulterior motives. Look, they’re throwing me out of my apartment—”

“Great God, Harry, you don’t expect me to put you up!”

He looked slightly hurt. “You don’t have to be so vigorous about the way you say that.” Then he grinned. “Naw, I just thought, well, maybe you could put in a word with the Enclave people. I could go up to Washington state any time.”

“Harry, they don’t want you.” That hurt him. She could see it. Even so, it had to be said. Harry had done odd jobs for the Tate-Evanses, as well as for the Wilsons, and although he’d never been invited to join the Enclave, he knew about it because David had talked about it with him.

Harry shrugged. “They don’t want Dutton, either. But they do want you.”

“Possibly. I’m not so sure I want them.”

Harry looked puzzled.

“I’ve been thinking of going east. To join David.” Not yet, he said. But it wasn’t no!

Melissa came in to get a Coke from the refrigerator. “Is that your motorcycle out there?” she asked.

“Sure,” Harry said.

“Will you take me for a ride?’

“Melissa, you shouldn’t bother—”

“Sure,” Harry said.

Jeri frowned. She wasn’t worried about Melissa’s going with Harry, but — “Is it safe?”

Harry grinned. “Safe as houses.” He patted his ample gut. “If we fall off, I’ll see she lands on me.”

He just might do that, Jeri thought. “Look, Harry, not too fast—”

“Speed limit, and no freeway,” Harry said.

Melissa was dancing around. “I’ll get my jacket,” she said. She dashed out of the kitchen.

“Oh, all right,” Jeri said. “Harry, do be careful.”

An hour later, Melissa came in the front door.

“Have a good time?” Jeri asked.

“Yeah, until his motorcycle blew up.”

“Blew up!”

“Well, that’s what he said. It just died. We were a long way off.”

“How did you get home?”

“Harry asked if you let me take the bus by myself, and when I said sure, he waited at the bus stop with me.” Melissa giggled. “He had to borrow bus fare from me so he could get home, too.”

Linda Gillespie drained her margarita and set the empty glass down too hard. When she spoke, her voice was too loud for the dimly lit Mayflower cocktail lounge. “Dammit, it just isn’t fair!”

Carlotta Dawson shrugged. “Lots of things aren’t. At least you had fair warning! You knew you were marrying an astronaut. I thought I’d married a nice lawyer.”

“They could let us go to Houston with them.”

“Speak for yourself,” Carlotta said. “I’ve got work to do. Someone has to think about his career, and it’s for sure Wes won’t now that he’s got a chance to go to space. If you’re looking for something to do, come help me with the constituent mail.”

“Yeah, sure—”

“I mean it,” Carlotta said. “Sure, it gives you something to distract you, but seriously, I need the help. It’s hard to find intelligent people who know California and live in Washington.”

“I don’t blame them.”

“So why don’t you go home”

“We were going to have the house painted anyway, and when the President ordered Ed to Washington we decided to have an extra room put on the attic. The house is a madhouse, crawling with contractors.”—

“You could go see Joel.”

“No I can’t. That expensive boarding school doesn’t like having Mommy drop in. Interferes with their routine. Of course if Ed wants to come—”

Carlotta smiled. “Astronauts are always welcome. You knew that when you married him.”

“Yes. And I still love him, too. But it gets damned lonesome sometimes.” Linda signaled the waitress. “Another round, please.”

“Not me,” Carlotta said. “Two’s more than enough. Linda, be reasonable. Ed and Wes don’t have any time at all, that’s straight enough. They’re living on the base

“I could stay in a hotel.”

“Be pretty expensive, and he still wouldn’t have any time for you.

Linda nodded. “I know. But it’s still not fair.”

Carlotta chuckled. “The aliens are coming. Our husbands are intimately involved in making contact with them-and we’re sitting here grousing because we’re not seeing them in Washington instead of being ignored by them in Houston.”

“You don’t like it either—”

“No. I don’t. Congress recesses about the time Wes actually goes into orbit, and I’ll like that even less-but there’s nothing I can do about it.” She stood and fumbled in her purse until she found a five-dollar bill. She put the money on the table. “I mean it, Linda, I could use some help. Call me at the office”

“All right.”

“I like your enthusiasm. Well, if you do, I guarantee I’ll put you to work. Bye.”

Linda watched Carlotta leave, and turned back to her drink. I probably should go help Carlotta. It’s something to do — “Five dollars for your thoughts.”

“Uh—” She looked up at the man standing where Carlotta had been. “Roger!”

“Yep. Were you thinking about me?” He sat down without waiting to be asked.

“No.” He still looks pretty good. He must be-what, fifty? That’s about right. Good-looking man for fifty. Good-looking for forty, for that matter. “After five years? Why should I?”

He chuckled. “Because you’re alone in my town. You ought to have been thinking about me for weeks.”

“That’s silly.” I did think about you, damn you. “How do you know I’m not waiting for my husband?”

“Because he’s in Houston, sheep dogging the Honorable Wesley Dawson. You were with Carlotta Dawson until a minute ago.” He flashed a grin. “I passed up a chance to interview her, waiting for you to be alone—”

“And if I’d left with her?’

“I’d have got my interview, of course. Or at least had a chance to talk with the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Outer Space. Now I have to settle for the chauffeur’s wife. How’s Ed taking it?”

“Not well ye never seen him so twitchy.”

“He projects that “Right Stuff” image. Cool and collected, like all the astronauts.”

“Clint’s on TV,” Linda said. “And usually he really is like that. Now he doesn’t know how to feel… Well, look at it. That alien ship is the biggest thing since the invention of the lung, Ed’s sister-in-law discovers it even, and a congressman steals his mission.”

“You ought to be glad it’s Wes. If it wasn’t him, it still wouldn’t be Ed,” Roger said. “The Sovs don’t want Edmund Gillespie. An American military officer, a general-he outranks Rogachev, for God’s sake!”

“Yeah, he knows that, really,” Linda said. “But it doesn’t help that he knows it. Roger, what are you doing here?’

“Trying to seduce you.”

“Roger!”

He shrugged. “It’s true enough. I had a lead on a story, brought her here for a drink, spotted you, and got rid of Ms. Henrietta Crisp of the Business and Professional Women’s Alliance. Surprised hell out of her, it did.”

“Well, you might as well go find her again.”

“All right.” He didn’t move.

Damn you, Roger Brooks! I should get up and leave right now—

“I’ve missed you,” he said. “Sure you have. Three times in fifteen years—”

“Come off it. You weren’t about to get divorced, and when Ed’s around you don’t want to see me across a football field. What was I supposed to do?”

“Yeah.” The old feeling came back, excitement and anticipation. Go home now! That wasn’t going to work, though.

Who is this? I’m happily married, and every five years Roger Brooks finds me, and I feel like a schoolgirl on her first heavy date. How does he do this to me? “I guess I’ve missed you too. Remember that movie Same Time, Next Year? It’s like that with us.”

“Except we don’t see each other so often.” He picked at the scars on his left hand. “But it doesn’t mean I don’t think about you.”

“Oh, sure, and next you’ll tell me I’m the reason you never married,” Or have you?

Roger spread his hands in an exaggerated gesture. “Dunno. There must be some reason,”

“You’re too busy chasing stories. That’s all you see in me, a news source.”

“Come on, now.”

“Will you promise you won’t try to get information from me?”

“Of course not.”—

“See? Good. I don’t like it when you lie to me. So what do we do now?”

He glanced at his watch. “A bit early for dinner. What say we take a drive through the Virginia countryside? I know a nice restaurant in Fairfax.”

“And then?”

“Up to you.” Roger stood and came around to hold her chair.

“I’ve got to be going,” Linda said. She started to push back her chair from Roger’s kitchen table, but Roger stood behind her and blocked her way.

He put his hands under the bathrobe. She felt her nipples erect in the warmth of his palms. “What’s the hurry?”

“Stop that-no, don’t stop that. Roger, what will I tell Aunt Rhonda?”

“Party at the Thai Embassy. Got late. Some senator from the Appropriations Committee insisted on quizzing you about the space program.”

“But—”

“There really is a big party there, so big that you could have been there and been lost in the crowd.” He bent around her, took her nipple in his mouth.

She thought she was thoroughly satiated, but his tongue reawakened sensations all through her body. Roger had always been a tiger-they’d made love three times that afternoon after JPL, all those years ago. Are you serious?”

He straightened. “Possibly not.”

Linda giggled suddenly.

“Certainly not, then,” Roger said. “What is it?”

“I never did get Nat Reynolds’s autograph.”

“Nat-oh. Yeah. Damn, damn, damn. That ship was there all the time we were looking at Saturn. The twisted F-ring. ‘Haven’t you ever seen three earthworms in love?’ ‘You’ve a wicked sense of humor, Darth Vader.’ Remember? The drive flame from that thing must have roiled the whole ring system. It settled down before Voyager Two got there.”

Linda stroked his hand, then put it back on her breast. He stood very close to her. “And even if you’d known, if you’d said anything, they’d have put you away for a nice rest.”

“Heh. Yes. I might have gone digging. Found some astronomical photographs. Something. I didn’t know enough science, then. I’ve done some studying since.”

She grinned and looked up at him without raising her head. “I hadn’t noticed.” Actually it’s not funny. Nothing you could learn, nothing will ever bring back that afternoon. I know that; why do I go on looking? “It was a wonderful day, Roger. All of it. All those Scientists, and the writers-you’ve been studying science; are you going to write science fiction?”

“Hadn’t intended to. Maybe I should. Most of the SF writers have disappeared.” He wet one finger and traced a complex pattern on her breast,

“What?”

“Well, not all of them. The ones who make up their own science are being interviewed all over the place. The ones who stick to real science are getting hard to find. Know anything about it?”

“Not really.”

He straightened and stepped away from her. “My God, you do know something! What?”

“Roger, I said—”

“Bat shit! I can tell! You know something. Linda, what is it?”

“Well, it’s not important. Jenny said something about going to meet the sci-fi people. In Colorado Springs. It wasn’t a secret.”

“Colorado Springs. NORAD or the Air Academy?”

8. LAUNCH

What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens.

—BENJAMIN DISRAELI, Henrietta Temple

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS ONE WEEK

“I don’t know. Aunt Rhonda would know-she’d have Jenny leave her phone number in Colorado Springs. Speaking of Aunt Rhonda, Roger, I really do have to leave. Now let me get up.”

“Well, all right, if you insist. I’ll call you tomorrow.

Say no. Tell him no. “Fine.”

The house perched on stilts above a crag in the Los Angeles hills.

For years the engineers had worried that it would slide down in a heavy rainstorm, but it never did.

Wes Dawson poked about the storage area built by enclosing the stilts. In a normal house it would have been called a basement.

“It’s getting late,” Carlotta called down the stairs.

“I know.” He opened an old trunk, Junk, clutter; memories leapt up at him. Wait a minute, I used to use this a lot… the Valentine card she’d handed him one January morning after a fight

So that’s where that went! The huge mug that would hold two full bottles of beer, but the chipped rim kept gashing his lip. A T-shirt faded almost to gray, but he recognized the print on the chest: an American flag with a whirlpool galaxy in the upper left corner. A hundred billion stars…

No time! He closed the lid on memories and went up the stairs.

The house looked half empty, with anything valuable or breakable packed away.

“Aren’t you packed?” she asked. “I mean, what could you take?”

He grinned. “Remember my old baseball cap?”

“Good God! Whatever did you—”

“Luck. It won my first campaign. I wore it to JPL for the Saturn encounter, remember?”

She turned away and he followed her. “I’m sorry you can’t come with me.”

“Me too.” She still didn’t face him.

“You’ve got to be used to it. I’m not home a lot of the time—”

“Sure. But you’re in Washington. Maybe you don’t get home until I’m in bed, but I know you’ll be there. Or I have to come here, and you’re still there, but we’re— Jesus, Wes, I don’t know. But it feels wrong.” She opened the Thermos pitcher and poured coffee. “I talked to Linda, and she feels it too, when Ed’s not on the Earth. She can tell. Is that silly?”

Telepathy? That could be interesting. And if I say that, she’ll blow up.

Wes tried to hide his eagerness to be gone. He couldn’t. Before the aliens came, Carlotta really was the most important thing in his life, more important than Congress or anything else, but not now. Not with the Galactic Congress coming in just a few days, and he’d be there to meet them! She had him dead to rights. You’ll be nowhere on the face of the Earth, and you won’t be thinking about me.

The doorbell rang before he had to speak. Thank God. Wes thought Whoever that is, I love you.

It was Harry Reddington.

“La, Harry,” he said. There was no point in asking why Harry was there. He’d find out whether he asked or not. “Come in, but I warn you” Forefinger prodding the zipper on the lineman’s vest, you had to make things clear to Harry — “I’ve got to go, right now, and Carlotta has to drive me.”

“Sure, Congressman.” Harry used his cane to help him up the steps. “Hi, Carlotta.”

“Hello.” Carlotta’s greeting wasn’t enthusiastic.

It had happened several years before. Wes Dawson, two-term Congressman, stuck on the transportation safety subcommittee, interviewing bikers. He’d been young enough and new enough then to go out looking for information, rather than summoning the interested parties to Washington to testify to a committee.

And in a San Bernardino bar, Wes Dawson had let a Hell’s Angel get his goat, and took a swing at the bloated barbarian, and was about to get his head stomped in, which would have been bad, and in the newspapers, which would have been worse, when Hairy Red the Minstrel made a joke of the whole affair and hustled Wes out of the bar, and only after they were outside did Harry admit that he was so scared he’d pissed in his pants. Or said he had, which made Wes laugh too.

So I owe Harry one. And he’s never really collected. Just uses

that to keep us polite to him. And hell, I enjoy his company Sometimes — “What brings you here now, Harry?” Carlotta asked. She hadn’t been in that bar. She’d only been told. If she’d felt the vibes in that bar, she’d be more polite to Harry. “Heard you’re going up to meet the ETI’s,” Harry said.

“Yeah!”

“Everyone knows that,” Carlotta said.

“I wondered if you needed anybody to keep an eye on things,” Harry said. “I’m sort of loose just now.”

“No,” Carlotta said firmly. “Thanks, but no.”

Harry must be heavily stuck for a place to sleep. Not only that he was here, but that he was so clean, so massively sober…

Wes looked around the house. All the valuable stuff was packed and stored. Especially all the breakables. But there were electronics and keepsakes and things he hadn’t had time to store away (and somewhere, his baseball cap), and he’d really hate to lose them. There hadn’t been time to plan anything. And the breakable stuff was stored, and Wes was just feeling so damned good. He asked, “Harry, where are you living just now?”

Carlotta eyed him suspiciously.

“Here and there—”

“Want to stay here?” Wes asked. “Just for a few weeks. Carlotta’s going to Washington and then visiting her family in Kansas, so the place is empty except for the gardener once a week. Wouldn’t hurt at all if somebody kept an eye on it.”

Carlotta looked disgusted. “Harry—”

Harry grinned. He raised his right hand, the way he would in a courtroom. “No visitors, no friends, no parties. I swear. The kind of people I know, I wouldn’t even tell them where I’m staying.”

“That’s straight, — then,” Wes said. “Your word of honor on record.”

“Sure,” Harry said.

“Good,” Congressman Dawson said. “You know, Harry. That works pretty good I was a little worried, going off-Jesus, except for the Apollo crews, about as far as anybody ever went from his family. I was a little worried about leaving Carlotta. It feels better with you to look after things.” That can’t hurt, Wes thought. With Harry, you had to be careful what you said, because he took things too seriously sometimes. — But he was pretty smart when he was sober, and dammit, he didn’t lie. He’d jump off a cliff before he’d steal from friends.

“Keys,” Harry said. “And the alarm?”

“Right.” It was getting complicated. Wes looked at Harry and the eager expression, and knew it was already too late. Might as well do it right. “Keys, alarm system. I’ll write you a letter. And there’s a drawer in here where we keep a thousand bucks in small bills, for emergencies. Only. We’ll leave it for you. Kind of tricky to find.”

Carlotta looked at him again, and Wes grinned. She didn’t know Harry that well. He’d never touch that money if they told him about it. If he found it, rooting around, as he probably would, he might think of some reason why he ought to do something with it to help the Dawsons. Harry had a real knack for rationalization, but he didn’t violate direct orders.

“You’ll need a letter,” Wes said. “And maybe a phone number for your friend to call you.”

“I won’t give anybody yours,” Harry said.

“That’s all right,” Carlotta said. “We change this top number, here, every month or two.” She indicated one of the three telephones. “Just don’t give anyone the other number.”

Wes typed up a letter to the police while Carlotta explained the alarm system. She wasn’t happy about it. Maybe I’m not happy, Wes thought. But what the hell else could I do? Throw Harry out? Fat chance. And damn, he can be useful, and anyway— Anyway, it was time to go. Wes looked at the TV, with its

continuous stream of garble about ETI’s and speculation about what was coming, and grinned. I’ll know before they do. Damn straight! He got his suitcases and headed for the downstairs garage, and he’d forgotten about Hairy Red before he got to his car.

“FIVE.” The unemotional voice spoke in his headset. My God! I’ve made it!

“FOUR.” Wes Dawson tried to relax, but that was impossible. The count went on. “THREE. TWO. ONE. IGNITION. FIRST MOTION. LIFTOFE WE HAVE LIFTOFF.”

We do indeed. Goddam elephant sitting on my chest. He was vaguely aware that his companions in the shuttle were cheering. He tried to remember every moment of the experience, but it was no use. Things happened too fast.

“SEPARATIONS” The Shuttle roar changed dramatically as the two solid boosters fell free to splash into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery. They were just worth recovering, according to figures Dawson had seen, although he’d also seen analyses demonstrating that it would be cheaper to make new ones each time-that recovery of the boosters was mostly for public relations value, to demonstrate that NASA was thrifty…

His feeling of great weight continued as the Shuttle main engines continued to burn. He’d been told they developed over a hundred horsepower per pound. Wes Dawson tried to imagine that, but the image that came to mind was silly.

He noticed the roar fading, and then the weight easing from his body. Silence and falling. Black sky and the blue-white arc of planet Earth, and Wes Dawson had reached space at last.

Ed Gillespie went out first. Wes waited impatiently while Gillespie helped the Soviet crewmen rig tether lines between the Shuttle and the Soviet Kosmograd space station. The Shuttle was far too large to dock with the Soviet station; at least that was the official reason they’d been given.

Finally the work was done, and it was Dawson’s turn in the airlock. Captain John Greeley, Wes’s escort and aide, waited behind him to go last. Ed Gillespie would be waiting outside. Ed must hate this a lot. Greeley and! go aboard Kosmograd. Ed takes the Shuttle home. Enough of that.

Wes ran through the pressure-suit checklist once more. The small computer-driven display at his chest showed all green, and Wes touched the Airlock Cycle button. He heard a faint whine.

He moved very cautiously. There was nothing out there but vacuum. High school physics classes and the science fiction he’d read in his teens spoke their lessons in his memory: space is unforgiving, even to a powerful and influential congressman. He listened to the dwindling hiss as the airlock emptied; none of it was coming from his million dollars’ worth of pressure suit. He’d done it right.

The hiss and whine faded to nothing. Then the airlock display blinked green over red. In the back of his throat was nausea waiting to pounce. His semicircular canals danced to strange rhythms. High school physics be damned: his body knew he was falling. Skydiving wasn’t like this. Skydiving, you had the wind; if you waited a few seconds the wind stopped your acceleration, and it was as if you were being buoyed up. Here there was only the oxygen breeze in your face.

The outer door opened and the universe hit him in the face.

The Soviet station was a winged hammer that tumbled as it flew. At one end of the long, long corridor that formed the handle, three cylinders, born as fuel tanks, nestled side by side. The living quarters must have been expanded since the structure was built. There were few windows, and all were tiny. Not much of a view from in there. Best do my sightseeing while I’m outside.

Solar-electric panels splayed out around the other end of the corridor. Dawson guessed there was a nuclear plant too, well isolated from the crew quarters. Why else would the joining corridor be so long? Though it would help the Sovs maintain spin gravity.

At the center of rotation, opposite a fourth tank that served as a free-fall laboratory, was the main airlock. A line ran from the airlock to the hovering shuttlecraft. And behind it all, a great blue ball was slowly traversing a deep black sky.

Orbit! Free-fall! He’d done it! But what a strange path he’d traveled,

There was a boy who had wanted to be an astronaut.

A young man had watched that hope dwindle as he matured. Men had landed on the Moon in July of 1969, after eight years of effort. In 1980, a NASA official had stated that “the United States could not reach the Moon again ten years from now, no mailer what the effort.” The space program had been nearly dismantled. The United States had reached the Moon… and come back… and stopped.

The Soviets, beaten in the Moon race, dropped out; but when the United States rested, the Soviet space program began anew, this time systematically developing capabilities, each new exploit a bit more difficult than the last; none of the spectaculars of the early days, but plenty of solid achievement.

An angry man had grown into politics. Partly through Wes Dawson’s efforts, the U.S. space program began again, led by the Shuttle and continuing toward industries in space, but too slowly.

The cold war began again, with all its implications. Editorials in U.S. papers and on television: why challenge the Soviets in space? Nothing was there. Or, alternatively: the Soviets are so strong that they cannot be challenged. Or: why begin a race no one can win? A drumfire of editorials, threatening to drown the American space effort.

Then had come a speck in the night sky; and a powerful, determined politician in the best of health now looked across thirty meters of line at a Soviet space station to which he had come as visiting dignitary.

It was a way into space; but he’d have had to be crazy to plan it that way…

“Do you feel all right, Congressman?’ The Soviet crewman waited outside, clinging to a handhold on the airlock door. He floated easily, his whole posture a statement: for Soviets this is easy. We have the experience to make it easy.

He couldn’t see the expression behind the darkened glass of Ed Gillespie’s helmet. Gillespie waited.

“I’m fine! Fine!” Wes stayed uncertainly in the airlock. Space was wonderful, but there was so much of it! He felt bouncy, happy; he sounded that way too.

“Good.” The cosmonaut pushed into Dawson’s glove a device vaguely resembling pliers; the business end was already closed around the line. “If you will move out of the airlock—”

Wes grasped the line grip and moved out of the airlock door. Ed Gillespie came up beside him. Gillespie said nothing, but Wes was grateful: someone familiar, in this strange and wonderful place.

The airlock cycled again, and Greeley emerged. The cosmonaut handed him a line gripper. “Remember, there is no way to get lost. You need only jump. When you near the airlock, squeeze the handle and friction will slow you.” The Russian’s accent was noticeable even through the electronics of the suit radios.

“Fine.” They’d showed him most of it in briefings, but it wasn’t the same.

“You’re on your own, then,” Ed Gillespie said. “See you in Houston.” He clapped Wes on the shoulder and climbed into the airlock.

“Right. My regards to Linda.” he spoke automatically. He was watching the Soviet cosmonaut. Dawson took a deep breath.

The Russian jumped.

Dawson waited until the Soviet was across before he moved. It took nerve, for a man who was already falling. A good jump maybe a bit too hard…, airlock coming up fast…, he wasn’t slowing at all! Dawson braked too soon, left himself short of the airlock.

Greeley thumped into him from behind. Greeley was massive:

an Air Force Captain who had earned his letter in football as a halfback. His cheerful voicewas a bit tinny in Wes’s earphones. “No sweat. Sir, if you’ll just ease up on the clamps—” Wes relaxed his grip, releasing the line, and let Greeley guide him into the airlock.

Several people waited beyond the airlock. One was a woman in her forties. A legless man floated toward Wes and deftly helped him to remove his helmet. No one spoke.

“Hi!” Wes said.

“Hello.” The woman spoke grudgingly.

The airlock opened, and the Soviet cosmonaut entered. The legless man assisted him in opening his helmet. The cosmonaut grinned. “Welcome to Kosmograd. I am Rogachev.”

“Ah! Thank you,” Wes said. “I hadn’t expected the commander himself to assist me—”

“I enjoy going outside,” Rogachev said. “I have all too few opportunities.”

The others seemed friendlier now.

“Allow me to introduce you, but quickly,” Rogachev said. “When we have removed these suits, you can be more properly Welcomed. This is First Deputy Commander Aliana Aleksandmvna Thtsikova. Deputy Commander Drnitri Parfenovich Gru shin. Station Engineer Ustinov.”

These three were lined up, Tutsikova closest to Wes. They all looked typically Russian to Dawson’s untrained eye. There were three more in the crowded corridor, including the legless man, but Rogachev made no move to introduce them.

It would be difficult to shake hands in zero gravity, and Wes didn’t try. The airlock door opened again, to admit Captain Greeley. The legless cosmonaut went to help remove his helmet. Rogachev was already leading the way down the corridor, and Wes had no choice but to follow.

“In here,” Rogachev said. “Mitya will aid you with your suit. He will then show you where we will await you.” His tone changed. “Nikolai.”

“I come,” the legless man said, and launched himself after Rogachev.

The compartment Vies was led into was small, but larger than he had expected. It had some gravity; hardly enough to notice, but sufficient that objects settled to one deck, and Wes could lie on that deck to allow his suit to be removed.

Mitya did not look like the others. He was small, almost tiny, and his face was very oriental, almost pure Tatar. He talked constantly as he assisted Dawson in getting out of the pressure Suit. Vies couldn’t understand a word, although Mitya seemed to understand English.

When they had the pressure suit off, Mitya produced a pair of dark blue coveralls. On the left breast was the name DAWS0N, in both Roman and Cyrillic letters. There was also a patch, with the stylized hammer-shaped symbol of Kosmograd. The station’s image was marked with a Red Star and the Soviet CCCP.

That’s why they said I needn’t bring my own clothes. They want me in their uniform. Vies grinned and reached inside his suit. There was a small pouch there. Vies took out a bright U.S. flag pin, and pinned that above the Kosmograd patch. Then he looked directly at Mitya.

The Soviet was grinning. He said something incomprehensible, then waited for Wes to put on the coveralls.

Sergeant Ben Mailey was accustomed to shepherding VIPs, but he’d never seen a group quite like this one. Idly he listened to the chatter behind him. They’d put five passengers in a helicopter built for many more. The trip from the Colorado Springs airfield to Cheyenne Mountain wasn’t very long. Civilians were talkative anyway, but they rarely tried to compete with the roar of a helicopter motor. These were winning; though half of what they said didn’t make sense.

He had his share of tall this trip. Sergeant Mailey tended to notice that. Five feet five, wide and round, he dreaded what he would look like without the Army exercises they made him take. You’d want to roll him down a bowling alley. But three of his passengers were six feet or taller, and two of those were women. He glanced at the passenger list. That tall man playing tour

guide was Curtis, of Hollywood, California. It was easy enough to hear him, even over the helicopter motors. “That’s the Broadmoor Hotel. One of the world’s top hotels, and not built because of the Air Force Academy or NORAD or anything else. Remember the old Penrose machine? One of the younger sons got too rough even for that crowd, and they sent him out here about the turn of the century as a remittance man. Had nothing to do, so he built the world’s best hotel in the shadow of Pikes Peak.”

Which was interesting. Mailey had never heard that story before. Unfortunately, the guy knew more, and now he was revealing too many of the secrets of Cheyenne Mountain for Mailey’s comfort. How the hell did he ever get Inside? Because he’d sure been there.

Not that it mattered. They were all going inside, and maybe it wouldn’t be so easy to get out again…

Four of them had come in pairs, but the dark-haired woman had come alone, If you’d put her in Playboy — she was that pretty — you’d have had to use the centerfold. She was that tall. When Curtis shut up she said, “What I meant is, we ought to be the ones to greet the aliens!”

“Maybe we will. But, Sherry, Wes Dawson’s up there, and he’s a science-fiction fan. I mean serious. He was at the first Saturn flyby. You were there. Don’t you remember him? Congressional candidate in a baseball cap.”

“No.”

“Well, he was watching the screens instead of making speeches. That any help?’

“I—”

“In the meantime, if you were a government, who would you get to tell you about aliens? Us! I’d like to know who thought of it.”

The silver-haired woman’s laugh was a pleasant silvery tinkle. Her husband wasn’t in uniform, but from the ID he’d shown Mailey he could have bean, although it would make him the oldest lieutenant in the Navy. He had a head like a bullet and a mustache like a razor’s edge. The sheet on Mailey’s clipboard named them:

Robert and Virginia Anson, Santa Cnn. They looked too old to be part of-whatever was going on here. All Mailey was sure of was that there was a direct order from the President concerning this new advisory group, and Mailey had never seen anything like that before.

They were to report directly to the National Security Council. Not even to General Deighton, who commanded NORAD and had taken up residence inside.

Anson leaned forward in his chair, and Mailey noticed that the others stopped talking and turned toward him. “We’ll see enough,” he said.

“Sure,” one of the others said. “Bob, we trust hell out of you, but can’t you tell us what we’re doing here?”

“Ten minutes.” Anson looked up at Mailey. “That’s about how long it will take to get inside?”

Mailey nodded “Yes, sir.” Another one who’d been in the hole. They had that distinctive way of pronouncing the word. Inside. If you’d been there, you knew.

“Anyway,” Anson said, “we’ll learn as much, and as quickly, as anyone in the United States. Admiral Carrell assured me of that.”

The grins on the others were unmistakable, although some of the wives didn’t seem so happy about it.

“Sounds good,” someone said. “And an audience that wants to be told what to do, and can do it! Who could ask for more?”

Virginia Anson laughed in silver. Robert Anson leaned forward again, and again everyone else fell silent. I’ve seen generals get less respect than that, Mailey thought.

“What have you done with Nat Reynolds?” Anson asked Curtis. “I thought you two went everywhere together.”

“We have since his divorce,” Curtis said. “But he’s got a convention in Kansas. Yeah, I thought of that too, but where is he safe?”

He’d be safe Inside, Mailey thought. If there’s one safe place in the world, this is it.

The motors changed pitch and the helicopter descended.

Jenny watched the group climb out of the helicopter, and hid her misgivings. She got the passengers loaded into the station wagon for the short drive from the helipad to the entrance.

She’d only been Inside a few times, and it was still an awesome experience. The station wagon drove through doors the size of a house, then on into the mountain — And on, and on. Eventually it stopped and they entered an

elevator that had no difficulty holding all of them, with room for the station wagon if they’d wanted it.

No one was talking much. People didn’t, the first time.

The buildings sat on coil springs as tall as people. Except for the springs, and the granite walls overhead and everywhere, the buildings might have been standard military barracks and offices.

Jenny gave them an hour to get settled. Most of them were in the briefing room in half that time. She waited the full hour. The inside of the conference room was set up like a movie theater, with folding chairs in rows. Army men ushered them to seats, a little warily, as if they didn’t quite know what to make of their guests.

The army troopers stood when she came in. So did Robert Anson, although Jenny had the impression that it wasn’t the gold leaves he stood for.

They waited while she went to the blackboard.

Then one of them said, “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve asked you here,” and everyone laughed. Which made it a lot easier.

“I suppose you are wondering,” Jenny said. “Admiral Carrell has assembled an intelligence group to advise the National Security Council. You are part of it.”

“Makes sense. Who else knows about aliens?”

She looked at her seating chart. Curtis. She nodded. “The first thing is to explain why you are here, rather than at the Academy with your colleagues and the anthropology professors. You are the Threat Team. The others will assume the aliens are friendly. Our group will examine the possibility that they will be hostile.”

Everyone looked thoughtful. Then a hand was raised. Jenny consulted her chart again. “Yes, Ms Atkinson?”

“Do we have a choice in the assignment?”

“Not now,” Jenny said.

“Too bad.”

“I thought it valuable to have you with us, Sherry,” Anson said. “The rest of us are paranoid. You are not. It seemed reasonable to have one intelligent but trusting person on this team.”

Sherry Atkinson melted back into her seat.

“I’m afraid things will be a bit hectic,” Jenny said. “You will have a series of intensive briefings—”

“There that much to know about the aliens?”

“Actually, Dr. Curtis, there is very little to know about the aliens. However, you are to be briefed on U.S. and USSR strategic weapons systems. One of the possibilities Admiral Carrell intends to examine is that the aliens make alliance with the Soviets. Against us.”

Academician Pavel Bondarev sat at his desk. His large leather chair was swiveled toward the window, with its view of the Black Sea. The weather outside was pleasant. It was pleasant inside the office as well. His secretary sat on his lap. Slowly she unbuttoned her blouse.

This was far better than he had expected! He had more power and prestige than he had ever imagined possible. To add to his joy, Marina and his grandson had vacationed on the shores of the Black Sea and were now on an airplane to Moscow.

It couldn’t last, of course. Soon the aliens would come, and things would change. He could only guess at how they would change.

He may have been the proper man for this task. I know few who could have done it, and of those, two are not reliable…

On his desk lay thick reports from the Soviet military leaders. The largest was the report of the Strategic Rocket Command. Bondarev had always known that the Soviet Union possessed thousands of intercontinental nuclear-tipped missiles; now he knew the location and targeting of every one of them.

He also knew their reliability, which was not high. Despite the full alert, nearly a quarter of the missile force was not in readiness, and the generals did not expect more than two thirds of those remaining to launch on the first attempt.

The reports contained information on which missiles could be retargeted and which could not. Of those, some could be aimed at objects in space, and some could be targeted only toward other points on the Earth, because their warheads could not be detonated until after re-entry. He had turned so that he wouldn’t have to look at those reports. Could he not keep his mind on Lorena for these few precious moments? But his mind ran on. He had a large force that could be used to engage the United States, and a small force that could fight an enemy in outer space if that became necessary. It was not possible to estimate what that force could do because they knew nothing of the onrushing alien spacecraft. What defenses did it have? How thick was its hull, and how close would it come to Earth?

All probably unnecessary. They will not attack. But if they do, I have forces to engage them with. Some forces. I should determine more precisely what I have available.

That would not be easy, because it was no simple task to combine the targeting information with the figures on readiness and reliability. The result would only be a probability. It is well that I am doing this. Few military officers would know how to do the mathematics. Nor would I be able to in time except for-.

He glanced at the table next to his desk. An American IBM home computer stood there. It was an excellent machine, simple to use, and it had come with a number of probability and statistics programs that he had adapted to this purpose.

“You have no need of that machine at this moment,” Lorena said firmly. She took his hand and guided it to her breast.

He had been expecting the telephone, but it startled him anyway. Pavel Bondarev disengaged his hand from within his secretary’s blouse. The ringing phone was on a secure line, permanently attached to a scrambler. He had been told that not even the KGB could listen to calls on that line. Pavel didn’t believe that, but it was well to act as if he did. He lifted the receiver. “Academician Bondarev.”

“Narovchatov. The Voice of America announces that the Americans are aboard”

“I heard. There was no jamming.”

Narovchatov chuckled. “So long as they do our work, why should we interfere? But it is a good sign. They are not upset by our mobilizations.”

“I trust not,” Bondarev said. “I have done much to keep such matters under control

“You are now satisfied with the preparations?’

“I believe so. Grushin reports that all is well aboard the spacecraft. The Strategic Rocket Forces are alerted, the Fleet is at sea, but the Air Force remains grounded and visible to the American satellites. This was not achieved without cost. Colonel General Akhmanov proved uncooperative, and has been replaced by Genera] Tretyak. The transfer of power was accomplished without incident, and Akhmanov has been promoted to the General Inspectorate of the Ministry of Defense.”

“Um. You are becoming accustomed to military authority. Perhaps I should have you appointed a general

“That could do no harm,” Bondarev said. Generals have enormous perquisites Meanwhile, I receive reports from both Grushin and Rogachev, and there are no contradictions. Nikolai Nikolayevich, I believe we have done everything possible.”

“All we know to do. Why, then, do I worry?”

Bondarev grinned mirthlessly. “We have nothing to guide us here. No history and no theory.”

“Da.” There was a pause, as if Narovchatov were thinking. Then the general said, “From tomorrow on, this line will be connected directly to the Chairman. You will use it to keep us informed.”

“Certainly.” It would be an excuse to ask where you and the Chairman will be. “Perhaps Marina and the children could visit you?’

“That has been arranged.”

“Then no more remains to be said.” Bondarev put the telephone down and stared out the window.

“You are frightened,” Lorena said.

“Yes.”

9. ANTICIPATIONS

Space will be colonized-although possibly not by us. If we lose our nerve, there are plenty of other people on this planet. The construction crews may speak Chinese or Russian — Swahili or Portuguese. It does not take “good old American know-how” to build a city in space. The laws of physics work just as well for others as they do for us.

—Robert A. Heinlein

COUNTDOWN: H MINUS TWO DAYS

The meeting was called for 0900, but they were still straggling in at a quarter past. Some had hangovers. All had stayed up too late.

Too bad, Jenny thought. They’ll have to get used to military hours. She had a strong urge to giggle. Suppose they didn’t? Maybe they’d make Cheyenne Mountain adapt to the hours science fiction writers kept…

They took their places in the lecture room, but they tended to sit for a moment, then get up and gather in clumps. Most of them talked at once. Working with the science-fiction people was an educational experience. They had no reverence for anything or anyone, except possibly for Mr. Anson, and they argued with him; they just didn’t call him names.

They’d spent the past days learning about U.S. and Soviet weapons. Now it was time to examine what was known about the aliens.

Not that there’s anything to know. Our best photos don’t show details. Just that it’s damned big.

One of the men, the one with the heavy mustache, began before she could. “Major Crichton, I assume that the government has been no more successful in communicating with the aliens than all the private attempts were?”

“Correct. We’ve tried every means of communication we can think of.”

“And a few no one would have thought of,” Sherry Atkinson added. They all laughed, remembering that the mayor of San Diego had persuaded the citizens of his city to blink their lights on and off while they were in the alien ship’s view.

“With no result,” Jenny said. “Our best prediction is that the alien ship will arrive day after tomorrow. Sometime day after tomorrow. We can’t predict it closer than that, because the ship has begun random acceleration and deceleration.”

“As if it didn’t want us to know the precise ETA,” Curtis said.

“ETA?” Atkinson asked.

“Estimated Time of Arrival” Jenny said. “And yes, we’ve thought of that.”

“It might be their engines aren’t working properly.” Atkinson looked thoughtful. “Or that the concepts of time and regularity don’t mean much to them.”

“Bat puckey,” Curtis said. “If they’re space travelers, they have to have clocks.”

“Doesn’t mean they use them,” someone said.

Jenny spoke through rising voices. “Lieutenant Sherrad will review what we know.” The chatter stopped.

Sherrad was a Regular Navy man hoping for his bad foot to heat so that he could go back to sea. Jenny wasn’t quite sure how he’d been assigned to Colorado Springs, but she did know the Admiral thought well of him. His father had been a classmate.

The Navy seemed to have even more of that sort of thing than the Army. He ran new blowups of films taken by the Mauna Kea telescopes as far back as the late l970s. A few showed a flickering star that must have been the alien ship, although at the time no one had realized it.

Sherrad showed each film in sequence. Then again. He brought the lights up and waited, as if teasing the audience.

“Son of a bitch.”

“What, Joe?”

“It dropped something.”

Sherrad nodded. “It does look that way.”

It took me four hours to see that, Jenny thought. Maybe there is a good reason to have these birds here-.

“Our best guess is that it came from the southern region of the Centaur, dropped something heavy, rounded the sun, and went to Saturn,” Lieutenant Sherrad said. “Decelerating all the way.”

“They knew where they were going, then.”

“Well, Dr. Curtis, it does seem so.”

Jenny nodded approval. Sherrad had memorized the doctorates.

Voices arose from one of the clumps. “Okay, they refueled at Saturn—”

“Why not Jupiter?”

“It takes less delta-V to slow down for Saturn. Jesus, but they must have been going on the last teacup of fuel for that to matter!”

“Jupiter could have been around on the other side—”

“Could we see it again?” Anson asked.

Sherrad waited until they were quiet. “Certainly. We also have the computer simulation.”

The room darkened again.

Black dots speckled a white field: a negative of the night sky. Astronomers generally preferred to use negatives; it was easier to see the spots that were stars. The scene jumped minutely every few seconds. The stars stayed where they were-the photographs had been superimposed-but one dot jumped too, and grew Larger.

“These were taken from Mauna Kea observatory. Notice the point that jumps. When we realized what we had, we made same graphs—”

The first showed a curve across the star background, not very informative.

“And this is what it would look like from above the Sun’s north pole.”

Three faintly curved lines radiated from a central point. Near that point, the sun, they were dotted lines-of course, no camera would have seen anything then-and they almost brushed the solar rim. The Navy man’s light-pointer traced the incoming line. “It came in at several hundred miles per second,” he said, “decelerating all the way. Of course the Invader wasn’t seen near the sun, and nobody was even looking for it then. This—” The light-pointer traced a line outward. “We have only three photos of it, and of course they could be artifacts, garbage. If they’re real, then this one wasn’t under power when it left the sun. It was dropped.” The third line ran nearly parallel to the second, then curved away. ‘This section was under power, and decelerating at around two gravities, with fluctuations. We’ve got five photos, and then it’s lost, but it might well have been on its way to Saturn.”

“Not good,” said a voice in the dark.

The lights came on. The Navy man said, “Who said that?’

“Joe Ransom.” He had a gaudy mustache and the air of self-assurance the SF writers all seemed to share. “Look: they dropped something to save fuel. Could have been a fuel tank—”

“I’d think it was a Bussard ramjet,” someone interrupted.

Ransom waved it away. “It almost doesn’t matter. They dropped something they needed to get here. They probably planned to. Odds are they didn’t take enough fuel to stop inside the solar system without dropping-well, something massive, something they didn’t need any more, something that served its purpose once it got them from Alpha Centauri or wherever. If—”

Burnham jumped on it. “A Bussard ramjet wouldn’t be any use inside the solar system. You need a thousand kilometers per second to intercept enough fuel-or there are some alternate versions, but you still—”

Ransom rode him down. “We can’t figure out what it was yet and we don’t care. They used it to cross, and then they dropped it. Either they figure to make someone build them another one, or they’re not going home. You see the problem?”

Something icy congealed in Jenny’s guts. They don’t expect to go home. Maybe a Threat Team isn’t such a bad idea. I’ll have to call the Admiral.

Meanwhile, the meeting was degenerating into isolated clumps of conversation. Jenny spoke up to resume control. “Enough!” The noise dropped by half. “Mr. Ransom, you said Alpha Centauri. Why?”

“Just a shot in the dark. It’s the three closest stars in the sky, and two of them are yellow dwarfs, stars very like ours.”

“Stars?”

“Yes. What we call Alpha Centauri, meaning the brightest star in the Centaur constellation, is really three stars: two yellow ones pretty close together, and one wretched red dwarf.”

“Our own sun’s a yellow dwarf,” Curtis said.

“Interesting,” Lieutenant Sherrad said. “Our astronomers say the object came from the Centaur region. Is Alpha Centauri really a good prospect?”

The meeting came apart again. This time Jenny let it ride for a bit. Her patience was rewarded when Curtis bellowed, “May I have a consensus? Who likes Alpha Centauri?”

Two hands went up.

“Who hates it?”

Three hands. And three undecided.

“Sherry? Why don’t you like Alpha Centauri?”

“Wade, you know how many other choices there are! There are almost a dozen yellow dwarf stars near us; and we don’t know they came from that kind of star anyway!”

“Bob? You like it.”

The wide white-haired man with the gaudy vest laughed and said, “I didn’t at first it’s trite. But, you know, it’s trite because it got used so much, and it got used so much because it’s the best choice. Why wouldn’t they go looking for the closest star that’s like their own? And, Sherry, there aren’t many yellow stars in that direction. That clump centers around Procyon and Tau Ceti and—”

“That’s what I was getting at,” Dr Curtis said. “It’s trite. As I see it, the way to bet is that they came from Alpha Centauri, or else they came a hell of a long distance — And if they dropped half their ship-you see?”

Burnham said, “It’d be their first trip. They won’t be very good at talking to us. Chances are they’ll want to watch us from high orbit.”

“Maybe it’s good the Soviets can’t go after them. They might run.”

“It still isn’t good. We should have met them around Saturn, just to get a little more respect—”

“Could have had a hotel on Titan by now—”

“Proxmire—”

They were at it again. Out of the babble she heard Curtis say, “One thing’s suit. They came from a long way off. So the next question is, what do they want?”

Rogachev’s office was roomy enough, by station standards. Much of its furniture looked like afterthoughts: the hot plate, the curved sofa that had replaced a standard air mattress; even the window, shuttled from Earth and welded Into a hole sawn in the hull: a thick-walled box, two panes of glass sandwiching a goop that would foam and harden in near vacuum. But it let light through, so that Station Commander Arvid Pavlovlch Rogachev could see the stars.

They flowed past, left to right, while Arvid mixed powdered tea with boiling water in a plastic bag. The station was equipped for free-fall, in case of emergencies. He served the tea into two cups, and passed one to his second in command.

“The station will house twelve,” Arvid said. “Twelve are aboard. Four are foreign observers. No more important event has occurred aboard any spacecraft, and it will happen while Kosmograd is both crowded and shorthanded.”

“Not quite so bad as all that,” said Aliana Aleksandrovna Thtsikova. “Recall that there is nothing to be done about the alien ship. We don’t have to go to meet them; we don’t even have a motor.”

“Neither drive nor weapons. We could not flee either.”

“Exactly. It will come, we are privileged to watch. I suggest that we are doing fairly well.”

“Perhaps we are.” Arvid smiled. “It helps that our guests cannot talk to each other well”

“Their dossiers said that”

Arvid didn’t entirely trust any dossiers but Aliana knew that. He said, “I’ve watched them exercising their language deficiencies.

“Do you see a security problem?”

“From them? No. It is my habit to make threat estimates. Shall we? As a game?”

“My mother would call it gossip.”

“Let us gossip, then. Which of our guests do you find interesting?”

“The Nigerian. He’s the blackest man I’ve ever seen. I actually have trouble looking him in the face.”

“Really? What will you do when aliens are aboard?”

“Perhaps I’ll hide in your office.” She lost her smile. “Comrade Commander, I have an irrational fear of spiders and insects.”

“Then we must hope that the approaching guests will be neither.” But they will not be shaped like men, Arvid thought; and Aliana could not even see all men as men. She would be of little help to him if aliens came aboard. He had not suspected this weakness in her. It was well he’d learned it now.

She said, “The Nigerian speaks English and three native languages. . which must make him effectively retarded. There are forty-three languages active within the borders of Nigeria. Educated in England, then Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, but he learned little Russian. He favors economic independence for Nigeria,”—

“We won’t cure that here. He spends all his time with Dmitri Parfenovich and Wes Dawson. That would be good, except that Dmitri has been trying to convert Dawson to his own views, whereas Dawson sometimes takes the time to try to tell George what’s going on. Dawson is good at explaining complex matters.”

“Could you have a word with Dmitri?”

Arvid laughed. “Do you want me to tell our Political Commissar how to convert the heathen? Aliana, I do not seek converts.”

She laughed. Officially, Dmitri Grushin was Deputy Commander and Information Officer for the station, but he was so little qualified for either job that his KGB origins showed clearly. “We may find ourselves seeking converts among people with nightmare shapes,” Aliana said. “If so, Dawson is the one to watch. Nigeria and France would be no threat to us—”

“His nation made a good choice there, I think. The Honorable Wes Dawson is frantic to meet aliens.”

“Wasn’t it politics that—”

Rogachev shrugged. “Certainly his dossier suggests that he forced himself aboard. Even so, although I know little of American politics, I would not think a mere congressman could force the American President too far in a direction he did not wish to go.”

Aliana grinned. “Dawson is more qualified than Dmitri. Surely they have similar positions?”

Rogachev shrugged. “I do not think so, but it hardly matters.”

“Dawson’s dossier calls him politically liberal.”

“A lazy agent wrote that. ‘Politically liberal’ — he copied that out of some newspaper! Dawson has invariably favored the American space program.” Rogachev’s face twisted into a look he didn’t show to many people: a distinctly guilty grin. “I have closely watched the Honorable Wes Dawson. He has been sick with envy since he came aboard. He does not even care much for the design. Indeed, he knows precisely how he would rebuild the station if it were his. But as it is not, it is killing him!”

Aliana smiled back. “If we had the funding, wouldn’t we make improvements too? Very well. Dr. Beaumont has been a French communist for two decades. We can count her an ally. She has a kind of beauty, wouldn’t you say?”

“Classic and severe, but yes.”

“Have you made advances?”

Arvid laughed. “She would not be interested. A male can tell before he commits himself. Perhaps I have grown too fat. She speaks little English. I have taken opportunities to put her together with Dawson, to see what would happen.”

“And?”

“Oh, he shows some interest… but Captain Greeley and Giselle Beaumont have spent much more time together. Aliana, I find that odd.”

She nodded comprehension. “Captain John Greeley, USAF A good-looking man, three years younger than the French doctor, but fourteen years younger than, for example, me. Greeley probably considers Dawson a step in his career, which might end in public relations or political campaign management. Yet he seems to be trying to share a bed with the Frenchwoman. Dawson might find her attractive as well. Greeley is competing with a man who could help or hurt him.”

He shrugged. “Some men have little control over their gonads.”

“What would you do? I hardly have to ask, do I, Arvid? You would help your superior seduce the woman, and thereby advance your career.”

“I no longer must resort to such tactics. Yet I would have said that Greeley does.”

“Greeley knows Dawson better than we do. Dawson may be homosexual”

“It would be in his dossier. Even if the Americans do not know. The KGB would.”

“Then again, some married people are more thoroughly married than others.” That was a dig, but meant in friendly fashion. Arvid found Aliana’s position perfectly reasonable. With a husband and a child on Earth, and a career to manage as well, her life was easily complex enough without adding a lover.

Arvid poured more tea for them from the plastic bag. (Oh, yes, he would make changes here if he had the funding. Powdered tea! A samovar wouldn’t occupy that much room.) “I enjoy gossiping with you, Aliana.”

“We are also discussing security, are we not?” “Perhaps. Security isn’t my department either… Decisions have already been made, and not by me. My own inclination would be to bar any tourists from the station during this crucial time. But the Chairman favors world opinion these days—”

“I generally find that reassuring.”

“Too often it precedes an invasion. Not this time, perhaps. Mother Russia is about to greet the first visitors from interstellar space. They will come here first; intelligent creatures would not leave potential enemies above them when they land. And that coup will make the U.S. landings on the Moon look like a child reciting for his elders.”

“Must we have visitors to watch our triumph? It could be filmed.”

“We can guess at a second purpose. When the aliens arrive we will seem to represent the world… It doesn’t matter. Security is out of my hands. I can forbid our foreign visitors to enter parts of the station. I can forbid the crew to discuss technical matters. Information may leak through anyway; it usually does. But the blame will not fall on Arvid Rogachev.”

The little truck groaned up Coldwater Canyon. Harry clutched his twelve-string guitar and shivered in the wind-wake behind the cab. It was cold for May in Los Angeles. Lately all the nights had been cold. Cold or not, it beat walking. It was nice of Arline to duck her old man and come pick him up. Too damn bad she had five other people with her, so he had to ride in the back.

It had been a good evening in the Sunset Bar, where he played for free drinks and customer change. Once Harry had thought he’d be a real performer, but the auto wrecks had finished that. Twice within two weeks, in his own car and then his boss’s borrowed car, and neither had headrests! It went beyond bad luck. His head hurt, and his back hurt, and he cursed the two separate sets of sons of bitches who’d separately rear-ended him and left him part crippled. And the insurance companies and their goddam lawyers and — Ruby moved over to sit against him. A hundred and eighty pounds of fleshy cushion: her warmth felt good. “Want to come to my place?” she asked.

“Love to,” Harry said. And I don’t like to sleep alone. “But you know, I have this place I have to watch.”

“Take me with you, then.”

“Can’t do that, either,” Harry said. He didn’t want to. Ruby had been a nice, soft, affectionate partner, and not just in bed, ten years ago. Naive but nice. Maybe he’d been expecting her to grow up. God, how she’d changed! She’d grown out: forty pounds, maybe more. She’d been soft, then, but she hadn’t sagged! You noticed the lack of brains more now. Arline, now she’d be nice, but Jesus, she lives with her old man and he’d get sticky as hell.

For a moment Harry thought it over. Arline would come with him. She’d love the Dawson house. And— And word of honor on record. Heckfire. The truck was passing

Laurel Canyon on Mulholland. He tapped on the glass. The pickup pulled over. Harry climbed out. He waved to Arline. “Thanks,” he called.

“Sure this is all right?” she asked.

“Fine,” Harry said. He waited until she’d driven on up the hill and around a corner, then started climbing toward the Dawson house.

It’s good for me, Harry thought. It’s got to be. And, by damn, my legs are tightening up. He slapped his thigh-it did feel more solid than it had in a long time-and shifted the guitar from his left hand to his right.

The little .25-caliber Beretta was too heavy in his shirt pocket. He knew he ought to leave it at home. It wasn’t much of a gun, and even so, the cops would get soggy and hard to light if they caught him with it. But it was all the gun he had, and there were some bad people out there.

Not the only gun, he thought. He’d rooted around in the Dawson house-hell, Wes knew he’d do that, that’s why he told him about the money in the drawer behind the big drawer in the kitchen-and he’d found the Army .45, the one Wes bought for Carlotta on Harry’s advice, and damn all, she hadn’t taken it with her. But it wasn’t his gun, and Harry couldn’t carry it. It would really hit the fan if he was caught carrying a piece registered to a congressman.

Hell, he’d never carry that weight up this hill! It was always steeper. Every fucking night it got steeper.

It’s good for me. It’s really good for me. Oh, my, God, I have got to get that motorcycle fixed.

I’ve got enough for a deposit. They’ll fix the engine. Maybe if I sing at three places, the hell with the free drinks, get to places where the tips are good, I can scrape up enough to get it out, because I can’t go on climbing this hill! And there’s groceries. Jesus, I’m down to chili and cornmeal and NutriSystems. For the first week it had been easy. There had been food in the refrigerator. He ate vegetable omelets, then frozen stuff, then cans. But now he was down to the NutriSystem stuff Carlotta had bought years ago.

Diet stuff! Lord God. It tastes better than it ought to, and I could lose some belly, here. But opening the cans feels like opening cat food, looks like opening cat-food cans, and Carlotta went off the diet two years ago! Fry it with eggs, and it looks like cat food and snot! And I’m out of eggs…

He shifted the guitar to his other hand. Nothing left but breakfast cereal! I’m going to get that engine fixed.

Tomorrow, Harry thought. He shifted the guitar again. I can take the Kawasaki apart, but the engine has to be rebuilt. I’ll have to carry it in. Borrow Arline’s pickup again.

If you pulled a drawer in the Dawson kitchen all the way out, there was another drawer behind it, and a thousand dollars in fifties behind that. A good burglar would find it and go away, Harry thought, and that was probably its major purpose. Burglar bait, for God’s sake, and thank God he didn’t need it. He had enough for the deposit.

Jenny stood quickly as Admiral Carrell came into her tiny office in the White House basement.

“Sit down,” he commanded. “I’m just old enough to feel uncomfortable when ladies stand up for me. Got any coffee?”

“Yes, sir.” She took cups from her desk drawer and poured from a Thermos pitcher.

“Pretty good. Not up to Navy standards, of course. Navy coffee will peel paint. Did we get anything out of that zoo?”

“Yes, sir,” Jenny said.

“You sound surprised.”

“Admiral, I was surprised. I thought the exercise was a waste of time, but once those sci-fi types got going, it was pretty good.” She opened a folder that lay atop her desk. “This, for instance. When the alien ship came into the solar system almost fifteen years ago, a few telescopes including Mauna Kea happened to be pointed that way. . No one noticed anything then, but when we really looked—” She showed the photographs.

“It look like blobs to me.”

“Yes, sir. They looked like blobs to all of us. Maybe they are blobs. But the sc-fi people suggested that the alien ship dropped a Bussard ramjet.”

“A—”

“Bussard ramjet, Admiral.” She looked down at her notes and read. “Vacuum isn’t empty. There’s hydrogen between the stars. The ramjet is a device for using the interstellar hydrogen as a means for propulsion. In theory it will take ships-large ships-between the stars. It uses large magnetic fields for scoops, and—”

“You may spare me the technical details.”

“Yes, sir. The important point is that they dropped something massive, something they may need if they contemplate leaving our solar system.”

“Which means they intend to stay,” Admiral Carrell said mildly.

“Yes, sir—”

“Rather presumes on our hospitality. Almost as if they didn’t intend us any free choice.” He stood. “Well, we will know soon enough.”

“Yes, sir”

“My congratulations on your work with the advisors. Perhaps I can glean more speculations from them.”

“You’re going to work with them, sir?’

“I may as well. The President has decided that someone responsible must be inside Cheyenne Mountain when the aliens arrive. That someone, apparently, is to be me.”

“Good choice,” Jenny said.

Carrell smiled thinly. “I suppose so.”

“Any special preparations I should make, sir?”

“Nothing that isn’t in the briefing book. I’ve discussed this with the Strategic Air Command and the Chief of Naval Operations. They’re ordering a Yellow Alert starting tomorrow afternoon.”

Yellow Alert. The A Teams on duty in the missile silos. All the missile subs at sea. Bombers on ready alert, fueled, bombs aboard, with crews in quarters by the runways. “I do hope this is a waste of time.”

Admiral Carrell nodded agreement. “So do I, Major. Needed or not, I leave this afternoon. Before I do, we must discuss this with the President. I give you one hour to reduce all we know to a ten-minute briefing.”

Jeri Wilson piled the last of the gear into the station wagon and slammed the tailgate. Then she leaned against it to catch her breath. It was warm out, with bright sun overhead, but the morning low haze hid the mountains ringing the San Fernando Valley. She glanced at her watch, “Eleven, and I’m ready to go,” she announced.

Isadore Leiber eyed the aged Buick’s sagging springs. “You’ll never make it, he announced.” Clara nodded agreement.

“Good roads all the way,” Jeri said. “I’ve left enough time so I won’t have to drive too fast. You’re the ones who are cutting it close; you have farther to go.”

“Yeah,” Isadore said. “Jeri, change your mind! Come with us.”

“No. I am going to find my husband.”

Clara looked uncomfortable. “Jeri, he’s not really—”

“He damned well is, that divorce isn’t final. Anyway, it’s not your problem. It’s mine. Thanks for worrying about me, but I can take care of myself.”

“I doubt it,” Isadore said with embarrassed brutality.

Melissa came out with a large bear named Mr. Pruett. Thank God there weren’t any animals, Jeri thought. Except the goldfish. She’d taken care of that problem by flushing the fish down the toilet while Melissa was asleep.

Isadore showed her an entry in his notebook. “That’s the right address and phone number?”

She nodded.

“Caddoa, Colorado,” Isadore said, “I never heard of the place.” Jeri shrugged. “Me either. David thinks they’re crazy, but somebody thinks he can find oil there.”

“Sounds small.”

“I guess it is. Harry marked out a route for me—”

“Harry,” Clara said contemptuously.

“Harry’s all right,” Jeri said. “Anyway, I went to the Auto Club too. They say the roads are good all the way. Isadore, Clara, it’s sweet of you to worry, but you’ve done enough. Now get out of here before George and Vicki get mad at you.”

“Yeah,” Isadore said. “I sure would hate it if George got mad at me…”

“You would, though,” Jeri said. “Give the Enclave my best. Melissa, get in the car. We’re on our way. Clan, from your look you’d think you weren’t ever going to see me again!”

“Sorry.” Clara tried to laugh, but she wasn’t doing a very good job of it.

“Do you know something?” Jeri demanded.

“A little,” Isadore said. He sounded reluctant to talk, but finally added, “George caught something on short wave. All the strategic forces are on alert. Also, there’s some kind of problem in Russia, he thinks. I’m not sure what.”

“George is always hearing about problems in Russia,” Jeri said.

“Yeah, but he’s been right, too. Remember how he predicts that shake-up—”

Jeri shrugged. “Too late to worry about it.” She got into the station wagon and started the engine. “Thanks again,” she called, as she pulled away from the curb.

The Buick was sluggish, and she wondered if she really had loaded it too heavily. It was an old car, and for the past year it had been pretty badly neglected. I ought to have new springs put in. And have the brakes looked at, and a tune-up, and-and no! If I wait, I may never go at all.

He didn’t say no. He couldn’t quite get himself to say yes, but he didn’t say no. And that’s enough for me! “Melissa, buckle up. We’ve got a long ride ahead.”

PART TWO: ARRIVAL

10. THE ARRIVAL

Why meet we on the bridge of Time to exchange one greeting and to part?

—The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yazdi

COUNTDOWN: H HOUR

The Army had been at work in the Oval Office. Technicians had installed TV monitors in all the corners, as well as in front of the President’s desk. They showed the command center of the Soviet Kosmograd satellite. At the moment nothing was happening.

Despite its large size, the Oval Office was jammed. There was the President and Mrs. Coffey, most of the Cabinet, the White House staff, diplomats, TV crew—

Jenny sat well back, behind the TV cameras, nearly in the corner. In theory she was there as Admiral Carrell’s representative, ready to advise the President, but there was no way she could have spoken to him if he’d wanted her to, not in this zoo. Everyone wandered about — everyone but the Secret Service men.

It was easy to spot them, once you knew how. They were the ones who never looked at the President. They watched the people who were watching him. Jenny caught Jack Clybourne’s eye and winked. He didn’t respond. He never did when he was on duty.

He didn’t look happy. Jenny had overheard an argument between Jack’s boss and the President. “Mr. Dimming, I appreciate your concern, but I have told the country I would watch from the Oval Office, and by God that’s where I’ll be, so there’s an end to it,” President Coffey had said.

Selected newspeople were invited, which meant the Secret Service people as well. They knew them all, reporters and camera crew, and Jack looked as relaxed as he ever did when on duty, but Jenny could see that he was worried. They had wanted the President in a bomb shelter.

But we’re here. Jenny thought. Here and waiting, in the most famous office in the world, but we’re only spectators. It’s the Soviets’ show. All the computer projections showed the alien craft arriving at Kosmograd. Only the time was uncertain.

She glanced at her watch. It was very late, well past midnight. The aliens were due and past due. Coffee service was available in the hall outside, but someone would probably take her chair if she went out. Better to wait—

The television monitors blanked momentarily, then showed the dark of space. In the far distance something flickered and flashed.

Heretofore the telescopes on Earth and in Earth orbit had seen only a long, pure blue-white light and the murky shadow at its tip. Now, as the tremendous half-seen mass approached Kosmograd, something changed. Twinkling lights flashed in a ring around the central flame, round and round, chasing their tails like light bulbs in a bar sign.

The communications lounge was crowded. Eight present, four crew busy elsewhere. Wes watched the picture being beamed from the telescope to a screen half the size of the wall. The ship was minutes away. Wes tried not to think what would happen if it came a bit too fast. It was decelerating hard. Those extra engines hadn’t been needed until now. Sixty or seventy tiny engines—

Symmetrical. Sixteen to a quadrant. Wes Dawson grinned in delight. Sixty-four engines: the aliens used base-eight arithmetic!

Or base four, or binary digits … engines much smaller than the main engine, and probably less efficient. Fission or fusion pulse engines, judging by the radiation they were putting out. Why hadn’t the alien slowed earlier? It still hadn’t replied to any message.

It had grown gigantic in the telescope field. A blaze of light washed out the aft end: Wes saw only the long flame and the ring of twinkling jets. He made out bulges around the cylindrical midsection. He saw tiny fins and guessed at landing craft spaced out around the hull. A knob on the end of a long, jointed arm: what was that, a cluster of sensing devices? It was aimed at the station.

“We have some shielding,” Arvid said without being asked. “We can handle this much radiation, but not for too much longer. I hope they have some way of maneuvering with chemical rockets.”

Wes nodded. He thought, You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred, but nobody aboard would have understood the reference. He said, “This may be a violation of the Geneva Convention.”

It sparked laughter. Arvid said, “Use tact when you tell them. Nikolai, that’s enough of the telescope. Show us a camera view from—” and interrupted to strain forward.

Wes’s hands closed hard on the arms of his chair.

For the alien ship was sparkling like a fireworks display. Four of the twinkling jets expanded outward, away from the drive flame; then four more. Those pulse-jets were the main drives for smaller spacecraft! Showers of sparks flowed from the hidden bow end. Missiles? Missiles in tremendous number, then, and this was starting to look ominously like a Japanese movie. Not first contact, but space war.

The picture flickered white and disappeared.

Arvid was out of his seat and trying to reach God knows what, and Wes was checking his seat belt, when the whole station rang and shuddered. Wes yelled and clapped hands over his ears. The others were floating out of their seats — free-fall? He swept an arm out to push Giselle back into her seat, and she clutched the arms. He couldn’t reach anyone else.

Free-fall? How could that be? The connecting tunnel must have come apart! Nikolai was screaming into a microphone. He stopped suddenly. He turned and looked around, stunned, ashen.

Behind Wes the wall smashed inward, then outward. The buckle on Wes’s seat harness popped open. Wes grabbed instinctively, a death grip on the arm of his chair, even before the shock wave reached him. The Nigerian snatched at Wes’s belt and clung tight. He was screaming. Good! So was Wes. Hold your breath and you’d rupture your lungs.

For the stars were glaring in at them through the ripped metal, and the air was roaring away, carrying anything loose. Giselle Beaumont flapped her arms as if trying to fly. Her eyes met Wes’s in pure astonishment — and fly she did, out into the black sky and gone. Shit!

Vacuum! Dawson’s eyes and ears felt ready to pop. Giorge’s grip was growing feeble, but so was the wind; the air was almost gone. So. What have I got, a minute before the blood boils out through my lungs? I’ll never reach my million-dollar pressure suit, so where are the beach balls? I located them first thing, every compartment, the emergency pressure balloons, where the hell were they? If Americans had built this place they’d be popping out of the walls, because Ralph Nader would raise hell if they didn’t.

Nothing was popping out of the walls. Dawson’s intestinal tract was spewing air at both ends. His eyes sought … Rogachev, there, clawing at a wall. Dawson patted the shoulder at his waist and kicked himself toward Rogachev. Giorge hung on, in good sense or simple panic.

His throat tried to cough but it couldn’t get a grip.

Wes bounced against a wall, couldn’t find a handhold, bounced away. Losing control. Dying? The black man caught something. but kept one arm around Wes’s waist. Rogachev looked like a puffer-fish. He was fighting to tear open a plastic wall panel. It jerked open and he bounced away.

Bulky disks, four feet across, turned out to be flattened plastic bags. Wes skimmed one at Rogachev. He pulled another open, crawled inside and pulled the black man in too. Zipper? He zipped them inside. Tight fit. Some kind of lock at the end of the zipper. With his chin on the black man’s shoulder Wes reached around the man’s neck and flipped the lock shut, he hoped.

Air jetted immediately.

Reverse pressure in his ears. He pulled in air, in, in, no need to exhale at all. They were going to live. They were floating loose, and nothing to be done about it, because the pressure packages were nothing but balloons with an air supply attached. Rogachev’s too was bouncing about like a toy, but at least he’d gotten inside.

Wes’s passenger was beginning to struggle. It was uncomfortable. Wes wanted to say something comforting, or just tell him not to rip the goddam beach ball! Rut now his throat had air to cough with, and he couldn’t stop coughing. He sounded like he was dying. So did Giorge.

Nothing happened for a long time. Giorge discovered the blood pooling in his ears. He wailed. He fought his way around until he could look into Wes’s face, and then he wailed again. His eyes showed bloody veins, as if he’d been on a week-long drunk. Wes’s own eyes must look just that bad. His nose was filled with blood; a globule swelled at the tip.

He had no idea how much air there was in these things.

Something showed through the ripped wall, just for an instant: reflecting glass that might hide eyes, and a glimpse of what might be a tentacle, a real honest-to-God tentacle.

Giorge made a mewling sound and ceased struggling. Wes froze too. He hadn’t believed. He’d fought like a demon to be at this event, but somewhere inside him he’d been ready for disappointment.

There had been the pulsars: precisely timed signals coming from somewhere in interstellar space. Beacons for Little Green Men? He’d been in college when the pulsars were shown to be rapidly spinning neutron stars, weird but natural. Much younger when the canals of Mars became mere illusion. The dangerously populated swamps of Venus were red hot, dry, and lifeless.

The starship too would be something else, some natural phenomenon—

The alien approached cautiously. A quick look, dodge back, maybe report to a companion. Look again, reflecting faceplate swinging side to side, along with the snout of what must be a weapon.

It crawled through, being careful not to snag its pressure suit. It was compact and bulky and three or four times the size of a man. A dull black pressure suit hid most of it, but it wasn’t even vaguely man-shaped. It was four-footed. The boots were armed with … claws? Pincers? There was a tail like the blade of a paddle. The transparency at the front might indicate its face. Reflection hid the detail behind it. But a single rubbery-looking tentacle reached out from just below the transparent plate, and then branched, and branched again.

There was no doubting that the branched tentacle held a large bore gun. The handle was short and grotesquely broad, but the rest was easy to recognize: magazine, barrel, trigger halfway up the barrel—

Packs at the alien’s sides puffed gas from fore-and-aft snouts. The alien’s approach slowed, and it floated toward Wes with the gun barrel and the reflecting faceplate looking right at him.

Wes lifted his hand in greeting, for lack of a better idea; waved, then opened and closed his thumb across the palm. He said, inaudibly, with vacuum between them, “I’m a tool user too … brother.” The alien didn’t react.

He’d been prepared for disappointment, but not for war. Idiot. Yet he could hope. He wasn’t dead yet, and a border skirmish did not constitute a war.

The tentacle swept backward, slid the gun into a holster on the creature’s back. The tentacle pulled a line from a backpouch, fixed something to the end, something sticky. Yes. The alien was mooring the beach ball to a line, using adhesive tape. Wes began to believe that he would not be killed just yet.

Ambassador to the Galactic Empire … he could still make it. Maybe they were only paranoid, only very cautious. He would have to be cautious himself. A diplomat, was Wes Dawson, good at finding the interfaces between disparate viewpoints. Let him come to understand them: he could find the advantage in friendship between Earth and aliens.

Unless they really had come to conquer Earth. The specter of Herbert George Wells was very much with him.

Everyone in the Oval Office was shouting. Jenny stared at the screen, not quite comprehending what she’d seen.

“Major Crichton!”

The President! “Sir!”

“Please call Admiral Carrell. You people, make room for her, please. Jack, help her get over here.”

“Yes, sir.” Jack Clybourne shouldered through the crowd, then helped her get to the President’s desk. Coffey was still seated. His face was ashen. Jeanne Coffey sat beside him, her eyes staring at the blank TV screen.

“I don’t think we need the newspeople here just at the moment,” the President said. “Or the staff. Or the Cabinet, except for Dr. Hart and Mr. Griffin—”

State and Defense. Yes, we’ll need them. Hap Aylesworth stayed also. Jenny almost giggled. The political advisor. Political implications of war with the aliens — how would this affect the next election?

There were three telephones on the stand behind the President’s desk. Jenny lifted the black one and punched in numbers before she realized there was no dial tone. “Dead,” she said. The President looked at her uncomprehendingly. “Should I use this one?” she asked. The [sic — should be “she”] indicated the red telephone.

“Yes.”

There was no dial tone on that one either, but the Air Force officer on duty in the White House basement came on. “Yes, sir?”

“Priority,” Jenny said. “HQ NORAD.”

“Right. Wait one, there’s something coming in — they’re calling you. Here you are.”

“Mr. President?” a familiar voice said.

“Major Crichton, Admiral. The President is here.” She held out the telephone.

His calm is going. Mrs. Coffey looks horrible, and—

“What happened, Admiral?”

The Secret Service had managed to clear nearly everyone out of the room. Jack Clybourne stood uncertainly at the door.

The President touched a button. Admiral Carrell’s voice filled the mom.

“—little left. We have no operational satellites. Just before we lost the last observation satellite, it reported a number of rocket plumes in the Soviet Union.”

The President looked up and caught the eye of the Secretary of State. “Arthur, get down to the hot line and find out!”

“Right.” Dr. Hart ran to the door.

Secretary of Defense Ted Griffin went pale. “If the crazy bastards have launched at us, we’ve got to get our birds up before theirs hit!”

“We can’t just shoot!” the President shouted. “We don’t know they’ve attacked us. We have to talk to them—”

“I doubt that you can get through,” Admiral Carrell said. “I took the liberty of trying. Mr. President, it appears that a large nuclear device has been detonated in the very high stratosphere, far too high to do any harm to ground installations — except for the pulse effect, which has severely damaged our communications capabilities. especially on the East Coast.”

“We must get through — Admiral, do you believe the Soviets are attacking us?”

“Sir, I don’t know. Certainly the aliens have attacked our space installations—” Admiral Carrell’s voice broke off suddenly.

“Admiral!”

There was a long silence. “Mr. President, I have reports of ground damage. Hoover Dam has been destroyed by a large explosion.”

“A nuclear weapon?”

“Sir, I don’t know what else it could be. A moment …” There was another silence.

“God damn!” Ted Griffin shouted. “They did it, the crazy Russian bastards did it!”

The Admiral’s voice came on faintly. “One of my advisors says it could have been what he calls a kinetic energy weapon. Not nuclear. It could not have been a Soviet rocket, they couldn’t have reached here in time.” Another pause. “I’m getting more reports. Alaska. Colorado. Mississippi — Mr. President, we are being bombarded. Some of the attacks are coming from space. May I have permission to fight back?”

David Coffey looked at his wife. She shuddered. “Fight who?” the President demanded.

“The aliens,” Admiral Carrell said.

“Not the Soviets?”

“Not yet.”

“Ted?” David Coffey asked.

“Sir?” The Secretary of Defense looked ten years older.

“Is there any way I can authorize Carrell to fight a space battle without giving him the capability to launch against the Soviet Union?”

“No.”

“I see. Jeanne, what do you think?”

“I think you’re the President, David.”

Jenny held her breath.

“You don’t have any choice,” Hap Aylesworth said. “What, you’ll let them attack our country without fighting back?”

“Thank you,” Coffey said quietly. “Admiral, is Colonel Feinstein there?’

“Yes, sir. Colonel—”

Another voice came on. “Yes, Mr. President.”

“Colonel, I authorize you to open the code container and deliver the contents to Admiral Thorwald Carrell. The authentication phrase is ‘pigeons on the grass, alas.’ You will receive confirmation from the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council duty officer. Ted—”

“Yes, sir.” Ted Griffin took the phone, almost dropped it, and read from a card he’d taken from his wallet. Then he turned to Jenny. “Major—”

“Major Crichton here,” Jenny said. “I confirm that I personally have heard the President order the codes released to Admiral Carrell. My authentication code is Tango. X-ray. Alfa. Four. Seven. Niner. Four.” And that’s done. Lord, I never—

“Admiral,” the President said. “You will not launch against the Soviet Union until we have absolute confirmation that they have attacked us. I don’t believe they’re involved in this, and Earth has troubles enough without a nuclear war. Is this understood?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. President, I suggest you come here as quickly as you can. Major Crichton, assist the President, and stay with him as long as you’re needed. I’ll put Colonel Hartley on now.”

Something rang in his head.

Harry Reddington woke, and thrashed, and slapped the top of his alarm clock: the pause, to give him another ten minutes sleep. The ringing went on. The room was pitch dark, and it wasn’t the clock ringing, it was the telephone. Harry picked up the receiver. His voice was musical, sarcastically so. “Hellooo …”

A breathy voice said, “Harry? Go outside and look.”

“Ruby? It’s late, Ruby. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow.”

There was party music in the background, and a woman’s voice raised in laughing protest. Ruby’s voice was bathetically mournful, She must be ripped; at a late party she was bound to be. “Harry, I went outside for a hit. You know Julia and Gwen, they don’t like anyone smoking anything in there. They don’t like tobacco any better than pot—”

“Ruby!”

“I went out and it’s, it’s … It looks so real, Harry! Go out and look at the sky. It’s the end of the world.”

Harry hung up.

He rolled off the Dawsons’ water bed and searched for his clothes.

He’d stayed up too late anyway. It would have been a good night to get drunk with friends, but word of honor on record. He’d come home and had a few drinks as consolation for being alone while interstellar ambassadors made first contact with humanity. The clock said 2:10, and he’d been up past midnight watching the news. There hadn’t been any; whatever the Soviets were learning, they hadn’t been telling. Eventually he went to bed. Now—

His eyes felt gritty. The cane was leaning against the bedstead. He gave up on finding a jacket; he wouldn’t be out long. He unlocked the back door and stumbled out onto the Dawsons’ lawn.

Ruby had been using marijuana, and spreading the word of it like any missionary, since the mid-sixties. She worked as a clerk in the head shop next to the Honda salesroom. What had Harry outside in a coolish California May night was this reflection: a doper might see things that aren’t there, but she might see things that are.

The sky glowed. Harry was an Angeleno; he judged the mistiness of the night by that glow, the glow of the Los Angeles lights reflected from the undersides of clouds. The glow wasn’t bright tonight, and stars showed through.

Something brighter than a star showed through, a dazzling pinpoint that developed a tail and vanished, all in a moment.

A long blue-white flame formed, and held for several seconds, while narrow lines of light speared down from one end. Other lights pulsed slowly, like beating hearts.

The sky was alive with strange lights.

Harry got back inside, fished the tiny Minolta binoculars out of a drawer, found his windbreaker on a chair, and stumbled out, all without turning on a light. He wanted his night vision. The sky seemed brighter now. He could see streaks of light rising from the west, flaring, disappearing. Narrow threads of green lanced west: down. There were phosphorescent puffs of cloud, lazily expanding.

On another night Harry might have taken it for a meteor shower. Tonight … He’d read a hundred versions of the aliens conquering Earth, and they all sounded more spectacular than this flaring and dying of stars and smudges of lights. Any movie would have had sound effects too. But it looked so real.

Still without turning on the lights he fumbled his way back into the house to find a transistor radio. He carried it outside with him and tuned to the all-news station.

“… have fired on the Soviet Kosmograd space station,” the newsman’s voice said. “The President has alerted all military forces. People are asked to stay in their homes. We cannot confirm that the United States Air Force has fired on the alien spacecraft. Pentagon spokesmen aren’t talking. Here is Lieutenant General Arlen Gregory, a retired Air Force officer. General, do you think the United States will fight back?”

“Look at the sky, you silly buzzard,” a gravelly voice said. “What the hell do you think all the lights are?”

Harry watched and thought as a flame curved around the western horizon, flared and died. Then two more. No question what that was. And now what do I do?

Stay and watch the house. Only — Jesus. Congressman Wes was in Kosmograd! And Carlotta Dawson would be in western Kansas by now, present situation unknown. If she’d taken the gun … if she’d been the type to take the .45. But she wasn’t.

The radio began the peculiar beep beep of an incoming news bulletin.

“We have an unconfirmed report that San Diego harbor has suffered a large explosion,” the announcer said. He sounded like a man who’d like to be hysterical but who’d used up all his emotions.

Maybe I should go help Carlotta. Wes would want me to. Jesus, how?

The Kawasaki was in pieces. There hadn’t been nearly enough money for everything that should have been done to it, and Harry hadn’t wanted to push. He’d done most of the work himself, as much as he could. But only the Honda shop could rebuild the engine: He’d finished taking the bike apart and carried the engine in, and as far as he knew it was ready. It had better be.

There must be others watching tonight. They’d sure as hell know by morning.

Harry watched and thought and made his plans. (That long blue flame had formed again, and this time it didn’t seem to be dying. Stars rising from the west seemed to be reaching for it until threads of green light touched them; then they flared and vanished. The blue flame crept east, accelerating. The binoculars showed something at the tip. Harry’s eyes watered trying to make out details.)

Then he went inside and washed his face.

Carlotta didn’t like him. And so what? Harry opened Dawson’s liquor cabinet and opened a bottle of Carlos Primera brandy. Sixty bucks a bottle; but it was all that was left. He poured a good splash, looked at it, thought of pouring some back, and drank half.

Carlotta doesn’t like me. The country’s at war with aliens. Wes asked me to look after things. Nothing I can do here, and if I stay here long I’ll be here, and for good.

He went to the telephone and dialed the Kansas number Carlotta had left. It rang a long time. Then a voice, not sleepy. Male. “Mrs. Carlotta Dawson. Please,” Harry said. He could sound official when he wanted to.

It took a moment. “Yes?”

“Harry Reddington, Mrs. Dawson. Is there anything you want me to do?”

“Harry — Harry, they don’t know what happened up there.”

“Yes, ma’am. Can I help you?”

“I don’t know.”

Carlotta Dawson’s voice dissolved in hisses. Another voice came on the line. “Is this an official telephone call?” it asked through the static. Then the line went dead.

Harry emptied his glass. Now what? She didn’t say. And if I stay in Los Angeles tomorrow, I’ll be in Los Angeles forever …

He drank half an inch more brandy and closed the bottle. Firmly.

When he left he was in clean shirt and a sports jacket that was years old but had almost never been worn. He carried ID and a sleeping bag and Congressman Dawson’s letter. At 3:30 A.M. he was on the front steps of the Security Pacific National Bank, spreading his sleeping bag.

Pavel Bondarev stared at the blank screen. All around him officers and aides at the command and communications consoles began to speak at once, and the babble brought him to life. “Colonel, I wish this chatter to cease.”

“Da, Comrade Director.” Colonel Suvorov was efficient if unimaginative. He shouted, and the cacophony of voices died away.

The aliens had fired on Kosmograd. He had seen that much before all communications were lost. The aliens had fired without warning, without provocation.

An amber light blinked insistently. Pavel lifted the scrambler telephone. “Da, Comrade Chairman.”

There was only a soft hiss, then a sudden rush of static. The officers at the command consoles burst into chatter again.

“What has happened?” Bondarev demanded.

“A high-altitude nuclear explosion. Perhaps more than one. The pulse effect has crippled our telephones,” Suvorov reported.

“I see.” And without communications — Bondarev felt rising panic. The scrambler phone was dead. “Get me Marshal Shavyrin.”

“There is no answer,” Suvorov said.

“It is vital. Use another means. Use any means,” Bondarev ordered. He fought to keep his voice calm. The scrambler telephone remains silent. Is the Chairman in communication with anyone else? Perhaps not. Perhaps we are safe.

“I have Shavyrin,” Colonel Suvorov said.

“Thank you.” Pavel put on the headset. “Comrade Marshal—”

“Da, Comrade Director?”

“Have you launched any missiles?”

“No, Comrade Director. I have received no instructions from the Defense Council.”

Bondarev discovered that he had been partially holding his breath. Now he let it out slowly. “You understand that the aliens have fired on Kosmograd?”

“Comrade Director, I know someone has. Two of my generals believe this a Western trick—”

“Nonsense, Comrade Marshal. You have seen that ship. Neither we nor the United States nor both nations working together could have built that ship.”

There was a long pause. Pavel heard someone speaking to the Marshal, but he could not make out the words. “Marshal,” Bondarev insisted, “that ship was not built on this Earth, and we know the United States cannot have sufficient space facilities. If they did, they would long ago have defeated us.”

There was another long pause. Then Shavyrin said. “Perhaps you are correct. Certainly that is true. What must we do now?”

I wish I knew. “Immediately before the aliens destroyed Kosmograd, they launched many smaller ships. I say smaller, although they were each larger than Kosmograd. Have you had success in tracking any of those?”

“Only partially. Even with our largest radars it is difficult to see through the electronic storms in the upper atmosphere. The aliens have set off many weapons there.”

“I know—”

“Also, they have fired laser beams at three of our large radars,” Marshal Shavyrin said.

“Laser beams?”

“Da. The most powerful we have ever seen.”

“Damage?”

“The Abalakovo radar is destroyed. The Sary Shagan and Lyaki radars are damaged but survive. We have not activated the large radar near Moscow for fear that it will draw their fire.”

“I see.” Intelligent of him. “We will need information, but not at that cost. Now tell me what you know of their smaller ships.”

“My information is not complete. We have lost communications with many of our radars.”

“Da, but tell me what you have learned.”

“The ships have scattered. Most are in polar orbits.”

“Track them. If they come within range of the ion beam weapons, fire at them. Be prepared to fire SS-20 missiles under ground detonation control. Meanwhile, attack the main alien ship with the entire force of SS-18 missiles based in Kamensk.”

“Comrade Director, I require authorization from the Chairman before I can do any of this.”

“Comrade Marshal, the Chairman has directed me to conduct this battle. We have no communication with Moscow. You must launch your forces against the aliens, particularly their large mother ship. We must cripple it before it destroys us on the ground.”

“Comrade Director, that is not possible—”

“Comrade Marshal, it must be made possible—”

“If we attack the alien ship, we will destroy Kosmograd as well. And all survivors.”

A strange sentiment for the commander of strategic rocket forces. “Kosmograd is already destroyed. The survivors cannot be important now.”

“Comrade Director,” Colonel Suvorov shouted. “I have the Chairman.”

“Marshal, the Chairman is calling me. Please stand by.” Bondarev took the other phone.

There was no mistaking the thick voice. “Bondarev, what must we do?”

“Destroy the alien ship. I would prefer not to, but there is no choice.”

“Have the aliens attacked the United States?”

“Comrade Chairman, I do not know.”

“They have attacked us,” Chairman Petrovskiy said. “Can we defeat the aliens? Can we destroy their ship?”

“I do not know. We certainly cannot capture it. We can try to destroy it.”

“Da. Try, then. Meanwhile, we will do what we can. There are reports of severe damage in the harbors. The rail center west of Moscow is in ruins. So is Brest Litovsk.”

“But …” Bondarev spoke in horror. “The Germans—”

“Da. The Germans may rise in revolt. The Poles as well.” The Chairman’s voice rose. “All the Warsaw Pact nations may rise against us. Our harbors are destroyed, harbors and rail centers. We face a new civil war. If the United States remains undamaged—”

“Comrade Chairman, I do not know that they are undamaged. I do know that we must destroy that ship. You must order Marshal Shavyrin to accept my orders to launch missiles at the alien.”

There was a long pause. “We must retain enough missiles to prevent the United States from attacking us now that we are weakened,” Petrovskiy said.

“Da. I will do that,” Bondarev said. “But if we do not act quickly, we cannot act at all.” I have never spoken this way to the great ones, not even to my father-in-law. But I must — “Comrade Chairman, there is no time to lose.”

There was another long pause. Then “Da. I will give the orders. But — have a care, Pavel Aleksandrovich. Have a care.”

11. LIGHTS IN THE SKY

Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

—Matthew 10:16

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS ONE HOUR

The air was foul and growing fouler; it was like being trapped inside a whale’s lungs. Giorge, gasping and coughing and fighting the soft walls, had finally fainted. The beach ball’s oxygen supply wasn’t designed for two occupants.

It was a hell of a situation in which to try to relax, but Wes tried: he held his breathing slow and steady (punctuated with coughing); he let his eyelids droop (though he had to watch that great armored city in the sky coming toward him!) Half curled toward fetal position, he consciously relaxed his muscles in pairs, as if he were fighting a night of insomnia.

All this, while traveling like a tethered balloon behind their massive inhuman captors.

Naked in the glare of the stars, helpless as a babe, Wes fell toward an alien artifact bigger than the World Trade Center. He saw detail as he neared the thing: a pod on a jointed arm, rectangles of blackness, a jet of blue flame from a cluster of cones. But the air was like soup. His nose was clogged with drying blood. Hold the breathing down, stay awake, there are things you have to see … no use. His chest heaved, a coughing fit wracked his body, and everything went out of focus.

Arvid Rogachev was finding a great deal to awe him, and not much to surprise him. A ship the size of a city: of course, if they hoped to conquer a planet! The aliens: very alien. The attack: why not? Whatever they expected from contact with humankind, it was their safest approach.

Which was not to say that he wasn’t angry.

How would they treat prisoners? Human precedent showed a wide spectrum … but wouldn’t they want to inspect the natives more closely? These attackers hadn’t had time to build up a hatred for the enemy, not yet. What they found alive, they would keep alive … unless they were xenophobic beyond sanity, or found the human shape intrinsically disgusting …

Still, a corpse dead of explosive decompression was not the ideal subject for dissection. Might they prefer a healthy Soviet executive?

Arvid shrugged off that line of thought. Who still lived? Dawson, of course, and Giorge. Nikolai too had reached a survival bubble. Aliana? The other American, Greeley?

A dozen of the beasts had followed the first, the scout, through the ripped wall, paused briefly to inspect the humans, then gone off into other parts of the wrecked station. The four who remained had enlarged the rip with a series of explosive gun blasts. Now the survival bubbles were being towed toward what seemed an infinite metal wall.

He wished for a better look at the aft end, the drive; but they were approaching from the side. Dark holes showed along the flank, with doors snugged against the hull. Airlocks, or missile ports? Those oval windows: for passengers, or lasers? A sudden narrow string of twinkling points against the black sky: random dust motes reflecting a laser beam? Sure enough, a new star blazed far away, then winked off. Far below, lights flashed against Earth’s night sky. Something blossomed impossibly bright, and Arvid turned his head away.

A nuclear weapon. Whose? And how close was it? He fought real panic. How long do I have to live? Almost he laughed. It had been a long way away, near the Earth’s surface, ten thousand kilometers and more. I have looked upon the cocatrice and survived …

Other lights flared far down toward Earth. Light beams stabbed downward through space flecked with dust and debris. Bondarev is attacking the alien ship. Perhaps the United States as well. He had never felt more helpless.

They were close enough to the ship for him to see details. Grooves ran along the spacecraft’s flank, like railroad tracks, but much farther apart. Smaller craft could have been anchored there … smaller, but still big, perhaps as big as a pocket battleship. The entire hull might function like an aircraft carrier’s deck. Or—

Arvid felt hampered here. This kind of guesswork was no task for an executive, nor a soldier either. He needed a combination of mechanic and strategist: a mechanic with imagination. Had Nikolai survived, or Mitya?

The ship had become a cubistic landscape.

… Rectangular pock, too small to be an airlock … No. It was larger than he’d thought. Alien-sized, he saw, as one of his captors moved up against it. A cavity the size of an alien in a pressure suit. Alien 1 disappeared within. The door closed.

The door opened. Alien 2 pushed Arvid’s survival bubble into the airlock. It brushed the sides, but it fit. The outer door closed, the survival bubble sagged, Arvid’s abused ears popped. An inner door opened. Alien 1 pulled the survival bubble out into a corridor … a wide rectangular corridor, curved, painted in three tones of green camouflage style, with carpet along two walls. Arvid was disoriented. Would they spin the ship for gravity? Certainly he was still in free-fall …

The doors he saw were all closed.

Then an open door, and it was thick, massive … as one would expect aboard a warship.

The alien paused. Arvid saw that he was boxed between the two aliens.

They acted in concert. A long-handled bayonet sliced through the side of the survival bubble, a forked tentacle reached in and closed around him. Arvid couldn’t help himself: he screamed and slammed a fist against the alien’s faceplate. Only his fist was hurt. The tentacle birthed him from the collapsed bubble and hurled him into the room. Did they breathe poison? He was breathing it already!

He hit the far wall without the jolt he’d expected. It was padded. The room was big, and padded over walls and floor and ceiling. The air … the air was damp, with a smell both earthy and strange. It didn’t smell like it would kill him.

A large, conspicuous glass-faced tube poked through the padding in one corner of the room. A camera.

The aliens followed him in. Arvid tried to relax as they came toward him. One still clutched the bayonet in its tentacle. Dissection? He wouldn’t scream again.

But it was difficult not to fight. One alien held him — it felt like pythons were squeezing him to death — while the other used the bayonet to slice through his clothing: down the back and along his arms and legs. They stripped him naked and collected the ruined clothing and backed out, carefully, as if he might still be dangerous.

He was alone.

His fear edged over into black rage.

Dangerous? When you can see me as dangerous, then I am harmless. This hour or this day, this year or next year, you will lower your guard. By then I will know more.

Wes had missed it all. His oxygen-starved mind had been fading in and out, catching fragmentary glimpses of alien wonders while his lungs strained at the dirty air … as if he were trapped in a burning theater that was showing Star Wars. Half-felt forces pulled him through some kind of strangling barrier into air he could breathe. His lungs clawed at air that was damp and cool, sweet life-giving air, while something sharp ran down his torso and arms and legs, and decidedly queer hands peeled him like an orange.

He was naked. Falling. Spots danced before his eyes.

Where are the others? Is this all of us?

There were other bodies, all naked. Rogachev: white skin covered with black hair, and bright eyes watching him. Giorge: black skin, almost hairless, dull eyes that saw nothing. Another fell past him and bounced against the rubbery wall. Pale skin, joltingly inhuman shape … stumps for legs … Nikolai. There were scars on Nikolai’s belly. Oh, boy, that had been some accident!

Arvid Rogachev and Nikolai talked in Russian. They sounded indecently calm.

Four. Where were the others?

Giorge was curled loosely in a ball. His mouth was slightly open. Wes took his shoulder and turned him to bring them face to face. Giorge’s eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything. “Giorge? It’s all right now. All right for the moment. We’re not in any danger just now. Can you hear me, Giorge?”

Giorge said a word in his own language. Wes couldn’t get him to say any more.

He’s nearly catatonic. Wes could understand the temptation. It would be easy to curl into a fetal position and close his eyes. Easy but not sensible.

They attacked. Without warning, without talking. Oh, God, Carlotta saw it all! She must think I’m dead. Or have they told Earth they have prisoners?

The door opened again. Dmitri Grushin flew among them, cursing vigorously in a high, hysterical voice. Rogachev snapped orders: they had to be orders. Grushin blinked and quieted, and Rogachev’s voice went from authoritative to fatherly. Dmitri nodded.

Now there were five. Seven missing, Including both women.

Arvid Rogachev turned and spoke in English. “You are well, Congressman?”

Wes tested his throat. “I’d want a doctor’s opinion. I’m alive, but I hurt all over. Bends, probably. How are you?”

“The same. Wes, we have seen men exposed to vacuum before. We will live. You’ll see ruptured veins on your face and body—”

“Shit, there goes my career.”

Arvid laughed. “President Reagan used makeup. So did Nixon.”

“You’re such a comfort. Arvid, what’s going on? I would have — I did bet my life that conquering another planet across interstellar space just isn’t cost-effective. War of the Worlds. Does it look like that to you?”

“I like the phrase your computer programmers use. Insufficient data.”

“Is this all of us?”

“I do not know. Dmitri tells me that Captain Greeley is dead. He saw it, after the aliens had him in tow. An alien moved into Captain Greeley’s chambers, in vacuum, mind you. The door was a bit small for the alien, and while it was in the doorway Captain Greeley fired a handgun into the alien, then continued firing through the wall. He must have been firing through his survival bubble. The aliens raked the chamber with explosive bullets.”

Wes couldn’t decide how he felt about that. Too many shocks … “Sounds like John.”

There was a sound, almost subsonic, as if a tremendous gong had been struck. Wes saw a wall come at him: he was falling! He struck. They were all piled against the damp padding … and then the thrust eased off and left them floating.

“So. We still have some defenses,” Arvid said.

“Zapsats?”

“Ground-based beam weapons, I would think. The aliens will know all about it before we do. At least it tells us we can still fight.”

“I wish we had a window,” Wes said.

I wish we had a suitcase fission bomb, Arvid thought. Do I? It would end my life too. That will come soon enough. Patience.

The B-1B flew just above the treetops at near sonic speed. For a while Jenny looked out the tiny crew windows, but there was little to see: just shapes flashing past, an occasional light. Most of the United States was dark.

There was a bright flash off to starboard. Jenny shuddered.

“What?” Jack asked. He touched her hand, then moved his away. She reached for him and brought his hand back and held it in both of hers.

“Another dam,” she said.

She listened as the artificially calm voice from Colorado Springs spoke into her earphones. “Spring Lake Dam, near Peoria, Illinois,” it said. “They’ve hit most of the dams from there north and west. Floodwaters are rising all along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. We’re ordering evacuation, but it won’t be in time.”

“Isn’t there anything else?” The President’s voice interrupted the Air Force talker. “Get the National Guard out with helicopters—”

“Sir, we’re trying, but we have almost no communications. Most of the reports I’m giving you come from direct observation by Air National Guard pilots flying wherever they see a flash.”

We could lose a lot of pilots that way.

“Is there anything more on the Russians?” Jack asked.

“No. Just a lot of damage reports,” Jenny answered.

“Then we don’t even know if we’re at war?”

Jenny gave a short laugh. “We’re at war all right. We just don’t know who with—”

“Could the aliens be allied with the Russians?”

“Don’t know. I don’t think so,” Jenny said. “I’m sure we’d have heard if they were in communication. We’d have heard something. I think—”

“Yeah.” He leaned back in the bombardier’s seat and closed his eyes. In seconds he was asleep.

Jenny shook her head in admiration. Nothing for Jack Clybourne to do, so he rests up for the next assignment. I wish the President would do that. There’s not enough information for him to make any decisions, not here.

I wish I could do it.

The reports continued. Missiles launched against the smaller alien ships. The large alien ship remained invisible behind a screen of noise, charged particles, and chaff. No confirmation of any Soviet missile landing in the United States, and no confirmation of any cities destroyed.

Jenny leaned back in the electronic warfare officer’s seat and tried to close her eyes, but the temptation to look out the window was too much. The thick leaded glass would shield her eyes from anything that wouldn’t kill her …

The bomber flew on toward Colorado Springs.

The steps of the bank were cold and damp. Harry settled as near the door as he could reach, and turned on the transistor radio.

“Power failures throughout Southern California,” the announcer was saying. He sounded nearly hysterical. “We have reports thai something hit Hoover Dam. Laser beams, for God’s sake!”

The long blue flame sank into the east. Harry settled against the bank door. He thought of what else he could do. Steal a car. Steal a motorcycle. Break into the shop and steal his own motorcycle: Any of that might work, but it might not.

I’m not as quick as I used to be.

He tried to think of someone who’d help him, but anyone who’d believe him either wouldn’t be any use, or would already be doing something. After a while he closed his eyes and slept a little.

He woke again when someone moved in beside him: a small, pudgy man who puffed from his climb up the steps. He settled on the step below Harry. “Mind?”

“No,” Harry said. “Did you see the sky? Or the news?”

“Both. The TV’s gone off, though. One of the radio people keeps saying it’s all a big mistake, but I can’t get through to New York.”

Sure can’t. Or to Dighton, Kansas. Harry nodded, The pudgy man was shivering. Harry thought he should have worn more.

“I keep remembering The War of the Worlds. What are they, what do they want? They could be … anything.”

“Not my department,” Harry said, and he closed his eyes. As he drifted off, he felt grateful for his brief military stint. He had learned to sleep anytime.

And if everything went just right, it was going to be one miserable day.

— =

He kept waking to watch the sky. “There,” the pudgy man said. He pointed south. “Like — what did they call it? The high-altitude atom bomb test. Back in the fifties.”

“Wouldn’t remember,” Harry said. He frowned. Something came back to him. They’d blown off a nuclear weapon in the stratosphere, and mucked up the ionosphere and communications all over the world, and it had taken months for things to get right again. And that was one bomb.

There was nothing but static on the radio. Harry tuned across the band. Sometimes he heard stations but he couldn’t really make out words. He shrugged and kept tuning.

There were a lot of faintly phosphorescent smudges, north, south, and west. East was getting pink, and he couldn’t tell if explosions were there, too.

War of the Worlds? In that movie, the aliens had landed. His random sweep picked up a news station. He listened, but there wasn’t much news. Official announcements, everyone to remain calm and stay home. Hysterical announcers with unconfirmed reports of anything you liked. Orphanage burned in Los Gatos . Dams broken. Trains derailed. Europe laid waste. But no one had been hurt in Los Angeles , and as far as Harry could tell, the announcer didn’t know about anybody who’d been hurt. Just lots of rumors.

When the sky turned light a dozen were in line. Only two had thought to bring sleeping bags. One weathered-looking man brought an entire backpack, with sleeping bag, self-inflating mat, a blowup pillow, a tiny stove. He got himself settled, then made coffee and sent it up and down the line in a Sierra cup. He seemed to be having a wonderful time. So were the two Boy Scouts with him.

They talked in low voices. A thin woman’s voice kept rising into hysteria, then chopping off. Harry dozed.

The voices changed. Harry rolled over and was looking up at two blue police uniforms. He exposed his hands, then carefully reached into his sports jacket and opened his wallet. “Harry Reddington. I’m here to make a withdrawal.” He didn’t bother to smile.

“Sir, why are you here?”

Harry suppressed an urge to point to the sky and giggle. “I told you, I’m here to make a withdrawal.”

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued orders for all citizens to stay home,” the older policeman said.

“Sure,” Harry said. “We always do everything Washington says, don’t we?” This time he couldn’t help the grin. “How’d they learn to deal with this situation? Experience?”

“Sir—”

The younger officer interrupted his companion. They whispered for a moment. Harry used the opportunity to take out his Baggie-wrapped letter. He held it out.

“If you’ll shine your light here,” Harry said.

The older policeman moved closer. His light showed the Capitol stationery clearly.

“… Mr. Harry Reddington, whom I have authorized to stay in my house and guard my possessions and interests …”

If they had read further they’d have come to the weasel words, but they didn’t, and Harry swallowed his sigh of relief.

“Yes, sir?” the officer said. This time the “sir” sounded a great deal more sincere.

Some of the crowd behind them was muttering. “Fucking pigs,” someone said, not too loud. The voice sounded cultured, and not at all what you’d expect someone saying that to sound like.

Harry was tempted to take advantage of that. Instead, he spoke in a low voice. “I’ll be glad to hold a place for you,” he said. “Or one of your family.”

The younger policeman thought that through, then nodded. “Her name is Rosabell. She’ll he here in an hour.”

Interstate 40 had been completely dark for an hour. One moment she had been trying to read an illuminated sign; the next moment there was no light except her headlights. The radio had gone dead at the same instant, and now she could only get static.

High mountains loomed to either side, as the car steadily climbed into the Chuska mountains of western New Mexico .

The gas gauge read less than a quarter full.

“Mom, I’m hungry.” Melissa said from the back seat.

“There’s bread and cheese,” Jeri said.

“Not any more.”

“Good God, that was supposed to last a while. You mean there’s none left at all?”

“Aw, there wasn’t very — what was that?”

Overhead the sky blazed in green and blue, then a long red streak that went all across the sky and downward to earth. “I don’t know,” Jeri said. She shuddered. Aliens. They were out there all the time, waiting, fifteen years, and now they’ve attacked us.

“We’re gonna need gas.”

“I know. Albuquerque is ahead. We can get gasoline there.”

“I don’t know, Mom,” Melissa said.

“Huh?”

“Space war, aliens — you sure we want to go into a city? Lots of people running away, I bet. Traffic jams—”

“You could be right.”

Her headlights picked up a reflective sign.

“Gas food ahead,” Melissa said. “We could use some. Eat and run the car on the gas—”

“Very funny.” Jeri watched for the off-ramp. There it was. Everything was dark over there, but she took the ramp anyway. If a town was nearby, it was invisible.

“There’s the station,” Melissa said. “Somebody’s in it.”

“You’re right.” Jeri pulled into the station.

“Yes, ma’am?” a voice said from nowhere. The station attendant switched on his flashlight. He was a young man, certainly not more than twenty, and dark. Jeri thought he looked Indian.

This is the right part of the country for it. “Uh — I need some gasoline. Badly.”

“The power’s off,” the attendant said. “Can’t get the pumps to work.”

“Oh. But I have a long way to go, and I really need some gasoline. Isn’t there anything you can do?”

He looked thoughtful. “I have a hand pump. I suppose I could pump some out into a can. It’d be a lot of work—”

“Oh, please,” Jeri said. “I’d be glad to pay you.”

“Not sure money’s worth much now. Did you hear the news?”

“Yes—” If you don’t want money, what do you want?

“Guess it’ll he all right, though.” He went inside the station. The flashlight flickered through the windows.

He seems nice enough. So why am! scared? Is civilization that fragile?

Part of her kept saying Yes!

The eastern windows blazed. The television hissed and sprayed random light. The radio spoke of an explosion on Interstate 5 between Everett and Marysville.

Close. Isadore rolled to his feet and turned the TV off. The radio announcer sounded hysterical. That’s got to be the long causeway, Isadore thought. We got over it just in time …

All of the kids were asleep. Vicki Tate-Evans had staggered away an hour ago. Her husband George was snoring on the couch with Clara’s feet in his lap. They got along fine as long as they were both asleep.

Isadore felt punchy, twitchy, as if he should be doing something. War in the sky … Just in time! Clara was right, push on, don’t stop, something might happen. If we’d waited any longer for Jeri, it would have been too late.

And where is she? On the road somewhere, and nothing I can do about it.

We were near enough dead getting in last night. He remembered the bright flashes on the highway behind them. Maybe that was the causeway. We hadn’t got to Sedro Wooley, so if we’d been an hour later — That’s cutting things close …

They’d come in ready to collapse, to find the television set running and a dead silence in the crowd that faced the set. When the TV went blank they’d all trooped outside to watch the war in the sky.

He said, as he’d said before, “Son of a bitch.”

“Yeah,” Shakes said. He came in from the kitchen carrying a cup of coffee. “You were right.” He looked like he would never sleep again.

“We were right.” Isadore laughed, and didn’t like the high pitch of it. “Seventeen years we were right before it looked even sensible. We should be putting the shutters over the windows. We should have bricked up the windows! Is anybody feeling ambitious?”

Nobody stood up and went out to fix the metal screens in place. Shakes said, “I never thought it was real.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“My whole damn family gets to use this place for only about thirty percent of what it would cost us. That’s a damn good deal for a vacation spot. I don’t even mind admitting it now. We haven’t slacked off. This place is built to keep all of us alive, and me and my family did most of it. You haven’t even seen the shelter, Izzie.”

Clara suddenly sat upright. “Food. How are the food supplies?”

“The food supplies are fine,” Shakes said in some irritation.

“Good. I could eat your arm off. I’m going to make breakfast,” Clara said, and she stood, staggering a little, and made her way into the kitchen, veering around Jack and Harriet McCauley, who were asleep on the rug.

By eight-thirty the line ran around the corner. The original police had gone, but two other pairs had come, and one team of two had stayed.

Rosabell Hruska had come at eight. She was a slender, frightened woman in her twenties. She carried a baby girl, and she didn’t talk to anyone except one of the visiting police.

At ten Harry watched an old man in a guard’s uniform open the doors. The line behind him rustled impatiently, but he waited. When the doors opened, Harry held it for Rosabell. Two more elbowed past him before he could let go and get to a cashier.

The cashier looked nervous.

At least there is a cashier, Harry thought. He’d been worried. Would they all stay home? There were twelve windows, but only four had cashiers.

“I want to make a withdrawal,” said Harry.

“We’re restricting withdrawals to five hundred dollars.” The cashier was an older woman, probably long since graduated from sitting in a cage and talking to customers, now filling in. She looked defiant and afraid at the same time.

The eastern banks had been open for three hours. Harry wondered, not whether there was a rush on the banks, but how bad it was.

Two windows down, Rosabell was shouting at the younger cashier she’d chosen. “It’s our money!” she screamed.

Too bad, Harry thought. But it was no skin off Harry’s nose. He had only fifty-eight dollars in his account. He asked for it all in coins, got two twenty-dollar rolls of quarters and eighteen ones. Then he moved to the deposit boxes. His contained one Mexican gold peso and thirty silver dimes. He’d been able to keep them because of the symbolic number; if he’d spent one, he’d have spent them all.

Once there had been a lot more. He took his money and left the bank. Tap city, he thought. Tap city on my total resources.

The radio spoke of the need for calm.

12. MESSAGE BEARER

And the LORD said, Behold, the people [is] one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

—Genesis 11:6–7

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS SIX HOURS

The Herdmaster’s family occupied two chambers near the center of Message Bearer. Space was at a premium. The sleeproom was not large, though it housed two adults and three children. It was roomier now; the Herdmaster’s eldest male child was aboard one of the digit ships that would presently assault the target world.

The mudroom, smaller yet, gave privacy. Some discussions the children might be permitted to hear, but not this one.

Herdmaster Pastempeh-keph lay on his side in the mud. He was far too relaxed for his mate’s aplomb. “It’s a thoroughly interesting situation,” he said.

K’turfookeph blared a trumpet blast of rage. A moment later her voice was quietly intense. “If your guards heard that they’ll think we’ve lost our reason … as your Advisor has. Keph, you must dissociate yourself from him!”

“I can’t. That is one of the interesting aspects. The sleepers expected to wake as masters of the ship. They are as docile as one could hope, and no more. Fathisteh-tulk was their Herdmaster. They will not permit me to remove him completely from power, not even if they know him to be insane. They would lose too much status.”

K’turfookeph sprayed warm water along her mate’s back. He stirred in pleasure, and high waves marched toward the high rim of the tub. Gravity was inconveniently low, so near the ship’s center. But any force from outside would destroy the ship before it penetrated so far.

She asked, “Then what can be done?”

“Little. I must listen to him. I am not required to obey his suggestions.” The Herdmaster pondered. The War for Winterhome was finally under way, and his relaxation time was all too rare. He resented his mate’s encroachment on that time. “Turn your mind around, Mother of my Immortality—”

“Don’t play word games with me! It’s half a year until mating season, and we don’t need soothing phrases between us, not at our age.”

He sprayed her, scalp to tail, making a thorough job of it, before he spoke again. “Your digits grasp the handle of our problem. The mating cycles for sleeper and spaceborn are out of phase. It makes all controversy worse. The seasons on Winterhome will be out of phase for both … Never mind. Turn your mind far enough to see the humor. The sleepers never considered any path but to conquer a new world. We spaceborn have spent seventy years in space. We feel in our natal-memories that we can survive without a planet. We know nothing of worlds. The dissidents want to abandon Winterhome entirely.”

“They should be suppressed.”

“That can’t be done, Keph,” he said, using the part of their name they shared in common — as no other would. “It would split the spaceborn. The dissidents may be one in four of us by now — and Fathisteh-tulk is a dissident.”

“Chowpeentulk should control him better! She’s pregnant; it ought to mean something to him—”

“Some females have not the skill sufficient to control their mates.”

Irony? Had she offended him? She sprayed him; he seemed pleased rather than mollified. A male as powerful as the Herdmaster didn’t need to assert himself over his mate … She said, “The situation cannot continue.”

“No. I fear for Fathisteh-tulk, and I don’t like his clear successor. Can you speak to Chowpeentulk? Will she control him?”

She shifted uncomfortably, and muddy water surged. “I have no idea.” A sleeper was not in her class; they didn’t associate.

Tones sounded. The Herdmaster stretched and went to dry himself. It was time to return to duty.

The target world already bore a name in the Predecessor language.

The species had been nomads once. The Traveler Herd had become nomads again. But when mating season came, even a nomad herd must settle in one place until the children had been born.

Winterhome.

Winterhome was fighting back. Its rulers were no longer an unknown. Despite damage and loss of lives, Pastempeh-keph was relieved.

During the long years of flight from the ringed planet, the prey had not acted. The Herdmaster and his Advisor debated it: had they been seen? Electromagnetic signals of the domestic variety leaked through Winterhome’s atmosphere and were monitored. Most of it was gibberish. Some was confusing, with pictures of enormous spacecraft of unrealistic design. What remained held no word of a real starship drawing near.

Then, suddenly, beams were falling directly on Thuktun Flishithy. Messages, demands for answers, words promising peace before there had been war: first a few, then more, then an incessant babble.

What was there to talk of? How could they expect to negotiate before their capabilities had been tested? But the prey had sent no missiles, no ships of war. Only messages.

The Breakers wondered if the prey might not know how to make war. This violated all the Herdmaster knew of evolution. Yet even when the attack began, the prey did little. The orbiting satellites didn’t defend themselves. Half of them were gone in the first hour. Warriors braced to fight and die veered between relief and disappointment.

But the natives did have weapons. Not many, used late, but … a long scar, melted and refrozen, lay along Message Bearer’s flank, crossing one wing of a big troop-carrying lander. Digit ship Forty-one might still operate in space, but it would never see atmosphere. Four more digit ships had been destroyed in space.

Missiles still rose from the planet’s surface, and missiles and beam weapons still fired from space. A few satellites remained in orbit. Message Bearer surged under the impact of a plasma jet, and trembled as a missile launched away toward the jet’s origin.

Oh, yes, the great ship had suffered minor damage. But this was good, in its way. The warriors would know, at least, that there was an enemy … and now they knew something about the alien weapons, and something about their own fighting ability. And the Herdmaster had learned that he could count on the sleepers.

He’d wondered. Would they fight, these ancient ones? But in fact they were doing well. Ancient they might be, considered from their birthdates; but frozen sleep was hard on the aged. The survivors had been eight to sixteen years past sexual maturity. They had run the ship for four years before their bodies had been frozen; they knew its rooms and corridors and storage holds as well as those who had been born aboard.

“Permission to report,” said Attackmaster Koothfektil-rusp.

“Go ahead.”

“I think we’ve cleared everything from orbit, Herdmaster. There could be something around the other side of Winterhome, moving in our own orbit. We’ll have to watch for that. We find four missiles rising from Land Mass Three. Shall I send them some bombs?”

“No. Wasteful. We’ve done enough here. Defensemaster, take us out of here, out of their range.” Most of the native weapons would barely reach orbit — as if they were designed to attack other parts of the planet. Knowing the launch site was enough. It could be destroyed just before the troops went down to test the prey’s abilities.

The digit ships could trample lesser centers before they descended: destroy dams, roads, anything that looked like communication or power sources. He hoped it would go well. His son Fookerteh’s eight-cubed of warriors would be in the first assault. K’turfookeph was much concerned about him, though pride would never allow her to admit it …

“Follow the plan, Defensemaster. Take us behind that great gaudy satellite on a freely falling curve. Hide us. Attackmaster, I want every prey’s eyes on that moon stomped blind before we begin the second phase of our acceleration.”

The Herdmaster waited for acknowledgments, then ordered, “Get me Breaker-Two.”

Breaker-Two had been a profession without an object until now. Takpusseh had been chosen young. He was only entering middle age, if one excluded the decades he had spent in frozen sleep, and the years worth of damage that had done. He had been trained to deal with aliens since before the starship ever left home; yet his training was almost entirely theoretical.

Almost. There had been another intelligent race on Takpusseh’s homeworld. The Predecessors had died out before Takpusseh’s race developed gripping appendages and large brains. They were the domain of Fistarteh-thuktun the historian-priest, not of Takpusseh.

Fistarteh-thuktun was a sleeper. Since the Awakening he had become more stiff and formal, more withdrawn, than ever. His spaceborn apprentices spoke only to him. His knowledge of the thuktunthp would be valuable here. Perhaps Breaker-One Raztupisp-minz — with the authority of a spaceborn, and a tact that was all his own — could draw him out …

The sleepers knew, in their hindbrains and spines and in their very cells, how to live on planets, what planets were like. The spaceborn could only guess. And yet — more was at stake than this artificial division of the Traveler Herd. The sleepers would die, one by one, eventually, and the Traveler herd would be one fithp again. The fithp needed what Fistarteh-thuktun knew: the stored knowledge of that older, now alien species.

Before they received the first pictures broadcast by the prey. the question had been debated endlessly. Would Winterhome’s natives resemble the Predecessors? Or the fithp?

They did not.

Breaker-Two watched the surviving locals through a one-way transparency, while his assistant and a pair of soldiers worked with the alien artifacts. “They look so fragile,” he said.

The ship shuddered.

“They’ve hit us again,” one of the soldiers said. “Fragile they may be, but they’re fighting back.”

“They do fight. Some were dead and some surrendered. Their plight was hopeless,” said the Octuple Leader. “Yet one fired a weapon through its life support system! It killed itself to kill two of my warriors!”

“Your explanation?”

“Do you forget your place?”

“Your pardon. Shall I request that your superiors ask you? Shall I call the Herdmaster and request that he tell you to answer my questions? Wish you to continue this?”

“I don’t know! It killed itself to kill two warriors! Surrender would have been easy. I — I have no explanation, Breaker. This is your own task.”

“Have you a theory, Octuple Leader?”

“Mad with battle lust … or sick? Dying? It happens.” His digits knotted and relaxed, knotted, relaxed. “I should be fighting.”

It happens. Fumf! The spaceborn know only what they have read, and studied, yet they — These thoughts were useless. “If you’re needed, you’ll be summoned,” Breaker-Two Takpusseh told him. “I need you now. You were aboard the ruined space habitat. I will have questions.”

“Ask, Breaker.”

Takpusseh hadn’t yet learned enough to ask intelligent questions. “What did we take, Octuple Leader … Pretheeteh?”

“Pretheeteh-damb … sir. We took out quite a lot of stuff; there wasn’t room for it all in here.”

Alien voices from the restraint room formed a muted background. Takpusseh half listened while he meandered through the loot Pretheeteh-damb’s troops had moored to walls. For fifteen years he had studied the alien speech that crossed on radio waves between Winterhome and the ringed giant. Sometimes there had been pictures. Strange pictures, of a herd that could not exist. Boxes that danced with legs. Bipeds that changed shape and form. Streams of very similar paintings arriving within tiny fractions of a second. Contrasts; cities with tall buildings and machines, cities of mud huts and straw roofs.

Reception was terrible, and some of what could be resolved was madness. Such information was suspect, contaminated, contained falsehoods. Better to trust what one learned directly.

One fact stood out. Most of the broadcasts had been in one language. Takpusseh was hearing that language now, but he was hearing another too.

The prisoners were of two or more herds. For the moment that hardly mattered, but it would. It would add interest to a task that was already about as interesting as a fi’ could stand.

There were big metal bins filled with smaller packages, each bearing a scrawled label: FOUND FROZEN. Piles of cloth too thin to be armor: protection from cold? Alien-looking machines with labels scrawled on them:

FROM FOOD PREPARATION AREA (?)

COMPUTER (?)

PART OF WASTE RECYCLING SYSTEM.

PROJECTILE WEAPON.

Corpses, bloated by vacuum, had been stuffed into one great pressure package, half frozen during the crossing and stuck together. Breaker-Two Takpusseh pulled the package open and, ignoring a queasy tremor in his digestive system, let his eyes rest on an alien head. This body had been ripped half apart by projectiles. Takpusseh noted sense organs clustered around a mouth filled with evil-looking teeth and a protruding flap of muscle. Two bulging, vulnerable-looking eyes. The nose was a useless knob; the paired nostrils might as well have been flat to the face. But the array was familiar, they weren’t that peculiar. Bilateral symmetry … He reached to pick up a partially thawed foreleg and found five digits reinforced with bone. The aliens used those modified forefeet for making and using tools. They certainly didn’t use that bump-with-holes for anything but smelling. All known from pictures — but this was different.

The weapon: it was a tiny thing, with a small, curved handle. Could this modified foot really hold it aimed and steady? “This is the weapon it used?”

“Yes, Breaker-Two. That weapon killed two warriors.”

“Thank you.” Takpusseh moved the digits of an alien forefoot, thoughtfully, noting how one could cross over the flat surface behind the other four. And they all curved inward—

He was wasting time. “First priority is to get their food separated out. They’re bound to need water, they’re certainly wet inside. Then autopsies. Let’s get some idea what’s inside them. Pretheeteh-damb, did you put these things in pressure containers after they had been subjected to vacuum?”

“Breaker, they were bound to suffer some damage during an assault. I suppose you could have come along to guard them.”

Takpusseh was stung. “You suppose wrongly. The Herdmaster refused me permission.” Because he was too valuable, or because a sleeper was untrustworthy: who could know?

Again he looked through one-way glass at the prisoners. “We’ve watched their ships take off. Chemicals: hydrogen and oxygen, energetic and difficult to handle, but still chemical fuels. The expense must be formidable. We must assume that these prisoners are the best they breed; else they would not be worth the cost of lifting them.”

His assistant twitched her ears in assent. “Language first. We must make them teachers for future prisoners.”

“You say that easily, Tashayamp. It will be difficult. It may be impossible, with most of our team lost to the military mission.” Breaker-Two turned to the stacked cloth from the space station, then to cloth that had been cut from the prisoners. It was oddly curved; it had fastenings in odd places. Designed to fit an odd shape. These stiffened cups for the hind feet were thicker, padded. Takpusseh found nothing that might protect the fragile-looking foreleg digits.

“Pretheeteh-damb, did you search this detritus for weapons?”

“Yes. There were none, not even a bludgeon.”

“The prisoners were all covered with cloth, weren’t they?”

“They were. So were the corpses.”

“It isn’t a rank symbol and it doesn’t hold personal weapons. They were in a space habitat; they’d regulate the temperature. Could they be so fragile? I think we had better give them cloth to protect their skins.” He looked back into the padded room.

Could the cloth be used for humidity regulation? If they didn’t exude enough moisture to be comfortable … Well, that would be tested.

Hunch prodded him to add, “And get the cloth off the corpses, Tashayamp. Start with this one.”

“The Herdmaster for you, Breaker-Two.”

Takpusseh took the call. The Herdmaster looked tired, in the fashion of those whom exhaustion turns nasty. “Show them to me, Breaker-Two.”

Takpusseh turned the camera toward the one-way glass wall. The Herdmaster was silent for two or three breaths. Then, “And these you must integrate into the Traveler Herd? I don’t envy you. Breaker-Two. What do you know so far?”

“Their skins are fragile. They need cloth for protection.”

“Will they survive?”

“One seems near death … and it isn’t the legless one. That one seems active enough. As for the rest, I’ll have to be careful. We have their stored food, thanks to the troops, though we will have to identify it.”

“How soon can I expect—”

“When I tell you so. You have heard the sounds they make. They will never speak well. Another matter: We do not have a representative sampling here. That may be to the good; they may be more easily taught than their dirtyfoot kin.” Takpusseh glanced at the smallest of the half-frozen corpses, now denuded of cloth. Eyes protruding, mouth wide open, distress frozen in its face. The protected area between the legs …

His guess had been right. The genitalia were oddly placed. He tried to imagine how they might mate. But this was a female; the breasts confirmed it. “Our survivors are all adult males. Before we can understand anything about the natives we will need to study females, children, the crippled, the insane, the merely adequate—”

“Do what you can, Breaker. We won’t be able to furnish you with other prisoners for some days yet. Unless you would prefer to stay behind with the digit ships?”

Takpusseh’s ears flattened against his head. Had he just been named a coward? “At your orders, Herdmaster.”

“I wasn’t serious, and neither are you. You’re needed here.”

“Sixty-four of us are needed here, Herdmaster! You’ve taken all but three of us for the digit ships, and you expect—”

“They must be near the battle to advise our warriors regarding the prey’s mentality, and to learn. Do what you must.” The Herdmaster’s face faded.

The prisoners were not very active now. The one who spoke a known language was prowling, exploring the restraint room. The rest were talking in their own gibberish. They must belong to Land Mass One, the largest land block, and not to the herd that was so free with their radio noise … all but the prowler, and possibly the dark-skinned one, who might almost have been dead.

Might that be a disease, a lethal skin condition? Could the rest catch it? Leaving the Breakers without a profession again. One more thing to worry about.

He assumed, and would continue to assume, that Breaker-One Raztupisp-minz was listening via intercom. They would talk later. Meanwhile — “Pretheeteh-damb, your attention.” Takpusseh pointed through the one-way transparency of the wall. “That one. He’s talking now; do you see his mouth moving?”

“I see.”

“Take your octuple and fetch him to me.”

“Breaker-Two, I would have no trouble fetching it myself, save for fear of crushing it by accident.”

“Take your octuple.” Takpusseh felt no need to justify himself. They were an unknown. Best to be wary. At worst the show of strength might impress the aliens.

They did look fragile. Fragile enough to make him queasy.

He couldn’t afford to think that way. He was Breaker-Two, and these alien beings constituted the only career open to him. We must come to know each other well. Without you I’m nothing.

The door was square, ten feet by ten feet or thereabouts, and padded. When Wes pounded on it with his fist he got a peculiar echo, not quite like metal. Foamed metal? Thick, like the door on a bank vault. What do they think we are, The Hulk? Could they have picked up some Saturday-morning TV? It opened inward. he remembered; but no hinges were in sight. And no handle. Maybe the Invaders had prepared this cell before they knew what humans would be like. Maybe it was built for Invader felons or mental cases.

Whatever. We won’t get out of here with just muscle.

CLACK! The door jumped under his hand. Wes kicked himself away as it swung open.

What showed first were pale brown tentacles gripping a bayoneted rifle. The Invader entered behind the blade, slowly, its wary eyes on the cloud of drifting humans. It looked — Wes found himself grinning. He let it spread. It wouldn’t know what a grin meant.

The Invader looked like a baby elephant. The tentacle was an extended nose: a trunk. It branched halfway down, with a nostril in the branch; and branched again near the tip, and again. Eight digits. Base eight!

Straps of brown leather wove a cage around it, with a flap of cloth between the legs and a pouch behind the head.

Wes struck the wall opposite the door and managed to absorb most of the recoil.

Another baby elephant with two trunks entered, similarly dressed, similarly armed. They took positions against the bulkhead to each side of the door. Their claws sank easily into the thick, dampened padding. Their weapons were aimed into the room, not at anyone, but ready. A third, unarmed, stayed in the doorway.

The cell was getting crowded. Giorge was finally showing signs of life, staring wall-eyed, making feeble pushing gestures at the air. Arvid pulled the black man behind him. The recoil drifted him into the first Invader. It skillfully turned the rifle before Rogachev could impale himself, then gently thrust him away with the butt.

The Invader in the doorway held Dawson’s attention. This one wore straps dyed scarlet, and a backpouch patterned in green and gold. Its feet were clawed, not really elephant-like except for the size. The tail was paddle-shaped. The head was big; the face, impressive. Grooves of muscle along the main trunk focused attention on the eyes: black irises surrounded by gray, looking straight at Wes Dawson.

It pushed itself into the cell.

It was coming for him. Wes waited. He saw no point in trying to escape.

The jump was skillfully done. The Invader landed feet-first against the wall, just next to Wes; wrapped its trunk around Wes’s torso (and two of the eight branches had him by the neck); jumped on the recoil, thrust him through the doorway ahead of itself (a fourth Invader had pulled aside), and barely brushed the doorway as it came through behind. It would have crushed Wes against the corridor wall if its claws hadn’t closed on the doorjamb.

Wes was near strangling. He pulled at the branches around his neck, then slapped thrice at the joint with the flat of his hand. Would it understand? Yes: the constriction eased.

Five more Invaders waited in the corridor. Three moved off to the left. Wes’s captor followed, and the others followed him. They must think we’re hot stuff, he thought. Maybe we really are hurting them. Or maybe … just how many are they, that they can spare eight behemoths to collect one fragile man?

Where are they taking me?

Dissection? But with so many around him, there was surely no point in struggling.

They were floating down the curved corridor. A sound like a ram’s-horn blared through the ship. Dawson’s guards moved quickly to one of the corridor walls. Their claws sank into the thick damp matting that lined the passageway.

What? A warning? There was nothing to hold on to. It hardly mattered. The tentacles held him tightly.

The air vibrated with a supersonic hum. What had been a wall became a floor. After a few moments the baby elephants seemed to have adjusted, and released their grip. They moved off down the corridor, surrounding him but letting him walk.

They were staring. How must it look to them? A continual toppling controlled fall?

They pushed him through a large door at the end of the corridor. One followed. The others waited outside.

A single Invader waited behind a table tilted like a draftsman’s table. It stared at him.

Dawson stared back.

How long does this go on? “I am Congressman Wesley Dawson, representing the United States of America .”

“I am Takpusseh.”

My God, they speak English! “Why have I been treated this way?”

“I do not comprehend.”

The creature’s voice was flat, full of sibilants, without emotions. A leaking balloon might have spoken that way.

“You attacked us without warning! You killed our women!” Here was a chance to protest, finally a target for his pain, and it was just too much. Wes leaned across the tilted table; his voice became a scream. “There was no need! We welcomed you, we came up to meet you. There was no need.”

“I do not always understand what you say. Speak slowly and carefully.”

It felt like a blow to the face. Wes stopped, then started over, fully in control, shaping each word separately. “We wanted to welcome you. We wanted to greet visitors from another star. We wanted to be friends.”

The alien stared at Wes. “You will learn to speak with us.”

“Yes. Certainly.” It will be all right now! it is a misunderstanding, it must be. When I learn to talk with them — “Our families will be concerned about us. Have you told Earth that we are alive?”

“I do not comprehend.”

“Do you talk to Earth? To our planet?”

“Ah. Our word for Earth is—” a peculiar sound, short and hissing. “We do not know how to tell your people that you live.”

“Why do you lock us up?” He didn’t get that. Maybe why is too abstract. “The door to our room. Leave it open.”

The alien stared at Wes, then looked toward a lens on the wall. Then it stared at Wes again. Finally it said, “We have cloth for you. Can you want that?”

Cloth? Wes became aware that he was naked. “Yes. We need clothing. Covering.”

“You will have that. You will have water.”

“Food,” Dawson said.

“Yes. Eat.” The alien gestured. One of the others brought in boxes from another compartment.

Clothes. Canned goods. Oxygen bottles. A spray can of deodorant. Whose? Soap. Twelve cans of Spam with a London label. A canned Smithfield ham. The Russians must have brought that.

Wes pointed to what he thought was edible. Then he took a Spam can and pantomimed opening it with his forefinger, tying to indicate that he needed a can opener.

One of the aliens drew a bayonet and opened the Smithfield ham by cutting the top off, four digits for the can, four for the bayonet, He passed the can to Wes.

Stronger than hell! Advanced metals, too … but you wouldn’t make a starship out of cast iron. Okay, now what?

“Do you eat that?” the alien behind the draftsman’s table asked. The interrogative was obvious.

“Yes.”

It was hard to interpret the alien’s response. It lifted the ears. The other, the one that brought the packages, responded the same way. Vegetarians? Are they disgusted?

The alien spoke gibberish, and another alien came in with a large sheet of what might have been waxed paper. It took the ham from the can, wrapped it (the stuff was flexible, more like thick Saran wrap), and gave it to Wes. It left carrying the can.

“You attack — you fight us. There is no need.”

“There is need. Your people is strong,” the alien said.

A flat screen on one wall lighted, to show another alien. A voice came into the room. It babbled, in the liquid sibilants Wes had heard them use before.

“You must go back now. We turn now,”

It didn’t make sense. “If we were weak, would you fight us?”

“Go.”

“But what do you want? Where do you come from? Why are you here? Why is it important that we are strung?”

The alien stared again. “Go.”

“I have to know! Why are you here?”

The alien spoke in sibilants.

Tentacles wrapped around his waist and encircled his throat. He was dragged from the room. As they went down the corridor, the ram’s-horn sound came again, and the aliens held him against the wall.

“You don’t have to hold me,” Wes said.

There was no response. The alien soldier carried a warm smell, something like being in a zoo. It wouldn’t have been unpleasant, but there was too much of it, this close.

How many of them speak English? He — it — said I should learn their language. They’ll try to teach me. He looked down at himself, naked, wrapped in tentacles. Think like them. They’re not crazy — assume they’re not crazy! — just different. Differences in shape, and evolution, and senses. What do I smell like to this … soldier, pulled right up against its nostrils like this? It held him like a nest of snakes, and its black-and-gray eyes were unreadable.

You knew the job was dangerous …

13. THE MORNING AFTER

Now a’ is done that men can do,
And a’ is done in vain.

—ROBERT BURNS, “It was A’ for Our Rightfu’ King”

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS SEVEN HOURS

Son of a bitch! Sergeant Ben Mailey shepherded his charges off the helicopter and watched them climb into the staff car. The President! Son of a bitch! He grinned widely, then sobered. It took a war to get the President Inside. And I’m not going in with him.

Jenny ushered the President into the Command Center . She had enjoyed her previous trip Inside. Maps and screens showed what was going on across the nation. You could see everything at a glance. A dozen Army and Air Force officers sat at consoles. Large screens flashed with maps of the United States . Aircraft in flight, major trains, and larger ships showed up as blobs of light on the maps.

But there weren’t many lights, and many of the harbors showed dark splotches. Rail centers like Omaha had pinpoint dark spots as well.

Jack Clybourne followed them into the cavernous room. He looked puzzled, and Jenny felt sorry for him. There was no real need for a presidential bodyguard, not here in the national command center. His job was done the moment they got the President into the Hole, but nobody had thought to tell him that.

And I sure won’t.

Admiral Carrell stood to attention as the President entered. So did the mustached civilian who’d been seated with him. Admiral Carrell wore a dark civilian suit, but he looked very much an officer. “Glad to see you, sir.”

“Thank you.”

He sounds a million years old, and I feel older. I look like a witch — She felt giddy, and suppressed an insane desire to giggle. Suppose Admiral Carrell inspects my uniform, with wrinkles and unbuttoned buttons and — and I’m drunk on fatigue poisons. We all are. I wonder when the Admiral slept last?

“The cabinet will be coming later,” Coffey said. “That is, State and Interior will be. We’re dispersing some of the others so that — I don’t really know the aliens’ capabilities.”

Admiral Carrell nodded. “They may know the location of this place,” he said.

“Could they do anything if they did know?”

“Yes, sir. They hit Boulder Dam with something large and fast, no radioactive fallout. As my Threat Team keeps telling me, they’re throwing rocks at us. Meteorites. They have lasers that chew through ships. Mr. President, I don’t know what they could do to Cheyenne Mountain .”

They, they, they, Jenny thought. Our enemy has no name!

“Let’s hope we don’t find out, then. What is the situation? What about the Russians?”

“They’ve been hit badly, but they’re still fighting. I don’t know what forces they have left.” Admiral Carrell shook his head. “We’re having the devil of a time getting reports. We used up half our ICBM’s last night, firing them straight up and detonating in orbit. The aliens got half of what was left. They seem to have targeted dams, rail centers, harbors — and anyplace that launched a missile. I presume they did the same to the Soviets, but we can’t know.”

“We can’t talk to them?”

“I’m able to communicate with Dr. Bondarev intermittently. But he doesn’t know the status of his forces. Their internal communications are worse than ours, and ours are nearly gone.” Carrell paused a moment and leaned against a computer console.

He’s an old man! I never really saw it before. And that’s scary—

“What about casualties?” the President demanded.

“Military casualties are very light — except for F-15 pilots who launched satellite interceptors. Those were one hundred percent. We’ve lost a number of missile crews, too.

“Civilian casualties are a little like that. Very heavy for those living below dams or in harbor areas, and almost none outside such areas.”

“Total?”

Carrell shrugged. “Hard to find out. I’d guess about a hundred thousand, but it could be twice that.”

A hundred thousand. Vietnam killed only fifty thousand in ten years. Nobody’s taken losses like that since World War II.

“Why don’t you know?” the President demanded.

“We depend heavily on satellite relays for communications,” Carrell said. “Command, control, communications, intelligence, all depended on space, but we have no space assets left.”

“So we don’t know anything?”

“Know?” Admiral Carrell shook his head again. “No, sir, we don’t know anything. I do have some guesses.

“Something seems to have driven their large ship away; at least it withdrew. The Soviets attacked it heavily. According to Bondarev they probably damaged it, but if he has any evidence for that, he hasn’t told me about it.”

Jenny cleared her throat. “Yes?” Carrell asked.

“Nothing, sir. We all know about claims. If I were a Soviet official and I’d just expended a lot of very expensive missiles, I’m sure I’d claim it was worthwhile too.”

The President nodded grimly. “Assume it wasn’t damaged.”

“Yes, sir,” Carrell said. “It’s very hard to track anything through the goop in the upper atmosphere — and above, for that matter. The aliens have dumped many tons of metallic chaff. This gives some very strange radar reflections.

“As far as we can tell, they’ve left behind a number of warships, but the big ship withdrew. We think they headed for the Moon.” Admiral Carrell’s calm broke for a moment. “God damn them, that’s our Moon.”

“Have we heard from Moon Base?”

“Not ours, and the Soviets have lost contact with theirs. I think they’re gone.”

Fifty billion dollars. Most of our space program. Damn!

The President looked older by the minute. “What do we know about their small ships?”

Carrel shrugged. “They have several dozen of them. We say small, but the smallest is the size of the Enterprise . I mean the aircraft carrier! We shot some of them out of space. I know we got two, with a Minuteman out of Minot Air Force Base. Then they clobbered Minot . We think the Russians got a couple too.”

“None of which explains why they ran away,” the civilian said.

“Mr. President, this is Mr. Ransom, one of my Threat Team,” Admiral Carrell said, “He and his colleagues are the only experts we have.”

“Experts?”

“Yes, sir. They’re science-fiction writers.”

Who else? And the President isn’t laughing …

“Why did they run away, then, Mr. Ransom?”

“We don’t know, and we don’t like it,” Ransom said. “Back in the Red Room you can get a dozen opinions. Curtis and Anson are back there trying to get a consensus, but I don’t think they’ll do it. The aliens could have their mates and children aboard that main ship. They came a long way.”

“I see,” David Coffey said. He looked around the big control room. “Is there somewhere I can sit down?”

“You’d do better to get some rest,” Admiral Carrell said.

“So should you.”

“After you, sir. Someone has to be on duty. We might get through to the Russians again.”

This time Jenny couldn’t help laughing. When the President and Admiral Carrell stared at her, she giggled, then sobered quickly. “I never thought we’d be so eager to hear from the Russians.”

Carrell’s smile was forced. “Yes. It is ironic. However—”

He broke off as red lights flashed and a siren wailed through the enormous room. The Admiral took a headset from one of the sergeants. After a moment he said, “They haven’t all left. They just hit a major highway junction.”

“Highway junctions. Railroad yards. Dams.” the President muttered.

“Yes,” Admiral Carrell agreed. “But not cities or population centers. San Diego but not New York harbor. Cities along major riven are flooded, some severely. Some parts of the country are undamaged but have no electricity. Others are without power, and effectively isolated. Some places have electric power and are utterly untouched. It’s an odd way to fight a war.”

Message Bearer hummed. The vibration from the main fusion drive was far higher than any normal range of hearing; but it shook the bones, and it was always there. Sleepers and spaceborn alike had learned to ignore it during the long days of deceleration into Winterhome system. It could not be sensed until it was gone.

… It was gone. Thrust period was over. The floor eased from under the Herdmaster and he floated. Six eights of digit ships had been left behind to implement the invasion, while Message Bearer fell outward toward the Foot. The acceleration, the pulses of fusion light and gamma rays, had been blocked by the mass of Winterhome’s moon. Let Winterhome’s masters try to detect her, an inert speck against the universe.

The Herdmaster blew a fluttering sigh. Several hours of maneuvers had left him exhausted. It was good to be back in free-fall, even for a few minutes.

“That’s over,” he said. “Now we’ll trample the natives a little and see what they do.”

“It’s their terrain. We will lose some warriors,” Fathisteh-tulk’s lids drooped in sleepy relaxation, and the Herdmaster spared him a glare. The Herdmaster’s Advisor had himself been Herdmaster; he could have saved the Herdmaster this chore, spared him for other work … except that spaceborn warriors might not take his orders. He was a sleeper; his accent marked him.

So he was being unjust. But Fathisteh-tulk enjoyed the situation. The Herdmaster sighed again and turned to the intercom. “Get me Breaker-Two.”

Takpusseh too spoke with the archaic sleeper accent, He stood at a desk littered with alien artifacts.

“You have spoken with the prey,” the Herdmaster asked.

“I have spoken with one of them, Herdmaster. This one is of the Land Mass Two herd that babbled to us as we approached. Some of the others speak that language, but they are not part of that herd.”

“What have you learned?”

“Herdmaster, I do not know what we learned from that interview. Certainly that herdless one did not submit.”

The Herdmaster was silent for a moment. “It was helpless?”

“Herdmaster, I sent an armed octuple to fetch it. I left it naked, and required it to stand before my table. It demanded explanations. It was abusive!”

“Yet it lives? You show remarkable restraint.”

Takpusseh vented a fluttering snort. “I did not understand all it said at the time. It was only after it was sent back to the restraining pen that we listened carefully to the recordings. Herdmaster, these are alien beasts. They do not obey properly. It will take time to make them a part of the Traveler Herd.”

“Perhaps, being herdless, it is insane. Were there others of its herd in the satellite?”

“Yes. It said that its mate had been killed in the attack.”

“It is insane, then. Kill it.”

“Herdmaster, there is no need for haste. It speaks this language the prey call English far better than do the others.”

“Have the others submitted?”

“Herdmaster, I believe they have.”

“The herdless one comes from the continent with the most roads and harbors and dams. Surely the most advanced herd will not all be insane.”

“Surely not, Herdmaster.”

“Do you have advice?”

“Herdmaster, I believe we should continue the plan. Trample the prey before we speak with them. If they are arrogant in defeat, they must be impossible before they are harmed.”

“Very well. Will you continue to speak with this one?”

“Not without new reason. I found the interview painful. I will speak with it again when we have obtained more of its herd. Perhaps it will regain its sanity. Until then, Breaker-One Raztupisp-minz will study the herdless one. He chooses not to speak with it.”

The Herdmaster twitched his digits against his forelegs. Takpusseh was being tactful. Raztupisp-minz was not fluent in the language of the prey.

“The other prisoners are in my domain, but we house them together,” Breaker-two Takpusseh finished.

“Do any of them submit?”

“I have had no opportunity to examine the others while Message Bearer maneuvers violently. Instead, we have experimented with their living conditions. We gave them cloth from the great stores they kept in the orbiting habitat. They draped themselves with it. We gave them water and watched how much they used, and analyzed their excreta. We change their environment. How do they treat their food? Which of our foods can they tolerate? Do they like more oxygen, or less? Warm air or cold? To what extent can they tolerate their own exhalations?”

“I expect they breathe the air mixture of Winterhome.”

“Of course, but where on Winterhome? Equator or poles? High altitude or low? Wet or dry? We are learning. They like pressure anywhere between sea level and half that. They can tolerate our air mix but prefer it dryer. They cover their skins with cloth even when far too hot; that deceived us for a time. They drink and wash with clean water and ignore mud. Their food is treated; they have to wet it and heat it. They would not eat ours. And in the process of experiment, we gave them strong incentive to learn to speak to us.”

The Herdmaster laughed, a fluttering snort. “Of course they would like to tell you to stop. Can they speak?”

“We have begun to teach them. It is easier with those who speak the language called English. I see no need to learn the others’ language. The herdless one called — Dawson — can translate until they gain skill at our speech. Their mouths are not properly formed. One day I think there will he a compromise language; but they will never be taken for ordinary workers of the Traveler Herd, even in pitch dark. The smell is distinctive.”

“Are they in good condition?”

“The dark-skinned one is unresponsive and doesn’t eat. I think he must be dying. He too is herdless. The other four seem ready for training.”

“The other herdless one will die as well.”

“Perhaps. He seems in health. We must watch him. Herdmaster. from what region do you intend to take prisoners?”

“You have no need to know.”

“Herdmaster, I must know if Dawson will have companions of his own herd. I must know if he is insane, or if all those of his herd act so strangely.”

“He is insane,” the Herdmaster said.

“Lead me, Herdmaster.”

“Perform your task. I gave no order.”

“Thank you. Herdmaster, it is likely that he is insane. Surely he has never been as far from his herd as he is now. But we must know.”

The Herdmaster considered. “Very well. We will attempt to seize and keep a foothold in Land Mass Two, North, the source of most of the electromagnetic babble. We will take prisoners.”

“As many as possible, Herdmaster: I require females and children. It would also be well to have immature and aged, cripples, insane—”

“I have other priorities, but the warriers [sic] will be told. How shall we identify the insane?”

“Never mind. Some will go insane after capture.”

“Anything else?”

“I would like to show the prisoners some records.”

“Good. Where? The communal mudroom? My officers and their mates are clamoring to see the natives.”

“I’m not sure they’re ready for … Lead me. We will display them, but not in the mudroom. Use the classroom. They’ll have to get used to us sooner or later—”

“And my fithp must get used to them. We’ll be starting spin immediately. You can put your show on afterward. Will you show them the Podo Thuktun?”

“No! They’re not ready. They wouldn’t know what it means. Fistarteh-thuktun would stomp me flat.”

The Herdmaster disconnected. Fathisteh-tulk, who had not spoken during the exchange, said, “Takpusseh was a good choice. Many sleepers have lapsed into lethargy since the awakening. Takpusseh has kept his enthusiasm, his sense of wonder.”

“Yes. Why has he no mate? He is of the age, and his status is adequate … though as a sleeper he lost rank, of course—”

“His mate did not survive the death-sleep.”

“Ah.” The Herdmaster pondered. “Advise me. Shall I expect these prisoners to develop into cooperating workers? Can they persuade their race to surrender without undue bloodshed?”

“You know my opinion,” the Herdmaster’s Advisor said. “We don’t need this world or its masters. We are not dirtyfeet. We should be colonizing space, not inhabited worlds.”

Dirtyfeet: only sleepers used that term for those who had remained comfortably behind on the homeworld. The spaceborn felt no need to insult ancestors who were forever removed in space and time.

Never mind; Fathisteh-tulk had raised another problem. “Odd, that a spaceborn should hear this from a sleeper. You know my opinion too. We came to conquer Winterhome. Regulations require that I consult you as to methods.”

“Do you intend that our prisoners shall not learn of the Foot?”

The Herdmaster frowned. “It is standard procedure …”

A fluttering snort answered him. “Of course. A soldier should never know more than he must, for he might be captured and accepted into the enemy’s herd. But how could the forces of Winterhome rescue our prisoners without taking Message Bearer herself? In which case all is already lost.”

“I suppose so. Very well—”

“Wait, please, Herdmaster. My advice.”

“Well?”

“Your judgment was right. Tell them what they must know. Tell them that they must submit, and show them that we can force them to obey. Then let them speak to their people. But we must not depend upon their aid.”

“Breaking them into the Traveler Herd is the task of the Breakers. Takpusseh and Raztupisp-minz are conscientious.”

“Even so. Don’t let them know all. They are alien.”

The Kawasaki was an LTD 750 twin with a belt drive, an ’83 model which Harry had bought at the year-end sale in ’84. He had saddlebags for it and a carry rack for his guitar. Two weeks ago he had borrowed Arline Mott’s pickup truck and taken the engine in.

He was driving the same pickup truck now, and he felt guilty about it.

He’d telephoned Arline at 5:00 AM., before she’d been up or able to listen to the radio. “I’ll have it back by noon,” he’d said.

Since Arline didn’t get up before noon, that wouldn’t be a problem. She’d put the key outside her door and gone back to bed.

She ought to be getting the hell out of Los Angeles!

If I’d told her, Harry thought. But if I didn’t call her, who would? And she’d be in bed until noon anyway. So all I have to do is get the damn truck back to her.

He pulled into a 76 station. There were three cars ahead of him. He filled the truck, then filled two gas cans Arline kept in the back. Least I can do for her.

Gas was still being sold at the pump prices. That couldn’t last.

He drove North along Van Nuys Boulevard. The tools and all of the Kawasaki except the engine were in the back. It was still in pieces. A glance at Road and Track Specialties, which specialized in racing motorcycles, sent him off on a daydream. He really ought to steal one of those. It would get him there faster and more dependably, if he didn’t get himself arrested, and certainly the emergency justified it … he drove past without slowing, and on to Van Nuys Honda-Kawasaki.

His walk slowed as he passed through the salesroom. His money hadn’t stretched far enough. He needed a new fender, spare brake and clutch levers, a fairing … Jesus, that Vetter Windjammer fairing was nice. I could use the emergency thousand that Wes keeps — Only that wouldn’t work. That thousand belonged to Carlotta, and Harry intended to take it to her. Not all, but as much as possible.

No Vetter fairing, then. Just tie-down straps, and paper bags to put his hands in. He stepped up to the counter, next to a bulky, younger man.

“Hairy Red,” the man said. Harry almost recognized him; the name wouldn’t surface. “How they hanging?”

“This is the day nobody knows that,” Harry said. “Did you see the light show?”

“Damn right. I’m getting out.”

“I’m headed east. I could use a partner.”

“North looks safer,” the half stranger said. Harry nodded; he agreed. When a clerk appeared he paid the rest of what he owed out of Wes Dawson’s thousand. He paid for the engine repairs and restrained the urge to buy anything. He might need money more.

— =

He brought truck and engine to the parking lot across the alley from the motorcycle shop. The transistor radio was telling the world that there had been a horrible mistake. The aliens had attacked certain parts of the United States and the rest of the world, but now they were going away. The delegation that had been aboard the Soviet Kosmograd had been taken aboard by the aliens. Negotiations were proceeding. Citizens should remain calm. Anyone who could go to work should do that. Conserve electricity and water. Don’t waste anything. There would be inconveniences. Expect rationing soon.

That was one station. On another, the announcer was hysterical. The Martians had landed in New Jersey.

The one thing that every station announced was that all military and police personnel were to report for duty immediately.

Harry began to work.

An hour later he had some appreciation of what he’d lost.

Harry felt the urgency (what was happening now around Carlotta Dawson? And where, in hell or heaven, was Congressman Wes?) and the certain knowledge that hurrying was a mistake. His vertebrae, dreaming that they had become solid bone, woke to grating agony as he lifted and twisted and crouched and crawled. He worked muscles that had forgotten their function. They protested and were ignored. He worked as he had to, letting details fill his mind from edge to edge. It was like the calm from being ripped on marijuana, or (he presumed) from transcendental meditation. He had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance long ago.

It was killing labor, and Harry was drenched with sweat. He was old, old. But the Kawasaki was a motorcycle again.

This would be a hellish shakedown tour for a newly mounted engine. Harry smoked while the crankcase drained onto the weeds. He refilled it with a very light oil. He started the engine and let it run for the life span of a cigarette. He drained the engine again and refilled it with a heavier oil.

Puffing, he began to pack the Kawasaki . The sleeping bag went on the rack. It would normally carry his guitar, but not this trip! He’d already turned that over to Lucy Mott for safekeeping. He ran his spare cables alongside the working cables, ready to be attached in an instant. He reached into the fuel tank’s wide-mouthed fill — was there anyone to see? — to attach the gold peso and the dimes. Carlotta Dawson’s .45 auto went under the seat, with two clips. The .25 Beretta was in his jacket pocket. A one-quart botta bag was more convenient than a canteen for drinking while riding; he’d want to fill it before he left.

What had he forgotten? He had spare belts, high-speed belts built for industry, which fit the cycle and cost a quarter as much as store-bought. He checked everything: spare oil, ratchet set, screwdriver set, four wrenches, electrical tape, spare fuses, a can of hydraulic oil for the brakes. Tubing cut to fit. Spare clothing in a plastic garbage bag. The binoculars.

Finally he buckled on the wide kidney belt. It reduced his stomach by inches, and made him feel ten years younger.

He went to the head shop next door for cigarettes. There was only one clerk, and Harry was surprised to see her.

“Ruby?”

“Yeah, man. How’s it, Harry?”

“I thought you’d be in the mountains by now,” Harry said.

She looked puzzled.

“Aliens? Space war? Lights in the sky?”

She laughed. “What you need, Harry?”

“Two cartons of Pall Mall . No filter. Ruby, you told me about it.”

She got out the cigarettes. Harry handed her money, and she gave him back change. No premium price. “Told you about what?”

“What I said. Space War.”

She laughed again. “I thought I remembered calling somebody; was that you?” She laughed some more. “Wow, that Colombian stuff is strong, Harry. I really thought it was real!”

He was still shaking his head when he got outside. It was tough loading the Kawasaki into the truck, but he got help from the guys in the shop.

Got to return the truck, he told himself. Got to.

Fifteen hundred miles, near enough. Wish I didn’t have to take the truck back. Ought to get started … Hell, it’s only five miles to Arline’s place. Damn near on the way. Let’s get it done.

If he’d been in a car, he’d never have made it.

All the highways out of Los Angeles were jammed. Cars all over the road. Cars stalled on the wrong side of the road, people driving on the left side, anything to get out. And then the first wrecks, and the endless fields of cars behind them.

Many were piled high with clutter. Baby cribs. Footlockers. A typewriter. Blankets, toys, any damned thing you could think of, lashed on top of the cars. One king-size mattress on top of a car full of kids.

There weren’t many police, and where there were any, they were turning people back. Harry had to take out Dawson’s letter a dozen times, until he was good with the spiel.

“I’m Congressman Wes Dawson’s assistant,” Harry would say. “He’s aboard the alien ship. I have to look after his wife.”

One of the national guardsmen even said “sir” to Harry after he’d seen the letter.

“Heard much, Sergeant?”

“No, sir. They hit Hoover Dam. We know that much. Seem to have hit a lot of dams and power plants and railroad yards. Nobody knows why. Now they’ve gone.”

Harry nodded sagely. “Thanks.” Then he couldn’t resist. “Carry on, Sergeant,” he said, and roared off.

By mid-afternoon he was through the Cajon Pass , headed east across the Mojave Desert . His back had begun to hurt.

14. THE DAM

Better one’s own duty, though imperfect,
Than another’s duty well performed.

—The Bhagavad Gita

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS 36 HOURS

Jeri Wilson woke with a start. The sun was in the west, sinking toward one of the snowcapped peaks that surrounded the twisting mountain road. Melissa sat quietly in the backseat.

“It’s after noon,” Jeri said accusingly. “Why did you let me sleep so long?”

“You looked like you needed it.”

Jeri yawned. “I guess I did, punkin.” She glanced at the seat beside her, then looked down at the floor. “Where’s the map?”

“I have it,” Melissa said. “I was trying to figure out where we are, but I can’t.” She handed over the Auto Club map.

Jeri traced a yellow line along the map. “I’m not exactly sure myself,” she admitted. “I thought about what you said and decided we didn’t want to go through Albuquerque. Hairy Red marked a route up into Colorado. He’d have loved it, lots of twists and turns. Good thing you slept through it; you’d have got carsick.”

“So how far is it now?”

“About three hundred miles in a straight line, but I don’t know how far on the road.”

“Is — does Daddy really know we’re coming?”

“Well — sort of.”

“Does he want us to come?”

“I think so,” Jeri said. He didn’t say no! “Pour me some coffee from the Thermos. We’ve got to cross the Continental Divide this afternoon. Best we get started.”

Jeri coasted down the twisting Rocky Mountain roads in low gear, with the motor turned off, scared as stiff as the unpowered power steering. The highway was nearly deserted. Twice she pulled off for huge trucks, then used the motor to get back on the road. Once a Corvette shot into her rearview mirror, fishtailed as the driver saw her, and was still wobbling as it went past. Melissa, stretched out on the backseat, didn’t wake up.

The highway began to straighten out as it reached the bottom. The Great Plains stretched infinitely ahead. Jeri took the car out of gear, started the motor to get her brakes and steering back, and reached the Great Plains doing sixty in neutral. She waited until she’d lost some speed before going into gear.

It was mid-afternoon of a cloudless day. Behind her the Rockies, receding, seemed to grow even larger as the scale came into focus: a wall across the west of the world. She held her speed at fifty-five.

She jumped when she realized Melissa was peering over her shoulder. Melissa said, “When the gas needle says Empty, how much gas is left?”

“I don’t know. Could be anywhere from none to … five?”

They’d be out of gas soon. All she could think of was to get as far as she could. Maybe there would be gasoline at the next station, wherever that might be …

Jeri’s rearview mirror flared like a spotlight in her eyes. She slapped the mirror aside and screamed, “Don’t look, Melissa! Get down on the floor!” Hoping Melissa would obey; wishing she could do the same. Braking carefully, edging toward the right lane. Melissa said, “What—”

WHAM! Ears popped, the car lurched, the rear window crazed and went opaque. She’d expected it to shatter, to lace her head and neck with broken glass. The news had spoken of bombs falling on hydroelectric dams, railroads, major highways. George and Vicki Tate-Evans had told her (speaking in relay, impossible to interrupt) how to recognize a thermonuclear bomb flash, and how to survive.

She pulled off the road and waited. When you see the whole world turn bright, don’t look. Drop to the ground. Grip your legs, put your head between your knees. Now kiss your ass good-bye. Behind her, a Peterbilt ten-wheeler that had been charging up on her tail wobbled and tipped over and kept coming, on its side, leaving a trail of fire as it slid past and finally came to a stop ahead of her.

“Atomic bomb,” Melissa said, awed.

“Stay down!”

“I am.”

A man crawled out of the truck shaking his head. That really wasn’t much of a fire: just a streak leading to the truck, a few flames under it. Maybe the truck was out of gas too.

She waited for the softer WHAM!, the second shock wave as air rushed back to fill the vacuum beneath the rising fireball. When the station wagon stopped shuddering she pulled around the burning truck and kept going. A flaming toadstool lit her way. She kept glancing back, watching it die.

She made another six miles before the motor died. She hoped they were far enough from the radioactive cloud. She hoped it wouldn’t rain.

The old one-lung Harley had begun sputtering ten miles back. Now it died. Gynge let it coast and thought of his alternatives.

He could probably make it run another couple of hundred miles, but the damned thing had been nearly dead last year. It wasn’t getting younger.

He could walk.

There had to be something better. Up ahead was a rest area. Gynge let the Harley’s last momentum take it off the edge of the highway and into the picnic area.

The highways were deserted. At first the cops and national guards were stopping everything. Gynge had detoured three times around them. Damn good thing he knew the country. After he got into the mountains he left the main roads. There weren’t any cops at all.

A semi roared past. There was a little traffic. Food trucks. Come to that, in normal times one out of every three trucks carried food. People had to eat. But there wasn’t a hell of a lot except trucks.

The rest area was empty. Almost empty. Not quite. He heard sounds at the far end, and went to investigate.

What Gynge saw was a tired old man on a picnic table with his pants off and a girdle stretched out beside him. Bikers called it a “kidney belt,” but it did the same thing any girdle did: it held in a sagging gut. The old man’s gut was a good-sized beer belly. He was trying to hug one knee against his chest, but his gut blocked the way.

The man sat up, blowing. His frame was large; Gynge saw that he must have been formidable in his time. He didn’t look formidable now. His red beard had gone mostly gray, and the hair of his head was following. He sat up, consulted the book beside him. Then he stretched his right leg out in front of him, bent forward as far as he could manage, threw a hand towel around the arch of his foot, and pulled on both ends.

If the man had brought friends, they had had plenty of time to appear. Gynge watched a little longer. The red-and-gray-haired man switched legs, groaning.

* * *

One full day on a motorcycle had done him in.

Harry lay on the picnic table and groaned. Two whiplash accidents within two weeks would leave their mark for the rest of his life. His spine felt like a crystal snake dropped on flagstones! He knew well enough that he was overweight. That was what the kidney belt was for, but it hadn’t been enough, and his guts were about to fall out all over the picnic table.

He’d bought a book of stretching exercises. Some of those were supposed to help a bad back. It was worth a try … but it felt like he was breaking his back rather than mending it.

He had switched legs before the stranger stepped into view. A biker, probably. He strolled up to Harry’s bike, in no apparent hurry; ran his eyes over it; then stepped up to Harry. Looming. He was all muscles and hair and dirt, no prettier than Harry felt, though younger and in better condition.

He asked, “Why a towel?”

Harry flopped on his back, panting. He said, “A towel is the most massively useful thing a traveler can have. And that was a stretching exercise, because my back is giving me hell. See—”

“Skip it. Give me the key to the Kawasaki.”

“Help me up.”

The bandit did, by the slack of Harry’s jacket. He looked down at the feel of something hard over his heart. Harry’s jacket trailed from his hand, and the .25 Beretta was in the jacket pocket.

“I hold the key to a door you don’t want to open,” Harry said.

Anyone with a grain of sense would have at least stopped to think it over. The bandit reacted instantly: he batted at the threatening hand and swung a fist at Harry’s jaw.

Harry fired at once. The fist exploded against his jaw and knocked him dizzy. His gun hand was knocked aside too. Harry brought it back and fired twice more, walking the pistol up the man’s torso.

He shook his head and looked around fast. The gun wasn’t very loud. It wasn’t big either, and Harry didn’t entirely trust a .25 bullet. Any sign of a companion? No. The bandit was still on his feet, looking startled. Harry fired twice more, reserving one bullet for mistakes.

Now the bandit toppled.

Harry had spent some time finding the campground, but it wouldn’t be possible to stay. He rolled off the table, pulled his pants on. then his kidney belt. He paused to catch his breath and to listen.

The bandit was still breathing, almost snoring. Harry looked down at him. “I’ll do you the best favor I can,” he said. “I won’t check to make sure you’re dead.”

The wounded man said nothing. Ah, well.

Harry walked his bike to the bandit’s motorcycle. There was nearly a gallon of gasoline in it. Whistling, Harry disconnected the fuel line and drained the gas into a pickle jar he fished out of the trash. When he’d put the last drop into the Kawasaki, he went through the bandit’s possessions. There wasn’t much.

Then he mounted the Kawasaki and rode away, groaning. Harry was a firm believer in natural selection.

Jeri woke at dawn. Melissa was awake, but huddled in her sleeping bag. “I never knew deserts could be cold,” she said.

“I told you,” Jeri said. “Now watch.” The sleeping bags were head to head, with the Sierra stove between. Jeri made two cups of cocoa without poking more than her head and shoulders out of her bag. In the half-hour they spent drinking cocoa and eating oatmeal, the world warmed. Jeri put her hat on and made Melissa don hers. They left their sleeping bags and rolled them with one eye each on the highway below.

They had moved uphill, away from the car, into a clump of bushes at the crest. With heads above the bushes, using binoculars, they could see clearly for miles. The highway ran straight as a bullet’s flight, broken by a dish-shaped crater nine miles to the west. The precision of that crater grew scarier the more Jeri thought about it. It sat precisely on the intersection of two highways.

They watched for traffic. Jeri’s hand kept brushing the hard lump in her purse, the .380 Walther automatic. If she saw a safe-looking ride, she and Melissa could get down to the highway in time to stick out their thumbs. She hadn’t seen much yet. Traffic was nearly nonexistent. A clump of four motorcycles had passed, slowed to examine the stalled car, argue, then move on west. She stayed hidden.

“What will we do?” Melissa asked.

“We’ll think of something,” Jeri told her. I may have to pay for a lift. Hopefully with money. She prayed for a policeman, but there weren’t any. Someone ought to come look at the crater. Is it radioactive? And why here? What could aliens possibly care about, this far from anywhere?

From the west came a motorcycle. It slowed as it approached the crater. Jeri wondered if it would turn back. It moved out into the desert and circled the lip of the crater. Big cycle, big rider. He had some trouble lifting it back onto the road. He rested afterward, smoking, then started up again. They watched him come.

Ten minutes later Melissa lowered the binoculars and said, “It’s Harry.”

Jeri snorted.

“It’s Hairy Red, Mom. Let’s go down.”

“Unlikely,” Jeri said wearily, but she took the glasses. The lone biker’s head was a wind-whipped froth of red hair and beard; that was true enough. He kept the bike slow. He couldn’t be a young man, not with the trouble he’d had lifting the bike. The bike: it sure looked like Harry’s bike. Hell’s bells, that was Harry Reddington!

“Go,” Jeri said, “run!” She sprinted downhill. Melissa surged past her, laughing. They reached the bottom well ahead of the biker. Jeri puffed and got her wind back and screamed, “Harry! Harreee!”

It didn’t look like he would stop.

Harry saw the four bikers coming from a long way off. They were on the wrong side, his side, of the dirt divider. He was seeing trouble as he neared them … but they veered across the divider and, laughing, doffed their helmets to him as he passed. Harry would have liked to return the gesture, but he had one hand on the handlebars and one on the gun Carlotta hadn’t taken … because Hairy Red sure wasn’t in shape to defend himself with his fists. His belly band was tightened to the last notch, and Harry felt like he was leaking out from under it.

Beyond the bikers was a station wagon, presumed DOA. Beyond the wagon, two figures running downhill. Harry made out a woman and a little girl.

He didn’t have time for emergencies or room for passengers,

They reached the road. They were yelling at him. The adult was a good-looking woman, and it was with some regret that he twisted the accelerator.

— “Harreee!”

Oh, shit. Harry’s hands clamped the brakes. Jeri and Melissa Wilson, standing in the road. Just what he needed.

Your word of honor on record, he thought. Dead or captured by God knows what, Wes Dawson had left his life on Earth’s surface in Harry Reddington’s care. Carlotta Dawson wasn’t the type to survive without help. Stuck out here with a dead station wagon, what were the chances that Jeri Wilson and her daughter would ever tell anyone that Hairy Red had driven past them? He twisted harder, and stopped precisely alongside Melissa, and smiled at the little girl. Shit.

Harry Reddington climbed from the bike as if afraid he’d break, and straightened up slowly. “Jeri. Melissa. Why aren’t you at the Enclave?”

“I have to find my husband. Oh, Harry, thank God! Where are you going?”

Harry answered slowly; he seemed to be doing everything slowly. “I was staying at Congressman Dawson’s house. Now his wife is in Dighton, Kansas, and he sure can’t do anything to take care of her, so it’s up to me.”

“Well. Want some cocoa?”

“Sure, but — You’ve got a Sierra stove?”

“Up the hill.”

“What’s wrong with the car?”

“Out of gas.”

“Let’s get that cocoa.” Harry accepted Jeri’s hospitality knowing full well what it implied, knowing that it was too late. Three passengers on a motorcycle was going to kill his shock absorbers. “Those bushes at the top? I’d better ride the bike up. I’d hate to lose it.”

Harry let the bike coast to a stop. It was hot as soon as they stopped moving. Harry poured a little water onto his bandana and mopped his face. Getting sunburn to go with the windburn. Bloody hell.

“We’re almost there,” Jeri said. “Why are you stopping?”

“Got to,” Harry said. “Everybody off.”

Melissa leaped off from her perch on the gas tank in front of Harry. Jeri climbed off the back. Every muscle complaining. Harry slowly got off and set the stand. Then be tried to bend over.

“Back-rub time?” Jeri asked.

“Can’t hurt,” Harry said. He pointed to a stream that ran beside the road. “Melissa, how about you go fill the canteens.”

“Doesn’t look very clean—”

“Clean enough,” Harry said.

“Pour all the water we have into one canteen and just fill the other from the stream,” Jeri said. “Harry, you look like a letter S. Here, bend over the bike and I’ll work on that.”

Harry waited until Melissa was gone. “I don’t quite know how to say this. Hate to be the one to do it, but somebody’s got to. We’re almost there. Another ten, twelve miles—”

“Yes. Thank you. I know it was out of your way, and it can’t be comfortable, riding three on a bike—”

“It’s not, but that isn’t the problem,” Harry said. “You got across the Colorado River the day before the aliens came, didn’t you?”

“Yes—”

“And all you’ve seen since is a few towns, and that crater.”

“Harry, what are you trying to say?”

“I looked on the map. That town you’re headed for — there’s a dam just above it.” He didn’t say anything for a moment, to let that sink in. “Jeri, I goddam near didn’t get across the Colorado River. There’s nothing left of the town of Needles. Or Bullhead City. Or anything along the Colorado. They hit Hoover Dam with something big. When Lake Mead let go, it scoured out everything for two hundred miles. I mean everything. Dams, bridges, houses, boats — all gone. I had to get a National Guard helicopter to take me and the motorcycle across.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. So I don’t know what we’re going to find up ahead. You got any idea of where Dave lived in that town?”

“No,” Jeri said. “He never told me anything about it. Harry — Harry, it’s got to be all right.”

“Sure,” Harry said. He couldn’t even try to sound sincere.

One more rise. Over the top of that little ridge—

Jeri sat uncomfortably among the gear tied to the bike. She couldn’t stop crying. Wind-whipped, the tears ran tickling across her temples and into her hair. Damn it, I don’t know anything yet, why am I crying? At least Melissa can’t see.

What should I tell her? Warn her? But …

The bike lumbered over the top of the ridge.

A sea of mud lay below. The reservoir had been ten miles long and over a mile wide; now there was only a thick sluggish ripple at its center, a tiny stream with obscenely swollen banks. A thick stench rose from the mud. They rode slowly, feeling that hot wind in their faces, smelling ancient lake bed mud.

There was no need to tell Melissa anything. She could see the dead lake, and must be able to guess what was ahead. It used to be we could protect children, spare them from horrible sights. They always do that in the old novels.

They rode along the mud, banks toward the ruins of the dam at the far end. Long before they reached the dam there were new smells mingled with the smell of decayed mud and the hot summer. Everywhere lay the smell of death.

The town below the dam was gone. In the center the destruction was complete, as if a bulldozer had come through and removed all the buildings, then another came along to spread mud over the foundations. Farther away from the stream bed was a thin line of partially destroyed houses and debris. One house had been torn neatly in half, leaving three-walled rooms to stare out over the wreckage below.

Above the debris line nothing was touched. People moved among the debris, but few ventured down into the muddy bottom area.

They’ve given up looking for survivors. She could feel Harry’s chest and back tighten as they got closer to the ruined town.

A sheriff’s car stood beside a National Guard jeep to block the road. Harry let the bike coast to a stop. He had his letter ready to show, but it wasn’t needed.

“I am Mrs. David Wilson,” Jeri said. “My husband lives here, at 2467 Spring Valley Lane—”

The young man in sheriff’s uniform looked away. So did the Guard officer.

She knew before the sergeant spoke.

“You can see where Spring Valley Lane was, just down there, about a mile,” the sergeant said. He pointed at the center of the mud flat.

“Maybe he wasn’t home,” Melissa said. “Maybe—”

“It happened about two in the morning,” the sergeant said. “Maybe five minutes after they blasted the Russian space station.”

“Warning didn’t help anyway,” the deputy sheriff said. “They did something that knocked out the phone system at the same time. The only way we could warn anybody downstream was to try to drive faster than the water. That wasn’t good enough.”

“How bad was it?” Harry asked.

“Bad,” the Guard officer said. “The whole Great Plains reservoir system, everything along the Arkansas River, is gone. There’s flooding all the way to Little Rock and beyond.” He drew Harry aside, but Jeri could make out what he was saying.

“There’s a temporary morgue in the schoolhouse three miles east of here,” the officer was telling Harry. “Some bodies still there. The best-looking ones. We’ve had to bury a couple of hundred. Maybe more. They’ve got a list of all they could identify.”

“Thanks. I guess we better go there. Anyplace I can get some gas?”

The officer laughed.

The wallet held two pictures of Jeri and one of Melissa. Jeri stared at her own face distorted by the tears that kept welling in her eyes.

My pictures. I think he would have been glad to see me. The driver’s license was soaked, but the name was readable. “That’s his,” Jeri said.

The thinly bearded young man in dirty whites made notes on a clipboard. “David J. Wilson, of Reseda, California,” he said. “Next of kin, Mrs. Geraldine Wilson—”

He went on interminably. He took David’s wallet and went through that; noting down everything inside it. Finally he handed her a shoe box. It contained the wallet, a wristwatch, and a wedding ring. “Sign here, please.”

She carried the box out into the bright Colorado sunshine. My God, what am I going to do now? There was no sign of Harry or Melissa. She sat down on a bench by the school.

What do they want? Why are they doing this? Why?

“Mom—”

Jeri didn’t want to look at her daughter.

“Harry told me, Mom.” Melissa sat beside her on the bench. After a moment Jeri opened her arms, and they held each other.

“We have to go,” Melissa said.

“Go?”

“With Harry.”

“Are we — where are we going with Harry?”

“Dighton, Kansas,” Harry said from behind her. “And we got to be starting right now, Miz W. We’re on the wrong side of the river, and there aren’t any bridges downstream at least as far as Dodge City. We have to go upstream and cross above where the reservoir was. It’s maybe two hundred miles the way we’ve got to go. We need to get started,”

Jeri shook her head. “What — I don’t know anyone in Kansas.”

“No, ma’am, and I don’t either, except Mrs. Dawson.” Harry snorted. It was easy to tell what he was thinking. Harry Red had no woman of his own, just other people’s widows …

“Harry, you don’t want us on your bike.”

“I sure don’t,” he said. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Melissa stood and pulled her by the hand. “Come on, Mom, we don’t want to stay here.”

I might meet David’s friends. Find out how he spent his last months—

That’s morbid, and you’ll more likely meet his New Cookie. Or was she with him? Did the Earth move for you, sweetheart? “All right, let’s go, then. Harry, I thought you were out of gas.”

“He used his letter,” Melissa said. “Talked the highway patrolman into a full tank for the motorcycle.”

“Should get us there,” Harry said. He led the way around the corner. The bike stood there. It didn’t look in very good shape. It looked overloaded even with no one on it.

“Even loaded down with three?”

“Should.” Harry climbed aboard, groaning slightly. He looked a little better; the monstrous belly was tighter, and his back wasn’t quite so thoroughly bent. “Anyplace you want to go first?” he asked.

Jeri shook her head. “They…” — she took Melissa’s hand — “they buried over a hundred in a common grave. I don’t want to see that—”

“Me, neither, Mom.” Melissa hopped onto the bike in front of Harry.

The young are so damned — resilient. I guess they have to be. Especially now. Jeri crammed the shoe box into the saddlebag and climbed on behind Harry. “All right. I’m ready.”

She didn’t look back as they drove out of the town.

15. THE WHEAT FIELDS

When even lovers find their peace at last,

And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.

—James Elroy Flecker, Prologue to The Golden Journey to Samarkand

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS 60 HOURS

They were through the last of the foothills and into the rolling prairies of Kansas , a land of straight roads and small towns. Wheat and cornfields made the landscape monotonous. Whenever they stopped, the hot winds and bright sunshine drove them back into motion again.

Conversation was impossible over the noise of the motorcycle. The radio had nothing to say. Harry drove mindlessly, trying not to think of his back and the cramps in his legs. Fantasies came easily.

Jeri’s a right pretty woman, and she’s all alone. Don’t know what she’ll do in Kansas . Maybe there wouldn’t be enough rooms. They’d have to share a room and a bed, and the first night he could just hold her, and—

Part of his mind knew better, but the thoughts were more pleasant than his back pains.

— =

Dighton , Kansas , was forty miles ahead. The engine sputtered, and Harry switched to the reserve tank. They’d just make it, with a dozen miles to spare. Good enough, thought Harry. Good enough. There was a smaller city four miles away. Logan , Kansas . Nothing to stop there for—

There was a bright flash ahead and to the left. “Holy shit!” Harry shouted. He clamped the brakes, skidding the bike to a halt. “Off! Off and down!” He’d heard George and Vicki’s lectures too.

Jeri and Melissa threw themselves into the ditch alongside the road. Harry laid the motorcycle down. He found he’d been counting. It was nearly a minute before thunder rolled over them. There wasn’t any shock wave.

“Ten, twelve miles,” Harry said.

“We were closer to the other one,” Melissa said. She was trying to look brave and calm, but she was having trouble forgetting that she was a ten-year-old girl who’d been protected all her life.

There were more rumblings, a series of sonic booms, and the sky was full of sound.

“What in hell is worth bombing here?” Harry asked.

Jeri sat up. She shook her head. “I don’t — Harry!” She pointed up. Something dart-shaped crossed the sky, high up, glowing orange at the nose and leaving a wavery vapor trail. “What is that?”

Harry shook his head. The fading vapor trail curled and twisted. Winds did that in the high stratosphere. “Russian? Not like any American plane I ever saw.” They looked at each other in wonder. “Naw,” Harry said. “It couldn’t be.”

The craft was already too small to see … until it began blinking, pulsing in harsh blue pinpoints of light, like the lights Harry had seen that first night.

Dust motes were drifting out of the vapor trail.

Another ship crossed the bright sky, and another, on skewed paths. Dust sifted from the vapor trails. The motes left by the first ship were growing larger, becoming distinct dots. Harry watched with his knees in ditch water. A fourth ship … and the first two were pulsing now, pulling away.

They must be much larger than they seemed. Thirty miles up or more: they had to be that high, given what they were doing. They were streaking through the high atmosphere at near-orbital speed, dropping clouds of … dots, then accelerating free of Earth. So. Dots?

The fourth ship wasn’t pulsing. It was turning, banking in a wide arc.

The dots had become falling soap bubbles, and the lowest of them were breaking open. Hatching. Hatching winged things—

“Paratroopers,” Melissa said. Her voice held wonder. “Mom, they’re invading!”

At nearly sixty-four makasrupkithp of altitude[] the troposphere tore at the hull, blasting the digit ship with flame. Its mass seemed no more protection than the transparent bag around Octuple Leader Chintithpit-mang. The planet was all of his environment, vast beyond imagination, and dreadfully close.

[] {Thirty to thirty-five miles. (A standard trunklength or srupk = 5.8 feet = 176.78 cm = 1.77 meters. 512 skrupkithp = 1 makasrupk = 905.13 meters.)}

He was one in eight rows of sixty-four bubbles each, and each flaccid bubble held a fi’, his face hidden by an oxygen mask. He was first in his line, with the transparent door just a srupk from his face.

They were holding up well. Why not? The lowest ranks were all sleepers. A planet was nothing new to a sleeper. This must be like homecoming to them. As for the spaceborn, the Octuple Leaders and higher ranks, how could they let the sleepers see their fear? And yet—

Aft is raw chaos, a roiling white fog of vapor trail. But look down, where greens and blues and browns sweep beneath. Here the patterns are equally random, for worlds happen by accident, and there is no sign of mind imposing order. Layers of curdled water vapor almost make patterns. They seem more real, more solid, than the land. The snaky curve of yonder river holds more water than is stored in all of Message Bearer. Any one in that line of mountains they’d crossed a few 64-breaths ago would outmass the Foot itself—

“Octuples, you disembark now.”

Octuple Leader Chintithpit-mang’s breathing became shallow, fast.

He had been born in the year that Thuktun Flishithy rounded this world’s primary star. The Year Zero Herd had all been born within a couple of eight-days of each other — naturally — and that age group was closer than most. One and all, males and females, they were dissidents. They had no use for worlds.

Chintithpit-mang fiercely resented the Herdmaster’s splitting of the Year Zero Herd. He did not want to be here.

The aft door cracked. Air hissed away. The bubbles grew taut. The door folded outward while the chamber filled with a thin singing: troposphere ripping at the digit ship. A line of bubbles streamed out, sixty-four fithp falling above the fluffy cloudscape. Another stream of bubbles followed them. Then — The Octuple Leader was first in line, of course.

Falling meant nothing to Chintithpit-mang. It was the buffeting that held him in terror. The survival bubbles dropped through the troposphere, slowing. The digit ship shrank to a dot … and presently began pulsing, accelerating, pushing itself back to orbit.

The buffeting increased. Thicker air. The shape of the land was taking on detail. There, the crater that was both landmark and first strike; beyond, the village that was their target. Chintithpit-mang watched the numbers dropping on his altimeter.

Now. He opened the zipper. Air puffed away. He crawled out of the fabric and let it fall away into the wind. The land was yellow and brown, crossed by a white line of road, and now was a good time to learn if his flexwing would open.

It popped out by itself, and dragged at the air, unfolding as pressurized gas filled the struts. His senses spun as blood tried to settle into his feet. The landing shoe on a hind foot had been jerked almost loose. He bent his head and stretched to adjust it; his digits would just reach that far.

The shoes prisoned his toes: big, clumsy platforms of foamed material that would flatten on impact so that the bones of his feet would not likewise flatten.

He looked for other flexwings. The colors of his Octuple were rose and black and green. He found six others and steered toward them. One missing. Where?

The land drifted: He steered above the road that the crater had broken, then along the road toward the city. Six flexwings moved into line behind him. Still one missing. And no way to avoid the ground now. The planet was all there was.

Details expanded. Three dots scrambled from a tiny vehicle to lie by the side of the road. He steered toward them. They grew larger, LARGER! Chintithpit-mang bellowed and pulled back in his harness to catch more air in his flexwing, increasing lift, striving desperately to avoid contact with the planet.

The planet slammed against his feet. They stung. His landing shoes were smashed flat. He stripped them off, dropped his flexwing and looked about him.

Big. Planets were big.

A line of insect-sized flyers converged toward the town ahead. Those weren’t parachutes. “Delta wings,” Harry Red murmured. “Hang gliders.” The shapes hanging under the delta wings were not human.

Harry ran to the bike and lifted the seat. The .45 Government Model felt comfortable in his hand, and the slide worked with a satisfying click, but the secure feeling the big pistol usually gave him was entirely lacking.

A group of hang gliders broke away from the formation and came toward them. They split into two groups, one on either side of them.

Melissa peered through the binoculars. “Elephants,” she said. “Baby elephants.”

Jeri grabbed the glasses. Then she began to laugh. She handed the glasses to Harry.

He said, “That funny, eh?’ and looked.

Baby elephants with two trunks drifted out of the sky beneath paper airplanes. Harry chortled. They were wearing tall, conspicuous elevator shoes. He laughed outright. Rifles with bayonets were slung over their backs. Harry stopped laughing.

Two lines of delta-wing gliders swept along a hundred yards to either side of them. They were sinking fast into the wheat fields. A much larger group had drifted over Logan .

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Harry shouted. He raised the bike.

It wouldn’t start. Laying it on its side in the dirt hadn’t been a good idea. The smell of gas was strong.

The electric starter whirred again. The engine caught. Harry turned the bike—

A delta-wing craft glided onto the road half a mile behind them. The Invader came down hard. It freed its weapon, then stepped out of the elevator shoes. Other gliders settled to each side. A much larger vehicle swept overhead: a flat oval with upward-pointing fins. It glided along the road, settling slowly, until it landed more than a mile away.

“We’re surrounded.” Jeri sounded tired, already defeated.

“Let’s go,” Harry ordered. “Out in the fields. Get out there and lay low. Go on, now.”

Jeri took Melissa’s hand and dragged her off into the wheat fields. They left an obvious trail behind them. The wheat stalks were thickly planted, and you couldn’t move through without knocking some of them down.

We can’t hide. Maybe they don’t want us. Harry took a fresh grip on the pistol and followed.

Eight-cubed Leader Harpanet kept only the vaguest memories of his fall.

Bubbles had streamed from digit ship Number Twenty-six into a dark blue sky and were instantly lost in immensity. Far, far below, a vast rippling white landscape waited for him. Voices chattered through a background of static; voices called his name. He didn’t answer.

He might have spoken anytime during the years of preparation. He’d heard lectures on planetary weather: the variations in temperature, “wind chill factor,” and the coriolis forces that cause air to whirl with force sufficient to tear dwellings apart: A vast worldwide storm. accidentally formed, beyond the control of fithp. The Predecessors’ messages tried to tell us. Random death in the life support system!

Harpanet had been in the Breaker group, trying to learn of the prey. They’d watched broadcasts that leaked through the target world’s atmosphere. I can’t make sense of these pictures. They don’t mean anything. The more he knew, the more alien they seemed. Breaker Takpusseh could live with his ignorance and wait to learn more. To Harpanet, these are not fithp at all. They build tools, and they kill, and we will never know more.

Others of the spaceborn had had private interviews with Fistarteh-thuktun, and later been taken from the lists of Winterhome-bound soldiers. What they told the priest must have resembled his own thoughts: I can’t stand it. The things who will try to kill me are the least of it. I fear the air and I fear the land, and I can’t tolerate the thought of an ocean! They were shunned thereafter. Their mothers never mentioned them again.

Harpanet could have joined the dissidents. He had kept his silence.

He kept it now. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t make a sound save for a thin keening like the keening of the air through which he fell. The thin skin of the bubble rippled under the atmosphere’s buffeting. The sky grew more inaccessible every second.

He was late to open his bubble. The flexwing popped and the struts began to expand before it was clear. Harpanet shrieked. He was falling toward a rippling white landscape, vast in extent, and his collapsed bubble was still tangled around his flexwing. He clawed his way up the suspension harness and forced his digits under the fabric against the resistance of the inflated struts, and pulled. The planet’s white face came up to smash him.

It was nothing. He fell through it without resistance. He was still clawing at the bubble fabric, and suddenly it was floating loose above him. He had to nerve himself to let go of the flexwing; and only then did it begin to drag at the air until he was flying.

It was some time before he recovered enough to look for other flexwings.

He found a swarm of midges far away. Away from the sun. It is late in the day. The planet turns away from the star. My warriors are spinward.

The octuples under his command had steered toward their place on the rim of the great circle on the Herdmaster’s map. The circle would converge. Defenses would be erected. Digit ships would presently pick them up and return them to the darkness, the immensity, the security of space.

A rise of land blocked his view of the other wings. Undulations of yellow fur streamed beneath him, terribly fast, and Harpanet had seconds in which to learn to fly. Through his terror came a single memory, that lifting the fore edge of the flexwing would cause him to slow and rise. He slid back in the harness. The wing rose, and slowed … and hovered, and dropped, and picked up speed, and hurled him against the dirt. He rolled. The harness rolled with him; the flexwing wrapped around him; one of the struts hissed in his face as his bayonet punctured it. When he finally managed to disentangle himself, his radio was dead. One knee was twisted, so that he could walk on three legs only. Gravity pulled at him.

It was an experience he would never want to remember. But he was sixty-fours of makasrupkithp to antispinward from his assigned landing point.

Jenny woke with a start. A duty sergeant was standing over her. He chattered excitedly. “Right now, Major. The Admiral wants you in the war room now; it’s an emergency. There’s an invasion.”

“Invasion? She sat up. “All right, Sergeant. I’m coming.”

“Now, Major—”

“I heard you. Thank you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She dressed quickly, putting on combat fatigues. He hadn’t said anything about sidearms. We’re at war, but surely they weren’t invading Colorado Springs !

When she reached the war room she wasn’t so sure.

* * *

Admiral Carrell, still in civilian clothes, was in one of the balcony offices overlooking the control room. Jenny stood outside the door, wondering what to do.

“Come in, Major.” Carrell pointed to the big screens below. They showed Kansas and southern Nebraska dotted with red flashes and hand-drawn gray squares. Jenny stared for a moment, trying to understand.

“We don’t have symbols for a parachute invasion of Kansas ,” Admiral Carrell said. “So we had to draw them in. Not that it means much, since we don’t know all the places they’re landing.”

“Are all those red marks nuclear strikes?” Jenny asked.

“Probably none of them,” Carrell said. “So far they haven’t used nukes. They haven’t had to.”

“No, sir.” Kinetic energy weapons. Throw big rocks.

An Army lieutenant general bustled in. He wore combat fatigues and he’d buckled on his pistol.

“You’ve met General Toland,” Carrell said. “No? General, Major Crichton is my assistant. What’s the score, Harvey?”

“Damned if I know. Thor, this doesn’t make sense. They can’t possibly be invading Kansas . I don’t care how goddam big that ship is; it can’t hold that many troops.”

“Then what are they doing?”

General Toland shook his head.

Carrel said, “Jenny, I want you to get those sci-fi gentry together and get them working. You can use the big briefing room. Get TV monitors set up, get maps, get coffee, get whiskey, hell, get them prostitutes if that’s what they want, but get me some explanations!”

Harry lay in the wheat field and sweated. There was a hot wind and bright sun, but he’d have sweated in a blizzard.

He couldn’t see the road, but he heard a vehicle on it. The motor didn’t sound like anything Harry had ever heard before.

Now there were sounds in the wheat. Someone — something — was coming.

The wheat was too thick to see through. His world had shrunk to five yards or less. He could just see Melissa’s bright head scarf. Should have told her to take it off. Too late now. Not that we can hide anyway.

The sounds came closer. They were all around him.

What the fuck do I do? The pistol held no comfort for him. He wasn’t a good shot. He remembered a merc who’d served in Africa telling him about elephants. They were hard to stop, harder to kill. You had to hit them just right. A .45 probably wouldn’t even bother one, not unless he hit a vital spot—

They aren’t elephants. Maybe they’re not as tough. And maybe I don’t know where the vital spots are.

He heard Jeri scream, and then two shots from her Walther. Melissa’s scarf bounced up, then something happened and she disappeared into the wheat. There was nothing to shoot at. Harry leaped to his feet and ran toward the sound.

As he did, he heard something behind him. He turned—

An elephant was charging him. Another closed in from the side. They were wearing hooded coats! Harry held out the pistol and fired. The elephant kept coming. A flurry of whips lashed his arm and side, spinning him around, tearing the pistol from his hand.

The other elephant came toward him. The trunk was built like a cat-o’-nine-tails; it held a bayoneted rifle. The bayonet was pointed at his throat. “Melissa! Run!” Jeri screamed. Harry turned to go to her.

Something lashed around his ankles and whipped them away from him. He fell heavily into the wheat field. The elephant stood over him, bayonet pointed at him. The other came and stood with It.

“Psh-thish-ftpph.”

Harry glared up.

The elephants repeated their phrase, only louder.

“Okay, goddamm it, you got me!” He stayed where he was, rolled half onto his knees. Give him half a chance and he’d—

Once more the aliens shouted. Then suddenly the trunk swept down and rolled Harry onto his back. One Invader pulled Harry’s hands out over his head. The other reared above him.

My God, they’re going to trample me! Harry writhed to get away. The foot came down on his chest. It settled almost gently. Harry struggled: he yanked one hand free and scraped at the foot with his nails, tried to push it upward, tried to roll. The pressure increased. There were claws under his jaw, and a mass that was crushing his chest. The air sighed out of him in a despairing hiss. He blacked out.

* * *

Fog in his mind; memory of a nightmare. He was breathing like a bellows. Harry rolled over in … wheat? Inhuman screaming and bellowing reached his ears, sounds like a fire in a zoo.

Oh, God. Jeri! Harry tried to stand up and made it to one knee.

The baby elephants were converging on the road. Harry glimpsed Melissa on an Invader’s back, held firmly by a branching trunk. Jeri was walking, stumbling, with Invaders around her.

A vehicle waited on the road, the size of a large truck, but it had no wheels. It looked like a huge sled. The motor wasn’t running.

They loaded Melissa into the vehicle, then pushed Jeri in behind her. Others jumped onto the broad platform. The vehicle lifted on a cloud of dust: an air cushion. It sped away.

They seemed to have forgotten Harry entirely.

He crawled away slowly, disturbing the wheat as little as possible. What else could he do? They’d taken the big gun, but they might have left the motorcycle, and Carlotta still waited. Unless they’d landed there too.

By vehicle and on foot, the prey fled the village. Humans on foot were allowed to surrender. They had to be taught: in many cases they must he knocked down and rolled into position. Then, if they could stand, they were allowed to pass. But vehicles were considered to be weapons and were treated as such.

The village had suffered more damage than was needed. It grieved Chintithpit-mang: locals dead, or torn and still screaming, buildings smashed, the smell of explosives and of burning, the flattened crater where the rock came down … We’re dealing with unknowns. Better to err on the side of excessive strength.

By asking those he passed, Chintithpit-mang found the leader of his eight-cubed in a large red building with pillars in front.

Siplisteph was surrounded by squarish bundles of printed sheets, bound at one edge and gaudily decorated. He was leafing through a bundle of print with drawings in it. The youthful sleeper seemed relaxed, very much at home. He looked up dreamily and said, “It’s so good to see a sky again.” His eyes focused on Chintithpit-mang. “You come late.”

Chintithpit-mang said, “One never reported. Otherwise we have no casualties.”

Siplisteph lifted his digits in response. “We have lost warriors. You are promoted. In addition to your octuple, you will be deputy leader to your eight-squared.”

“Were there heavy losses, eight-cubed Leader?”

“Many within the leadership. We have lost an eight-cubed leader.”

“The leadership. They are all spaceborn—”

“It would be well not to finish that thought, Chintithpit-mang.”

Sleeper! Winterhome is home to you, but how can we find ourselves within this infinite horizon, beneath this tremendous sky? He could say none of that. “Lead me.”

“Continue your report.”

“I obey. Eight-cubed Leader, I took two females. One was mated to a big male, the other their child. I took the male’s surrender and left him.”

Siplisteph’s ears snapped alert. “The male surrendered?”

“He had to be shown.” But the episode had left a bad taste, and Chintithpit-mang went on talking. “Eight-cubed Leader, I knocked him down and put my foot on him, lightly. He struggled; he fought. I pushed harder until he stopped struggling. But when I took my foot away he did not move. I wonder if I simply killed him.”

“This is the Breakers’ problem, not ours.” Siplisteph’s eyes returned to the pictures.

“Lead me,” said Chintithpit-mang, and he went to rejoin his octuple. But it bothered him. By now the taking of Winterhome, in falling rocks and disrupted supply chains, must have killed close to eight to the sixth of the poor misshapen rogues. Well, that was what war was about. But a fi’ did not kill needlessly, did not kill when he could take surrender. If the beast was so fragile, why did it continue to fight?

Chintithpit-mang remembered its rib cage sagging under his foot. It thrashed and clawed and finally stopped moving … it didn’t know how to surrender. They didn’t know how to surrender. Bad.

16. SUBMISSION

A human being in a prison camp, in the hands of his enemies, is flesh and shudderingly vulnerable.

The disciplines that hold men together in the face of fear, hunger, and danger are not natural. Stresses equal to, and beyond, the stress of fear and panic must be laid on men. Some of these stresses are ca!Ied civilization. And even the highest of civilizations demands leadership.

—T. R. FEHRENBACH, This Kind of War

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS 80 HOURS

The huilside wall was down and level; the door was in the ceiling. Wes judged that things were likely to remain so for some time.

There had been an hour or so of acceleration, then half an hour of freefall; then the ship had begun to spin. Some days had passed without further change. Odds were it would take an hour or more to remove the spin.

Spin would hamper the mother ship in a battle. Earth must he far aft and out of reach.

Nikolai and Dmitri talked qialetly: Nikolai sullen, Dmitri doing most of the talking. Wes understood a few words, and sympathized. Nikolai was once again a cripple.

The aliens had wasted no time. They were already teaching their language to the humans. Wes found this reassuring. However, the Soviets were educated separately, and they had expressed disinterest in sharing their lessons with Wes. He went over them alone, whispering alien sounds as he remembered them.

Srupk: Wes had memorized the term as swank, “standard trunklength.” It was just about six feet. A makasrupk was five hundred and twelve strunks, just about a kilometer.

Wes had sought a word for the trunk. There wasn’t one. A sharp snort, snnfp, named the nostrils, or the upper trunk. Pa’ was one branch, one finger of a trunk; pathp, the plural, could mean the entire cluster.

Chaytrif meant foot.

Sfaftiss was Takpusseh’s title; it meant teacher. The other sfaftiss didn’t speak, and his name was harder: Raztupisp-minz. The two sfafissthp looked aged, but as if they had weathered in different patterns. Were there two races of Invader? But they called themselves by the same words:

Chsapt meant move. Chtaptisk: moving. Chtaptiskfithp meant themselves, everyone who had left their home planet. The Traveler People?

Fi’ was the word for an alien. A syllable chopped short by a kind of hiccup, it sounded like a piece of a word. And fithp was the entire species. As if an individual was not a whole, complete thing, just as a pa’ was only one branch of the pathp, the trunk. Herdbeasts? Takpusseh said tribe, not herd; but men didn’t say herd to mean thinking beings.

Tashayamp was Takpusseh’s assistant. Dawson thought of her as female: the leather or plastic patch on her harness covered a different area, further back on her torso. He knew he might have the sexes reversed; he was not prepared to ask—

The door opened upward, a trapdoor. The prisoners looked up, waiting.

Takpusseh: Wes had learned to recognize their teacher or trainer by the loose look of his thick skin, and by his eyes, which behaved as if the lights were always too bright. Takpusseh watched while alien soldiers attached a platform at the level of the trapdoor. The platform descended smoothly along grooves in the padding of the starboard wall. The platform might have held one alien; it held Wes and Arvid with room to spare. Wes had expected a ladder, but a ladder would be useless to these aliens.

Takpusseh and Tashayamp and eight armed soldiers waited in the corridor. The platform descended again for Dmitri and Nikolai. They had left Giorge behind.

Arvid had been hoping for a window. There were none. The soldiers moved four ahead, four behind. Takpusseh and Tashayamp moved forward to join the prisoners. They had found a wheeled cart for Nikolai. Arvid took charge of pushing it. Wes was trying to tell Tashayamp that they needed heat to prepare their food. Arvid ignored that. He was trying to get some idea of the mother ship’s layout.

The rug was spongy and squishy-wet; the prisoners had not been given shoes. Doors in the floor opened upward against the corridor wall.

“I believe,” Arvid said in Russian, “that any aperture big enough for one of the aliens would pass two or three of us at once. Perhaps they will not think to guard small openings that will pass a man.”

Dmitri nodded.

“They are surely not built for climbing. A wall that could be scaled by a man would be impossible for one of them.”

Dmitri nodded again.

“Have you seen anything I might have missed?”

Dmitri spoke. “You waited until we were in a corridor, and moving, before you said any of this. I approve, but are you certain that our trainers do not speak Russian?”

“They speak English and do not hide the fact. Why would they hide a knowledge of Russian? In any case, we must speak sometime.”

“Perhaps. Do you think we could use their rifles?”

Grooves for the branched trunk were far forward on the barrel, and so was the trigger. The bore was huge. The butt was short and very broad. “It would not fit against a man’s shoulder, and it would probably kick him senseless, unless… you’d have to brace it against something, a floor, a wall, a piece of furniture. Difficult to aim.”

“Don’t do anything at all without word from me. What of Dawson ? Will he try something foolish?”

“I—” Arvid cut it off. They had reached their destination.

The wide doorway would be used when the mother ship was under acceleration. The permanently fixed platform elevator next to it would be for use under spin gravity. The room below was big, and more than a dozen aliens were already present.

The prisoners descended; the soldiers remained above.

The aliens stared up. Most of them had their trunks folded up against the top of the heads: evidently a resting position. The eyelids drooped mournfully. The eyes had black pupils fading to smoky-gray whites. They were set wide, but not too wide to prohibit binocular vision. The thick muscle structure at the base of the trunk formed grooves; with the trunk up, the eyes focused along the grooves, like gunsights. Their stare was unnerving.

Nikolai was wire-tense, staring his captors down. Arvid murmured, “Docile, Nikolai. We docile servants of the new regime await instructions.”

Nikolai nodded. His eyes dropped He sounded calm enough. “I saw no air vents. The air may be filtered through the carpeting. And the rug was wet. They like wet feet.”

The room would have held three or four times as many. Takpusseh spoke rapidly to the assembled aliens, then more slowly to the humaqs. Arvid tried to file the introductions: Pastempehkeph. K’turfookeph. Fathisteh-tulk. Chowpeentulk. Fistartehthuktun. Koolpooleh. Paykurtank. Two smaller aliens were not introduced. They stared at the humans and huddled close against larger aliens. Children, then.

He’d have trouble remembering the names. It was the array that was important. The aliens came in clusters; he’d be a long time learning their body language, but that much was obvious.

Pastempeh-keph (male) and K’turfookeph (female), with their child (male), were the top of the ladder, the Chairman or President or Admiral. The similarity in the last syllable meant they were mated; he’d learned that much already. One would hold title. Arvid would not lightly assume that it was the male. Similarly, Fathistehtalk and Chowpeentulk were mated, and they stood with the Admiml. Advisors? The male was doing all the talking. So.

Fistarteh-thuktun (male), Koolpooleh (male), and Paykurtank (female) also formed a cluster. The extra syllables would mean that Fistarteh-thuktun had a mate. He was an old one, with wrinkled skin and pained-looking eyes… like the teacher, Takpusseh. He wore elaborate harness, like tapestry made with silver wire. He studied the humans like a judge. The pair with him were younger: clear eyes, smoother skin, quick movements.

Nikolai said, “I thought the top ranks would wear uniforms. They all wear those harnesses with the backpacks. The colors and patterns, could those—”

“Yes, insignia of rank. Dawson believes that we will not see clothing on any alien. With those bulky bodies they will have trouble shedding heat.”

“I would not have thought of that.”

The room darkened. One wall seemed to disappear, and Arvid realized that he was in a motion picture theater.

Rogachev recognized the huge Invader spacecraft, a cylinder about as wide as it was tall. The aft rim was spiky with smaller craft, and some had not been moored in place yet. An arc of worldscape, blue and white, might have been the Earth, though Arvid could not pick out any detail of landscape. A polished sphere nearby… a moon? No, it was drifting slowly.

Takpusseh was talking. Arvid caught a word here and there, and translated freely to “Watch, don’t move. You see… trip (chtapt) to (Earth?). Build… Thuktun Flishithy.” Arvid smiled. He had thought that was their name for the mother ship, and sure enough, that was what they were putting together onscreen.

He watched and didn’t move. The aliens around him were silent, motionless.

The last of the smaller craft were moved into place in seconds. This was time-lapse photography. A length of stovepipe, a little wider than Thuktun Flishithy, drifted in from the edge of the screen and was moored in place behind the ring of smaller craft.

The shiny sphere was moved into place at the fore end of the mother ship. It was bigger than all of the rest of the ship combined. A pod, perhaps a cluster of sensing instruments, reached out on a snakelike arm to peer around it.

Something fell inward from the edge of the picture: bright flames of chemical rockets around… something rectangular. It dwindled to a dot, headed straight for the ship. “Put Podo Thuktun in Thuktun Flishithy,” Takpusseh said.

That word: thuktun. He had thought it meant skill or knowledge, but-Fistarteh-thuktun? A mate for that one had not been named. Was that particular fi’ married to the ship?

All in good time. Arvid glanced at Dawson; Dawson’s eyes were riveted to the screen. That left Arvid free to covertly observe the aliens.

Five of the fithp showed signs of a lingering illness: an illness that left loose skin and wounded-looking eyes. It didn’t seem to be a matter of age — Pastempeh-keph and K’turfookeph (Admiral and mate) were not youths, but they hadn’t had the sickness either. The sick ones tended to cluster. They looked to be about the same age; the rest varied enormously.

The Admiral’s advisor and his mate were among the sick ones. Another sick one was trying to talk to them, while a female rather unsubtly tried to prevent it.

A division among the aliens might be usefuL

Wes Dawson was watching a planet recede… a world colored like Earth, blue with clotted white frosting — He spent no more than a few seconds trying to make out the shapes of continents. None were familiar. Of course not.

The Invader ship had been on camera for only a minute or so. The camera that filmed that would have remained behind. But Thukiun Fllsljithy was more than the cylindrical warship that had reached Earth. A sphere rode the nose, a tremendous fragile looking bubble in contrast to the warship’s spiky, armored look. Fuel supply, of course. And the ring — He was looking aft along Thuktun Flishithy’s flank, past a massive ring like a broad wedding band, watching a sun grow smaller. A second sun moved in from offscreen. Both shrank to bright stars: white stars, the light not too different from Earth’s own sun. He’d anticipated that from the color of the lights in his cell.

The cameras showed a steady white light behind the ring. Wes saw-and wasn’t sure he saw-the drive flame go dim, and a faint violet tinge emerge from the black background.

Wes Dawson wouldn’t have noticed a bomb going off in the theater. With a fraction of his attention he tried to track what the Instructor was saying. “Thuktun Flishithy must move very fast before we use the (long word). Saves—” something. “Halfway to Earth-star” — Earth’s sun? — “we begin to slow down. This is difficult.”

But the pictures made more sense than the words.

Time onscreen speeded up. The drive flame brightened, then died-and the background violet glow he thought he’d seen wasn’t there. Tiny machines and mote-sized aliens emerged to dislodge the bubble at the nose; the stars wheeled one, hundred and eighty degrees around; the drive flamed again, and dimmed, and the stars forward were embedded in violet-black-so he hadn’t imagined it-and Thuktun Flishithy surged past the abandoned fuel tank and onward.

The way the film jumped, a good deal of it must have been missing. Perhaps it would have shown too much interior detail. Wes took it for granted that prisoners would not learn much of the interior detail of Thuktun Flishithy. The next scene was a timelapse view of an ordinary star becoming a bright star, and brighter, until it virtually exploded in Dawson’s face. He cursed and covered his eyes, and immediately opened them again.

They must have dived within the orbit of Mercury. Somewhere in there, the white glow of the drive had brightened… and the ship’s wedding band had vanished. Dawson hadn’t noticed just when it disappeared. Now he grunted as if he’d been kicked in the stomach.

Takpusseh stopped talking, and his eyes flicked Dawson with the impact of a glare. Nobody else noticed.

The camera looked along the mother ship’s nose while Earth’s sun shrank. There were long-distance telescopic photos of Mars and Jupiter, then Saturn growing huge. The great ship moved among the moons, neared the rings, still decelerating. Wes picked out the three classic bands of the ring, separating into hundreds of bands as the ship neared. The F-ring roiled and twisted as the ship’s fusion exhaust washed across it.

Ships departed Thuktun Flishithy, launched aft along rails. The cameras didn’t follow. A telescope picked out something butterfly fragile but not as pretty. Freeze-frame. Takpusseh pointed and made noises of interrogation.

“Voyager,” Dawson said. He tried a few words of the Invader language. “We made it. My fithp. United States of America !”

“Did it come to—” garble. The instructor tried again. “To look on us? Did you know of us?”

The word must be spy. “No.”

“Then why?”

“To see Saturn.” An anger was building in Wes Dawson, and he didn’t understand it. They had come in war and killed without warning, but he’d known that for days. What new grievance — They had used Saturn! Deep in his heart Dawson felt that Saturn belonged to Earth-to mankind-to the United States that had explored Saturn system, to the science establishment and science fiction fandom. Goddaminit, Saturn is ours!

He kept his silence. The film started again, and jumped. They’d skipped something: they’d skipped most of what they were doing in Saturn system. Two crescents, Earth and Moon, were growing near. Wedge-shaped markers pointed out the United States and Soviet moon bases, artifacts in orbit, weather satellites, Soviet devices of unknown purpose, the space station…

“Question, time you know we come,” Takpusseh said. Then louder: “Time you know we come!”

“One sixth part of a year,” Arvid said in English. “A year is—” His hands moved, a forefinger circling a fist, while he spoke alien words: “Circle Earth around Earth-star.”

“You slow to fight. You know we come. Why slow?”

Why had Earth’s defenders responded so slowly? Wes said, “Earth fithp, chtaptisk fithp maybe not fight.”

“You fight,, you not fight, two is one. Earth fithp is chtaptisk fithp. Sooner if Earth fithp not fight.”

The last time Wes Dawson had felt like this, he had put his fist into a Hell’s Angel’s mouth just as far as it would go. “You came to make war? Only to make war?”

“Make war, yes,” Takpusseh said, as if relieved to be understood.

Wes barely felt a large hand closing on his arm, above the elbow. “What can you take, move to fithp world?” What could they possibly hope to steal? They’d dropped too much of their craft; they’d be lucky to return home themselves!

“Earth is world for chtaptisk fithp,” Takpusseh said.

Warriors had come at Takpusseh’s bellow. The humans were gone now. Fathisteh-tulk helped Takpusseh to his feet. “Are you injured?”

“My pride hurts worse than my eye-and snnfp. Dawson surprised me entirely. They look so fragile!”

“They don’t know when to fight and they don’t know how to surrender,” the Herdmaster’s Advisor said. “One would think that would be good news for the invasion, but I wonder.”

“ Dawson is mad,” Breaker-One Raztupisp-minz said. “His behavior tells us nothing. Must we keep him?”

“He is a puzzle that needs cracking. He speaks English as his native language, and we will need that too until the others know the speech of the fithp a srupk or two better.”

“They must surrender, at once, formally,” Raztupisp-minz stated. “We should have taught them how, and much earlier, so that they can teach future prisoners.”

The memory flashed in Takpusseh’s mind; it hurt worse than his eye. Takpusseh realized why he had delayed this crucial step. “Of course you’re right, Breaker-One. I want to visit the medical section. I’ll meet you afterward, above the restraining cell.”

It hurt to breathe, but he had to breathe. Hands were on him, probing a stabbing agony in his ribs. Wes gasped and fought to open his eyes. Red mist… gradually clearing… the shapes around him resolved into human faces…

“What happened?”

“You attacked the teacher, Takpusseh. I tried to stop you.” Dmitri said. “Do you remember?”

Seeing red… but his mind must have been working well on some level. He hadn’t just swung a fist. He’d lunged forward and reached between the branches of Takpusseh’s trunk, closed his fingers hard in Takpusseh’s nostril, and pulled back savagely to keep himself moving. The teacher screamed; his digits had whipped around Wes’s rib cage. With his ribs collapsing and the air sighing out of him, Wes Dawson reached along the trunk and slid his thumb under Takpusseh’s thick right eyelid-was he flying?-and did his damnedest to twist it off. He didn’t remember any more.

“Why did you do it?”

“They never had the least intention of negotiating anything,” he said. “They came to take the Earth away from us.”

Dmitri Grushin took Dawson’s chin in his hand and twisted it to put them eye to eye. “Do not attack them again. You would kill us all for nothing. For nothing.”

They were quiet for some time. Then Arvid and Dmitri began to talk. Wes, with too little Russian, quickly lost track. He was more interested in the pictures in his own mind.

Presently he asked, “Did you notice? They threw away half their ship.”

“Yes,” Arvid said. “The external fuel tank, and the massive looking ring.”

“I think it was a modified Bussard ramjet.”

“Explain.”

“It’s a way of reaching the stars. Fusion drive, but you get your fuel by scooping up interstellar hydrogen.”

Arvid dismissed that. “Certainly nobody has ever built a Bussard ramjet. How would you recognize one?’

“After they got going they changed something. It made a violet glow behind the ship. Arvid, the point is that they threw it away when they got here. It was used to cross interstellar space, and they dropped it. They let it fall back toward the stars. They’re serious. They’ve got no plans to go home.”

“I was more interested in watching our captors. So. They dropped it to save weight, of course, but… well. As if your ancestors had burned the Mayflower. Yes, they came to stay.” Arvid’s eyes went to the trapdoor in the ceiling, which once again was closed against them. “Did you notice anything else worthy of comment?”

Wes pounded a fist on his knee, twice. “They were at Saturn when the Voyagers went by. They spent years there. We might have noticed something if Saturn wasn’t so weird. We’d have had fifteen years warning!”

“It is difficult to put the mushroom cloud back iato the steel casing.”

“At least we know this is the mother ship. This is all they’ve got.”

“They did not exceed lightspeed?”

“They didn’t even come very close.” Wes had been watching for the effect of relativity; stars blue-shifted ahead and reddened aft. It hadn’t happened.

“Good. They cannot expect help. But they must be desperate. Where can they go if we defeat them?”

“They’ll have to land sometime. They must expect to beat us on the ground. They’re crazy.”

Arvid saw no reason to answer. Dawson was not of his nation. But any cosmonaut knew that from a military standpoint the command of space was priceless. The Soviet Union , which had always expected to rule the world, had held that position until three days ago.

“Yeah. Well. They didn’t show much of the inside of the ship. They showed only the last leg of their approach to Earth. They showed the mother ship being refueled, but they didn’t show where the fuel came from. So maybe they scooped methane snow off a moon and refined deuterium and tritium out of it. But why didn’t they show that? They’re hiding something.”

“Of course.”

“Something specific.”

“Of course.”

The trapdoor swung open.

The platform descended into a wary silence. Takpusseh was quite alone. His right eye was covered with soft white cloth. Another patch covered his nostril. He carried his branched trunk

at an odd angle. A second fi’ followed him down. The soldiers remained above.

The Breakers faced the humans alone.

The captives looked harmless enough. They were clustered in a corner, frightened, wary. The black one was on his back and trying to roll over. He seemed to be just becoming aware of the aliens.

Raztupisp-minz told them, “Move away from the dark one.”

The humans discussed it. Instant obedience would have been reassuring, but in fact they seemed to be interpreting for each other. Then they moved away. The black one protested and tried to move in the same direction, Then his eyes fixed on Raztupispminz. He breathed as if the chamber had lost its air, his eyes and mouth opened improbably wide, as Raztupisp-minz walked toward him.

Raztupisp-minz set his foot solidly on the black man’s chest.

He lifted it and backed away. “You,” he said, and his digits indicated the crippled one. “Come.”

The humans discussed it heatedly. Then Nikolai pulled himself across the floor on his hands.

Dawson had moved, without permission. He knelt by the black man with his bony digits on the man’s throat. He spoke to the others, in English. “Dead.”

Tnkpusseh let it pass rather than interrupt the ceremony.

“Roll,” Raztupisp-minz said, and he rotated his digits in a circle. Nikolai didn’t appear to understand. Raztupisp-minz forcibly rolled the man onto his back, set his foot on the man’s chest, and stepped away. He pointed to another. “You.”

One by one the Soviets submitted to the foot on the chest until only Dawson was left, Then, as they had discussed, Raztupispminz stepped aside and Takpusseh came forward.

The man stood balanced, forelegs slightly bent, hands open, palms outward, It came to Takpusseh that Dawson expected to die.

It wouldn’t bother Takpusseh that much if he did. He swung his digits with nearly his full strength. Dawson ducked under it, fast, and lunged forward. Takpusseh caught him on the backswing and flung him spinning across the cell and against a wall. As the man started to topple. Takpusseh was there, catching him and rolling him on his back. The man blinked, opened his eyes and mouth wide. Frozen in fear? Takpusseh raised his foot over Dawson’s chest.

I was almost the last to be thawed awake. Some of the sleepers were brain-damaged. They fought, or they didn’t respond at all. Most accepted the change.

It was Breaker-One Raztupisp-minz who accepted their formal surrender. My grandson, though older than I, discounting the eights of years slept. This was nothing new to him.

His task it was to break me too. Nonetheless he was uncomfortable, because we are related, or because afterward 1 must teach him his profession. “Your position won’t change, Grandfather. Who but you has the training to break alien forms of life to the Traveler Herd? But the Traveler Herd has changed, and you must join it again.”

I roll over on the floor, feet in the air, trunk splayed, vulnerable. Others watch. My spaceborn grandson’s foot on my chest. “There, that’s over. Now you must begin to train me,” his voice dropping, for my ears alone. “to break me. I must know something of what we must do.”

I feel it now, the foot lightly crushing my chest. Takpusseh lowered his foot. A mere tap would not do; this was no token surrender. He felt the man’s ribs sag before he lifted his foot.

Dawson waited for more, but there was no more. He rolled Side, convulsively, groaning with the pain of damaged ribs.

“Now you belong to the Traveler Herd,” Takpusseh said in his own speech. He saw Dawson take it in and relax somewhat. Dawson moved to join the other prisoners. “Is the black one dead?” Takpusseh asked. “What killed him?”

The one called Dmitri answered in the fithp speech. “Fear you. Fear foot make dead. Take him out?”

Takpusseh summoned the warriors. Two came down and moved the black man onto the platform. It rose. It descended to take the fithp up one by one. Takpusseh went last.

17. FARMHOUSES

Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this. To win one hundied victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

—SUN-TZU, The Art of War

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS 100 HOURS

The house had belonged to Carlotta’s grandmother. Trujillo had married Castro had married de Alvarez, families whose names were respected when the Lowells and Cabots were field hands. Carlotta’s sister Juana had inherited the house. She married a man with the unlikely name of David Morgan.

Of course Dawson wasn’t exactly in our conquistador heritage either. Carlotta lay in the exact center of the big four-poster and tried to count the spots on the ceiling. Thoughts came unbidden.

Her superb imagination showed her a torn puffball of a corpse, dry and brittle, falling through vacuum and the savage sunlight of space. A dissection table with monstrous shapes around it. A carved corpse, the parts arrayed on a silver platter, surrounded by cooked plants of unearthly shape; voices chittering or booming as the banquet began.

No! She leaped from the bed. The floor creaked as she scurried across the room to the door. The house was old, begun as a ranch house before the Civil War, added to as family required and money enabled. It had been built in clumps, and not all the additions fitted well together, although Carlotta rather liked the general effect. Now it had only four inhabitants, Carlotta, David, Juana, and an ancient housekeeper from Xuahaca who called herself Lucy. Juana’s children had long moved away.

And Sharon is in Peterborough , New Hampshire . Will I ever see her again? Thank God the telephones worked long enough for me to tell her to stay there. How could she travel?

Bright sunlight flooded the ball outside her bedroom, and when she reached the kitchen the windup clock said it was midafternoon. Lucy had put away the gin bottle. Or did I finish it to get to sleep? There should be some left in it. She went to the cabinet, but she felt Lucy’s disapproving stare.

“Desayuno, Senora?”

“Gracias, no. Por favor, solamente cafe.” And damned right I’m going to sit on the patio in my housecoat. Who’s going to see me, or care if they do?

The patio was too large. When Carlotta had visited as a child, the gardens were famous through the state. Pumpkins, melons, vegetables-all won prizes at county and state fairs. Now there was a big flagstone patio where the melon patch had been, and a field of sweet peas where celery and chard had grown. No gardeners. Plenty of people unemployed, but no one wants to raise vegetables for a retired professor and his wife. But it does make a nice patio. She sat at the big wrought-iron table. Lucy was setting the coffee down when the thunder began.

Thunder from a clear sky was not unheard of in Kansas , but this didn’t come in claps and die away. It rolled in and stayed, renewed itself, grew louder and faded and grew louder still.

Then brilliant points were drawing straight white lines across the sky, sowing clouds of dots that drifted away to west and south. Lucy whimpered in terror, and the need to reassure the older woman kept Carlotta calm. Invasion. Parachutes. What came for Wes has come for me. But nothing showed directly overhead. Not here. Not yet, anyway.

“Carla,” a voice spoke from behind her.

“Yes, Juana?”

“What is happening?” The noise had brought her sister outside. Juana Morgan held a small transistor radio that poured out static as she frantically turned the tuning knob this way and that.

For once you will not look disapprovingly at me in my housecoat in mid-afternoon. “Vapor trails, I think, Perhaps the professor will know.”

“He went to town to buy newspapers.” Juana paused. “And more gin.”

“Ah.” Carlotta shrugged, and glanced significantly at Lucy. “They’re not coming here,” she said. “Miles away. Not to Dighton, either.”

“Are you sure?” Juana demanded.

“Yes.” How the hell can I be sure? And what could we do about it if they were coming here, or to Dighton? It’s ten miles to Dighton, and David has the only damned car—

“David didn’t think they’d come, either,” Juana said. “But his

National Guard colonel wanted to mobilize. Maybe that’s where David is! With the Guard.”

“Could be.” What good is that? Bunch of old men with worn out equipment… Wes always voted for bigger appropriations for the Guard, but nobody was really pushing it.

“Lucy, perhaps it would be well to get out the candles and the storm lanterns,” Juana said.

“Si.” Lucy shuffled away, still glancing up at the sky and looking away in fear.

“Give her something to do and she bears up well,” Carlotta said. She stared at the open work of the tabletop. “I wish I had something to do.”

“So do I.”

Carlotta nodded. “Yeah. I wouldn’t approve of me as a houseguest either.”

“It’s as much your house as mine,” Juana said. “I haven’t forgotten how much you and Wes loaned us.” She sat across from Carlotta. “Hell, get smashed every night if that’s what it takes. You really loved the guy, didn’t you?”

“Yes. Still do.”

“Sorry—”

“You don’t know he’s dead.”

“No.” There was another peal of thunder. Juana shuddered. “I wish it had happened to me.”

Carlotta frowned.

“I mean, that it had been David up there. Instead of Wes. Damn. That sounds horrible. I mean-well, you’re really in love with Wes. It’s breaking you up. I’d miss David; we’re very comfortable together, but-well, I wouldn’t be like you. I hate to see you like this, Carla. You were always the strong one—”

“Yeah. I sure look it, don’t I. Oh damn, Juana, damn, damn, damn, what am I going to do?”

Juana looked up at the dot-filled skies and shuddered.

The motorcycle was intact. Harry looked around furtively. No sign of the enemy. He lifted the motorcycle and stood it on its stand.

The saddlebags with his gear had vanished. They’d taken them along with Jeri and Melissa—

God damn the bastards! Harry cursed steadily until he had control of himself. Then he felt ashamed. Cursing wouldn’t change the situation. He’d lost two women he was supposed to protect. The fact that he couldn’t have done anything about it didn’t help much.

He felt a lump in his pocket. The little .25 Beretta was still there. They hadn’t bothered to search him. He thought about that for a moment, then began to search the wheat field. Sure enough, a blue-gray object was just visible in the wheat. The .45 automatic, with dirt in the barrel. One of the invaders must have flung it aside.

Why the saddlebags, then? Clothes? Jeri’s and Melissa’s clothing. Which means they’ll be keeping the girls. Why take them and not me? But there was no answer to that.

The motorcycle started easily enough. It hadn’t been damaged at all. He heard noises ahead. The Invaders were still in Logan . Harry cleaned out the barrel while he felt something stir in his guts, but then he shook his head. It would be pointless. The Invaders wore body armor. His pistol hadn’t done him any good at all when there were only a few of them. Charging into Logan to rescue Jeri wouldn’t do Jeri any good. She might not even be there any longer.

He tried to remember the map. That part of Kansas was laid out in a grid, roads at section and range boundaries, other roads parallel to them. Few diagonal roads. Farmhouses at regular intervals. Dirt tracks crossed the wheat fields. Those tended to parallel the main roads, too, but they led to farmhouses, not towns.

Logan was several miles ahead Harry gambled that there’d be a farm access mad leading north before he came into sight of the Invaders. He put the pistol into his kidney belt where he could reach it easily, and started off east.

He saw the smoke long before he reached the ruined farmhouse. He came up slowly, ready to leap off the motorcycle and run into the wheat. He stopped several times to listen, but there was nothing to hear. The dirt road led through the wheat fields to the farmhouse. He could go back the way he’d come; or go on. He went on.

The house itself was a wreck, roof sagging, doors torn from their hinges, but it hadn’t burned. The barn was burned to ashes. The bodies of a man and two dogs lay in the dusty yard between the house and the barn. A shotgun lay across the man’s chest.

Another dog whimpered from under the wreckage of the farmhouse.

“Ho! Anyone home?” Harry shouted. There was no answer except the whimpering of the dog. He stopped the motorcycle and got off. Large tracks were visible in the dust. They didn’t really look like the tracks of elephants, because they left claw marks. Nothing on Earth left tracks like that.

He stalked cautiously around the yard, and after a while he went inside the house. There were women’s clothes in the closet with the farmer’s clothes. Another room had been occupied by a boy. Harry guessed he’d been about Melissa’s age, ten or eleven. A model of the starship Enterprise hung from the ceiling and toy guns stood in the corner. Clothing for a small boy was flung onto the floor. Two dresser drawers were empty.

Prisoners? They’re taking women and children, but not men? That doesn’t make sense.

There were letters scattered across the front room floor. John Thomas Kensington, RFD #3… Harry went back outside. Kensington lay on his back, his eyes staring upward to the sky. He’d been torn in two halves by one shot. The bore on those alien guns was as big as a fist. Twenty yards from his body the ground had been torn up by something large thrashing in the dust, and there were dark stains. John Thomas Kensington had sold his farm dearly. Harry saluted and went back into the collapsing house.

They take their dead with them. Dead or wounded. A shotgun ought to do some damage at hat range. Wonder what he was using?

The refrigerator had been wrecked, but the food inside wasn’t spoiled. Harry rooted around until he found bread and cheese and lunch meat and made a sandwich. While he was looking for bread he found a box of shells for the shotgun. It was number six bird shot, suitable for doves and quail. Not much of a load for elephants. He waited until he’d eaten before he went to take the gun from the man’s lifeless fingers.

The dog under the porch continued to whimper.

Bury the dead? Shoot the dog before it turns feral or starves?

Harry had always believed himself tough, but he’d never thought he’d be faced with decisions like this. Dead bodies were matters for the police and the coroner’s office and the undertakers.

There won’t be a coroner. Harry went looking for a shovel.

He made another dozen miles before the sonic boom tore at his ears. Harry braked the motorcycle and looked up. Three contrails led from the west, passing nearly overhead. Harry cheered. “Go get the bastards!” he shouted.

As he watched, one of the contrails broke into a ball of black smoke. Something bright seemed to stab upward from the east, and the second contrail died. The third traced a complex curve; then it, too, ended in a ball of black smoke.

“Damn. Damn and hell.” Harry started the bike again.

The big situation map in the war room changed every few minutes, but no one was sure how current its information was. A vast area of Kansas , stretching northward into Nebraska , was covered with bright red symbols. Someone had finally got stylized parachutes to show where alien units had landed. They covered an area that looked much like an amoeba, with its nucleus at Great Bend . Pseudopods reached east and west.

The Situation Room was the center of the underground North American Air Defense complex. It was located under nearly a mile of granite, separated from the outside world by sealed corridors, water barriers, guard rooms, and more granite. A row of offices overlooked the Situation Room. Jack Clybourne stood outside one of the office doors.

Jenny came up to him and winked. He didn’t respond. “I’m supposed to report to Admiral Carrell,” Jenny said. Her voice held slight irritation.

“Sure.” Jack shook his head. “Sorry, hon. I’m about as useful as a fifth leg here. Where’s the President safer? But I’m the only Presidential Protective Unit agent here, and I have to act like it.”

“Yeah. Look, there’s no such thing as off duty down here, but we have to eat sometimes. Sleep, too…Dinner tonight?”

“I’d love that—”

“I’ll be around.” She grinned. “If they leave the door open, be sure to watch the screens.”

“You’ve got pictures of the aliens?”

“We think so.” Jenny tapped at the door. It wasn’t closed properly, and the door swung open. One wall of the office was glass. It overlooked the big screen displays and control consoles on the floor below. There was one desk. President David Coffey sat there staring at the maps. Admiral Carrell stood next to him. General bland stood grimly on the other side of the desk from Carrell, his lips a tight line.

“Roughly a circle,” Admiral Carrell said.

“But what do they want?” the President asked.

“This is obviously a reconnaissance in force,” Carrell said. He shook his head. “As to what their ultimate aims might be, I don’t know, sir.” He looked up to see Jenny at the door. “Come in, Major. Have your intelligence people got the displays ready?”

“Yes, sir. We have reports from refugees, and some pictures one brought out. The pictures should be up from the lab any minute.”

“Have you seen them?”

“No, sir, they’re color, and you don’t look at color while it’s being developed.”

“But you have descriptions?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, tell us!” the President demanded.

“Mr. President-sir, it will only be another minute until the pictures are ready. I’d-sir, I’d rather you saw for yourself.”

“Refugee reports,” General Toland said. “They’re letting people out, then?”

“Yes, sir, if they’re walking. No vehicles allowed out. Anyone who goes out is required to undergo a sort of ceremony.”

“Ceremony?”

“Yes, sir. They-the science-fiction people say it’s reasonable, given the way the aliens look, but—”

“Major, your air of mystery is rapidly becoming tiresome,” Admiral Carrell said.

The phone chirped. Saved.

The Admiral lifted the phone. “Carrell… Yes, put the photographs up on the big screens. Let everyone see what we’re up against.”

There were five screens. One by one they filled with pictures of baby elephants. Some hung from paper airplanes and wore elevator shoes. Others were on foot. All earned weirdly shaped rifles.

Laughter sounded on the floor below, but it soon died away as the screen showed photographs of ruined buildings and wrecked cars, with alien shapes in the foreground. Bodies lay in the background of most of the pictures.

Jenny studied the photographs. They were quite good; the photographer who’d taken them said she’d sold to Sports Illustrated and other major magazines. That’s the enemy.

“They do look like elephants,” Admiral Carrell said.

“Yes, sir,” Jenny said. “But they’re not really elephants.”

“No. They’re invaders,” General Toland said.

The President studied the screens carefully, then turned to Jenny. “This ceremony. What was it?”

“Before they’ll let anyone leave the area they control, they make you lie down on your back, arms stretched out overhead. Then one of the-aliens-puts his foot on you. After that you’re free to go.”

“And your sci-fi people think that’s reasonable?” the President asked.

“Yes, sir. The way the aliens are built, they must think in terms of trampling their enemies beneath their feet. They may be the biggest animals on their planet. Most Earth species have a surrender ritual. This is theirs.”

The President nodded slowly.

God, he looks awful. I wonder if he got any sleep at all?

“Do your experts have any theories on what the invaders want?” the President demanded.

“The Earth,” Jenny said.

General Toland was adamant. “Kick their butts, don’t piss on them,” he said. “Mr. President, we cannot commit our forces piecemeal! You’ve got to let me gather my strength before we go in there.”

“American citizens are being killed there. Property destroyed. God damn it, they’ve invaded the United States .” David Coffey’s voice was cold with anger. His hands gripped the arms of his chair. “We have to do something! What’s the Army for if it can’t defend the nation?”

Toland fought visibly to control himself.

“That is hardly fair, Mr. President,” Admiral Carrell said. “The Army is not generally deployed to fight enemies within the nation.”

“If they’d let us call up some reservists before that goddam ship got here,” General Toland muttered. “Mr. President, I’m doing all I can. Our best units are in Europe and Central America and Lebanon , and there’s no chance we can get those troops home. Not while the enemy dominates space. They can see everything we do!”

See it and kill it, Jenny thought. Lasers for the airplanes, kinetic energy weapons for ships…

“So when will we be able to do something for our people, General Toland?” the President demanded.

“Two more days,sir. I hope. Mr. President, we can’t mass our forces! The commander at Fort Knox loaded tanks onto a train to send west. They hit the train. Their air defenses are superb. Anything we send into that area either gets zapped from space or hit by a ground-launched missile.”

“Or worse,” Jenny said.

They all looked at her.

“They’re setting up ground-based laser defense systems. The reports are just coming in. I’ll have them on the screens in a few minutes.”

“Lasers,” the President said.

“Yes, sir. Much better than ours.”

“So what the hell are they doing with them?” General Toland demanded.

Jenny shook her head. “We don’t know, sir. It appears they’re setting up a strong perimeter defense inside the area they control — but we don’t know, because we can’t get inside there to find out.”

“So they have it all their way.” The President’s voice was low and tired, as if he’d already been defeated.

It frightened Jenny. “Not all their way, sir,” she said. “Some reports get out. Mostly ham radio. They don’t get to broadcast long before something smashes them. Also, there’s bound to be resistance. National Guardsmen. Farmers with deer rifles.”

“Sure, they’ll fight,” Toland said. “Even without orders.”

Jenny nodded. “But they’ll be disorganized. We can’t communicate!”

“And there’s nothing else we can do?” the President asked. There was despair in his voice. “With all our power, all our nuclear arsenal-can’t we use nukes on them?”

“They’re all mixed in with our people,” Admiral Carrell said.

“General, do something. Hurt them,” the President said. “Hit them hard. Isn’t there any place where there are a lot of them, and none of our people?”

“None, no. Not many, yes,” Toland said.

The President stared grimly at the screens. “Hurt them. Now. It will help American morale.”

“But, sir—”

“That was an order, General.”

Toland snapped to attention. “Yes, sir. I take it you don’t want a general bombardment.”

“No. But they can’t have it all their way. We have to hurt them. How else will we drive them out of America ?”

Why are we so sure we can do it? Jenny almost blurted it out.

“We may not be able to drive them out,” Admiral Carrell said. “We may simply have to kill them all.”

“It may come to that,” General Toland said. “It comes under the heading of destroying the country in order to save it. What we need is neutron weapons.”

“What would they do?”

“They kill without destroying the cities.” General Toland drummed his fingers against the glass wall of the office. “If our people are inside, behind stone walls, in basements-don’t most Kansans have root cellars? Places underground?”

“Many do,” the President said.

“A few feet of dirt would protect our people,” Toland said. “If the elephants are out in the open, we could zap them without destroying Kansas. Only trouble is, we don’t have the bombs.”

“Why not?”

“The few we have are in Europe ,” Admiral Carrell said carefully. “Because of public protest, we were never allowed to manufacture any large number of neutron weapons. I have asked the laboratories at Sandia and Los Alamos to try to assemble makeshift enhanced radiation weapons, but they cannot give us a schedule for their delivery.”

“But this is insane,” the President said. “A few thousand elephants-how many are there, anyway?’

“We don’t know,” Jenny admitted. “Certainly fewer than fifty thousand.”

“Even so, it must be a significant part of their ground combat strength,” General Toland said. “More troops than they can afford

to lose. If we kill them all, they may have to leave us alone in future.”

“They still control space,” Admiral Carrell said. “Major Crichton, you look like a lady who wants to say something.”

“Yes, sir,” Jenny answered. “You asked me to get the science fiction people to work. It wasn’t hard. They’ve got a number of ideas about the war.”

“Well?” the President demanded.

“Sir, I think it would be better if you heard for yourself.”

David Coffey frowned. Then suddenly he grinned. “Sure, why not? As you say, they’re the only experts we have.”

When night came, David Morgan still wasn’t home. No gin, either, Carlotta thought. Only two inches in this bottle. She’d found blackberry wine in the root cellar. It would have to do.

They sat by candlelight in the living room. There were distant sounds of thunder, and far to the east and south were flashes of light.

The skies were clear overhead. Juana sat next to a kerosene lamp with a Jane Austen novel.

“Aren’t you worried?” Carlotta asked.

“Sure, but what good does that do? David’s got a good car and a rifle. He can’t phone. What should I do?”

“I don’t know. What about—” She paused, and after a moment there were more distant sounds. “About that?”

“Nothing we can do. Should we run away? Where would we go? It’s miles to the nearest house, and Lucy can’t walk that far.”

“Don’t you have another car?”

“Not one that works. Even if we did, where would you rather be?”

“I don’t know. Want some wine?”

“No.”

And you don’t think I should, either. To hell with you. Carlotta drank the blackberry wine. It was much too sweet.

Morning came, bright and clear and cloudless, a glorious Kansas day except for ominous black clouds rising far away in the east. There was still no sign of Professor Morgan. Carlotta and Juana sat outside on the patio with coffee. The night sounds were gone. An hour passed, then part of another; then there were noises, and dust to the west.

“Cars. Trucks. Lots of them,” Juana said. She listened again. “Sound strange. Now maybe is a good time to run.”

“What’s the difference?” Carlotta asked. Maybe they’ll know something about Wes!

Juana peered down the mad. “It’s the army!” she shouted. “Our army!”

Carlotta was almost disappointed.

She counted a dozen tanks, and five truckloads of soldiers. They came up the drive and circled on both sides of the house, going right on past and out toward the abandoned barn. One vehicle that looked like a tank, but had wheels, drove up to the house and stopped. An elderly officer with a graying mustache got out.

“Joe!” Juana called.

He saluted. “Lieutenant Colonel Halverson, Kansas Militia, ma’am.” He tried to grin. “Come to see if you need help.”

“Have you seen David?” Juana demanded.

“Yes, ma’am, Major Morgan will be along in a bit. He helped us round up troops. Thought he ought to come home last night and tell you, but he said you’d understand, and we sure did need him, him and that four-wheel of his.”

“What do you intend, Colonel?” Carlotta asked. She remembered she was dressed in a wrinkled housecoat, and was ashamed.

“This is my sister,” Juana said.

“Mrs. Dawson?” Halverson asked. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.” He climbed down off the armored car. “As to what we intend, well, first I’m waiting for my helicopters. Takes time to get them spruced up. Meantime, we came out to see if you needed help. When the choppers get here, we’re going south and east until we see what the hell has invaded us.”

Carlotta nodded. A dozen tanks, two of those armored car things, trucks. And helicopters. Weekend warriors. Most of them are pretty old, but — “You look formidable enough. Fast work.”

“Started mobilizing the Guard the night they started shooting,” Halverson said. There was pride in his voice. “Been rounding up troops from all over the county. Would have called Major Morgan, but the phones were out. Lucky we ran into him in town.”

“But what is happening?”

Halverson shrugged. “Juana, we haven’t been in touch with any government above the county seat since those-aliens started shooting. Phones don’t work, nothing but static on the radios. Most of our communications stuff was designed to work with satellites, and we sure as hell don’t have any of those left. Even so—” His back straightened. “I don’t figure Washington wants me to just sit back and wait for orders, not while they’re dropping out of the skies! Soon as my choppers get here, we’re going to show ’em what it means to mess around with Americans. Especially Kansas Jayhawks!”

18. THE JAYHAWK WAR

A general never knows anything with certainty, never sees his enemy plainly, nor knows positively where he is. The most experienced eye cannot be certain whether it sees the whole of the enemy’s army, or only three-tenths of it. It is by the eyes of the mind, by the combination of all reasoning, by a sort of inspiration, that the general sees, commands and judges.

—NAPOLEON BONAPARTE, Memoirs

COUNTDOWN: H PLUS 120 HOURS

Harry spent the night in a wheat field, using wheat straw for bedding and more of it piled on top to stay warm, He didn’t dare risk a fire. There were flashes and thunder all around him. By counting time between flash and sound, he estimated some were as close as three miles, far too close.

Morning came, and he missed Jeri’s camp stove and cocoa. Can’t think about that. Got to get moving. But goddammit. 1 should have done something; 1 should have saved her. Hell, I should have left her by her car-she’d have been safer’ Come with me. I’ll take care of you, shit—

The motorcycle ran fine. He estimated that he had another twenty miles to go, and fuel for thirty.

Harry turned up the lane toward the big house and shook his head in disbelief. Made it, by God! At least it certainly looked like the place Wes had once described, and it was on the right road, ten miles west of Dighton, and there was no other house within a mile.

It was nearly noon. The skies were blue and clear, and there were only occasional thunderclaps and flashes of colored light.

He frowned. An army Light Armored Vehicle stood in front of the house. There were deep tread marks on both sides of the drive, leading out behind the house. Half a mile out through the fields were at least six tanks, a couple of obsolete M-1 Abrams tanks and at least two Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles.

A big blue GM Jimmy four-wheel-drive truck stood in the driveway beside the LAV. Harry nodded at it approvingly. He let the motorcycle coast up to the front porch. Two soldiers older than Harry sat on top of the armored car. One waved at Harry.

“Hi,” Harry called.

“Hi,” one of the soldiers answered.

Something moved behind the glass-paneled front window.

“Is Mrs. Dawson at home?” Harry asked. No point in asking why the army had surrounded the house.

“Think so,” a sergeant said. “Hey, Juana, visitor for your sister.

“The front door opened. Carlotta Dawson, in blue jeans, her hair bundled into a kerchief, rushed down the steps. She didn’t say anything. She just grabbed Harry and pulled herself against him, burying her face in his beard.

She stood that way for a moment, then looked up at the soldiers on the LAV. “He came all the way from L.A. ,” she said. “To help me.”

“Tough going?” the sergeant asked.

“Some,” Harry said.

“Heard it was bad out west.”

“Hoover Dam’s gone,” Harry said. “They took out all the cities along the Colorado River . Same thing happened with all the dams along the Platte . They seem to like hitting dams.”

An officer came out of the house. “Colonel Halverson, this is Harry Reddington,” Carlotta said. “A friend of-of Wes and me. He’s come from L.A. Harry, you must be starved.”

“Yeah, but, Miz Dawson, we’ve got to move. The damned elephants”

“Elephants?” Colonel Halverson demanded. “Elephants?”

“Yes, sir,” Harry said. “The invaders—”

“Why do you say elephants?”

“They look like baby elephants with two trunks.”

“You’ve seen them, then?”

“Yes, sir, I sure have.” Harry winced. This wasn’t going to be easy. Why tell it at all? “Shot one, too, but they wear armor, so I doubt if I hurt it.”

“Armor?”

“Yeah. Body armor, and they have rifles. They kill people. They kidnapped-they took some people prisoner from a farmhouse. Killed the farmer.”

“Just how close did you get to them?”

Harry shuddered, “Too damn close! Close as you and me!” One stood on my chest — He wouldn’t say that. It shamed him.

Halverson looked skeptical. “How’d you get away from them?”

“They let me go. Look, you guys do what you want, but Mrs. Dawson and me have to get out of here. They’re all around, it’s damned lucky they didn’t get here yet.”

“Tell me more,” Colonel Halverson said. “Tell me everything.”

“There’s just not that much,” Harry said. They wore elevator shoes and they came down on paper airplanes. If I say that — “They came down on hang gliders. Then bigger stuff landed”

“How big? Where?”

“Near Logan . They had flying things about as big as a jetliner only not so wide in the wings. And a floating thing about as big as a diesel semi. That’s what I saw. There may have been bigger.”

“Tanks? Field guns?”

“None I saw.”

“And they let you go?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“They let others go?”

“Yes—”

“From Logan . Southwest of here.” Halverson pounded