Captain Richard Aston, US Navy, soon to be retired, lounged back and watched Amanda's self-steering gear work. A brisk westerly pushed the fifty-foot ketch along, and he supposed it might have been called a quiet night, except that it was never quiet on a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. His radio muttered softly to him through the open companion, for he'd found himself unexpectedly hungry for the sound of other human voices as the sunset faded into purple twilight, yet the night-struck ocean spoke to him in voices of its own. Wind whispered in the rigging, Amanda herself creaked and murmured as she worked through the swell, and the splash and gurgle of water was everywhere, from the rippling chuckle of the bow wave to the bubble of the wake and the sounds of the rudder.
His pipe went out, and he considered going below for more tobacco, but the idle thought never rose much above the surface of his subconscious. For a change, he was too comfortable even to think about moving.
He smiled lazily. Single-handing across the Atlantic was hardly the restful occupation many an armchair sailor thought, and the last week had been strenuous. High winds and wicked seas had given him more than a few anxious moments two days ago, but Amanda's deep, heavily weighted keel gave her tremendous stability, even in a high wind and despite her unusually lofty rig. And then the wind had whistled away, the seas had smoothed, and, at least for the moment, the Atlantic had donned the mask of welcome.
He knew it was a mask. A lie, really. It was a game the ocean played, this pretending to be a gentle, docile thing. But he loved it anyway, in part because he knew it was a lie. If it was a game, then they both played it, he thought, waxing poetic in his relaxation, and knowing that it only made moments like this even more to be treasured.
He raised a shielding hand against his running lights and stared up at the sky. The stars were incredibly brilliant out here, away from the pollution and light glare of the land. That was one of the other things he loved about sailing at night—the sheer beauty of the star-spangled vault above him. He always saw it as a sea of dark, cobalt velvet strewn with gems, though it wasn't an image he'd ever been able to share comfortably with most of his professional colleagues. It would have sounded a bit strange from a hulking, far from handsome, slightly bent and battered fellow like him.
He lowered his hand and glanced at the reassuring shape of his radar reflector. He preferred to sleep during the day at sea, for merchant ships had grown increasingly careless about keeping close visual lookouts in the age of radar, and Dick Aston knew enough about technology to trust it no further than he must. Radar reflectors were all very well, but they relied upon functional radar on the other end, and lackadaisical visual lookouts were more likely to spot his bright red sails by daylight than in the dark. Taken all in all, he chose to spend his nights at sea making sure he saw anybody else before they didn't see him. And, of course, there were the stars, weren't there?
He glanced back up and frowned in sudden surprise. What the—?
His left hand groped in a locker, feeling for his powerful binoculars, but he never lowered his eyes from the brilliant streaks tracing fiery paths through the night. They seemed to be descending, but that wasn't all they were doing—not by a long chalk! They looked almost like shooting stars, but he'd never heard of meteors that changed trajectory in mid-course!
He jammed the binoculars to his eyes, adjusting to Amanda's movement with practiced ease as he held the flaming lines in his field of vision. It was no help; whatever they were, they were far too distant to make out details, even with the glasses. In fact, they must be at one hell of an altitude for him to see them at all at this range!
They seemed to be heading roughly in his direction, but they were dropping rapidly towards the southern horizon. Whatever they were, they looked like they'd impact long before—
He froze as a spark suddenly separated from one whatever-they-were and streaked away, dancing crazily. Damn it, that had to be a controlled flight path! No free-falling object would pursue such an insane course. It was almost as if the thing were taking evasive action!
The thought popped into his mind and lodged there as one of the other light streaks arced impossibly back towards the fleeing spark. He watched intently, then winced—even at this distance—at the suddenly redoubled brilliance as the dot which had spawned the spark hurled a pair of fiery darts at the pursuing one . . . just before still more brilliant specks lanced out from the pursuer, heading for the spark!
He blinked rapidly, compensating for the painful intensity of those flashes. In 1973, Lieutenant (j.g.) Dick Aston had found himself in the Sinai, attached to the Israeli army as an observer, and he'd never forgotten the morning he'd watched a massed Israeli-Egyptian dogfight. He remembered the smoke trails of the missiles, the suddenness and silence with which they'd appeared so high above, the white wakes of contrails and the plunging black and red fireballs of broken aircraft. He remembered well . . . and somehow he knew he was seeing an insane echo of that long ago madness.
It was ridiculous. Even if there'd been the least reason to expect hostilities out here in mid-ocean, nobody had fighters that could do what those flaming lines of light were doing. He knew it—but he also knew it was happening, and he held his breath as the darts of fire flashed silently through the night sky, then gasped as two dots of light flared intolerably bright and perished.
The remaining lights raced even lower. He sensed their incredible speed, even if distance did make them seem to move with trancelike slowness. They swept towards the horizon, bunching and weaving, dancing as if for advantage, and he watched in wonder as they finally disappeared below the curvature of the earth.
He lowered the glasses, suddenly aware of the tension which had gripped him as that tension eased, and grinned wryly, castigating himself for his overactive imagination. Dogfighting lights! UFOs, no doubt! He wondered if they were Arcturians or Boskonians—or Ming the Merciless and Flash Gordon? Undoubtedly there was some entirely rational explanation. . . .
And then the southern horizon lit with a glaring spall of light that wrenched him to his feet. The brilliant glare burned away the night, reflecting on water that was suddenly a glassy mirror even at this range. He'd seen more than his share of explosions, but never one like that!
He averted his eyes instinctively, refusing to look directly at the boiling pinprick, but he couldn't have turned his attention elsewhere to save his life. He breathed quickly, shallow with tension, waiting for . . . something. He had no idea what, but surely there would—
He gasped in disbelief as yet another burst of light blazed up. This one was lower, he thought, below the horizon—he was seeing its reflection on the distant cloud base, not the light itself. But what in God's name could it be?
He was still wondering when he saw the light streaks again. But this time there were only three of them, shooting up into the heavens like a trio of rockets—no, wait! There was a fourth, racing after the first three! Yet another burst of flame splashed the heavens, and he watched one of the leaders vanish. The other three were still coming, charging towards him in a madly climbing spiral. There! Another dart of fire, chasing the leading dot, and more from the last light chasing the second! What in God's na—?
Some instinct screamed warning, and he flung up his hands, shielding his eyes just before actinic fury smashed the dark. He cried out in horror, cowering down, and his brain gibbered. It was a nuclear explosion! That was the only thing it could be, and thank God in Heaven it was so high! Even here he could feel its radiant heat, and he paled as he considered the tides of radiation racing out from its heart. At least the wind was out of the northwest! Whatever fallout that terrible explosion had spawned would be carried—
His thoughts broke off yet again as scarcely less titanic explosions erupted. They blazed in terrible succession, pursuing the first light dot across the vault of heaven, and they were gaining. His brain worked mechanically, overloaded with confusion and shock. Those warring dots were sweeping higher and higher—they had to be clear up at the outer edge of the stratosphere! Nothing ever built could do that—yet something was doing it. And still more fireballs shredded the night!
The leading light dot swerved, as if that last explosion had come too close, and arced crazily up in what an aircraft would have called a half loop—but what did whatever that was call it? He had no idea, but he watched helplessly, unable to look away, as the vengeful pursuer closed on its victim. Blue lightning flickered, stabbing his eyes almost as painfully as the exploding nukes had done, and suddenly the wounded dot was falling.
He watched it begin its plunge and knew it had been killed. It plummeted uncontrollably towards the sea, and he felt a sudden stab of stark terror. It was falling towards him! What if its enemy decided to finish it off with yet another nuke?
But there was nothing he could do if it happened, and he rejected a panicky urge to throw himself flat on the deck. He watched the dot fall, and the second one followed it for several seconds before it suddenly broke away, streaking off to the southwest.
He heaved a deep breath of relief as the immediate threat of immolation vanished, but the stricken light still plunged downward. God, but it must have been a hell of a long way up! It was still heading roughly towards him, and he swallowed as its size registered. The thing was getting bigger and bigger, shedding bits and pieces of itself. Thunder rumbled, pounding him like a bellow of God's wrath, and he realized it was the sound of the explosions. He wished he'd thought to do a flash-bang count to get some idea of range, but he hadn't.
It was still coming! He told himself the ocean was a huge target, that it would never hit Amanda whatever it looked like, but the disintegrating object seemed to be plunging straight into his eyes. He knew it was an illusion, but he felt his muscles tightening once more.
A flood of adrenaline snapped him out of his shock. It might not hit him, but that thing had to be huge! Who knew what kind of splash it was going to throw up when it hit? He leapt to the wheel, tripping over the tether of the safety line he always wore on deck. He disengaged the self-steering, checking the wind direction by instinct, and swung Amanda's bow slightly to starboard. He wanted whatever the hell it was to impact bows on to him, just in case.
He was staring up at the plunging object, his heart in his mouth, when it exploded before his eyes. Dripping bits of brilliance erupted outward, and a bright-blue star seemed to leap from the wreckage. His abused eyes cringed to the fresh explosion, but he felt a stab of relief. Whatever it was had broken up. The falling bits and pieces were burning out before they hit.
All but the blue star, he thought, and it caught his attention. For a moment, he couldn't quite think why; then he knew. It wasn't falling. Not the way its crippled parent had fallen. It was coming down far more slowly. In fact, its head-long pace slowed perceptibly as he watched. Its blue brilliance pulsed and flickered, reminding him forcibly of a dying firefly, and he heard a weird, high-pitched whining sound. He stared at it fixedly, then swallowed.
This time it was no optical illusion—the star was headed for him . . . and changing course to do it! He swallowed again, with more difficulty, as he realized he was seeing the equivalent of a parachute. Someone—or something, he thought with an atavistic chill—had bailed out of its stricken craft.
He felt a sudden urge to put Amanda about and flee, but rationality stopped him. If whatever that was had enough control to change course, it certainly had the speed to catch him if he ran . . . always assuming that was what it intended to do.
Besides, curiosity had always been Dick Aston's besetting sin. Deep inside, he understood Kipling's mongoose perfectly, and his need to "run and find out" had nearly gotten him killed more than once.
He didn't even realize he'd moved until he began reducing sail. The mizzen went first; then the big mainsail vanished around the self-furling boom, and Amanda slowed. He worked entirely by feel, eyes glued to the falling light as the unearthly whine grew louder. The light was larger, but the uneven flicker of its intensity was increasingly pronounced. In fact, the whine seemed to be rising and falling, gusting more or less in time with the light's brightness. Whatever was holding it up was in trouble, he thought. Battle damage. Had to be.
He dropped the foresail and hit the starter for the big inboard. The cold diesel turned over instantly, coughing a bit uneasily but then rumbling powerfully, and a corner of his mind congratulated himself for having had it overhauled before he left port. He made himself wait, giving it a moment to warm up, but it was hard. Whatever that thing was, it was getting mighty close.
That realization touched off another thought, and he abandoned the wheel long enough to dart down the companion and drag out a .45 automatic. Like many veterans of the United States' elite military units, Aston disliked and distrusted the stopping power of the nine-millimeter NATO round even a quarter century after the US had adopted it. His first allegiance had always been to John Browning's 1911A1, and he had "acquired" one of the US Marine Corps' MEU(SOC) modifications ten years earlier. Now he slapped a loaded stainless-steel magazine into the pistol's butt and chambered a round, then set the safety and stuffed the weapon under the belt and waistband of his frayed, cut-off shorts. Part of him felt ridiculous, but its weight was reassuring against his spine, like the presence of an old friend.
He hurried back on deck. The falling light was far closer, and the diesel seemed to be throbbing comfortably. He straightened his shoulders and engaged the prop, feeling the change in Amanda's motion as she was transformed from a sailboat into one under power.
He spun the wheel expertly, heading for what he estimated as the point of impact. He smiled mordantly at his own actions, but his fear was under control—not banished, but transformed into a distant thing, a thing of concern, not terror. If someone wanted to visit him, the least he could do was pick them up at the station.
The whine was frighteningly irregular now, the light pulsing ever more weakly, but the object was almost down. It was no more than three hundred yards out, and certainly no more than forty feet up, when the light died suddenly and completely. He made out a spherical shape, vague in the sudden darkness, half-seen and half-imagined, that seemed to hesitate for just a moment.
Then it dropped.
It slammed into the sea in a smother of white spray, plunging deep before it bobbed back up. Amanda pitched, pointing her bowsprit at the heavens as the impact wave washed out to meet her, and his mouth was dry, his heart hammering as he realized the thing had to be thirty feet in diameter.
He edged in closer, reversing the prop as he laid the sphere close aboard the ketch. His nerves tingled expectantly, exactly as they'd always done before a training jump or a firefight, as he waited for some sign from the sphere. He had absolutely no idea what to expect. He was an avid science fiction reader, but all the fictitious "first contacts" he could remember came down to a single, unanswerable question: Now what?
He snorted at the thought, grinning just a touch shakily as amusement helped bring him back on balance, and examined the sphere closely. The thing wasn't floating like most spherical objects would have. It rode the swell, showing no inclination to rotate, and he wondered if it had deployed some sort of sea anchor. Possibly, he decided. Very possibly.
And if he was right—if he had just witnessed some sort of dogfight and this was an escape capsule—its occupants might be unconscious, injured, or even dead. In any of those cases, there would be no BEMs unless he went looking for them. An unsettling thought, that.
There was a flattened, recessed area near the thing's top, and what looked like some sort of cut-out handholds. He bit his lip for a moment, then shrugged. The thought of moving from Amanda's familiar deck to that unknown thing was unnerving, but it should be safe enough—unless something popped out to eat him, of course. His safety tether was easily long enough to reach the sphere, but it joined him securely to his boat if he needed it.
He nodded once to himself and gathered up the stern mooring line. Those cutouts looked big enough . . .
Amanda's diesel burbled cheerfully as he threw it into neutral and swung her stern closer to the sphere. He gathered his legs under him and jumped easily across a three foot gap of water, reaching for one of the cutouts, and his eyebrows rose at how comfortably his hand settled into the recess. It would be unwise to refine overly much on it, but it certainly seemed shaped for something with fingers to grasp. The notion emboldened him, and he looped his line through another cutout and quickly made it fast.
He climbed up the sphere like a monkey, heading for the flattened area. The cutouts were more conveniently spaced than the rungs of some ladders he'd used, and he was in excellent condition. He wasn't even breathing hard—well, not from exertion, anyway—when he reached the top.
He stared at what was undeniably a hatch. There had to be some way to open it, but—aha! His eye lit on the faint gleam of a green light. It illuminated what was obviously a heavy throw switch, and he reached for it before common sense could make him hesitate. It moved easily, and something inside the sphere whined.
Nothing else happened for a moment . . . and then he almost fell as the hatch whipped open with viperish suddenness. His hands flashed out, and he barely managed to catch himself on the hatch frame, but his curse of astonishment died half-uttered as he stared down into the sphere's dimly lit interior.
Water sloshed below him, several inches deep and rising as he watched. Clearly the sphere had been damaged, and he snatched a quick, wondering impression of strangely arranged readouts and gleaming surfaces. There were far fewer switches than he would have expected in a . . . in a whatever the hell this thing had been part of, but what demanded and caught his attention was its crew.
They were human.
Well, he corrected himself, humanoid. He wondered why he was rejecting the obvious possibility that this was the remnant of some advanced aircraft, but he wasn't even tempted to believe that comforting answer. Which made the humanoid shape of its crew even more confusing.
He jumped despite himself as a more powerful light source switched on soundlessly, as if opening the hatch had caused it. And perhaps it had, he thought. The dim glow he'd first seen was suspiciously like the low-intensity lights he'd seen in many a night-flying cockpit. But the new light showed him something else; the crew hadn't escaped the damage which had smashed their vehicle.
The sight of all that blood banished his hesitation, and he dropped through the hatch. Cold water splashed as he landed, and he swore again as the edge of a submerged console bruised his bare left heel. Obviously he was standing on what had been a bulkhead, and the periphery of his brain noted that the "bulkhead" in what would have been an overhead position for the people strapped into the sphere's heavily padded seats was transparent . . . from this side. Interesting. It was as opaque as any other part of the surface from the outside.
He shook the thought aside and bent over the two motionless figures. One of them would never move again, he thought grimly, feeling no desire to remove the shattered, blank-visored helmet which concealed that head. The thick, viscous flow oozing redly out of it made what he would have seen all too gruesomely evident, and the pearl-gray, one piece garment—uniform? flight suit?—was drenched in red from a dozen gaping wounds.
He turned to the other, and his eyebrows crawled up his forehead in surprise as he noted the unmistakably feminine curves of the body. Somehow it hadn't occurred to him that he might find a woman—or a female, anyway—in here. Surprise held him motionless for a moment, but then the breasts under the red-streaked, skintight garment moved, and he realized this one, at least, was still alive!
His fingers slipped uselessly over the smooth, featureless helmet. Damn it! The thing was secured to her uniform somehow, but how? He was afraid to use force, and his fingers quested for some release mechanism. The water was higher on his calves, and he wondered if only his imagination made the sphere seem to be moving more heavily. Damn, damn, damn! How was he supposed—
A searching fingertip touched an unseen stud, and suddenly the helmet was loose. He dragged it away, and a spring-loaded cable snatched it from his abruptly frozen hands.
Chestnut hair spilled free, framing an ashen, high-cheeked, undeniably human face. The hair was stringy and stiff, as if long unwashed, but it was incontrovertibly human hair. He touched it shakenly, then jerked his hand back as the eyelids fluttered. They opened just a crack, revealing deep-blue, almost indigo eyes with pinpoint pupils, and the pale lips whispered something he couldn't quite catch. It sounded almost like "Anwar."
He started to speak, but the eyes closed again and she was gone. He reached out quickly, touching her throat, and exhaled a sigh as he felt the faint, rapid flutter of a pulse. She was still alive.
But it didn't look like she would be for long, he thought grimly. He'd seen many badly injured people in his time, and the bright river of red welling over the chest of her gray garment looked bad—especially in conjunction with that pale face and those contracted pupils and bloodless lips.
There was a button on the buckle joining her web of harness straps, and he punched it. The catch sprang obediently, and he pawed the straps aside. He saw no closures or fastenings on her flight suit, and he had no time to look for any, so he drew a worn, carefully tended Buck knife from his pocket, opened it one-handed, and slipped the keen, five-inch blade into the tight-fitting garment's neck.
His eyebrows rose again at the thin fabric's incredible toughness. He didn't know what it was, but it was tougher than anything he'd ever seen, and he set his teeth, grunting with effort and mentally apologizing to his "patient" as his sawing motion jerked at her. She groaned softly, but he dared not stop.
The fabric yielded stubbornly, but it yielded. He sawed away, and discovered that the garment covered a very human torso. He felt a brief flush of irritation with himself as he noted how attractively this "alien" was built, but it faded abruptly as he finally bared the wound.
His face twisted as he watched blood welling from the ragged puncture under her left breast. He leaned closer, and his face tightened further as he heard a faint, unmistakable whistle each time she breathed. A sucking wound. At least one lung, then. He was surprised the flow was so slow, but he recognized the bright red of arterial blood.
He stared down helplessly. There wasn't a thing in the world he could do for her—not with that. He was bitterly familiar with wounds, but he was no corpsman, and Amanda had no facilities for any serious injury.
He had no idea how long he stood there, enraged and frozen by his utter inability to save her, but a sudden lurch dragged him back to awareness. The water had risen to his knees, lapping about the seated woman's thighs, and the sphere's motion felt emphatically water-logged. He cursed once, viciously, and wedged a handkerchief over the wound, dragging the tightly fitted garment back over it to hold it in place. He'd probably kill her by moving her, but she was dying anyway, and he couldn't just leave her here. He got her up into a fireman's carry, cringing mentally as he considered the additional damage he might be doing, and reached up for the hatch.
It was a hard climb under her slight, limp weight, but he managed somehow. He paused there, gasping for breath, and the edge of Amanda's deck was far higher on the sphere than it had been. The thing was clearly sinking, and he heaved on the mooring line with another mental apology—this one to his ketch—as he scrubbed her fiberglass against the metal and stepped across to his boat with a feeling of boundless relief.
He slid the injured woman to the deck as gently as possible, goaded by ominous gurgles from the sphere behind him. It was going fast now; the flooding must have passed the critical point . . . and the damned mooring line was jammed! He worked at in the darkness, his eyes still adjusted to the brilliance inside the sphere, cursing himself for the haste with which he'd made fast. How the hell— There! The jammed strands slid apart, and he fell backward as the line snaked free.
Just in time. The sphere was sinking quickly, the lip of the hatch almost level with the water. Even as he picked himself up, the first wave slopped over the sill and the sphere filled noisily, spinning at last as it slid beneath the waves.
The light within it didn't die, and he leaned over the side for a moment, watching the bright glow sink into the depths and regretting its loss. God, what he wouldn't have given to turn that thing over to—
Sudden memory stabbed him, and he turned quickly, bending over the woman. He felt her neck again, almost surprised to feel the pulse still fluttering under his fingers. It actually felt a little stronger—or did it? It had to be his imagination, with that wound, and he castigated himself for indulging in false optimism.
But he couldn't just leave her on deck. He gathered her up more gently, cradling her in his arms and feeling her own hang pathetically limp from her shoulders, and carried her carefully down the companion.
He laid her on his bunk and straightened, and his lips formed another silent curse as her appearance truly registered. She was just a damned kid! She couldn't be more than nineteen, he thought bitterly, his helplessness welling up again, and clenched his fists for just a moment, then shook himself. There wasn't a thing he could do, but that didn't mean he didn't have to try.
He gently peeled back the flap of her uniform once more, uncovering the blood-soaked handkerchief, and drew a deep breath. He lifted the pad to examine the wound—and froze.
There was no more bleeding.
But that, he thought, was impossible. He'd heard air sucking through the hole!
Only there was no hole, he noted with a queer, calm detachment; only an ugly little pucker, raw as a fresh-closed surgical incision.
He shook his head, feeling unaccountably as if he'd taken one punch too many, and reached out. His fingers, he noted distantly, trembled as he touched the pucker lightly. He raised his hand and examined them, but there was no fresh blood. It wasn't an illusion; the wound really had closed—and in just the few minutes it took to carry her this far.
He steeled his nerve and reached out again, laying his hand gently against the spot where a human's heart would be. He held his breath for a moment, then sighed and shook his head. She had a heart, all right, and it was beating—beating slowly and steadily.
He sank down on the opposite bunk, staring at her. That wound had been real, damn it! And, without the help of a trained, well-equipped doctor, it had been mortal. But instead of dying, color was already creeping back into her pale, sleeping face!
The tremble in his hands was more pronounced, and he gripped them together to still it, wishing he could banish his internal shudders as easily.
A human would have died, he thought quietly. Even if she hadn't, she would never have . . . healed . . . that quickly. So this motionless young woman had to be something else.