By MICHAEL SHAARA
He was expendable, this Web Hilton, this
young officer with the strange heritage. And
so it was that he was ordered out into space
where he saw the uncovered stars, and met
the naked alien, and became the first man
in history to die more than once.
[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Winter 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
The two girls stayed to see the picture a second time and when they got out of the movie it was after midnight and raining and they couldn’t get a cab. Louise bought a paper and put it over her head and ran off, laughing, in the direction of Albany Street. Ivy folded her kerchief and turned up Livingstone. She did not run. There was nothing wrong with rain, or with getting wet, and she enjoyed the coolness. She plunged her hands deeply into her coat pockets and did not bother to walk quickly at all.
The night was very dark, made darker by the rain, which was heavy and full. But Ivy was unconcerned. She was a small-town girl, country bred, with three huge brothers who knew every man in the county. She had grown up with a strong belief in the natural goodness of things, of people, and although she was young and slim and extremely pretty she had no worry now of walking home in the dark. This was her home town. She had lived here all her life. She passed by huge bushes and under the great clutching branches of trees without thinking at all of the things which could, and did, lurk behind them. She turned up Elmwood Road with her mind at rest, filled with skirts and dances and taffy pulls.
And her faith in people, as it turned out, was justified.
For the long arm that reached out of the bushes, the darkness, and plucked her with a rush into a deep black silence, was an arm of flesh, and an arm of bone, but it was very far from human.
The door opened at the top of the ramp and the colonel peered cautiously inside.
“Nobody here but us chickens,” he said, sputtering in the rain, and the guard dropped the muzzle of the machine pistol and saluted.
The colonel stomped in onto the concrete floor, grumbling. He was followed by an enormous lieutenant, an immense, looming, cliff-shouldered man well over six feet tall. The lieutenant had to duck coming through the door, cast a downward salute to the startled guard. The colonel moved out from under the lieutenant’s dripping overhang, pointed a lean wet finger down the hall.
“Yessir,” said the guard, eyeing the monstrous lieutenant with respect.
The colonel wiped his face with a dry handkerchief, took off his hat and smoothed down his sparse white hair. Then he strode off down the concrete hall, motioning for the lieutenant to follow. Together they came to a bolted steel door. The colonel opened it without knocking, ushered the lieutenant inside.
The room they entered was wide and rich, oak-panelled, in great contrast to the white-washed concrete of the halls outside. In the center of the room was a mahogany desk, at which a small, sad, cigar-smoking man sat absorbedly drawing doughnuts on a white lined pad.
The colonel saluted. The man at the desk, whose name was Dundon, looked up at the big lieutenant and chomped on his cigar.
“Is this our man?”
“Yes sir. Lieutenant Hilton. He knows—”
“Sure is a big bugger,” Dundon said, rising. The lieutenant regarded him calmly.
“He knows every phase of the operation, sir,” the colonel said.
“Of course. Sit down, boy,” Dundon said briefly, waving his cigar. The lieutenant sat. “What’s a few extra pounds? May need ’em, by God.” He put the cigar in his mouth and clamped his hands behind him, walked around to the front of the desk and sat down on the edge of it.
“When’s take-off, sir?” the colonel asked.
Dundon looked at his watch. “Less than an hour. Does he know?”
The colonel whistled. “That soon? No, he doesn’t know anything.”
The lieutenant had taken off his hat, showing himself to be much younger and blonder than he had first appeared to Dundon. He sat watching both men without any particular expression.
“Well, we’d better get on with it,” Dundon said, and reached out a hand toward the colonel, without looking at him. “Do you have the lieutenant’s records?”
The colonel reached quickly into his inside coat pocket, drew out a long folded envelope which he laid in Dundon’s hand. The small man hefted it, looked briefly inside.
“Hell,” he said curtly. “Got to save time. If we have to brief him and get ready I can’t go through all this. What’s the story?”
Before the colonel could say anything Dundon looked at the lieutenant with a wide, amiable, thoroughly unexpected smile. “Don’t mind us son, no time for manners. Have a cigar.”
The lieutenant politely refused. The colonel took off his coat and began to dry himself out, talking as he moved.
“Well, as far as I can recall, here’s the poop. His name is Augustus Webster Hilton, Second Lieutenant, RA, out of Fort Benning. He’s six foot six and a half, weighs two hundred and forty some odd pounds. Age: 25. Nickname: Web. AGCT score of 145.”
Dundon’s eyes lifted.
“He’s got a head on him,” the colonel agreed. “Army record superior to excellent. Present assignment instructing in orbits and trajectory at Base Training. Qualities of Organization, Leadership very high. Excellent officer material.”
A slight fleeting frown crossed Dundon’s face.
“Defects,” the colonel said coolly. “Several minor, no major. Minor include a tendency to irk his superiors by failure to consult, by failure to keep his opinions to himself. Nothing unusual for the age, of course. Other defects are his size”—the lieutenant sat without moving through all of this—”and his blood type. He’s got some rare kind of thing for which plasma is almost never available. That keeps him from front line duty.”
The colonel stopped, began slowly to light a cigarette.
Dundon looked at him oddly.
The colonel shook his head.
Dundon was suddenly flushed. “Wait a minute, son,” he said to the lieutenant, and then he took the colonel by the arm and led him briskly into a corner.
“What the hell is this?” he hissed angrily, lowly, into the colonel’s ear. “This boy looks like one hell of a good officer, what—”
The colonel held his finger to his lips, gestured cautiously.
“I couldn’t tell you in front of him, chief.”
“Couldn’t tell me what? Listen, I’m not goin’ to kill a young kid like—”
“It’s Security. The major defect is Security.”
“What did he do?”
“Nothing he did. Chief, you won’t like this. But it makes a big difference. You know the way Security is. They checked this boy all the way back to the cradle, found out things about him he doesn’t know himself. His history checked all right, no trouble anywhere, except for his father. According to the records, he doesn’t have any.”
Dundon cocked an eyebrow. The lieutenant, unhearing, sat without looking at them.
“His mother claims to have married a man named Bruce Hilton in Chicago in 1930. There’s no record of the marriage. Also, none of her friends ever met him. She went away from her home town—Evanston—and stayed for a year and came back with a baby, a wedding ring, and a very sad tale of a husband who died. There’s no record of the death of any Bruce Hilton. She made up the name obviously. Her maiden name Finnerty.”
Dundon stared. “So what the hell—” he began, but the colonel cut him off.
“So nobody knows. Just the boy’s mother and Security. But Security has a special tab for cases like this. They figure like this: suppose the kid gets into a sensitive job, or gets to rank pretty high, and someone finds out about his, well, lack of parentage. You can’t figure it. It could mean blackmail, it could mean security risk, or it could mean rumors among officers’ wives, and a lot of nonsense like that. I know it doesn’t sound like a thing you should hang a guy on, but, well, you know Security. They never take a chance. This kid will get to be a captain, maybe a major, maybe even an L.C. But he has no future in the army.”
Dundon was looking down studiously at his shoes.
“So that’s what you wanted,” the colonel pursued, “somebody competent, but expendable. Right?”
Dundon looked up, his gray eyes filled with disgust. And then he realized that the colonel could not help it, did not like this either, and he patted him on the arm.
“Hell of a reason to kill a kid,” he said softly, and turned back to the lieutenant, the man to be killed, who was sitting calmly in his chair and wondering when the brass was going to get to the point.
Dundon came back and sat down, and now with great kindness, told the lieutenant the story.
And so it was that Web Hilton went out into space, and saw the uncovered stars, and met the naked man, and became the first man in history to die more than once.
“You know of course,” said Dundon, “that the satellite has been completed and is in orbit. The first crew went up on 9 September. Construction was finished on 20 September and the full crew was aboard within twelve hours. The whole thing went off without a hitch. There wasn’t one thing we hadn’t anticipated. We sent the green light to the president and sat back to wait for the Russians to find out what was ‘up.'” He grinned momentarily at his joke.
“The station was in orbit for a week,” he went on, “and we were in constant radio contact. Furthermore, we had it under radar and telescopic observation, either one or the other or both, twenty-four hours a day, from points all over the Earth. Some of that I guess you know. The purpose is mainly to supplement the station’s own radar. We don’t want anything going near that station without our knowing about it real quick.”
“And we know damn well,” he said more slowly, his puzzlement beginning to show in his voice, “that nothing went near that station.”
Web still waited, not following at all. Dundon sat on the edge of his desk, beginning to fidget now as he talked. His stubby fingers were running continually through his thin gray hair, and tightening his tie, and tugging at his buttons, and toying with the desk top. He had been under a great strain for a long time and it was obvious.
“On 28 September,” he said evenly, “—now get this—on 28 September, in the middle of the afternoon, we lost radio contact with the station. It cut off in the middle of a weather observation, just like that. There were no background sounds at all, no noise or confusion. Just silence. We waited, figuring of course that they had blown a tube, or something, but we didn’t hear a thing. After a few minutes we began to get worried. They didn’t come in on the emergency radio either.
“Radar reported the satellite was still in the regular orbit. Nothing looked wrong, but we couldn’t contact her. After a couple of hours we began to get panicky. We figured a small meteor had hit her. A big one would have knocked her out of orbit, but a small one might have penetrated through and knocked out both radios without altering trajectory to any noticeable extent. We figured that that must have been it, because by this time five hours had passed and we hadn’t heard a word.
“So then we managed to get Visual, as soon as it got dark and the satellite orbited to position. We had a prearranged system of light signaling to be used in case both radios failed. In the telescopes we could even see the reflectors sitting right out on the hub, completed untouched. But we waited all night and we never got a thing.
“Now dammit, it couldn’t have been a meteor!” Dundon began to pace back and forth and both Web and the colonel followed him, absorbed.
“The station is shaped like a doughnut, with solid bulkheads all around. How could one meteor go all around the damn thing, kill everybody in it, knock out two separate radios, and still not disturb the orbit. It would take a swarm, obviously, even if you forget about the orbit, but there would have to be holes. And we had a close up view of that station, as close as the house across the street, and there wasn’t a hole to be seen.
“Well, that night we sent up a rocket. Nothing big enough to show on radar had approached the station, or left it, so the only other solution was sabotage. One or more of the men we sent up had to be enemy agents, and they were obviously in control of the station. We had to make damn sure we got them out real quick. If necessary, we were set to blow up the station. And then it got worse.”
Dundon stopped, came over and sat down on the desk in front of Web, looking straight at him, watching his reaction. Web was frozen in his chair.
“The rocket,” said Dundon slowly, “never came back. It’s still up there, floating along a few yards from the station. We can see it clearly. Too clearly, damn it. And the interesting part is this: nobody got out of the rocket. Nobody went into the satellite. The rocket went up and maneuvered itself into orbit alongside the satellite, and there it sits. We haven’t been able to contact it by radio either.”
There was an icy sting lancing her arm, and then a million furry brushes began rubbing in her body. In a moment Ivy was totally paralyzed.
Black shapes, dripping and lean, picked her up gently, conducted her through the low hanging trees toward another place where a black square loomed. The hands were impersonal, but never in her life had she been touched like this. She was absolutely terrified. A door was opened. She was laid upon a dark hard floor. In a moment the floor began to move and she realized through her terror that she was in a truck. But they left her alone. She lay for a long while upon the floor unable to think. She could not possibly understand this, the who or the why, because she had not dreamed about it, or ever even considered it.
She was a girl of great natural sweetness, born of strict, respected parents and a strict, respectable life. What was happening now was so far from reality that she could not believe it. She lay on the floor of the truck trying to close her eyes, but the paralysis was too great and she couldn’t. The truck drove on through the raining night, bumping, grinding, carrying her inevitably toward the worst day of terror she had ever known.
There was no question of sabotage. The men who went up, swore Security, were as clean as the driven snow. And in his own mind Dundon agreed. It was remotely conceivable that one man might just possibly slip through the incredibly complex Security check, but this was much too thorough a job. It would require too many men in too many places.
Dundon’s next step was clear. Under the president’s signature he had called for the Air Force file on flying saucers. He was disgusted to find that the Air Force knew no more than it had published, which was not very much. The file did, however, reach the tentative conclusion that “further investigation might well prove fruitful.” Dundon was overcome. He seized a pen and wrote on the report—in great red angry letters—the indelible words:
“You bet your sweet—”
But even further investigation, Dundon realized when he had cooled to a touchable temperature, would probably not help. You could scan the skies with telescopes, until you wore your eyeballs down to the bone, but even if you saw, what could you do? He had a grave conviction that whoever went up to the satellite would not come down. There was no way of knowing what was up there or why, and it was a little more than possible that there was a lethal something about space itself which would never let Man off the face of the Earth. Not ever, for the rest of Time.
But somebody had to go. There was nothing else to do. You could not build another satellite, or send up another fully manned rocket, not until you found out what was wrong up there. There was always the chance that the failures were purely mechanical. Maybe, maybe, whoever was sent up would get back down.
And so a man was sent. He had to be a man with a thorough knowledge of the satellite, with an alert and adaptable mind, and at the same time a man whose failure to return would be of no great loss to anyone.
Such a man was Web Hilton.
“Never leave your suit,” Dundon said urgently, “not for a damn minute. You’ll have a large supply of oxygen, enough to see you there and back. Keep your eyes open and report whatever you see. We’ll have a line attached to your suit running back through the rocket and broadcasting to us. We’ll be in contact with you all the way.”
And then he became embarrassed, as a man will in a position where he is sending someone else into a very dirty thing, and all he can do himself is nothing. So he said good luck and that was that.
The ship lifted shortly after midnight. Web rode up encased in his suit, along with the volunteer pilot who was the rocket’s only crew. He did not speak to Dundon on the way up. He could not have spoken if he’d tried. But he endured the tremendous acceleration with the patient joy of a man who is about to do some very fast living. No more classes in Trajectory for him, no more teaching an endless chain of men no younger than himself to rise up above him and go out into space. He was an impatient man, he had always been an impatient man, so he rode out into blackness with no qualms at all. But he was not a fool. The qualms began very soon. They began with the sudden end of the acceleration.
The pilot—Joe Falk—spoke over the intercom to see if he was all right. He said he was. This was the signal for Dundon, from Earth, to cut in. They spoke back and forth, not saying very much, with cold shivers running through them, while Falk maneuvered into position. From his seat below the pilot Web could see nothing but wires, tubing, and a heavy stanchion. He waited. Eventually Falk said:
“Okay Web. In orbit. She’s all yours.”
Web took a deep breath. Dundon was speaking in his ear.
“Now watch yourself and tell me everything you see. Open the door and let’s go.”
Web freed himself from his straps, floated cautiously, hand over hand, to the hatch. Falk was right behind him. He spun the hatch and opened it, went through the airlock to the outer door, stepped out into space.
In the great blazing sea in which he found himself he paused for a second, immobile. The stars were brilliant beyond belief. He had forgotten that they would be of different colors, not just dull shades as seen from Earth, and the fiery reds, the yellows, the cool blues and blazing oranges stunned him. He held tight to the airlock, absorbing it all, while Falk came out behind him.
“God!” Web breathed.
“Wassamatter, wassamatter!” Dundon was immediately shouting.
“Nothing,” Web said quickly, “I was just looking at the stars.”
Dundon muttered something dark and profane. “To hell with the stars! Maybe that’s what will get you. Man, watch the things that are close!”
“Okay,” Web said with embarrassment, coming to himself and pulling his eyes away. But this was a sight he could not absorb all at once. He felt shaken for several minutes, and unutterably alone.
Off to his right, half-hidden by the bow of the ship, he saw the satellite. The huge gray ring was revolving slowly, rolling silently along above the great green plate of the Earth. Beyond it, dimly, he could see the floating black form of the first rocket. The entire scene was weird, unbelievable, and incredibly beautiful. He waited again while Dundon fumed from below, letting the sense of where he was sink into him. Falk did the same. At last, to Dundon’s great relief, they were able to move.
They manned the small taxi pod, shoved off carefully in the direction of the satellite. Falk brought them with a gingerly caution to the turret of the hub. They had to stop a few feet away because the turret was revolving, and to try to land the pod while the turret was in motion was useless.
“Jump,” said Dundon.
Web gulped. Although he had no sense of gravity, he could not help but feel the absolute emptiness all around him and beneath him. Between him and the Earth, straight down, there was a thousand miles of nothing.
But he rose in the taxi and braced himself. And jumped.
He shot across space and crashed head on into the turret, came very close to cracking his helmet against the gray steel. He swore feebly, but sincerely and with great fright, and clutched for a hold. He had greatly overestimated the power he needed to cross a space in which there was no gravity at all.
But he found a hold at last on a vane of the reflector and hung on grimly, desperately, for several moments.
Dundon asked how he was.
“Delightful,” Web muttered, “absolutely delightful.” Then he looked around for Falk.
The taxi had been kicked quite some distance away, Falk, white-faced through his helmet, was bringing her slowly back in.
“Easy when you jump, Joe,” Web called. “I like to went right through this thing.”
Falk grunted. He slipped a rope on the pod and leaped for the turret. Even warned he came in too hard and Web had to grab at him, wildly, with one hand. But now the hard part was done and they were aboard. Web looked around for the airlock.
Web went in alone. There was no need for both of them inside so Falk waited by the airlock and fed him the radio line. As he spun the wheel which opened the lock and looked down the long tube into darkness he began to feel for the first time the perspiration soaking him.
He took one last look at the whirling stars and then stepped inside the turret.
In the turret there was no gravity, but as he climbed down the landing net toward the rim of the revolving doughnut centrifugal force caught into him and gave him weight. It was immensely reassuring. He had a small sealed light at his belt which enabled him to see his way around and at the base of the turret he came to the main door into the satellite.
He stood on the net and regarded the door silently. Now, if there really was some sabotaging gent on board this thing, right behind this door now would be where he would be. He would have heard the boots clump on the steel, there was no doubt about that. And he would not be hampered by a space suit. Thoughtfully, Web considered the fact that he had no weapon. No weapon but his size. Up to now, this moment, that had always been enough, but he had no illusions about what would happen if there really was somebody alive in there. Still, Dundon would know, and that was his job after all, to let Dundon know.
“Well,” said Dundon anxiously.
“Half a mo,” Web said. He laid his helmet against the door and listened. Nothing. If he was inside, he wasn’t moving. Which was the smart thing to do.
“Okay,” Web said, “cross your fingers.” He opened the door.
A great bright light shone out of the opening. For a brief moment he was startled, until he realized that it was only the normal electric light of the room, intensified by the black around him. Cautiously, with his handflash held like a club, he stepped into the room.
There was nobody behind the door.
“What’s up, what’s up?” Dundon called.
“Nothin’,” Web said. “Listen, don’t keep getting in my hair. I’ll tell you what happens as I go along. I’m in the receiving room. Nobody here. But the lights are on.”
The room was bare, metal-floored, lined with lockers. Two of the lockers were open, and from where he stood Web could see clothing hanging from pegs. There was nothing unusual about the room. Web described it to Dundon, walked across the floor to the next door.
“Don’t take your helmet off,” Dundon roared.
“You bet your sweet life,” Web grinned. “I have to leave the doors open a little to let the radio line pass through. The pressure’s going down pretty quick.”
“Oh,” said Dundon. And then after a while he said, “Let’s hope there’s nobody alive in there.”
“If he is,” Web said, “he’s somebody we don’t need. There’s nothing wrong with the reflector. He could have light-signaled any time he wanted to.”
Dundon was silent. Web pushed open the door to the next room, which would be the radio shack, and waited. Then he peeked inside. There was no one here either.
“Empty,” Web said.
“Stop for a minute,” Dundon said. “Put your helmet against the wall.”
“I already did,” Web said, but he did it again.
“Do you hear anything?”
“Nope. Quiet as a … grave.”
“Keep listening as you go along.”
Good idea. And then he thought of another good idea. He called out to Joe Falk.
“I just wanted to know if you were still out there.”
“I don’t leave without one hell of a yell,” Falk chuckled.
“And you don’t leave without me either.” Web faced the next door, the tension mounting. He could not get over the feeling that there had to be somebody aboard. At least there had to be bodies, certainly, because nothing had left the satellite. Forty-seven men had come up here. The bodies were probably all pretty close together. He stopped thinking about that because it only made it difficult to keep on looking. He opened the next door, and there was nobody there either.
He began to have an awful suspicion.
He went cautiously, stealthily, from room to room, made a full round of the doughnut. He never saw anybody. In some rooms there were a number of shoes on the floor, and clothes were strewn around haphazardly, the way men will do when they are living close together. Here was a pipe lying for no apparent reason in the middle of the floor. Here was a chessboard, laid out on a table with a game half completed. Everywhere there was a general sense of confusion, as if these men had suddenly dropped what they were doing and run away. The further he walked, the more he saw, the more fantastic it became. In one room he found four pairs of shoes sitting on the floor, four complete suits of clothes dropped over them exactly as if—
“Dundon!” he cried.
—as if the men in the clothes had ceased to exist.
Sometime during the night the door of the truck opened and another body was laid beside Ivy on the floor. Until then Ivy had believed that whatever was going to happen at the end of this ride would be reserved for her, and she thought she knew what that happening would be. With the addition of this new body, however, which was also a girl, Ivy was not so sure.
She was completely paralyzed and she could not move a finger. Beside her the other girl did not move either. But she, this other one, was also young and pretty, and Ivy began to think through her terror.
Rape, to Ivy’s mind, was the most likely possibility. She fled from the thought. That she was being abducted for other, more permanent reasons was also possible, but she had no idea what they could be. Kidnapping for ransom money was out of the question. Her parents were not wealthy and she herself had only about thirty-three dollars in the bank. The only other thing she could think of was that she was being abducted into white slavery. She made a futile attempt to scream.
Two more bodies, both young girls, joined her in the truck before morning. White slavery began to look horribly believable.
At last the morning came and the truck stopped, and the doors at the rear were thrown open. Ivy was the first to be lifted out.
She found herself being carried up the side of a heavily wooded hill, toward a long low house half-hidden in the pines. She had a chance to look at the man who carried her, and at the other men who were gathered at the back of the truck, and one thing struck her immediately.
All of the men were old. And they all looked strangely alike. They were quite small and round-shouldered, every one of them, with large peculiar eyes and thickly lined faces. There was about them an almost brotherly resemblance, particularly about the nose, which was invariably tiny, thin and sharp, like a small beak. The eerie regularity of their faces was unnerving. She began to realize that there was something here which was more than just abduction.
She was carried into a long house, and once again she was laid on a floor in darkness. She could not see anyone else but she could feel the presence of bodies, row on row of other bodies. Back in the truck she had tried to cry, but it hadn’t worked. She tried again now.
After a while she felt the paralysis beginning to wear off.
Web was now very tired and he sat down. He had gone through the whole station and there was nobody aboard. Forty-seven men, all gone. Dundon had said nothing had approached this station, or left it, but the forty-seven men had, and that was for sure. And he knew that if he bothered to check the other rocket, the lonesome rocket that had come up first, there would be nobody in it either.
“Did you check the space suits?”
“Yep,” Web said wearily. “And I counted ’em. They’re all here. All in the lockers, never been touched.”
“How about the escape pod?”
“That’s here too. But they couldn’t have got away in that anyway. Radar would have seen it.”
Dundon was silent. In the background Web could hear an argument going on. Some of the really high brass were with Dundon now, listening in. Well, Web said to himself gravely, but with a trace of cheer breaking through, the rest is their problem. I’ve done my job. I think right now I had better go home.
He called to Falk, to let him know that he was coming, and began to retrace his steps, reeling in his radio wire. Falk didn’t acknowledge his call, so he called again.
“Joe,” he said happily, “I’m a-comin’. Let’s clear out o’ here.”
Falk didn’t answer.
“Joe?” Web said.
He stopped dead in his tracks.
“Dundon,” he said thickly.
There was nothing from Dundon either.
He was completely alone.
In the face of emptiness, surrounded by nothing, as alone as any man will ever be, Web waited. He heard nothing, saw nothing. Within his suit the thumping of his heart was an endless chain of bombs. He decided that he had to get out. He was all the way up the turret before his mind cleared and the unrushing wave of claustrophobia fell away, and he realized what had happened.
Falk hadn’t answered. But then, neither had Dundon.
“Well hell,” he said aloud, sweating, “so the radio got disconnected.” The whole thing had gone blank. Now, if it was just Falk who hadn’t answered….
Weakly, he leaned against the airlock, breathing with huge gulps. A plug was out in the rocket, or down at the base, or a tube was blown, and for this reason he had very nearly made a fool of himself. For all he knew they could hear him. He began to talk anyway, questioning, liking the sound of his voice in the really absolute silence.
He stepped out of the turret looking for Falk. He had had a rough day, and it was time to go home. To his great relief he saw Falk standing a few feet away on the turret’s side, his magnetized soles gripping the metal and his head looking out toward the stars. He was not hanging on to anything, he seemed to be totally unconcerned, and his arms were lifted strangely.
Web whistled. Now there, he said to himself, is a man with nerve. He slipped hand over hand down the turret to get to Falk and the taxi.
Falk didn’t move as he approached. Falk just kept looking at the stars.
“Come on boy, Web said aloud, let’s get moving.” He came up and laid his helmet against Falk’s, so they could talk to each other.
But he didn’t say anything.
Directly in front of his eyes was the plate of Falk’s helmet, and inside the helmet was nothing.
Web withdrew. The empty suit before him swayed slightly as he brushed it.
This is ridiculous, Web said. I’m going nuts.
Around him moved the whirling stars.
I’m screwy as a jaybird, Web said.
The arrival of Kunklin and Prule was neither coincidental nor particularly fortunate. There is an indescribable something which a spaceship traveling at speeds beyond light does to the fabric of space, warping, shredding, leaving a trail which lasts for many days. Kunklin did not need a great deal of luck to pick it up, as he did, just a short way in from Alpha Centauri. He was equipped with a ship of the Central Repair Command, one of the most diversely powerful mechanisms ever produced by a living mind. Thus Kunklin and Prule arrived with great haste, but with no great luck. They were too late to prevent the deaths of the forty-seven men—for death it was—or the death of Joe Falk.
And so it was that while Web was sitting numbly on a projection of the turret, making a mortal effort to control himself, he became watched, in turn, by two separate sets of alien eyes.
The first set of eyes—which were more or less human in structure, differing only in their purple color—belonged to Kunklin and Prule. They had swept in a wide arc around the crescent-lit limb of the Moon, and halted at a discreet distance to survey the terrain before going in. Telescopes of an impossible resolving power picked out first the station, then the rockets, and eventually Web Hilton. Because they had a knowledge of the aliens, and of the type of crime that the aliens would commit, they knew at a glance what had happened aboard the satellite.
But, at the sight of it, Kunklin was startled.
“A space station!” he cried. “Well I’ll be jetted.” And not yet having noticed the empty suit of Falk—the arms of which had begun to float out helplessly, like a beggar—Kunklin regarded the doughnut with a delighted interest.
Prule, a square, gloomy man who was always the more sober of the two, grunted darkly.
“They put up a space station right in the midst of being plundered, poor devils. They must have walked right into it.”
It was Kunklin’s turn to be sombre.
“There’s been killing.”
“Undoubtedly,” Prule growled with disgust. “The Faktors could not allow these people to be in space. They would see too much. Note the empty suit….”
It was at this point that Web stepped out of the turret and saw Falk.
Kunklin watched curiously.
“No. One of the people of this planet. Note the primitive equippage.” Pause. “This is extraordinary.”
“You mean because he’s alive?”
“Of course. The others are dead. Why is this one still alive?”
Kunklin was the younger one, cocky and in many ways indolent, but he had by far the quicker mind.
“He is alive,” Kunklin said swiftly, “because he is a Galactic. Let us go down.”
The second set of eyes that was observing the satellite did not see Web come out of the turret. The brain behind those eyes was rejoicing as it approached the satellite. The plundering was very nearly done. All that remained now was a brief investigation, and then destruction of this station, and the bone and blood and magnificent flesh of these people would remain in free supply below, unwarned and unaware.
The alien landed on the skin of the doughnut, switched off his gravity pack, and walked cheerfully around toward the turret.
And at the turret, of course, Web Hilton was still sitting, slowly regaining his mind. It was at that moment occurring to Web that if there was a logical explanation for all this it would not be found up here, or by him, and he was just then considering the quickest way down to Earth—via rocket or escape pod in the station. He had not quite made up his mind when he saw the alien.
It is difficult to say which of them was the most surprised.
The alien had been under the impression that anything human that had been on the satellite no longer existed. Indeed, there was no possible way that anything human could exist on the satellite. So therefore, Web Hilton was not human. The alien was shocked.
But for Web, who had recently undergone some extraordinary events, this was by far the most fantastic of all. For the alien was an adaptation. An artificial oxygen-producing mechanism in his chest, together with silicone-adapted skin and a number of similarly ingenious devices, enabled the alien to walk freely in space, which he did clad only in a short white cloth and a gravity pack. And what Web saw come walking toward him over the surface of the station, in open space, with the moon and the stars for a background, was a naked man. The alien wore no space suit.
The door behind him was open, Web fell back into the turret.
When a great many impossible things have happened to a man within a very short time there comes a jumping-off place. The man jumps outside himself and continues to survive by examining the whole thing from outside, with a sort of awed detachment. It was this way with Web.
“I am nuts,” he kept saying to himself, insistently, as he rolled down the landing net and came up with a thump against the door below. But he did not feel nuts. His mind had been numbed and dulled at the edges, but for some reason now outside it he was thinking very clearly. For the disappearance of everybody there was no explanation, but for the appearance of the naked man there had to be. The suspicion which he had first heard back at the base, over many a beer, was truth to him now, because he had to believe his eyes or go mad. And there was only one thing the naked man could be. An alien. A thing from another world, as the movies put it. A thing with cunning and science. A thing that had destroyed Falk.
Now think, he said to himself carefully, bolting the door behind him. You are no match for them. You don’t know how many of them are out there or what they have. Maybe this is the first time they know you are alive and somehow they missed you when they got Falk. So get out.
He raced through the station, heading for the escape pod. He had to get down to Earth. With what coherence he could muster, he had to tell somebody about this, although it did not yet make any sense. But it would, it would, it would have to. The naked man had been a man, yes, but he had white round marble eyes and a knifelike, inhuman nose. If they were on Earth, his kind could be found.
Web lowered himself into the escape pod, strapped himself down and pressed the button. The pod shot down from the station, down and away, and a great orange flame spread out from its bow. It lost speed quickly, steadily, as the rockets pushed it back. After a while the flames died out. The pod began to fall.
Just as Ivy could feel the ability to move returning, the old men came for her. She realized with despair that they knew quite well how long the paralysis would last. They helped her to her feet and walked her out of the building. Their hands were dry and raspy and surprisingly strong.
Outside it was late in the morning and the sun was high. She was on the side of a mountain, looking down into a peaceful valley. They led her around the low building into a shaded area farther up the mountain, where she saw several more buildings, much smaller than the first. The first, she thought, was a clearing house.
“How do you feel?” said the man on her left, grinning. “Do you feel very good?”
He stressed the ‘good’ for a reason she did not understand. Apparently the word meant something to him. His grin was wide and his teeth showed remarkably white and firm. The other old man was grinning too.
“I’m hungry,” she said. She did not ask these men why she was here. She thought she knew, and if she didn’t she would find out soon enough.
“Very soon,” the first man said, “if you are good enough.”
Now again she did not know what he meant, but this was more obvious. The way he spoke, his grin fading, was particularly horrible. Before she had a chance to say anything more she was ushered into one of the small buildings beneath the trees.
She found herself in a room with several terrified girls, and two more of the old men. These looked even older and were much more businesslike.
One by one, too frightened to struggle, the girls were stripped. Like doctors, the two old men examined them clinically. There was an oldness, a foul and slimy something about these gaunt men that was almost overpoweringly horrible. She wanted to run, or to scream, or just to fight, but she held herself in and waited for the right moment.
She was allowed to take her clothes off herself, was pushed and prodded for several grisly moments. At last she was led naked into another room, where a massive machine of glass and metal was wheeled into place above her, and set to a deep, jarring hum. After a few seconds she was given back her clothes. Then she was taken outside into the sun again, where the other girls stood waiting.
The same two old men took her arms.
One bent over and looked closely into her eyes, his nose almost touching hers. He was grinning now with great joy.
“You were good enough,” he said happily, “now you will eat.”
She stared at him, revolted as his dry rough hand ran down her arm. Then she saw something which made her understand.
Five girls had been in the building with her.
Only three had come out.
The controls of the escape pod were pre-set. It checked its fall with controlled, measured bursts, fell quickly and steeply until it bounced off the atmosphere. Once in the air the stubby wings took hold and the pod began to glide, blasting from time to time to slow itself down. There was no light in the pod, and Web rode all the way down in a silent, rushing, horrible blackness. He had plenty of time to consider the fact that the pod had never been used before. It had never even been tested. Well, he thought philosophically, if it did not work he would undoubtedly never feel the end.
That did not help at all. He waited, falling.
Not long before the pod hit he began to hear the air scream past, and he braced himself. The braking rockets cut loose for the last time. There was one great rending crash, a series of enormous pops like corks being pulled on the biggest bottles in the world, and a really awful, shattering, bone-mangling impact. And then the pod was down.
In the last moment Web had closed his eyes. When he opened them he saw light streaming in through a large crack above him.
It’s all busted up, he told himself dazedly. Better get out. He unbuckled his straps and poked himself fearfully. The hammock had held well enough, but it had been designed for a much smaller man. When the pod hit he had sort of flowed over the edges of the hammock, there were long numb lines all over his body.
But the pod might just possibly decide to burn. He crawled out painfully, but as quickly as possible.
Outside it was mid-afternoon. A desert afternoon. The sun was high and white-hot, blinding. He closed his eyes, trying to accustom himself to the glare. He thanked both God and the engineers that the pod had apparently come down where it was supposed to come down—in the great empty area in Arizona. Radar would have followed him down, therefore rescue trucks were already on their way. They would cross the rough terrain in a couple of hours. A helicopter should be here even sooner. He breathed deeply and a bit more easily, beginning to feel much better.
It occurred to him at last that he still had on his space suit. He took off the helmet, regretted it almost instantly.
The air-scorched skin of the pod by his side was glowing a brisk cherry red, radiating slow thick waves of boiling air. Web walked quickly away in the sand. The October sun was hot, but the pod was even worse. He looked around in the desert, beginning now to feel very tired, looking for a place to shelter himself, to rest until the relief came.
He walked off over the nearest rocky hill, searched among the huge boulders. Distances were deceptive. He had walked quite a way before he found two gray slabs which leaned together and formed a dark opening beneath. He made sure that he could see enough of the desert to know when the relief trucks came. Then he crawled inside.
He had just settled himself to wait, his eyes closing, when the pod blew up.
The sound came at him like a thundering wall. He whirled to face the desert.
Where the pod had been rose an enormous, greasy, ball-topped cloud. The explosion was overwhelming. The whole land shook as the concussion rolled over him, the sky and the air were black around him. After a while the dirt and the rocks began to rain down in a heavy brown splatter and he huddled in the rocks.
Atomic. They were after him.
He started to rise, agonized and tensed, thinking about the aliens and about radioactivity. But before he reached his feet his mind took hold of him and he stopped.
There was no where to go. If he stepped out into the open he would be seen at once, seen from practically any distance. He looked up into the sky, past the tall black column of smoke. Nothing.
He sat. Maybe they hadn’t followed him down. They might not have had time for that. Friction was friction, they could travel through the air no faster than he could. So probably what they had done was send some kind of missile after him. It could not have come down much faster than the pod, it would have burned up, so what it had done was give him just enough time to get out. He thanked God that he had.
He leaned weakly against a rock. After a moment he crawled as deeply as he could into the darkness. There was still no place to go. The aliens might be very close, and he could take no chance on missing the relief trucks.
He was becoming rapidly very tired. If he did not want to have to walk all the way out of the desert, he would have to stay right here. Boy, he said to himself painfully, wearily, you got big trouble. He sat down to brood, too tired to remind himself that he had volunteered for this business.
In a few moments he was deeply asleep.
When he awoke it was dark and quite cool and the stars were out. He was instantly alert, peering off into the blackness, listening for the rescue trucks. He crawled out from the rocks and stood up, peered off into the night.
There was no moon, but off in what would be the east was the first bluish glow of the rising sun. That told him at least how long he had slept, and he kicked himself. It was somewhere between four and five in the morning. The truck would have been here long ago.
He walked away from the rocks, looking for a high point on which to stand. They wouldn’t have gone away, damn it, they’d have enough sense to stay and look around. Although if they thought he had been in the pod….
Holy smoke, he said with a sad despair, I’ve got to walk home.
He hadn’t eaten for a day and a half. He hadn’t had anything to drink either, or even a cigarette. He was beginning to feel it. He made his way up through the rocks to a high, flat bulge, stretched himself up and peered out hopefully.
The trucks rose up about a mile away. Three black hulks, vague and square and unmoving.
Web shouted out hoarsely, with relief and delight. He stumbled back down the rocks in the darkness, reached the soft sand and began to run like a sprinter. They’d waited, bless ’em. The sound of a human voice would be, at this moment, magnificent. He could taste the hot coffee as he ran, the steaming hot coffee and the rolls. They were probably all around him, searching. He shouted.
Nobody answered. It was becoming light quite quickly and although the ground was still dark the silhouettes of the trucks stood out black and clear as he came over the last rise.
He stopped in his tracks, kicking up sand.
The trucks were wrecked.
He crouched tensely, feeling for a gun that wasn’t there.
Nothing moved in the blackness around him. The trucks were all black and empty. After a moment of waiting in the deep silence he moved forward slowly.
The first truck had crashed head on into a flat rock wall. The second lay on its side in a steep ditch to the right of the road. The third lay right behind it. The only one that was apparently untouched was the halftrack.
It was standing alone halfway up a sand hill to the south, its nose pointed up at a sharp angle. All of the trucks were empty. But in the half light he couldn’t be sure.
He walked up to the halftrack, looking for the bodies.
There weren’t any. When he had looked around for a few moments, he realized what had happened. The men had all disappeared.
He was a little more ready for it now, but it was by no means easy to take. On the seat of the halftrack he found two fatigue caps, two twill shirts, two pairs of pants.
On the floor were the shoes and socks. The men had disappeared rapidly, while the trucks were still moving.
Web looked up into the sky.
None of the stars were moving.
But the aliens would be coming back soon. He climbed into the halftrack, threw out the clothes and started the engine. The thing had stalled, probably, running off by itself up a hill. He was lucky. The motor turned over. He was going quickly away, in no particular direction, when he remembered food.
He stopped the halftrack and looked in the back.
Towing apparatus, to take the pod back.
The second truck had burned, was still hot, but the third was intact. He found some K-rations and an untouched thermos, opened the thermos immediately and gulped down a huge draught of pleasantly warm coffee. With the coffee in him he felt much better and began to think.
He would have to get out of here damn fast.
But where? In the least likely direction.
In the opposite direction to the base?
No. At right angles. Better yet, at any old angle. Neither directly toward home, nor directly away. Not by any means toward the nearest town.
So just run.
But first cigarettes—and money.
He rifled the first pair of pants he found, then another. The second had belonged to an officer. In a moment of sudden clarity, realizing the uselessness in town of the overalls he now wore, he took the full uniform with him. He did not think about the man that had been in them. He was coming fully awake now, beginning to realize the jam he was in. He had as much chance of getting out of this desert alive as a crippled snail.
He started up the halftrack and drove off over the sand at an even eighteen miles an hour.
“There he goes,” said Kunklin. “What is that thing he is driving?”
“Extraordinary,” Prule agreed. “You’d think that even with their primitive technology these poor souls would have reasonably comfortable conveyances.”
“And faster,” Kunklin said. “The Faktors will be back.”
“Where are they now?”
“North. They reason, obviously, that he has slipped through on the ground. They are taking no chance on the bong having missed, which is characteristically thorough. They are fanning out from the North, beginning to ring the desert.”
“There is no hurry then. If the Faktors think he is a Galactic they will be very discreet, very cautious.”
Kunklin turned from the eyepiece, his handsome face lighted with interest.
“Listen, now there’s a thing we’ll have to discuss. Could this man be a Galactic?”
“Fully? No, of course not,” Prule sniffed. “A Galactic run from a Faktor? Humph!”
“But he undoubtedly has Galactic blood,” said Kunklin cheerfully, “else how do you explain his escape from the satellite?”
“True,” said Prule seriously, “but that is not particularly extraordinary. He has Galactic blood. So do hundreds of humanoid peoples on hundreds of worlds. As long as we allow tourists to visit any world they choose, whether it’s aware of us or not, we will continue to find people with traces of Galactic blood. This is a failing of human nature which I expressly—”
But Kunklin was grinning widely.
“You mean his father?—”
“Or mother,” Prule said dourly. “Either party might well have been at fault. It is not difficult to conjecture. A tourist drops in on this planet, notes the—ah—male or female, as the case may be—to have a certain measure of attraction, and the normal processes ensue. Most likely, of course the tourist was his father. A Galactic mother would have done—ah—whatever it is that—ah—well of course.”
Prule, who was something of a moralist, became somewhat flustered. Kunklin, who was young and handsome and no moralist at all, grinned lecherously.
“Well, by Cosmos! This is really cute. I’ll bet he doesn’t even know!”
“In all probability. Since the laws decree silence, it is not likely that even his mother knew.”
Kunklin looked back at the halftrack, chortling.
“Well, really, we have to look after him. Blood brother, I think the phrase goes.”
Prule drew himself up with great dignity.
“Agent Kunklin, we must look after them all. There must be no more killing. First the satellite, then the trucks, then the helicopter—”
“Was there a helicopter?”
“Yes. I was too late to save it. Although I did remove the small Faktor ship that destroyed it.”
“Well now, really, it’s about time we did something, don’t you think?” Prule said.
“Yes. Unfortunately, there is only one thing we can do.”
“Use the Earthman? Um. I had expected that.”
“What other course is there? They think he’s a Galactic. They’ll try to get him in any way possible, to stop a patrol ship from arriving on the scene. And we, already here, have no way of knowing where on this planet they are, where they’ve cached their—uh—spoils. Hence we must follow the Earthman.”
“Well, after all, it is his planet,” Prule said.
“His women,” Kunklin corrected.
Late in the afternoon the halftrack struck a road. It climbed up onto it and Web pressed full speed to thirty. He had considered hiding the halftrack somewhere during the day and going on at night, but there was really no place to hide, and the aliens would probably double back and find the halftrack missing and come looking for it very soon, and they could probably see in the dark anyway. So he got out of the desert as quickly as he could.
In all, three separate scouting crews found him in the first four hours. They died silently, above him, without him being even slightly aware of their existence.
He had plenty of time to think. The big mystery, of course, was why in hell he hadn’t disappeared along with everybody else. The damn things certainly wanted to kill him, or why had they followed the pod down? Well somehow, they had missed him. And he had been so doggone lucky up until now that he was beginning to feel invulnerable. He considered the whole business from beginning to end, trying to figure out what they were and why they wanted nobody in the satellite.
They wanted no Earthmen in space.
Then why didn’t they just blow the thing up?
Maybe they were worried about starting a war. Maybe—yes—they wanted nobody up there because anybody up there could see what they were doing, would give an alarm, but a full scale war would be the worst thing that could happen, because they were undoubtedly somewhere on Earth right now, and they would be caught in the middle of it.
After that much thinking he was through. In the end, of course, there was no way of knowing, but whatever it was they wanted it was certainly pretty bad. Bad enough to kill him, which was all the bad he needed.
He pushed the halftrack at full speed down the road.
In the next town he stole a car. He did it quite simply, not bothering to explain, because he was in something of a hurry. He approached the car he wanted as it was standing at the curb, as its owner, a small, beefy man with a greasy shirt, was just getting out. He took the keys away from the man and took the car.
At the first town he came to he parked the car quickly, headed for the nearest phone booth, and tried to call Dundon.
He couldn’t get through. Neither Dundon nor the colonel were “available,” and there was no one else there who knew who he was, or what he was doing. And he could take no time to explain. Dundon and the Colonel were probably out looking for him. He swore thoroughly, but all he could do was leave his name, and ask for the message to be left that he had called, and was in the town of Huntsville. It was a heck of a situation, but he was stuck. Who would send an escort for a drunk-sounding second lieutenant?
He walked out of the booth, realizing that he must forget about the car outside, and now that he had spent a few consecutive seconds in one place he felt a deep nervousness beginning. He searched through the people around him, expecting any moment the coming of wide, white eyes and knifelike noses. But the people here were all apparently human.
Although you couldn’t know. Easy to disguise eyes with contact leases.
He left a store, found a hotel room. He could not seek safety with the police. They would all disappear. Anyone he went to would disappear. There was nothing to do now but hide. He lay down on a bed and waited.
The food they gave her was thick red meat, half-cooked. They sat down beside her, three of the old men, together in a small bare hut. None of them ate. They watched her, grinning, speaking lowly and incoherently among themselves.
She felt like a blue-ribbon heifer. Best of breed. She found out that she couldn’t eat very much.
“Food,” an old man said with concern, pointing at her plate. He apparently knew less English than the rest. “Food,” he repeated insistently, making the motions of eating.
“No,” Ivy said. She rose up suddenly and shook her head. “I don’t want any.” If they wanted her to eat, maybe she’d better not eat.
Maybe there was something in the food—
They looked her over thoroughly as she stood before them, grinning horribly. They were not too concerned that she did not eat. Later, if necessary, they would come back with vials and needles.
The three men rose. One of them motioned the others to leave. They bowed and walked out, looking back over their shoulders to grin.
She faced the old man across the low wooden table.
“It is perhaps time that you learn why you are here,” the old man said quietly. His English was perfect. His face was detached, unsmiling.
“You are to be used for breeding,” the old man said.
She stared, not understanding.
“I will be brief,” he said, still quietly, his eyes white and steady. “The sooner you realize the nature of our purpose the sooner you will be content. There is no virtue in resistance. We can keep you under paralysis indefinitely”—he smiled slightly—”for the full nine months, if necessary. Do you understand?”
She began to back slowly away.
The old man continued to smile.
“It is possible that you have already guessed that we are not—human. If not I tell you so now. Our race has its origins in a system of which you have undoubtedly never heard. But that is no matter. Our races are compatible genetically. In the end you will breed.”
He paused, watching her with a calm amusement. Ivy could not move.
“Our race is very old, much, much older than yours. It is also, in a sense, biologically old. In effect, the race is dying. It has been dying for quite some time. We have managed to keep ourselves—virile—by use of the obvious method. It is for this reason that we are here. We need new blood. Young blood. We must interbreed.”
He walked slowly and calmly around the edge of the table.
“You have been chosen to bear our children. This is no particular honor, I know, but I will repeat that you cannot possibly succeed in resisting. Be practical, perform your function. If you are tractable, you will be given much. If you are stubborn, you will be paralyzed. You will not under any circumstances be killed or allowed to die. You will have company. We have—collected—many of your race, both male and female. You will not, of course, be allowed association with the males.”
He turned and strode to the door. He paused with his hand on the knob, his smile grew wide and his teeth showed.
“I think it best that you be paralyzed now.”
Ivy still could not move. There was in all this a dreamlike quality which she could not believe. Within her mind she slowly retreated.
The old man opened the door. Two men who had been waiting came quickly in, clutched her, injected her. In a moment she lay on the floor, the drug hanging heavily on her wildly pulsing heart.
The first old man stood over her, pulled out a small notebook.
“You are lucky,” he said, with an ironic smile, “I think I will breed you myself.”
He bent down and touched her. The white eyes grew dark at the edges.
“I think I will breed you tomorrow,” he said.
The scout ship of the Galactics hung in a hole in space several feet in the air above Main Street. The bending mechanism was on, light rays were diverted around it. It was invisible, unapproachable, although it admitted enough light so that it itself could see. Kunklin and Prule, who were for a while similarly almost nonexistent, floated down from the ship and walked away curiously in the middle of the street. They adjusted themselves to solidity in the alley behind Web’s hotel. The power necessary to maintain the bender was enormous, and had to come from portable power sources, and they decided that it would be best to save power for emergencies. Prule searched for a moment through a small, voluted lens. He found Web.
“What’s he doing?”
“Ingenious man. Is he armed?”
“Um. We cannot permit him to be killed.”
“Well, he is apparently very strong.”
“There are times when that helps.”
“Still, we had better record him.”
“Wait. He’s coming down.”
It was time to do something. Web did not know what, but he had to do something. There was a phone in the shabby little foyer, but he passed it by. It had occurred to him that Dundon would be no help at all. He stepped out into the street.
He had a strong fleeting impulse to tell somebody, anybody, just for the companionship of another human being. Immediately, the thought passed.
“I have just come down from a space satellite,” he would say, “where I encountered forty-seven disappearing men and a naked man in open space—”
He looked around for the nearest drugstore. It was quite dark in the streets and he was not too conspicuous in the tight army clothes—a field jacket will fit an elephant—but he could not help feeling like a neon sign. But a gun. He needed a gun, and a quick way out of here.
Hell, where could you get a gun?
From the police.
He looked around seriously and purposefully, but no blue coat was near. He walked into the drugstore.
At the counter there were five people. All with their backs turned. The counter man was a young boy with a fat nose. Web slipped into the phone booth, deciding on an impulse to call Dundon anyway. It was possible that he would die soon, and there ought to be someone who knew about the naked man.
In his pockets were a half dollar and three pennies. No other change. He swore.
At that moment he looked up out of the booth, saw a small, dry man walk stiffly into the store.
There was something—
The man looked around, saw him.
The man was old, his face was expressionless. His eyes were all right, were dark and usual, but his nose was alien.
There was no doubt about that. To any other human it would look merely odd, but to Web it was alien. Knifelike and alien.
They stood facing each other across the few feet of store. Web reached again for the gun he did not have. Quickly—but with a gliding smoothness, in no hurry at all—the alien turned away. He sat down on a stool at the fountain.
Web stood for several seconds in the booth, watching.
He tried to think, but there was no time. Others would be gathering outside. He fought the impulse to run. After a long moment he opened the door of the booth and walked out into the store. The alien did not turn. The huge glass window of the store was unblocked. Web could see dozens of shoppers pass by in the night. In the crowd there would be old men. To go out now was foolish.
He walked over to the fountain and sat down two seats away from the alien. There was a fat, soda-eating woman between them. He ordered coffee.
No way out. They were not likely to come in, but there was no way out. Through the back door would be useless. Darker, less people. He looked down toward the alien. The little man was sitting quietly, the glass untouched before him. The nose was sharp in profile.
Web made up his mind quickly, in the only way possible. His strength, his size was his only asset. He would have to use it.
He paid for his coffee, picked up his change, then stood up and looked for the light switch. There were four long fluorescent tubes above him, no chance to break them all. He saw the light switch against the back wall, then took a deep breath.
He walked up quickly behind the alien.
The little man did not move.
“You,” Web said.
The alien face swung toward him.
“Get up,” Web said.
The dry face whitened, but the expression did not change and the old man did not say anything.
“I asked you to get up,” Web said gently. His right hand hung low, Web clamped down on the alien’s frail shoulder and jerked him to his feet. When the alien opened his mouth, Web hit him low. The man doubled. Web picked him up and heaved him the full length of the store, in the direction of the light switch. He leaped after the hurtling body, threw the switch.
In the sudden blessed blackness he found the alien’s head on the floor, crashed it down twice with a great, nerveless strength. Frantically, savagely, while the fat lady screamed and the few other people bellowed toward the door, he searched the alien’s pockets. There was nothing resembling a gun. What he found he jammed quickly into his own pocket, then whirled and waited, crouching.
Outside were shouts, and a crowd was forming. When there were enough people outside he stood up and ran for the door.
He weighed two hundred and forty pounds. He came through the door like a freight express, ripped into the crowd with all the power of his enormous body. He went through and over, came out the other side, let out his speed and began to run.
A light orange flame touched a brick wall near him, glowed briefly on a car, on a post, on a sign above him. He swerved. There was an alley, dark and open.
He ran into it, over the fence at the other end, and through a back yard. The flame followed in soft bursting balls. He was in another alley with open light in front of him, when the flame caught up with him.
It took him just under the right shoulder blade, burned a hole clean through him in the space of a second. He died on his feet, still running.
The recording was made in the drugstore, from an alley a few feet away. It was made just in time for the Galactics to turn their talents to other things. Altogether they had observed seven Faktors in the crowd that gathered in front of the store. Kunklin had already obliterated the four who lay in wait in the darkness at the rear, and the three at the hotel.
It was not difficult. There is no single being in the entire galaxy with the massed, polarized power of a Galactic repairman.
They found Web’s body in the alley. It was of no use anymore, to anybody, and was inconvenient. So they dissolved it.
When Web awoke there was a light gentle clicking in his mind that he did not follow at all. He lay listening to it for a long while, gathering himself, creeping out of a thick numbness.
And then he sat bolt upright.
He was on a train.
The clicking was the sound of wheels against rails. He stared at the room around him, at the open window and the flat green fields rolling by beyond it. For a moment he was extremely dizzy. He lowered his head and waited.
After a while his head cleared and he could stand up. He walked unsteadily to the window and looked out, saw nothing but fields and quick-swishing poles. He turned back to the bunk on which he had been lying. He was alone in the compartment.
How in God’s name did he get on a train?
The last thing he remembered was a numbing crouch, a heart-bursting need for action. Slowly at first, then with great clarity, he remembered being on the floor of the drugstore, waiting for the crowd to gather so he could make a dash for the door.
But he could not remember moving. He could not remember anything but crouching. And then—nothing. His memory ended like a burned-out match.
And there were no bruises or lumps on his head. He felt it carefully to make sure. The only pain he felt anywhere in his body was a dull, left-over aching in his side—that had come from the landing in the pod.
Well somehow, obviously, he had been knocked out.
Dammit, hadn’t they been trying to kill him?
It made no sense. Never in his life had his mind just up and gone blank. But he had not been hit. He had been paralyzed somehow, and taken out of the drugstore and—
He put his hand in his pocket. For the first time it occurred to him that he was wearing different clothes.
He sat down abruptly, looked down at himself with increasing amazement. The army clothes were gone. In their place was a stiff white shirt and brown tweed pants, and a loosely knotted red plaid tie. His eyes leaped to the door of the compartment. A matching tweed coat, obviously new, hung from a wire coat hanger.
Am I me? he asked himself. He was utterly lost.
Across from the bunk there was a small wash room and a mirror. He went over and looked at himself. He had not seen himself in a white shirt for a long time and for a moment it was odd, but then, it was his own face. There was no change. And he needed a shave.
He went back and sat down on the bed.
The minutes ticked by and when he had sat long enough without thinking of anything at all he caught a firm grip on himself and tried to go back over the whole thing. It was none of it real, and he immediately rejected it. He had not gone up in a satellite at all, or driven a halftrack out of a desert, and there was no naked man—
Yes he had. He damn well had.
He was Lieutenant Augustus Webster Hilton, and all of this had happened. He focused again on where he was.
A train. Alone.
Bound for where?
He moved suddenly, with a baffled, growing anger. One thing at least he could find out. He stood up and put on the jacket. He was on his way out to find a porter when he felt the bulge in his pocket.
Instantly, he remembered the things he had taken from the dead alien. They had been transferred to the pocket of his new clothes. The courtesy of it struck him as incredible. He spread the things out on the bed.
There was a set of keys, ordinary keys. There was a metallic disc about the size of a quarter, engraved with meaningless figures. A coin? A lucky piece? Probably a coin. There was a handkerchief, soiled, and a small box of pasty white tablets. He put them down immediately. The important thing was a card. A calling card, on the face of which, simply printed, were the words:
Albert Bosco, M.D.
213 Wingate Rd.
The card was white paper, nothing unusual, but he stared at it with mixed amazement and disbelief. It occurred to him for a rather horrible second that the man he had killed might conceivably not have been an alien.
But no. He recalled the nose clearly. The nose was alien, the man was alien. And where he had gotten the card, and what use he had for it, had probably died with him.
And then, of course, there was no reason why an alien named Albert Bosco could not be a doctor.
But that was all he had gotten from the alien’s pockets. It was a curiously ordinary and unexciting mess of nothing, there was no trace here of anything not human. But it did give him one thing: his destination.
And whoever had put him on the train knew that too.
The first porter he found let slip, luckily, that his name had been given as Mr. Pringle. Where they got that one, or how they got him on the train, Web was never to know. And yessir, why sutinly, sir, said the porter, looking at him oddly, as he had every right to look, this here now train sho’ does stop at Chicago.
When he left the train at Chicago it was after midnight.
Dammit, he said to himself bitterly, I got to do everything at night.
He had planned to dodge around the station a bit before leaving, but there was no crowd. The place was wide and bare, stony, with a few night travelers dozing on benches. None of them he could see had sharp noses.
But now he was not sure whether they were after him or not, because—
—who in God’s name had put him on the train?
He brooded for a while in a small coffee shop, but it got more and more complicated. Since the aliens had not killed him, and in fact obviously meant for him to go to Chicago and look up this man Bosco, there was no way to understand the bombing of the pod, or the empty trucks, or anything. Were there two kinds of aliens, the good guys and the bad guys? That was possible. His mind opened up. If you accept the presence of one alien, you might just as well accept dozens.
And that was quite a thought. As a matter of fact, how many aliens were there, really? The whole darn world could be shot through with aliens, skinny ones, fat ones, straight ones, bent ones, maybe all the odd-looking people he knew were aliens. Maybe even, maybe Dundon was an alien.
He looked around furtively. In a coffee shop, late at night and not a very clean coffee shop, it is remarkable how thoroughly inhuman people can look.
He left the shop.
Well, he had no way of knowing what was up, who was good or who was bad. But a lot of men had died, and until he knew why, and who did it, and how, and could protect himself, he was going to trust nobody. He was not going to walk deserted streets in the middle of the night looking for Bosco. He hailed a cab for the Statler Hotel. To his relief, he found that there was a Statler in Chicago.
He was given a room for which he could not possibly pay if he stayed here for any length of time, and he thought once more of Dundon.
He would have to call Dundon. He would explain the last few hours as some kind of amnesia, during which he had gotten out of the drugstore safely, bought some new clothes, read the alien’s card, and boarded a train for Chicago, all without knowing it.
Although that was the most logical explanation, there was an odd feeling in his mind and he did not believe it. But he decided to tell Dundon that anyway.
It was while he was making the call that the Faktors found him again.
Toward morning reality began to close in upon Ivy with a cold, numbing flow. She sat examining the things around her, the wall, the table, the ceiling. As the morning came on a soft rose crept into the sky. She went to the plastic window and stood watching the dawn.
This thing was going to happen.
The impossibility was fading now as the sun rose and the huts across the way stepped out of darkness. That old, that horrible thing, that dry, wrinkled thing….
She was too much afraid, and revolted, to cry. What followed now was an animal fear, an animal desperation, and for the first time she felt an urgent, vital energy gathering within her. She had to get out, she had to get away. This thing was unbelievable and could not happen at all, not ever, because she would not let it happen. She moved back from the window and began to pace her cage.
And the anger was replaced by a dissolving helplessness. She had no plan. She searched, thought desperately, pleaded with herself, but she had no plan. When they came all she could do would be fight, which would not be enough, and the thing would happen.
Eventually, because carrying this load in her mind was much too great, she tried at last to accept it. If she could just endure. She would have to shut off her mind, like a radio is shut off, and live inside herself, in silence.
She knew that would not work either.
By mid-morning it became obvious that the man was in no hurry, or was busy. He did not come after breakfast, and she waited out the morning. She was just beginning to begin to hope when two of the older men, the guards, came into the hut.
It was evidently a formal thing, this breeding. They took her clothes, gave her a single, pale yellow garment which reached not quite to her knees. She put it on. The two old men were dressed differently today, in soft pastel robes which were flowing and ridiculous around their spindly legs. She gathered that today there would be a celebration.
One of the old men gave her the needle as she stood dressing, before she had a chance to struggle. She was lain for the last time upon the floor, to wait for the evening.
And then, to her great amazement, a calm possession took over her. All the school girl fear and disgust and revulsion fell away for a moment, and she examined the situation critically.
What the hell, she said to herself, startled but at the same time pleased at the feel of strength in her.
What was this after all? This was sex, really, so what? It was going to happen? Well, let it happen. It happened to other women, and it had not killed them. Now it was going to happen to her, and she would certainly live through it, and since none of it was her fault, there was merely a physical thing that took place, like in the old days when girls were married against their will, so she guessed she could bear it.
She was shocked at herself. But she felt her sanity, which had slowly begun to slip away, return with a rush. Her youth did not return with it. She would have preferred to have her initiation take place in some other manner, certainly, with someone more suitable, and she knew that afterwards she might regret it all very much.
But she had a whole afternoon to pass lying flat on her back and thinking, and she passed the afternoon in growing up quickly, as countless women had done before her, helpless and alone, captured in wax by barbarian soldiers.
“I said this is Hilton, by God! Me. Web. Lieutenant Hilton!”
It was a little while, understandably, before Dundon got hold of the idea of the aliens. And then—also with great understanding—Web decided not to tell him the full story. Not over the phone. In person it would be bad enough, but over the phone it was too great an effort, and anyway, he was not really sure that he was himself. He told Dundon where he was.
“Chicago? Chicago? Chica—”
“That’s right, chief. Chicago. You got it. I’m in the Statler Hotel. Incidentally, I need quite a buck to pay my way out. And if you will come here right away I will tell you what’s up.”
Dundon was still asking him about Chicago.
“At the Statler,” Web insisted, “under my own name. Bring money. And bring an escort. Watch out for old men with sharp noses. What? We’ve been invaded. Yes, by little old men with sharp—look, chief, never mind, come out here and I’ll tell you the whole thing.”
With that he hung up.
At the thought of how Dundon must look, he grew cheerful for the first time since the whole business had begun. For a risingly happy moment he began to feel for once like his old gay carefree self.
I am going to wait, he said happily to himself, until the whole damn army gets here.
I am not going to move a foot. I will sleep and eat until the cows come home, I will load up on scotch and I will lock my door, because, by heck, I deserve it.
Because he had had little experience with hotel rooms, especially rooms of such a lavish nature, he did not think of room service. He strode through the door gaily whistling, and was halfway to the elevator when the orange flash cut him down.
Kunklin and Prule joined to rake in twelve more Faktors, and to dissolve Web once again.
“This is quite hard on the boy, really,” Prule observed reproachfully.
Kunklin was unmoved. “He doesn’t feel a thing. He will never know about it.”
Prule agreed, but he was a sensitive man, and he sighed. And then he said:
“They found him with remarkable celerity, don’t you think?”
“Tracing a Galactic—an unequipped Galactic—is not difficult. The wave length, of course.”
“Yes, but they had no idea he was coming to this place.”
“They certainly did. They expected him at the center of operations—which this town must obviously be—sooner or later. When their men did not return from the desert, or the town, they must have grown apprehensive.”
“Well, anyway, we don’t need this poor fellow anymore. Why don’t we let him go, and mop up ourselves.”
Kunklin grinned righteously.
“I’m a great believer in letting these people help themselves,” he said. “It seems more sporting that way. He’s doing fine so far. I think we ought to leave him in just to see how far he can go. Really, he does deserve to be in at the end.”
“I suppose. But you know, we almost didn’t finish that last recording in time.”
It was a sobering thought.
“We’ll have to follow him more closely,” Kunklin said, beginning the work of assembly. “But after all, we’re very near the end. I expect we will be going home—”
He broke off in mid-sentence as a tall, unusually symmetrical young woman walked leggily around the corner of the hall. Kunklin was invisible behind the warp shield, but although she could not see him he could clearly see her, and his eyebrows rose happily.
“Um,” he began, “it begins to come home to me now why this planet is so well-visited. First this Earthman’s father, then the Faktors—”
Prule cut him off. Kunklin was a first rate repairman, but he was also a first rate lecher, a trait he had carried to several harrowing extremes on other humanoid worlds, to Prule’s almost Quakerian sorrow. Prule soberly pressed him back to work, to the messy job of assembling Web Hilton from the molecular recording.
And when Kunklin’s head was down and busy, Prule’s eyes quickly followed the pneumatic young lady as she walked down the carpeted hall.
And now Web was walking down a street in the black night, walking slowly, without purpose or direction or intelligence. He was aware of walking for quite some while, numbly, vacantly, as if he was rising from a long dark tunnel, before he reached the end and came suddenly alive.
He stopped in the center of the sidewalk.
It had happened again.
Bewildered, he looked around him. There was nothing about the street, about the long low rows of squat black houses, which was familiar. He had no reason of his own to come here; he was not even sure he was still in Chicago.
He put his hand to his forehead and rubbed his eyes. A feeling of great emptiness, of being utterly alone in an impossible world, swept through him. This time his memory went as far as the call to Dundon, no farther. He had begun to walk from the room, and it was as if he had walked off a cliff into nothing, into a cloud, and he had emerged from the other side still walking, only now he was walking on an unknown street. What happened in between was not in his mind. After a moment he did not try to remember, because there was not even an association. In that area his mind was totally empty.
He gathered himself quickly. There was a great drive inside him which all the years up to now had not really touched, but now he was beginning to feel himself move. He was confused. He was alone. But he was also becoming deeply angry. He was going to find out what had happened, was happening, and he would do it if it meant searching to the end of his life.
He walked quickly to the nearest corner.
The street he was on was Wingate Street.
Which was, he recalled instantly, the address of Albert Bosco.
So he had been directed here. The blank in his mind was not amnesia. Someone had guided his movements to Wingate Street, had picked him up out of the hotel like you pick up a toy train that has gone off the track.
His anger rose.
He would follow that trail, all right, and when he reached the end—
He began to look for the Doctor’s house.
It was a high, narrow building near the end of the block. There was no light in any of the windows.
He strode up to the front door without hesitation, forcefully punched the bell.
Lights came on upstairs. Something came clumping down the hall toward the door, opened it.
Bosco was an old, old man in a shining bathrobe. In the light of the hall his alien nose was keen and obvious.
“Emergency,” said Web quickly, “are you the Doctor?” He stepped inside the door before the old man, startled, could answer. He stood poised upon a thick carpet, listening for sounds from other parts of the house. The house was silent.
“I am Doctor Bosco,” the old man said weakly, nervously, “what is it you want? Who sent you to me?”
“I need your help,” Web said. He thought: this one doesn’t know me. “Can you come?”
“But … but … but … I do not leave this house. I am not … I cannot go out. You will have to find someone else.” He reached past Web to open the door again. Web decided to make his move.
The arm reached by him. He closed his hand upon the wrist.
The alien froze, stared with enormous horror straight up into his eyes. The wrist in Web’s grip was remarkably gaunt and brittle. With a quick downward motion he could break it, and both of them knew it.
The old man started to back away, moaned once with a bubbling hum, and collapsed.
Web bent down to look at the man. He wasn’t dead, but he was out cold. Scared damn near to death. Web was amused, grinned once very swiftly. If this was a sample, these aliens weren’t much.
He picked up the old man, light and wispy as a bundle of leaves, and carried him under one arm into the big living room which opened off of the hall. He thought better of turning on a light, slumped the old man on a couch and sat down beside him.
A street bulb outside the house threw a white soft glow of light into the room. That was enough to see by for his purposes. He moved over on the couch to a position from which he could see the door. And then, in darkness, he waited.
It was several minutes before the old man moved. Web had time to think, to form a plan. The first thing that moved in Web’s mind was a wonder of why in heck the old man should have fainted, and then it occurred to him that this thing here was alien, truly alien, and probably had a science so far beyond ours as to be impossible to comprehend. He would undoubtedly be long-lived. Web thought; could just as well be immortal.
But anyway, no matter what else he was, it was pretty sure that he lived a long while, and death, any death, was a rare thing among his people. Hence the unusual, to an Earthman, fear of dying. It figured. Humans fear dying all right. But a lot of them face it every day as part of their jobs, because life on Earth must be something like a jungle compared to the germ-free, war-free, super-sanitary world of the future. Death to a man like this would be quite a fearful thing.
And so the collapse.
And a weapon for Web.
He smiled in the darkness, cruelly, as the alien stirred. He would find out from this man whatever he wanted to know.
Awake at last, with Web above him like a huge black mountain, the old man nearly fainted again. But he managed to recover slowly, in a state of really pitiful terror. He had known from the beginning that Web was not a Galactic—a Galactic would never have approached in person. The thought helped him to survive. But even then this Earthman was a barbarian, an unaccountable man with no scruples against killing, and Web was perfectly right about the fear of death. The alien talked.
For a while he babbled, but then it began to make sense.
He told about the coming extinction of his race, and the plan for interbreeding which would save it. He had been on Earth, he said, for several years, choosing specimens for test purposes. The tests had proved positive and the first step of selection was almost completed. He had been stationed as a real doctor with a real practice, so that he would have the opportunity of giving preliminary physical examinations and passing on the names of potentially acceptable candidates. And there were many doctors like him spread all over the world. Since the United States was by far the Earth’s healthiest country of any size, most of the selecting had been done right here.
“But what did you do with the men in the satellite?” Web asked, doing his best to follow but fast losing ground.
“How did you know—?” And then the alien almost collapsed again. He had heard, undoubtedly, of the one man that had escaped from the satellite. But that had been a Galactic—
“Why did you do that, kill all those men, and how?”
Web shook him, the alien yelped feebly, then babbled it out.
“The satellite was in a very dangerous position. It could see all our intercontinental travel, the ships we have going and coming daily. It would undoubtedly warn the planet of what it saw. But we could not simply destroy it. Blame for that might conceivably be placed on your enemies, and you are such unstable peop—that is—we—there was no need for a general war. We could not risk that, being ourselves just as vulnerable to atomic attack as any life. So we—removed the men on the satellite.”
“How, dammit, how?”
When he swore the alien jumped.
“Through devices which you—if you do not already know, you cannot be—oh—yes—I will tell, I will tell—” The old man searched desperately for an explanation. “Your body has—every body is held together by electric forces. By million upon millions of tiny electric currents. The atoms of any body are kept in position by a—by an attraction between them. Now, if that attraction is nullified, the atoms will drift apart, disperse. The atoms will no longer exist in any form. That was what happened to the men in the satellite. They were—turned off.”
Web sat perfectly still for a long moment. Then he said swiftly, viciously:
“But why didn’t it get me?”
The alien writhed on the couch.
“Your blood must be different. We thought you were a Galactic. Your body chemistry is unusual, your—your charge is different.”
Once again Web sat in silence, trying to follow that. Galactic and different blood. But he wrenched his mind away. The sun would be up soon and he would have to be out of here quickly. He would need to know where their main base was. Then it was the army’s turn. Although what could the army do?
He got the location out of the old man. It was surprisingly near to Chicago.
And the time of the first take-off, the first shipment, would be that night.
He rose to leave. Then he turned back to the old man.
He debated it for a moment, but saw nothing else possible. The old man knew who he was and where he was going, and what he knew. He could not leave the old man to warn the others. The old man knew that too, looked up at him and saved him the trouble.
He died just before Web’s great hands reached him.
Within the next hour he had a gun, taken from an amiable but unfortunate young cop who had the courtesy to stop and give him a match on a dark back street. He was sincerely sorry for that, knowing what would happen to the cop, but he was also acutely aware that he needed the gun a hell of a lot more than the cop did, even if this was Chicago.
Later on, when the sun was up, he reconsidered. It occurred to him that where he was going noise would be no virtue, not if he was going in alone. So he bought himself a knife—Bowie, with a double edged tip. Anyway, he had been schooled in knives in jump school, and he knew how to use one even better than a wild .45. The thing to do now was get within reach.
A cab took him to the bus terminal. It was a beautiful morning, brisk and clear and cold, and on the way he picked up three Faktors.
At discreet intervals, they followed him into the terminal. He did not notice them. They ringed him at a distance, following a set plan of destruction, prepared to close in. Since there had been no time for another recording, Kunklin and Prule had no choice. The three Faktors died at once, in their tracks, in separate parts of the waiting room.
It was a short while before the slumping men were noticed and the uproar began. By that time Web was outside boarding a bus, and he went on his way knowing nothing at all of the Faktors, nor of the unfortunate incident that immediately befell the Galactics.
He rode the bus for two hours. As he got nearer and nearer to his destination his resolve began to slip away. He was utterly alone, and these enemies were alien. What in heck could he accomplish?
The bus pulled into a town called Alford just before noon. He stepped down into the quiet street. There were no aliens around, none that he could tell. He decided that there was probably no sense in waiting for the dark. He did not know his way and the layout would be important, so he decided to go up into the hills right away.
It was a long walk. He stayed with the road for about two miles, then cut off abruptly into the woods. The ground became steeper, he began to climb.
He had not gone forty feet before he tripped the first alarm.
The catastrophe, which neither Kunklin nor Prule had anticipated, occurred as the result of a power failure.
Continued operation of the machine known as the “bender,” together with the enormous power drain of the anti-gravity webs they used to float back and forth, had sapped the power of their suits down below danger level. The one last burst which destroyed the three Faktors reduced that power completely.
Both Kunklin and Prule became immediately visible.
They caused quite a stir.
Dressed as they were in white, satin-like suits, with glass bowl helmets on their heads and a large back pack sprouting antennae in all directions, they were an instantaneous focus of interest in the bus terminal.
They were greatly annoyed, and also somewhat embarrassed.
“Galactic obscenity,” said Kunklin, as a crowd gathered, “I thought you recharged the suits.”
“I thought you did,” muttered Prule anxiously. “But let’s get out of here. Which way is the ship?”
They began to walk forward toward the door and the curious, grinning crowd parted.
“It’s way down this wide street. Oh fine!” Kunklin swore gloomily, attempting at the same time to keep his face impassive. Fortunately, Earthmen were humanoid. If they were not, of course, the Galactics would never have allowed this to happen. And if experience on other planets of this culture level was any judge, these people here would think the Galactics and the suits were some kind of stunt. But though this accident had happened quite often to other Galactic agents, it had never happened to them, and they were apprehensive. They eyed the crowd warily as they walked.
Grinning, giggling, pointing, the crowd eyed them back, and followed.
Out into the street they went, two tall, undeniably weird-looking men unable to keep their embarrassment from their faces. One wide-eyed little boy ran up to Prule, grabbed at his sleeve with taffy-smeared fingers. He chirped loudly to his parents to “looka the space men.” The mother came up, politely disengaged his fingers, gave a smiling, unintelligible apology to Prule. Prule nodded as graciously as he could, tried to walk faster.
“Listen,” Prule groaned, “the power is too low to work the translator. Suppose we’re stopped? We can’t talk to them.”
“Here comes one in a uniform,” said Kunklin, beginning to perspire.
“I suggest we run.”
They broke into a trot. The crowd around them had grown rapidly and began to trot with them, wondering where the show would take place. The policeman ran too.
They let out their speed. Now a whole host of people began to shout and new ones joined them, running, as they crossed a main street against a light.
“Faster,” grunted Kunklin.
Prule swore. “I can’t. The suit’s too heavy.”
“Just a little way. When we get to the ship we’ll put on a demonstration.”
They tore down the avenue, narrowly evading children, old ladies, and newsstands. Two more blue-coated officials joined in the chase, converging and blowing whistles. Several more were coming up in front of them when they finally reached the ship.
They stopped in the center of the wide street. Traffic screeched to a halt on all sides.
“Are you sure it’s here?”
Kunklin looked around uneasily, then spied the faint hazy circle of the opening, several feet in the air above them. He pushed at his anti-gravity knob, felt himself lightening, but not lifting. He swore.
The crowd was reaching them, small boys and men lurched to a stop around them.
“They’re waiting for us to do something,” Prule hissed.
“Quick! Before the police get here! Jump!”
Prule looked up helplessly at the hazy circle.
“How”—he began, but Kunklin pushed him aside, assumed a broad stance in the center of the crowd. He thrust his arms outward dramatically, as if for silence. Just then the first cop broke through and into the center of the circle and began to speak virtuously, angrily, in the manner of cops, but the people around him were staring at Kunklin and waiting expectantly.
“Well,” said Kunklin, speaking cheerfully in Galactic, “it’s been fun.” He threw the anti-gravity to full power, waited till he could feel that the lift would no longer increase. It was not enough to get him off the ground, but he now weighed next to nothing. He crouched, then leaped for the haze above. He shot up like a rocket, went through the circle and disappeared.
A moment later Prule followed him. As he sailed up through the haze the ship became immediately visible above, he reached out and caught on to a rung of the ladder below Kunklin. Thankfully, wearily, not bothering to look down at the stunned, open-mouthed crowd which he could see below him but which could no longer see him, he followed Kunklin up into the ship.
Kunklin did not wait at the airlock, he ran quickly away. Prule, puffing, paused to look down at last on the crowd below. Their ascent had been a success. The crowd was beginning to applaud.
Prule closed the airlock and the invisible, untouchable ship lifted. He went to join Kunklin. The big Galactic was bent over the controls, guiding the ship not upward—as Prule had thought—but horizontally down the length of the wide street.
“Eh?” said Prule.
“Got to get a live Faktor,” Kunklin said anxiously, his eyes glued to the viewscreen. “We’ve lost the Earthman. He could be anywhere now, and we can’t help him. He may be headed for the Faktor’s main base. If so he will be killed. We’ve got to get to the base first.”
Prule pursed his lips. “If he dies on our account, just because of your foolish idea to use him—”
“I know,” Kunklin cut in. “So we need a Faktor to tell us where the base is. They’re probably all over this city. I think I even saw one in the crowd.” He stopped. “That’s another thing,” he said unhappily, “if there were Faktors in the crowd, they’ll know a Galactic ship is here.”
Prule grunted, peered down at the left side of the screen.
“Look, isn’t that one?”
He indicated a small, furtive-looking man who was walking swiftly away from the area they had just left.
Kunklin adjusted for a close view.
“Yep.” He moved to the instrument panel, worked carefully at a traversing mechanism. “Get down to the airlock. We’ll suck him up.”
“He’ll die of fright,” Prule predicted. “They always do.”
Kunklin shrugged. “We have to try. Maybe this will be a strong one.”
“Let’s hope so.”
Prule readied himself at the open airlock. Kunklin threw a switch, there was a deep, subtle hum, and a magnetic beam dosed down on the man below. He flipped straight up toward the ship, like a hooked minnow.
But he was not one of the stronger Faktors. He was dead before he reached the door.
In the late afternoon, when the wind had died and the day was quiet, the door opened.
The same two men—she had begun to be able to tell them apart—came in and, this time, bowed.
Ivy yawned, rose up on an elbow and blinked her eyes.
The two men, surprised, stared at her.
“All right, what is it?” Ivy said as briskly as she could, trying to force down the sudden fear. “Stop that damned bowing. A sillier bunch of skinny idiots I never saw. Men! Huh! You’re dying out, all right, that’s obvious.”
The two men looked at each other. Then one of them recaptured his grin.
“It is time for your breeding,” he said lecherously.
Ivy yawned again, started to rise.
“Okay, I’ll be with you in a minute. I hope it doesn’t take too long. I’ve lost a lot of sleep.”
She managed to stand up calmly, with composure. The only thing she could think of to do now was to regard this whole thing lightly, and to make an occasional remark about the rather obvious defects of her captors.
There was no sense in collapsing.
The two men, puzzled, followed her with their eyes as she fluffed up her hair.
“No need of that,” one of them said quickly, “you will be prepared by others.”
Ivy let her hair fall. “Okay Oscar. Whatever you say.” In a very unladylike manner, she yawned again, scratched herself. She grinned at them both.
“I don’t mean to be nasty, fellas, but why don’t you pull up a chair for a minute? Old guys like you shouldn’t be running around all day—”
The near one growled. The other one restrained him, smiled thinly.
“We have no need of rest,” he said slowly. “We possess a certain—vitality.” His smile broadened. “As you shall presently see for yourself.”
Ivy did not look at him, walked suddenly past him and out the door.
They made a motion to grab her, but held back as she stopped. She stood in the afternoon sun and stretched lazily.
“To your left,” the man behind her said.
She waited for a moment, and then she walked. She strode upon bare ground, upon soft grass, unable to be flippant now, looking stiffly ahead toward a flat gray building. The door was open and she could see the far wall, which was richly hung and colored in a strange deep red. The two men left her at the door, where another man, very old and white gowned and prissy, took her by the arm.
The man prepared her. She dropped all pretense at hardness, at disinterest, and sat like a stone. In with the other, the breeder, she would have to be icy. She became vaguely aware of a thick fragrance around her, a musky, oily smell. Then the man released her. She was prepared. He stood her up, waved at the door at the far end of the room.
“There,” he said without interest, turning away.
She took a deep breath and walked forward.
It was a long way up and Web went most of the way at a crouch, the knife and the gun both ready at his belt. He had taken off his coat and tie; it was chilly in the woods but he did not feel it.
Four miles north of Alford, the old man had said. Just a half mile off the highway, on the tallest hill, the really steep one. He kept the highway to his right going up, beginning to wonder at last if the alien had told the truth. For all he knew, the camp might really be in northern Tibet, and he could be stealing his way ever so stealthily through total emptiness. But no. The old man had been scared to death. Literally. And anyway, the thing he was walking into was undoubtedly a trap, and knowing it did not do much good.
He cleared the first rise and climbed in among some rocks. Nearby below he could see the highway, empty. The sun was high in the afternoon. Four miles was not a long way, even crouching, and he could probably make it before dark. In the dark shadows of the bushes around him, nothing moved. He went up the next hill.
When he reached the top he was beginning to perspire. He sat down for a moment to think.
Now that he was close and the moment of contact was so near he could almost touch it, his mind began to function with a cold, comforting clarity. It was time to make a plan. His target was the ship, yes, but he would have to proceed on the assumption that they knew he was coming. They would have some kind of warning system, and a variety of weapons. But for the time being he held the ace.
He grinned cheerlessly to himself and headed for the next rise.
On the other side of this one there was a long flat space, scrub-bushed and empty, and then the last hill, the steep one, began. He went forward across the open space in broad daylight. He felt like he was walking into the mouth of a primed cannon. In effect, he was.
It was in among a clump of pines, silent and green, that the thing fell to the ground near him. He froze, momentarily panic-stricken, his hand to his belt. The fallen thing lay on the ground a few inches from his right hand, stiff and unmoving, dark among the leaves.
He relaxed slightly.
It was only a bird.
A dead bird. He stared at it for a long while, motionless. Out of the trees above him a dead bird had fallen.
Or were they now turning on the power?
He lay flat on the ground. They knew where he was and they did not like it. They had fired on him. He did not know whether the thing that killed the bird had missed him, or whether it had hit him too and his incredible immunity had protected him. Perhaps they had already fired on him with the other gun, the one from the satellite. He did not know that either. But in front of him lay the dead bird.
And now, if he tripped another electronic eye, they would probably come out in person.
All for the best. He peered intently through the trees up the hill, searching for some sign of buildings. If he could get to the edge of a clearing, could see, he would stand a better chance. But there was nothing but bushes, the bare brown shafts of trees. Now that they knew where he was, he was deeply thankful that he’d had the sense to bring the gun.
He moved forward on his hands and knees, watching, listening, praying that he didn’t trip another eye.
The bushes crackled around him. The wind, dammit.
He stopped and listened, heard his heart beating in his throat. He decided he could crawl just as well with one hand, so he took out the gun. It was at that moment that he saw the first Faktor.
An instant silhouette through the trees ahead, moving silently toward him. They were coming.
He dropped to his stomach, crawled with a cold silent slide into the nearest bush clump. Although they probably knew to the foot where he was, he had to lie still.
In a brief, brutal flash of reproach and disgust, he realized what an idiot he’d been to come out here alone.
But there was no helping that now. He moved down behind a fallen log, laid the barrel of the .45 on the trunk and sighted through the leaves.
Now he could hear them. They were small, but sloppy. Maybe they didn’t care. That didn’t figure. But by now they had undoubtedly understood his immunity, were coming to kill him in the bloody ways of Earth.
He had no way of knowing that the Faktors had been terrified to realize that a Galactic was approaching, but immensely relieved to see that the Galactic was afoot. To the Faktors, Web was one of two things: a hybrid, or a stranded Galactic. For no agent would ever approach on foot, not in his right mind. Short of a force field, no armor known will stop a high velocity missile. And a Galactic on foot could not have that.
The killing of a Galactic was a rare thing, a delectable thing. Seven Faktors converged on Web.
He let them come in very close, counting them and noting their positions, before he fired. When the nearest man was ten yards away, crawling toward Web at an angle, the white round eyes looked past him. In the last second he saw that they were circling the wrong spot. They had not expected his sideward movement. He fired.
The heavy police bullet caught the Faktor in the head. He died where he lay, instantly. There were swift, rising, horribly frightened screams from the bushes around him.
Web rolled back from the log, crawled around to the other side of the tree. The god-awful things were whimpering.
He peered furtively around the tree looking for another shot while the shooting was good, wondering how in hell they’d ever gotten the nerve to come in after him. And then he looked at the body of the alien he’d killed, saw the small brown bomb in his hand, and knew.
They’d never intended to get in close. They probably hadn’t even expected him to be armed.
He grinned viciously, turning his head the while to look for a way out.
In that instant he saw another alien move. He fired.
The shot went home. There were more screams.
Good God, he said, almost aloud, shocked. He did not fire again, the fear of the things was revolting. He wanted to get out.
He started to move, but they located him. The first bomb hit on the other side of the tree, blew with a white blinding flash, a thin, screaming, ripping explosion.
The tree saved him. He fell flat, tried to crawl away. Two more bombs let go on the other side of the tree, spattered among the bushes and leaves, cut the tree in half. The tree fell in the direction of another bomb, the top of it was blown away. In frantic desperation, the Faktors were giving it everything they had.
There was a tense moment of silence. Web started to rise. He had to get away. He fired again and again into the woods around him, rose and started to run, hoping that the shooting would keep the aliens flat, that some of them at least had died of fear and that he could outrun them. He made it as far as another fallen log before the next bomb let go, giving him a great crunching shove in his back. He fell face down over the log.
Oh hell, he said painfully, oh hell oh hell oh hell. A bomb fell near him, and another, and he turned to rise and fire back just once more, swearing, his flesh rising to greet the one last killing explosion, and damn it all, he was going to die.
A huge fist hit him squarely between the eyes. He fell over backwards.
And there was dark, blessed silence.
The doors opened automatically when Prule pushed the right button. Three hundred and twelve young girls and two hundred and fourteen young men, all of them the cream of Earth’s children and most of them mother-naked, peered out cautiously, furtively, into the gathering dusk. One made a move, then another. A rather brazen young woman, nude, walked right out into the center of the camp. And then they all emerged, wide-eyed and taut, looking for the Faktors.
“All gone,” said Kunklin, waving his hands expressively. But since his suit was recharged and working, nobody saw him.
They did not see the Faktors either. They began to gather and talk with each other, some dangerously close to shock, some excitedly none the worse for wear. Most of the women were recovered so far as to return to modesty, began to search for covering.
This did not please Kunklin at all. He was tempted to push the button again and close all the doors, thereby making all clothing unavailable, but—after a thoughtful look at Prule—he let it go. It had been an extraordinary sight, a delectable sight, and his opinion of the virtues of Earth was skyrocketing.
Right then and there Kunklin decided the spot for his next vacation.
And now at last, as they watched, the men and the girls began to leave. It was growing dark and quite cold and they could not stay here. One by one, in varying degrees of undress, they strode off down the mountain. The sensation they created in Alford was nothing next to the sensation they created the next day, in newspapers the world over.
Kunklin watched them go with mixed torture and delight.
Prule brought him back to the next order of business.
“The Earthman,” he said gloomily.
“The man from the satellite. Where is he?”
“Um,” said Kunklin, sobering. “Where is he indeed?”
Prule pointed a lean finger at the near woods.
“There were explosions going on over there when we flew down. I suppose—” he fixed his eyes reproachfully on Kunklin—”they bombed him.”
Kunklin shrugged. “The man came all the way up here. Really. You know, you have to admire these people, in more ways than one. I—”
He broke off.
For out of the woods, stumbling, holding his head in one hand and his colt .45 in the other, came the great battered figure of Web Hilton. He was scarred and bloody, one eye was closed and he walked with a heavy limp, but he was walking at least, and Kunklin brightened.
“Well by Jupiter, he made it!”
Prule smiled happily.
“We must have just got here in time. The Faktors were probably bombing him when they disappeared.”
“Yes, yes. Well, well, well.” Kunklin fussed with a knob, turned off his bender and switched on the translator. “I suppose, now that it’s all over, we owe this fellow an explanation. Lord, man, we owe him more than that. He’s one of us!” He started walking quickly toward Web. “Ho! Hey! You there!”
Web stopped, peered confusedly through bleary eyes at the incredible figures on the mountain side before him. His gun was in his hand, but he had forgotten it. He had not yet collected himself and there was an awful ringing in his head.
Kunklin and Prule surrounded him, babbling away cheerfully, set him down and gave him first aid. In an astonishingly short time he was feeling well again and the Galactics did their best to bring him up to date on what had occurred, being careful to praise his undeniable courage in the face of such odds. They admitted to using him as decoy, but told him nothing about the recording business. They saw no reason to tell this boy that he had, during the course of recent events, died twice. No telling how he would react. Although really, since he was atom for atom identical with the original Web Hilton, what difference did it make?
“—and so we finally found a Faktor with some strength of will—had to inject the man as he came aboard—then came out here and eliminated the rest of them.”
Web stared dazedly around at the empty buildings.
“Completely.” Kunklin grinned. “We used the same device on them that they used on your people. We thought it only fitting. Quite a weapon. Used to be the most dangerous weapon in this part of the universe until we found immunity. You could wipe out whole planets without a single leaf being harmed—”
“Yes, yes,” said Prule, “but the job is ended. Thank you my friend. You have been of great help. Any time you need us. Kunklin?”
“What?” said Kunklin, straightening. “You mean leave him here? Well really, Prule, that’s hardly—” And then his whole face brightened. He clapped Web heavily on the back. “Why Prule, this boy’s a Galactic! After all he’s done for us, the least we can do is take him back with us”—Prule jumped—”to headquarters, at least, and introduce him around. Why, the boy has a heritage! You can see that from the way he held up his end. Oh yes, yes, we’ll have to take him back.”
Web looked up blearily, beginning to understand.
But Kunklin reached down and took him by the arm, and began leading him toward the ship. He explained, as painlessly as he could, the fact of Web’s Galactic parentage. He did not say that it was Web’s father—which, for biological reasons, it had to be—but only that some ancestor, somewhere along the line, had been extraterrestrial.
And while Web was downing that, and Prule was protesting, Kunklin spoke gaily on.
“You’ll need time, my boy, won’t you, before you come along with us? You’ll need time, eh?”
“I have to see Dundon—”
“Of course, of course,” Kunklin chuckled, “take all the time you want. Take weeks, take months. And in the meantime,” he grinned toward Prule, in whom just now a great light was dawning—”in the meantime Prule and I will wander the byroads of your lovely planet. Eh, Prule? A vacation!”
And in a mood of genial lechery—for Earthman, Galactic, Faktor, this one thing is constant—the three men climbed into the ship, and then, the sky.
Ivy Jean Thompson, to complete the story in the coldest of truth, never set eyes on Web Hilton in her life. And if she had, it would have made little difference, for the fact of the matter is that Ivy Jean Thompson had had quite enough of men. Any kind of men. The disappearance of the Faktors had occurred, coincidentally, at the last possible moment for the saving of Ivy’s virtue. It was, understandably, an unnerving experience.
She opened her eyes to find nobody there. She left the camp firmly convinced that there should never be anybody there. She retired to a small town in north Jersey where she became a particularly grouchy librarian spinster, the last of all the casualties in the case of the Blood Brother.#ENGLISH