The Invaders - Part 10

Part 10

We humans are rational beings, but we are not often reasonable. Those who more or less handle us in have to take account of that fact.

It could not be admitted that the fleet had had a fight with a ship piloted by Invaders from another solar system. It would produce a wild panic, beside which even a war would be relatively harmless. So the admiral of the Mediterranean fleet composed an order commending his men warmly for their performance in an unrehea.r.s.ed firing-drill. Their target had been--so the order said--a new type of guided missile recently developed by hush-hush agencies of the Defense Department. The admiral was pleased and proud, and happy....

It was an excellent order, but it wasn't true. The admiral wasn't happy.

Not after battle photographs were developed and he could see how the alien ship had dodged rockets with perfect ease, and had actually taken a five-inch sh.e.l.l, which exploded on impact, without a particle of damage.

On the carrier, the Greek general said mildly to Coburn that the Invaders had used their power very strangely. After stopping an invasion of Greece, they had prevented an atomic-bomb explosion which would have killed some hundreds of thousands of people. And it was strange that the turtle-shaped ship that had attacked the air transport was so clumsily handled as compared with this similar craft which had zestfully dodged all the missiles a fleet could throw at it.

Coburn thought hard. "I think I see," he said slowly. "You mean, they're here and they know all they need to know. But instead of coming out into the open, they're making governments recognize their existence. They're letting the rulers of Earth know they can't be resisted. But we did knock off one of their ships last night!"

The Greek general pointedly said nothing. Coburn caught his meaning. The fleet, firing point-blank, had not destroyed its target. The ship last night had seemed to fall into a cloud bank and explode. But n.o.body had seen it blow up. Maybe it hadn't.

"Humoring us!" realized Coburn. "They don't want to destroy our civilization, so they'll humor us. But they want our governments to know that they can do as they please. If our governments know we can't resist, they think we'll surrender. But they're wrong."

The Greek general looked at him enigmatically.

"We've still got one trick left," said Coburn. "Atomic bombs. And if they fail, we can still get killed fighting them another way."

There was a heavy, droning noise far away. It increased and drew nearer.

It was a multi-engined plane which came from the west and settled down, and hovered over the water and touched and instantly created a spreading wake of foam.

The fleet was back at anchor then. It was enclosed in the most beautiful combination of city and scene that exists anywhere. Beyond the city the blunted cone of Vesuvius rose. In the city, newspaper vendors shrilly hawked denunciations of the American ships because of the danger that their atom bombs might explode. Well outside the harbor, a Navy crew of experts worked to make quite impossible the detonation of atomic bombs in a stubby tramp-steamer which had--plausibly, at least--been sent to make those same newspapers' prophecies of disaster come true.

A long, long time pa.s.sed, while consultations took place to which Coburn was not invited. Then a messenger led him to the wardroom of the previous conference. He recognized the men who had landed by seaplane a while since. One was a cabinet member from Washington. There was someone of at least equal importance from London, picked up en route. There were generals and admirals. The service officers looked at Coburn with something like accusation in their eyes. He was the means by which they had come to realize their impotence. The Greek general sat quietly in the rear.

"Mr. Coburn," said the Secretary from Washington. "We've been canva.s.sing the situation. It seems that we simply are not prepared to offer effective resistance--not yet--to the ... invaders you tell us about. We know of no reason why this entire fleet could not have been disabled as effectively as the tramp-steamer offsh.o.r.e. You know about that ship?"

Coburn nodded. The Greek general had told him. The Secretary went on painfully: "Now, the phenomena we have to ascribe to Invaders fall into two categories. One is the category of their action against the Bulgarian raiding force, and today the prevention of the cold-war murder of some hundreds of thousands of people. That category suggests that they are prepared--on terms--to be amiable. A point in their favor."

Coburn set his lips.

"The other group of events simply points you out and builds you up as a person of importance to these Invaders. You seem to be extremely important to them. They doubtless could have killed you. They did not.

What they did do was bring you forward to official attention. Presumably they had a realistic motive in this."

"I don't know what it could be," said Coburn coldly. "I blundered into one affair. I figured out a way to detect them. I happened to be the means by which they were proved to exist. That's all. It was an accident."

The Secretary looked skeptical. "Your discoveries were remarkably ...

apt. And it does seem clear that they made the appearance of hunting you, while going to some pains not to catch you. Mr. Coburn, how can we make contact with them?"

Coburn wanted to swear furiously. He was still being considered a traitor. Only they were trying to make use of his treason.

"I have no idea," he said grimly.

"What do they want?"

"I would say--Earth," he said grimly.

"You deny that you are an authorized intermediary for them?"

"Absolutely," said Coburn. There was silence. The Greek general spoke mildly from the back of the room. He said in his difficult English that Coburn's personal motives did not matter. But if the Invaders had picked him out as especially important, it was possible that they felt him especially qualified to talk to them. The question was, would he try to make contact with them?

The Secretary looked pained, but he turned to Coburn. "Mr. Coburn?"

Coburn said, "I've no idea how to set about it, but I'll try on one condition. There's one thing we haven't tried against them. Set up an atom-bomb, and I'll sit on it. If they try to contact me, you can either listen in or try to blow them up, and me with them!"

There was buzzing comment. Perhaps--Coburn's nails bit into his palms when this was suggested--perhaps this was a proposal to let the Invaders examine an atomic bomb, American-style. It was said in earnest simplicity. But somebody pointed out that a race which could travel between the stars and had ships such as the Mediterranean fleet had tried to shoot down, would probably find American atomic bombs rather primitive. Still--

The Greek general again spoke mildly. If the Invaders were to be made to realize that Coburn was trying to contact them, he should return to Greece. He should visibly take up residence where he could be approached. He should, in fact, put himself completely at the mercy of the Invaders.

"Ostensibly," agreed the Secretary.

The Greek general then said diffidently that he had a small villa some twenty miles from the suburbs of Salonika. The prevailing winds were such that if an atomic explosion occurred there, it would not endanger anybody. He offered it.

"I'll live there," asked Coburn coldly, "and wait for them to come to me? I'll have microphones all about so that every word that's said will be relayed to your recorders? And there'll be a bomb somewhere about that you can set off by remote control? Is that the idea?"

Then Janice spoke up. And Coburn flared into anger against her. But she was firm. Coburn saw the Greek general smiling slyly.

They left the conference while the decision was made. And they were in private, and Janice talked to him. There are methods of argument against which a man is hopeless. She used them. She said that she, not Coburn, might be the person the Invaders might have wanted to take out of circulation, because she might have noticed something important she hadn't realized yet. When Coburn pointed out that he'd be living over an atomic bomb, triggered to be set off from a hundred miles away, she demanded fiercely to know if he realized how she'd feel if she weren't there too....

Next day an aircraft carrier put out of Naples with an escort of destroyers. It traveled at full speed down the toe of Italy's boot, through the Straits of Messina, across the Adriatic, and rounded the end of Greece and went streaking night and day for Salonika. Special technicians sent by plane beat her time by days. The Greek general was there well ahead. And he expansively supervised while his inherited, isolated villa was prepared for the reception of Invaders--and Coburn and Janice.

And Coburn and Janice were married. It was an impressive wedding, because it was desirable for the Invaders to know about it. It was brilliantly military with uniforms and glittering decorations and innumerable important people whom neither of them knew or cared about.

If it had been anybody else's wedding Coburn would have found it unspeakably dreary. The only person present whom he knew beside Janice was Hallen. He acted as groomsman, with the air of someone walking on eggs. After it was over he shook hands with a manner of tremendous relief.

"Maybe I'll brag about this some day," he told Coburn uneasily. "But right now I'm scared to death. What do you two really expect to happen?"

Janice smiled at him. "Why," she said, "we expect to live happily ever after."

"Oh yes," said Hallen uncomfortably. "But that wasn't just what I had in mind."


The world wagged on. The newspapers knew nothing about super-secret top-level worries. There was not a single news story printed anywhere suggesting an invasion of Earth from outer s.p.a.ce. There were a few more Flying Saucer yarns than normal, and it was beginning to transpire that an unusual number of important people were sick, or on vacation, or otherwise out of contact with the world. But, actually, not one of the events in which Coburn and Janice had been concerned reached the state of being news. Even the shooting off the Bay of Naples was explained as an emergency drill.

Quietly, a good many things happened. Cryptic orders pa.s.sed around, and oxygen tanks were acc.u.mulated in military posts. Hunter and Nereid guided missiles were set up as standard equipment in a number of brand-new places. They were loaded for bear. But days went by, and nothing happened. Nothing at all. But officialdom was not at ease.

If anything--while the wide world went happily about its business--really high-level officialdom grew more unhappy day by day.

Coburn and Janice flew back to Salonika. They went in a Navy plane with a fighter plane escort. They landed at the Salonika airport, and the Greek general was among those who greeted them.

He took them out to the villa he'd placed at the disposal of high authority for their use. He displayed it proudly. There was absolutely no sign that it had been touched by anybody since its original builders had finished with it two-hundred-odd years before. The American officer who had wired it, though--he looked as if he were short a week's sleep--showed them how anywhere on the grounds or in the house they would need only to speak a code-word and they'd instantly be answered.

There were servants, and the Greek general took Coburn aside and a.s.sured him that there was one room which absolutely was not wired for sound. He named it.

So they took up a relatively normal way of life. Sometimes they decided that it would be pleasant to drive in to Salonika. They mentioned it, and went out and got in the car that went with the villa. Oddly, there was always some aircraft lazying about overhead by the time they were out of the gate. They always returned before sunset. And sometimes they swam in the water before the villa's door. Then, also, they were careful to be back on solid ground before sunset. That was so their guards out on the water wouldn't have to worry.