The Invaders - Part 8

Part 8

The skipper raised his eyebrows. "Are you threatening us in their name?"

he asked, purring.

"I'm telling you my guess," said Coburn hotly. "It's just as good as yours and no better! I have no instructions from them. I have no message from them. I've only my own opinion, which is that we humans had better get ready to fight. I believe we ought to join together--all of Earth--and get set to defend ourselves."

There was silence. Coburn found himself regarding the faces around him with an unexpected truculence. Janice pressed his hand warningly.

"All of Earth," said the skipper softly. "Hmmmm. You advise an arrangement with all the Earth.... What are your politics, Mr.

Coburn?--No, let us say, what are the political views of the extra-terrestrial creatures you tell us about? We have to know."

Coburn seethed. "If you're suggesting that this is a cold war trick," he said furiously, "--if they were faking it, they wouldn't try tricks!

They'd make war! They'd try conquest!"

Coburn saw the stout Greek general nodding to himself. But the Skipper said suavely: "You were with one of the creatures, you say, up in the village of Naousa. Would you say he seemed unfriendly to the Bulgarians?"

"He was playing the part of an Englishman," snapped Coburn, "trying to stop a raid, and murders, and possibly a war--all of them unnecessary!"

"You don't paint a frightening picture," complained the skipper ironically. "First you say we have to fight him and his kind, and then you imply that he was highly altruistic. What is the fact?"

"Dammit!" said Coburn. "I hated him because he wasn't human. It made my flesh crawl to see him act so much like a man when he wasn't. But he made me feel ashamed when I held a gun on him and he proved he wasn't human just so Janice--so Miss Ames wouldn't be afraid to drive down to Salonika with me!"

"So you have some ... friendly feelings toward him, eh?" the skipper said negligently. "How will you get in touch with his kind, by the way?

_If_ we should ask you to? Of course you've got it all arranged? Just in case."

Coburn knew that absolutely nothing could be done with a man who was trying to show off his shrewdness to his listening superiors. He said disgustedly: "That's the last straw. Go to h.e.l.l!"

A loud-speaker spoke suddenly. Its tone was authoritative, and there were little cracklings of static in it from its pa.s.sage across the Atlantic.

"That line of questioning can be dropped, Captain. Mr. Coburn, did these aliens have any other chances to kill you?"

"Plenty!" snapped Coburn. "And easy ones. One of them came into my office as my secretary. She could have killed me. The man who pa.s.sed for Major Pangalos could have shot us all while we were unconscious. I don't know why they didn't get the transport plane, and I don't know what their scheme is. I'm telling the facts. They're contradictory. I can't help that. All I have are the facts."

The loud-speaker said crisply: "The attack on the transport plane--any pilots present who were in that fight?"

Someone at the back said: "Yes, sir. Here."

"How good was their ship? Could it have been a guided missile?"

"No, sir. No guided missile. Whoever drove that ship was right on board.

And that ship was good. It could climb as fast as we could dive, and no human could have taken the accelerations and the turns it made. Whoever drove it learned fast, too. He was clumsy at the beginning, but he learned. If we hadn't gotten in a lucky hit, he'd've had us where he wanted us in a little while more. Our fifty-calibres just bounced off that hull!"

The loud-speaker said curtly: "If that impression is justified, that's the first business to be taken up. All but flying officers are excused.

Mr. Coburn can go, too."

There was a stirring everywhere in the room. Officers got up and walked out. Coburn stood. The Greek general came over to him and patted him on the shoulder, beaming. Janice went out with him. They arrived on the carrier's deck. This was the very earliest hour of dawn, and the conference had turned abruptly to a discussion of arms and tactics as soon as Washington realized that its planes were inadequate for fighting. Which was logical enough, but Coburn was pretty sure it was useless.

"If anybody else in the world feels as futile as I do," said Coburn bitterly, "I feel sorry for him!"

Janice said softly: "You've got me."

But that was less than complete comfort. It is inborn in a man that he needs to feel superior. No man can feel pride before the woman of his choice while there is something stronger than himself. And Coburn especially wanted to feel that pride just now.

There were very probably discussions of the important part of what Coburn had reported, of course, during the rest of the morning. But there was much more discussion of purely military measures. And of course there were attempts to get military intelligence. Things were reported in the sky near South Africa, and from Honolulu--where n.o.body would ignore what a radar said again, especially the juiced-up equipment just modified on orders--and from other places. Not all the reports were authentic, of course. If there were any observations inside the Iron Curtain, the Iron Curtain countries kept them to themselves. Politics was much more important than anything else, in that part of the world.

But Coburn need not have felt as futile as he did. There was just one really spectacular occurrence in connection with the Invaders that day, and it happened where Coburn was. Almost certainly, it happened because Coburn was there. Though there is reason to believe that the newspaper campaign on sh.o.r.e, declaring that the American fleet risked the lives of all Naples by its mere presence, had something to do with it too.

It was very spectacular.

It happened just after midday when the city and its harbor were at their most glamorous. Coburn and Janice were above when it began. There was an ensign a.s.signed to escort Coburn about and keep an eye on him, and he took them on a carefully edited tour of the carrier. He took them to the radar room which was not secret any longer. He explained reservedly that there was a new tricked-up arrangement of radar which it was believed would detect turtle-shaped metal ships if they appeared.

The radar room was manned, of course. It always was, with a cold war in being. Overhead, the bowl cages of the radars moved restlessly and rhythmically. Outside, on deck, the huge elevator that brought planes up from below rose at the most deliberate of peace-time rates.

The ensign said negligently, pointing to the radar-screen: "That little speck is a plane making for the landing field on sh.o.r.e. This other one is a plane coming down from Genoa. You'd need a good pair of binoculars to see it. It's a good thirty-five miles away."

Just then, one of the two radar-men on duty pushed a b.u.t.ton and snapped into a microphone: "Sir! Radar-pip directly overhead! Does not show on normal radar. Elevation three hundred thousand feet, descending rapidly." His voice cut off suddenly.

A metallic voice said: "Relay!"

The ensign in charge of Coburn and Janice seemed to freeze. The radar-man pressed a b.u.t.ton, which would relay that particular radar-screen's contents to the control room for the whole ship. There was a pause of seconds. Then bells began to ring everywhere. They were battle gongs.

There was a sensation of stirring all over the ship. Doors closed with soft hissings. Men ran furiously. The gongs rang.

The ensign said politely: "I'll take you below now."

He led them very swiftly to a flight of stairs. There was a monstrous bellowing on the carrier's deck. Something dark went hurtling down its length, with a tail of pale-blue flame behind it. It vanished. Men were still running. The elevator shot into full-speed ascent. A plane rolled off it. The elevator dropped.

An engine roared. Another. Yet another. A second dark and deadly thing flashed down the deck and was gone. There was a rumbling.

The battle gongs cut off. The rumbling below seemed to increase. There was a curious vibration. The ship moved. Coburn could feel that it moved. It was turning.

The ensign led them somewhere and said: "This is a good place. You'd better stay right here."

He ran. They heard him running. He was gone.

They were in a sort of ward room--not of the morning conference--and there were portholes through which they could look. The city which was Naples seemed to swing smoothly past the ship. They saw other ships. A cruiser was under way with its anchor still rising from the water. It dripped mud and a sailor was quite ridiculously playing a hose on it. It ascended and swayed and its shank went smoothly into the hawse-hole.

There were guns swinging skyward. Some were still covered by canvas hoods. The hoods vanished before the cruiser swung out of the porthole's line of vision.

A destroyer leaped across the s.p.a.ce they could see, full speed ahead.

The water below them began to move more rapidly. It began to pa.s.s by with the speed of ground past an express train. And continually, monotonously, there were roarings which climaxed and died in the distance.

"The devil!" said Coburn. "I've got to see this. They can't kill us for looking."

He opened the door. Janice, holding fast to his arm, followed as he went down a pa.s.sage. Another door. They were on the deck side of the island which is the superstructure of a carrier, and they were well out of the way, and everybody in sight was too busy to notice them.

The elevator worked like the piston of a pump. It vanished and reappeared and a plane came off. Men in vividly-colored suits swarmed about it, and the elevator was descending again. The plane roared, shot down the deck, and was gone to form one of the string of climbing objects which grew smaller with incredible swiftness as they shot for the sky. Coburn saw another carrier. There was a huge bow-wave before it. Destroyers ringed it, seeming to bounce in the choppy sea made by so many great ships moving so close together.