HotFreeBooks.com
Operation Terror
by William Fitzgerald Jenkins
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

OPERATION TERROR

Murray Leinster



CHAPTER 1

On the morning the radar reported something odd out in space, Lockley awoke at about twenty minutes to eight. That was usual. He'd slept in a sleeping bag on a mountain-flank with other mountains all around. That was not unprecedented. He was there to make a base line measurement for a detailed map of the Boulder Lake National Park, whose facilities were now being built. Measuring a base line, even with the newest of electronic apparatus, was more or less a commonplace job for Lockley.

This morning, though, he woke and realized gloomily that he'd dreamed about Jill Holmes again, which was becoming a habit he ought to break. He'd only met her four times and she was going to marry somebody else. He had to stop.

He stirred, preparatory to getting up. At the same moment, certain things were happening in places far away from him. As yet, no unusual object in space had been observed. That would come later. But far away up at the Alaskan radar complex a man on duty watch was relieved by another. The relief man took over the monitoring of the giant, football-field-sized radar antenna that recorded its detections on magnetic tape. It happened that on this particular morning only one other radar watched the skies along a long stretch of the Pacific Coast. There was the Alaskan installation, and the other was in Oregon. It was extremely unusual for only those two to be operating. The people who knew about it, or most of them, thought that official orders had somehow gone astray. Where the orders were issued, nothing out of the ordinary appeared. All was normal, for example, in the Military Information Center in Denver. The Survey saw nothing unusual in Lockley's being at his post, and other men at places corresponding to his in the area which was to become Boulder Lake National Park. It also seemed perfectly natural that there should be bulldozer operators, surveyors, steelworkers, concrete men and so on, all comfortably at breakfast in the construction camp for the project. Everything seemed normal everywhere.

Up to the time the Alaskan installation reported something strange in space, the state of things generally was neither alarming nor consoling. But at 8:02 A.M. Pacific time, the situation changed. At that time Alaska reported an unscheduled celestial object of considerable size, high out of atmosphere and moving with surprising slowness for a body in space. Its course was parabolic and it would probably land somewhere in South Dakota. It might be a bolide—a large, slow-moving meteorite. It wasn't likely, but the entire report was improbable.

The message reached the Military Information Center in Denver at 8:05 A.M. By 8:06 it had been relayed to Washington and every plane on the Pacific Coast was ordered aloft. The Oregon radar unit reported the same object at 8:07 A.M. It said the object was seven hundred fifty miles high, four hundred miles out at sea, and was headed toward the Oregon coastline, moving northwest to southeast. There was no major city in its line of travel. The impact point computed by the Oregon station was nowhere near South Dakota. As other computations followed other observations, a second place of fall was calculated, then a third. Then the Oregon radar unbelievably reported that the object was decelerating. Allowing for deceleration, three successive predictions of its landing point agreed. The object, said these calculations, would come to earth somewhere near Boulder Lake, Colorado, in what was to become a national park. Impact time should be approximately 8:14 A.M.

These events followed Lockley's awakening in the wilds, but he knew nothing of any of them. He himself wasn't near the lake, which was to be the center of a vacation facility for people who liked the outdoors. The lake was almost circular and was a deep, rich blue. It occupied what had been the crater of a volcano millions of years ago. Already bulldozers had ploughed out roads to it through the forest. Men worked with graders and concrete mixers on highways and on bridges across small rushing streams. There was a camp for them. A lakeside hotel had been designed and stakes were driven in the ground where its foundation would eventually be poured. There were infant big-mouthed bass in the lake and fingerling trout in many of the streams. A huge Wild Life Control trailer-truck went grumbling about such trails as were practical, attending to these matters. Yesterday Lockley had seen it gleaming in bright sunshine as it moved toward Boulder Lake on the highway nearest to his station.

But that was yesterday. This morning he awoke under a pale gray sky. There was complete cloud cover overhead. He smelled conifers and woods-mould and mountain stone in the morning. He heard the faint sound of tree branches moving in the wind. He noted the cloud cover. The clouds were high, though. The air at ground level was perfectly transparent. He turned his head and saw a prospect that made being in the wilderness seem entirely reasonable and satisfying.

Mountains reared up in every direction. A valley lay some thousands of feet below him, and beyond it other valleys, and somewhere a stream rushed white water to an unknown destination. Not many wake to such a scene.

Lockley regarded it, but without full attention. He was preoccupied with thoughts of Jill Holmes, and unfortunately she was engaged to marry Vale, who was also working in the park some thirty miles to the northeast, near Boulder Lake itself. Lockley didn't know him well since he was new in the Survey. He was up there to the northeast with an electronic survey instrument like Lockley's and on the same job. Jill had an assignment from some magazine or other to write an article on how national parks are born, and she was staying at the construction camp to gather material. She'd learned something from Vale and much from the engineers while Lockley had tried to think of interesting facts himself. He'd failed. When he thought about her, he thought about the fact that she was engaged to Vale. That was an unhappy thought. Then he tried to stop thinking about her altogether. But his mind somehow lingered on the subject.

At ten minutes to eight Lockley began to dress, wilderness fashion. He began by putting on his hat. It had lain on the pile of garments by his bed. Then he donned the rest of his garments in the exact reverse of the order in which he'd removed them.

At 8:00 he had a small fire going. He had no premonition that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen that day. This was still before the first Alaskan report. At 8:10 he had bacon sizzling and a small coffeepot almost enveloped by the flames. Events occurred and he knew nothing at all about them. For example, the Military Information Center had been warned of what was later privately called Operation Terror while Lockley was still tranquilly cooking breakfast and thinking—frowning a little—about Jill.

Naturally he knew nothing of emergency orders sending all planes aloft. He wasn't informed about something reported in space and apparently headed for an impact point at Boulder Lake. As the computed impact time arrived, Lockley obliviously dumped coffee into his tin coffeepot and put it back on the flames.

At 8:13 instead of 8:14—this information is from the tape records—there was an extremely small earth shock recorded by the Berkeley, California, seismograph. It was a very minor shock, about the intensity of the explosion of a hundred tons of high explosive a very long distance away and barely strong enough to record its location, which was Boulder Lake. The cause of that explosion or shock was not observed visually. There'd been no time to alert observers, and in any case the object should have been out of atmosphere until the last few seconds of its fall, and where it was reported to fall the cloud cover was unbroken. So nobody reported seeing it. Not at once, anyhow, and then only one man.

Lockley did not feel the impact. He was drinking a cup of coffee and thinking about his own problems. But a delicately balanced rock a hundred yards below his camp site toppled over and slid downhill. It started a miniature avalanche of stones and rocks. The loose stuff did not travel far, but the original balanced rock bounced and rolled for some distance before it came to rest.

Echoes rolled between the hillsides, but they were not very loud and they soon ended. Lockley guessed automatically at half a dozen possible causes for the small rock-slide, but he did not think at all of an unperceived temblor from a shock like high explosives going off thirty miles away.

Eight minutes later he heard a deep-toned roaring noise to the northeast. It was unbelievably low-pitched. It rolled and reverberated beyond the horizon. The detonation of a hundred tons of high explosives or an equivalent impact can be heard for thirty miles, but at that distance it doesn't sound much like an explosion.

He finished his breakfast without enjoyment. By that time well over three-quarters of the Air Force on the Pacific Coast was airborne and more planes shot skyward instant after instant. Inevitably the multiplied air traffic was noted by civilians. Reporters began to telephone airbases to ask whether a practice alert was on, or something more serious.

Such questions were natural, these days. All the world had the jitters. To the ordinary observer, the prospects looked bad for everything but disaster. There was a crisis in the United Nations, which had been reorganized once and might need to be shuffled again. There was a dispute between the United States and Russia over satellites recently placed in orbit. They were suspected of carrying fusion bombs ready to dive at selected targets on signal. The Russians accused the Americans, and the Americans accused the Russians, and both may have been right.

The world had been so edgy for so long that there were fallout shelters from Chillicothe, Ohio, to Singapore, Malaya, and back again. There were permanent trouble spots at various places where practically anything was likely to happen at any instant. The people of every nation were jumpy. There was constant pressure on governments and on political parties so that all governments looked shaky and all parties helpless. Nobody could look forward to a peaceful old age, and most hardly hoped to reach middle age. The arrival of an object from outer space was nicely calculated to blow the emotional fuses of whole populations.

But Lockley ate his breakfast without premonitions. Breezes blew and from every airbase along the coast fighting planes shot into the air and into formations designed to intercept anything that flew on wings or to launch atom-headed rockets at anything their radars could detect that didn't.

At eight-twenty, Lockley went to the electronic base line instrument which he was to use this morning. It was a modification of the devices used to clock artificial satellites in their orbits and measure their distance within inches from hundreds of miles away. The purpose was to make a really accurate map of the park. There were other instruments in other line-of-sight positions, very far away. Lockley's schedule called for them to measure their distances from each other some time this morning. Two were carefully placed on bench marks of the continental grid. In twenty minutes or so of cooperation, the distances of six such instruments could be measured with astonishing precision and tied in to the bench marks already scattered over the continent. Presently photographing planes would fly overhead, taking overlapping pictures from thirty thousand feet. They would show the survey points and the measurements between them would be exact, the photos could be used as stereo-pairs to take off contour lines, and in a few days there would be a map—a veritable cartographer's dream for accuracy and detail.

That was the intention. But though Lockley hadn't heard of it yet, something was reported to have landed from space, and a shock like an impact was recorded, and all conditions would shortly be changed. It would be noted from the beginning, however, that an impact equal to a hundred-ton explosion was a very small shock for the landing of a bolide. It would add to the plausibility of reported deceleration, though, and would arouse acute suspicion. Justly so.

At 8:20, Lockley called Sattell who was southeast of him. The measuring instruments used microwaves and gave readings of distance by counting cycles and reading phase differences. As a matter of convenience the microwaves could be modulated by a microphone, so the same instrument could be used for communication while measurements went on. But the microwaves were directed in a very tight beam. The device had to be aimed exactly right and a suitable reception instrument had to be at the target if it was to be used at all. Also, there was no signal to call a man to listen. He had to be listening beforehand, and with his instrument aimed right, too.

So Lockley flipped the modulator switch and turned on the instrument. He said patiently, "Calling Sattell. Calling Sattell. Lockley calling Sattell."

He repeated it some dozens of times. He was about to give it up and call Vale instead when Sattell answered. He'd slept a little later than Lockley. It was now close to nine o'clock. But Sattell had expected the call. They checked the functioning of their instruments against each other.

"Right!" said Lockley at last. "I'll check with Vale and on out of the park, and then we'll put it all together and wrap it up and take it home."

Sattell agreed. Lockley, rather absurdly, felt uncomfortable because he was going to have to talk to Vale. He had nothing against the man, but Vale was, in a way, his rival although Jill didn't know of his folly and Vale could hardly guess it.

He signed off to Sattell and swung the base line instrument to make a similar check with Vale. It was now ten minutes after nine. He aligned the instrument accurately, flipped the switch, and began to say as patiently as before, "Calling Vale. Calling Vale. Lockley calling Vale. Over."

He turned the control for reception. Vale's voice came instantly, scratchy and hoarse and frantic.

"Lockley! Listen to me! There's no time to tell me anything. I've got to tell you. Something came down out of the sky here nearly an hour ago. It landed in Boulder Lake, and at the last instant there was a terrific explosion and a monstrous wave swept up the shores of the lake. The thing that came down vanished under water. I saw it, Lockley!"

Lockley blinked. "Wha-a-at?"

"A thing came down out of the sky!" panted Vale. "It landed in the lake with a terrific explosion. It went under. Then it came up to the surface minutes later. It floated. It stuck things up and out of itself, pipes or wires. Then it moved around the lake and came in to the shore. A thing like a hatch opened and ... creatures got out of it. Not men!"

Lockley blinked again. "Look here—"

"Dammit, listen!" said Vale shrilly, "I'm telling you what I've seen. Things out of the sky. Creatures that aren't men. They landed and set up something on the shore. I don't know what it is. Do you understand? The thing is down there in the lake now. Floating. I can see it!"

Lockley swallowed. He couldn't believe this immediately. He knew nothing of radar reports or the seismograph record. He'd seen a barely balanced rock roll down the mountainside below him, and he'd heard a growling bass rumble behind the horizon, but things like that didn't add up to a conclusion like this! His first conviction was that Vale was out of his head.

"Listen," said Lockley carefully. "There's a short wave set over at the construction camp. They use it all the time for orders and reports and so on. You go there and report officially what you've seen. To the Park Service first, and then try to get a connection through to the Army."

Vale's voice came through again, at once raging and despairing, "They won't believe me. They'll think I'm a crackpot. You get the news to somebody who'll investigate. I see the thing, Lockley. I can see it now. At this instant. And Jill's over at the construction camp—"

Lockley was unreasonably relieved. If Jill was at the camp, at least she wasn't alone with a man gone out of his mind. The reaction was normal. Lockley had seen nothing out of the ordinary, so Vale's report seemed insane.

"Listen here!" panted Vale again. "The thing came down. There was a terrific explosion. It vanished. Nothing happened for a while. Then it came up and found a place where it could come to shore. Things came out of it. I can't describe them. They're motes even in my binoculars. But they aren't human! A lot of them came out. They began to land things. Equipment. They set it up. I don't know what it is. Some of them went exploring. I saw a puff of steam where something moved. Lockley?"

"I'm listening," said Lockley. "Go on!"

"Report this!" ordered Vale feverishly. "Get it to Military Information in Denver, or somewhere! The party of creatures that went off exploring hasn't come back. I'm watching. I'll report whatever I see. Get this to the government. This is real. I can't believe it, but I see it. Report it, quick!"

His voice stopped. Lockley painfully realigned the instrument again for Sattell, thirty miles to the southeast.

Sattell surprisingly answered the first call. He said in an astonished voice, "Hello! I just got a call from Survey. It seems that the Army knew there was a Survey team in here, and they called to say that radars had spotted something coming down from space, right after eight o'clock. They wanted to know if any of us supposedly sane observers noticed anything peculiar about that time."

Lockley's scalp crawled suddenly. Vale's report had disturbed him, but more for the man's sanity than anything else. But it could be true! And instantly he remembered that Jill was very near the place where frighteningly impossible things were happening.

"Vale just told me," said Lockley, his voice unsteady, "that he saw something come down. His story was so wild I didn't believe it. But you pass it on and say that Vale's watching it. He's waiting for instructions. He'll report everything he sees. I'm thirty miles from him, but he can see the thing that came down. Maybe the creatures in it can see him. Listen!"

He repeated just what Vale had told him. Somehow, telling it to someone else, it seemed at once even less real but more horrifying as a possible danger to Jill. It didn't strike him forcibly that other people were endangered, too.

When Sattell signed off to forward the report, Lockley found himself sweating a little. Something had come down out of space. The fact seemed to him dangerous and appalling. His mind revolted at the idea of non-human creatures who could build ships and travel through space, but radars had reported the arrival of a ship, and there were official inquiries that nearly matched Vale's account, which was therefore not a mere crackpot claim to have seen the incredible. Something had happened and more was likely to, and Jill was in the middle of it.

He swung the instrument back to Vale's position. His hands shook, though a part of his mind insisted obstinately that alarms were commonplace these days, and in common sense one had to treat them as false cries of "Wolf!" But one knew that some day the wolf might really come. Perhaps it had....

Lockley found it difficult to align the carrier beam to Vale's exact location. He assured himself that he was a fool to be afraid; that if disaster were to come it would be by the imbecilities of men rather than through creatures from beyond the stars. And therefore....

But there were other men at other places who felt less skepticism. The report from Vale went to the Military Information Center and thence to the Pentagon. Meanwhile the Information Center ordered a photo-reconnaissance plane to photograph Boulder Lake from aloft. In the Pentagon, hastily alerted staff officers began to draft orders to be issued if the report of two radars and one eye-witness should be further substantiated. There were such-and-such trucks available here, and such-and-such troops available there. Complicated paper work was involved in the organization of any movement of troops, but especially to carry out a plan not at all usual in the United States.

Everything, though, depended on what the reconnaissance plane photographs might show.

Lockley did not see the plane nor consciously hear it. There was the faintest of murmuring noises in the sky. It moved swiftly toward the north, tending eastward. The plane that made the noise was invisible. It flew above the cloud cover which still blotted out nearly all the blue overhead. It went on and on and presently died out beyond the mountains toward Boulder Lake.

Lockley tried to get Vale back, to tell him that radars had verified his report and that it would be acted on by the military. But though he called and called, there was no answer.

An agonizingly long time later the faint and disregarded sound of the plane swept back across the heavens. Lockley still did not notice it. He was too busy with his attempts to reach Vale again, and with grisly imaginings of what might be done by aliens from another world when they found the workmen near the lake—and Jill among them. He pictured alien monsters committing atrocities in what they might consider scientific examination of terrestrial fauna. But somehow even that was less horrible than the images that followed an assumption that the occupants of the spaceship might be men.

"Calling Vale ... Vale, come in!" He fiercely repeated the call into the instrument's microphone. "Lockley calling Vale! Come in, man! Come in!"

He flipped the switch and listened. And Vale's voice came.

"I'm here." The voice shook. "I've been trying to find where that exploring party went."

Lockley threw the speech switch and said sharply, "The Army asked Survey if any of us had seen anything come down from the sky. I gave Sattell your report to be forwarded. It's gone to the Pentagon now. Two radars reported tracking the thing down to a landing near you. Now listen! You go to the construction camp. Most likely they'll get orders to clear out, by short wave. But you go there! Make sure Jill's all right. See her to safety."

The switch once more. Vale's voice was desperate.

"A ... while ago a party of the creatures started away from the lake. An exploring party, I think. Once I saw a puff of steam as if they'd used a weapon. I'm afraid they may find the construction camp, and Jill...."

Lockley ground his teeth. Vale said unsteadily, "I ... can't find where they went.... A little while ago their ship backed out into the lake and sank. Deliberately! I don't know why. But there's a party of those ... creatures out exploring! I don't know what they'll do...."

Lockley said savagely, "Get to the camp and look after Jill! The workmen may have panicked. The Army'll know by this time what's happened. They'll send copters to get you out. They'll send help of some sort, somehow. But you look after Jill!"

Vale's voice changed.

"Wait. I heard something. Wait!"

Silence. Around Lockley there were the usual sounds of the wilderness. Insects made chirping noises. Birds called. There were those small whispering and rustling and high-pitched sounds which in the wild constitute stillness.

A scraping sound from the speaker. Vale's voice, frantic.

"That ... exploring party. It's here! They must have picked up our beams. They're looking for me. They've sighted me! They're coming...."

There was a crashing sound as if Vale had dropped the communicator. There were pantings, and the sound of blows, and gasped profanity—horror-filled profanity—in Vale's voice. Then something roared.

Lockley listened, his hands clenched in fury at his own helplessness. He thought he heard movements. Once he was sure he heard a sound like the unshod hoof of an animal on bare stone. Then, quite distinctly, he heard squeakings. He knew that someone or something had picked up Vale's communicator. More squeakings, somehow querulous. Then something pounded the communicator on the ground. There was a crash. Then silence.

Almost calmly Lockley swung his instrument around and lined it up for Sattell's post. He called in a steady voice until Sattell answered. He reported with meticulous care just what Vale had said, and what he'd heard after Vale stopped speaking—the roaring, the sound of blows and gasps, then the squeakings and the destruction of the instrument intended for the measurement of base lines for an accurate map of the Park.

Sattell grew agitated. At Lockley's insistence, he wrote down every word. Then he said nervously that orders had come from Survey. The Army wanted everybody out of the Boulder Lake area. Vale was to have been ordered out. The workmen were ordered out. Lockley was to get out of the area as soon as possible.

When Sattell signed off, Lockley switched off the communicator. He put it where it would be relatively safe from the weather. He abandoned his camping equipment. A mile downhill and four miles west there was a highway leading to Boulder Lake. When the Park was opened to the public it would be well used, but the last traffic he'd seen was the big trailer-truck of the Wild Life Control service. That huge vehicle had gone up to Boulder Lake the day before.

He made his way to the highway, following a footpath to the spot where he'd left his own car parked. He got into it and started the motor. He moved with a certain dogged deliberation. He knew, of course, that what he was going to do was useless. It was hopeless. It was possibly suicidal. But he went ahead.

He headed northward, pushing the little car to its top speed. This was not following his instructions. He wasn't leaving the Park area. He was heading for Boulder Lake. Jill was there and he would feel ashamed for all time if he acted like a sensible man and got to safety as he was ordered.

Miles along the highway, something occurred to him. The base line instrument had to be aimed exactly right for Vale or Sattell to pick up his voice as carried by its beam. Vale's or Sattell's instruments had to be aimed as accurately to convey their voices to him. Yet after the struggle he'd overheard, and after Vale had been either subdued or killed, someone or something seemed to have picked up the communicator, and Lockley had heard squeakings, and then he had heard the instrument smashed.

It was not easy to understand how the beam had been kept perfectly aligned while it was picked up and squeaked at. Still less was it understandable that it remained aimed just right so he could hear when it was flung down and crushed.

But somehow this oddity did not change his feelings. Jill could be in danger from creatures Vale said were not human. Lockley didn't wholly accept that non-human angle, but something was happening there and Jill was in the middle of it. So he went to see about it for the sake of his self-respect. And Jill. It was not reasonable behavior. It was emotional. He didn't stop to question what was believable and what wasn't. Lockley didn't even give any attention to the problem of how a microwave beam could stay pointed exactly right while the instrument that sent it was picked up, and squeaked at, and smashed. He gave that particular matter no thought at all.

He jammed down the accelerator of the car and headed for Boulder Lake.



CHAPTER 2

The car was ordinary enough; it was one of those scaled-down vehicles which burn less fuel and offer less comfort than the so-called standard models. For fuel economy too, its speed had been lowered. But Lockley sent it up the brand-new highway as fast as it would go.

Now the highway followed a broad valley with a meadow-like floor. Now it seemed to pick its way between cliffs, and on occasion it ran over a concrete bridge spanning some swiftly flowing stream. At least once it went through a cut which might as well have been a tunnel, and the crackling noise of its motor echoed back from stony walls on either side.

He did not see another vehicle for a long way. Deer, he saw twice. Over and over again coveys of small birds rocketed up from beside the road and dived to cover after he had passed. Once he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and looked automatically to see what it was, but saw nothing. Which meant that it was probably a mountain lion, blending perfectly with its background as it watched the car. At the end of five miles he saw a motor truck, empty, trundling away from Boulder Lake and the construction camp toward the outer world.

The two vehicles passed, combining to make a momentary roaring noise at their nearest. The truck was not in a hurry. It simply lumbered along with loose objects in its cargo space rattling and bumping loudly. Its driver and his helper plainly knew nothing of untoward events behind them. They'd probably stopped somewhere to have a leisurely morning snack, with the truck waiting for them at the roadside.

Lockley went on ten miles more. He begrudged the distances added by curves in the road. He tended to fume when his underpowered car noticeably slowed up on grades, and especially the long ones. He saw a bear halfway up a hillside pause in its exploitation of a berry patch to watch the car go by below it. He saw more deer. Once a smaller animal, probably a coyote, dived into a patch of brushwood and stayed hidden as long as the car remained in sight.

More miles of empty highway. And then a long, straight stretch of road, and he suddenly saw vehicles coming around the curve at the end of it. They were not in line, singlelane, as traffic usually is on a curve. Both lanes were filled. The road was blocked by motor-driven traffic heading away from the lake, and not at a steady pace, but in headlong flight.

It roared on toward Lockley. Big trucks and little ones; passenger cars in between them; a few motorcyclists catching up from the rear by riding on the road's shoulders. They were closely packed, as if by some freak the lead had been taken by great trucks incapable of the road speed of those behind them, yet with the frantic rearmost cars unable to pass. There was a humming and roaring of motors that filled the air. They plunged toward Lockley's miniature roadster. Truck horns blared.

Lockley got off the highway and onto the right-hand shoulder. He stopped. The crowded mass of rushing vehicles roared up to him and went past. They were more remarkable than he'd believed. There were dirt mover trucks. There were truck-and-trailer combinations. There were sedans and dump trucks and even a convertible or two, and then more trucks—even tank trucks—and more sedans and half-tonners—a complete and motley collection of every kind of gasoline-driven vehicle that could be driven on a highway and used on a construction project.

And every one was crowded with men. Trailer-trucks had their body doors open, and they were packed with the workmen of the construction camp near Boulder Lake. The sedans were jammed with passengers. Dirt mover trucks had men holding fast to handholds, and there were men in the backs of the dump trucks. The racing traffic filled the highway from edge to edge. It rushed past, giving off a deafening roar and clouds of gasoline fumes.

They were gone, the solid mass of them at any rate. But now there came older cars, no less crowded, and then more spacious cars, not crowded so much and less frantically pushing at those ahead. But even these cars passed each other recklessly. There seemed to be an almost hysterical fear of being last.

One car swung off to its left. There were five men in it. It braked and stopped on the shoulder close to Lockley's car. The driver shouted above the din of passing motors, "You don't want to go up there. Everybody's ordered out. Everybody get away from Boulder Lake! When you get the chance, turn around and get the hell away."

He watched for a chance to get back on the road, having delivered his warning. Lockley got out of his car and went over, "You're talking about the thing that came down from the sky," he said grimly. "There was a girl up at the camp. Jill Holmes. Writing a piece about building a national park. Getting information about the job. Did anybody get her away?"

The man who'd warned him continued to watch for a reasonable gap in the flood of racing cars. They weren't crowded now as they had been, but it was still impossible to start in low and get back in the stream of vehicles without an almost certain crash. Then he turned his head back, staring at Lockley.

"Hell! Somebody told me to check on her. I was routing men out and loading 'em on whatever came by. I forgot!"

A man in the back of the sedan said, "She hadn't left when we did. I saw her. But I thought she had a ride all set."

The man at the wheel said furiously, "She hasn't passed us! Unless she's in one of these...."

Lockley set his teeth. He watched each oncoming car intently. A girl among these fugitives would have been put with the driver in the cab of a truck, and he'd have seen a woman in any of the private cars.

"If I don't see her go by," he said grimly, "I'll go up to the camp and see if she's still there."

The man in the driver's seat looked relieved.

"If she's left behind, it's her fault. If you hunt for her, make it fast and be plenty careful. Keep to the camp and stay away from the lake. There was a hell of an explosion over there this morning. Three men went to see what'd happened. They didn't come back. Two more went after 'em, and something hit them on the way. They smelled something worse than skunk. Then they were paralyzed, like they had hold of a high-tension line. They saw crazy colors and heard crazy sounds and they couldn't move a finger. Their car ditched. In a while they came out of it and they came back—fast! They'd just got back when we got short wave orders for everybody to get out. If you look for that girl, be careful. If she's still there, you get her out quick!" Then he said sharply, "Here's a chance for us to get going. Move out of the way!"

There was a gap in the now diminishing spate of cars. The driver of the stopped car drove furiously onto the highway. He shifted gears and accelerated at the top of his car's power. Another car behind him braked and barely avoided a crash while blowing its horn furiously. Then the traffic went on. But it was lessening now. It was mostly private cars, owned by the workmen.

Suddenly there were no cars coming down the long straight stretch of road. Lockley got back on the highway and resumed his rush toward the spot the others fled from. He heard behind him the diminishing rumble and roar of the fugitive motors. He jammed his own accelerator down to the floor and plunged on.

There'd been an explosion by the lake, the man who'd warned him said. That checked. Three men went to see what had happened. That was reasonable. They didn't come back. Considering what Vale had reported, it was almost inevitable. Then two other men went to find out what happened to the first three and—that was news! A smell that was worse than skunk. Paralysis in a moving car, which ditched. Remaining paralyzed while seeing crazy colors and hearing crazy sounds.... Lockley could not even guess at an explanation. But the men had remained paralyzed for some time, and then the sensations lifted. They had fled back to the construction camp, evidently fearing that the paralysis might return. Their narrative must have been hair-raising, because when orders had come for the evacuation of the camp, they had been obeyed with a promptitude suggesting panic. But apparently nothing else had happened.

The first three men were still missing—or at least there'd been no mention of their return. They'd either been killed or taken captive, judging by Vale's account and obvious experience. He was either killed or captured, too, but it still seemed strange that Lockley had heard so much of that struggle via a tight beam microwave transmitter that needed to be accurately aimed. Vale had been captured or killed. The three other men missing probably had undergone the same fate. The two others had been made helpless but not murdered or taken prisoner. They'd simply been held until when they were released they'd flee.

The car went over a bridge and rounded a curve. Here a deep cut had been made and the road ran through it. It came out upon undulating ground where many curves were necessary.

Another car came, plunging after the others. In the next ten miles there were, perhaps a dozen more. They'd been hard to start, perhaps, and so left later than the rest. Jill wasn't in any of them. There was one car traveling slowly, making thumping noises. Its driver made the best time he could, following the others.

Sober common sense pointed out that Vale's account was fully verified. There'd been a landing of non-human creatures in a ship from outer space. The killing or capture of the first three men to investigate a gigantic explosion was natural enough—the alien occupants of a space ship would want to study the inhabitants of the world they'd landed on. The mere paralysis and release of two others could be explained on the theory that the creatures who'd come to earth were satisfied with three specimens of the local intelligent race to study. They had Vale, too. They weren't trying to conceal their arrival, though it would have been impossible anyhow. But it was plausible enough that they'd take measures to become informed about the world they'd landed on, and when they considered that they knew enough, they'd take the action they felt was desirable.

All of which was perfectly rational, but there was another possibility. The other possible explanation was—considering everything—more probable. And it seemed to offer even more appalling prospects.

He drove on. Jill Holmes. He'd seen her four times; she was engaged to Vale. It seemed extremely likely that she hadn't left the camp with the workmen. If Lockley hadn't been obsessed with her, he'd have tried to make sure she was left behind before he tried to find her. If she was still at the camp, she was in a dangerous situation.

There'd been no other car from the camp for a long way now. But there came a sharp curve ahead. Lockley drove into it. There was a roar, and a car came from the opposite direction, veering away from the road's edge. It sideswiped the little car Lockley drove. The smaller car bucked violently and spun crazily around. It went crashing into a clump of saplings and came to a stop with a smashed windshield and crumpled fenders, but the motor was still running. Lockley had braked by instinct.

The other car raced away without pausing.

Lockley sat still for a moment, stunned by the suddenness of the mishap. Then he raged. He got out of the car. Because of its small size, he thought he might be able to get it back on the road with saplings for levers. But the job would take hours, and he was irrationally convinced that Jill had been left behind in the construction camp.

He was perhaps five miles from Boulder Lake itself and about the same distance from the camp. It would take less time to go to the camp on foot than to try to get the car on the road. Time was of the essence, and whoever or whatever the occupants of the landed ship might be, they'd know what a road was for. They'd sight an intruder in a car on a road long before they'd detect a man on foot who was not on a highway and was taking some pains to pass unseen.

He started out, unarmed and on foot. He was headed for the near neighborhood of the thing Vale had described as coming from the sky. He was driven by fear for Jill. It seemed to him that his best pace was only a crawl and he desperately needed all the speed he could muster.

He headed directly across country for the camp. All the world seemed unaware that anything out of the ordinary was in progress. Birds sang and insects chirruped and breezes blew and foliage waved languidly. Now and again a rabbit popped out of sight of the moving figure of the man. But there were no sounds, or sights or indications of anything untoward where Lockley moved. He reflected that he was on his way to search for a girl he barely knew, and whom he couldn't be sure needed his help anyway.

Outside in the world, there were places where things were not so tranquil. By this time there were already troops in motion in long trains of personnel-carrying trucks. There were mobile guided missile detachments moving at top speed across state lines and along the express highway systems. Every military plane in the coastal area was aloft, kept fueled by tanker planes to be ready for any sort of offensive or defensive action that might be called for. The short wave instructions to the construction camp had become known, and all the world knew that Boulder Lake National Park had been evacuated to avoid contact with non-human aliens. The aliens were reported to have hunted men down and killed them for sport. They were reported to have paralysis beams, death beams and poison gas. They were described as indescribable, and described in "artist's conceptions" on television and in the newspapers. They appeared—according to circumstances—to resemble lizards or slugs. They were portrayed as carnivorous birds and octopods. The artists took full advantage of their temporarily greater importance than cameramen. They pictured these diverse aliens in their one known aggressive action of trailing Vale down and carrying him away. This was said to be for vivisection. None of the artists' ideas were even faintly plausible, biologically. The creatures were even portrayed as turning heat rays upon humans, who dramatically burst into steam as the beams struck them. Obviously, there were also artist's conceptions of women being seized by the creatures from outer space. There was only one woman known to be in the construction camp, but that inconvenient fact didn't bother the artists.

The United States went into a mild panic. But most people stayed on their jobs, and followed their normal routine, and the trains ran on time.

The public in the United States had become used to newspaper and broadcast scares. They were unconsciously relegated to the same category as horror movies, which some day might come true, but not yet. This particular news story seemed more frightening than most, but still it was taken more or less as shuddery entertainment. So most of the United States shivered with a certain amount of relish as ever new and ever more imaginative accounts appeared describing the landing of intelligent monsters, and waited to see if it was really true. The truth was that most of America didn't actually believe it. It was like a Russian threat. It could happen and it might happen, but it hadn't happened so far to the United States.

An official announcement helped to guide public opinion in this safe channel. The Defense Department released a bulletin: An object had fallen from space into Boulder Lake, Colorado. It was apparently a large meteorite. When reported by radar before its landing, defense authorities had seized the opportunity to use it for a test of emergency response to a grave alarm. They had used it to trigger a training program and test of defensive measures made ready against other possible enemies. After the meteorite landed, the defense measures were continued as a more complete test of the nation's fighting forces' responsive ability. The object and its landing, however, were being investigated.

Lockley tramped up hillsides and scrambled down steep slopes with many boulders scattered here and there. He moved through a landscape in which nothing seemed to depart from the normal. The sun shone. The cloud cover, broken some time since, was dissipating and now a good two-thirds of the sky was wholly clear. The sounds of the wilderness went on all around him.

But presently he came to a partly-graded new road, cutting across his way. A bulldozer stood abandoned on it, brand-new and in perfect order, with the smell of gasoline and oil about it. He followed the gash in the forest it had begun. It led toward the camp. He came to a place where blasting had been in progress. The equipment for blasting remained. But there was nobody in sight.

Half a mile from this spot, Lockley looked down upon the camp. There were Quonset huts and prefabricated structures. There were streets of clay and wires from one building to another. There was a long, low, open shed with long tables under its roof. A mess shed. Next to it metal pipes pierced another roof, and wavering columns of heated air rose from those pipes. There was a building which would be a commissary. There was every kind of structure needed for a small city, though all were temporary. And there was no movement, no sound, no sign of life except the hot air rising from the mess kitchen stovepipes.

Lockley went down into the camp. All was silence. All was lifeless. He looked unhappily about him. There would be no point, of course, in looking into the dormitories, but he made his way to the mess shed. Some heavy earthenware plates and coffee cups, soiled, remained on the table. There were a few flies. Not many. In the mess kitchen there was grayish smoke and the reek of scorched and ruined food. The stoves still burned. Lockley saw the blue flame of bottled gas. He went on. The door of the commissary was open. Everything men might want to buy in such a place waited for purchasers, but there was no one to buy or sell.

The stillness and desolation of the place resulted from less than an hour's abandonment. But somehow it was impossible to call out loudly for Jill. Lockley was appalled by the feeling of emptiness in such bright sunshine. It was shocking. Men hadn't moved out of the camp. They'd simply left it, with every article of use dropped and abandoned; nothing at all had been removed. And there was no sign of Jill. It occurred to Lockley that she'd have waited for Vale at the camp, because assuredly his first thought should have been for her safety. Yes. She'd have waited for Vale to rescue her. But Vale was either dead or a captive of the creatures that had been in the object from the sky. He wouldn't be looking after Jill.

Lockley found himself straining his eyes at the mountain from whose flank Vale had been prepared to measure the base line between his post and Lockley's. That vantage point could not be seen from here, but Lockley looked for a small figure that might be Jill, climbing valiantly to warn Vale of the events he'd known before anybody else.

Then Lockley heard a very small sound. It was faint, with an irregular rhythm in it. It had the cadence of speech. His pulse leaped suddenly. There was the mast for the short wave set by which the camp had kept in touch with the outer world. Lockley sprinted for the building under it. His footsteps sounded loudly in the silent camp, and they drowned out the sound he was heading for.

He stopped at the open door. He heard Jill's voice saying anxiously, "But I'm sure he'd have come to make certain I was safe!" A pause. "There's no one else left, and I want...." Another pause. "But he was up on the mountainside! At least a helicopter could—"

Lockley called, "Jill!"

He heard a gasp. Then she said unsteadily, "Someone just called. Wait a moment."

She came to the door. At sight of Lockley her face fell.

"I came to make sure you were all right," he said awkwardly. "Are you talking to outside?"

"Yes. Do you know anything about—"

"I'm afraid I do," said Lockley. "Right now the important thing is to get you out of here. I'll tell them we're starting. All right?"

She stood aside. He went up to the short wave set which looked much like an ordinary telephone, but was connected to a box with dials and switches. There was a miniature pocket radio—a transistor radio—on top of the short wave cabinet. Lockley picked up the short wave microphone. He identified himself. He said he'd come to make sure of Jill's safety, and that he'd been passed by the rushing mass of cars and trucks that had evacuated everybody else. Then he said, "I've got a car about four miles away. It's in a ditch, but I can probably get it out. It'll be a lot safer for Miss Holmes if you send a helicopter there to pick her up."

The reply was somehow military in tone. It sounded like a civilian being authoritative about something he knew nothing about. Lockley said, "Over" in a dry tone and put down the microphone. He picked up the pocket radio and put it in his pocket. It might be useful.

"They say to try to make it out in my car," he told Jill wryly. "As civilians, I suppose they haven't any helicopters they can give orders to. But it probably makes sense. If there are some queer creatures around, there's no point in stirring them up with a flying contraption banging around near their landing place. Not before we're ready to take real action. Come along. I've got to get you away from here."

"But I'm waiting...." She looked distressed. "He wanted me to leave yesterday. We almost quarrelled about it. He'll surely come to make sure I'm safe...."

"I'm afraid I have bad news," said Lockley. Then he described, as gently as he could, his last talk with Vale. It was the one which ended with squeaks and strugglings transmitted by the communicator, and then the smashing of the communicator itself. He didn't mention the puzzling fact that the communicator had stayed perfectly aimed while it was picked up and squeaked at and destroyed. He had no explanation for it. What he did have to tell was bad enough. She went deathly pale, searching his face as he told her.

"But—but—" She swallowed. "He might have been hurt and—not killed. He might be alive and in need of help. If there are creatures from somewhere else, they might not realize that he could be unconscious and not dead! He'd make sure about me! I—I'll go up and make sure about him...."

Lockley hesitated. "It's not likely," he said carefully, "that he was left there injured. But if you feel that somebody has to make sure, I'll do it. For one thing, I can climb faster. My car is ditched back yonder. You go and wait by it. At least it's farther from the lake and you should be safer there. I'll make sure about Vale."

He explained in detail how she could find the car. Up this hillside to a slash through the forest for a highway. Due south from an abandoned bulldozer. Keep out of sight. Never show against a skyline.

She swallowed again. Then she said, "If he needs help, you could—do more than I can. But I'll wait there where the woods begin. I can hide if I need to, and I—might be of some use."

He realized that she deluded herself with the hope that he, Lockley, might bring an injured Vale down the mountainside and that she could be useful then. He let her. He went through the camp with her to put her on the right track. He gave her the pocket radio, so she could listen for news. When she went on out of sight in brushwood, he turned back toward the mountain on which Vale had occupied an observation post. It was actually a million-year-old crater wall that he climbed presently. And he took a considerable chance. As he climbed, for some time he moved in plain view. If the crew of the ship in Boulder Lake were watching, they'd see him rather than Jill. If they took action, it would be against him and not Jill. Somehow he felt better equipped to defend himself than Jill would be.

He climbed. Again the world was completely normal, commonplace. There were mountain peaks on every hand. Some had been volcanoes originally, some had not. With each five hundred feet of climbing, he could see still more mountains. The sky was cloudless now. He climbed a thousand feet. Two. Three. He could see between peaks for a full thirty miles to the spot where he'd been at daybreak. But he was making his ascent on the back flank of this particular mountain. He could not see Boulder Lake from there. On the other hand, no creature at Boulder Lake should be able to see him. Only an exploring party which might otherwise sight Jill would be apt to detect him, a slowly moving speck against a mountainside.

He reached the level at which Vale's post had been assigned. He moved carefully and cautiously around intervening masses of stone. The wind blew past him, making humming noises in his ears. Once he dislodged a small stone and it went bouncing and clattering down the slope he'd climbed.

He saw where Vale could have been as he watched something come down from the sky. He found Vale's sleeping bag, and the ashes of his campfire. Here too was the communicator. It had been smashed by a huge stone lifted and dropped upon it, but before that it had been moved. It was not in place on the bench mark from which it could measure inches in a distance of scores of miles.

There was no other sign of what had apparently happened here. The ashes of the fire were undisturbed. Vale's sleeping bag looked as if it had not been slept in, as if it had only been spread out for the night before. Lockley went over the rock shelf inch by inch. No red stains which might be blood. Nothing....

No. In a patch of soft earth between two stones there was a hoofprint. It was not a footprint. A hoof had made it, but not a horse's hoof, nor a burro's. It wasn't a mountain sheep track. It was not the track of any animal known on earth. But it was here. Lockley found himself wondering absurdly if the creature that had made it would squeak, or if it would roar. They seemed equally unlikely.

He looked cautiously down at the lake which was almost half a mile below him. The water was utterly blue. It reflected only the crater wall and the landscape beyond the area where the volcanic cliffs had fallen. Nothing moved. There was no visible apparatus set up on the shore, as Vale had said. But something had happened down in the lake. Trees by the water's edge were bent and broken. Masses of brushwood had been crushed and torn away. Limbs were broken down tens of yards from the water, and there were gullies to be seen wherever there was soft earth. An enormous wave had flung itself against the nearly circular boundary of the lake. It had struck like a tidal wave dozens of feet high in an inland body of water. It was extremely convincing evidence that something huge and heavy had hurtled down from the sky.

But Lockley saw no movement nor any other novelty in this wilderness. He heard nothing that was not an entirely normal sound.

But then he smelled something.

It was a horrible, somehow reptilian odor. It was the stench of jungle, dead and rotting. It was much, much worse than the smell of a skunk.

He moved to fling himself into flight. Then light blinded him. Closing his eyelids did not shut it out. There were all colors, intolerably vivid, and they flashed in revolving combinations and forms which succeeded each other in fractions of seconds. He could see nothing but this light. Then there came sound. It was raucous. It was cacophonic. It was an utterly unorganized tumult in which musical notes and discords and bellowings and shriekings were combined so as to be unbearable. And then came pure horror as he found that he could not move. Every inch of his body had turned rigid as it became filled with anguish. He felt, all over, as if he were holding a charged wire.

He knew that he fell stiffly where he stood. He was blinded by light and deafened by sound and his nostrils were filled with the nauseating fetor of jungle and decay. These sensations lasted for what seemed years.

Then all the sensations ended abruptly. But he still could not see; his eyes were still dazzled by the lights that closing his eyelids had not changed. He still could not hear. He'd been deafened by the sounds that had dazed and numbed him. He moved, and he knew it, but he could not feel anything. His hands and body felt numb.

Then he sensed that the positions of his arms and legs were changed. He struggled, blind and deaf and without feeling anywhere. He knew that he was confined. His arms were fastened somehow so that he could not move them.

And then gradually—very gradually—his senses returned. He heard squeakings. At first they were faint as the exhausted nerve ends in his ears only began to regain their function. He began to regain the sense of touch, though he felt only furriness everywhere.

He was raised up. It seemed to him that claws rather than fingers grasped him. He stood erect, swaying. His sense of balance had been lost without his realizing it. It came back, very slowly. But he saw nothing. Clawlike hands—or handlike claws—pulled at him. He felt himself turned and pushed. He staggered. He took steps out of the need to stay erect. The pushings and pullings continued. He found himself urged somewhere. He realized that his arms were useless because they were wrapped with something like cord or rope.

Stumbling, he responded to the urging. There was nothing else to do. He found himself descending. He was being led somewhere which could only be downward. He was guided, not gently, but not brutally either.

He waited for sight to return to him. It did not come.

It was then he realized that he could not see because he was blindfolded.

There were whistling squeaks very near him. He began helplessly to descend the mountain, surrounded and guided and sometimes pulled by unseen creatures.



CHAPTER 3

It was a long descent, made longer by the blindfold and clumsier by his inability to move his arms. More than once Lockley stumbled. Twice he fell. The clawlike hands or handlike claws lifted him and thrust him on the way that was being chosen for him. There were whistling squeaks. Presently he realized that some of them were directed at him. A squeak or whistle in a warning tone told him that he must be especially careful just here.

He came to accept the warnings. It occurred to him that the squeaks sounded very much like those button-shaped hollow whistles that children put in their mouths to make strident sounds of varying pitch. Gradually, all his senses returned to normal. Even his eyes under the blindfold ceased to report only glare blindness, and he saw those peculiar, dissolving grayish patterns that human eyes transmit from darkness.

More squeakings. A long time later he moved over nearly level grassy ground. He was led for possibly half a mile. He had not tried to speak during all his descent. It would have been useless. If he was to be killed, he would be killed. But trouble had been taken to bring him down alive from a remaining bit of crumbling crater wall. His captors had evidently some use for him in mind.

They abruptly held him still for a long time—perhaps as much as an hour. It seemed that either instructions were hard to come by, or some preparation was being made. Then the sound of something or someone approaching. Squeaks.

He was led another long distance. Then claws or hands lifted him. Metal clanked. Those who held him dropped him. He fell three or four feet onto soft sand. There was a clanging of metal above his head.

Then a human voice said sardonically, "Welcome to our city! Where'd they catch you?"

Lockley said, "Up on a mountainside, trying to see what they were doing. Will you get me loose, please?"

Hands worked on the cord that bound his arms close to his body. They loosened. He removed the blindfold.

He was in a metal-walled and metal-ceilinged vault, perhaps eight feet wide and the same in height, and perhaps twelve feet long. It had a floor of sand. Some small amount of light came in through the circular hole he'd been dropped through, despite a cover on it. There were three men already in confinement here. They wore clothing appropriate to workmen from the construction camp. There was a tall lean man, and a broad man with a moustache, and a chunky man. The chunky man had spoken.

"Did you see any of 'em?" he demanded now.

Lockley shook his head. The three looked at each other and nodded. Lockley saw that they hadn't been imprisoned long. The sand floor was marked but not wholly formed into footprints, as it would have been had they moved restlessly about. Mostly, it appeared, they'd simply sat on the sand floor.

"We didn't see 'em either," said the chunky man. "There was a hell of a explosion over at the lake this mornin'. We piled in a car—my car—and came over to see what'd happened. Then something hit us. All of us. Lights. Noise. A godawful stink. A feeling all over like an electric shock that paralyzed us. We came to blindfolded and tied. They brought us here. That's our story so far. What's happened to you—and what really happened to us?"

"I'm not sure," said Lockley.

He hesitated. Then he told them about Vale, and what he'd reported. They'd had no explanation at all of what had happened to them. They seemed relieved to be informed, though the information was hardly heartening.

"Critters from Mars, eh?" said the moustached man. "I guess we'd act the same way if we was to get to Mars. They got to figure out some way to talk to who lives here. I guess that makes us it—unless we can figure out something better."

Lockley, by temperament, tended to anticipate worse things in the future than had come in the past. The suggestion that the occupants of the spaceship had captured men to learn how to communicate with them seemed highly optimistic. He realized that he didn't believe it. It seemed extremely unlikely that the invaders from space were entirely ignorant of humanity. The choice of Boulder Lake as a landing place, for example, could not have been made from space. If there was need for deep water to land in—which seemed highly probable—then it would have been simple good sense to descend in the ocean. The ship could submerge, and it could move about in the lake. Vale had said so. Such a ship would almost inevitably choose deep water in the ocean for a landing place. To land in a crater lake—one of possibly two or three on an entire continent suitable for their use—indicated that they had information in advance. Detailed information. It practically shouted of a knowledge of at least one human language, by which information about Crater Lake could have been obtained. Whoever or whatever made use of the lake was no stranger to earth!

Yes.... They'd needed a deep-water landing and they knew that Boulder Lake would do. They probably knew very much more. But if they didn't know that Jill waited for him where the trail toward his ditched car began, then there was no reason to let them overhear the information.

"I was part of a team making some base line measurements," said Lockley, "when this business started. I began to check my instruments with a man named Vale."

He told exactly, for the second time, what Vale said about the thing from the sky and the creatures who came out of it. Then he told what he'd done. But he omitted all reference to Jill. His coming to the lake he ascribed to incredulity. Also, he did not mention meeting the fleeing population of the construction camp. When his story was finished he sounded like a man who'd done a very foolhardy thing, but he didn't sound like a man with a girl on his mind.

The broad man with the moustache asked a question or two. The tall man asked others. Lockley asked many.

The answers were frustrating. They hadn't seen their captors at all. They'd heard squeaks when they were being brought to this place, and the squeaks were obviously language, but no human one. They'd been bound as well as blindfolded. They hadn't been offered food since their capture, nor water. It seemed as if they'd been seized and put into this metal compartment to wait for some use of them by their captors.

"Maybe they want to teach us to talk," said the moustached man, "or maybe they're goin' to carve us up to see what makes us tick. Or maybe," he grimaced, "maybe they want to know if we're good to eat."

The chunky man said, "Why'd they blindfold us?"

Lockley had begun to have a very grim suspicion about this. It came out of the realization of how remarkable it was that a ship designed to be navigable in deep water should have landed in a deep crater lake. He said, "Vale said at first that they weren't human, though they were only specks in his binoculars. Later, when he saw them close, he didn't say what they look like."

"Must be pretty weird," said the tall man.

"Maybe," said the man with the moustache, attempting humor, "maybe they didn't want us to see them because we'd be scared. Or maybe they didn't mean to blindfold us, but just to cover us up. Maybe they wouldn't mind us seeing them, but it hurts for them to look at us!"

Lockley said abruptly, "This box we're in. It's made by humans."

The moustached man said quickly, "We figured that. It's the shell of a compost pit for the hotel that's goin' to be built around here. They'll sink it in the ground and dump garbage in it, and it'll rot, and then it'll be fertilizer. These critters from space are just using it to hold us. But what are they gonna do with us?"

There were faint squeakings. The cover to the round opening lifted. Three rabbits dropped down. The cover closed with a clang. The rabbits shivered and crouched, terrified, in one corner.

"Is this how they're gonna feed us?" demanded the chunky man.

"Hell, no!" said the tall man, in evident disgust. "They're dumped in here like we were. They're animals. So are we. This is a temporary cage. It's got a sand floor that we can bury things in. It won't be any trouble to clean out. The rabbits and us, we stay caged until they're ready to do whatever they're goin' to do with us."

"Which is what?" demanded the chunky man.

There was no answer. They would either be killed, or they would not. There was nothing to be done. Meanwhile Lockley evaluated his three fellow captives as probably rather good men to have on one's side, and bad ones to have against one. But there was no action which was practical now. A single guard outside, able to paralyze them by whatever means it was accomplished, made any idea of escape in daylight foolish.

"What kind of critters are they?" demanded the chunky man. "Maybe we could figure out what they'll do if we know what kind of thing they are!"

"They've got eyes like ours," said Lockley.

The three men looked at him.

"They landed by daylight," said Lockley. "Early daylight. They could certainly have picked the time for their landing. They picked early morning so they could have a good long period of daylight in which to get settled before night. If they'd been night moving creatures, they'd have landed in the dark."

The tall man said, "Sounds reasonable. I didn't think of that."

"They saw me at a distance," said Lockley, "and I didn't see them. They've got good eyes. They beat me up to the top of the mountain and hid to see what I'd do. When they saw me looking the lake over after checking up on Vale, they paralyzed me and brought me here. So they've got eyes like ours."

"This guy Vale," said the chunky man. "What happened to him?"

Lockley said, "Probably what'll happen to us."

"Which is what?" asked the chunky man.

Lockley did not answer. He thought of Jill, waiting anxiously at the edge of the woods not far from the camp. She'd surely have watched him climbing. She might have followed his climb all the way to where he went around to Vale's post. But she wouldn't have seen his capture and she might be waiting for him now. It wasn't likely, though, that she'd climb into the trap that had taken Vale and then himself. She must realize that that spot was one to be avoided.

She'd probably try to make her way to his ditched car. She'd heard him ask on short wave for a helicopter to come to that place to pick her up. It hadn't been promised; in fact it had been refused. But if she remained missing, surely someone would risk a low-level flight to find out if she were waiting desperately for rescue. A light plane could land on the highway if a helicopter wasn't to be risked. Somehow Jill must find a way to safety. She was in danger because she'd waited loyally for Vale to come to her at the camp. Now....

Time passed. Hot sunshine on their prison heated the metal. It became unbearably hot inside. There came squeakings. The cover of the compost pit shell lifted. Half a dozen wild birds were thrust into the opening. The cover closed again. Lockley listened closely. It was latched from the outside. There would naturally be a fastening on the cover of a compost pit to keep bears from getting at the garbage it was built to contain.

The heat grew savage. Thirst was a problem. Once and only once they heard a noise from the world beyond their prison. It was a droning hum which, even through a metal wall, could be nothing but the sound of a helicopter. It droned and droned, very gradually becoming louder. Then, abruptly, it cut off. That was all. And that was all that the four in the metal tank knew about events outside of their own experience.

But much was happening outside. Troop-carrying trucks had reached the edge of Boulder Lake National Park, a very few hours after the workmen from the camp had gotten out of it. They had a story to tell, and if it lacked detail it did not lack imagination. The three missing men had their fate described in various versions, all of which were dramatic and terrifying. The two men who had been paralyzed by some unknown agency described their sensations after their release. Their stories were immediately relayed to all the news media. It now appeared that dozens of men had seen the thing descend from the sky. They had not compared notes, however, and their descriptions varied from a black pear-shaped globe which had hovered for minutes before descending behind the mountains into the lake, to detailed word pictures of a silvery, torpedo-shaped vessel of space with portholes and flaming rockets and an unknown flag displayed from a flagstaff.

Of course, none of those accounts could be right. The velocity of the falling object, as reported from two radar installations, checked against a seismograph record of the time of the impact in the lake and allowed no leeway of time for it to hover in mid-air to be admired.

But there were enough detailed and first-hand accounts of alarming events to make a second statement by the Defense Department necessary. It was an over-correction of the first soothing one. It was intended to be more soothing still.

It said blandly that a bolide—a slow-moving, large meteoric object—had been observed by radar to be descending to earth. It had been tracked throughout its descent. It had landed in Boulder Lake. Air photos taken since its landing showed that an enormous disturbance of the water of the lake had taken place. It had seemed wise to remove workmen from the neighborhood of the meteoric fall, and the whole occurrence had been made the occasion of a full-scale practice emergency response by air and other defense forces. Investigation of the possible bolide itself was under way.

The writer of the bulletin was obviously sitting on Vale's report and that of the workmen so as to tell as little as possible and that slanted to prevent alarm. The bulletin went on to say that there was no justification for the alarming reports now spreading through the country. This happening was not—repeat, was not—in any way associated with the cold war of such long standing. It was simply a very large meteor arriving from space and very fortunately falling in a national park area, and even more fortunately into a deep crater lake so that there was no damage even to the forests of the park.

The bulletin had no effect, of course. It was too late. It was released at just about the time the temperature in the metal prison—which seemed likely to become a metal coffin—had begun to fall. The moving sun had gone behind a mountain and the compost pit shell was in shadow once more.

Again the cover of that giant box was opened. A porcupine was dropped inside. The cover went on again. This was, at a guess, about five o'clock in the afternoon. The chunky man said drearily, "If this is supposed to be the way they'll feed us, they coulda picked something easier to eat than a porcupine!"

The box now held four men, three rabbits—panting in terror in one corner—half a dozen game birds and the just-arrived porcupine. All the wild creatures shrank away from the men. At any sudden movement the birds tended to fly hysterically about in the dimness, dashing themselves against the metal wall.

"I'd say," observed Lockley, "that his guess," he nodded at the tall man, "is the most likely one. Rabbits and birds and porcupines would be considered specimens of the local living creatures. We could be considered specimens too. Maybe we are. Maybe we're simply being held caged until there's time for a scientific examination of us. Let's hope they don't happen to drop a bear down here to wait with us!"

The tall man said, "Or rattlers! I wonder what time it is. I'll feel better when dark comes. They're not so likely to find rattlers in the dark."

Lockley said nothing. But if Boulder Lake had been chosen for a landing place on the basis of previously acquired information, it wasn't likely that either bears or rattlesnakes would be put in confinement with the men. The men would have been killed immediately, unless there was a practical use to be made of them. He began to make guesses. He could make a great many, but none of them added up exactly right.

Only one seemed promising, and that assumed a lot of items Lockley couldn't be sure of. He did know, though, that he'd been lifted up before he was dropped into the round opening of this tank-like metal shell. The top of the box was well above ground. It was not sunk in place as it would eventually be. Evidently it was not yet in its permanent position. The light inside was dim enough, but he could see the other men and the animals and the birds. He could make out the riveted plates which formed the box's sides and top.

Inconspicuously, he worked his hand down through the sand bottom of the prison. Four inches down the sand ended and there was earth. He felt around. He found grass stems. The box, then, rested on top of the ground, which was perfectly natural for a compost pit shell not yet placed where it would finally belong. The sand.... He explored further.

He waited. The other three stayed quiet. The faint brightness around the cover hole faded away. The interior of the tank-like box became abysmally black.

"Can anybody guess the time?" he asked, after aeons seemed to have passed.

"It feels like next Thursday," said the voice of the moustached man, "but it's probably ten or eleven o'clock. Looks like we're just going to be left here till they get around to us."

"I think we'd better not wait," said Lockley. "We've been pretty quiet. They probably think we're well-behaved specimens of this planet's wild life. They won't expect us to try anything this late. Suppose we get out."

"How?" demanded the chunky man.

Lockley said carefully, "This box is resting on top of the ground. I've dug down through the sand and found the bottom edge of the metal sidewall. If it's resting only on dirt, not stone, we ought to be able to dig out with our hands. I'll start now. You listen."

He began to dig with his hands, first clearing away the sand for a reasonable space. He felt a certain sardonic interest in what might happen. He strongly suspected that nothing undesirable would take place.

It was at least quaint that aliens from outer space should accept a bottomless metal shell as a suitable prison for animals. It was quaint that they'd put in a sandy floor. How would they know that such a thing meant a cage, on earth?

Of course the whole event might have been a test of animal intelligence. Almost any animal would have tried to burrow out.

Lockley dug. The earth was hard, and its upper part was filled with tenacious grass roots. Lockley pulled them away. Once he'd gotten under them, the digging went faster. Presently he was under the metal side wall. He dug upward. His hand reached open air.

"One of you can spell me now," he reported in a low tone. "It looks like we'll get away. But we've got to make our plans first. We don't want to be talking outside the tank, or even when the hole's fair-sized. For instance, will we want to keep together when we get outside?"

"Nix!" said the chunky man. "We wanna tell everybody about these characters. We scatter. If they catch one they don't catch any more. We couldn't fight any better for bein' together. We better scatter. I call that settled. I'm scatterin'!"

He crawled to Lockley in the darkness.

"Where you diggin'? OK. I got it. Move aside an' give me room."

"Everybody agrees on that?" asked Lockley.

They did. Lockley was relieved. The chunky man dug busily. There was only the sound of breathing, and the occasional fall of thrown-out earth against the metal of the thing that confined them. The chunky man said briskly, "This dirt digs all right. We just got to make the hole bigger."

In a little while the chunky man stopped, panting. The tall man said, "I'll take a shot at it."

There was a breakthrough to the air outside. The atmosphere in the tank improved. The smell of fresh-dug dirt and cool night air was refreshing. The moustached man took his turn at digging. Lockley went at it again. Soon he whispered, "I think it's OK. I'll go ahead. No talking outside!"

He shook hands all around, whispered "Good luck!" and squirmed through the opening to the night. Innumerable stars glittered in the sky. They were reflected on the water of the lake, here very close. Lockley moved silently. In the blackness just behind him, his eyes had become adjusted to almost complete darkness. He headed away from the shining water. He got brushwood between himself and his former companions. He stood very, very still.

He heard them murmuring together. They were outside. But they had proposed entirely separate efforts at escape. He went on, relieved. It happened that the next time he'd see them, circumstances would be entirely different. But he believed they were competent men.

Guided by the Big Dipper, he moved directly toward the place where Jill should be waiting for him. By the angle of the Dipper's handle he knew that it was almost midnight. Jill would surely have known that nearly the worst had happened. He'd have to find her....

It was two o'clock when he reached the place where Jill had intended to wait. He showed himself openly. He called quietly. There was no answer. He called again, and again.

He saw something white. It was a scrap of paper speared on a brushwood branch which had been stripped of leaves to make the paper show clearly. Lockley retrieved it and saw markings on it which the starlight could not help him to read. He went deep into the woods, found a hollow, and bent low, risking the light of his cigarette lighter for a swift look at the message.

"I saw creatures moving around in the camp. They weren't men. I was afraid they might be hunting me. I've gone to wait by the car if I can find it."

She'd written in English, in full confidence that creatures from space would not be able to read it. Lockley was not so sure, but the message hadn't been removed. If it had been read, there'd have been an ambush waiting for him when he found it. So it appeared.

He headed through the night toward the ditched small car.

It seemed a very long way, though he did stop and drink his fill from a little mountain stream over which a highway bridge had almost been completed. In the night, though, and with hard going, it was not easy to estimate how far he'd gone. In fact, he was anxiously debating if he mightn't have passed the abandoned bulldozer when he came upon the place where blasting had been going on. Still, it was a very long way to be negotiated over still-remaining tree stumps and the unfilled holes from which others had been pulled.

He reached the bulldozer and turned south, and at long last reached the highway. His car should be no more than a quarter-mile away. He moved toward it, close to the road's edge. He heard music. It was faint, but vivid because it was the last sound that anybody would expect to hear in the hours before dawn in a wilderness deserted by mankind. He scraped his foot on the roadway. The music stopped instantly. He said, "Jill?"

He heard her gasp.

"I found where Vale had been," he said steadily. "There was no blood there. There's no sign that he's been killed. Then I was caught myself. I was put with three other men who were believed killed but who are still alive. We escaped. It is within reason to hope that Vale is unharmed and that he may escape or somehow be rescued."

What he said was partly to make her sure that it was he who appeared in the darkness. But it was technically true, too. It was within reason to hope for Vale's ultimate safety. One can always hope, whatever the odds against the thing hoped for. But Lockley thought that the odds against Vale's living through the events now in progress were very great indeed.

Jill stepped out into the starlight.

"I wasn't—sure it was you," she said with difficulty. "I saw the things, you know, at a distance. At first I thought they were men. So when I first saw you—dimly—I was afraid."

"I'm sorry I haven't better news," said Lockley.

"It's good news! It's very good news," she insisted as he drew near. "If they've captured him, he'll make them understand that he's a man, and that men are intelligent and not just animals, and that they should be our friends and we theirs."

The girl's voice was resolute. Lockley could imagine that all the time she'd been waiting, she'd been preparing to deny that even the worst news was final, until she looked on Vale's dead body itself.

"Do you want to tell me exactly what you found out?" she asked.

"I'll tell you while I work on the car," said Lockley. "We want to get moving away from here before daybreak."

He went down to the little car, wedged in the saplings it had splintered and broken. He began to clear it so he could lever it back on to the highway. He used a broken sapling, and as he worked he told what had happened, including the three men in the compost pit shell and the dumping of assorted small wild life specimens into it with them.

"But they didn't kill you," said Jill insistently, "and they didn't kill those three, and there were the two others you say got over the paralysis and went back to the camp. Counting you, that's six men they had at their mercy that we know weren't harmed. So why should they have harmed a seventh man?"

Lockley did not answer at once. None of the spared six, he thought, had put up a fight. Only Vale had exchanged blows with the crew of the spaceship. Nobody else had seen them.

"That's right, about Vale," he said after a moment in which he had been busy. "But this doesn't look good!"

He felt under the car. He squeezed himself beneath its front end. There was a small, fugitive flicker of flame. It went out and he was silent.

Presently he got to his feet and said evenly, "We're in a fix. One of the front wheels is turned almost at a right angle to the other. A king pin is broken. The car couldn't be driven even if I managed to get it up on the road. We've got to walk. There ought to be soldiers on the way up to the lake today. If we meet them we'll be all right. But this is bad luck!"

It happened that he was mistaken on both counts. There were no soldiers moving into the park, and it was not bad luck that his car couldn't be driven. If he'd been able to get it on the road and trundling down the highway, the car would have been wrecked and they could very well have been killed. But this was for the future to disclose.

They took nothing from the car because they could not see beyond the present. They started out doggedly to follow the highway that soldiers would be likely to follow on the way to the lake. It was not the shortest way to the world outside the Park. It was considerably longer than a footpath would have been. But Lockley expected tanks, at least, against which eccentric unearthly weapons would be useless. So they headed down the main highway. Lockley was unarmed. They had no food. He hadn't eaten since the morning before.

When day came—gray and still—and presently the dew upon grass and tree leaves glittered reflections of the sky, he moved aside into the woods and found a broken-off branch, out of which by very great effort he made a club. When he came back, Jill was listening attentively to the little pocket radio. She turned it off.

"I was hoping for news," she explained determinedly. "The government knows that there are creatures in the spaceship, and he—" that would be Vale "—will be trying to make them understand what kind of beings we are. So there could be friendly communication almost any time. But there aren't any news broadcasts on the air. I suppose it's too early."

He agreed, with reservations. They made their way along the dew-wetted surface of the highway. As the light grew stronger, Lockley glanced again and again at Jill's face. She looked very tired. He reflected sadly that she was thinking of Vale. She'd never thought twice about Lockley. Even now, or especially now, all her thoughts were for Vale.

When sunlight appeared on the peaks around them, he said detachedly, "You've had no rest for twenty-four hours and I doubt that you've had anything to eat. Neither have I. If troops come up this highway we'll hear the engines. I think we'd better get off the highway and try to rest. And I may be able to find something for us to eat."

There are few wildernesses so desolate as to offer no food at all for one who knows what to look for. There is usually some sort of berry available. One kind of acorn is not bad to eat. Shoots of bracken are not unlike asparagus. There are some spiny wild plants whose leaves, if plucked young enough, will yield some nourishment and of course there are mushrooms. Even on stone one can find liverish rock-tripe which is edible if one dries it to complete dessication before soaking it again to make a soup or broth.

Before he searched for food, though, Lockley said abruptly, "You said you saw the creatures and they weren't men. What did they look like?"

"They were a long way away," Jill told him. "I didn't see them clearly. They're about the size of men but they just aren't men. Far away as they were, I could tell that!"

Lockley considered. He shrugged and said, "Rest. I'll be back."

He moved away. He was hungry and he kept his eyes in motion, looking for something to take back to Jill. But his mind struggled to form a picture of a creature who'd be the size of a man but would be known not to be a man even at a distance; whose difference from mankind couldn't be described because seen at such great distance. Presently he shook his head impatiently and gave all his attention to the search for food.

He found a patch of berries on a hillside where there was enough earth for berry bushes, but not for trees. Bears had been at them, but there were many left.

He filled his hat with them and made his way back to Jill. She had the pocket radio on again, but at the lowest possible volume. He put the berry-filled hat down beside her. She held up a warning hand. Speckles of sunshine trickled down through the foliage and the tree trunks were spotted with yellow light. They ate the berries as they heard the news.

A new official news release was out. And now, twelve hours after the last, wholly reassuring bulletin, there was no longer any pretense that the thing in Boulder Lake was merely a meteorite.

The pretext that it was a natural object, said the news broadcaster, resuming, had been abandoned. But reassurance continued. Photographic planes had been attempting to get a picture of the alien ship as it floated in the lake. So far no satisfactory image had been secured, but pictures of wreckage caused by an enormous wave generated in the lake by the alien spaceship's arrival were sharp and clear. Troops have been posted in a cordon about the Boulder Lake Park area to prevent unauthorized persons from swarming in to see earth's visitors from space. Details of its landing continue to be learned. Workmen from the construction camp have been questioned, and the two men who were paralyzed and then released have told their story. So far four human beings are known to have been seized by the occupants of the spaceship. One is Vale, an eye-witness to the ship's descent and landing. The three others went to investigate the gigantic explosion accompanying the landing in the lake. They have not been seen since. This, however, does not imply that they are dead. Quite possibly the invaders—aliens—guests—who have landed on American soil are trying to learn how to communicate with the American people who are their hosts.

Lockley watched Jill's face. As she heard the references to Vale, she went white, but she saw Lockley looking at her and said fiercely, "They don't know that the visitors didn't kill you and let you and the other three men escape. Someone ought to tell these broadcasters...."

Lockley did not answer. In his own mind, though, there was the fact that of the two workmen who'd been paralyzed and released, the three men in the compost pit shell, and himself, none had seen their captors. But Vale had.

The broadcaster went on with a fine air of confidence, reporting that yesterday afternoon a helicopter had flown into the mountains to examine the landing site in detail since it could not be examined from a high-flying plane.

Lockley remembered the droning he and the others had heard through the metal plates of their prison.

The helicopter had suddenly ceased to communicate. It is believed to have had engine trouble. However, later on a fast jet had attempted a flight below the extreme altitude of the photographic planes. Its pilot reported that at fifteen thousand feet he'd suddenly smelled an appalling odor. Then he was blinded, deafened, and his muscles knotted in spasms. He was paralyzed. The experience lasted for seconds only. It was as if he'd flown into a searchlight beam which produced those sensations and then had flown out of it. He'd instinctively used evasive maneuvers and got away, but twice before he passed the horizon there were instantaneous flashes of the paralysis and the pain. Scientists determined that the report of the men who'd been paralyzed and released agreed with the report of the pilot. It was assumed that whatever or whoever had landed in Boulder Lake possessed a beam—it might as well be called a terror beam because of the effects it had—of some sort of radiation which produced the paralysis and the agony. Unless the three men missing from the construction camp had died of it, however, it was not to be considered a death ray.

The news went on with every appearance of frankness and confidence. It was natural for strangers on a strange planet to take precautions against possibly hostile inhabitants of the newly-found world. But every effort would be exerted to make friendly contact and establish peaceful communications with the beings from space. Their weapon appeared to be of limited range and so far not lethal to human beings. Occasional flashes of its effects had been noted by the troops now forming a cordon about the Park, but it only produced discomfort, not paralysis. Nevertheless the troops in question have been moved back. Meanwhile rocket missiles are being moved to areas where they can deliver atom bombs on the alien ship if it should prove necessary. But the government is extremely anxious to make this contact with extra-terrestrials a friendly one, because contact with a race more advanced than ourselves could be of inestimable value to us. Therefore atom bombs will be used only as a last resort. An atom bomb would destroy aliens and their ship together—and we want the ship. The public is urged to be calm. If the ship should appear dangerous, it can and will be smashed.

The news broadcast ended.

Jill said, obviously speaking of Vale, "He'll make them realize that men aren't like porcupines and rabbits! When they realize that we humans are intelligent people, everything will be all right!"

Lockley said reluctantly, "There's one thing to remember, though, Jill. They didn't blindfold the rabbits or the porcupine. They only blindfolded men."

She stared at him.

"One of the men in the pit with me," said Lockley, "thought they didn't want us to see them because they were monsters. That's not likely." He paused. "Maybe they blindfolded us to keep us from finding out they aren't."



CHAPTER 4

"The evidence," said Lockley as Jill looked at him ashen-faced, "the evidence is all for monsters. But there was something in that broadcast that calls for courage, and I want to summon it. We're going to need it."

"If they aren't monsters," said Jill in a stricken voice, "Then—then they're men. And we have a cold war with only one country, and they're the only ones who'd play a deadly trick like this. So if they aren't monsters, in the ship, they must be men, and they'd kill anybody who found it out."

"But again," insisted Lockley, "the evidence is still all for monsters. You've been very loyal and very confident about Vale. But we're in a fix. Vale would want you in a safe place, and there's something in that broadcast that doesn't look good."

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse