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Title: The Invaders
Author: Leinster, Murray, 1896-1975
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Invaders" ***

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[Illustration]


THE INVADERS

By MURRAY LEINSTER


    _It started in Greece on the day after tomorrow. Before the last act
    raced to a close, Coburn was buried to his ears in assorted
    adventures, including a revolution and an invasion from outer
    space!_

    _We're not given to throwing around the word "epic" lightly, but
    here _is_ one! Swashbuckling action, a great many vivid characters,
    and a weird mystery--all spun for you by one of the master
    story-tellers of our time._


On a certain day--it may be in the history books eventually--Coburn was
in the village of Ardea, north of Salonika in the most rugged part of
Greece. He was making a survey for purposes which later on turned out
not to matter much. The village of Ardea was small, it was very early in
the morning, and he was trying to get his car started when he heard the
yell.

It was a shrill yell, and it traveled fast. Coburn jerked his head
upright from the hood of the car. A whiskered villager with flapping
trousers came pounding up the single street. His eyes were
panic-stricken and his mouth was wide. He emitted the yell in a long,
sustained note. Other villagers popped into view like ants from a
disturbed ant-hill. Some instantly ran back into their houses. Others
began to run toward the outskirts of the village, toward the south.

Coburn, watching blankly, found himself astonished at the number of
people the village contained. He hadn't dreamed it was so populous. All
were in instant frenzied flight toward the mountains. An old woman he'd
seen barely hobbling, now ran like a deer. Children toddled desperately.
Adults snatched them up and ran. Larger children fled on twinkling legs.
The inhabitants of Ardea vanished toward the hills in a straggling,
racing, panting stream. They disappeared around an outcrop of stone
which was merely the nearest place that would hide them. Then there was
silence.

Coburn turned his head blankly in the direction from which they had run.
He saw the mountains--incredibly stony and barren. That was all. No, not
quite--there was something far away which was subtly different in color
from the hillsides. It moved. It flowed over a hill crest, coming
plainly from somewhere beyond the mountains. It was vague in shape.
Coburn felt a momentary stirring of superstition. There simply couldn't
be anything so huge....

But there could. There was. It was a column of soldiers in uniforms that
looked dark-gray at this distance. It flowed slowly out of the mountains
like a colossal snake--some Midgard monster or river of destruction. It
moved with an awful, deliberate steadiness toward the village of Ardea.

Coburn caught his breath. Then he was running too. He was out of the
village almost before he realized it. He did not try to follow the
villagers. He might lead pursuers after them. There was a narrow defile
nearby. Tanks could hardly follow it, and it did not lead where they
would be going. He plunged into it and was instantly hidden. He pelted
on. It was a trail from somewhere, because he saw ancient
donkey-droppings on the stones, but he did not know where it led. He
simply ran to get away from the village and the soldiers who were coming
toward it.

This was Greece. They were Bulgarian soldiers. This was not war or even
invasion. This was worse--a cold-war raid. He kept running and presently
rocky cliffs overhung him on one side, a vast expanse of sky loomed to
his left. He found himself panting. He began to hope that he was
actually safe.

Then he heard a voice. It sounded vexed. Quite incredibly, it was
talking English. "But my dear young lady!" it said severely. "You simply
mustn't go on! There's the very devil of a mess turning up, and you
mustn't run into it!"

A girl's voice answered, also in English. "I'm sure--I don't know what
you're talking about!"

"I'm afraid I can't explain. But, truly, you mustn't go on to the
village!"

Coburn pushed ahead. He came upon the people who had spoken. There was a
girl riding on a donkey. She was American. Trim. Neat. Uneasy, but
reasonably self-confident. And there was a man standing by the trail,
with a slide of earth behind him and mud on his boots as if he'd slid
down somewhere very fast to intercept this girl. He wore the distinctive
costume a British correspondent is apt to affect in the wilds.

They turned as Coburn came into view. The girl goggled at him. He was
not exactly the sort of third person one expected to find on a very
lonely, ill-defined rocky trail many miles north of Salonika.

When they turned to him, Coburn recognized the man. He'd met Dillon once
or twice in Salonika. He panted: "Dillon! There's a column of soldiers
headed across the border! Bulgarians!"

"How close?" asked Dillon.

"They're coming," said Coburn, with some difficulty due to lack of
breath. "I saw them across the valley. Everybody's run away from the
village. I was the last one out."

Dillon nodded composedly. He looked intently at Coburn. "You know me,"
he said reservedly. "Should I remember you?"

"I've met you once or twice," Coburn told him. "In Salonika."

"Oh," said Dillon. "Oh, yes. Sorry. I've got some cameras up yonder. I
want a picture or two of those Bulgarians. See if you can persuade this
young lady not to go on. I fancy it's safe enough here. Not a normal
raid route through this pass."

Coburn nodded. Dillon expected the raid, evidently. This sort of thing
had happened in Turkey. Now it would start up here, in Greece. The
soldiers would strike fast and far, at first. They wouldn't stop to hunt
down the local inhabitants. Not yet.

"We'll wait," said Coburn. "You'll be back?"

"Oh, surely!" said Dillon. "Five minutes or less."

He started up the precipitous wall, at whose bottom he had slid down. He
climbed remarkably well. He went up hand-over-hand despite the steepness
of the stone. It looked almost impossible, but Dillon apparently found
handgrips by instinct, as a good climber does. In a matter of minutes
he vanished, some fifty feet up, behind a bulging mass of stone. He did
not reappear.

       *       *       *       *       *

Coburn began to get his breath back. The girl looked at him, her
forehead creased.

"Just to make sure," said Coburn, "I'll see if I can get a view back
down the trail."

Where the vastness of the sky showed, he might be able to look down. He
scrambled up a barrier two man-heights high. There was a screen of
straggly brush, with emptiness beyond. He peered.

He could see a long way down and behind, and actually the village was
clearly in sight from here. There were rumbling, caterpillar-tread tanks
in the act of entering it. There were anachronistic mounted men with
them. Cavalry is outdated, nowadays, but in rocky mountain country they
can have uses where tanks can't go. But here tanks and cavalry looked
grim. Coburn squirmed back and beckoned to the girl. She joined him.
They peered through the brushwood together.

The light tanks were scurrying along the single village street. Horsemen
raced here and there. A pig squealed. There was a shot. The tanks
emerged from the other side. They went crawling swiftly toward the
south. But they did not turn aside where the villagers had. They headed
along the way Coburn had driven to Ardea.

[Illustration]

Infantrymen appeared, marching into the village. An advance party,
rifles ready. This was strict discipline and standard military practise.
Horsemen rode to tell them that all was quiet. They turned and spurred
away after the tanks.

The girl said in a strained voice. "This is war starting! Invasion!"

Coburn said coldly, "No. No planes. This isn't war. It's a training
exercise, Iron-Curtain style. This outfit will strike twenty--maybe
thirty miles south. There's a town there--Kilkis. They'll take it and
loot it. By the time Athens finds out what's happened, they'll be ready
to fall back. They'll do a little fighting. They'll carry off the
people. And they'll deny everything. The West doesn't want war. Greece
couldn't fight by herself. And America wouldn't believe that such things
could happen. But they do. It's what's called cold war. Ever hear of
that?"

The main column of soldiers far below poured up to the village and went
down the straggly street in a tide of dark figures. The village was very
small. The soldiers came out of the other end of the village. They
poured on after the tanks, rippling over irregularities in the way.
They seemed innumerable.

"Three or four thousand men," said Coburn coldly. "This is a big raid.
But it's not war. Not yet."

It was not the time for full-scale war. Bulgaria and the other countries
in its satellite status were under orders to put a strain upon the
outside world. They were building up border incidents and turmoil for
the benefit of their masters. Turkey was on a war footing, after a
number of incidents like this. Indo-China was at war. Korea was an old
story. Now Greece. It always takes more men to guard against criminal
actions than to commit them. When this raid was over Greece would have
to maintain a full-size army in its northern mountains to guard against
its repetition. Which would be a strain on its treasury and might help
toward bankruptcy. This was cold war.

The infantry ended. Horse-drawn vehicles appeared in a seemingly endless
line. Motorized transport would be better, but the Bulgarians were short
of it. Shaggy, stubby animals plodded in the wake of the tanks and the
infantry. There were two-wheeled carts in single file all across the
valley. They went through the village and filed after the soldiers.

"I think," said Coburn in biting anger, "this will be all there is to
see. They'll go in until they're stopped. They'll kidnap Greek civilians
and later work them to death in labor camps. They'll carry off some
children to raise as spies. But their purpose is probably only to make
such a threat that the Greeks will go broke guarding against them. They
know the Greeks don't want war."

He began to wriggle back from the brushwood screen. He was filled with
the sort of sick rage that comes when you can't actively resent
insolence and arrogance. He hated the people who wanted the world to
collapse, and this was part of their effort to bring it about.

He helped the girl down. "Dillon said to wait," he said. He found
himself shaking with anger at the men who had ordered the troops to
march. "He said he was taking pictures. He must have had an advance tip
of some sort. If so, he'll have a line of retreat."

Then Coburn frowned. Not quite plausible, come to think of it. But
Dillon had certainly known about the raid. He was set to take pictures,
and he hadn't been surprised. One would have expected Greek Army
photographers on hand to take pictures of a raid of which they had
warning. Probably United Nations observers on the scene, too. Yes. There
should be Army men and probably a United Nations team up where Dillon
was.

Coburn explained to the girl. "That'll be it. And they'll have a radio,
too. Probably helicopters taking them out also. I'll go up and tell them
to be sure and have room for you."

He started for the cliff he'd seen Dillon climb. He paused: "I'd better
have your name for them to report to Athens."

"I'm Janice Ames," she told him. "The Breen Foundation has me going
around arranging for lessons for the people up here. Sanitation and
nutrition and midwifery, and so on. The Foundation office is in
Salonika, though."

He nodded and attacked the cliff.

       *       *       *       *       *

It hadn't been a difficult climb for Dillon. It wasn't even a long one
for Coburn, but it was much worse than he'd thought. The crevices for
handholds were rare, and footholds were almost non-existent. There were
times when he felt he was holding on by his fingernails. Dillon seemed
to have made it with perfect ease, but Coburn found it exhausting.

Fifty feet up he came to the place where Dillon had vanished. But it was
a preposterously difficult task to get across an undercut to where he
could grasp a stunted tree. It was a strain to scramble up past it. Then
he found himself on the narrowest of possible ledges, with a sickening
drop off to one side. But Dillon had made it, so he followed.

He went a hundred yards, and then the ledge came to an end. He saw where
Dillon must have climbed. It was possible, but Coburn violently did not
want to try. Still ... He started.

Then something clicked in his throat. There was a rather deep ledge for
a space of four or five feet. And there was Dillon. No, not Dillon. Just
Dillon's clothes. They lay flat and deflated, but laid out in one
assembly beside a starveling twisted bush. It would have been possible
for a man to stand there to take off his clothes, if he wanted to. But a
man who takes off his clothes--and why should Dillon do that?--takes
them off one by one. These garments were fitted together. The coat was
over the shirt, and the trousers fitted to the bottom of the shirt over
the coat, and the boots were at the ends of the trouser legs.

Then Coburn saw something he did not believe. It palpably was not true.
He saw a hand sticking out of the end of the sleeve. But it was not a
hand, because it had collapsed. It was rather like an unusually thick
glove, flesh color.

Then he saw what should have been Dillon's head. And it was in place,
too. But it was not Dillon's head. It was not a head at all. It was
something quite different. There were no eyes. Merely holes. Openings.
Like a mask.

Coburn felt a sort of roaring in his ears, and he could not think
clearly for a moment because of the shrieking impossibility of what he
was looking at. Dillon's necktie had been very neatly untied, and left
in place in his collar. His shirt had been precisely unbuttoned. He had
plainly done it himself. And then--the unbuttoned shirt made it
clear--he had come out of his body. Physically, he had emerged and gone
on. The thing lying flat that had lapsed at Coburn's feet was Dillon's
outside. His outside only. The inside had come out and gone away. It had
climbed the cliff over Coburn's head.

The outside of Dillon looked remarkably like something made out of
foam-rubber. Coburn touched it, insanely.

He heard his own voice saying flatly: "It's a sort of suit. A suit that
looks like Dillon. He was in it. Something was! Something is playing the
part of Dillon. Maybe it always was. Maybe there isn't any Dillon."

He felt a sort of hysterical composure. He opened the chest. It was
patently artificial. There were such details on the inside as would be
imagined in a container needed to fit something snugly. At the edges of
the opening there were fastenings like the teeth of a zipper, but
somehow different. Coburn knew that when this was fastened there would
be no visible seam.

Whatever wore this suit-that-looked-like-Dillon could feel perfectly
confident of passing for Dillon, clothed or otherwise. It could pass
without any question for--

Coburn gagged.

_It could pass without question for a human being._

Obviously, whatever was wearing this foam-rubber replica of Dillon was
not human!

Coburn went back to where he had to climb down the cliffside again. He
moved like a sleep-walker. He descended the fifty-foot cliff by the
crevices and the single protruding rock-point that had helped him get
up. It was much easier going down. In his state of mind it was also more
dangerous. He moved in a sort of robot-like composure.

He moved toward the girl, trying to make words come out of his throat,
when a small rock came clattering down the cliff. He looked up. Dillon
was in the act of swinging to the first part of the descent. He came
down, very confident and assured. He had two camera-cases slung from his
shoulders. Coburn stared at him, utterly unable to believe what he'd
seen ten minutes before.

Dillon reached solid ground and turned. He smiled wryly. His shirt was
buttoned. His tie was tied.

"I hoped," he said ruefully to Janice Ames, "that the Bulgars would
toddle off. But they left a guard in the village. We can't hope to take
an easier trail. We'll have to go back the way you came. We'll get you
safe to Salonika, though."

The girl smiled, uneasily but gratefully.

"And," added Dillon, "we'd better get started."

He gallantly helped the girl remount her donkey. At the sight, Coburn
was shaken out of his numbness. He moved fiercely to intervene. But
Janice settled herself in the saddle and Dillon confidently led the way.
Coburn grimly walked beside her as she rode. He was convinced that he
wouldn't leave her side while Dillon was around. But even as he knew
that desperate certitude, he was filled with confusion and a panicky
uncertainty.

When they'd traveled about half a mile, another frightening thought
occurred to Coburn. Perhaps Dillon--passing for human--wasn't alone.
Perhaps there were thousands like him.

Invaders! Usurpers, pretending to be men. Invaders, obviously, from
space!


II

They made eight miles. At least one mile of that, added together, was
climbing straight up. Another mile was straight down. The rest was
boulder-strewn, twisting, donkey-wide, slanting, slippery stone. But
there was no sign of anyone but themselves. The sky remained
undisturbed. No planes. They saw no sign of the raiding force from
across the border, and they heard no gunfire.

Coburn struggled against the stark impossibility of what he had seen.
The most horrifying concept regarding invasion from space is that of
creatures who are able to destroy or subjugate humanity. A part of that
concept was in Coburn's mind now. Dillon marched on ahead, in every way
convincingly human. But he wasn't. And to Coburn, his presence as a
non-human invader of Earth made the border-crossing by the Bulgarians
seem almost benevolent.

They went on. The next hill was long and steep. Then they were at the
hill crest. They looked down into a village called Náousa. It was larger
than Ardea, but not much larger. One of the houses burned untended.
Figures moved about. There were tanks in sight, and many soldiers in the
uniform that looked dark-gray at a distance. The route by which Dillon
had traveled had plainly curved into the line-of-march of the Bulgarian
raiding force.

But the moving figures were not soldiers. The soldiers were still. They
lay down on the grass in irregular, sprawling windrows. The tanks were
not in motion. There were two-wheeled carts in sight--reaching back
along the invasion-route--and they were just as stationary as the men
and the tanks. The horses had toppled in their shafts. They were
motionless.

The movement was of civilians--men and women alike. They were Greek
villagers, and they moved freely among the unmilitarily recumbent
troops, and even from this distance their occupation was clear. They
were happily picking the soldiers' pockets. But there was one figure
which moved from one prone figure to another much too quickly to be
looting. Coburn saw sunlight glitter on something in his hand.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dillon noticed the same thing Coburn did at the same instant. He bounded
forward. He ran toward the village and its tumbled soldiers in great,
impossible leaps. No man could make such leaps or travel so fast. He
seemed almost to soar toward the village, shouting. Coburn and Janice
saw him reach the village. They saw him rush toward the one man who had
been going swiftly from one prone soldier to another. It was too far to
see Dillon's action, but the sunlight glittered again on something
bright, which this time flew through the air and dropped to the ground.

The villagers grouped about Dillon. There was no sign of a struggle.

"What's happened?" demanded Janice uneasily. "Those are soldiers on the
ground."

Coburn's fright prevented his caution. He shouted furiously. "He's not a
man! You saw it! No man can run so fast! You saw those jumps! He's not
human! He's--something else!"

Janice jerked her eyes to Coburn in panic. "What did you say?"

Coburn panted: "Dillon's no man! He's a monster from somewhere in space!
And he and his kind have killed those soldiers! Murdered them! And the
soldiers are men! You stay here. I'll go down there and--"

"No!" said Janice, "I'm coming too."

He took the donkey's halter and led the animal down to the village, with
Janice trembling a little in the saddle. He talked in a tight, taut,
hysterical tone. He told what he'd found up on the cliffside. He
described in detail the similitude of a man's body he'd found deflated
beside a stunted bush.

He did not look at Janice as he talked. He moved doggedly toward the
village, dragging at the donkey's head. They neared the houses very
slowly, and Coburn considered that he walked into the probability of a
group of other creatures from unthinkable other star systems, disguised
as men. It did not occur to him that his sudden outburst about Dillon
sounded desperately insane to Janice.

       *       *       *       *       *

They reached the first of the fallen soldiers. Janice looked,
shuddering. Then she said thinly: "He's breathing!"

He was. He was merely a boy. Twenty or thereabouts. He lay on his back,
his eyes closed. His face was upturned like a dead man's. But his breast
rose and fell rhythmically. He slept as if he were drugged.

But that was more incredible than if he'd been dead. Regiments of men
fallen simultaneously asleep....

Coburn's flow of raging speech stopped short. He stared. He saw other
fallen soldiers. Dozens of them. In coma-like slumber, the soldiers who
had come to loot and murder lay like straws upon the ground. If they had
been dead it would have been more believable. At least there are ways to
kill men. But this ...

Dillon parted the group of villagers about him and came toward Coburn
and Janice. He was frowning in a remarkably human fashion.

"Here's a mess!" he said irritably. "Those Bulgars came marching down
out of the pass. The cavalry galloped on ahead and cut the villagers off
so they couldn't run away. They started to loot the village. They
weren't pleasant. Women began to scream, and there were shootings--all
in a matter of minutes. And then the looters began to act strangely.
They staggered around and sat down and went to sleep!"

He waved his hands in a helpless gesture, but Coburn was not deceived.

"The tanks arrived. And they stopped--and their crews went to sleep!
Then the infantry appeared, staggering as it marched. The officers
halted to see what was happening ahead, and the entire infantry dropped
off to sleep right where it stood!

"It's bad! If it had happened a mile or so back ... The Greeks must have
played a trick on them, but those cavalrymen raised the devil in the few
minutes they were out of hand! They killed some villagers and then
keeled over. And now the villagers aren't pleased. There was one man
whose son was murdered, and he's been slitting the Bulgars' throats!"

He looked at Coburn, and Coburn said in a grating voice: "I see."

Dillon said distressedly: "One can't let them slit the throats of
sleeping men! I'll have to stay here to keep them from going at it
again. I say, Coburn, will you take one of their staff cars and run on
down somewhere and tell the Greek government what's happened here?
Something should be done about it! Soldiers should come to keep order
and take charge of these chaps."

"Yes," said Coburn. "I'll do it. I'll take Janice along, too."

"Splendid!" Dillon nodded as if in relief. "She'd better get out of the
mess entirely. I fancy there'd have been a full-scale massacre if we
hadn't come along. The Greeks have no reason to love these chaps, and
their intentions were hardly amiable. But one can't let them be
murdered!"

Coburn had his hand on his revolver in his pocket. His finger was on the
trigger. But if Dillon needed him to run an errand, then there obviously
were no others of his own kind about.

Dillon turned his back. He gave orders in the barbarous dialect of the
mountains. His voice was authoritative. Men obeyed him and dragged
uniformed figures out of a light half-track that was plainly a staff
car. Dillon beckoned, and Coburn moved toward him. The important thing
as far as Coburn was concerned was to get Janice to safety. Then to
report the full event.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I ... I'm not sure ..." began Janice, her voice shaking.

"I'll prove what I said," raged Coburn in a low tone. "I'm not crazy,
though I feel like it!"

Dillon beckoned again. Janice slipped off the donkey's back. She looked
pitifully frightened and irresolute.

"I've located the chap who's the mayor of this village, or something
like that. Take him along. They might not believe you, but they'll have
to investigate when he turns up."

A white-bearded villager reluctantly climbed into the back of the car.
Dillon pleasantly offered to assist Janice into the front seat. She
climbed in, deathly white, frightened of Coburn and almost ashamed to
admit that his vehement outburst had made her afraid of Dillon, too.

Dillon came around to Coburn's side of the vehicle. "Privately," he said
with a confidential air, "I'd advise you to dump this mayor person where
he can reach authority, and then go away quietly and say nothing of what
happened up here. If the Greeks are using some contrivance that handles
an affair like this, it will be top secret. They won't like civilians
knowing about it."

Coburn's grip on his revolver was savage. It seemed likely, now, that
Dillon was the only one of his extraordinary kind about.

"I think I know why you say that," he said harshly.

Dillon smiled. "Oh, come now!" he protested. "I'm quite unofficial!"

He was incredibly convincing at that moment. There was a wry half-smile
on his face. He looked absolutely human; absolutely like the British
correspondent Coburn had met in Salonika. He was too convincing. Coburn
knew he would suspect his own sanity unless he made sure.

"You're not only unofficial," said Coburn grimly. His hand came up over
the edge of the staff-car door. It had his revolver in it. It bore
inexorably upon the very middle of Dillon's body. "You're not human,
either! You're not a man! Your name isn't Dillon! You're--something I
haven't a word for! But if you try anything fancy I'll see if a bullet
through your middle will stop you!"

Dillon did not move. He said easily: "You're being absurd, my dear
fellow. Put away that pistol."

"You slipped!" said Coburn thickly. "You said the Greeks played a trick
on this raiding party. But you played it. At Ardea, when you climbed
that cliff--no man could climb so fast. No man could run as you ran down
into this village. And I saw that body you're wearing when you weren't
in it! I followed you up the cliff when--" Coburn's voice was ragingly
sarcastic--"when you were taking pictures!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Dillon's face went impassive. Then he said: "Well?"

"Will you let me scratch your finger?" demanded Coburn almost
hysterically. "If it bleeds, I'll apologize and freely admit I'm crazy!
But if it doesn't ..."

The thing-that-was-not-Dillon raised its eyebrows. "It wouldn't," it
said coolly. "You do know. What follows?"

"You're something from space," accused Coburn, "sneaking around Earth
trying to find out how to conquer us! You're an Invader! You're trying
out weapons. And you want me to keep my mouth shut so we Earth people
won't patch up our own quarrels and join forces to hunt you down! But
we'll do it! We'll do it!"

The thing-that-was-not-Dillon said gently: "No. My dear chap, no one
will believe you."

"We'll see about that!" snapped Coburn. "Put those cameras in the car!"

The figure that looked so human hesitated a long instant, then obeyed.
It lowered the two seeming cameras into the back part of the staff car.

Janice started to say, "I ... I ..."

The pseudo-Dillon smiled at her. "You think he's insane, and naturally
you're scared," it said reassuringly. "But he's sane. He's quite right.
I am from outer space. And I'm not humoring him either. Look!"

He took a knife from his pocket and snapped it open. He deliberately ran
the point down the side of one of his fingers.

The skin parted. Something that looked exactly like foam-rubber was
revealed. There were even bubbles in it.

The pseudo-Dillon said, "You see, you don't have to be afraid of him.
He's sane, and quite human. You'll feel much better traveling with him."
Then the figure turned to Coburn. "You won't believe it, but I really
like you, Coburn. I like the way you've reacted. It's very ... human."

Coburn said to him: "It'll be human, too, when we start to hunt you
down!" He let the staff car in gear. Dillon smiled at him. He let in the
clutch, and the car leaped ahead.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the two camera-cases Coburn was sure that he had the cryptic device
that was responsible for the failure of a cold-war raid. He wouldn't
have dared drive away from Dillon leaving these devices behind. If they
were what he thought, they'd be absolute proof of the truth of his
story, and they should furnish clues to the sort of science the Invaders
possessed. Show the world that Invaders were upon it, and all the world
would combine to defend Earth. The cold war would end.

But a bitter doubt came to him. Would they? Or would they offer
zestfully to be viceroys and overseers for the Invaders, betraying the
rest of mankind for the privilege of ruling them even under unhuman
masters?

Janice swayed against his shoulder. He cast a swift glance at her. Her
face was like marble.

"What's the matter?"

She shook her head. "I'm trying not to faint," she said unsteadily.
"When you told me he was from another world I ... thought you were
crazy. But when he admitted it ... when he proved it ..."

Coburn growled. The trail twisted and dived down a steep slope. It
twisted again and ran across a rushing, frothing stream. Coburn drove
into the rivulet. Water reared up in wing-like sheets on either side.
The staff car climbed out, rocking, on the farther side. Coburn put it
to the ascent beyond. The trail turned and climbed and descended as the
stony masses of the hills required.

"He's--from another world!" repeated Janice. Her teeth chattered. "What
do they want--creatures like him? How--how many of them are there?
Anybody could be one of them! What do they want?"

"This is a pretty good world," said Coburn fiercely. "And his kind will
want it. We're merely the natives, the aborigines, to them. Maybe they
plan to wipe us out, or enslave us. But they won't! We can spot them
now! They don't bleed. Scratch one and you find--foam-rubber. X-rays
will spot them. We'll learn to pick them out--and when some specialists
look over those things that look like cameras we'll know more still!
Enough to do something!"

"Then you think it's an invasion from space?"

"What else?" snapped Coburn.

His stomach was a tight cramped knot now. He drove the car hard!

       *       *       *       *       *

In air miles the distance to be covered was relatively short. In road
miles it seemed interminable. The road was bad and curving beyond
belief. It went many miles east and many miles west for every mile of
southward gain. The hour grew late. Coburn had fled Ardea at sunrise,
but they'd reached Náousa after midday and he drove frantically over
incredible mountain roads until dusk. Despite sheer recklessness,
however, he could not average thirty miles an hour. There were times
when even the half-track had to crawl or it would overturn. The sun set,
and he went on up steep grades and down steeper ones in the twilight.
Night fell and the headlights glared ahead, and the staff car clanked
and clanked and grumbled and roared on through the darkness.

They probably passed through villages--the headlights showed stone
hovels once or twice--but no lights appeared. It was midnight before
they saw a moving yellow spot of brightness with a glare as of fire upon
steam above it. There were other small lights in a row behind it, and
they saw that all the lights moved.

"A railroad!" said Coburn. "We're getting somewhere!"

It was a railroad train on the other side of a valley, but they did not
reach the track. The highway curved away from it.

At two o'clock in the morning they saw electric lights. The highway
became suddenly passable. Presently they ran into the still, silent
streets of a slumbering town--Serrai--an administrative center for this
part of Greece. They threaded its ways while Coburn watched for a proper
place to stop. Once a curiously-hatted policeman stared blankly at them
under an arc lamp as the staff car clanked and rumbled past him. They
saw a great pile of stone which was a church. They saw a railroad
station.

Not far away there was a building in which there were lights. A man in
uniform came out of its door.

Coburn stopped a block away. There were uneasy stirrings, and the
white-bearded passenger from the village said incomprehensible things in
a feeble voice. Coburn got Janice out of the car first. She was stiff
and dizzy when she tried to walk. The Greek was in worse condition
still. He clung to the side of the staff car.

"We tell the truth," said Coburn curtly, "when we talk to the police. We
tell the whole truth--except about Dillon. That sounds too crazy. We
tell it to top-level officials only, after they realize that something
they don't know anything about has really taken place. Talk of Invaders
from space would either get us locked up as lunatics or would create a
panic. This man will tell what happened up there, and they'll
investigate. But we take these so-called cameras to Salonika, and get to
an American battleship."

He lifted Dillon's two cameras by the carrying-straps. And the straps
pulled free. They'd held the cases safely enough during a long journey
on foot across the mountains. But they pulled clear now.

Coburn had a bitter thought. He struck a match. He saw the leather cases
on the floor of the staff car. He picked up one of them. He took it to
the light of the headlights, standing there in the resonant darkness of
a street in a city of stone houses.

       *       *       *       *       *

The leather was brittle. It was friable, as if it had been in a fire.
Coburn plucked it open, and it came apart in his hands. Inside there was
the smell of scorched things. There was a gritty metallic powder.
Nothing else. The other carrying-case was in exactly the same condition.

Coburn muttered bitterly: "They were set to destroy themselves if they
got into other hands than Dillon's. We haven't a bit of proof that he
wasn't a human being. Not a shred of proof!"

He suddenly felt a sick rage, as if he had been played with and mocked.
The raid from Bulgaria was serious enough, of course. It would have
killed hundreds of people and possibly hundreds of others would have
been enslaved. But even that was secondary in Coburn's mind. The
important thing was that there were Invaders upon Earth. Non-human
monsters, who passed for humans through disguise. They had been able to
travel through space to land secretly upon Earth. They moved unknown
among men, learning the secrets of mankind, preparing for--what?


III

They got into Salonika early afternoon of the next day, after many hours
upon an antique railroad train that puffed and grunted and groaned among
interminable mountains. Coburn got a taxi to take Janice to the office
of the Breen Foundation which had sent her up to the north of Greece to
establish its philanthropic instruction courses. He hadn't much to say
to Janice as they rode. He was too disheartened.

In the cab, though, he saw great placards on which newspaper headlines
appeared in Greek. He could make out the gist of them. Essentially, they
shrieked that Bulgarians had invaded Greece and had been wiped out. He
made out the phrase for valiant Greek army. And the Greek army was
valiant enough, but it hadn't had anything to do with this.

From the police station in Serrai--he had been interviewed there until
dawn--he knew what action had been taken. Army planes had flown
northward in the darkness, moved by the Mayor's, and Coburn's, and
Janice's tale of Bulgarian soldiers on Greek soil, sleeping soundly.
They had released parachute flares and located the village of Náousa.
Parachutists with field radios had jumped, while other flares burned to
light them to the ground. That was that. Judging by the placards, their
reports had borne out the story Coburn had brought down. There would be
a motorized Greek division on the way to take charge of the
four-thousand-odd unconscious raiders. There was probably an advance
guard there now.

But there was no official news. Even the Greek newspapers called it
rumors. Actually, it was leaked information. It would be reasonable for
the Greek government to let it leak, look smug, and blandly say "No
comment" to all inquiries, including those from Bulgaria.

But behind that appearance of complacency, the Greek government would be
going quietly mad trying to understand what so fortunately had happened.
And Coburn could tell them. But he knew better than to try without some
sort of proof. Yet, he had to tell. The facts were more important than
what people thought of him.

The cab stopped before his own office. He paid the driver. The driver
beamed and said happily: "_Tys nikisame, é?_"

Coburn said, "_Poly kala. Orea._"

       *       *       *       *       *

His office was empty. It was dustier than usual. His secretary was
probably taking a holiday since he was supposed to be out of town. He
grunted and sat down at the telephone. He called a man he knew.
Hallen--another American--was attached to a non-profit corporation which
was attached to an agency which was supposed to coöperate with a
committee which had something to do with NATO. Hallen answered the phone
in person.

Coburn identified himself. "Have you heard any rumors about a Bulgarian
raid up-country?" he asked.

"I haven't heard anything else since I got up," Hallen told him.

"I was there," said Coburn. "I brought the news down. Can you come
over?"

"I'm halfway there now!" said Hallen as he slammed down the phone.

Coburn paced up and down his office. It was very dusty. Even the seat of
the chair at his secretary's desk was dusty. The odds were that she was
coming in only to sort the mail, and not even sitting down for that. He
shrugged.

He heard footsteps. The door opened. His secretary, Helena, came in. She
looked surprised.

"I was at lunch," she explained. She had a very slight accent. She hung
up her coat. "I am sorry. I stopped at a store."

He had paused in his pacing to nod at her. Now he stared, but her back
was turned toward him. He blinked. She had just told a very transparent
lie. And Helena was normally very truthful.

"You had a good trip?" she asked politely.

"Fair," said Coburn. "Any phone calls this morning?" he asked.

"Not this morning," she said politely.

She reached in a desk drawer. She brought out paper. She put it in the
typewriter and began to type.

Coburn felt very queer. Then he saw something else. There was a fly in
the office--a large, green-bodied fly of metallic lustre. The
inhabitants of Salonika said with morbid pride that it was a specialty
of the town, with the most painful of all known fly stings. And Helena
abhorred flies.

It landed on the bare skin of her neck. She did not notice. It stayed
there. Ordinarily she would have jumped up, exclaiming angrily in Greek,
and then she would have pursued the fly vengefully with a folded
newspaper until she killed it. But now she ignored it.

Hallen came in, stamping. Coburn closed the door behind him. He felt
queer at the pit of his stomach. For Helena to let a fly stay on her
neck suggested that her skin was ... somehow not like its usual self.

"What happened to those Bulgarians?" demanded Hallen.

Coburn told him precisely what he'd seen when he arrived in Náousa after
an eight-mile hike through mountains. Then he went back and told Hallen
precisely what he'd seen up on the cliffside.

"His cameras were some sort of weapon. He played it on the marching
column, it took effect and they went to sleep," he finished. "I took
them away from him and brought them down, but--"

He told about the contents of the camera cases being turned to a gritty,
sooty powder. Then he added: "Dillon set them to destroy themselves. You
understand. He's not a man. He's a creature from some planet other than
Earth, passing for a human being. He's an Invader from space."

Hallen's expression was uneasy and compassionate but utterly
unbelieving. Helena shivered and turned away her face. Coburn's lips
went taut. He reached down to his desk. He made a sudden, abrupt
gesture. Hallen caught his breath and started up.

       *       *       *       *       *

Coburn said curtly: "Another one of them. Helena, is that foam-suit
comfortable?"

The girl jerked her face around. She looked frightened.

"Helena," said Coburn, "the real Helena, that is, would not sit down on
a dusty chair. No woman would. But you did. She is a very truthful girl.
You lied to me. And I just stuck pins in your shoulder and you didn't
notice. They're sticking in your foam suit now. You and the creature
that passed for Dillon up-country are both aliens. Invaders. Do you want
to try to convince me otherwise?"

The girl said evenly: "Mr. Coburn, I do not think you are well--"

Then Coburn said thickly: "I'm crazy enough to put a bullet through you
if your gang of devils has harmed the real Helena. What's happened to
her?"

Hallen moved irresolutely to interfere. But the girl's expression
changed. She smiled. "The real Helena, Mr. Coburn," said an entirely new
voice, "has gone to the suburbs to visit her fiancé's family. She is
quite safe."

There was dead silence. The figure--it even moved like Helena--got
composedly to its feet. It got its coat. It put the coat on. Hallen
stared with his mouth open. The pins hadn't convinced him, but the
utterly different voice coming from this girl's mouth had. Yet, waves of
conflicting disbelief and conviction, horror and a racking doubt, chased
themselves over his features.

"She admits she's not Helena!" said Coburn with loathing. "It's not
human! Should I shoot it?"

The girl smiled at him again. Her eyes were very bright. "You will not,
Mr. Coburn. And you will not even try to keep me prisoner to prove your
story. If I screamed that you attack me--" the smile widened--"Helena's
good Greek friends would come to my assistance."

She walked confidently to the door and opened it. Then she said warmly:
"You are very intelligent, Mr. Coburn. We approve of you very much. But
nobody will believe you."

The office door closed.

Coburn turned stiffly to the man he'd called to hear him. "Should I have
shot her, Hallen?"

Hallen sat down as if his knees had given way beneath him. After a long
time he got out a handkerchief and painfully mopped his face. At the
same time he shivered.

"N-no...." Then he swallowed. "My God, Coburn! It's true!"

"Yes," said Coburn bitterly, "or you're as crazy as I am."

Hallen's eyes looked haunted. "I--I ..." He swallowed again. "There's no
question about the Bulgarian business. That did happen! And you were
there. And--there've been other things.... Rumors.... Reports that
nobody believed.... I might be able to get somebody to listen...." He
shivered again. "If it's true, it's the most terrible thing that ever
happened. Invaders from space.... Where do you think they came from,
Coburn?"

"The creature that looked like Dillon could climb incredibly fast. I saw
it run and leap. Nothing on Earth could run or leap like that." Coburn
shrugged. "Maybe a planet of another sun, with a monstrous gravity."

"Try to get somebody to believe that, eh?" Hallen got painfully to his
feet. "I'll see what I can do. I ... don't know that I can do anything
but get myself locked up for observation. But I'll call you in an hour."

He went unsteadily out of the door. Coburn instantly called the Breen
Foundation on the telephone. He'd left Janice there less than an hour
before. She came to the phone and gasped when she heard his voice.
Raging, he told her of Helena, then cautioned her to be especially
careful--to be suspicious of everybody.

"Don't take anybody's word!" snapped Coburn. "Doubt everybody! Doubt me!
Until you're absolutely certain. Those creatures are everywhere.... They
may pretend to be anybody!"

After Coburn hung up on Janice, he sat back and tried to think
logically. There had to be some way by which an extra-terrestrial
Invader could be told instantly from a human being. Unmask and prove
even one such creature, and the whole story would be proved. But how
detect them? Their skin was perfectly deceptive. Scratched, of course,
they could be caught. But one couldn't go around scratching people.
There was nothing of the alien creature's own actual form that showed.

Then Coburn remembered the Dillon foam suit. The head had been hollow.
Flaccid. Holes instead of eyes. The creature's own eyes showed through.

But he'd have to make certain. He'd have to look at a foam-suited
creature. He could have examined Helena's eyes, but she was gone now.
However, there was an alternative. There was a Dillon in Salonika, as
there was a Helena. If the Dillon in Salonika was the real Dillon--if
there were a real Dillon--he could look at his eyes. He could tell if he
were the false Dillon or the real one.

       *       *       *       *       *

At this hour of the afternoon a Britisher would consider tea a
necessity. There was only one place in Salonika where they served tea
that an Englishman would consider drinkable. Coburn got into a cab and
gave the driver the address, and made sure of the revolver in his
pocket. He was frightened. He was either going to meet with a monster
from outer space, or be on the way to making so colossal a fool of
himself that a mental asylum would yawn for him.

He went into the one coffee-shop in Salonika which served drinkable tea.
It was dark and dingy inside, though the tablecloths were spotless. He
went in, and there was Dillon.

Coburn's flesh crawled. If the figure sitting there with the _London
Times_ and a cup of tea before him were actually a monster from another
planet ...

But Dillon read comfortably, and sipped his tea. Coburn approached, and
the Englishman looked up inquiringly.

"I was ... up in the mountains," said Coburn feverishly, "when those
Bulgarians came over. I can give you the story."

Dillon said frostily: "I'm not interested. The government's officially
denied that any such incident took place. It's merely a silly rumor."

It was reasonable that it should be denied. But it had happened,
nonetheless. Coburn stared, despite a consciousness that he was not
conspicuously rational in the way his eyes searched Dillon's face
hungrily. The eyes _were_ different! The eyes of the Dillon up in the
mountains had been larger, and the brown part--But he had to be sure.

Suddenly, Coburn found himself grinning. There was a simple, a perfect,
an absolute test for humanity!

Dillon said suspiciously: "What the devil are you staring at me for?"

Coburn continued to grin uncontrollably, even as he said in a tone of
apology: "I hate to do this, but I have to be sure...."

He swung. He connected with Dillon's nose. Blood started.

Coburn zestfully let himself be thrown out, while Dillon roared and
tried to get at him through the flying wedge of waiters. He felt an
enormous relaxation on the way back to his office in another cab. He was
a trifle battered, but it was worth it.

       *       *       *       *       *

Back in the office he called Hallen again. And again Hallen answered. He
sounded guilty and worried.

"I don't know whether I'm crazy or not," he said bitterly. "But I was in
your office. I saw your secretary there--and she didn't feel pins stuck
in her. And something did happen to those Bulgarians that the Greeks
don't know anything about, or the Americans either. So you're to tell
your story to the high brass down in Athens. I think you'll be locked up
afterward as a lunatic--and me with you for believing my own eyes. But a
plane's being readied."

"Where do I meet you?" asked Coburn.

Hallen told him. A certain room out at the airport. Coburn hung up. The
telephone rang instantly. He was on the way out, but he turned back and
answered it. Janice's voice--amazingly convincing--came from the
instrument. And at the first words his throat went dry. Because it
couldn't be Janice.

"I've been trying to get you. Have you tried to reach me?"

"Why, no. Why?"

Janice's voice said: "I've something interesting to tell you. I left the
office an hour ago. I'm at the place where I live when I'm in Salonika.
Write down the address. Can you come here? I've found out something
astonishing!"

He wrote down the address. He had a feeling of nightmarishness. This was
not Janice--

"I'm clearing up some matters you'll guess at," he said grimly, "so I
may be a little while getting there. You'll wait?"

He hung up. And then with a rather ghastly humor he took some pins from
a box on the desk and worked absorbedly at bending one around the inside
of the band of the seal ring he wore on his right hand.

       *       *       *       *       *

But he didn't go to the telephoned address. He went to the Breen
Foundation. And Janice was there. She was the real Janice. He knew it
instantly he saw her. She was panic-stricken when he told her of his own
telephone experience. Her teeth chattered. But she knew--instinctively,
she said--that he was himself. She got into the cab with him.

They reached the airport and found the office Hallen had named. The
lettering on it, in Greek and French, said that it was a reception room
for official visitors only.

"Our status is uncertain," said Coburn drily. "We may be official
guests, or we may be crazy. It's a toss-up which status sticks."

He opened the door and looked carefully inside before he entered. Hallen
was there. There was a lean, hard-bitten colonel of the American liaison
force in Greece. There was a Greek general, pudgy and genial, standing
with his back to a window and his hands clasped behind him. There were
two Greek colonels and a major. They regarded him soberly.

"Howdo, Coburn," said Hallen painfully. "You're heading for Athens, you
know. This is Miss Ames? But these gentlemen have ... ah ... a special
concern with that business up-country. They'd like to hear your story
before you leave."

"I suppose," said Coburn curtly, "it's a sort of preliminary commission
in lunacy."

But he shook hands all around. He kept his left hand in his coat pocket
as he shook hands with his right. His revolver was in his left-hand
pocket now too. The Greek general beamed at him. The American colonel's
eyes were hard and suspicious. One of the two Greek colonels was very
slightly cross-eyed. The Greek major shook hands solemnly.

Coburn took a deep breath. "I know my tale sounds crazy," he said, "but
... I had a telephone call just now. Hallen will bear me out that my
secretary was impersonated by somebody else this afternoon."

"I've told them that," said Hallen unhappily.

"And something was impersonating Dillon up in the hills," finished
Coburn. "I've reason to believe that at this address"--and he handed the
address he'd written down to Hallen--"a ... creature will be found who
will look most convincingly like Miss Ames, here. You might send and
see."

The American colonel snorted: "This whole tale's preposterous! It's an
attempt to cash in on the actual mystery of what happened up-country."

The Greek general protested gently. His English was so heavily accented
as to be hard to understand, but he pointed out that Coburn knew details
of the event in Náousa that only someone who had been there could know.

"True enough," said the American officer darkly, "but he can tell the
truth now, before we make fools of ourselves sending him to Athens to be
unmasked. Suppose," he said unpleasantly, "you give us the actual
facts!"

Coburn nodded. "The idea you find you can't take is that creatures that
aren't human can be on Earth and pass for human beings. There's some
evidence on that right here." He nodded to the Greek major who was the
junior officer in the room. "Major, will you show these other gentlemen
the palm of your hand?"

The Greek major frowned perplexedly. He lifted his hand and looked at
it. Then his face went absolutely impassive.

"I'm ready to shoot!" snapped Coburn. "Show them your hand. I can tell
now."

He felt the tensing of the others in the room, not toward the major but
toward him. They were preparing to jump him, thinking him mad.

But the major grinned ruefully: "Clever, Mr. Coburn! But how did you
pick me out?"

Then there was a sensation of intolerable brightness all around. But it
was not actual light. It was a sensation inside one's brain.

Coburn felt himself falling. He knew, somehow, that the others were
falling too. He saw everyone in the room in the act of slumping limply
to the floor--all but the Greek major. And Coburn felt a bitter,
despairing fury as consciousness left him.


IV

He came to in a hospital room, with a nurse and two doctors and an
elaborate oxygen-administering apparatus. The apparatus was wheeled out.
The nurse followed. The two doctors hurried after her. The American
colonel of the airport was standing by the bed on which Coburn lay,
fully dressed.

Coburn felt perfectly all right. He stirred. The American colonel said
sourly: "You're not harmed. Nobody was. But Major Pangalos got away."

Coburn sat up. There was a moment's bare trace of dizziness, and that
was gone too. Coburn said: "Where's Miss Ames? What happened to her?"

"She's getting oxygen," said the colonel. "We were rushed here from the
airport, sleeping soundly just like those Bulgarians. Major Pangalos
ordered it before he disappeared. Helicopters brought some Bulgarians
down, by the way, and oxygen brought them to. So naturally they gave us
the same treatment. Very effective."

The colonel looked both chastened and truculent. "How'd you know Major
Pangalos for what he was? He was accepted everywhere as a man."

"His eyes were queer," said Coburn. He stood up experimentally. "I
figured they would be, if one looked. I saw the foam suit that creature
wore up-country, when he wasn't in it. There were holes for the eyes. It
occurred to me that his eyes weren't likely to be like ours. Not
exactly. So I hunted up the real Dillon, and his eyes weren't like I
remembered. I punched him in the nose, by the way, to make sure he'd
bleed and was human. He was."

Coburn continued, "You see, they obviously come from a heavy planet and
move differently. They're stronger than we are. Much like the way we'd
be on the moon with one-sixth Earth gravity. They probably are used to a
thicker atmosphere. If so, their eyes wouldn't be right for here. They'd
need eyeglasses."

"Major Pangalos didn't--"

"Contact eyeglasses," said Coburn sourly. "Little cups of plastic. They
slip under the eyelids and touch the white part of the eye. Familiar
enough. But that's not all."

The American colonel looked troubled. "I know contact lenses," he
admitted. "But--"

"If the Invaders have a thick atmosphere at home," Coburn said, "they
may have a cloudy sky. The pupils of their eyes may need to be larger.
Perhaps they're a different shape. Or their eyes may be a completely
alien color. Anyhow, they need contact lenses not only to correct their
vision, but to make their eyes look like ours. They're painted on the
inside to change the natural look and color. It's very deceptive. But
you can tell."

"That goes to Headquarters at once!" snapped the colonel.

He went out briskly. Coburn followed him out of the room to look for
Janice. And Janice happened to be looking for him at exactly the same
moment. He was genuinely astonished to realize how relieved he was that
she was all right.

He said apologetically: "I was worried! When I felt myself passing out I
felt pretty rotten at having failed to protect you."

She looked at him with nearly the same sort of surprised satisfaction.
"I'm all right," she said breathlessly. "I was worried about you."

The roaring of motors outside the hospital interrupted them. More and
more vehicles arrived, until a deep purring filled the air. A Greek
doctor with a worried expression hurried somewhere. Soldiers appeared,
hard-bitten, tough, professional Greek soldiers. Hallen came out of a
hospital room. The Greek general appeared with one of the two colonels
who'd been at the airport. The general nodded, and his eyes seemed
cordial. He waved them ahead of him into a waiting elevator. The
elevator descended. They went out of the hospital and there was an
armored car waiting. An impressive escort of motorcycle troops waited
with it.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Greek general saw Coburn's cynical expression at sight of the
guards. He explained blandly that since oxygen brought sleeping
Bulgarians out of their slumber--and had been used on them--oxygen was
handy for use by anybody who experienced a bright flash of light in his
mind. The Bulgarian soldiers, incidentally, said that outside the
village of Ardea they'd felt as if the sunlight had brightened
amazingly, but they felt no effects for two hours afterward, when they
fell asleep at Náousa. So, said the general almost unintelligibly, if
anything untoward happened on the way to the airport, everybody would
start breathing oxygen. A sensation of bright light would be untoward.

The armored car started off, with motorcyclists crowded about it with
weapons ready. But the ride to the airport was uneventful. To others
than Janice and Coburn it may even have been tedious. But when she
understood the general's explanation, she shivered a little. She leaned
insensibly closer to Coburn. He took her hand protectively in his.

They reached the airport. They roared through the gateway and directly
out upon the darkened field. Something bellowed and raced down a runway
and took to the air. Other things followed it. They gained altitude and
circled back overhead. Tiny bluish flickerings moved across the overcast
sky. Exhaust flames.

Coburn realized that it was a fighter plane escort.

The huge transport plane that waited for them was dark. They climbed
into it and found their seats. When it roared down the unlighted field
and took to the air, everything possible had been done to keep anybody
from bringing any weapon to bear upon it.

"All safe now!" said the voice of the American colonel in the darkness
of the unlit plane, as the plane gained height. "Incidentally, Coburn,
why did you want to look at Pangalos' palm? What did you expect to find
there?"

"When I started for the airport," Coburn explained, "I bent a pin around
the band of a ring I wear. I could let it lie flat when I shook hands.
Or I could make it stand out like a spur. I set it with my thumb. I saw
Pangalos' eyes, so I had it stand out, and I made a tear in his plastic
skin when I shook hands with him. He didn't feel it, of course." He
paused. "Did anybody go to the address I gave Hallen?"

Hallen said, in the darkness: "Major Pangalos got there first."

The blackness outside the plane seemed to grow deeper. There was
literally nothing to be seen but the instrument dials up at the pilots'
end of the ship.

The Greek general asked a question in his difficult English.

"Where'd they come from?" repeated Coburn. "I've no idea. Off Earth,
yes. A heavy planet, yes. I doubt they come from our solar system,
though. Somewhere among the stars."

The Greek general said something with a sly up-twist of his voice.
Whatever and whoever the Invaders were, he said, they did not like
Bulgarians. If they'd knocked out the raiding party simply to test their
weapons against human subjects, at least they had chosen suitable and
pleasing subjects for the test.

       *       *       *       *       *

There was light. For an instant Coburn tensed. But the plane climbed and
the brightness steadied. It was the top of a cloud bank, brilliantly
white in the moonlight. They had flown up through it, and it reached as
far ahead as they could see. A stubby fighter plane swam up out of the
mist and fell into position alongside. Others appeared. They took
formation about the transport and all flew steadily through the
moonlight.

"I wish I knew," said the American colonel vexedly, "if those creatures
were only testing weapons, or if they were getting set to start
bargaining with us!"

"Meaning?" asked Coburn.

"If they're here," said the colonel angrily, "and if they do mean to
meddle in our business, they may set up a sort of auction with us
bidding against the Iron Curtain gang for their friendship. And _they'd_
make any deal!"

The Greek general agreed drily. He said that free people were not
practical people. They were always ready to die rather than cease to be
free. Surely the Greeks had proved themselves ready to die. But people
like the Bulgarians thought that to continue to live was the most
important thing in the world. It was, of course, the practical
view-point....

"They can have it!" growled Coburn.

Janice said hesitantly: "But the Invaders haven't killed anybody we know
of. They could have killed the Bulgarians. They didn't. The one who
called himself Dillon stopped one man from killing them. And they could
have killed us, earlier today at the airport. Could they want to be
friends?"

"They're starting the wrong way," said Coburn.

The Greek general stirred in his seat, but he was pointedly silent.

The pilot snapped abruptly from up at the bow of the plane: "Colonel!
sir! Two of the fighters are climbing as if they've spotted something.
There go the rest."

Coburn leaned across Janice to stare out the window. When the fighters
were below the transport, they could be seen in silhouette against the
clouds. Above, their exhaust flames pin-pointed them. Small blue flames
climbed steeply.

The big ship went on. The roar of its motors was steady and unvarying.
From a passenger seat it was not possible to look overhead. But suddenly
there were streaking sparks against the stars. Tracer bullets. Fighters
swerved and plunged to intercept something....

       *       *       *       *       *

And a Thing came down out of the sky with a terrific velocity. Tracer
bullets sprayed all around it. Some could be seen to ricochet off its
sides. Flashings came from the alien craft. They were not explosions
from guns. They were lurid, actinic, smokeless blasts of pure light. The
Thing seemed to be made of polished metal. It dodged, trying to approach
the transport. The fighters lunged to prevent it. The ghastly game of
interception seemed to rush here and there all over the sky.

The strange object was not possibly of human design or manufacture. It
had no wings. It left no trail of jet fumes or rocket smoke. It was
glittering and mirror-like, and it was shaped almost exactly like two
turtle-shells base to base. It was flat and oval. It had no visible
external features.

It flung itself about with incredible darts and jerkings. It could stop
stock still as no plane could possibly stop, and accelerate at a rate no
human body could endure. It tried savagely to get through the swarming
fighters to the transport. Its light weapon flashed--but the pilots
would be wearing oxygen masks and there were no casualties among the
human planes. Once a fighter did fall off in a steep dive, and fluttered
almost down to the cloud bank before it recovered and came back with its
guns spitting.

That one appeared to end the fight. It came straight up, pumping tracers
at the steel flier from below. And the glittering Thing seemed to stop
dead in the air. Then it shuddered. It was bathed in the flaring sparks
of tracers. Then--

It dropped like a stone, tumbling aimlessly over and over as it dropped.
It plummeted into the cloud bank.

Suddenly the clouds were lighted from within. Something inside flared
with a momentary, terrifying radiance. No lightning bolt ever flashed
more luridly.

The transport plane and its escort flew on and on over the moonlit bank
of clouds.

Presently orders came by radio. On the report of this attack, the flight
plan would be changed, for safety. If the air convoy had been attacked
once, it might be attacked again. So it would be wisest to get it
immediately to where there would be plenty of protection. Therefore, the
transport plane would head for Naples.

Nearly the whole of the United States Mediterranean fleet was in the Bay
of Naples just then. It had been there nearly a week, and by day its
liberty parties swarmed ashore. The merchants and the souvenir salesmen
were entranced. American sailors had money and they spent it. The
fleet's officers were social assets, its messes bought satisfyingly of
local viands, and everybody was happy.

All but one small group. The newspapers of one of the Italian political
parties howled infuriatedly. They had orders to howl, from behind the
Iron Curtain. The American fleet, that one party's newspapers bellowed,
was imperialistic, capitalistic, and decadent. In short, there was
virulent propaganda against the American fleet in Naples. But most
people were glad it was there anyway. Certainly nobody stayed awake
worrying about it.

       *       *       *       *       *

People were staying awake worrying about the transport plane carrying
Coburn and Janice, however. On the plane, Janice was fearful and pressed
close to Coburn, and he found it an absorbing experience and was moved
to talk in a low tone about other matters than extra-terrestrial
Invaders and foam suits and interstellar travel. Janice found those
other subjects surprisingly fitted to make her forget about being
afraid.

Elsewhere, the people who stayed awake did talk about just the subjects
Coburn was avoiding. The convoy carrying Coburn to tell what he knew had
been attacked. By a plane which was definitely not made or manned by
human beings. The news flashed through the air across continents. It
went under the ocean over sea beds. It traveled in the tightest and most
closely-guarded of diplomatic codes. The Greek government gave the other
NATO nations a confidential account of the Bulgarian raid and what had
happened to it. These details were past question. The facts brought out
by Coburn were true, too.

So secret instructions followed the news. At first they went only to
highly-trusted individuals. In thirty nations, top-ranking officials and
military officers blindfolded each other in turn and gravely stuck pins
in each other. The blindfolded person was expected to name the place
where he had been stuck. This had an historical precedent. In olden
days, pins were stuck in suspected witches. They had patches of skin in
which there was no sensation, and discovery of such areas condemned them
to death. Psychologists in later centuries found that patches of
anaesthetic skin were typical of certain forms of hysteria, and
therefore did not execute their patients. But the Invaders, by the fact
that their seemingly human bodies were not flesh at all, could not pass
such tests.

There were consequences. A Minister of Defense of a European nation
amusedly watched the tests on his subordinates, blandly excused himself
for a moment before his own turn came, and did not come back. A general
of division vanished into thin air. Diplomatic code clerks painstakingly
decoded the instructions for such tests, and were nowhere about when
they themselves were to be tested. An eminent Hollywood director and an
Olympic champion ceased to be.

In the free world nearly a hundred prominent individuals simply
disappeared. Few were in position to influence high-level decisions.
Many were in line to know rather significant details of world affairs.
There was alarm.

It was plain, too, that not all disguised Invaders would have had to
vanish. Many would not even be called on for test. They would stay where
they were. And there were private persons....

       *       *       *       *       *

There was consternation. But Janice, in the plane, was saying softly to
Coburn: "The--creature who telephoned and said she was me. How did you
know she wasn't?"

"I went to the Breen Foundation first," said Coburn. "I looked into your
eyes--and they were right. So I didn't need to stick a pin in you."

The thought of Coburn not needing to stick a pin in her impressed Janice
as beautiful trust. She sighed contentedly. "Of course you'd know," she
said. "So would I--now!" She laughed a little.

The convoy flew on. The lurid round disk of the moon descended toward
the west.

"It'll be sunrise soon. But I imagine we'll land before dawn."

They did. The flying group of planes flew lower. Coburn saw a single
light on the ground. It was very tiny, and it vanished rearward with
great speed. Later there was another light, and a dull-red glow in the
sky. Still later, infinitesimal twinklings on the ground at the horizon.
They increased in number but not in size, and the plane swung hugely to
the left, and the lights on the ground formed a visible pattern. And
moonlight--broken by the shadows of clouds--displayed the city and the
Bay of Naples below.

The transport plane landed. The passengers descended. Coburn saw Hallen,
the American colonel, the Greek general, and a Greek colonel. The other
had been left behind to take charge of things in Salonika. Here the
uniforms were American, and naval. There were some Italian police in
view, but most of the men about were American seamen, ostensibly on
shore leave. But Coburn doubted very much if they were as completely
unarmed as men on shore leave usually are.

A man in a cap with much gold braid greeted the American colonel, the
Greek general, and the Greek colonel. He came to Coburn, to whose arm
Janice seemed to cling.

"We're taking you out to the fleet. We've taken care of everything.
Everybody's had pins stuck in him!"

It was very humorous, of course. They moved away from the plane.
Surrounded by white-clad sailors, the party from the plane moved into
the hangar.

Then a voice snapped a startled question, in English. An instant later
it rasped: "Stop or I'll shoot!"

Then there was a bright flash of light. The interior of the hangar was
made vivid by it. It went out. And as it disappeared there were the
sounds of running footsteps. Only they did not run properly. They ran in
great leaps. Impossible leaps. Monstrous leaps. A man might run like
that on the moon, with a lesser gravity. A creature accustomed to much
greater gravity might run like that on Earth. But it would not be human.

It got away.

There was a waiting car. They got into it. They pulled out from the
airport with other cars close before and behind. The cavalcade raced for
the city and the shoreline surrounded by a guard less noisy but no less
effective than the Greek motorcycle troopers.

But the Greek general said something meditative in the dark interior of
the car.

"What's that?" demanded someone authoritatively.

The Greek general said it again, mildly. This latest attempt to seize
them or harm them--if it was that--had been surprisingly inept. It was
strange that creatures able to travel between the stars and put
regiments and tanks out of action should fail so dismally to kill or
kidnap Coburn, if they really wanted to. Could it be that they were not
quite sincere in their efforts?

"That," said the authoritative voice, "is an idea!"

They reached the waterfront. And here in the darkest part of the night
and with the moon near to setting, the waters of the Bay of Naples
rolled in small, smooth-surfaced, tranquil waves. There was a Navy barge
waiting. Those who had come by plane boarded it. It cast off and headed
out into the middle of the huge harbor.

In minutes there was a giant hull looming overhead. They stepped out
onto a landing ladder and climbed interminably up the ship's metal side.
Then there was an open door.

"Now," said the American colonel triumphantly, "now everything's all
right! Nothing can happen now, short of an atomic bomb!"

The Greek general glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes. He said
something in that heavy accent of his. He asked mildly if
creatures--Invaders--who could travel between the stars were unlikely to
be able to make atom bombs if they wanted to.

There was no answer. But somebody led Coburn into an office where this
carrier's skipper was at his desk. He looked at Coburn with a sardonic,
unfriendly eye.

"Mr. Coburn, I believe," he said remotely. "You've been very well
staged-managed by your friends, Mr. Coburn. They've made it look as if
they were trying hard to kill you, eh? But we know better, don't we? We
know it's all a build-up for you to make a deal for them, eh? Well, Mr.
Coburn, you'll find it's going to be a let-down instead! You're not
officially under arrest, but I wouldn't advise you to try to start
anything, Mr. Coburn! We're apt to be rather crude in dealing with
emissaries of enemies of all the human race. And don't forget it!"

And this was Coburn's first inkling that he was regarded as a traitor of
his planet who had sold out to the Invaders. All the plans made from his
information would be based on the supposition that he intended to betray
mankind by misleading it.

[Illustration]


V

It was not yet forty-eight hours since Coburn had been interrupted in
the act of starting his car up in Ardea. Greek newspapers had splashed
lurid headlines of a rumored invasion by Bulgarians, and their rumored
defeat. The story was not widely copied. It sounded too unlikely. In a
few hours it would be time for a new set of newspapers to begin to
appear. Not one of them would print a single word about the most
important disclosure in human history: that extra-terrestrial Invaders
moved blandly about among human beings without being suspected.

The newspapers didn't know it. On inside pages and bottom corners, the
London papers might refer briefly to the remarkable rumor that had swept
over Greece about an invasion force said to have crossed its border. The
London papers would say that the Greek government officially denied that
such a happening had taken place. The New York papers would be full of a
political scandal among municipal officials, the Washington papers would
deal largely with a Congressional investigation committee hearing, Los
Angeles would have a new and gory murder to exploit, San Francisco news
would be of a waterfront strike, Tokyo would talk of cherry blossoms,
Delhi of Pakistan, and the French press would discuss the political
crisis. But no newspaper, anywhere, would talk about Invaders.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the United States, radar technicians had been routed out of bed and
informed that night fighters had had a fight with an alien ship manned
by non-humans and had destroyed it, but their radars detected nothing at
all. An hour after sunrise in Naples they had come up with a
combination of radar frequencies which were built to detect everything.
Instructions were going out in code to all radar establishments on how
to set it up on existing equipment. Long before that time, business
machines had begun intricate operations with punched cards containing
all known facts about the people known to have dropped out of sight.
Other machines began to integrate crackpot reports of things sighted in
divers places. The stores of Hunter and Nereid rockets--especially the
remote-control jobs--were broken out. Great Air Transport planes began
to haul them to where they might be needed.

In England, certain establishments that had never been mentioned even in
Parliament were put on war alert. There was frantic scurrying-about in
France. In Sweden, a formerly ignored scientist was called to a
twice-scrambled telephone connection and consulted at length about
objects reported over Sweden's skies. The Canadian Air Force tumbled out
in darkness and was briefed. In Chile there was agitation, and in Peru.

There was earnest effort to secure coöperation from behind the Iron
Curtain, but that did not work. The Iron Curtain stood pat, demanding
the most detailed of information and the privilege of inspecting all
weapons intended for use against anybody so far unnamed, but refusing
all information of its own. In fact, there was a very normal reaction
everywhere, except that the newspapers didn't know anything to print.

These secret hassles were continuing as the dawnlight moved over Italy
and made Naples and its harbor quite the most beautiful place in the
world. When daylight rolled over France, matters were beginning to fall
into pattern. As daybreak moved across the Atlantic, at least the
measures to be taken began to be visualized and orders given for their
accomplishment.

And then, with sunrise in America, real preparations got under way.

But hours earlier there was consultation on the carrier in the Bay of
Naples. Coburn sat in a wardroom in a cold fury which was in part
despair. He had been kept in complete ignorance of all measures taken,
and he felt the raging indignation of a man accused of treason. He was
being questioned again. He was treated with an icy courtesy that was
worse than accusation. The carrier skipper mentioned with detachment
that, of course, Coburn had never been in any danger. Obviously. The
event in the airport at Salonika and the attack on the convoy were
window-dressing. They were not attempts to withdraw him from
circulation, but to draw attention to him. Which, of course, implied
that the Invaders--whoever or whatever they might be--considered Coburn
a useful tool for whatever purpose they intended.

This was before the conference officially began. It took time to
arrange. There were radio technicians with microphones. The
consultation--duly scrambled and re-scrambled--would be relayed to
Washington while it was on. It was a top level conference. Hallen was
included, but he did not seem happy.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then things were ready. The skipper of the carrier took over, with full
awareness that the very highest brass in Washington was listening to
every word.

"We can skip your technical information, Mr. Coburn," he said with
ironic courtesy, "unless you've something new to offer."

Coburn shook his head. He seethed.

"For the record," said the skipper, "I repeat that it is obvious that
your presence at the scene when those Bulgarians were knocked out, that
you were attacked in Salonika, that the ship carrying you was also
attacked, and that there was an incident on your landing here:--it's
obvious that all these things were stage-managed to call attention to
you, for the purposes of ... whoever staged them. Have you anything more
to offer?"

"No," growled Coburn. "I've told all I know." He was furiously angry and
felt completely helpless.

"Your information," purred the Skipper, "and the stage-managed
incidents, make you look like a very patriotic citizen who is feared by
the supposedly extra-terrestrial creatures. But we don't have to play
any longer, Mr. Coburn. What were you told to tell your government? What
do these ... extra-terrestrials want?"

"My guess," snapped Coburn, "is that they want Earth."

The skipper raised his eyebrows. "Are you threatening us in their name?"
he asked, purring.

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

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

"All of Earth," said the skipper softly. "Hmmmm. You advise an
arrangement with all the Earth.... What are your politics, Mr.
Coburn?--No, let us say, what are the political views of the
extra-terrestrial creatures you tell us about? We have to know."

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

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

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

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

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

"So you have some ... friendly feelings toward him, eh?" the skipper
said negligently. "How will you get in touch with his kind, by the way?
_If_ we should ask you to? Of course you've got it all arranged? Just in
case."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were very probably discussions of the important part of what
Coburn had reported, of course, during the rest of the morning. But
there was much more discussion of purely military measures. And of
course there were attempts to get military intelligence. Things were
reported in the sky near South Africa, and from Honolulu--where nobody
would ignore what a radar said again, especially the juiced-up equipment
just modified on orders--and from other places. Not all the reports were
authentic, of course. If there were any observations inside the Iron
Curtain, the Iron Curtain countries kept them to themselves. Politics
was much more important than anything else, in that part of the world.

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

It was very spectacular.

       *       *       *       *       *

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

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

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

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

A metallic voice said: "Relay!"

The ensign in charge of Coburn and Janice seemed to freeze. The
radar-man pressed a button, which would relay that particular
radar-screen's contents to the control room for the whole ship. There
was a pause of seconds. Then bells began to ring everywhere. They were
battle gongs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were in a sort of ward room--not of the morning conference--and
there were portholes through which they could look. The city which was
Naples seemed to swing smoothly past the ship. They saw other ships. A
cruiser was under way with its anchor still rising from the water. It
dripped mud and a sailor was quite ridiculously playing a hose on it. It
ascended and swayed and its shank went smoothly into the hawse-hole.
There were guns swinging skyward. Some were still covered by canvas
hoods. The hoods vanished before the cruiser swung out of the porthole's
line of vision.

A destroyer leaped across the space they could see, full speed ahead.
The water below them began to move more rapidly. It began to pass by
with the speed of ground past an express train. And continually,
monotonously, there were roarings which climaxed and died in the
distance.

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

       *       *       *       *       *

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

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

The other carrier, too, was shooting planes into the air like bullets
from a gun. The American Mediterranean fleet was putting out to sea at
emergency-speed, getting every flying craft aloft that could be gotten
away. A cruiser swung a peculiar crane-like arm, there was a puff of
smoke and a plane came into being. The crane retracted. Another plane. A
third.

The fleet was out of the harbor, speeding at thirty knots, with
destroyers weaving back and forth at higher speeds still. There were
barges left behind in the harbor with sailors in them,--shore-parties or
details who swore bitterly when they were left behind. They surged up
and down on the mêlée of waves the fleet left behind in its hasty
departure.

On the fleet itself there was a brisk tenseness as it sped away from the
land. Vesuvius still loomed high, but the city dwindled to a mere
blinking mass of white specks which were its buildings. The sea was
aglitter with sunlight reflected from the waves. There was the smell of
salt air.

Men began to take cryptic measures for the future. They strung cables
across the deck from side to side. Arresting gear for planes which would
presently land.

Their special ensign found Coburn and Janice. "I'm supposed to stay with
you," he explained politely. "I thought I could be of use. I'm really
attached to another ship, but I was on board because of the hassle last
night."

Coburn said: "This would be invader stuff, wouldn't it?"

The ensign shrugged. "Apparently. You heard what the radar said.
Something at three hundred thousand feet, descending rapidly. It's not a
human-built ship. Anyway, we've sent up all our planes. Jets will meet
it first, at fifty thousand. If it gets through them there are ... other
measures, of course."

"This one beats me!" said Coburn. "Why?"

The ensign shrugged again. "They tried for you last night."

"I'm not that important, to them or anybody else. Or am I?"

"I wouldn't know," said the ensign.

"I don't know anything I haven't told," said Coburn grimly, "and the
creatures can't suppress any information by killing me now. Anyhow, if
they'd wanted to they'd have done it."

A dull, faint sound came from high overhead. Coburn stepped out from
under the shelter of the upper works of the island. He stared up into
the sky. He saw a lurid spot of blue-white flame. He saw others. He
realized that all the sky was interlaced with contrails--vapor-trails of
jet-planes far up out of sight. But they were fine threads. The jets
were up very high indeed. The pin-points of flame were explosions.

"Using wing-rockets," said the ensign hungrily, "since fifty-calibres
did no good last night, until one made a lucky hit. Rockets with
proximity fuses. Our jets don't carry cannon."

There were more explosions. There was a bright glint of reflected
sunshine. It was momentary, but Coburn knew that it was from a flat,
bright space-ship, which had tilted in some monstrously abrupt maneuver,
and the almost vertical sunshine shone down from its surface.

The ensign said in a very quiet voice: "The fight's coming lower."

There was a crashing thump in the air. A battleship was firing
eight-inch guns almost straight up. Other guns began.

Guns began to fire on the carrier, too, below the deck and beyond it.
Concussion waves beat at Coburn's body. He thrust Janice behind him to
shield her, but there could be no shielding.

The air was filled with barkings and snarlings and the unbelievably
abrupt roar of heavy guns. The carrier swerved, so swiftly that it
tilted and swerved again. The other ships of the fleet broke their
straight-away formation and began to move in bewildering patterns. The
blue sea was criss-crossed with wakes. Once a destroyer seemed to slide
almost under the bow of the carrier. The destroyer appeared unharmed on
the other side, its guns all pointed skyward and emitting seemingly
continuous blasts of flame and thunder.

       *       *       *       *       *

The ensign grabbed Coburn's shoulder and pointed, his hands shaking.

There was the Invader ship. It was exactly as Coburn had known it would
be. It was tiny. It seemed hardly larger than some of the planes that
swooped at it. But the planes were drawing back now. The shining metal
thing was no more than two thousand feet up and it was moving in
erratic, unpredictable darts and dashes here and there, like a
dragon-fly's movements, but a hundred times more swift. Proximity-fused
shells burst everywhere about it. It burst through a still-expanding
puff of explosive smoke, darted down a hundred feet, and took a zig-zag
course of such violent and angular changes of position that it looked
more like a streak of metal lightning than anything else.

It was down to a thousand feet. It shot toward the fleet at a speed
which was literally that of a projectile. It angled off to one side and
back, and suddenly dropped again and plunged crazily through the maze of
ships from one end to the other, no more than fifty feet above the water
and with geysers of up-flung sea all about it from the shells that
missed.

Then it sped away with a velocity which simply was not conceivable. It
was the speed of a cannonball. It was headed straight toward a distant,
stubby, draggled tramp-steamer which plodded toward the Bay of Naples.

It rose a little as it flew. And then it checked, in mid-air. It hung
above the dumpy freighter, and there were salvoes of all the guns in the
fleet. But at the flashes it shot skyward. When the shells arrived and
burst, it was gone.

It could still be sighted as a spark of sunlight shooting for the
heavens. Jets roared toward it. It vanished.

Coburn heard the ensign saying in a flat voice: "If that wasn't
accelerating at fifteen Gs, I never saw a ship. If it wasn't
accelerating at fifteen Gs ..."

And that was all. There was nothing else to shoot at. There was nothing
else to do. Jets ranged widely, looking for something that would offer
battle, but the radars said that the metal ship had gone up to three
hundred miles and then headed west and out of radar range. There had not
been time for the French to set up paired radar-beam outfits anyhow, so
they couldn't spot it, and in any case its course seemed to be toward
northern Spain, where there was no radar worth mentioning.

Presently somebody noticed the dingy, stubby, draggled tramp steamer
over which the Invaders' craft had hovered. It was no longer on course.
It had turned sidewise and wallowed heavily. Its bow pointed
successively to every point of the compass.

It looked bad. Salvoes of the heaviest projectiles in the Fleet had been
fired to explode a thousand feet above it. Perhaps--

A destroyer went racing to see. As it drew near--Coburn learned this
later--it saw a man's body hanging in a sagging heap over the railing of
its bridge. There was nobody visible at the wheel. There were four men
lying on its deck, motionless.

The skipper of the destroyer went cold. He brought his ship closer. It
was not big, this tramp. Maybe two thousand tons. It was low in the
water. It swayed and surged and wallowed and rolled.

Men from the destroyer managed to board it. It was completely unharmed.
They found one small sign of the explosions overhead. One fragment of an
exploded shell had fallen on board, doing no damage.

Even the crew was unharmed. But every man was asleep. Each one slumbered
heavily. Each breathed stertorously. They could not be awakened. They
would need oxygen to bring them to.

       *       *       *       *       *

A party from the destroyer went on board to bring the ship into harbor.
The officer in charge tried to find out the ship's name.

There was not a document to be found to show what the ship's name was or
where it had come from or what it carried as cargo. That was strange.
The officer looked in the pockets of the two men in the wheel house.
There was not a single identifying object on either of them. He grew
disturbed. He made a really thorough search. Every sleeping man was
absolutely anonymous. Then--still on the way to harbor--a really
fine-tooth-comb examination of the ship began.

Somebody's radium-dial watch began to glow brightly. The searchers
looked at each other and went pale. They hunted frantically, fear
making them clumsy.

They found it. Rather--they found them.

The stubby tramp had an adequate if rather clumsy atomic bomb in each of
its two holds. The lading of the ship was of materials which--according
to theory--should be detonated in atomic explosion if an atomic bomb
went off nearby. Otherwise they could not be detonated.

The anonymous tramp-steamer had been headed for the harbor of Naples,
whose newspapers--at least those of a certain political party--had been
screaming of the danger of an atomic explosion while American warships
were anchored there.

It was not likely that two atom bombs and a shipload of valuable
secondary atomic explosive had been put on a carefully nameless ship
just to be taken for a ride. If this ship had anchored among the
American fleet and if it had exploded in the Bay of Naples ...

The prophecies of a certain political party would seem to have been
fulfilled. The American ships would be destroyed. Naples itself would be
destroyed. And it would have appeared that Europeans who loved the great
United States had made a mistake.

It was, odd, though, that this ship was the only one that the Invaders'
flying craft had struck with its peculiar weapon.


VI

We humans are rational beings, but we are not often reasonable. Those
who more or less handle us in masses have to take account of that fact.
It could not be admitted that the fleet had had a fight with a ship
piloted by Invaders from another solar system. It would produce a wild
panic, beside which even a war would be relatively harmless. So the
admiral of the Mediterranean fleet composed an order commending his men
warmly for their performance in an unrehearsed firing-drill. Their
target had been--so the order said--a new type of guided missile
recently developed by hush-hush agencies of the Defense Department. The
admiral was pleased and proud, and happy....

It was an excellent order, but it wasn't true. The admiral wasn't happy.
Not after battle photographs were developed and he could see how the
alien ship had dodged rockets with perfect ease, and had actually taken
a five-inch shell, which exploded on impact, without a particle of
damage.

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

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

The Greek general pointedly said nothing. Coburn caught his meaning. The
fleet, firing point-blank, had not destroyed its target. The ship last
night had seemed to fall into a cloud bank and explode. But nobody had
seen it blow up. Maybe it hadn't.

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

The Greek general looked at him enigmatically.

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

There was a heavy, droning noise far away. It increased and drew nearer.
It was a multi-engined plane which came from the west and settled down,
and hovered over the water and touched and instantly created a spreading
wake of foam.

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

       *       *       *       *       *

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

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

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

Coburn set his lips.

"The other group of events simply points you out and builds you up as a
person of importance to these Invaders. You seem to be extremely
important to them. They doubtless could have killed you. They did not.
What they did do was bring you forward to official attention. Presumably
they had a realistic motive in this."

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

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

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

"I have no idea," he said grimly.

"What do they want?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

       *       *       *       *       *

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

"Ostensibly," agreed the Secretary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VII

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

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

If anything--while the wide world went happily about its
business--really high-level officialdom grew more unhappy day by day.
Coburn and Janice flew back to Salonika. They went in a Navy plane with
a fighter plane escort. They landed at the Salonika airport, and the
Greek general was among those who greeted them.

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

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

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

But it was a nagging and an unhappy business to know that they were
watched and overheard everywhere save in that one unwired room. It could
have made for tension between them. But there was another thought to
hold them together. This was the knowledge that they were literally
living on top of a bomb. If an Invader's flying ship descended at the
villa, everything that happened would be heard and seen by microphones
and concealed television cameras. If the Invaders were too arrogant, or
if they were arbitrary, there would be a test to see if their ship could
exist in the heart of an atom-bomb explosion.

       *       *       *       *       *

Coburn and Janice, then, were happy after a fashion. But nobody could
call their situation restful.

They had very few visitors. The Greek general came out meticulously
every day. Hallen came out once, but he knew about the atomic bomb. He
didn't stay long. When they'd been in residence a week, the General
telephoned zestfully that he was going to bring out some company. His
English was so mangled and obscure that Coburn wondered cynically if
whoever listened to their tapped telephone could understand him. But,
said the General in high good humor, he was playing a good joke. He had
hunted up Helena, who was Coburn's secretary, and he had also invited
Dillon to pay a visit to some charming people he knew. It would be a
great joke to see Dillon's face.

There was a fire in the living room that night. The Greek servants had
made it, and Coburn thought grimly that they were braver men and women
than he'd have been. They didn't have to risk their lives. They could
have refused this particular secret-service assignment. But they hadn't.

A voice spoke from the living-room ceiling, a clipped American voice.
"Mr. Coburn, a car is coming."

That was standard. When the General arrived; when the occasional
delivery of telephoned-for supplies came; on the one occasion when a
peddler on foot had entered the ground. It lacked something of being the
perfect atmosphere for a honeymoon, but it was the way things were.

Presently there were headlights outside. The Greek butler went to greet
the guests. Coburn and Janice heard voices. The General was in
uproarious good humor. He came in babbling completely uncomprehensible
English.

There was Helena. She smiled warmly at Coburn. She went at once to
Janice. "How do you do?" she said in her prettily accented English. "I
have missed not working for your husband, but this is my fiancé!"

And Janice shook hands with a slick-haired young Greek who looked
pleasant enough, but did not seem to her as remarkable as Coburn.

Then Dillon stared at Coburn.

"The devil!" he said, with every evidence of indignation. "This is the
chap--"

The General roared, and Coburn said awkwardly: "I owe you an apology,
and the privilege of a poke in the nose besides. But it was a
situation--I was in a state--"

Then the General howled with laughter. Helena laughed. Her fiancé
laughed. And Dillon grinned amusedly at Coburn.

       *       *       *       *       *

"My dear fellow!" said Dillon. "We are the guests this whole villa was
set up to receive! The last time I saw you was in Náousa, and the last
time Helena saw you you stuck pins in her, and--"

Coburn stiffened. He went slowly pale.

"I--see! You're the foam-suit people, eh?" Then he looked with hot
passion at the General. "You!" he said grimly. "You I didn't suspect.
You've made fools of all of us, I think."

The General said something obscure which could have been a proverb. It
was to the effect that nobody could tell a fat man was cross-eyed when
he laughed.

"Yes," said Dillon beaming. "He is fat. So his eyes don't look like
they're different. You have to see past his cheeks and eyebrows. That's
how he passed muster. And he slept very soundly after the airport
affair."

Coburn felt a sort of sick horror. The General had passed as a man, and
he'd loaned this villa, and he knew all about the installation of the
atomic bomb.... Then Coburn looked through a doorway and there was his
Greek butler standing in readiness with a submachine-gun in his hands.

"I take it this is an official call," said Coburn steadily. "In that
case you know we're overheard--or did the General cancel that?"

"Oh, yes!" said Dillon. "We know all about the trap we've walked into.
But we'd decided that the time had come to appear in the open anyhow.
You people are very much like us, incidentally. Apparently there's only
one real way that a truly rational brain can work. And we and you Earth
people both have it. May we sit down?"

Janice said: "By all means!"

Helena sat, with an absolutely human gesture of spreading her skirt
beside her. The General plumped into a chair and chuckled. The
slick-haired young man politely offered Janice a cigarette and lighted
Helena's for her. Dillon leaned against the mantel above the fire.

"Well?" said Coburn harshly. "You can state your terms. What do you want
and what do you propose to do to get it?"

Dillon shook his head. He took a deep breath. "I want you to listen,
Coburn. I know about the atom bomb planted somewhere around, and I know
I'm talking for my life. You know we aren't natives of Earth. You've
guessed that we come from a long way off. We do. Now--we found out the
trick of space travel some time ago. You're quite welcome to it. We
found it, and we started exploring. We've been in space, you might say,
just about two of your centuries. You're the only other civilized race
we've found. That's point one."

Coburn fumbled in his pocket. He found a cigarette. Dillon held a match.
Coburn started, and then accepted it.

"Go on." He added, "There's a television camera relaying this, by the
way. Did you know?"

"Yes, I know," said Dillon. "Now, having about two centuries the start
of you, we have a few tricks you haven't found out yet. For one thing,
we understand ourselves, and you, better than you do. We've some
technical gadgets you haven't happened on yet. However, it's entirely
possible for you to easily kill the four of us here tonight. If you
do--you do. But there are others of our race here. That's point two."

"Now come the threats and demands," said Coburn.

"Perhaps." But Dillon seemed to hesitate. "Dammit, Coburn, you're a
reasonable man. Try to think like us a moment. What would you do if
you'd started to explore space and came upon a civilized race, as we
have?"

Coburn said formidably, "We'd study them and try to make friends."

"In that order," said Dillon instantly. "That's what we've tried to do.
We disguised ourselves as you because we wanted to learn how to make
friends before we tried. But what did we find, Coburn? What's your
guess?"

"You name it!" said Coburn.

"You Earth people," said Dillon, "are at a turning-point in your
history. Either you solve your problems and keep on climbing, or you'll
blast your civilization down to somewhere near a caveman level and have
to start all over again. You know what I mean. Our two more spectacular
interferences dealt with it."

"The Iron Curtain," said Coburn. "Yes. But what's that got to do with
you? It's none of your business. That's ours."

       *       *       *       *       *

"But it _is_ ours," said Dillon urgently. "Don't you see, Coburn?
You've a civilization nearly as advanced as ours. If we can make
friends, we can do each other an infinite lot of good. We can complement
each other. We can have a most valuable trade, not only in goods, but in
what you call human values and we call something else. We'd like to
start that trade.

"But you're desperately close to smashing things. So we've had to rush
things. We did stop that Bulgarian raid. When you proved too sharp to be
fooled, we grew hopeful. Here might be our entering wedge. We hammered
at you. We managed to make your people suspicious that there might be
something in what you said. We proved it. It was rugged for you, but we
had to let you people force us into the open. If we'd marched out shyly
with roses in our hair--what would you have thought?"

Coburn said doggedly: "I'm still waiting for the terms. What do you
want?"

The General said something plaintive from his chair. It was to the
effect that Coburn still believed that Earth was in danger of conquest
from space.

"Look!" said Dillon irritably. "If you people had found the trick of
space travel first, and you'd found us, would you have tried to conquer
us? Considering that we're civilized?"

Coburn said coldly, "No. Not my particular people. We know you can't
conquer a civilized race. You can exterminate them, or you can break
them down to savagery, but you can't conquer them. You can't conquer
us!"

Then Dillon said very painstakingly: "But we don't want to conquer you.
Even your friends inside the Iron Curtain know that the only way to
conquer a country is to smash it down to savagery. They've done that
over and over for conquest. But what the devil good would savages be to
us? We want someone to trade with. We can't trade with savages. We want
someone to gain something from. What have savages to offer us? A planet?
Good Heavens, man! We've already found sixty planets for colonies, much
better for us than Earth. Your gravity here is ... well, it's
sickeningly low."

"What _do_ you want then?"

"We want to be friends," said Dillon. "We'll gain by it exactly what you
Earth people gained when you traded freely among yourselves, before
blocked currencies and quotas and such nonsense strangled trade. We'll
gain what you gained when you'd stopped having every city a fort and
every village guarded by the castle of its lord. Look, Coburn: we've got
people inside the Iron Curtain. We'll keep them there. You won't be able
to disband your armies, but we can promise you won't have to use
them--because we certainly won't help you chaps fight among yourselves.
We'll give you one of our ships to study and work on. But we won't give
you our arms. You'll have your moon in a year and your whole solar
system in a decade. You'll trade with us from the time you choose, and
you'll be roaming space when you can grasp the trick of it. Man, you
can't refuse. You're too near to certain smashing of your civilization,
and we can help you to avoid it. Think what we're offering."

Then Coburn said grimly: "And if we don't like the bargain? What if we
refuse?"

Dillon carefully put the ash from his cigarette into an ashtray. "If you
won't be our friends," he said with some distaste, "we can't gain
anything useful from you. We don't want you as slaves. You'd be no good
to us. For that reason we can't get anything we want from the Iron
Curtain people. They've nothing to offer that we can use. So our
ultimatum is--make friends or we go away and leave you alone. Take it or
leave it!"

There was a dead, absolute silence. After a long time Coburn said:
"Altruism?"

Dillon grinned. "Enlightened self-interest. Common sense!"

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a clicking in the ceiling. A metallic voice said: "Mr.
Coburn, the conversation just overheard and recorded has to be
discussed in detail on high diplomatic levels. It will take time for
conferences--decisions--arrangements. Assuming that your guests are
acting in good faith, they have safe conduct from the villa. Their offer
is very attractive, but it will have to be passed on at high
policy-making levels."

Dillon said pleasantly, to the ceiling: "Yes. And you've got to keep it
from being public, of course, until your space ships can discover us
somewhere. It will have to be handled diplomatically, so your people are
back of a grand offer to make friends when it happens." He added wryly,
"We're very much alike, really. Coburn's very much like us. That's
why--if it's all right with you--you can arrange for him to be our point
of confidential contact. We'll keep in touch with him."

The ceiling did not reply. Dillon waited, then shrugged. The Greek
general spoke. He said that since they had come so far out from
Salonika, it was too early to leave again. It might be a good idea to
have a party. Some music would be an excellent thing. He said he liked
Earth music very much.

       *       *       *       *       *

A long time later Janice and Coburn were alone in the one room of the
house which was not wired for sound. There were no microphones here.

Coburn said reluctantly in the darkness: "It sounds sensible all right.
Maybe it's true. But it feels queer to think of it...."

Janice pressed closer to him and whispered in his ear: "I made friends
with that girl who passed for Helena. I like her. She says we'll be
invited to make a trip to their planet. They can do something about the
gravity. And she says she's really going to be married to the ... person
who was with her...." She hesitated. "She showed me what they really
look like when they're not disguised as us."

Coburn put his arm around her and smiled gently. "Well? Want to tell
me?"

Janice caught her breath. "I--I could have cried.... The poor thing--to
look like that. I'm glad I look like I do. For you, darling. For you."



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Amazing Stories_ April-May 1953.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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