"What was in the broadcast?"
Lockley said wryly, "Two things. One was there and one wasn't. There wasn't anything about soldiers marching up to Boulder Lake to welcome visitors from wherever they come from, and to say politely to them that as visitors they are our guests and we'd rather they didn't shoot terror beams or paralysis beams about the landscape. We were more or less counting on that, you and I. We were expecting soldiers to come up the highway headed for the lake. But they aren't coming."
Jill, still pale, wrinkled her forehead in thought.
"That's what wasn't in the broadcast," Lockley told her. "This is what was. The troops have formed a cordon about the Park. They've run into the terror beam. The broadcast said it was weakened by distance and only made the soldiers uncomfortable. But they've moved back. You see the point? They've moved back!"
Jill stared, suddenly understanding.
"But that means—"
"It means," said Lockley, "that the terror beam is pretty much of a weapon. It has a range up in the miles or tens of miles. We don't know how to handle it yet. Whoever or whatever arrived in the thing Vale saw, it or they has or have a weapon our Army can't buck, yet. The point is that we can't wait to be rescued. We've got to get out of here on our own feet. Literally. So we forget about highways. From here on we sneak to safety as best we can. And we've got to put our whole minds on it."
Jill shook her head as if to drive certain thoughts out of it. Then she said, "I guess you're right. He would want me to be safe. And if I can't do anything to help him, at least I can not make him worry. All right! What does sneaking to safety mean?"
Lockley led her down the highway running from Boulder Lake to the outside world. They came to a blasted-out cut for the highway to run through. The road's concrete surface extended to the solid rock on either side. There was no bare earth to take or hold footprints, and there was a climbable slope.
"We go up here and take to the woods," said Lockley, "because we're not as easy to spot in woodland as we'd be on a road. The characters at the lake will know what roads are. If we figure out how to handle their terror beam, they'll expect the attack to come by road. So they'll set up a system to watch the roads. They ought to do it as soon as possible. So we'll avoid notice by not using the roads. It's lucky you've got good walking shoes on. That could be the deciding factor in our staying alive."
He led the way, helping her climb. There would be no sign that they'd abandoned the highway. In fact, there'd be no sign of their existence except the small smashed car. Lockley's existence was known, but not his and Jill's together.
Lockley did not feel comfortable about having deliberately shocked Jill into paying some attention to her own situation instead of staying absorbed in the possible or probable fate of Vale. But for them to get clear was going to call for more than sentimentality on Jill's part. Lockley couldn't carry the load alone.
There was an invasion in process. It could be, apparently, an invasion from space, in which case the terror produced would be terror of the unknown. But Lockley had conceived of the possibility that it might be an invasion only from the other side of the world. Such an invasion was thought of by every American at least once every twenty-four hours. The fears it would arouse would be fears of the all too thoroughly known.
The whole earth had the jitters because of the apparently inevitable trial of strength between its two most gigantic powers. Their rivalry seemed irreconcilable. Most of humanity dreaded their conflict with appalled resignation because there seemed no way to avoid it. Yet it was admittedly possible that an all-out war between them might end with all the world dead, even plants and microbes in the deepest seas. It was ironic that the most reasonable hope that anybody could have was that one or the other nation would come upon some weapon so new and irresistible that it could demand and receive the surrender of the other without atomic war.
Atom bombs could have done the trick, had only one nation owned them. But both were now armed so that by treacherous attack either could almost wipe out the other. There was no way to guard against desperate and terrible retaliation by survivors of the first attacked country. It was the certainty of retaliation which kept the actual war a cold one—a war of provocation and trickery and counter-espionage, but not of mutual extermination.
But Lockley had suggested—because it was the worst of possibilities—that America's rival had developed a new weapon which could win so long as it was not attributed to its user. If the United States believed itself attacked from space, it would not launch missiles against men. It would ask help, and help would be given even by its rival if the invasion were from another planet. Men would always combine against not-men. But if this were a ship from no farther than the other side of the earth, and only pretended to be from an alien world ... America could be conquered because it believed it was fighting monsters instead of other men.
This was not likely, but it was believable. There was no proof, but in the nature of things proof would be avoided. And if his idea should happen to be true, the disaster could be enormously worse than an invasion from another star. This first landing could be only a test to make sure that the new weapon was unknown to America and could not be countered by Americans. The crew of this ship would expect to be successful or be killed. In a way, if an atom bomb had to be used to destroy them, they would have succeeded. Because other ships could land in American cities where they could not be bombed without killing millions; where they could demand surrender under pain of death. And get it.
Lockley looked at the sun. He glanced at his watch.
"That would be south," he indicated. "It's the shortest way for us to get to where you'll be reasonably safe and I can tell what I know to someone who may use it."
Jill followed obediently. They disappeared into the woods. They could not be seen from the highway. They could not even be detected from aloft. When they had gone a mile, Jill made her one and final protest.
"But it can't be that they aren't monsters! They must be!"
"Whatever they are," said Lockley, "I don't want them to lay hands on you."
They went on. Once, from the edge of a thicket of trees, they saw the highway below them and to their left. It was empty. It curved out of sight, swinging to the left again. They moved uphill and down. Now the going was easy, through woods with very little underbrush and a carpet of fallen leaves. Again it was a sunlit slope with prickly bushes to be avoided. And yet again it was boulder-strewn terrain that might be nearly level but much more often was a hillside.
Lockley suddenly stopped short. He felt himself go white. He grasped Jill's hand and whirled. He practically dragged her back to the patch of woods they'd just left.
"What's the matter?" The sight of his face made her whisper.
He motioned to her for silence. He'd smelled something. It was faint but utterly revolting. It was the smell of jungle and of foulness. There was the musky reek of reptiles in it. It was a collection of all the smells that could be imagined. It was horrible. It was infinitely worse than the smell of skunk.
Silence. Stillness. Birds sang in the distance. But nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. After a long time Lockley said suddenly, "I've got an idea. It fits into that broadcast. I have to take a chance to find out. If anything happens to me, don't try to help me!"
He'd smelled the foul odor at least fifteen minutes before, and had dragged Jill back, and there had been no other sign of monsters or not-monsters upon the earth. Now he crouched down and crawled among the bushes. He came to the place where he'd smelled the ghastly smell before. He smelled it again. He drew back. It became fainter, though it remained disgusting. He moved forward, stopped, moved back. He went sideways, very, very carefully, extending his hand before him.
He stopped abruptly. He came back, his face angry.
"We were lucky we couldn't use the car," he said when he was near Jill again. "We'd have been killed or worse."
She waited, her eyes frightened.
"The thing that paralyzes men and animals," he told her, "is a projected beam of some sort. We almost ran into it. It's probably akin to radar. I thought they'd put watchers on the highways. They did better. They project this beam. When it blocks a highway, anybody who comes along that highway runs into it. His eyes become blinded by fantastic colored lights, and he hears unbearable noises and feels anguish and they smell what we smelled just now. And he's paralyzed. Such a beam was turned on me yesterday and I was captured. A beam like that on the highway at the lake paralyzed three men who were carried away, and later two others whose car ditched and who stayed paralyzed until the beam was turned off."
"But we only smelled something horrible!" protested Jill.
"You did. I rushed you away. I'd smelled it before. But I went back. And I smelled it, and I crawled forward a little way and I began to see flashes of light and to hear noises and my skin tingled. I pushed my hand ahead of me—and it became paralyzed. Until I pulled it back." Then he said, "Come on."
"What will we do?"
"We change our line of march. If we drove into it or walked into it we'd be paralyzed. It's a tight beam, but there's just a little scatter. Just a little. You might say it leaks at its edges. We'll try to follow alongside until it thins out to nothing or we get where we want to go. Unless," he added, "they've got another beam that crosses it. Then we'll be trapped."
He led the way onward.
They covered four miles of very bad going before Jill showed signs of distress and Lockley halted beside a small, rushing stream. He saw fish in the clear water and tried to improvise a way to catch them. He failed. He said gloomily, "It wouldn't do to catch fish here anyhow. A fire to cook them would show smoke by day and might be seen at night. And whatever's at the Lake might send a terror beam. We'll leave here when you're rested."
He examined the stream. He went up and down its bank. He disappeared around a curve of the stream. Jill waited, at first uneasily, then anxiously.
He came back with his hands full of bracken shoots, their ends tightly curled and their root ends fading almost to white.
"I'm afraid," he observed, "that this is our supper. It'll taste a lot like raw asparagus, which tastes a lot like raw peanuts, and a one-dish meal of it won't stick to your ribs. That's the trouble with eating wild stuff. It's mostly on the order of spinach."
"I'll carry them," said Jill.
She actually looked at him for the first time. Until she found herself anxious because he was out of sight for a long time, she hadn't really regarded him as an individual. He'd been only a person who was helping her because Vale wasn't available. Now she assured herself that Vale would be very grateful to him for aiding her. "I'm rested now," she added.
He nodded and led the way once more. He watched the sun for direction. Two or three miles from their first halt he said abruptly, "I think the terror beam should be over yonder." He waved an arm. "I've got an idea about it. I'll see."
"Be careful!" said Jill uneasily.
He nodded and swung away, moving with a peculiar tentativeness. She knew that he was testing for the smell which was the first symptom of approach to the alien weapon.
He halted half a mile from where Jill watched, resting again while she gazed after him. He moved backward and forward. He marked a place with a stone. He came well back from it and seemed to remove his wrist watch. He laid it on a boulder and stamped on it. He stamped again and again, shifting it between stampings. Then he pounded it with a small rock. He stood up and came back, trailing something which glittered golden for an instant.
He halted before he reached the rock he'd placed as a marker. He did cryptic things, facing away from Jill. From time to time there was a golden glitter in the air near him.
He came back. As he came, he wound something into a little coil. It was the silicon bronze mainspring of his non-magnetic watch. He held it for her to see and put it in his pocket.
"I know what the terror beam is—for what good it'll do!" he said bitterly. "It's a beam of radiation on the order of radar, and for that matter X-rays and everything else. Only an aerial does pick it up and this watchspring makes a good one. I could barely detect the smell at a certain place, but when I touched the laid out spring, it picked up more than my body did and it became horrible! Then I moved in to where my skin began to tingle and I saw lights and heard noises. The spring made all the difference in the world. I even found the direction of the beam."
Jill looked frightened.
"It comes from Boulder Lake," he told her. "It's the terror beam, all right! You can walk into it without knowing it. And I suspect that if it were strong enough it would be a death ray, too!"
Jill seemed to flinch a little.
"They're not using it at killing strength," said Lockley coldly. "They're softening us up. Letting us find out we're frustrated and helpless, and then letting us think it over. I'll bet they intended the four of us to escape from that compost pit thing so we could tell about it! But we'll know, now, if we find dead men in rows in a wiped-out town, we'll know what killed them, and when they ask us politely to become their slaves, we'll know we'll have to do it or die!"
Jill waited. When he seemed to have finished, she said, "If they're monsters, do you think they want to enslave us?"
He hesitated, and then said with a grimace, "I've a habit, Jill, of looking forward to the future and expecting unpleasant things to happen. Maybe it's so I'll be pleasantly surprised when they don't."
"Suppose," said Jill, "that they aren't monsters. What then?"
"Then," said Lockley, "it's a cold war device, to find out if the other side in the cold war can take us over without our suspecting they're the ones doing it. Naturally those in this ship will blow themselves up rather than be found out."
"Which," said Jill steadily, "doesn't offer much hope for...."
She didn't say Vale's name. She couldn't. Lockley grimaced again.
"It's not certain, Jill. The evidence is on the side of the monsters. But in either case the thing for us to do is get to the Army with what I've found out. I've had a stationary beam to test, however crudely. The cordon must have been pushed back by a moving or an intermittent beam. It wouldn't be easy to experiment with one of those. Come on."
She stood up. She followed when he went on. They climbed steep hillsides and went down into winding valleys. The sun began to sink in the west. The going was rough. For Lockley, accustomed to wilderness travel, it was fatiguing. For Jill it was much worse.
They came to a sere, bare hillside on which neither trees nor brushwood grew. It amounted to a natural clearing, acres in extent. Lockley swept his eyes around. There were many thick-foliaged small trees attempting to advance into the clear space. He grunted in satisfaction.
"Sit down and rest," he commanded. "I'll send a message."
He broke off branches from dark green conifers. He went out into the clearing and began to lay them out in a pattern. He came back and broke off more, and still more. Very slowly, because the lines had to be large and thick, the letters S.O.S. appeared in dark green on the clayey open space. The letters were thirty feet high, and the lines were five feet wide. They should show distinctly from the air.
"I think," said Lockley with satisfaction, "that we might get something out of this! If it's sighted, a 'copter might risk coming in after us." He looked at her appraisingly. "I think you'd enjoy a good meal."
"I want to say something," said Jill carefully. "I think you've been trying to cheer me up, after saying something to arouse me—which I needed. If the creatures aren't monsters, they'll never actually let anybody loose who's seen that they aren't. Isn't that true? And if it is—"
"We know of six men who were captured," insisted Lockley, "and I was one of them. All six escaped. Vale may have escaped. They're not good at keeping prisoners. We don't know and can't know unless it's mentioned on a news broadcast that he's out and away. So there's absolutely no reason to assume that Vale is dead."
"But if he saw them, when he was fighting them—"
"The evidence," insisted Lockley again, "is that he saw monsters. The only reason to doubt it is that they blindfolded four of us."
Jill seemed to think very hard. Presently she said resolutely, "I'm going to keep on hoping anyhow!"
"Good girl!" said Lockley.
They waited. He was impatient, both with fate and with himself. He felt that he'd made Jill face reality when—if this S.O.S. signal brought help—it wasn't necessary. And there was enough of grimness in the present situation to make it cruelty.
After a very long time they heard a faint droning in the air. There might have been others when they were trudging over bad terrain, and they might not have noticed because they were not listening for such sounds. There were planes aloft all around the lake area. They'd been sent up originally in response to a radar warning of something coming in from space. Now they flew in vast circles around the landing place of that reported object. They flew high, so high that only contrails would have pointed them out. But atmospheric conditions today were such that contrails did not form. The planes were invisible from the ground.
But the pilots could see. When one patrol group was relieved by another, it carried high-magnification photographs of all the park, to be developed and examined with magnifying glasses for any signs of activity by the crew of the object from space.
A second lieutenant spotted the S.O.S. within half an hour of the films' return. There was an immediate and intense conference. The lengths of shadows were measured. The size and slope and probable condition of the clearing's surface were estimated.
A very light plane, intended for artillery-spotting, took off from the nearest airfield to Boulder Lake.
And Lockley and Jill heard it long before it came in sight. It flew low, threading its way among valleys and past mountain-flanks to avoid being spotted against the sky. The two beside the clearing heard it first as a faint mutter. The sound increased, diminished, then increased again.
It shot over a minor mountain-flank and surveyed the bare space with the huge letters on it. Lockley and Jill raced out into view, waving frantically. The plane circled and circled, estimating the landing conditions. It swung away to arrive at a satisfactory approach path.
It wavered. It made a half-wingover, and it side-slipped crazily, and came up and stalled and flipped on its back and dived....
And it came out of its insane antics barely twenty feet above the ground. It raced away as close as possible to touching its wheels to earth. It went away behind the mountains. The sound of its going dwindled and dwindled and was gone. It appeared to have escaped from a deliberately set trap.
Lockley stared after it. Then he went white.
"Idiot!" he cried fiercely. "Come on! Run!"
He seized Jill's hand. They fled together. Evidently, something had played upon the pilot of the light plane. He'd been deafened and blinded and all his senses were a shrieking tumult while his muscles knotted and his hands froze on the controls of his ship. He hadn't flown out of the beam that made him helpless. He'd fallen out of it. And then he raced for the horizon. He got away. And it would appear to those to whom he reported that he'd arrived too late at the distress-signal. If fugitives had made it, they'd been overtaken and captured by the creatures of Boulder Lake, and there'd been an ambush set up for the plane. It was a reasonable decision.
But it puzzled the pilot's superior officers that he hadn't been allowed to land the plane before the beam was turned on him. He could have been paralyzed while on the ground, and he and his plane could have yielded considerable information to creatures from another world. It was puzzling.
Lockley and Jill raced for the woodland at the clearing's edge. Lockley clamped his lips tight shut to waste no breath in speech. The arrival and the circling of the plane had been a public notice that there were fugitives here. If the beam could paralyze a pilot in mid-air, it could be aimed at fugitives on the ground.... There could be no faintest hope....
Wholly desperate, Lockley helped Jill down a hillside and into a valley leading still farther down.
He smelled jungle, and muskiness, and decay, and flowers, and every conceivable discordant odor. Flashes of insane colorings formed themselves in his eyes. He heard the chaotic uproar which meant that his auditory nerves, like the nerves in his eyes and nostrils and skin, were stimulated to violent activity, reporting every kind of message they could possibly report all at once.
He groaned. He tried to find a hiding-place for Jill so that if or when the invaders searched for her, they would not find her. But he expected his muscles to knot in spasm and cramp before he could accomplish anything.
They didn't. The smell lessened gradually. The meaningless flashings of preposterous color grew faint. The horrible uproar his auditory nerves reported, ceased. He and Jill had been at the mercy of the unseen operator of the terror beam. Perhaps the beam had grazed them, by accident. Or it could have been weakened....
It was very puzzling.
When darkness fell, Lockley and Jill were many miles away from the clearing where he had made the S.O.S. They were under a dense screen of leaves from a monster tree whose roots rose above ground at the foot of its enormous trunk. They formed a shelter of sorts against observation from a distance. Lockley had spotted a fallen tree far gone with wood-rot. He broke pieces of the punky stuff with his fingers. Then he realized that without a pot the bracken shoots he'd gathered could not be cooked. They had to be boiled or not cooked at all.
"We'll call it a salad," he told Jill, "minus vinegar and oil and garlic, and eat what we can."
She'd been pale with exhaustion before the sun sank, but he hadn't dared let her rest more than was absolutely necessary. Once he'd offered to carry her for a while, but she'd refused. Now she sat drearily in the shelter of the roots, resting.
"We might try for news," he suggested.
She made an exhausted gesture of assent. He turned on the tiny radio and tuned it in. There was no scarcity of news, now. A few days past, news went on the air on schedule, mostly limited to five-minute periods in which to cover all the noteworthy events of the world. Part of that five minutes, too, was taken up by advertising matter from a sponsor. Now music was rare. There were occasional melodies, but most were interrupted for new interpretations of the threat to earth at Boulder Lake. Every sort of prominent person was invited to air his views about the thing from the sky and the creatures it brought. Most had no views but only an urge to talk to a large audience. Something, though, had to be put on the air between commercials.
The actual news was specific. Small towns around the fringe of the Park area were being evacuated of all their inhabitants. Foreign scientists had been flown to the United States and were at the temporary area command post not far from Boulder Lake. Rocket missiles were aimed and ready to blast the lake and the mountains around it should the need arise. A drone plane had been flown to the lake with a television camera transmitting back everything its lens saw. It arrived at the lake and its camera relayed back exactly nothing that had not been photographed and recorded before. But suddenly there was a crash of static and the drone went out of control and crashed. Its camera faithfully transmitted the landscape spinning around until its destruction. Military transmitters were beaming signals on every conceivable frequency to what was now universally called the alien spaceship. They had received no replies. The foreign scientists had agreed that the terror beam—paralysis beam—death beam—was electronic in nature.
Lockley had thought Jill asleep from pure weariness, but her voice came out of the darkness beside the big tree trunk.
"You found that out!" she said. "About its being electronic!"
"I had a sample stationary beam to check on," said Lockley. "They haven't. Which may be a bad thing. Nobody's going to make useful observations of something that makes him blind and deaf and paralyzed while he's in the act. There are some things that puzzle me about that. Why haven't they killed anybody yet? They've got the public about as scared as it can get without some killing. And why didn't we get the full force of the beam after the plane had been driven away? They could have given us the full treatment if they'd wanted to. Why didn't they?"
"If people run away from the towns," said Jill's voice, very tired and sleepy, "maybe they think that's enough. They can take the towns...."
Lockley did not answer, and Jill said no more. Her breathing became deep and regular. She was so weary that even hunger could not keep her awake.
Lockley tried to think. There was the matter of food. Bracken shoots were common enough but unsubstantial. It would need more careful observation to note all the likely spots for mushrooms. Perhaps they were far enough from the lake to take more time hunting food. They were almost exactly in the situation of Australian bushmen who live exclusively by foraging, with some not-too-efficient hunting. But Australian savages were not as finicky as Jill and himself. They ate grubs and insects. For this sort of situation, prejudices were a handicap.
He considered the idea with sardonic appreciation. Two days of inadequate food and such ideas came! But he and Jill wouldn't be the only ones to think such things if matters continued as they were going. The towns around Boulder Lake were being evacuated. The cordon about it had been made to retreat. There was panic not only in America, but everywhere. In Europe there were wild rumors of other landings of other ships of space. The stock markets would undoubtedly close tomorrow, if they hadn't closed today. There'd be the beginning of a mass exodus from the larger cities, starting quietly but building up to frenzy as those who tried to leave jammed all the routes by which they could get away. If the creatures of the spaceship wanted more than the flight of all humans from about their landing place, there would be genuine trouble. Let them move aggressively and there would be panic and disorder and pure catastrophe, with self-exiled city dwellers desperate from hunger because they were away from market centers. It looked as if a dozen or two monsters could wreck a civilization without the need to kill one single human being directly.
He heard a sound. He turned off the radio, gripping the clumsy club which was probably useless against anything really threatening.
The sound continued. There were rustlings of leaves, and then faint rattling, almost clicking noises. Whatever the creature was, it was not large. It seemed to amble tranquilly through the forest and the night, neither alarmed nor considering itself alarming.
The clickings again. And suddenly Lockley knew what it was. Of course! He'd heard it in the compost pit shell, when he was a prisoner of the invaders from space. He rose and moved toward the noise. The creature did not run away. It went about its own affairs with the same peaceful indifference as before. Lockley ran into a tree. He stumbled over a fallen branch on the ground. He came to the place where the creature should be. There was silence. He flicked the flint of his pocket lighter and in the flash of brightness he saw his prey. It had heard his approach. It was a porcupine, prudently curled up into a spiky ball and placidly defying all carnivores, including men. A porcupine is normally the one wild creature without an enemy. Even men customarily spare it because so often it has saved the lives of lost hunters and half-starved travelers. It accomplishes this by its bland refusal to run away from anybody.
Lockley classed himself as a half-starved traveler. He struck with the club after a second spark from his lighter-flint.
Presently he had a small, barely smouldering fire of rotted wood. He cooked over it, and the smell of cooking roused Jill from her exhausted slumber.
"We're having a late supper," said Lockley gravely. "A midnight snack. Take this stick. There's a loin of porcupine on it. Be careful! It's hot!"
Jill said, "Oh-h-h-h!" Then, "Is there more for you?"
"Plenty!" he assured her. "I hunted it down with my trusty club, and only got stuck a half-dozen times while I was skinning and cleaning it."
She ate avidly, and when she'd finished he offered more, which she refused until he'd had a share.
They did not quite finish the whole porcupine, but it was an odd and companionable meal, there in the darkness with the barely-glowing coals well-hidden from sight. Lockley said, "I'm sort of a news addict. Shall we see what the wild radio waves are saying?"
"Of course," said Jill. She added awkwardly: "Maybe it's the sudden food, but—I hope you'll remain my friend after this is all over. I don't know anyone else I'd say that to."
"Consider," said Lockley, "that I've made an eloquent and grateful reply."
But his expression in the darkness was not happy. He'd fallen in love with Jill after meeting her only twice, and both times she had been with Vale. She intended to marry Vale. But on the evidence at hand Vale was either dead or a prisoner of the invaders; if the last, his chances of living to marry Jill did not look good, and if the first, this was surely no time to revive his memory.
He found a news broadcast. He suspected that most radio stations would stay on the air all night, now that it was officially admitted that the object in Boulder Lake was a spaceship bringing invaders to earth. The government releases spoke of them as "visitors," in a belated use of the term, but the public was suspicious of reassurances now. At the beginning the landing had seemed like another exaggerated horror tale of the kind that kept up newspaper circulations. Now the public was beginning to believe it, and people might stop going to their offices and the trains might cease to ran on time. When that happened, disaster would be at hand.
The news came in a resonant voice which revealed these facts:
Four more small towns had been ordered evacuated because of their proximity to Boulder Lake. The radiation weapon of the aliens had pushed back the military cordon by as much as five miles. But the big news was that the aliens had broken radio silence. Apparently they'd examined and repaired the short wave communicator from the helicopter they'd knocked down.
Shortly after sundown, said the news report, a call had come through on a military short wave frequency. It was a human voice, first muttering bewilderedly and then speaking with confusion and uneasiness. The message had been taped and now was released to the public.
"What the hell's this ...? Oh.... What do you characters want me to do? This feels like the short wave set from the 'copter.... Hmm.... You got it turned on.... What'll I do with it, Broadcast? I don't know whether you want me to talk to you or to back home, wherever that is.... Maybe you want me to say I'm havin' a fine time an' wish you was here.... I'm not. I wish I was there.... If this is goin' on the air I'm Joe Blake, radio man on the 'copter two 'leven. We were headin' in to Boulder Lake when I smelled a stink. Next second there were lights in my eyes. They blinded me. Then I heard a racket like all hell was loose. Then I felt like I had hold of a power transmission line. I couldn't wiggle a finger. I stayed that way till the 'copter crashed. When I come to, I was blindfolded like I am now. I don't know what happened to the other guys. I haven't seen 'em. I haven't seen anything! But they just put me in front of what I think is the 'copter's short wave set an' squeaked at me—"
The recorded voice ended abruptly. The news announcer's voice came back. He said that the member of the 'copter crew had given some other information before he was arbitrarily cut off.
"I'll bet," said Lockley when the newscast ended, "I'll bet the other information was that the invaders have managed to tell him that earth must surrender to them!"
"What else would they want to say? To come and play patty-cake, when they can push the Army around at will and have managed to keep planes from flying anywhere near them? They may not know we've got atom bombs, but I'll bet they do! Part of that extra information could have been a warning not to try to use them. It would be logical to bluff even on that, though they couldn't make good."
Jill said very carefully, "You hinted once that they might be men, pretending to be monsters. But that would mean that somebody I care about would probably be killed because he'd seen them and knew they weren't creatures from beyond the stars."
"I think you can forget that idea," said Lockley. "They don't act like men. Chasing away the plane that was going to land for us, and not using the beam on the fugitives it was plainly going to land for—that's not like men preparing to take over a continent! And nudging the Army back to make the cordoned space larger—that's not like our most likely human enemy, either. They'd wipe out the cordon by stepping up the terror beam to death ray intensity."
"Suppose they couldn't?"
"They wouldn't have landed with a weapon that couldn't kill anybody," said Lockley. "It's much more likely that they're monsters. But they don't act like monsters, either."
Jill was silent for a moment.
"Not even monsters who wanted to make friends?"
"They," said Lockley drily, "would hardly make a surprise landing. They'd have parked on the moon and squeaked at us until we got curious, and then they'd arrange to land, or to meet men in orbit, or something. But they didn't. They made a surprise landing, and cleared a big space of humans, keeping themselves to themselves. But if they do think we're animals, like rabbits, they'd kill people instead of stinging them up a bit, or paralyzing them for a while and then letting them go. That's not like any monster I can imagine!"
"You'd better go to sleep," said Lockley. "We've got a long day's hike before us tomorrow."
"Yes-s-s," agreed Jill reluctantly. "Good-night."
"'Night," said Lockley curtly.
He stayed awake. It was amusing that he was uneasy about wild animals. There were predators in the Park, and he had only an improvised club for a weapon. But he knew well enough that most animals avoid man because of a bewildering sudden development of instinct.
Grizzly bears, before the white man came, were so scornful of man that they could be considered the dominant species in North America. They'd been known to raid a camp of Indians to carry away a man for food. Indian spears and arrows were simply ineffective against them. When Stonewall Jackson was a lieutenant in the United States Army, stationed in the West to protect the white settlers, he and a detachment of mounted troopers were attacked without provocation by a grizzly who was wholly contemptuous of them. The then Lieutenant Jackson rode a horse which was blind in one eye, and he maneuvered to get the bear on the horse's blind side so he could charge it. With his cavalry sabre he split the grizzly's skull down to its chin. It was the only time in history that a grizzly bear was ever killed by a man with a sword. But no grizzly nowadays would attack a man unless cornered. Even cubs with no possible experience of humankind are terrified by the scent of men.
All that was true enough. In addition, preparations for the Park included much activity by the Wild Life Control unit, which persuaded bears to congregate in one area by putting out food for them, and took various other measures for deer and other animals. It had seeded trout streams with fingerlings and the lake itself with baby big-mouthed bass. The huge trailer truck of Wild Life Control was familiar enough. Lockley had seen it headed up to the lake the day before the landing. Now he found himself wondering sardonically to what degree the Wild Life Control men determined where mountain lions should hunt.
He'd slept in the open innumerable times without thinking of mountain lions. With Jill to look after, though, he worried. But he was horribly weary, and he knew somehow that in the back of his mind there was something unpleasant that was trying to move into his conscious thoughts. It was a sort of hunch. Wearily and half asleep, he tried to put his mind on it. He failed.
He awoke suddenly. There were rustlings among the trees. Something moved slowly and intermittently toward him. It could be anything, even a creature from Boulder Lake. He heard other sounds. Another creature. The first drew near, not moving in a straight line. The second creature followed it, drawing closer to the first.
Lockley's scalp crawled. Creatures from space might have some of the highly-developed senses which men had lost while growing civilized—full keenness of scent, for example.
Such a creature might be able to find Lockley and Jill in the darkness after trailing them for miles. And so primitive a talent, in a creature farther advanced than men, was somehow more horrifying than anything else Lockley had thought of about them. He gripped his club desperately, wholly aware that a star creature should be able to paralyze him with the terror beam....
There were whistling, squealing noises. They were very much like the squeaks his captors had directed at each other and at him when he was blindfolded and being led downhill to imprisonment in the compost pit shell. Very much like, but not identical. Nevertheless, Lockley's hair seemed to stand up on end and he raised his club in desperation.
The whistling squeals grew shriller. Then there was an indescribable sound and one of the two creatures rushed frantically away. It traveled in great leaps through the blackness under the trees.
And then there was a sudden whiff of a long-familiar odor, smelled a hundred times before. It was the reek of a skunk, stalked by a carnivore and defending itself as skunks do. But a skunk was nothing like a terror beam. Its effluvium offended only one sense, affected only one set of sensation nerves. The terror beam....
Lockley opened his mouth to laugh, but did not. The thing at the back of his mind had come forward. He was appalled.
Jill said shakily, "What's the matter? What's happened? That smell—"
"It's only a skunk," said Lockley evenly. "He just told me some very bad news. I know how the terror beam works now. And there's not a thing that can be done about it. Not a thing. It can't be!"
He raged suddenly, there in the darkness, because he saw the utter hopelessness of combatting the creatures who'd taken over Boulder Lake. There was nothing to keep them from taking over the whole earth, no matter what sort of monsters or not-monsters they might be.
It was nine o'clock at night when Lockley killed the porcupine, and ten by the time Jill had gone back to sleep huddled between the projecting roots of a giant tree. Shortly after midnight Lockley had been awakened when a skunk defeated a hungry predator within a hundred yards of their bivouac. But some time in between, there was another happening of much greater importance elsewhere.
Something came out of Boulder Lake National Park. All humans had supposedly fled from it. It was abandoned to the creatures of the thing from the sky. But something came out of it.
Nobody saw the thing, of course. Nobody could approach it, which was the point immediately demonstrated. No human being could endure being within seven miles of whatever it was. It was evidently a vehicle of some sort, however, because it swung terror beams before it, and terror beams on either side, and when it was clear of the Park it played terror beams behind it, too. Men who suffered the lightest touch of those sweeping beams of terror and anguish moved frantically to avoid having the experience again. So when something moved out of the Park and sent wavering terror beams before it, men moved to one side or the other and gave it room.
On a large-scale map in the military area command post, its progress could be watched as it was reported. The reports described a development of unbearable beam strength which showed up as a bulge in the cordon's roughly circular line. That bulge, which was the cordon itself moving back, moved outward and became a half-circle some miles across. It continued to move outward, and on the map it appeared like a pseudopod extruded by an enormous amoeba. It was the area of effectiveness of a weapon previously unknown on earth—the area where humans could not stay.
Deliberately, the unseen moving thing severed itself from the similar and larger weapon field which was its birthplace and its home. It moved with great deliberation toward the small town of Maplewood, twenty miles from the border of the Park.
Jeeps and motorcycles scurried ahead of it, just out of reach of its beams. They made sure that houses and farms and all inhabited places were emptied of people before the moving terror beams could engulf them. They went into the town of Maplewood itself and frantically made sure that nothing alive remained in it. They went on to clear the countryside beyond.
The unseen thing from the Park moved onward. High overhead there was a dull muttering like faraway thunder, but it was planes with filled bomb racks circling above the starlit land. There were men in those planes who ached to dive down and destroy this separated fraction of an invasion. But there were firm orders from the Pentagon. So long as the invaders killed nobody, they were not to be attacked. There was reason for the order in the desire of the government to be on friendly terms with a race which could travel between the stars. But there was an even more urgent reason. The aliens had not yet begun to murder, but it was suspected that they had a horrifying power to kill. So it was firmly commanded that no bomb or missile or bullet was to be used unless the invaders invited hostilities by killing humans. Their captives—the crew of a helicopter—might be freed if aliens and men achieved friendship. So for now—no provocation!
The thing which nobody saw moved comfortably over the ground between the park and Maplewood. In the center of the weapon field there was a something which generated the terror beam and probably carried passengers. Whatever it was, it moved onward and into Maplewood and for seven miles in every direction troops watched for it to move out again. Artillerymen had guns ready to fire upon it if they ever got firing coordinates and permission to go into action. Planes were ready to drop bombs if they ever got leave to do so. And a few miles away there were rockets ready to prove their accuracy and devastating capacity if only given a launching command. But nothing happened. Not even a flare was permitted to be dropped by the planes far up in the sky. A flare might be taken for hostility.
The thing from the Park stayed in Maplewood for two hours. At the end of that time it moved deliberately back toward the Park. It left the town untouched save for certain curious burglaries of hardware stores and radio shops and a garage or two. It looked as if intensely curious not-human beings had moved from their redoubt—Boulder Lake—to find out what civilization human beings had attained. They could guess at it by the buildings and the homes, but most notably in the technical shops of the inhabitants.
It went slowly and deliberately back into the Park. Humans moved cautiously back into the area that had been emptied. Not many, but enough to be sure that the thing had really returned to the place from which it had come. Soldiers were tentatively entering the again-abandoned town of Maplewood when the unseen thing changed the range of its weapon bearing on that little city. It was then presumably not less than seven miles on its way back to Boulder Lake. The military had congratulated themselves on what they'd learned. The beam projectors at the lake had a range of much more than seven miles, but this movable, unidentifiable thing carried a lesser armament. From it, men and animals seven miles away were safe. This was notable news.
Then the unseen object did something. The terror beam that flicked back and forth doubled in intensity. The soldiers just reentering Maplewood smelled foulness and saw bright lights. Bellowings deafened them. They fell with every muscle rigid in spasm. Beyond them other men were paralyzed. For five minutes the invaders' mobile weapon paralyzed all living things for a distance of fifteen miles. Then for thirty seconds it paralyzed living things for a distance of thirty miles. For a bare instant it convulsed men and animals for a greater distance yet. And all these victims of the terror beam knew, thereafter, an invincible horror of the beam.
The thing from the Park which nobody had seen went back into the Park. And then men were permitted to return to exactly the same places they'd been allowed to occupy before the thing began its excursion.
It seemed that nothing was changed, but everything was changed. If there were mobile carriers of the invasion weapon, then victory could not be had by a single atom bomb fired into Boulder Lake. There might be a dozen separate mobile terror beam generators scattered through the Park. Any atomic attack would need to be multiplied in its violence to be certain of results. Instead of one bomb there might be a need for fifty. They would have to destroy the Park utterly, even its mountains. And the fallout from so many atom bombs simply could not be risked. The invaders were effectively invulnerable.
While this undesirable situation was being demonstrated, Jill slept heavily between two roots of a very large tree, and Lockley dozed against a nearby tree trunk. He believed that he guarded Jill most vigilantly.
He awoke at dawn with the din of bird song in his ears. Jill opened her eyes at almost the same instant. She smiled at him and tried to get up. She was stiff and sore from the hardness of the ground on which she'd slept. But it was a new day, and there was breakfast. It was porcupine cooked the night before.
"Somehow," said Jill as she nibbled at a bone, "somehow I feel more cheerful than I did."
"That's a mistake," Lockley told her. "Start out with a few premonitions and the day improves as they turn out wrong. But if you start out hoping, the day ends miserably with most of your hopes denied."
"You've got premonitions?" she asked.
"Definitely," he said.
It was true. As yet he knew nothing of last night's temporary occupation of a human town, but he believed he knew how the terror beam worked even if he couldn't figure out a way to generate it. He could imagine no defense against it. But if Jill had awakened feeling cheerful, there was no reason to depress her. She'd have reason enough to be dejected later, beginning with proof of Vale's death and going on from there.
"We might listen to the news," she suggested. "A premonition or two might be ruled out right away!"
Silently, he turned on the little radio. Automatically, he set it for the lowest volume they could hear distinctly.
The main item in the news was a baldly factual but toned-down report of the thing from the lake which had left the park and examined a small human town in detail and then had returned to the Park. There were reports of peculiar hoofprints found where the invaders had been. They were not the hoofprints of any earthly animal. There was an optimistic report from the scientists at work on the problem of the beam. Someone had come up with an idea and some calculations which seemed to promise that the beam would presently be duplicated. Once it was duplicated, of course a way to neutralize it could be found.
Lockley grunted. The broadcast was enthusiastic in its comments on the scientists. It talked gobbledegook which sounded as if it meant something but was actually nonsense. It barely touched on the fact that human beings were now ordered out of a much larger space than had been evacuated before. There was a statement from an important official that panic buying of food was both unnecessary and unwise. Lockley grunted again when the newscast ended.
"The idea that anything that can be duplicated can be canceled," he announced gloomily, "is unfortunately rot. We can duplicate sounds, but there's no way to make them cancel out! Not accurately!"
Jill had eaten a substantial part of the porcupine while the newscast was on. It was not a satisfying breakfast, but it cheered her immensely after two days of near-starvation.
"But," she observed, "maybe that won't apply to this business when you report what you know. It's not likely that anybody else has stood just outside a beam and made tests of what it's like and how it's aimed and so on."
They started off. For journeying in the Park, Lockley had the advantage that as part of the preparation for making a new map, he'd familiarized himself with all mapping done to date. He knew very nearly where he was. He knew within a close margin just where the terror beam stretched. He'd smashed his watch, which during sunshine substituted admirably for a compass, but he could maintain a reasonably straight line toward that part of the Park's border the terror beam would cross.
They moved doggedly over mountain-flanks and up valleys, and once they followed a winding hollow for a long way because it led toward their destination without demanding that they climb. It was in this area that, pushing through brushwood beside a running stream, they came abruptly upon a big brown bear. He was no more than a hundred feet away. He stared at them inquisitively, raising his nose to sniff for their scent.
Lockley bent and picked up a stone. He threw it. It clattered on rocks on the ground. The bear made a whuffing sound and moved aggrievedly away.
"I'd have been afraid to do that," said Jill.
"It was a he-bear," said Lockley. "I wouldn't have tried it on a she-bear with cubs."
They went on and on. At mid-morning Lockley found some mushrooms. They were insipid and only acute hunger would make them edible raw, but he filled his pockets. A little later there were berries, and as they gathered and ate them he lectured learnedly on edible wild plants to be found in the wilderness. Jill listened with apparent interest. When they left the berry patch they swung to the left to avoid a steep climb directly in their way. And suddenly Lockley stopped short. At the same instant Jill caught at his arm. She'd turned white.
They turned and ran.
A hundred yards back, Lockley slackened his speed. They stopped. After a moment he managed to grin mirthlessly.
"A conditioned reflex," he said wryly. "We smell something and we run. But I think it's the old familiar terror beam that crosses highways to stop men from using them. If it were a portable beam projector with somebody aiming it, we wouldn't be talking about it."
Jill panted, partly with relief.
"I've thought of something I want to try," said Lockley. "I should have tried it yesterday when I first smashed my watch."
He retraced his steps to the spot where they'd caught the first whiff of that disgusting reptilian-jungle-decay odor which had bombarded their nostrils. Jill called anxiously, "Be careful!"
He nodded. He got the coiled bronze watchspring out of his pocket. He went very cautiously to the spot where the smell became noticeable. Standing well back from it, he tossed one end of the spring into it. He drew it back. He repeated the operation. He moved to one side. Again he swung the gold-colored ribbon. He dangled it back and forth. Then he drew back yet again and wrapped his left hand and wrists with many turns of the thin bronze spring, carefully spacing the turns. He moved forward once more.
He came back, his expression showing no elation at all.
"No good," he said unhappily. "In a way, it works. The spring acts as an aerial and picks up more of the beam than my hand. But I tried to make a Faraday cage. That will stop most electromagnetic radiation, but not this stuff! It goes right through, like electrons through a radio tube grid."
He put the spring back in his pocket.
"Well," he grimaced. "Let's go on again. I had a little bit of hope, but some smarter men than I am haven't got the right gimmick yet."
They started off once more. And this time they did not choose a path for easier travel, but went up a steep slope that rose for hundreds of feet to arrive at a crest with another steep slope going downhill. At the top Lockley said sourly, "I did discover one thing, if it means anything. The beam leaks at its edges, but it's only leakage. It doesn't diffuse. It's tight. It's more like a searchlight beam than anything else in that way. You can see a light beam at night because dust motes scatter some part of it. But most of the light goes straight on. This stuff does the same. It's hard to imagine a limit to its range."
He trudged on downhill. Jill followed him. Presently, when they'd covered two miles or more with no lightening of his expression, she said, "You said you understand how it works. Radio and radar beams don't have effects like this. How does this have them?"
"It makes high frequency currents on the surface of anything it hits. High frequency doesn't go into flesh or metal. It travels on the surface only. So when this beam hits a man it generates high frequency on his skin. That induces counter currents underneath, and they stimulate all the sensory nerves we've got—of our eyes and ears and noses as well as our skin. Every nerve reports its own kind of sensation. Run current over your tongue, and you taste. Induce a current in your eyes, and you see flashes of light. So the beam makes all our senses report everything they're capable of reporting, true or not, and we're blinded and deafened. Then the nerves to our muscles report to them that they're to contract, and they do. So we're paralyzed."
"And," said Jill, "if there's a way to generate high frequency on a man's skin there's nothing that can be done?"
"Nothing," said Lockley dourly.
"Maybe," said Jill, "you can figure out a way to prevent that high frequency generation."
He shrugged. Jill frowned as she followed him. She hadn't forgotten Vale, but she owed some gratitude to Lockley. Womanlike, she tried to pay part of it by urging him to do something he considered impossible.
"At least," she suggested, "it can't be a death ray!"
Lockley looked at her.
"You're wrong there," he said coldly. "It can."
Jill frowned again. Not because of his statement, but because she hadn't succeeded in diverting his mind from gloomy things. She had reason enough for sadness, herself. If she spoke of it, Lockley would try to encourage her. But he was concerned with more than his own emotions. Without really knowing it, Jill had come to feel a great confidence in Lockley. It had been reassuring that he could find food, and perhaps more reassuring that he could chase away a bear. Such talents were not logical reasons for being confident that he could solve the alien's seemingly invincible weapon, but she was inclined to feel so. And if she could encourage him to cope with the monsters—why—it would be even a form of loyalty to Vale. So she believed.
In the late afternoon Lockley said, "Another four or five miles and we ought to be out of the Park and on another highway we'll hope won't be blocked by a terror beam. Anyhow there should be an occasional farmhouse where we can find some sort of civilized food."
Jill said hungrily, "Scrambled eggs!"
"Probably," he agreed.
They went on and on. Three miles. Four. Five. Five and a half. They descended a minor slope and came to a hard-surfaced road with tire marks on it and a sign sternly urging care in driving. There were ploughed fields in which crops were growing. There was a row of stubby telephone poles with a sagging wire between them.
"We'll head west," said Lockley. "There ought to be a farmhouse somewhere near."
"And people," said Jill. "I look terrible!"
He regarded her with approval.
"No. You look all right. You look fine!"
It was pleasing that he seemed to mean it. But immediately she said, "Maybe we'll be able to find out about ... about...."
"Vale," agreed Lockley. "But don't be disappointed if we don't. He could have escaped or been freed without everybody knowing it."
She said in surprise, "Been freed! That's something I didn't think of. He'd set to work to make them understand that we humans are intelligent and they ought to make friends with us. That would be the first thing he'd think of. And they might set him free to arrange it."
Lockley said, "Yes," in a carefully noncommittal tone.
Another mile, this time on the hard road. It seemed strange to walk on so unyielding a surface after so many miles on quite different kinds of footing. It was almost sunset now. There was a farmhouse set well back from the road and barely discernable beyond nearby growing corn. The house seemed dead. It was neat enough and in good repair. There were clackings of chickens from somewhere behind it. But it had the feel of emptiness.
Lockley called. He called again. He went to the door and would have called once more, but the door opened at a touch.
"Evacuated," he said. "Did you notice that there was a telephone line leading here from the road?"
He hunted in the now shadowy rooms. He found the telephone. He lifted the receiver and heard the humming of the line. He tried to call an operator. He heard the muted buzz that said the call was sounding. But there was no answer. He found a telephone book and dialed one number after another. Sheriff. Preacher. Doctor. Garage. Operator again. General store.... He could tell that telephones rang dutifully in remote abandoned places. But there was no answer at all.
"I'll look in the chicken coops," said Jill practically.
She came back with eggs. She said briefly, "The chickens were hungry. I fed them and left the chicken yard gate open. I wonder if the beam hurts them too?"
"It does," said Lockley.
He made a light and then a fire and she cooked eggs which belonged to the unknown people who owned this house and who had walked out of it when instructions for immediate evacuation came. They felt queer, making free with this house of a stranger. They felt that he might come in and be indignant with them.
"I ought to wash the dishes," said Jill when they were finished.
"No," said Lockley. "We go on. We need to find some soldiers, or a telephone that works...."
"I'm not a good dishwasher anyhow," said Jill guiltily.
Lockley put a banknote on the kitchen table, with a weight on it to keep it from blowing away. They closed the house door. They'd eaten fully and luxuriously of eggs and partly stale bread and the sensation was admirable. They went out to the highway again.
"West is still our best bet," said Lockley. "They've blocked the highway to eastward with that terror beam."
The sun had set now, but a fading glory remained in the sky. They saw the slenderest, barest crescent of a new moon practically hidden in the sunset glow. They walked upon a civilized road, with a fence on one side of it and above it a single sagging telephone wire that could be made out against the stars.
"I feel," said Jill, "as if we were almost safe, now. All this looks so ordinary and reassuring."
"But we'd better keep our noses alert," Lockley told her. "We know that one beam comes nearly this far and probably—no, certainly crosses this road. There may be more."
"Oh, yes," agreed Jill. Then she said irrelevantly, "I'll bet they do make him a sort of—ambassador to our government to arrange for making friends. He'll be able to convince them!"
Again she referred to Vale. Lockley said nothing.
Night was now fully fallen. There were myriad stars overhead. They saw the telephone wire dipping between poles against the sky's brightness. They passed an open gate where another telephone wire led away, doubtless to another farmhouse. But if there was no one at the other end of a telephone line, there was no point in using a phone.
There came a rumbling noise behind them. They stared at one another in the starlight. The rumbling approached.
"It—can't be!" said Jill, marvelling.
"It's a motor," said Lockley. He could not feel complete relief. "Sounds like a truck. I wonder—"
He felt uneasiness. But it was absurd. Only human beings would use motor trucks.
There was a glow in the distance behind them. It came nearer as the sound of the motor approached. The motor's mutter became a grumble. It was definitely a truck. They could hear those other sounds that trucks always make in addition to their motor noises.
It came up to the curve they'd rounded last. Its headlight beams glared on the cornstalks growing next to the highway. One headlight appeared around the turn. Then the other. An enormous trailer-truck combination came bumbling toward them. Jill held up her hand for it to stop. Its headlights shone brightly upon her.
Airbrakes came on. The giant combination—cab in front, gigantic box body behind—came to a halt. A man leaned out. He said amazedly, "Hey, what are you folks doin' here? Everybody's supposed to be long gone! Ain't you heard about all civilians clearing out from twenty miles outside the Park? There's boogers in there! Characters from Mars or somewhere. They eat people!"
Even in the starlight Lockley saw the familiar Wild Life Control markings on the trailer. He heard Jill, her voice shaking with relief, explaining that she'd been at the construction camp and had been left behind, and that she and Lockley had made their way out.
"We want to get to a telephone," she added. "He has some information he wants to give to the Army. It's very important." Then she swallowed. "And I'd like to ask if you've heard anything about a Mr. Vale. He was taken prisoner by the creatures up there. Have you heard of his being released?"
The driver hesitated. Then he said, "No, ma'm. Not a word about him. But we'll take care of you two! You musta been through plenty! Jud, you go get in the trailer, back yonder. Make room for these two folks up on the front seat." He added explanatorily, "There's cases and stuff in the back, ma'm. You two folks climb right up here alongside of me. You sure musta had a time!"
The door on the near side of the truck cab opened. A small man got out. Silently, he went to the rear of the trailer and swung up out of sight. Jill climbed into the opened door. Lockley followed her. He still felt an irrational uneasiness, but he put it down to habit. The past few days had formed it.
"We've been cartin' stuff for the soldiers," explained the driver as Lockley closed the door behind him. "They keep track of where that terror beam is workin', and they tell us by truck radio, and we dodge it. Ain't had a bit of trouble. Never thought I'd play games with Martians! Did you see any of 'em? What sort of critters are they?"
He slipped the truck into gear and gunned the motor. Truck and trailer, together, began to roll down the highway. Lockley was irritated with himself because he couldn't relax and feel safe, as this development seemed to warrant.
Later, he would wonder why he hadn't used his head in this as in other matters during the few days just past.
He plainly hadn't.
The driver was avidly curious about the area where supposedly no human being could survive. He asked absorbed questions, especially and insistently about the aliens. Jill said that she'd seen a few of them, but only at a distance. They'd been investigating the evacuated construction camp. They were about the size of men. She couldn't describe them, but they weren't human beings. He seemed to find it unthinkable that she hadn't examined them in detail.
Lockley came to her rescue. He observed that he'd been a prisoner of the invaders, and had escaped. Then the driver's curiosity became insatiable. He wanted to know every imaginable detail of that experience. He expressed almost incredulous disappointment that Lockley couldn't give even a partial description of the creatures. When convinced, he launched a detailed recital of the descriptions offered by the workmen from the camp. He pictured the aliens as hoofed like horses, equipped with horns like antelopes, fitted with multiple arms like octopi and huge multi-faceted eyes like insects.
He seemed to contemplate this picture with vast satisfaction as the truck growled and rumbled through the night.
The headlights glared on ahead of the truck. There were dark fields and darker mountains beyond them. From time to time little side roads branched off. They undoubtedly led to houses, but no speck of lamp light appeared anywhere. This part of the world was empty, with the loneliness of a landscape from which every hint of human activity had been removed.
Jill asked a question. The driver grew garrulous. He gave a dramatic picture of terror throughout the world, the suspension of all ordinary antagonisms in the face of this menace to every man and nation on the earth. There was peace even in the world's trouble spots as appalled agitators saw how much worse things could be if the monsters took over the world to rule. But the driver insisted that the United States was calm. Us Americans, he assured Lockley, weren't scared. We were educated and we knew that them scientists would crack this nut somehow. Like only yesterday a broadcast said this Belgian guy had come up with calculations that said this poison beam had to be something like a radar beam or a laser beam or something like that. And the American scientists were right out there in front, along with guys from England and France and Italy and Germany and even Russia. All the big brains of the world were workin' on it! Those Martians were gonna wish they'd come visitin' polite instead of barging in like they owned the world! They'd be lucky if they wound up ownin' Mars!
Lockley pressed for details about the scientists' results. He didn't expect to get them, but the driver cheerfully obliged.
Radio, said the driver largely, worked by making waves like those on a pond. They spread out and reached places where there were instruments to detect them, and that was that. Radar made the same kind of waves, only smaller, which bounced back to where there was an instrument to detect them. These were ripple waves.
Lockley interpreted the term to mean sine waves, rounded at top and trough. It was a perfectly good word to express the meaning intended.
These were natural kindsa waves, pursued the driver. Lightning made them. Static was them, and sparks from running motors and blown fuses. Waves like that were generated whenever an electric circuit was made or broken besides their occurrence from purely natural causes.
"We can't feel 'em," said the driver expansively. "We're used to waves like that. Animals couldn't do anything about 'em and didn't need to before there was men. So when we come along, we couldn't notice 'em any more than we notice air pressure on our skin. We're used to it! But these scientists say there's waves that ain't natural. They ain't like ripples. They're like storm waves with foam on 'em. And that's the kind of waves we can notice. Like storm waves with sharp edges. We can notice them because they do things to us! These Martians make 'em do things. But now we know what kinda waves they are, we're gonna mess them up! And I'm savin' up a special kick for one o' those Martians when they're licked just as soon as I can find out which end of him is which an' suited to that kinda attention!"
Lockley found himself suspicious and was annoyed. Jill was safe now. This driver was well-informed, but probably everybody was well-informed now. They had reason to become so!
The truck trundled through the night. High overhead, a squadron of planes arrived to take its place in the ever-moving patrol around the Park. Another squadron, relieved, went away to the southwest. There was a deep-toned, faraway roaring from the engines aloft. All the sky behind the trailer seemed to mutter continuously. But the roof of stars ahead was silent.
Lockley stayed tense and was weary of his tenseness, Jill was safe. He tried to reason his uneasiness away. The cab of the truck wobbled and swayed. The feel of the vehicle was entirely unlike the feel of a passenger car. It felt tail-heavy. The driver had ceased to talk. He seemed to be musing as he drove. He'd asked about the invaders but seemed almost indifferent to any adventures Jill and Lockley might have had on their way out. He didn't ask what they'd done for food. He was thinking of something else.
Lockley found himself questioning the driver's statements just after they got in. Driving for the Army. The Army kept track of where the terror beams existed, and notified this truck by truck radio, and he dodged all such road barriers. That was what he said. It seemed plausible, but—
"One thing strikes me funny," said the driver, musingly. "Those critters blindfoldin' you and those other guys. What' you think they did it for?"
"To keep us from seeing them," said Lockley, curtly.
"But why'd they want to do that?"
"Because," said Lockley, "they might not have been Martians. They might not have been critters. They might have been men."
On the instant he regretted bitterly that he'd said it. It was a guess, only, with all the evidence against it. The driver visibly jumped. Then he turned his head.
"Where'd you get that idea?" he demanded. "What's the evidence? Why d'you think it?"
"They blindfolded me," said Lockley briefly.
A pause. Then the driver said vexedly, "That's a funny thing to make you think they was men! Hell! Excuse me, ma'm!—they coulda had all kindsa reasons for blindfoldin' you! It coulda been part of their religion!"
"Maybe," said Lockley. He was angry with himself for having said something which was needlessly dramatic.
"Didn't you have any other reason for thinkin' they were men?" demanded the driver curiously. "No other reason at all?"
"No other at all," said Lockley.
"It's a crazy reason, if you ask me!"
"Quite likely," conceded Lockley.
He'd been indiscreet, but no more. He'd said what he thought, perhaps because he was tired of watching all the country round him for a menace to Jill, and then watching every word he spoke to keep her from abandoning hope for Vale.
Jill said, "Where are we headed for? I hope I can get to a telephone. I want to ask about somebody.... He wants to tell the soldiers something."
"We're headed for a army supply dump," said the driver comfortably, "to load up with stuff for the guys that're watching all around the Park. We'll be goin' through Serena presently. Funny. Everybody moved out by the Army. A good thing, too. The folks in Maplewood couldn't ha' been got out last night before the Martians got there."
The trailer-truck went on through the night. The driver lounged in his seat, keeping a negligent but capable eye on the road ahead. The headlights showed a place where another road crossed this one and there was a filling station, still and dark, and four or five dwellings nearby with no single sign of life about them. Then the crossroads settlement fell behind. A mile beyond it Jill said startledly, "Lights! There's a town. It's lighted."
"It's Serena," said the driver. "The street lights are on because the electricity comes from far away. With the lights on it's a marker for the planes, too, so they can tell exactly where they are and the Park too. They can't see the ground so good at night, from away up there."
The white street lamps seemed to twinkle as the trailer-truck rumbled on. A single long line of them appeared to welcome the big vehicle. It went on into the town. It reached the business district. There were side streets, utterly empty, and then the main street divided. The truck bore to the right. There were three and four-story buildings. Every window was blank and empty, reflecting only the white street lamps. No living thing anywhere. There had been no destruction, but the town was dead. Its lights shone on streets so empty that it would have seemed better to leave them to the kindly dark.
Jill exclaimed, "Look! That window!"
And ahead, in the dead and lifeless town, a single window glowed from electric light inside it, and it looked lonelier than anything else in the world.
"I'm gonna look into that!" said the driver. "Nobody's supposed to be here."
The truck came to a stop. The driver got out. There was a stirring, behind, and the small man who'd given his place to Jill and Lockley popped out of the trailer body. Lockley saw the name of a local telephone company silhouetted on the lighted windowpane. He opened the door. Jill followed him instantly. The four of them—driver, helper, Lockley and Jill—crowded into the building hallway to investigate the one lighted room in a town where twenty thousand people were supposed to live.
There was a door with a frosted glass top through which light showed. The driver turned the door-knob and marched in. The room had an alcoholic smell. A man with sunken cheeks slept heavily in a chair, his head forward on his chest.
The driver shook him.
"Wake up, guy!" he said sternly. "Orders are for all civilians to clear outa this town. You wanna soldier to come by an' take you for a looter an' bump you off?"
He shook again. The cadaverous man blinked his eyes open. The smell of alcohol was distinct. He was drunk. He gazed ferociously up at the driver of the truck.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded belligerently.
The driver spoke sternly, repeating what he'd said before. The drunk assumed an air of outraged dignity.
"If I wanna stay here, that's my business! Who th' hell are you anyways, disturbin' a citizen tax-payer on his lawful occasions? Are you Martians? I wouldn't put it pasht you!"
He sat down and went back to sleep.
The driver said fretfully, "He oughtn't to be here! But we ain't got room to carry him. I'm gonna use the truck radio an' ask what to do. Maybe they'll send a Army truck to get him outa here. He could set the whole town on fire!"
He went out. The small man who was his helper followed him. He hadn't spoken a word. Lockley growled. Then Jill said breathlessly, "The switch-board has some long distance lines. I know how to connect them. Shall I try?"
Lockley agreed emphatically. Jill slipped into the operator's chair and donned the headset. She inserted a plug and pressed a switch.
"I did an article once on how—Hello! Serena calling. I have a very important message for the military officer in command of the cordon. Will you route me through, please?"
Her manner was convincingly professional. She looked up and smiled shakily at Lockley. She spoke again into the mouthpiece before her. Then she said, "One moment, please." She covered the mouthpiece with her hand.
"I can't get the general," she said. "His aide will take the message and if it's important enough—"
"It is," said Lockley. "Give me the phone."
She vacated the chair and handed him the operator's instrument with its light weight earphones and a mouthpiece that rested on his chest.
"My name's Lockley," said Lockley evenly. "I was in the Park on a Survey job the morning the thing came down from the sky. I relayed Vale's message describing the landing and the creatures that came out of the—object. I was talking to him by microwave when he was seized by them. I reported that via Sattell of the Survey. You probably know of these reports."
A tinny voice said with formal cordiality that he did, indeed.
"I've just managed to get out of the park," said Lockley. "I've had a chance to experiment with a stationary terror beam. I've information of some importance about detecting those beams before they strike."
The tinny voice said hastily that Lockley should speak to the general himself. There were clickings and a long wait. Lockley shook his head impatiently. When a new voice spoke, he said, "I'm at Serena. I was brought here by a Wild Life Control trailer-truck which picked us up just outside the Park. I mention that because the driver says he's driving it for the Army, now. The information I have to pass on is...."
Curtly and succinctly, he began to give exact information about the terror beam. Its detection so that one need not enter it. The total lack of effectiveness of a Faraday cage to check it. Its use to block highways and its one use against a low-flying plane. The failure to search him out with that terror beam was to be noted. There was other evidence that the monsters were not monsters at all—
The new voice interrupted sharply. It asked him to wait. His information would be recorded. Lockley waited, biting his lips. The voice returned after an unconscionably long wait. It told him to go ahead.
The driver of the truck was taking a long time to make contact with the military. He'd have done better by telephone instead of short wave.
The new voice repeated sharply for Lockley to go on with his story. And very, very carefully Lockley explained the contradictions in the behavior of the invaders. The blindfolds. The fact that it had been absurdly easy for four human prisoners in a compost pit shell to escape—almost as if it were intended for them to get away and report that their captors regarded men as on a par with game birds and rabbits and porcupines. True aliens would not have bothered to give such an impression. But men cooperating with aliens would contrive every possible trick to insist that only aliens operated at Boulder Lake.
"I'm saying," said Lockley carefully, "that they do not act like aliens making a first landing on earth. Apparently their ship is designed to land in deep water. On a first landing, they should have chosen the sea. But they knew Boulder Lake was deep enough to cushion their descent. How did they know it? They didn't kill us local animals for study, but they dropped in other local animals to convince us that they wouldn't mind. Why try to fill us with horror—and then let us escape?"
The voice at the other end said sharply, "What do you infer from all this?"
"They've been briefed," said Lockley. "They know too much about this planet and us humans. Somebody has told them about human psychology and suggested that they conquer us without destroying our cities or our factories or our usefulness as slaves. We'll be much more valuable if captured that way! I'm saying that they've got humans advising and cooperating with them! I'm suggesting that those humans have made a deal to run earth for the aliens, paying them all the tribute they can demand. I'm saying that we're not up against an invasion only by aliens, but by aliens with humans in active cooperation and acting not only as advisers but probably as spies. I'm—"
"Mr. Lockley!" said the voice at the other end of the wire. It was startled and shocked. It became pompous. "Mr. Lockley, what has been your training?" The voice did not wait for an answer. "Where have you become qualified to offer opinions contradicting all the information and all the decisions of scientists and military men alike? Where do you get the authority to make such statements? They are preposterous! You have wasted my time! You—"
Lockley reached over and flipped back the switch he'd seen Jill flip over. He carefully put down the headset. He stood up.
The driver and the small man came back. They picked up the sleeping drunk and moved toward the door. Something fell out of the drunk's pocket. It was a wallet. They did not notice. They went out, carrying the drunk. Jill stooped and recovered it. She looked at Lockley's face.
"I'm trying," said Lockley in a grating voice, "to figure out what to do next. That didn't work."
"I'll be right back," said Jill.
She went out to deliver the wallet to the driver, who had apparently been ordered to put the drunk in the trailer body and deliver him somewhere.
Lockley swore explosively when she was gone. He clenched and unclenched his hands. He paced the length of the room.
Jill came back, her face white.
"They opened the door of the trailer to pass him in," she said in a thin, strained voice. "And there were other men back there. Several of them! And machinery! Not cages for animals but engines—generators—electrical things! I'm frightened!"
"And I," said Lockley, "am a fool. I should have known it! Look here—"
The frosted-glass door opened. The driver came back. He had a revolver in his hand.
"Too bad!" he said calmly. "We should've been more careful. But the lady saw too much. Now—"
The revolver bore on Lockley. Jill flung herself upon it. Lockley swung, with every ounce of his strength. He connected with the driver's jaw. The driver went limp. Lockley had the revolver almost before he reached the floor.
"Quick!" he snapped. "Where was the machinery? Front or back part of the trailer?"
"All of it," panted Jill. "Mostly front. What—"
"The hall again," Lockley snapped. "Hunt for a back door!"
He thrust her out. She fumbled toward the back of the building while he went to the street entrance. The trailer-truck loomed huge. The driver's helper came out of it. Another man followed him. Still another....
Lockley fired from the doorway. One bullet through the front part of the truck. One near the middle. Then a third halfway between the first two. The three men dived to the ground, thinking themselves his targets. But Jill called inarticulately from the back of the dark hall. Lockley raced back to her. He saw starlight. She waited, shivering. They went out and he closed the door softly behind him.
He took her hand and they ran through the night. Overhead there was a luminous mistiness because of the street light, but here were abysmal darknesses between vague areas on which the starlight fell. Lockley said evenly, "We've got to be quiet. Maybe I hit some of the machinery. Maybe. If I didn't, it's all over!"
The back of a building. An alleyway. They ran down it. There was a street with trees, where the street lights cast utterly black shadows in between intolerable glare. They ran across the street. On the other side were residences—the business district was not large. Lockley found a gate, and opened it quietly and as quietly closed it behind them. They ran into a lane between two dead, dark, dreary structures in which people had lived but from which all life was now gone.
A back yard. A fence. Lockley helped Jill get over it. Another lane. Another street. But this street was not crossed—not here, anyhow—by another which led back to the street of the telephone office. A man could not look from there and see them running under the lights.