Chapter FourI parked the car beside a gleaming Monojag in the well-lighted but deserted ten-car garage under UN headquarters. I pulled off the suit and harness, took the lift to the third floor, walked through deserted offices to General Julius' door, and went in without knocking. He was there, sitting at his desk, square-shouldered and grim-jawed, like a cornered police chief promising the press an arrest at any moment. He didn't move as I came up."I'm glad I caught you, General," I said. "Something's happened that you should know about."He was a long time reacting to my presence—as though he were a long way off. His eyes seemed to focus slowly. His mouth opened, then closed hard."Yes?" he snapped. "What do you want?""Have you had a report of a missing Bolo—and a command car?"His dead-black eyes narrowed. I had his attention now. The room seemed very still. "Missing combat units?" Julius said expressionlessly. "Go on.""An Algerian Mark II wandered off the beaten path. It wound up in a ravine about three miles south of the action."Julius stared at me. "You observed this?" His fingers squeaked on the desk-top."That's right. The car followed the Bolo in. A major was driving it—""You imply that this vehicle maneuvered in violation of the Battle Plan?""They left the field of action and went south. Let's not play footsie about the Battle Plan. Sure I had a copy. Grow up, General; I'm not a reporter for a family magazine—I'm here on business. Part of my business is to know what's going on.""My orders to you—""Don't ride a busted bluff down in flames, General. How about that Bolo?"Julius leaned forward. "A ravine, south of the battleground?""That's right. There's not much left of it; it blew—""How close were you?""Close enough.""And the car?""It's downstairs, in your garage.""You brought it here?"I let that one ride. Julius cocked his head, as though listening to voices I couldn't hear."Where did you find the vehicle?" he asked finally."Where the driver left it.""And you took it?""Look, General, I didn't come here to talk about traffic violations. I saw something out there—""You deliberately disobeyed me?" Julius' classically chiseled upper lip was writhing back in a snarl; behind his eyes red fires burned. It seemed to be taking all his will power not to bite me. "You entered the battle zone—""Forget that. There's some kind of vehicle sitting out there near what's left of the Bolo. The blast probably caught it, but there should be enough to work on. I saw what got out of it. It wasn't human. It killed the driver and the major . . ." I stopped talking then, belatedly. What I was saying sounded wild, even to me. "Come with me, General," I said. "I'll show you."Abruptly, he laughed—a harsh, tinny sound."I see . . . it's a joke," he said. He got to his feet. "Just one moment. I have an important call to make." I stared after him as he strode across the room, disappeared into an inner office.There was a call-screen beside his desk. I went to it, cautiously eased the conference switch to the on position. There was a soft hum, nothing more. A pad lay on top of the cabinet, marks scribbled on it. I half turned away—I stood looking down at the paper, my heart starting to thump again under my ribs. The lines on the paper were not mere random jottings; they were letters, words; words in an alien script. I had seen similar pot-hooks less than an hour before—on the paper I had taken from the pocket of the demon.* * *At that moment, Julius strode back into the room, his face fixed in a smile as authentic as the gold medals on a bottle of vermouth."Now, General Bravais," he said in a tone of forced geniality, "why don't you and I sit down and have a quiet drink together . . ."I shook my head. It was time for me to stop talking and start thinking—something I hadn't done much of since the four-handed horror had stalked out of the shadows and into my world-picture. I had come here babbling out my story, wanting someone to share the shattering thing I had seen—but my choice of confidants had been as poor as the judgment I had been showing ever since I had left the ravine. I had channeled my panic into an outward semblance of sober reasonable action—but it had been panic nonetheless.Julius had his office booze cabinet open now; shelves with ice-buckets, tongs, bottles, glasses deployed themselves at the touch of a button."What about a Scotch, General?" he suggested. "Bourbon? Rye? Irish?""I'd better be on my way, General," I said. I moved toward the door. "Perhaps I got a little too excited. Maybe I was seeing things." My hand was feeling for the dart gun—until I realized, with a pang of unpleasant excitement, that I had left it in the car with the lift-suit . . . "Of course, you're probably famished. I'll just order up a bite; I haven't eaten myself.""No, thanks, General. I'm pretty tired. I'll check in at my hotel and . . ."My voice trailed off foolishly. I—and Felix—had gone to considerable trouble to leave the public with the impression that I was tucked safely away in my room. Now I was here, putting Julius on notice that while his watchdogs were curled happily on my doorstep, I had been out on the town—and the super-secret equipment Felix had lent me was lying unattended in the car."I have quarters right here in the building, General Bravais," Julius said. "No need to go back to your room. Just make yourself comfortable here . . ."I held up a hand, fixed a silly smile in place; it came naturally. I felt as phony as a man who reaches for his wallet after a big dinner and feels nothing but his hipbone."I have a couple of appointments this evening," I gushed, "and some papers I want to go over. And I need to get my notes in shape—" I had the door open now. "What about first thing in the morning?"Julius was coming toward me, with an expression on his face that human features had never been shaped for. A good soldier knows when it's time to run.I slammed the door on the square, tight-lipped face, sprinted for the lift, then bypassed it, plunged for the stairs. Behind me, there was a heavy crash, the pound of feet. I skidded through the scattered butts on the landing, leaped down five steps at a time. I could hear Julius above, not getting any closer, but not losing any ground, either.As I ran, I tried to picture the layout of the garage. The lift door had been in the center of the wall, with another door to its left. The car was parked fifteen feet from it; it would be to my left as I emerged . . . I needed more time. There was a trick for getting downstairs quickly—if my ankles could take it . . . I whirled around the second landing, half-turned to the left, braced my feet, the left higher than the right, and jumped. My feel struck at an angle, skidded; I shot down as though I were on a ski slope. I slammed the next landing, took a quick step, leaped again.The door to the garage was in front of me now. I wrenched it open, skidded through, banged it shut. There was a heavy thumb latch. I flipped it, heard the solid snick! as it seated. A break; maybe I had time . . . I dashed for the car, leaped the side—A thunderous blow struck the heavy metal-clad fire door behind me. I scrambled into the seat, kicked the starter, saw dust whirl from beneath the car. There was a second clangorous shock against the armored door. I twisted, saw it jump, then, unbelievably, bulge—The metal tore with a screech. A hand groped through the jagged opening, found the latch, plucked it from the door as though it were made of wet paper.The car was up on its air cushion now; I backed it as the door swung wide. Julius came through, ran straight for me.I wrenched the wheel over, gunned the twin turbines, the car leaped forward, caught Julius square across the chest with a shock as though I had hit a hundred-year oak. It carried him backward. I saw furrows appear in the chromalloy hood as his fingers clawed—Then the car thundered against the masonry wall, rebounded in a rain of falling bricks. Through the dust I saw Julius' arm come up, strike down at the crumpled metal before him with a shock that I felt through the frame. There was a howl of metal in agony—then a deafening rattle as the turbines chattered to a halt. The car dropped with a bone-bending jar. I stumbled out half-dazed, and stood staring at General Julius' dust-covered head and shoulders pinned between the ruined car and the wall, one arm outflung, the other plunged through metal into the heart of the engine.I became aware of voices, turned, and saw a huddle of locals, one or two pale, wide-eyed European faces at the open garage doors. Like a man in a daze, I walked around the rear of the wrecked car, pulled open the door of the Monojag parked beside it, transferred the suit and the lift-harness to the other car.I took the sheath knife from the suit pocket, went to the cargo compartment of the Turbocar, threw open the lid. A wave of unbelievable stench came from the body of the dead thing inside. I gritted my teeth, sawed at the skin of the long, lean neck. It was like hacking at an oak root. I saw a pointed ear almost buried in the coarse bristles. I grasped it, worked at it with the keen blade. Brownish fluid seeped out as I worried through it. Behind me, the curious spectators were shouting questions back and forth. With a savage slash, I freed the ear, jammed it in a pocket, then whirled to the Monojag, jumped in, started up. I backed, wheeled out, and away down the side street. In the mirror, I saw the crowd start cautiously forward.* * *Driving aimlessly along dark streets, I tried again and failed to raise Felix on my communicator. I switched on the radio, caught a throaty male contralto muttering a song of strange perversions. On another channel, wild brass instruments squealed a hybrid syncopated alhaza. On a third, a voice gushing with synthetic excitement reported the latest evidence of an imminent cold-war thaw, in the form of a remark made at a
eception by the wife of an Albanian diplomat in the hearing of the Chinese chargé, to the effect that only French wine would be served at a coming dinner in honor of the birthday of the Cuban President.The next item was about a madman who had murdered an Algerian officer. The victim's headless body had been found in a stolen military vehicle that had been wrecked and abandoned near UN headquarters . . . I looked at my watch. Julius' heirs were fast workers; it had been exactly sixteen minutes since I had left his body pinned under the wreckage of the command car. Chapter FiveI parked the Monojag three blocks from the King Faisal, took five minutes to don the OE suit, complete with lift-harness, then drove slowly along toward the hotel. The news bulletin had said nothing about the car I was now in; it had also failed to mention the dead general, the body of the alien, or the bagged brain. It wasn't mere sloppy reporting; the version of the story that was being released had been concocted hurriedly but carefully. I could expect that other measures would have been taken, with equal care. It was no time for me to allow myself the luxury of errors in strategy—but there were things in the secret room I needed.The hotel was just ahead. I slowed, edged toward the curb. To an observer, the car would appear to be empty, a remote pickup of the type assigned to VIPs who objected to sharing transportation with anything as unreliable as a human driver.A doorman in an ornate Zouave uniform came forward, glanced into the car as it came to a stop. He looked around sharply, turned, and took three steps to a call-screen, talked tersely into it. Moments later, two hard-eyed men in unornamented dark coveralls strode from the hotel entry, fanned out to approach the car from two sides.I had seen enough to get the general idea. I nudged the car into motion, steering between the two wide-shouldered, lean-hipped trouble boys. One whipped out a three-inch black disc—a police control-override. A red light blinked on the dash; the car faltered as the external command came to brake.I gunned it hard, felt the accelerator jam. The nearer man was swinging alongside now, reaching for the door. An unfamiliar lever caught my eye, mounted to the left of the cruise control knob; I hit it, felt the accelerator go to the floor. There was a sharp tug, a rending of metal, and the car leaped ahead. In the mirror I saw one of the two men down, skidding to the curb. The other stood, feet apart, bringing a handgun to bear.I cut the wheel, howled into a cross street as solid slugs sang off the armored bubble next to my ear. Ahead, a startled man in a white turban leaped from my path. Late drinkers at a lone lighted sidewalk café stared as I shot past. I got the needler out, put it on the seat beside me. I half expected to see a roadblock pop up ahead; if it did, I would hit it wide open. I had no intention of stopping until I had put a healthy distance between myself and the man I had seen in the mirror—scrambling to his feet, still holding in his hand the door handle he had torn from the car.* * *I parked the car a block farther along, on a dark side street. I palmed the gun, slid out, stood in the darkness under a royal palm with a trunk like gray concrete, giving my instincts a chance to whisper warnings.It was very still here; far away, I heard a worn turbine coming closer, then going away. The moon was up now, an icy blue-white disc glaring in a pale night sky, casting shadows like the memory of a noonday long ago.My instincts were as silent as everything else. Maybe the beating they'd been taking all evening had given them the impression I didn't need them any more. Maybe they were right; I hadn't slowed down yet long enough to let what I had seen filter through the fine sieve of my intellect; I had been playing it by ear from moment to moment; maybe that was the best technique, when half of what you saw was unbelievable and the other half impossible.I tried to raise Felix again; no answer. He had warned me to stay clear of the police stations; after my reception at UN headquarters, it was easy advice to take. He had also told me to stay clear of his villa—except in emergencies. That meant now. I activated the lift-belt, rose quickly, and headed west.* * *No lights showed in the villa as I came in on it from the east. I used my nearly depleted jets to brake to a stop against the flow of the river of dark night air. Then I hovered, looking down on the moonlit rooftop of Algerian tile, the neat garden, the silvery fields stretching away to the desert. I took the communicator from the suit pocket, tried again to raise Felix. A sharp vibration answered my signal. I brought the device up close to my face."Felix!" I almost shouted, my words loud in my ears inside the muffling field. "Where the hell have you been? I've—" I broke off, suddenly wary."John, old boy. Where are you? There's been the devil to pay!" It was Felix's familiar voice—but I had had a number of expensive lessons in caution since sundown."Where are you?""I'm at the house; just got in. I tried to check with you at the hotel, but little men with beady eyes seemed to be peering at me from every keyhole. I gave it up and came here. Where've you been these last hours? Something's going on in the town. Nothing to do with you, I hope?""I tried to call you," I said, "where were you?""Yes—I felt the damned thing buzzing in my pocket; as it happened, it wasn't practical for me to speak just then. When I tried you, I got no reply.""I've been busy; guess I missed your buzz."There was a moment's silence. "So you were mixed up in whatever it is that's got them running about like ants in a stirred hill?""Maybe. I want to see you. Meet me in town—at the Club.""Is that safe, John?""Never mind. Get started; half an hour." I broke off. Down below, the house was a silent block of moonwhitened masonry; a low-slung sports car squatted by the front door. Foreshortened trees cast ink-black shadows on the gravel drive.The front door opened, closed quickly. Felix's tall, lean figure came down the steps, reached the car in three strides. He slid into the seat, started up, backed quickly, headed off along the curving way. His lights came on, dimmed."All right, that's far enough," I said. "I just wanted to be sure you were there, and alone." Below, the car slowed, pulled to the side of the road. I saw Felix craning his neck, his face a white blob in the pale light."It's that serious, eh, John? Right. Shall I go back to the house?""Put the car in the drive and get out."I dropped lower, watching him comply. I gained fifty feet upwind, curved in so that the wind would bring me across the drive. Felix stopped the car by the front door, stepped out, stood, hands in pockets, looking around as though deciding whether it was a nice enough night for a stroll.I corrected my course, dropped lower; I was ten feet above the dry lawn now, sweeping toward him silently at fifteen miles an hour. His back was toward me. At the last instant, he started to turn—just as my toe caught him behind the ear in a neatly placed kick. He leaped forward, fell headlong, and lay face down, arms outflung. I dropped to the drive, shut down the field, stood with the gun ready in my hand, watching him.The impact had been about right—not the massive shock of slamming against whatever it was that had masqueraded as General Julius—or the metal-shearing wrench that had torn the door handle from the car.I walked toward him, knelt cautiously, rolled him over. His mouth was half open, his eyes shut. I took the sheath knife from my knee pouch, jabbed him lightly in the side; the flesh seemed reassuringly tender. I took his limp hand and pricked it. The skin broke; a bead of blood appeared, black in the dim light.I sheathed the knife with a hand that shook. "Sorry, Felix," I muttered. "I had to be sure you weren't machined out of spring steel, like a couple of other people I've met this evening."* * *Inside, I laid Felix out on a low divan in the dark room, put a cold damp cloth on his forehead, and waved a glass of plum brandy under his nose. There was a bluish swelling behind his ear, but his pulse and respiration were all right. Within a minute he was stirring, making vague, swimming motions, and then suddenly sitting up, eyes open, his hand groping toward his underarm holster."It's all right, Felix," I said. "You had a bump on the head, but you're among friends.""Some friends." He put a hand up, touched the bruise, pronounced a couple of Arabic curses in a soft voice. "What the devil's up, John? I let you out of my sight for an hour or two, and the whole damned official apparatus goes into a Condition Red flap.""I used the gear. I tracked a Bolo down a side trail, about three miles off the battle map. I saw things—things I'm going to have trouble telling you about."Felix was looking at me keenly. "Take it easy, old man. You look as though you'd had a bit of a shaking." He got to his feet, wavered for a moment, went across to the bar."No lights," I said."Who're we hiding out from?" He got out glasses and a bottle, poured, came back and sat down. He raised his glass."Confusion to the enemy," he said. I took a sip, then a gulp. The Scotch felt as smooth as cup grease."I'll try to take it in order," I said. "I watched the tank stop; the driver got out—and fell on his face.""No shots, signs of gas, anything of that sort?""Nothing. I was fifty feet away, and felt nothing, smelled nothing, saw nothing. Of course the field—""Wouldn't stop a gas, or a vibratory effect. Was there any fluorescing of the field interface?"I shook my head, went on with my story. Felix listened quietly until I mentioned the poisoned dart I had fired.His face fell like a bride's cake. "You must have missed.""After about two minutes, it got the message; yelped a few times, chased its tail, had a modest fit, and died.""My God! The thing must have the metabolism of a rock crusher. Two minutes, you say?""Yep." I went on with the story. When I finished, he frowned thoughtfully."John, are you sure—""Hell, I'm not sure of anything. The easiest hypothesis is that I'm out of my mind. In a way, I'd prefer that." I fumbled, brought out the ear I had cut from the dead alien."Here, take a look at this and then tell me I sawed it off poor Bowser, who just wanted me to play with his rubber rat."Felix took the two-inch triangle of coarse-haired gristle, peered at it in the near-dark. "This is from the thing in the canyon?""That's right." I tried another pocket, found the printed hieroglyphics I had taken from the creature's pouch. "And this. Maybe it's a simple Chinese laundry list—or a Turkish recipe for goulash. Maybe I'm having delusions on a grand scale."Felix stood. "John . . ." He eyed me sharply. "What you've turned up calls for special measures. We can't take chances now—not until we know what it is we're up against. I'm going to let you in on a secret I've sworn to protect with my life."He led me to a back room, moved a picture, pressed unmarked spots on the wall. A trap slid back in the floor."This is the Hole," he said. "Even the CBI doesn't know about it. We'll be sure of avoiding interruption there.""Felix—who do you work for?"He held up the severed ear. "Suffice it to say—I'm against the owner of this."I nodded. "I'll settle for that."Three hours later, Felix switched off the light in the laboratory and led me into a comfortable lounge room with teak paneling, deep chairs, a businesslike bar, and wide pseudowindows with a view of a moonlit garden, which helped to dispel the oppressive feeling of being two hundred feet down. I sat in one of the chairs and looked around me."Felix, who built this place? Somehow, this doesn't look like a government-furnished installation to me. You've got equipment in that lab that's ahead of anything I've seen. And you're not as surprised at what I've told you as you ought to be."He leaned over and slapped me on the knee, grinning his Mephistophelean grin. "Buck up, Johnny. I sent you out to find an explanation of something. You've found it—with bells on. If it takes a few devil-dogs from Mars to tie it all together, that's not your fault.""What the hell did I stumble into last night?"He finished mixing drinks, sat down across from me, rubbing the side of his jaw. The air-conditioners made a faint hum in the background."It's the damnedest tissue I've ever examined. Almost a crystalline structure. And the hairs! There are metallic fibers in them; incredibly tough. The fluid was a regular witches' brew; plenty of cyanoglobin present." He paused. "Something out of this world, to coin a phrase.""In other words, we've been invaded?""That's one way to put it—unless someone's invited them." He put his glass on the table at his elbow, leaned forward."We know now that whatever it was that was attached to the ear is responsible for the disappearance of men from battlefields—and other places. From the number of such incidents, we can surmise that there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of these creatures among us.""Why hasn't anybody seen them?""That's something we have to find out. Obviously, they employ some method of camouflage as they go about their work."Secondly, they've been busy among us for some time; missing-persons figures were unusually high as far back as World War One. The data for earlier conflicts are unreliable, but such as they are, they don't rule out the possibility.""But why?""Apparently, these creatures have a use for human brain tissue. From the description you gave me, I surmise that the organ was in a nutrient solution of some sort—alive.""My God.""Yes. Now, we're faced with not one, but two varieties of adversary. It's plain that our former associate, General Julius, was something other than human.""He looked as human as I do—maybe more so.""Perhaps he is; modified, of course, to serve alien purposes. Some such arrangement would be necessary in order to carry on the day-to-day business . . .""What business—other than brain-stealing?""Consider for a moment: we know they've infiltrated the UN, and my hunch is we may find them in a lot of other places as well. From the speed with which they worked, it's obvious that they have a large, well-integrated operation—and methods of communication far more subtle than the clumsy apparatus we employ.""There are five million people here, Felix; fifty governments are represented. I've only seen a couple of these supermen.""True. But they say for every rat you see in the barnyard, there are a hundred more hiding somewhere." He looked almost pleased. "We're on our own, John. We can't shout for a policeman.""What can we do? We're holed up under a hundred feet of shielded concrete, with plenty of food, liquor and taped tri-D shows—but we might as well be locked in a cell."Felix held up a hand. "We're not without resources, John. This hideaway was designed to provide the most complete and modern facilities for certain lines of research and testing. We know a few things about our aliens now—things they don't know we know. And I'm sure they're puzzling over your dramatic appearances and disappearances, much as we're pondering their capabilities. They're not super-beings. My little stinger killed one; you eluded others. Now that we know something of the nature of the enemy, we can begin to design counter-measures.""Just the two of us?""I didn't mean to imply that the enemy controls everything, John. It wouldn't be necessary; one or two cowboys can control quite a large herd of cattle . . .""Why herd us at all? Why not just round us up, chop out our brains, and let it go at that?""Oh, many reasons. Conservation of natural resources, ease of harvesting—and then, perhaps, we might not be quite safe, if we were once alerted to what was going on. Cattle have been known to stampede . . .""So—what do we do?""We leave Tamboula. Back in America, we make contact with a few individuals known to us personally. I'd steer clear of Barnett, for example, but there are a number of reliable men. Then we construct a counter-alien organization, armed and equipped—and then—well, we'll see.""And how do we go about leaving Tamboula? I have an idea the whole scheme breaks down right there."Felix looked sober. "I'm afraid our old friend Bravais will never be seen departing from these shores."A small grin was tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I think he'll have to disappear in much the same manner that Major de Salle of the UN medical staff dropped from sight—and as one H. D. Brown, who leased the same house, will vanish one day soon.""Behind a false beard and a set of brown contact lenses?""Nothing so crude, my dear fellow." Felix was positively rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I'm going to give you the full treatment—use some of those ideas they haven't been willing to give me guinea pigs for, up till now. You'll have a new hair color—self-regenerating, too—new eye color and retinal patterns, an inch or two difference in height, new finger- and dental-prints . . .""None of that will do me much good if some curious customs man digs under the dirty socks and finds that piece of ear. That's all the evidence we've got.""Never fear, John. You won't be unprotected." There was a merry glint in his eye. "You won't merely have a new identity—I'm going to fit you out with full PAPA gear. If a General Julius jumps out at you then, just break him in two and keep going."