Coburn muttered bitterly: "They were set to destroy themselves if they got into other hands than Dillon's. We haven't a bit of proof that he wasn't a human being. Not a shred of proof!"
He suddenly felt a sick rage, as if he had been played with and mocked. The raid from Bulgaria was serious enough, of course. It would have killed hundreds of people and possibly hundreds of others would have been enslaved. But even that was secondary in Coburn's mind. The important thing was that there were Invaders upon Earth. Non-human monsters, who passed for humans through disguise. They had been able to travel through space to land secretly upon Earth. They moved unknown among men, learning the secrets of mankind, preparing for--what?
They got into Salonika early afternoon of the next day, after many hours upon an antique railroad train that puffed and grunted and groaned among interminable mountains. Coburn got a taxi to take Janice to the office of the Breen Foundation which had sent her up to the north of Greece to establish its philanthropic instruction courses. He hadn't much to say to Janice as they rode. He was too disheartened.
In the cab, though, he saw great placards on which newspaper headlines appeared in Greek. He could make out the gist of them. Essentially, they shrieked that Bulgarians had invaded Greece and had been wiped out. He made out the phrase for valiant Greek army. And the Greek army was valiant enough, but it hadn't had anything to do with this.
From the police station in Serrai--he had been interviewed there until dawn--he knew what action had been taken. Army planes had flown northward in the darkness, moved by the Mayor's, and Coburn's, and Janice's tale of Bulgarian soldiers on Greek soil, sleeping soundly. They had released parachute flares and located the village of Naousa. Parachutists with field radios had jumped, while other flares burned to light them to the ground. That was that. Judging by the placards, their reports had borne out the story Coburn had brought down. There would be a motorized Greek division on the way to take charge of the four-thousand-odd unconscious raiders. There was probably an advance guard there now.
But there was no official news. Even the Greek newspapers called it rumors. Actually, it was leaked information. It would be reasonable for the Greek government to let it leak, look smug, and blandly say "No comment" to all inquiries, including those from Bulgaria.
But behind that appearance of complacency, the Greek government would be going quietly mad trying to understand what so fortunately had happened. And Coburn could tell them. But he knew better than to try without some sort of proof. Yet, he had to tell. The facts were more important than what people thought of him.
The cab stopped before his own office. He paid the driver. The driver beamed and said happily: "Tys nikisame, e?"
Coburn said, "Poly kala. Orea."
His office was empty. It was dustier than usual. His secretary was probably taking a holiday since he was supposed to be out of town. He grunted and sat down at the telephone. He called a man he knew. Hallen--another American--was attached to a non-profit corporation which was attached to an agency which was supposed to cooperate with a committee which had something to do with NATO. Hallen answered the phone in person.
Coburn identified himself. "Have you heard any rumors about a Bulgarian raid up-country?" he asked.
"I haven't heard anything else since I got up," Hallen told him.
"I was there," said Coburn. "I brought the news down. Can you come over?"
"I'm halfway there now!" said Hallen as he slammed down the phone.
Coburn paced up and down his office. It was very dusty. Even the seat of the chair at his secretary's desk was dusty. The odds were that she was coming in only to sort the mail, and not even sitting down for that. He shrugged.
He heard footsteps. The door opened. His secretary, Helena, came in. She looked surprised.
"I was at lunch," she explained. She had a very slight accent. She hung up her coat. "I am sorry. I stopped at a store."
He had paused in his pacing to nod at her. Now he stared, but her back was turned toward him. He blinked. She had just told a very transparent lie. And Helena was normally very truthful.
"You had a good trip?" she asked politely.
"Fair," said Coburn. "Any phone calls this morning?" he asked.
"Not this morning," she said politely.
She reached in a desk drawer. She brought out paper. She put it in the typewriter and began to type.
Coburn felt very queer. Then he saw something else. There was a fly in the office--a large, green-bodied fly of metallic lustre. The inhabitants of Salonika said with morbid pride that it was a specialty of the town, with the most painful of all known fly stings. And Helena abhorred flies.
It landed on the bare skin of her neck. She did not notice. It stayed there. Ordinarily she would have jumped up, exclaiming angrily in Greek, and then she would have pursued the fly vengefully with a folded newspaper until she killed it. But now she ignored it.
Hallen came in, stamping. Coburn closed the door behind him. He felt queer at the pit of his stomach. For Helena to let a fly stay on her neck suggested that her skin was ... somehow not like its usual self.
"What happened to those Bulgarians?" demanded Hallen.
Coburn told him precisely what he'd seen when he arrived in Naousa after an eight-mile hike through mountains. Then he went back and told Hallen precisely what he'd seen up on the cliffside.
"His cameras were some sort of weapon. He played it on the marching column, it took effect and they went to sleep," he finished. "I took them away from him and brought them down, but--"
He told about the contents of the camera cases being turned to a gritty, sooty powder. Then he added: "Dillon set them to destroy themselves. You understand. He's not a man. He's a creature from some planet other than Earth, passing for a human being. He's an Invader from space."
Hallen's expression was uneasy and compassionate but utterly unbelieving. Helena shivered and turned away her face. Coburn's lips went taut. He reached down to his desk. He made a sudden, abrupt gesture. Hallen caught his breath and started up.
Coburn said curtly: "Another one of them. Helena, is that foam-suit comfortable?"
The girl jerked her face around. She looked frightened.
"Helena," said Coburn, "the real Helena, that is, would not sit down on a dusty chair. No woman would. But you did. She is a very truthful girl. You lied to me. And I just stuck pins in your shoulder and you didn't notice. They're sticking in your foam suit now. You and the creature that passed for Dillon up-country are both aliens. Invaders. Do you want to try to convince me otherwise?"
The girl said evenly: "Mr. Coburn, I do not think you are well--"
Then Coburn said thickly: "I'm crazy enough to put a bullet through you if your gang of devils has harmed the real Helena. What's happened to her?"
Hallen moved irresolutely to interfere. But the girl's expression changed. She smiled. "The real Helena, Mr. Coburn," said an entirely new voice, "has gone to the suburbs to visit her fiance's family. She is quite safe."
There was dead silence. The figure--it even moved like Helena--got composedly to its feet. It got its coat. It put the coat on. Hallen stared with his mouth open. The pins hadn't convinced him, but the utterly different voice coming from this girl's mouth had. Yet, waves of conflicting disbelief and conviction, horror and a racking doubt, chased themselves over his features.
"She admits she's not Helena!" said Coburn with loathing. "It's not human! Should I shoot it?"
The girl smiled at him again. Her eyes were very bright. "You will not, Mr. Coburn. And you will not even try to keep me prisoner to prove your story. If I screamed that you attack me--" the smile widened--"Helena's good Greek friends would come to my assistance."
She walked confidently to the door and opened it. Then she said warmly: "You are very intelligent, Mr. Coburn. We approve of you very much. But nobody will believe you."
The office door closed.
Coburn turned stiffly to the man he'd called to hear him. "Should I have shot her, Hallen?"
Hallen sat down as if his knees had given way beneath him. After a long time he got out a handkerchief and painfully mopped his face. At the same time he shivered.
"N-no...." Then he swallowed. "My God, Coburn! It's true!"
"Yes," said Coburn bitterly, "or you're as crazy as I am."
Hallen's eyes looked haunted. "I--I ..." He swallowed again. "There's no question about the Bulgarian business. That did happen! And you were there. And--there've been other things.... Rumors.... Reports that nobody believed.... I might be able to get somebody to listen...." He shivered again. "If it's true, it's the most terrible thing that ever happened. Invaders from space.... Where do you think they came from, Coburn?"
"The creature that looked like Dillon could climb incredibly fast. I saw it run and leap. Nothing on Earth could run or leap like that." Coburn shrugged. "Maybe a planet of another sun, with a monstrous gravity."
"Try to get somebody to believe that, eh?" Hallen got painfully to his feet. "I'll see what I can do. I ... don't know that I can do anything but get myself locked up for observation. But I'll call you in an hour."
He went unsteadily out of the door. Coburn instantly called the Breen Foundation on the telephone. He'd left Janice there less than an hour before. She came to the phone and gasped when she heard his voice. Raging, he told her of Helena, then cautioned her to be especially careful--to be suspicious of everybody.
"Don't take anybody's word!" snapped Coburn. "Doubt everybody! Doubt me! Until you're absolutely certain. Those creatures are everywhere.... They may pretend to be anybody!"
After Coburn hung up on Janice, he sat back and tried to think logically. There had to be some way by which an extra-terrestrial Invader could be told instantly from a human being. Unmask and prove even one such creature, and the whole story would be proved. But how detect them? Their skin was perfectly deceptive. Scratched, of course, they could be caught. But one couldn't go around scratching people. There was nothing of the alien creature's own actual form that showed.
Then Coburn remembered the Dillon foam suit. The head had been hollow. Flaccid. Holes instead of eyes. The creature's own eyes showed through.
But he'd have to make certain. He'd have to look at a foam-suited creature. He could have examined Helena's eyes, but she was gone now. However, there was an alternative. There was a Dillon in Salonika, as there was a Helena. If the Dillon in Salonika was the real Dillon--if there were a real Dillon--he could look at his eyes. He could tell if he were the false Dillon or the real one.
At this hour of the afternoon a Britisher would consider tea a necessity. There was only one place in Salonika where they served tea that an Englishman would consider drinkable. Coburn got into a cab and gave the driver the address, and made sure of the revolver in his pocket. He was frightened. He was either going to meet with a monster from outer space, or be on the way to making so colossal a fool of himself that a mental asylum would yawn for him.
He went into the one coffee-shop in Salonika which served drinkable tea. It was dark and dingy inside, though the tablecloths were spotless. He went in, and there was Dillon.
Coburn's flesh crawled. If the figure sitting there with the London Times and a cup of tea before him were actually a monster from another planet ...
But Dillon read comfortably, and sipped his tea. Coburn approached, and the Englishman looked up inquiringly.
"I was ... up in the mountains," said Coburn feverishly, "when those Bulgarians came over. I can give you the story."
Dillon said frostily: "I'm not interested. The government's officially denied that any such incident took place. It's merely a silly rumor."
It was reasonable that it should be denied. But it had happened, nonetheless. Coburn stared, despite a consciousness that he was not conspicuously rational in the way his eyes searched Dillon's face hungrily. The eyes were different! The eyes of the Dillon up in the mountains had been larger, and the brown part--But he had to be sure.
Suddenly, Coburn found himself grinning. There was a simple, a perfect, an absolute test for humanity!
Dillon said suspiciously: "What the devil are you staring at me for?"
Coburn continued to grin uncontrollably, even as he said in a tone of apology: "I hate to do this, but I have to be sure...."
He swung. He connected with Dillon's nose. Blood started.
Coburn zestfully let himself be thrown out, while Dillon roared and tried to get at him through the flying wedge of waiters. He felt an enormous relaxation on the way back to his office in another cab. He was a trifle battered, but it was worth it.
Back in the office he called Hallen again. And again Hallen answered. He sounded guilty and worried.
"I don't know whether I'm crazy or not," he said bitterly. "But I was in your office. I saw your secretary there--and she didn't feel pins stuck in her. And something did happen to those Bulgarians that the Greeks don't know anything about, or the Americans either. So you're to tell your story to the high brass down in Athens. I think you'll be locked up afterward as a lunatic--and me with you for believing my own eyes. But a plane's being readied."
"Where do I meet you?" asked Coburn.
Hallen told him. A certain room out at the airport. Coburn hung up. The telephone rang instantly. He was on the way out, but he turned back and answered it. Janice's voice--amazingly convincing--came from the instrument. And at the first words his throat went dry. Because it couldn't be Janice.
"I've been trying to get you. Have you tried to reach me?"
"Why, no. Why?"
Janice's voice said: "I've something interesting to tell you. I left the office an hour ago. I'm at the place where I live when I'm in Salonika. Write down the address. Can you come here? I've found out something astonishing!"
He wrote down the address. He had a feeling of nightmarishness. This was not Janice-- "I'm clearing up some matters you'll guess at," he said grimly, "so I may be a little while getting there. You'll wait?"
He hung up. And then with a rather ghastly humor he took some pins from a box on the desk and worked absorbedly at bending one around the inside of the band of the seal ring he wore on his right hand.
But he didn't go to the telephoned address. He went to the Breen Foundation. And Janice was there. She was the real Janice. He knew it instantly he saw her. She was panic-stricken when he told her of his own telephone experience. Her teeth chattered. But she knew--instinctively, she said--that he was himself. She got into the cab with him.
They reached the airport and found the office Hallen had named. The lettering on it, in Greek and French, said that it was a reception room for official visitors only.
"Our status is uncertain," said Coburn drily. "We may be official guests, or we may be crazy. It's a toss-up which status sticks."
He opened the door and looked carefully inside before he entered. Hallen was there. There was a lean, hard-bitten colonel of the American liaison force in Greece. There was a Greek general, pudgy and genial, standing with his back to a window and his hands clasped behind him. There were two Greek colonels and a major. They regarded him soberly.
"Howdo, Coburn," said Hallen painfully. "You're heading for Athens, you know. This is Miss Ames? But these gentlemen have ... ah ... a special concern with that business up-country. They'd like to hear your story before you leave."
"I suppose," said Coburn curtly, "it's a sort of preliminary commission in lunacy."
But he shook hands all around. He kept his left hand in his coat pocket as he shook hands with his right. His revolver was in his left-hand pocket now too. The Greek general beamed at him. The American colonel's eyes were hard and suspicious. One of the two Greek colonels was very slightly cross-eyed. The Greek major shook hands solemnly.
Coburn took a deep breath. "I know my tale sounds crazy," he said, "but ... I had a telephone call just now. Hallen will bear me out that my secretary was impersonated by somebody else this afternoon."
"I've told them that," said Hallen unhappily.
"And something was impersonating Dillon up in the hills," finished Coburn. "I've reason to believe that at this address"--and he handed the address he'd written down to Hallen--"a ... creature will be found who will look most convincingly like Miss Ames, here. You might send and see."
The American colonel snorted: "This whole tale's preposterous! It's an attempt to cash in on the actual mystery of what happened up-country."
The Greek general protested gently. His English was so heavily accented as to be hard to understand, but he pointed out that Coburn knew details of the event in Naousa that only someone who had been there could know.
"True enough," said the American officer darkly, "but he can tell the truth now, before we make fools of ourselves sending him to Athens to be unmasked. Suppose," he said unpleasantly, "you give us the actual facts!"
Coburn nodded. "The idea you find you can't take is that creatures that aren't human can be on Earth and pass for human beings. There's some evidence on that right here." He nodded to the Greek major who was the junior officer in the room. "Major, will you show these other gentlemen the palm of your hand?"
The Greek major frowned perplexedly. He lifted his hand and looked at it. Then his face went absolutely impassive.
"I'm ready to shoot!" snapped Coburn. "Show them your hand. I can tell now."
He felt the tensing of the others in the room, not toward the major but toward him. They were preparing to jump him, thinking him mad.
But the major grinned ruefully: "Clever, Mr. Coburn! But how did you pick me out?"
Then there was a sensation of intolerable brightness all around. But it was not actual light. It was a sensation inside one's brain.
Coburn felt himself falling. He knew, somehow, that the others were falling too. He saw everyone in the room in the act of slumping limply to the floor--all but the Greek major. And Coburn felt a bitter, despairing fury as consciousness left him.