He came to in a hospital room, with a nurse and two doctors and an elaborate oxygen-administering apparatus. The apparatus was wheeled out. The nurse followed. The two doctors hurried after her. The American colonel of the airport was standing by the bed on which Coburn lay, fully dressed.
Coburn felt perfectly all right. He stirred. The American colonel said sourly: "You're not harmed. Nobody was. But Major Pangalos got away."
Coburn sat up. There was a moment's bare trace of dizziness, and that was gone too. Coburn said: "Where's Miss Ames? What happened to her?"
"She's getting oxygen," said the colonel. "We were rushed here from the airport, sleeping soundly just like those Bulgarians. Major Pangalos ordered it before he disappeared. Helicopters brought some Bulgarians down, by the way, and oxygen brought them to. So naturally they gave us the same treatment. Very effective."
The colonel looked both chastened and truculent. "How'd you know Major Pangalos for what he was? He was accepted everywhere as a man."
"His eyes were queer," said Coburn. He stood up experimentally. "I figured they would be, if one looked. I saw the foam suit that creature wore up-country, when he wasn't in it. There were holes for the eyes. It occurred to me that his eyes weren't likely to be like ours. Not exactly. So I hunted up the real Dillon, and his eyes weren't like I remembered. I punched him in the nose, by the way, to make sure he'd bleed and was human. He was."
Coburn continued, "You see, they obviously come from a heavy planet and move differently. They're stronger than we are. Much like the way we'd be on the moon with one-sixth Earth gravity. They probably are used to a thicker atmosphere. If so, their eyes wouldn't be right for here. They'd need eyeglasses."
"Major Pangalos didn't--"
"Contact eyeglasses," said Coburn sourly. "Little cups of plastic. They slip under the eyelids and touch the white part of the eye. Familiar enough. But that's not all."
The American colonel looked troubled. "I know contact lenses," he admitted. "But--"
"If the Invaders have a thick atmosphere at home," Coburn said, "they may have a cloudy sky. The pupils of their eyes may need to be larger. Perhaps they're a different shape. Or their eyes may be a completely alien color. Anyhow, they need contact lenses not only to correct their vision, but to make their eyes look like ours. They're painted on the inside to change the natural look and color. It's very deceptive. But you can tell."
"That goes to Headquarters at once!" snapped the colonel.
He went out briskly. Coburn followed him out of the room to look for Janice. And Janice happened to be looking for him at exactly the same moment. He was genuinely astonished to realize how relieved he was that she was all right.
He said apologetically: "I was worried! When I felt myself passing out I felt pretty rotten at having failed to protect you."
She looked at him with nearly the same sort of surprised satisfaction. "I'm all right," she said breathlessly. "I was worried about you."
The roaring of motors outside the hospital interrupted them. More and more vehicles arrived, until a deep purring filled the air. A Greek doctor with a worried expression hurried somewhere. Soldiers appeared, hard-bitten, tough, professional Greek soldiers. Hallen came out of a hospital room. The Greek general appeared with one of the two colonels who'd been at the airport. The general nodded, and his eyes seemed cordial. He waved them ahead of him into a waiting elevator. The elevator descended. They went out of the hospital and there was an armored car waiting. An impressive escort of motorcycle troops waited with it.
The Greek general saw Coburn's cynical expression at sight of the guards. He explained blandly that since oxygen brought sleeping Bulgarians out of their slumber--and had been used on them--oxygen was handy for use by anybody who experienced a bright flash of light in his mind. The Bulgarian soldiers, incidentally, said that outside the village of Ardea they'd felt as if the sunlight had brightened amazingly, but they felt no effects for two hours afterward, when they fell asleep at Naousa. So, said the general almost unintelligibly, if anything untoward happened on the way to the airport, everybody would start breathing oxygen. A sensation of bright light would be untoward.
The armored car started off, with motorcyclists crowded about it with weapons ready. But the ride to the airport was uneventful. To others than Janice and Coburn it may even have been tedious. But when she understood the general's explanation, she shivered a little. She leaned insensibly closer to Coburn. He took her hand protectively in his.
They reached the airport. They roared through the gateway and directly out upon the darkened field. Something bellowed and raced down a runway and took to the air. Other things followed it. They gained altitude and circled back overhead. Tiny bluish flickerings moved across the overcast sky. Exhaust flames.
Coburn realized that it was a fighter plane escort.
The huge transport plane that waited for them was dark. They climbed into it and found their seats. When it roared down the unlighted field and took to the air, everything possible had been done to keep anybody from bringing any weapon to bear upon it.
"All safe now!" said the voice of the American colonel in the darkness of the unlit plane, as the plane gained height. "Incidentally, Coburn, why did you want to look at Pangalos' palm? What did you expect to find there?"
"When I started for the airport," Coburn explained, "I bent a pin around the band of a ring I wear. I could let it lie flat when I shook hands. Or I could make it stand out like a spur. I set it with my thumb. I saw Pangalos' eyes, so I had it stand out, and I made a tear in his plastic skin when I shook hands with him. He didn't feel it, of course." He paused. "Did anybody go to the address I gave Hallen?"
Hallen said, in the darkness: "Major Pangalos got there first."
The blackness outside the plane seemed to grow deeper. There was literally nothing to be seen but the instrument dials up at the pilots' end of the ship.
The Greek general asked a question in his difficult English.
"Where'd they come from?" repeated Coburn. "I've no idea. Off Earth, yes. A heavy planet, yes. I doubt they come from our solar system, though. Somewhere among the stars."
The Greek general said something with a sly up-twist of his voice. Whatever and whoever the Invaders were, he said, they did not like Bulgarians. If they'd knocked out the raiding party simply to test their weapons against human subjects, at least they had chosen suitable and pleasing subjects for the test.
There was light. For an instant Coburn tensed. But the plane climbed and the brightness steadied. It was the top of a cloud bank, brilliantly white in the moonlight. They had flown up through it, and it reached as far ahead as they could see. A stubby fighter plane swam up out of the mist and fell into position alongside. Others appeared. They took formation about the transport and all flew steadily through the moonlight.
"I wish I knew," said the American colonel vexedly, "if those creatures were only testing weapons, or if they were getting set to start bargaining with us!"
"Meaning?" asked Coburn.
"If they're here," said the colonel angrily, "and if they do mean to meddle in our business, they may set up a sort of auction with us bidding against the Iron Curtain gang for their friendship. And they'd make any deal!"
The Greek general agreed drily. He said that free people were not practical people. They were always ready to die rather than cease to be free. Surely the Greeks had proved themselves ready to die. But people like the Bulgarians thought that to continue to live was the most important thing in the world. It was, of course, the practical view-point....
"They can have it!" growled Coburn.
Janice said hesitantly: "But the Invaders haven't killed anybody we know of. They could have killed the Bulgarians. They didn't. The one who called himself Dillon stopped one man from killing them. And they could have killed us, earlier today at the airport. Could they want to be friends?"
"They're starting the wrong way," said Coburn.
The Greek general stirred in his seat, but he was pointedly silent.
The pilot snapped abruptly from up at the bow of the plane: "Colonel! sir! Two of the fighters are climbing as if they've spotted something. There go the rest."
Coburn leaned across Janice to stare out the window. When the fighters were below the transport, they could be seen in silhouette against the clouds. Above, their exhaust flames pin-pointed them. Small blue flames climbed steeply.
The big ship went on. The roar of its motors was steady and unvarying. From a passenger seat it was not possible to look overhead. But suddenly there were streaking sparks against the stars. Tracer bullets. Fighters swerved and plunged to intercept something....
And a Thing came down out of the sky with a terrific velocity. Tracer bullets sprayed all around it. Some could be seen to ricochet off its sides. Flashings came from the alien craft. They were not explosions from guns. They were lurid, actinic, smokeless blasts of pure light. The Thing seemed to be made of polished metal. It dodged, trying to approach the transport. The fighters lunged to prevent it. The ghastly game of interception seemed to rush here and there all over the sky.
The strange object was not possibly of human design or manufacture. It had no wings. It left no trail of jet fumes or rocket smoke. It was glittering and mirror-like, and it was shaped almost exactly like two turtle-shells base to base. It was flat and oval. It had no visible external features.
It flung itself about with incredible darts and jerkings. It could stop stock still as no plane could possibly stop, and accelerate at a rate no human body could endure. It tried savagely to get through the swarming fighters to the transport. Its light weapon flashed--but the pilots would be wearing oxygen masks and there were no casualties among the human planes. Once a fighter did fall off in a steep dive, and fluttered almost down to the cloud bank before it recovered and came back with its guns spitting.
That one appeared to end the fight. It came straight up, pumping tracers at the steel flier from below. And the glittering Thing seemed to stop dead in the air. Then it shuddered. It was bathed in the flaring sparks of tracers. Then-- It dropped like a stone, tumbling aimlessly over and over as it dropped. It plummeted into the cloud bank.
Suddenly the clouds were lighted from within. Something inside flared with a momentary, terrifying radiance. No lightning bolt ever flashed more luridly.
The transport plane and its escort flew on and on over the moonlit bank of clouds.
Presently orders came by radio. On the report of this attack, the flight plan would be changed, for safety. If the air convoy had been attacked once, it might be attacked again. So it would be wisest to get it immediately to where there would be plenty of protection. Therefore, the transport plane would head for Naples.
Nearly the whole of the United States Mediterranean fleet was in the Bay of Naples just then. It had been there nearly a week, and by day its liberty parties swarmed ashore. The merchants and the souvenir salesmen were entranced. American sailors had money and they spent it. The fleet's officers were social assets, its messes bought satisfyingly of local viands, and everybody was happy.
All but one small group. The newspapers of one of the Italian political parties howled infuriatedly. They had orders to howl, from behind the Iron Curtain. The American fleet, that one party's newspapers bellowed, was imperialistic, capitalistic, and decadent. In short, there was virulent propaganda against the American fleet in Naples. But most people were glad it was there anyway. Certainly nobody stayed awake worrying about it.
People were staying awake worrying about the transport plane carrying Coburn and Janice, however. On the plane, Janice was fearful and pressed close to Coburn, and he found it an absorbing experience and was moved to talk in a low tone about other matters than extra-terrestrial Invaders and foam suits and interstellar travel. Janice found those other subjects surprisingly fitted to make her forget about being afraid.
Elsewhere, the people who stayed awake did talk about just the subjects Coburn was avoiding. The convoy carrying Coburn to tell what he knew had been attacked. By a plane which was definitely not made or manned by human beings. The news flashed through the air across continents. It went under the ocean over sea beds. It traveled in the tightest and most closely-guarded of diplomatic codes. The Greek government gave the other NATO nations a confidential account of the Bulgarian raid and what had happened to it. These details were past question. The facts brought out by Coburn were true, too.
So secret instructions followed the news. At first they went only to highly-trusted individuals. In thirty nations, top-ranking officials and military officers blindfolded each other in turn and gravely stuck pins in each other. The blindfolded person was expected to name the place where he had been stuck. This had an historical precedent. In olden days, pins were stuck in suspected witches. They had patches of skin in which there was no sensation, and discovery of such areas condemned them to death. Psychologists in later centuries found that patches of anaesthetic skin were typical of certain forms of hysteria, and therefore did not execute their patients. But the Invaders, by the fact that their seemingly human bodies were not flesh at all, could not pass such tests.
There were consequences. A Minister of Defense of a European nation amusedly watched the tests on his subordinates, blandly excused himself for a moment before his own turn came, and did not come back. A general of division vanished into thin air. Diplomatic code clerks painstakingly decoded the instructions for such tests, and were nowhere about when they themselves were to be tested. An eminent Hollywood director and an Olympic champion ceased to be.
In the free world nearly a hundred prominent individuals simply disappeared. Few were in position to influence high-level decisions. Many were in line to know rather significant details of world affairs. There was alarm.
It was plain, too, that not all disguised Invaders would have had to vanish. Many would not even be called on for test. They would stay where they were. And there were private persons....
There was consternation. But Janice, in the plane, was saying softly to Coburn: "The--creature who telephoned and said she was me. How did you know she wasn't?"
"I went to the Breen Foundation first," said Coburn. "I looked into your eyes--and they were right. So I didn't need to stick a pin in you."
The thought of Coburn not needing to stick a pin in her impressed Janice as beautiful trust. She sighed contentedly. "Of course you'd know," she said. "So would I--now!" She laughed a little.
The convoy flew on. The lurid round disk of the moon descended toward the west.
"It'll be sunrise soon. But I imagine we'll land before dawn."
They did. The flying group of planes flew lower. Coburn saw a single light on the ground. It was very tiny, and it vanished rearward with great speed. Later there was another light, and a dull-red glow in the sky. Still later, infinitesimal twinklings on the ground at the horizon. They increased in number but not in size, and the plane swung hugely to the left, and the lights on the ground formed a visible pattern. And moonlight--broken by the shadows of clouds--displayed the city and the Bay of Naples below.
The transport plane landed. The passengers descended. Coburn saw Hallen, the American colonel, the Greek general, and a Greek colonel. The other had been left behind to take charge of things in Salonika. Here the uniforms were American, and naval. There were some Italian police in view, but most of the men about were American seamen, ostensibly on shore leave. But Coburn doubted very much if they were as completely unarmed as men on shore leave usually are.
A man in a cap with much gold braid greeted the American colonel, the Greek general, and the Greek colonel. He came to Coburn, to whose arm Janice seemed to cling.
"We're taking you out to the fleet. We've taken care of everything. Everybody's had pins stuck in him!"
It was very humorous, of course. They moved away from the plane. Surrounded by white-clad sailors, the party from the plane moved into the hangar.
Then a voice snapped a startled question, in English. An instant later it rasped: "Stop or I'll shoot!"
Then there was a bright flash of light. The interior of the hangar was made vivid by it. It went out. And as it disappeared there were the sounds of running footsteps. Only they did not run properly. They ran in great leaps. Impossible leaps. Monstrous leaps. A man might run like that on the moon, with a lesser gravity. A creature accustomed to much greater gravity might run like that on Earth. But it would not be human.
It got away.
There was a waiting car. They got into it. They pulled out from the airport with other cars close before and behind. The cavalcade raced for the city and the shoreline surrounded by a guard less noisy but no less effective than the Greek motorcycle troopers.
But the Greek general said something meditative in the dark interior of the car.
"What's that?" demanded someone authoritatively.
The Greek general said it again, mildly. This latest attempt to seize them or harm them--if it was that--had been surprisingly inept. It was strange that creatures able to travel between the stars and put regiments and tanks out of action should fail so dismally to kill or kidnap Coburn, if they really wanted to. Could it be that they were not quite sincere in their efforts?
"That," said the authoritative voice, "is an idea!"
They reached the waterfront. And here in the darkest part of the night and with the moon near to setting, the waters of the Bay of Naples rolled in small, smooth-surfaced, tranquil waves. There was a Navy barge waiting. Those who had come by plane boarded it. It cast off and headed out into the middle of the huge harbor.
In minutes there was a giant hull looming overhead. They stepped out onto a landing ladder and climbed interminably up the ship's metal side. Then there was an open door.
"Now," said the American colonel triumphantly, "now everything's all right! Nothing can happen now, short of an atomic bomb!"
The Greek general glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes. He said something in that heavy accent of his. He asked mildly if creatures--Invaders--who could travel between the stars were unlikely to be able to make atom bombs if they wanted to.
There was no answer. But somebody led Coburn into an office where this carrier's skipper was at his desk. He looked at Coburn with a sardonic, unfriendly eye.
"Mr. Coburn, I believe," he said remotely. "You've been very well staged-managed by your friends, Mr. Coburn. They've made it look as if they were trying hard to kill you, eh? But we know better, don't we? We know it's all a build-up for you to make a deal for them, eh? Well, Mr. Coburn, you'll find it's going to be a let-down instead! You're not officially under arrest, but I wouldn't advise you to try to start anything, Mr. Coburn! We're apt to be rather crude in dealing with emissaries of enemies of all the human race. And don't forget it!"
And this was Coburn's first inkling that he was regarded as a traitor of his planet who had sold out to the Invaders. All the plans made from his information would be based on the supposition that he intended to betray mankind by misleading it.
It was not yet forty-eight hours since Coburn had been interrupted in the act of starting his car up in Ardea. Greek newspapers had splashed lurid headlines of a rumored invasion by Bulgarians, and their rumored defeat. The story was not widely copied. It sounded too unlikely. In a few hours it would be time for a new set of newspapers to begin to appear. Not one of them would print a single word about the most important disclosure in human history: that extra-terrestrial Invaders moved blandly about among human beings without being suspected.
The newspapers didn't know it. On inside pages and bottom corners, the London papers might refer briefly to the remarkable rumor that had swept over Greece about an invasion force said to have crossed its border. The London papers would say that the Greek government officially denied that such a happening had taken place. The New York papers would be full of a political scandal among municipal officials, the Washington papers would deal largely with a Congressional investigation committee hearing, Los Angeles would have a new and gory murder to exploit, San Francisco news would be of a waterfront strike, Tokyo would talk of cherry blossoms, Delhi of Pakistan, and the French press would discuss the political crisis. But no newspaper, anywhere, would talk about Invaders.
In the United States, radar technicians had been routed out of bed and informed that night fighters had had a fight with an alien ship manned by non-humans and had destroyed it, but their radars detected nothing at all. An hour after sunrise in Naples they had come up with a combination of radar frequencies which were built to detect everything. Instructions were going out in code to all radar establishments on how to set it up on existing equipment. Long before that time, business machines had begun intricate operations with punched cards containing all known facts about the people known to have dropped out of sight. Other machines began to integrate crackpot reports of things sighted in divers places. The stores of Hunter and Nereid rockets--especially the remote-control jobs--were broken out. Great Air Transport planes began to haul them to where they might be needed.
In England, certain establishments that had never been mentioned even in Parliament were put on war alert. There was frantic scurrying-about in France. In Sweden, a formerly ignored scientist was called to a twice-scrambled telephone connection and consulted at length about objects reported over Sweden's skies. The Canadian Air Force tumbled out in darkness and was briefed. In Chile there was agitation, and in Peru.
There was earnest effort to secure cooperation from behind the Iron Curtain, but that did not work. The Iron Curtain stood pat, demanding the most detailed of information and the privilege of inspecting all weapons intended for use against anybody so far unnamed, but refusing all information of its own. In fact, there was a very normal reaction everywhere, except that the newspapers didn't know anything to print.
These secret hassles were continuing as the dawnlight moved over Italy and made Naples and its harbor quite the most beautiful place in the world. When daylight rolled over France, matters were beginning to fall into pattern. As daybreak moved across the Atlantic, at least the measures to be taken began to be visualized and orders given for their accomplishment.
And then, with sunrise in America, real preparations got under way.
But hours earlier there was consultation on the carrier in the Bay of Naples. Coburn sat in a wardroom in a cold fury which was in part despair. He had been kept in complete ignorance of all measures taken, and he felt the raging indignation of a man accused of treason. He was being questioned again. He was treated with an icy courtesy that was worse than accusation. The carrier skipper mentioned with detachment that, of course, Coburn had never been in any danger. Obviously. The event in the airport at Salonika and the attack on the convoy were window-dressing. They were not attempts to withdraw him from circulation, but to draw attention to him. Which, of course, implied that the Invaders--whoever or whatever they might be--considered Coburn a useful tool for whatever purpose they intended.
This was before the conference officially began. It took time to arrange. There were radio technicians with microphones. The consultation--duly scrambled and re-scrambled--would be relayed to Washington while it was on. It was a top level conference. Hallen was included, but he did not seem happy.
Then things were ready. The skipper of the carrier took over, with full awareness that the very highest brass in Washington was listening to every word.