"We can skip your technical information, Mr. Coburn," he said with ironic courtesy, "unless you've something new to offer."
Coburn shook his head. He seethed.
"For the record," said the skipper, "I repeat that it is obvious that your presence at the scene when those Bulgarians were knocked out, that you were attacked in Salonika, that the ship carrying you was also attacked, and that there was an incident on your landing here:--it's obvious that all these things were stage-managed to call attention to you, for the purposes of ... whoever staged them. Have you anything more to offer?"
"No," growled Coburn. "I've told all I know." He was furiously angry and felt completely helpless.
"Your information," purred the Skipper, "and the stage-managed incidents, make you look like a very patriotic citizen who is feared by the supposedly extra-terrestrial creatures. But we don't have to play any longer, Mr. Coburn. What were you told to tell your government? What do these ... extra-terrestrials want?"
"My guess," snapped Coburn, "is that they want Earth."
The skipper raised his eyebrows. "Are you threatening us in their name?" he asked, purring.
"I'm telling you my guess," said Coburn hotly. "It's just as good as yours and no better! I have no instructions from them. I have no message from them. I've only my own opinion, which is that we humans had better get ready to fight. I believe we ought to join together--all of Earth--and get set to defend ourselves."
There was silence. Coburn found himself regarding the faces around him with an unexpected truculence. Janice pressed his hand warningly.
"All of Earth," said the skipper softly. "Hmmmm. You advise an arrangement with all the Earth.... What are your politics, Mr. Coburn?--No, let us say, what are the political views of the extra-terrestrial creatures you tell us about? We have to know."
Coburn seethed. "If you're suggesting that this is a cold war trick," he said furiously, "--if they were faking it, they wouldn't try tricks! They'd make war! They'd try conquest!"
Coburn saw the stout Greek general nodding to himself. But the Skipper said suavely: "You were with one of the creatures, you say, up in the village of Naousa. Would you say he seemed unfriendly to the Bulgarians?"
"He was playing the part of an Englishman," snapped Coburn, "trying to stop a raid, and murders, and possibly a war--all of them unnecessary!"
"You don't paint a frightening picture," complained the skipper ironically. "First you say we have to fight him and his kind, and then you imply that he was highly altruistic. What is the fact?"
"Dammit!" said Coburn. "I hated him because he wasn't human. It made my flesh crawl to see him act so much like a man when he wasn't. But he made me feel ashamed when I held a gun on him and he proved he wasn't human just so Janice--so Miss Ames wouldn't be afraid to drive down to Salonika with me!"
"So you have some ... friendly feelings toward him, eh?" the skipper said negligently. "How will you get in touch with his kind, by the way? If we should ask you to? Of course you've got it all arranged? Just in case."
Coburn knew that absolutely nothing could be done with a man who was trying to show off his shrewdness to his listening superiors. He said disgustedly: "That's the last straw. Go to hell!"
A loud-speaker spoke suddenly. Its tone was authoritative, and there were little cracklings of static in it from its passage across the Atlantic.
"That line of questioning can be dropped, Captain. Mr. Coburn, did these aliens have any other chances to kill you?"
"Plenty!" snapped Coburn. "And easy ones. One of them came into my office as my secretary. She could have killed me. The man who passed for Major Pangalos could have shot us all while we were unconscious. I don't know why they didn't get the transport plane, and I don't know what their scheme is. I'm telling the facts. They're contradictory. I can't help that. All I have are the facts."
The loud-speaker said crisply: "The attack on the transport plane--any pilots present who were in that fight?"
Someone at the back said: "Yes, sir. Here."
"How good was their ship? Could it have been a guided missile?"
"No, sir. No guided missile. Whoever drove that ship was right on board. And that ship was good. It could climb as fast as we could dive, and no human could have taken the accelerations and the turns it made. Whoever drove it learned fast, too. He was clumsy at the beginning, but he learned. If we hadn't gotten in a lucky hit, he'd've had us where he wanted us in a little while more. Our fifty-calibres just bounced off that hull!"
The loud-speaker said curtly: "If that impression is justified, that's the first business to be taken up. All but flying officers are excused. Mr. Coburn can go, too."
There was a stirring everywhere in the room. Officers got up and walked out. Coburn stood. The Greek general came over to him and patted him on the shoulder, beaming. Janice went out with him. They arrived on the carrier's deck. This was the very earliest hour of dawn, and the conference had turned abruptly to a discussion of arms and tactics as soon as Washington realized that its planes were inadequate for fighting. Which was logical enough, but Coburn was pretty sure it was useless.
"If anybody else in the world feels as futile as I do," said Coburn bitterly, "I feel sorry for him!"
Janice said softly: "You've got me."
But that was less than complete comfort. It is inborn in a man that he needs to feel superior. No man can feel pride before the woman of his choice while there is something stronger than himself. And Coburn especially wanted to feel that pride just now.
There were very probably discussions of the important part of what Coburn had reported, of course, during the rest of the morning. But there was much more discussion of purely military measures. And of course there were attempts to get military intelligence. Things were reported in the sky near South Africa, and from Honolulu--where nobody would ignore what a radar said again, especially the juiced-up equipment just modified on orders--and from other places. Not all the reports were authentic, of course. If there were any observations inside the Iron Curtain, the Iron Curtain countries kept them to themselves. Politics was much more important than anything else, in that part of the world.
But Coburn need not have felt as futile as he did. There was just one really spectacular occurrence in connection with the Invaders that day, and it happened where Coburn was. Almost certainly, it happened because Coburn was there. Though there is reason to believe that the newspaper campaign on shore, declaring that the American fleet risked the lives of all Naples by its mere presence, had something to do with it too.
It was very spectacular.
It happened just after midday when the city and its harbor were at their most glamorous. Coburn and Janice were above when it began. There was an ensign assigned to escort Coburn about and keep an eye on him, and he took them on a carefully edited tour of the carrier. He took them to the radar room which was not secret any longer. He explained reservedly that there was a new tricked-up arrangement of radar which it was believed would detect turtle-shaped metal ships if they appeared.
The radar room was manned, of course. It always was, with a cold war in being. Overhead, the bowl cages of the radars moved restlessly and rhythmically. Outside, on deck, the huge elevator that brought planes up from below rose at the most deliberate of peace-time rates.
The ensign said negligently, pointing to the radar-screen: "That little speck is a plane making for the landing field on shore. This other one is a plane coming down from Genoa. You'd need a good pair of binoculars to see it. It's a good thirty-five miles away."
Just then, one of the two radar-men on duty pushed a button and snapped into a microphone: "Sir! Radar-pip directly overhead! Does not show on normal radar. Elevation three hundred thousand feet, descending rapidly." His voice cut off suddenly.
A metallic voice said: "Relay!"
The ensign in charge of Coburn and Janice seemed to freeze. The radar-man pressed a button, which would relay that particular radar-screen's contents to the control room for the whole ship. There was a pause of seconds. Then bells began to ring everywhere. They were battle gongs.
There was a sensation of stirring all over the ship. Doors closed with soft hissings. Men ran furiously. The gongs rang.
The ensign said politely: "I'll take you below now."
He led them very swiftly to a flight of stairs. There was a monstrous bellowing on the carrier's deck. Something dark went hurtling down its length, with a tail of pale-blue flame behind it. It vanished. Men were still running. The elevator shot into full-speed ascent. A plane rolled off it. The elevator dropped.
An engine roared. Another. Yet another. A second dark and deadly thing flashed down the deck and was gone. There was a rumbling.
The battle gongs cut off. The rumbling below seemed to increase. There was a curious vibration. The ship moved. Coburn could feel that it moved. It was turning.
The ensign led them somewhere and said: "This is a good place. You'd better stay right here."
He ran. They heard him running. He was gone.
They were in a sort of ward room--not of the morning conference--and there were portholes through which they could look. The city which was Naples seemed to swing smoothly past the ship. They saw other ships. A cruiser was under way with its anchor still rising from the water. It dripped mud and a sailor was quite ridiculously playing a hose on it. It ascended and swayed and its shank went smoothly into the hawse-hole. There were guns swinging skyward. Some were still covered by canvas hoods. The hoods vanished before the cruiser swung out of the porthole's line of vision.
A destroyer leaped across the space they could see, full speed ahead. The water below them began to move more rapidly. It began to pass by with the speed of ground past an express train. And continually, monotonously, there were roarings which climaxed and died in the distance.
"The devil!" said Coburn. "I've got to see this. They can't kill us for looking."
He opened the door. Janice, holding fast to his arm, followed as he went down a passage. Another door. They were on the deck side of the island which is the superstructure of a carrier, and they were well out of the way, and everybody in sight was too busy to notice them.
The elevator worked like the piston of a pump. It vanished and reappeared and a plane came off. Men in vividly-colored suits swarmed about it, and the elevator was descending again. The plane roared, shot down the deck, and was gone to form one of the string of climbing objects which grew smaller with incredible swiftness as they shot for the sky. Coburn saw another carrier. There was a huge bow-wave before it. Destroyers ringed it, seeming to bounce in the choppy sea made by so many great ships moving so close together.
The other carrier, too, was shooting planes into the air like bullets from a gun. The American Mediterranean fleet was putting out to sea at emergency-speed, getting every flying craft aloft that could be gotten away. A cruiser swung a peculiar crane-like arm, there was a puff of smoke and a plane came into being. The crane retracted. Another plane. A third.
The fleet was out of the harbor, speeding at thirty knots, with destroyers weaving back and forth at higher speeds still. There were barges left behind in the harbor with sailors in them,--shore-parties or details who swore bitterly when they were left behind. They surged up and down on the melee of waves the fleet left behind in its hasty departure.
On the fleet itself there was a brisk tenseness as it sped away from the land. Vesuvius still loomed high, but the city dwindled to a mere blinking mass of white specks which were its buildings. The sea was aglitter with sunlight reflected from the waves. There was the smell of salt air.
Men began to take cryptic measures for the future. They strung cables across the deck from side to side. Arresting gear for planes which would presently land.
Their special ensign found Coburn and Janice. "I'm supposed to stay with you," he explained politely. "I thought I could be of use. I'm really attached to another ship, but I was on board because of the hassle last night."
Coburn said: "This would be invader stuff, wouldn't it?"
The ensign shrugged. "Apparently. You heard what the radar said. Something at three hundred thousand feet, descending rapidly. It's not a human-built ship. Anyway, we've sent up all our planes. Jets will meet it first, at fifty thousand. If it gets through them there are ... other measures, of course."
"This one beats me!" said Coburn. "Why?"
The ensign shrugged again. "They tried for you last night."
"I'm not that important, to them or anybody else. Or am I?"
"I wouldn't know," said the ensign.
"I don't know anything I haven't told," said Coburn grimly, "and the creatures can't suppress any information by killing me now. Anyhow, if they'd wanted to they'd have done it."
A dull, faint sound came from high overhead. Coburn stepped out from under the shelter of the upper works of the island. He stared up into the sky. He saw a lurid spot of blue-white flame. He saw others. He realized that all the sky was interlaced with contrails--vapor-trails of jet-planes far up out of sight. But they were fine threads. The jets were up very high indeed. The pin-points of flame were explosions.
"Using wing-rockets," said the ensign hungrily, "since fifty-calibres did no good last night, until one made a lucky hit. Rockets with proximity fuses. Our jets don't carry cannon."
There were more explosions. There was a bright glint of reflected sunshine. It was momentary, but Coburn knew that it was from a flat, bright space-ship, which had tilted in some monstrously abrupt maneuver, and the almost vertical sunshine shone down from its surface.
The ensign said in a very quiet voice: "The fight's coming lower."
There was a crashing thump in the air. A battleship was firing eight-inch guns almost straight up. Other guns began.
Guns began to fire on the carrier, too, below the deck and beyond it. Concussion waves beat at Coburn's body. He thrust Janice behind him to shield her, but there could be no shielding.
The air was filled with barkings and snarlings and the unbelievably abrupt roar of heavy guns. The carrier swerved, so swiftly that it tilted and swerved again. The other ships of the fleet broke their straight-away formation and began to move in bewildering patterns. The blue sea was criss-crossed with wakes. Once a destroyer seemed to slide almost under the bow of the carrier. The destroyer appeared unharmed on the other side, its guns all pointed skyward and emitting seemingly continuous blasts of flame and thunder.
The ensign grabbed Coburn's shoulder and pointed, his hands shaking.
There was the Invader ship. It was exactly as Coburn had known it would be. It was tiny. It seemed hardly larger than some of the planes that swooped at it. But the planes were drawing back now. The shining metal thing was no more than two thousand feet up and it was moving in erratic, unpredictable darts and dashes here and there, like a dragon-fly's movements, but a hundred times more swift. Proximity-fused shells burst everywhere about it. It burst through a still-expanding puff of explosive smoke, darted down a hundred feet, and took a zig-zag course of such violent and angular changes of position that it looked more like a streak of metal lightning than anything else.
It was down to a thousand feet. It shot toward the fleet at a speed which was literally that of a projectile. It angled off to one side and back, and suddenly dropped again and plunged crazily through the maze of ships from one end to the other, no more than fifty feet above the water and with geysers of up-flung sea all about it from the shells that missed.
Then it sped away with a velocity which simply was not conceivable. It was the speed of a cannonball. It was headed straight toward a distant, stubby, draggled tramp-steamer which plodded toward the Bay of Naples.
It rose a little as it flew. And then it checked, in mid-air. It hung above the dumpy freighter, and there were salvoes of all the guns in the fleet. But at the flashes it shot skyward. When the shells arrived and burst, it was gone.
It could still be sighted as a spark of sunlight shooting for the heavens. Jets roared toward it. It vanished.
Coburn heard the ensign saying in a flat voice: "If that wasn't accelerating at fifteen Gs, I never saw a ship. If it wasn't accelerating at fifteen Gs ..."
And that was all. There was nothing else to shoot at. There was nothing else to do. Jets ranged widely, looking for something that would offer battle, but the radars said that the metal ship had gone up to three hundred miles and then headed west and out of radar range. There had not been time for the French to set up paired radar-beam outfits anyhow, so they couldn't spot it, and in any case its course seemed to be toward northern Spain, where there was no radar worth mentioning.
Presently somebody noticed the dingy, stubby, draggled tramp steamer over which the Invaders' craft had hovered. It was no longer on course. It had turned sidewise and wallowed heavily. Its bow pointed successively to every point of the compass.
It looked bad. Salvoes of the heaviest projectiles in the Fleet had been fired to explode a thousand feet above it. Perhaps-- A destroyer went racing to see. As it drew near--Coburn learned this later--it saw a man's body hanging in a sagging heap over the railing of its bridge. There was nobody visible at the wheel. There were four men lying on its deck, motionless.
The skipper of the destroyer went cold. He brought his ship closer. It was not big, this tramp. Maybe two thousand tons. It was low in the water. It swayed and surged and wallowed and rolled.
Men from the destroyer managed to board it. It was completely unharmed. They found one small sign of the explosions overhead. One fragment of an exploded shell had fallen on board, doing no damage.
Even the crew was unharmed. But every man was asleep. Each one slumbered heavily. Each breathed stertorously. They could not be awakened. They would need oxygen to bring them to.
A party from the destroyer went on board to bring the ship into harbor. The officer in charge tried to find out the ship's name.
There was not a document to be found to show what the ship's name was or where it had come from or what it carried as cargo. That was strange. The officer looked in the pockets of the two men in the wheel house. There was not a single identifying object on either of them. He grew disturbed. He made a really thorough search. Every sleeping man was absolutely anonymous. Then--still on the way to harbor--a really fine-tooth-comb examination of the ship began.
Somebody's radium-dial watch began to glow brightly. The searchers looked at each other and went pale. They hunted frantically, fear making them clumsy.
They found it. Rather--they found them.
The stubby tramp had an adequate if rather clumsy atomic bomb in each of its two holds. The lading of the ship was of materials which--according to theory--should be detonated in atomic explosion if an atomic bomb went off nearby. Otherwise they could not be detonated.
The anonymous tramp-steamer had been headed for the harbor of Naples, whose newspapers--at least those of a certain political party--had been screaming of the danger of an atomic explosion while American warships were anchored there.
It was not likely that two atom bombs and a shipload of valuable secondary atomic explosive had been put on a carefully nameless ship just to be taken for a ride. If this ship had anchored among the American fleet and if it had exploded in the Bay of Naples ...
The prophecies of a certain political party would seem to have been fulfilled. The American ships would be destroyed. Naples itself would be destroyed. And it would have appeared that Europeans who loved the great United States had made a mistake.
It was, odd, though, that this ship was the only one that the Invaders' flying craft had struck with its peculiar weapon.
We humans are rational beings, but we are not often reasonable. Those who more or less handle us in masses have to take account of that fact. It could not be admitted that the fleet had had a fight with a ship piloted by Invaders from another solar system. It would produce a wild panic, beside which even a war would be relatively harmless. So the admiral of the Mediterranean fleet composed an order commending his men warmly for their performance in an unrehearsed firing-drill. Their target had been--so the order said--a new type of guided missile recently developed by hush-hush agencies of the Defense Department. The admiral was pleased and proud, and happy....
It was an excellent order, but it wasn't true. The admiral wasn't happy. Not after battle photographs were developed and he could see how the alien ship had dodged rockets with perfect ease, and had actually taken a five-inch shell, which exploded on impact, without a particle of damage.
On the carrier, the Greek general said mildly to Coburn that the Invaders had used their power very strangely. After stopping an invasion of Greece, they had prevented an atomic-bomb explosion which would have killed some hundreds of thousands of people. And it was strange that the turtle-shaped ship that had attacked the air transport was so clumsily handled as compared with this similar craft which had zestfully dodged all the missiles a fleet could throw at it.
Coburn thought hard. "I think I see," he said slowly. "You mean, they're here and they know all they need to know. But instead of coming out into the open, they're making governments recognize their existence. They're letting the rulers of Earth know they can't be resisted. But we did knock off one of their ships last night!"