The Greek general pointedly said nothing. Coburn caught his meaning. The fleet, firing point-blank, had not destroyed its target. The ship last night had seemed to fall into a cloud bank and explode. But nobody had seen it blow up. Maybe it hadn't.
"Humoring us!" realized Coburn. "They don't want to destroy our civilization, so they'll humor us. But they want our governments to know that they can do as they please. If our governments know we can't resist, they think we'll surrender. But they're wrong."
The Greek general looked at him enigmatically.
"We've still got one trick left," said Coburn. "Atomic bombs. And if they fail, we can still get killed fighting them another way."
There was a heavy, droning noise far away. It increased and drew nearer. It was a multi-engined plane which came from the west and settled down, and hovered over the water and touched and instantly created a spreading wake of foam.
The fleet was back at anchor then. It was enclosed in the most beautiful combination of city and scene that exists anywhere. Beyond the city the blunted cone of Vesuvius rose. In the city, newspaper vendors shrilly hawked denunciations of the American ships because of the danger that their atom bombs might explode. Well outside the harbor, a Navy crew of experts worked to make quite impossible the detonation of atomic bombs in a stubby tramp-steamer which had--plausibly, at least--been sent to make those same newspapers' prophecies of disaster come true.
A long, long time passed, while consultations took place to which Coburn was not invited. Then a messenger led him to the wardroom of the previous conference. He recognized the men who had landed by seaplane a while since. One was a cabinet member from Washington. There was someone of at least equal importance from London, picked up en route. There were generals and admirals. The service officers looked at Coburn with something like accusation in their eyes. He was the means by which they had come to realize their impotence. The Greek general sat quietly in the rear.
"Mr. Coburn," said the Secretary from Washington. "We've been canvassing the situation. It seems that we simply are not prepared to offer effective resistance--not yet--to the ... invaders you tell us about. We know of no reason why this entire fleet could not have been disabled as effectively as the tramp-steamer offshore. You know about that ship?"
Coburn nodded. The Greek general had told him. The Secretary went on painfully: "Now, the phenomena we have to ascribe to Invaders fall into two categories. One is the category of their action against the Bulgarian raiding force, and today the prevention of the cold-war murder of some hundreds of thousands of people. That category suggests that they are prepared--on terms--to be amiable. A point in their favor."
Coburn set his lips.
"The other group of events simply points you out and builds you up as a person of importance to these Invaders. You seem to be extremely important to them. They doubtless could have killed you. They did not. What they did do was bring you forward to official attention. Presumably they had a realistic motive in this."
"I don't know what it could be," said Coburn coldly. "I blundered into one affair. I figured out a way to detect them. I happened to be the means by which they were proved to exist. That's all. It was an accident."
The Secretary looked skeptical. "Your discoveries were remarkably ... apt. And it does seem clear that they made the appearance of hunting you, while going to some pains not to catch you. Mr. Coburn, how can we make contact with them?"
Coburn wanted to swear furiously. He was still being considered a traitor. Only they were trying to make use of his treason.
"I have no idea," he said grimly.
"What do they want?"
"I would say--Earth," he said grimly.
"You deny that you are an authorized intermediary for them?"
"Absolutely," said Coburn. There was silence. The Greek general spoke mildly from the back of the room. He said in his difficult English that Coburn's personal motives did not matter. But if the Invaders had picked him out as especially important, it was possible that they felt him especially qualified to talk to them. The question was, would he try to make contact with them?
The Secretary looked pained, but he turned to Coburn. "Mr. Coburn?"
Coburn said, "I've no idea how to set about it, but I'll try on one condition. There's one thing we haven't tried against them. Set up an atom-bomb booby-trap, and I'll sit on it. If they try to contact me, you can either listen in or try to blow them up, and me with them!"
There was buzzing comment. Perhaps--Coburn's nails bit into his palms when this was suggested--perhaps this was a proposal to let the Invaders examine an atomic bomb, American-style. It was said in earnest simplicity. But somebody pointed out that a race which could travel between the stars and had ships such as the Mediterranean fleet had tried to shoot down, would probably find American atomic bombs rather primitive. Still-- * * * * *
The Greek general again spoke mildly. If the Invaders were to be made to realize that Coburn was trying to contact them, he should return to Greece. He should visibly take up residence where he could be approached. He should, in fact, put himself completely at the mercy of the Invaders.
"Ostensibly," agreed the Secretary.
The Greek general then said diffidently that he had a small villa some twenty miles from the suburbs of Salonika. The prevailing winds were such that if an atomic explosion occurred there, it would not endanger anybody. He offered it.
"I'll live there," asked Coburn coldly, "and wait for them to come to me? I'll have microphones all about so that every word that's said will be relayed to your recorders? And there'll be a bomb somewhere about that you can set off by remote control? Is that the idea?"
Then Janice spoke up. And Coburn flared into anger against her. But she was firm. Coburn saw the Greek general smiling slyly.
They left the conference while the decision was made. And they were in private, and Janice talked to him. There are methods of argument against which a man is hopeless. She used them. She said that she, not Coburn, might be the person the Invaders might have wanted to take out of circulation, because she might have noticed something important she hadn't realized yet. When Coburn pointed out that he'd be living over an atomic bomb, triggered to be set off from a hundred miles away, she demanded fiercely to know if he realized how she'd feel if she weren't there too....
Next day an aircraft carrier put out of Naples with an escort of destroyers. It traveled at full speed down the toe of Italy's boot, through the Straits of Messina, across the Adriatic, and rounded the end of Greece and went streaking night and day for Salonika. Special technicians sent by plane beat her time by days. The Greek general was there well ahead. And he expansively supervised while his inherited, isolated villa was prepared for the reception of Invaders--and Coburn and Janice.
And Coburn and Janice were married. It was an impressive wedding, because it was desirable for the Invaders to know about it. It was brilliantly military with uniforms and glittering decorations and innumerable important people whom neither of them knew or cared about.
If it had been anybody else's wedding Coburn would have found it unspeakably dreary. The only person present whom he knew beside Janice was Hallen. He acted as groomsman, with the air of someone walking on eggs. After it was over he shook hands with a manner of tremendous relief.
"Maybe I'll brag about this some day," he told Coburn uneasily. "But right now I'm scared to death. What do you two really expect to happen?"
Janice smiled at him. "Why," she said, "we expect to live happily ever after."
"Oh yes," said Hallen uncomfortably. "But that wasn't just what I had in mind."
The world wagged on. The newspapers knew nothing about super-secret top-level worries. There was not a single news story printed anywhere suggesting an invasion of Earth from outer space. There were a few more Flying Saucer yarns than normal, and it was beginning to transpire that an unusual number of important people were sick, or on vacation, or otherwise out of contact with the world. But, actually, not one of the events in which Coburn and Janice had been concerned reached the state of being news. Even the shooting off the Bay of Naples was explained as an emergency drill.
Quietly, a good many things happened. Cryptic orders passed around, and oxygen tanks were accumulated in military posts. Hunter and Nereid guided missiles were set up as standard equipment in a number of brand-new places. They were loaded for bear. But days went by, and nothing happened. Nothing at all. But officialdom was not at ease.
If anything--while the wide world went happily about its business--really high-level officialdom grew more unhappy day by day. Coburn and Janice flew back to Salonika. They went in a Navy plane with a fighter plane escort. They landed at the Salonika airport, and the Greek general was among those who greeted them.
He took them out to the villa he'd placed at the disposal of high authority for their use. He displayed it proudly. There was absolutely no sign that it had been touched by anybody since its original builders had finished with it two-hundred-odd years before. The American officer who had wired it, though--he looked as if he were short a week's sleep--showed them how anywhere on the grounds or in the house they would need only to speak a code-word and they'd instantly be answered.
There were servants, and the Greek general took Coburn aside and assured him that there was one room which absolutely was not wired for sound. He named it.
So they took up a relatively normal way of life. Sometimes they decided that it would be pleasant to drive in to Salonika. They mentioned it, and went out and got in the car that went with the villa. Oddly, there was always some aircraft lazying about overhead by the time they were out of the gate. They always returned before sunset. And sometimes they swam in the water before the villa's door. Then, also, they were careful to be back on solid ground before sunset. That was so their guards out on the water wouldn't have to worry.
But it was a nagging and an unhappy business to know that they were watched and overheard everywhere save in that one unwired room. It could have made for tension between them. But there was another thought to hold them together. This was the knowledge that they were literally living on top of a bomb. If an Invader's flying ship descended at the villa, everything that happened would be heard and seen by microphones and concealed television cameras. If the Invaders were too arrogant, or if they were arbitrary, there would be a test to see if their ship could exist in the heart of an atom-bomb explosion.
Coburn and Janice, then, were happy after a fashion. But nobody could call their situation restful.
They had very few visitors. The Greek general came out meticulously every day. Hallen came out once, but he knew about the atomic bomb. He didn't stay long. When they'd been in residence a week, the General telephoned zestfully that he was going to bring out some company. His English was so mangled and obscure that Coburn wondered cynically if whoever listened to their tapped telephone could understand him. But, said the General in high good humor, he was playing a good joke. He had hunted up Helena, who was Coburn's secretary, and he had also invited Dillon to pay a visit to some charming people he knew. It would be a great joke to see Dillon's face.
There was a fire in the living room that night. The Greek servants had made it, and Coburn thought grimly that they were braver men and women than he'd have been. They didn't have to risk their lives. They could have refused this particular secret-service assignment. But they hadn't.
A voice spoke from the living-room ceiling, a clipped American voice. "Mr. Coburn, a car is coming."
That was standard. When the General arrived; when the occasional delivery of telephoned-for supplies came; on the one occasion when a peddler on foot had entered the ground. It lacked something of being the perfect atmosphere for a honeymoon, but it was the way things were.
Presently there were headlights outside. The Greek butler went to greet the guests. Coburn and Janice heard voices. The General was in uproarious good humor. He came in babbling completely uncomprehensible English.
There was Helena. She smiled warmly at Coburn. She went at once to Janice. "How do you do?" she said in her prettily accented English. "I have missed not working for your husband, but this is my fiance!"
And Janice shook hands with a slick-haired young Greek who looked pleasant enough, but did not seem to her as remarkable as Coburn.
Then Dillon stared at Coburn.
"The devil!" he said, with every evidence of indignation. "This is the chap--"
The General roared, and Coburn said awkwardly: "I owe you an apology, and the privilege of a poke in the nose besides. But it was a situation--I was in a state--"
Then the General howled with laughter. Helena laughed. Her fiance laughed. And Dillon grinned amusedly at Coburn.
"My dear fellow!" said Dillon. "We are the guests this whole villa was set up to receive! The last time I saw you was in Naousa, and the last time Helena saw you you stuck pins in her, and--"
Coburn stiffened. He went slowly pale.
"I--see! You're the foam-suit people, eh?" Then he looked with hot passion at the General. "You!" he said grimly. "You I didn't suspect. You've made fools of all of us, I think."
The General said something obscure which could have been a proverb. It was to the effect that nobody could tell a fat man was cross-eyed when he laughed.
"Yes," said Dillon beaming. "He is fat. So his eyes don't look like they're different. You have to see past his cheeks and eyebrows. That's how he passed muster. And he slept very soundly after the airport affair."
Coburn felt a sort of sick horror. The General had passed as a man, and he'd loaned this villa, and he knew all about the installation of the atomic bomb.... Then Coburn looked through a doorway and there was his Greek butler standing in readiness with a submachine-gun in his hands.
"I take it this is an official call," said Coburn steadily. "In that case you know we're overheard--or did the General cancel that?"
"Oh, yes!" said Dillon. "We know all about the trap we've walked into. But we'd decided that the time had come to appear in the open anyhow. You people are very much like us, incidentally. Apparently there's only one real way that a truly rational brain can work. And we and you Earth people both have it. May we sit down?"
Janice said: "By all means!"
Helena sat, with an absolutely human gesture of spreading her skirt beside her. The General plumped into a chair and chuckled. The slick-haired young man politely offered Janice a cigarette and lighted Helena's for her. Dillon leaned against the mantel above the fire.
"Well?" said Coburn harshly. "You can state your terms. What do you want and what do you propose to do to get it?"
Dillon shook his head. He took a deep breath. "I want you to listen, Coburn. I know about the atom bomb planted somewhere around, and I know I'm talking for my life. You know we aren't natives of Earth. You've guessed that we come from a long way off. We do. Now--we found out the trick of space travel some time ago. You're quite welcome to it. We found it, and we started exploring. We've been in space, you might say, just about two of your centuries. You're the only other civilized race we've found. That's point one."
Coburn fumbled in his pocket. He found a cigarette. Dillon held a match. Coburn started, and then accepted it.
"Go on." He added, "There's a television camera relaying this, by the way. Did you know?"
"Yes, I know," said Dillon. "Now, having about two centuries the start of you, we have a few tricks you haven't found out yet. For one thing, we understand ourselves, and you, better than you do. We've some technical gadgets you haven't happened on yet. However, it's entirely possible for you to easily kill the four of us here tonight. If you do--you do. But there are others of our race here. That's point two."
"Now come the threats and demands," said Coburn.
"Perhaps." But Dillon seemed to hesitate. "Dammit, Coburn, you're a reasonable man. Try to think like us a moment. What would you do if you'd started to explore space and came upon a civilized race, as we have?"
Coburn said formidably, "We'd study them and try to make friends."
"In that order," said Dillon instantly. "That's what we've tried to do. We disguised ourselves as you because we wanted to learn how to make friends before we tried. But what did we find, Coburn? What's your guess?"
"You name it!" said Coburn.
"You Earth people," said Dillon, "are at a turning-point in your history. Either you solve your problems and keep on climbing, or you'll blast your civilization down to somewhere near a caveman level and have to start all over again. You know what I mean. Our two more spectacular interferences dealt with it."
"The Iron Curtain," said Coburn. "Yes. But what's that got to do with you? It's none of your business. That's ours."
"But it is ours," said Dillon urgently. "Don't you see, Coburn? You've a civilization nearly as advanced as ours. If we can make friends, we can do each other an infinite lot of good. We can complement each other. We can have a most valuable trade, not only in goods, but in what you call human values and we call something else. We'd like to start that trade.
"But you're desperately close to smashing things. So we've had to rush things. We did stop that Bulgarian raid. When you proved too sharp to be fooled, we grew hopeful. Here might be our entering wedge. We hammered at you. We managed to make your people suspicious that there might be something in what you said. We proved it. It was rugged for you, but we had to let you people force us into the open. If we'd marched out shyly with roses in our hair--what would you have thought?"
Coburn said doggedly: "I'm still waiting for the terms. What do you want?"
The General said something plaintive from his chair. It was to the effect that Coburn still believed that Earth was in danger of conquest from space.
"Look!" said Dillon irritably. "If you people had found the trick of space travel first, and you'd found us, would you have tried to conquer us? Considering that we're civilized?"
Coburn said coldly, "No. Not my particular people. We know you can't conquer a civilized race. You can exterminate them, or you can break them down to savagery, but you can't conquer them. You can't conquer us!"
Then Dillon said very painstakingly: "But we don't want to conquer you. Even your friends inside the Iron Curtain know that the only way to conquer a country is to smash it down to savagery. They've done that over and over for conquest. But what the devil good would savages be to us? We want someone to trade with. We can't trade with savages. We want someone to gain something from. What have savages to offer us? A planet? Good Heavens, man! We've already found sixty planets for colonies, much better for us than Earth. Your gravity here is ... well, it's sickeningly low."
"What do you want then?"
"We want to be friends," said Dillon. "We'll gain by it exactly what you Earth people gained when you traded freely among yourselves, before blocked currencies and quotas and such nonsense strangled trade. We'll gain what you gained when you'd stopped having every city a fort and every village guarded by the castle of its lord. Look, Coburn: we've got people inside the Iron Curtain. We'll keep them there. You won't be able to disband your armies, but we can promise you won't have to use them--because we certainly won't help you chaps fight among yourselves. We'll give you one of our ships to study and work on. But we won't give you our arms. You'll have your moon in a year and your whole solar system in a decade. You'll trade with us from the time you choose, and you'll be roaming space when you can grasp the trick of it. Man, you can't refuse. You're too near to certain smashing of your civilization, and we can help you to avoid it. Think what we're offering."
Then Coburn said grimly: "And if we don't like the bargain? What if we refuse?"
Dillon carefully put the ash from his cigarette into an ashtray. "If you won't be our friends," he said with some distaste, "we can't gain anything useful from you. We don't want you as slaves. You'd be no good to us. For that reason we can't get anything we want from the Iron Curtain people. They've nothing to offer that we can use. So our ultimatum is--make friends or we go away and leave you alone. Take it or leave it!"
There was a dead, absolute silence. After a long time Coburn said: "Altruism?"
Dillon grinned. "Enlightened self-interest. Common sense!"
There was a clicking in the ceiling. A metallic voice said: "Mr. Coburn, the conversation just overheard and recorded has to be discussed in detail on high diplomatic levels. It will take time for conferences--decisions--arrangements. Assuming that your guests are acting in good faith, they have safe conduct from the villa. Their offer is very attractive, but it will have to be passed on at high policy-making levels."
Dillon said pleasantly, to the ceiling: "Yes. And you've got to keep it from being public, of course, until your space ships can discover us somewhere. It will have to be handled diplomatically, so your people are back of a grand offer to make friends when it happens." He added wryly, "We're very much alike, really. Coburn's very much like us. That's why--if it's all right with you--you can arrange for him to be our point of confidential contact. We'll keep in touch with him."
The ceiling did not reply. Dillon waited, then shrugged. The Greek general spoke. He said that since they had come so far out from Salonika, it was too early to leave again. It might be a good idea to have a party. Some music would be an excellent thing. He said he liked Earth music very much.
A long time later Janice and Coburn were alone in the one room of the house which was not wired for sound. There were no microphones here.
Coburn said reluctantly in the darkness: "It sounds sensible all right. Maybe it's true. But it feels queer to think of it...."