This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely




НазваниеThis is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely
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Chapter Eight

I sat on the terrace watching the sun go down into the sea and thinking about Foster, somewhere out there beyond the purple palaces on the far horizon, in the ship that had waited for him for three thousand years, heading home at last. It was strange to reflect that for him, traveling near the speed of light, only a few days had passed, while three years went by for me—three fast years that I had made good use of.

The toughest part had been the first few months, after I put the lifeboat down in a cañon in the desert country south of a little town called Itzenca, in Peru. I waited by the boat for a week, to be sure the vigilantes weren't going to show up, full of helpful suggestions and embarrassing questions; then I hiked to town, carrying a pack with a few carefully selected items to start my new career. It took me two weeks to work, lie, barter, and plead my way to the seaport town of Callao and another week to line up passage home as a deck hand on a banana scow. I disappeared over the side at Tampa, and made it to Miami without attracting attention. As far as I could tell, the cops had already lost interest in me.

My old friend, the heavy-weight señorita, wasn't overjoyed to see me, but she put me up, and I started in on my plan to turn my souvenirs into money.

The items I had brought with me from the lifeboat were a pocketful of little grey dominoes that were actually movie film, and a small projector to go with them. I didn't offer them for sale, direct. I made arrangements with an old acquaintance in the business of making pictures with low costume budgets for private showings; I set up the apparatus and projected my films, and he copied them in 35 mm. I told him that I'd smuggled them in from East Germany. He didn't think much of Krauts, but he admitted you had to hand it to them technically; the special effects were absolutely top-notch. His favorite was the one I called the Mammoth Hunt.

I had twelve pictures altogether; with a little judicious cutting and a dubbed-in commentary, they made up into fast-moving twenty-minute short subjects. He got in touch with a friend in the distribution end in New York, and after a little cagey fencing over contract terms, we agreed on a deal that paid a hundred thousand for the twelve, with an option on another dozen at the same price.

Within a week after the pictures hit the neighborhood theatres around Bayonne, New Jersey, in a cautious tryout, I had offers up to half a million for my next consignment, no questions asked. I left my pal Mickey to handle the details on a percentage basis, and headed back for Itzenca.

The lifeboat was just as I'd left it; it would have been all right for another fifty years, as far as the danger of anybody stumbling over it was concerned. I explained to the crew I brought out with me that it was a fake rocket ship, a prop I was using for a film I was making. I let them wander all over it and get their curiosity out of their systems. The consensus was that it wouldn't fool anybody; no tail fins, no ray guns, and the instrument panel was a joke; but they figured that it was my money, so they went to work setting up a system of camouflage nets (part of the plot, I told them) and offloading my cargo.

A year after my homecoming, I had my island—a square mile of perfect climate, fifteen miles off the Peruvian coast—and a house that was tailored to my every whim by a mind-reading architect who made a fortune on the job—and earned it. The uppermost floor—almost a tower—was a strong-room, and it was there that I had stored my stock in trade. I had sold off the best of the hundred or so films I had picked out before leaving Foster, but there were plenty of other items. The projector itself was the big prize. The self-contained power unit converted nuclear energy to light with 99 percent efficiency. It scanned the "films", one molecular layer at a time, and projected a continuous picture—no sixteen-frames-a-second flicker here. The color and sound were absolutely life-like—with the result that I'd had a few complaints from my distributor that the Technicolor was kind of washed-out.

The principles involved in the projector were new, and—in theory, at least—way over the heads of our local physicists. But the practical application was nothing much. I figured that, with the right contacts in scientific circles to help me introduce the system, I had a billion-dollar industry up my sleeve. I had already fed a few little gimmicks into the market; a tough paper, suitable for shirts and underwear; a chemical that bleached teeth white as the driven snow; an all-color pigment for artists. With the knowledge I had absorbed from all the briefing rods I had studied, I had the techniques of a hundred new industries at my fingertips—and I hadn't exhausted the possibilities yet.

I spent most of a year roaming the world, discovering all the things that a free hand with a dollar bill could do for a man. The next year I put in fixing up the island, buying paintings and rugs and silver for the house, and a concert grand piano. After the first big thrill of economic freedom had worn off, I still enjoyed my music.

For six months I had a full-time physical instructor giving me a twenty-four-hour-a-day routine of diet, sleep, and all the precision body-building my metabolism could stand. At the end of the course I was twice the man I'd ever been, the instructor was a physical wreck, and I was looking around for a new hobby.

Now, after three years, it was beginning to get me: boredom, the disease of the idle rich, that I had sworn would never touch me. But thinking about wealth and having it on your hands are two different things, and I was beginning to remember almost with nostalgia the tough old times when every day was an adventure, full of cops and missed meals and a thousand unappeased desires.

Not that I was really suffering. I was relaxed in a comfortable chair, after a day of surf fishing and a modest dinner of Chateaubriand. I was smoking a skinny cigar rolled by an expert from the world's finest leaf, and listening to the best music a thousand-dollar hi-fi could produce. And the view, though free, was worth a million dollars a minute. After a while I would stroll down to the boathouse, start up the Rolls-powered launch, and tool over to the mainland, transfer to my Caddie convertible, and drive into town where a tall brunette from Stockholm was waiting for me to take her to the movies. My steady gal was a hard-working secretary for an electronics firm.

I finished up my stogie and leaned forward to drop it in a big silver ashtray, when something caught my eye out across the red-painted water. I sat squinting at it, then went inside and came out with a pair of 7x50 binoculars. I focused them and studied the dark speck that stood out clearly now against the gaudy sky. It was a heavy-looking power boat, heading dead toward my island.

I watched it come closer, swing off toward the hundred-foot concrete jetty I had built below the sea-wall, and ease alongside in a murmur of powerful engines. They died, and the boat sat in a sudden silence dwarfing the pier. I studied the bluish-grey hull, the inconspicuous flag aft. Two heavy deck guns were mounted on the foredeck, and there were four torpedoes slung in launching cradles. The hardware didn't make half as much impression on me as the ranks of helmeted men drawn up on deck.

I sat and watched. The men shuffled off onto the pier, formed up into two squads. I counted; forty-eight men, and a couple of officers. There was the faint sound of orders being barked, and the column stepped off, moving along the paved road that swung between the transplanted royal palms and hibiscus, right up to the wide drive that curved off to the house. They halted, did a left face, and stood at parade rest. The two officers, wearing class A's, and a tubby civilian with a briefcase came up the drive, trying to look as casual as possible under the circumstances. They paused at the foot of the broad flight of Tennessee marble steps leading up to my perch.

The leading officer, a brigadier general, no less, looked up at me.

"May we come up, sir?" he said.

I looked across at the silent ranks waiting at the foot of the drive.

"If the boys want a drink of water, Sarge," I said, "tell 'em to come on over."

"I am General Smale," the B.G. said. "This is Colonel Sanchez of the Peruvian Army—" he indicated the other military type "—and Mr. Pruffy of the American Embassy at Lima."

"Howdy, Mr. Pruffy," I said. "Howdy, Mr. Sanchez. Howdy—"

"This . . . ah . . . call is official in nature, Mr. Legion," the general said. "It's a matter of great importance, involving the security of your country."

"OK, General," I said. "Come on up. What's happened? You boys haven't started another war, have you?"

They filed up onto the terrace, hesitated, then shook hands, and sat down gingerly in the chairs. Pruffy held his briefcase in his lap.

"Put your sandwiches on the table, if you like, Mr. Pruffy," I said. He blinked, gripped the briefcase tighter. I offered my hand-tooled cigars around; Pruffy looked startled, Smale shook his head, and Sanchez took three.

"I'm here," the general said, "to ask you a few questions, Mr. Legion. Mr. Pruffy represents the Department of State in the matter, and Colonel Sanchez—"

"Don't tell me," I said. "He represents the Peruvian government, which is why I don't ask you what an armed American force is doing wandering around on Peruvian soil."

"Here," Pruffy put in. "I hardly think—"

"I believe you," I said. "What's it all about, Smale?"

"I'll come directly to the point," he said. "For some time, the investigative and security agencies of the US government have been building a file on what for lack of a better name has been called 'The Martians.' " Smale coughed apologetically.

"A little over three years ago," he went on, "an unidentified flying object—"

"You interested in flying saucers, General?" I said.

"By no means," he snapped. "The object appeared on a number of radar screens, descending from extreme altitude. It came to earth at . . ." he hesitated.

"Don't tell me you came all the way out here to tell me you can't tell me," I said.

"—A site in England," Smale said. "American aircraft were dispatched to investigate the object. Before they could make identification, it rose again, accelerated at tremendous speed, and was lost at an altitude of several hundred miles."

"I thought we had better radar than that," I said. "The satellite program—"

"No such specialized equipment was available," Smale said. "An intensive investigation turned up the fact that two strangers—possibly Americans—had visited the site only a few hours before the—ah—visitation."

I nodded. I was thinking about the close call I'd had when I went back to see about lobbing a bomb down the shaft to obliterate the beacon station. There were plainclothes men all over the place, like old maids at a movie star's funeral. It was just as well; they never found it. The rocket blasts had collapsed the tunnel, and apparently the whole underground installation was made of non-metallic substances that didn't show up in detecting equipment. I had an idea metal was passé where Foster came from.

"Some months later," Smale went on, "a series of rather curious short films went on exhibition in the United States. They showed scenes representing conditions on other planets, as well as ancient and prehistoric incidents here on earth. They were prefaced with explanations that they merely represented the opinions of science as to what was likely to be found on distant worlds. They attracted wide interest, and with few exceptions, scientists praised their verisimilitude."

"I admire a clever fake," I said. "With a topical subject like space travel—"

"One item which was commented on as a surprising inaccuracy, in view of the technical excellence of the other films," Smale said, "was the view of our planet from space, showing the earth against the backdrop of stars. A study of the constellations by astronomers quickly indicated a 'date' of approximately 7000 B.C. for the scene. Oddly, the north polar cap was shown centered on Hudson's Bay. No south polar cap was in evidence. The continent of Antarctica appeared to be at a latitude of some 30, entirely free of ice."

I looked at him and waited.

"Now, studies made since that time indicate that nine thousand years ago, the North Pole was indeed centered on Hudson's Bay," Smale said. "And Antarctica was in fact ice-free."

"That idea's been around a long time," I said. "There was a theory—"

"Then there was the matter of the views of Mars," the general went on. "The aerial shots of the 'canals' were regarded as very cleverly done." He turned to Pruffy, who opened his briefcase and handed a couple of photos across.

"This is a scene taken from the film," Smale said. It was an 8x10 color shot, showing a row of mounds drifted with pinkish dust, against a blue-black horizon.

Smale placed another photo beside the first. "This one," he said, "was taken by automatic cameras in the successful Mars probe of last year."

I looked. The second shot was fuzzy, and the color was shifted badly toward the blue, but there was no mistaking the scene. The mounds were drifted a little deeper, and the angle was different, but they were the same mounds.

"In the meantime," Smale bored on relentlessly, "a number of novel products appeared on the market. Chemists and physicists alike were dumbfounded at the theoretical base implied by the techniques involved. One of the products—a type of pigment—embodied a completely new concept in crystallography."

"Progress," I said. "Why, when I was a boy—"

"It was an extremely tortuous trail we followed," Smale said. "But we found that all these curious observations making up the 'Martians' file had, in the end, only one factor in common. And that factor, Mr. Legion, was you."

Chapter Nine

It was a few minutes after sunrise, and Smale and I were back on the terrace toying with the remains of ham steaks and honeydew.

"That's one advantage of being in jail in your own house—the food's good," I commented.

"I can understand your feelings," Smale said. "Frankly, I didn't relish this assignment. But it's clear that there are matters here which require explanation. It was my hope that you'd see fit to cooperate voluntarily."

"Take your army and sail off into the sunrise, General," I said. "Then maybe I'll be in a position to do something voluntary."

"Your patriotism alone—"

"My patriotism keeps telling me that where I come from, a citizen has certain legal rights," I said.

"This is a matter that transcends legal technicalities," Smale said. "I'll tell you quite frankly, the presence of the task force here only received ex post facto approval by the Peruvian government. They were faced with the fait accompli. I mention this only to indicate just how strongly the government feels in this matter."

"Seeing you hit the beach with a platoon of infantry was enough of a hint for me," I said. "You're lucky I didn't wipe you out with my disintegrator rays."

Smale choked on a bite of melon.

"Just kidding," I said. "But I haven't given you any trouble. Why the reinforcements?"

Smale stared at me. "What reinforcements?"

I pointed with a fork. He turned, gazed out to sea. A conning tower was breaking the surface, leaving a white wake behind. It rose higher, water streaming off the deck. A hatch popped open, and men poured out, lining up. Smale got to his feet, his napkin falling to the floor.

"Sergeant!" he yelled. I sat, open-mouth, as Smale jumped to the stair, went down it three steps at a time. I heard him bellowing, the shouts of men and the clatter of rifles being unstacked, feet pounding. I went to the marble banister and looked down. Pruffy was out on the lawn in purple pajamas, yelping questions. Colonel Sanchez was pulling at Smale's arm, also yelling. The Marines were forming up on the lawn.

"Let's watch those petunias, Sergeant," I yelled.

"Keep out of this, Legion," Smale shouted.

"Why should I be the only one not yelling," I yelled. "After all, I own the place."

Smale bounded back up the stairs. "You're my prime responsibility, Legion," he barked. "I'm getting you to a point of maximum security. Where's the cellar?"

"I keep it downstairs," I said. "What's this all about? Interservice rivalry? You afraid the sailors are going to steal the glory?"

"That's a nuclear-powered sub," Smale barked. "It belongs to the Russian Navy."

* * *

I stood there with my mouth open, looking at Smale without seeing him, and trying hard to think fast. I hadn't been too startled when the Marines showed up; I had gone over the legal aspects of my situation months before, with a platoon of high-priced legal talent; I knew that sooner or later somebody would come around to hit me for tax evasion, draft dodging, or overtime parking; but I was in the clear. The government might resent my knowing a lot of things it didn't, but no one could ever prove I'd swiped them from Uncle Sam. In the end, they'd have to let me go—and my account in a Swiss bank would last me, even if they managed to suppress any new developments from my fabulous lab. In a way, I was glad the showdown had come.

But I'd forgotten about the Russians. Naturally, they'd be interested, and their spies were at least as good as the intrepid agents of the US Secret Service. I should have realized that sooner or later, they'd pay a call—and the legal niceties wouldn't slow them down. They'd slap me into a brain laundry, and sweat every last secret out of me as casually as I'd squeeze a lemon.

The sub was fully surfaced now, and I was looking down the barrels of half a dozen five-inch rifles, any one of which could blast Smale's navy out of the water with one salvo. There were a couple of hundred men, I estimated, putting landing boats over the side and spilling into them. Down on the lawn, the sergeant was snapping orders, and the men were double-timing off to positions that must have been spotted in advance. It looked like the Russians weren't entirely unexpected. This was a game the big boys were playing, and I was just a pawn, caught in the middle. My rosy picture of me confounding the bureaucrats was fading fast. My island was about to become a battlefield, and whichever way it turned out, I'd be the loser. I had one slim possibility; to get lost in the shuffle.

Smale grabbed my arm. "Don't stand there, man!" he snapped. "Which way—"

"Sorry, General," I said, and slammed a hard right to his stomach. He folded, but still managed to lunge for me. I gave him a left to the jaw, and he dropped. I jumped over him, plunged through the French doors, and took the spiral glass stairway four at a time, whirled, and slammed the strong-room door behind me. The armored walls would stand anything short of a direct hit with a good-sized artillery shell, and the boys down below were unlikely to use any heavy stuff for fear of damaging the goods they'd been sent out to collect. I was safe for a little while.

Now I had to do some fast, accurate thinking. I couldn't carry much with me—when and if I made it off the island. A few briefing rods, maybe; what was left of the movies. But I had already audited most of the rods; I knew them as well as I know my tax bracket. One listen to a rod gave you a fast picture of the subject; two or three repeats engraved it on your brain. The only reason a man couldn't know everything was that too much, too fast, would overload the mind—and amnesia wiped the slate clean.

I didn't have time to use any more rods, and I couldn't carry anything. But just to walk off and leave it all . . . 

I rummaged through odds and ends, stuffing small items into my pockets. I came across a dull silvery cylinder, three inches long, striped in black and gold—a memory trace. It reminded me of something . . . 

That was an idea. I still had the U-shaped plastic headpiece that Foster had used to acquire a background knowledge of his old home. I had tried it once—for a moment. It had given me a headache in two seconds flat, just pressed against my temple. It had been lying here ever since. But maybe now was the time to try it again. Half the items I had here in my strong-room were mysteries, like the silver cylinder in my hand, but I knew exactly what the plastic headband could give me. It contained all anyone needed to know about Vallon and the Two Worlds, and all the marvels they possessed.

I glanced out the armor-glass window. Smale's Marines were trotting across the lawn; the Russians were fanning out along the water's edge. It looked like business all right. Still, it would take them a while to get warmed up—and more time still to decide to blast me out of my fort. It had taken an hour or so for Foster to soak up the briefing; maybe I wouldn't be much longer at it.

I tossed the cylinder aside, tried a couple of drawers, found the inconspicuous strip of plastic that encompassed a whole civilization. I carried it across to a chair, settled myself, then hesitated. This thing had been designed for an alien brain, not mine. Suppose it burnt out my wiring, left me here gibbering, for Smale or the Ruskis to work over?

But the alternative was to leave my island virtually empty-handed, settle for what I might in time manage to salvage from my account—if I could devise a way of withdrawing money without calling down the Gestapo . . . 

No, I wouldn't go back to poverty without a struggle. What I could carry in my head would give me independence—even immunity from the greed of nations. I could barter my knowledge for my freedom.

There were plenty of things wrong with the picture, but it was the best I could do on short notice. Gingerly I fitted the U-shaped band to my head. There was a feeling of pressure, then a sensation like warm water rising about me. Panic tried to rise, faded. A voice seemed to reassure me. I was among friends, I was safe, all was well . . . 

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