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Chapter Seven

Clad in a standard-issue UNSA arctic jacket, quilted over-trousers, and snowboots, Hunt stood in the center of a small group of muffled figures stamping their feet and breathing frosty clouds of condensation into the air on the concrete apron of McClusky Air Force Base, situated in the foothills of the Baird Mountains one hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle. The ground fog of the previous day had thinned somewhat to become a layer of overcast through which the washy blob of the sun was just able to impart a drab mix of off-white and grays to the texture of the surrounding landscape. Most of the signs of life among the huddle of semiderelict buildings behind them were concentrated around the former mess hall, which had been hastily patched up and windproofed to provide makeshift accommodation and a command post for the operation. A gaggle of UNSA aircraft and other vehicles parked among a litter of supplies and equipment along the near edge of the apron, and a team of handpicked UNSA personnel positioned in the background with cameras and microphone booms set up ready to record the impending event, completed the scene. The command post had landline links into the area radar net, and a homing beacon had been set up for the Ganymean ship. A strangely tense silence predominated, broken only by the intermittent cries of kittiwakes wheeling and diving above the frozen marshes beyond the perimeter fence, and the humming of a motor generator supplying power from one of the parked trailers.

McClusky was about as far from population centers and major air-traffic lanes as it was possible to get without going outside the U.S., but like every other point on the Earth's surface it was still subject to satellite scrutiny. In an attempt to mask the landing, UNSA had given notice that tests of a new type of reentry vehicle would be conducted in the area during that week, and had requested airlines and other organizations to reroute flights accordingly until further notice. To accustom the region's radar controllers to an abnormal pattern of activity, UNSA had also been staging irregular flights over Alaska for several days and altering their announced flight plans at short notice. Beyond that there was little they could do. How anything like the arrival of a starship could be kept secret from terrestrial observers, never mind an advanced alien surveillance system, was something nobody was quite sure of. Whoever was sending the messages through Jupiter had seemed satisfied with the arrangements, however, and had stated that they would take care of the rest.

The last message to go out via Jupiter had given the names of the persons who would make up the reception party, their positions, and a brief summary of what they did and why each was included. The aliens had reciprocated with a reply advising that three of their members would be prominent in conducting their dealings with Earth. The first was "Calazar," who was described as personifying the government of Thurien and its associated worlds—the figure nearest to a "president" that the planet seemed to possess. Accompanying him would be Frenua Showm, a female "ambassador" whose function had to do with affairs between the various sectors of Thurien society, "and Porthik Eesyan, who was involved with policies of scientific, industrial, and economic importance. Whether or not more than just these three would be involved, the aliens hadn't said.

"This is all a striking contrast to the Shapieron's arrival on this planet," Danchekker muttered, surveying the scene around them. That event on the shore of Lake Geneva had been witnessed by tens of thousands and shown live over the news grid.

"It reminds me of Ganymede Main," Hunt replied. "All we need is helmets on and a few Vegas around. What a way to start a new era!"

On Hunt's other side, Lyn, looking lost in the outsize, fur-trimmed hood pulled closely around her face, thrust her hands deeper into her jacket pockets and ground down a block of slush with her foot. "They're about due," she said. "I hope they've got good brakes." Assuming all was on schedule, the ship would have left Thurien, over twenty light-years away, just about twenty-four hours earlier.

"I don't think we need entertain any fears of ineptitude on the part of the Ganymeans," Danchekker said confidently.

"If they turn out to be Ganymeans," Hunt remarked, even though by this time he no longer had any real doubts about the matter.

"Of course they're Ganymeans," Danchekker snorted impatiently.

Behind them Karen Heller and Jerol Packard, the U.S. Secretary of State, stood motionless and silent. They had persuaded the President to go ahead with the operation on the strength of the implication that the aliens, Ganymean or not, were friendly, and if they were wrong they could well have committed their country to the worst blunder in its history. The President had hoped to be present in person, but in the end had accepted reluctantly the advice of his aides that the absence of too many important people at the same time without explanation would be inviting undesirable attention.

Suddenly the voice of the operations controller inside the mess hall barked over the loudspeaker mounted on a mast at the rear. "Radar contact!" The figures around Hunt stiffened visibly. Behind them the team of UNSA technicians hid their nervousness behind a frenzied outbreak of last-minute preparations and adjustments. The voice came again: "Approaching due west, range twenty-two miles, altitude twelve thousand feet, speed six hundred miles per hour, reducing." Hunt swung his head around instinctively to peer upward along with all the others, but it was impossible to make out anything through the overcast.

A minute went by in slow motion. "Five miles," the controller's voice announced. "It's down to five thousand feet. Visual contact any time now." Hunt could feel the blood pumping solidly in his chest. Despite the cold, his body suddenly felt clammy inside his heavy clothing. Lyn wriggled her arm through his and pulled herself closer.

And then the wind blowing down from the mountains to the west brought the first snatch of a low moaning sound. It lasted for a second or two, faded away, then came back again and this time persisted. It swelled slowly to a steady drone. A frown began forming on Hunt's face as he listened. He turned and glanced back, and saw that several of the UNSA people were exchanging puzzled looks too. There was something wrong. That sound was too familiar to be from any starship. Mutterings started breaking out, then ceased abruptly as a dark shape materialized out of the cloud base and continued descending on a direct line toward the base. It was a standard Boeing 1227 medium-haul, transonic VTOL—a model widely used by domestic carriers and UNSA's preferred type for general-purpose duties. The tension that had been building up around the apron released itself in a chorus of groans and curses.

Behind Heller and Packard, Caldwell, his face dark with fury, spun around to confront a bewildered UNSA officer. "I thought this area was supposed to have been cleared," he snapped.

The officer shook his head helplessly. "It was. I don't understand. . . . Somebo—"

"Get that idiot out of here!"

Looking flustered, the officer hurried away and disappeared through the open door of the mess hall. At the same time voices from the control room inside began pouring out over the loudspeaker, evidently left inadvertently live in the confusion.

"I can't get anything out of it. It's not responding."

"Use the emergency frequency."

"We've already tried. Nothing."

"For Christ's sake what's happening in here? Caldwell just chewed my balls off outside. Find out from Yellow Six who it is."

"I've got 'em on the line now. They don't know, either. They thought it was ours."

"Gimme that goddam phone!"

The plane leveled out above the edge of the marshes about a mile away and kept coming, heedless of the volley of brilliant red warning flares fired from the top of McClusky's control tower. It slowed to a halt above the open area of concrete in front of the reception party, hung motionless for a moment, and then started sinking toward the ground. A handful of UNSA officers and technicians ran forward making frantic crossed-arms signals over their heads to wave it off, but fell back in disarray as it came on down regardless and settled. Caldwell strode ahead of the group, gesticulating angrily and shouting orders at the UNSA figures who were converging around the nose and making signs up at the cockpit.

"Imbeciles!" Danchekker muttered. "This kind of thing should never happen."

"It looks as if Murphy's back from vacation," Lyn said resignedly in Hunt's ear. But Hunt only half heard. He was staring hard at the Boeing with a strange look on his face. There was something very odd about that aircraft. It had landed in the middle of a sea of watery snow and slush churned up by the activity of the last few days, yet its landing jets hadn't thrown up the cloud of spray and vapor that they should have. So maybe it didn't have any landing jets. If that were so it might have looked like a 1227, but it certainly wasn't powered like one. And there didn't seem to be much response from the cockpit to the antics of the people below. In fact, unless Hunt's eyes were deceiving him, there wasn't anybody in the cockpit at all. Suddenly his face broke into a wide grin as the penny dropped.

"Vic, what is it?" Lyn asked. "What's funny?"

"What's the obvious way to hide something in the middle of an airfield from a surveillance system?" he asked. He gestured toward the plane, but before he could say any more a voice that could have belonged to a natural-born American boomed out across the apron from its direction.

"Greetings from Thurien to Earth, et cetera. Well, we made it. Too bad about the lousy weather."

All movement around the craft ceased instantly. A total silence fell. One by one the heads on every side jerked around and gaped at each other speechlessly as the message percolated through.

This was a starship? The Shapieron had stood nearly half a mile high. It was like having a little old lady show up at Tycho on a bicycle.

The forward passenger door opened, and a flight of steps unfolded itself to the ground. All eyes were riveted to the open doorway. The UNSA people up front drew back slowly while Hunt and his companions, with Heller and Packard a pace behind, moved forward to close in behind Caldwell and then slowed to a halt again uncertainly. Behind them the expectant cameras focused unwaveringly on the top of the steps.

"You'd better come on in," the voice suggested. "No sense in catching colds out there."

Heller and Packard exchanged bemused glances; none of their talks and briefings in Washington had prepared them for this. "I guess we just ad-lib as we go," Packard said in a low voice. He tried to summon up a reassuring grin, but it died somewhere on its way to his face.

"At least it's not happening in Siberia," Heller murmured.

Danchekker was fixing Hunt with a satisfied look. "If those utterances are not indicative of Ganymean humor at work, I'll accept creationism," he said triumphantly. The aliens could have warned them about the ship's disguise, Hunt agreed inwardly, but apparently they had been unable to resist making a mild joke out of it. And they obviously had little time for pomp and formality. It sounded like Ganymeans, all right.

They began moving toward the steps with Caldwell in the lead while the UNSA people opened up to let them pass through. Hunt was a couple of paces behind Caldwell as Caldwell was about to step onto the first stair. Caldwell emitted a startled exclamation and seemed to be lifted off the ground. As the others froze in their tracks, he was whisked upward over the stairway without any part of his body seeming to touch it, and deposited on his feet inside the doorway apparently none the worse for wear. He seemed a trifle shaken when he turned to look back down at them, but composed himself rapidly. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he growled. Hunt was obviously next in line. He drew a long, unsteady breath, shrugged, and stepped forward.

A strangely pleasant and warm sensation enveloped him, and a force of some kind drew him onward, carrying his weight off his legs. There was a blurred impression of the steps flowing by beneath his feet, and then he was standing beside Caldwell, who was watching him closely and not without a hint of amusement. Hunt was finally convinced—this was not a 1227.

They were in a fairly small, bare compartment whose walls were of a translucent amber material and glowed softly. It seemed to be an antechamber to whatever lay beyond another door leading aft, from which a stronger light was emanating. Before Hunt could take in any more of the details, Lyn sailed in through the doorway and landed lightly on the spot he had just vacated. "Smoking or non-smoking?" he asked.

"Where's the stewardess? I need a brandy."

Then Danchekker's voice shouted in sudden alarm from outside. "What in God's name is happening? Do something with this infernal contraption!" They looked back down. He was hanging a foot or two above the stairway, flailing his arms in exasperation after having apparently come to a halt halfway through the process of joining them. "This is ridiculous! Get me down from here!"

"You're crowding the doorway," the voice that had spoken before advised from somewhere around them. "How about moving on through and making more room?" They moved toward the inner doorway, and Danchekker appeared behind somewhat huffily a few seconds later. While Heller and Packard were following, Hunt and Lyn followed Caldwell into the body of the craft.

They found themselves in a short corridor that ran twenty feet or so toward the tail before stopping at another door, which was closed. A series of partitions extending from floor to ceiling divided the space on either side into a half-dozen or so narrow cubicles facing inward from left and right. As they moved along the corridor, they found that all the cubicles were identical, each containing some kind of recliner, luxuriously upholstered in red, facing inward toward the corridor and surrounded by a metal framework supporting panel inlays of a multicolored crystalline material and a bewildering layout of delicately constructed equipment whose purpose could have been anything. There was still no sign of life.

"Welcome aboard," the voice said. "If you'd each take a seat, we can begin."

"Who's doing the talking?" Caldwell demanded, looking around and overhead. "We'd appreciate the courtesy of your identifying yourself."

"My name is visar," the voice replied. "But I'm only the pilot and cabin crew. The people you're expecting will be here in a few minutes."

They were probably through the door at the far end, Hunt decided. It seemed odd. The voice reminded him of his first meeting with the Ganymeans, inside the Shapieron shortly after it had arrived in orbit over Ganymede. On that occasion, too, contact with the aliens had been through a voice functioning as interpreter, which turned out subsequently to belong to an entity called zorac—a supercomputer complex distributed through the ship and responsible for the operation of most of its systems and functions. "visar," he called out. "Are you a computer system built into this vehicle?"

"You could say that," visar answered. "It's about as near as we're likely to get. A small extension is there. The rest is scattered all over Thurien plus a whole list of other planets and places. You've got a link into the net."

"Are you saying this ship isn't operating autonomously?" Hunt asked. "You're interacting between here and Thurien in realtime?"

"Sure. How else could we have turned around the messages from Jupiter?"

Hunt was astounded. visar's statement implied a communications network distributed across star systems and operating with negligible delays. It meant that the point-to-point transfers, at least of energy, that he had often talked about with Paul Shelling at Navcomms were not only proved in principle, but up and running. No wonder Caldwell was looking stunned; it put Navcomms back in the Stone Age.

Hunt realized that Danchekker was now immediately behind him, peering curiously around, with Heller and Packard just inside the door. Where was Lyn? As if to answer his unvoiced equation, her voice spoke from inside one of the cubicles. "Say, it feels great. I could stand this for a week or two, maybe." He turned and saw that she was already lying back in one of the recliners and apparently enjoying it. He looked at Caldwell, hesitated for a moment, then moved into the adjacent cubicle, turned, and sat down, allowing his body to sink back into the recliner's yielding contours. It felt right for human rather than Ganymean proportions, he noted with interest. Had they built the whole craft in a week specifically for the occasion? That would have been typical of Ganymeans too.

A warm, pleasant feeling swept over him again and made him feel drowsy, causing his head to drop back automatically into the concave rest provided. He felt more relaxed than he could ever remember and suddenly didn't care if he never had to get up again. There was a vague impression of the woman—he couldn't recall her name—and the Secretary of something-or-other from Washington floating in front of him as if in a dream and gazing down at him curiously. "Try it. You'll like it," he heard himself murmuring distantly.

Some part of his mind was aware that he had been thinking clearly only moments before, but he was unable to remember what or really to care why. His mind had stopped functioning as a coherent entity and seemed to have disassembled into separate functions that he could observe in a detached kind of way as they continued to operate as isolated units instead of in concert. It should be troubling him, part of himself told the rest casually, and the rest agreed . . . but it wasn't.

Something was happening to his vision. The view of the upper part of the cubicle collapsed suddenly into meaningless blurs and smears, and then almost as quickly reassembled itself into an image that swelled, shrank, then faded and finally brightened once again. When it stabilized all the colors were wrong, like those of a false-color, computer-generated display. The colors reversed into complementary tones for a few insane seconds, overcorrected, and then suddenly were normal.

"Excuse these preliminaries," visar's voice said from somewhere. At least Hunt thought it was visar's; it was barely comprehensible, with the pitch sliding from a shrill whine through several octaves to finish in an almost inaudible rumble. "This process . . ." something completely unintelligible followed, ". . . one time, and after that there will be no . . ." a confusion of telescoped syllables, ". . . will be explained shortly." The last part was free from distortion.

And then Hunt became acutely conscious of the pressure of the recliner against his body, of the touch of his clothes against his skin, and even of the sensation of air flowing through his nostrils as he breathed. His body started to convulse, and he felt a sudden spasm of alarm. Then he realized that he was not moving at all; the impression was due to rapid variations in sensitivity taking place all over his skin. He felt hot all over, then cold, itchy for a moment, prickly for a moment, and then completely numb—and then suddenly normal once more.

Everything was normal. His mind had reintegrated itself, and all his faculties were in order. He wriggled his fingers and found that the invisible gel that had been immersing him was gone. He tried moving an arm, then the other arm; everything was fine.

"Feel free to get up," visar said. Hunt climbed slowly to his feet and stepped back into the corridor to find the others emerging and looking as bewildered as he felt. He looked past them at the door blocking the far end, but it was still closed.

"What do you suppose may have been the object of that exercise?" Danchekker asked, for once looking at a loss. Hunt could only shake his head.

And then Lyn's voice sounded from behind him. "Vic." It was just one word, but its ominous tone of warning spun him around instantly. She was staring wide-eyed along the corridor toward the door through which they had entered. He turned his head farther to follow her gaze.

Filling the doorway was the huge frame of a Ganymean, clad in a silvery garment that was halfway between a short cape and a loose jacket, worn over a trousered tunic of dark green. The deep, liquid violet, alien eyes surveyed them for a few seconds from the elongated, protruding face while they watched silently, waiting for a first move. Then the Ganymean announced, "I am Bryom Calazar. You are the people we have been expecting, I see. Please step this way. It's a little too crowded in here for introductions." With that he moved out of sight toward the outer door. Danchekker thrust out his jaw, drew himself up to his full height, and went back into the antechamber after him. After a moment's hesitation Lyn followed.

"This is absurd." Danchekker's voice reached Hunt just as he was stepping through behind Lyn. The statement was uttered in the tone of somebody clinging obstinately to reason and flatly denying that what his senses were reporting could be real. A split second later Lyn gasped, and an instant after that Hunt could see why. He had assumed that Calazar had come from another compartment leading forward from the antechamber, but there was no such compartment. There didn't need to be. The other Ganymeans were outside.

For McClusky Air Force Base, Alaska, and the Arctic had all gone. Instead he was looking out at a completely different world.



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