Authors: Kenneth Johnson
Tags: #Science Fiction
The announcer was still talking: "... making it impossible to get within a mile of the craft. Missiles fired at the ships simply go astray, then detonate harmlessly well out of range. Police and troops are trying to maintain an orderly evacuation of the nation's capital ..."
. . and all the other cities that are threatened by this unprecedented happening, but roads and highways everywhere are jammed with traffic. Accidents have paralyzed all or most of the major arteries. Other craft are known to be approaching or hovering over at least seven other major U.S. citiesHouston, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans-yes, and this is now confirmed, Los Angeles ..."
"L.A.?!" Elias nearly dropped the Walkman, rousing to realize that he was in a stranger's living room, and that the rightful owner might reappear any moment. Hastily he slid one leg over the windowsill, afraid to look up.
MIKE DONOVAN PULLED A BLANKET OVER TONY'S GENTLY SNORING form, and moved forward to the Learjet's cockpit. Dropping into the copilot's seat, he glanced at the instruments. "Ahead of schedule," he commented.
The pilot stood up, watching as Donovan took over the controls, then nodded approvingly before answering the newsman's question. "Yeah. So far Dulles is still open. We'd better take it. They're shutting down all over."
"Closed." Donovan shrugged, grinning. "Let's open it. They can't roll up the runways, can they?" "Hell, too. The FAA would have our-" Donovan snapped his fingers. "No, I've got a better idea! La Guardia's much better!" , Harnell stared at him. "You nuts? That'd mean flying this sucker right under the goddamn thing!" "Yeah! Think of the shots I could get!" "No way, Mike."
THE NEXT MORNING THE BERNSTEIN FAMILY, STANLEY, LYNN, THEIR son Daniel, and Stanley's father, Abraham, watched in amazement as Mike Donovan's film showed the view of the underside of the great craft that hung over New York City. Like the one in Los Angeles, where the Bernsteins lived, it had remained stationary and silent throughout the long (and at least for Lynn Bernstein) sleepless night.
Daniel, who was eighteen, was fascinated by the spacecraft. All his life he'd been waiting for something exciting to happen to him, and here it finally had. Never mind that it had happened to the rest of the world too-something told him that this was what he'd been waiting for. He turned excitedly to his father, a thin-haired, sad-eyed man with a permanent stoop and the beginnings of a potbelly.
His mother, Lynn, a nervous woman who might have been attractive if not for the deep lines between her eyes and her permanently thinned lips, wrung her hands in her lap, saying for the hundredth time to nobody in particular, "We ought to leave the city, don't you think?"
Stanley Bernstein glared at his son. "I told you before, Lynn, where would we go? The roads are jammed, they say. Besides, as the president pointed out, we ought to avoid panic. They haven't done anything to indicate they're hostile."
Their attention shifted abruptly back to the television screen. A somewhat hoarse but still professional Dan Rather was saying: ". . . They have reported the same occurrence now in Rome ... and Rio de Janeiro ... Moscow ... Yes, the reports are flooding in-that same tone is being repeated all over the world from the spacecraft hanging over our cities-"
"... five ... four ... three ... two . . . one." After a sec- ond's pause, the voice continued, "Citizens of the planet Earth ... we bring you greetings. We come in peace. May we respectfully request the secretary general of your United Nations please come to the top of the United Nations Building in New York at 0100 Greenwich Mean Time this evening. Thank you."
Dan Rather answered, obligingly, from the television. "The voice we have just heard requested the presence of the secretary general at the top of the United Nations Building in New York City at eight o'clock this evening."
SUNSET WAS A DIM RED MEMORY ON THE NEW YORK WESTERN SKY as Mike Donovan panned his camera across the lights of Manhattan. Late summer wind whipped his already rumpled hair-the breeze was stiff this high up. The top of the United Nations Building. Donovan checked his watch again. Seven fifty and forty-five seconds. Not quite ten minutes to go.
The roof door slammed, admitting yet another crowd of journalists and technicians. Mike spotted a familiar black head and hurried over to greet Tony Leonetti, helping his friend carry his equipment over to the roped-off line. Donovan noted Leonetti's grimace as he moved his shoulder.
"You sure you're gonna make it, Tony?" Tony grinned. "The news event of the century? Man, I ain't about to miss it!" "Mike?" Both men turned as a woman's voice reached them.
Donovan's eyes held hers as she walked toward them, a tall, very well-groomed woman in her early thirties. Everything about her, from her expertly applied makeup and hairstyle to her level, measuring gaze, proclaimed her as one of the most prominent television reporters in the business. "Uh, hello, Kristine."
He pointed to the roped-off line beyond which stood a contingent of UN military police. With a nod, Tony excused himself to set up his equipment. Donovan hesitated, looking over at the bustle of camera crews, their faces ranging from strained worry to hectic gaiety. From far below he could hear the everpresent wail of sirens.
Kristine took his arm. "Mike? Let's get set up." He started. "Yeah. I was just ... thinking."
"I did. You were on the phone, hustling somebody for an assignment, and didn't hear me." She paused, turned to him, her green eyes eloquent. "I'm sorry." Donovan smiled, a little tensely. "So was 1." Their eyes held for several seconds, then she looked away. "What time is it?" Donovan checked his watch. "Seven fifty-six."
At seven fifty-nine, a distinguished white-haired man emerged, flanked by armed escorts. Donovan recognized him as the secretary general and watched as he waved to the rooftop troops to lower their weapons. Donovan trained his camera on the gigantic floodlit shape of the alien craft hovering far above them, so enormous it dwarfed the tallest of the skyscrapers. He could hear someone counting down under his breath.
One of the newsmen was speaking into a mike: "... and a hush has fallen ... not just here, I am sure, but around the world ..." "Nine ... eight ... seven ... six ..." Five, thought Donovan, four, three, two, one"... as eight o'clock strikes ... 0100 Greenwich Mean Time."
He zoomed in, centering directly on the opening, watched it fill with something-something that resolved into a streamlined shape that detached swooping down toward them. Donovan could hear Kristine's cool, professional tones, and with one part of his mind admired her control-he knew she was as nervous as any of them, but her poise argued that she did this every day. "The smaller craft is moving at an angle downward, now-across Third Avenue and Thirty-Ninthcoming directly toward the UN Building."
Donovan pivoted to follow the craft as it slowed prior to landing. It gleamed white, with small dark triangles that could have been opaque windows at regular intervals. On what looked to be its nose was a red symbol of some kind, a combination of dots and lines, like nothing the cameraman had ever seen before, but holding a haunting familiarity nevertheless. The craft descended with barely a whoosh of displaced air to mark its passage.
A panel opened at the bottom side of the craft, just as the assembled crowd heard a voice-a strangely resonant, slightly echoing voice: "Herr General Sekreterare . . ." Donovan shifted the camera to pick up the secretary general as the man stepped to the front of the crowd, his face set in lines of calm determination, his back very straight.
Kristine's voice reached Donovan, still poised, calm, but with a new tightness. "I think the voice spoke Swedishthat's the secretary general's native language . . ." She listened intently to a button in her ear. "Yes, I have the translation now . . . 'Mr. Secretary General ... do not be afraid ... Please climb the ramp."'
Beneath his shock of white hair, the elderly man's face was set, his strides coming with a steady precision. He .reached the ramp and began climbing, step by step, until he reached the top and disappeared. The armed guards raised their weapons. Donovan realized he'd been holding his breath only when his vision began to blur. He let it out slowly, his eye riveted to the camera's viewfinder, and waited.
There was a stirring at the top of the stairs, shadows moving within darkness. Then-a face! The secretary general emerged, moving with a quick vigor that was in huge contrast to the rigid strides he had taken to reach the craft.
Murmurs filled the rooftop, but Kristine's authoritative tones cut through them: "There he is! The secretary general is reappearing! He is apparently unharmed, waving cheerfully to the onlookers here on the roof of the UN Building ... Just a minute. It looks as though he's going to address the crowd ..."
The older man's educated, slightly accented tones reached Donovan clearly as he focused on the speaker's face. "My fellow citizens of Earth ... these Visitors assure me that they come in peace and that they wish to honor all the covenants of our United Nations Charter. As you'll see, they are much like us ... although their voices are unusual. They first asked me to speak on their behalf, but I felt everyone would be more comfortable if their Supreme Commander, who is aboard this vessel, spoke directly to you all. His voice will be heard around the world, in every language necessary."
The secretary general turned back to look up the stairs. Donovan focused past him on the dark opening in the belly of the shuttle. Movement-then he was seeing booted feet in the viewfinder, legs, a normal-seeming trunk, two arms, a head
Donovan gasped, his fingers tightening on the camera. He'd expected differences, and there were none! At first glance, the alien appeared to be a normal human male of middle years, with thick gray hair and keen blue eyes. He was wearing high black boots, looking for all the world like ordinary English riding boots, and a reddish-colored coverall that was cut much the same as a pilot's flight suit. It had five diagonal black stripes across the breast.
Kristine's commentary was analytical and precise: "Roughly six feet tall ... I'd estimate one hundred sixty pounds ... He seems to have some difficulty seeing in the glare of the floodlights here ... He's stopping now, halfway down the ramp ... I think he's about to speak ..."
"I trust you will forgive me ... but our eyes are unaccustomed to this sort of brightness ..." Reaching into a pocket of the coverall, he took out a pair of surprisingly normallooking dark glasses and put them on.
"As the secretary general has told you, we have come in peace to all mankind on Earth ... Our planet is the fourth in distance from the star which you call Sirius. It is some 8.7 light-years from your Earth. This is the first time we have journeyed from our system, and you are the first intelligent life form we've encountered." He paused, then a very warm smile brightened his features. "We are very pleased to meet you!"