Read When They Come from Space Online
Authors: Mark Clifton
A terrible thought struck him just as he breasted the finish line, and his voice trailed off. He hardly heard the bellhop's admiring applause.
"Can I go home now?” the boy was asking. “I don't feel so good. I think maybe it's something I ate."
For although Mr. Thistlewaite might be an accomplished avocationist in psychology, he was primarily a Night Manager. And it is the business of the Night Manager to form a mental picture of the hotel floor plan, floor by floor; to know which rooms are occupied and which are not, so that when a registering guest states his wants, there need be no fumbling about to see what the hotel may have to offer.
And he was pretty sure that Room 842 was empty. He rushed out of his office to the key rack. There were the two keys. He sped over to the empties list. The room was empty. He riffled through the day's registration cards. None showed a check-in to 842.
He turned and stared suspiciously at the bellhop.
The bellhop was not grinning.
In 842 the Five, unregistered guests, were communing. They had correctly sommed this structure as shelter for travelers, and this room as unoccupied by any such travelers; but it had not occurred to them that one must register and pay. They could not yet grasp the idea that anywhere in the universe a life form could actually expect repayment for extending hospitality to a stranger. Indeed, the entire concept of commerce was still beyond their grasp. They knew of cannibalism, of course, but to find intelligent life feeding upon each other...
"What is this stuff you've chosen from the list of refreshments our host offers?"
"Basically alcohol. Its purpose is to deaden the senses."
"Why should any intelligent life wish to deaden its perceptions?"
"Oh, I don't know about that. If I were human, I think I might want my perceptions deadened permanently."
"You may have a point there. But then, have we found the intelligent species yet? In none of the random samples we've sommed..."
"No concept of atomic science. Yet, vague knowledge that other planets of this little solar system have been reached. But really not much interest in it, and no knowledge at all of how it was done. Well, a vague recognition of space ships, but no appreciation whatever of how they work, to say nothing of how to build one."
"Yet space ships are built."
"So there must be an intelligent species, somewhere."
"Perhaps merely masquerading as a human being?"
"Why would they want to do that?"
"That's only one of the things we don't comprehend, yet."
"Our four Black Fleet strikes have come to nothing."
"I som only the vaguest telepathy communication in this species. Random, disorganized, and undirected flashes."
"But they do have electronic communication. Highly organized. Why weren't the visits of the Black Fleet electronically communicated?"
"We're in for quite a problem. We've always thought intelligence was characterized by the communication of knowledge. Here we find the emphasis is upon concealment of knowledge."
"The strikes of the Black Fleet were known. They were witnessed. We saw to that. I sommed the correct emotional reactions to them from the witnesses. I think we were correct in striking only remote spots where no damage to intelligent life..."
"First rule: We cannot harm intelligent life."
"First question: How do we know we've found some?"
"Our theory breaks down. We assumed unintelligent responses to the Black Fleet might be due to a lower order of species in remote areas, that the more intelligent might concentrate..."
"This is one of the most intense concentrations. Would you say there was any qualitative difference of intelligence in the attendant who brought us these drinks and those who witnessed our strikes in remote areas?"
"The same horror of the unknown."
"The same ability to cope with their environment barely well enough to stay alive."
"The similarities are endless. The differences are nil."
"We have not yet contacted intelligent life."
"These artifacts all around us show a high order of intelligence."
"There must be two species."
"For some reason the lower order is keeping the evidence of our visit from the knowledge of the higher order."
"Then we must make our strikes close to the areas of high-order artifacts. We must smoke out the intelligent species which conceals itself."
"It may take some doing. That concealment is extraordinary. None of the individuals we have sommed acknowledge intelligence beyond their own."
"That's not the only thing we have to solve. If we are to masquerade as one of them, we've got some practice to do. They haven't negated gravity, for example. I sommed the attendant's surprise that the bed didn't sag under your weight."
"We can't afford that kind of error. If that one will detect such minor defects, think what a high order of intelligence might see."
"No more appearing as purple whirlwinds, either."
"We thought it might shock him into revealing knowledge of where the intelligent ones are to be found. That perhaps he was conspiring to conceal their presence. That perhaps they were intelligent enough to expect us and deemed it prudent to hide from us until they looked us over."
"That would be natural enough in the survival mechanism—if they were that intelligent. Surely their logic would tell them that when they started stirring in their egg it would be noticed—and investigated."
"But the attendant showed no knowledge of such a conspiracy of concealment."
"Certainly we will have to run the risk of accidentally harming intelligent life, by bringing our phenomena of visit out in the open."
"Meantime, let's practice the role of the human. Now on this matter of gravity, for example..."
"Yes, an artifact must sag when we sit on it. The carpet must show footprints when we walk on it."
"That's a little too much. I heard the walls creak and the whole building tremble."
"We're going to have to give over searching for the intelligent ones, at present, and concentrate on simulating the human life, instead of the intelligent one."
"For the present, then, we'll accept the most popular art form representation of humans as our model. I think we need to get out and around a bit more, get a little better idea of what is acceptable to humans. If the intelligent species is masquerading as human, he may not reveal himself to us unless we do the same. Perhaps he is concealing himself from the human, as well as from us. Perhaps he will reveal himself only when we are suitably disguised so he may reveal himself to us without, at the same time, revealing himself to the humans."
There was a murmur of agreement, and the Five merged into one invisible vortex of radiant energy. They soared through the interstices of molecules in the outer wall.
The Night Manager, backed by the House Detective and the Dubious Bellhop, knocked discreetly on the door of 842. There was no answer. He knocked again, although his developed hotel sense already told him the room was empty, that there was no guest or intruder asleep, passed out, or refusing to answer.
He unlocked the door and threw it wide.
Across the room, in the far wall, he was horrified to see a three-foot spiral of radiation-scorched paint. He saw a line of footprints, the carpet nap ground to a powder. He saw a deep sag, reaching almost to the floor, on this side of the bed.
These guests had been even more destructive of property than normal—and they hadn't registered, or paid, or paid their bar bill. And how was that going to look on his report to management?
It was well for us that the House Detective was an avid fan of science fiction, and thought this phenomenon was sufficiently outré to bring to the attention of Space Navy, Bureau of Extraterrestrial Psychology.
It was too bad that Pentagon red tape prevented the communication from reaching our department until it was too late.
Although, I still don't see what I might have done about it.
Dr. Kibbie proved right. Time, time was indeed precious.
I had a scant month to get my program of becoming an important man into motion. Because Central Personnel was on a kick of accumulating evidence to show how much they were contributing to economy-in-government, they kept cutting my requisitions for more employees in half—and tallying up the savings to prove how efficient they were.
I endeared myself to them by doubling, tripling, quadrupling my demands, and the mushrooming numbers of people they refused to let me have would make this a banner year for them.
As it turned out, I was able to hire only two thousand five hundred and sixty-nine people and seven hundred and seventy-two Ph.D.s, in that month. My separation of the two species of employees is conscious. The Ph.D. seems determined to separate himself from the human race; and the human race, in equal disdain, is more than agreeable. Why should I antagonize anybody through attempting to join them together again?
Once or twice Shirley did murmur some objections. It seemed that the weekly necessity of finding larger and larger quarters to house our staff kept confusing her on whom she was permitted to administrate, and who was a mere moving man.
Further, since there was more paper work involved in hiring or transferring an employee than any other employee could handle, the department had become so overburdened with handling the process that it would surely capsize and sink. I gave her the usual governmental solution to that problem: If there was too much work involved for the people in her department, then we must simply hire more people. Also, hadn't we better set up a special committee to investigate the amount of work involved?
She shuddered and pointed out that she was working night and day to administrate all this, as it was, without taking on an investigating committee. I pointed out, quite logically, that the superior executive must learn to delegate authority and responsibility—and hadn't we better concentrate on hiring her a cabinet of specialists to aid her?
But her heart was not really in her objections, for she was able to walk the streets again without dodging former friends who played the numbers game of importance in Washington in the same way the Hollywood climber drops names. Sara had given me no problem. When she heard I wasn't coming back to Computer Research, she took it for granted I wouldn't be able to run the government without her help. When I telephoned her, diffidently, to suggest she weigh her loyalty to Computer Research against the interest and advantage of joining me here at the Pentagon (and expecting some demurring and hesitancy from her) she responded by rather crisply letting me know she had been packed for three days, waiting, and apparently I really did need a secretary or it wouldn't have taken me so long to get around to that detail.
Nor did Sara and Shirley strike any sparks in one another. Both had about the same opinion of me—that I didn't know enough to come in out of the rain. They seemed quite willing to share the responsibility for me—the one to see that I wore my overshoes, the other to see that I carried my umbrella.
Even Space Navy seemed a little relieved to find Sara on the scene. I was a bachelor, unattached, and Dr. Kinsey had pointed out a few things about bachelors in their late thirties. F.B.I. had not succeeded in finalizing its investigations into my secret sex practices—maybe because I hadn't had any. Now all was well, for the time being. That I had so promptly sent for my previously established private secretary, a female, lowered some eyebrows which had begun to rise. The men seemed reassured, although their wives might not approve.
Dr. Kibbie was delighted. In common with most governmental officials, he hadn't really had any idea of how enormously much two billion dollars actually is; and he wasn't sleeping well nights, worrying about how he was going to get rid of it all in time for the next appropriations. Now this seemed to be heading toward a solution. He began to bring his various department heads around to show what was being done in other yards; and they began, appropriately, to hate me.
Everything was normal—for Washington, that is.
I hadn't really believed it, but I found my own importance was beginning to increase proportionate to the numbers of people I was hiring. Of course I was too far down the echeIons to be noticed by any news reporters, to say nothing of being mentioned by any commentators; but various other minor executives were beginning to nod when we met in the halls and even chat with me a little in the cafeteria. Guardedly, of course; and with a roving eye to make sure they were being observed by those even lower in the chain of echelon than we; and not being observed by any higher who might be inclined to place them at my level if they were seen talking to me.
Indeed, I was, at this point, still so far down in the lower levels that I hadn't felt even a remotely indirect pressure applied by one Mr. Harvey Strickland.
Of course I knew there had to be a Mr. Harvey Strickland. I had seen too many wholesome, frank, good boys who always do what they are told, parlayed from City Councilman to the apex of government or near it in a few short years, to doubt the existence of a Mr. Harvey Strickland somewhere behind the scenes writing the script and pulling the strings.
There is always a Mr. Harvey Strickland.
This, a summary of the state of things at the time the Black Fleet struck again.
The first announcement of the attacking Black Fleet came over the six-o'clock evening analysis-of-our-troubles program. I was sitting alone in my suite at Washington's exclusive Brighton Hotel—paid for out of Dr. Kibbie's two billion as temporary quarters while my status was being clarified.
The announcement broke with stunning suddenness, in the middle of a routine analysis of the commentator's opinion of the country's opinion of the current Administration as reflected in the stock market. The commentator was pausing for the Idiot's Reminder, out of camera focus, to catch up with his rapid-fire delivery, when the fax machine beside his desk suddenly went crazy.