Read When They Come from Space Online
Authors: Mark Clifton
The bell jangled urgently, and kept on jangling in spite of the commentator's headshake of annoyance that somebody had missed a cue. Then the machine began to chatter and a message began to roll.
The young, scholarly commentator took one quick glance at the lead sentence. He leaped to his feet, kicked his chair over backward. He swallowed hard. When he started to read, his voice cracked and broke. A quick-witted cameraman moved in for a close-up on the fax paper, so the televiewers could read the message for themselves.
"An Air Defense Command outpost has sighted a large fleet of unidentified black, disc-shaped projectiles sweeping toward the Capital from the general direction of lower Chesapeake Bay."
I cocked an eyebrow and looked at the screen sardonically. All right, so it was a government commercial telling us we should be scared enough to pay the higher taxes Congress was contemplating. I could anticipate the following lines: “All citizens are urged to start digging their bomb shelters at once. The Civilian Defense Command must begin considering the appointment of regional commanders—now! Airforce anti-interceptor anti-missile anti-missile anti-missiles must receive the highest priority for research since the Black Fleet is now within a few miles of us and coming fast!"
The Black Fleet!
I gasped. It hadn't registered. So some stupe had leaked the information out of our department after all. Dr. Kibbie would be fit to be tied. Maybe some Pentagon Department had got its Madison Avenue publicity firm to help it get its appropriation; and to hell with Dr. Kibbie, and the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Psychology.
So I had failed in my first mission—in a government of the people, by the people, for the people—and the people were going to find out anyhow.
There had been a longer-than-normal pause while the commentator kept looking off to one side. He turned back to face the audience.
"We take you now to our own Bobby Lovelace, news analyst directly at the scene,” he informed us.
"Oh, sure,” I said in disgust. “Ham it up, boys. Long as you've let it out, milk it for everything it's got."
There was the usual flickering on the screen, an unscheduled rough word spoken by some engineer along the line, a new face on the screen. No doubt their own Bobby Lovelace, although he missed giving himself a credit line. His eyes were distended, his face pale, his hands trembled.
"Evil!” he was mouthing in a whisper. “Horrible! Unclean! You'll see when they get there. I can't talk about it. You'll see for yourselves.” He waved his hands in negation before his face. The camera moved off him and the screen blanked out.
"Oh, come now, fellows,” I exclaimed aloud. “That's hamming it up too much. Even for television."
I had a full moment to reflect upon the diminishing returns of piling drama upon drama in futile attempt to stir the interest of an apathetic public already surfeited with Hollywood's writing stupidities.
But then, from far down Connecticut Avenue, from somewhere deep in the marble and stone heart of the city, there drifted the faint, strange sound of a pulsating siren. Nearby, police whistles begin to shrill, stop, shrill again, stop, shrill again—the best that could be accomplished on short notice to sound an air-raid warning.
"This is going pretty far,” I murmured. “When the police department sells its services to put over a TV program."
But it must have had its effect on some, for in the adjoining suite the sounds of a cocktail party for some petty senator faded to a strangled, waiting silence.
For the first time, I felt unease; as if there were something in the atmosphere.
"Good God,” I breathed. “Don't tell me that even I am responding to such Hollywood hokum!” But I was. To my astonishment, I was beginning to wonder if it were hokum, after all.
The screen came on again, and we were back in the Washington studio. The young commentator, whose face still reflected his first shock, had had a little time to collect himself; but he had to try three times before he could light a nonchalant cigarette. The cameraman must have been assigned an acting part, also, because he was having trouble keeping the news desk and fax machine in focus.
The fax machine was still. And that stillness was even more compelling than its frantic activity had been.
"They've put a good director on this production,” I said, still aloud. “A cheap one would be emoting all over the place.” I paused. “I think I'll watch it,” I said. “It might turn into a pretty good show after all."
And felt a renewal of my astonishment that I didn't believe it was a staged production, in spite of my spoken words. Perhaps it was the tenseness in the atmosphere. The air was heavy, stifling. I got up out of my chair and walked across the room to open the French windows which let out upon a private balcony. There were no street noises. In this neighborhood it was always quiet, subdued in the genteel manner; but there was always that distant throb of a city inhabited by people who were more than one quarter alive. Now there seemed to be a sound vacuum.
I walked back and sat down again before the television screen, which lit up half of one wall in the room.
As if from force of habit, the commentator picked up a sheet of his script, always at hand in case the Idiot's Reminder broke down. He looked at it with an air of wonderment, then he raised his eyes to the camera again.
"Well,” he said simply. “I guess we'll just have to wait this out together."
I caught myself nodding in agreement.
"Good work,” I said approvingly. “Damn good work.” But somehow, now, my persistence in regarding it as fiction seemed the tawdry unreality, instead of, as usual, the production.
We waited it out together.
I caught myself wondering if I shouldn't be trying to get down to my office at the Pentagon, and checking the impulse with asking what I would do after I got there. If this did prove fiction, that kind of response could make any official a laughingstock. If it were not fiction...
I looked at the commentator again. He was still sitting. He shrugged. He looked down at his script. He looked up again. He flicked the script he had been reading before the announcement.
"Seems silly to go on with this drivel, now,” he said.
I think that blasphemous statement convinced me more than anything else. That, and nothing happening. For the first law of entertainment is that something must be happening every minute, every second. There must be no silence, no ghastly pause.
Outside, another siren began to take up the wail, up and down, up and down in its modulations—as if, somehow, to make up for the silence on the screen; somehow to carry on the national mania, that none be subjected to silence and stillness, ever, lest he begin, once more, to think.
The fax machine started to chatter again. Now the commentator was able to read the message as it appeared. His voice was clear but tense.
"Bulletin ... London ... Unknown projectiles in large numbers are approaching up the Thames from the Channel Coast....
"Bulletin ... Tokyo ... Missiles maneuvering at high altitudes near Yokohama...
"Bulletin ... Moscow ... Anti-missile missiles released against enemy projectiles ... last warning to United States ... call off attack ... or we will press button....
"Bulletin ... Omaha ... last warning to Russia ... call off attack or we will press button..."
The machine stopped.
The commentator stared at it, uncomprehending.
"You can't stop there,” he said aloud to the machine.
Clearly this was too much. He looked off-stage, as if appealing to the director for assistance; and the shrug he gave must have been a repetition of the shrug he received.
Once again the fax machine chattered out a message. A very brief message.
"Projectiles now over Washington."
I stood up, uncertain, dazed, pondering the habit of getting my information from the screen versus going to see for myself. As if coming out of sleep I shook off the stupidity and, in a kind of reluctance, forced myself to walk over to the French windows and out upon the balcony.
The July dusk had blended into night. Stars were clear and bright in the moonless sky. Street lights had been shut off in accord with some dusty, moulded plan of the past, but at the distant shopping center a neon glow suggested store owners hadn't been told about it; or maybe they were straining for one last sale before being blown to Kingdom Come.
Over downtown Washington, some eight miles to the southeast, a weird red haze was forming in the sky. Swiftly it swelled, and grew, and took shape; with formations of tongues of flame. And now the whole sky was a mass of red, leaping flames.
Out of the flames, as if against a backdrop on a stage, there silhouetted the dead black discs.
My gorge rose in revulsion, I fought for detachment; to still my atavistic fears; to remind myself that man had created the dread forces of Evil out of his own sick imaginings, even as he had created the forces of Good out of his noble aspirations. It did no good. This was materialization of something basically, inherently Evil, no sickness of the imagination.
Something seemed to go awry with my time sense. I seemed suspended in a kind of time vacuum, a new realization of how much we depend upon it for the sense of continuity. I could not tell whether things were happening simultaneously, instantaneously, or with long lapses of time in between.
The discs were maneuvering now at dazzling speed, sharply wheeling in one direction, veering with incredible violation of momentum's laws in another. Breaking, scattering, one moment in quantum-particle randomness; the next in circle, in boxed, or V, or straight-line formation; obeying some principle-pattern all their own, without meaning to me, to us, to man.
From the Earth crimson fingers of anti-aircraft fire reached up for the projectiles, seeming to connect the flames of the sky with those of Earth, all of a piece, until not only time was lost, but direction, orientation, sense of origin was lost, not to know whether the red flames were being hurtled downward from the ships or upward from our gun emplacements.
Now the night was slashed into flaming, crisscross patterns of white and red tracer-missile lines. But I saw no disc hesitate, falter, fall. At times of randomness some seemed hurtling toward Earth, and yet a second (a moment? an hour?) later, when they flashed into some unexpected formation, none were laggard from wounds, none a hairsbreadth out of line.
Perhaps our barrage was missing its target entirely, perhaps deflected by some force we could not know, perhaps passing through without harm. Who could know?
At times, some single disc, plunging downward toward me, toward us all, with crushing speed, and sending me cowering back against the window frame, seemed almost to fill the whole sky, incredibly huge, incomprehensibly massive; yet later (how much later?) no more than a black pin point against the flaming yellow and crimson sky. For they were maneuvering in depth as well as across the vault of our sky—in third dimension. And, for all we knew, in some mathematical fourth, as well?
How could we know? For surely no power on Earth had a science which could violate the laws of inertia with such impunity. And if not of Earth, then what Earthly logic could we calculate to apply?
We ceased streaking our futile anti-missile missiles at them now. The discs dominated the sky, alone.
As if out of some museum dedicated to the past, as if man were realizing in that peril that the human brain might, after all, creatively function on the spur of the moment to prove superior to the planned patterns of mechanical brains, and with some antiquated tools at hand prove yet superior to modern instruments, Air Force interceptors came up and into the sky.
As if to complement their tiny V, the discs formed a mighty V to stretch across the sky. I felt a sob quicken my throat, admiration of such incredible bravery, shame that I was sometimes sardonic and cynical of man.
"Goddam,” I heard myself saying over and over. “Goddam, goddam, goddam.” That such courage should be so futile.
The blur of my grief for man streaked the lights. I dashed away the scintillating tears angrily. The clutches of wing missiles soared out ahead of the interceptors, the sonic booms shocked and roared and made puny the sounds of firing. Puny, too, the little V as it approached the apex of the gigantic one, but, goddam, how brave!
The points of the tiny and the great merged. Our small was lost in the huge, swallowed in flaming radiance.
But when the vast V wheeled away, majestically, the interceptors could be discerned once more; yes, there they were, zooming wildly, as if out of control, into space.
Yet not out of control, no. I felt my caught breath return, hurting, when I saw them re-forming into attack groups. Section by trained section they peeled off, in traditional patterns preserved out of a long-dead past, they hurled in sonic-booming speeds toward the giant V. Small groups of us, attacking theirs, Them. At the sides of their apex instead of its point, cutting loose at them with ear-numbing barrages, and using the very forces of recoil to pull the interceptors up and out of their screaming power dives.
And against all our unleashed might, not one single projectile wavered from the huge formation.
Crouched there on the balcony, my back against—all right, all right, cowering against—the solid window frame, the only seeming solid thing in a boiling fluid world of noise and motion and light, I watched the fight go on.
There was no fight. There was Man, spewing all his power, all his might, all the fierce, aggressive product of his brain and hand against his enemy. How had we known it enemy?
But there was no fight.
For the discs were not striking back. No red ray coruscated down and down to melt our City into flowing stone.
My senses numbed.
There had been not even falling shrapnel, broken pieces of missiles fired from our own at them. It was as if some unknown vacuum cleaner, electromagnet, sucked up the debris of battle as it occurred—to keep our people safe and our streets clean.
I—don't—understand,” I said slowly, as if the formation of each word required the search of some unfamiliar glossary to translate my feelings into words.