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The Uninvited Guest

Richard Verner stood in the morning sun between the umbilical tower with part of its upper stage sheared off, and the massive dome of a blockhouse from the top of which two periscopes looked out. To Verner's right stood a spare, straight officer with general's insignia and a look of baffled exasperation. To Verner's left stood half-a-dozen men uneasily watching a silvery object that floated before them with no visible support.

This object was so shiny that it was hard to see, but Verner, intently studying the warped and distorted surface reflections, could make out a flattened ovoid about eight-and-a-half feet across and some five feet high at the center, drifting about six inches clear of the ground. The shiny surface showed numerous tiny black spots that expanded, contracted, and vanished, to reappear in another place, expand, contract, and again vanish. A faint smell of ammonia hung in the air.

The general cleared his throat.

"This thing showed up here about a week ago. The day was hotter and brighter than it is today, and those black spots were smaller, so the surface was even shinier, and no one knew at first whether he was seeing a mirage, a current of heated air, spots on his glasses, or whether he needed a quick trip to the head-shrinker. So at first, nobody even mentioned it. Then the thing hung dead still in front of Aaronson, who was walking to the blockhouse, and Aaronson tossed a pebble at it. If the pebble bounced off, he could tell himself it was real. The pebble didn't bounce off—it disappeared inside somewhere. Then this—whatever it is—spat the pebble back at Aaronson, and hit him in the right shoulder. Aaronson might as well have been shot with a forty-five. He decided pretty fast it was real, and before long we had twenty to thirty other reports that fit."

Verner studied it thoughtfully. "What did you do?"

"What could we do? This is missile-test site, not a branch of the Interplanetary Society. We've got a schedule to keep. There's an outfit that's supposed to take care of things like this, and we notified them. They sent some people out to look at it and they said 'Hm-m-m,' and 'I see,' and went home and decided it's either 'an improperly-inflated weather balloon,' 'ball lightning,' or maybe 'a form of the St. Elmo's fire formerly seen on the masts of ships.'"

The general waved a hand to indicate the various towers looming on the landscape. "They figure the wind blows by these towers and 'generates static electricity.' Well, so much for that. They've explained it away, but we're still stuck with it. We've tried to ignore it, but it noses around all over the place and you can't ignore it. We were ten seconds from launch the other day, with this thing wandering around erratically at four hundred feet, and it got into exactly the wrong spot and stayed there, so we finally had to give up. There are three fresh holes in the fence, eight to nine feet across and five feet high, where it went through, and around each hole there's a spatter of iron shot.

"Yesterday, it sidled up to one of our technicians, and took off a slice of his clothes and four square inches of skin underneath. We won't see him again till we've got this thing out of here.

"Since then, it's taken bites out of the blockhouse, Hammerson's car, a tree, that umbilical tower, and thirty yards of grass and dirt outside the fence. Every time it does this, there's a spray of concrete, wood, metal, or rock, and the bits come out with velocities from near zero to about three thousand feet per second."

The general eyed the hovering ovoid sourly.

"You see where this puts us. We can't very well armor our missiles, just in case this thing decides to take a bite out of something nearby. None of our men signed up for duty in a combat zone, either. What I'd like to do is to work on it with a rocket launcher. But the boys tell me the internal energy of the thing is probably such that the resulting explosion would take out this whole end of the state.

"So," said the general, turning to Verner, "since you're a heuristician, and it's a heuristician's job to solve problems other experts alone can't take on, I'm turning the whole mess over to you. I don't care who you call in, or what you do. Just get rid of this thing before it wrecks our whole space program!"

Verner studied the ovoid intently, sniffed hard, and promptly sent off a telegram. He then spent the rest of the day keeping an eye on the ovoid, and listening to the accounts of a stream of witnesses who described their experiences with it. Twice he had to drop flat as the ovoid dipped too low and sent bits of concrete whining overhead. Several times, people who had had ovoid experiences spoke uneasily. "There's something wrong with it. It doesn't fly as high as it did. It doesn't move around as much. And—Look there!"

For an instant, the reflectivity of the ovoid's surface dulled, like a mirror filmed over with grayish mist. The numerous black spots all shrank to pinpoints. A moment later, everything was as it had been before. But the impression persisted that something was wrong.

As one engineer said, "I think it's sick. And God help us if it dies. When a man's system goes out of balance, he collapses, and that's that. But with the internal energy this has, I'm afraid that when it dies, it's likely to turn into a miniature, short-lived nova."

By the end of the afternoon, Verner had accumulated a store of information, hunches, and misgivings, and an answer to his telegram. He now sent several of the men on a rush errand to the nearest shopping center. A little later he looked around at the sound of approaching footsteps.

"Well," said the general hopefully, "have you got any ideas?"

"Yes, but first I want to ask a few questions."

"Ask away."

"Does it always have that faint ammonia odor?"

"As far as we know."

"What does it do at night?"

"Settles down within an inch or so of the surface. The whole outside seems to turn silvery, and you can see the moon and stars reflected it. It's an eerie thing—Like a big, silvery crystal ball."

"Do you think it's a kind of spaceship, some kind of reconnaissance device, or a living creature?"

The general started to speak, glanced around at the gradually gathering dusk, then said, "The only answer I can logically give is: I don't know. It's possible to make mechanical devices that will react very much as if they were alive. But the impression I have is of a living creature, and one that's experiencing a certain amount of discomfort."

"Why do you suppose it's here?"

"There you've got me. Why, of all the places there are on earth, should it hang around a missile-test site? I don't know."

Verner looked at it thoughtfully. "Where do you suppose it originally came from?"

"Same answer. Only, here we have that faint ammonia odor. One of the constituents in our atmosphere is carbon dioxide. We exhale carbon dioxide. There are planets we think have ammonia, among other things, in their atmospheres. This creature, if that's what it is, exhales a little ammonia now and then. Maybe it comes from a planet with ammonia in its atmosphere. It could come from Jupiter, for all I know."

"Did it appear shortly after a launch?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact it did. We'd just put a satellite in orbit. But what's that got to do with its coming down here?"

"Suppose you were an interplanetary traveler, in trouble of some kind, looking for help, and a satellite came up from a planet close by, and went into orbit?"

The general thought it over. "I'd probably go down where the satellite came from to try to get help."

"But how would you show them what you needed?"

"Well ... I certainly wouldn't be able to talk their language—It stands to reason I'd have to use a kind of"—he growled—"sign language."

"Exactly. Now, if we assume that this creature is doing the same thing, what is it trying to say?"

"But it takes bites out of things." He scowled. "All right. Assume for the purpose of argument that what it wants is something to eat. What do you feed a thing like this? Suppose it came from Jupiter? Where are we going to get Jupiterian food for it?"

"I sent a telegram off earlier today for just that information."

The general snorted. "Where are they going to—" He turned, to find several of his men setting down twenty-five and fifty pound sacks, then he looked back at Verner. "You don't waste any time."

"This ovoid has been here a week," said Verner. "It has hardly moved all today, and several people tell me it looks 'sick.' They also say that if anything does happen to it, it's likely to go off in a bright flash and take half the state with it. I don't think we ought to delay."

The general nodded. "Go right ahead. If it gets just a little darker, the ovoid will settle down to sleep—or whatever it does at night."

Verner opened a pocketknife, cut one of the sacks, reached in to feel a small, hard, curving surface with a roughness underneath, drew back his arm, and threw.

Something hit the pavement near the ovoid, and rolled past close by. The ovoid didn't move.

Verner threw again. This time, it rolled directly under the ovoid.

Again nothing happened.

The general stared unmoving into the gathering dusk. There was a silence as if that whole section of the countryside was holding its breath.

This time, Verner cut two pungent-smelling halves, and threw one. It hit in front of the ovoid. The ovoid didn't move. He threw the other half. It landed on top of the ovoid and vanished from sight.

Nothing happened.

The general shook his head. "We'll have to try something else. We can—"

"Wait—" said Verner sharply.

One of the men said, "It hasn't spat it out yet. It always—"

Another yelled, "Run for it!"

The ovoid started to move.

It came toward them in a blur.

They bolted in all directions. The general moved as if he'd been fired out of a gun, glanced back over his shoulder and shouted, "Down!"

There were gasps as they hit gravel, dirt, and concrete, then there was the whir and whine of bits and fragments flying overhead.

In an instant, Verner and the general had twisted to face back, toward where the ovoid whirled and spun, taking in entire sacks at once, and in its eagerness dipping too low and getting chunks of paving, which it got rid of in a blur of flying fragments.

They watched in silence as the ovoid finished the last bit of sacks, moved around like a dog looking for scraps, shot across the field, darted here, then there, and suddenly sprang for the sky so fast it was out of sight in an instant.

From somewhere came a crash like a plane breaking the sound barrier.

Verner and the general got warily to their feet.

Several minutes passed. The ovoid didn't reappear.

"Well," said the general, relieved and cheerful, "you hit it on the nose. I don't know how."

Verner handed him a crumpled telegram.

The general snapped his cigarette lighter. The flame sprang up, to show letters in a flickering light:


Verner said, "Starting tomorrow, I intended to try every available kind of food grown on Earth's surface. But there was just time enough tonight to try this first."

The general shook his head. "Onions. Well, that fits. If there's anything that smells more like Jupiter's atmosphere must smell, I don't know what it is. Who knows—maybe some traveling Jupiterian dropped a seed here a long time ago." He glanced around in relief. "Anyway, thank God that's over with."

"Not quite," said Verner.

"What's that?"

"How will that outfit that checks unidentified flying objects explain this incident?"

A grin slowly spread over the general's face.

"That's a thought. Well, well. I'll send them full particulars, and a sample onion. Then I'll eagerly wait to see what they say."

That was six months ago.

The general is still waiting.

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