Back | Next


In the dripping blackness, Dane turned slowly till the sliding sound grew loud in his earphones. He heard the faint hum that told him he was facing the source of the sound directly. Gently he squeezed the trigger.

There was a hiss that dwindled fast, then grew loud again in the phones.

Dane heard a dry cough and the clatter of equipment. He felt the magazine of the gun, and the three little studs told him there were three shots left. He moved his head, heard the slap of branches and the faint sounds of men moving through the brush out of range behind him.

Nearby in a fan tree, a nightwatcher began its liquid warbling.

Dane dropped to the ground and crawled away through the brush toward the distant roar of the surf.

A buzzing whir circled and criss-crossed behind him. Back in the forest, someone shouted impatiently. A batlike flitting sound went past overhead, and Dane flattened himself against the earth.

There was a brilliant flash. The ground jumped under him, and there was a blast that hurt his ears. He lay still as dirt pattered down.

A voice shouted, "To your left! There!"

Dane pressed himself flatter.

There was another flash, farther away.

Dane turned slightly to glance up at the sky. He pried the face of his watch away from his wrist, and the glowing, slowly-turning numerals told him he had five hours left till dawn.

He listened carefully, then rose on one knee.

There was a sliding slipping sound in the brush in front of him.

He turned his head slowly, and rested his forearm on his bent knee as he carefully centered the gun on the sound and squeezed the trigger.

This time there was a gagging, and a wild thrashing that came to him in full detail before the cutout left him with only normal hearing. He took a shaking breath, then froze as a brilliant flash lit the brush and dead tree-limbs in a brief white glare.

The light died away, and Dane listened carefully to the darkness ahead of him. There was no sound of motion. He rose carefully and listened behind him. A multitude of men were rustling and clinking through the brush.

Dane turned again, felt of the two little studs on the magazine of his gun and started carefully in the direction of his last shot.

Overhead, the loud cry of a sea skimmer swept past, repeated over and over with the last note off key.

Dane dropped to the ground, his heart beating fast.

A pinpoint of light grew overhead, casting its pale glow over forest and wasteland. A glider swooped past, headed inland from the sea.

Dane counted ten slowly as he unclipped a bird's-egg grenade from his belt, pulled the safety pin with his teeth, and lobbed the grenade out into the open.

There was a bright yellow flash.

From inland came shouts, the blast of a whistle, and scattered bursts of firing.

Dane tightened the strap of his light pack, put his gun flat on the ground, put grenade belt and listening apparatus on it, then forced back a plate on the side of the stock. He felt for a lever underneath, and waited tensely.

A second glider swooped down.

Dane thumbed back the lever, dodged through the brush, and sprinted for the glider.

A curved hatch on the glider swung open.

Dane swung a leg over, dropped inside and lay flat, gasping for breath.

There was a sharp blast as his equipment blew up.

Something whined past overhead.

The hatch dropped and latched.

There was a low roar. The glider rocked, rushed forward and up.

Through a transparent plate by his face, Dane could look down and see shadowy running figures on the ground below.

Then the dim light faded behind them and they were over the sea.

A voice spoke urgently, and for an instant, Dane didn't understand the words, "Did you get it?"

"Two," said Dane carefully. "In my pack."

"Good work."

Dane lay still, wondering that he had been away so long that his own tongue sounded strange to him. Then the blackness outside seemed to merge with a bone-weariness in Dane's limbs, and he fell through layers of darkness into a deep exhausted sleep.

He gradually became conscious of a low throbbing roar that grew, then faded, and of a rushing swooping motion like that felt by a man on skis. He drifted, half-asleep, till someone shook him by the shoulder and pointed out a double line of dim blue lights in the darkness below.

"There's a bimarine down there. We're going to try to land on it."

"I see."

"If we don't make it, they'll light the underside of the middeck. Swim toward it. They'll have boats out."

"All right."

"Here we go."

The glider seemed to hang motionless, then the row of lights tilted and grew larger. They slid past below. Then there was a roar in his ears, a moment of swirling blackness, and the lights were rushing toward him, flashing past on both sides. The glider tipped, bounced, and whirled to a stop. An instant later, the hatch was snapped open, and strong hands lifted Dane out.

There was a chill breeze in his face. The blue lights dimmed and faded out. Someone spoke out of the darkness, "Did you get him?"

"Yes, sir."

"I can't see a thing in this gloom. Hello, Dane?"

"Right here," said Dane.

"Put out a hand. We've changed the design of these ships since you left. You don't want to go over the side after you've lived through that."

Dane reached out, found a rough, calloused hand, and let himself be led past a place where the sound of rushing water came up from below. They went across a swaying gang-plank, along a deck and into a dark corridor. Then a door opened into a small well-lighted room lined with books and maps. Two men at a round table to one side looked up as he came in. One man wore the uniform of a general. The other was a civilian, a man Dane recognized as Hoth, little changed from his appearance eight years ago, when Dane had seen him last. Both of the men looked tense.

Dane's guide, a bearish man in the uniform of a naval captain, said to Dane, "Here I leave you to a fate worse than life with the Flumerang—An interrogation by experts."

The general said, "Don't go, captain."

"I have to. Half their navy may be after us." He went out.

Dane glanced at Hoth, saw the suspense on the man's face, and wordlessly unbuckled his pack. He swung it free of his shoulders, set it on the table and loosened the straps. He pulled out a roll of khaki-colored clothing, and carefully spread it out. Four small metal boxes were inside. He opened them and took out the soft cloth padding.

In two of the boxes were pairs of thick, plastic-rimmed spectacles. In the other two lay what looked like large beetles. One of these beetles was dull brown and ordinary in appearance. The other was blue and gold, with large strong jaws, as if for fighting.

The general carefully picked up the big-jawed beetle. He touched an edge of curving jaw with his finger. The flesh cut neatly, and a drop of blood oozed out.

Hoth said, "Where did you get them?"

"At the factory where I worked. I short-circuited a power line to get into the shipping section unnoticed."

"What was your job there?"

"I was in final assembly."

Hoth leaned forward. "Then you know how to put them together?"

"These two types. There may be others."

"Have you ever used one of them?"

"I stole one earlier, and practiced with it."

"The control unit is in the glasses?"


Hoth studied one of the pairs of glasses. Inset in the plastic were tiny bright oblongs. "Do you know how this works?"

"I know how to use it. But that's all."

"Can you show us?"

Dane nodded and sat down by the table. He took the heavy, plastic-framed glasses and slid them on. For a moment, there was a distortion due to the slight curvature of the lenses. Then he tipped the brownish beetle out of its case and saw two superimposed scenes, as in a double exposure. One scene was his normal view of the two men before him. The other was an image of a sort of dark rolling plain.

Dane held his attention steadily on the second scene. His normal vision faded, and the rolling plain grew distinct and clear. He felt an instant's fear, and an urge to draw back. He held his attention steady. Then he seemed to be in the midst of the rolling plain. He willed himself to rise. The unfamiliar scene fell away, and came into perspective as the unrolled khaki clothing from his pack. For an instant, Dane hovered before the general and Hoth, his vision much the same as it normally was except that things seemed flatter, and the details unnaturally clear. There was no sound, and little sense of effort, so that it all seemed dreamlike.

He flew up, over the heads of the men, glanced at the shelves of books, circled the room like a swimmer gliding through a huge tank of clear water, then swung back over the desk and dropped down onto it.

Now, he reminded himself, came the end of the pleasant part and the beginning of the tricky part.

He turned to face a comparatively dim and featureless corner of the room, and tried to shift his attention back to his normal vision.

Nothing happened.

He tried steadily and firmly to will his attention back to his normal vision.

He couldn't do it.

He flew up to go to a darker corner of the room, and found himself facing a motionless figure wearing a pair of glittering plastic-framed glasses. This figure had a look of waxy immobility, its gaze remote and trancelike.

Dane fought off panic, dropped into a dark corner and waited tensely.

There was a total stillness, and after a long time a faint glimmer of light in the darkness. Dane held his attention firmly on that glimmer. The glimmer grew to a patch of light, then to vague forms huddled together. Dane focused hard on these forms, trying to make them clear and distinct. He could vaguely see two men seated at a table. Slowly his vision cleared, sharpened, and he saw them plainly and saw nothing else.

Dane's hands and feet tingled. He drew in a long deep breath, took off his glasses, stooped and found the beetle. He put it in its box and looked up.

Hoth said, "Is it all right for us to try it?"

Dane explained what he had just been through, and Hoth nodded. "We'd better try that later." He glanced at his watch, and said sympathetically, "You must be tired out."

The general said, "I would like to ask just one question." He looked at Dane intently. "When?"

Dane thought a moment. "I'd guess about a year."

"Why not in a month?"

"I can only judge by the way they're expanding their productive facilities, and by the fact that they've only begun to prepare the attitudes of their people for a war with us. Then too, they're bound to think that their production of these devices will make them much stronger in a year than us."

The general nodded. "That's how we figure it."

Hoth said, "I'll show you to your cabin. Tomorrow will be strenuous, so you'll need plenty of sleep."

Dane lay down and promptly fell asleep listening to the throb of the ship's engines. He was soon jarred awake by a violent concussion. He heard a howl of machinery and a creak from steel deck and bulkheads. He gripped the cot with both hands and hung on as the ship swerved sharply.

The blast and shock seemed to go on forever. When it ended, Dane found himself worn out, but unable to sleep. His thoughts drifted to the last time he had seen Hoth, in a coastal trader working toward the southwest peninsula of Flumerang. Hoth had been urgent in explaining to Dane that his job was an important one.

"Remember, Dane," said Hoth earnestly, "each year we slip ashore at various points on the globe, two-to-three-hundred men and women whose only purpose is to act as potential probes. Many of these people we don't hear from for years. They settle down in an identity prepared for them by our people already established. When they're sure of their dialect and local background, they drift inland. If nothing happens, they become part of the population they're assigned to. Traders, merchants, technicians—even local government officials. It then seems like a pointless waste of effort on our part. But if they scent something, or if we do and call for action, then all the time and work pays off."

"I understand," said Dane.

"Good. And bear in mind, it's a wearing thing to feel that your life is ticking away while you wait for something that may never happen. Don't wait. Live your life and make yourself useful. Remember, the people of Flumerang are just as human and worthwhile as our own. But in case you sense anything, or if we call for you, keep yourself ready."

Lying in the blackness of the cabin on the ship headed for home, Dane thought over his experiences in Flumerang and was surprised to realize that what Hoth said had been exactly true. Regardless of what the official propaganda of both sides would say in a few weeks or months, the people of Flumerang were much like his own people. There was, it was true, a certain combination of earthiness and innocence that differed from the dry realism he had grown up with; but even in this there were similarities.

Dane remembered walking one evening across a meadow with a dark-haired girl who suddenly stopped to look up at the stars. "I wonder what's up there?"

"Who knows?" said Dane.

"My grandmother says there are people like us, just like on the other side of the world. Even the priest says the Fiery Ship sailed from a star."

The back of Dane's neck tingled. The legend of the Fiery Ship was one he had often heard at home. Unbidden, a rhyme Dane had learned as a child sang itself in his head:

"A ship of fire sailed the sky

To bear its gifts to you and I

From a star far away,

For that ship, dear God, we pray."

Dane was trying to phrase the rhyme in the Flumerang tongue to repeat it to the girl, when she gripped his hand. "Priest says the crew of the Ship is still living with us, and some day we'll all be children of the ship and they will take us back to the star with them. Do you believe that?"

Dane rolled over in the dark cabin and sat up.

After a long moment, he lay back down again, and finally fell into a troubled and restless sleep.

He woke up with a feeling of impatience and dissatisfaction. He washed, dressed, and moodily walked out onto the middeck to watch the ocean rushing back between the twin bows. Hoth led him off to a hasty breakfast, then they got started.

The first part of the day passed in an interrogation that narrowed from generalities to key particulars, and brought Dane to the limits of memory. That afternoon, he was questioned in a state of drug hypnosis about details he couldn't consciously recall. That evening, the three men sat around a table and went over the results.

"I think," said Hoth, "that we can build copies of this device. But we won't have time enough to come anywhere near the Flumerang rate of production."

The general nodded. "In that case we're in a mess. This thing will revolutionize reconnaissance. It can be plainly be fitted for use as a weapon. It could be issued as standard equipment for spies to infiltrate our research centers. And, as usual, we can't oppose it directly."

Hoth said, "The production of this device seems to have started in their western province and moved from there to the capital. The only hopeful sign is that they are apparently restricting the device to a small elite."

"If," said the general, "we can get at that elite, and its source—"

Hoth nodded. "I think we're going to have to use a complex cutting-out operation, and use it on a grand scale."

Dane tapped the box containing the blue-and-gold beetle. "These things are going to make that approach even trickier than usual."

Hoth nodded. "I know it. But the only alternative is a ruinous war. A war may follow, anyway; but if we judge the Flumerang government correctly, it will follow immediately. If so, they'll be fighting blind and off-balance, so we should win quickly."

"Which," said Dane dryly, "should give us time to get ready for the next one."

The general shrugged. "We're the dominant power, and we can count on being disliked, distrusted, and sniped at, for just as long as we stay on top. Afterwards, they'll spit on us."

Hoth growled, "And that knowledge is a powerful stimulant."

"That's true," said Dane, "but what puzzles me is this—individually, they're nice people."

"Sure," said the general, "and the executioner may be a nice fellow socially. It's when you meet him in his official capacity that the unpleasantness comes."

"Maybe that's it," said Dane. "We always come up against other nations in their official capacities."

Hoth shrugged and looked at the blue-and-gold device with its curved, razor-sharp jaws. "I don't care to meet this thing in its official capacity."

Dane and the general followed Hoth's gaze and nodded.

* * *

The following months passed in grueling work. Dane struggled to develop counter-measures, and was repeatedly called on to help solve production difficulties in turning out a unit similar to that of the Flumerang. He was able to help with practical problems, but could only shrug when frustrated engineers told him, among other things, that the electrical circuits of the device defied understanding, and appeared to include the electrical properties of the unit's mechanical parts. But despite the theoretical difficulties, production gradually got under way.

As the first of their own units were produced, Dane practiced hour after hour, and when he was satisfied with his own skill, he helped train a crew of operators.

By this time, Hoth had a big board in his office covered with stolen samples of the Flumerang device. He showed them to Dane one day, pointing out samples bearing small drills and cutters, little tubes of explosive, miniature torches, sharp double-edged blades, and mechanical stings capable of injecting narcotic drugs or poison.

"Look," said Hoth, "at this thing." He pointed to a beetle with the bristly appearance of a burr. "That's the latest type. It's designed to cling to clothing. It contains a small explosive charge and blows up if the shell is distorted. The natural instinct of any man with a burr stuck on him is to pull it loose. In this case, that is likely to lose him his hand."

Dane said, "Exactly how are we going to run a cutting-out operation in a country swarming with these things?"

"At night," said Hoth. "They don't have anything yet that can see at night, and I am not going to wait till they invent something that can." He pulled out a big map and spread it on his desk. "Our main trouble is here, in this industrial town south of the capital. That is where the people live who design these things. But the main source of this nest of geniuses is further west, in the teachers of one outstanding technical school in this town near the coast. Happily, we've put quite a number of probes into Flumerang over the past few decades, so we've been able to get pretty close to their organization."

"All the same," said Dane. "I don't see how we are going to get a sizable force into those cities. The streets are lighted at night, and some intersections are floodlit. There is a continuous surveillance of all movements. I don't see how we can do it that way, night or no night."

Hoth nodded. "It will be tricky. But you have to remember, Flumerang is still ruled by the bunch that ruled it before. The device is a striking technological development. But the genius is in the Flumerang scientists and technicians, not in their government. Their government is using the device in a strictly conventional way, for purposes of war and internal control."

"True," said Dane, "but why should that help us?"

"Because," said Hoth, "war and internal control require stronger centralization. And that gives us an opening."

Hoth explained his plan, and ended by saying, "You see what that involves. Do you think we can do it?"

Dane thought it over. "Just let there be enough time for practice."

Dane lay in the blackness on the hillside, looking down on the lights of the town below. He carefully wormed his way between several low shrubs, then pried the face of his watch away from his wrist, and took a container from his pack. He unrolled a band of cloth, and set a small object outside the shrubs on the sparse dry grass. Then he carefully slid the band of cloth over his head, feeling till it fit smoothly at his forehead. He lay face down and shut his eyes.

All was darkness and intense silence around him. Then he saw a faint reflection, rose and turned, toward the lights of the city. He soared straight out over it, watching rectangles of darkness come into focus between lanes and pools of light. He looked down, circling slowly toward a lighted avenue that passed an angled block of darkness lit brightly at each corner.

As he dropped closer, he could see details in the avenue. He hovered and watched as a lone bent figure shuffled forward into the pool of light.

At the edge of the city, there was a bright flash and the streetlights below Dane went out. The lights at the building below faded out, then came on more dimly. Dane slipped down toward the light.

The bent figure was that of an old woman, talking through a grille to a scowling guard.

A small black shadow flicked from her outstretched hand. The guard stiffened. Dane watched the shadows on the old woman's face. She seemed to be talking steadily, persuasively.

The guard pressed a button, and spoke into a phone. The old woman shuffled toward a door of the building. The door opened. A frowning guard stepped out. At that moment, the clapper of a bell above the doorway blurred. Several small vague forms dropped into the light and clung to the woman's shawl. The cloth moved as she turned her head. There was a bright flash, then another and another.

As she fell, small shadows like darting minnows flicked away from her toward the open door. The guard there toppled forward, and there were two forms lying motionless in the pool of light.

Dane dropped fast, and streaked through the doorway and down a hall. He shot up a broad staircase, and saw a man before a closed door, his eyes wide behind a pair of heavy, plastic-framed glasses.

Dane streaked for the man.

Three blue-black streaks blurred up the staircase toward the door.

Dane struck the man at the base of his neck. He stumbled, his expression suddenly vague. Then he lost his balance, and toppled at the head of the stairs.

There was a bright flash, then another.

The door sagged on one hinge.

Down the hall, streaked a small blue-and-gold blur that swerved and dove at Dane with a sharp silvery glitter.

Dane dove, then climbed fast toward the doorway.

Another blue-and-gold streak shot past him, then another. Tangled blurs whizzed down the hall, whirled and dove after him as he flashed past the door.

In the room, tense men lay on bunks, each wearing the heavy glasses. Little blue-black forms dove at one after another, and each in turn lost his look of intense concentration.

Dane dove at several of the remaining men, each hard contact triggering the release of a minute quantity of quick-acting narcotic.

He streaked upward, and saw that the blue-and-gold Flumerang devices were all scattered on the floor.

Dane circled, waiting. Without hearing, he had no way to tell if the sirens of captured police trucks were sounding outside or not. He was painfully aware that part of the plan could have failed completely, and then all the rest would be for nothing.

He waited in growing anxiety.

Then the door flew back, and tough-looking men in the uniforms of the Flumerang National Police burst in. They seized the unconscious men from their cots, carried them out, and down the stairs into waiting trucks.

Dane swung up fast into the night, circled to get his bearings, then climbed toward the distant hills.

Dane and the rest of the men were back on the ship before dawn. As the captives were taken below, Dane reported to Hoth.

Hoth listened carefully, then said, "Good work. With the other reports I've had, this means we've got the key scientific personnel, and the bulk of their elite of operators. Just in time, too." He tossed across a bulky sheaf of papers.

Dane glanced through diagrams, charts, and orders in the Flumerang tongue. He studied with particular care a map showing his homeland divided up into occupation districts.

Hoth said, "Now they can either attack us, in which case they fight disorganized, or they can wait, in which case our own production will outstrip theirs."

"But in any case," said Dane, "we can expect another upheaval sooner or later, here or elsewhere."

"Yes," said Hoth, "and we can hope our probes sense it before it gathers momentum." He looked at Dane intently. "We stop most of them before they get to this stage, you know."

"Yes," said Dane, "but I wonder about the whole thing. Suppose, as some people say, there are other planets which have human life. Say there are thousands of these planets. I wonder if even one of them has a nation like ours?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, other countries have spy networks, to snoop out secrets. We have individual probes, alert to sense any ferment of ideas, then locate the source. It seems natural, because I'm used to it. But when I stop to think of it, then it seems odd."

"It works."

"Yes, but why? Why is there this cleavage between the average person or situation and the dangerous one we're trained to sense? Why is it we usually find someone—or at most just a few—individuals at the center of a sort of whirlwind of ideas, which speedily develops into a hurricane if we don't get to it when it's little? I realize, experience shows it works this way, but experience doesn't tell why."

"Maybe," said Hoth, "our situation is unusual."

"How so?"

Hoth grinned. "When I was a young man, filled with natural conceit and a keen awareness of my own superiority, my long-suffering superiors assigned me to Tongobokku—I think to take some of the edge off. Tongobokku had a climate like the inside of a steam boiler. The place is infested with land crabs, carnivorous trees, man-eating lung spiders, leeches, stinging and biting insects, and parasites of all varieties. In short, a real hell hole. The chance of anyone having leisure to get an idea in this place seemed negligible to me. But while I was there I heard what might be an answer to your question."

"What was that?" said Dane, leaning forward.

"A sort of song the children used to chant. I can only suppose it has to do with the Fiery Ship, but from a different angle than usual." Hoth leaned back, glanced into the distance for a moment, then began to repeat in a singsong voice:

"Strangers come in big canoe

That float up in the sky.

They come down, step out here

Though I cannot say why.

Ask me much, lips tight shut

And glare me in the eye.

You got water catch on fire?


No? You got air that burn?


No! You got stone that light like sun?


No. You know how we get out of this place?

Me no know.

O.K. You got thin-fine very-strong bend-easy?


You tell us where we get?

Me no know.

Everybody else this place all the same like you?

Me no know.

You ever see canoe like this?


You see man fly in air?


You see big hut swim in sea?


Carramba sun a beach!

Same as the rest.

Now we had it.

Start from the bottom and work up.

So long, Bud. You'll be seeing us around."

Hoth paused, and Dane stared.

"There," said Hoth, "we have a possible answer."

"The Fiery Ship got stuck here. Ran out of fuel or some necessity—?"

Hoth smiled. "The production of a little precise part can require a whole worldwide technology to support it."

"What a fate," said Dane. "To have to uplift a whole planet in order to get off it."

"It's worse than that," said Hoth. "We don't know if we're dealing with people having a supernatural life span or with their descendants, or what. It's nice of them to inspire us and to prod our technology along. But we're keeping a close watch on things, and the price they have to pay runs higher."

"What's that?"

"When they lift," said Hoth, "we lift with them."

Dane grinned. He thought of the Flumerang girl who wanted to join the people of the Fiery Ship in the stars.

"Who knows?" he thought.

Back | Next