The SECRET VISITORS
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by James White
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: There seemed to be three distinct groups of aliens now. First came the old men, harmless and fanatically uncommunicative, whose behavior had first aroused the department's suspicions. There was the group that had been responsible for the St. Armande fire, a group which almost certainly contained a large number of Earthmen. A third group, possibly of only a few individuals, were opposed to the war-breeding activities of the second group, and they disapproved of their treatment of the old men, who were group one. And, just to tangle the skein further, there was a time-traveling Earthman from two hundred years in the past. When the World Security Organization asked Doctor Lockhart to treat their mysterious prisoner, they hadn't known that the dying old man would reply to their questions in a totally unknown language. They had expected the stranger to reveal some connection between himself and the world war which seemed imminent. But they had been thinking in terms of foreign spies--not alien beings! Now suddenly they found themselves confronted with a Gargantuan task? They had to find a way to another world, a means of communicating with creatures they could barely imagine. They had to stop a war that was originating in the farthest stars, or else surrender the Earth unconditionally to THE SECRET VISITORS.
eBook Publisher: Gate Way Publishers,
eBookwise Release Date: April 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [218 KB]
Reading time: 131-184 min.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
DR. LOCKHART: His patients were half-animal, half-spaceship!
HEDLEY: He wanted to save a country, but first had to save a world.
CEDRIC: English was his native tongue-seventeenth century English!
KEELER: The FBI had trained him to expect almost anything, except an invisible enemy.
KELLY: Hers was an ideal planet--almost.
JUNIOR: In his hand, a water pistol was a deadly weapon.
* * * *
The sunset was unbelievable, an explosion of color so breathtaking that its sheer resplendence seemed somehow to be in questionable taste. It was a shade too beautiful, Lockhart thought. Bathed in that amber flood of light, the evening strollers along the Boulevard Saint-Michel were transformed into actors in some colorful, romantic drama instead of the drably commonplace characters that the majority of them were. Almost, it brought warmth to the face of the old man who was dying at the cafe table across the street.
Lockhart's eyes rested on the old man only long enough to be sure that he was still alive, then he shifted them back to the crowd, the sunset, and to the car containing three of Hedley's men which was parked further along the street. The thought returned then of what he was here to do, and the sunset abruptly lost its appeal; the pulsing bands of fire filling the western sky became nothing more than an interesting group of meteorological phenomena which gave strong indications of rain before morning.
A sharp intake of breath made Lockhart look quickly at the man sharing the cafe table with him. Hedley was staring anxiously across the street and Lockhart saw the cause of the agent's anxiety at once. Two people were trying to talk to the old man.
The girl looked vaguely Spanish--dark complexion with that peculiar combination of thin, aristocratic nose and wide, full lips. Her hair was dark brown or black, and her figure was attracting the appreciative gaze of a passing group of students. Her companion was a small, thin-faced man whose clothing seemed to indicate a certain degree of effeminacy; he was pretty rather than handsome. They were bending over the old man and the girl was apparently asking a question. After a pause she repeated it, louder.
Why, thought Lockhart suddenly, I know that girl!
"What's she saying?" Hedley said, holding his voice to a conversational level with difficulty. "What language is it, at least?"
Lockhart shook his head. "She's too far away to tell," he replied. "But I know her--she isn't anyone you're looking for."
Hedley made an annoyed sound. "I'll be the judge of that. How long have you known her?"
"I saw her at a concert," Lockhart said. "We didn't speak." He paused awkwardly, thinking of how this would sound to Hedley, then went on. "It's rather complicated, but I know she isn't the type to be mixed up in this. You see--"
"This is the first time," Hedley cut in, "that one of these old men has been contacted by someone who might be an enemy agent. Maybe they are just a couple of kind-hearted types who think he's sick and want to help, but again, maybe they are nothing of the sort." He exhaled irritably. "So, despite your unsolicited testimonial, Doctor, I'll have them followed."
He took a handkerchief from his breast pocket, shook it out twice and blew his nose. A hundred yards away one of his men got out of the waiting car and merged with the crowd. The couple across the street had unknowingly acquired a shadow, and Lockhart, who was firmly convinced that the agent was wasting his time, kept angrily silent.
Usually Lockhart was not so touchy about things, but Hedley-and the job the agent wanted him to do--had kept him on edge all day.
Prior to that morning, Lockhart had not seen Hedley since the time during the closing months of the war when an air ambulance had set him down, literally, on the hospital's front lawn. Lockhart had been attached to a south coast Bomber Group at the time, doing his best to repair partially wrecked men so that they could go back to wrecking more aircraft. Hedley had kept him busy that day and most of the following night, he remembered.
The holes in Hedley's legs and side were flesh wounds and not in themselves dangerous, but from his condition upon arrival Lockhart guessed that he must have crawled through about a mile of mud before they had been dressed. With the antibiotics he had been given battling the infection raging through his system, it was no surprise that the patient had been delirious. Consequently, Lockhart had found out a lot he wasn't supposed to know.
Hedley was an Intelligence officer. That, in itself, would not have made Lockhart uncomfortable. What did so was the large number of high-ranking officers who congregated around Hedley's bed, listening to his every mumbled word, and who hung around in relays until the patient had passed out of danger and been transferred somewhere else. Hedley, it seemed, had been an important man.
Before leaving, however, the agent had thanked him, shaken hands, and advised him to keep quiet about anything he may have heard until such times as he was writing his memoirs.
Lockhart had kept quiet long after the need for secrecy was gone--not, he suspected, because he was a close-mouthed type, but simply because Hedley had requested it of him. When Hedley asked, refusal was virtually impossible, and when he ordered something done, Lockhart was sure that it became nothing less than an entry in the pages of future history. With a feeling almost of awe, Lockhart remembered how Hedley had, within ten minutes of meeting him, talked him into accepting a rather unpleasant task. A task, moreover, which could leave him open to grave charges of unethical practice.
Was he a doctor, Lockhart asked himself suddenly, or a ghoul ... ?
Simply, Hedley wanted the old man across the street watched until, in Lockhart's opinion, he was at the point of death. Only then could the fast-acting poison, which had made previous attempts at questioning these people impossible, be removed, thus allowing the agent a chance to obtain some desperately needed information.
Something was afoot, Hedley had told him; something big, dirty, and the worst threat to peace since the invasion of Poland. The agent had been so deadly serious about the matter that he had been positively frightening. And though Lockhart had agreed to help, he could not quite see how this white-haired old man--and the other like him that Hedley had mentioned--could be a threat to anything.
* * * *
Lockhart's train of thought came to a sudden stop as the couple across the street straightened and began to move away. For an instant, Lockhart thought that the girl's face showed something like disappointment, but the fading light made it difficult to read features with any degree of accuracy. And when he brought his attention back to the old man, he felt his mouth going dry.
The old man's features had gone suddenly slack, and the eyes had closed. Despite the ruddy glow from that spectacular sunset his face was still and chalk white. Lockhart wet his lips. When he spoke he hardly recognized his own voice.
"Uh ... Now, I think," he said.
Without speaking, Hedley slid two black leather bags from under their table and pushed the one containing the medical kit toward Lockhart. They rose and crossed the street quickly. Lockhart knew what he had to do, but for a moment he hesitated.
There was a strange dignity about the lined and wrinkled countenance, an aura of power and keen intelligence now long gone. The steady breakdown in the life processes was rapidly wiping all expression and character from the face, but enough remained for Lockhart to know that he would have liked this man. He had a feeling which affected him in cases of this kind--an overwhelming respect, and pity, and love of the aged. Maybe he should have specialized in geriatrics. But he felt that any indignity to which he might subject this old man would be nothing less than a moral offense, like disordering the bones of a dead saint.
"Hurry!" Hedley whispered fiercely.
The agent had his bag open. He was lifting out what a lay observer might have mistaken for a sphygmomanometer--though the same observer would have referred to it out of self-defense as "the thing doctors used to take blood pressure." Actually it was a heavily disguised tape-recorder. Hedley set it going and moved it closer to the old man, then left to intercept the cafe proprietor who was bearing down on them.
Callously, efficiently, Lockhart's hands went to work. The emotional and untrustworthy sector of his brain was cut off, isolated--especially from control of his hands. He forced the mouth open, wide. He tested the teeth; they were all good--which surprised him--and they rang solid. Carefully he scrutinized the inside of the mouth; empty. He examined the gums again, and raised the tongue; still nothing. Where was the thing?
A gendarme had now joined Hedley and the cafe proprietor. In faultless French, the agent was gravely taking them into his confidence about the distressing condition of the old gentleman whose life his colleague was striving so gallantly to save. With the proper amount of respect due to one authority from another in a different though doubtless equally important field, Hedley appealed for the gendarmes aid in the struggle. He was most eloquent. The gendarme, obviously feeling about seven feet tall and broad in proportion, moved importantly onto the pavement to disperse the crowd which was beginning to gather.
* * * *
Lockhart badly needed advice on other possible methods of concealing poison, but the cafe proprietor was keeping Hedley busy with morbid questions regarding things medical. He gritted his teeth. Time was running out. The old man's life expectancy could be measured now in minutes, perhaps seconds. Prying open the unresisting jaw, Lockhart had another look. Suddenly he saw it.
It had been a flat, lozenge-shaped capsule of some gelatinous substance molded around a few drops of grayish liquid. Body heat and saliva had dissolved the capsule to wafer thinness, except where the liquid made a tiny bulge in its center. Lockhart had mistaken it at first for a small mouth ulcer. Now he knew it for what it was, but he still had to get it out. While it remained, the slightest pressure of the old man's tongue would burst it, and Hedley would be looking elsewhere for his information.
The partly melted capsule was fragile, slippery, and it adhered far back on the roof of the mouth. Carefully, so as not to nip through it and allow the highly lethal contents to trickle down the old man's throat, Lockhart began to slide it forward. Sweat broke on him as his probing instrument pressed briefly behind the tongue, causing involuntary, retching contractions of the throat, and he nearly lost it. But finally he had it between his fingers, then out.
Without giving his mind time to dwell on how close a thing it had been, he set about the second half of the job.
The shots were already prepared. He injected heart stimulants, then broke the seal of a small tube of compressed oxygen and let the gas play briefly over the open-mouth and nostrils. When he came to the point where the pentothal-derivative was being administered, the old man was conscious enough to wince. Lockhart listened intently to the sucking, creaking and rumbling noises of that worn-out heart being forced into renewed activity. Like a faulty engine with cracked cylinders and no lubrication, he thought sadly; it could be made to work, but not for long.
"Hedley!" he called sharply. When the agent joined him, he whispered, "Be quick. You've got about ten minutes."
"What is your name?" Hedley said, softly but distinctly into the old man's ear. "Where do you come from?"
Hedley's face, for the benefit of onlookers, showed the proper mixture of gravity and clinical detachment, but his knuckles where they gripped the chair shone white. He repeated the question, in French and German and Russian.
The old man's head rolled from side to side, as if he was trying to avoid something. He looked puzzled and vaguely frightened. Suddenly he said, "Hargon," followed by something which sounded like "Vitlim."
Hedley tried again: "Why are you here?"
The answer was mumbled gibberish.
"Delirium," Lockhart diagnosed. "Probably caused by interruption of blood-flow to the brain, or simply advanced senility."
"Then why can't he rave in English so's we would have some idea--"
For an instant the hard-held mask of Hedley's face slipped, and his jaw dropped open. The old man was no longer raving.
"I mus' speak English," he mumbled slowly, "and think in English. Even among the ... the..." His voice wavered, and his head seemed all at once too heavy for him to hold up. Quickly, Lockhart measured out another dose, then slowly replaced the syringe without using it. He tapped Hedley's arm.
"No more questions, I'm afraid," he said gently.
Hedley sighed and straightened up. "He didn't tell us much," he said bitterly. "Unless--" He tapped the recorder lightly, "--we can unravel the gibberish in here."
Lockhart's mind was suddenly seething with questions, for the agent had told him practically nothing.
"Why," he burst out, "was he sucking that capsule? Could he have known we were watching him, or did he mean to commit suicide anyway, not realizing that he was dying?"
Hedley looked up and down the cool, tree-lined avenue, at the crowds, and at the conflagration raging across the western sky. Everything--even to an orange peel lying in the gutter--held a sharp intensity of coloring that made the scene resemble an over-vivid painting rather than mundane reality. When he spoke he seemed almost to be talking to himself.
"He picked a good time for it," the agent said softly. "This is nice. Much better than dying in bed..." He trailed off into silence, then turned abruptly and waved to the waiting car.
As Hedley and the gendarme helped him lift the old man into the car, Lockhart thought of his manner of dying. His waiting, as Hedley had so uncharacteristically put it, until the nicest time of the day to do it. The thought made him uncomfortable, as if he were missing something.
What sort of enemy agent would do a thing like that?