"Aw right, move along! Move along, pal!" The NYPD cop was hot and flustered, and the look he gave Elaine Armbruster when she squeezed through the mob in front of him said he was in no mood to argue. "Move along, sister."
"Secret Service." She flashed her ID folder his face in tight lipped frustration. It took her most of the morning to get here from Penn Station, and she was in no mood to argue, either.
"Yeah?" He'd been on crowd control for three days now, and it took him a moment to focus on the petite woman in front of him. "You're here about...'it', huh?" He waved her past with a nervous half-glance over his shoulder, leaving her to cope with the plastic POLICE LINE streamer behind him, and turned his attention back to the frenzied mob. "BACK UP! ALL'A YOU! MOVE ALONG!" Not that it did him a damn bit of good. Between the crowd noise and his raspy voice no one could hear him more than five feet away. They weren't listening in any case.
Safely past the first police line, she fished a hankie out of her pocket and mopped her face with a sigh of fatigue and exasperation. 'How have they managed this well?' she wondered, wearily. Even with the National Guard deployed, the city was in chaos, ready to melt down. Midtown Manhattan was gridlocked. The subways were, too. There was an ironclad no-fly zone over Manhattan Island, with a half-dozen F16s circling in the distance to keep it so. Even police helicopters were grounded, and no one knew what the hell was going on, so she had to get here on foot, which was much like hacking her way through the Amazon jungle. The last ten blocks were a sea of excited, hysterical, often panicky humanity. All the shops were closed, and as she fought her way forward, she saw more than one instance of looting. With this midsummer heat, New Yorkers would be ready to lash out in any event, so she was a bit surprised things weren't worse.
Inside the first POLICE LINE was a second, with a row of TV cameras, equipment and crews wedged between. They were quieter and more orderly than the riot twenty feet behind them, but were packed almost as densely, with the added hazards of cables and discarded equipment cases to trip over. Harried technicians cursed and shoved as she struggled through, but she hardly noticed since she was finally getting her first look at 'it', just ahead. She was so distracted that she collided with one heavyweight wearing a soundman's headset and nearly knocked over one of the repeater antennas dotting the landscape.
"BITCH!" A technician jumped to adjust the dish. "Watch what th' hell you're doing!" She retreated, muttering apologies no one could hear.
There were several dozen TV crews in a broad semicircle, along with a couple hundred others privileged to pass the first barricade. She took a quick look around and saw BBC, Japan's NSK, the French TPS Foot-jeez, even the sports channels were getting into the act!-plus several unfamiliar logos. They must have emptied the newsroom over at the United Nations. The media moved fast before the mob began forming, which was good for them because there was no chance of any vehicles getting in or out now. A dozen or more mobile news trucks were parked in a row along the lake, their antennas sticking up like a forest of masts. What they would do when they ran out of gas was anyone's guess.
"Stay back in the press zone," the cop at the next barricade grumbled.
"Secret Service." She waved her ID folder again like a talisman.
"Huh?" He'd been repeating himself for three days now, trying to keep the marching morons from stampeding, and mistook her for one of the swarm of female reporters. "Yeah. Okay, sister, go on in."
"Who's in charge here?"
"Huh? God knows, lady." He sighed, and scanned the mob with a dismayed look like he was seeing it for the first time. "Maybe not even God. You'll have to ask somebody."
The first somebody to notice her, once she passed the second POLICE LINE streamer, was tall and spare, with a long face and the chunky look of body armor under his jacket. He was mid 40s, with salt-and-pepper hair, and he stared at her for a long moment with a look of mixed exhaustion and worry before heading toward her.
"Elaine Armbruster, Secret Service." She anticipated him and waved her ID folder again.
"I'm Hanson, FBI. You okay?"
"Yeah. God, what a herd." She pocketed her ID, thankful it did its job. "I thought Denver was bad!"
"And it gets worse by the hour, 24/7." He considered her vaguely: thirties, petite, neatly dressed, athletic figure, auburn hair, not at all bad looking. The bulge under her jacket at her left waistband went with the assertive, no-nonsense look in her eyes. "They never quit. They never sleep. If they eat, they must bring it with 'em..."
"There are tailgaters out on the fringe now."
"Gawd." His tense look deepened. "Like a fuckin' football game, pardon my French." He scanned the frenzied humanity barely held in check by a thin cordon of city cops and National Guard troops, then turned his attention back to her. "So what brings the Palace Guard to our little shindig?"
"That."'That' seemed innocent enough at first glance: a perfect sphere twenty-odd feet in diameter made of some shimmery, pearly silver material with no markings, seams, openings or any other detail. The catch was that it descended out of a clear blue sky three days ago, and it now hovered six inches above the center of the cluster of softball fields in Central Park next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"An honest-to-God flying saucer," she whispered. "Jesus."
Watching TV wasn't the same as actually standing there and seeing it. An alien space ship: product of a civilization far more advanced than mankind. The reality of it chilled her. Her first rational thought as she studied the enormous pearl was that the automatic tucked in her waistband was about useless.
"It's more like a flying soap bubble." The newcomer was a couple inches shorter and a few years younger than Agent Hanson; stocky, with curly auburn hair and an impudent grin; and he ran his eyes up and down her in obvious interest. "Bret Abercrombe, FBI."
"Elaine Armbruster, Secret Service. Has anyone..."
"There were some brainiacs from the City College here the first day. They were actually poking around it with instruments before we chased 'em away."
"Get anything out of them?"
"A bunch of lip about academic freedom. Not much else."
Hanson eyed him with weary patience, then added, "They said it was perfectly smooth, neutral temperature, no radiation, and no sounds from inside. That's all we know."
"So, how many Martian War Machines do you think could fit in there?" Abercrombe tilted his head at the sphere, never taking his eyes off her.
She twitched, and turned on him. "Just prey t' God..."
"Sorry." The grin he gave her said otherwise.
Ryan Clay swiveled restlessly, back and forth, back and forth, as he stared out his window at the city below. He ignored the half-dozen computer monitors on his broad marble desk. There was no sense in trying to follow the market right now, anyway. The four telephones were silenced, and he ignored their blinking lights too. They were blinking all morning; his minions trying to reach him for instructions. They must be frantic by now. Beneath his brooding exterior, he was not much short of frantic himself. The markets were going wild: stocks spiraling up and down in broad, random sweeps. Bonds were no better, nor were commodities or futures. No one knew what the hell this intrusion in Central Park would do to earthly finances, and the rumors were as dire as frightened, confused people could make them. Even currency exchange was in chaos. London refused to quote gold for two days now, and SIMEX, in Singapore, was off line. The markets weren't so much panicking as wetting themselves and running in circles.
It all put him in a grim mood, more-so than the millions he already lost, or the billions in pending projects which were disrupted. Above all, Ryan Clay was the Man In Control. The world jumped to his tune, by the numbers and smartly, or he made phone calls and people suffered. The money meant nothing. Money was just a tool, a means to his real obsession: Control. Only now he was no longer In Control. No one was, or would be, until they saw the fallout from this alien contact.
'God,' he thought. 'If this is some kind of practical joke, I'll have those responsible hunted down.' He could, too.
On top of it all was the constant annoyance of being a prisoner in his own office. As large and luxurious as it was, it felt like a cage; and all the subdued lighting and sauna and wide screen TV meant diddly. Thankfully he had an apartment in this building where he kept his latest plaything...Cindy?...no, Cheryl...Miss Centerfold something or other. Brainless cunt. At least she'd learned to shut the fuck up and keep out of sight. He was in no mood right then.
The chaos in the park was spreading. The streets were gridlocked with stalled cars, and from his fortieth floor vantage point, he could see there was no way a limo could get in or out. His people advised him yesterday...or the day before?...that the mood out there was ugly. The herd were ready to riot. Law and order were breaking down. No, a limo was out of the question, as was, Heaven forbid, the subway.
"Damned troglodytes." People-powerful people-would fear the look in his cold gray eyes if they could see it just then.
Even more galling than the limo, his private helicopter was grounded, and for once making phone calls couldn't correct that wrong thinking. And there were fighter jets circling the city like vultures. Ryan Clay was a shrewd judge and user of character, and for once he knew he couldn't bully his way through this. It was seriously unwise to defy those jets, too.
He swiveled to one side, bringing his face close enough to the floor length window to feel the sun's heat coming off the glass. It gave him a clear view forty stories down and six blocks toward the Park. Half of Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs must be out there, with the other half fleeing for some imagined safety. Fools.
At least they had plenty of food since he ordered his minions to raid the grocery store on the third floor. But mere food, clothing, shelter and sex weren't enough; not by a long shot. If that was all he had, then he was no better than the herd milling around on the streets far below. People jumped when he made phone calls; only now his phone calls produced squat, and that was like ground glass in his mood.
He sighed at the thought. Enough looking out the window, anyway. He stood and walked across his office to the bar, helped himself to another scotch, and chugged it, neat. It tasted sour, and it didn't seem to help like it used to. He stood for a time, lost in his evil mood, before he realized he was staring at the full length mirror next to the bar. He pondered himself in the mirror as he often did while honing his image as a ruthless, hard driving capitalist. His reflection was fiftyish, average height and wiry, his teeth were perfect, and his hair transplant undetectable. He'd lost weight these last few days. The chiseled features looking back at him had the grim look of someone with a serious mad on.
"So? What will you do?" he demanded of the mirror.
"Not a damned thing," the mirror replied. "This is one we can't get a handle on. We'll have to go with the flow and see how the pieces fall."
He studied his reflection and took another sip of scotch. From its Armani shoes to the tips of its manicured fingers, his reflection was burning in frustration. He wanted to make phone calls...ached to make phone calls...anywhere at random to ruin a dozen careers or so. That was meager entertainment.
"What else can we do? We can't sit here and brood."
"Only one thing we can do," the mirror said. "We can go upstairs and screw hell out of that cunt."
"Yeah," he grumbled.
That was meager entertainment too, but at least it would keep him occupied for a while, and burn off some of his restless energy. He finished his drink, gave his reflection one last glance, and headed for the elevator. He'd give her some bruises too. And she'd take it. That'd make him feel better.
"I don't get it," Elaine said. "Why did they land right here where it'd stir up so much panic?" She pondered the distant sphere, then the mob, uncertainly. "They must know how we'd react. Aren't they concerned about that?"
"Beats me," Hanson said. "Maybe they don't think like we do."
"That's got to be pretty obvious." The mystery nagged at her. "They could have at least called ahead."
"You'd think so." Hanson stared vacantly at nothing. His exhaustion was showing. "Maybe its an intimidation tactic."
"Maybe. So what's with the weekend warriors?" She gestured at a nearby knot of National Guardsmen. "You'd think the Army wouldn't want them hogging the glory."
Bret snorted in contempt. "They're hiding over in Jersey."
"They're applying the second line principle," Hanson added. "It's a truism in warfare that an attacker will make some headway by sheer inertia, no matter how strong the defense. There's a mechanized brigade coming up from Fort Monmouth. Word is they're strung up and down the Golden State Parkway, ready to counterattack to retake the city, once they know what they're up against and can pull together the support they'll need."
"The Pentagon is planning to lose the city?"
"Not bloody likely," Bret said. "I'm sure they told the White House they'll stop those bad ol' bug-eyed monsters in their tracks, ja-shure, youbetya."
"Thankfully, it seems the people on the ground know better," Hanson added with strained patience. "They have an FO team here," he gestured at a knot of desert camos clustered under a tarp pavilion, "to watch the festivities and report to their headquarters on how long the Guardsmen last."
She watched them skeptically. "How good are they?" With the ongoing Middle Eastern debacle, the strength and condition of military units couldn't be presumed.
"I understand they were rotating back from Pakistan and got rerouted up here. As to what shape they're in, after eight or nine overseas tours, you can guess."
"Well at least someone is getting it together. Any idea when we'll get reinforcements?"
He drifted off in a weary far-away look. "No."
"Will that armor make a difference, if it comes to that?"
He came back from wherever he wandered off to, and pondered the sphere. "No."
Cedric Wroth took another chug of Gatorade, and stood idly watching the sphere in the distance as he ran over phrases in his mind. The heat out here was brutal, especially with his large, heavyset build, and he was thankful for the overhanging roof of the public john they were sheltering under. The narrow strip of shade was spreading as the sun moved into the afternoon sky. Soon there'd be enough room to bring the folding chairs outside and relax in the shade. He'd lost weight these last three days, what with the strain and their skimpy diet. He could afford to. He was an imposing figure with his wavy grey hair and deep voice, but another twenty pounds wouldn't hurt the ratings. Perhaps his feet wouldn't hurt so much.
A group of people caught his eye as they left the perimeter and crossed the hundred yards to the sphere. He noticed the woman when she first arrived; a hot number. She was talking with Hanson, local G-man. There was nothing else to do at the moment, so he kept a speculative eye on her.
"Hey, Ceeesco?" His cameraman, Jerry Hernandez, made a running joke of that fake Mexican accent, not that this was the time for it. "You theeenk we should move more toward the rest of them?"
"We're fine," Cedric muttered, absently.
The alien sphere was in an open area marked off by police tape, with the media arrayed along a second line in front of the mob. There were perhaps a hundred reporters and a couple dozen TV teams in a loose row, with Cedric and his LBN crew on the left flank over by the Turtle Pond. It was an off position, poor camera angle. But he was an old campaigner; had been through enough wars and disasters to know how important a source of water and a bit of shade were.
His attention drifted back to the alien sphere. Something about this whole thing bothered him. For someone so advanced, they were coming on mighty dumb. This was like every bad sci fi B movie ever made. Their arrival paralyzed the country; they couldn't want that, could they? It nagged at him. Why were they so careless when anyone with common sense would give us a heads-up first? His eyes drifted across the mob. Every trekkie and flying saucer nut ever spawned was out there, strung out on fatigue, adrenalin, pot, and God knew what else. It was one part Mardi Gras, one part prison riot, and one part Second Coming. He shook his head absently in despair. Gawd, what sort of impression was all this making on the aliens?
Of course this was all about the aliens, who were still no-shows after three days. 'What are they waiting for?' he wondered. 'Is that thing empty?' That was a disturbing prospect. The world was wetting itself over the arrival of Men from Mars, and if that thing turned out to be a remote probe, or worse, some sort of practical joke... Cedric spent the last three days building up to the greatest story of his career, forced to increasingly stall and ad-lib to keep the audience up as the days dragged out, and if that thing turned out to be a whoopee cushion, he'd come off looking some kind of stupid.
Okay, assuming they're in there, what will they do? Two possibilities:
A) they come out shooting-that whole War Of The Worlds thing-in which case he was well positioned to dive for cover in the woods. From there, if they survived, he could give live coverage of the biggest story since the Biblical Flood. Or;
B) they come out all friendly-do an E. T.-and he'd get the biggest live interview since God spaketh unto Moses.
Either way, it was a win-win proposition for Cedric Wroth, assuming he wasn't killed. The big question was which would it be? Being only human, Cedric hoped they were friendly, but being a veteran LBN talking head, he was secretly hoping otherwise. Either way, it'd be freakin' huge. He'd get another Pulitzer for this, surely.
But as Jerry pointed out, they were up against some serious competition. All the network hotshots were there, slavering in anticipation, with stars in their eyes. Would someone else get a better shot? Get better sound? Make faster, more incisive commentary? Jerry was right: they'd have to be on their toes so they could redeploy for a good camera angle when the time came. He took another chug of Gatorade and went over his spiel in his mind, trying out various phrases. This would be the biggest-perhaps the last-broadcast of his career, and he didn't get to be a top LBN gunslinger by slacking off.
"What are we going t' do 'bout batteries, boss?"
Woody, his soundman, was the perpetual worry-wart, not that that was a bad thing. Thanks to his endless fretting, they were well equipped with batteries, snacks, sunscreen, lots of ice in the cooler, all the essentials. Good man, Woody. The two were an odd pair: Jerry, the short, buff, outgoing Latino; and Woody, the tall, introspective geek. Along with Frank, their technician in the truck parked over by the lake, they were the best live news crew Cedric ever worked with. He valued their camaraderie and loved all three of them, as much as he could love anything other than Cedric Wroth.
Jerry gave Woody a derisive grin. "If you run out of juice, just write it down and hold it up in front of the camera. Instant subtitles."
"I'll just take notes with that salsa you use, Chico. That'd be a hot story!"
"This doesn't look right." Elaine examined the sphere skeptically. "That seems awfully small for something capable of interstellar travel."
"Yeah, well, I'm not the expert," Hanson said. "But those college types said this is probably a landing craft from a larger ship."
"Makes sense." She pondered that for a bit, then reached up and gingerly touched the sphere. It was silky smooth, with a yielding softness over a solid inner core. She never dreamed she would see anything like it. The enormity of it left her bemused. She pushed against the sphere gently, then firmly. It didn't budge. There were no fingerprints when she took her hand away. "But where is the mother ship?"
"You got me. Far side of the moon, maybe. Or maybe they have some sort of invisibility shield." He turned back to her and changed the subject. "You were saying about why the Secret Service is involved?"
"Hmph? Actually, I'm here on my own hook." Hanson raised an eyebrow. "All our people are tied up evacuating DC. I'm a diplomatic team lead. I was up in Boston, and was ordered to come back to Washington, but this is a diplomatic encounter, which puts it under our jurisdiction, so I diverted here to see what I could do to help."
"What?" Bret asked. "You all by yourself?"
"Bret..." Hanson turned on him in annoyance, then back to her. "My partner, sad to say." He eyed her uncertainly, then, "They are sending more?"
"I'm sure they are. But the airlines are grounded, the highways are locked up solid, and the trains are erratic at best." Privately, she was dismayed to find she was the only one of her people here. "Everyone's trying to get out of the Big Apple before the shooting starts. The entire eastern seaboard gridlocked."
"Not everyone." Hanson nodded at the mob in the background.
"Enough, anyway. It took me two days to get here. I'm sure they're sending someone up, but it must be slow going."
"Same with the Bureau," Hanson grumbled. "Couldn't they fly some people up here?"
"My guess is someone at the Pentagon must have panicked. They've shut the region down tight. Afraid of some nut job going Kamikaze, I guess."
"I doubt if they ever really had a contingency plan for something this off the wall."
Hanson brooded on that. "Things must be bad down in DC."
"You can imagine the scramble. The government bailed out to a man, except the President. They're scattered to the four winds now, in case...you know."
"These are the times that try men's souls." Hanson absently watched the massed humanity in the distance for a moment, then turned back to her. "Whoever said that had it easy. I guess you'll be taking over, then?"
"You have things running smoothly, so I won't butt in. The FBI can handle this until we can get enough of our people up here and get organized. In the mean while, I'll interface upstairs and try to get them moving."
"Thanks, although I'm not sure 'smoothly' applies here." He had to fight a jaw breaking yawn. "I just hope things hold together until we can get organized. We're spread awfully thin, and aside from the local cops, we don't have much support."
She gave him a reassuring smile she didn't feel. "Help is coming. All we need to do is hang loose and keep on our toes. A few more hours, and Washington will get it's head out and start reinforcing us in depth."
He gave her a weak smile. "I hope you're right."
They turned and headed back to the tarp pavilion which served as the National Guard headquarters. "So, are you just Hanson?" She noticed his interest earlier, which didn't displease her.
"Mister President, once again, I must insist that you get out of Washington immediately." They could hear the weariness and agitation in Senator Perry's flat voice coming over the speaker phone. "Washington is too obvious a target, and if this thing blows up, we'll need you more than ever."
Barton Olbermann, President of the United States, sighed. "I know, Ron, I know. But I can't leave. The people need to see me here, in the White House. If I leave, it'll set off an even bigger panic." 'He's right, God help us all,' he thought to himself. 'But so am I. What a mess!'
"That's true enough, Bart, but honestly, the risk is worth it. You should go up to Camp David, at least."
"Ron, we can manage without me. The VP is in Oakland now, and Defense and State are in the Midwest. All that's left here are the Attorney General and the secretaries."
About the only ones official, at least. Despite furious arguing, the First Lady flat-out refused to leave. The children were safe with relatives in Chicago, and she told him in no uncertain terms that she was staying by his side come what may. As worried as he was, he was secretly thankful. Her presence here in the White House was almost as important to the nation as his at the moment. It was even more important to him.
"Mister President, the Senator is right." General Kellogg, the Army Chief of Staff, was bunkered up in Colorado Springs. "I urge you to think of your own safety."
"Gentlemen...and ladies...please bear with me. We can be linked by teleconference at a moment's notice. General, you have those emergency plans on tap?"
"'Paul Revere', yes, Mister President. Our units are deployed and can bring the government together anywhere needed on short notice."
"Good. So you all see, I can serve more good here on television than I can in Colorado Springs."
"That's assuming this whole thing does 'blow up', as the Senator suggests." Edward Holden, the Attorney General, sounded odd in person in contrast to the voices coming over the conference lines. He stayed because Olbermann wanted his advice to keep everything on the up-and-up if a crackdown was needed. He wasn't thrilled. "I think they'd have attacked by now if they were going to."
Olbermann eyed him wearily. After three chaotic days, it took an effort to pull his thoughts together. "I hope you're right, Ed." He sagged on his desk, and tried to focus his thoughts. "Look, everyone, nothing is going on right now, so let's try to get a handle on the domestic situation. We can worry about all this later."
The cabinet reluctantly agreed and signed off the conference circuit one by one until only Ed Holden was left, sitting across the desk in the otherwise empty Oval Office. He stood to go, and the two considered each other for a moment.
"God, Ed, what do I do? What can any of us do?" Holden was one of his political advisors, and an old confidant.
"Damned if I know, Bart." Holden sighed in exasperation. "Just keep going and hope for the best, I guess. And pray this situation doesn't have a handle on us."
Elaine paused nibbling on the snack bar she got from the Army observers, and considered Hanson's exhausted stare. "How long have you gone without sleep, Paul?"
"Um..." He put down his own snack bar and took a chug of water as he thought that one over. "...what day is this?"
"It's...been a while."
It was for her, too, and the heat made it that much harder to focus. Her gaze drifted across the open ring of softball fields. She could imagine generations of kids playing ball while their parents tended picnic baskets under those shade trees.
'I can do this,' she tried to convince herself. 'I have to.' She was newly promoted, had never lead an operation before, and here she was holding down the biggest assignment ever all by her lonesome. 'Where the hell is Washington?' she fretted. Someone must have screwed up big time. She took a sip of her soda, and watched the heat ripples rising off the nearest pitcher's mound. So many innocent pleasures happened here over the years. She had to come through for those generations of Little Leaguers. But like she told Hanson earlier, all they could do is keep the lid on until help arrived. The thought of being out here all alone frightened her. The voices of the troops around her were muted, but she could hear their tension. Hell, she could feel it.
"Hey, Paul?" It was Bret, coming across the field with four suits in tow. "Some reinforcements from Quantico."
"Good." Hanson stared stupidly at them for a moment. "That's a start. How is it out there?"
"The highways are clearing," one of them said. "There should be a caravan up from DC by this afternoon; another two dozen, at least."
"I hope so. We need all the help we can get."
"Any word on when they'll lift the no-fly zone?" Elaine asked.
The newcomer shook his head. "No idea. I'm not sure anyone is exactly in charge down there right now."
"So how are things here?" Bret was all business now, his jokester act set aside.
Bret studied him dubiously. "You're wiped out. You should grab some sleep while you can."
"It's this miserable heat," Elaine said. "It's making us all groggy. He's right, Paul, you should grab a quick nap."
"Um...yeah, I guess." He looked around vaguely for some spot to lie down. There were some folding cots in back...
"Hey! It's opening!" someone yelled. "The sphere's opening!"
That snapped them all out of their doldrums, and they crowded up to the sandbag wall across the front of the pavilion, jostled and shoved by the troops around them. A flat protrusion was growing out of the side of the sphere about five feet off the ground, forming a rounded end and extending beyond the sphere's overhanging bulge.
"This is Ramrod Forward!" someone at the radio was shouting. "We have movement! Do you hear me? I say again, we have movement from the sphere!"
"Come on!" Hanson snapped. That galvanized them into motion, and they headed for the alien sphere.
"Anchor desk? Heads up! They're coming out!"
"Mon Dieu! Ils sortent! Pouvez-vous m'entendre?"
"Aufmerksamkeit! Sie kommen!"
"Get that! You got that? You getting this?"
"Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this report..."
"...nous interrompons ce programme pour un rapport spécial..."
"Hey, boss?" No fake accent now; this really wasn't the time for it. "They're coming out!"
Cedric Wroth muttered a blue streak as he fought with his zipper. Of all the moments to take a leak! He came out of the john with little regard for his dignity, and watched in dismay as a group of people raced across the open field toward the sphere. It was happening-now!-and he was...
"Heads up, Frank! We need the live feed, now!"
"Gotja, Cedric," the control man's voice came over his earpiece through a buzz of static and snatches of conversations.
"We're way out of position, boss." Jerry was focusing in with his zoom lens. "You wanna move quick?"
Son. Of. A. Bitch! Cedric looked back and forth in agitation, frantically estimating angles and viewpoints. He realized too late that their position was ideal for cover and access to the john, but they were in exactly the wrong place for the breaking story. 'Dammit!' he thought, savagely. 'I should have known they'd come out facing the Army's command center!' He had about three seconds to make a career altering decision...
"Coming up, Cedric," his earphone said.
"NBC is rolling, Cedric. And BBC."
"Ah, no, Jerry. Go to a tight zoom, I'll voiceover."
"Right." Jerry gave him a skeptical look and hefted his camera as Woody leaned his microphone boom a bit closer.
"You're on, Cedric," the earphone said.
Cedric left off wrestling with his fly. Time to suck it up. "This is Cedric Wroth, reporting live for LBN from Central Park..."
"...für einen Sonderbericht von New York City..."
"...segnali da New York City, in cui la nave spaziale straniera..."
"Everyone stay calm! Stay calm! STAY CALM!"
"...SWAT team on standby. Everyone stay calm, the situation is under..."
"...is showing signs of life after three days' silence..."
"Everyone calm down! Stay back, there!" The police and National Guard were straining as half the mob tried to surge forward and the other half run for cover in one chaotic maelstrom of shoving, swearing humanity. "Easy! Stay calm..."
"...stanno attendendo per sentirsi dal presidente..."
"...Mayor has issued an appeal to the people..."
"...presa de la lata solamente esa estos visitantes de las estrellas..."
Elaine, Hanson, and the rest of them came up short about seventy-five feet from the sphere, and watched nervously as the protrusion grew toward them. Up close, they could see the sphere material oozing outward like taffy, throwing off faint, shimmering color highlights as it flowed. Seen end on, the protrusion was flat on its upper surface, blending smoothly into tapered edges, with a slight bulge on its underside. A black spot appeared above the protrusion, and grew into an open hole with a rounded edge.
"Please...be friendly..." Elaine whispered.
The opening stopped expanding when it was a flat oval about three feet across and perhaps two high. Inside there was...nothing...a soft, indefinable gray. The platform stopped when it extended about twenty feet: an improbably thin tapered shelf set at head height.
"What do you think?" she whispered.
"Steady," Hanson said, softly. "Pray for the best."
She was trembling. Her heart was pounding, her stomach ached with tension, and she was breathing in shallow gasps. 'You're supposed to be cool in a crisis,' she chided herself. She had faced frightening moments before, but never anything like this. In the back of her mind, she knew her Secret Service training was all that kept her from running.
"God," someone whimpered. "There it is!"
There was movement, and the alien pilot emerged...slowly, cautiously...looking all around at the frenzied mob...the dozens of TV cameras...the hundreds of winking photoflashes...the guns pointed its way by humans on the ragged edge of panic.
It looked like an enormous flatworm.
It was about seven or eight feet long and perhaps two wide. Its forebody arched upward, with a pair of stumpy, multi-jointed arms at mid height, a lipless mouth above, and two snail-like eye stalks overall. It was utterly unlike anything...there was a...strangeness to it...an other-worldliness that came from more than just its shape. And its coloring...
"It's beautiful!" Elaine sighed.
It was as gaudy as a parrot: bright orange fading to purple across its chest, with a crest of deeper, gold flecked red between its eye stalks and down its back, and thin traces of royal blue along the length of its sides. It shimmered in the afternoon sunlight, almost iridescent, like a peacock's plume.
Elaine was mesmerized by the alien, and didn't notice the burly city cop as he moved past them. They were dumbstruck, partly by its beautiful color, and partly by the sheer magnitude of the moment. There was something...exciting...and frightening about it...something alien...a difference she couldn't define and couldn't ignore. The reality of the visitor overtook her fear of the unknown, swept away by dread and amazement and wonder all rolled in together. From the way the crowd quieted, it seemed they felt it too.
After taking a good look, the alien moved slowly out onto the open platform with a smooth rippling motion along its sides.
"God," Hanson muttered. "The biggest event in human history, and we have a front row seat."
"Let's hope the show is good," she muttered back. Right then she was thankful he was there in particular.
The alien reached the end of the extruded platform, and sat looking at the surrounding mob. The platform put it at head height, and it wasn't more than fifty feet from them. Their eyes met, and Elaine shuddered with some unnameable emotion. The alien's otherness was overwhelming. The crowd noise tapered off as they were overcome by awe, or fear, or joy, or simple amazement, until it ceased. Humans and alien watched each other in silence for an endless minute or more. So far, the show was very good indeed.
"By my people, I am named K'rha-thra-hooh," it spoke at last. "You may give me such name as you choose."
Its voice was a smooth contralto, speaking slowly with perfect diction, and the amplified sound came from everywhere and nowhere. Dead silence. The police, the Guardsmen, the media and the herd stood frozen in amazement.
"I come here in the name of my people to speak to you of our civilization," the alien said. "We have explored many stars, found many new intelligent species, learned much of the ways of the universe."
There was a faint stir in the mob as they absorbed that. The background rumble swelled up again, a mix of cheers and yells and the muted hubbub of the news crews.
"Our long journeys have finally brought us to you," the alien went on. "Great is our pleasure at meeting a young species. We hope to gain much from this meeting, and we..."
The alien convulsed as a heavy slug tore through its length. Elaine and Hanson jerked in surprise at the sound, so fixated that they didn't realize what was happening. Elaine's trained reflexes kicked in, and she reached for her automatic while looking frantically in all directions for the shooter, as...
...that New York City cop, standing thirty feet away in a disciplined marksman's stance, fired a snub length .357 magnum at point blank range.
'He's wrong,' Elaine realized. 'That's a winter uniform!' "GUN!" she screamed, and rushed the shooter.
"Holy SHIT!" Hanson cried, and dove for the shooter as well, setting off a chain reaction of police and FBI agents rushing to subdue him.
"...wait, you do not..." the alien cried, as...
...the cop fired again, coolly and deliberately, taking careful aim with each shot.
"Jesus! What's happening?"
"Are you getting this! You hear me?"
The mob reacted: first the ring of cops, then the media, then the mob of civilians behind them surged forward to see what was happening as...
...the cop fired a fourth time at the writhing alien. Elaine stumbled over a small rock, caught herself, and ran even faster in headlong flight squarely at the shooter's back ten feet ahead as...
"...my line..." the alien moaned its last words as...
...the shooter was tackled by six people at once. The last shot went wild, bounced off the sphere, and careened off into the distance.