The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

“I am glad that we can be of some assistance to your wife. Perhaps there will come a time when you can—I believe the phrase is ‘return the favor’?”

“That is the phrase, yes.”

Time passed while thick tires hummed swiftly on the smooth, two-lane pavement. The clock on the panel said it was a little after two in the morning, Pacific Time. That meant dawn was still hours away. The sky, where it was not bleached by headlight glare, or by the glow of distant cities, was still black as midnight and jeweled with twinkling stars. Doors had to assume that the incredible wave of Arrival was rolling on westward, past Alaska and Hawaii and Samoa. And that when—it would be very soon now—the wave came full circle, back to the Date Line where it had started, there would be Taelons scattered over the entire surface of the Earth.

Now that he was once more moving toward the destination he so yearned to see, Va’lon seemed quite relaxed, willing to be peacefully silent. How many of their ships had come down altogether, and how many of their people? Somewhere Doors had heard that there were supposed to be seventy-one Companions landing. Had he been alone in the vehicle he would certainly be, for once, listening to the radio, trying to absorb any real news that filtered through.

Now they had reached the place where the highway began a thorough imitation of a roller-coaster, up and down, up and down, with now and then a sharp turn left or right. This was cattle country and wine country mixed together, mostly pastures and vineyards, with scattered dwellings, mostly belonging to prosperous landowners, some of them showing lights despite the lateness of the hour. Here and there the SUV’s headlights illuminated the fringe of some neat hillside cultivation of vines.

“Well, if you can’t tell me all about your world,” Doors tried again, “maybe at least something about yourself.”

“I hope I can do that. What would you like to know?”

“Well, Va’lon, are there… dammit, I don’t want to step on any taboos. But I assume you have two sexes, the way we do?”

Now his companion was smiling a little more broadly than before. “It is a fair question, Jonathan, and not unexpected. It deserves an answer, of course—and in time one will be provided. But assumptions regarding us should be made sparingly. For now, it will be best if you and your fellow humans consider me—consider all of your new visitors, including me—as male. Even if the term does not adequately express all aspects of Taelon physiology.”

“I see. Well, I don’t see, really. But I’ll accept that answer for now, just as a matter of social—now what the hell is this?”

The barricade was made up of several vehicles, all with lights turned off, parked crosswise to effectively shut off traffic on the two-lane highway and its shoulders. The site of the roadblock, in a dip between hills, made it rather hard to see from any distance, so Doors roaring over the hill at a good highway speed had to come down hard on the brakes to keep from crashing into the obstacle, or running down one of the dimly seen figures that milled about brandishing firearms in the fitful light of red flares and lanterns.

The SUV had no sooner come to a stop than it was quickly surrounded, and a babble of men’s voices went up. The beams of several powerful flashlights pierced the windows to spot the Taelon’s hairless head.

A raucous shout went up. “There is one of ’em here!”

“We got one, boys!”

“Drag him outta there!”

Va’lon was sitting passively, looking straight ahead, while the standing vehicle bounced with the weight of men pulling and pushing, trying to climb onto it. Their eager hands tried to wrench open the locked door on the passenger side.

Doors already had his own seatbelt unfastened, and now he opened his own door, hard. Enough adrenaline was suddenly in his muscles to send a couple of would-be boarders reeling back.

He got halfway out of the SUV, standing erect with his left foot on the running board, a position that raised him high enough to look out over the heads of the small crowd. Faces, all of them male as far as he could tell, all of them white, were demonic in the flickering glare of red flares. Hands were starting to reach for him. Jonathan saw armbands with indecipherable symbols, saw one real steel helmet, US Army style, saw plenty of vests and bandoliers and camouflage clothing—but nothing anywhere that he would consider a real uniform.

“Back off!!” Doors roared, in a voice that stopped them in their tracks. “What the hell do you men think you’re doing?”

“This is the New Free Coast Militia, mister, and we are defending our country against alien invasion.” The man who spoke was threatening Doors with a weapon, a firearm in a strange contorted shape. Some kind of gun collector’s special, Doors supposed, capable of a thousand rounds a minute—if any man could carry a thousand rounds of ammunition.

“Friggin’ government won’t do its job,” the gun-pointer snarled at him. “So the people have the right!”

The wicked little black hole now aimed at Doors wasn’t the first gun barrel he had ever seen from the wrong end. And he was angry enough right now to be able to ignore it. He kept the volume of his voice riding high. “Who’s in charge of this show? Get him up here, now!”

The pause in activity was only momentary, and he had to roar the command again to get results.

“Where’s the colonel?” someone in the crowd was shouting.

And another voice chimed in, “Get the colonel over here on this side. Tell him we got us a hostage. Maybe two.”

From his elevated post of observation, Doors could now see that the highway had been doubly blocked, a second line of vehicles parked athwart it some thirty or forty yards west of the first blockade. Any eastbound traffic would have to stop at that western barrier.

A small group of men was now moving across the intervening space toward Doors standing on the running board of his SUV.

“Colonel Shelby, this way, sir!” some man called excitedly.

But not everyone in Jonathan’s immediate vicinity was willing to wait for the colonel, whoever he might be. One of the men on the driver’s side of the vehicle was trying to push the muzzle of his hunting shotgun in through the half-open door.

Whether the fellow was firmly bent on assassination or just trying to be menacing was impossible to tell, and Doors did not wait to find out. Without pausing to calculate the risk he grabbed the gun barrel nuzzling at his hip and forced it away from his own body and from the quiet form of his passenger. He was still gripping the barrel when the shotgun fired, perhaps by accident, blasting out the left rear side window of the SUV.

As if the shot had been a signal, hands grabbed at Doors, too many hands for him to fight free, and he was pulled down off the running board. Meanwhile Other hands were immobilizing the man who had been holding the shotgun at the start of the wrestling match.

Things could have gotten worse in a hurry, and they probably would have, except now the man who was evidently Colonel Shelby, a lean fellow of forty years or so, with a handlebar mustache, and a cap bearing the logo of some veterans’ organization, was on the scene. Shelby was shouting louder than anybody except Doors himself, and in a minute some semblance of order was restored.

Jonathan shot a quick glance into the vehicle, saw Va’lon still sitting in the same position, apparently unhurt.

He shook free of the last clinging hand, and climbed up on his running board again.

“I wasn’t expecting to find a roadblock here, Colonel,” he announced, staring at the handlebar mustache, raising his voice enough for everyone to hear. “Though I felt confident that this would be patriots’ territory.” Now he had gained a moment of near-silence, a window of attention and opportunity, and his mind skipped ahead, planning how to make the most of it.

With a gesture that most of those in the crowd could see he indicated his inert passenger inside the SUV. “My friend here is out of action right now,” he announced, a little louder than before. His tone gave the word a special, contrary meaning. “I mean to keep him that way. But I also mean to keep him in one piece, until I get him to a place where he’ll be of some value to our side.”

Pausing for a moment, taking in the uncertain faces that surrounded him, he saw that he was making an impression, but realized that the issue still hung in the balance. He would have to gamble, not knowing whether what he was about to say would get him lynched by this crowd or gain him their respect and trust.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred