The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

Of course, any Taelons who came looking for him and Amanda tonight ought to be even less familiar with the layout of the place—unless for some reason they had drawn up a floor plan in 1936, and kept it handy. He wouldn’t be too surprised if they had—they were meticulous bastards when they set out to be.

A tremor went through the thin body at his side. “I can’t walk much farther, Johnny.”

Again he scooped up Amanda in his arms. Then, twice in the next minute, they had to stop again to adjust her oxygen tube, regulate the flow. Not much point in finding a hiding place, if she was going to choke to death in the process.

“Maybe, if we can just keep out of their sight long enough—they’ll give up and jump in their ship and go.” And if they absolutely need a human mind as bait to control the Urod, they’ll kidnap someone else. Not her.

Her lungs were gasping but her mind was active. “Would it save—would it prevent a war, if I did go with them?”

“What gave you that idea? It wouldn’t save anything good, or prevent anything bad. But I’m afraid it would be the end of you.”

“You’re going to have to tell me more than that, lover. A lot of details of this mess need to be filled in. How can I tell you what to do next, unless I know what’s going on?”

“Gladly, as soon as we have a moment. No, I guess as soon as we have an hour would be more like it. It’s a great story, and at first you won’t believe a word of it.”

“Where are we going, Johnny?”

“Looking for a niche, some kind of cozy hiding place. If we can he low for a while, I think they’ll leave without us. For them, right now, dealing with the Urod has to come before anything else.”

Slowly and awkwardly Doors carried his wife from room to room within Casa Grande, where many of the windows, as they now discovered, were set so high in the high walls that it was all but impossible to see anything but sky when you looked out.

That was reassuring, in a way; it also ought to be impossible for those outside to see in, or to pour in bullets with any actual target in view. It was almost as if Hearst’s master architect Julia Morgan had designed the big house as a fortress, to withstand this kind of an assault. In fact most of the rounds fired from outside had little effect except to destroy some of the world’s oldest and most expensive ceilings. Whatever this gang of apes thought they were doing, their only actual accomplishment so far, other than a few murders, seemed to be vandalism on a world-class scale.

As if the deranged humans outside had been tuning in on Jonathan’s thoughts, one of them now let loose with some kind of military rocket launcher: A loud whoosh followed almost instantly by a punishing, vicious bang, striking the house wall near the top and not many yards away. What precise target the rocketeer thought he was aiming at Doors did not know, but at least he had not missed the side of Casa Grande. The deafening blast had punched a hole in the thick solid wall big enough for a man to jump through, sending a cloud of dust and debris drifting down the hallway and through the several rooms that opened onto it.

But if the attacker’s intent had been to bring the entire building, or any substantial portion of it, down in ruins, he was doomed to disappointment. Julia Morgan and her long-suffering but well-paid construction crews had planned and built the core of their structure with California earthquakes constantly in mind.

An old system of floodlights that had once brightened the entire exterior of Casa Grande at night was still in place, but no longer regularly turned on. Much of it had been modernized and incorporated into the security system, and patches of bright lighting had come on automatically when the militia attack burst in. Still the system had somehow been partially disabled by the attackers, and some among them seemed to be making an effort to shoot out all the lights that they could see. Fortunately their aim was not much better than their talent for tactical planning.

Jonathan wanted to use his global again, but hesitated, suddenly concerned that the Taelons might use the signal to locate him, despite the jamming.

And again he was suspicious: Were they, and not the feckless militia, responsible for the interference?

Abruptly they came upon another dead body, near a window. A small hole in the forehead, just above the open eyes.

“Who’s that, Johnny?”

“One of my security men.” He swore viciously under his breath, and looked around, eagerly at first, for a nonexistent gun. It looked like the man hadn’t even been armed. But of course it was possible that his weapon had fallen out the window when he fell.

“I’m sorry,” Amanda gasped, almost as if it had been her fault. “Oh, it’s so terrible, all this.”

Doors mumbled something. There was no way as yet of even estimating total casualties, but he could see that they were going to be high. That made two of his own dead now, that he knew of—no, three. But later there would be time for numbers.

Puttings together what he had seen and what his security people had told him, he could estimate that so far the faceless, ski-masked enemy seemed to be worse off—the body count on their side was actually higher. But Jonathan could draw only minor satisfaction from the fact. He could see no Taelon casualties, and he assumed that if there had been any, they had been taken aboard the shuttle, where at least they would probably be safe from further damage.

Suddenly the sound of the intermittent firing had changed, as if most of it were no longer directed at the building, and he inched his way to a window that happened to be set low enough to let him peer out.

At the moment small-arms fire went drumming like hail on the blue glowing body of the big Taelon machine, doing no damage at all that Doors could see. Now the fanatic with the rocket launcher at his shoulder, standing no more than about thirty yards from the glowing blue shape, hit it with a lance of fire that could probably have taken out a medium tank The surface of the Taelon craft sent it spraying away like cheap fireworks, doing no apparent harm.

Doors winced at this evidence of the enemy’s technical superiority. In the days and years ahead he was going to have to fight them, really fight them, and it was going to be a terrible thing.

His global buzzed. Carson, one of the security people, wanting to have another conference.

* * *

Chapter Twenty-Four

« ^ »

Amanda was still armed with her pistol and ready to use it when the chance arose. Leaving her in a room on what seemed to be the highest level of the house between the towers, Doors descended one flight to meet face-to-face with a couple of his surviving fighters. Giving up any idea of trying to be crafty in the use of his global, Jonathan turned it on again. There might be some risk, but the alternative would be an invitation to disaster. Without some good means of communication he would effectively be blind and deaf in this strange building, unable even to tell how many of his people still survived.

One of the survivors now with him asked, “Anybody got any idea who these donkeys are?” The lanky man jerked his head toward the nearest window, indicating the attackers.

“There’s one possibility.” Doors quickly outlined the story of his run-in on the road to San Simeon with Colonel Shelby and his gang. “I don’t know if this is the same bunch. Companions landing everywhere must have brought a lot of creatures out of the woodwork.”

The other survivor was shorter, almost chubby. “How many are out there now?”

The best guess they could come close to agreeing on was that probably about twenty to thirty men were involved in the assault.

“Hard to tell, when everybody can fire a thousand rounds a minute.”

“The way it sounds, they must’ve each got off about that much already. Unless they’re packin’ in ammo on muleback, reckon the shootin’s soon gonna be slowing down.”

“Good point. Try to stay alive till then.”

“That is a big part of my career plan.”

Each surviving defender could claim at least one or two confirmed kills. They said the attackers’ bodies were still lying where they had fallen.

“That put a little crimp in ’em, I’d say.”

“Think they’ll pull back?”

Doors didn’t bother trying to answer that one. “Anybody got a gun I can borrow?”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred