And now the sound of a single pair of combat boots, approaching.
Suddenly something was wrong with Mandy’s oxygen, and she was gasping, loud enough to be heard well down the hall. Doors scrambled out from behind the furniture, and just managed to close the room’s door and turn the latch, before he saw another pair of boots descending at the window, followed by camouflage pants. A man coming down a line. They must now be swarming over the house like ants.
The boots in the hall had stopped at the door. Jonathan pressed his body back against the wall, so he would be behind the door when it was broken open. And he waited.
* * *
« ^ »
Sunrise could not be far away, and the lightening sky was hazing the atmosphere.
The smoldering treasures in distant portions of the house were flavoring the air with a rich campfire smell.
A blast of gunfire, louder than any yet, and a single human attacker, hooded and unidentifiable, came in through the door, having just shot the room’s heavy oak door into splinters around the lock.
Whoever squandered bullets on this door might have reason to think the target he really wanted was behind it. Possibilities raced through Jonathan’s brain. The gunman might be after Doors personally—a number of people usually were—and had seen him enter this room. Or, the shooter had just seen the two Taelons come out. And it was possible that the Urod, or the phantoms that the Urod evoked in human minds, had something to do with the attacker’s choice.
Whether the simultaneous appearance of the man at the window was by accident or plan made little practical difference. If there was a plan it was not well executed, for the man in the doorway fired another wild burst as he came in, very nearly killing his colleague, who somehow escaped the bullets.
Jonathan, springing out from behind the door, hurled himself at the intruding gunman, and caught him from behind.
He heard the man’s breath go out of him in an astonished whuff when they both hit the floor with Doors on top. He could hear himself moaning, screaming, a high, thin sound of pent-up rage, and he knew a savage satisfaction at having come solidly to grips with one of his enemies at last.
Doors was sitting astride his first victim and pounding the man’s masked head on the floor, when the second one, now having kicked his way in through the window’s broken glass, tried to aim his weapon, thought better of it with his colleague in the line of fire, and decided to kick Doors instead. The first swing of his boot almost missed, and Doors felt it go scraping up the side of his face, doing minor damage.
The man drew back his leg and tried again. On the second try Doors caught the booted foot in his two hands and twisted. The standing man made a strange sound and went down flat on his back.
Rage still coursed through Jonathan’s muscles, multiplying strength. Abandoning the stunned body of his original victim, he launched himself at the second one.
The two rolled over and over, bumping into the heavy furniture behind which Amanda sheltered out of sight and tried to breathe. Small antique tables went crashing into splinters, and small objects that might have been priceless fragile ceramics joined the ruin.
All Jonathan had was his two hands and feet, and whatever other objects came within his reach. He put all of these to good use. The attackers were much younger than he, and there were two of them, but his fury more than made up the difference. He kicked his enemies, struck with knees and elbows.
Jonathan and the man who had entered by the door were both on their feet again, Doors driving his opponent back against the wall with savage blows. And when the man went down, Doors fell on him and beat some more.
And now Doors was once more standing upright, gripping in each hand the sturdy collar of a different camouflage suit.
With murderous glee he banged two hooded heads together. The sound pleased him so much that he tried it again.
Then he could relax his grip, let two heavy burdens fall to the floor.
In the struggle the hood had been torn from the head of his first victim, and Jonathan, looking down, saw Colonel Shelby’s mustache.
The man who had come in at the window seemed to be beyond words. But Colonel Shelby was still conscious and he could still talk.
The colonel’s body, his face, even his mustache looked smaller now. His voice was weak. “Was expecting… Taelons… in here. This room.”
Doors let himself sit down at last. He sat down hard on the floor, but still found breath enough to call Shelby a filthy name.
The colonel seemed to be past caring about that. “Why… you attack me?”
Jonathan’s voice grew louder. At the moment he did not care who heard him. “Why do you think, you bloody moron? You’ve been trying to shoot me to death for the past five hours.”
“Saw… more Taelons come down. Land here. We saw their big machines.”
The light in the room was growing incrementally brighter by the moment From somewhere on the far side, behind the heavy furniture, Doors could hear the sound of Amanda’s gasping breath, faint but reasonably steady—thank God, that with all the shooting she hadn’t been hit, and he would go to her in a moment.
But there was one more item of business he needed to settle first.
It seemed likely that Shelby’s mind was wandering inside his battered skull, for only now did he seem to realize the identity of his opponent. For some reason he found it deeply unsatisfactory. “Doors? You got free? Thought you might be hostage. We saw them bringing in… what looked like tanks…”
“Is that what you thought they were? You’ve been right on only one thing, Shelby, and that wasn’t it.”
Shelby wasn’t listening. He had started up a new litany of complaints about the Taelons. The real problem, causing all the others, was that they were just not human.
Doors tried to cut him short. “Yes, I know all that. I said you were right about one thing.”
And not only were Shelby’s alien opponents inhuman, they just weren’t fighting fair. “…can’t destroy them… we hit one ship with a rocket…”
“Yeah, I know that too. I saw it. How does it feel, Colonel, to be an utter failure?” He jerked the man around, turning him roughly over, looking in his fatigue pockets, feeling at his belt. “Now, where’s your global?”
“Your communicator. How do you pass on orders to your men? You’re going to order them to call off this damned attack.”
Doors continued his rough search of Shelby, seeking some kind of communicator—it took him a moment to attribute the object he actually found to some spasmodic effort by the Urod.
The only item now hooked to Shelby’s belt was a tiny miniature replica of a Urod statue, in dark heavy stone.
Shelby babbled op about it for a while. He and his men, watching from concealment before attacking, had seen the loading of the Urod, or part of the process, but it hadn’t really meant much to them. Just more evidence that the place was swarming with aliens.
“… one of those statues… probably priceless… by rights belonged to humanity…”
Doors interrupted. “Why the hell were you trying to kill us all?”
The colonel stirred. “I thought…”
“I doubt that, but it’s possible. What do you think you thought?”
“Taelons… were probably holding you hostage.”
Doors only looked at him.
Shelby was shaking his head. In the gradually growing light the bruises and swellings on his face were becoming visible, and he seemed to have lost two front teeth as well. Behind the damage he looked infinitely saddened. “Some of my people said… you were with the Taelons all along. I said, no. The Jonathan Doors I talked to wouldn’t do that.”
“You clowns haven’t given me much choice.”
Jonathan sat back on his heels, regarding his latest victim solemnly. If, as now seems inevitable, lam really going to organize an underground war against the Taelons, many of those most eager to join me will be a lot like this man. The prospect was not a pleasant one, but Doors could swallow it if he had to.
All gunfire had now ceased, but a faint sound of a different kind broke through his awareness. Amanda, still behind her barricade on the far side of the room, was trying to call his name. But her voice was so weak that he could barely hear it.
Scrambling quickly to her side, Doors saw that that burst of fire, when Shelby came barging in the door, had claimed a victim after all. There was a growing pool of blood.