The Crivit Experiment First Pages

Chapter 1

There was no moon, and what little starlight there was was blocked out by the dense foliage overhead. The four figures moved through the trees of the Park, close enough together that they wouldn’t lose each other: It was easy keeping quiet here, where the Park forest was tended, but as they went south they passed beyond the area under management and entered the part that was still as it had been when the Research Triangle Park had been developed years ago.

Here there were briars, brambles, and other vines, including poison ivy. Mark Casey, the only one with any combat experience, led the way by dead reckoning. Though they all knew where their destination lay, none had ever been there, nor had they traveled this route before. Humans were not welcome at the research complex which the Visitors had taken over from General Electric six months ago.

It was only a little after midnight, still early for the kind of exploit on which they were engaged. But unlike the raids that still occasionally got TV coverage, this trip to what was now the Visitor RTP Area Administration Center would fail utterly if it was even suspected to have taken place. They were not going to attack, to fight, or to destroy, but to spy.

Behind Mark was Lester Ortega, short and dumpy compared to Mark’s tall, slender frame. He kept his band gently on Mark’s back, to keep track of his leader’s position. Separation of more than a few feet would lose him in the dark. Behind him was Steve Wong, not much taller than Lester, but thinner even than Mark, his body hard and stringy. Behind him came Anne Marino, taller than the two men in front of her, her eyes and ears directed to either side and behind, letting herself be led by her hand on Steve’s back.

They did not speak as they walked, nor when they stopped at the edge of the untended area. Ahead were more trees, mostly pines sixty or so feet tall, but the ground was a carpet of pine needles instead of a tangle of undergrowth. As they had rehearsed it back at the woods surrounding the Data Tronix building to the north, they came up beside Mark and leaned toward him so that they could hear his whisper This was just in case the Visitors had sound detectors aimed in their direction.

Mark was peering through the subtly lessened darkness, trying to locate their position. An occasional star peeked down through the pine branches high overhead. The ground sloped gently down toward the south, and he thought he could see a denser area to his left, which should be the shallow bed of a run-off creek, dry except after a heavy rain. If that was correct, then he knew where he was. He’d studied the topo maps of the area carefully, though it was different actually being there.

He hunkered down on his heels, and the others did likewise. That close to the ground, their soft whispers should be distorted by the ground itself and not recognizable if they were being listened to.

“If we’re where I think we are,” he whispered, and the others had to lean nearer to hear him, “the GE building is just over a rise ahead. Spread out a little bit, try to keep your neighbor in sight, count two hundred paces, then stop.”

They did not vocalize their response, but stood up again, forming a line to right and left of their leader. Lester took the far right, then Mark, then Steve, with Anne on the far left. She had the better night vision, and so was given the flank where there was more likelihood of running into trouble with undergrowth. They spread out until they were about ten feet apart, and barely visible to each other

Mark made a small sound with his mouth, a kind of kissing noise that might have been a bird or an insect calling. With that signal they set out, trying to keep a straight course, and keeping as quiet as they could. Silently they counted. At seventy-five, by Mark’s count, the ground began to rise gently, though the hill ahead of them was invisible. At step one hundred eighty-three, the shallow slope leveled off, and he stopped at two hundred.

He looked around. None of the others were in sight. Once again he made the small noise, and heard Lester responding from his right. Cupping his hands, he chirped toward the left. Steve answered, and then chirped again, a predetermined signal that Anne, farther away, bad seen something. Mark chirped back at Lester, waited until the smaller man joined him, and then went toward his left flank. Occasional chirps kept them on course.

Their line had lengthened considerably in the short march, and Anne was fifty paces left of Mark’s position. She was now lying on her stomach, peering across the top of the ground toward a tiny spark of light off through the trees. Since the Visitor center was the only building in this part of the Park, that had to be what was ahead of them.

They paused a moment, to calm themselves, to focus their attention, and on Mark’s signal they started toward the light. Though they now knew where their destination lay, they still had to keep track of each other And they had to be more quiet than ever They didn’t know if the Visitors had sound detectors aimed in their direction, and they had to be careful of the possibility.

The tiny light ahead flickered as they moved, now blocked by a tree, now revealed again. It grew lighter, and then there were other lights visible. Abruptly they came to the edge of the tended forest, and bare lawn swept down to what was supposed to have been the General Electric research facility, before the Visitors had come nearly two years ago, and which had stood empty for a year and a half. Far off to the left they could now hear the faint sounds of traffic on the highway that ran south from Durham past the east side of the Research Triangle Park. Trees there obscured the headlights of the few cars going by. Trees beyond the Visitor center formed a black shadow, higher than the facility itself, so that they could not see its outlines. To the right of the building were the parking lots, intended to serve a staff of five hundred, now holding only four skyfighters in various configurations, and a half-dozen ground vehicles.

And halfway between them and the building were the pale blue horizontal lines of an energy-beam fence. But Mark was prepared for that. After a silent consultation with his fellows, he started across the lawn, crawling on his stomach. One by one, in single file, the others followed him, being careful not to dig into the rough turf and thereby leave any tracks.

The light of the energy fence was bright enough to see by. Each beam, as big around as a quarter, was separated from the next above and below by only ten inches. An occasional insect sparked to destruction as it touched the pale blue light. A small explosive charge could destroy one of the pylons from which the beams emanated, but that would give them away and might not even give them access.

Instead, Mark took an object like a long, flexible vacuum cleaner hose from Steve’s back. At each end was a large lens, covered with a lens cap and attached to a short, sharp spike. Mark inched up to the fence, placed one spike into the ground, and pushed it down until the lens was at the same height as the lowest beam. Then, moving to the right, he placed the second lens similarly. They were just far enough apart so that he could reach both lenses at the same time. He took off the lens caps, and then with one quick movement pushed both lenses into the path of the beam at the same time.

If the beam were broken for longer than it would take for a rabbit or bird to be destroyed as it passed through it, an alarm would sound inside the building. He had that much leeway. The light of the beam entered one lens — he didn’t know which one — and was fed through the massive fiberoptic bundle encased in the tube connecting it to the other lens. They now had a clear space about three feet wide, with the next beam up twenty inches from the ground.

From Lester’s back Mark took a second light pipe, this one with longer spikes, and performed the same operation, shunting this second beam around as he had before. One more light pipe from Anne’s back, and they had a clear space wide enough for one person, and high enough to let that person go through in a low crouch instead of a crawl. The light pipes were long enough that they could be pulled well back and out of the way of anyone trying to go through this seeming hole in the fence. Mark was first.

They left the three rerouters in place, in anticipation of their departure. Staying low to the ground, they moved closer to the building. There were no spotlights illuminating the grounds, just the faint glow of several windows on the first and second floors. Just a few windows — with a staff of about twenty, most of the building was left empty.

But there were guards, at least two of them. Their posture and walk as they patrolled indicated that they were expecting no trouble. Mark and the others intended to give them none. It would have been easy to sneak up behind one of the Visitors and slit his or her throat, but a body, or even a missing guard, would have alerted the Visitors that someone had come here, and that would have defeated the purpose of this expedition. For the plans to work, the Visitors couldn’t even suspect that any humans had been near tonight.

It was Steve’s tum to lead. He took out a tiny map, its markings dead black on a super-white surface so that he could read it if there was any light at all. He waited until the guards were out of sight around a comer of the building, then led the others toward a loading bay at the other end of the structure. But as they neared, they could hear the strangely resonant voices of the Visitors.

There was no concealment. Steve made his decision quickly and scuttled across the lawn to where concrete traffic stops at the edge of the parking area cast a slightly deeper shadow, and threw himself into its dubious protection. The others followed suit. Only the brighter light of the guard-post area protected them, making the Visitors’ eyes less sensitive than they might be to the dark. They did not wear their dark glasses here, since this level of illumination was what they preferred. Had the guards been standing in a darkened alcove, they could have seen the invaders easily.

The four humans put their heads together so that they could see Steve’s map. He pointed to the place on the sketch that corresponded to the loading dock by which they had intended to enter, and then to another place, farther around toward the side of the building. The front faced south, and they were at the north. At the side were several other entrances, which under normal circumstances would have been lit up at night. Even if they were tonight, they had to take the chance, because there was no getting in the way they had planned.

To get to the other possible entrance, they had to cross the parking area. This was paved with gravel, and it made a lot of noise as they walked, but in compensation, they were able to hide behind the flyers and ground cars. The alternative entrance was in fact dimly lit, but there were no Visitors in sight. They waited until the guards came around, ambling easily and talking softly to each other When they passed the corner on their way to the guard station, the four humans went quickly to the slightly recessed door

Mark got out the key that had been specially made for this expedition and tried it in the lock. It entered perfectly, but wouldn’t turn.

“Let me,” Anne whispered. Mark made room for her at the doot

She took a small bundle from her jacket pocket, including what looked like a pair of glasses. When she put these on, twin pencil-thin beams of light shone out, crossing just inches in front of her eyes. She knelt at the door so that the lights illuminated just the lock itself and no more. Then she took two dental picks from the bundle and inserted them in the lock.

“They teach you more than physics and computer science at Caltech,” she muttered as she worked. Her right-hand pick sought the tumblers, the one in her left hand held them in place as she lifted each one. At last she seemed to be done. Mark reached over her head and delicately turned the knob. The door opened, Anne withdrew her picks, and they all went inside.

“Don’t let the door close,” she hissed as Steve came through last. He caught it just in time. Anne wiggled the inside knob-the bolt stayed shut. She pressed it in and with a bit of adhesive tape fastened it tight. The outer knob would still feel locked, and the regular latch would keep the door closed, but from inside they would be able to open it easily.

“Good,” Mark said as Anne let the door close at last. Then he turned to Steve. “Where are we?” he asked.

Steve took out another map, a larger one more prosaically printed. On it was a complete plan of the ground floor of the GE building, now the Visitor RTP headquarters.

“This is the shipping department,” he said, pointing. “See, right there are the loading docks and the warehouse areas, but here is where all the offices are for that.” He traced a line with his finger. “We have to go through here … and there’re the stairs to the basement.”

“You lead,” Mark said.

The inside of the building was pitch black once they left the immediate area of the door. As they had in the woods, they went single file, hands on the person ahead, while Steve led the way by feel and by his memory of the map. It seemed to be going well until Steve suddenly stopped.

“I’ve got to have a light,” he whispered. They clustered around him so the beam from the dimmed flash that Anne held wouldn’t shine farther than their own bodies. Steve looked at the map, looked around at the room in which they now found themselves.

“They’ve changed the partitions in here,” he said. He checked the map again. “It looks like they’ve divided the stock area up into smaller rooms. I have no idea where the stair is from here.”

“Is there another way down?” Lester asked, fidgeting nervously.

“There’s a central stair just beyond the shipping offices,” Steve said. “We’ll have to go back to where we came in.”

“Well, let’s go then,” Mark whispered. “It’s after two.”

“Let me memorize the map a minute,” Steve whispered back. “Okay,” he said after only a few seconds. “Lights out, follow me.”

He led them back to where they had entered, and then into the darkness again. Up a hall, into a large room which they traversed by going along the wall, out a door, and into another space, which, they could tell by the sound, was large and empty. From somewhere came the muffled sound of voices. Steve hesitated a moment, then turned them toward the left. Mark, immediately behind him, heard him fiddle with a doorknob, and then felt Steve’s shoulder lower as he started down a flight of stairs.

At the bottom Steve asked for light again so he could check out the basement floor plan. They did not speak, and it took him only moments to decide where they were and which way to go. He led them on, into an area where there were dim lights shining in the ceiling. Even Visitors could not see in absolute darkness, and the lights here indicated that this part of the building was occasionally visited.

They went down corridors, across what looked like a handball court, past showers and lockers, and through a heavy door into another hall. “This is where we should have come down,” Steve whispered, pointing to the right, where a stairway descended from the floor above.

They moved quickly now, having rehearsed this route before. The corridor lights were very dim, but there was enough light so they could see where they were going. Steve paused at another heavy door, a security door, where once again Anne went to work. She quickly had it open and they all went inside.

This door opened with a simple press bar from within, and when it was shut, sealed off all light. In the pitch blackness Anne felt for and found the switch.

“This is the right place,” Lester Ortega said as the lights came on, nearly blinding them though these lights too were set for the aliens’ preferred lower illumination levels.

It was a small room, with heavy power buses set into the walls, wires and cables of all kinds coming down conduits to boxes, breakers, panels, and connectors. This was the heart of the building — all electrical lines joined here in a giant ganglion before being sent out to the world or in to offices and stations inside.

Once again it was Mark’s turn to take command, as Anne kept an ear to the door. Though no light could get out, sound might, and if she heard anybody in the hall beyond, she would turn off the lights and all would fall silent.

Mark compared the panels, boxes, and buses with a diagram he took from an inside pocket while Steve and Lester looked on. “Dammit,” he said, “they’ve changed more than just a few partitions.”

“This is the main power bus,” Lester said, not quite touching a heavily insulated cable.

“I know that,” Mark snapped, “but what is all this stuff?” He gestured at a square yard of switches, connections, and dials of obviously alien manufacture. “These spec sheets don’t do us any good.”

“As long as we find the main phone line,” Lester said, “I think we can still pull it off.” He took out a lineman’s headset and started gingerly applying the alligators to pairs of likely wires.

As he worked, Steve and Mark started tracing other wires, comparing them to their now useless spec sheets. By the time Lester found what be was looking for, they had tentatively identified several of the other lines they bad wanted to patch into.

“Start taking covers off,” Lester said, putting the headset away. He took off his pack and took out dozens of fine insulated wires in twisted pairs, each one with a piercing connector at one end and a tiny jack at the other. He himself removed the panel from what he had identified as the phone lines, not a typical phone connection but a heavy-duty switching panel which provided a dozen outside lines.

Working with Superglue, he mounted a tiny jack panel behind the main switching structure. Then he went from one bus, box, and line to another. At each, he fastened the spike of a hair-thin tap wire through the insulation, and led the other end to his jack panel.

“Do you have enough wire?” Mark asked, closing one panel after Lester had finished.

“Plenty. We were planning on twenty connections, so I brought a hundred pairs. “

Lester knew exactly what he was doing. The wires he placed could not be concealed, so Steve disguised them by wrapping them in a split flexible conduit the size of a pencil, andfastening it to the wall with staples which he glued in place rather than driving into the concrete. When he was finished with one bundle, it looked just like it was supposed to he there. Anyone not intimately familiar with the layout would assume it was part of the overall design.

It seemed to take an agonizingly long time.

~~~

In another part of the building, on the second floor, the lights were much brighter, and there were plenty of people moving about without fear of discovery. But, then, these were aliens, the Visitors who now owned this building, from which they monitored, directed, and administered the entire Research Triangle Park area of central North Carolina.

In an office once intended for the GE research administrator, three Visitors sat in front of a huge desk, behind which sat Chang, a tall woman who was the current Triangle Area administrator. Her Chinese features were handsome and strong, but there was a trace of tired frustration in her expression. She had hoped to serve in a more exalted capacity than here in this backwater, no matter how potentially valuable Diana and the planetary coordinators thought it might be.

“I hope your flight was uneventful,” she said to the simulated black man who sat directly across from her.

“A little traffic near the airport,” Leon answered, “but we expected that.” The Raleigh-Durham airport just east of the Research Triangle Park was an exceptionally busy one, being the main link between the South and points west, and Washington, D.C., New York, and other places farther up the East Coast-not to mention the traffic to and from the Park itself. “Diana sends her regards,” Leon went on, glancing at the two other Visitors seated on either side of him.

“I’m sure she does,” Chang said dryly. “I gather that you and I share the same degree of favor.”

“More or less,” Leon admitted. Chang’s subtle sarcasm was not lost on him. Too valuable a zoologist to dismiss, he was sent here by Diana to get him out of her way. “Diana’s affections are not noted for their extended duration,” he went on. “I was guilty, I guess, of assuming otherwise.”

“Neither is she noted for the clarity of her instructions,” Freda, the Nordic-looking woman to his right, complained. “We were told only that you were to have breeding facilities and complete control within your own department. But what kind of facilities, Leon?” Freda, one of Chang’s trusted aides, would be Leon’s chief of staff.

“Sand,” Leon said. “I was told that there are sand barrens in this part of the country.”

“Farther toward the coast,” Freda said, “but not right here in the Piedmont. ”

“Plenty of sand at Camp T-3,” Chang said, “but if that’s what you need, why weren’t you assigned there?”

“I think Diana wants to keep this more or less secret,” Leon said, “at least for a while. Even though Camp T-3 is not recognized for what it is by the humans, there’s far too high a population near there, and the camp administrator has little patience for experimental work. He will be supplying me with breeding stock, however, if I can find a place to put it.”

“The camp isn’t really suitable,” Darin put in. He was a handsome man, apparently of Mediterranean descent. “Here we can make use of the facilities in the Research Triangle, both private industry and university. The scientists, faculty, and students don’t need to know what they’re working on in order for them to help us. Anything sensitive will stay with Leon and Freda.”

“But if there’s no sand,” Leon complained, “there won’t be anything for anybody to work on.”

Chang looked at him speculatively. “Diana wouldn’t be putting you into an impossible situation on purpose, would she?” she asked with only a slight archness to her voice.

“She might,” Freda said, “but why? If she wanted Leon discredited, she could do that without tricks. And that’s not her way, you know that as well as I do.”

“Just a minute,” Darin said, getting to his feet. He picked up the phone on Chang’s desk and dialed an in-house number; “Send up that survey we made when we moved in,” he told the person on the other end. “Should have remembered it before,” he said to the others in the office, hanging up and resuming his seat. “There’s a place not far from here that should suit Leon just fine.”

A moment later the office door opened and a clerk stepped in. Darin took the proffered folder and opened it on Chang’s desk. Freda and Leon came to look at the map he displayed.

“Right here,” Darin said, pointing. “An anomalous geological feature, twenty acres of sand surrounded by quartz rock formations on the north and east, and dense clay on the west and south. Totally worthless for farming, housing, or anything else. But perfect for Leon’s project.”

“Looks good,” Leon said. He pointed at some black dots near the indicated area. “Houses?”

“A large farmhouse, two barns, and several other buildings. They’ve been empty for quite awhile, but we can fix them up easily. I’ll get hold of the county records tomorrow and have them deed the property over to us. We can start moving you in in the afternoon.”

“Excellent,” Leon said. He went back to his chair “I needn’t remind you,” he went on, “that this project should not be discussed in front of those not actually involved.”

“We understand that,” Chang said softly. “Aside from your own staff, only the four of us will know anything about it.”

“Good,” Leon said. “I may not be in Diana’s favor right now, but this could make a big difference in our control over this planet.”

“If Lydia would just give me a little more leeway,” Chang said, “I could control this part of the state without any trouble at all.”

“That’s as may be,” Leon said, “but this is what we have to work with. If we’re done here, maybe you can show me to a room, and I can let you get some rest.”

“We get too much rest as it is,” Chang complained. “Aside from a little student rebellion, nothing much happens here in this backwater.”

~~~

“That’s the last of them,” Steve said, closing a panel he almost had to stand on tiptoe to reach.

“But we don’t know what we’re connected to,” Mark complained.

“Well,” Lester said, “we have some idea, and I’ve patched into all twelve outgoing phone lines, so we should be able to sort things out back at the lab.”

“I sure hope so,” Mark muttered. They packed up their tools and turned to the door where Anne was still waiting.

“All clear as far as I can tell,” she said. She switched off the lights.

And they waited. Anne counted for them, and after five minutes their eyes were as adapted to the dark as they would ever be. Only then did she open the door to let them out into the dimly lit hall.

But as they worked their way back toward the stairs, they could hear voices, shouts, and thuds coming from one of the recreation rooms through which they had passed just an hour ago. Cautiously, Mark moved toward the noise and peered through a crack in a door

“Looks like a goddamned judo lesson,” he said when he came back. “That handball court — they’ve got mats out all over the floor ”

“Can we use the stairs we were supposed to have come down by?” Anne asked Steve.

“Sure, but who knows where we’ll wind up with the partitions all changed up there.” He took out his plans again. “There’s another stair at the far side,” he said. “That’s the east side of the building, where the kitchens are.”

“Not likely to find any Visitors there,” Mark said.

“Okay, you lead the way.”

They found the stairs with no difficulty, but the kitchen area was far from abandoned. Though the Visitors did not cook their food, they needed cage space for all the small animals they kept, and a butchery for the larger ones they fed on raw. And though it was now past three-thirty in the morning, there were still red-uniformed people about, apparently looking for snacks. Twice the four humans tried to pass through the area, and twice they were nearly discovered by one or more Visitors. Steve checked his plans over and over, but it looked as if that was the only way out.

“Let’s try the front door;” Anne suggested. “We’ll have to circle the building, but if we don’t get out soon, they’ll find us in here, and then the whole game will be blown.”

“Might as well try it,” Mark agreed. “At least then we’ll have a chance of escaping, even if we’re discovered.”

“Only one problem,” Lester said. “Anne left tape on that door we came in by.”

“Damn,” Mark and Anne said together “Okay,” Mark said to Steve, “how can we get back there?”

“Just follow me,” Steve said, folding up his map and putting it away.

~~~

After the tension of the tapping, and the anxiety of nearly being caught in the kitchen area, the ease with which they got back to the shipping department was anticlimactic.

But that, Mark knew, made the situation more dangerous than ever. High adrenaline had had no outlet, and overconfidence could make them careless. Indeed, as they left the building, Anne almost forgot to remove the tape which would have revealed their presence when the Visitors used the door the next day. And Mark himself forgot to wait until the guards had passed so that they were nearly caught as they crossed the parking area to the shelter of the ground vehicles.

“It all goes for nothing,” he grated angrily to the others, “if we don’t get away clean.” Overhead, the sky was beginning to pale with the first light of morning.

After a forced pause to calm themselves, they started back north toward the woods. Moving from vehicle to vehicle, then from flyer to flyer, they got as far as the north end of the parking area when they had to wait once more for the guards to pass again.

“How many flyers were there before?” Lester asked.

“Four,” Mark said. “Why?”

“There are five now,” Lester said. “This one wasn’t here when we went in.”

“Damn.” Mark looked back the way they had come and counted. “You’re right,” he said. “But they never keep more than four here, so that means —”

“That somebody could be coming out right now,” Anne said, “to take this one away again.”

“So let’s move out,” Mark said. “And if we’re discovered, fight as though we’re here on a raid and trying to get in instead of out. ”

“Good way to get ourselves killed,” Steve said.

“That bug is more important than any of us,” Mark reminded him. “Now go, but remember, don’t dig up the lawn.”

They crawled quickly, quietly, and carefully, across the gently sloping grounds back toward the fence. From here, a low crest concealed the gap they had made with the light pipes. When they got to the fence, they found themselves far to one side, and rather than crawl ran in a low crouch to the gap. Even as they did so they could hear the quiet rush and whine of the fifth flyer getting ready to lift.

“Down!” Anne called from behind, her voice just loud enough to be heard. They fell flat, dangerously near the bottom beam of the energy fence. Back at the parking area, the flyer lifted, straight up at first and then moving directly overhead. They froze in the dew-covered grass as the vehicle swung toward the west and away.

“Now move,” Mark called over his shoulder, and again they scurried to the gap. “Easy through the fence,” he admonished, “don’t knock the light pipes away.” Steve went through, bent nearly double. Lester followed him, and in his anxiety got his foot caught in one of the flexible hoses. He jerked, and the lens moved an inch, but did not fall out of the beam of the fence. Anne followed more carefully, and then they all crouched while Mark removed the three light pipes, one by one. He stowed one on each of their backs, and then they went on toward the trees, still low and not moving as fast as they wanted to. The sky overhead was growing brighter, and they were totally exposed instead of being cloaked in darkness.

Lester was the first one into the trees, with Steve and Anne close behind. Just as Mark made the shelter of the carefully tended forest they beard a sharp whistling siren screaming from the Visitor headquarters behind them.

There was no time for stealth. They ran. The upcoming dawn didn’t help them under the trees, but they were able to keep together until they reached the untended area. But by that time the sounds of pursuit were growing louder behind them.

But at least the trees made it impossible for any flyers to see them. They ran an oblique course, not the way they had come but angling toward the east. As they ran, Mark pulled out a communicator and spoke into it between gasping breaths.

“We’re hot,” he said. “Make it point seven.”

They crossed the shallow bed of the summer stream and paused to get their bearings on the other side.

“Did you get to Paul?” Anne asked as she drew her pistol and made sure the safety was off.

“I think so,” Mark said. Steve and Lester, both panting heavily, were also making their weapons ready. They could hear the Visitors moving through the undergrowth on the other side of the shallow valley.

“Quietly but quickly,” Mark said, his own gun out now.

“Don’t shoot unless you have to, but if you have to, make it clean.”

They went up the gentle slope while behind them the Visitor guards got nearer. Dressed in dark green and black, the humans were all but invisible in the nightlike forest, while the Visitors, in their red uniforms, stood out as clearly as the British against the Minutemen. At last the humans came to the top of a rise and could hear, still half a mile away, the sounds of traffic on the north-south highway.

“Where’s Paul taking the truck?” Steve asked, panting.

“The old furniture-stripping place,” Mark said, pointing. “That way.”

Just then a bolt of laser energy seared out from the trees off in the other direction, and Steve fell. Mark, Anne, and Lester dropped to their knees and opened fire. The scream that answered their shots was welcome, but now their position was known.

Mark and Anne grabbed Steve under the arms and started dragging him down the slope toward the highway and point seven, an agonizing half mile away. Lester, moving backward, kept low and covered their retreat. Small and pudgy, he was nobody’s idea of a heroic soldier, but his shots were aimed with a frigid caution, and each one struck home. By the time Mark and Anne had Steve halfway to the highway, the pursuit had stopped to regroup. Only then did Lester turn to run after them.

More laser beams penetrated the dark morning air; but none found their mark. Again Lester took a post behind a large tree, and kept the pursuers at bay while Mark and Anne struggled with their burden. When he heard Anne call to him, he wove a zigzag course through the trees, dodging the aliens’ fire. Twice shots came so close that be could feel the static beat of their passage, and once he stepped into soft ground that threw him headlong. He hit with a roll and was on his feet, changing direction even as he did so.

Just a little way ahead he could see the truck, with only Mark visible beside it. Paul, at the wheel, was starting to move it southward-not north toward the rest of the Park and Data Tronix-with Mark walking beside, in a half crouch. Lester put on a burst, saw Mark take aim and fire, and then he came out from the trees, running toward the back of the truck. Inside, Anne reached out and took his hand, boosting him inside while Mark piled into the passenger’s seat. Then with a squeal that shot gravel from the shoulder high into the air and left black tire marks for a hundred feet, the truck accelerated, cars behind it swerving to avoid it, and they were away, leaving the red-uniformed Visitors waving their weapons helplessly.

* * * * *