Taner Edis

Part II: An Attack at Midnight

Arbuth leaned back. I heard his deep, persuasive voice in the back of my head, saying “Our security is adequate — or would be, if you did not so thoughtfully draw Them here.” As so often, I was not sure his lips moved; whether he spoke or somehow just projected the words. Intimidating, and, no doubt, a good part of his image of authority. “Chaudhry will help you,” he added, indicating our interview was over.

“Twit,” SZ muttered under her breath, but brightened up at the sight of Nick Chaudhry, our security man. Born in India but adopting the culture of a US redneck, Nick took care of security matters, such as they were. Until now, I thought that meant keeping our fences sturdy, and making sure some of our more colorful colleagues did not draw attention to themselves in town. Still, he ushered SZ into his office in a businesslike manner, and politely got rid of me by asking if I could please contact Martha, his wife, co-security officer, and, quite frankly, the tougher of the two.

I stepped back from the office door, and was startled by two figures who had crept up behind me. Lisa Sligo and Jing-Xiao Guo had been trying to find out what was going on. I was telling them what little I knew as I put on a parka to fetch Martha from their house, and we could see that plenty had begun to happen. The PA system came on with something about assembly points as I stepped out into the snow.

While Martha gathered her “things,” I sat munching on a hot bun and contemplating the wisdom of putting on proper boots next time. I also made a resolution to try and be away when Old SZ next visited. Last time she had decided to demonstrate some weather-control research, and nearly caused a tornado on a sunny day. I had to help clean up, since for some unknown reason, I was supposed to be her man at IHN.

I was tempted to disappear and sit this latest silliness out, but it was cold, and I just followed Martha back to the main building. The place was buzzing, with people looking at maps, donning snow gear, securing equipment, and doing strange things with some large metal spikes and tin foil. I settled into a dark corner to watch.

I must have dozed off, for I snapped back to attention when SZ shouted “Tamerlane, you lazy sod,” in my direction. The mess hall was a lot quieter, the lights had dimmed, and, aside from two first-year students who seemed to be struggling with some packing material, no one but SZ was around. She beckoned, and I followed her into a conference room.

Arbuth sat at the head of the table, with most of the Inner Circle of the Institute close by. Occasionally a student or a Fellow would come in, hand in some paper to one of her seniors, and melt back into the darkness. Most of our attention was directed to a separate table, set up with our priceless ancient Egyptian crystal ball, surrounded by the concentrating silhouettes of Magda, our best Seer, and her two assistants.

Nick sat next to us, fidgeting, uneasy with having to sit around rather than organize things outside. He kept whispering to SZ, asking if she was sure we had two more hours before They might show up. SZ either muttered something about trail decays or how she had sent five O’Neill Shades off randomly as decoys, but Nick finally had enough. He got up, stated that he had to check final arrangements, and walked out. To my surprise, SZ nodded at me and followed.

Nick went off to harrass some of his underlings, while SZ told me to sit down in an unoccupied store room. She then asked me to tell all about what we had done with the crate she had sent more than a year ago. “Frivolous of you to worry about your property, when They’re about to show up,” I complained, but she shushed me and told me to get on with it. I had to supply her with details of where exactly it was placed, the day and hour we moved it down to the Star Chamber; she did nothing but say “hmm” and act like she was deep in thought.

I was getting irritated, wondering if the way she played with her hair while thinking was responsible for its total chaos, when Nick and three of his strong lads entered. He glanced at us, mentioning there was a spot of light on the northwestern horizon. “Damn,” SZ and I exclaimed simultaneously. Nick and his lads walked up to a very large cabinet and opened it. I noticed that it contained an impressive array of weapons: not only some nasty-looking assault rifles and so forth but rocket launchers, and some bizarre stuff I couldn’t make head or tail of. He picked out three red cylinders and instructed his men to place them in a triangle around the main building. “EM-pulse generators,” he explained. And then, he handed them some cheap pistols but not anything high-powered. He selected an old shotgun for himself, smiled at me, and locked the cabinet.

SZ broke her silence after another five minutes of punishing her hair. “They’re earlier than I hoped for,” she sighed, “we’d better move. They’ll be heading towards my crate, and that damn fool Arbuth has no one down in your Star Chamber but a circle of fresh Initiates.” “So we’re going to go down and defend your crate?” I objected, but she just told me to move my butt. I don’t know why I obeyed.

Stepping outside, we saw the snow had stopped falling. The spot of light in the northwest looked menacing, illuminating the snow-covered fields almost as much as a moon would have. “Hurry,” SZ said, and walked toward the barn.

We suddenly heard a whirring sound behind, and SZ knocked me over a snow drift, jumping behind it herself. Hovering above the main building, we saw a rotating sphere, perhaps two meters in diameter. It periodically flashed in complex patterns of pale red light, and I sensed indecision. “Keep still!” SZ whispered, “They’ve sent a Scout Drone ahead.”

We looked at the barn door, standing open just thirty paces down an open path, but too far to make a run for it. Ahead of us, the bright spot in the night sky started to grow, rapidly approaching. I could feel the electricity and car motors fail as the saucer-shaped object effortlesly glided over our neighboring towns. It gathered speed, flashing out of the horizon and immediately stopping dead in mid-air over the barn, as only a inertialess craft could.

All the lights of our buildings went out, leaving us nothing but the red from the drone and the small violet sparks which snaked across the underside of the now motionless saucer. I could feel an alien hunger probing for me, anticipating the opening of a circular aperture in the underside of the saucer, and the slow, painful shaft of light which would reach down and abduct me. I called up all my mental defenses, clamping down on all stray thoughts which might let on that there was a human mind down below their craft. If I were to let the contents of my mind escape, They would know this was the right place.

I struggled for hours which were only seconds on this Plane. And I succeeded! Yet I still saw the saucer begin to descend, letting out its landing struts, and even through my mental barriers I could feel Their clear intent to investigate.

A shot rang out. Dogs began to bark.

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