"Golly," Parkhurst gasped, his red face tingling with excitement. "Come here, you guys. Look!"
They crowded around the viewscreen.
"There she is," Barton said. His heart beat strangely. "She sure looks good."
"Damn right she looks good," Leon agreed. He trembled. "Say -- I can make out New York."
"The hell you can."
"I can! The gray. By the water."
"That's not even the United States. We're looking at it upside down. That's Siam."
The ship hurtled through space, meteoroid shields shrieking. Below it, the blue-green globe swelled. Clouds drifted around it, hiding the continents and oceans.
"I never expected to see her again," Merriweather said. "I thought sure as hell we were stuck up there." His face twisted. "Mars. That damned red waste. Sun and flies and ruins."
"Barton knows how to repair jets," Captain Stone said. "You can thank him."
"You know what I'm going to do, first thing I'm back?" Parkhurst yelled.
"Go to Coney Island."
"People. I want to see people again. Lots of them. Dumb, sweaty, noisy. Ice cream and water. The ocean. Beer bottles, milk cartons, paper napkins --"
"And gals," Vecchi said, eyes shining. "Long time, six months. I'll go with you. We'll sit on the beach and watch the gals."
"I wonder what kind of bathing suits they got now," Barton said.
"Maybe they don't wear any!" Parkhurst cried.
"Hey!" Merriweather shouted. "I'm going to see my wife again." He was suddenly dazed. His voice sank to a whisper. "My wife."
"I got a wife, too," Stone said. He grinned. "But I been married a long time." Then he thought of Pat and Jean. A stabbing ache choked his windpipe. "I bet they have grown."
"My kids," Stone said huskily.
They looked at each other, six men, ragged, bearded, eyes bright and feverish.
"How long?" Vecchi whispered.
"An hour," Stone said. "We'll be down in an hour."
The ship struck with a crash that threw them on their faces. It leaped and bucked, brake jets screaming, tearing through rocks and soil. It came to rest, nose buried in a hillside.
Parkhurst got unsteadily to his feet. He caught hold of the safety rail. Blood dripped down his face from a cut over his eye.
"We're down," he said.
Barton stirred. He groaned, forced himself up on his knees. Parkhurst helped him. "Thanks. Are we . . ."
"We're down. We're back."
The jets were off. The roaring had ceased. . . there was only the faint trickle of wall fluids leaking out on the ground.
The ship was a mess. The hull was cracked in three places. It billowed in, bent and twisted. Papers and ruined instruments were strewn everywhere.
Vecchi and Stone got slowly up. "Everything all right?" Stone muttered, feeling his arm.
"Give me a hand," Leon said. "My damn ankle's twisted or something."
They got him up. Merriweather was unconscious. They revived him and got him to his feet.
"We're down," Parkhurst repeated, as if he couldn't believe it. "This is Earth. We're back -- alive!"
"I hope the specimens are all right," Leon said.
"The hell with the specimens!" Vecchi shouted excitedly. He worked the port bolts frantically, unscrewing the heavy hatch lock. "Let's get out and walk around."
"Where are we?" Barton asked Captain Stone.
"South of San Francisco. On the peninsula."
"San Francisco! Hey -- we can ride the cable cars!" Parkhurst helped Vecchi unscrew the hatch. "San Francisco. I was through Frisco once. They got a big park. Golden Gate Park. We can go to the funhouse."
The hatch opened, swinging wide. Talk ceased abruptly. The men peered out, blinking in the white-hot sunlight.
A green field stretched down and away from them. Hills rose in the distance, sharp in the crystal air. Along a highway below, a few cars moved, tiny dots, the sun glinting on them. Telephone poles.
"What's that sound?" Stone said, listening intently.
It was coming along the distant track, black smoke pouring from its stack. A faint wind moved across the field, stirring the grass. Over to the right lay a town. Houses and trees. A theater marquee. A Standard gas station. Roadside stands. A motel.
"Think anybody saw us?" Leon asked. "Must have."
"Sure heard us," Parkhurst said. "We made a noise like God's indigestion when we hit."
Vecchi stepped out onto the field. He swayed wildly, arms outstretched. "I'm falling!"
Stone laughed. "You'll get used to it. We've been in space too long. Come on." He leaped down. "Let's start walking."
"Toward the town." Parkhurst fell in beside him. "Maybe they'll give us free eats . . . Hell -- champagne!" His chest swelled under his tattered uniform. "Returning heroes. Keys to the town. A parade. Military band. Floats with dames."
"Dames," Leon grunted. "You're obsessed."
"Sure." Parkhurst strode across the field, the others trailing after him. "Hurry up!"
"Look," Stone said to Leon. "Somebody over there. Watching us." "Kids," Barton said. "A bunch of kids." He laughed excitedly. "Let's go say hello."
They headed toward the kids, wading through the moist grass on the rich earth.
"Must be spring," Leon said. "The air smells like spring." He took a deep breath. "And the grass."
Stone computed. "It's April ninth."
They hurried. The kids stood watching them, silent and unmoving.
"Hey!" Parkhurst shouted. "We're back!"
"What town is this?" Barton shouted.
The kids stared at them, eyes wide.
"What's wrong?" Leon muttered.
"Our beards. We look pretty bad." Stone cupped his hands. "Don't be scared! We're back from Mars. The rocket flight. Two years ago -- remember? A year ago last October."
The kids stared, white-faced. Suddenly they turned and fled. They ran frantically toward the town.
The six men watched them go.
"What the hell," Parkhurst muttered, dazed. "What's the matter?"
"Our beards," Stone repeated uneasily.
"Something's wrong," Barton said, shakily. He began to tremble. "There's something terribly wrong."
"Can it!" Leon snapped. "It's our beards." He ripped a piece of his shirt savagely away. "We're dirty. Filthy tramps. Come on." He started after the children, toward the town. "Let's go. They probably got a special car on the way here. We'll meet them."
Stone and Barton glanced at each other. They followed Leon slowly. The others fell in behind.
Silent, uneasy, the six bearded men made their way across the field toward the town.
A youth on a bicycle fled at their approach. Some railroad workers, repairing the train track, threw down their shovels and ran, yelling.
Numbly, the six men watched them go.
"What is it?" Parkhurst muttered.
They crossed the track. The town lay on the other side. They entered a huge grove of eucalyptus trees.
"Burlingame," Leon said, reading a sign. They looked down a street. Hotels and cafes. Parked cars. Gas stations. Dime stores. A small suburban town, shoppers on the sidewalks. Cars moving slowly.
They emerged from the trees. Across the street a filling station attendant looked up --
After a moment, he dropped the hose he held and ran down the main street, shouting shrill warnings.
Cars stopped. Drivers leaped out and ran. Men and women poured out of stores, scattering wildly. They surged away, retreating in frantic haste.
In a moment the street was deserted.
"Good God." Stone advanced, bewildered. "What -- " He crossed onto the street. No one was in sight.
The six men walked down the main street, dazed and silent. Nothing stirred. Everyone had fled. A siren wailed, rising and falling. Down a side street a car backed quickly away.
In an upstairs window Barton saw a pale, frightened face. Then the shade was jerked down.
"I don't understand," Vecchi muttered.
"Have they gone nuts?" Merriweather asked.
Stone said nothing. His mind was blank. Numb. He felt tired. He sat down on the curb and rested, getting his breath. The others stood around him.
"My ankle," Leon said. He leaned against a stop sign, lips twisting with pain. "Hurts like hell."
"Captain," Barton said. "What's the matter with them?"
"I don't know," Stone said. He felt in his ragged pocket for a cigarette. Across the street was a deserted cafe. The people had run out of it. Food was still on the counter. A hamburger was scorching on the skillet, coffee was boiling in a glass pot on the burner.
On the sidewalk lay groceries spilling out from bags dropped by terrorized shoppers. The motor of a deserted parked car purred to itself.
"Well?" Leon said. "What'll we do?"
"I don't know."
"We can't just --"
"I don't know!" Stone got to his feet. He walked over and entered the cafe. They watched him sit down at the counter.
"What's he doing?" Vecchi asked.
"I don't know." Parkhurst followed Stone into the cafe. "What are you doing?"
"I'm waiting to be served."
Parkhurst plucked awkwardly at Stone's shoulder. "Come on, Captain. There's nobody here. They all left."
Stone said nothing. He sat at the counter, his face vacant. Waiting passively to be served.
Parkhurst went back out. "What the hell has happened?" he asked Barton. "What's wrong with them all?"
A spotted dog came nosing around. It passed them, stiff and alert, sniffing suspiciously. It trotted off down a side street. "Faces," Barton said. "Faces?"
"They're watching us. Up there." Barton gestured toward a building. "Hiding. Why? Why are they hiding from us?"
Suddenly Merriweather stiffened. "Something's coming." They turned eagerly.
Down the street two black sedans turned the corner, headed toward them. "Thank God," Leon muttered. He leaned against the wall of a building. "Here they are."
The two sedans pulled to a stop at the curb. The doors opened. Men spilled out, surrounded them silently. Well-dressed. Ties and hats and long gray coats.
"I'm Scanlan," one said. "FBI." An older man with iron-gray hair. His voice was clipped and frigid. He studied the five of them intently. "Where's the other?"
"Captain Stone? In there." Barton pointed to the cafe.
"Get him out here."
Barton went into the cafe. "Captain, they're outside. Come on."
Stone came along with him, back to the curb. "Who are they, Barton?" he asked haltingly.
"Six," Scanlan said, nodding. He waved to his men. "Okay. This is all." The FBI men moved in, crowding them back toward the brick front of the cafe.
"Wait!" Barton cried thickly. His head spun. "What -- what's happening?
"What is it?" Parkhurst demanded deprecatorily. Tears rolled down his face, streaking his cheeks. "Will you tell us, for God's sake --"
The FBI men had weapons. They got them out. Vecchi backed away, his hands up. "Please!" he wailed. "What have we done? What's happening?"
Sudden hope flickered in Leon's breast. "They don't know who we are. They think we're Commies." He addressed Scanlan. "We're the Earth-Mars Expedition. My name is Leon. Remember? A year ago last October. We're back. We're back from Mars." His voice trailed off. The weapons were coming up. Nozzles -- hoses and tanks.
"We're back!" Merriweather croaked. "We're the Earth-Mars Expedition, comeback!"
Scanlan's face was expressionless. "That sounds fine," he said coldly. "Only, the ship crashed and blew up when it reached Mars. None of the crew survived. We know because we sent up a robot scavenger team and brought back the corpses -- six of them."
The FBI men fired. Blazing napalm sprayed toward the six bearded figures. They retreated, and then the flames touched them. The FBI men saw the figures ignite, and then the sight was cut off. They could no longer see the six figures thrashing about, but they could hear them. It was not something they enjoyed hearing, but they remained, waiting and watching.
Scanlan kicked at the charred fragments with his foot. "Not easy to be sure," he said. "Possibly only five here . . . but I didn't see any of them get away. They didn't have time." At the pressure of his foot, a section of ash broke away; it fell into particles that still steamed and bubbled.
His companion Wilks stared down. New at this, he could not quite believe what he had seen the napalm do. "I --" he said. "Maybe I'll go back to the car," he muttered, starting off away from Scanlan.
"It's not over positively," Scanlan said, and then he saw the younger man's face. "Yes," he said, "you go sit down."
People were beginning to filter out onto the sidewalks. Peeping anxiously from doorways and windows. "They got 'em!" a boy shouted excitedly. "They got the outer space spies!"
Cameramen snapped pictures. Curious people appeared on all sides, faces pale, eyes popping. Gaping down in wonder at the indiscriminate mass of charred ash.
His hands shaking, Wilks crept back into the car and shut the door after him. The radio buzzed, and he turned it off, not wanting to hear anything from it or say anything to it. At the doorway of the cafe, the gray-coated Bureau men remained, conferring with Scanlan. Presently a number of them started off at a trot, around the side of the cafe and up the alley. Wilks watched them go. What a nightmare, he thought.
Coming over, Scanlan leaned down and put his head into the car. "Feel better?"
"Some." Presently he asked, "What's this -- the twenty-second time?" Scanlan said, "Twenty-first. Every couple of months ... the same names, same men. I won't tell you that you'll get used to it. But at least it won't surprise you."
"I don't see any difference between them and us," Wilks said, speaking distinctly. "It was like burning up six human beings."
"No," Scanlan said. He opened the car door and got into the back seat, behind Wilks. "They only looked like six human beings. That's the whole point. They want to. They intend to. You know that Barton, Stone, and Leon --"
"I know," he said. "Somebody or something that lives somewhere out there saw their ship go down, saw them die, and investigated. Before we got there. And got enough to go on, enough to give them what they needed. But -- " He gestured. "Isn't there anything else we can do with them?"
Scanlan said, "We don't know enough about them. Only this -- sending in of imitations, again and again. Trying to sneak them past us." His face became rigid, despairing. "Are they crazy? Maybe they're so different no contact's possible. Do they think we're all named Leon and Merriweather and Parkhurst and Stone? That's the part that personally gets me down. . . Or maybe that's our chance, the fact that they don't understand we're individuals. Figure how much worse if sometime they made up a -- whatever it is. . . a spore. . . a seed. But not like one of those poor miserable six who died on Mars -- something we wouldn't know was an imitation. . ."
"They have to have a model," Wilks said.
One of the Bureau men waved, and Scanlan scrambled out of the car. He came back in a moment to Wilks. "They say there're only five," he said. "One got away; they think they saw him. He's crippled and not moving fast. The rest of us are going after him -- you stay here, keep your eyes open." He strode off up the alley with the other Bureau men.
Wilks lit a cigarette and sat with his head resting on his arm. Mimicry. . . everybody terrified. But --
Had anybody really tried to make contact?
Two policemen appeared, herding people back out of the way. A third black Dodge, loaded with Bureau men, moved along at the curb, stopped, and
the men got out.
One of the Bureau men, whom he did not recognize, approached the car.
"Don't you have your radio on?"
"No," Wilks said. He snapped it back on.
"If you see one, do you know how to kill it?"
"Yes," he said.
The Bureau man went on to join his group.
If it was up to me, Wilks asked himself, what would I do? Try to find out what they want? Anything that looks so human, behaves in such a human way, must feel human . . . and if they -- whatever they are -- feel human, might they not become human, in time?
At the edge of the crowd of people, an individual shape detached itself and moved toward him. Uncertainly, the shape halted, shook its head, staggered and caught itself, and then assumed a stance like that of the people near it. Wilks recognized it because he had been trained to, over a period of months. It had gotten different clothes, a pair of slacks, a shirt, but it had buttoned the shirt wrong, and one of its feet was bare. Evidently it did not understand the shoes. Or, he thought, maybe it was too dazed and injured.
As it approached him, Wilks raised his pistol and took aim at its stomach. They had been taught to fire there; he had fired, on the practice range, at chart after chart. Right in the midsection . . . bisect it, like a bug.
On its face the expression of suffering and bewilderment deepened as it saw him prepare to fire. It halted, facing him, making no move to escape. Now Wilks realized that it had been severely burned; probably it would not survive in any case.
"I have to," he said.
It stared at him, and then it opened its mouth and started to say something.
Before it could speak, it had died. Wilks got out as it pitched over and lay beside the car.
I did wrong, he thought to himself as he stood looking down at it. I shot it because I was afraid. But I had to. Even if it was wrong. It came here to infiltrate us, imitating us so we won't recognize it. That's what we're told -- we have to believe that they are plotting against us, are inhuman, and will never be more than that.
Thank God, he thought. It's over.
And then he remembered it wasn't...
It was a warm summer day, late in July.
The ship landed with a roar, dug across a plowed field, tore through a fence, a shed, and came finally to rest in a gully.
Parkhurst got shakily to his feet. He caught hold of the safety rail. His shoulder hurt. He shook his head, dazed.
"We're down," he said. His voice rose with awe and excitement. "We're down!"
"Help me up," Captain Stone gasped. Barton gave him a hand.
Leon sat wiping a trickle of blood from his neck. The interior of the ship was a shambles. Most of the equipment was smashed and strewn about.
Vecchi made his way unsteadily to the hatch. With trembling fingers, he began to unscrew the heavy bolts.
"Well," Barton said, "we're back."
"I can hardly believe it," Merriweather murmured. The hatch came loose and they swung it quickly aside. "It doesn't seem possible. Good old Earth."
"Hey, listen," Leon gasped, as he clambered down to the ground. "Somebody get the camera."
"That's ridiculous," Barton said, laughing.
"Get it!" Stone yelled.
"Yes, get it," Merriweather said. "Like we planned, if we ever got back. A historic record, for the schoolbooks."
Vecchi rummaged around among the debris. "It's sort of banged up," he said. He held up the dented camera.
"Maybe it'll work anyhow," Parkhurst said, panting with exertion as he followed Leon outside. "How're we going to take all six of us? Somebody has to snap the shutter."
"I'll set it for time," Stone said, taking the camera and adjusting the knobs. "Everybody line up." He pushed a button, and joined the others.
The six bearded, tattered men stood by their smashed ship, as the camera ticked. They gazed across the green countryside, awed and suddenly silent. They glanced at each other, eyes bright.
"We're back!" Stone shouted. "We're back!"