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The Freedom Network logo replaced Cronkite on the monitors. “We now return to ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ Stay tuned to this station for further Freedom Network bulletins. ...”

And then they were watching Lou Grant chewing out WJM anchorman Ted Baxter. The juxtaposition made Pete shudder inside, but he knew that local TV stations were playing a preponderance of comedy reruns as a rather obvious way of bolstering the public mood.

He also knew that the sky over New York was about to become a war zone and that there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. Some members of the news staff wandered back to their assigned emergency work stations. But not everyone had a task down here in the shelter. Immediately necessary jobs were doled out by duty roster. The others munched snack foods, watched Lou and Ted and Mary on the tube, or huddled in small groups.

No matter what they were doing, everyone in the CBS shelter stiffened at the first rumbling of laser blasts and explosions coming from street level, shaking the foundation of the building.

“I hate this part,” Pete said quietly to Denise, not wanting to intrude on the general hush of the chamber.

“Which part? It’s okay—Lou and Ted don’t really hate each other. And Mary makes Lou smile in that cynically gruff way of his by the end,” she said, gesturing toward the TV.

Pete grinned ruefully, in spite of himself. “Funny girl. I meant being stuck down here, blind, not knowing what’s happening up there, and not being able to help.”

“You’d rather be up there getting shot at?”

He nodded briefly. “Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? 1 spent the early years of Vietnam worrying I’d get drafted. And now my reflex is to run out and shoot back.”

“That’s not so nuts, Pete.”

“Did you ever report on a war—I mean before the Visitors?”

Denise shook her head, her face solemn, blue eyes open wide as she recalled an image.

“What’re you thinking about?” asked Pete.

“The Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Have you ever been there?”

“Meant to visit it. I had friends who got killed in the war. But I never got to see it.”

“Well, 1 covered it, the Veterans Day before the Visitors came back. It was my first time. I saw pictures of the wall before, but it’s nothing like seeing it in person—this low, black vee of granite. Like a wound, dug right into the ground. Then you get closer and you can see the names, fifty-thousand dead, etched into the stone like w'hite scars that won’t ever go away. ”

Denise closed her eyes, composing herself. When she continued, there was a hitch in her voice. “I expected to see little American flags and flowers and wreaths. But there were other things, things I’ve never seen at any other war memorial or cemetery.”

“Like what?”

She laughed and wiped a pair of tears off her cheeks. “A bottle of Southern Comfort and a snapshot of a chopped and channeled ’fifty-seven Chevy, with a note saying, ‘Cruisin’ ain’t the same without you, Hank.’ We were there to do a story, you know? And I felt like a ghoul intruding on the privacy of the people who’d come to mourn, to touch those names on the wall. Names of people they loved. So I had the camera crew stay back, and I just went up to the wall myself. I found the name of a reporter I knew. Actually, I met him when I was in school and he came to talk to the journalism class. He got killed in ’seventy-one. And then this woman, she was in her fifties, I guess, nothing special about her, she came up and found a name near me, and she reached into her tote bag and took out this scraggly teddy bear. I watched her—she knelt down and sat it on the strip of grass and she pinned a note card to it.” Denise took a deep breath.

“It said, ‘Dear Tony—No mom ever had a better son. Until we can hug again—Love, Mommy.’” She laughed again, not bothering to touch her tears now, and she leaned on Peter’s shoulder. “Hell, Pete, / was crying like a little girl by then, but she had this peaceful look on her face. And she held my hand. God, the way I was crying, she must’ve thought
I’d
lost a brother or my father.”

“Did she know who you were?”

“No. Not till after I told her. But first she just sort of comforted me. Then I managed to control myself enough to ask, why the teddy bear?”

“What’d she say?”

“She smiled and said, ‘The day he was bom, it was the first thing we gave him. I want him to have it now.’ Well, that was when I said who I was. And I told her we were there to do a story, and how would she feel about being interviewed on camera. I told her I would never intrude without her permission, but she said it was fine with her.”

“I remember that interview, I cried when I saw it.” “Yeah, well, what you didn’t see—because we kept the camera on her impossibly serene face—was me, just out of range, holding the mike for her and crying my eyes out.” Pete swallowed, and there was a tremor in his voice as he held her hand. “I wonder if this war’s dead’ll have a memorial?”

“The whole planet’ll be a kind of memorial—if we survive.”

Chapter 7

While a dozen sleek alien fighters strafed New York City, one small vessel flew, swift and silent, over to Staten Island and searched for a different sort of target. The hilly eight-by-twelve mile island at the southern end of New York Harbor was much more sparsely populated than the city’s four other boroughs, due in part to the fact that it had been linked to the rest of New York only by ferry until the early 1960s.

Development had reached Staten Island in fits and starts and had included chemical and petroleum storage facilities. With all of the city’s defenses aimed at the main Visitor squadron attacking the other areas of New York, the lone ship banked and made a treetop approach, landing at an oil-tank complex on the island’s western shore, hugging the coast of New Jersey.

Two men in blue parkas hunkered in the doorway of the small building that served as the tank facility’s office. A half-dozen delivery trucks were parked nearby. The taller of the men took his glove off to wipe his running nose. He was ruddyfaced with a salt-and-pepper beard, and he turned to his companion.

“Shit, they’re here,” he said, voice trembling with fear.

His shorter companion, a burly black man, shook his head. “Hell, Ronnie, we shouldn’t be doing this. We can’t— I don’t wanna—”

Ronnie grabbed his co-worker roughly by the shoulders.

“Do you wanna see your wife and kids again, huh, Cassidy?

They got our families. If you don’t believe the lizards’ll kill ’em if we don’t do this, then you’ve got shit for brains.” The black man brought his hands to his face, choking back a sob. “It was goddamn human traitors took our wives and kids and gave ’em to the Visitors. If we do this, we ain’t no better than they are. Are we?” He got no answer and shook free of Ronnie’s grip.
“Are we?”
he repeated fiercely.

The gull-wing hatches in the side of the Visitor skyfighter swung up, and four aliens in red coveralls and protective breathing masks climbed out. The pair of frightened workmen watched as barrels the size of oil drums were unloaded from the spaceship.

“How the hell can I answer that?” Ronnie said in a guttural whisper. “I’m a goddamn oil-truck driver—I’m not a traitor.” His voice rose, panic forcing into his tone. “I’m
not
a traitor and neither are you. We’re just a couple of guys who want our families back, that’s all.”

“You mean anybody’d do what we’re doing—right?” Cassidy’s dark face pleaded for absolution, as if from the God he knew must be watching. “I ain’t no sinner, Ronnie.” The Visitor captain was approaching now, his troopers hauling the barrels behind him. Cassidy and Ronnie moved closer to each other, trying to draw comfort from human contact, steeling themselves for the thing they dreaded. “You ain’t a sinner,” said Ronnie.

Snow crunching under their black boots, the aliens came closer. “God forgive me,” Cassidy whispered. He shrank back, leaving his friend to face the tall, dark-skinned Visitor in charge. The aliens wore their usual dark glasses, even though the sky was a slate-gray overcast.

“Mr. Bortelli, Mr. Cassidy,” said the Visitor in a clipped cadence. “Diana hopes you haven’t changed your minds about our agreement.”

Ronnie Bortelli realized he’d let his shoulders slump. He stiffened his posture, summoning whatever dignity he had left. “We don’t have any choice. If we did, we’d spit in your eye.” “If that’s a common human reaction, it’s rather distasteful. But you’re correct—you have no choice That is, if you care about the safety of your families. Now then, these drums contain the substance you are to add to the heating oil tanks.” He handed a folded sheet of paper to Ronnie. “These are the instructions as to amount. Follow them to the letter. They’re simple enough. I trust you’ll have no interference from other workers?”

“We’re the only ones here today.”

“Wh-When can we see our families?” said Cassidy.- “When do we get ’em back?”

“Ah, the black one speaks,” the Visitor said disdainfully. Bortelli balled his fists and took a threatening step forward. “You son of a bitch,” he growled.

Four laser pistols were raised in unison, their meaning clear. But Ronnie Bortelli held his ground. “Answer his question.” “That’s not my responsibility,” the Visitor said mildy. “But I’d guess you’ll get your answer after you’ve completed your assignment. Oh, and I’ll warn you just this once. The human collaborators who helped us, uh, obtain your cooperation will have you under surveillance. We’ll
know
if you do as you’ve been ordered.”

Ronnie’s jaw tightened. “We’ll do it. But if you lied to us, if we don't get our families back, safe and sound, then heaven help you, you bastards.”

The alien captain inclined his head fractionally, and an eerie sound that could only have been laughter filtered through his breathing mask. Then he nodded to his three soldiers and led them back to the skyfighter, leaving the drums on their wheeled dollies.

“Hey,” Cassidy shrilled. “When do we get our families back, man?”

The Visitors didn’t even stop. The captain simply called over his shoulder, “You’ll be contacted when the time comes. If you attempt to tell your authorities about this, you’ll be killed before you can succeed. I promise you that.”

Then they climbed back into their vessel. Its quiet thrusters kicked up a cloud of blowing snow as the craft lifted into the sullen sky, drifted southeast, and accelerated out of sight.

* * *

As abruptly as it began, the Visitor attack on New York ceased. Air Force fighters had just arrived from their base to the west in New Jersey. Instead of engaging the jets in dogfights as they usually did, the alien ships switched to evasive action, keeping just out of range of the planes’ rockets and Cannons. The odd maneuvers persisted for about twenty minutes, with the Visitors making only oblique efforts to actually fire on ground targets. Then, as if on cue, the alien skyfighters regrouped into orderly formation, veered, and roared off at top cruising velocity, which was considerably faster than their attack speeds. Unable to keep up, the Air Force squadron held their fire and watched the Visitors flee back to the Mother Ship. It couldn’t accurately be counted as a human victory; the strange airborne minuet had been more like a nonengagement.

Pete called the city’s emergency services number, set up to direct medical and rescue personnel to where they were most needed following enemy raids. To his great surprise, there were only minimal casualties, no known fatalities, and the situation was being easily handled by regular hospital and EMT crews.

The all-clear sirens sounded through city streets, and Walter Cronkite came back on television to assure Freedom Network viewers that the attack was over and it was safe to emerge from shelters.

When Pete and Denise returned to her upstairs office, he used the phone to call Lauren at the UN. “You okay over there?”

“Yes, we’re all fine. Thank God.”

“I don’t think God had much to do with it.”

“Huh? What do you mean, Peter?”

“I don’t know. Just that it was a very half-hearted raid.” “You sound disappointed,” said Lauren.

“No, just confused and uneasy. Why would Diana bother to launch an attack on New York City and not hit anything?” “Maybe we’re finally tiring them out,” Lauren suggested brightly. “They
are
a long way from home,'their supplies
have
to be running low. All those laser weapons have to have a finite life span. High tech as they are, things do break. They can’t have,an endless cache of spare parts.”

“Those are all good points,” Pete said into the phone, noticing that Denise’s interest was piqued by the conversation, of which she could hear only half.

“But?”

“But I don’t think they
meant
to devastate New York City today. I think it was a diversion.”

“For what?”

Pete blew out a long breath. “Damned if I know. And that’s what’s got me worried. Oh, by the way, I’m sorry we couldn’t have that early lunch. How about an early dinner?”

“I accept your peace terms, Peter. Pick me up here at four, four-fifteen?”

“Sounds good. We can visit Guido’s, have him cook up something special.”

“And after?” Lauren wondered.

“Oh, you’re creative. You’ll think of something.”

“Diana, we’ve got no
choice
!” Lydia said, sharply enough that the entire bridge crew reacted. Some turned openly, others tried sly glances, but none of them wanted to miss a public confrontation between the ship’s two senior officers. Through the long, wearying occupation of Earth, it had become a rather interesting spectator sport, a rarity for most of the ship but increasingly common on the bridge, where Lydia and Diana were most likely to be together at any given time.

Diana paced, her fury barely controlled. “Why didn’t we know this would happen beforehand?”

“Perhaps if I’d been more closely involved, we would have,” came the security officer’s cool reply.

“I sincerely doubt that,” Diana parried. “Are you certain these figures are right?” She stabbed a finger at the computer screen next to them, where an array of writing and numbers led down to a bottom line that flashed in warning red.

BOOK: path to conquest
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