99 White Balloons, Page 4

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“Okay,” Murphy said, turning back to the alien.  “We’ll make him tell us.”

“Torturing a sickly Hykonian,” Talie said.  “Is that how you want to be remembered?”

Murphy took a long, seething breath.

“True,” Talie said, “this whole incident will be classified, and the few records being kept will be lost.  Even the Hykonian and Vorpon governments will never really know what happened here, but your son will.”

Murphy turned a sharp eye toward Talie.  She laughed.

“Yes, I know about your beloved Susan and her husband, but do you really think you’re the only person in history with a broken heart?  Other people heal, and so will you, and someday you’ll get married and have a family of your own.

“So I’m asking as a journalist, how do you want your son to remember you?  Or your grandson?  Or all your descendents who will hear about the Murphy Family Secret?”

The cameraman stared at Murphy, recording every detail of his reaction.  Murphy felt like a preschooler who’d been scolded by the teacher in front of the other children.  He glanced sheepishly at General Stenner and the men from Washington.

“Aren’t you changing history by telling me this?” Murphy said.

“No,” Talie said.  “Your life doesn’t matter.  Changing your future makes no difference.  It only affects you.  Be thankful for that.  You’re free from a great deal of responsibility by being unimportant.”

Stenner took his cigar out of his mouth.  “I’ll post a guard on the alien,” he said.  “Make sure no one hurts it.”

“We would like to ask it a few questions,” Majestic #2 said.  “We… umm… promise not to touch it,” he added with a sympathetic glance toward Murphy.

“Fine,” Stenner said.

The general and the men in black stepped out, leaving Murphy alone with Talie and her companion.  Murphy turned his back on them, choosing to stare at a sickly alien rather than the bombshell blonde.

“If I’m going to get married…”

“Her name is Francine,” Talie said encouragingly.

“If I’m going to get married, have a family, and all that, then General Stenner is right.  Mankind must survive.”

Talie sighed.  “Basic chronotheory is another century away, so I’ll give you a hint.  Again, Major General Murphy, you don’t matter, or rather you’re one of those nameless people history overlooks.  The question you should be asking isn’t if Earth survives but how.”

Murphy glanced over his shoulder, but Talie and her cameraman had vanished.  On the other side of the mirrored glass, Lorsis slumped against the wall, clenching his eyes shut.  In a similar fashion, Murphy leaned his forehead against the glass, closed his eyes, and tried not to feel as feeble and helpless as an undead Hykonian.

* * *

Murphy returned to base headquarters to file a report on the weather balloon crash.  Bureaucracy continued, end of the world or not.  It was late.  The lights were out.  Murphy nearly tripped over the body of General Stenner’s secretary.

Her clothes were shredded, and her naked flesh had been bitten and clawed into a red pulp.  The remains of another servicewoman lay across the front desk.  In the dim illumination, Murphy also saw an airman and the janitor, equally butchered.  From the next room, he heard a crunching sound, like chewing.

Pistol ready, Murphy crept toward the door and peeked into the file room.  Something large stirred in the shadows, its many arms and legs scratching against the tile floor.  The monster grabbed one of the filing cabinets, ripping into it with its enormous mandibles.  As it chewed, tiny, claw-like hands reached in to rummage through classified documents.

Before Murphy could slip away and run for help, the Vorpon—what else could it be but a Vorpon?—stopped and sniffed the air.  It rose to its full height and began making clicking, chirping noises.  Murphy got the distinct impression it was laughing at him.

As the hulking creature advanced, wriggling forward on its many limbs, Murphy took aim.  He hoped Vorpons had a weak spot and maybe, if the Fates were kind and luck was with him, he might hit it.

A dark shape brushed by, leaving behind the scent of exotic perfume.  “Hello,” Talie said, flashing her I.D. at the Vorpon.  “I’m Talie Tappler from the Tomorrow News Network.  May I ask a few questions?”

Talie’s cameraman followed her into the room.  The two of them stood toe to toe with the beast while Murphy cowered behind the doorframe.

The Vorpon spoke, clicking and chirping as it had before.

Talie shrugged.  “I’ve already interviewed the Hykonian survivor.  This is your only chance to tell your side of the story.”

The Vorpon swayed back and forth then answered with a single click.

Cognis placed a hover lamp above his right shoulder.  In its glow, Murphy saw the alien’s red exoskeleton and a thousand tiny claws twitching and snapping under its belly.  Its eyes—dozens of them—squinted in the light.

“We’ll start with the easiest question first,” Talie said.  “What’s your name and title and, if you don’t mind, could you spell it for us?”

The Vorpon’s answer took an excessively long time.

“So what brings you to Earth?” Talie asked.

The Vorpon spoke again.  Murphy wished he’d kept one of those translator clips.  Though he didn’t know Vorponese, he couldn’t mistake the anger in the creature’s voice and manner.

“And if you find proof Earth has formed an alliance with the Hykonians,” Talie said, gesturing at the scattered papers and mutilated filing cabinets around her, “what will you do?”

The Vorpon’s mandibles stretched open, and its scream echoed through the dark corridors and empty offices.  Murphy covered his ears.

“Really?” Talie said.  “You’d destroy the whole planet?”

The Vorpon answered with a single click, a response which could only mean, “Yes.”

Great, Murphy thought.  If one alien superpower doesn’t kill us, the other one will.

* * *

Lorsis struggled to his feet when the door opened, expecting to see the two humans in black again.  Instead, another Hykonian entered, his left arm missing, his skin mottled green and grey.

“Oro?” Lorsis said, recognizing his gunner.

“Valotic necrosis,” Oro said with a grimace.  “We only have stage one.  I tried to reattach my arm, but the infection could not yet reconnect the ligaments and tendons.”

“That explains why it took so long for us to awaken,” Lorsis muttered.

Oro nodded.  “The primitives tried to reassemble our ship.  They failed, of course.  The vessel is a complete loss, but I found one of the escape pods intact.”

Lorsis shambled to the door.  The two Earthling guards lay sprawled on the floor.  Even undead, Oro remained an effective soldier.  Lorsis stooped down to retrieve the Earthlings’ weapons.

“Go to the escape pod,” Lorsis commanded, giving Oro one of the human pistols.  “Return to our warship.  Tell them what has happened.”

“What about you, Leader?”

“I have witnessed several strange occurrences,” Lorsis answered.  “I suspect the Earthlings have formed an alliance with the Vorpons.  It is the most logical reason why the humans would hold us prisoner and lie about the Vorpon ship that attacked us.”

Oro’s antennae straightened in horror.  “That would constitute a true threat to the Technocracy.”

Lorsis could picture it all too clearly.  With Vorpon weapons and the high human birthrate, the new allies could breed an army in just eighteen years.  This bloodthirsty horde would be unstoppable, hopping from planet to planet, slaughtering innocent Hykonian colonists as it went.

“I do not have proof,” Lorsis said, “but I will find it.  I will transmit on code channel ten when I am ready to be rescued.”

Oro saluted, and the two went their separate ways.

* * *

Lorsis avoided the human soldiers and reached their main administrative building unseen.  He climbed through a window and found himself in a dark office with what the Earthlings called “paper” scattered across the floor.  Primitive as they were, Lorsis had assumed humans organized their “paper” data storage system better than this.

Then he heard a Vorpon’s voice.  It sounded jubilant, and Lorsis recognized the chirp-click patterns that meant “Hykonian” and “death.”

Lorsis sneaked farther into the room, and around a corner he saw the Vorpon’s wide, armored carapace.  Lorsis aimed carefully, his vision still bleary, and pulled the trigger.  With a bang and a stench of sulfur, the primitive weapon fired.  Lorsis fired again and again, hearing the satisfying screams of the enemy over the sound of the gun.  He’d hit the Vorpon’s sporax, one of its weakest and most vulnerable appendages.

The Vorpon whirled around and charged, but Lorsis kept shooting.  Even as the monster’s claws grabbed him and its mandibles encircled his neck, Lorsis fired into the Vorpon’s central eye, sending a bullet straight into the beast’s brain.  Acidic blood spewed from the empty eye socket.

The Vorpon’s mandibles snapped shut.  Lorsis felt his body fall away, and his head bounced painfully across the floor, leaving a trail of viscous fluids behind, until it settled at the feet of Talie Tappler.

“Augh!” she said, stepping back.  “We can’t show that!  That was disgusting!”

* * *

Over the next few days, a full dozen Majestic operatives arrived in Roswell, each wearing identical suits, identical ties, and identical wingtip shoes.  Some were tall, others short.  Some were fat, others thin.  Some wore glasses, some didn’t.  And yet these mysterious men from Washington all looked basically the same.  They even had matching haircuts.

The Majestic Twelve spent most of their time locked in a conference room, and Murphy spent most of his time locked in a conference room with them.

“This Tappler woman is the key,” someone said in one of those meetings.  “She’s from the future.  We’ve confirmed this as fact.  Somehow or other, Earth will survive even if we do nothing.  I say we do nothing and let history take its course.”

Murphy glanced at his legal pad, covered in numbers and notes, and tried to remember which of the Majestics this guy was: #6?  #7?  #10?  Whoever he was, the man leaned back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap.  Most of his colleagues seemed satisfied with this do-nothing proposal.

“That’s an interesting theory,” Majestic #2 commented.

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