Bill Wheeler was, as it happened, looking out of the window of his bachelor apartment on the fifth floor on the corner of 83rd Street and Central Park West when the spaceship from Somewhere landed.
It floated gently down out of the sky and came to rest in Central Park on the open grass between the Simon Bolivar Monument and the walk, barely a hundred yards from Bill Wheeler’s window.
Bill Wheeler’s hand paused in stroking the soft fur of the Siamese cat lying on the windowsill, and he said wonderingly, “What’s that, Beautiful?” but the Siamese cat didn’t answer. She stopped purring, though, when Bill stopped stroking her. She must have felt something different in Bill—possibly from the sudden rigidness in his fingers or possibly because cats are prescient and feel changes of mood. Anyway she rolled over on her back and said “Miaouw” quite plaintively. But Bill, for once, didn’t answer her. He was too engrossed in the incredible thing across the street in the park.
It was cigar-shaped, about seven feet long and two feet in diameter at the thickest point. As far as size was concerned, it might have been a large toy model dirigible, but it never occurred to Bill—even at his first glimpse of it when it was about fifty feet in the air, just opposite his window-that it might be a toy or a model.
There was something about it, even at the most casual look, that said alien. You couldn’t put your finger on what it was. Anyway, alien or terrestrial, it had no visible means of support. No wings, propellers, rocket tubes, or anything else—and it was made of metal and obviously heavier than air.
But it floated down like a feather to a point just about a foot above the grass. It stopped there, and suddenly, out of one end of it (both ends were so nearly alike that you couldn’t say it was the front or back) came a flash of fire that was almost blinding. There was a hissing sound with the flash, and the cat under Bill Wheeler’s hand turned over and was on her feet in a single lithe movement, looking out of the window. She spat once, softly, and the hairs on her back and the back of her neck stood straight up, as did her tail, which was now a full two inches thick.
Bill didn’t touch her; if you know cats, you don’t when they’re like that. But he said, “Quiet, Beautiful. It’s all right. It’s only a spaceship from Mars, to conquer Earth. It isn’t a mouse.”
He was right on the first count, in a way. He was wrong on the second, in a way. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves like that.
After the single blast from its exhaust tube or whatever it was, the spaceship dropped the last twelve inches and lay inert on the grass. It didn’t move. There was now a fan-shaped area of blackened earth radiating from one end of it for a distance of about thirty feet.
And then nothing happened except that people came running from several directions. Cops came running, too, three of them, and kept people from going too close to the alien object. Too close, according to the cops’ idea, seemed to be closer than about ten feet. Which, Bill Wheeler thought, was silly. If the thing was going to explode or anything, it would probably kill everyone for blocks around.
But it didn’t explode. It just lay there, and nothing happened. Nothing except that flash that had startled both Bill and the cat. And the cat looked bored now, and lay back down on the windowsill, her hackles down.
Bill stroked her sleek, fawn-colored fur again, absentmindedly. He said, “This is a day, Beautiful. That thing out there is from outside, or I’m a spider’s nephew. I’m going down and take a look at it.”
He took the elevator down. He got as far as the front door, tried to open it, and couldn’t. All he could see through the glass was the backs of people, jammed tight against the door. Standing on tiptoes and stretching his neck to see over the nearest ones, he could see a solid phalanx of heads stretching from here to there.
He got back in the elevator. The operator said, “Sounds like excitement out front. Parade going by or something?”
“Something,” Bill said. “Spaceship just landed in Central Park, from Mars or somewhere. You hear the welcoming committee out there.”
“The hell,” said the operator. “What’s it doing?”
The operator grinned. “You’re a great kidder, Mr. Wheeler. How’s that cat you got?”
“Fine,” said Bill. “How’s yours?”
“Getting crankier. Threw a book at me when I got home last night with a few under my belt and lectured me half the night because I’d spent three and a half bucks. You got the best kind.”
“I think so,” Bill said.
By the time he got back to the window, there was really a crowd down there. Central Park West was solid with people for half a block each way, and the park was solid with them for a long way back. The only open area was a circle around the spaceship, now expanded to about twenty feet in radius and with a lot of cops keeping it open instead of only three.
Bill Wheeler gently moved the Siamese over to one side of the windowsill and sat down. He said, “We got a box seat, Beautiful. I should have had more sense than to go down there.”
The cops below were having a tough time. But reinforcements were coming, truckloads of them. They fought their way into the circle and then helped enlarge it. Somebody had obviously decided that the larger that circle was, the fewer people were going to be killed. A few khaki uniforms had infiltrated the circle, too.
“Brass,” Bill told the cat. “High brass. I can’t make out insignia from here, but that one boy’s at least a three-star, you can tell by the way he walks.”
They got the circle pushed back to the sidewalk, finally. There was a lot of brass inside by then. And half a dozen men, some in uniform, some not, were starting, very carefully, to work on the ship. Photographs first, and then measurements, and then one man with a big suitcase of paraphernalia was carefully scratching at the metal and making tests of some kind.
“A metallurgist, Beautiful,” Bill Wheeler explained to the Siamese, who wasn’t watching at all. “And I’ll bet you ten pounds of liver to one miaouw he finds that’s an alloy that’s brand new to him. And that it’s got some stuff in it he can’t identify.
“You really ought to be looking out, Beautiful, instead of lying there like a dope. This is a day, Beautiful. This may be the beginning of the end-or of something new. I wish they’d hurry up and get it open.”
Army trucks were coming into the circle now. Half a dozen big planes were circling overhead, making a lot of noise. Bill looked up at them quizzically.
“Bombers, I’ll bet, with payloads. Don’t know what they have in mind unless to bomb the park, people and all, if little green men come out of that thing with ray guns and start killing everybody. Then the bombers could finish off whoever’s left.”
But no little green men came out of the cylinder. The men working on it couldn’t, apparently, find an opening in it. They’d rolled it over now and exposed the underside, but the underside was the same as the top. For all they could tell, the underside was the top.
And then Bill Wheeler swore. The army trucks were being unloaded, and sections of a big tent were coming out of them, and men in khaki were driving stakes and unrolling canvas.
“They would do something like that, Beautiful,” Bill complained bitterly. “Be bad enough if they hauled it off, but to leave it there to work on and still to block off our view—”
The tent went up. Bill Wheeler watched the top of the tent, but nothing happened to the top of the tent and whatever went on inside he couldn’t see. Trucks came and went; high brass and civvies came and went.
And after a while the phone rang. Bill gave a last affectionate rumple to the cat’s fur and went to answer it.
“Bill Wheeler?” the receiver asked. “This is General Kelly speaking. Your name has been given to me as a competent research biologist. Tops in your field. Is that correct?”
“Well,” Bill said. “I’m a research biologist. It would be hardly modest for me to say I’m tops in my field. What’s up?”
“A spaceship has just landed in Central Park.”
“You don’t say,” said Bill.
“I’m calling from the field of operations; we’ve run phones in here, and we’re gathering specialists. We would like you and some other biologists to examine something that was found inside the—uh—spaceship. Grimm of Harvard was in town and will be here, and Winslow of New York University is already here. It’s opposite Eighty-third Street. How long would it take you to get here?”
“About ten seconds, if I had a parachute. I’ve been watching you out of my window.” He gave the address and the apartment number. “If you can spare a couple of strong boys in imposing uniforms to get me through the crowd, it’ll be quicker than if I try it myself. Okay?”
“Right. Send ’em right over. Sit tight.”
“Good,” said Bill. “What did you find inside the cylinder?”
There was a second’s hesitation. Then the voice said, “Wait till you get here.”
“I’ve got instruments,” Bill said. “Dissecting equipment. Chemicals. Reagents. I want to know what to bring. Is it a little green man?”
“No,” said the voice. After a second’s hesitation again, it said, “It seems to be a mouse. A dead mouse.”
“Thanks,” said Bill. He put down the receiver and walked back to the window. He looked at the Siamese cat accusingly. “Beautiful,” he demanded, “was somebody ribbing me, or—”
There was a puzzled frown on his face as he watched the scene across the street. Two policemen came hurrying out of the tent and headed directly for the entrance of his apartment building. They began to work their way through the crowd.
“Fan me with a blowtorch, Beautiful,” Bill said. “It’s the McCoy.” He went to the closet and grabbed a valise, hurried to a cabinet and began to stuff instruments and bottles into the valise. He was ready by the time there was a knock on the door.
He said, “Hold the fort, Beautiful. Got to see a man about a mouse.” He joined the policemen waiting outside his door and was escorted through the crowd and into the circle of the elect and into the tent.
There was a crowd around the spot where the cylinder lay. Bill peered over shoulders and saw that the cylinder was neatly split in half. The inside was hollow and padded with something that looked like fine leather, but softer. A man kneeling at one end of it was talking.
“—not a trace of any activating mechanism, any mechanism at all, in fact. Not a wire, not a grain or a drop of any fuel. Just a hollow cylinder, padded inside. Gentlemen, it couldn’t have traveled by its own power in any conceivable way. But it came here, and from outside. Gravesend says the material is definitely extraterrestrial. Gentlemen, I’m stumped.”
Another voice said, “I’ve an idea, Major.” It was the voice of the man over whose shoulder Bill Wheeler was leaning, and Bill recognized the voice and the man with a start. It was the President of the United States. Bill quit leaning on him.
“I’m no scientist,” the president said. “And this is just a possibility. Remember the one blast, out of that single exhaust hole? That might have been the destruction, the dissipation, of whatever the mechanism or the propellant was. Whoever, whatever, sent or guided this contraption might not have wanted us to find out what made it run. It was constructed, in that case, so that, upon landing, the mechanism destroyed itself utterly. Colonel Roberts, you examined that scorched area of ground. Anything that might bear out that theory?”
“Definitely, sir,” said another voice. “Traces of metal and silica and some carbon, as though it had been vaporized by terrific heat and then condensed and uniformly spread. You can’t find a chunk of it to pick up, but the instruments indicate it. Another thing—”
Bill was conscious of someone speaking to him. “You’re Bill Wheeler, aren’t you?”
Bill turned. “Professor Winslow!” he said. “I’ve seen your picture, sir, and I’ve read your papers in the Journal. I’m proud to meet you and to—”
“Cut the malarkey,” said Professor Winslow, “and take a gander at this.” He grabbed Bill Wheeler by the arm and led him to a table in one corner of the tent.
“Looks for all the world like a dead mouse,” he said, “but it isn’t. Not quite. I haven’t cut in yet; waited for you and Grimm. But I’ve taken temperature tests and had hairs under the mike and studied musculature. It’s—well, look for yourself.”
Bill Wheeler looked. It looked like a mouse all right, a very small mouse, until you looked closely. Then you saw little differences, if you were a biologist.
Grimm got there and—delicately, reverently—they cut in. The differences stopped being little ones and became big ones. The bones didn’t seem to be made of bone, for one thing, and they were bright yellow instead of white. The digestive system wasn’t too far off the beam, and there was a circulatory system and a white milky fluid in it, but there wasn’t any heart. There were, instead, nodes at regular intervals along the larger tubes.
“Way stations,” Grimm said. “No central pump. You might call it a lot of little hearts instead of one big one. Efficient, I’d say. Creature built like this couldn’t have heart trouble. Here, let me put some of that white fluid on a slide.”
Someone was leaning over Bill’s shoulder, putting uncomfortable weight on him. He turned his head to tell the man to get the hell away and saw it was the President of the United States. “Out of this world?” the president asked quietly.
“And how,” said Bill. A second later he added, “Sir,” and the president chuckled. He asked, “Would you say it’s been dead long or that it died about the time of arrival?”
Winslow answered that one. “It’s purely a guess, Mr. President, because we don’t know the chemical makeup of the thing or what its normal temperature is. But a rectal thermometer reading twenty minutes ago, when I got here, was ninety-five three, and one minute ago it was ninety point six. At that rate of heat loss, it couldn’t have been dead long.”
“Would you say it was an intelligent creature?”
“I wouldn’t say for sure, sir. It’s too alien. But I’d guess—definitely no. No more so than its terrestrial counterpart, a mouse. Brain size and convolutions are quite similar.”
“You don’t think it could, conceivably, have designed that ship?”
“I’d bet a million to one against it, sir.”
It had been midafternoon when the spaceship had landed; it was almost midnight when Bill Wheeler started home. Not from across the street, but from the lab at New York U., where the dissection and microscopic examinations had continued.
He walked home in a daze, but he remembered guiltily that the Siamese hadn’t been fed, and hurried as much as he could for the last block.
She looked at him reproachfully and said “Miaouw, miaouw, miaouw, miaouw” so fast he couldn’t get a word in edgewise until she was eating some liver out of the icebox.
“Sorry, Beautiful,” he said then. “Sorry, too, I couldn’t bring you that mouse, but they wouldn’t have let me if I’d asked, and I didn’t ask because it would probably have given you indigestion.”
He was still so excited that he couldn’t sleep that night. When it got early enough, he hurried out for the morning papers to see if there had been any new discoveries or developments.
There hadn’t been. There was less in the papers than he knew already. But it was a big story, and the papers played it big.
He spent most of three days at the New York U. lab, helping with further tests and examinations until there just weren’t any new ones to try and darn little left to try them on. Then the government took over what was left, and Bill Wheeler was on the outside again.
For three more days he stayed home, tuned in on all news reports on the radio and video and subscribed to every newspaper published in English in New York City. But the story gradually died down. Nothing further happened; no further discoveries were made, and if any new ideas developed, they weren’t given out for public consumption.
It was on the sixth day that an even bigger story broke—the assassination of the President of the United States. People forgot the spaceship.
Two days later, the Prime Minister of Great Britain was killed by a Spaniard, and the day after that a minor employee of the Politburo in Moscow ran amuck and shot a very important official.
A lot of windows broke in New York City the next day when a goodly portion of a county in Pennsylvania went up fast and came down slowly. No one within several hundred miles needed to be told that there was—or had been—a dump of A-bombs there. It was in sparsely populated country, and not many people were killed, only a few thousand.
That was the afternoon, too, that the president of the stock exchange cut his throat and the crash started. Nobody paid too much attention to the riot at Lake Success the next day because of the unidentified submarine fleet that suddenly sank practically all the shipping in New Orleans harbor.
It was the evening of that day that Bill Wheeler was pacing up and down the front room of his apartment. Occasionally he stopped at the window to pet the Siamese named Beautiful and to look out across Central Park, bright under lights and cordoned off by armed sentries, where they were pouring concrete for the antiaircraft gun emplacements.
He looked haggard.
He said, “Beautiful, we saw the start of it, right from this window. Maybe I’m crazy, but I still think that spaceship started it. God knows how. Maybe I should have fed you that mouse. Things couldn’t have gone to pot so suddenly without help from somebody or something.”
He shook his head slowly. “Let’s dope it out, Beautiful. Let’s say something came in on that ship besides a dead mouse. What could it have been? What could it have done and be doing?
“Let’s say that the mouse was a laboratory animal, a guinea pig. It was sent in the ship, and it survived the journey but died when it got here. Why? I’ve got a screwy hunch, Beautiful.”
He sat down in a chair and leaned back, staring up at the ceiling. He said, “Suppose the superior intelligence—from Somewhere—that made that ship came in with it. Suppose it wasn’t the mouse—let’s call it a mouse. Then, since the mouse was the only physical thing in the spaceship, the being, the invader, wasn’t physical. It was an entity that could live apart from whatever body it had back where it came from. But let’s say it could live in any body, and it left its own in a safe place back home and rode here in one that was expendable, that it could abandon on arrival. That would explain the mouse and the fact that it died at the time the ship landed.
“Then the being, at that instant, just jumped into the body of someone here—probably one of the first people to run toward the ship when it landed. It’s living in somebody’s body—in a hotel on Broadway or a flophouse on the Bowery or anywhere—pretending to be a human being. That make sense, Beautiful?”
He got up and started to pace again.
“And having the ability to control other minds, it sets about to make the world—the Earth—safe for Martians or Venusians or whatever they are. It sees—after a few days of study—that the world is on the brink of destroying itself and needs only a push. So it could give that push.
“It could get inside a nut and make him assassinate the president and get caught at it. It could make a Russian shoot his Number 1. It could make a Spaniard shoot the Prime Minister of England. It could start a bloody riot in the UN, and make an army man, there to guard it, explode an A-bomb dump. It could—hell, Beautiful, it could push this world into a final war within a week. It practically has done it.”
He walked over to the window and stroked the cat’s sleek fur while he frowned down at the gun emplacements going up under the bright floodlights.
“And he’s done it, and even if my guess is right I couldn’t stop him because I couldn’t find him. And nobody would believe me now. He’ll make the world safe for Martians. When the war is over, a lot of little ships like that—or big ones—can land here and take over what’s left ten times as easy as they could now.”
He lighted a cigarette with hands that shook a little. He said, “The more I think of it, the more—”
He sat down in the chair again. He said, “Beautiful, I’ve got to try. Screwy as that idea is, I’ve got to give it to the authorities, whether they believe it or not. That Major I met was an intelligent guy. So is General Keely. I”
He started to walk to the phone and then sat down again. “I’ll call both of them, but let’s work it out just a little finer first. See if I can make any intelligent suggestions how they could go about finding the—the being—”
He groaned. “Beautiful, it’s impossible. It wouldn’t even have to be a human being. It could be an animal, anything. It could be you. He’d probably take over whatever nearby type of mind was nearest his own. If he was remotely feline, you’d have been the nearest cat.”
He sat up and stared at her. He said, “I’m going crazy, Beautiful. I’m remembering how you jumped and twisted just after that spaceship blew up its mechanism and went inert. And, listen, Beautiful, you’ve been sleeping twice as much as usual lately. Has your mind been out—
“Say, that would be why I couldn’t wake you up yesterday to feed you. Beautiful, cats always wake up easily. Cats do.”
Looking dazed, Bill Wheeler got up out of the chair. He said, “Cat, am I crazy, or—”
The Siamese cat looked at him languidly through sleepy eyes. Distinctly it said, “Forget it.”
And halfway between sitting and rising, Bill Wheeler looked even more dazed for a second. He shook his head as though to clear it.
He said, “What was I talking about, Beautiful? I’m getting punchy from not enough sleep.”
He walked over to the window and stared out, gloomily, rubbing the cat’s fur until it purred.
He said, “Hungry, Beautiful? Want some liver?”
The cat jumped down from the windowsill and rubbed itself against his leg affectionately.
It said, “Miaouw.”