From the author: As promised, the sequel to 'As Wise as Serpents'.
TOUR DE FORCE
by Stephen Dedman
The road to Kalbarri looked as though it hadn't been improved since the turn of the century, and the Niva parked at the pump ahead of me was covered with dust the colour of bad sunburn. I was sure it wasn't Sergei - nothing would have persuaded him to drive a Russian car this far from a city, not even Ultra Secret - but I sat there and practiced pretending not to know him for a few seconds before opening the door. That was a mistake; I'd thought Perth was hot, but this was torture, and I almost wished I'd worn a skirt. At least they'd done something about the flies.
There was a youngish blond couple slumped in the snack bar when I went in to pay for the petrohol. The old woman behind the counter took my Visa card and stared - I almost expected her to bite it, to see if the gold was real - and then scuttled out the back to phone the bank; I guess she'd never seen a rich aborigine before. The blonds looked up, glanced through the window at my car, and the man asked, "Are you headed north?" He spoke English far better than any Australian I'd ever heard, with a very slight hint of accent; Bavarian, if I'm any judge.
"Yeah. You on holiday?"
"Yes," the woman replied. "Monkey Mia, to see the dolphins. Have you been there?"
"No." I speak a few dozen words of Delphic, about as much as any human knows, but I'd never had a chance to use it; the dolphins are too busy smiling for tourists to have any time for linguists. I guess it pays better, and they need the money: suing the whaling industry must be costing them a fortune.
"You're not - from around here?" asked the man. He only hesitated for an instant, but I'm sure he was about to say 'a native'. "No," I replied. "My mother was from Sydney, but I was born in Vancouver, and I've lived most of my life in the U.S. Have you been here before?"
"Look out for the grids across the road. Some of the local farmers aren't fond of city people at the moment." That was about as diplomatic as English can get. The stock market still hadn't recovered from the impact of Lagva technology, and the badly-burnt Australian banks were foreclosing on their loans and repossessing farms. The grids - ostensibly for keeping sheep in, not accountants out - and shotguns were among the more mild measures being employed: some farmers preferred AK-47s, and one had been caught importing a 130mm Katyusha in a crate of farm machinery. A tourist who asked intelligent questions was recently mistaken for a plainclothes banker, and shot; fortunately, this sort of thing didn't happen often.
The counterhand returned, her expression sour and skeptical. "Dr van Elven?"
"Yes?" I replied, automatically. She handed my card back, rather reluctantly, and I glanced at my watch; twenty-seven hours in Australia, and I already hated the place. I turned to the tourists, and smiled. "Enjoy your holiday," I said, before returning to my car.
* * *
Sergei was waiting at the camp-site, incongruously attired in a dusty Akubra hat, wraparound shades, and khaki fatigues with more pockets than a troop of kangaroos. With him was a very tall, very thin man who resembled two large snakes looking for a caduceus, who Sergei introduced as Richard Barnes. I'd assumed he was Australian, but his accent was Houstonian with a twist of something vaguely familiar. "Okay," I said, as we clambered into the air-conditioned cool of the hired campervan. "You've dragged us all half-way around the world to one of the most forsaken spots on Earth at the worst possible time of year. So what's the story?"
Barnes blinked. "You're from the mainland too?"
"Yeah. Washington. This is my first time south of the equator; I was tromping through snow three days ago. I'm waiting, Sergei."
He smiled. "I'm sorry, Sara; if it'd been up to me, I would've arranged for a private flight and a complete dossier, all this skulking around is a waste of time... but I wanted you on the team -"
"You haven't told me anything yet."
"We've found a spaceship in the rocks," he said. "Not a Lagva ship, either. Our geologist - Kylie Chen, you'll meet her at the site - thinks it's been buried there for thirty thousand years, minimum."
Sergei has been a spymaster for both the K.G.B. and the C.I.A., in that order, and breaking things to people gently is not among his gifts. "Not Lagva?" I repeated, stupidly.
"A Gahla'wat slave race?"
"I doubt it; they're not wearing neckties."
"Very nearly so - and so's the ship. It was found in a cave - an almost perfect sphere." Barnes sniffed. "Okay, an oblate spheroid. A climber kicked through one of the walls by accident, and found the ship trapped inside, hardly a scratch on it. If I were a science fiction fan, I'd say that meant -"
"A force field bubble," I murmured, at the same moment, and whistled. Barnes began muttering in a creole of English and physics, but I ignored him: this was the biggest breakthrough since the Lagva started lending us their technical journals.
The Lagva have faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity (the two go together like tornadoes and trailer parks) and pocket antimatter power plants, but this was something they didn't even have a word for. "Jesus. The climbers didn't open it, did they?"
"No. It has windows."
"No." I glanced at Barnes, who nodded. "How big is this thing?"
"Tiny," replied Sergei, before Barnes could answer. "Maybe twice the size of a Lagva singleship, not much bigger than an old Apollo Command-Supply Module. And the aliens are nearly three metres tall."
"What happened to the guy who found it?" asked Barnes.
"Girls," corrected Sergei. "A couple of Phys Ed majors from Perth. They just won an all-expenses-paid vacation on the moon."
"'In space,'" I muttered, "'no-one can hear you squeal.' Why is this such a secret anyway?"
Sergei shook his head. "The next big breakthrough in physics? Look at the trade war the last one caused; you couldn't walk down Wall Street without a stockbroker landing on you."
"This isn't tribal land, is it?" asked Barnes.
"No," I replied. "It's a National Park. No indigine will go near the place."
"No; just the opposite. Unlucky, tabu, bad medicine, cursed... Verboten. I don't know the language well enough."
"You're an aborigine," Barnes pointed out.
"I'm three-sixteenths Koori. My ancestors came from Sydney; I doubt they ever travelled this far west. This is Yamidji land."
He nodded. "Do you believe in sacred sites?"
"Hell, no," I replied, smiling politely. "I always thought the Alamo would be a great place for a Taco Bell."
Barnes flushed beneath his sunburn for a moment, and then looked out the window, pretending to be interested in the scenery. I suppose it wasn't any more boring than Texas, at that. Or any more holy, or less Hellish.
* * *
There was a tiny Japanese 4WD and an even smaller Chinese woman waiting by the gorge. Sergei, who knows everyone who knows anything, introduced us: "Kylie Chen, Sara van Elven." I shook her hand, admiring the calluses. Geologist, or paleontologist, or both. The rest of her was worth admiring, too; she had the almond-shaped eyes and serene smile of a statue of Buddha, the delicate beauty that Asian women seem to keep until they mysteriously fossilize overnight, and muscles like a T'ang bronze horse. A moment later, she showed us the way to the site, and I realised where the muscles had come from.
Kalbarri Gorge isn't as deep or wide as the Mariner Valley, or even the Grand Canyon, but it's just as beautiful - until you have to rappel halfway down a cliff-face at the height of an Australian summer. "No," I said. "No, you're kidding."
"You're scared of heights?" Kylie asked.
"Not usually," I assured her. "Only when I'm hanging from a rope with a twenty-metre drop between my ass and a lot of sharp rocks. I thought there was supposed to be a river down there."
"Not at this time of year." She sounded apologetic. Barnes was looking scornful, Sergei carefully neutral. We stood there baking for a few seconds, and then Barnes grabbed the rope and lowered himself over the edge. I stood there, waiting for the scream and the splatt!; instead, I heard him yell, "Clear!". Damn.
Sergei and I glanced at each other, and then I turned my back to the cliff and took a firm grip on the rope; Sergei is nearly twice my age, and I wasn't going to let him make me look like a wimp in my own country, even though I'd never been here before. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, stepped back and dropped into nothingness for an eternity. I opened my eyes again, saw the red and pink striations of the sandstone before my face, looked up (down was too scary), and realised I'd descended less than a metre. So much for heroic gestures. Slowly, cautiously, I lowered myself down to the cave entrance, where Barnes was waiting, holding the rope taut. I considered kicking the smug bastard; instead, I carefully swung around him and dropped into the chamber.
I guess I'd been expecting a smooth floor, like you see in the movies and the tourist caves; I'd forgotten what Sergei had said about a sphere. It was remarkably smooth, for sandstone, and I slid feet-first down the inside of the bubble until I hit the ship.
I fumbled in my pocket for the Lagva flashlight that Vpokga(ro)tjj had given me, the same sort she'd used to shoot the Secretary of State, and made sure the beam was defocused and at low power before I switched it on.
My first thought was that it was the first thing I'd seen all day that wasn't coated with orange dust. It was large and box-shaped, about as aerodynamic as an old Kombi, with sturdy legs and big bowl-shaped feet; obviously designed for vertical take-off. There was a row of holographic pictures and curvilinear symbols just before my eyes. I'd counted forty-eight distinct characters, thirty-three of them recurring, before I heard, or felt, movement behind me, and turned to see Sergei and Barnes walking carefully down the slope.
"What have you found?"
"Writing," I burbled. "And these pictures, look." I traced along the images until I found the two I was after - a spectacularly ringed planet, and a moon dominated by an eye-like crater. "Saturn, and Mimas."
"Maybe," said Sergei. "Have you looked inside yet?"
"Inside?" I blinked. "Oh, the window. No, I hadn't gone any further than this."
"That's not Lagvan?"
"No, of course not."
"Just asking." We followed Sergei around the craft, and tried to look through the window. Our light-intensifier goggles enabled us to pick out some detail, but shining light on the crystal instantly rendered it opaque, like a one-way mirror. Damn.
The aliens could never have passed as human, even at a Mardi Gras, but they were featherless bipeds; they even had a pair of eyes and a pair of arms apiece, in approximately the right places. They were wearing clothes, too - either that, or their skins were of very different textures and colours and came naturally equipped with pockets. But their heads were too big for their necks, and their eyes lidless and disproportionately small and too close-set; their long arms had too many joints and ended in far too many fingers, their legs only bent the wrong way, and the smaller one had two prehensile-looking tails sprouting from above his/her pelvic girdle. "Light-worlders?" suggested Sergei.
"Probably, unless they're much tougher than they look. Same goes for the furniture." There were two strange but identifiable chairs, two couches, and a bench, all quite permanent-looking in a flimsy sort of way. There were also hatches and panels, on the sides only, and a large cylinder at the far end that might have been an airlock, a walk-in closet, a matter transfer booth, a shower, a toilet, a refrigerator, or all of the above.
Barnes started humming mournfully; we all turned to stare at him, and he blushed slightly. "Pink Floyd. 'Wish You Were Here'. My grandparents were hippies."
I turned my attention back to the mess inside the spaceship. There were dozens of objects scattered over the sloping floor, most of which I couldn't recognize - hourglass shapes which would have fit their hands comfortably; lumps of unknown substances, some irregular, some symmetrical; lots of paper-thin equilateral triangles about a decimetre on a side, bearing holographs or the curvilinear characters I'd seen outside or both. "Geologists!" said Kylie, suddenly.
"Okay, planetologists. Whatever. But that's a rock collection if I ever saw one - tektites, amethyst crystals, and that looks like petrified wood. I can't identify the others..." She was almost salivating at the thought of discovering hitherto unknown species of stone.
"They're not very organized, for geologists," said Sergei, cautiously.
Kylie considered this. "Just because we can't see the organization doesn't mean it isn't there," she replied.
Sergei shrugged, and I stared into the mess. "That blue-green thing there's pretty regular for a rock... looks more like an egg."
"It could be a geode," said Kylie, uncertainly, then shrugged. "Or it could be a cassowary egg; a bit big, but it's the right shape... Maybe they'd never seen hard-shell eggs before."
"Well, they're civilians, anyway," volunteered Barnes. "No weapons, transparent windows, and it's too damned small for a Q-ship -"
He sounded disappointed as well as relieved, and I suddenly recognised that hint of accent. "West Point?" I asked.
"Yep. Class of '14, second-worst in my year. I also went to M.I.T."
"And Los Alamos?" I asked. He turned to stare at Sergei, who smiled.
"I wish I'd had you working for me thirty years ago, Sara. Yes."
"The Weapon Shop?" I added.
"X Division," replied Barnes, dryly. "And now Pine Gap. So what?"
"So what're you doing here?"
"What if this was a military craft?" he asked, ungrammatically. "Who would you rather got to it first? You said yourself it's more advanced than the Lagva tech - what if it'd been armed with anti-matter bombs or disintegrators? Can you imagine what would happen if that sort of weapon fell into the hands of Hezbollah, or National Offensive, or the I.R.A.?"
"What about the N.R.A.?" I muttered, and shrugged. "Okay, you're right. But the force field - are you going to suppress that, too?"
"I don't know. First we'll have to understand it. But the force field may have offensive value, too - look at what the Lagva flashlight can do - and what if that thing on the guy's belt is a sidearm?"
I looked where he was pointing. One of the aliens seemed to be wearing a fanny pack between its slender, keeled chest and its considerable paunch. "What if it's a remote control?" I replied. "A respirator? A walkman? His car-keys? His lunch? Why would he be carrying a weapon?"
"Most explorers carry weapons," said Sergei, softly.
"So do spies," said Barnes.
I heard something hit the sandstone at the entrance, and we all turned around to see a fifth person drop, catlike, into the cave. Looking at the outside world with our goggles proved to be a mistake; we were dazzled, and saw nothing but the blurred silhouette of an athletic-looking man. By the time we'd recovered, he'd found his feet and a large pistol.
Barnes pushed Kylie to one side with one hand, and reached for his pocket with the other, but the intruder was faster, and we were dazzled again, this time by the muzzle flash from the gun. Barnes fell back against me, and didn't move again.
I could feel Sergei, standing next to me, tense up, but he remained completely still. We stayed there until our vision had returned, and carefully looked at the gunman. It was the blond 'tourist' from the roadhouse.
"Dr van Elven?" he said, mockingly. "We meet again. And you, you must be Sergei Arseniev. I thought you'd have retired by now."
Sergei shrugged, very slightly. I knew he had a Lagva flashlight, but it would be next to useless at that range; we'd have to wait for the intruder to come closer. I looked down at Barnes. The bullet had passed through the left lens of his goggles; he was certainly dead. A small knife, balanced for throwing, lay by his right hand.
"I'm sure you're armed," the blond continued. "Everyone else around here is, even the tourists. And you outnumber me, too." There was another thud from the entrance, and the blond woman came scrabbling down the slope, unslinging an AK-47 as she descended. "If you drop all your weapons, maybe I won't have to even up the numbers. You first."
* * *
They patted us down after we handed them anything that could be used as a weapon - two Lagva flashlights, two Swiss Army knives, and a rockhammer. Finding nothing, they took our belts and boots, and dumped the lot into the gorge along with Barnes's body.
"It's okay," said the man. "We won't be here long enough for anybody to find us."
"I'd bet against that," responded Sergei, in German. "We're expecting a holo-V news team sometime before midnight. What do you think you can do in that time?"
The man gestured towards the spaceship with his gun. "Just get a souvenir of our trip," he replied, in English. "A weapon would be best, of course, but anything we could sell will do."
"Ah," said Sergei. "A mercenary. I thought you talked too much to be a professional spy."
"We're patriots," the man replied, coldly. "Not a concept I would expect any of you to understand. A Russian-American, a Chinese-Australian, a black -"
"Skip it," I advised. "My ancestors've been kicked out of more countries than yours ever invaded. But Germany's not doing so well in the trade war, either, is it? With the Neo-Nazis scaring the tourists away, I guess your economy needs a shot in the arm - or is this just a shot in the dark?"
The man opened his mouth to reply, but the woman spoke first. "We're wasting time. This is the spaceship?"
"You have been inside?"
Sergei and I stared at each other. Telling them that it was the most important archaeological site in history (well, you know what I mean) obviously wasn't going to cut any ice. "The atmosphere," Sergei said. "They might breathe chlorine, like the Lagva, or flourine, or cyanide -"
The man smiled, and reached over his shoulder into his backpack, removing a respirator and a pair of goggles - the same brand as ours. "Or worse," I said. "There might be viruses in there... you've heard of War of the Worlds? The Andromeda Strain? Open that ship, and there might be a plague that makes the black death look like the common cold." I was fairly sure I was lying - the aliens hadn't decayed, and neither had the egg, which meant they probably routinely sterilised everything coming through the airlock - but it sounded good. The couple actually hesitated.
"Besides," said Sergei. "The ship has no power. How're you going to get it open? You just threw the rockhammer outside."
They considered that, and then the man replied, "Would you build a spaceship without a manual control for the airlock?"
I almost swore. Another freaking science fiction fan. He turned to the woman, and said, "Cover them. I'm going to have a look at the door." The woman grunted, scrambled backwards up the slope, then sat with her back to the entrance. The man donned his respirator and goggles, and she followed suit. "So much for the rest of us," Kylie whispered, bitterly.
"Don't worry," I said, loudly. "Those are only twenty-minute tanks." I heard the man muttering on the far side of the ship, and we waited for what seemed like an hour before there came the sound of a soft metallic grinding.
Nothing exploded, and none of us died suddenly. The air smelt a little worse, but that might have been us.
"Oxygen breathers?" murmured Sergei.
"Great," I replied. "Aerobic bacteria, air-born diseases -" and two beautifully preserved alien bodies suddenly exposed to our bugs. I remembered a scene from Five Million Years to Earth, when the mummified Martians started decomposing as soon as their ship was opened, and discovered that my goggles were starting to cloud up. I was crying. These stupid, swinish, fanatical morons -
"At least there won't be any weapons," said Sergei. The AK-47 swung around to point straight at him. "Before we were so rudely interrupted," he said, politely, "my colleagues and I were discussing the design of the ship, and the occupations of its, uh, occupants. They're obviously not military - even halfway competent military personnel would never leave a door unsecured like that in unfamiliar territory." I thought of the G.I.s in Vietnam who used to travel around in their APCs with the hatches open, as though at a picnic, and nodded my agreement. "And spies would be even more careful," Sergei continued. "Therefore, they must be civilians. Unarmed."
I turned, and looked through the window. The man was hammering at hatches on the wall, which refused to open. Voice-activated, maybe? Or bioscanner locks? Maybe it didn't matter. He picked up a few of the triangular cards, and then threw them away. Eventually, he kicked at one of the bodies - and then noticed the fanny-pack. I heard Sergei think Shit!, probably in Russian, but kept my expression neutral.
A moment later, the man returned, peeled the respirator off thankfully, and took a careful sniff of the air. "Okay," I said. "You've got what you came for. Now get the fuck out of here."
"Not so fast," he replied, and smiled. He'd holstered his pistol, and held the alien device in his right hands; we watched him poke at various switches without result.
"Battery's probably dead," said Sergei. "Or it's corroded into a useless lump; it's been there for at least -" and then he shut up, as the object unfolded. The end result resembled a triple-barrelled machine-pistol with a complex triangular scope. The man broke into a grin, and then laughed aloud, then pointed the contraption at Sergei. "I've had enough of you, Colonel," he said, still giggling, and pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. He stared at Sergei, and then at the device. I heard someone giggle, and realised that it was me. The man stared at me, and then fumbled for his pistol with his left hand.
"Okay," he said. "Okay. It doesn't work. But this does. Give me one good reason not to kill the lot of you."
I gulped for air, and finally managed to stop laughing. "I might be able to show you how to use it," I wheezed, then shook my head and began giggling hysterically again. "God, the look on your face -"
"Shut up!" he screamed, waving the pistol and the alien device at me. I waited until we'd both calmed down a little, then said, "Okay. I'll give you three minutes. At the end of the first minute, we kill the Russian. At the end of the second minute -"
"I get the picture," I replied, holding my hand out. He hrrumphed, and then handed the device over.
I looked at the controls and the gauges, then stared through the scope. There were no crosshairs, and it didn't magnify or change the light level; it was like looking through a short length of triangular pipe, apart from a few curvilinear characters and other symbols glowing along the edges. I looked at the ship, and through the window, seeing the aliens and the surrounding chaos, and blinked. Wish you were here to help me, I thought, and then glanced at the holos on the outside of the ship. Wish you were here.
It was only a hunch, but the longer I looked at the device, the more I dared to hope. The mercenary snapped, "Thirty seconds, doctor," and I looked up to see him standing behind Kylie, his gun to her head.
"Yeah." I pressed a likely-looking switch, and heard a quick faint zzip! "Okay," I said, and pointed the contraption at his face. "Drop the pistol, and we can discuss this like reasonable people."
"You can't shoot both of us," he replied, calmly. "If you pull the trigger, Uschi will shoot you, then the Russian, and then the girl. I know her gun works. Prove that that thing fires, and we'll take it, and we'll go; we'll pull up the rope, and shoot out one of your tyres, but only one; that should give us enough of a head start. Just fire a round into the roof and -"
"A round?" I smiled. "This only affects living matter. Do you think any halfway intelligent spacers would use something that would hole their ship if it missed?"
He considered this, and then smiled. "You're smarter than you look. Okay. Put the gun on the floor, and go and stand near the Russian." Slowly, I obeyed.
"I hope you know what you're doing," said Sergei, in Navajo. I didn't reply. The man released his grip on Kylie, and pushed her over towards us, then reached for the device with his left hand. He looked at Kylie, then at Sergei, then at me, and then back at Sergei. I removed my goggles, and threw them at his feet.
"What are you doing?"
"If you're going to kill me," I said, "you're going to look me in the eye when you do it."
The mercenary shrugged, then re-holstered his pistol, switched the alien device from his left hand to his right, and then pointed it straight at Sergei's chest. Kylie screamed, and covered her face; I just closed my eyes and waited and prayed very quickly. The idiot pulled the trigger, and the world turned hell-red. I heard shrieks in German, and opened my eyes hurriedly, in time to see Sergei hit the ground.
Uschi fired a round from the AK-47 an instant too late, and Sergei back-somersaulted and planted his feet firmly in her kidneys. She fell backwards through the mouth of the cave, screaming.
The man had dropped the device, and was tearing at his goggles; I was still seeing everything through a blood-red haze, and I'd had my eyes closed, so he must have been wondering if he'd been permanently blinded. I took one step towards him, then grabbed his flailing arm, gently twisted it behind his back, and threw him head-first into the side of the ship. When I was convinced he wasn't going to get up again quickly, I asked, "Are you two okay?"
"Yes," replied Kylie. "But I think we'd better stay down here for a while. Sergei?"
"Apart from a pair of fouled trousers," said Sergei, thickly, "I suspect I'm fine. What was that infernal device? A camera?"
"Yeah. With a flashgun."
"How did you know?"
I looked down at the gunman. "It was just a hunch, but... He was looking for a weapon, so he saw it as a weapon. Barnes was looking for a weapon, so he saw it as a weapon. You were scared it might be a weapon, so you saw it as a weapon. I noticed how much it looked like an old-fashioned movie camera. I looked through the viewfinder, and that confirmed it; it didn't magnify, and the frame was an equilateral triangle, just like the holograms scattered over the floor. Their eyes are obviously very similar to ours, so if it had a flash, at least some of it would be in the visible spectrum. The hard part was working out how to set the flash to maximum power.
"But even before he brought it out, I thought a camera was more likely than a weapon. There was nothing to suggest they'd be armed. Look at their ship; no weapons, big windows, lots of space inside, lots of furniture, and it's easier to break into than a rubber dinghy. And look at the junk they collected. They're not explorers, soldiers, spies, scouts... they're something much more common in a high-tech world, and infinitely more dangerous."
They sat there for a few seconds, and then Sergei said, "Okay. I'll bite. What are they?"
I smiled. "Tourists."
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.