- Author: Henry Slesar
Read book online «The Delegate from Venus by Henry Slesar (english novels to read TXT) 📕». Author - Henry Slesar
VENUS By HENRY SLESAR
Everybody was waiting to see what the delegate from Venus looked like. And all they got for their patience was the biggest surprise since David clobbered Goliath.
"Let me put it this way," Conners said paternally. "We expect a certain amount of decorum from our Washington news correspondents, and that's all I'm asking for."
Jerry Bridges, sitting in the chair opposite his employer's desk, chewed on his knuckles and said nothing. One part of his mind wanted him to play it cagey, to behave the way the newspaper wanted him to behave, to protect the cozy Washington assignment he had waited four years to get. But another part of him, a rebel part, wanted him to stay on the trail of the story he felt sure was about to break.
"I didn't mean to make trouble, Mr. Conners," he said casually. "It just seemed strange, all these exchanges of couriers in the past two days. I couldn't help thinking something was up."
"Even if that's true, we'll hear about it through the usual channels," Conners frowned. "But getting a senator's secretary drunk to obtain information—well, that's not only indiscreet, Bridges. It's downright dirty."
Jerry grinned. "I didn't take that kind of advantage, Mr. Conners. Not that she wasn't a toothsome little dish ..."
"Just thank your lucky stars that it didn't go any further. And from now on—" He waggled a finger at him. "Watch your step."
Jerry got up and ambled to the door. But he turned before leaving and said:
"By the way. What do you think is going on?"
"I haven't the faintest idea."
"Don't kid me, Mr. Conners. Think it's war?"
"That'll be all, Bridges."
The reporter closed the door behind him, and then strolled out of the building into the sunlight.
He met Ruskin, the fat little AP correspondent, in front of the Pan-American Building on Constitution Avenue. Ruskin was holding the newspaper that contained the gossip-column item which had started the whole affair, and he seemed more interested in the romantic rather than political implications. As he walked beside him, he said:
"So what really happened, pal? That Greta babe really let down her hair?"
"Where's your decorum?" Jerry growled.
Ruskin giggled. "Boy, she's quite a dame, all right. I think they ought to get the Secret Service to guard her. She really fills out a size 10, don't she?"
"Ruskin," Jerry said, "you have a low mind. For a week, this town has been acting like the 39 Steps, and all you can think about is dames. What's the matter with you? Where will you be when the big mushroom cloud comes?"
"With Greta, I hope," Ruskin sighed. "What a way to get radioactive."
They split off a few blocks later, and Jerry walked until he came to the Red Tape Bar & Grill, a favorite hangout of the local journalists. There were three other newsmen at the bar, and they gave him snickering greetings. He took a small table in the rear and ate his meal in sullen silence.
It wasn't the newsmen's jibes that bothered him; it was the certainty that something of major importance was happening in the capitol. There had been hourly conferences at the White House, flying visits by State Department officials, mysterious conferences involving members of the Science Commission. So far, the byword had been secrecy. They knew that Senator Spocker, chairman of the Congressional Science Committee, had been involved in every meeting, but Senator Spocker was unavailable. His secretary, however, was a little more obliging ...
Jerry looked up from his coffee and blinked when he saw who was coming through the door of the Bar & Grill. So did every other patron, but for different reasons. Greta Johnson had that effect upon men. Even the confining effect of a mannishly-tailored suit didn't hide her outrageously feminine qualities.
She walked straight to his table, and he stood up.
"They told me you might be here," she said, breathing hard. "I just wanted to thank you for last night."
Wham! Her hand, small and delicate, felt like a slab of lead when it slammed into his cheek. She left a bruise five fingers wide, and then turned and stalked out.
He ran after her, the restaurant proprietor shouting about the unpaid bill. It took a rapid dog-trot to reach her side.
"Greta, listen!" he panted. "You don't understand about last night. It wasn't the way that lousy columnist said—"
She stopped in her tracks.
"I wouldn't have minded so much if you'd gotten me drunk. But to use me, just to get a story—"
"But I'm a reporter, damn it. It's my job. I'd do it again if I thought you knew anything."
She was pouting now. "Well, how do you suppose I feel, knowing you're only interested in me because of the Senator? Anyway, I'll probably lose my job, and then you won't have any use for me."
"Good-bye, Greta," Jerry said sadly.
"Good-bye. I suppose you won't want to see me any more."
"Did I say that?"
"It just won't be any use. We'll always have this thing between us."
She looked at him for a moment, and then touched his bruised cheek with a tender, motherly gesture.
"Your poor face," she murmured, and then sighed. "Oh, well. I guess there's no use fighting it. Maybe if I did tell you what I know, we could act human again."
"But if you print one word of it, Jerry Bridges, I'll never speak to you again!"
"Honey," Jerry said, taking her arm, "you can trust me like a brother."
"That's not the idea," Greta said stiffly.
In a secluded booth at the rear of a restaurant unfrequented by newsmen, Greta leaned forward and said:
"At first, they thought it was another sputnik."
"The State Department, silly. They got reports from the observatories about another sputnik being launched by the Russians. Only the Russians denied it. Then there were joint meetings, and nobody could figure out what the damn thing was."
"Wait a minute," Jerry said dizzily. "You mean to tell me there's another of those metal moons up there?"
"But it's not a moon. That's the big point. It's a spaceship."
"A spaceship," Greta said coolly, sipping lemonade. "They have been in contact with it now for about three days, and they're thinking of calling a plenary session of the UN just to figure out what to do about it. The only hitch is, Russia doesn't want to wait that long, and is asking for a hurry-up summit meeting to make a decision."
"A decision about what?"
"About the Venusians, of course."
"Greta," Jerry said mildly, "I think you're still a little woozy from last night."
"Don't be silly. The spaceship's from Venus; they've already established that. And the people on it—I guess they're people—want to know if they can land their delegate."
"Their delegate. They came here for some kind of conference, I guess. They know about the UN and everything, and they want to take part. They say that with all the satellites being launched, that our affairs are their affairs, too. It's kind of confusing, but that's what they say."
"You mean these Venusians speak English?"
"And Russian. And French. And German. And everything I guess. They've been having radio talks with practically every country for the past three days. Like I say, they want to establish diplomatic relations or something. The Senator thinks that if we don't agree, they might do something drastic, like blow us all up. It's kind of scary." She shivered delicately.
"You're taking it mighty calm," he said ironically.
"Well, how else can I take it? I'm not even supposed to know about it, except that the Senator is so careless about—" She put her fingers to her lips. "Oh, dear, now you'll really think I'm terrible."
"Terrible? I think you're wonderful!"
"And you promise not to print it?"
"Didn't I say I wouldn't?"
"Y-e-s. But you know, you're a liar sometimes, Jerry. I've noticed that about you."
The press secretary's secretary, a massive woman with gray hair and impervious to charm, guarded the portals of his office with all the indomitable will of the U. S. Marines. But Jerry Bridges tried.
"You don't understand, Lana," he said. "I don't want to see Mr. Howells. I just want you to give him something."
"My name's not Lana, and I can't deliver any messages."
"But this is something he wants to see." He handed her an envelope, stamped URGENT. "Do it for me, Hedy. And I'll buy you the flashiest pair of diamond earrings in Washington."
"Well," the woman said, thawing slightly. "I could deliver it with his next batch of mail."
"When will that be?"
"In an hour. He's in a terribly important meeting right now."
"You've got some mail right there. Earrings and a bracelet to match."
She looked at him with exasperation, and then gathered up a stack of memorandums and letters, his own envelope atop it. She came out of the press secretary's office two minutes later with Howells himself, and Howells said: "You there, Bridges. Come in here."
"Yes, sir!" Jerry said, breezing by the waiting reporters with a grin of triumph.
There were six men in the room, three in military uniform. Howells poked the envelope towards Jerry, and snapped:
"This note of yours. Just what do you think it means?"
"You know better than I do, Mr. Howells. I'm just doing my job; I think the public has a right to know about this spaceship that's flying around—"
His words brought an exclamation from the others. Howells sighed, and said:
"Mr. Bridges, you don't make it easy for us. It's our opinion that secrecy is essential, that leakage of the story might cause panic. Since you're the only unauthorized person who knows of it, we have two choices. One of them is to lock you up."
Jerry swallowed hard.
"The other is perhaps more practical," Howells said. "You'll be taken into our confidence, and allowed to accompany those officials who will be admitted to the landing site. But you will not be allowed to relay the story to the press until such a time as all correspondents are informed. That won't give you a 'scoop' if that's what you call it, but you'll be an eyewitness. That should be worth something."
"It's worth a lot," Jerry said eagerly. "Thanks, Mr. Howells."
"Don't thank me, I'm not doing you any personal favor. Now about the landing tonight—"
"You mean the spaceship's coming down?"
"Yes. A special foreign ministers conference was held this morning, and a decision was reached to accept the delegate. Landing instructions are being given at Los Alamos, and the ship will presumably land around midnight tonight. There will be a jet leaving Washington Airport at nine, and you'll be on it. Meanwhile, consider yourself in custody."
The USAF jet transport wasn't the only secrecy-shrouded aircraft that took off that evening from Washington Airport. But Jerry Bridges, sitting in the rear seat flanked by two Sphinx-like Secret Service men, knew that he was the only passenger with non-official status aboard.
It was only a few minutes past ten when they arrived at the air base at Los Alamos. The desert sky was cloudy and starless, and powerful searchlights probed the thick cumulus. There were sleek, purring black autos waiting to rush the air passengers to some unnamed destination. They drove for twenty minutes across a flat ribbon of desert road, until Jerry sighted what appeared to be a circle of newly-erected lights in the middle of nowhere. On the perimeter, official vehicles were parked in orderly rows, and four USAF trailer trucks were in evidence, their radarscopes turning slowly. There was activity everywhere, but it was well-ordered and unhurried. They had done a good job of keeping the excitement contained.
He was allowed to leave the car and stroll unescorted. He tried to talk to some of the scurrying officials, but to no avail. Finally, he contented himself by sitting on the sand, his back against the grill of a staff car, smoking one cigarette after another.
As the minutes ticked off, the activity became more frenetic around him. Then the pace slowed, and he knew the appointed moment was approaching. Stillness returned to the desert, and tension was a tangible substance in the night air.
The radarscopes spun slowly.
The searchlights converged in an intricate pattern.
Then the clouds seemed to part!
"Here she comes!" a voice shouted. And in a moment, the calm was shattered. At first, he saw nothing. A faint roar was started in the heavens, and it became a growl that increased in volume until even the shouting voices could no longer be heard. Then the crisscrossing lights struck metal, glancing off the gleaming body of a descending object. Larger and larger the object grew, until it assumed the definable shape of a squat silver funnel, falling in a perfect straight line towards the center of the light-ringed area. When it hit, a dust cloud obscured it from sight.
A loudspeaker blared out an unintelligible order, but its message was clear. No one moved from their position.
Finally, a three-man team, asbestos-clad, lead-shielded, stepped out from the ring of spectators. They carried geiger counters on long poles before them.
Jerry held his breath as they approached the object; only when they were yards away did he appreciate its size. It wasn't large; not more than fifteen feet in total circumference.
One of the three men waved a gloved hand.
"It's okay," a voice breathed behind him. "No radiation ..."
Slowly, the ring of spectators closed tighter. They were twenty yards from the ship when the voice spoke to them.
"Greetings from Venus," it said, and then repeated the phrase in six languages. "The ship you see is a Venusian Class 7 interplanetary rocket, built for one-passenger. It is clear of all radiation, and is perfectly safe to approach. There is a hatch which may be opened by an automatic lever in the side. Please open this hatch and remove the passenger."
An Air Force General whom Jerry couldn't identify stepped forward. He circled the ship warily, and then said something to the others. They came closer, and he touched a small lever on the silvery surface of the funnel.
A door slid open.
"It's a box!" someone said.
"Colligan! Moore! Schaffer! Lend a hand here—"
A trio came forward and hoisted the crate out of the ship. Then the voice spoke again; Jerry deduced that it must have been activated by the decreased load of the ship.
"Please open the crate.