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Chapter Eight

The plane, starship, or whatever the vessel was no longer stood in the open at all. Hunt found himself staring out at the interior of an enormous enclosed concourse formed by a mind-defying interpenetration of angled planes and flowing surfaces of glowing amber and shades of green. It seemed to be the hub of an intricate, three-dimensional dovetailing of thoroughfares, galleries, and shafts extending away up, down, and at all angles through a conjunction of variously oriented spaces that baffled the senses. He felt as if he had stepped into an Escher drawing as he fought to extract some shred of sense from the contradictions of the same surfaces serving as floors here, walls there, and transforming into roofs overhead elsewhere, while all over the scene dozens of Ganymean figures went unconcernedly about their business, some in inverted subsets of the whole, others perpendicular, with one merging somehow into the other until it was impossible to tell which direction was what. His brain balked and gave up. He couldn't take in any more of it.

A group of about a dozen Ganymeans was standing a short distance back from the doorway with the one who had introduced himself as Calazar positioned a few feet ahead. They seemed to be waiting. After a few seconds Calazar beckoned. In a complete daze and with his mind only barely able to register what was happening, Hunt felt himself being pulled almost hypnotically through the door and was aware only vaguely that he was stepping out at floor level.

Everything exploded around him. The whole scene burst into a spinning vortex of color that whirled around him on every side to destroy even the sense of orientation of his immediate surroundings that he had retained. The noise of a thousand banshees was crushing him. He was trapped inside a shrieking avalanche of light.

The vortex became a spinning tunnel into which he was hurtling helplessly at increasing speed. Shapes of light hurled themselves out of the formlessness ahead and exploded away into fragments only inches from his face. Never in his life had he known true panic, but it was there, clawing and tearing, paralyzing any ability to think. He was in a nightmare that he could neither control nor wake up from.

A black void opened up at the tunnel end and rushed at him. Suddenly it was calm. The blackness was . . . space. Black, infinite, star-studded space. He was out in space, looking at stars.

No. He was inside somewhere, looking at stars on a large screen. His surroundings were shadowy and indistinct—some kind of control room with vague suggestions of figures around him . . . human figures. He could feel himself shaking and perspiration drenching his clothes, but part of the panic had let go and was allowing his mind to function.

On the screen a bright object was enlarging steadily as it appeared to be approaching from the background of stars. There was something familiar about it. He felt as if he were reliving something he had experienced a long time ago. Part of a large metallic structure loomed in the foreground to one side of the view, highlighted by an eerie reddish glow coming from offscreen. It suggested part of whatever place the view was being captured from—a spacecraft of some kind. He was aboard a spacecraft watching something approaching on a screen, and he had been there before.

The object continued to enlarge, but even before it became recognizable he knew what it was: It was the Shapieron. He had gone back almost a year in time and was back inside the command center of Jupiter Five watching the arrival of the Shapieron as he had been when it first appeared over Ganymede. He had watched this sequence replayed from UNSA's archives many times since then and knew every detail of what was coming next. The ship slowed gradually and maneuvered to come to relative rest standing five miles off in parallel orbit, swinging around to present a side view of the graceful curves of its half-mile length of astronautic engineering.

And then something happened that he was completely unprepared for. Another object, moving fast and blazing white at the tail curved into the screen from one side, passed close by the Shapieron's nose, and exploded in a huge flash a short distance beyond. Hunt stared at it, stunned. That wasn't the way it had happened.

And then a voice sounded from the screen—an American voice, speaking in the clipped tones of the military. "Warning missile launched. Attack salvo primed and locked on target. T-beams being directed in near-miss pattern, and destroyers moving in to take up close-escort formation. Orders are to fire for effect if alien attempts evasion."

Hunt shook his head and looked wildly from side to side, but the shadow figures around him paid no heed to his presence. "No!" he shouted. "It wasn't like that! This is all wrong!" The shadows remained heedless.

On the screen a flotilla of black, sinister-looking vessels moved into view from all directions to take up position around the Ganymean starship. "Alien is responding," the voice announced neutrally. "Commencing descent into parking orbit."

Hunt shouted out again in protest and leaped forward, at the same time wheeling around to appeal for a response from the shadow figures. But they had gone. The command center had gone. All of Jupiter Five had gone.

He was looking down on a huddle of metal domes and buildings standing beside a line of Vega ferries amid an icy wilderness that lay naked beneath the stars. It was Main Base on the surface of Ganymede. And on an open area to one side of the complex, dwarfing the Vegas behind, stood the awesome tower of the Shapieron. He had advanced by several days and was witnessing again the moment when the ship had just landed.

But instead of the simple but touching welcoming scene that he remembered, he saw a column of forlorn Ganymeans being herded across the ice from their ship between lines of impassive, heavily armed combat troops, under the muzzles of heavy weapons being trained from armored vehicles positioned farther back. And the base itself had acquired defense works, weapons emplacements, missile batteries, and all kinds of things that had never existed. It was insane.

He couldn't tell whether he was inside one of the domes and looking out over the scene as he had been at the time, or whether he was somehow floating disembodied at some other viewpoint. Again his immediate surroundings were indistinct. He swung around, moving in a dreamlike way in which his body had lost its substance, and found that he was alone. Even surrounded by ice and endless empty space he felt clammy and claustrophobic. The terror that had gripped him when he first stepped out of the alien vessel was still there, gnawing insistently and stripping away his powers of reason. "What is this?" he demanded in a voice that choked somewhere at the back of his throat. "I don't understand. What does this mean?"

"You don't remember?" the voice boomed deafeningly from nowhere and everywhere.

Hunt looked wildly in every direction, but there was nobody. "Remember what?" he whispered. "I remember none of this."

"You do not remember these events?" the voice challenged. "You were there."

An anger surged up inside him suddenly—a delayed-action reflex to protect him from the merciless assault on his mind and senses. "No!" he shouted. "Not like that! They never happened like that. What kind of lunacy is this?"

"How, then, did they happen?"

"They were our friends. They were welcomed. We gave gifts." His anger boiled over into a quivering rage. "Who are you? Are you mad? Show yourself."

Ganymede vanished, and a series of confused impressions poured by in front of his eyes, which inexplicably his mind assembled together into coherent meaning. There was a vision of the Ganymeans being taken into captivity by a stern and uncompromising American military . . . being allowed to repair their ship only after agreeing to divulge details of their technology . . . being taken to Earth to keep their side of the bargain . . . being dispatched ignominiously back into the depths of space.

"Was it not so?" the voice demanded.

"For Christ's sake, NO! Whoever you are, you're insane!"

"What parts are untrue?"

"All of it. What is the—"

A Soviet newscaster was talking hysterically. Although it was in Russian, Hunt somehow understood. The war had to start now, before the West could turn its advantage into something tangible . . . speeches from a balcony; crowds chanting and cheering . . . launchings of U.S. MIRV satellites . . . propaganda from Washington . . . tanks, missile transporters, marching lines of Chinese infantry . . . high-power radiation weapons hidden in deep space across the solar system. A race that had gone insane was marching off to doomsday with bands playing and flags waving.

"NO-O-O-O!" He heard his own voice rise to a shriek that seemed to come from all sides to engulf him, and then die somewhere far off in the distance. His strength evaporated abruptly, and he felt himself collapsing.

"He speaks the truth," a voice said from somewhere. It was calm and decisive, and sounded like a lone rock of sanity amid the maelstrom of chaos that had swept him out of the universe.

Collapsing . . . falling . . . blackness . . . nothing.


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