As If the Very Stars Had Fallen

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

Chapter One: That Very Day

Trinity site, Alamogordo, New Mexico, July 16, 1945

It was Marshall Johnson who spotted the body a few hours after the test.

Johnson was just the driver; he’d never have made a place in history even if things had gone otherwise. As things did go…

Johnson’s assignment was to get the physicists – Nagle, Anderson and Tagin – to Ground Zero and back in a lead-lined Sherman tank, collecting soil samples for analysis to determine just how powerful the Gadget had been. It was dangerous work, and they had to trust the overweight tank; if it stalled, they were cooked.

They were heading back in, half a mile from the test site – beyond where the sand had fused into glass, but close enough for loose soil and dust to have blown about. That was when Johnson noticed the body through the lead-glass scope; it was half covered in dirt. From a hundred yards, he assumed it was an animal. Closer up…

He didn’t know whether to feel terror or relief. If anybody had managed to infiltrate the operation – and it had to be an outsider; everyone who belonged here was carefully monitored – he’d never tell the tale. The first casualty of the atomic bomb.

They’ll want to study him, he thought, although he knew that before long there’d be plenty of other casualties to study in Japan. Nobody talked about that to people like him, but where else were they going to use the weapon?

“Hey Jules, there’s a deader out there,” he called out.

“What the fuck?” Nagle asked. He was a physicist, but he talked just like a normal person. Usually.

“There’s a dead body. We’re about to pass it.”

“You’re crazy.”

“I swear! Come look.”

“We can report it when we get back,” Tagin said. “We’ve got work to do, and we’re getting enough of a dose without stopping.”

At that moment, the body came to life, stood up. It was woman. A naked woman.

It’s a woman. She’s alive!” Johnson yelled.

“Right, it’s Betty Grable,” Anderson said. “How long is it since you had any?”

“Guys, you’ve gotta see—”

But the woman had taken to the air; she was flying right over the tank and out of sight.

“She’s gone…” Johnson said, a touch of disappointment in his voice. He was about to say how she’d gone, but thought better of it. Nagle’s response confirmed his fears.

“First foo fighters,” he said. “Now foo women. Christ!

Enrico Fermi met them back at the base, supervised the unloading of the samples in their lead containers. Mission accomplished, the men returned safely. But they looked kind of funny.

“Is there something the matter?” he asked Nagle.

“Johnson says he saw a naked woman out there.”

Fermi turned to the driver, who was obviously embarrassed.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it’s true. She was lying down at first, looked ro be dead. But then she got up, and flew away.”

“And you expect anyone to believe that?”

“Her body must have left an impression. She was half-covered in sand.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but I’m taking it to the General.”

* * *

Major General Leslie Groves hadn’t wanted to believe Johnson’s story – which he had to pry out of the man, after which he’d ordered him confined to quarters. He seemed to be cold sober, and he stuck to the details, including the business of the woman having left an impression in the sand. But it had to be a hoax; for all the deadly seriousness of the project, the scientists here had a warped sense of humor.

The three with the tank didn’t want to go back out there, either; one trip through hot territory was enough for them, especially since none of them had been told what it was all about. Groves found another driver, Alan Lupton; and Fermi himself picked a young physicist named Jack Wolf to make the trip.

“He’s got his head screwed on tight,” Fermi said.

Maybe Fermi was thinking of what Groves had once told his officers, about how the Project had assembled the “largest collection of crackpots ever seen.” He still thought there was a lot of truth in that, but it hadn’t made his job any easier.

“And he never liked Feynman’s stunts,” Fermi added, as if it were the clincher. “In fact, he never liked Feynman.”

Richard Feynman, another junior physicist, had become notorious for practical jokes like cracking supposedly secure safes – he’d worked out a whole system for that – and leaving messages like “be more careful with your country’s most valuable secrets.” This sounded just like him.

Only it had to be a copycat. Feynman’s wife had died a month ago, and he’d been sent away on leave until yesterday, called back just in time to witness the test – which he had, but from 20 miles away. No way could he have pulled off this latest stunt, even if he’d been so inclined. Groves didn’t see how anybody could have pulled it off… yet whatever had happened, it must involve a serious security breach.

“You’d better be right about Wolf,” he told Fermi. “There’ll be hell to pay if this is a hoax and it gets out. There’ll be even more hell to pay if this isn’t a hoax and it gets out. Don’t forget who’s in charge here. Wolf works for me. And you work for me.”

They met Wolf at the tank. Fermi stood aside as Groves laid down the law to the young physicist and the driver in the same manner, before giving him his orders. But he didn’t tell him anything about Johnson’s story.

“Follow this morning’s route exactly, and look for anything strange,” Fermi said. “I’m not going to say what. But if you see it, you’ll know why I sent you.”

Groves and Fermi watched as Wolf and Lupton clambered into the ungainly vehicle and set off towards Ground Zero. Then Groves curtly dismissed Fermi.

“Whatever he comes back with, it’s a security matter,” he advised him. “It could be a hoax, or a breach. Either way, not a word of this to Oppie and the other scientists, and especially not to Atomic Bill.”

William L. Laurence, a New York Times science writer, had been invited to the test by Groves himself, the only member of the press so honored. Word was it was because Laurence, who had written about atomic power before the war, had figured out what was going on here, even if he hadn’t known where “here” was. Like Drew Pearson, who had figured it out two years ago, he’d kept quiet about it. Right now, he was busy with J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“When he gets through with Oppie and the rest, if he wants to talk to me, just tell him I’m dealing with a security matter. He’ll play ball.”

Fermi nodded and headed back to the lab. Groves wanted to be extra certain that he’d be the only one to meet the tank when it returned.

In due course, it did return, lumbering towards him at what seemed a snail’s pace. Wolf popped the hatch, stuck his head through the hatch, climbed out and lowered himself to the ground, followed by Lupton. Groves told the driver to get lost, and keep his trap shut. Then he turned to the physicist.

Wolf spoke in barely a whisper. It was definitely not what Groves wanted to hear. And then some.

“There was a message scrawled in the sand,”

“What did it say?”

“It said for you to check your mail. I took a shot of it.”

Groves nodded, as if he understood.

“It was crazy. I mean, even Feynman wouldn’t have been enough of a damned fool to stage something like that. Besides, whoever did it would have had to brush away all the tracks he made getting out there. And it would have to have been done after the test; the blast wave would’ve blown them away if he’d gone there the night before. It would have been suicide after.”

Groves prayed inwardly that, somehow, this was still a Feynman copycat stunt, but feared it wasn’t: What the hell have we gotten into?

 “You’ve done your job,” he told Wolf. “I’m on top of it. I’ll handle it from here. I hope you’ve put the fear of God in the driver; if you haven’t, I will. We don’t want this sort of thing getting out and causing any embarrassment to the Project.”

Let Wolf think he knew what it was all about. That would keep him quiet.

When Wolf’s supposed photo of the message came out fogged, there was nothing to go on. But the film he and Lupton had worn as an alert to radiation exposure was not fogged.... This was getting really eerie.

* * *

There was mail for him the next day at Los Alamos, addressed to him at P.O. Box 1633, Santa Fe, like all the mail for anybody working at Los Alamos. Nothing new from the family, just an envelope postmarked Pasadena, California, without a return address.

Inside, there was a picture of a blonde woman in a skimpy outfit out of a comic book… sort of like Mary Marvel, he thought. On the back was a note:

By the time you receive this, you’ll have heard a very strange story about something somebody saw the afternoon after the test, which I trust will have gone satisfactorily. I am confident that you will have suppressed that story. But a dramatic introduction was called for, because the future of your world, the future of the human race, hangs in the balance. I suggest we meet at sunset Friday at the McDonald Ranch.

Groves suddenly felt the fear of the unknown. The letter was postmarked three days before the test, so it couldn’t have been part of a spontaneous prank here. Nobody here had been to Pasadena, and they couldn’t have come back so quickly even if they had. Somebody outside the Project had known about the Gadget, even the timing of the test, and – impossible as it seemed – had managed to enter the test site undetected and, so it seemed, escaped unharmed and again undetected. Some alien being from another world – the message seemed to imply that.

And yet Johnson had seen a woman… presumably the very woman who had sent her picture with the message. Except for the outfit, she looked like some glamour girl out of Hollywood. Only he didn’t think anyone had been making a movie about Mary Marvel.

There was nobody he could tell about this, nobody to appeal to. But he had to take the responsibility; there was no other choice. He had to fit this into his schedule, make it part of the post-test routine. There were still things to wrap up at the Trinity site, and he could take a break towards the end of the day. But first, he hid the picture and message behind the chocolate Turtles in his own safe – a safe Feynman had never cracked.

Late Friday afternoon, Groves approached the McDonald Ranch alone, but carried a service pistol, along with a Geiger counter – just to make sure he wasn’t taking a risk, from either residual radiation at the ranch, or from the mysterious stranger.

The place was much worse for wear – the Trinity blast had shattered most of the windows of the house, and blown the roof off the barn. Perhaps that was fitting; for it was here that the core of the plutonium bomb, the Gadget, had been assembled – jeeps parked nearby with their motors running in case the scientists fumbled and let the plutonium hemispheres get too close together.

It was near dusk, the sun low over the San Mateo Mountains. It was another form of atomic energy that kept the sun shining, he knew. Fermi and Teller were talking about tapping into that for a bomb too. The Super, they called it. Groves wasn’t sure he liked the idea; Oppenheimer sure didn’t.

Still nothing. And then there was something in the sky, just above the sun. A bird or a plane… no, a person. Coming in for a landing right in front of him. Like a parachutist. Only no chute.

The figure approached him on foot.

A woman. The woman. Wearing that funny costume.

She stopped a few paces away. Instinctively Groves’ eyes went to his counter but the needle barely flickered; he would have said that was impossible if the woman hadn’t spoken first.

“I see that you’re the kind of man who takes care, in more ways than one. Not that your pistol would have done you any good if I hadn’t come in peace. My name is Kira Zenerha-Shar’a Jahr’ling, and I need to make arrangements to meet with your President Truman.”

Groves was speechless.

“It’s all about making a grand entrance,” she said. “But I have a story to tell.”

It turned out to be a crazy story… but no crazier than a woman surviving a close encounter with an explosion equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT and walking through the radiation afterwards without harm.

She described an interstellar war, like in those science fiction magazines some of the scientists read, only happening right now instead of in the future. Groves listened, first with disbelief, then fear, then anger as she talked about the scale of the war, the planets involved, the power of the weapons used, the number of fleets deployed, and finally the physical capabilities of the two races, the Velorians and the Aureans, fighting for control of all humanity.

“Humanity?” he whispered incredulously, throat parched.

 “You have cousins on hundreds of other worlds,” she said. “Descendants of people taken from Earth centuries or even millennia ago. My own ancestors were taken, only they were… changed. And some of them were changed again, and became the enemy. And now some of them are here on Earth, Manhome original, and they believe it should be theirs… We’re here to stop them.”

“I haven’t noticed anybody trying to conquer the world but the Nazis and the Japs,” Groves barked. “We’ve done for the Nazis, and the Japs are about to get theirs.”

Kira gave him a very cool stare, like a child who’d proudly told his teacher 2+2=5.

“The enemies you’ve faced are nothing compared to the Aureans. Fortunately for you, at the moment, it’s all undercover, a war of shadows. They’re afraid of the Galen.”

The Galen?

When she began to explain them, Groves felt a crawling sensation.

The people behind the abductions Kira had talked about, going back thousands of years, the people behind the transformations, the people…As wanton flies are we to the gods

“If this is all true, and it gets out…” he said, after she’d finished.

“We don’t want it to get out. I’m trusting you to see that it doesn’t. Except to the President.”

“Why not go straight to him?”

“And how would I go about that? Fly in? Force my way past the Secret Service? That would ruin everything. I need somebody who can gain access to the White House legitimately. And as the man behind the project that has just changed history, you’re the kind of man I need.”

“Truman’s up to speed on the project.”

“I’m sure you’ll think up more to tell him. But for now, you’ll have to see to it that my message is lost, that nobody else here talks about it. I understand that tight security is standard operating procedure, but I think you’ll agree that you now face something that goes beyond even that. If I were Stalin, I’d want to have eyes and ears here. Perhaps he does. Imagine them finding out, not just about the bomb, but what I’ve just told you. I don’t read minds; we are few in number and our own intelligence is limited. We became aware of Project Y only recently.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter how you feel. I’m sure you’re doing the best you can. You’ll just have to keep on doing it. Fortunately, you’ll have time. Your president is in Potsdam, but when he gets back…”

Groves nodded. Briefing Truman would be a challenge; the President hadn’t even known about the Manhattan Project until FDR died. Now this on top of that… But he’d manage it somehow, because he loved his country and, despite all, his fellow man. As for these Aureans, these new enemies...

“It's all about ass, isn't it?” he said. “You kick it or you lick it. That what it's all about.”

Kira smiled.

“That’s how I’ll want Truman to see it. He’s that kind of guy, from all I’ve heard. Like you. But he’ll need some convincing just the same. If you haven’t already noticed, I’ve erased my message in the sand, you don’t have a picture of it, and you can’t prove the card was written before the test or came from anyone but an ordinary girl in cahoots  with Johnson. I’m your only evidence now. When things cool down, I’ll help you with another demonstration. Out by Jumbo. You’ll need to bring just yourself and a movie camera.”

And right now, I’m going to have to make poor Johnson a scapegoat, he thought. Convince everyone here that it was all a hoax. He’ll never get a security clearance again. And he’ll know that if he talks, he’ll never be seen again.

But making tough decisions was part of his job. And there was too much at stake.

 

Chapter Two: They’ve Got a Secret

London, Nov. 10-15, 1944

Shara’Lynn Beset’yul hadn’t been looking for anything but a lay when she’d gone on the prowl at the Fitzroy Tavern, a pub on the corner of Charlotte and Windmill reputedly favored by arty types like the poet Dylan Thomas, who were said to have a taste for hot sex, no questions asked.

Actually, any pub might be a good place for meeting men with a taste for hot sex. But she was curious about the arty types. There was nothing back home on Velor like the lifestyle called Bohemian here. Should she even try to find out why it was called Bohemian? She couldn’t see what it had to do with the country…

She wasn’t particular about gender, but she didn’t have any idea about how lesbian contacts were arranged in this country. So if she had to stick to men… it would be grist for her cultural research, which was one of her official purposes as a Scribe for being on Earth in the first place, the other being to report on Kira and the rest – something Kira and the rest did not appreciate.

 Sharon Best – as she called herself – had been able to report something just a day before that they could appreciate. She’d accidentally flown into a V-2 rocket headed right for the East Quarter of London. As nearly as she could figure, it would have hit the British Museum. Score one for saving part of the country’s cultural heritage! Anyway, the fire and the impact of the debris had made her pretty horny, so as soon as she was able to sneak back home and sneak out again with a change of clothes…

“Business as usual during Alterations to Germany,” a sign at the entrance read, in a sly reference to the Allied bombing campaign. Amusing; she’d have to include that in her report.

But she was disappointed when she walked in. The place didn’t look that different from any other pub. The patrons didn’t look much different, either; some of them even wore conventional attire; was that Bohemian? While pondering that, she caught a snatch of conversation at a corner table.

“You bring me all the way here to meet this famous poet, and it turns out he’s in Wales,” a man was complaining. A Yank by the sound of him, and when she took a look she liked what she saw: handsome and well built. But he looked bored.

“Orwell might still make it,” said his companion, a man in tweed with nothing in particular to recommend him, at least not for what she had in mind. Thin and balding. “Anyway,” he said, “It’s time for another round, on me.”

“I’m tired of warm beer,” protested the Yank. “I’d rather call it a night.”

“You’re not much for having fun,” said the man in tweed, who headed for the bar and got into the queue  there. “Another pint, Sally,” she heard him call out.

By that time, she had made her move.

“You look like you could stand some company,” she said, taking the man in tweed’s seat without so much as a by-your-leave.

The Yank swiveled in his seat to have a look. He was startled, but only for a second. There wasn’t any doubt that he was interested. Very interested. But he wasn’t about to let on at first about what kind of interested.

“Are you one of those modern poets Homer’s been talking about?”

“My talents don’t run along that line, I’m afraid.”

“Good thing, actually. Poets aren’t my cup of tea. Not the kind Homer carries on about, anyway. Orwell might be interesting, but they say he’s at Broadcast House tonight doing a BBC program.”

There was a moment of silence before he made the first move.

“Hagstrom Ironcastle,” he introduced himself, extending his hand.

“Sharon Best.” She took his hand, but stroked it instead of shaking it, just in case he still needed a hint. She wondered about the strange name.

At that moment, Homer returned, pint in hand, and did a double take.

“Are you two acquainted?” he asked.

“Just becoming so,” Hagstrom said. “Sharon, this is Homer Whitworth. We’ve been doing some business together, and he decided to take me out on the town.”

Homer looked them over, and apparently understood what was happening.

“I don’t really have any further plans,” he said. “So if you…”

“Thanks for everything,” Hagstrom said, shaking his hand. “You’ll be hearing from West Street. I think we’ll be doing a lot of business – not just now, but after the war. We might want you to come to work for us.”

“Got to go to the ladies,” Sharon interrupted. “Back in a few moments.”

She didn’t really need to go, but she did need to use the stall for a few moments to take the necklace from her handbag, do a quick strip, and put it around her neck before getting back into her high-necked blouse. She wasn’t supposed to wear gold unless it was a sure thing she’d need it. She checked in the mirror to make sure she was presentable, and headed back out.

Hagstrom greeted her warmly. “I’m ready to get out of here … go to someplace quieter, more intimate.  How about you?”

Sharon smiled, gave him her hand and they headed through the crowd to the door. Outside Fitzroy’s, it quickly came down to your-place-or-mine. Sharon said the landlady where she had her flat was on the conservative side, which meant it was his place. Which meant the hotel he was staying at. He hailed a cab, and they were on their way.

 “What brings you here?” Sharon asked.

“Business,” he said. “I work for Bell Laboratories back in the States. They do research on electronics, and what with the war on... they’re working with the government and I’m here checking progress on … something very classified.”

“Is Homer part of it?”

“No, he’s somebody I wanted to see about a new invention with a lot of potential called a traveling wave tube.”

“Where does it travel?”

“Nowhere. It amplifies radio signals.” He tried to explain it to her, but all she could get out of it was that it was primitive vacuum electronics. They didn’t even have solid state technology here! But Hagstrom, in an obvious attempt to impress her, let out what his primary mission here had to do with: RADAR (“You Brits call it RDF.”), based on attenuated radio technology.

Just a crude mass detection technology, Sharon thought. Hardly worth reporting on.

They got to the hotel, and he led her to a really tiny lift with hardly room for more than two. With nobody else on board, Sharon drew him in for a kiss.

“You’re sure not like the kind of British girls I hear about,” Hagstrom said as he came up for air. “And here I thought meeting the radar people was as lucky as I was going to get.”

As soon as they got to his room, things unfolded according to plan. Her plan, but Hagstrom wasn’t complaining when he got a look at the goods.

“Are you some sort of amazon goddess?” he asked. “A valkyrie?”

“I just… do physical jerks,” she said. “You too?”

He did look really fit; her gaze traveled up and down his body.

“Got bullied a lot when I was a kid,” he said. “It never seems to have occurred to Mother and Father that I’d be end up being nicknamed ‘Hag.’”

Oh, Sharon thought. That hadn’t occurred to her.

“They were just trying to honor an uncle who died young, Harold Hagstrom,” he continued. “Anyway, I had to learn to fight back, and then I got into sports at school and college. I still do a lot of running in the county reservation near home.”

He paused for a moment.

“What’s with the necklace?”

 “A rich bloke I met,” she said. “Told me I was worth my weight in gold. It doesn’t weigh that much, of course. But it’s brought me luck.”

That last bit was true, but only because without it no Earthman could have penetrated her – and even if he could have, the encounter would have been fatal to his manhood and probably to the man himself. If Hag had known that, of course, he might have been scared out of his wits, even after she’d hit him with her pheromones.

As things were, Hag showed plenty of skill – and stamina. Enough to bring her off several times, in sundry positions. Eventually, he was too tired to go on. And yet he wasn’t tired of her. He was still up to cuddling, and to small talk. He wanted to know about her. That was the hard part, because she couldn’t tell anything much resembling the truth.

“What’s to tell? Born in Boston – the one in Lincolnshire. Father’s a shopkeeper. Went to school there. Came to London just before the war to work for Marks & Spencer, in the wine department at their Kilburn High Road store, but the war put a crimp on that and I ended up in food. We opened one of the Café Bars there; people can get around rationing by eating in, and sometimes we sell food to take home straight off the delivery truck because they’re so hungry. Some of the other stores have gotten blitzed – buzz bomb hit the one in Lewisham in July.”

“Funny thing about buzz bombs. I got into town Nov. 5, which was Guy Fawkes day – I’d never heard of it before and people had to explain about the Gunpowder Plot and all. Anyway, there was this guy on the street outside here wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, and carrying a ‘Hitler’s Peace Envoy’ sign. He had a bunch of ‘Buzzbomber Kids’ collecting.

“‘A penny for the old guy.’ They must have told you all about that. More like a pound, now. Only it’s part of the war effort. I do my bit – fire patrol, helping tend to the wounded. That’s eased up since 1942, even with the buzz bombs.”

What she didn’t say was that, whereas she did work for Marks & Spencer, she was actually a typist at their Baker Street headquarters. By sheer chance, she had learned that it concealed the offices of the Special Operations Executive that helped resistance movements against the Nazis in Europe. Keeping her ear to the ground was part of her mission, and she’d shared what she learned with Kira. Things were winding down in that department this late in the game, however; nothing more from the SOE was likely to have any impact on the course of the war. None of that was for Hag’s ears, obviously, and she’d about run through her thin cover story, so she changed the subject.

“Funny name you’ve got,” she said.

“I told you about that.”

“I mean, your last name.”

“Well, we come from England originally, but I don’t know exactly where. We all seem to be related; at least, I’ve never come across mention of any Ironcastles who aren’t. There’s some Hardcastles here, but that’s not the same. There was a Castle of Iron in a medieval romance epic poem called Orlando Furioso, but that was set in Spain and written in Italy, and I can’t see how there could be any connection. A few of us have made our marks. Maybe you’ve heard of Uncle Hareton, the explorer?”

Sharon shook her head. After more small talk, she said it was time to be getting home, but she was keen on seeing him again. And so she did – mostly for sex, but also for conversation. He even tried to interest her in science fiction, gave her a copy of a Yank magazine from the year before, with a story by Lawrence O’Donnell called “Clash by Night.” It had to do with a war on Venus, which was depicted as a tropical world where men lived in undersea cities because the native life of the jungles was too savage for humans to cope with. It was all she could do to keep from laughing at the idea of life on Venus. But there was something else about the story… the reason men were living on Venus in the first place.

And then, one day, there was something in the paper about H.G. Wells.

“I’ve always wanted to meet him,” Hag said. “He’s a great writer. His stories have a lot of charm. But what I like about him is that he knows that the future is going to be different from the past. A lot of people don't. You somehow get the impression that no one ever believes that anything is going to be any different. They're all caught up in the present and the past. He’s been wrong about how the future was going to be different, but he knew that it was going to be different. I don't think that most people think of the future as being different.”

And just like that, he hit on the idea of ringing up Wells and paying a visit. He found the number, got on the telephone, but somebody told him he’d have to write, so then he pretended that he was President Roosevelt’s science advisor, and that got them an invitation. Hag hailed a cab and they headed for Hanover Terrace, which was a whole row of houses in Regents Park. Wells lived at number 13. A butler answered the door, and ushered them into the study, a large but rather stuffy room lined with books, to meet the “great man” himself. He looked terribly pallid, old and tired – 78, and ill, she learned afterwards – and was wearing just a bathrobe and slippers.

Hag had trouble getting him into conversation, but it was tea time, and Wells had already sent for tea and sandwiches, which came up in a dumb-waiter, along with milk. Hag knew enough to add the milk to the tea and stir – he must have picked that up from official visits elsewhere – but looked askance at the sandwiches, which were made with sliced cucumber and vinegar. Sharon knew Americans favored sliced ham and the like. Wells somehow sensed Hag’s confusion, and got a twinkle in his eye.

“These are jolly good,” he said. “They aren’t Borgia sandwiches.”

Sharon didn’t know what that was about and made a mental note to look up Borgia later.

Hag introduced her as a doctoral candidate at the University of London, which seemed to be aimed more at impressing Wells with his good taste than flattering her, and after the small talk, he turned the conversation from sandwiches to…

“Well, they’re building an atom bomb, you know, right now,” he said.

Wells didn’t seem to react. But Sharon did. In the story in that magazine Hag had given her, Earth had been destroyed by atomic weapons; that’s why people were living on Venus. But was it true about the Americans actually making a bomb? And how would Hag know? She was dying to ask him, but she couldn’t. Not there, not then. As for Wells…

“It shows the need for World Federation,” he finally pronounced. “Wendell Wilkie knew that. You really must read his One World. I’d been calling for a new world order long before that, but his book really got through. He died just last month, you know. A great loss. He might have found a way out or round or through our dilemma.”

He paused for a moment, looking at Sharon, and getting a twinkle again.

“I see you’ve got an eye for the ladies, Mr. Ironcastle. I’m a bit past doing anything about it, but I can still look. And such an intelligent lady, too. You don’t mind if I look, Miss, ah…”

“Sharon,” she supplied. “Sharon Best. And I don’t mind.”

“Lovely name. And your field is?”

“Philosophy,” she improvised.

“Ah,” Wells said. “Are you perhaps familiar with A.J. Ayer? I think he may have something.”

Sharon sat there, trying to think of “something,” and was saved by the bell. Or rather, by the sudden arrival of a man who turned out to be Wells’ son Gip. Old Wells was all for having a cab called for them. But Gip saw through Hag, saw that he was nothing but a gate-crasher. He put them out the front door, politely but firmly, and they had to find a cab for themselves.

On the way back, she asked him about the atomic bomb. He didn’t want to talk about it at first, but she turned on the charm, and drew him out. He couldn’t resist impressing her with his knowledge, any more than he could resist her body.

“You see, Wells wrote a story about atomic bombs thirty years ago. So I knew what they were. And so do science fiction writers today, like O’Donnell in ‘Clash by Night.’ Well, before the war, there were people working on nuclear fission, splitting uranium atoms with tremendous release of energy. One of them was a German named Otto Hahn; I think that must have scared the hell out of FDR, because the people who were working on that sort of thing in the States have all dropped out of sight, and there’s a war on… I figure the body snatchers have got them, and what else could they be working on but an atomic bomb?”

Sharon wheedled Hag for details back at his place, after they’d made love; he mentioned Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe and Edward Teller.

“They’ve probably got a bunch of others, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Einstein had done the recruiting for them, but he’s too big to vanish without arousing too much suspicion. You’ve got a man over here named James Chadwick who worked in nuclear physics before the war, but I think our people are probably keeping him in the dark.”

It seemed to dawn on him just then that he’d gone too far, way too far.

“For God’s sake don’t tell anybody I said any of this,” he pleaded. “I could end up in jail.”

“I don’t really understand any of it,” she assured him. “It’s just that I like to hear you talk about it. I never met a bloke like you before.”

It turned out that Hag was due to fly back to New York the next day, which was a good thing, despite the loss of his intimate company, because she had more important things on her mind now – in terms of her mission.

She knew she had to get word to Kira. Earth’s Protector, by mandate of the High Council, although nobody here knew it. Earth wasn’t the only Undisclosed World, where Velorians and Aureans alike fought in secret, but it was both the oldest and the most important – and the most primitive. Pre-cybernetic! That made secure communication difficult.