Goddam west Texas, anyway! Not a damn thing in it, and it went on forever! He'd driven nearly all day long and seen less and less the farther he got from Austin: abandoned shacks (some of adobe), rusty railroad tracks alongside occasional empty cattle pens, a few windmills and oil wells, scraggly barbed wire fences, a couple ranch headquarters, random dispirited cows and goats, sticker bushes out the wazoo, a couple dozen buttes and hills, and no water to speak of anywhere. And here he was inching along through the middle of it. He shook his head--he was a driven man. The lame pun made him smile grimly.
At least there was time to think. Hell, there was so little traffic on the interstate he could even read. He flipped open the binder lying on the passenger seat next to him and glanced at the headline of the newspaper article he had clipped in as page one: "Starchild Lands in West Texas, Remembered by Many Local Citizens." He knew the article and the pictures that went with it almost by heart.
A half dozen photographs showed the "starchild" variously riding a bicycle in front of a group of other cyclists, sprinting down the center lane of a stadium track, and sailing through the air in a variety of attitudes. In one, she was frozen like a bird in flight, arms outspread, three stories over a crystal blue pool, in another, stretched out horizontally over a bar, and in a third, midair in a sitting position with her feet in front of her and arms down, appearing to float over the sand in the long jump pit. All these photos were from the previous Olympic Games in Ireland, and in all of them she was wearing several iterations of skimpy Team Barbados uniforms in blue and yellow.
His next-to-favorite was not from the Olympics; it was her "wanted" poster, taken by some SWAT team that had briefly captured her in Texas, in which she was looking into the camera with a scared and vulnerable expression on her face.
Where was his favorite, flip, flip, flip, ah, there it was: a full page photo from Sports Illustrated, showing her from the collar bones up, hair wet and slicked back, face tilted down but eyes staring straight into the camera. It had evidently been taken as she concentrated before a dive from the high platform, probably from a camera all the way across the pool. The face was angular and keen and the eyes penetrated into his brain like lasers.
Suddenly a deafening howl shattered his reverie, as if banshees were after him. Shit! He was driving on the shoulder! Whoa! Get it back in the lane, man! His heart was pounding. There were no other vehicles in sight—damn! Pay attention, you bone head! His quest had only just started, and wouldn’t it be just flat pathetic to ruin it with a car accident in the first few hours? When his heart rate settled down again, he risked another quick glance at the notebook.
The text of the newspaper piece told the story of how the "starchild" had supposedly come to the moon from her distant home planet to observe Earth, which she had decided was where her people had originated. Disobeying her orders to merely observe the planet, she left the moon and landed in the Davis Mountains to warn her “distant cousins” of approaching meteoroids, but some of those cousins thought she was crazy and others thought she was some kind of exotic threat, and chased her all over west Texas. She devised a desperate plan to make her way to the Olympic Games, where she created a worldwide sensation by winning six gold medals, using the opportunity to publicize the danger to the planet. The article went on to mention a half dozen or so west Texans who had had dealings with her. He had notes on all of them.
Reporters from everywhere had tried to locate her ever since. All had failed. But he would not fail! No, by God! He would be the one who found her! He would see that face in person, or else. He would do it or die trying!
He lit yet another cigarette, satisfying but not as good as the alternative—better not to think about the alternative. In the far distance, where the interstate dwindled to two thin, dark lines, mountains began to loom on the horizon. Finally! Assuming he could locate the Indian Lodge State Park and get a camping permit, he could take a shower, eat a can of corned beef, down a couple beers, and see if he could get any sleep in the back seat of his car. Tomorrow his future would begin.
New York City! He hadn’t seen excitement to compare to this since, well, never, really. What a deal he’d managed to put together. That little article in People magazine was giving him journalistic credentials that had genuine weight. He was beginning to actually feel like a journalist. He even had a network of contacts, a small one. Charlene Stratemeyer had got him credentialed to the press section of the VIP stands, and that cheap-ass V. T. Newsome had somehow coughed up the price of a round-trip plane ticket. V. T. had promised him that Ana Darcy was willing to finish the interview they had begun all those weeks ago, provided he could wait until this arrival business was over. It was difficult, but he would. He’d seen all her television appearances, but they were fluff bits, not in-depth interviewing like he was going to do. It would still be one hell of an article.
At the foot of the stands the row of TV cameras was swiveling toward the podium, where a uniformed man with a walkie-talkie had appeared. The man leaned into the microphone, blew on it twice, and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Thoman vehicle has begun its approach. Current altitude is 100 miles. ETA is approximately twenty minutes.”
Big stuff! History in the making! He turned to the fellow next to him. “Exciting, huh?”
“Ja! Dass ist true! Very eggziting! Jurgen Mueller, from Der Tag.”
“How do you do, Mr. Mueller? I’m Scott Zimmer.”
“Ach! Mr. Zimmer! You vere de vun who interviewed Mz. Darcy for People magazine, ja?”
“Yes, that was me.” He felt a surge of pride to admit it.
“Eggzellent! You must tell me about dot! Vat vass she like, hein?”
They spent ten or fifteen minutes chatting about what it was like to actually be in the presence of the extraterrestrial Olympian. Mueller seemed totally star-struck, asking about every little detail, until Zimmer realized with a pang of insight that in Mueller’s place he would have done the same. He guessed Mueller might brag some day about having met a person who had met Ana Darcy. Even the reporters around Mueller were listening in and asking questions. Talk about an ego-boosting experience!
They were eventually interrupted by the man at the microphone, hand to his ear, who leaned over and said, “Visual contact in two minutes,” as every one of thousands of heads looked straight up. This was followed by a couple of shrieks from different spectators, then more shrieks, and then arms pointing overhead, a few degrees off the vertical.
Zimmer’s eyes were not the best, so it wasn’t until most of the crowd was chattering and squealing amid excited bursts of applause that he actually saw it: a tiny dot, almost directly over them. At first it grew darker rather than bigger, but after a minute or two he could tell it was getting bigger as well. In three more minutes he could make out that it was rectangular, about the proportion of a Greyhound bus. It wasn’t descending very fast at all. By the time he could tell it was colored a mousy gray, it seemed like he should have been hearing some sort of sound from it, but there was none. It just kept descending, to more and more excited applause.
When it was low enough for his eyes to be able to judge its height, it rotated slightly to align with the stripe painted on the tarmac in the middle of the horseshoe. Lower, lower, but still no sound. How odd, really. Even a blimp would have been making some noise. It was three our four times higher than the top of the hanger they were next to when he felt...what was that? A low rumble? No...more like a hum, a low, vibrating hum. The hum increased while the shadow of the thing came into view on the other side of the runway, in the afternoon sun, moving slowly toward the landing point as well. The rate of descent slowed even more until finally it stopped altogether, hovering in midair about fifty feet over the landing spot. Two uniformed men wearing absurdly large and completely unnecessary hearing protectors began waving red wands at it in that peculiar airplane language they had. The vehicle began to settle very slowly, until it landed gently on the tarmac. The hum, which he felt rather than heard, under the applause, died away. Now its size was evident: it was a little bigger than a boxcar, and roughly the same proportions, but with rounded edges and corners. There were windows in the front, where the pilot no doubt was, and a few smaller windows down the side facing him. There was a colorful Thoman seal on the hull just forward of what looked to be a hatch and some strange symbols, probably their letters or numbers, below it.
From the left, a band struck up a dignified march of some kind. “Vat ah zey playink?” asked Mueller. “That’s the Thoman national anthem,” he told him with great assurance. (He’d read that in the New York Times the day before.) With the band was a color guard, one member in the center carrying the Thoman flag. It had a blue field and three circles on it, one large green one and two smaller white ones. (The newspaper had explained that was because Thomo had two moons.) The spectators began applauding afresh as a line of limousines drove up and people began getting out of them. The most identifiable person, and the one who garnered the biggest burst of applause (with not a few shrieks, shouts, and whistles) was Ana Darcy. Zimmer almost felt sorry for the Secretary General of the United Nations, who was clearly playing second fiddle.
That gentleman, Ana Darcy, and three others stepped toward the vehicle and waited as the hatch swung open in two parts, a top half and bottom half. A solid-looking man with a red beard stepped out—Rothan Darshiell, most likely. He was wearing some sort of close-fitting suit, perhaps a flight suit, under a handsome Nehru-style overcloak, all deep blue. He placed one hand over his heart and bowed to the applauding crowd and then opened his arms as Ana Darcy ran to him. Uncle and niece, after all, thought Zimmer. It was sweet. Two other people emerged next, a tall, serious-looking man and a gorgeous brunette, both dressed like the uncle and with an aristocratic air about them. Ana embraced each in turn, with two air kisses for each. Those would be Herecyn Cymred and his wife, Ana’s sister, Ianthe.
The public address system wasn’t up to the task of rendering their speech intelligible, but then they wouldn’t have been speaking English anyway. Zimmer wasn’t worried: the cameras nearby would be capturing every detail and he could study it all later.
Ana introduced the three arrivals to the Secretary General and his party and stood to one side, evidently wiping away tears, while they shook hands, bowed, and otherwise greeted each other ceremonially. That done, they stepped to the podium and began making the predictable speeches. Rothan spoke briefly in halting English, with an accent that to Zimmer’s ears sounded eastern European or maybe Scandinavian somehow. Cymred and his wife also spoke. The younger man’s English was accented, but surprisingly good. Finally, the limousines pulled up behind them and the two groups began shaking hands and bowing all over again and getting in. The brunette, who had a penetratingly sharp face not unlike her sister, stepped to the open hatch of the shuttle and retrieved a small box, which she presented to one of the uniforms standing nearby. Then she too got into a limousine and the whole procession began moving down the flight line, headed for the United Nations building.
The uniformed man handed the box to a subordinate and stepped to the microphone. “Ambassador Darshiell has asked me to give everyone here a Thoman lapel pin in honor of this occasion. I must insist on order and good manners. If there is any rushing the line, I promise you, I will discontinue the process! Please file by one of these officers, and be patient. There are enough to go round. Thank you very much.”
That was a very savvy thing for the ambassador to do, thought Zimmer. He had a plane to catch in seventy five minutes, but he’d wait for his lapel pin. If he missed it, he’d take a later one.
As it turned out, he did miss his plane, but not because he was waiting for a souvenir—that took only about fifteen minutes. Instead, he remained in the stands to watch policemen cordon off the vehicle as various airport service trucks drove up. Cargo hatches in the rear of the thing opened—how? he wondered. Supposedly, all the occupants had been driven into the city. Quite a number of large cargo containers were offloaded and driven away, and the cargo hatches closed. Then the front hatch closed.
The guards stood around the vehicle in a large circle, watching the remaining people. Several camera crews were still filming too. Perhaps an hour after the limousines had departed, the humming began again, faintly. The guards didn’t seem surprised. It increased to a very noticeable level, and then the vehicle lifted off the ground. Who the hell was flying the thing? Zimmer would be sure to ask when he next saw Ana Darcy. It eased into the air twenty feet, forty feet, a hundred feet. It began rising faster, shrinking as it went. In four or five minutes he could no longer see it. There’d be no tour, dammit.
He’d been expecting trouble changing his flight, but the ticket agent was surprisingly understanding. She ventured it was easy to find him a seat on a flight because so many people had stayed in town to watch the visitors’ motorcade into the city. Apparently, not even the presence of the President or a summit conference of world leaders had ever tied up the city like it was this afternoon. She asked if she could touch the nifty lapel pin he was wearing, with its three circles on a bright blue background. If it impressed her, it also impressed him—one of the first few objects to come to earth from the people of another planet, a souvenir from his distant cousins!