Outside it was still dark and there were a few stars in the sky- unusually, for foggy, cloudy northern Virginia. I didn't think it was going to stay dark for long. I didn't have any good idea of the time, but a full moon was down near the western horizon and daybreak couldn't be far away.
Getting into the helicopter took a little longer than I would have guessed. The problem was Hilda's life-support system; we had to wait while they brought up the kind of lift they use to bring meals into passenger jets. She rolled her white box onto the lift, it elevated her, she rolled onto the chopper, two attendants guiding her. Then Patrice and I were allowed to board. The rotors began to turn before they'd finished strapping Hilda down, and we were airborne.
I had about a million more serious questions-really serious ones-on my mind, but I couldn't help it. First I had to clear up what she had said. "Patrice? You said Pat was married?"
As she was buckling herself in she paused to give me what struck me as an unsympathetic look, I could not guess why. "Pat One, you're talking about. Yes, she's definitely married. To Dan M.-M for mustache, see? That's what we call that particular Dan because he's got a mustache. He's the one who was with us on the prison planet. And Dan S.-the clean-shaved one, the one that never got there-he's married, too, to that little girl you were romancing from the theater. I guess all your other Dans have been taking all your old girlfriends out of circulation while you were away." She gave me a considering look. I wasn't sure what was in her mind, but what she said was, "Maybe you should tidy up that beard a little and keep it for a while, Dan. So we can tell you apart. We could call you Dan B., for beard."
She went on to explain some of the other problems of nomenclature for all us identical copies. She was still Patrice, just as Rosaleen had named her back on the prison planet. The Pat I had been thinking of as my own particular Pat was now called Pat One. The one who had been pregnant was still Pat Five (and no, she wasn't pregnant anymore; she had given birth to triplets, three little girls). And the Pat who had been returned to Earth with a bug in her head and never got to the prison planet with the rest of us had flatly refused to be given any number, so she was called P. J.
While she was telling me how to tell the Pats apart by sight- it had to do with the colors they wore-I remembered the important stuff. I broke in on her explanations with, "What about the Beloved Leaders?"
She looked startled, then relaxed. "I haven't heard them called that for a while. The Scarecrows, we call them now. What about them?"
"Jesus, Patrice! Nobody's said a word about them, but you must know they're planning to kill off a lot of people. Whatever you call them, why aren't you worried?"
She considered that for a moment. "Well, I do worry, a little bit, sometimes," she admitted, "but not much. The situation is under control, Dan. Honest. The Scarecrows call in every once in a while-lots of bluster, warnings, demands we let them come down to talk to us-but it's just talk. They sneaked in those damn submarines that caught a lot of people and bugged them a while ago-the same way I was, remember? So they could use the people as spies? But we've located most of those people and debugged them. The Scarecrows haven't done anything aggressive since then, not even their submarines."
I frowned. "How did you know they had subs on Earth?"
"Figured it out, Dan. All the bugged people turned out to have been at sea. The only Scarecrow object from the scout ship landed in the sea. Had to be. Only," she said without pleasure, "the damn things aren't easy to find. Every navy in the world's been looking. No luck. There was this one Turkish destroyer that thought it had one and depth-bombed it, only it turned out to be an Italian submarine. But nobody ever actually saw one-well, until you brought us yours, I mean. We don't even know how many of the things there are-probably at least a dozen-"
"Twenty-six," I said. "Twenty-five besides the one I brought in."
"Oh," she said, dampened. "Well, if you've got some way of locating them, probably they could be depth-bombed for real."
I stared at her. "Are you crazy? The subs aren't the problem. The Belov-The Scarecrow are the problem! They can wipe us out any time they like!"
She gave me a strangely indulgent look. "Not really, Dan. We know what they're capable of. Dopey told us. What he said," she went on, sounding a lot like a mother telling her two-year-old that there aren't really any monsters under the bed, "was that the Scarecrows could tweak a big near-Earth-passing asteroid out of its orbit and dump it on the Earth and kill us all that way. You know. Like the old KT event that killed the dinosaurs. Well, that's what Threat Watch is all about, Dan. You don't know what Threat Watch is, though, do you? It's what's been keeping us busy at the Observatory; I was working there, keeping track of all the findings, when they called me about you. Every decent telescope in the world is searching for objects with orbits that can come anywhere near us. We've mapped just about everything bigger than a panel truck for ten or twelve AU in every direction, whether they're asteroids or comets or can't-tell-which. I promise there's absolutely nothing big that's in an orbit that can come anywhere near hitting us for a minimum of two years. And there isn't any tweaking going on, either. Threat Watch hasn't found a single object that shows any signs of interference with its ballistic orbit."
I wasn't willing to be convinced. "All right, but that isn't the only weapon they've got, Patrice. They've turned some suns into novas-"
She was smiling tolerantly at me. "Our sun, Dan? You're not much of an astrophysicist, are you? Can't happen. Our sun isn't that kind of star."
She seemed so confident. I stared at her. "You're sure?"
"As sure as I can be. No, the asteroid impact is the only scenario that makes sense, and trust me, we've definitely got at least two years grace on that one, Dan. Every observatory's computer models agree on that."
Two years. I thought about two years for a bit. It was a lot better than no margin at all, but I couldn't help asking, "And then?"
She gave my hand a reassuring pat. "Ah, by then we'll be ready for them, Dan. There are big new spaceships building all over the world. Fighters. High-mass ships with plenty of delta-V. And weapons!"
I frowned. "So if the Scarecrows nudge an asteroid, we'll nudge it back?"
"Better than that, Dan. We're going to go after the poppa. I said 'fighters'; we've located the Scarecrows' scout ship, and when we're ready we'll go out and blow the damn thing up. Then we'll nudge any asteroid that looks like trouble out of the way." She gave my arm a friendly squeeze. "It's okay, Dan. Honest. We haven't just been sitting still and waiting for the bomb to hit. We'll be ready when the time comes."
So that was good news, right? If Patrice was correct, and she sounded really sure of herself, the human race wasn't just going to let itself be taken over or wiped out without a fight-exactly as I had boasted to Pirraghiz and Beert. But the funny thing was that it didn't feel as good as it ought to. I mean, to me personally. What it felt like was that I'd been filling myself full of magnolious notions of coming back a hero to save the world, and it wasn't looking that way at all. The damn situation seemed to be saving itself just fine without me.
While all that was soaking in I felt the chopper change course. A minute later the pilot got on the horn. "Folks," he said, his voice sounding peculiarly amused, "we're only a couple of I minutes from the Camp Smolley landing pad, but they've told us we have to orbit for a while. There seems to be some tricky traffic ahead of us. Matter of fact, if you look out of your left-hand windows, you can probably see it as we turn."
We did look, and boy, we saw it, all right. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. It was a giant blimp-copter, shaped like an immense fat sausage, its red and green lights blinking, and it was settling down toward the earth.
I don't mean I'd never seen blimp-copters before. Actually I'd even been in one, years earlier, when we were retrieving some wreckage for evidence from a bombed-out survivalist compound. This one was a whole lot bigger. In the early dawn light it looked like an airborne ocean liner, and the funniest part was that slung under it was some other large thing that was shrouded in tarpaulins. It took me a moment to figure it out, but then I sucked in my breath. "My God," I whispered. "That's my submarine!"
Up ahead Hilda was complaining furiously to the pilot because the way her life-support box was strapped down, she couldn't turn and look out. I didn't blame her. It was something to see.
The blimp-copter pilot seemed to be pretty good at his job. Slowly his whirly blades pulled the big bag down, jockeying this way and that, a meter or two at a time, until his load was resting on a wheeled metal cradle between two low buildings. Then the aircraft sat there without moving for two or three minutes. Nothing seemed to be happening, except that the envelope of the big sausage wrinkled and shrank a little, almost invisibly.
If I hadn't seen a blimp-copter in action before, I wouldn't have known what was going on, but I was able to explain it to Patrice, who had loosened her seat belt and leaned over me to get a better look. "He's pumping some of the helium back into the high-pressure tanks to cut the lift," I said into her ear. "Otherwise he wouldn't have neutral buoyancy when he lets go of the load, and the rotors couldn't handle it."
"Wow," she said, craning her neck. She was practically in my lap. It had been a long time since I had had so much woman so close, so warm and smelling so good. I put my hand on her shoulder-to steady her-and she turned her head to look quizzically up at me.
I thought-no, I still think-that what had crossed her mind just then was something about kissing. It certainly crossed mine. Kissing Pat Adcock had been a dream, yearned for most thoroughly for a long time, and now our lips were not much more than twenty centimeters apart.
They didn't get any closer. She didn't move any nearer and neither did I. She was Pat Adcock, all right, but she was a different Pat Adcock, and I couldn't sort that out.
Then the moment passed. The pilot was already on the horn again. "Okay, people, they say we can come in to land now. Make sure your seat belts are fastened, will you?" And Patrice straightened up and did as ordered. So did I, and that particular conundrum had to be set aside again.
The blimp-copter pilot had eased his big ship down another meter or two, until the cables that held his load went slack. Workmen on the ground had quickly released them, and the blimp-copter lifted and went sailing away into the sunrise. I lost sight of it as our own pilot was setting us down on the pad a few dozen meters away.
While we were waiting for somebody to bring up a forklift to get Hilda's box to the ground, I could see that the handlers had already hooked a little tractor to the cradle the sub was on. They weren't wasting any time. The machine was pulling the whole thing, sub and all, into a cavernous loading dock the size of a hotel ballroom.
As soon as we were off the chopper a couple of Bureau guards were waving us inside. Next to me Patrice stumbled and frowned; she was looking curiously toward the perimeter of Camp Smolley. Some sort of argument was going on there, Bureau guards and a couple of soldiers in unfamiliar blue berets yelling at each other. But what the squabble was about, I could not see.
The Bureau people weren't just beckoning us inside, they were rushing us inside. As soon as the sub and we were in the loading dock, its big steel door folded itself down to shut us off from the outside world, and the workmen began pulling the tarps off the submarine.