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Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy, June, 1956
A small desert town didn’t seem a likely
place to encounter murder—especially one that
had been planned on a world light years away!
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Mystery at Mesa Flat
By Ivar Jorgensen
The murder was committed ten minutes before the Otarkian ship lifted for the long trip back to the mother-planet. It was discovered ten minutes after blast off. The killer—a great lout of an upper-hillman, signed on the last moment to fill a sudden vacancy—bragged of the kill to his sergeant.
Bragged grinning. “He was crouched behind a rock peeking out at the ship. I came behind him—very quiet. I broke his neck and—and did other things. He never knew what happened.”
The guard was rushed immediately before the Commander—into the dread Presence. The Commander’s eyes were terrible but his voice remained soft. “You know by what a slim thread our invasion plans hang?”
“You know that utter secrecy has been our key from the start?”
“I just wanted to make sure before I execute you in the name of the Supreme Otarkian Council.”
The Commander drew his gun and aimed accurately. The guard died bravely.
And that was that.
But there was worry. The Commander consulted with the Second. “It would be wise to return.”
The Second calculated time. “It would be high noon back there before we could set down.”
“We could wait for darkness.”
“But fifteen hours of daylight would have elapsed.”
“It is a lonely place.”
“But if a trap were set.”
The Second considered. “When the body is discovered—what will it reveal? Nothing definite. No chain of logic could point to us.”
The Commander frowned. “But success depends so completely upon secrecy. If the experiment is successful—”
“It will be, sir.”
“I hope so. Hold your course for home….”
The body of Mack Styles was found at two o’clock that afternoon. By Tom Brazier and Frank Brooks, in a secluded spot on the Arizona desert. After he hadn’t reported in they had gone out in a jeep to check up. They saw Mack’s jeep nosing up out of a pocket as though peering at a white alkali flat just beyond.
They rounded the pocket and found Mack and both of them got suddenly sick and strove to hide their shock from each other.
Brazier said, “Jesus!” The word was both a curse and a prayer.
“What could have hit him?”
“Look at his legs. Broken—mangled. Like through a machine!”
“A gorilla could do that.”
Brazier forebore the obvious retort and walked out onto the alkali flat. He stopped in its center and turned slowly, his eyes searching. They found nothing. He went to the edge of the flat and began circling it slowly. In four places there were marks in the dust. The marks formed the four corners of a huge square. Something might have set down there but you couldn’t be sure. Probably dust-marks left by the swirling wind-devils that danced across the desert like miniature cyclones.
“There’s a town over there.”
Tom Brazier looked up quickly. Frank Brooks had come to stand by his side and was pointing off through a declivity in the rocks.
“Damned if there isn’t. Ever see it before?”
“I think so. Isn’t it the same town that lies about two miles off the Notched Butte road? The direction’s about right.”
They were Security men from the camp forty miles southwest; Brazier the senior, gave the orders. As they started back, toward the jeep, he said, “Call in and make the report.”
“We aren’t waiting?”
“No. We’ll move on to that town.”
“But we looked it over a week ago.”
Tom Brazier frowned. “I know, but—”
“There’s something funny about that town—something wrong.”
“I couldn’t see anything wrong with it.”
Tom Brazier’s eyes were vague. “I had it checked.”
This surprised Brooks. “You didn’t mention it before.”
“No. Nothing to mention, really. Something I can’t quite put my finger on.”
“Looks like a pretty old settlement.”
“It is. It began as a mining town back in 1890. Some silver veins out in the hills. They ran out though and the place became a ghost town shortly afterwards.”
“A short life and happy one.”
“Short, anyhow. After the silver piddled out they all left except one or two old sand fleas. Since then it became a stop-over place for casuals.”
“But there must be forty or fifty people there now. Where did they come from?”
“Drifted in the last few years I suppose.”
“If you have any suspicions, we ought to check. Even if they can’t be from outer space.”
“I took a spot check,” Brazier said grimly. “The old coot who runs the hotel came originally from El Paso. A couple of the old uranium hunters rang true on background.” There was a pause as they climbed the slope. Then Brazier’s frown deepened. “But it isn’t the people—they’re not what bothers me.”
Brazier’s voice was sharp. “I don’t know, damn it!”
Brooks was surprised. “All right—all right. Don’t bite me about it. I’ll send the message….”
They were silent as Brooks turned the jeep and nosed it over the broken country toward the village. Silent, but each occupied with his own grim thoughts; thoughts concerning things the nation had not been told; that the flying saucer joke was no longer that but a very serious matter. Certain facts had come to light and had been discussed in high-level conference and they added up to good reason for panic. Creatures from outer space were hovering over the planet. They were hostile and they wanted to take Earth over.
All the revelations were not catastrophic however if considered comparatively. Fortunately, the aliens, while advanced and of superior intelligence, had physical characteristics that set them apart. They could not put down and lose themselves among the planet’s population. Also, they did not appear able to overwhelm with superior weapons. Still, they were vicious, crafty, and their coming could mean the end of Terran freedom.
Brooks rolled the jeep past a tilted sign reading, ‘Mesa Flats—Pop. 21‘. The lettering, very old, was almost obliterated.
Another ancient sign hanging over one of the false fronts said, Elkhorn Hotel. Brooks pulled up and the two Security men climbed out. Two ancient desert specimens sat in tilted-back chairs on the porch. One of them stirred enough ambition to turn his head. The other went on chewing tobacco and stared out across the desert.
Inside an equally leather-faced oldster presided behind the desk. He said, “Howdy, men,” and extended a battered pencil across the register.
Tom Brazier signed. Frank Brooks looked about, trying to find something wrong. Failing in this he tried to conjure up the uneasy feeling that something might be wrong. He failed again. He said, “How long have you been running this place, Pop?”
“Nigh onto ten years now. And the name’s Frank Sibley, son. Never did get me a wife so o’course I ain’t nobody’s pop.”
Frank Brooks grinned but as there was no rancor in the oldster’s tone he didn’t apologize.
“How is the food in the restaurant?” Tom Brazier asked.
“Fair to middlin’. Frijoles and beans. Ain’t nobody can spoil frijoles and beans.”
“That’s what you think,” Brooks said.
“A couple of days, maybe,” Brazier told him. “Thought we might scout the hills. If the area looks right we might bring in some small uranium equipment.”
“Good luck. Your room’s to the head of the stairs—second door on the right.”
They went out and moved slowly down the street. There were people but they seemed used to strangers. There were desert-worn women, sun blackened children, leather-faced men.
The two Security men had been silent. Now Frank Brooks spoke suddenly. “If you’re thinking about Quislings or traitors, Tom, it just doesn’t make sense. These people aren’t intelligent enough. An invader would go where—”
“I’m not thinking about that. Let’s eat.”
They went into the restaurant and were served by a fat woman who waddled back and forth from the kitchen, wedging herself through the doorway each time. The food was acceptable, exactly what could be expected in a place like this.
Outside again, Tom Brazier stopped suddenly in the middle of the hot street.
“What’s wrong?” Brooks added.
“Damn it! Damn it all to hell! I don’t know! And I should know! I came back here to find out and I still know something’s wrong but I can’t spot it.”
Frank Brooks was concerned. “Tom, are you sure you’re not just all tightened up about this whole deal?”
“No, I’m not. Look here—didn’t you ever go through a place and remember it later as being—well, not quite right? Something you missed, maybe?”
“I’m afraid I’m not the sensitive type but I get what you mean. Then again, though, it might be an illusion of some kind. You might have the place mixed up subconsciously with another place of this kind you’ve seen.”
“Maybe. Let’s take a walk around the whole town—look at it from all angles.”
They walked. They climbed into the jeep and rode the slopes and the arroyos. No one paid any attention to them. No one bothered them. They spent the day and returned to town and ate again in the bleak little restaurant. The same woman pushed endlessly through the too-narrow doorway. When they went to their room the lamp cast such an unsatisfactory light that they put it out and went to bed.
This arrangement satisfied Frank Brooks completely. He was bone tired and sound asleep as soon as he hit the bed.
But not for long. He was awakened almost immediately, it seemed, by a prodding hand. He rolled over. “Whazza mat—?”
“I’ve got it!”
“You got what?”
Tom Brazier did not appear to hear him. Brazier stood tensely beside the bed holding the lighted lamp. His eyes were bright and hard.
“They couldn’t have been left here alone—without some kind of guidance—some means of command. There has to be something. Get your clothes on.”
Brooks was out of bed dragging at his pants. “Okay, okay. If you’re going nuts, I might as well go with you. But what the hell will we be looking for?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of a machine maybe.”
They were in the hall moving quietly through the darkness. “Anything like that would probably be in a cellar or basement somewhere wouldn’t it?”
“You’d think so. Under the biggest building I imagine.”
“That’s right here—the hotel.”
“Let’s look for a door.”
They hunted quietly, making the sparest use of the pocket flashes they carried clipped in their breast pockets. But they found no cellar door, no basement entrance, and ascertained, finally, that the building stood on solid ground.
“We’ll have to check the other ones,” Brazier said.
They found what they were looking for under the restaurant. They broke in through the back door and found a trap behind the counter. Brazier lifted it.
A soft blue glow lit the narrow stairway and they went downward into a steel-walled room in the center of which stood a shining machine. Though inanimate, the bright metal monster seemed to possess a life force. Electrical impulses chuckled and muttered behind the glowing bulbs and dials that created mysterious profiles on its surface.
“Well I’ll be damned!” Frank Brooks muttered. “You figured it was here. We looked for it—and found it! Now what I want to know is—”
“We’ve got to make a report. Let’s just hope we get out of here alive.”
Brooks felt no great concern on this score. He was sure they had not been seen. He closed the trap and followed Tom Brazier out the back door. And stopped short.
They were all there—the inhabitants of Mesa Flat—the young, the old, the men and the women. They stood in a quiet semicircle around the rear of the building. There was no indignation upon their faces, no anger in the group, no fury in the desert town. Only a silence that chilled Frank Brooks; quiet, set faces; bodies that began moving slowly forward tightening the semicircle.
Frank Brooks saw Tom Brazier’s hand go under his coat and Brooks still couldn’t believe it. Not shoot them down.
Brazier fired point blank at the nearest man.
In a seeming daze, Frank Brooks stared. Two slugs, dead center in the chest, but the man came on. Shuddered slightly from the impact. But came on.
Then Brazier was bellowing, “For crisake! Don’t stand there! Defend yourself!” and Frank Brooks came out of his daze and was also firing—at people who kept coming on until it was all nothing but a nightmare.
Brazier’s target was now reaching forth a pair of steady arms, reaching with hands that would grip and kill.
Brazier fired desperately. “They’ve got to be vulnerable somewhere!” he yelled. “Somewhere you wouldn’t expect.”
He found the spot by chance. A desert rat’s hands were upon him when his gun exploded for what would have had to be the last time. The slug went downward. The desert rat stopped, then crumpled slowly to the ground.
“The left thigh,” Brazier cried. “That’s where the control is. Shoot for their left thighs!”
Brooks stopped the fat woman from the restaurant as her hands tightened on his throat. He shook his head to clear his brain and found Brazier had blasted a path through the solid mass in front.
“Run!” Brazier shouted. “The hell with the jeep! Just run!”
They dissected one of the bodies at the camp; standing around in a silent group; stunned by the complete reality of the thing.
“It even has a kind of blood.” The Commanding Officer said. “The analysis will be interesting.”
Frank Brooks pointed at the body. “That’s not actually flesh? Not skin or bones?”
“Yes, and no,” the Commanding officer said. “They’re synthetics but possibly as good as our own.”
“Putting the control unit in the leg was a master touch,” Tom Brazier said.
The Commanding Officer, noting the tight faces about him, laid down his scalpel and said, “This throws a grave light on the situation of course, but it isn’t as bad as it seems. In fact, the discovery turns the tide in our favor. Obviously they came down some years ago and did away with the residents of Mesa Flat when there was possibly only a handful of people in the village. These they recreated in the form of androids through a process we are not familiar with and then began adding to the population by feeding in more androids. Maybe there were more than just a few natives in the beginning because our spot check caught four authentic backgrounds.”
“But if they can create human beings—” Frank Brooks said.
“The main thing is they evidently cannot destroy us by frontal assault. Thus this attempt at infiltration. Obviously the project is in its experimental stage. And knowing what to look for, we can take it from here.”
The commanding Officer smiled at Frank Brooks and Tom Brazier. “Good work, you two.”
“But I had nothing to do with it, sir,” Frank Brooks said. “The meeting’s adjourned….”
Outside, Frank Brooks turned on his partner. “I had no right to any of the credit. Why didn’t you let me say it?”
“You said it,” Brazier grinned.
“Besides—it was a team job.”
“Like hell! I don’t even know what tipped you off. You had no reason to jump out of bed in the middle of the night and go hunting for that machine. Or did you?”
“Remember when I said there was something wrong with that town?”
“I remember, but—”
“Figure it out. The original life of the town was only a few months, so up to that time it had a right to be without one.”
“Without one what?”
“But with a continuous population for ten years, it certainly should have had one.”
“One what, damn it?”
Brooks mouth dropped open. “Say—that’s right. There wasn’t a tombstone anywhere around!”
Tom Brazier was grinning. “So the superintelligent aliens defeated themselves by being too meticulously careful. They destroyed the bodies of the natives they killed and tripped themselves up.”
“When all they had to do to really camouflage the layout was to bury them.”
“They ought to give you a medal, man!” Frank Brooks said fervently.
“I’ll settle for a cup of coffee. Come on.”
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