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The Good Neighbors

The Good Neighbors

From: The Good Neighbors

You can't blame an alien for
a little inconvenience--as
long as he makes up for it!

The ship was sighted a few times, briefly and without a good fix. It was
spherical, the estimated diameter about twenty-seven miles, and was in
an orbit approximately 3400 miles from the surface of the Earth. No one
observed the escape from it.

The ship itself occasioned some excitement, but back there at the
tattered end of the 20th century, what was one visiting spaceship more
or less? Others had appeared before, and gone away discouraged--or just
not bothering. 3-dimensional TV was coming out of the experimental
stage. Soon anyone could have Dora the Doll or the Grandson of Tarzan
smack in his own living-room. Besides, it was a hot summer.

The first knowledge of the escape came when the region of Seattle
suffered an eclipse of the sun, which was not an eclipse but a near
shadow, which was not a shadow but a thing. The darkness drifted out of
the northern Pacific. It generated thunder without lightning and without
rain. When it had moved eastward and the hot sun reappeared, wind
followed, a moderate gale. The coast was battered by sudden high waves,
then hushed in a bewilderment of fog.

Before that appearance, radar had gone crazy for an hour.

The atmosphere buzzed with aircraft. They went up in readiness to shoot,
but after the first sighting reports only a few miles offshore, that
order was vehemently canceled--someone in charge must have had a grain
of sense. The thing was not a plane, rocket or missile. It was an

If you shoot an animal that resembles an inflated gas-bag with wings,
and the wingspread happens to be something over four miles tip to tip,
and the carcass drops on a city--it's not nice for the city.

The Office of Continental Defense deplored the lack of precedent. But
actually none was needed. You just don't drop four miles of dead or
dying alien flesh on Seattle or any other part of a swarming homeland.
You wait till it flies out over the ocean, if it will--the most
commodious ocean in reach.

It, or rather she, didn't go back over the Pacific, perhaps because of
the prevailing westerlies. After the Seattle incident she climbed to a
great altitude above the Rockies, apparently using an updraft with very
little wing-motion. There was no means of calculating her weight, or
mass, or buoyancy. Dead or injured, drift might have carried her
anywhere within one or two hundred miles. Then she seemed to be
following the line of the Platte and the Missouri. By the end of the day
she was circling interminably over the huge complex of St. Louis,
hopelessly crying.

She had a head, drawn back most of the time into the bloated mass of the
body but thrusting forward now and then on a short neck not more than
three hundred feet in length. When she did that the blunt turtle-like
head could be observed, the gaping, toothless, suffering mouth from
which the thunder came, and the soft-shining purple eyes that searched
the ground but found nothing answering her need. The skin-color was
mud-brown with some dull iridescence and many peculiar marks resembling
weals or blisters. Along the belly some observers saw half a mile of
paired protuberances that looked like teats.

She was unquestionably the equivalent of a vertebrate. Two web-footed
legs were drawn up close against the cigar-shaped body. The vast, rather
narrow, inflated wings could not have been held or moved in flight
without a strong internal skeleton and musculature. Theorists later
argued that she must have come from a planet with a high proportion of
water surface, a planet possibly larger than Earth though of about the
same mass and with a similar atmosphere. She could rise in Earth's air.
And before each thunderous lament she was seen to breathe.

It was assumed that immense air sacs within her body were inflated or
partly inflated when she left the ship, possibly with some gas lighter
than nitrogen. Since it was inconceivable that a vertebrate organism
could have survived entry into atmosphere from an orbit 3400 miles up,
it was necessary to believe that the ship had briefly descended,
unobserved and by unknown means, probably on Earth's night-side. Later
on the ship did descend as far as atmosphere, for a moment ...

St. Louis was partly evacuated. There is no reliable estimate of the
loss of life and property from panic and accident on the jammed roads
and rail lines. 1500 dead, 7400 injured is the conservative figure.

After a night and a day she abandoned that area, flying heavily
eastward. The droning and swooping gnats of aircraft plainly distressed
her. At first she had only tried to avoid them, but now and then during
her eastward flight from St. Louis she made short desperate rushes
against them, without skill or much sign of intelligence, screaming from
a wide-open mouth that could have swallowed a four-engine bomber. Two
aircraft were lost over Cincinnati, by collision with each other in
trying to get out of her way. Pilots were then ordered to keep a
distance of not less than ten miles until such time as she reached the
Atlantic--if she did--when she could safely be shot down.

She studied Chicago for a day.

By that time Civil Defense was better prepared. About a million
residents had already fled to open country before she came, and the loss
of life was proportionately smaller. She moved on. We have no clue to
the reason why great cities should have attracted her, though
apparently they did. She was hungry perhaps, or seeking help, or merely
drawn in animal curiosity by the endless motion of the cities and the
strangeness. It has even been suggested that the life forms of her
homeland--her masters--resembled humanity. She moved eastward, and
religious organizations united to pray that she would come down on one
of the lakes where she could safely be destroyed. She didn't.

She approached Pittsburgh, choked and screamed and flew high, and soared
in weary circles over Buffalo for a day and a night. Some pilots who had
followed the flight from the West Coast claimed that the vast
lamentation of her voice was growing fainter and hoarser while she was
drifting along the line of the Mohawk Valley. She turned south,
following the Hudson at no great height. Sometimes she appeared to be
choking, the labored inhalations harsh and prolonged, like a cloud in

When she was over Westchester, headquarters tripled the swarm of
interceptors and observation planes. Squadrons from Connecticut and
southern New Jersey deployed to form a monstrous funnel, the small end
before her, the large end pointing out to open sea. Heavy bombers closed
in above, laying a smoke screen at 10,000 feet to discourage her from
rising. The ground shook with the drone of jets, and with her crying.

Multitudes had abandoned the metropolitan area. Other multitudes trusted
to the subways, to the narrow street canyons and to the strength of
concrete and steel. Others climbed to a thousand high places and
watched, trusting the laws of chance.

She passed over Manhattan in the evening--between 8:14 and 8:27 P.M.,
July 16, 1976--at an altitude of about 2000 feet. She swerved away from
the aircraft that blanketed Long Island and the Sound, swerved again as
the southern group buzzed her instead of giving way. She made no attempt
to rise into the sun-crimsoned terror of drifting smoke.

The plan was intelligent. It should have worked, but for one fighter
pilot who jumped the gun.

He said later that he himself couldn't understand what happened. It was
court-martial testimony, but his reputation had been good. He was Bill
Green--William Hammond Green--of New London, Connecticut, flying a
one-man jet fighter, well aware of the strictest orders not to attack
until the target had moved at least ten miles east of Sandy Hook. He
said he certainly had no previous intention to violate orders. It was
something that just happened in his mind. A sort of mental sneeze.

His squadron was approaching Rockaway, the flying creature about three
miles ahead of him and half a mile down. He was aware of saying out loud
to nobody: "Well, she's too big." Then he was darting out of formation,
diving on her, giving her one rocket-burst and reeling off to the south
at 840 MPH.

He never did locate or rejoin his squadron, but he made it somehow back
to his home field. He climbed out of the cockpit, they say, and fell
flat on his face.

It seems likely that his shot missed the animal's head and tore through
some part of her left wing. She spun to the left, rose perhaps a
thousand feet, facing the city, sideslipped, recovered herself and
fought for altitude. She could not gain it. In the effort she collided
with two of the following planes. One of them smashed into her right
side behind the wing, the other flipped end over end across her back,
like a swatted dragonfly. It dropped clear and made a mess on Bedloe's

She too was falling, in a long slant, silent now but still living. After
the impact her body thrashed desolately on the wreckage between
Lexington and Seventh Avenues, her right wing churning, then only
trailing, in the East River, her left wing a crumpled slowly deflating
mass concealing Times Square, Herald Square and the garment district.

At the close of the struggle her neck extended, her turtle beak grasping
the top of Radio City. She was still trying to pull herself up, as the
buoyant gasses hissed and bubbled away through the gushing holes in her
side. Radio City collapsed with her.

For a long while after the roar of descending rubble and her own roaring
had ceased, there was no human noise except a melancholy thunder of the

The apology came early next morning.

The spaceship was observed to descend to the outer limits of atmosphere,
very briefly. A capsule was released, with a parachute timed to open at
40,000 feet and come down quite neatly in Scarsdale. Parachute, capsule
and timing device were of good workmanship.

The communication engraved on a plaque of metal (which still defies
analysis) was a hasty job, the English slightly odd, with some evidence
of an incomplete understanding of the situation. That the visitors were
themselves aware of these deficiencies is indicated by the text of the
message itself.

Most sadly regret inexcusable escape of livestock. While
petting same, one of our children monkied (sp?) with airlock.
Will not happen again. Regret also imperfect grasp of
language, learned through what you term Television etc.
Animal not dangerous, but observe some accidental damage
caused, therefore hasten to enclose reimbursement, having
taken liberty of studying your highly ingenious methods of
exchange. Hope same will be adequate, having estimated
deplorable inconvenience to best of ability. Regret
exceedingly impossibility of communicating further, as
pressure of time and prior obligations forbids. Please accept
heartfelt apologies and assurances of continuing esteem.

The reimbursement was in fact properly enclosed with the plaque, and may
be seen by the public in the rotunda of the restoration of Radio City.
Though technically counterfeit, it looks like perfectly good money,
except that Mr. Lincoln is missing one of his wrinkles and the words
"FIVE DOLLARS" are upside down.

Next: A Strange Awakening

Previous: As Long As You Wish

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