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AN OCCURRENCE EARLY ON A MARCH EVENING



Mullica never saw Selmon in Shoreview on weekends. Margery liked to go shopping in the big malls at Old Orchard and Golf Mill; Mullica had a Millionaires Club membership, and sometimes theyd sit there after shopping, sipping. Sometimes then Mullica would be able to just stare over Margerys shoulder and think about any number of things. At times, he thought of Selmon. He wondered if he hid in his home on weekends, and if he had found a wife, and, if so, how they got along. He wondered if Margery might run into her someday and if, by some coincidence, they might get friendly enough to talk about their husbands. But it seemed unlikely; Margery didnt get along with women.

And then it was early March, forty-two months since Selmon had turned up. Mullica stood on the platform, his hands deep in his pockets. It was a cold, raw day. He watched Selmon stubbornly unfolding his paper against the wind, and clutching it open as he began to read. Then, just as their train began to pull into the station, Selmon saw something in the paper that made him turn his face toward Mullica in the twilight in a white blur of dismay, his mouth a dark open oval, and Mullica thought for a minute Selmon had felt a vessel exploding in his brain.

The train pulled up and Mullica stepped aboard. He moved down the aisle and took a seat next to a window. He looked out at Selmons spot as the train passed by it, thinking he might see Selmon lying there huddled in a crowd, but he wasnt there.

Mullica put his zipcase across his knees and opened his paper, sitting there reading from front to back as he always did, while the train crossed the river toward the Merchandise Mart. He stopped to look eastward along the river, as he always did, year round, enjoying the changing light of the seasons on the buildings and the water and horizon. The riverfront buildings were just turning into boxes of nested light, their upper story glass still reflecting the last streaks of dying pink from the sunset, and the stars were beginning to appear in the purplish black sky above the lake.

Page two had the story:

Not-So-Ancient Astronauts? THING IN JERSEY SWAMP IS SAUCER, EXPERT SAYS

PHILADELPHIA, MARCH 9 (AP) Swamp-draining crews in New Jersey may have found a spaceship, declared scientist Allen Wolverton today.

Authorities on the spot immediately denied that old bog land being readied for a housing development held anything mysterious.

Local authorities agreed a domed, metal object, fifty feet across, was dragged from the soil being reclaimed from Atlantic coastal marshes. They quickly pointed out, however, that there is a long history of people living in the swamps, described as the last rural area remaining on the Eastern Seaboard between Boston and Virginia.

The area was populated and prosperous in Colonial times, the center of a thriving bog iron mining industry. Local experts were quick to point to this as the likely source of the object, citing it as some sort of machinery or a storage bin.

There was whole towns and stagecoach stops back in there once, said Henry Stemmler, operator of a nearby crossroads grocery store. Big wagon freight yards and everything. Theres all kinds of old stuff down in the bogs.

Dissenting is Wolverton, a lecturer at Philadelphias Franklin Planetarium. Our earth is only one of thousands of inhabitable planets, he declared. Statistically, the galaxy must hold other intelligent races. It would be unreasonable to suppose at least one of them isnt visiting us and surreptitiously observing our progress toward either an enlightened civilization of peace and love or total self-destruction.

There was a blurred two-column wire photo of two men standing in some underbrush, staring at a curved shape protruding from the ground. There were no clearly defined features, and the objects outline was broken by blending into the angular forms of a dredge in the background. It might have been anything the lid of a large silo, part of an underground oil tank, or the work of a retouchers brush. In fact, the papers picture editor had obviously decided the wire photo would reproduce badly and had his artist do some outlining and filling. So the result was a considerable percentage away from reality.

Mullica read the other stories on the page, and on the next page, and turned it.

It was night when the train reached Borrow Street full dark, with only a few working bulbs in chipped old white enamel lamps to light the winter-soaked, rotting old wooden platform.

Its all going to hell, Mullica thought. No one maintains anything that isnt absolutely vital, but the fare keeps going up and up.

No one manned the station except during morning rush hour on the southbound side. The cement steps from the northbound platform up to the frontage street were a forty-foot gravel slide with broken reinforcing bars protruding through it rustily to offer the best footholds.

Mullica began to move toward the exit gates in the middle of the platform, lining up with the others whod gotten off. They were all head-down, huddling against the wind, concentrating their minds on getting through the revolving metal combs of the gate and picking their way up the incline. And then because he had not quite put it all out of his mind, and his skin was tight under the hairs of his body, he had the feeling to turn his head. When he did, he saw Selmon still standing where he had gotten off, his paper half-raised toward Mullica, his apparition coming and going in the passing window lights as the train went on. Mullica could see he was about to call out a name nobody knew.

Mullica stopped, and the small crowd flowed around him inattentively. He walked back to Selmon. Theyll find us! Selmon blurted. Theyll trace us down!

Mullica looked at him carefully. Then he said How will they do that? picking and arranging the words with care, the language blocky on his tongue. He watched Selmon breathe spasmodically, his mouth quivering. He saw that Selmon was years younger than he though they were the same age and soft. And yet there was advanced deterioration in him. It was in the shoulders and the set of the head, and very much in the eyes, as well. Selmon clutched at his arm as they stood alone on the platform. Selmons hand moved more rapidly than one would expect, but slowly for one of their kind of people, and uncertainly.

Arvan, its bound to happen, Selmon insisted to him. They they have evidence. He pushed the paper forward. Mullica ignored it.

No, Selmon, he said as calmly as he could. They wont know what to do with it. Theres nothing they can learn from it. The engines melted themselves, and we destroyed the instruments before we left it, remember?

But they have the hull, Arvan! Real metal you can touch; hit with a hammer. A real piece of evidence. How can they ignore that?

Come on. Their investigators constantly lie to their own populace and file their secrets away. They systematically ridicule anyone who wants to look for us, and they defame them. Mullica was trying to think of how to deal with this all. He wanted Selmon to cross over to the deserted southbound platform and go home to his wife. Mullica wanted to go home; even to have a drink with Margery, and then sit in his den reading the specification sheets on the new product. It was some twenty-five years since hed been a navigator.

Arvan, what are we going to do? How can you ignore this? Selmon wouldnt let go of Mullicas forearm, and his grip was epileptically tight. He peered up into Mullicas face. Youre old, Arvan, he accused. You look like one of them. That haircut. Those clothes. All mod. A middle-aged macho. Youre becoming like them!

I live among them.

I should have spoken to you years ago!

You shouldnt be speaking to me at all. Why are you here? Theres the entire United States. Theres the whole world, if you can find your way across a border. A whole world, just a handful of us, and you stay here!

Selmon shook his head. I was in Oakland for a long time. Then I bumped into Hanig on a street in San Francisco. He told me to go away, too.

He spoke to you? Mullica asked sharply.

He had to. He he wanted me out of there. Hed been in the area less time than I had, but he had a business, and a family, and I was alone.

A family.

He married a widow with children and a store a fish store. So I agreed to leave. He gave me some money, and I came to Chicago.

Well, if navigators could write public relations copy, copilots could sell fish. What did engineering officers do to make their way in this world? Mullica wondered, but Selmon gave him no opportunity to ask.

Hanig had seen Captain Ravashan. In passing. He didnt think Ravashan saw him. In Denver. That was why he left there and came to San Francisco. And then I came to Chicago, and almost the first week, I saw you. I I think were too much alike when we react to this world. We wander toward the same places, and move in the same ways.

Does anyone know where the chaplain is? Mullica asked quickly.

Chaplain Joro? Selmon asked. He and Mullica looked into each others eyes. No, I dont think theres much doubt, and for a moment there was a bond of complete understanding between the two of them. Mullica nodded. For over a quarter of a century, he saw, Selmon as well as he had reflected on the matter. It had seemed to him for a long time that there were only four of them now.

Selmon looked up at him in weariness. Its no use, Arvan. I He hung his head. I have a good job. It doesnt pay much but I dont need much, and its secure. So I decided to stay. You never asked me to leave. There were tears in his eyes. Im very tired, Arvan, he whispered, and Mullica saw the guilt in him, waiting to be punished.

But there was no telling whether any engineering officer could have solved the problem with the engines. Mullica had never thought much of Selmon, but Ditlo Ravashan never questioned his ability in front of the rest of them, and there hadnt been any backbiting after the crash.

This isnt anything, Selmon. Therell be a flurry, but itll blow over. Somebodyll write another one of those books that planetarium lecturer, probably and everyone with any common sense will laugh at it.

But theyve never had evidence before! He was almost beating at Mullica with his newspaper, waving his free arm. Now they do!

How do you know what they have or havent had? They must have. They have enough films, and enough unexplained things in their history. They must have other pieces of crashed or jettisoned equipment, too. They just dont know how to deal with them. And they wont know how to deal with this, either.

Arvan! An intact hull, and instruments obviously destroyed after the landing! A ship buried in a swamp. Buried, Arvan not driven into the ground. And five empty crew seats behind an open hatch!

A hull full of mud. If they ever shovel it all out, itll be weeks and all those weeks, their bureaucracy will be working on everyone to forget it.

Arvan, I dont understand you! Dont you care?

Care? I was a navigator in the stars.

And what are you now?

What are you, Selmon? Mullica pushed him away, but Selmon still clung to his arm. They staggered on the platform.

Arvan, we have to plan. We have to find the others and plan together, he begged, weeping.

Four of us together, Mullica said, saying the number aloud for the first time, hearing his voice harsh and disgusted, aching deeper in his throat than he had become accustomed to speaking. So they can have us all a complete operating crew. An engineer, a navigator who knows the courses, a pilot, and a copilot lifesystems man. To go with the hull and their industrial capacity. You want us to get together, so they can find us and break out uncontrolled in our domains.

Four men with similarly odd configurations of their wrists and ankles. Four men with similar skin texture. Four men with high blood pressure and a normal body temperature of 100; with hundreds of idiosyncrasies in cell structure, blood typing, and, most certainly, chromosome structure. Four such men in a room, secretively discussing something vital in a language no one spoke.

Arvan!

Goddamn it, Selmon, let go of me! Mullica shouted in English. Fuck off!

Selmon jerked backward. He stared as if Mullica had slashed his throat, and as he stepped backward he pushed Mullica away, pushing himself back. His mouth was open again.

Hopeless, hopeless, Mullica thought, trying to regain his balance so he could reach for Selmon, watching Selmons wounded eyes, his newspaper fanning open ridiculously, stepping back with one heel on thin air.

He hit the tracks with a gasping outcry. Mullica jumped forward and looked down. Selmon sat sprawled over the rails, his paper scattered over the ties, in the greasy mud and the creosote-stained ballast, looking up at Mullica with the wind knocked out of him. The distant lights and violet sputtering of the next train were coming up the track from the previous station. Mullica squatted down to reach for him, holding out his hand. Selmon fumbled to push himself up, staring at Mullica. Neither spoke. Groping for something firm to grasp, Selmon put his hand on the third rail.

The flash and the gunlike crack threw Mullica down flat on the platform, nearly blind. But I think I will still be able to see him anytime, Mullica thought in his native language as he threw himself up to his feet and ran, ran faster than anyone had ever seen Jack Mullica run, caroming through the exit gate and up the weathered steps, realizing he had never at any time let go of his zipcase, and thinking, Now we are three.


PRELUDE TO EVENTS EARLY ON A MARCH EVENING | Hard Landing | TRANSCRIBED CONVERSATION; ALBERT CAMUS; WILLIAM HENSHAW: