he room was dark, except for the telescreen, which showed the head and shoulders of a man almost completely bald, with sagging pink jowls, and who bore a remarkable resemblance to a twentieth century retired chief of police, Dan Stevens flicked the ashes from his cigarette and glared menacingly at the pink jowls.
"I am--and I have no doubt in my mind that you are already cognizant of the fact--due for a vacation," he replied in phrasing carefully calculated to arouse the ire of Commander Gorham of the Interplanetary Relations Bureau.
"You haven't even heard what your assignment is to be," blustered the angry Commander,
"l am taking my vacation, which has, incidentally, been interrupted every year for the past three years," stated Dan evenly. "Your assignment can wait."
"Wait! This is the biggest event in the history of Earth!"
"Nothing, in .my mind, is more important than my vacation," Dan replied, lifting his left eyebrow at the telescreen.
"Dan Stevens, get over here right now, and no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes," blared Commander Gorham, his patience obviously worn thin, "Good- bye."
Dan snapped off the telescreen, and as the image of Commander Gorham faded, he clapped on his hat and stalked out the door.
"Sit down, Dan, and listen," Commander Gorham ordered. "For centuries men have written of invasions from outer space. Well, their stories have come true."
"You mean earth is about to be invaded?" gasped Dan, unbelieving'.
ot going to be--is," amended the commander. "By Martians. We could be working with them, pass them on the street and think they're Earthmen."
''Isn't there any thing different about them?" queried Dan, "Like having a different number of teeth or something? It would help if they were scaley green monsters. At least we'd have something to go on."
"Long ago we learned that it would take a doctor to tell the difference. The blasted things have two hearts. The gravity on Mars is much lighter than ours, and a lot of atmosphere has drifted away. They need two hearts to pump the blood fast enough to absorb all the oxygen necessary to keep them alive."
"But how are they invading us? They can't just wipe us out with one bombing; Earth would fight back. We have more advanced weapons. Mars doesn't stand a chance."
"Indoctrination and infiltration," replied the commander grimly, "They win people over to them before the poor guys even find out that they are Martians. If they succeed, we won't have a democracy left on Earth."
"You win. How do I start?"
"That's up to you, Dan. I have no more of an idea than anyone else."
Dan was walking slowly out the door when he suddenly remembered something.
"Hey, what about my vacation?"
"You beat this and you can take a year off--with pay."
an contemplated the advisability of breaking his dale with Claire, and decided against it. Once he started working on the invasion he would have almost no time with her. He glanced at his watch.
"Hum," he murmured, "It's 8:20 now. That gives me forty minutes."
As he selected a shirt of blue skylon, he hummed a snatch from a song currently popular with small boys and interplanetary relations men. He surveyed his countenance in the mirror. "Dan, you handsome hunk of virility, it's no wonder the old bulldog chose you," he told himself with authority. It didn't help much. He was still unsure of himself. "Why, out of all the men in the whole bureau, did be have to pick me? Why couldn't he leave me alone?"
y the time he reached Claire's apartment, he was becoming more resigned. He stopped for a moment, engrossed in the black and gold checker board on the front of the building where the moon shone through the lattice-work, and then walked toward the door. Carefully placing the heel of one foot against the toe of the other in the age-old tradition of small boys on their way to school. He tossed his cigarette. watching its bright path, like that of & small comet, complete its graceful arc into the air and down into the midst of a bed of nasturtiums. The nasturtiums should be brilliant, Riming orange and yellow. Now, there were but shading; of black and gray to toll of the glory that had been theirs in the-warm sunlight before the darkness had robbed them of their gold.
The door swung slowly open to reveal the softly rounded bundle of femininity Dan knew and loved.
"Why didn't you knock, Dan? I heard you walking around out here, but I thought you were one of the little boys in the neighborhood. They're always playing tricks."
As quickly as it had come, his apprehension rolled away. Here was Claire, his Claire with the short golden curls and soft brown eyes. She would understand his mood. She always did. Sweet, pretty Claire.
"I was thinking of how beautiful you are when you're surprised," he replied glibly.
"Come on in. Don't just stand out there. I baked a cake with an old recipe 1 found in a cook book I bought at a second-hand store. Il was the dreariest little shop you ever saw, but I wanted to buy everything they had."
''She always wants to buy everything at places like that," Dan mused to himself. "Second hand stores, book stores, antique shops--she'll keep me broke when we're married,"
Suddenly he remembered that he had not, as yet, asked her to marry him. He was almost certain that she would, but then again she might not be ready to settle down to a home and kids. But why not? She loved to cook and keep house.
"Claire, let's sit on the couch together and talk," he phrased stiffly.
"Just a minute, dear. Wait till I cut you some cake. I haven't tasted it myself, yet. Looks good, though."
Dan flicked his lighter into action and stared at the small bright flame. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Claire in the kitchen rummaging through a drawer. He blew out the lighter and turned toward the kitchen,
"I can't find a knife and I've looked ---oh, here's one," chattered Claire.
She looked very much like a young bride with her first cake, proud hut slightly worried about the interior. She carefully cut two moderately large slices of cake and slid them onto two small plates.
"Here. Yon take the first bite. I'm scared to," she laughed, her eyes crinkling with mirth.
"No, wait a minute. I forgot to take off my apron." She untied the bit of starched organdy that served more as foil for her femininity than to protect her dress.
Dan set his plate and Claire's on the arm of the couch and took her in his arms.
"How does A guy go about telling a girl he loves her and wants to marry her?" he wondered silently. "I love you; will you many me? sounds like a scared kid on his first date, Sweetheart, will you be mine? That could have come off one of Granny's old valentines."
He grinned down at her and whispered, "How'd you like to marry me?"
"Oh, Dan!" she whispered, "Oh, darling you know I'd love to,"
"So you kind of think you'd like it?" he said. "I'm so happy I know it's running out of my ears."
He buried his face in her breast. Slowly, his happiness was replaced by sheer terror as he listened to the double beat of her hearts.