Everyone in the plane felt the talkie come on during take-off and then stop a minute later. Carl yelled at the pilot. “Circle the town!”
BellBoy had just taken off, and it had to have been dumb luck to be close enough to have sensed the missing talkie.
Whitfield doesn’t have it? Then why was he here?
It was important to track it down. Perhaps more important than trying to chase him back to Roswell. There had been thirteen talkies originally, taken from aliens that had survived the crash back in 1947. But repeated efforts by Whitfield’s team to understand the technology had cost them too many of the units. Winston knew about them, of course. As the courier, he regularly rotated the three free units among the five bases so that their special Guests would feel less like prisoners when they were given periodic visitation times among the others at their base.
They were imprisoned, of course. No one was deluded there. Even as the injured and traumatized alien scientists had been taken from their wrecked spacecraft, they had insisted that their presence be kept secret. They had come to study the humans of Earth, not to destroy our culture by contaminating humanity’s view of itself and its world.
Carl held the talkie in his hand, staring out the window as the plane banked over and headed in the direction of the Boar’s Tooth rock pinnacle visible far to the north. Once they passed the ranch, they continued to turn in a broad circle of the town. If the talkie was still turned on, they should pick it up.
By the time they were headed south again, Carl knew it was hopeless.
I need more men. With the talkie turned off, the only way to find it was to find the person who had it. He dared not risk letting his talkie out of his possession, not now.
“Head back to Roswell Base.”
He hadn’t the resources to pursue it. The Trust had been rotting away since before he’d taken it over. It was starving.
President Truman had been notified of the crash in 1947, and the Trust was established under his authority. But Eisenhower was only told part of the truth; that a crash had happened. He never knew there were survivors.
When, after years of effort, no one was able to make the alien technology work, the story was buried even deeper. Nixon knew a little of it, but no president after him knew anything. The Trust dropped entirely out of the government and had become an entity unto itself. The only connections left were a few ancient memos left in the FBI, and the military, ordering that aid be given to anyone with the right code phrase, with no questions to be asked.
Luke Morris shaped the organization, using deep Cold War paranoia as its guideline. No one knew more than a little bit of the secret. Even the fact there were five bases was restricted to just a few. Carl knew, and his personal assistants, and of course his father and his personal assistant, Whitfield. There were few others.
Kenneth Winston, like his father before him, knew more than most. A typical member of the Trust knew only about a home base and was kept in the dark about all the others. If Kenneth Winston had to be replaced, Carl would have to train a new courier personally.
There were no Truman Trust training manuals. There were no records—nothing that could be leaked. There were no video tapes of the aliens to tempt a hungry worker into peddling secrets to the magazines. The Trust had always relied on trustworthy, personal contact. That had worked well, until the rot began.
Luke Morris began training him as a replacement from birth. Carl had been born in 1949 and had always known he was part of something special. The Trust was a protector—a protector of the stranded aliens, as Guests on our planet. And a protector of humanity from the destabilizing news that there had been visitors from the stars. His father’s vision formed the organization.
Under his leadership, the aliens had been treated reasonably well. In spite of considerable pressure at the beginning, none had been killed or tortured for their knowledge. There had been bodies enough from the crash site to dissect, and although they seemed very long lived, some aliens succumbed to age after a while, enough to keep the exobiology medical research going for decades.
Their alien Guests had cooperated, much more than humans would have in their place. They had the patience for years of imprisonment, and took their restrictions with no complaint.
The Trust had begun well, with high ideals, and good people. When it became clear that due to the longevity of the aliens, the Trust had to last not just many decades, but possibly many lifetimes, many workers began training their own children to replace them. It should have lasted.
Carl watched the land below grow indistinct as the plane gained altitude. His own way had become unclear. He suspected he knew what was wrong, but not how to fix it.
Money caused this rot. It was easy for people with resources to be patient. My belt-tightening efforts were necessary. But they might have been the spur that triggered the defections. It was certainly a burr under Whitfield’s blanket.
Fifty miles down the road, Joe felt confident enough to turn the talkie back on.
“Call me Bob Four. There are others of my species you are likely to meet.”
“Oh, how many are there of you?”
“Five remain, I hope. I haven’t seen any other Bob in many years.”
The alien fingers reached up to the car’s map screen and began tapping through all the options. He was checking all the screens and checking all the variations. Joe had been wanting to do that too, but hadn’t had the time.
Bob Four said, “The Trust has been honest with us for many years, although there are disturbing developments recently.”
“There is only one triad of Sam left. This imprisonment has been the hardest on the Sams. They are a hive species, and the Trust’s policy of keeping us as separate as possible from others of our kind has placed extraordinary psychological and physiological stress on them.
“There had been three triads on the ship. One individual died in the crash, and the other two of his triad could not survive long. Some years ago, there was another problem with an exchange, and the second triad died.”
“Yes, you saw the pod?”
“No. Judith was careful to keep all this alien stuff out of sight. What was it?”
Bob Four zoomed the map out until all of North America was visible.
“I don’t know, exactly. But a Sam triad exchanges these pods regularly, and it is the key to their vitality. Triads have lived thousands of years if nothing disturbs the exchange. The Trust has never quite understood how important it is to them.”
“They’ve been told?”
“Of course. We’ve told the Trust many things over the past few decades. Some they believe, some they don’t. And now it is happening again. The Sams’ exchange has been delayed, and if what Judith said is accurate, some members of the Trust have been actively trying to prevent it. If they succeed, the last Sams on Earth will die.”
“That would be a shame.”
“It would be worse than that.”
“What do you mean?”
But Bob Four declined to talk about it any more. He climbed back under the covers and slept.
Duke Seager lifted his head from his desk, a little groggy from his nap.
Ring! He picked up the phone. “Hello, Bekker Ranch. This is Duke speaking.”
“Hello, Duke.” The voice was faint, with a lot of background noise. But Duke recognized it at once.
“Yes, Boss. What can I do for you?”
“How are things going there at the ranch?”
Duke was puzzled. Nothing new came to mind. “It’s pretty tame here, Boss.”
“No problems? No visitors?”
He laughed, “No, Boss. There hasn’t been as much as a new prairie dog mound in the place. Unless you want to talk about the new television shows?”
There was a pause.
“Duke, I know you’re due to have a few days off, but I’d like you to walk the fences once more before you do. Could you do that for me?”
“Yes, Boss. Certainly.”
“Good. Call me at home once you’re done.”
Duke hung up the phone with a puzzled look on his face. Why in the world would Carl Morris call him to do an extra bed check for his basement Guests?
There was noise from the back seat. Joe leaned to see Judith in the rear view mirror. He adjusted it so he could see her easier. She was stretching, just waking up. She saw his face and smiled.
“What time is it?” The talkie put a little slur into her artificial voice. She looked outside, trying to understand why it appeared to be afternoon. “I should probably be driving.”
“It’s okay. I think I’ll drive for a while. The drugs and all, you know.”
“Joe Ferris! I just told you we weren’t shipping drugs.”
Just told me? That was early this morning.
“Not that! Your drugs. The ones that knocked you out.”
She started to get angry. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“You were drugged. You’ve been unconscious for hours.”
From his view in the mirror, she looked at him as if he were crazy.
Then, the blanket began to move. Bob Four pulled it aside and said, “It’s true, Judith.”
Joe suspected there was no sign language gesture for a shriek, but the talkie found something it interpreted that way.
“Bob! How did you get here? Joe! What have you done? The others are never supposed to leave the ranch! Turn around, turn around! We’ve got to get Bob Four back immediately.”
Joe snapped, “Hey, I didn’t do a thing! This is your mess. You dumped me back in Rock Springs before you went to the Ranch. This is all your idea.”
He liked her better unconscious. Everything was always his fault.
“You’re crazy, I did no such thing!”
Bob Four was the only one talking quietly. He said, “The Trust uses a memory drug. I believe Judith was given it.”
It stopped her dead.
“Rollback?” It came out a whisper. Joe looked up at the mirror. Her face had gone white.
“Daddy mentioned it. It’s the drug they use when someone sees something they shouldn’t.”
“Something like Bob Four?”
Bob said, “I’m familiar with it. I’ve seen it used a couple of times. Human memory has short term and long term forms. This drug removes the emotional hormones used when memories are set into long-term storage. The facts are still there, but without the emotional kick, they are relegated to the routine, facts you never bother to recall, like whether you scratched you arm an hour ago.”
Judith was silent for a moment, trying hard to remember what she’d been doing last. There’d been a talkie contact. Then Joe argued with her.
“I did dump you!” Judith put her hand to her head. “I remember. You were pestering me about Trust secrets and I decided I had to let you out of the car before I went to the ranch.”
Bob Four said, “Judith, until you can recover most of your memory, your opinions are suspect. Something important has been hidden. Joe, talk her through the day, step by step. Human memory gives you a second chance to re-live the events and re-feel the emotions. It’ll never be a complete recovery, but you need to do it now. Judith is part of the Trust. She knows valuable facts, but until she remembers what happened, we’ll be working at cross-purposes. I can help, but until we reach that part of her memory, I need to stay quiet.”
Joe nodded. “Okay, but first, I gotta know—is this rollback something you guys invented? I’ve never heard of it.”
Judith said, “It’s a Trust invention. Nobody’s ever gotten any technology from our Guests.”
Bob nodded. “This is true.”
“Okay. I’ll do it, but where do we start? Judith, do you remember which gas station we pulled into, once we entered Rock Springs?”
“Yes, it was an Exxon station. I asked you for a muffin. I had to get you away from the car. I’m sorry, Joe. I know it was a rotten thing to do, but it was a Trust secret I was trying to protect.”
There was hesitation on the other end of the phone call, as Duke tried to put the unexplainable into coded words. His voice was shaking.
“You had me check the fences, and I... the cattle are missing. Missing! But, Boss, I can’t find a hole in the fence anywhere!”
The news that both aliens were missing was like a kick to his stomach, but it wasn’t totally unexpected. Whitfield was breaking decades-long Trust protocols, and nothing could be beyond him.
“Duke. I understand, and I don’t blame you. The fence is probably defective. What I want to do is for you to wait until Jerry shows up to relieve you. Have him show you the pancake recipe. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“Pancake.” Duke was suddenly serious. He knew what that meant. The rollback recovery protocol was serious business. Restoring memories needed a helper to make sure the victim stuck to the timeline as the misplaced memories were uncovered and re-lived with proper chronological impact.
Duke was no dummy. If he’d been affected by rollback, it couldn’t be some simple accident. That wouldn’t explain the missing aliens.
It had to be some faction of the Trust working against the rest of them.
“Boss. I’ll call you back as soon as I find out anything.”