by Dan Swanson
Morning in the Valley of the Sun was usually beautiful, and this February day in 1961 was no exception. The air was thin, clear, and crisp, the sky a beautiful, cloudless blue, and the sun was quickly climbing the backs of the mountains to the east to spring joyously into its familiar home. The temperature was rising, quickly erasing the nighttime chill. And then the valley experienced something that was still new in its eons-long existence — hundreds of thousands of people heading to work.
Second City Construction had a contract with the City of Phoenix to add another new terminal at Sky Harbor International Airport, and work was proceeding apace. Early every morning, six days a week, Donal Regan, the job site administrator, held a meeting of the crew before they began the day’s work. Second City had been able to lease one of the big empty hangars, thrown up as temporary structures during World War II and now abandoned, for on-site storage. The crew was standing around waiting for Donal to speak, some of them interested, others bored. It was a fairly normal start to the day, but not for long.
There came the sounds of explosions and projectile fire, and shrapnel and bullets tore through the thin sheet metal walls of the hangar. Most of the workers rushed for whatever cover might be provided by the heavy machinery — bulldozers, road graders, and steam rollers — and a couple of brave but foolish souls sneaked peeks out of the various windows.
“I don’t believe it!” yelled a hardhat from a window that overlooked the deep pit where the foundation of the new terminal would be poured. “A #^@%!*& flying saucer, right outta da Sat’day movies!”
“It’s landing in the pit!” another one yelled excitedly. “Got some kind guns on the top, blasting ever’ting that moves out dere!”
It was a giant disk, flat on the bottom, curved on top, about fifty yards across, ten yards thick at the edge and thirty yards thick in the middle. Spaced evenly around the rim were hemispherical protrusions sprouting cannon barrels, rotating as required to acquire new targets.
There was a stem extending from the bottom, a cylinder some fifteen yards in diameter and ten yards tall. If the saucer landed, it would look like a mushroom. Donal peaked out a window, and was unable to stop an ironic thought from crossing his mind. Klaatu barada nikto! It was descending slowly, directly into the deep excavation Donal’s team had carved for the new terminal.
There was another loud explosion, intertwined with crashing and the shrieking sound of metal ripping as it crashed to the earth, followed by even more shattering explosions.
“That was a plane!” Donal shuddered — after a month on-site, he knew the flight schedules by heart. That was probably the direct flight from Chicago. He fleetingly hoped no one he knew was on the flight.
The airport already resembled a war zone, with wrecked planes and vehicles, shattered, smoking buildings, burning wreckage everywhere, and smoking craters in some of the runways. The hovering vessel had apparently fired on anything that was moving nearby, including birds, flags, airplanes, vessels, people, and animals. Now that there was no more purposeful motion nearby, the saucer hovered for several seconds, extending a ramp to the edge of the pit.
About thirty alien things streamed out of the saucer and took up guard stances around the edge of the pit. They were human in size and shape, completely covered in something silvery, and carrying what must have been rifles. They moved faster than a human could as they spread out. The ship then dropped farther, and Donal could feel vibrations through the ground as it landed in the pit, accompanied by a rumbling, crashing sound such as no one had ever heard, as the tremendous weight of the saucer drove the landing stem a yard into the exposed bedrock.
The workers behind him were muttering, and the volume was growing — there were probably people they knew in the burning wreckage scattered around the airport, and they were going to get revenge, or die trying. And without weapons, they would die. Donal made a painful decision; he had hoped to never touch this part of his past again, but he had skills that were needed right now, and he couldn’t just hide or do nothing.
“Listen up, ye!” he hollered. Many of the construction workers were ex-military, veterans of World War II or Korea (or both), and they recognized the voice of an experienced officer. The noise level dropped, and Donal kept talking. “If we just bust outta here and storm across the tarmac, we’ll all die for sure, and we won’t do any good for anybody! We need some weapons, and I can show you how to make ’em!”
That got them going. Donal started giving orders, and in short order, the hangar was abuzz with activity. As soon as he had all the men working, Donal gathered together some items from various locations in the hangar. He stowed them in a leather construction utility belt studded with pockets and pouches. Then he called over his construction foreman. He knew the man had been an army sergeant in Korea. “Zack, take over for me. You know the plan. I’m going to do a little recon.”
“You gotta be kiddin’, boss!” Zack started to protest.
“You have your orders, Sergeant!” he said firmly. Then he smiled. “I knoo wat’s oot there, laddie!” He tried out a phrase he’d just recently picked up here in Phoenix. “It’s nay me first rodeo, ye know!”
Zack had to smile at the way his boss had butchered that phrase. “Yes, sir! I’ll be gettin’ on with the plan, sir!” He watched Donal slip out of the side door, worry on his face, then turned back to the job at hand.
Turning back to the crew, Zack dispatched four men, who slipped out the rear door of the shed and moved quickly and cautiously across the airport with a mission in mind, keeping to cover whenever possible, and depending on speed and surprise to evade the bullets of the invaders when they had to cross open areas. Each carried rope and some tools, and they were looking for jet fuel tanker trucks.
Donal was out a side door of the hangar in an instant; he picked out a good observation point and was away instantly. He moved surprisingly gracefully for a man his size, using the wreckage on the grounds for concealment, and rushing unexpectedly across open spaces. He drew some fire, but managed to reach concealment in time, each time.
At his chosen destination, he stopped, took a few calming breaths, and concentrated. With a small sigh of displaced air, he vanished, to be replaced by the four ‘chauns (his pet name for the four smaller versions of himself, which resembled leprechauns, hence the super-hero nickname he had invented for himself but never yet used, of Quadrechaun). (*) At the same time, his mind and perceptions were momentarily overwhelmed by four sets of sensory impressions of the chaotic world around him.
[(*) Editor’s note: See America’s Greatest: Times Past, 1959: Fun Times Four in Chicago.]
Each of the ‘chauns was an independent being, with Donal’s personality and memories, but they were all in mental contact with each other. And somewhere in that mental network, a fifth mind emerged, which Donal called the overmind. Not exactly a part of any of the ‘chauns, the overmind was always aware of what each ‘chaun was experiencing — and could merge instantly with any one of them if the situation required it. The overmind usually integrated the sensory information coming from the four into a big picture, and usually coordinated their actions. It had taken a lot of practice for the overmind to learn to operate without a body — and to be able to understand and analyze four different sets of sensory data independently.
They split up the items Donal had collected earlier. One ‘chaun remained at the observation point Donal had selected, while the other three split up the rest of their equipment and headed off on their scouting mission.
This was the ‘chauns’ bread and butter. Their small size and superior agility, combined with Donal’s years of training, allowed them to be virtually undetectable in any terrain with even the slightest trace of cover. On chaotic terrain such as this, with piles of wreckage, craters, fires, and dust and smoke drifting everywhere, the ‘chauns were at their best. It almost seemed unfair to the aliens. Even if they had infrared sensors, the ‘chauns were using the various fires and hot spots to break their trail.
Passing between the alien guards to get a look into the pit was somewhat more difficult, but they had that covered as well. One of the ‘chauns, hiding behind a burning pile of wreckage, tossed some items through the air toward the nearest aliens. The aliens’ reaction was faster than a human’s, and they managed to blast two of the items in the air with their rifles, causing them to explode, while the other two bundles actually hit the aliens and exploded as well. As they were improvised grenades — bundles of nails and blasting caps wrapped in tape — they didn’t do nearly the amount of damage Donal had hoped for, but their main value was as a distraction, and the other two ‘chauns were past the scrimmage line and over the edge of the pit without being seen.
There were some kind of alien digging machines smashing away at the exposed bedrock, with other machines scooping up the shattered rock and carting it away. Already they had blasted their way another ten feet down into the bedrock. That was enough information for the overmind; he ordered the ‘chauns to withdraw.
Back in the hangar, they were ready. Several I-beams, one end slightly elevated, now lay on the floor and pointed at the saucer outside, the saucer end elevated on a crossbeam, creating troughs or missile launchers. In the down end of each lay a welder’s tank of compressed air, and a load and launch team stood near each beam, equipped with a sledgehammer and another tank. The bulldozers were arrayed near the giant hangar door, with many men crouched down behind them. Each man carried several bags, and there was a welder with a hastily altered acetylene torch riding just behind the blade of each bulldozer.
Zack watched the second hand on his watch sweep toward the chosen time; he hoped he wasn’t leading these brave men to their deaths. There had been some sporadic weapon-fire from the things lining the rim of the pit. Zack hoped those shots had all missed — whatever those things were shooting at, they were on Zack’s side. They had been ready here in the hangar a lot sooner than he had estimated. Donal had given them some ideas for other improvised weapons, but Zack had estimated that they didn’t have time for anything but the simplest. He hoped he wouldn’t regret it. Anyway, what they had now would sure surprise those aliens, who didn’t seem to be expecting any kind of coordinated counterattack. He hoped he and his men would be able to get some revenge, and that at least some of them would live through the coming attack.
Three… two… one… “GO, GO, GO!” he screamed through a bullhorn.
The valves were knocked from four tanks of highly compressed gas, and they blasted along the tracks the crew had set up for them, then tore through the thin sheet metal walls of the building. Four more makeshift missiles were quickly loaded and fired, and then the crews headed for the back of the building and the shelter of some road-graders and steamrollers, as the aliens were now firing back, and the walls of the building started to tatter. The bulldozers roared through the big hangar door, smashing it open just in time to see the first air tank missiles tumble, bounce, and roll through the line of alien guards and then smash into the side of the ship. The heavy bottles did more damage to the guards than the ship. Zack and his men then surged forward, close behind the bulldozers. Shots from the alien guards and the guns on the saucer fired into the massive blades, perhaps adding some dents and scars to the steel surfaces, but otherwise with only very minor effect.
As the heavy armor rumbled closer to the line of aliens, the welders let loose with long tongues of flame, using their modified torches as makeshift flamethrowers. They only lasted a few seconds each, but it was a fearsome sight, a wall of massive steel blades approaching inexorably behind intermittent bursts of flame. The bulldozer operators jumped, and the bulldozers continued, pushing a mass of struggling aliens into the pit. The men who were carrying bags threw them into the lines of aliens, and each bag exploded — they were filled with nails or screws packed around a timed digging charge, and literally dozens of the alien things were torn to shreds by the explosions and the improvised shrapnel.
The “things” turned out to be mechanical, though the construction workers weren’t in a position to care right now; with their armor gone, they were now scrambling to find cover. Then there was a series of explosions from the far side of the saucer — several of the other workers had managed to find jet fuel tankers, and they had tied down the steering and the gas pedal so that these trucks had accelerated into the saucer. The alien defenses had momentarily been distracted by the frontal assault, and they now paid for that lapse when the trucks exploded violently against the skin of the ship. Great gouts of hot, greasy fire consumed half the saucer as the jet fuel burned briefly. The explosions gashed holes and inflicted other damage to the far side of the saucer, and suddenly the aliens turned their attention from battle to escape.
One of the ‘chauns in the pit was cut off from retreat by flaming debris falling over the side. Instantly, he scrambled through the door that had just stopped disgorging digging machines, quickly finding cover among the remaining machines still inside the landing stem. The outside door slid shut, and all the digging machines, inside and out, immediately stopped moving.
The ‘chaun scrambled up a ladder into the ship proper. The inside of the ship resembled the inside of a submarine: narrow corridors, lots of bulkheads, and armored doors opening off each side of the corridors. The ‘chaun found an auxiliary control room and slipped inside. The room looked incomplete: the panels on the sides of the equipment cabinets weren’t closed tightly, the cabinets themselves were strapped to the floor rather than being built in or even bolted down, and there was a rat’s nest of cables, some of them taped together to keep them out of the way, rather than running them under the floor or through the wall. It was fairly easy to find a hiding place.
A low-frequency rumble started, coming from deep inside the saucer, then quickly climbed through the octaves, until it became a high-frequency whine that seemed to drill through listeners’ ears and tear directly into the brain, accompanied by a frantic hammering, something like piston slap. Anyone who heard it could easily tell that something was drastically wrong with the saucer’s engines. The whine shifted ever higher in frequency, and finally, thankfully, became inaudible. The frantic thumping steadied into something like a whir, and the ship lifted, wobbled, and slid horizontally first one way and then another, smashing into the sides of the pit and doing still more damage to its hull. Luckily, the other ‘chaun had made it out of the pit, as a virtual avalanche of shattered rock thundered down when the ship smashed into the walls.
The ‘chaun inside the saucer was stunned — Donal had never figured that the ship would simply cut and run when under attack. The ‘chauns had never been more than one-hundred yards apart, and Donal had never stayed in his multiple forms more than a few minutes before, and they had no idea what would happen next.
There was a cheer from some of the men who were pointing at the sky, and a flight of Air Force F-104 Starfighters roared past South Mountain toward the airport. Four jets thundered overhead, too low to go supersonic in safety, and then broke left and right, circling to come back for a second pass. The men on the ground realized the second pass would probably be a missile run, so they scurried for whatever cover they could find. The pilot of the saucer suddenly seemed to get the whole thing under control, and it lifted rapidly about a thousand feet, then shot off to the east, faster then the jets could follow. The damage was apparent — for a short time it trailed smoke, and the flight was somewhat erratic, but even with the major damage that Donal and his men had inflicted, it was easily faster than the F-104s that had been scrambled to respond to its attack.
All of the mechanical aliens stopped moving and dropped to the ground, and then suddenly flared into white-hot flames. A few seconds later there was nothing left of the invading robots except bubbling rock or tarmac wherever there had been a robot.
The ‘chauns quickly made their way together — then did something they had never done before, as only three of the four ‘chauns merged into one being, a man who looked much like Donal Regan, only a few inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter. They had driven off the aliens, but at what cost to Donal?