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by Fred Saberhagen
Published by JSS Literary Productions
Copyright (c) 1976 by Fred Saberhagen

First, strange odors . . . and nightmares that stretch across Time. Images of a hideous machine dragging Indians, colonials, slaves to an ancient mound . . . then a hellish light pulses from a hidden room . . . and suddenly dan Post is trapped, his mind sane, but his body possessed by a galactic probe programmed to collect - -

Specimens. Human specimens. Now, with no hands, no voice, locked in the ultimate prison, Dan must battle an immortal alien machine, even as it forces him to kidnap its final victims . . .

Dan's two children.

And his bride-to-be . . .


This book it one of my top ten sci-fi books of all time. The story was great and once I started reading it, I didn't want to put it down.
This is a must read for any sci-fi buff...  [Chuck3C, Amazon]


      Looking from the high narrow windows in the southeastern bedroom, Dan Post could see a vague crescent of daytime moon. Far below it, on the horizon and some twenty-five miles from where he stood, the tallest building in the world was plainly visible along with two slightly lesser gods of Chicago’s Loop. The eaves on the old suburban house were narrow, and even the high-latitude sun of summer could strike in under them to get at the glass in the old windows. The glass, mottled with wavy distortions, might be as old as the house itself. Dan thought he could see how the panes had begun to purple, like desert glass, from decade upon decade of the sun hurling its fire at them across ninety million miles of space.
      He leaned back a little from the window and shifted his weight meditatively on the wide, solid planks of the old floor, which squeaked just very slightly as he did so. Dan was rather heavy but solid, a muscular man in his mid-thirties. A slightly concave nose gave him a somewhat boyish look. His hair was darkly unruly above a pale, tan-resistant face. Today he was dressed in double-knit slacks and sport shirt for looking at old houses in mid-June; he had to admit, though, that the upper floor of this vacant, air-conditionerless place wasn’t as unmercifully hot as he had expected. There was an attic above, which helped, and the windows had been left slightly open. The place must catch every breeze: it was on the top of a fairly steep hill.
      “So,” he asked, “this house is supposed to be a hundred and forty years old?”
      “That’s right.” Ventris, the real estate agent, was standing relaxed in the bedroom doorway. It was a big bedroom by modern standards, and the house had three more like it on its second floor, not one of them smaller than twelve feet by thirteen. A room or so away Nancy and the kids were discussing something in low voices.
      ‘‘They say,” Ventris continued, ‘‘that it used to be a way station on the Underground Railroad. You know, before the Civil War, when slaves were being smuggled north to Canada.”
      “Well, I suppose that’s possible.” Dan’s interest was no more than polite. The house did not strike him as likely to be historically interesting, or even extremely old. The walls and woodwork in this bedroom had been painted light green not long ago, determinedly made new-looking by interior latex put on somewhat carelessly with a roller, leaving a few spatters on the worn but solid floor. Anyway, the railroad Dan was concerned about, the commuters’ kind, ran through Wheatfield Park about half a mile to the north of here, and according to Ventris the station was just over a mile away. Dan supposed that if he got up early every day and walked, it would help him keep in shape. Of course he could ride into the city with Nancy, who would be driving in anyway, as long as she kept her job … they would have to see how that worked out.
      “Of course,” Ventris added, “people tend to say that about any house this old, at least in this part of the country.” While leading Dan and Nancy through two other houses earlier in the day, Ventris had shown himself to be very much the low-pressure type of salesman. Sandy-haired and paunchy, he seemed on the way to aging gracefully in the real estate business. He didn’t look old enough to have got into it after retirement from something else.
      “What was that about the Underground Railroad?” Nancy, wearing slacks and a summery blouse, now came with Dan’s two children to join him in the southeast bedroom. The two kids were somewhat silent and thoughtful today, as if this business of looking at houses brought home to them forcefully the fact mat their good pal Nancy was soon going to assume the office of motherhood over them. Millie was eleven and Sam was nine, and both of them had their father’s sturdy frame and wild dark hair. But often, as now, when they were quiet and thoughtful, he could see their mother in their eyes. Cancer, a year and a half ago. The wounds of the survivor healed, the children changed and grew. Life went on, and the gonads like all the other organs kept working away, and now here he was, picking out another home in which to settle a new bride.
      “My girl, the history nut.” Dan put an arm around Nancy and squeezed her shoulders. “Mr. Ventris was just saying that this might have been a station, or whatever they called their stopping places. But never mind that; how would you like to live here?”
“There’s certainly lots of room.” Nancy brushed back her straight black hair. “But oh, it’s such a hodgepodge.” She was a rather tall girl, who towered over her little Japanese-born mother in Chicago, and was almost of a height with her American father and her husband-to-be. She was in her early twenties, years younger than Dan. “The downstairs looks like some decorator’s sample case.”
      Today Nancy was evidently not going to be distracted by historical discoveries, but others might. Millie took her father’s hand and looked around, and pondered aloud: “I wonder where they hid the slaves.”
      “Maybe the basement or the attic.” This reminded Dan of another point he meant to check, and he walked out into the spacious upstairs hall and stood looking up at a closed trapdoor in the ceiling. “Is there a chair around somewhere?” he asked Ventris. “I’d like to take a look at the attic now if possible.”
      “I think there is. Let me check.” Ventris moved away to rummage in a closet, and Dan rejoined Nancy and the kids in the southeast bedroom, where they were enjoying the view from the window.
      “This is neat, being up on a hill,” young Sammy commented.
      ‘‘Not bad,’’ Dan agreed. From up here one could see a lot of treetops, and several of their prospective neighbors’ roofs. From this place, in mid-June, it seemed a hot, green land in which they dwelt. Of the great metropolis that sprawled around them not much was visible except for part of the highway that ran past a block to the east, the shopping center on the highway’s other side, and the three towers looming over the horizon to mark the location of the central city.
      This house would be wind-blasted in the winter (one reason Dan wanted to go up into the attic was to check the insulation) but the summer breezes were certainly pleasant, and the occupant would never have to worry about a flood, even in the wettest spring. The hill that the house stood on was perhaps the highest place in the generally flat terrain for a mile or more around.
      The settler who had built this place had doubtless a wide choice of sites—and like many others of his time he had chosen high. At the time from which the house supposedly dated, well before the Civil War, the surrounding land must have been largely virgin prairie. Chicago, then far beyond and below the horizon to the east, would have been a small collection of frame buildings, a booming but otherwise unremarkable town, perhaps not yet incorporated as a city. From this window one neighboring farmhouse may have been visible; on the next mile-distant hill, and maybe not. Dan wondered if there had been a road. And Indians … in what year had the Black Hawk War been fought? He would ask Nancy sometime.
      Now of course pavement was everywhere beneath the green suburban canopy of trees, and automobiles had managed to proliferate rapidly enough to keep the ever-extending acres of concrete and asphalt crowded. Not many sidewalks around here, in the better suburban neighborhoods’ best tradition. Main Street, a principal thoroughfare of Wheatfield Park and also a numbered state highway, ran north and south one block to the east of the old house Nancy and Dan were looking at. The house itself faced south, its irregular half-acre lot fronting on Benham Road, which cut west from Main to lose itself a few blocks farther west in residential meanders and cul de sacs. As Ventris had already pointed out, Benham at no time of day sustained a very heavy flow of traffic, and the kids would not be running out of their yard directly into a busy highway. They were still young enough for that to be important.
      Across Benham, the land sloped downhill into the large back yards of the next street’s houses. To the east on Benham, the nearest house was a contemporary four-bedroom-sized brick ranch; Dan was looking down now upon its elegant tile roof. On the next lot to the west stood a green-vinyl-sided Georgian, with a wide immaculate lawn and a well-manicured flower garden in the back; the back yard of the house beyond that was graced by a large in-ground swimming pool. The house on the hilltop had the look of a poor relation amid its much newer neighbors.
      Not that it was a ruin, or seemed abandoned. It had been vacant, according to Ventris, for only a few weeks. “Rundown” was not exactly the right word, either; the white stucco mat now covered the outside walls seemed reasonably solid, and there were no other obvious signs of deterioration. The plumbing, as Dan had already satisfied himself, was in working condition, and the wiring was modern enough. Standing now on the folding chair that Ventris had finally unearthed from the back of a closet, and thrusting his head up through an obviously little-used trapdoor into the dimness of the attic, Dan saw nothing horrifying. It was hot, of course, though louvered vents in opposite gables allowed air circulation as well as admitting a little light. But there was no sign of leaks in the roof. The ancient wooden beams and joists looked hand-hewn, and the nearest of them felt as solid as a young oak when Dan jabbed at it with the smallest and sharpest blade of his little pocketknife. The attic was largely unfloored, but there was at least some kind of insulation between the joists.
      He would check it out more thoroughly, later, if they really got serious about the place. “Looks dry, at least,’’ he said, getting down off the chair and brushing the dust of decades from his hands. He looked at Nancy, trying to gauge what she was really feeling about the place, and saw his own thoughtful uncertainty mirrored in her face; they could take another turn around, but essentially they had seen it all now, from top to bottom.
Ventris was being unobtrusive in the background, and the children were rapping on a bedroom wall in quest of hollow places that might have been used as hidey-holes for escaping slaves. ‘‘I would say the owners have tried to keep it up,” Dan offered, probing for his woman’s opinion.
Nancy shook her head and frowned. “I would say they’ve tried too hard.”
      That was it, Dan thought. The owners down through the years, or at least some of the most recent of them, had seemingly worked on the place too much, and too often at cross purposes. It was no longer apparent to the casual eye that the house, or a large part of it at least, might date from well before the Civil War. It had been added to, sided, remodeled, stuccoed, re-sided, re-remodeled, re-stuccoed, modernized and re-modernized until even its original outlines had disappeared and it was hard to tell where the original walls stood, or of what they had been made.
      Someone with more imagination and energy than talent, doubtless the present owner or an ambitious do-it-yourselfer in his family, had recently completed the latest assault. This had been sustained mainly by the kitchen and the downstairs bath. Besides the refrigerator and regular stove, which were to stay, an off-brand oven had been built into the kitchen wall at shoulder height, surrounded by panels of unconvincing brick and stone whose corners were already starting to peel back from the wall. What appeared to be a new window in the downstairs bath would not close quite all the way, and the fancy new medicine cabinet wiggled like a loose tooth in its socket when you slid the mirrored door open, and dribbled a little plaster dust from around its edges. Also downstairs, in the living room, a real fireplace had at some time had its flue bricked up and been made to look artificial. And then there was the way the one-car frame garage clung to the side of the house, almost like a lean-to glued on with filets of siding and stucco. No door led directly from house to garage, though there were four (count’em four) doors leading from the ground floor to outside. Every kind of wall covering ever devised by the mind of man seemed to be findable somewhere on the interior walls in at least one of the multiplicity of rooms. All in all, as Nancy had protested, a real hodgepodge.
      And yet—and yet. On the plus side, there was all that room, the four bedrooms for a family perhaps to be enlarged, since Nancy had said she wanted a baby of her own. There was the basic structural soundness, the fireplace to resurrect when time and money permitted, the tall old windows with their ancient glass. And who knew what buried glories of original woodwork, floors, and paneling were waiting to be uncovered? Besides the house itself there was the external space that came with it, a vast irregular plot of lawn or rather yard, that showed permanent-looking worn spots in the form of a children’s impromptu softball diamond, and was otherwise mostly luxuriant crabgrass somewhat in need of mowing. No well-kept garden like the neighbors’, but plenty of room for kids to play and things to grow. One might plant vegetables here, or keep a dog, or both.
      They looked into each bedroom once more, then went downstairs and walked through all the ground floor rooms again. When they finally stood outside, with Ventris locking the place up, Nancy stood frowning up at the old place in a way that had nothing to do with the bright sun in her eyes. “It’s a hodgepodge,” she repeated.
      “It sure is,” Dan agreed. But then, instead of herding the children right back to Ventris’ car, the two of them continued gazing at the place, as they might have looked at some objectionable relative with whom they had been stuck by fate and who therefore had to be gotten on with at almost any cost. The children meanwhile were making themselves right at home in the yard, arguing about where the exact highest point of the hilltop was. They were both wrong, it was right under the house. Sometimes Dan wondered if they were really as bright as their teachers had sometimes indicated.
      “They’re only asking sixty-two five,” Dan said to himself, meditating aloud. And then he kicked himself mentally for that only, which Ventris could not have failed to hear.
      “I would say it’s no great bargain,” Nancy commented, giving her fiancée a sharp look. “Children, I think that’s supposed to be some kind of flowerbed near the porch, please stay out of it.” She was easing into the Mother role somewhat ahead of time, with Dan’s full approval.
      “Well, I suppose there are two schools of thought about that,” said Ventris, standing patiently beside them now. ‘‘The house itself is not the prettiest or the most convenient, but those things can always be changed. The land itself, in this area…”
Allowing himself to be tugged along by the soft sell, Dan knew a growing feeling of rightness about the place. The taxes were reasonable, at least in terms of suburban taxes in general, good schools were supposedly nearby; (that was another thing to be checked out more closely), and he had a theory that it was better to own the cheapest house on the block, any block, rather than the best. Let your neighbors’ property pull the value of your own property up, not down. And after a couple of days of house-looking he had seen enough to realize that he was not going to be able to afford, for example, that four-bedroom brick ranch next door.
      “Do you think the owners might come down a little bit?” Nancy was asking the agent. “If we should decide to buy this place, it would take quite a bit of money to fix it over to what we want.’’ Dan had earlier suffered occasional pangs of private fear that an offwhite wife with eyes adorned by a trace of epicanthic folds might be made to feel unwelcome in suburbia, where folk of Oriental descent seemed almost as rare as blacks or poverty. So far no problems, though, not even a funny look, at least as far as Dan had been able to observe. And, judging by Nancy’s demeanor, the idea that there might be racial problems for her had never entered her head.
      Ventris compressed his lips and answered her cautiously. “I’m not sure. I rather suspect they might be open to an offer, though the price is already low for this area. Did I mention before that the family has been having personal problems?”
“No, you didn’t,” said Nancy. “Nervous breakdowns, I suppose, from the look of that remodeling in the kitchen.”
      “Something like that. The man of the house suffered some kind of breakdown, and then he did away with himself.”
      ‘‘Oh, I’m sorry.’’ She really was. ‘‘I was trying to be funny, in my own stupid way. I didn’t have any idea.’’
      “Come on, kids, let’s get in the car,” Dan called. To Ventris he said: “We’re going to have to think about this place.”
      “Maybe the joint is haunted,” Dan commented a minute later, without really knowing why, looking back at the vacant and intriguing house one more time before he got into the car and closed the door.
Ventris just shook his head and gave a little laugh. “That’s one thing I haven’t heard anybody say.”