Dr. Clayton’s face was impassive as a marble mask when he turned to young Corelli. For a moment, the little group stood there in embarrassed silence in the classroom, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other, feigning interest in the paperweights upon Clayton’s desk, or in the utterly uninspiring scenes on the sidewalk outside the window.
“You say, Corelli, that you saw three--er, Martian--ships. Can you describe them?”
Corelli blinked as he felt the weight of his colleagues’ eyes boring into him. “I didn’t say they were Martian, sir--only that they seemed to be unearthly. And they were not the conventional saucer-shaped things--they acted like saucers skimming across the water. That’s what made me think they were genuine. And they didn’t seem to be going fast enough so that I’d expect to hear a roar like a jet-plane.
“It struck me that this might not be the way they fly, naturally, but the way they might fly if the pilots were having trouble adjusting the controls to a heavier atmosphere than they were used to.”
Clayton tapped the tabletop with his fingers. “What about you, Marty? Did you see three ships?”
Big Gene Marty, football star, was the least nervous. “Can’t be sure about ships, Doc,” he rumbled. “I did see something strange disappearing over the horizon. It--I mean they--might have been what Tony says; but whatever it was, there were three of them. But I saw something else, because I was looking in another direction. What I saw first was a couple of funny-looking shapes floating down near the ground. Didn’t look like parachutists, yet they seemed big enough to be men--or at least, small men.”
“Interesting. All right, what about the rest of you? How many saw the ships?”
A chorus answered him. “I see,” Clayton mused. “You all agree on the behavior. And you all think there were three--not four--not two. Three?”
It was agreed.
Clayton rustled the pile of newspapers. “The reports in here vary. I learn with amazement that you gentlemen seem to have missed completely the spurts of flame that issued from the alien ships--flame which is reported to have set a house on fire. And no one seems to have noticed that the invaders, in descending, glided on huge black wings.”
Corelli blushed a fiery crimson. “Dr. Clayton,” he protested, “we aren’t making these things up for popular consumption. We’re just telling you what we actually saw--that is--what--what--we--saw looked like to us.”
Clayton nodded. “Of course. That is all people were doing back in 1938 when the Martians landed in New Jersey, at the time Orson Welles presented a radio version of H. G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’. Or when the ‘Flying Saucer’ craze first started. Or when Fantafilm put on their big publicity stunt for the improved 3-D movie, ‘The Outsiders’, and people saw the aliens over Broadway and heard them address the populace in weird, booming tones.
“Gentlemen, I am not pleased to find students of this University engaging in such unwanted extra-curricular activity as inventing interplanetary scares. I don’t think Washington will be amused, either.”
Corelli clicked his heels. “Sir,” he stated in dignified tones, “I resent these implications. I assume they have been directed at me. At no time have I talked about this to reporters, or in any way engaged in what you accuse me of. If you want my resignation from this school, you may have it.”
“Really? You think that an air of dignified innocence will undo the damage done? I am well aware of your experiments with the y wave, gentlemen--and it was on the y wave that the messages came. You may be interested to know that the number of lives lost, the property damage, the business losses due to the panic, have not yet been fully determined; but it makes the hysteria following the Fantafilm hoax very small potatoes by comparison.
“You may withdraw now, gentlemen; this affair will be discussed at greater length later, regardless of what the FBI decides. I had hoped that the main culprit would try to save unwitting accomplices from a measure of grief. That is all.”
The seven students left Dr. Clayton’s office in record time.