The aliens landed in Central Park, the way aliens often seem to do.
They floated around collecting samples — some squirrels, a softball, discarded newspapers and other junk — but causing no real trouble. Then a second ship arrived, full of sauropod-sized blue space pachyderms . . .

Hannibal’s Elephants

by Robert Silverberg

The Aliens Visit New York
Illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer. Images: Dejan Bozic (varijanta / 123RF Stock Photo), mik38 / 123RF Stock Photo, and kasto / 123RF Stock Photo.

The day the aliens landed in New York was, of course, the fifth of May, 2003. That’s one of those historical dates nobody can ever forget, like July 4, 1776, and October 12, 1492, and — maybe more to the point — December 7, 1941. At the time of the invasion I was working for the tightware division of MGM-CBS and married to Elaine and living over on East Thirty-sixth Street in one of the first of the fold-up condos, one room by day and three by night, a terrific deal at three thousand seven hundred fifty dollars a month. Our partner in the time/space-sharing contract was a show-biz programmer named Bobby Christie who worked midnight to dawn, very convenient for all concerned. Every morning before Elaine and I left for our offices, I’d push the button and the walls would shift and five hundred square feet of our apartment would swing around and become Bobby’s for the next twelve hours. Elaine hated that. “I can’t stand having all the goddamn furniture on tracks!” she would say. “That isn’t how I was brought up to live.” We veered perilously close to divorce every morning at wall-shift time. But then it wasn’t really what you’d call a stable relationship in most other respects, and I guess having an unstable condo, too, was more instability than she could handle.

I spent the morning of the day the aliens came setting up a ricochet data transfer between Akron, Ohio, and Colombo, Sri Lanka, involving, as I remember, Gone With the Wind, Cleopatra, and the Johnny Carson retrospective. Then I walked up to the park to meet Maranta for our Monday picnic. Maranta and I had been lovers for about six months then. She was Elaine’s roommate at Bennington and had married my best friend Tim, so you might say we had been fated all along to become lovers; there are never any surprises in these things. At that time we lunched together very romantically in the park, weather permitting, every Monday and Friday; and every Wednesday we had ninety minutes’ breathless use of my cousin Nicholas’s hot-pillow cubicle over on the far West Side at Thirty-ninth and Koch Plaza. I had been married three and a half years, and this was my first affair. For me what was going on between Maranta and me just then was the most important event taking place anywhere in the known universe.

It was one of those glorious gold-and-blue dance-and-sing days that New York will give you in May, when that little window opens between the season of cold and nasty and the season of hot and sticky. I was legging up Seventh Avenue toward the park with a song in my heart and a cold bottle of Chardonnay in my hand, thinking pleasant thoughts of Maranta’s small round breasts. And gradually I became aware of some ruckus taking place up ahead.

I could hear sirens. Horns were honking, too: not the ordinary routine everyday exasperated when-do-things-start-to-move honks, but the special rhythmic New York City oh-for-Christ’s-sake-what-now kind of honk that arouses terror in your heart. People with berserk expressions on their faces were running wildly down Seventh as though King Kong had just emerged from the monkey house at the Central Park Zoo and was personally coming after them. And other people were running just as hard in the opposite direction, toward the park, as though they absolutely had to see what was happening. You know: New Yorkers.

Maranata would be waiting for me near the pond, as usual. That seemed to be right where the disturbance was.

I had a flash of myself clambering up the side of the Empire State Building — or at the very least Temple Emanu-El — to pry her free of the big ape’s clutches. The great beast pausing, delicately setting her down on some precarious ledge, glaring at me, furiously pounding his chest — Kong! Kong! Kong!

I stepped into the path of one of the southbound runners and said, “Hey, what the hell’s going on?” He was a suit-and-tie man, pop-eyed and puffy-faced. He slowed but he didn’t stop. I thought he would run me down. “It’s an invasion!” he yelled. “Space creatures! In the park!” Another passing business type loping breathlessly by with a briefcase in each hand was shouting, “The police are there! They’re sealing everything off!”

“No shit,” I murmured.

But all I could think was Maranta, picnic, sunshine, Chardonnay, disappointment. What a goddamned nuisance is what I thought. Why the fuck couldn’t they come on a Tuesday? is what I thought.

When I got to the top of Seventh Avenue, the police had a sealfield across the park entrance, and buzz-blinkers were set up along Central Park South from the Plaza to Columbus Circle, with horrendous consequences for traffic. “But I have to find my girlfriend,” I blurted. “She was waiting for me in the park.” The cop stared at me. His cold gray eyes said, I am a decent Catholic and I am not going to facilitate your extramarital activities, you decadent overpaid bastard. What he said out loud was, “No way can you cross that sealfield, and anyhow you absolutely don’t want to go in the park right now, mister. Believe me.” And he also said, “You don’t have to worry about your girlfriend. The park’s been cleared of all human beings.” That’s what he said: cleared of all human beings. For a while I wandered around in some sort of daze.

Finally I went back to my office and found a message from Maranta, who had left the park the moment the trouble began. Good quick Maranta. She hadn’t had any idea of what was occurring, though she had found out by the time she reached her office. She had simply sensed trouble and scrammed. We agreed to meet for drinks at the Ras Tafari at half past five. The Ras was one of our regular places, Twelfth and Fifty-third.

There were seventeen witnesses to the onset of the invasion. It had started, so they said, with a strange pale-blue shimmering about thirty feet off the ground. The shimmering rapidly became a churning, like water going down a drain. Then a light breeze began to blow and very quickly turned into a brisk gale. It lifted people’s hats and whirled them in a startling corkscrew spiral around the churning, shimmering blue place. At the same time you had a sense of rising tension, a something’s-got-to-give feeling. All this lasted perhaps forty-five seconds.

Then came a pop and a whoosh and a ping and a thunk — everybody agreed on the sequence of the sound effects — and the instantly famous not-quite-egg-shaped spaceship of the invaders was there, hovering, as it would do for the next twenty-odd days, about half an inch above the spring-green grass of Central Park. An absolutely unforgettable sight: the sleek, silvery skin of it, the disturbing angle of the slope from its wide top to its narrow bottom, the odd and troublesome hieroglyphics on its flanks that tended to slide out of your field of vision if you stared at them for more than a moment.

A hatch opened and a dozen of the invaders stepped out. Floated out, rather. Like their ship, they never came in contact with the ground.

They looked strange. They looked exceedingly strange. Where we have feet they had a single oval pedestal, maybe five inches thick and a yard in diameter, that drifted an inch or so above the ground level. From this fleshy base their wraith-like bodies sprouted like tethered balloons. They had no arms, no legs, not even discernible heads — just a broad, dome-shaped summit, dwindling away to a ropelike termination that was attached to the pedestal. Their lavender skins were glossy, with a distinctly metallic sheen.

Dark eyelike spots sometimes formed on them but didn’t last for long. We saw no mouths. As they moved about they seemed to exercise great care never to touch one another.

The first thing that they did was to seize half a dozen squirrels, three stray dogs, a softball, and a baby carriage, unoccupied. We will never know what the second thing was that they did, because no one stayed around to watch. The park emptied with impressive rapidity, the police moved swiftly in with their sealfield, and for the next three hours the aliens had the meadow to themselves. Later in the day the networks sent up spy-eyes that recorded the scene for the evening news until the aliens figured out what they were and shot them down. Briefly we saw ghostly, gleaming aliens wandering around within a radius of perhaps five hundred yards of their ship, collecting newspapers, soft-drink dispensers, discarded items of clothing, and something that was generally agreed to be a set of dentures. Whatever they picked up they wrapped in a sort of pillow made of a glowing fabric with the same shining texture as their own bodies, which immediately began floating off with its contents toward the hatch of the ship.

People were lined up six deep at the bar when I got to the Ras, and everyone was drinking like mad and staring at the screen. They were showing the clips of the aliens over and over. Maranta was already there. Her eyes were glowing. she pressed herself up against me like a wild woman. “My God,” she said, “Isn’t it wonderful? The men from Mars are here! Or wherever they’re from. Let’s hoist a few to the men from Mars.”

We hoisted more than a few. Somehow I got home at a respectable seven o’clock anyway. The apartment was still in its one-room configuration, though our contract with Bobby Christie clearly specified wall-shift at half past six. Elaine refused to have anything to do with activating the shift. She was afraid, I think, of timing the sequence wrong and being crushed by the walls or something.

“You heard?” Elaine said. “The aliens?”

“I wasn’t far from the park at lunchtime,” I told her. “That was when it happened, at lunchtime, while I was up by the park.”

Her eyes went wide. “Then you actually saw them land?”

“I wish. By the time I got to the park the cops had everything sealed off.”

I pressed the button and the walls began to move. Our living room and kitchen returned from Bobby Christie’s domain. In the moment of shift I caught sight of Bobby on the far side, getting dressed to go out. He waved and grinned.

“Space monsters in the park,” he said. “My, my, my. It’s a real jungle out there, don’t you know?” And then the walls closed away on him.

Elaine switched on the news, and once again I watched the aliens drifting around the Mall picking up people’s jackets and candy-bar wrappers.

“Hey,” I said, “the mayor ought to put them on the city payroll.”

“What were you doing up by the park at lunchtime?” Elaine asked, after a bit.

The next day was when the second ship landed and the real space monsters appeared. To me the first aliens didn’t qualify as monsters at all. Monsters ought to be monstrous, bottom line. Those first aliens were no bigger than you or me.

The second batch, they were something else, though. The behemoths.

The space elephants. Of course, they weren’t anything like elephants, except that they were big. Big? They were immense. It put me in mind of Hannibal’s invasion of Rome, seeing those gargantuan things disembarking from the new spaceship. It seemed like the Second Punic War all over again, Hannibal and the elephants.

You remember how that was. When Hannibal set out from Carthage to conquer Rome, he took with him a phalanx of elephants, thirty-eight huge gray attack-trained monsters. Elephants were useful in battle in those days — a kind of early-model tank — but they were handy also for terrifying the civilian populace: bizarre colossal smelly critters trampling invincibly through the suburbs, flapping their vast ears and trumpeting awesome cries of doom and burying your rosebushes under mountainous turds. And now we had the same deal. With one difference, though: The Roman archers picked off Hannibal’s elephants long before they got within honking distance of the walls of Rome. But these aliens had materialized without warning right in the middle of Central Park, in the big grassy meadow between the Seventy-second Street Transverse and Central Park South, which is another deal altogether. I wonder how well things would have gone for the Romans if they had awakened one morning to find Hannibal and his army camping out in the Forum, and his thirty-eight hairy shambling flap-eared elephants snuffling and snorting and farting about on the marble steps of the Temple of Jupiter.

The new spaceship arrived the way the first one had — pop whoosh ping thunk — and the behemoths came tumbling out of it like rabbits out of a hat. We saw it on the evening news: The networks had a new bunch of spy-eyes up, half a mile or so overhead. The ship made a kind of belching sound, and this thing suddenly was standing on the Mall gawking and gaping. Then another belch, another thing. And on and on until there were two or three dozen of them. Nobody has ever been able to figure out how that little ship could have held as many as one of them. It was no bigger than a school bus standing on end.

The monsters looked like double-humped blue medium-size mountains with legs. The legs were their most elephantine feature — thick and rough skinned, like tree trunks — but they worked on some sort of telescoping principle and could be collapsed swiftly back up into the bodies of their owners.

Eight was the normal number of legs, but you never saw eight at once on any of them: As they moved about they always kept at least one pair withdrawn, though from time to time they’d let that pair descend and pull up another one, in what seemed like a completely random way. Now and then they might withdraw two pairs at once, which would cause them to sink down to ground level at one end like a camel kneeling.

Their prodigious bodies were rounded, with a sort of valley a couple of feet deep running crosswise along their backs, and they were covered all over with a dense, stiff growth midway in texture between fur and feathers. There were three yellow eyes the size of platters at one end and three rigid purple rodlike projections that stuck out seven or eight feet at the other. Their mouths were located in their bellies; when they wanted to eat something they would simply collapse all eight of their legs at the same time and sit down on it. It was a mouth big enough to swallow a very large animal at a single gulp — an animal as big as a bison, say. As we would shortly discover.

They were enormous. Enormous. The most reliable estimate was that they were twenty-five to thirty feet high and forty to fifty feet long. That is not only substantially larger than any elephant past or present, it is rather larger than most of the two-family houses still to be found in the outer boroughs of the city. Furthermore a two-family house, though it may offend your aesthetic sense, will not move around at all; it will not emit bad smells and frightening sounds; it will never sit down on a bison and swallow it; nor, for that matter, will it swallow you. African elephants, they tell me, run ten or eleven feet high at the shoulder, and the biggest extinct mammoths were three or four feet taller than that. There once was a mammal called the baluchitherium that stood about sixteen feet high. That was the largest land mammal that ever lived. The space creatures were nearly twice as high. We are talking large here. We are talking dinosaur-plus dimensions.

Central Park is several miles long but quite modest in width. It runs just from Fifth Avenue to Eighth. Its designers did not expect that anyone would allow two or three dozen animals bigger than two-family houses to wander around freely in an urban park a mere three city blocks wide. No doubt the small size of their pasture was proving very awkward for them. Certainly it was for us.

“I think they have to be an exploration party,” Maranta said. “Don’t you?” We had shifted the scene of our Monday and Friday lunches from Central Park to Rockefeller Center, but otherwise we were trying to behave as though nothing unusual were going on. “They can’t have come as invaders. One little spaceship-load of aliens couldn’t possibly conquer an entire planet.”

Maranta is unfailingly jaunty and optimistic. She is a small, energetic woman with close-cropped red hair and green eyes, one of those boyish-looking women who never seem to age. I love her for her optimism. I wish I could catch it from her, like measles.

I said, “There are two spaceship-loads of aliens, Maranta.”

She made a face. “Oh. The jumbos. They’re just a bunch of dumb shaggy monsters. I don’t see them as much of a menace, really.”

“Probably not. But the little ones — they have to be a superior species. We know that because they’re the ones who came to us. We didn’t go to them.”

She laughed. “It all sounds so absurd to me. That Central Park should be full of creatures —”

“But what if they do want to conquer Earth?” I asked.

“Oh,” Maranta said, “I don’t think that would necessarily be so awful.”

The smaller aliens spent the first few days installing a good deal of mysterious equipment on the Mall in the vicinity of their ship: odd, intricate, shimmering constructions that looked as though they belonged in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

They made no attempt to enter into communication with us. They showed no interest in us at all. The only time they took notice of us was when we sent spy-eyes overhead. They would tolerate them for an hour or two and then would shoot them down, casually, like swatting flies, with spurts of pink light. The networks — and then the government surveillance agencies, when they moved in — put the eyes higher each day, but the aliens never failed to find them. After a week or so we were forced to rely for our information on government spy satellites monitoring the park from space, and on whatever observers equipped with binoculars were able to glimpse from the taller apartment houses and hotels bordering the park. Neither of these arrangements was entirely satisfactory.

The behemoths, during those days, were content to roam aimlessly through the park southward from Seventy-second Street, knocking over trees, squatting down to eat them. Each one gobbled two or three trees a day: leaves, branches, trunk and all. There weren’t all that many trees to begin with down there, so it seemed likely that before long they’d have to start ranging farther afield.

The usual civic groups spoke up about the trees. They wanted the mayor to do something to protect the park. The monsters, they said, would have to be made to go elsewhere — to Canada, perhaps, where there were expendable trees. The mayor said he was studying the problem but that it was too early to know what the best plan of action would be.

His chief goal, in the beginning, was simply to keep a lid on the situation. We still didn’t even know, after all, whether we were being invaded or just visited. To play it safe, the police were ordered to set up and maintain round-the-clock sealfields completely encircling the park in the impacted zone south of Seventy-second Street. The power costs of this were staggering, and Con Edison found it necessary to impose a ten percent voltage cutback throughout the rest of the city, which caused a lot of grumbling, especially now that it was getting to be air-conditioner weather.

The police didn’t like any of this: out there day and night standing guard in front of an intangible electronic barrier with ungodly monsters just a sneeze away. Now and then one of the blue Goliaths would wander near the sealfield and peer over the edge. A sealfield maybe a dozen feet high doesn’t give you much of a sense of security when there’s an animal two or three times that height looming over its top.

So the cops asked for time and a half. Combat pay, essentially. There wasn’t room in the city budget for that, especially since no one knew how long the aliens were going to continue to occupy the park. There was talk of a strike. The mayor appealed to Washington, which had studiously been staying remote from the event, as if the arrival of an extraterrestrial force in the middle of Manhattan was purely a municipal problem.

The President rummaged around in the Constitution and decided to activate the National Guard. That surprised a lot of basically sedentary men who enjoy dressing up occasionally in uniforms. The guard hadn’t been called out since the Bulgarian business in ’94, and its current members weren’t very sharp on procedures, so some hasty on-the-job training became necessary. As it happened, Maranta’s husband, Tim, was an officer in the 107th Infantry, the regiment that was handed the chief responsibility for protecting New York City against the creatures from space. So his life suddenly was changed a great deal, and so was Maranta’s; and so was mine.

Like everybody else, I found myself going over to the park again and again to try and get a glimpse of the aliens. But the barricades kept you fifty feet away from the park perimeter on all sides, and the taller buildings flanking the park had put themselves on a residents-only admission basis, with armed guards enforcing it, so they would’t be overwhelmed by hordes of curiosity seekers.

I did see Tim, though. He was in charge of a command post at Fifth and Fifty-ninth, near the horse-and-buggy stand. Youngish, stockbrokery-looking men kept running up to him with reports to sign, and he signed each one with terrific dash and vigor, without reading any of them. In his crisp tan uniform and shiny boots, he must have seen himself as some doomed and gallant officer in an ancient movie — Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, John Wayne — bracing himself for the climactic cavalry charge. The poor bastard.

“Hey old man,” he said, grinning at me in a doomed and gallant way. “Came to see the circus, did you?”

We weren’t really best friends anymore. I don’t know what we were to each other. We rarely lunched anymore. (How could we? I was busy three days a week with Maranta.) We didn’t meet at the gym. It wasn’t to Tim I turned for advice on personal problems or second opinions on investments. There was some sort of bond, but I think it was mostly nostalgia. But officially I guess I did still think of him as my best friend, in a kind of automatic, unquestioning way.

I said, “Are you free to go over to the Plaza for a drink?”

“I wish. I don’t get relieved until twenty-one hundred hours.”

“Nine o’clock, is that it?”

“Nine, yes. You fucking civilian.”

It was only half past one. The poor bastard. “What would happen to you if you left your post?”

“I could get shot for desertion,” he said.


“Seriously. Especially if the monsters pick that moment to bust out of the park. This is war, old buddy.”

“Is it, do you think? Maranta doesn’t think so.” I wondered if I should be talking about what Maranta thought. “She says they’re just out exploring the galaxy.”

Time shrugged. “She always likes to see the sunny side. That’s an alien military force over there inside the park. One of these days they’re going to blow a bugle and come out with blazing ray guns. You’d better believe it.”

“Through the sealfield?”

“They could walk right over it,” Tim said. “Or float, for all I know. There’s going to be a war. The first intergalactic war in human history.” Again the dazzling Cary Grant grin. Her Majesty’s Bengal lancers, ready for action. “Something to tell my grandchildren,” said Tim. “Do you know what the game plan is? First we attempt to make contact. If we ever establish communication, we invite them to sign a peace treaty. Then we offer them some chunk of Nevada or Kansas as a diplomatic enclave and get them the hell out of New York. But I don’t think any of that’s going to happen. I think they’re busy scoping things out in there, and as soon as they finish that, they’re going to launch some kind of attack, using weapons we don’t even begin to understand.”

“And if they do?”

“We nuke them. Tactical devices, just the right size for Central Park Mall.”

“No,” I said, staring. “That isn’t so. You’re kidding me.”

He looked pleased, a “gotcha” look. “Matter of fact, I am. The truth is that nobody has the goddamnedest idea of what to do about any of this. But don’t think the nuke strategy hasn’t been suggested. And some even crazier things.”

“Don’t tell me about them,” I said. “Look, Tim, is there any way I can get a peek over those barricades?”

“Not a chance,” he said. “Not even you. I’m not even supposed to be talking with civilians.”

“Since when am I a civilian?”

“Since the invasion began,” Tim said.

He was dead serious. Maybe this was all just a goofy movie to me, but it wasn’t to him.

More junior officers came to him with more papers to sign. He excused himself and took care of them. Then he was on the field telephone for five minutes or so. His expression grew progressively more bleak. Finally he looked up at me and said, “You see? It’s starting.”

“What is?”

“They’ve crossed Seventy-second Street for the first time. There must have been a gap in the sealfield. Or maybe they jumped it, as I was saying just now. Three of the big ones are up on Seventy-fourth, noodling around the eastern end of the lake. The Metropolitan Museum people are scared shitless and have asked for gun emplacements on the roof, and they’re thinking of evacuating the most important works of art.” The field phone lit up again. “Excuse me,” he said. Always the soul of courtesy, Tim. After a time he said, “Oh, Jesus. It sounds pretty bad. I’ve got to go up there right now. Do you mind?” His jaw was set; his gaze was frosty with determination. This is it, Major. There’s ten thousand Comanche coming through the pass with blood in their eyes, but we’re ready for them, right? Right. He went striding away up Fifth Avenue.

When I got back to the office there was a message from Maranta, suggesting that I stop off at her place for drinks that evening. Tim would be busy playing soldier, she said, until nine. Until twenty-one hundred hours, I silently corrected.

Another few days and we got used to it all. We began to accept the presence of aliens in the park as a normal part of New York life, like snow in February or laser duels in the subway.

But they remained at the center of everybody’s consciousness. In a subtle, pervasive way they were working great changes in our souls as they moved about mysteriously behind the sealfield barriers in the park. The strangeness of their being here made us buoyant. Their arrival had broken, in some way, the depressing rhythm that life in our brave new century had seemed to settle into. I know that for some time I had been thinking, as I suppose people have thought since Cro-Magnon days, that lately the flavor of modern life had been changing for the worse, that it was becoming sour and nasty, that the era I happened to live in was a dim, shabby, dismal sort of time, small-souled, mean-minded. You know the feeling. Somehow the aliens had caused that feeling to lift. By invading us in this weird hands-off way, they had given us something to be interestingly mystified by — a sort of redemption, a sort of rebirth. Yes, truly.

Some of us changed quite a lot. Consider Tim, the latter-day Bengal Lancer, the staunchly disciplined officer. He lasted about a week in that mind-set. Then one night he called me and said, “Hey fellow, how would you like to go into the park and play with the critters?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know a way to get in. I’ve got the code for the Sixty-fourth Street sealfield. I can turn it off and we can slip through. It’s risky, but how can you resist?”

So much for Gary Cooper. So much for John Wayne.

“Have you gone nuts?” I said. “The other day you wouldn’t even let me go up to the barricades.”

“That was the other day.”

“You wouldn’t walk across the street with me for a drink. You said you’d get shot for desertion.”

“That was the other day.”

“You called me a civilian.”

“You still are a civilian. But you’re my old buddy, and I want to go in there and look those aliens in the eye, and I’m not quite up to doing it all by myself. You want to go with me, or don’t you?”

“Like the time we stole the beer keg from Sigma Frap. Like the time we put the scorpions in the girls’ shower room.”

“You got it, old pal.”

“Tim, we aren’t college kids anymore. There’s a fucking intergalactic war going on. That was your phrase. Central Park is under surveillance by NASA spy-eyes that can see a cat’s whiskers from fifty miles up. You are part of the military force that is supposed to be protecting us against these alien invaders. And now you propose to violate your trust and go sneaking into the midst of the invading force, as a mere prank?”

“I guess I do,” he said.

“This is an extremely cockeyed idea, isn’t it?” I said.

“Absolutely. Are you with me?”

“Sure,” I said. “You know I am.”

I told Elaine that Tim and I were going to meet for a late dinner to discuss a business deal, and I didn’t expect to be home until two or three in the morning. No problem there. Tim was waiting at our old table at Perugino’s with a bottle of amarone already working. The wine was so good that we ordered another midway through the veal pizzaiola, and then a third. I won’t say we drank ourselves blind, but we certainly got seriously myopic. And about midnight we walked over to the park.

Everything was quiet. I saw sleepy-looking guardsmen patrolling here and there along Fifth Avenue. We went right up to the command post at Fifty-ninth, and Tim saluted very crisply, which I don’t think was quite kosher, he being not then in uniform. He introduced me to someone as Dr. Pritchett, Bureau of External Affairs. That sounded really cool and glib, Bureau of External Affairs.

Then off we went up Fifth, Tim and I, and he gave me a guided tour. “You see, Dr. Pritchett, the first line of the isolation zone is the barricade that runs down the middle of the avenue.” Virile, forceful voice, loud enough to be heard for half a block. “That keeps the gawkers away. Behind that, Doctor, we maintain a further level of security through a series of augmented-beam sealfield emplacements, the new General Dynamics 1100 series model, and let me show you right here how we’ve integrated that with advanced personnel-interface intercept scan by means of a triple line of Hewlett-Packard optical doppler-couplers . . .

And so on, a steady stream of booming, confident-sounding gibberish as we headed north. He pulled out a flashlight and led me hither and thither to show me amplifiers and sensors and whatnot, and it was Dr. Pritchett this and Dr. Pritchett that, and I realized that we were now somehow on the inner side of the barricade. His glibness, his poise, were awesome. Notice this, Dr. Pritchett, and Let me call your attention to this, Dr. Pritchett, and suddenly there was a tiny digital keyboard in his hand, like a little calculator, and he was tapping out numbers. “Okay,” he said, “the field’s down between here and the Sixty-fifth Street entrance to the park, but I’ve put a kill on the beam-interruption signal. So far as anyone can tell, there’s still an unbroken field. Let’s go in.”

And we entered the park just north of the zoo.

For five generations the first thing New York kids have been taught — ahead of tying shoelaces and flushing after you go — is that you don’t set foot in Central Park at night. Now here we were, defying the most primordial of no-no’s. But what was to fear? What they taught us to worry about in the park was muggers. Not creatures from the Ninth Glorch Galaxy.

The park was eerily quiet. Maybe a snore or two from the direction of the zoo, otherwise not a sound. We walked west and north into the silence, into the darkness. After a while a strange smell reached my nostrils. It was dank and musky and harsh and sour, but those are only approximations: It wasn’t like anything I had ever smelled before.

One whiff of it and I was seeing purple skies and a great green sun blazing high in the heavens. A second whiff and all the stars were in the wrong places. A third whiff and I was staring into a gnarled twisted landscape where the trees were like giant spears and the mountains were like crooked teeth.

Tim nudged me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I smell it, too.”

“Look to your left,” he said.

I looked to my left and saw three huge yellow eyes looking back at me from twenty feet overhead, like searchlights mounted in a tree. They weren’t mounted in a tree, though. They were mounted in something shaggy and massive, somewhat larger than your basic two-family Queens residential dwelling, that was standing maybe fifty feet away, completely blocking both lanes of the park’s East Drive from shoulder to shoulder.

It was then that I realized that three bottles of wine hadn’t been nearly enough. “What’s the matter?” Tim said. “This is what we came for, isn’t it, old pal?”

“What do we do now? Climb on its back and go for a ride?”

“You know that no human being in all of history has ever been as close to that thing as we are now?”

“Yes,” I said. “I do know that, Tim.”

It began making a sound. It was the kind of sound that a piece of chalk twelve feet thick would make if it was dragged across a blackboard the wrong way. When I heard that sound I felt as if I was being dragged across whole galaxies by my hair. A weird vertigo attacked me. Then the creature folded up all its legs and came down to ground level; and then it unfolded the two front pairs of legs, and then the other two; and then it started to amble slowly and ominously towards us.

I saw another one, looking even bigger, just beyond it. And perhaps a third one a little farther back. They were heading our way too.

“Shit,” I said. “This was a very dumb idea, wasn’t it?”

“Come on. We’re never going to forget this night.”

“Let’s get up real close. They don’t move very fast.”

“No,” I said. “Let’s just get out of the park right now, okay?”

“We just got here.”

“Fine,” I said. “We did it. Now let’s go.”

“Hey, look,” Tim said. “Over there to the west.”

I followed his pointing arm and saw two gleaming wraiths hovering just above the ground, maybe three hundred yards away. The other aliens, the little floating ones. Drifting towards us, graceful as balloons. I imagined myself being wrapped in a shining pillow and being floated off into their ship.

“Oh, shit,” I said. “Come on, Tim.”

Staggering, stumbling, I ran for the park gate, not even thinking about how I was going to get through the sealfield without Tim’s gizmo. But then there was Tim, right behind me. We reached the sealfield together and he tapped out the numbers on the little keyboard, and the field opened for us, and out we went, and the field closed behind us. And we collapsed just outside the park, panting, gasping, laughing like lunatics, and slapping the sidewalk hysterically. “Dr. Pritchett,” he chortled. “Bureau of External Affairs. God damn, what a smell that critter had! God damn!”

I laughed all the way home. I was still laughing when I got into bed. Elaine squinted at me. She wasn’t amused. “That Tim,” I said. “That wild man Tim.” She could tell I’d been drinking some and she nodded somberly — boys will be boys, etcetera — and went back to sleep.

In the morning I learned what had happened in the park after the two of us had cleared out.

It seemed a few of the big aliens had gone looking for us. They had followed our spoor all the way to the park gate, and when they lost it they somehow turned to the right and went blundering into the zoo. The Central Park Zoo is a small, cramped place, and as they rambled around in it they managed to knock down most of the fences. In no time whatever there were tigers, elephants, chimps, rhinos, and hyenas all over the park.

The animals, of course, were befuddled and bemused at finding themselves free. They took off in a hundred different directions, looking for places to hide.

The lions and coyotes simply curled up under bushes and went to sleep. The monkeys and some of the apes went into the trees. The aquatic things headed for the lake. One of the rhinos ambled out into the Mall and pushed over a fragile looking alien machine with its nose. The machine shattered, and the rhino went up in a flash of yellow light and a puff of green smoke. As for the elephants, they stood poignantly in a huddled circle, glaring in utter amazement and dismay at the gigantic aliens. How humiliating it must have been for them to feel tiny.

Then there was the bison event. There was this little herd, a dozen or so mangy-looking guys with ragged, threadbare fur. They started moving single file toward Columbus Circle, probably figuring that if they just kept their heads down and didn’t attract attention they could keep going all the way back to Wyoming. For some reason a behemoth decided to see what bison taste like. It came hulking over and sat down on the last on in line, which vanished underneath it like a mouse beneath a hippopotamus. Chomp, gulp, gone. In the next few minutes five more behemoths came over and disappeared five more of the bison. The survivors made it safely to the edge of the park and huddled up against the sealfield, mooing forlornly. One of the little tragedies of interstellar war.

I found Tim on duty at the Fifty-ninth Street command post. He looked at me as though I were an emissary of Satan.

“Sorry, I can’t talk to you while I’m on duty,” he said. “You heard about the zoo?” I asked.

“Of course I heard.” He was speaking through clenched teeth. His eyes had the scarlet look of zero sleep. “What a filthy, irresponsible thing we did!”

“Look, Tim, we had no way of knowing that the —”

“Inexcusable. An incredible lapse. The aliens feel threatened now that humans have trespassed on their territory, and the whole situation has changed in there. We upset them, and now they’re getting out of control. I’m thinking of reporting myself for court-martial.”

“Don’t be silly, Tim. We trespassed for three minutes. The aliens didn’t give a crap about it. They might have blundered into the zoo even if we hadn’t —”

“Go away,” he muttered. “I can’t talk to you while I’m on duty.”

Jesus! As if I was the one who had lured him into doing it. Well, he was back in his movie part again, the distinguished military figure who now had unaccountably committed an unpardonable lapse and was going to have to live in the cold glare of his own disapproval for the rest of his life. The poor bastard. I tried to tell him not to take things so much to heart, but he turned away from me, so I shrugged and went back to my office.

That afternoon some tender-hearted citizens demanded that the sealfields be switched off until the zoo animals could escape from the park. The sealfields, of course, kept them trapped in there with the aliens.

Another tough one for the mayor. He would lose points tremendously if the evening news kept showing our beloved polar bears and raccoons and kangaroos and whatnot getting gobbled like so many gumdrops by the aliens. But switching off the sealfields would send a horde of leopards and gorillas and wolverines scampering out into the streets of Manhattan, to say nothing of the aliens who might follow them. The mayor appointed a study group, naturally.

The small aliens stayed close to their spaceship and remained uncommunicative. They went on tinkering with their machines, which emitted odd plinking noises and curious colored lights. But the huge ones roamed freely about the park, and now they were doing considerable damage in their amiable, mindless way. They smashed up the backstops of the baseball fields, tossed the Bethesda Fountain into the lake, rearranged Tavern on the Green’s seating plan, and trashed the place in various other ways; but nobody seemed to object except the usual Friends of the Park civic types. I think we were all so bemused by the presence of genuine galactic beings that we didn’t mind. We were flattered that they had chosen New York as the site of first contact. (But where else?)

No one could explain how the behemoths had penetrated the Seventy-second Street sealfield line, but a new barrier was set up at Seventy-ninth, and that seemed to keep them contained. Poor Tim spent twelve hours a day patrolling the perimeter of the occupied zone. Inevitably I began spending more time with Maranta than just lunchtimes. Elaine noticed. But I didn’t notice her noticing.

One Sunday at dawn a behemoth turned up by the Metropolitan, peering in the window of the Egyptian courtyard. The authorities thought at first that there must be a gap in the Seventy-ninth Street sealfield, as there had been at Seventy-second. Then came a report of another alien out near Riverside Drive and a third one at Lincoln Center, and it became clear that the sealfields just didn’t hold them back at all. They had simply never bothered to go beyond them before.

Making contact with a sealfield is said to be extremely unpleasant for any organism with a nervous system more complex than a squid’s. Every neuron in your body screams out in anguish. You jump back involuntarily, a reflex impossible to overcome. On the morning we came to call Crazy Sunday, the behemoths began walking through the fields as if they weren’t there. The main thing about aliens is that they are alien. They feel no responsibility for fulfilling any of your expectations.

That weekend it was Bobby Christie’s turn to have the full apartment. On those Sundays when Elaine and I had the one-room configuration, we liked to get up very early and spend the day out, since it was a little depressing to stay home with three rooms of furniture jammed all around us. As we were walking up Park Avenue South toward Forty-second, Elaine said suddenly, “Do you hear anything strange?”


“Like a riot.”

“It’s nine o’clock Sunday morning. Nobody goes out rioting at nine o’clock Sunday morning.”

“Just listen,” she said.

There was no mistaking the characteristic sounds of a large, excited crowd of human beings, for those of us who spent our formative years living in the late twentieth century. Our ears were tuned at an early age to the music of riots, mobs, demonstrations, and their kin. We know what it means when individual exclamations of anger, indignation, or anxiety blend to create a symphonic hubbub in which all extremes of pitch and timbre are submerged into a single surging roar, as deep as the booming of the surf. That was what I was hearing now. And there was no mistaking it.

“It isn’t a riot,” I said. “It’s a mob. There’s a subtle difference.”


“Come on,” I said, breaking into a jog. “I’ll bet you the aliens have come out of the park.”

A mob, yes. In a moment we saw thousands upon thousands of people filling Forty-second Street from curb to curb. What they were looking at — pointing, gaping, screaming — was a shaggy blue creature as big as a small mountain that was moving about uncertainly on the automobile viaduct that runs around the side of Grand Central Terminal. It looked unhappy. It was trying to get down from the viaduct, which was sagging noticeably under its weight. People were jammed right up against it, and a dozen or so were clinging to its sides and back like rock climbers. There were people underneath it, too, milling between its colossal legs. “Oh, look,” Elaine said, shuddering, digging her fingers into my biceps.

“Isn’t it eating some of them?” Once she had pointed it out, I saw, yes, the behemoth now and then was dipping quickly and rising again, a familiar one-two, the old squat and gobble. “What an awful thing!” Elaine murmured “Why don’t they get out of its way?”

“I don’t think they can,” I said. “I think they’ve been pushed forward by the people behind them.”

“Right into the jaws of that monster.”

“I don’t think it means to hurt anyone,” I said. How did I know that? “I think it’s just eating them because they’re dithering around down there in its mouth area. A kind of automatic response. It looks awfully dumb, Elaine.”

“Are you defending it?”

“Hey, look, Elaine —”

“It’s eating people. You sound almost sorry for it!”

“Why not? It’s far from home and surrounded by ten thousand screaming morons. You think it wants to be there?”

“It’s a disgusting, obnoxious animal.” She was getting furious. Her eyes were bright and wild; he jaw was thrust forward. “I hope the Army gets here fast. I hope they blow it to smithereens!”

Her ferocity frightened me. I saw an Elaine I scarcely knew at all. When I tried one more time to make excuses for that miserable hounded beast on the viaduct, she glared at me with unmistakable loathing. Then she turned away and went rushing forward, shaking her fist, shouting curses and threats at the alien. Suddenly I realized how it would have been if Hannibal actually had been able to keep his elephants alive long enough to enter Rome with them. The respectable Roman matrons, screaming and raging from the housetops with the fury of banshees. And the baffled elephants sooner or later rounded up and thrust into the Colosseum to be tormented by little men with spears, while the crowd howled its delight. Well, I can howl, too. “Come on behemoth!” I yelled into the roar of the mob. “You can do it, Goliath!” A traitor to the human race is what I was, I guess.

Eventually a detachment of guardsmen came with mortars and rifles, and for all I know they had tactical nukes, too. But of course there was no way they could attack the animal in the midst of such a mob. Instead they used electronic blooglehorns to disperse the crowd by the power of sheer ugly noise and whipped up a bunch of buzz-blinkers and a little sealfield to cut Forty-second Street in half. The last I saw of the monster, it was slouching off in the direction of the old United Nations buildings with the guardsmen warily creeping along behind it. The crowd scattered, and I was left standing in front of Grand Central with a trembling, sobbing Elaine.

That was how it was all over the city on Crazy Sunday, and on Monday and Tuesday, too. The behemoths were roaming from Harlem to Wall Street. Wherever they went they drew tremendous, crazy crowds that swarmed all over them without any regard for the danger. Some famous news photos came out of those days: three grinning black boys at Seventh and One Hundred Twenty-fifth hanging from the three purple rodlike things, the acrobats forming a human pyramid atop the Times Square beast, a little old Italian man in front of his house in Greenwich Village trying to hold a space monster at bay with just his garden hose.

There was never any accurate casualty count. Maybe five thousand people died, mainly trampled underfoot by the aliens or crushed in the crowd. Somewhere between three hundred fifty and four hundred human beings were gobbled by the aliens. Apparently that stoop-and-swallow thing is something they do when they’re nervous. If there’s anything edible within reach, they’ll gulp it in. This soothes them. We made them very nervous; they did a lot of gulping.

Among the casualties was Tim, the second day of the violence. He went down valiantly in the defense of the Guggenheim Museum, which came under attack by five of the biggies. Its spiral shape held some ineffable appeal for them. We couldn’t tell whether they wanted to worship it or mate with it or just knock it to pieces, but they kept on charging and charging, rushing up to it and slamming against it. Tim was trying to hold them off with nothing more than tear gas and blooglehorns when he was swallowed. The President had ordered the guardsmen not to use lethal weapons. Maranta was bitter about that. “If only they had let them use grenades,” she said. I tried to imagine what it was like, gulped down and digested, nifty tan uniform and all. A credit to his regiment. It was his atonement, I guess. He was back there in the Gary Cooper movie again, gladly paying the price for dereliction of duty.

Tuesday afternoon the rampage came to an unexpected end. The behemoths started keeling over, and within a few hours they were all dead. Some said it was the heat — it was up in the nineties — and some said it was the excitement. A Rockefeller University biologist thought it was both those factors plus severe indigestion: They had eaten an average of ten humans apiece, which might have overloaded their systems. But as we later saw, indigestion couldn’t have been the problem.

There was no chance for autopsies. Some enzyme in the huge bodies set to work immediately on death, dissolving flesh and bone and skin and all into a sticky yellow mess. By nightfall nothing was left of them but some stains on the pavement, uptown and down. A sad business, I thought. Not even a skeleton for the museum, memento of this momentous time. The poor monsters. Was I the only one who felt sorry for them? Quite possibly I was. I make no apologies.

All this time the other aliens, the little shimmery spooky ones, had stayed holed up in Central Park, preoccupied with their incomprehensible research. They didn’t even seem to notice that their behemoths had strayed. But now they became agitated. For two or three days they bustled about like worried penguins, dismantling their instruments and packing them aboard their ship; then they took apart the other ship, the one that had carried the behemoths, and loaded that aboard. Maybe they felt demoralized. As the Carthaginians who had invaded Rome did after their elephants had died.

On a sizzling June afternoon the alien ship took off. Not for its home world, at least not right away. It swooped into the sky and came down on Fire Island — at Cherry Grove. The aliens took possession of the beach, set up instruments around their ship, and even ventured onto the water, skimming and bobbing just above the surface like demented surfers. After five or six days they moved to one of the Hamptons and did the same thing, then to Martha’s Vineyard. Maybe they just wanted a vacation. Then they left altogether.

“You’ve been having an affair with Maranta, haven’t you?” Elaine asked me the day the aliens left.

“I won’t deny it.”

“That night you came in so late, with wine on your breath. You were with her, weren’t you?”

“No. I was with Tim. We sneaked into the park and looked at the aliens.”

“Sure,” Elaine said. She filed for divorce, and a year later I married Maranta. Very likely that would have happened sooner or later even if Earth hadn’t been invaded by beings from space and Tim hadn’t been devoured. But no question the invasion speeded things up a bit.

And now, of course, the invaders are back. Four years to the day from the first landing and there they were, pop whoosh ping thunk, Central Park again. Three ships this time: one of spooks, one of behemoths, and the third one carrying the prisoners of war. Who could ever forget that scene, when the hatch opened and some three hundred fifty to four hundred human beings came out, marching like zombies? Along with the bison herd, half a dozen squirrels, and three dogs. They hadn’t been eaten and digested at all, just collected inside the behemoths and instantaneously transmitted somehow to the home world for study. Now they were being returned. “That’s Tim, isn’t it?” Maranta said, pointing to the screen. I nodded. Unmistakably Tim. With the stunned look of a man who has seen marvels beyond comprehension.

It’s a month now, and the government is still holding all the returnees for debriefing. No one is allowed to see them. The word is that a special law will be passed dealing with the problem of spouses of returnees who have entered into new marriages. Maranta says she’ll stay with me no matter what; and I’m pretty sure that Tim will do the stiff-upper-lip thing, no hard feelings, if they ever get word to him in the debriefing camp about Maranta and me. As for the aliens, they’re sitting tight in Central Park, occupying the whole place from Ninety-sixth to One Hundred Tenth and not telling us a thing. Now and then the behemoths wander down to the reservoir for a lively bit of wallowing, but they haven’t gone beyond the park this time. I think a lot about Hannibal, and about Carthage versus Rome, and how the Second Punic War might have come out if Hannibal had had a chance to go home and get a new batch of elephants. Most likely Rome would have won the war anyway. But we aren’t Romans, they aren’t Carthaginians, and those aren’t elephants in the Central Park reservoir. “This is such an interesting time to be alive,” Maranta likes to say. “I’m certain they don’t mean us any harm, aren’t you?”

“I love you for your optimism,” I tell her then. And then we turn on the tube and watch the evening news.



This story copyright © 1988 by Robert Silverberg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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