Read In Deep Online

Authors: Damon Knight

Tags: #Short Story Collection, #Science Fiction

In Deep (10 page)

“Right,” said Aunt Jane with deep sorrow.

Wesson stopped at the bedroom doorway again and shuddered, holding onto the frame. “Aunt Jane,” he said in a low, clear voice, “you take pictures of
him
up there, don’t you?”

“Yes, Paul.”

“And you take pictures of me. And then what happens? After it’s all over, who looks at the pictures?”

“I don’t know,” said Aunt Jane humbly.

“You don’t know. But whoever looks at ’em, it doesn’t do any good. Right? We got to find out why, why, why… And we never do find out, do we?”

“No,” said Aunt Jane.

“But don’t they figure that if the man who’s going through it could see him, he might be able to tell something? That other people couldn’t? Doesn’t that make sense?”

“That’s out of my hands, Paul.”

He sniggered. “That’s funny. Oh, that’s funny.” He chortled in his throat, reeling around the circuit.

“Yes, that’s funny,” said Aunt Jane.

“Aunt Jane, tell me what happens to the watchmen.”

“… I can’t tell you that, Paul.”

He lurched into the living room, sat down before the console, beat on its smooth, cold metal with his fists. “What are you, some kind of monster? Isn’t there any blood in your veins, damn it, or oil or
anything?

“Please, Paul—”

“Don’t you see, all I want to know, can they talk? Can they tell anything after their tour is over?”

“… No, Paul.”

He stood upright, clutching the console for balance. “They can’t? No, I figured. And you know why?”

“No.”

“Up there,” said Wesson obscurely. “Moss on the rock.”

“Paul, what?”

“We get changed,” said Wesson, stumbling out of the room again. “We get changed. Like a piece of iron next to a magnet. Can’t help it. You—nonmagnetic, I guess. Goes right through you, huh, Aunt Jane? You don’t get changed. You stay here, wait for the next one.”

“… Yes,” said Aunt Jane.

“You know,” said Wesson, pacing, “I can tell how he’s lying up there. Head
that
way, tail the other. Am I right?”

“… Yes,” said Aunt Jane.

Wesson stopped, “Yes,” he said intently. “So you
can
tell me what you see up there, can’t you, Aunt Jane?”

“No. Yes. It isn’t allowed.”

“Listen, Aunt Jane,
we’ll die
unless we can find out what makes those aliens tick! Remember that.” Wesson leaned against the corridor wall, gazing up. “He’s turning now—around this way. Right?

“Well, what else is he doing? Come on, Aunt Jane, tell me!”

A pause. “He is twitching his—”

“What?”

“I don’t know the words.”

“My God, my God,” said Wesson, clutching his head, “of course there aren’t any words.” He ran into the living room, clutched the console and stared at the blank screen. He pounded the metal with his fist. “You’ve got to show me, Aunt Jane, come on and show me, show me!”

“It isn’t allowed,” Aunt Jane protested.

“You’ve got to do it just the same, or we’ll
die
, Aunt Jane—millions of us, billions, and it’ll be your fault, get it, your fault, Aunt Jane!”


Please
,” said the voice. There was a pause. The screen flickered to life, for an instant only. Wesson had a glimpse of massive and dark, but half transparent, like a magnified insect—a tangle of nameless limbs, whiplike filaments, claws, wings…

He clutched at the edge of the console.

“Was that all right?” Aunt Jane asked.

“Of course! What do you think, it’ll kill me to look at it? Put it back, Aunt Jane, put it back!”

Reluctantly, the screen lighted again. Wesson stared, and went on staring. He mumbled something.

“What?” said Aunt Jane.


Life of my love, I loathe thee
,” said Wesson, staring. He roused himself after a moment and turned away. The image of the alien stayed with him as he went reeling into the corridor again; he was not surprised to find that it reminded him of all the loathesome, crawling, creeping things the Earth was full of. That explained why he was not supposed to see the alien, or even know what it looked like—because that fed his hate. And it was all right for him to be afraid of the alien, but he was not supposed to hate it… Why not? Why not?

His fingers were shaking. He felt drained, steamed, dried up and withered. The one daily shower Aunt Jane allowed him was no longer enough. Twenty minutes after bathing the acid sweat dripped again from his armpits, the cold sweat was beaded on his forehead, the hot sweat was in his palms. Wesson felt as if there were a furnace inside him, out of control, all the dampers drawn. He knew that under stress, something of the kind did happen to man: the body’s chemistry was altered=—more adrenalin, more glycogen in the muscles; eyes brighter, digestion retarded. That was the trouble—he was burning himself up, unable to fight the thing that tormented him, nor run from it.

After another circuit, Wesson’s steps faltered. He hesitated, and went into the living room. He leaned over the console, staring. From the screen, the alien stared blindly up into space, Down in the dark side, the golden indicators had climbed: the vats were more than two-thirds filled.

… To
fight
, or
run

Slowly Wesson sank down in front of the console. He sat hunched, head bent, hands squeezed tight between his knees, trying to hold onto the thought that had come to him.

If the alien felt a pain as great as Wesson’s—or greater—

Stress might alter the alien’s body chemistry, too.

Life of my love, I loathe thee
.

Wesson pushed the irrelevant thought aside. He stared at the screen, trying to envisage the alien, up there, wincing in pain and distress—sweating a golden sweat of horror…

After a long time, he stood up and walked into the kitchen. He caught the table edge to keep his legs from carrying him on around the circuit. He sat down.

Humming fondly, the autochef slid out a tray of small glasses—water, orange juice, milk. Wesson put the water glass to his stiff lips; the water was cool and hurt his throat. Then the juice, but he could only drink a little of it; then he sipped the milk. Aunt Jane hummed approvingly.

Dehydrated—how long had it been since he had eaten, or drunk? He looked at his hands. They were thin bundles of sticks, ropy-veined, with hard yellow claws. He could see the bones of his forearms under the skin, and his heart’s beating stirred the cloth at his chest. The pale hairs on his arms and thighs—were they blond or white?

The blurred reflections in the metal trim of the dining room gave him no answers—only pale faceless smears of gray. Wesson felt light-headed and very weak, as if he had just ended a bout of fever. He fumbled over his ribs and shoulderbones. He was thin.

He sat in front of the autochef for a few minutes more, but no food came out. Evidently Aunt Jane did not think he was ready for it, and perhaps she was right. Worse for them than for us, he thought dizzily. That’s why the Station’s so far out; why radio silence, and only one man aboard. They couldn’t stand it all, otherwise… Suddenly he could think of nothing but sleep—the bottomless pit, layer after layer of smothering velvet, numbing and soft… His leg muscles quivered and twitched when he tried to walk, but he managed to get to the bedroom and fall on the mattress. The resilient block seemed to dissolve under him. His bones were melting.

He woke with a clear head, very weak, thinking cold and clear:
When two alien cultures meet, the stronger must transform the weaker with love or hate
. “Wesson’s Law,” he said aloud. He looked automatically for pencil and paper, but there , was none, and he realised he would have to tell Aunt Jane, and let her remember it.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Never mind, remember it anyway. You’re good at that, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Paul.”

“All right… I want some breakfast.”

He thought about Aunt Jane, so nearly human, sitting up here in her metal prison, leading one man after another through the torment of hell… nursemaid, protector, torturer. They must have known that something would have to give… But the alphas were comparatively new; nobody understood them very well. Perhaps they really thought that an absolute prohibition could never be broken.


the stronger must transform the weaker

I’m the stronger
, he thought.
And that’s the way it’s going to be
. He stopped at the console, and the screen was blank. He said angrily, “Aunt Jane!” And with a guilty start, the screen flickered into life.

Up there, the alien had rolled again in his pain. Now the great clustered eyes were staring directly into the camera; the coiled limbs threshed in pain: the eyes were staring, asking, pleading…


No
,” said Wesson, feeling his own pain like an iron cap, and he slammed his hand down on the manual control. The screen went dark. He looked up, sweating, and saw the floral picture over the console.

The thick stems were like antennae, the leaves thoraxes, the buds like blind insect eyes. The whole picture moved slightly, endlessly, in a slow waiting rhythm.

Wesson clutched the hard metal of the console, and stared at the picture, with sweat cold on his brow, until it turned into a calm, meaningless arrangement of lines again. Then he went into the dining room, shaking, and sat down.

After a moment he said, “Aunt Jane, does it get worse?”

“No. From now on, it gets better.”

“How long?” he asked vaguely.

“One month.”

A month, getting better… that was the way it had always been, with the watchman swamped and drowned, his personality submerged. Wesson thought about the men who had gone before him—Class Seven citizenship, with unlimited leisure, and Class One housing, yes, sure—in a sanatorium.

His lips peeled back from his teeth, and his fists clenched hard.
Not me!
he thought.

He spread his hands on the cool metal to steady them. He said, “How much longer do they usually stay able to talk?”

“You are already talking longer than any of them…”

Then there was a blank. Wesson was vaguely aware, in snatches, of the corridor walls moving past, and the console glimpsed, and of a thunderous cloud of ideas that swirled around his head in a beating of wings. The aliens: what did they want? And what happened to the watchmen in Stranger Station?

The haze receded a little and he was in the dining room again, staring vacantly at the table. Something was wrong.

He ate a few spoonsful of the gruel the autochef served him, then pushed it away; the stuff tasted faintly unpleasant. The machine hummed anxiously and thrust a poached egg at him, but Wesson got up from the table.

The Station was all but silent. The resting rhythm of the household machines throbbed in the walls, unheard. The blue-lit living room was spread out before him like an empty stage setting, and Wesson stared as if he had never seen it before.

He lurched to the console and stared down at the pictured alien on the screen: heavy, heavy, a-sprawl with pain in the darkness. The needles of the golden indicators were high, the enlarged vats almost full.
It’s too much for him
, Wesson thought with grim satisfaction. The peace that followed the pain had not descended as it was supposed to; no, not this time!

He glanced up at the painting over the console: heavy crustacean limbs that swayed gracefully in the sea…

He shook his head violently.
I won’t let it; I won’t give in!
He held the back of one hand close to his eyes. He saw the dozens of tiny cuneiform wrinkles stamped into the skin over the knuckles, the pale hairs sprouting, the pink shiny flesh of recent scars.
I’m human
, he thought. But when he let his hand fall onto the console, the bony fingers seemed to crouch like crustaceans’ legs, ready to scuttle.

Sweating, Wesson stared into the screen. Pictured there, the alien met his eyes, and it was as if they spoke to each other, mind to mind, an instantaneous communication that needed no words. There was a piercing sweetness to it, a melting, dissolving luxury of change into something that would no longer have any pain… A pull, a calling.

Wesson straightened up slowly, carefully, as if he held some fragile thing in his mind that must not be handled roughly, or it would disintegrate. He said hoarsely, “Aunt Jane!”

She made some responsive noise.

He said, “Aunt Jane, I’ve got the answer! The whole thing! Listen, now wait—listen!” He paused a moment to collect his thoughts. “
When two alien cultures meet, the stronger must transform the weaker with love or hate
. Remember? You said you didn’t understand what that meant. I’ll tell you what it means. When these—monsters—met Pigeon a hundred years ago on Titan,
they knew
we’d have to meet again. They’re spreading out, colonising, and so are we. We haven’t got interstellar flight yet, but give us another hundred years, we’ll
get
it.
We’ll wind up out there, where they are
. And they can’t stop us. Because they’re not killers, Aunt Jane, it isn’t in them. They’re
nicer
than us. See, they’re like the missionaries, and we’re the South Sea Islanders.
They
don’t kill their enemies, oh no—perish the thought!”

She was trying to say something, to interrupt him, but he rushed on. “Listen! The longevity serum—that was a lucky accident. But they played it for all it’s worth. Slick and smooth—they come and give us the stuff free—they don’t ask for a thing in return. Why not? Listen.

“They come here, and the shock of that first contact makes them sweat out that golden gook we need, Then, the last month or so, the pain always eases off. Why? Because the two minds, the human and alien, they stop fighting each other. Something gives way, it goes soft, and there’s a mixing together. And that’s where you get the human casualties of this operation—the bleary men that come out of here not even able to talk human language any more. Oh, I suppose they’re happy—happier than I am!—because they’ve got something big and wonderful inside ’em. Something that you and I can’t even understand. But if you took them and put them together again with the aliens who spent time here,
they could all live together—they’re adapted
.

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