Authors: Damon Knight
Tags: #Short Story Collection, #Science Fiction
George watched them with an attentiveness compounded of professional interest and apprehension. Gradually, as they came closer, he made out that the lights were attached to long, thin stalks which grew from an ambiguous shape below—either light organs, like those of some deep-sea fish, or simply luminescent eyes.
George noted a feeling of tension in himself which seemed to suggest that adrenalin or an equivalent was being released somewhere in his system. He promised himself to follow this lead at the first possible moment; meanwhile he had a more urgent problem to consider. Was this approaching organism the kind which the something
ate, or the kind which devoured the something
? If the latter, what would he do about it?
For the present, at any rate, sitting where he was seemed to be indicated. The body he inhabited made use of camouflage in its normal, and untenanted state, and was not equipped for speed. So. George held still and watched, keeping his eyes half closed, while he considered the possible nature of the approaching animal.
The fact that it was nocturnal, he told himself, meant nothing. Moths were nocturnal; so were bats—no, the devil with bats, they were carnivores… The light-bearing creature came nearer, and George saw the faint gleam of a pair of long, narrow eyes below the two stalks.
Then the creature opened its mouth.
It had a great many teeth.
George found himself crammed into some kind of crevice in a wall of rock, without any clear recollection of how he had got there. He remembered a flurry of branches as the creature sprang at him, and a moment’s furious pain, and then nothing but vague, starlit glimpses of leaves and earth.
The thing was impossible. How had he got away?
He puzzled over it until dawn came, and then, looking down at himself, he saw something that had not been there before. Under the smooth edge of gelatinous flesh three or four projections of some kind were visible. It struck George that his sensation of contact with the stone underneath him had changed, too: he seemed to be standing on a number of tiny points instead of lying flat.
He flexed one of the projections experimentally, then thrust it out straight ahead of him. It was a lumpy, single-jointed caricature of a finger—or a leg.
George lay still for a long time and thought about it with as much coherence as he could muster. Then he waggled the thing again. It was there, and so were all the others, as solid and real as the rest of him.
He moved forward experimentally, sending the same messages down to his finger-and-toe nerve ends as before. His body lurched out of the cranny with a swiftness that very nearly tumbled him down over the edge of a minor precipice.
Where he had crawled like a snail before, he now scuttled like an insect.
But how… No doubt, in his terror when the thing with the teeth attacked, he had unconsciously tried to run as if he still had legs. Was that all there was to it?
George thought of the carnivore again, and of the stalks supporting the organs which he had thought might be eyes. That would do as an experiment. He closed his own eyes and imagined them rising outward, imagined the mobile stalks growing, growing… He tried to convince himself that he had eyes like that, had always had them—that everyone who was anyone had eyes on stalks.
Surely, something was happening?
George opened his eyes again, and found himself looking straight down at the ground, getting a view so close up that it was blurred, out of focus. Impatiently he tried to look up. All that happened was that his field of vision moved forward a matter of ten or twelve centimeters.
It was at this point that a voice shattered the stillness. It sounded like someone trying to shout through half a meter of lard. “Urghh! Lluhh!
George leaped convulsively, executed a neat turn and swept his eyes around a good two hundred and forty degrees of arc. He saw nothing but rocks and lichens. On a closer inspection, it appeared that a small green-and-orange larva or grub of some kind was moving past him. George regarded it with suspicion for a long moment, until the voice broke out again:
The voice, somewhat higher this time, came from behind.
George whirled again, swept his mobile eyes around—
Around an impossible wide circuit. His eyes were on stalks, and they were mobile—whereas a moment ago he had been staring at the ground, unable to look up. George’s brain clattered into high gear. He had grown stalks for his eyes, all right, but they’d been limp—just extensions of the jellylike mass of his body, without a stiffening cell structure of muscular tissue to move them. Then, when the voice had startled him, he’d got the stiffening and the muscles in a hurry.
That must have been what had happened the previous night. Probably the process would have been completed, but much more slowly, if he hadn’t been frightened. A protective mechanism, obviously. As for the voice—
George rotated once more, slowly, looking all around him. There was no question about it: he was alone. The voice, which had seemed to come from someone or something standing just behind him, must in fact have issued from his own body.
The voice started again, at a less frantic volume. It burbled a few times, then said quite clearly in a high tenor, “Whass happen’? Wheh am I?”
George was floundering in a sea of bewilderment. He was in no condition to adapt quickly to more new circumstances, and when a large, desiccated lump fell from a nearby bush and bounced soundlessly to within a meter of him, he simply stared at it.
He looked at the hard-shelled object, and then at the laden bush from which it had dropped. Slowly, painfully, he worked his way through to a logical conclusion. The dried fruit had fallen without a sound. That was natural, because he had been totally deaf ever since his metamorphosis. But—he had heard a voice!
Ergo, hallucination, or telepathy.
The voice began again. “He-elp. Oh, dear, I wish someone would answer!”
Vivian Bellis. Gumbs, even if he affected that tenor voice, wouldn’t say, “Oh, dear.” Neither would McCarty.
George’s shaken nerves were returning to normal. He thought intently,
I get scared, grow legs. Bellis gets scared, grows a telepathic voice. That’s reasonable, I guess-her first and only instinct would be to yell
George tried to put himself into a yelling mood. He shut his eyes and imagined himself cooped up in a terrifyingly alien medium, without any control or knowledge of his predicament. He tried to shout: “Vivian!”
He kept on trying, while the girl’s voice continued at intervals.
Finally she stopped abruptly in the middle of a sentence. George said, “Can you hear me?”
“Who’s that—what do you want?”
“This is George Meister, Vivian. Can you understand what I’m saying?”
George kept at it. His pseudo-voice, he judged, was a little garbled, just as Bellis’s had been at first. At least the girl said, “Oh, George—I mean Mr. Meister! Oh, I’ve been so frightened. Where are you?”
George explained, apparently not very tactfully, because Bellis shrieked when he was through and then went back to burbling. George sighed, and said, “Is there anyone else on the premises? Major Gumbs? Miss McCarty?”
A few minutes later two sets of weird sounds began almost simultaneously. When they became coherent, it was no trouble to identify the voices. Gumbs, the big, red-faced professional soldier, shouted, “Why the hell don’t you watch where you’re going, Meister? If you hadn’t started that rock slide we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
Miss McCarty, who had had a seamed white face, a jutting jaw, and eyes the color of mud, said coldly, “Meister, all of this will be reported.
It appeared that only Meister and Gumbs had kept the use of their eyes. All four of them had some muscular control, though Gumbs was the only one who had made any serious attempt to interfere with George’s locomotion. Miss McCarty, not to George’s surprise, had managed to retain a pair of functioning ears.
But Bellis had been blind, deaf and dumb all through the afternoon and night. The only terminal sense organs she had been able to use had been those of the skin—the perceptors of touch, heat and cold, and pain. She had heard nothing, seen nothing, but she had felt every leaf and stalk they had brushed against, the cold impact of every raindrop, and the pain of the toothy monster’s bite. George’s opinion of her went up several notches when he learned this. She had been terrified, but she hadn’t been driven into hysteria or insanity.
It further appeared that nobody was doing any breathing, and nobody was aware of a heartbeat.
George would have liked nothing better than to continue this discussion, but the other three were united in believing that what had happened to them after they got in was of less importance than how they were going to get out.
“We can’t get out,” said George. “At least, I don’t see any possibility of it in the present state of our knowledge. If we—”
“But we’ve got to get out!” said Vivian.
“We’ll go back to camp,” said McCarty coldly. “Immediately. And you’ll explain to the Loyalty Committee why you didn’t turn back as soon as you regained consciousness.”
“That’s right,” Gumbs put in self-consciously. “If you can’t do anything, Meister, maybe the other technical fellows can.”
George patiently explained his theory of their probable reception by the guards at the camp. McCarty’s keen mind detected a flaw. “You grew legs, and stalks for your eyes, according to your own testimony. If you weren’t lying, you can also grow a mouth. We’ll announce ourselves as we approach.”
“That may not be easy,” George told her. “We couldn’t get along with just a mouth, we’d need teeth, tongue, hard and soft palates, lungs or the equivalent, vocal cords, and some kind of substitute for a diaphragm to power the whole business. I’m wondering if it’s possible at all, because when Miss Bellis finally succeeded in making herself heard, it was by the method we’re using now. She didn’t—”
“You talk too much,” said McCarty. “Major Gumbs, Miss Bellis, you and I will try to form a speaking apparatus. The first to succeed will receive a credit mark on his record. Commence.”
George, being left out of the contest by implication, used his time in trying to restore his hearing. It seemed to him likely that the whatever-it-was
had some sort of division-of-labor principle built into it, since Gumbs and he—the first two to fall in—had kept their sight without making any special effort in that direction, while matters like hearing and touch had been left for the latecomers. This was fine in principle, and George approved of it, but he didn’t like the idea of Miss McCarty’s being the sole custodian of any part of the apparatus.
Even if he were able to persuade the other two to follow his lead—and at the moment this prospect seemed dim—McCarty was certain to be a holdout. And it might easily be vital to all of them, at some time in the near future, to have their hearing hooked into the circuit.
He was distracted at first by muttered comments between Gumbs and Vivian—“Getting anywhere?” “I don’t think so. Are you?”—interspersed between yawps, humming sounds and other irritating noises as they tried unsuccessfully to switch over from mental to vocal communication, Finally McCarty snapped, “Be quiet. Concentrate on forming the necessary organs—don’t bray like jackasses.”
George settled down to his work, using the same technique he had found effective before. With his eyes shut, he imagined that the thing with all the teeth was approaching in darkness—tap, slither; tap; click. He wished valiantly for ears to catch the faint approaching sounds. After a long time he thought he was beginning to succeed—or were those mental sounds, unconsciously emitted by one of the other three?
Click. Slither. Swish. Scrape
George opened his eyes, genuinely alarmed. A hundred meters away, facing him across the shallow slope of rocky ground, was a uniformed man just emerging from a stand of black, bamboolike spears. As George raised his eye stalks, the man paused, stared back at him, then shouted and raised his rifle.
George ran. Instantly there was a babble of voices inside him, and the muscles of his “legs” went into wild spasms. “Run, dammit!” he said frantically. “There’s a trooper with—”
The rifle went off with a deafening roar, and George felt a sudden hideous pain aft of his spine. Vivian Bellis screamed. The struggle for possession of their common legs stopped, and they scuttled full speed ahead for the cover of—a nearby boulder. The rifle roared again, and George heard rock splinters screeching through the foliage overhead. Then they were plunging down the side of a gully, up the other slope, over a low hummock and into a forest of tall, bare-limbed trees.
George spotted a leaf-filled hollow and headed for it, fighting somebody else’s desire to keep on running in a straight line. They plopped into the hollow and stayed there while three running men went past them, and for an hour afterward.
Vivian was moaning steadily. Raising his eye stalks cautiously, George was able to see that several jagged splinters of stone had penetrated the monster’s gelatinous flesh near the far rim… They had been very lucky. The shot had apparently been a near miss—accountable only on the grounds that the trooper had been shooting downhill at a moving target—and had shattered the boulder behind them.
Looking more closely, George observed something which excited his professional interest. The whole surface of the monster appeared to be in constant slow ferment: tiny pits opening and closing as if the flesh were boiling… except that here the bubbles of air were not forcing their way outward, but were being engulfed at the surface and pressed down into the interior.
He could also see, deep under the mottled surface of the huge lens-shaped body, four vague clots of darkness which must be the living brains of Gumbs, Bellis, McCarty—and Meister.
Yes, there was one which was radially opposite his own eye stalks. It was an odd thing, George reflected, to be looking at your own brain. No doubt you could get used to it in time.