Authors: Damon Knight
Tags: #Short Story Collection, #Science Fiction
The four dark spots were arranged close together in an almost perfect square at the center of the lens. The spinal cords, barely visible, crossed between them and rayed outward from the center.
, George thought. The thing was designed to make use of more than one nervous system. It arranged them in an orderly fashion, with the brains inward for greater protection—and perhaps for another reason. Perhaps there was even a provision for conscious cooperation among the passengers: a matrix that somehow promoted the growth of communication. cells between separate brains… If that were so, it would account for their ready success with telepathy. George wished most acutely that he could get inside and find out.
Vivian’s pain was diminishing. Hers was the brain opposite George’s, and she had taken most of the effect of the rock splinters. But the fragments were sinking now, slowly, through the gelid substance of the monster’s tissues. Watching carefully, George could see them move. When they got to the bottom, they would be excreted, no doubt-just as the indigestible parts of their clothing and equipment had been.
George wondered idly which of the remaining two brains was McCarty’s and which Gumbs’s. The answer was easy to find. To George’s left, as he looked back toward the center of the mound, was a pair of blue eyes set flush with the surface. They had lids apparently grown from the monster’s substance, but thickened and opaque.
To his right, George could make out two tiny openings, extending a few centimeters into the body, which could only be Miss McCarty’s ears. George had an impulse to see if he could devise a method of dropping dirt into them.
Anyhow, the question of returning to camp had been settled, at least for the moment. McCarty said nothing more about growing a set of speech organs, although George was sure she herself was determined to keep on trying.
He didn’t think she would succeed. Whatever the mechanism was by which these changes in bodily structure were accomplished, it seemed probable that amateurs like themselves could succeed only under the pressure of considerable emotional strain, and then only with comparatively simple tasks which involved one new structure at a time. And as he had already told McCarty, the speech organs in man were extraordinarily diverse and complicated.
It occurred to George that the thing just might be done by creating a thin membrane to serve as a diaphragm, and an air chamber behind it, with a set of muscles to produce the necessary vibrations and modulate them. He kept the notion to himself.
He didn’t want to go back. George was a rare bird: a scientist who was actually fitted for his work and loved it for its own sake. And at the moment he was sitting squarely in the middle of the most powerful research tool that had ever existed in his field: a protean organism, with the observer inside it, able to order its structure and watch the results; able to devise theories of function and test them on the tissues of what was effectively his own body—able to construct new organs, new adaptations to environment!
George saw himself at the point of an enormous cone of new knowledge; and some of the possibilities he glimpsed humbled and awed him.
go back, even if it were possible to do it without getting killed. If only he had fallen into the damned thing alone—No, then the others would have pulled him out and killed the monster.
There were, he felt, too many problems demanding solutions all at once. It was hard to concentrate; his mind kept slipping maddeningly out of focus.
Vivian, whose pain had stopped some time ago, began to wail again. Gumbs snapped at her. McCarty cursed both of them. George himself felt that he had had very nearly all he could take—cooped up with three idiots who had no more sense than to—
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Do you all feel the same way? Irritable? Jumpy? As if you’d been working for sixty hours straight and were too tired to sleep?”
“Stop talking like a video ad,” Vivian said angrily. “Haven’t we got enough trouble without—”
“We’re hungry,” George interrupted. “We didn’t realise it, because we haven’t got the organs that usually signal hunger. But the last thing this body ate was
, and that was at least twenty hours ago. We’ve got to find something to ingest.”
“Good Lord, you’re right,” said Gumbs. “But if this thing only eats people-I mean to say—”
“It never met any people until we landed,” George said curtly. “Any protein should do, but the only way we can find out is to try. The sooner we start, the better.”
He started off in what he hoped was the direction they had been following all along—directly away from camp. At least, he thought, if they put enough distance behind them, they might get thoroughly lost.
They moved out of the trees and down the long slope of a valley, over a wiry carpet of dead grasses, until they reached a watercourse in which a thin trickle was still flowing. Far down the bank, partly screened by clumps of skeletal shrubbery. George saw a group of animals that looked vaguely like miniature pigs. He told the others about it, and started cautiously in that direction.
“Which way is the wind blowing, Vivian?” he asked. “Can you feel it?”
She said, “No. I could before, when we were going downhill, but now I think we’re facing into it.”
“Good,” said George. “We may be able to sneak up on them.”
“But—we’re not going to eat
, are we?”
“Yes, how about it, Meister?” Gumbs put in. “I don’t say I’m a squeamish fellow, but after all—”
George, who felt a little squeamish himself—like all the others, he had been brought up on a diet of yeasts and synthetic protein—said testily, “What else can we do? You’ve got eyes—you can see it’s autumn here. Autumn after a hot summer, at that. Trees bare, streams dried up. We eat meat, or go without—unless you’d rather hunt for insects?”
Gumbs, shocked to the core, muttered for a while and then gave up.
Seen at closer range, the animals looked less porcine and even less appetising than before. They had lean, segmented, pinkish-gray bodies, four short legs, flaring ears and blunt scimitarlike snouts with which they were rooting in the ground, occasionally turning up something which they gulped, ears flapping.
George counted thirty of them, grouped fairly closely in a little space of clear ground between the bushes and the river. They moved slowly, but their short legs looked powerful; he guessed that they could run when they had to.
He inched forward, keeping his eye stalks low, stopping instantly whenever one of the beasts looked up. Moving with increasing caution, he had got to within ten meters of the nearest when McCarty said abruptly:
“Meister, has it occurred to you to wonder just
we are going to eat these animals?”
“Don’t be foolish,” he said irritably. “We’ll—” He stopped.
Wait a minute—did the thing’s normal method of assimilation stop as soon as it got a tenant? Were they supposed to grow fangs and a gullet and all the rest of the apparatus?
Impossible; they’d starve to death first. But on the other hand—
this fuzzy-headed feeling—wouldn’t it have to stop, to prevent the tenant from being digested with the first meal?
“Well?” McCarty demanded. .
That was wrong, George knew, but he couldn’t say why; and it was a distinctly unpleasant thought. Or—even worse—suppose the meal became the tenant, and the tenant the meal?
The nearest animal’s head went up, and four tiny red eyes stared at George. The floppy ears snapped to attention.
It was no time for speculation. “He’s seen us!” George shouted mentally. “
The scene exploded into motion. One instant they were lying still in the prickly dry grass; the next they were skimming at express-train speed across the ground, with the herd galloping away straight ahead of them. The hams of the nearest beast loomed up closer and closer, bounding furiously; then they had run it down and vaulted over it.
Casting an eye backward, George saw that it was lying motionless in the grass—unconscious or dead.
They ran down another one.
, George thought lucidly.
One touch does it
. And another, and another.
Of course we can digest them
, he thought with relief.
It has to be selective to begin with, or it couldn’t have separated out our nervous tissue
Four down. Six down. Three more together as the herd bunched between the last arm of the thicket and the steep river bank; then two that tried to double back; then four stragglers, one after the other.
The rest of the herd disappeared into the tall grass up the slope; but fifteen bodies were strewn behind them.
Taking no chances, George went back to the beginning of the line and edged the monster’s body under the first carcass.
“Crouch down, Gumbs,” he said. “We have to slide under it… that’s far enough. Leave the head hanging over.”
“What for?” said the soldier.
“You don’t want his brain in here with us, do you? We don’t know how many this thing is equipped to take. It might even like this one better than one of ours. But I can’t see it bothering to keep the rest of the nervous system, if we make sure not to eat the head—”
“Oh!” said Vivian faintly.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Bellis,” George said contritely. “It shouldn’t be too unpleasant, though, if we don’t let it bother us. It isn’t as if we had taste buds, or—”
“It’s all right,” she said. “Just please let’s not talk about it.”
“I should think not,” Gumbs put in. “A little more tact, don’t you think, Meister?”
Accepting this reproof, George turned his attention to the corpse that lay on the monster’s glabrous surface, between his section and Gumbs’s. It was sinking, just visibly, into the flesh. A cloud of opacity was spreading around it.
When it was almost gone, and the neck had been severed, they moved on to the next. This time, at George’s suggestion, they took aboard two at once. Gradually their irritable mood faded; they began to feel at ease and cheerful, and George found it possible to think consecutively without having vital points slip out of his reach.
They were in their eighth and ninth courses, and George was happily engaged in an intricate chain of speculation as to the monster’s circulatory system, when Miss McCarty broke a long silence to announce:
“I have now perfected a method by which we can return to camp safely. We will begin at once.”
Startled and dismayed, George turned his eyes toward McCarty’s quadrant of the monster. Protruding from the rim was a stringy, jointed something that looked like—yes, it was!—a grotesque but recognisable arm and hand. As he watched, the lumpy fingers fumbled with a blade of grass, tugged, uprooted it.
“Major Gumbs!” said McCarty. “It will be your task to locate the following articles, as quickly as possible. One. A surface suitable for writing. I suggest a large leaf, light in color, dry but not brittle. Or a tree from which a large section of bark can be easily peeled. Two. A pigment. No doubt you will be able to discover berries yielding suitable juice. If not, mud will do. Three. A twig or reed for use as a pen. When you have directed me to all these essential items, I will employ them to write a message outlining our predicament. You will read the result and point out any errors, which I will then correct. When the message is completed, we will return with it to the camp, approaching at night, and deposit it in a conspicuous place. We will retire until daybreak, and when the message has been read we will approach again. Begin, Major.”
“Well, yes,” said Gumbs, “that ought to work, except—I suppose you’ve worked out some system for holding the pen, Miss McCarty?”
“Fool,” she replied, “I have made a hand, of course.”
“Well, in that case, by all means. Let’s see, I believe we might try this thicket first—” Their common body gave a lurch in that direction.
George held back. “Wait a minute,” he said desperately. “Let’s at least have the common sense to finish this meal before we go. There’s no telling when we’ll get another.”
McCarty demanded, “How large are these creatures, Major?”
“Oh—about sixty centimeters long, I should say.”
“And we have consumed nine of them, is that correct?”
“Nearer eight,” George said. “These two are only half gone.”
“In other words,” McCarty said, “we have had two apiece. That should be ample. Don’t you agree, Major?”
George said earnestly, “You’re wrong, Miss McCarty. You’re thinking in terms of human food requirements, whereas this organism has a different metabolic rate and at least three times the mass of four human beings. Look at it this way—the four of us together had a mass of about three hundred kilos, and yet twenty hours after this thing absorbed us, it was hungry again. Well, these animals wouldn’t weigh much more than twenty kilos apiece at one G—and according to your scheme we’ve got to hold out until sometime after daybreak tomorrow.”
“Something in that,” Gumbs said. “Yes, on the whole, Miss McCarty, I think we had better forage while we can. It won’t take us more than half and hour longer, at this rate.”
“Very well. Be as quick as you can.”
They moved on to the next pair of victims. George’s brain was working furiously. It was no good arguing with McCarty, and Gumbs was not much better, but he had to try. If he could only convince Gumbs, then Bellis would fall in with the majority—maybe. It was the only hope he had.
“Gumbs,” he said, “have you given any thought to what’s going to happen to us when we get back?”
“Not quite my line, you know. Leave that to the technical fellows like yourself.”
“No, that isn’t what I mean. Suppose you were the C.O. of this team, and four people had fallen into this organism instead of us—”
“What, what? I don’t follow.”
George patiently repeated it.
“Yes, I see what you mean. And so—”
“What orders would you give?”
Gumbs thought a moment. “Turn the thing over to the bio section, I suppose. What else?”
“You don’t think you might order it destroyed as a possible menace?”