Authors: Damon Knight
Tags: #Short Story Collection, #Science Fiction
“Good Lord, I suppose I might. No, but you see, we’ll be careful what we say in the note. We’ll point out that we’re a valuable specimen, and so on. Handle with care.”
“All right,” George said, “but suppose that works, then what? Since it’s out of your line, I’ll tell you, Nine chances out of ten, bio section will classify us as a possible enemy weapon. That means, first of all, that we’ll go through a full-dress interrogation—and I don’t have to tell you what that can be like.”
“Major Gumbs,” said McCarty stridently, “Meister will be executed for disloyalty at the first opportunity. You are forbidden to talk to him, under the same penalty.”
“But she can’t stop you from listening to me,” George said ( tensely. “In the second place, Gumbs, they’ll take samples. Without anaesthesia. And finally, they’ll either destroy us just the same, or they’ll send us back to the nearest strong point for more study. We will then be Federation property, Gumbs, in a top-secret category, and since nobody in Intelligence will ever dare to take the responsibility of clearing us, we’ll stay there.
“Gumbs, this is a valuable specimen, but it will never do anybody any good if we go back to camp. Whatever we discover about it, even if it’s knowledge that could save billions of lives, that will be top-secret too, and it’ll never get past the walls of Intelligence… If you’re still hoping that they can get you out of this, you’re wrong. This isn’t like limb grafts, your whole body has been destroyed, Gumbs, everything but your nervous system and your eyes. The only new body we’ll get is the one we make ourselves. We’ve got to stay here and—and work this out ourselves.”
“Major Gumbs,” said McCarty, “I think we have wasted quite enough time. Begin your search for the materials I need.”
For a moment Gumbs was silent, and their collective body did not move.
Then he said : “Yes, that was a leaf, a twig and a bunch of berries, wasn’t it? Or mud. Miss McCarty, unofficially of course, there’s one point I’d like your opinion on. Before we begin. That is to say, I daresay they’ll be able to patch together some sort of bodies for us, don’t you think? I mean, one technical fellow says one thing, another says the opposite. Do you see what I’m driving at?”
George had been watching McCarty’s new limb uneasily. It was flexing rhythmically and, he was almost certain, growing minutely larger. The fingers groped occasionally in the dry grass, plucking first a single blade, then two together, finally a whole tuft. Now she said: “I have no opinion, Major. The question is irrelevant. Out duty is to return to camp. That is all we need to know.”
“Oh, I quite agree with you there,” said Gumbs. “And besides, there really isn’t any alternative, is there?”
George, staring down at one of the fingerlike projections visible below the rim of the monster, was passionately willing it to turn into an arm. He had, he suspected, started much too late.
“The alternative,” he said, “is simply to keep on going as we are. Even if the Federation holds this planet for a century, there’ll be places on it that will never be explored. We’ll be safe.”
“I mean to say,” added Gumbs as if he had only paused for thought, “a fellow can’t very well cut himself off from civilisation, can he?”
Again George felt a movement toward the thicket; again he resisted it. Then he found himself overpowered, as another set of muscles joined themselves to Gumbs’s. Quivering, crabwise, the something meisterii moved half a meter. Then it stopped; straining.
And for the second time that day, George was forced to revise his opinion of Vivian Bellis.
“I believe you, Mr. Meister—George,” she said. “I don’t want to go back. Tell me what you want me to do.”
“You’re doing beautifully now,” George said after a speechless instant. “Except if you can grow an arm, I imagine that will be useful.”
The struggle went on.
“Now we know where we are,” said McCarty to Gumbs.
“Yes. Quite right.”
“Major Gumbs,” she said crisply, “you are opposite me, I believe?”
“Am I?” said Gumbs doubtfully.
“Never mind. I believe you are. Now: is Meister to your right or left?”
“Left. I know that, anyhow. Can see his eye stalks out of the corner of my eye.”
“Very well.” McCarty’s arm rose, with a sharp-pointed fragment of rock clutched in the blobby fingers.
Horrified, George watched it bend backward across the curve of the monster’s body. The long, knife-sharp point probed tentatively at the surface three centimeters short of the area over his brain. Then the fist made an abrupt up-and-down movement, and a fierce stab of pain shot through him.
“Not quite long enough, I think,” McCarty said. She flexed the arm, then brought it back to almost the same spot and stabbed again.
“No,” she said thoughtfully. “It will take a little longer,” then, “Major Gumbs, after my next attempt you will tell me if you notice any reaction in Meister’s eye stalks.”
The pain was still throbbing along George’s nerves. With one half-blinded eye he watched the embryonic arm that was growing, too slowly, under the rim; with the other, fascinated, he watched McCarty’s arm lengthen slowly toward him.
It was growing visibly, he suddenly realised—but it wasn’t getting any nearer. In fact, incredibly enough, it seemed to be losing ground.
The monster’s flesh was flowing away under it, expanding in both directions.
McCarty stabbed again, with vicious strength. This time the pain was less acute.
“Major?” she said. “Any result?”
“No,” said Gumbs, “no, I think not. We seem to be moving forward a bit, though, Miss McCarty.”
“A ridiculous error,” she replied. “We are being forced
. Pay attention, Major.”
“No, really,” he protested. “That is to say, we’re moving toward the thicket. Forward to me, backward to you.”
am moving forward,
are moving back.”
They were both right, George discovered: the monster’s body was no longer circular, it was extending itself along the Gumbs-McCarty axis. A suggestion of concavity was becoming visible in the center. Below the surface, too, there was motion.
The four brains now formed an oblong, not a square.
The positions of the spinal cords had shifted. His own and Vivian’s seemed to be about where they were, but Gumbs’s now passed under McCarty’s brain, and vice versa.
Having increased its mass by some two hundred kilos, the something
was fissioning into two individuals—and tidily separating its tenants, two to each. Gumbs and Meister in one, McCarty and Bellis in the other.
The next time it happened, he realised, each product of the fission would be reduced to one brain—and the time after that, one of the new individuals out of each pair would be a monster in the primary or untenanted state, quiescent, camouflaged, waiting to be stumbled over.
But that meant that, like the common amoeba, this fascinating organism was immortal. It never died, barring accidents; it simply grew and divided.
Not the tenants, though, unfortunately—their tissues would wear out and die.
Or would they? Human nervous tissue didn’t proliferate as George’s and Miss McCarty’s had done; neither did any human tissue build new cells fast enough to account for George’s eye stalks or Miss McCarty’s arm.
There was no question about it: none of that new tissue could possibly be human; it was all counterfeit, produced by the monster from its own substance according to the structural blueprints in the nearest genuine cells. And it was a perfect counterfeit: the new tissues knit with the old, axones coupled with dendrites, muscles contracted or expanded on command. The imitation
And therefore, when nerve cells wore out, they could be replaced. Eventually the last human cell would go, the human tenant would have become totally monster—but “a difference that makes no difference is no difference.” Effectively, the tenant would still be human—and he would be immortal.
Miss McCarty was saying, “Major Gumbs, you are being ridiculous. The explanation is quite obvious. Unless you are deliberately deceiving me, for what reason I cannot imagine, then our efforts to move in opposing directions must be pulling this creature apart.”
McCarty was evidently confused by her geometry. Let her stay that way—it would keep her off balance until the fission was complete. No, that was no good. George himself was out of her reach already, and getting farther away—but how about Bellis? Her brain and McCarty’s were, if anything, closer together…
What to do? If he warned the girl, that would only draw McCarty’s attention to her sooner. Unless he could misdirect her at the same time—
There wasn’t much time left, he realised abruptly. If he was right in thinking that some physical linkage between the brains had occurred to make communication possible, those cells couldn’t hold out much longer; the gap between the two pairs of brains was widening steadily.
“Vivian!” he said.
Relieved, he said rapidly. “Listen, we’re not pulling this body apart, it’s splitting. That’s the way it reproduces. You and I will be in one half, Gumbs and McCarty in the other. If they don’t give us any trouble, we can all go where we please—”
“Oh, I’m so glad!”
What a warm voice she had… “Yes,” said George nervously, “but we may have to fight them; it’s up to them. So
grow an arm
“I’ll try,” she said doubtfully. “I don’t know—”
McCarty’s voice cut across hers. “Ah. Major Gumbs, since you have eyes, It will be your task to see to it that those two do not escape. Meanwhile, I suggest that you, also, grow an arm.”
“Doing my best,” said Gumbs.
Puzzled, George glanced downward, past his own half-formed arm: there, almost out of sight, was a fleshy bulge under Gumbs’s section of the rim! The major had been working on it in secret, keeping it hidden… and it was already better developed than George’s.
“Oh-oh,” said Gumbs abruptly. “Look here, Miss McCarty, Meister’s been leading you up the garden path. Look here, I menu, you and I aren’t going to be in the same half. How could we be? We’re on
of the blasted thing. It’s going be you and Miss Bellis, me and Meister.”
The monster was developing a definite waistline. The spinal cords had rotated, now, so that there was clear space between them in the center.
“Yes,” said McCarty faintly. “Thank you, Major Gumbs.”
“George! ” came Vivian’s frightened voice, distant and weak. “What shall I do?”
“Grow an arm!” he shouted.
There was no reply.
Frozen, George watched McCarty’s arm, the rock-fragment still clutched at the end of it, rise into view and swing leftward at full stretch over the bubbling surface of the monster. He had time to see it bob up and viciously down again; time to think,
Still short, thank God—that’s McCarty’s right arm, it’s farther from Vivian’s brain than it was from mine;
time, finally, to realise that he could not possibly help her before McCarty lengthened the arm a few centimeters more than were necessary. The fission was not more than half complete; and he could no more move to where he wanted to be than a Siamese twin could walk around his brother.
Then his time was up. A flicker of motion warned him, and he looked back to see a lumpy, distorted pseudo-hand clutching for his eye stalks.
Instinctively he brought his own hand up, grasped the other’s wrist and hung on desperately. It was half again the size of his, and so strongly muscled that although his leverage was better, he couldn’t force it back or hold it away; he could only keep the system oscillating. up and down, adding his strength to Gumbs’s so that the mark was overshot.
Gumbs began to vary the force and rhythm of his movements, trying to catch him off guard. A thick finger brushed the base of one eye stalk.
“Sorry about this, Meister,” said Gumbs’s voice. “No hard feelings in it, on my side. Between us (oof) I don’t fancy that McCarty woman much—but (ugh! almost had you that time) beggars can’t be choosers. Ah. Way I see it, I’ve got to look after myself; mean to say (ugh) if I don’t, who will? See what I mean?”
George did not reply. Astonishingly enough, he was no longer afraid, either for himself or for Vivian; he was simply overpoweringly, ecstatically, monomaniacally angry. Power from somewhere was surging into his arm; fiercely concentrating, he thought
Bigger! Stronger! Longer! More arm!
The arm grew. Visibly it added substance to itself, it lengthened, thickened, bulged with muscle. So did Gumbs’s.
He began another arm. So did Gumbs.
All around him the surface of the monster was bubbling violently. And, George realised finally, the lenticular bulk of it was perceptibly shrinking. Its curious breathing system was inadequate; the thing was cannibalising itself, destroying its own tissues to make up the difference.
How small could it get and still support two human tenants?
And which brain would it dispense with first?
He had no leisure to think about it. Scrabbling in the grass with his second hand, Gumbs had failed to find anything that would serve as a weapon; now, with a sudden lurch, he swung their entire body around.
The fission was complete.
That thought reminded George of Vivian and McCarty. He risked a split second’s glance behind him, saw nothing but a featureless ovoid mound, and looked back in time to see Gumbs’s half-grown right fist pluck a long, sharp-pointed dead branch out of the grass. In the next instant the thing came whipping at his eyes.
The lip of the river bank was a meter away to the left. George made it in one abrupt surge. They slipped, tottered, hesitated, hands clutching wildly—and toppled, end over end, hurtling in a cloud of dust and pebbles down the breakneck slope to a meaty smash at the bottom.
The universe made one more giant turn around them and came to rest. Half blinded, George groped for the hold he had lost, found the wrist and seized it.
“Oh, Lord,” said Gumbs’s voice, “that’s done me. I’m hurt, Meister. Go on, man, finish it, will you? Don’t waste time.”