LOOK, MOTHER. THE clock is running backwards.“ Eddie Fetts pointed to the hands on the pilot room dial. Dr. Paula Fetts said, “The crash must have reversed it.”
“How could it do that?”
“I can’t tell you. I don’t know everything, son.”
“Well, don’t look at me so disappointedly. I’m a pathologist, not an electronician.”
“Don’t be so cross, mother. I can’t stand it. Not now.” He walked out of the pilot room. Anxiously, she followed him. The burial of the crew and her fellow scientists had been very trying for him. Spilled blood had always made him dizzy and sick; he could scarcely control his hands enough to help her sack the scattered bones and entrails. He had wanted to put the corpses in the nuclear furnace, but she had forbidden that. The Geigers amidships were ticking loudly, warning that there was invisible death in the stern.
Fortunately, the emergency system had automatically thrown out the locking circuits. Entering, she had called out his name in fear he’d been hurt. He was lying half-unconscious on the floor, but it was not the accident that had thrown him there. The reason lay in the corner, released from his lax hand; a quart free-fall thermos, rubber-nippled. From Eddies open mouth charged a breath of rye that not even Nodor pills had been able to conceal.
Sharply she had commanded him to get up and onto the bed. Her voice, the first he had ever heard, pierced through the phalanx of Old Red Star. He struggled up, and she, though smaller, had thrown every ounce of her weight into getting him up and onto the bed.
There she had lain down with him and strapped them both in. She understood that the lifeboat had been wrecked also, and that it was up to the captain to bring the yacht down safely to the surface of this charted but unexplored planet, Baudelaire. Everybody else had gone to sit behind the captain, strapped in crashchairs, unable to help except with their silent backing.
Moral support had not been enough. The ship had come in on a shallow slant. Too fast. The wounded motors had not been able to hold her up. The prow had taken the brunt of the punishment. So had those seated in the nose.
Dr. Fetts had held her sons head on her bosom and prayed out loud to her God. Eddie had snored and muttered. Then there was a sound like the clashing of the gates of doom—a tremendous bong as if the ship were a clapper in a gargantuan bell tolling the most frightening message human ears may hear—a blinding blast of light—and darkness and silence.
A few moments later Eddie began crying out in a childish voice, “Don’t leave me to die, mother! Come back! Come back!”
Mother was unconscious by his side, but he did not know that. He wept for a while, then he lapsed back into his rye-fogged stupor—if he had ever been out of it—and slept. Again, darkness and silence.
It was the second day since the crash, if “day” could describe that twilight state on Baudelaire. Dr. Fetts followed her son wherever he went. She knew he was very sensitive and easily upset. All his life she had known it and had tried to get between him and anything that would cause trouble. She had succeeded, she thought, fairly well until three months ago when Eddie had eloped.
The girl was Polina Fameux, the ash-blonde long-legged actress whose tridi image, taped, had been shipped to frontier stars where a small acting talent meant little and a large and shapely bosom much. Since Eddie was a well-known Metro tenor, the marriage made a big splash whose ripples ran around the civilized Galaxy.
Dr. Fetts had felt very bad about the elopement, but she had, she hoped, hidden her grief very well beneath a smiling mask. She didn’t regret having to give him up; after all, he was a full-grown man, no longer her little boy. But, really, aside from the seasons at the Met and his tours, he had not been parted from her since he was eight. That was when she went on a honeymoon with her second husband. And then she and Eddie had not been separated long, for Eddie had gotten very sick, and she’d had to hurry back and take care of him, as he had insisted she was the only one who could make him well.
The ripples caused by her son’s marriage were scarcely a week old before they were followed by even bigger ones. They bore the news of the separation of Eddie and his wife. A fortnight later, Polina applied for divorce on grounds of incompatibility. Eddie was handed the papers in his mother’s apartment. He had come back to her the day he and Polina had agreed they “couldn’t make a go of it,” or, as he phrased it to his mother, “couldn’t get together.”
Dr. Fetts was, of course, very curious about the reason for their parting, but, as she explained to her friends, she “respected” his silence. What she didn’t say was that she had told herself the time would come when he would tell her all.
Eddies “nervous breakdown” started shortly afterward. He had been very irritable, moody, and depressed, but he got worse the day a so-called friend told Eddie that whenever Polina heard his name mentioned, she laughed loud and long. The friend added that Polina had promised to tell someday the true story of their brief merger.
That night his mother had to call in a doctor.
In the days that followed, she thought of giving up her position as research pathologist at De Kruif and taking all her time to help him “get back on his feet.” It was a sign of the struggle going on in her mind that she had not been able to decide within a week’s time. Ordinarily given to swift consideration and resolution of a problem, she could not agree to surrender her beloved quest into tissue regeneration.
Just as she was on the verge of doing what was for her the incredible and the shameful, tossing a coin, she had been vised by her superior. He told her she had been chosen to go with a group of biologists on a research cruise to ten preselected planetary systems.
Joyfully, she had thrown away the papers that would turn Eddie over to a sanatorium. And, since he was quite famous, she had used her influence to get the government to allow him to go along. Ostensibly, he was to make a survey of the development of opera on planets colonized by Terrans. That the yacht was not visiting any colonized globes seemed to have been missed by the bureaus concerned. But it was not the first time in the history of a government that its left hand knew not what its right was doing.
Actually, he was to be “rebuilt” by his mother, who thought herself much more capable of curing him than any of the prevalent A, F, J, R, S, K, or H therapies. True, some of her friends reported amazing results with some of the symbol-chasing techniques. On the other hand, two of her close companions had tried them all and had gotten no benefits from any of them. She was his mother; she could do more for him than any of those “alphabatties”; he was flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood. Besides, he wasn’t so sick. He just got awfully blue sometimes and made theatrical but insincere threats of suicide or else just sat and stared into space. But she could handle him.
So now it was that she followed him from the backward-running clock to his room. And saw him step inside, look for a second, and then turn to her with a twisted face.
“Neddie is ruined, mother. Absolutely ruined.” She glanced at the piano. It had torn loose from the wallracks at the moment of impact and smashed itself against the opposite wall. To Eddie it wasn’t just a piano; it was Neddie. He had a pet name for everything he contacted for more than a brief time. It was as if he hopped from one appellation to the next, like an ancient sailor who felt lost unless he was close to the familiar and designated points of the shoreline. Otherwise, Eddie seemed to be drifting helplessly in a chaotic ocean, one that was anonymous and amorphous.
He did not cry over Neddie. She wished he would. He had been so apathetic during the voyage. Nothing, not even the unparalleled splendor of the naked stars nor the inexpressible alien-ness of strange planets had seemed to lift him very long. If he would only weep or laugh loudly or display some sign that he was reacting violently to what was happening. She would even have welcomed his striking her in anger or calling her “bad” names.
But no, not even during the gathering of the mangled corpses, when he looked for a while as if he were going to vomit, would he give way to his body’s demand for expression. She understood that if he were to throw up, he would be much better for it, would have gotten rid of much of the psychic disturbance along with the physical.
He would not. He had kept on raking flesh and bones into the large plastic bags and kept a fixed look of resentment and sullenness.
She hoped now that the loss of his piano would bring tears and shaking shoulders. Then she could take him in her arms and give him sympathy. He would be her little boy again, afraid of the dark, afraid of the dog killed by a car, seeking her arms for the sure safety, the sure love.
“Never mind, baby,” she said. “When we’re rescued, we’ll get you a new one.”
He lifted his eyebrows and sat down on the bed’s edge.
“What do we do now?”
She became very brisk and efficient.
“The ultrad automatically started working the moment the meteor struck. If it’s survived the crash, it’s still sending SOS’s. If not, then there’s nothing we can do about it. Neither of us knows how to repair it.
“However, it’s possible that in the last five years since this planet was located, other expeditions may have landed here. Not from Earth but from some of the colonies. Or from nonhuman globes. Who knows? It’s worth taking a chance. Let’s see.”
A single glance was enough to wreck their hopes. The ultrad had been twisted and broken until it was no longer recognizable as the machine that sent swifter-than-light waves through the no-ether.
Dr. Fetts said with false cheeriness, “Well, that’s that! So what? It makes things too easy. Let’s go into the storeroom and see what we can see.”
Eddie shrugged and followed her. There she insisted that each take a panrad. If they had to separate “for any reason, they could always communicate and also, using the DF’s—the built-in direction
essential they were on scouting or camping trips. The panrads were lightweight cylinders about two feet high and eight inches in diameter. Crampacked, they held the mechanisms of two dozen different utilities. Their batteries lasted a year without recharging, they were practically indestructible and worked under almost any conditions.
Keeping away from the side of the ship that had the huge hole in it, they took the panrads outside. The long wave bands were searched by Eddie while his mother moved the dial that ranged up and down the shortwaves. Neither really expected to hear anything, but to search was better than doing nothing.
Finding the modulated wave-frequencies empty of any significant noises, he switched to the continuous waves. He was startled by a dot-dashing.
“Hey, mom! Something in the 1000 kilocycles! Unmodulated!” “Naturally, son,” she said with some exasperation in the midst of her elation. “What would you expect from a radio-telegraphic signal?”
She found the band on her own cylinder. He looked blankly at her. “I know nothing about radio, but that’s not Morse.” “What? You must be mistaken!” “I —I don’t think so.”
“Is it or isn’t it? Good god, son, can’t you be certain of anything!” She turned the amplifier up. As both of them had learned Galacto-Morse through sleeplearn techniques, she checked him at once.
“You’re right. What do you make of it?” His quick ear sorted out the pulses. “No simple dot and dash. Four different time-lengths.” He listened some more. “They’ve got a certain rhythm, all right. I can make out definite groupings. Ah! That’s the sixth time I’ve
caught that particular one. And there’s another. And another.”
Dr. Fetts shook her ash-blonde head. She could make out nothing but a series of zzt-zzt-zzt’s. Eddie glanced at the DF needle. “Coming from NE by E. Should we try to locate?” “Naturally,” she replied. “But we’d better eat first. We don’t know how far away it is, or what we’ll find
there. While I fix a hot meal, you get your field trip stuff ready.” “O.K.,” he said with more enthusiasm than he had shown for a long time. When he came back he ate everything in the large dish his mother had prepared on the unwrecked galley
stove. “You always did make the best stew,” he said.
“Thank you. I’m glad you’re eating again, son. I am surprised. I thought you’d be sick about all this.”
“The challenge of the unknown. I have a sort of feeling this is going to turn out much better than we thought. Much better.”
She came close and sniffed his breath. It was clean, innocent even of stew. That meant he’d taken Nodor, which probably meant he’d been sampling some hidden rye. Otherwise, how explain hi.s reckless disregard of the possible dangers? It wasn’t like him.
She said nothing, for she knew that if he tried to hide a bottle in his clothes or field sack while they were tracking down the radio signals, she would soon find it. And take it away. He wouldn’t even protest, merely let her lift it from his limp hand while his lips swelled with resentment.
They set out. Both wore knapsacks and carried the panrads. He carried a gun over his shoulder, and she had snapped onto her sack her small black bag of medical and lab supplies.
High noon of late autumn was topped by a weak red sun that barely managed to make itself seen through the eternal double layer of clouds. Its companion, an even smaller blob of lilac, was setting on the northwestern horizon. They walked in a sort of bright twilight, the best that Baudelaire ever achieved. Yet, despite the lack of light, the air was warm. It was a phenomenon common to certain planets behind the Horsehead Nebula, one being investigated but as yet unexplained.
The country was hilly, with many deep ravines. Here and there were prominences high enough and steep-sided enough to be called embryo mountains. Considering the roughness of the land, however, there was a surprising amount of vegetation. Pale green, red, and yellow bushes, vines, and little trees clung to every bit of ground, horizontal or vertical. All had comparatively broad leaves that turned with the sun to catch the light.
From time to time, as the two Terrans strode noisily through the forest, small multicolored insect-like and mammal-like creatures scuttled from hiding place to hiding place. Eddie decided to carry his gun in the crook of his arm. Then, after they were forced to scramble up and down ravines and hills and fight their way through thickets that became unexpectedly tangled, he put it back over his shoulder, where it hung from a strap.
Despite their exertions, they did not tire quickly. They weighed about twenty pounds less than they would have on Earth and, though the air was thinner, it was richer in oxygen.
Dr. Fetts kept up with Eddie. Thirty years the senior of the twenty-three-year-old, she passed even at close inspection for his older sister. Longevity pills took care of that. However, he treated her with all the courtesy and chivalry that one gave ones mother and helped her up the steep inclines, even though the climbs did not appreciably cause her deep chest to demand more air.
They paused once by a creek bank to get their bearings.
“The signals have stopped,” he said.
“Obviously,” she replied.
At that moment the radar-detector built into the panrad began to ping. Both of them automatically looked upward.
“It can’t be coming from either of those hills,” she pointed out. “There’s nothing but a boulder on top of each one. Tremendous rocks.” “Nevertheless, it’s coming from there, I think. Oh! Oh! Did you see what I saw? Looked like a tall stalk
of some kind being pulled down behind that big rock.” She peered through the dim light. “I think you were imagining things, son. I saw nothing.” Then, even as the pinging kept up, the zzting started again. But after a burst of noise, both stopped. “Lets go up and see what we shall see,” she said. “Something screwy,” he commented. She did not answer. They forded the creek and began the ascent. Halfway up, they stopped to sniff in puzzlement at a gust of
some heavy odor coming downwind. “Smells like a cageful of monkeys,” he said. “In heat,” she added. If his was the keener ear, hers was the sharper nose. They went on up. The RD began sounding its tiny hysterical gonging. Nonplussed, Eddie stopped. The
DF indicated the radar pulses were not coming from the top of the hill they were climbing, as formerly, but from the other hill across the valley. Abruptly, the panrad fell silent. “What do we do now?”
“Finish what we started. This hill. Then we go to the other one.” He shrugged and then hastened after her tall slim body in its long-legged coveralls. She was hot on the scent, literally, and nothing could stop her. Just before she reached the bungalow-sized boulder topping the hill, he caught up with her. She had stopped to gaze intently at the DF needle, which swung wildly before it stopped at neutral. The monkey-cage odor was very strong.
“Do you suppose it could be some sort of radio-generating mineral?” she asked, disappointedly. “No. Those groupings were semantic. And that smell…” “Then what—?” He didn’t know whether to feel pleased or not that she had so ! obviously and suddenly thrust the burden of responsibility and action on him. Both pride and a curious
shrinking affected him. But he did feel exhilarated. Almost, he thought, he felt as if he were on the verge of discovering what he
had been looking for for a long time. What the object of his search had been, he could not say. But he was excited and not very much afraid. He unslung his weapon, a two-barreled combination shotgun and rifle. The panrad was still quiet. “Maybe the boulder is camouflage for a spy outfit,” he said. He sounded silly, even to himself. Behind him, his mother gasped and screamed. He whirled and raised his gun, but there was nothing to
shoot. She was pointing at the hilltop across the valley, shaking, and saying something incoherent.
He never got to tell her his conclusions, for something thin and flexible and irresistible seized him from behind. Lifted into the air, he was borne backwards. He dropped the gun and tried to grab the bands or tentacles around him and tear them off with his bare hands. No use.
He caught one last glimpse of his mother running off down the hillside. Then a curtain snapped down, and he was in total darkness.
Eddie sensed himself, still suspended, twirled around. He could not know for sure, of course, but he thought he was facing in exactly the opposite direction. Simultaneously, the tentacles binding his legs and arms were released. Only his waist was still gripped. It was pressed so tightly that he cried out with pain.
Then, boot-toes bumping on some resilient substance, he was carried forward. Halted, facing he knew not what horrible monster, he was suddenly assailed—not by a sharp beak or tooth or knife or some other cutting or mangling instrument—but by a dense cloud of that same monkey perfume.
In other circumstances, he might have vomited. Now his stomach was not given the time to consider whether it should clean house or not. The tentacle lifted him higher and thrust him against something soft and yielding—something fleshlike and womanly—almost breastlike in texture and smoothness and warmth and in its hint of gentle curving.
He put his hands and feet out to brace himself, for he thought for a moment he was going to sink in and be covered up—enfolded—ingested. The idea of a gargantuan amoeba-thing hiding within a hollow rock—or a rocklike shell—made him writhe and yell and shove at the protoplasmic substance.
But nothing of the kind happened. He was not plunged into a smothering and slimy jelly that would strip him of his skin and then his flesh and then dissolve his bones. He was merely shoved repeatedly against the soft swelling. Each time, he pushed or kicked or struck at it. After a dozen of these seemingly purposeless acts, he was held away, as if whatever was doing it was puzzled by his behavior.
He had quit screaming. The only sounds were his harsh breathing and the zzzts and pings from the panrad. Even as he became aware of them, the zzzts changed tempo and settled into a recognizable pattern of bursts—three units that crackled out again and again.
“Who are you? Who are you?”
Of course, it could just as easily have been, “What are you?” or “What the hell!” or “Nov smoz ka pop?”
Or nothing—semantically speaking.
But he didn’t think the latter. And when he was gently lowered to the floor, and the tentacle went off to only-God-knew-where in the dark, he was sure that the creature was communicating—or trying to—with him.
It was this thought that kept him from screaming and running around in the lightless and fetid chamber, brainlessly seeking an outlet. He mastered his panic and snapped open a little shutter in the panrads side and thrust in his right-hand index finger. There he poised it above the key and in a moment, when the thing paused in transmitting, he sent back, as best he could, the pulses he had received. It was not necessary for him to turn on the light and spin the dial that would put him on the 1000 kc. band. The instrument would automatically key that frequency in with the one he had just received.
When he paused, the transmitter began again. This time the units were unrecognizable. There was a certain rhythm to them, but he could not know what they meant. Meanwhile, the RD was pinging. Something somewhere in the dark hole had a beam held tightly on him.
He pressed a button on the panrads top, and the built-in flashlight illuminated the area just in front of him. He saw a wall of reddish-gray rubbery substance. On the wall was a roughly circular, light gray swelling about four feet in diameter. Around it, giving it a Medusa appearance, were coiled twelve very long, very thin tentacles.
Though he was afraid that if he turned his back to them the tentacles would seize him once more, his curiosity forced him to wheel about and examine his surroundings with the bright beam. He was in an egg-shaped chamber about thirty feet long, twelve wide, and eight to ten high in the middle. It was formed of a reddish-gray material, smooth except for irregular intervals of blue or red pipes. Veins and arteries?
A door-sized portion of the wall had a vertical slit running down it. Tentacles fringed it. He guessed it was a sort of iris and that it had opened to drag him inside. Starfish-shaped groupings of tentacles were scattered on the walls or hung from the ceiling. On the wall opposite the iris was a long and flexible stalk with a cartilaginous ruff around its free end. When Eddie moved, it moved, its blind point following him as a radar antenna tracks the thing it is locating. That was what it was. And unless he was wrong, the stalk was also a C.W. transmitter-receiver.
He shot the light around. When it reached the end farthest from him, he gasped. Ten creatures were huddled together facing him! About the size of half-grown pigs, they looked like nothing so much as unshelled snails; they were eyeless, and the stalk growing from the forehead of each was a tiny duplicate of that on the wall. They didn’t look dangerous. Their open mouths were little and toothless, and their rate of locomotion must be slow, for they moved like snails, on a large pedestal of flesh—a foot-muscle.
Nevertheless, if he were to fall asleep they could overcome him by force of numbers, and those mouths might drip an acid to digest him, or they might carry a concealed poisonous sting.
His speculations were interrupted violently. He was seized, lifted, and passed on to another group of tentacles. He was carried beyond the antenna-stalk and toward the snail-beings. Just before he reached them, he was halted, facing the wall. An iris, hitherto invisible, opened. His light shone into it, but he could see nothing but convolutions of flesh.
His panrad gave off a new pattern of dit-dot-deet-dats. The iris widened until it was large enough to admit his body, if he were shoved in head first. Or feet first. It didn’t matter. The convolutions straightened out and became a tunnel. Or a throat. From thousands of little pits emerged thousands of tiny, razor sharp teeth. They flashed out and sank back in, and before they had disappeared thousands of other wicked little spears darted out and past the receding fangs. Meat-grinder.
Beyond the murderous array, at the end of the throat, was a huge pouch of water. Steam came from it, and with it an odor like that of his mothers stew. Dark bits, presumably meat, and pieces of vegetables floated on the seething surface.
Then the iris closed, and he was turned around to face the slugs. Gently, but unmistakably, a tentacle spanked his buttocks. And the panrad zzzted a warning.
Eddie was not stupid. He knew now that the ten creatures were not dangerous unless he molested them. In which case he had just seen where he would go if he did not behave.
Again he was lifted and carried along the wall until he was shoved against the light gray spot. The monkey-cage odor, which had died out, became strong again. Eddie identified its source with a very small hole which appeared in the wall.
When he did not respond—he had no idea yet how he was supposed to act—the tentacles dropped him so unexpectedly that he fell on his back. Unhurt by the yielding flesh, he rose.
What was the next step? Exploration of his resources. Itemiza-tion: The panrad. A sleeping-bag, which he wouldn’t need as long as the present too-warm temperature kept up. A bottle of Old Red Star capusles. A free-fall thermos with attached nipple. A box of A-2-Z rations. A Foldstove. Cartridges for his double-barrel, now lying outside the creatures boulderish shell. A roll of toilet paper. Toothbrush. Paste. Soap. Towel. Pills: Nodor, hormone, vitamin, longevity, reflex, and sleeping. And a thread-thin wire, a hundred feet long when uncoiled, that held prisoner in its molecular structure a hundred symphonies, eighty operas, a thousand different types of musical pieces, and two thousand great books ranging from Sophocles and Dostoyevsky to the latest bestseller. It could be played inside the panrad.
He inserted it, pushed a button, and spoke, “Eddie Fetts’s recording of Puccini’s Che gelida manina, please.”
And while he listened approvingly to his own magnificent voice, he zipped open a can he had found in the bottom of the sack. His mother had put into it the stew left over from their last meal in the ship.
Not knowing what was happening, yet for some reason sure he was for the present safe, he munched meat and vegetables with a contented jaw. Transition from abhorrence to appetite sometimes came easily for Eddie.
He cleaned out the can and finished with some crackers and a chocolate bar. Rationing was out. As long as the food lasted, he would eat well. Then, if nothing turned up, he would… But then, he reassured himself as he licked his fingers, his mother, who was free, would find some way to get him out of his trouble.
She always had.
The panrad, silent for a while, began signaling. Eddie spotlighted the antenna and saw it was pointing at the snail-beings, which he had, in accordance with his custom, dubbed familiarly. Sluggos he called them.
The Sluggos crept toward the wall and stopped close to it. Their mouths, placed on the tops of their heads, gaped like so many hungry young birds. The iris opened, and two lips formed into a spout. Out of it streamed steaming-hot water and chunks of meat and vegetables. Stew! Stew that fell exactly into each waiting mouth.
He experimented. He tapped out a repetition of what he’d last heard. As one, the Sluggos—except the one then being fed— turned to him and crept a few feet before halting, puzzled.
Inasmuch as Eddie was broadcasting, the Sluggos must have had some sort of built-in DE Otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to distinguish between his pulses and their Mother’s.
Immediately after, a tentacle smote Eddie across the shoulders and knocked him down. The panrad zzzted its third intelligible message: “Don’t ever do that!”
And then a fourth, to which the ten young obeyed by wheeling and resuming their former positions.
“This way, children.”
Yes, they were the offspring, living, eating, sleeping, playing, and learning to communicate in the womb of their mother—the Mother. They were the mobile brood of this vast immobile entity that had scooped up Eddie as a frog scoops up a fly. This Mother. She who had once been just such a Sluggo until she had grown hog-size and had been pushed out of her Mother’s womb. And who, rolled into a tight ball, had free-wheeled down her natal hill, straightened out at the bottom, inched her way up the next hill, rolled down, and so on. Until she found the empty shell of an adult who had died. Or, if she wanted to be a first class citizen in her society and not a prestigeless occupee, she found the bare top of a tall hill—or any eminence that commanded a big sweep of territory—and there squatted.
And there she put out many thread-thin tendrils into the soil and into the cracks in the rocks, tendrils that drew sustenance from the fat of her body and grew and extended downwards and ramified into other tendrils. Deep underground the rootlets worked their instinctive chemistry; searched for and found the water, the calcium, the iron, the copper, the nitrogen, the carbons, fondled earthworms and grubs and larvae, teasing them for the secrets of their fats and proteins; broke down the wanted substance into shadowy colloidal particles; sucked them up the thready pipes of the tendrils and back to the pale and slimming body crouching on a flat space atop a ridge, a hill, a peak.
There, using the blueprints stored in the molecules of the cerebellum, her body took the building blocks of elements and fashioned them into a very thin shell of the most available material, a shield large enough so she could expand to fit it while her natural enemies—the keen and hungry predators that prowled twilighted Baudelaire—nosed and clawed it in vain.
Then, her evergrowing bulk cramped, she would resorb the hard covering. And if no sharp tooth found her during that process of a few days, she would cast another and a larger. And so on through a dozen or more.
Until she had become the monstrous and much reformed body of an adult and virgin female. Outside would be the stuff that so much resembled a boulder, that was, actually, rock: either granite, diorite, marble, basalt, or maybe just plain limestone. Or sometimes iron, glass, or cellulose.
Within was the centrally located brain, probably as large as a man’s. Surrounding it, the tons of organs: the nervous system, the mighty heart, or hearts, the four stomachs, the microwave and longwave generators, the kidneys, bowels, tracheae, scent and taste organs, the perfume factory which made odors to attract animals and birds close enough to be seized, and the huge womb. And the antennae—the small one inside for teaching and scanning the young, and a long and powerful stalk on the outside, projecting from the shelltop, retractable if danger came.
After which, she ate her mate.
The clock in the panrad told Eddie he was in his thirtieth day of imprisonment when he found out that little bit of information. He was shocked, not because it offended his ethics, but because he himself had been intended to be the mate. And the dinner.
His finger tapped, “Tell me, Mother, what you mean.”
He had not wondered before how a species that lacked males could reproduce. Now he found that, to the Mothers, all creatures except themselves were male. Mothers were immobile and female. Mobiles were male. Eddie had been mobile. He was, therefore, a male.
He had approached this particular Mother during the mating season, that is, midway through raising a litter of young. She had scanned him as he came along the creekbanks at the valley bottom. When he was at the foot of the hill, she had detected his odor. It was new to her. The closest she could come to it in her memory-banks was that of a beast similar to him. From her description, he guessed it to be an ape. So she had released from her repertoire its rut stench. When he seemingly fell into the trap, she had caught him.
He was supposed to attack the conception-spot, that light gray swelling on the wall. After he had ripped and torn it enough to begin the mysterious workings of pregnancy, he would have been popped into her stomach-iris.
Fortunately, he had lacked the sharp beak, the fang, the claw. And she had received her own signals back from the panrad.
Eddie did not understand why it was necessary to use a mobile for mating. A Mother was intelligent enough to pick up a sharp stone and mangle the spot herself.
He was given to understand that conception would not start unless it was accompanied by a certain titillation of the nerves—a frenzy and its satisfaction. Why this emotional state was needed, Mother did not know.
Eddie tried to explain about such things as genes and chromosomes and why they had to be present in highly-developed species.
Mother did not understand.
Eddie wondered if the number of slashes and rips in the spot corresponded to the number of young. Or if there were a large number of potentialities in the heredity-ribbons spread out under the conception-skin. And if the haphazard irritation and consequent stimulation of the genes paralleled the chance combining of genes in human male-female mating. Thus resulting in offspring with traits that were combinations of their parents.
Or did the inevitable devouring of the mobile after the act indicate more than an emotional and nutritional reflex? Did it hint that the mobile caught up scattered gene-nodes, like hard seeds, along with the torn skin, in its claws and tusks, that these genes survived the boiling in the stew-stomach, and were later passed out in the feces? Where animals and birds picked them up in beak, tooth, or foot, and then, seized by other Mothers in this oblique rape, transmitted the heredity-carrying agents to the conception-spots while attacking them, the nodules being scraped off and implanted in the skin and blood of the swelling even as others were harvested? Later, the mobiles were eaten, digested, and ejected in the obscure but ingenious and never-ending cycle? Thus ensuring the continual, if haphazard, recombining of genes, chances for variations in offspring, opportunities for mutations, and so on?
Eddie gave up. He’d never know. After all, did it matter?
He decided not, and rose from his prone position to request water. She pursed up her iris and spouted a tepid quartful into his thermos. He dropped in a pill, swished it around till it dissolved, and drank a reasonable facsimile of Old Red Star. He preferred the harsh and powerful rye, though he could have afforded the smoothest. Quick results were what he wanted. Taste didn’t matter, as he disliked all liquor tastes. Thus he drank what the Skid Row bums drank and shuddered even as they did, renaming it Old Rotten Tar and cursing the fate that had brought them so low they had to gag such stuff down.
The rye glowed in his belly and spread quickly through his limbs and up to his head, chilled only by the increasing scarcity of the capsules. When he ran out—then what? It was at times like this that he most missed his mother.
Thinking about her brought a few large tears. He snuffled and drank some more and when the biggest of the Sluggos nudged him for a back-scratching, he gave it instead a shot of Old Red Star. A slug for Sluggo. Idly, he wondered what effect a taste for rye would have on the future of the race when these virgins became Mothers.
At that moment he was shaken by what seemed a life-saving idea. These creatures could suck up the required elements from the earth and with them duplicate quite complex molecular structures. Provided, of course, they had a sample of the desired substance to brood over in some cryptic organ.
Well, what easier to do than give her one of the cherished capsules? One could become any number. Those, plus the abun-dance of water pumped up through hollow underground tendrils from the nearby creek, would give enough to make a master-distiller green!
He smacked his lips and was about to key her his request when what she was transmitting penetrated his mind.
Rather cattily, she remarked that her neighbor across the valley was putting on airs because she, too, held prisoner a communicating mobile.
The Mothers had a society as hierarchical as table-protocol in Washington or peck-order in a barnyard. Prestige was what counted, and prestige was determined by the broadcasting power, the height of the eminence on which the Mother sat, which governed the extent of her radar-territory, and the abundance and novelty and wittiness of her gossip. The creature that had snapped Eddie up was a queen. She had precedence over thirty-odd of her kind; they all had to let her broadcast first, and none dared start pulsing until she quit. Then, the next in order began, and so on down the line. Any of them could be interrupted at any time by Number One, and if any of the lower echelon had something interesting to transmit, she could break in on the one then speaking and get permission from the queen to tell her tale.
Eddie knew this, but he could not listen in directly to the hilltop-gabble. The thick pseudo-granite shell barred him from that and made him dependent upon her womb-stalk for relayed information.
The first time children had inched through the exit-iris, Eddie had tried, Ulysses-like, to pass himself off as one of them and crawl out in the midst of the flock. Eyeless, but no Polyphemus, Mother had picked him out with her tentacles and hauled him back in.
It was following that incident that he had named her Polyphema.
He knew she had increased her own already powerful prestige tremendously by possession of that unique thing—a transmitting mobile. So much had her importance grown that the Mothers on the fringes of her area passed on the news to others. Before he had learned her language, the entire continent was hooked-up. Polyphema had become a veritable gossip columnist; tens of thousands of hillcrouchers listened in eagerly to her accounts of her dealings with the walking paradox: a semantic male.
That had been fine. Then, very recently, the Mother across the valley had captured a similar creature. And in one bound she had become Number Two in the area and would, at the slightest weakness on Polyphema’s part, wrest the top position away.
Eddie became wildly excited at the news. He had often daydreamed about his mother and wondered what she was doing. Curiously enough, he ended many of his fantasies with lip-mutterings, reproaching her almost audibly for having left him and for making no try to rescue him. When he became aware of his attitude, he was ashamed. Nevertheless, the sense of desertion colored his thoughts.
Now that he knew she was alive and had been caught, probably while trying to get him out, he rose from the lethargy that had lately been making him doze the clock around. He asked Polyphema if she would open the entrance so he could talk directly with the other captive. She said yes. Eager to listen in on a conversation between two mobiles, she was very co-operative. There would be a mountain of gossip in what they would have to say. The only thing that dented her joy was that the other Mother would also have access.
Then, remembering she was still Number One and would broadcast the details first, she trembled so with pride and ecstasy that Eddie felt the floor shaking.
Iris open, he walked through it and looked across the valley. The hillsides were still green, red, and yellow, as the plants on Baudelaire did not lose their leaves during winter. But a few white patches showed that winter had begun. Eddie shivered from the bite of cold air on his naked skin. Long ago he. had taken off his clothes. The womb-warmth had made garments too uncomfortable; moreover, Eddie, being human, had had to get rid of waste products. And Polyphema, being a Mother, had had periodically to flush out the dirt with warm water from one of her stomachs. Every time the tracheae-vents exploded streams that swept the undesirable elements out through her door-iris, Eddie had become soaked. When he abandoned dress, his clothes had gone floating out. Only by sitting on his pack did he keep it from a like fate.
Afterward, he and the Sluggos had been dried off by warm air pumped through the same vents and originating from the mighty battery of lungs. Eddie was comfortable enough—he’d always liked showers—but the loss of his garments had been one more thing that kept him from escaping. He would soon freeze to death outside unless he found the yacht quickly. And he wasn’t sure he remembered the
So now, when he stepped outside, he retreated a pace or two and let the warm air from Polyphema flow like a cloak from his shoulders. Then he peered across the half-mile that separated him from his mother, but he could not see her. The
twilight state and the dark of the unlit interior of her captor hid her.
He tapped in Morse, “Switch to the talkie, same frequency.” Paula Fetts did so. She began asking him frantically if he were all right. He replied he was fine. “Have you missed me terribly, son?” “Oh, very much.” Even as he said this he wondered vaguely why his voice sounded so hollow. Despair at never again being
able to see her, probably.
“I’ve almost gone crazy, Eddie. When you were caught I ran away as fast as I could. I had no idea what horrible monster it was that was attacking us. And then, halfway down the hill, I fell and broke my leg…” “Oh, no, mother!” “Yes. But I managed to crawl back to the ship. And there, after I’d set it myself, I gave myself B.K.
shots. Only, my system didn’t react like it’s supposed to. There are people that way, you know, and the
healing took twice as long. “But when I was able to walk, I got a gun and a box of dynamite. I was going to blow up what I thought was a kind of rock-fortress, an outpost for some kind of extee. I’d no idea of the true nature of these beasts. First, though, I decided to reconnoiter. I was going to spy on the boulder from across the valley. But I was trapped by this thing.
“Listen, son. Before I’m cut off, let me tell you not to give up hope. I’ll be out of here before long and over to rescue you.”
“How?” “If you remember, my lab kit holds a number of carcinogens for field work. Well, you know that sometimes a Mother’s conception-spot when it is torn up during mating, instead of begetting young, goes into cancer—the opposite of pregnancy. I’ve injected a carcinogen into the spot and a beautiful carcinoma has developed. She’ll be dead in a few days.”
“Mom! You’ll be buried in that rotting mass!”
“No. This creature has told me that when one of her species dies, a reflex opens the labia. That’s to permit their young—if any—to escape. Listen, I’ll—” A tentacle coiled about him and pulled him back through the iris, which shut. When he switched back to C.W., he heard, “Why didn’t you communicate? What were you doing? Tell
me! Tell me!” Eddie told her. There was a silence that could only be inter-preted as astonishment. After Mother had
recovered her wits, she said, “From now on, you will talk to the other male through me.”
“Please,” he persisted, not knowing how dangerous were the waters he was wading in, “please let me talk to my mother di—”
For the first time, he heard her stutter.
“Wha-wha-what? Your Mo-Mo-Mother?”
“Yes. Of course.”
The floor heaved violently beneath his feet. He cried out and braced himself to keep from falling and then flashed on the light. The walls were pulsating like shaken jelly, and the vascular columns had turned from red and blue to gray. The entrance-iris sagged open, like a lax mouth, and the air cooled. He could feel the drop in temperature in her flesh with the soles of his feet.
It was some time before he caught on.
Polyphema was in a state of shock.
What might have happened had she stayed in it, he never knew. She might have died and thus forced him out into the winter before his mother could escape. If so, and he couldn’t find the ship, he would die. Huddled in the warmest corner of the egg-shaped chamber, Eddie contemplated that idea and shivered to a degree for which the outside air couldn’t account.
However, Polyphema had her own method of recovery. It consisted of spewing out the contents of her stew-stomach, which had doubtless become filled with the poisons draining out of her system from the blow. Her ejection of the stuff was the physical manifestation of the psychical catharsis. So furious was the flood that her foster son was almost swept out in the hot tide, but she, reacting instinctively, had coiled tentacles about him and the Slug-gos. Then she followed the first upchucking by emptying her other three water-pouches, the second hot and the third lukewarm and the fourth, just filled, cold.
Eddie yelped as the icy water doused him.
Polyphema’s irises closed again. The floor and walls gradually quit quaking; the temperature rose; and her veins and arteries regained their red and blue. She was well again. Or so she seemed.
But when, after waiting twenty-four hours, he cautiously approached the subject, he found she not only would not talk about it, she refused to acknowledge the existence of the other mobile.
Eddie, giving up hope of conversation, thought for quite a while. The only conclusion he could come to, and he was sure he’d grasped enough of her psychology to make it valid, was that the concept of a mobile female was utterly unacceptable.
Her world was split into two: mobile and her kind, the immobile. Mobile meant food and mating. Mobile meant—male. The Mothers were—female.
How the mobiles reproduced had probably never entered the hillcrouchers’ minds. Their science and philosophy were on the instinctive body-level. Whether they had some notion of spontaneous generation
That was that. Any other idea was more than foul and obscene and blasphemous. It was—unthinkable. Polyphema had received a deep trauma from his words. And though she seemed to have recovered, somewhere in those tons of unimaginably complicated flesh a bruise was buried. Like a hidden flower, dark purple, it bloomed, and the shadow it cast was one that cut off a certain memory, a certain tract,
from the light of consciousness. That bruise-stained shadow covered that time and event which the Mothers, for reasons unfathomable to the human being, found necessary to mark KEEP OFF. Thus, though Eddie did not word it, he understood in the cells of his body, he felt and knew, as if his
bones were prophesying and his brain did not hear, what came to pass.
Sixty-six hours later by the panrad clock, Polyphemas entrance-lips opened. Her tentacles darted out. They came back in, carrying his helpelss and struggling mother. Eddie, roused out of a doze, horrified, paralyzed, saw her toss her lab kit at him and heard an inarticulate
cry from her. And saw her plunged, headforemost, into the stomach-iris. Polyphema had taken the one sure way of burying the evidence. Eddie lay face down, nose mashed against the warm and faintly throbbing flesh of the floor. Now and
then his hands clutched spasmodically as if he were reaching for something that soneone kept putting just within his reach and then moving away. How long he was there he didn’t know, for he never again looked at the clock.
Finally, in the darkness, he sat up and giggled inanely, “Mother always did make good stew.” That set him off. He leaned back on his hands and threw his head back and howled like a wolf under a full moon.
Polyphema, of course, was dead-deaf, but she could radar his posture, and her keen nostrils deduced from his body-scent that he was in terrible fear and anguish. A tentacle glided out and gently enfolded him. “What is the matter?” zzted the panrad. He stuck his finger in the keyhole. “I have lost my mother!” “?” “She’s gone away, and she’ll never come back.”
“I don’t understand. Here I am.” Eddie quit weeping and cocked his head, as if he were listening to some inner voice. He snuffled a few times and wiped away the tears, slowly disengaged the tentacle, patted it, walked over to his pack in a corner, and took out the bottle of Old Red Star capsules. One he popped into the thermos; the other he gave to her with the request she duplicate it, if possible. Then he stretched out on his side, propped on
one elbow like a Roman in his sensualities, sucked the rye through the nipple, and listened to a medley of Beethoven, Moussorgsky, Verdi, Strauss, Porter, Fein-stein, and Waxworth.
Sometimes the door-iris opened, and Billy Gieengrocer hopped in. Billy looked like a cross between a cricket and a kangaroo. He was the size of a collie, and he bore in a marsupialian pouch vegetables and fruit and nuts. These he extracted with shiny green, chitinous claws and gave to Mother in return for meals of stew. Happy symbiote, he chirruped merrily while his many-faceted eyes, revolving independently of each other, looked one at the Sluggos and the other at Eddie.
Eddie, on impulse, abandoned the 1000 kc. band and roved the frequencies until he found that both Polyphema and Billy were emitting a 108 wave. That, apparently, was their natural signal. When Billy had his groceries to deliver, he broadcast. Polyphema, in turn, when she needed them, sent back to him. There was nothing intelligent on Billys part; it was just his instinct to transmit. And the Mother was, aside from the “semantic” frequency, limited to that one band. But it worked out fine.
Everything was fine. What more could a man want? Free food, unlimited liquor, soft bed, air-conditioning, shower-baths, music, intellectual works (on the tape), interesting conversation (much of it was about him), privacy, and security.
If he had not already named her, he would have called her Mother Gratis.
Nor were creature comforts all. She had given him the answers to all his questions, all…
That was never expressed vocally by him. Indeed, he would have been incapable of doing so. He was probably unaware that he had such a question.
But Polyphema voiced it one day when she asked him to do her a favor.
Eddie reacted as if outraged.
“One does not—! One does not—!”
He choked, and then he thought, how ridiculous! She is not—
And looked puzzled, and said, “But she is.”
He rose and opened the lab kit. While he was looking for a scalpel, he came across the carcinogens. He threw them through the half-opened labia far out and down the hillside.
Then he turned and, scalpel in hand, leaped at the light gray swelling on the wall. And stopped, staring at it, while the instrument fell from his hand. And picked it up and stabbed feebly and did not even scratch the skin. And again let it drop. “What is it? What is it?” crackled the panrad hanging from his wrist.
“? ? ? ?”
And he stood, bent in a half-crouch, seemingly paralyzed. Until tentacles seized him in fury and dragged him toward the stomach-iris, yawning man-sized.
Eddie screamed and writhed and plunged his finger in the panrad and tapped, “All right! All right!”
And once back before the spot, he lunged with a sudden and wild joy; he slashed savagely; he yelled. “Take that! And that, P…” and the rest was lost in a mindless shout.
He did not stop cutting, and he might have gone on and on until he had quite excised the spot had not Polyphema interfered by dragging him toward her stomach-iris again. For ten seconds he hung there, helpess and sobbing with a mixture of fear and glory.
Polyphema’s reflexes had almost overcome her brain. Fortunately, a cold spark of reason lit up a corner of the vast, dark, and hot chapel of her frenzy.
The convolutions leading to the steaming, meat-laden pouch closed and the foldings of flesh rearranged themselves. Eddie was suddenly hosed with warm water from what he called the “sanitation” stomach. The iris closed. He was put down. The scalpel was put back in the bag.
For a long time Mother seemed to be shaken by the thought of what she might had done to Eddie. She did not trust herself to transmit until her nerves were settled. When they were, she did not refer to his narrow escape. Nor did he.
He was happy. He felt as if a spring, tight-coiled against his bowels since he and his wife had parted, was now, for some reason, released. The dull vague pain of loss and discontent, the slight fever and cramp in his entrails, and the apathy that sometimes afflicted him, were gone. He felt fine.
Meanwhile, something akin to deep affection had been lighted, like a tiny candle under the drafty and overtowering roof of a cathedral. Mothers shell housed more than Eddie; it now curved over an emotion new to her kind. This was evident by the next event that filled him with terror.
For the wounds in the spot healed and the swelling increased into a large bag. Then the bag burst and ten mouse-sized Sluggos struck the floor. The impact had the same effect as a doctor spanking a newborn baby’s bottom; they drew in their first breath with shock and pain; their uncontrolled and feeble pulses filled the ether with shapeless SOS’s.
When Eddie was not talking with Polyphema or listening in or drinking or sleeping or eating or bathing or running off the tape, he played with the Sluggos. He was, in a sense, their father. Indeed, as they grew to hog-size, it was hard for their female parent to distinguish him from her young. As he seldom walked anymore, and was often to be found on hands and knees in their midst, she could not scan him too well. Moreover, something in the heavywet air or in the diet had caused every hair on his body to drop off. He grew very fat. Generally speaking, he was one with the pale, soft, round, and bald offspring. A family likeness.
There was one difference. When the time came for the virgins to be expelled, Eddie crept to one end, whimpering, and stayed there until he was sure Mother was not going to thrust him out into the cold, hard, and hungry world. That final crisis over, he came back to the center of the floor. The panic in his breast had died out, but his nerves were still quivering. He filled his thermos and then listened for a while to his own tenor singing the “Sea Things” aria from his favorite opera, Gianelli’s Ancient Mariner. Suddenly, he burst out and accompanied himself, finding himself thrilled as never before by the concluding words.
Afterwards, voice silent but heart singing, he switched off the wire and cut in on Polyphema’s broadcast
Mother was having trouble. She could not precisely describe to the continent-wide hook-up this new and almost inexpressible emotion she felt about the mobile. It was a concept her language was not prepared for. Nor was she helped any by the gallons of Old Red Star in her bloodstream.
Eddie sucked at the plastic nipple and nodded sympathetically and drowsily at her search for words. Presently, the thermos rolled out of his hand.
He slept on his side, curled in a ball, knees on his chest and arms crossed, neck bent forward. Like the pilot room chronometer whose hands reversed after the crash, the clock of his body was ticking backwards, ticking backwards…
In the darkness, in the moistness, safe and warm, well fed, much loved.