Authors: Alan Dean Foster
Alan Dean Foster
A Del Rey
THE BALLANTINE PUBLISHING GROUP * NEW YORK
Other books by Ballantine Books
I eat, therefore I am.
Such was the extent of the Vom’s consciousness.
This had not always been so, but at the moment there was no way the Vom could become aware of it. The mechanical process of remembering required energy the Vom did not have to spare. All of the tiny amount of radiant energy from the system’s sun that the Vom could convert was needed to preserve the life-sense.
To do this the Vom had assumed a special configuration. At present it varied in thickness from a few millimeters to several microns. It had done this out of necessity, millennia ago. How many millennia? The Vom did not know or remember.
It couldn’t spare the energy.
The System hadn’t always been dead. At one time this planet had harbored a modestly successful ecosystem: plants and animals from the one-celled to the very complex; vertebrates, invertebrates, things warm- and coldblooded, gymnosperms, fungi, lichens, fliers, burrowers, crawlers, runners and swimmers. It was ruled by an undistinguished if moderately intelligent race. It had begun to die when the Vom arrived.
As to the method of arrival, the Vom could recall neither when nor how. Dimly it could remember a state of former greatness, of which its present self was less than a shadow. In that state it had dominated a thousand systems.
Arriving in this one, it had toyed with the local dominants. Its persistent and strenuous attempts at achieving mental assimilation with another life-form failed, as it had failed a hundred thousand times before. That didn’t keep the Vom from trying.
The race resisted with violence. It was consumed. The planet was rich in life-force of more primitive kind. Having absorbed that of the most intelligent beings, the Vom began on those less so. It worked its voracious way slowly through the ecosystem, down through the simple plants and fungi and even to the bacteria and viroids. The Vom was frighteningly efficient. It ate until the globe was scoured clean, clean. Then nothing moved on its surface or in its seas except wind, water, and the Vom.
Sated, the Vom rested for a long time. Then, using its always successful ploy of contacting another intelligent race and taking control of the curious vessels that would come to investigate, it broadcast into the space around it. Once carried by unwilling servitors to a new planet, it would begin the cycle of feeding anew.
But this time the Vom had waited too long. The race it contacted came, but they were strong—stronger than any the Vom had ever encountered. Its mental control wavered. For the first time in its well-ordered existence, the Vom panicked. It destroyed all aboard the approaching ships. A fatal error. The race was made aware of the true nature of the horror that had contacted it. The next time, it sent robot warships with a single prepared Guardian. One of their most powerful and capable minds, the Guardian was not understood even by its own kind. The Vom now tried to attract the ships of another species, but space-going races were scarce in this section of the galaxy. Those few who did send ships were warned away or destroyed by the robot watchers. As its stored energy was drained by these efforts the Vom grew progressively weaker, shrinking in power and ability. No longer necessary, many of the robot warships were recalled by their builders. There was a great war with another race tormenting the center of the galaxy.
Almost, the Vom escaped. A wild photonic storm tore through that section of space. The few remaining robot controls were incapacitated. Even the Guardian itself was weakened. The Vom drew some strength from the strange life-forms that rode the storm, but . . . not enough. In utter terror the Vom discovered that every space-going race within its reduced sphere of influence had died off or perished in the storm. Its mental collapse was hastened by hopelessness.
Now the Vom had plenty of time to reflect on its mistakes. It had used the planet too thoroughly, scoured it too clean of life. The system had been overemployed. Enough should have been left to reproduce and maintain a reasonable ecosystem, for just such an emergency. But the Vom had glutted itself thoroughly. Not a living cell had existed on the planet for a thousand years. Great as it was, it could not create life.
So, one by one, the higher functions were shut down, lost, as the great organic factory that was the Vom ran down, until only the barest flicker of life remained.
One day—the Vom knew it was day because of the presence of solar energy—a ship came down. It was not a large ship, being midway between courier and destroyer classification. But it was quite well armed and very functional, as were all the ships of the AAnn.
By rights the reptiles had no business in this part of space, on the fringes of the Humanx Commonwealth. The immensity of nothingness, however, made an excellent hiding place. Occasionally, daring scouts penetrated the humanx patrol cordon in search of unexplored systems possessed of exploitable resources—and sometimes on even less savory missions.
They nosed around, nowtimes finding something, nowtimes running afoul of a Church patrol (and then there would be empty places in many nests), rarely discovering something. All traveled without Empire sanction. Since by treaty with the Commonwealth this was prohibited, all such activities were of course quite illegal. However, since goods not traded for on a legal footing were exempt from taxation, the rewards for the AAnn businessman who backed a successful incursion were often enormous. In this respect the Emperor indirectly condoned such actions.
Rockets flared at the base of the small vessel. Being a scout, it was expected to have to land on planets not equipped with shuttle facilities. This was as expensive as it was necessary. Naturally, it could not land on interstellar drive (the AAnn equivalent of the advanced humanx KK drive propulsive system). The gigantic artificial mass generated by a KK or similar drive system could not impinge on the real mass of a planetary surface without something giving. Matter caught in such a manner invariably reacted. Violently. So ships used advanced shuttle-vessels to transfer passengers and goods from the surface to orbiting ships. A scout could, in effect, become its own shuttle.
The vessel set down close by the southern edge of the Vom. That section of the creature reveled in the sudden, unexpected surge of radiant energy. Within the metal capsule that rode the column of energy it sensed far stronger forces in the form of clean life-force. Almost, it reached out for them. Then a feeble spark of thought overrode primal instincts.
Not yet! Not yet! Patience! Besides, there was a more urgent need for the surprise gift of energy.
The Vom began to wake itself up.
Navigator-First Paayton RPHGLM was chewing reflectively on his tail, staring out the port of the captain’s cabin. He spoke without turning.
“Well, Exalted Captain,
have surely never seen anything like it!” The bright red pupils were unblinking.
Exalted Captain Laccota SJFD scratched his belly where two of his ventral plates joined and turned to his principal scientific advisor. “Well, Carmot, this is where you start earning the credits Lord Ilogia—his scales be thrice-blessed!—has been paying you. You’ve sat on your tail for four time-lengths while we’ve sweated dodging humanx sting-ships.”
Carmot MMYM was shorter than the other two. In fact, he was the shortest lizard on the ship. Externally he was rather a foppish specimen, addicted to brightly-colored body harness and (to the captain’s mind) the decadent habit of dyeing his incisors pink. A million years ago he would have been a quick meal for an attacking tribe. Today, however, intelligence counted for more than fang and claw. He possessed a sharp mind, excellent recall, and was as devious as anyone else on board. Personally, Exalted Captain Laccota disliked him. Professionally, he held him in high esteem.
“I don’t like it,” said the Observer-First finally.
“You are not paid to like or dislike anything,” offered Laccota patiently. “With the best will in the world, I remind you that you are paid only to estimate any potential profit in whatever we may turn up. We have definitely turned up something, here in this egg-forsaken system.”
“I reiterate; I don’t like it! I don’t understand this at all, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.”
“An attitude shared by many,” said Laccota. “Tell us what we have here, Observer-most-competent-and-overpaid, and I will like it or dislike it for you.”
“Very well, Exalted-flier-of-ships-by-the-tip-of-his-tail.” Carmot nibbled idly on a claw. “When Observer-Fifth Plowlok first brought it to my attention, as we proceeded with our standard survey orbit, my initial reaction was the mental composition of a severe reprimand. Being young, Observer-Fifth Plowlok SFDVJUTVB has the usual tendency of young explorers to draw fanciful rather than objective readings from strictly prosaic instrumentation. This time, however, he was full accurate.”
Carmot stopped chewing and waved in the direction of the glassalloy port. “We have out there, gentlesirs, an organic impossibility. An area of total living blackness that follows the contours of the land, every dip and rise, at a paper-thinness for several thousand square
Absurd, of course. There is nothing else like it anywhere on the planet. Nor, I venture to hypothesize, in this system. It is unique. It is utterly remarkable. It is impossible . . .
“Properties, gentlesirs, properties! It is not harmed or visibly affected by any kind of radiation we can generate. Possibly more sophisticated devices will be able to—I don’t know. Nor is the energy so directed reflected. It simply disappears, as measurements of the underlying basalt seem to indicate. Somehow, in the space of a mere
or two of itself, it absorbs all radiation or otherwise removes it from the understandable physical universe . . .
“Two days ago, First-Geologist Onidd CRCRS and I left the ship to perform what we innocently believed would be the simple task of removing a few samples of the thing for analytical purposes.”
“Didn’t have much luck, did you?” murmured Navigator Paayton, still chewing on his tail and staring out the port.
“Hardly,” said Carmot drily. “When I first attempted to touch it, it drew away from my fingers. I believe my sense of surprise was rather peremptorily expressed over the communit.”
“Your command of the invective was something of a surprise,” admitted Laccota.
“Um. Yes. After several similar attempts at different spots along its border failed, I walked off and took a long run at the thing. The lower gravity made such an idea seem feasible. It retreated completely, with incredible swiftness, just before my boots made contact with its surface . . .
“Geologist Onidd observed that it was noticeably thicker around its new edge. Therefore we established that it was folding back on itself and not performing some mystifying vanishing act. Onidd then removed his beamer and attempted to cut a piece from the main body. The results were enlightening . . .
“While it had retreated precipitately from physical contact, it made no effort to dodge the lethal beamer. Onidd concentrated his beam on one thin spot for several time-parts. No effect was observed. The thing did not cut, burn, smoke, or otherwise take notice of a sharp-focus beamer that can cut through most metals and heat armor-plate red-hot. I then joined the efforts of my own beamer to Onidd’s. We might as well have been beaming at the sun . . .
“Now, as to the problem of its aliveness, about which there has been some question. If it is alive, it is a totally alien sort of aliveness that permits itself to be energy-beamed at close range yet refuses to allow a mere touch from a living being.”
“Your conclusions,” prompted Laccota impatiently.
“Even so, I believe it lives. It may draw sustenance from the sun, although I find no evidence of a photosynthesis-type reaction, and certainly no sign of chlorophyll. I do not see how else it can draw food. The basalt revealed when it drew back from us has been minutely examined. It exhibits no abnormalities and is in no way different from untouched samples taken elsewhere. I still will not attempt to say whether it is more animal than vegetable. It may, indeed, be neither.”
“And your recommendations?” Laccota asked.
Carmot stood quietly for a long moment. “Raise ship and traverse parsecs as fast as this antiquated tub will go.”
The captain’s transparent nictitating eye membranes flickered. Even Paayton was sufficiently stimulated to turn from his extended contemplation of the outside.
“Indeed,” murmured the captain. “And your reasoning?”
Carmot said simply, “I have a feeling.”
“Really! You have a feeling. My, my. Shell of females, an interesting entry to make in the log. Lord Ilogia will be most understanding and sympathetic. You ‘have a feeling.’ Rejected. First alternate proposal?”
Carmot sighed—a long, hissing sound, like a steam engine running down. “Tie into the nearest intersystem relay. Use long band. Break in if you have to. Contact the nearest planet where we have landing privileges—it will be humanx controlled, of course . . . .”
Laccota looked to the navigator. “Is there an appropriate place?”
Paayton’s computer-trap mind turned businesslike. “Umm. The humanx outpost colony world of Repler might be . . . yes, I foresee no problems. A sparsely populated world, much of it still in the wild state, with a largely urban population and a considerable tourist trade. The largest shuttle station is very modern, but not equipped to handle much in the way of a naval force. No orbiting naval station. We have a fair-sized diplomatic mission there, with plenty of privacy and room. The weather is miserable, but most of the station is underground, naturally. It should be adequate.”
“Contact them,” continued Carmot. “Tell them we want the biggest freighter in the sector, along with five or six of the largest shuttles, two of which must be max-class, and about twenty miles of flexible harmony plating, with plenty of tow cable. Operators for all, of course. Also, at least one large, high-intensity beamer—it needn’t be military; industrial strength should do fine. One that can provide a steady output without burning out every other time-length. Tell them to bring replacement parts, just in case.”