Authors: Damon Knight
Tags: #Short Story Collection, #Science Fiction
George Meister had once seen the nervous system of a man—a display specimen, achieved by coating the smallest of the fibers until they were coarse enough to be seen, then dissolving all the unwanted tissue and replacing it with clear plastic. A marvellous job; that fellow on Torkas III had done it-what was his name? At any rate: having seen the specimen, Meister knew approximately what he himself must look like at the present moment.
Of course, there were distortions: for example, he was almost certain that the neurons between his visual center and his eyes had produced themselves by at least thirty centimeters. Also, no doubt, the system as a whole was curled up and spread out rather oddly, since the musculature it had originally controlled was gone; and he had noticed certain other changes which might or might not be reflected by gross structural differences. The fact remained that he-all that he could still call himself-was nothing more than a brain, a pair of eyes, a spinal cord and a spray of neurons.
George closed his eyes for a second. It was a thing he had learned to do only recently, and he was proud of it. That first long period, when he had had no control whatever, had been very bad. He had decided later that the paralysis had been due to the lingering effects of some anaesthetic—the agent, whatever it was, that had kept him unconscious while his body was being—Well.
Either that, or the neuron branches had simply not yet knitted firmly in their new positions. Perhaps he could verify one or the other supposition at some future time. But at first, when he had only been able to see and not to move, knowing nothing beyond the moment when he had fallen face first into that mottled green and brown puddle of gelatin… that had been upsetting.
He wondered how the others were taking it. There were others, he knew, because occasionally he would feel a sudden acute pain down where his legs belonged, and at the same instant the motion of the landscape would stop with a jerk. That could only be some other brain, trapped like his, trying to move their common body in another direction.
Usually the pain stopped immediately, and George could go on sending messages down to the nerve endings which had formerly belonged to his fingers and toes, and the gelatinous body would keep on creeping slowly forward. When the pains continued, there was nothing to do but to stop moving until the other brain quit-in which case George would feel like an unwilling passenger in a very slow vehicle-s—or try to alter his own movements to coincide, or at least produce a vector with the other brain’s.
He wondered who else had fallen in—Vivian Bellis? Major Gumbs? Miss McCarty? Or all three of them? There ought to be some way of finding out.
He tried looking down once more, and was rewarded with a blurry view of a long, narrow strip of mottled green and brown, moving very slowly forward along the dry stream bed they had been crossing for the last hour or more. Twigs and shreds of dry vegetable matter were stuck to the dusty, translucent surface.
He was improving; the last time, he had only been able to see the thinnest possible edge of his new body.
When he looked up again, the far edge of the stream bed was perceptibly—closer. There was a cluster of stiff-looking, dark-brown vegetable shoots just beyond, on the rocky shoulder; George was aiming slightly to the left of it. It had been a plant very much like the one that he’d been reaching for when he lost his balance and got himself into this condition. He might as well have a good look at it, anyhow.
The plant would probably turn out to be of little interest. It would be out of all reason to expect every new life form to be a startling novelty; and George was convinced that he had already stumbled into the most interesting organism on this planet.
, he thought. He had not settled on a species name—he would have to learn more about it before he decided—but
certainly. It was his discovery, and nobody could take it away from him. Or—unhappily—him away from it.
It was a really lovely organism, though. Primitive—less structure of its own than a jellyfish, and only on a planet with light surface gravity, like this one, could it ever have hauled itself up out of the sea. No brain, no nervous system at all, apparently. But it had the perfect survival mechanism. It simply let its rivals develop highly organised nervous tissue, sat in one place (looking exactly like a deposit of leaves and other clutter) until one of them fell into it, and then took all the benefit.
It wasn’t parasitism, either; it was a true symbiosis, on a higher level than any other planet, so far as George knew, had ever developed. The captive brain was nourished by the captor; wherefore it served the captive’s interest to move the captor toward food and away from danger.
You steer me, I feed you
. It was fair.
They were close to the plant now, almost touching it. George inspected it; as he had thought, it was a common grass type, of no particular interest.
Now his body was tilting itself up a ridge he knew to be low, although from his eye level it looked tremendous. He climbed it laboriously and found himself looking down into still another gully. This could go on, no doubt, indefinitely. The question was, did he have any choice?
He looked at the shadows cast by the low-hanging sun. He was heading approximately northwest, or directly away from the encampment. He was only a few hundred meters away; even at a crawl, he could make the distance easily enough… if he turned back.
He felt uneasy at the thought, and didn’t know why. Then it struck him that his appearance was not obviously that of a human being in distress; the chances were that he looked rather more like the monster which had eaten and partially digested one or more people.
If he crawled into camp in his present condition, it was a certainty that he would be shot at before any questions were asked, and only a minor possibility that narcotic gas would be used instead of a machine rifle.
No, he decided, he was on the right course. The idea was to get away from camp so that he wouldn’t be found by the relief party which was probably searching for him now. Get away, bury himself in the forest and study his new body: find out how it worked and what he could do with it, whether there actually were others in it with him, and if so, if there was any way of opening communications with them.
It would take a long time, he thought, but he could do it.
Limply, like a puddle of mush oozing over the edge of a tablecloth, George started down into the gully.
The circumstances leading up to George’s fall into the something
were, briefly as follows:
Until as late as the mid-twenty-first century, a game invented by the ancient Japanese was still played by millions in the eastern hemisphere of Terra. The game was called
. Although its rules were almost childishly simple, its strategy included more permutations and was more difficult to master than that of chess.
was played, at the height of its development—just before the geological catastrophe that wiped out most of its devotees—on a board with nine hundred shallow holes, using small pill-shaped counters. At each turn, one of the two players placed a counter on the board, wherever he chose, the object being to capture as much territory as possible by surrounding it completely.
There were no other rules; and yet it had taken the Japanese almost a thousand years to work up to that thirty-by-thirty board, adding perhaps one rank and file per century. A hundred years was not too long to explore all the possibilities of that additional rank and file.
At the time George Meister fell in to the gelatinous green-and—brown monster, toward the end of the twenty-third century A.D., a kind of
was being played in a three-dimensional field which contained more than ten billion positions. The galaxy was the board, the positions were star systems, men were the counters. The loser’s penalty was annihilation.
The galaxy was in the process of being colonised by two opposing federations. In the early stages of this conflict, planets had been raided, bombs dropped, and a few battles had even been fought by fleets of spaceships. Later that haphazard sort of warfare became impossible. Robot fighters, carrying enough armament to blow each other into dust, were produced in trillions. In the space around the outer stars of a cluster belonging to one side or the other, they swarmed like minnows.
Within such a screen, planets were utterly safe from attack and from any interference with their commerce… unless the enemy succeeded in colonising enough of the circumambient star systems to set up and maintain a second screen outside the first. It was go, played for desperate stakes and under impossible conditions.
Everyone was in a hurry; everyone’s ancestors for seven generations had been in a hurry. You got your education in a speeded-up, capsulised form. You mated early and bred frantically. And if you were assigned to an advance ecological team, as George was, you had to work without any decent preparation.
The sensible, the obvious thing to do in opening up a new planet with unknown life forms would have been to begin with at least ten years of immunological study conducted from the inside of a sealed station. After the worst bacteria and viruses had been licked, you might proceed to a little cautious field work and exploration. Finally—total elapsed time fifty years, say—the colonists would be shipped in.
There simply wasn’t that much time.
Five hours after the landing, Meister’s team had unloaded fabricators and set up barracks enough to house its two thousand, six hundred and twenty-eight members. An hour after that, Meister, Gumbs, Bellis and McCarty started out across the level cinder and ash left by the transport’s tail jets to the nearest living vegetation, six hundred meters away. They were to trace a spiral path outward from the camp site to a distance of a thousand meters, and then return with their specimens—providing nothing too large and hungry to be stopped by a machine rifle had previously eaten them.
Meister, the biologist, was hung with collecting boxes to the point that his slender torso was totally invisible. Major Gumbs had a survival kit, binoculars and a machine rifle. Vivian Bellis,who knew exactly as much mineralogy as had been contained in the three-month course prescribed for her rating, and no more, carried a light rifle, a hammer and a specimen sack. Miss McCarty—no one knew her first name—had no scientific function. She was the group’s Loyalty Monitor. She wore two squat pistols and a bandolier bristling with cartridges. Her only job was to blow the cranium off any team member caught using an unauthorised communicator, or in any other way behaving oddly.
All of them were heavily gloved and booted, and their heads were covered by globular helmets, sealed to their tunic collars. They breathed through filtered respirators, so finely meshed that—in theory—nothing larger than an oxygen molecule could get through.
On their second circuit of the camp, they had struck a low ridge and a series of short, steep gullies, most of them choked with the dusty-brown stalks of dead vegetation. As they started down into one of these, George, who was third in line—Gumbs leading, then Bellis, and McCarty behind George—stepped out onto a protruding slab of stone to examine a cluster of plant stalks rooted on its far side.
His weight was only a little more than twenty kilograms on this planet, and the slab looked as if it were firmly cemented into the wall of the gully. Just the same, he felt it shift under him as soon as his weight was fully on it. He felt himself falling, shouted, and caught a flashing glimpse of Gumbs and Bellis, standing as if caught by a high-speed camera. He heard a rattling of stones as he went by. Then he saw what looked like a shabby blanket of leaves and dirt floating toward him, and he remembered thinking,
It looks like a soft landing, anyhow
… That was all, until he woke up feeling as if he had been prematurely buried, with no part of him alive but his eyes.
Much later, his frantic efforts to move had resulted in the first fractional success. From then on, his field of vision had moved fairly steadily forward, perhaps a meter in every fifty minutes, not counting the times when someone else’s efforts had interfered with his own.
His conviction that nothing remained of the old George Meister except a nervous system was not supported by observation, but the evidence was regrettably strong. To begin with, the anaesthesia of the first hours had worn off, but his body was not reporting the position of the torso, head and four limbs he had formerly owned. He had, instead, a vague impression of being flattened and spread out over an enormous area. When he tried to move his fingers and toes, the response he got was so multiplied that he felt like a centipede. He had no sense of cramped muscles, such as would normally be expected after a long period of paralysis: and he was not breathing. Yet his brain was evidently being well supplied with food and oxygen; he felt clear-headed, at ease and healthy.
He wasn’t hungry, either, although he had been using energy steadily for a long time. There were, he thought, two possible reasons for that, depending on how you looked at it… one, that he wasn’t hungry because he no longer had any stomach lining to contract; two, that he wasn’t hungry because the organism he was riding in had been well nourished by the superfluous tissues George bad contributed…
Two hours later, when the sun was setting, it began to rain. George saw the big, slow falling drops and felt their dull impacts on his “skin.” He did not know whether rain would do .him any damage or not, rather thought not, but crawled under a bush with large, fringed leaves just to be on the safe side. When the rain stopped it was dark, and he decided he might as well stay where he was until morning. He did not feel tired, and it occurred to him to wonder whether he still needed to sleep. He composed himself as well as he could to wait for the answer.
He was still wakeful after a long time had passed, but had made no progress toward deciding whether this answered the question or prevented it from being answered, when he saw a pair of dim lights coming slowly and erratically toward him.