Authors: John W. Campbell
Connant shifted abruptly, and Barclay could see what lay beyond. For a second he stood frozen, then his breath went out in a gusty curse. The thing launched itself at Connant and the powerful arms of the man swung the ice-ax flat-side first at what might have been a head. It scrunched horribly, and the tattered flesh, ripped by a half-dozen savage huskies, leaped to its feet again. The red eyes blazed with an unearthly hatred, an unearthly, unkillable vitality.
Barclay turned the fire extinguisher on it. The blinding, blistering stream of chemical spray confused it, baffled it, together with the savage attacks of the huskies, not for long afraid of anything that did, or could live, and held it at bay.
McReady wedged men out of his way and drove down the narrow corridor packed with men unable to reach the scene. There was a sure fore-planned drive to McReady’s attack. One of the giant blow-torches used in warming the plane’s engines was in his bronzed hands. It roared gustily as he turned the corner and opened the valve. The mad mewing hissed louder. The dogs scrambled back from the three-foot lance of blue-hot flame.
“Bar, get a power cable, run it in somehow. And a handle. We can electrocute this—monster, if I don’t incinerate it.” McReady spoke with an authority of planned action. Barclay turned down the long corridor to the power plant, but already before him Norris and Van Wall were racing down.
Barclay found the cable in the electrical cache in the tunnel wall. In a half minute he was hacking at it, walking back. Van Wall’s voice rang out in warning shout of “Power!” as the emergency gasoline-powered dynamo thudded into action. Half a dozen other men were down there now; the coal, kindling were going into the firebox of the steam power plant. Norris, cursing in a low, deadly monotone, was working with quick, sure fingers on the other end of Barclay’s cable, splicing a contacter into one of the power leads.
The dogs had fallen back when Barclay reached the corridor bend, fallen back before a furious monstrosity that glared from baleful red eyes, mewing in trapped hatred. The dogs were a semicircle of red-dipped muzzles with a fringe of glistening white teeth, whining with a vicious eagerness that nearly matched the fury of the red eyes. McReady stood confidently alert at the corridor bend, the gustily muttering torch held loose and ready for action in his hands. He stepped aside without moving his eyes from the beast as Barclay came up. There was a slight, tight smile on his lean, bronzed face.
Norris’s voice called down the corridor, and Barclay stepped forward. The cable was taped to the long handle of a snow shovel, the two conductors split and held 18 inches apart by a scrap of lumber lashed at right angles across the far end of the handle. Bare copper conductors, charged with
volts, glinted in the light of pressure lamps. The thing mewed and hated and dodged. McReady advanced to Barclay’s side. The dogs beyond sensed the plan with the almost telepathic intelligence of trained huskies. Their whining grew shriller, softer, their mincing steps carried them nearer. Abruptly a huge night-black Alaskan leaped onto the trapped thing. It turned squalling, saber-clawed feet slashing.
Barclay leaped forward and jabbed. A weird, shrill scream rose and choked out. The smell of burned flesh in the corridor intensified; greasy smoke curled up. The echoing pound of the gas-electric dynamo down the corridor became a slogging thud.
The red eyes clouded over in a stiffening, jerking travesty of a face. Armlike, leglike members quivered and jerked. The dogs leaped forward, and Barclay yanked back his shovel-handled weapon. The thing on the snow did not move as gleaming teeth ripped it open.
Garry looked about the crowded room. Thirty-two men, some tensed nervously standing against the wall, some uneasily relaxed, some sitting, most perforce standing as intimate as sardines. Thirty-two, plus the five engaged in sewing up wounded dogs, made thirty-seven, the total personnel.
Garry started speaking. “All right, I guess we’re here. Some of you—three or four at most—saw what happened. All of you have seen that thing on the table, and can get a general idea. Anyone hasn’t, I’ll lift—” His hand strayed to the tarpaulin bulking over the thing on the table. There was an acrid odor of singed flesh seeping out of it. The men stirred restlessly; there were hasty denials.
“It looks rather as though Charnauk isn’t going to lead any more teams,” Garry went on. “Blair wants to get at this thing, and make some more detailed examination. We want to know what happened, and make sure right now that this is permanently, totally dead. Right?”
Connant grinned. “Anybody that doesn’t can sit up with it tonight.”
“All right then, Blair, what can you say about it? What was it?” Garry turned to the little biologist.
“I wonder if we ever saw its natural form.” Blair looked at the covered mass. “It may have been imitating the beings that built that ship—but I don’t think it was. I think that was its true form. Those of us who were up near the bend saw the thing in action; the thing on the table is the result. When it got loose, apparently, it started looking around. Antarctica still frozen as it was ages ago when the creature first saw it—and froze. From my observations while it was thawing out, and the bits of tissue I cut and hardened then, I think it was native to a hotter planet than Earth. It couldn’t, in its natural form, stand the temperature. There is no life form on Earth that can live in Antarctica during the winter, but the best compromise is the dog. It found the dogs, and somehow got near enough to Charnauk to get him. The others smelled it—heard it—I don’t know—anyway they went wild and broke chains and attacked it before it was finished. The thing we found was part Charnauk, queerly only half dead, part Charnauk half-digested by the jellylike protoplasm of that creature, and part the remains of the thing we originally found, sort of melted down to the basic protoplasm.
“When the dogs attacked it, it turned into the best fighting thing it could think of. Some other-world beast apparently.”
“Turned,” snapped Garry. “How?”
“Every living thing is made up of jelly—protoplasm and minute, submicroscopic things called nuclei, which control the bulk, the protoplasm. This thing was just a modification of that same world-wide plan of Nature; cells made up of protoplasm, controlled by infinitely tinier nuclei. You physicists might compare it—an individual cell of any living thing—with an atom; the bulk of the atom, the space-filling part, is made up of the electron orbits, but the character of the thing is determined by the atomic nucleus.
“This isn’t wildly beyond what we already know. It’s just a modification we haven’t seen before. It’s as natural, as logical, as any other manifestation of life. It obeys exactly the same laws. The cells are made of protoplasm, their character determined by the nucleus.
“Only, in this creature, the cell nuclei can control those cells
. It digested Charnauk, and as it digested, studied every cell of his tissue, and shaped its own cells to imitate them exactly. Parts of it—parts that had time to finish changing—are dog-cells. But they don’t have dog-cell nuclei.” Blair lifted a fraction of the tarpaulin. A torn dog’s leg, with stiff gray fur protruded. “That, for instance, isn’t dog at all; it’s imitation. Some parts I’m uncertain about; the nucleus was hiding itself, covering up with dog-cell imitation nucleus. In time, not even a microscope would have shown the difference.”
“Suppose,” asked Norris bitterly, “it had had lots of time?”
“Then it would have been a dog. The other dogs would have accepted it. We would have accepted it. I don’t think anything would have distinguished it, not microscope, nor X-ray, nor any other means. This is a member of a supremely intelligent race, a race that has learned the deepest secrets of biology, and turned them to its use.”
“What was it planning to do?” Barclay looked at the humped tarpaulin.
Blair grinned unpleasantly. The wavering halo of thin hair round his bald pate wavered in a stir of air. “Take over the world, I imagine.”
“Take over the world! Just it, all by itself?” Connant gasped. “Set itself up as a lone dictator?”
“No.” Blair shook his head. The scalpel he had been fumbling in his bony fingers dropped; he bent to pick it up, so that his face was hidden as he spoke. “It would become the population of the world.”
“Become—populate the world? Does it reproduce asexually?”
Blair shook his head and gulped. “It’s—it doesn’t have to. It weighed eighty-five pounds. Charnauk weighed about ninety. It would have become Charnauk, and had eighty-five pounds left, to become—oh, Jack, for instance, or Chinook. It can imitate anything—that is, become anything. If it had reached the Antarctic Sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America.”
Norris cursed softly. “And every time it digested something, and imitated it—”
“It would have had its original bulk left, to start again,” Blair finished. “Nothing would kill it. It has no natural enemies, because it becomes whatever it wants to. If a killer whale attacked it, it would become a killer whale. If it was an albatross, and an eagle attacked it, it would become an eagle. Lord, it might become a female eagle. Go back—build a nest and lay eggs!”
“Are you sure that thing from hell is dead?” Dr. Copper asked softly.
“Yes, thank Heaven,” the little biologist gasped. “After they drove the dogs off, I stood there poking Bar’s electrocution thing into it for five minutes. It’s dead and—cooked.”
“Then we can only give thanks that this is Antarctica, where there is not one, single, solitary, living thing for it to imitate, except these animals in camp.”
“Us,” Blair giggled. “It can imitate us. Dogs can’t make four hundred miles to the sea; there’s no food. There aren’t any skua gulls to imitate at this season. There aren’t any penguins this far inland. There’s nothing that can reach the sea from this point—except us. We’ve got brains. We can do it. Don’t you
see—it’s got to imitate us—it’s got to be one of us—that’s the only way it can fly an airplane——fly a plane for two hours, and rule—be—all Earth’s inhabitants
. A world for the taking—if
it imitates us!
“It didn’t know yet. It hadn’t had a chance to learn. It was rushed—hurried—took the thing nearest its own size. Look—I’m Pandora! I opened the box! And the only hope that can come out is—that nothing can come out. You didn’t see me. I did it. I fixed it. I smashed every magneto. Not a plane can fly. Nothing can fly.” Blair giggled and lay down on the floor crying.
Chief Pilot Van Wall made for the door. His feet were fading echoes in the corridors as Dr. Copper bent unhurriedly over the little man on the floor. From his office at the end of the room he brought something and injected a solution into Blair’s arm. “He might come out of it when he wakes up,” he sighed, rising. McReady helped him lift the biologist onto a near-by bunk. “It all depends on whether we can convince him that thing is dead.”
Van Wall ducked into the shack, brushing his heavy blond beard absently. “I didn’t think a biologist would do a thing like that up thoroughly. He missed the spares in the second cache. It’s all right. I smashed them.”
Commander Garry nodded. “I was wondering about the radio.”
Dr. Copper snorted. “You don’t think it can leak out on a radio wave, do you? You’d have five rescue attempts in the next three months if you stop the broadcasts. The thing to do is talk loud and not make a sound. Now I wonder—”
McReady looked speculatively at the doctor. “It might be like an infectious disease. Everything that drank any of its blood—”
Copper shook his head. “Blair missed something. Imitate it may, but it has, to a certain extent, its own body chemistry, its own metabolism. If it didn’t, it would become a dog—and be a dog and nothing more. It has to be an imitation dog. Therefore you can detect it by serum tests. And its chemistry, since it comes from another world, must be so wholly, radically different that a few cells, such as gained by drops of blood, would be treated as disease germs by the dog, or human body.”
“Blood—would one of those imitations bleed?” Norris demanded.
“Surely. Nothing mystic about blood. Muscle is about ninety-per cent water; blood differs only in having a couple per cent more water, and less connective tissue. They’d bleed all right,” Copper assured him.
Blair sat up in his bunk suddenly. “Connant—where’s Connant?”
The physicist moved over toward the little biologist. “Here I am. What do you want?”
“Are you?” giggled Blair. He lapsed back into the bunk contorted with silent laughter.
Connant looked at him blankly. “Huh? Am I what?”
you there?” Blair burst into gales of laughter.
you Connant? The beast wanted to be
—not a dog—”
Dr. Copper rose wearily from the bunk and washed the hypodermic carefully. The little tinkles it made seemed loud in the packed room, now that Blair’s gurgling laughter had finally quieted. Copper looked toward Garry and shook his head slowly. “Hopeless, I’m afraid. I don’t think we can ever convince him the thing is dead now.”
Norris laughed uncertainly. “I’m not sure you can convince me. Oh, damn you, McReady.”
“McReady?” Commander Garry turned to look from Norris to McReady curiously.
“The nightmares,” Norris explained. “He had a theory about the nightmares we had at the Secondary Station after finding that thing.”
“And that was?” Garry looked at McReady levelly.
Norris answered for him, jerkily, uneasily. “That the creature wasn’t dead, had a sort of enormously slowed existence, an existence that permitted it, none the less, to be vaguely aware of the passing of time, of our coming, after endless years. I had a dream it could imitate things.”
“Well,” Copper grunted, “it can.”
“Don’t be an ass,” Norris snapped. “That’s not what’s bothering me. In the dream it could read minds, read thoughts and ideas and mannerisms.”