Maps in a mirror, p.34

Maps in a Mirror, page 34

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  We watched just long enough for the little people to grab hold of us in sufficient numbers that resistance would have been ridiculous. Besides, we couldn’t take our eyes off Harold.

  At about the groin, the amoeba stopped eating. It didn’t matter. Harold was dead anyway—we didn’t know what disease got him, but as soon as his suit had cracked he started vomiting into his suit. There were pustules all over his face. In short, Vladimir’s guess about the virus content of Post 004 had been pretty accurate.

  And now the amoeba formed itself into a pentagon. Five very smooth sides, the creature sitting in a clump on the gaping wound that had once been a pelvis. Suddenly, with a brief convulsion, all the sides bisected, forming sharp angles, so that now there were ten sides to the creature. A hairline crack appeared down the middle. And then, like jelly sliced in the middle and finally deciding to split, the two halves slumped away on either side. They quickly formed into two new pentagons, and then they relaxed into pseudopodia again, and continued devouring Harold.

  “Well,” Amauri said. “They do have an antipersonnel weapon.”

  When he spoke, the spell of stillness was broken, and the little people had us spread on tables with sharp-pointed objects pointed at us. If any one of those punctured a suit even for a moment, we would be dead. We held very still.

  Richard Nixon Dixon, the top halibut, interrogated us himself. It all started with a lot of questions about the Russians, when we had visited them, why we had decided to serve them instead of the Americans, etc. We kept insisting that they were full of crap.

  But when they threatened to open a window into Vladimir’s suit, I decided enough was enough.

  “Tell ’em!” I shouted into the monkeymouth, and Vladimir said, “All right,” and the little people leaned back to listen.

  “There are no Russians,” Vladimir said.

  The little people got ready to carve holes.

  “No, wait, it’s true! After we got your homing signal, before we landed, we made seven orbital passes over the entire planet. There is absolutely no human life anywhere but here!”

  “Commie lies,” Richard Nixon Dixon said.

  “God’s own truth!” I shouted. “Don’t touch him, man! He’s telling the truth! The only thing out there over this whole damn planet is that pea soup! It covers every inch of land and every inch of water, except a few holes at the poles.”

  Dixon began to feel a little confused, and the little people murmured. I guess I sounded sincere.

  “If there aren’t any people,” Dixon said, “where do the Russian attacks come from?”

  Vladimir answered that one. For a bunny, he was quick on the uptake. “Spontaneous recombination! You and the Russians got new strains of every microbe developing like crazy. All the people, all the animals, all the plants were killed. And only the microbes lived. But you’ve been introducing new strains constantly, tough competitors for all those beasts out there. The ones that couldn’t adapt died. And now that’s all that’s left—the ones who adapt. Constantly.”

  Andrew Jackson Wallichinsky, the head researcher, nodded. “It sounds plausible.”

  “If there’s anything we’ve learned about commies in the last thousand years,” Richard Nixon Dixon said, “it’s that you can’t trust ’em any farther than you can spit.”

  “Well,” Andy Jack said, “it’s easy enough to test them.”

  Dixon nodded. “Go ahead.”

  So three of the little people went to the boxes and each came back with an amoeba. In a minute it was clear that they planned to set them on us. Amauri screamed. Vladimir turned white. I would have screamed but I was busy trying to swallow my tongue.

  “Relax,” Andy Jack said. “They won’t hurt you.”

  “Acredito!” I shouted. “Like it didn’t hurt Harold!”

  “Harold was killing people. These won’t harm you. Unless you were lying.”

  Great, I thought. Like the ancient test for witches. Throw them in the water, if they drown they’re innocent, if they float they’re guilty so kill ’em.

  But maybe Andy Jack was telling the truth and they wouldn’t hurt us. And if we refused to let them put those buggers on us they’d “know” we had been lying and punch holes in our monkeysuits.

  So I told the little people to put one on me only. They didn’t need to test us all.

  And then I put my tongue between my teeth, ready to bite down hard and inhale the blood when the damn thing started eating me. Somehow I thought I’d feel better about going honeyduck if I helped myself along.

  They set the thing on my shoulder. It didn’t penetrate my monkeysuit. Instead it just oozed up toward my head.

  It slid over my faceplate and the world went dark.

  “Kane Kanea,” said a faint vibration in the faceplate.

  “Meu deus,” I muttered.

  The amoeba could talk. But I didn’t have to speak to answer it. A question would come through the vibration of the faceplate. And then I would lie there and—it knew my answer. Easy as pie. I was so scared I urinated twice during the interview. But my imperturbable monkeysuit cleaned it all up and got it ready for breakfast, just like normal.

  And at last the interview was over. The amoeba slithered off my faceplate and returned to the waiting arms of one of the little people, who carried it back to Andy Jack and Ricky Nick. The two men put their hands on the thing, and then looked at us in surprise.

  “You’re telling the truth. There are no Russians.”

  Vladimir shrugged. “Why would we lie?”

  Andy Jack started toward me, carrying the writhing monster that had interviewed me.

  “I’ll kill myself before I let that thing touch me again.”

  Andy Jack stopped in surprise. “You’re still afraid of that?”

  “It’s intelligent,” I said.. “It read my mind.”

  Vladimir looked startled, and Amauri muttered something. But Andy Jack only smiled. “Nothing mysterious about that. It can read and interpret the electromagnetic fields of your brain, coupled with the amitron flux in your thyroid gland.”

  “What is it?” Vladimir asked.

  Andy Jack looked very proud. “This one is my son.”

  We waited for the punch line. It didn’t come. And suddenly we realized that we had found what we had been looking for—the result of the little people’s research into recombinant human DNA.

  “We’ve been working on these for years. Finally we got it right about four years ago,” Andy Jack said. “They were our last line of defense. But now that we know the Russians are dead—well, there’s no reason for them to stay in their nests.”

  And the man reached down and laid the amoeba into the pea soup that was now about sixty centimeters deep on the floor. Immediately it flattened out on the surface until it was about a meter in diameter. I remembered the whispering voice through my faceplate.

  “It’s too flexible to have a brain,” Vladimir said.

  “It doesn’t have one,” Andy Jack answered. “The brain functions are distributed throughout the body. If it were cut in forty pieces, each piece would have enough memory and enough mindfunction to continue to live. It’s indestructible. And when several of them get together, they set up a sympathetic field. They become very bright, then.”

  “Head of the class and everything, I’m sure,” Vladimir said. He couldn’t hide the loathing in his voice. Me, I was trying not to be sick.

  So this is the next stage of evolution, I thought. Man screws up the planet till it’s fit for nothing but microbes—and then changes himself so that he can live on a diet of bacteria and viruses.

  “It’s really the perfect step in evolution,” Andy Jack said. “This fellow can adapt to new species of parasitic bacteria and viruses almost by reflex. Control the makeup of his own DNA consciously. Manipulate the DNA of other organisms by absorbing them through the semipermeable membranes of specialized cells, altering them, and setting them free again.”

  “Somehow it doesn’t make me
want to feed it or change its diapers.”

  Andy Jack laughed lightly. “Since they reproduce by fission, they’re never infant. Oh, if the piece were too small, it would take a while to get back to adult competence again. But otherwise, in the normal run of things, it’s always an adult.”

  Then Andy Jack reached down, let his son wrap itself around his arm, and then walked back to where Richard Nixon Dixon stood watching. Andy Jack put the arm that held the amoeba around Dixon’s shoulder.

  “By the way, sir,” Andy Jack said. “With the Russians dead, the damned war is over, sir.”

  Dixon looked startled. “And?”

  “We don’t need a commander anymore.”

  Before Dixon could answer, the amoeba had eaten through his neck and he was quite dead. Rather an abrupt coup, I thought, and looked at the other little people for a reaction. No one seemed to mind. Apparently their superpatriotic militarism was only skin deep. I felt vaguely relieved. Maybe they had something in common with me after all.

  They decided to let us go, and we were glad enough to take them up on the offer. On the way out, they showed us what had caused the explosion in the last “Russian” attack. The mold that protected the steel surface of the installation had mutated slightly in one place, allowing the steel-eating bacteria to enter into a symbiotic relationship. It just happened that the mutation occurred at the place where the hydrogen storage tanks rested against the wall. When a hole opened, one of the first amino-acid sets that came through with the pea soup was one that combines radically with raw hydrogen. The effect was a three-second population explosion. It knocked out a huge chunk of Post 004.

  We were glad, when we got back to our skipship, that we had left dear old Pollywog floating some forty meters off the ground. Even so, there had been some damage. One of the airborne microbes had a penchant for lodging in hairline cracks and reproducing rapidly, widening microscopic gaps in the structure of the ship. Nevertheless, Amauri judged us fit for takeoff.

  We didn’t kiss anybody good-bye.

  So now I’ve let you in on the true story of our visit to Mother Earth back in 2810. The parallel with our current situation should be obvious. If we let Pennsylvania get soaked into this spongy little war between Kiev and Núncamais, we’ll deserve what we get. Because those damned antimatter convertors will do things that make germ warfare look as pleasant as sniffing pinkweeds.

  And if anything human survives the war, it sure as hell won’t look like anything we call human now.

  And maybe that doesn’t matter to anybody these days. But it matters to me. I don’t like the idea of amoebas for grandchildren, and having an antimatter great-nephew thrills me less. I’ve been human all my life, and I like it.

  So I say, turn on our repressors and sit out the damned war. Wait until they’ve disappeared each other, and then go about the business of keeping humanity alive—and human.

  So much for the political tract. If you vote for war, though, I can promise you there’ll be more than one skipship heading for the wild black yonder. We’ve colonized before, and we can do it again. In case no one gets the hint, that’s a call for volunteers, if, as, and when. Over.

  Not over. On the first printing of this program, I got a lot of inquiries as to why we didn’t report all this when we got back home. The answer’s simple. On Núncamais it’s a capital crime to alter a ship’s log. But we had to.

  As soon as we got into space from Mother Earth, Vladimir had the computer present all its findings, all its data, and all its conclusions about recombinant DNA. And then he erased it all.

  I probably would have stopped him if I’d known what he was doing in advance. But once it, was done, Amauri and I realized that he was right. That kind of merda didn’t belong in the universe. And then we systematically covered our tracks. We erased all reference to Post 004, eradicated any hint of a homing signal. All we left in the computer was the recording of our overflight, showing nothing but pea soup from sea to soupy sea. It was tricky, but we also added a serious malfunction of the EVA lifesupport gear on the way home—which cost us the life of our dear friend and comrade, Harold.

  And then we recorded in the ship’s log, “Planet unfit for human occupancy. No human life found.”

  Hell. It wasn’t even a lie.

  IN THE DOGHOUSE

  (WITH JAY A. PARRY)

  As Mklikluln awoke, he felt the same depression that he had felt as he went to sleep ninety-seven years ago. And though he knew it would only make his depression worse, he immediately scanned backward as his ship decelerated, hunting for the star that had been the sun. He couldn’t find it. Which meant that even with acceleration and deceleration time, the light from the nova—or supernova—had not yet reached the system he was heading for.

  Sentimentality be damned, he thought savagely as he turned his attention to the readouts on the upcoming system. So the ice cliffs will melt, and the sourland will turn to huge, planet-spanning lakes. So the atmosphere will fly away in the intense heat. Who cares? Humanity was safe.

  As safe as bodiless minds can be, resting in their own supporting mindfields somewhere in space, waiting for the instantaneous message that here is a planet with bodies available, here is a home for the millions for whom there had been no spaceships, here we can once again—

  Once again what?

  No matter how far we search, Mklikluln reminded himself, we have no hope of finding those graceful, symmetrical, hexagonally delicate bodies we left behind to burn.

  Of course, Mklikluln still had his, but only for a while.

  Thirteen true planetary bodies, two of which co-orbited as binaries in the third position. Ignoring the gas giants and the crusty pebbles outside the habitable range, Mklikluln got increasingly more complex readouts on the binary and the single in the fourth orbit, a red midget.

  The red was dead, the smaller binary even worse, but the blue-green larger binary was ideal. Not because it matched the conditions on Mklikluln’s home world—that would be impossible. But because it had life. And not only life—intelligent life.

  Or at least fairly bright life. Energy output in the sub- and supravisible spectra exceeded reflection from the star (No, I must try to think of it as the sun) by a significant degree. Energy clearly came from a breakdown of carbon compounds, just what current theory (current? ninety-seven-year-old) had assumed would be the logical energy base of a developing world in this temperature range. The professors would be most gratified.

  And after several months of maneuvering his craft, he was in stationary orbit around the larger binary. He began monitoring communications on the supravisible wavelengths. He learned the language quickly, though of course he couldn’t have produced it with his own body, and sighed a little when he realized that the aliens, like his own people, called their little star “the sun,” their minor binary “the moon,” and their own humble, overhot planet “earth” (terra, mund, etc.). The array of languages was impressive—to think that people would go to all the trouble of thinking out hundreds of completely different ways of communicating for the sheer love of the logical exercise was amazing—what minds they must have!

  For a moment he fleetingly thought of taking over for his people’s use the bipedal bodies of the dominant intelligent race; but law was law, and his people would commit mass suicide if they realized—as they would surely realize—that they had gained their bodies at the expense of another intelligent race. One could think of such bipedals as being almost human, right down to the whimsical sense of humor that so reminded Mklikluln of his wife (Ah, Glundnindn, and you the pilot who volunteered to plunge into the sun, scooping out the sample that killed you, but saved us!); but he refused to mourn.

  The dominant race was out. Similar bipedals were too small in population, too feared or misunderstood by the dominant race. Other animals with appropriate populations didn’t have body functions that could easily support intelligence without major revisions—and many were too weak to survive unaided, too short of lifespan
to allow civilization.

  And so he narrowed down the choices to two quadrupeds, of very different sorts, of course, but well within the limits of choice: both had full access to the domiciles of the dominant race; both had adequate body structure to support intellect; both had potential means of communicating; both had sufficient population to hold all the encapsulated minds waiting in the space between the stars.

  Mklikluln did the mental equivalent of flipping a coin—would have flipped a coin, in fact, except that he had neither hand nor coin nor adequate gravity for flipping.

  The choice made—for the noisy one of greater intelligence that already had the love of most members of the master race—he set about making plans on how to introduce the transceivers that would call his people. (The dominant race must not know what is happening; and it can’t be done without the cooperation of the dominant race.)

  Mklikluln’s six points vibrated just a little as he thought.

  Abu was underpaid, underfed, underweight, and within about twelve minutes of the end of his lifespan. He was concentrating on the first problem, however, as the fourth developed.

  “Why am I being paid less than Faisel, who sits on his duff by the gate while I walk back and forth in front of the cells all day?” he righteously said—under his breath, of course, in case his supervisor should overhear him. “Am I not as good a Muslim? Am I not as smart? Am I not as loyal to the Party?”

  And as he was immersed in righteous indignation at man’s inhumanity, not so much to mankind as to Abu ibn Assur, a great roaring sound tore through the desert prison, followed by a terrible, hot, dry, sand-stabbing wind. Abu screamed and covered his eyes—too late, however, and the sand ripped them open, and the hot air dried them out.

  That was why he didn’t see the hole in the outside wall of cell 23, which held a political prisoner condemned to die the next morning for having murdered his wife—normally not a political crime, except when the wife was also the daughter of somebody who could make phone calls and get people put in prison.

 
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