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´╗┐Title: Keep Your Shape
Author: Sheckley, Robert, 1928-2005
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Keep Your Shape" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction November 1953.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


                           KEEP YOUR SHAPE


                          By ROBERT SHECKLEY


                        Illustrated by VIDMER


     _Only a race as incredibly elastic as the Grom could have a
      single rule of war:_

       *       *       *       *       *



Pid the Pilot slowed the ship almost to a standstill, and peered
anxiously at the green planet below.

Even without instruments, there was no mistaking it. Third from its
sun, it was the only planet in this system capable of sustaining life.
Peacefully it swam beneath its gauze of clouds.

It looked very innocent. And yet, twenty previous Grom expeditions had
set out to prepare this planet for invasion--and vanished utterly,
without a word.

Pid hesitated only a moment, before starting irrevocably down. There
was no point in hovering and worrying. He and his two crewmen were as
ready now as they would ever be. Their compact Displacers were stored
in body pouches, inactive but ready.

Pid wanted to say something to his crew, but wasn't sure how to put
it.

The crew waited. Ilg the Radioman had sent the final message to the
Grom planet. Ger the Detector read sixteen dials at once, and
reported, "No sign of alien activity." His body surfaces flowed
carelessly.

       *       *       *       *       *

Noticing the flow, Pid knew what to say to his crew. Ever since they
had left Grom, shape-discipline had been disgustingly lax. The
Invasion Chief had warned him; but still, he had to do something about
it. It was his duty, since lower castes such as Radiomen and Detectors
were notoriously prone to Shapelessness.

"A lot of hopes are resting on this expedition," he began slowly.
"We're a long way from home now."

Ger the Detector nodded. Ilg the Radioman flowed out of his prescribed
shape and molded himself comfortably to a wall.

"However," Pid said sternly, "distance is no excuse for promiscuous
Shapelessness."

Ilg flowed hastily back into proper Radioman's shape.

"Exotic forms will undoubtedly be called for," Pid went on. "And for
that we have a special dispensation. But remember--any shape not
assumed strictly in the line of duty is a foul, lawless device of The
Shapeless One!"

Ger's body surfaces abruptly stopped flowing.

"That's all," Pid said, and flowed into his controls. The ship started
down, so smoothly co-ordinated that Pid felt a glow of pride.

They were good workers, he decided. He just couldn't expect them to be
as shape-conscious as a high-caste Pilot. Even the Invasion Chief had
told him that.

"Pid," the Invasion Chief had said at their last interview, "we need
this planet desperately."

"Yes, sir," Pid had said, standing at full attention, never quivering
from Optimum Pilot's Shape.

"One of you," the Chief said heavily, "must get through and set up a
Displacer near an atomic power source. The army will be standing by at
this end, ready to step through."

"We'll do it, sir," Pid said.

"This expedition has to succeed," the Chief said, and his features
blurred momentarily from sheer fatigue. "In strictest confidence,
there's considerable unrest on Grom. The Miner caste is on strike, for
instance. They want a new digging shape. Say the old one is
inefficient."

[Illustration]

Pid looked properly indignant. The Mining Shape had been set down by
the Ancients fifty thousand years ago, together with the rest of the
basic shapes. And now these upstarts wanted to change it!

"That's not all," the Chief told him. "We've uncovered a new Cult of
Shapelessness. Picked up almost eight thousand Grom, and I don't know
how many more we missed."

Pid knew that Shapelessness was a lure of The Shapeless One, the
greatest evil that the Grom mind could conceive of. But why, he
wondered, did so many Grom fall for His lures?

       *       *       *       *       *

The Chief guessed his question. "Pid," he said, "I suppose it's
difficult for you to understand. Do you enjoy Piloting?"

"Yes, sir," Pid said simply. _Enjoy_ Piloting! It was his entire life!
Without a ship, he was nothing.

"Not all Grom feel that way," the Chief said. "I don't understand it
either. All my ancestors have been Invasion Chiefs, back to the
beginning of time. So of course _I_ want to be an Invasion Chief. It's
only natural, as well as lawful. But the lower castes don't feel that
way." The Chief shook his body sadly. "I've told you this for a
reason. We Grom need more room. This unrest is caused purely by
crowding. All our psychologists say so. Another planet to expand into
will cure everything. So we're counting on you, Pid."

"Yes, sir," Pid said, with a glow of pride.

The Chief rose to end the interview. Then he changed his mind and sat
down again.

"You'll have to watch your crew," he said. "They're loyal, no doubt,
but low-caste. And you know the lower castes."

Pid did indeed.

"Ger, your Detector, is suspected of harboring Alterationist
tendencies. He was once fined for assuming a quasi-Hunter shape. Ilg
has never had any definite charge brought against him. But I hear that
he remains immobile for suspiciously long periods of time. Possibly,
he fancies himself a Thinker."

"But, sir," Pid protested. "If they are even slightly tainted with
Alterationism or Shapelessness, why send them on this expedition?"

The Chief hesitated before answering. "There are plenty of Grom I
could trust," he said slowly. "But those two have certain qualities of
resourcefulness and imagination that will be needed on this
expedition." He sighed. "I really don't understand why those qualities
are usually linked with Shapelessness."

"Yes, sir," Pid said.

"Just watch them."

"Yes, sir," Pid said again, and saluted, realizing that the interview
was at an end. In his body pouch he felt the dormant Displacer, ready
to transform the enemy's power source into a bridge across space for
the Grom hordes.

"Good luck," the chief said. "I'm sure you'll need it."

       *       *       *       *       *

The ship dropped silently toward the surface of the enemy planet. Ger
the Detector analyzed the clouds below, and fed data into the
Camouflage Unit. The Unit went to work. Soon the ship looked, to all
outward appearances, like a cirrus formation.

Pid allowed the ship to drift slowly toward the surface of the mystery
planet. He was in Optimum Pilot's Shape now, the most efficient of the
four shapes alloted to the Pilot caste. Blind, deaf and dumb, an
extension of his controls, all his attention was directed toward
matching the velocities of the high-flying clouds, staying among them,
becoming a part of them.

Ger remained rigidly in one of the two shapes alloted to Detectors. He
fed data into the Camouflage Unit, and the descending ship slowly
altered into an alto-cumulus.

There was no sign of activity from the enemy planet.

Ilg located an atomic power source, and fed the data to Pid. The Pilot
altered course. He had reached the lowest level of clouds, barely a
mile above the surface of the planet. Now his ship looked like a fat,
fleecy cumulus.

And still there was no sign of alarm. The unknown fate that had
overtaken twenty previous expeditions still had not showed itself.

Dusk crept across the face of the planet as Pid maneuvered near the
atomic power installation. He avoided the surrounding homes and
hovered over a clump of woods.

Darkness fell, and the green planet's lone moon was veiled in clouds.

One cloud floated lower.

And landed.

"Quick, everyone out!" Pid shouted, detaching himself from the ship's
controls. He assumed the Pilot's Shape best suited for running, and
raced out the hatch. Ger and Ilg hurried after him. They stopped fifty
yards from the ship, and waited.

Inside the ship a little-used circuit closed. There was a silent
shudder, and the ship began to melt. Plastic dissolved, metal
crumpled. Soon the ship was a great pile of junk, and still the
process went on. Big fragments broke into smaller fragments, and
split, and split again.

Pid felt suddenly helpless, watching his ship scuttle itself. He was
a Pilot, of the Pilot caste. His father had been a Pilot, and his
father before him, stretching back to the hazy past when the Grom had
first constructed ships. He had spent his entire childhood around
ships, his entire manhood flying them.

Now, shipless, he was naked in an alien world.

       *       *       *       *       *

In a few minutes there was only a mound of dust to show where the ship
had been. The night wind scattered it through the forest. And then
there was nothing at all.

They waited. Nothing happened. The wind sighed and the trees creaked.
Squirrels chirped, and birds stirred in their nests. An acorn fell to
the ground.

Pid heaved a sigh of relief and sat down. The twenty-first Grom
expedition had landed safely.

There was nothing to be done until morning, so Pid began to make
plans. They had landed as close to the atomic power installation as
they dared. Now they would have to get closer. Somehow, one of them
had to get very near the reactor room, in order to activate the
Displacer.

Difficult. But Pid felt certain of success. After all, the Grom were
strong on ingenuity.

Strong on ingenuity, he thought bitterly, but terribly short of
radioactives. That was another reason why this expedition was so
important. There was little radioactive fuel left, on any of the Grom
worlds. Ages ago, the Grom had spent their store of radioactives in
spreading throughout their neighboring worlds, occupying the ones that
they could live on.

Now, colonization barely kept up with the mounting birthrate. New
worlds were constantly needed.

This particular world, discovered in a scouting expedition, was
needed. It suited the Grom perfectly. But it was too far away. They
didn't have enough fuel to mount a conquering space fleet.

Luckily, there was another way. A better way.

Over the centuries, the Grom scientists had developed the Displacer. A
triumph of Identity Engineering, the Displacer allowed mass to be
moved instantaneously between any two linked points.

One end was set up at Grom's sole atomic energy plant. The other end
had to be placed in proximity to another atomic power source, and
activated. Diverted power then flowed through both ends, was modified,
and modified again.

Then, through the miracle of Identity Engineering, the Grom could
_step_ through from planet to planet; or pour through in a great,
overwhelming wave.

It was quite simple.

But twenty expeditions had failed to set up the Earth-end Displacer.

What had happened to them was not known.

For no Grom ship had ever returned to tell.

       *       *       *       *       *

Before dawn they crept through the woods, taking on the coloration of
the plants around them. Their Displacers pulsed feebly, sensing the
nearness of atomic energy.

A tiny, four-legged creature darted in front of them. Instantly, Ger
grew four legs and a long, streamlined body and gave chase.

"Ger! Come back here!" Pid howled at the Detector, throwing caution to
the winds.

Ger overtook the animal and knocked it down. He tried to bite it, but
he had neglected to grow teeth. The animal jumped free, and vanished
into the underbrush. Ger thrust out a set of teeth and bunched his
muscles for another leap.

"_Ger!_"

Reluctantly, the Detector turned away. He loped silently back to Pid.

"I was hungry," he said.

"You were not," Pid said sternly.

"Was," Ger mumbled, writhing with embarrassment.

Pid remembered what the Chief had told him. Ger certainly did have
Hunter tendencies. He would have to watch him more closely.

"We'll have no more of that," Pid said. "Remember--the lure of Exotic
Shapes is not sanctioned. Be content with the shape you were born to."

Ger nodded, and melted back into the underbrush. They moved on.

At the extreme edge of the woods they could observe the atomic energy
installation. Pid disguised himself as a clump of shrubbery, and Ger
formed himself into an old log. Ilg, after a moment's thought, became
a young oak.

The installation was in the form of a long, low building, surrounded
by a metal fence. There was a gate, and guards in front of it.

The first job, Pid thought, was to get past that gate. He began to
consider ways and means.

From the fragmentary reports of the survey parties, Pid knew that, in
some ways, this race of Men were like the Grom. They had pets, as the
Grom did, and homes and children, and a culture. The inhabitants were
skilled mechanically, as were the Grom.

But there were terrific differences, also. The Men were of fixed and
immutable form, like stones or trees. And to compensate, their planet
boasted a fantastic array of species, types and kinds. This was
completely unlike Grom, which had only eight distinct forms of animal
life.

And evidently, the Men were skilled at detecting invaders, Pid
thought. He wished he knew how the other expeditions had failed. It
would make his job much easier.

       *       *       *       *       *

A Man lurched past them on two incredibly stiff legs. Rigidity was
evident in his every move. Without looking, he hurried past.

"I know," Ger said, after the creature had moved away. "I'll disguise
myself as a Man, walk through the gate to the reactor room, and
activate my Displacer."

"You can't speak their language," Pid pointed out.

"I won't speak at all. I'll ignore them. Look." Quickly Ger shaped
himself into a Man.

"That's not bad," Pid said.

Ger tried a few practice steps, copying the bumpy walk of the Man.

"But I'm afraid it won't work," Pid said.

"It's perfectly logical," Ger pointed out.

"I know. Therefore the other expeditions must have tried it. And none
of them came back."

There was no arguing that. Ger flowed back into the shape of a log.
"What, then?" he asked.

"Let me think," Pid said.

Another creature lurched past, on four legs instead of two. Pid
recognized it as a Dog, a pet of Man. He watched it carefully.

The Dog ambled to the gate, head down, in no particular hurry. It
walked through, unchallenged, and lay down in the grass.

"H'm," Pid said.

They watched. One of the Men walked past, and touched the Dog on the
head. The Dog stuck out its tongue and rolled over on its side.

"I can do that," Ger said excitedly. He started to flow into the shape
of a Dog.

"No, wait," Pid said. "We'll spend the rest of the day thinking it
over. This is too important to rush into."

Ger subsided sulkily.

"Come on, let's move back," Pid said. He and Ger started into the
woods. Then he remembered Ilg.

"Ilg?" he called softly.

There was no answer.

"Ilg!"

"What? Oh, yes," an oak tree said, and melted into a bush. "Sorry.
What were you saying?"

"We're moving back," Pid said. "Were you, by any chance, Thinking?"

"Oh, no," Ilg assured him. "Just resting."

Pid let it go at that. There was too much else to worry about.

       *       *       *       *       *

They discussed it for the rest of the day, hidden in the deepest part
of the woods. The only alternatives seemed to be Man or Dog. A Tree
couldn't walk past the gates, since that was not in the nature of
trees. Nor could anything else, and escape notice.

Going as a Man seemed too risky. They decided that Ger would sally out
in the morning as a Dog.

"Now get some sleep," Pid said.

Obediently his two crewmen flattened out, going immediately Shapeless.
But Pid had a more difficult time.

Everything looked too easy. Why wasn't the atomic installation better
guarded? Certainly the Men must have learned something from the
expeditions they had captured in the past. Or had they killed them
without asking any questions?

You couldn't tell what an alien would do.

Was that open gate a trap?

Wearily he flowed into a comfortable position on the lumpy ground.
Then he pulled himself together hastily.

He had gone Shapeless!

Comfort was not in the line of duty, he reminded himself, and firmly
took a Pilot's Shape.

But a Pilot's Shape wasn't constructed for sleeping on damp, bumpy
ground. Pid spent a restless night, thinking of ships, and wishing he
were flying one.

He awoke in the morning tired and ill-tempered. He nudged Ger.

"Let's get this over with," he said.

Ger flowed gaily to his feet.

"Come on, Ilg," Pid said angrily, looking around. "Wake up."

There was no reply.

"Ilg!" he called.

Still there was no reply.

"Help me look for him," Pid said to Ger. "He must be around here
somewhere."

Together they tested every bush, tree, log and shrub in the vicinity.
But none of them was Ilg.

Pid began to feel a cold panic run through him. What could have
happened to the Radioman?

"Perhaps he decided to go through the gate on his own," Ilg suggested.

Pid considered the possibility. It seemed unlikely. Ilg had never
shown much initiative. He had always been content to follow orders.

They waited. But midday came, and there was still no sign of Ilg.

"We can't wait any longer," Pid said, and they started through the
woods. Pid wondered if Ilg _had_ tried to get through the gates on his
own. Those quiet types often concealed a foolhardy streak.

But there was nothing to show that Ilg had been successful. He would
have to assume that the Radioman was dead, or captured by the Men.

That left two of them to activate a Displacer.

And he still didn't know what had happened to the other expeditions.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the edge of the woods, Ger turned himself into a facsimile of a
Dog. Pid inspected him carefully.

"A little less tail," he said.

Ger shortened his tail.

"More ears."

Ger lengthened his ears,

"Now even them up."

They became even.

Pid inspected the finished product. As far as he could tell, Ger was
perfect, from the tip of his tail to his wet, black nose.

"Good luck," Pid said.

"Thanks." Cautiously Ger moved out of the woods, walking in the
lurching style of Dogs and Men. At the gate the guard called to him.
Pid held his breath.

Ger walked past the Man, ignoring him. The Man started to walk over.
Ger broke into a run.

Pid shaped a pair of strong legs for himself, ready to dash if Ger was
caught.

But the guard turned back to his gate. Ger stopped running
immediately, and strolled quietly toward the main door of the
building.

Pid dissolved his legs with a sigh of relief ... and then tensed
again.

The main door was closed!

Pid hoped the Radioman wouldn't try to open it. That was _not_ in the
nature of Dogs.

As he watched, another Dog came running toward Ger. Ger backed away
from him. The Dog approached and sniffed. Ger sniffed back.

Then both of them ran around the building.

That was clever, Pid thought. There was bound to be a door in the
rear.

He glanced up at the afternoon sun. As soon as the Displacer was
activated, the Grom armies would begin to pour through. By the time
the Men recovered from the shock, a million or more Grom troops would
be here, weapons and all. With more following.

The day passed slowly, and nothing happened.

Nervously Pid watched the front of the plant. It shouldn't be taking
so long, if Ger were successful.

Late into the night he waited. Men walked in and out of the
installation, and Dogs barked around the gates. But Ger did not
appear.

Ger had failed. Ilg was gone. Only he was left.

And _still_ he didn't know what had happened.

       *       *       *       *       *

By morning, Pid was in complete despair. He knew that the twenty-first
Grom expedition to this planet was near the point of complete failure.
Now it was all up to him.

He saw that workers were arriving in great number, rushing through the
gates. He decided to take advantage of the apparent confusion, and
started to shape himself into a Man.

A Dog walked past the woods where he was hiding.

"Hello," the Dog said.

It was Ger!

"What happened?" Pid asked, with a sigh of relief. "Why were you so
long? Couldn't you get in?"

"I don't know," Ger said, wagging his tail. "I didn't try."

Pid was speechless.

"I went hunting," Ger said complacently. "This form is ideal for
Hunting, you know. I went out the rear gate with another Dog."

"But the expedition--your duty--"

"I changed my mind," Ger told him. "You know, Pilot, I never wanted to
be a Detector."

"But you were _born_ a Detector!"

"That's true," Ger said. "But it doesn't help. I always wanted to be a
Hunter."

Pid shook his entire body in annoyance. "You can't," he said, very
slowly, as one would explain to a Gromling. "The Hunter shape is
forbidden to you."

"Not here it isn't," Ger said, still wagging his tail.

"Let's have no more of this," Pid said angrily. "Get into that
installation and set up your Displacer. I'll try to overlook this
heresy."

"No," Ger said. "I don't want the Grom here. They'd ruin it for the
rest of us."

"He's right," a nearby oak tree said.

"Ilg!" Pid gasped. "Where are you?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Branches stirred. "I'm right here," Ilg said. "I've been Thinking."

"But--your caste--"

"Pilot," Ger said sadly, "why don't you wake up? Most of the people on
Grom are miserable. Only custom makes us take the caste-shape of our
ancestors."

"Pilot," Ilg said, "all Grom are born Shapeless!"

"And being born Shapeless, all Grom should have Freedom of Shape,"
Ger said.

"Exactly," Ilg said. "But he'll never understand. Now excuse me. I
want to Think." And the oak tree was silent.

Pid laughed humorlessly. "The Men will kill you off," he said. "Just
as they killed off all the other expeditions."

"No one from Grom has been killed," Ger told him. "The other
expeditions are right here."

"Alive?"

"Certainly. The Men don't even know we exist. That Dog I was Hunting
with is a Grom from the twelfth expedition. There are hundreds of us
here, Pilot. We like it."

Pid tried to absorb it all. He had always known that the lower castes
were lax in caste-consciousness. But this was preposterous!

This planet's secret menace was--freedom!

"Join us, Pilot," Ger said. "We've got a paradise here. Do you know
how many species there are on this planet? An uncountable number!
There's a shape to suit every need!"

Pid ignored them. Traitors!

He'd do the job all by himself.

So Men were unaware of the presence of the Grom. Getting near the
reactor might not be so difficult after all. The others had failed in
their duty because they were of the lower castes, weak and
irresponsible. Even the Pilots among them must have been secretly
sympathetic to the Cult of Shapelessness the Chief had mentioned, or
the alien planet could never have swayed them.

What shape to assume for his attempt?

Pid considered.

A Dog might be best. Evidently Dogs could wander pretty much where
they wished. If something went wrong, Pid could change his shape to
meet the occasion.

"The Supreme Council will take care of all of you," he snarled, and
shaped himself into a small brown Dog. "I'm going to set up the
Displacer myself."

He studied himself for a moment, bared his teeth at Ger, and loped
toward the gate.

       *       *       *       *       *

He loped for about ten feet and stopped in utter horror.

The smells rushed at him from all directions. Smells in a profusion
and variety he had never dreamed existed. Smells that were harsh,
sweet, sharp, heavy, mysterious, overpowering. Smells that terrified.
Alien and repulsive and inescapable, the odors of Earth struck him
like a blow.

He curled his lips and held his breath. He ran on for a few steps, and
had to breathe again. He almost choked.

He tried to remold his Dog-nostrils to be less sensitive. It didn't
work. It wouldn't, so long as he kept the Dog-shape. An attempt to
modify his metabolism didn't work either.

All this in the space of two or three seconds. He was rooted in his
tracks, fighting the smells, wondering what to do.

Then the noises hit him.

They were a constant and staggering roar, through which every tiniest
whisper of sound stood out clearly and distinct. Sounds upon
sounds--more noise than he had ever heard before at one time in his
life. The woods behind him had suddenly become a mad-house.

Utterly confused, he lost control and became Shapeless.

He half-ran, half-flowed into a nearby bush. There he re-Shaped,
obliterating the offending Dog ears and nostrils with vicious strokes
of his thoughts.

The Dog-shape was out. Absolutely. Such appalling sharpness of senses
might be fine for a Hunter such as Ger--he probably gloried in them.
But another moment of such impressions would have driven Pid the Pilot
mad.

What now? He lay in the bush and thought about it, while gradually his
mind threw off the last effects of the dizzying sensory assault.

He looked at the gate. The Men standing there evidently hadn't noticed
his fiasco. They were looking in another direction.

... a Man?

Well, it was worth a try.

       *       *       *       *       *

Studying the Men at the gate, Pid carefully shaped himself into a
facsimile--a synthesis, actually, embodying one characteristic of
that, another of this.

He emerged from the side of the bush opposite the gate, on his hands
and knees. He sniffed the air, noting that the smells the Man-nostrils
picked up weren't unpleasant at all. In fact, some of them were
decidedly otherwise. It had just been the acuity of the Dog-nostrils,
the number of smells they had detected and the near-brilliance with
which they had done so, that had shocked him.

Also, the sounds weren't half so devastating. Only relatively close
sounds stood out. All else was an undetailed whispering.

Evidently, Pid thought, it had been a long time since Men had been
Hunters.

He tested his legs, standing up and taking a few clumsy steps. _Thud_
of foot on ground. Drag the other leg forward in a heavy arc. _Thud._
Rocking from side to side, he marched back and forth behind the bush.
His arms flapped as he sought balance. His head wobbled on its neck,
until he remembered to hold it up. Head up, eyes down, he missed
seeing a small rock. His heel turned on it. He sat down, hard.

The ankle hurt. Pid curled his Man-lips and crawled back into the
bush.

The Man-shape was too unspeakably clumsy. It was offensive to plod one
step at a time. Body held rigidly upright. Arms wobbling. There had
been a deluge of sense-impressions in the Dog-shape; there was dull,
stiff, half-alive inadequacy to the Man-shape.

Besides, it was dangerous, now that Pid thought it over, as well as
distasteful. He couldn't control it properly. It wouldn't look right.
Someone might question him. There was too much about Men he
didn't--couldn't--know. The planting of the Displacer was too
important a thing for him to fumble again. Only luck had kept him from
being seen during the sensory onslaught.

The Displacer in his body pouch pulsed and tugged, urging him to be on
his way toward the distant reactor room.

Grimly, Pid let out the last breath he had taken with his Man-lungs,
and dissolved the lungs.

What shape to take?

Again he studied the gate, the Men standing beside it, the building
beyond in which was the all-important reactor.

A small shape was needed. A fast one. An unobtrusive one.

He lay and thought.

The bush rustled above him. A small brown shape had fluttered down to
light on a twig. It hopped to another twig, twittering. Then it
fluttered off in a flash, and was gone.

That, Pid thought, was it.

       *       *       *       *       *

A Sparrow that was not a Sparrow rose from the bush a few moments
later. An observer would have seen it circle the bush, diving,
hedgehopping, even looping, as if practicing all maneuvers possible to
Sparrows.

Pid tensed his shoulder muscles, inclined his wings. He slipped off to
the right, approached the bush at what seemed breakneck speed, though
he knew this was only because of his small size. At the last second he
lifted his tail. Not quite quickly enough. He swooped up and over the
top of the bush, but his legs brushed the top leaves, his beak went
down, and he stumbled in air for a few feet back-forward.

He blinked beady eyes as if at a challenge. Back toward the bush at a
fine clip, again up and over. This time cleanly.

He chose a tree. Zoomed into its network of branches, wove a web of
flight, working his way around and around the trunk, over and under
branches that flashed before him, through crotches with no more than a
feather's-breath to spare.

At last he rested on a low branch, and found himself chirping in
delight.

The tree extruded a feeler from the branch he sat on, and touched his
wings and tail.

"Interesting," said the tree. "I'll have to try that shape some time."

Ilg.

"Traitor," hissed Pid, growing a mouth in his chest to hiss it, and
then he did something that caused Ilg to exclaim in outrage.

Pid flew out of the woods. Over the underbrush and across the open
space toward the gate.

This body would do the trick!

This body would do anything!

He rose, in a matter of a few Sparrow heartbeats, to an altitude of a
hundred feet. From here the gate, the Men, the building were small,
sharp shapes against a green-brown mat. Pid found that he could see
not only with unaccustomed clarity, but with a range of vision that
astonished him. To right and to left he could see far into the hazy
blue of the sky, and the higher he rose the farther he could see.

He rose higher.

The Displacer pulsed, reminding him of the job he had to do.

       *       *       *       *       *

He stiffened his wings and glided, regretfully putting aside his
desires to experiment with this wonderful shape, at least for the
present. After he planted the Displacer, he would go off by himself
for a while and do it just a little more--somewhere where Ilg and Ger
would not see him--before the Grom Army arrived and the invasion
began.

He felt a tiny twinge of guilt, as he circled. It was Evil to want to
keep this alien flying shape any longer than was absolutely necessary
to the performance of his duty. It was a device of the Shapeless One--

But what had Ilg said? _All Grom are born Shapeless._ It was true.
Grom children were amorphous, until old enough to be instructed in the
caste-shape of their ancestors.

Maybe it wasn't _too_ great a sin to alter your Shape, then--just once
in a long while. After all, one must be fully aware of the nature of
Evil in order to meaningfully reject it.

He had fallen lower in circling. The Displacer pulse had strengthened.
For some reason it irritated him. He drove higher on strong wings,
circled again. Air rushed past him--a smooth, whispering flow, pierced
by his beak, streaming invisibly past his sharp eyes, moving along his
body in tiny turbulences that moved his feathers against his skin.

It occurred to him--or rather struck him with considerable force--that
he was satisfying a longing of his Pilot Caste that went far deeper
than Piloting.

He drove powerfully with his wings, felt tonus across his back, shot
forward and up. He thought of the controls of his ship. He imagined
flowing into them, becoming part of them, as he had so often done--and
for the first time in his life the thought failed to excite him.

No machine could compare with this!

What he would give to have wings of his own!

_... Get from my sight, Shapeless One!_

The Displacer must be planted, activated. All Grom depended on him.

He eyed the building, far below. He would pass over it. The Displacer
would tell him which window to enter--which window was so near the
reactor that he could do his job before the Men even knew he was
about.

He started to drop lower, and the Hawk struck.

       *       *       *       *       *

It had been above him. His first inkling of danger was the sharp pain
of talons in his back, and the stunning blow of a beak across his
head.

Dazed, he let his back go Shapeless. His body-substance flowed from
the grasp of the talons. He dropped a dozen feet and resumed
Sparrow-shape, hearing an astonished squawk from the attacker.

He banked, and looked up. The Hawk was eyeing him.

Talons spread again. The sharp beak gaped. The Hawk swooped.

Pid had to fight as a Bird, naturally. He was four hundred feet above
the ground.

So he became an impossibly deadly Bird.

He grew to twice the size of the Hawk. He grew a foot-long beak with
a double razor's edge. He grew talons like six inch scimitars. His
eyes gleamed a red challenge.

The Hawk broke flight, squalling in alarm. Frantically, tail down and
widespread, it thundered its wings and came to a dead stop six feet
from Pid.

Looking thoughtfully at Pid, it allowed itself to plummet. It fell a
hundred feet, spread its wings, stretched its neck and flew off so
hastily that its wings became blurs.

Pid saw no reason to pursue it.

Then, after a moment, he did.

He glided, keeping the Hawk in sight, thoughts racing, feeling the
newness, the power, the wonder of Freedom of Shape.

Freedom....

He did not want to give it up.

The bird-shape was wondrous. He would experiment with it. Later, he
might tire of it for a time and assume another--a crawling or running
shape, or even a swimming one. The possibilities for excitement, for
adventure, for fulfilment and simple sensual pleasure were endless!

Freedom of Shape was--obviously, now that you thought on it--the Grom
birthright. And the caste-system was artificial--obviously. A device
for political and priestly benefit--obviously.

_Go away, Shapeless One ... this does not concern you._

He rose to a thousand feet, two thousand, three. The Displacer's pulse
grew feebler and finally vanished.

At four thousand feet he released it and watched it spin downward,
vanish into a cloud.

Then he set out after the Hawk, which was now only a dot on the
horizon. He would find out how the Hawk had broken flight as it
had--skidded on air--he wanted to do that too! There were so many
things he wanted to learn about flying. In a week, he thought, he
should be able to duplicate all the skill that millennia had evolved
into Birds. Then his new life would really begin.

He became a torpedo-shape with huge wings, and sped after the Hawk.

                                                         ROBERT SHECKLEY

       *       *       *       *       *





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