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Title: Big Baby
Author: Sharkey, Jack
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 "Big Baby" ***

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



                               BIG BABY

                            By JACK SHARKEY

                        Illustrated by GAUGHAN

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                      Galaxy Magazine April 1962.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



            The baby was lonesome, helpless and afraid. It
           wasn't his fault he was seven hundred feet tall!


The dancing green blip traced an erratic course upon the glossy gray
screen, the jagged-line pattern repeated over and over, its outline
going from dim to sharply emerald brightness to dim again before
fading. The technician cut the switch. There was a sustained whir of
reorganization within the machine as the data-cards were refiled.

"Care to see it again, sir?" asked the technician. His fingers hovered
over the dials, his body in an attitude of impending motion.

Jerry Norcriss tilted his head in a brief, authoritative nod. The
technician started the machine again. With a soft humming, the gray
circular screen began to pulse once more with that dancing line of
brightness.

"Now, here, sir," said the tech, "is where the scanner beam first
caught the pulse of the creature."

Jerry nodded, his eyes riveted to that zigzag phosphor pattern upon the
screen. He noted the soaring peaks and plunging valleys with something
like dismay. "It's a powerful one," he marveled. It was one of his rare
comments. Space Zoologists rarely spoke at all, to any but their own
kind, and even then were typically terse of speech.

The tech, almost as impressed by this--for Jerry--long speech as he had
been by the first warning from Naval Space Corps Headquarters on Earth,
could only nod grimly. His own eyes were as intent upon the screen as
Jerry's.

"Here--" the line was glowing its brightest now--"here's where the
creature passed directly beneath the scanner-beam. That's the full
strength of its life-pulse." The line lost clarity and strength, faded.
"And here's where it was lost again, sir."

"Time of focus?" snapped Jerry, trying to keep his voice calm.

"Nearly a full minute," said the tech, still blinking at the screen. It
was now devoid of impulse, barren once more. "That means that whatever
the thing is, it's big, sir. Damned big, to stay at maximum pulse that
long."

"I know very well what it means!" Jerry grated. "The thing's so--"

The tech smiled bleakly. "--incredible, sir?"

Jerry's nod was thoughtful. "The only word for it, Ensign." His inner
eye kept repeating for him that impossible green pattern he'd seen. The
strong, flat muscles of his shoulders and neck knotted into what could
easily become a villainous tension-headache. Jerry realized suddenly
that he was badly scared....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Sir," the tech said suddenly, "I was under the impression that
the roborocket scanners couldn't miss a life-pulse on a planet. I
mean, making a complete circuit of the planet every ninety minutes,
for a period of six months.... It's impossible for them to miss an
uncatalogued life-form."

"I know it is," said Jerry Norcriss, pushing blunt fingers through his
shock of prematurely white hair. "Save for two precedents, I cannot
conceive of any way in which this pulse could have been overlooked."

"Two precedents, sir?" said the tech, intrigued both by the unsuspected
fallibility of the scanner and by this unusual loquacity from the
zoologist.

Jerry removed his gaze from the screen and regarded the young man
standing beside it. He made as if to reply, then thought better of it.
Any out-going on his part was an effort. A big effort. And a danger.
Only another Space Zoologist would understand the danger of speech, of
letting loose, of relaxing for a moment that terrible vigil over one's
personal psychic barricades.

"Skip it," he said abruptly. The young ensign's smile tightened to
obedience at the words.

"Yes, sir," said the tech, with strained cordiality. "Will that be all,
sir?"

"Yes," said Jerry. Then, as the tech started out of the compartment,
"No, wait. Tell Ollie Gibbs in the Ward Room to bring up a pot of
coffee. Black."

The man nodded, and went out the door, dogging it after him.

Jerry listened to the booted feet clanking on their magnetic soles up
the passageway of the spaceship, and sighed.

The situation, in Jerry's experience, was fantastic. Only twice, in
the history of Space Zoology, had there been oversights on the part
of the scanners. One, almost comically, had been on Earth, when the
scanners were first being tested. The chunky roborocket--its angles
and bulges and tapering pickup-heads unsuitable for flight in any
medium but airless space--had swept giddily about the planet, the
sensitive pickup-heads recording and filing on microtape the patterns
of the life-pulses of all sentient life below. And when the tape had
been translated onto the IBM cards, and the cards run through the
translation chambers, to get their incomprehensible sine-patterns
changed into readable English, it was found that there was an animal
missing.

Six months of circling the planet had still left the index blank on
that animal's expected check-pattern. The animal was the brown bear, of
north central America. And only after agonizing hours of theorizing and
worrying did someone come up with the answer to the dilemma:

It had been a long, hard winter. The bears were in extended
hibernation. Somehow, the fleeting flicker of their subdued life-pulses
had never managed to correspond with the inquisitive sweep of the
scanner-beams from the blackness of space overhead. And so, they'd been
left off, as though they did not even exist.

A lot of sweat was dabbed from relieved foreheads in the Corps when a
secondary roborocket, sent into a short one-week orbit, had picked up
the animals' pulses with ease as soon as springtime was upon the land.
The odds against their being thus missed were fantastic, astronomically
unlikely. But it _had_ happened, despite the odds against it, and the
Corps was forcibly reminded that in a universe of planets, there is
infinite room for even the unlikely to occur.

The only other oversight had been years later, when a just-settling
colony had been half-destroyed by a herd of immense beasts similar to
the buffalo of Earth, but viciously carnivorous. There had been no
indication, in the six-month scanning period, that such a species even
existed on the planet, the third planet of Syrinx Gamma, the sun of a
newly discovered system beyond the Coalsack.

The reason was maddeningly simple. The herds were migratory. Their
migrations had corresponded in scope around the oceanless planet with
the sweep of the scanner-beam in such a way that the roborocket was
scanning either where the herd had just been or where it had not yet
arrived. Again, the odds were fantastic against the occurrence. Yet,
again, it _had_ happened. Other than these two events, though, there
had been no further error on the part of scanners for nearly a decade.

Precautions had been taken against recurrence.

Roborockets were now sent to scan a planet only at a time when there
would be an overlap of seasonal climes, so that the beam would inspect
the surface throughout both the mild and the rigorous weathers, thus
obviating a repeat of the brown bear incident. And the sweep of the
beam had been extended, so that no animal with migratory movement at
speeds less than that of a supersonic plane could have avoided being
duly detected and catalogued. That, they thought, should prevent any
more such incidents.

All that Jerry knew.

       *       *       *       *       *

And yet, here he was, descending through the black vacuum of space
toward an already-colonized planet, the second planet of Sirius, a
planet supposedly already scanned, catalogued, and long-since ready for
inhabitation. And now, after the colonials had been there for nearly
five years, something was starting to wipe them out. Some unsuspected
alien thing was present on the planet, a thing that a hastily lofted
roborocket had located in a matter of hours, and yet had missed in its
original six-month orbital check, before the settlers came.

It was impossible. Incredible. And yet, again, it _had_ happened--_was_
happening--and had to be stopped.

A frantic appeal had been beamed to Earth through sub-space, an appeal
for a Space Zoologist to find the alien, learn its weaknesses, and
recommend its mode of destruction.

"Some day," Jerry mused, waiting impatiently for Ollie Gibbs with the
coffee, "I'll come upon an invincible alien. What recommendation then!"
He could just imagine himself telling a second-generation village of
hardshell settlers that they'd best just pack up and get out....

Jerry's ruminations were interrupted by the soft tap on the door that
meant Ollie had arrived. He grunted an answer, and the ship's mess boy
came in, his face rigid in an expression of polite decorum as he set
the steaming pot and drab plastic cup down on the swing-out table at
Jerry's elbow.

Jerry sensed the man's eyes flickering onto him each time the mess boy
felt the zoologist wasn't looking his way. He finally turned and caught
the youth in mid-stare.

"What is it, Ollie?" said Jerry, not unkindly. "You'll burst if you
don't talk. Go ahead, spit it out."

Ollie flashed a brief grin, a dazzle of white teeth that was all the
brighter in his bronze face. "If I'm bursting with anything, sir, it's
just plain nosiness."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerry glanced from Ollie to the wall clock--spaceship clocks were
always set at Eastern Standard Earth Time--and sighed. He was cutting
it terribly close this time. Suddenly, he wanted very much to have
someone to talk to. It didn't matter, all at once, that he'd be
exposing himself to danger by relaxing his mental grip on himself. If
the ship were not landed and his job begun within two hours he'd be no
worse off speaking than if he'd kept still.

"Sit down, Ollie," he said abruptly.

The mess boy's eyebrows rose at this unheard-of request, but he
perched obediently in a chair, almost poised for flight on the edge of
the seat. To have a chat with a Space Zoologist was without precedent
in Ollie's experience.

Jerry carefully poured himself a cup of coffee, took a sip and settled
back comfortably in his chair. "What's on your mind, Ollie?"

"Like I said, sir, just plain nosiness. I--I can't get over you
Learners, sir, that's all. I always wonder what gets you into the
business. Why you stay in it so long, why you die so quick if you quit
the Corps, or--Well, like that, sir."

"Just general curiosity about my _raison d'être_, huh?" said Jerry. He
wasn't trying to floor the mess boy with a four-dollar word; even the
lowliest crewman on a spaceship had been chosen for brainpower, long
before brawn came into consideration at all.

"That's about it, sir." Ollie nodded. "I mean, I watch you, sir, when
you come out on these trips. You get all keyed up and worried and
sick-looking, and I keep wondering, 'Why does he do it? Why doesn't he
get out of it if it affects him like that?'"

Jerry stared ruefully at the wall before him, and didn't meet the mess
boy's eyes as he replied.

"Every man gets keyed up and scared when he has an important
undertaking at hand. It's just worry, plain and simple. The thought of
failure keeps me all tightened up."

Jerry paused, awaiting a response. When none was forthcoming, he turned
his gaze slowly to meet that of the mess boy, hoping he was doing it
casually enough to allay anything like suspicion in the other man. But
the smile he met was, affectionately, the smile of a man who hasn't
been fooled.

"That's not it, sir," said Ollie. "I know it's not. Because you're
keyed up the wrong way. You're keyed up with worry that you _won't_
have a job to do. Your big upset's a lot like a--Well, like a junky
waiting for his next fix.... If you'll pardon the expression, sir."

       *       *       *       *       *

"I will _not_ pardon it!" Jerry bawled, then gripped the arms of his
chair and shook his head in instant apology as the other man's face
went slack with surprise. "No, Ollie, no. I take that back. I _asked_
you to sit there, _told_ you to let me know what was on your mind. I
can't very well blow up just because you followed my lead."

"Everyone blows up, now and then, sir," Ollie said.

Jerry nodded glumly.

Ollie got up. "I'll be in the ward room, sir, if you need anything
else," he said. "Unless you'd like me to stick around awhile?"

Jerry considered the offer, then shook his head. "No.... I'd better
not, Ollie." The barest ghost of humor glowed a moment on the
zoologist's face. "You're too damned easy to talk to."

"Yes, sir," Ollie grinned, then went out and closed the door after him.

Jerry sat in the chair a second longer, then jumped up and pulled the
door open again. Ollie, a few steps down the passageway, turned about
in curious surprise.

"Sir?"

"Tell Captain--" Jerry began, then realized his voice was nearly a
ragged shout, and lowered it. "Would you please tell the captain to
speed things up if he can, Ollie?"

Ollie hesitated. "The vector--" he started, then stiffened militarily
and replied, "Yes, sir. At once, sir."

"No," Jerry groaned, closing his eyes and hanging onto the metal edge
of the doorframe. "Forget it. He's got a course to follow in. He can't
get there any faster."

Ollie, knowing this already, just stood there.

"Just go have a cup of coffee," Jerry added, lamely. "And about what I
said--"

"_You_ know I wouldn't say anything about it, sir," Ollie said.

"I know," Jerry admitted. "Sorry. Space nerves or something of the
sort, I guess."

"Sure, sir."

The mess boy turned and continued down the passageway. Jerry shut the
door slowly, then sat down in his chair once more, and stared at the
clock, and sipped the hot coffee, and fought the cold needle-pricks of
fear in every muscle and joint of his body....


II

The colony on the second planet of Sirius existed solely due to one of
those vicious circles of progress. Just as iron is needed to make the
steel to build the tools and equipment necessary to mine the raw iron
ore, so this colony was needed to mine the precious mineral that made
such colonies possible in the first place.

The mineral was called Praesodynimium, a polysyllabic mouthful which
meant simply that it was an unstable crystalline isotope of sodium
that broke down eventually into ordinary sodium (hence "prae-":before;
"sod-":sodium), which was possessed of extreme kinetic potentials
("dyn-":power), and was first extracted from sodium compounds by a
Canadian scientist ("-imium" instead of the more American "-inum" or
even "-um").

This crystal had the happy habit of electrical allergy. When
subjected to even a mild electric current, it avoided the consequent
shakeup of its electronic juxtaposition by simply vanishing from
normal space until the power was turned off. The nice part about its
disappearance--from an astronaut's point of view--was that the crystal
took not only itself, but objects within a certain radius along with
it. It turned out that a crystal of Praesodynimium the moderate size
of a sixteen-inch softball would warp a ninety-foot spaceship into
hyperspace without even breathing hard. Of course, it would warp
anything _else_ within a fifty-foot radius, too; so it was only turned
on after the ship had ascended beyond planetary atmosphere, lest a
large scoop of landing-field, not to mention a few members of the
ground crew, be carried away with the ship.

In her eagerness to investigate the now-attainable stars, Earth had
soon exhausted her sources of the mineral. Worse, the crystal, being
unstable, had a half-life of only twenty-five years. That meant that a
ship using it had a full-range radial margin of about five years before
the crystal ceased warping the ship-inclusive area.

Until some way was discovered to get into hyperspace without using
Praesodynimium--and its actual function was as much a mystery to
scientists as an automobile's cause-and-effect is to a lot of drivers;
very few people can describe the esoteric relationships between the
turning of the ignition key and the turning of the rear wheels--the
mineral was worth ten times its weight in uranium 235.

Sirius II had been found to be as rife with the mineral as a candy
store is with calories. Hence the colony.

For so long as the ore held out the planet would be regarded with
fond respect and esteem by any and all persons who had investments,
relatives or even just interest in the Space Age and its contingent
programs.

       *       *       *       *       *

So it was with considerable trepidation that Earth received the news
that the mines on Sirius were no longer being worked. Oh, yes, there
was still ore--enough to keep the planet profitable for another
century. The trouble was the miners. They weren't coming out of the
mines anymore. And no one who went inside to look for them was ever
seen again, either.

Naturally, mining slacked off. The men refused to set foot in the mines
until somebody found out what had happened to their predecessors.

So the officials of the colony resurrected a scanner-beam and
roborocket from the cellar of the spacefield warehouse and storage
depot. They sent the rocket into an orbit matching planetary rotation.
In effect it simply hovered over the mines while it scanned the area
for uncatalogued alien life.

And when they brought the rocket down and checked the microtape
against the file of known species on the planet, they found that no
such beast had ever been catalogued. Its life-pulse gave a reading of
point-nine-nine-nine.

Since life-pulses are catalogued on a decimal scale based on the
numeral one (with Man rated at point-oh-five-oh), the colonial
administration staff immediately ordered the mines officially closed
and off-limits. This brought no results on Sirius II which had not been
already achieved, but the declaration made the miners feel a little
less guilty over their dereliction of duty.

An SOS was swiftly sent to Earth, explaining the situation in detail
and requesting instructions.

Earth sent word to hang on, keep calm and leave the mines closed until
an investigation could be made--all of which the colony was trying to
do anyway.

A duplicate of the microtape had been transmitted along with the SOS.
Earth had checked the pattern against every known species filed in
U.S. Naval Space Corps Alien-Contact Library, a collection of the
vast alien multitude gathered by Space Zoologists in the methodical
colonization and exploration of the universe. It was found to be not
only _unknown_ anywhere in the thus-far-explored cosmos, but totally
_unlike_ any life-pulse previously encountered.

Earth decided the only way to get any satisfaction would be by the
unorthodox method of sending in a Space Zoologist to Contact the alien,
though this would be the first time in the history of Contact that this
had ever been done on an already-settled planet.

And so the badly frightened colony lingered behind bolted doors, and
peered through locked windows at the sky--awaiting the arrival of Jerry
Norcriss, and praying he'd locate the alien and tell them how it might
be dealt with....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Begging your pardon, sir," grinned the tech, doing some last-minute
fiddling with the machine, "but you never had it so good." Jerry dabbed
at the cold sweat-film on his forehead and upper lip, and nodded
silently.

In all his previous Contacts, done before any colonization was even
attempted, things were a bit more rustic. His present environs
were luxury compared to those setups. If the six-month orbit of the
roborocket found the planet safe for humans, well and good; Jerry did
not have to go. But if a new life-form were spotted--one that did not
correspond in life-pulse to any known species--then it was Jerry's job
to land on the planet and Learn the beast, to determine its probable
menace, if any, to man.

The tech was referring to the fact that Jerry's usual base of
operations was out on the sward beside the tailfin of the rocket, the
only power-source on a non-colonized planet. There, in his Contact
helmet, relaxed upon his padded couch, he would let his mind be
sent right into that of the alien, to Learn it from the inside out.
Here, though, on a settled world, his accommodations were pleasantly
out of the ordinary. He was in the solarium of the town's research
laboratory-hospital. He gazed up through quartz panes at soothing blue
skies, in air-conditioned comfort spoiled only by a fugitive scent of
disinfectant lingering in the building.

Some half-dozen curious members of the building's staff were gathered
in the room. None of them had ever seen a man go into Contact before.
In vain the tech had assured them, before Jerry's arrival, that there
was nothing to be seen. Jerry would lie on the couch and adjust the
helmet upon his head, and then the tech would throw a switch. And for
forty minutes there would be nothing to see except Jerry's silent
supine body.

Later, of course, the information transmitted by Jerry's mind through
the helmet pickups to the machine would be translated into English.
Then they could all read about the new animal. That would be the
interesting part, for them; not this senseless staring at the young
man, white-haired at thirty-plus, who would, so far as they'd be able
to tell, merely doze off for an uneventful forty-minute nap.

For Jerry, however, things would be anything but dull for those forty
minutes.

Once the process was begun, there was no way known even to the
discoverer of the Contact principle to extend or reduce the
time-period. When Jerry's mind had traveled to that of the alien, he
would remain there for the full time. Anything that happened to the
alien in that period would also happen to Jerry. Including death.

If the alien somehow perished with Jerry "aboard," as it were, the
group in the solarium would wait in vain for him ever to bestir himself
and rise from the couch again.

Jerry, fighting the waves of nausea that burned in the pit of his
stomach, lay there in his helmet and waited for the tech to finish
adjusting the machine.

A scanner-beam, sent toward the suspected locale from the solarium, had
instantly retriggered that same green blip in response, as jagged and
powerful as before. Jerry would soon be sent right into the center of
the response-area, and his mind imbedded in the brain of the alien.

"Hurry it up, will you?" Jerry called over to the tech, trying not to
shout.

"Ready, sir," the other man said abruptly. "Are you all set?"

"All set, Ensign," Jerry replied, then shut his eyes to the clear blue
sky and the stares of the curious and let his mind relax for the brief
shock of transport....

A flare of lightning, silent, white and cold in his mind--and Jerry
Norcriss was in Contact....

       *       *       *       *       *

One of the nurses, crisp and efficient in white starched cotton, took
a hesitant step toward the figure on the couch, then spoke to the tech
without looking at him, intensely. "What are his chances? It's so
important that he succeed!"

About to brush her off with a noncommittal reply, the tech turned his
gaze from the control panel to meet, turning to face him, a pair of the
deepest blue eyes he'd ever seen, and a smooth-skinned serious face
beneath a short-cropped tangle of bright yellow hair. The eyes were
troubled. His manner softened instantly.

Trying not to show the sudden warmth he felt, he pointed with offhand
authority at the tall metal machine, its face alive with leaping lights
and quivering indicator needles.

"This'll tell the story, one way or the other," he said. "A Space
Zoologist's chances are always fifty-fifty. He either succeeds and
returns in perfect health, or he fails and doesn't return at all.
But whatever data he picks up in Contact will be punched onto the
microtape. It may help us deal with the menace. Or it may not."

She looked surprised. "Then this is simply a recorder? I'd thought it
was the thing that sent his mind out to the mine area...." She faltered
on the last few words, and looked more concerned than ever.

The tech was tempted to ask her about it, but decided to stay on the
neutral ground of simple mechanics for a while. "No, his mind sends
itself. That is, the helmet triggers a certain brain-center; his mind
follows a scanner-beam directed toward the alien and he Contacts. After
that, this machine could be turned off, so far as maintaining Contact
goes. After a forty-minute interim, his mind would return to his
body by itself. The brain-center gets triggered sort of like a muscle
reacts to a blow. It gets paralyzed for a certain time. Forty minutes.
Beyond that limit, or short of it, no Contact or breaking of Contact is
possible...."

His voice trailed off as he realized her responsive nods were
abstracted and vague, her thoughts elsewhere. "Look," he said
awkwardly, "I'm no psyche-man, but--maybe it'd help if you talked about
it."

A faint smile touched her mouth. "I didn't realize it showed."

He grinned and shrugged.

"My name's Jana," she said. "Jana Corby." She was trying to ease some
of the natural tension between strangers.

"Bob Ryder," said the tech. He stood and waited for her to make the
next move.

"My father--" she said, and for the first time, some of the tension
behind her eyes flowed over into her voice. "My father was one of the
miners. He was on the morning shift. The day the men didn't come home
was the day before my wedding."

Bob frowned. "I don't understand."

       *       *       *       *       *

She blinked at the moisture that had come to her eyes, and flashed
him a sad little smile. "I'm sorry. I was telescoping events. You
see, with Dad missing, I postponed the ceremony, naturally, till I
could learn what had happened. Jim--that's Jim Herrick, my fiance--was
wonderfully understanding about it. He's a miner, too. On the
night-shift, thank God. But if Lieutenant Norcriss doesn't succeed--if
he can't find a way to destroy this beast, whatever it is--we can't get
married, ever."

Bob shook his head slowly. "You can't? I don't follow."

"You're in the Space Corps," she said. "Maybe you don't know about
interstellar colonies. It costs plenty to send people to the stars. The
investors want some kind of guarantees for their money. So we're all
signed to a ten-year contract. If we fail to fulfill the terms we're
sent back to Earth on the next ship going that way."

"Well--I know you're still within the limit," said Bob, "but how does
this upset your marriage plans?"

"We go where we're sent," she said simply. "If this colony fails, we'll
be sent to a new planet. It may not be the same one. I'll be sent where
they need nurses, Jim where they need miners."

Bob felt funny, talking against the colonial program, but the weary
despair in the girl's eyes outweighed economic considerations. "You
could both renege on your contracts."

"And go back to Earth together?" Jana shook her head. "I couldn't do
that, for Jim's sake. He's spent his life at mining, and this is the
kind of mining he knows best: Praesodynimium. And there just _is_ no
more on Earth."

"He could get something else," said Bob.

"I know. But he might not be happy. After a while, he might blame me
for it. Or I'd blame myself. Either way, things just wouldn't be the
same. I--I suppose you think I'm foolish, feeling so strongly about
him?"

Bob said softly, "Honey, any guy would cut his arm off to get a girl
like you. Myself included."

Embarrassed, she looked once more toward the silent figure upon the
couch. "You're very kind."

"Not kind," said the tech. "Wistful."

Behind them, a myriad banks of lights and switches flickered, shifted
with electric monotony, slowly recording the details, down to the most
minute sensory awareness, of the Contact between Jerry Norcriss and the
alien....


III

There was at first the feeling of warm sunlight on his flesh, then a
pungent scent of crushed foliage, green and heady, very strong and
familiar.

As his mind took hold, a whisper of wind hummed into his consciousness
and a shimmering golden brightness began to grow upon his closed
eyelids. Abruptly, unity of sensation was achieved. Jerry Norcriss
"was" in a sunlit part of the woods near the mines, feeling the alien's
perceptions as though they were his own.

He crinkled his eyes against the glare, then slowly opened them.

As he blinked his eyes to focus the golden glare, he spotted a strange
little cluster of tiny sticks, with miniature leaves sprouting
greenly on thread-like branches. Halfway between his face and this
fragile copse slithered a brilliant blue line, ribbon-thin, through
a serpentine gouge along the earth. On the far side of this trickle
lay a rich tumble of soft green velvet, ending at a group of more of
those twig-copses. Puzzled, Jerry turned his gaze skyward. Within the
warm blue canopy overhead he saw clouds ... but clouds unlike any he'd
ever seen for size. None of them could have been more than a foot in
diameter. They hung against the sky like cotton-covered basketballs.

He returned his gaze groundward, and for the first time saw the
scuffed grayish area of earth between himself and the trickle. A wiry
network of metal glittered there, the wires in pairs, and the pairs
disappearing into small square punctures against a wall of banked soil.

Then Jerry gasped. His mind had apprehended the implications of his
vista so suddenly that he was staggered.

All the facts sprang into proper perspective. The twigs were actually
tall trees, the tumble of velvet a wide stretch of grassy sward, the
trickle was a rushing blue river, and the tiny wire-network in the
grayish area was the tracks for the mine-cars, leading down into the
planet through those tiny square adits.

Jerry had unconsciously been receiving sensations in terms of his
host's size. A quick calculation showed him that his head must be
easily five hundred feet in the air.

Cautiously, he glanced for the first time toward the body of his host,
to see what sort of creature he was in Contact with.

There was nothing whatever to be seen.

Yet when he closed his eyelids once again, golden opacity returned.
He reopened them thoughtfully. The alien, apparently, could cut off
its vision. Yet the eyes of a creature so high must be many feet in
diameter. And, at this height, twin opacities would be spotted even
from the nearby town.

But no such sight had been reported. Therefore, the lids were opaque
only from the inside. Which was ridiculous. Yet it was happening.

Jerry's thoughts were interrupted by a giddy realization. He, in this
alien body, was not standing. He was seated cross-legged on the ground.
That meant a height of not five hundred feet, but nearer seven hundred.

       *       *       *       *       *

Cautiously, he extended a hand toward one of the tiny mine-cars. He had
a little difficulty directing a hand and arm he could not see; but, by
feeling along the earth, he got hold of the dull gray object and tried
to lift it. It came up with featherweight ease.

Then, halfway to his eyes, it began to glow, to smoke, to grow terribly
hot. And as Jerry released it with a reflex of pain, it burst into
white flame and hit the ground as a shapeless gobbet of molten slag.
Jerry's hand came to his mouth automatically. He sucked and licked at
the sore surfaces of his finger and thumb, trying to drain some of the
hurt out of them.

Then he froze.

After a heartbeat, he felt carefully about the interior of his mouth
with a forefinger. Gums. Warm, wet, soft-boned toothless gums.
Whatever the alien looked like--it was still only a baby.

Which meant--

Quickly Jerry looked at the sky again. Not a cloud had moved. Their
rotund fleeciness might have been carven there. He gave himself a
mental kick. Hadn't one of his first alien awarenesses been the sound
of wind? And yet the grass lay still. The trees stood silent. And the
clouds, so nearly over his head that he could have touched one, hung
quietly against a perfectly calm sky.

It was not the wind he had heard. It was air. Just molecules of air, as
they shifted and flew about at incredible speeds.

The alien-baby's time-sense was occluded, as that of any Earth-baby, by
shortness of life. It was the paradox of relative lifetime.

A lifetime, Old Peters had said, training the eager young men who were
to become graduate Space Zoologists, is a lifetime. He'd written it on
the blackboard so they might understand he was not speaking in circles.

"A lifetime," he'd said, "is the time one spends from birth until any
present moment. A lifetime is the actual count of moments of existence
from birth. When a baby has been born for an hour, its lifetime is
sixty minutes. And to the baby, that sixty minutes is a lifetime."

He'd written the two words on the board, and would point from one to
the other as he spoke, so the class could understand the distinction
visually, and not have to rely on his inflection to tell which term
he'd used.

"A lifetime," he'd continued, "is subjective; a lifetime is objective.
The first deals in one's personal sense of time passed. The second is
simply readings from a clock. When a man turns ninety, he is usually
surprised to find how short a life he's seemed to have had. His ninety
years seem hardly longer to him than a single day seemed when he was a
baby.

"It is a lucky thing that we cannot penetrate the mind of an
intelligent creature. If any of us got into the mind of a baby, we'd
soon start going out of our minds with the maddening length of a day's
time, seen from a baby's viewpoint. Remember, when you are in Contact
with an alien mind, for that immutable forty minutes your _sensation_
of elapsed time will be subject to that of your host. To a baby, forty
minutes is forever."

       *       *       *       *       *

And here Jerry Norcriss was, in a baby's mind.

No wonder no tree had rippled, no cloud had blown. The baby-senses
were geared to a near-eternal forty minutes. For all practical
purposes, Jerry was stuck in one frame of a movie film, trapped for
who-knows-how-long till the next frame came by.

"_That's_ why the car melted!" he realized. "The movement of the car
toward me, in my hand, must have been infinitely shorter than the few
seconds it seemed to take. I tried to make the mine car move more
than five hundred feet, in an actual time less than a thousandth of a
_second_!"

Jerry wasn't overly concerned about the duration itself. He'd been in
subjectively-slow creatures before. If things got too boring, he could
always doze off; that usually served to pass the time. Even a baby's
time-sense jumps long gaps when it sleeps.

The thing that puzzled him was this: If the mine car had burnt up
from moving too far too fast, why hadn't the baby's hand and arm been
scorched by the motion? The heat of the car had affected it, so that
let out inborn heat-resistance....

His hands once again went to his face. He felt not only the
features--familiar features, eerily like a human baby's--but the
skull-size. When he'd finished, he no longer had reason to doubt that
the baby was of an intelligent species. Too much cranial allotment to
think any differently.

The whole situation, Jerry mused with grim humor, was screwy. The
six-month roborocket could not have missed a creature with such an
intense life-pulse, but it had. Contact could not be achieved with an
intelligent mind, but it had been. Invisibility--except for certain
species of underwater, creatures--was supposed to be impossible for a
living organism. Yet here it was.

Three separate impossibles ... all accomplished.

"Still," said Jerry to himself, "that's not the main puzzle. The
vanishing of those two shifts of miners is still beyond me. They could,
of course, have simply walked head-on into this invisible leviathan.
But how fast can a man walk? And would they _all_ have done it? Now, if
this kid happened to pick one of them _up_--" Jerry gave a shudder at
the thought of what had happened to that metal mine car. "Still," he
sighed, baffled, "a man who bursts into flame is no more fun to hold
than a hot mine car. After maybe two or three deaths at the _outside_,
the kid would've learned not to touch them."

Then he had an even eerier thought. If this creature were a baby--where
did its mother and father lurk?

The thought of two more invisible giants at large on the planet was
unbearable.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerry decided to chance losing control over the alien mind, to let its
own instincts come to the fore.

There was the possibility that it knew where its folks were, and would
try moving in that direction. Or it might cry for its mother, and she'd
hurry back. If there _were_ invisible giants, the sooner the colony was
informed the better.

As Jerry's control of his host grew tenuous, he could feel the baby's
mind taking over once again. Feeble pulsations reached him--nothing
like solid thought, but mere urgencies about comfort, food and
affection.

Jerry waited, in the background of the unformed mind, for something to
happen. Then, suddenly, there was a shifting, something like a metal
earthquake. A cold hard light of awareness focused on him, where he'd
thought he was safely hidden in the background.

"Who are you?" asked the awareness.

It is not in so many words, of course. A mind speaks to another mind
in incredibly swift shorthand. The actual thought-impulse that came to
Jerry was a thick wave of curiosity, its stress laid upon identity.

"I am a Learner," Jerry's thought replied. It was a self-sufficient
response, since Jerry's concept of all that a Learner was was
incorporated in the thought.

"I see," said the alien. "You have memories of antagonism which are now
gone from your intent. Explain."

"I came to find a menace. I found a helpless child."

"I see," came the cold, thoughtful reply. "Yes, that is how I sensed
it."

"Is your mother around?" asked Jerry. "Or father?"

"Dead," said the awareness. "I am alone."

At the thought, the intense thought of loneliness, a kindred spark
flared in Jerry's own mind. The alien caught at the spark, recognized
it.

"Strange," it said. "You, too, are alone. But it is a different
aloneness."

Jerry's thoughts were whirling in confusion. To be read so easily by a
baby was incredible to him. Yet the situation was without precedent.
Perhaps a baby's mind was brighter than science gave credit. Since a
mind needed no words or manual skills, the mind of a baby might be open
to learn the thousand things necessary for adult survival. Maybe as a
man learned to use his body, he forgot in proportion how to use his
mind.

"How can you know my aloneness?" asked Jerry.

"I see it, there in your mind. It is plain to me. You have been
misled. You are a helpless pawn of a singularly wicked scheme. The
victim of a lie."

       *       *       *       *       *

Jerry's recollection flashed to his conversation with Ollie Gibbs, to
the things he had wanted to tell the other man but was unable to put
into words. All the heaviness he had borne alone these many years was
apparent to this mind he enhosted. The alien mind knew. _Knew!_

"I see," it said again, though Jerry was unaware of expressing any
conscious thought. "It is clear to me now. You have suffered much--will
suffer much. No hope for you, is there?"

There was warmth in the words--warmth, friendship and compassionate
understanding. Suddenly, to this mind of an alien in its incongruous,
invisible baby's body, Jerry found himself blurting the things he
had never told to any man. Things which no Space Zoologist had ever
discussed even with another member of that hapless clan.

"They never told us," he said to the alien. "I don't hold any rancor
because of it; they dared not tell us, lest we refuse to become one
with them. They were fair, though. Long before we were indoctrinated,
long before we'd been allowed to attempt our first Contact, we were
told that there were dangers. Not the dangers we had heard about,
such as the imminent peril of dying if the host died while we were in
Contact. Another danger was implied, one which we could only learn of
by actually becoming Learners, and one which--once we had learned of
it--would be impossible to escape.

"With a little thought along the proper lines, we might almost have
guessed it. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
One of Newton's laws, applied in an area he did not even suspect
existed.

"Oh, we were a brave, adventurous lot, all of us. We would be Learners;
no alien mind but we could enter it, and actually become the alien for
the period of Contact. Thrills, danger and hairsbreadth escapes would
be ours. Ultimate adventurers, they called us. And all along, we were
fools."

The alien refrained from comment, although Jerry could feel its mind
waiting, listening, assimilating.

"Contact had a drawback. A basic one which we might have guessed, if
we hadn't been going around with stars in our eyes and a delightful
feeling of superiority over the men who would never know the interior
on any minds but their own. In Contact, just as in sunbathing, there is
a delayed reaction, a kickback."

"Sunbathing?" thought the alien.

Jerry's mind swiftly opened for the alien's inspection his full
storehouse of information on the subject. In an instant, the alien
apprehended the fate that lay in wait for the careless Space Zoologist--

       *       *       *       *       *

"Sure is warm in here," said Bob, running a finger around inside his
sweat-dampened uniform collar.

"You have to be careful," said Jana, indicating the quartz panes that
formed the ceiling and three walls of the solarium. "The quartz passes
ultraviolet, unlike glass. You can pick up a severe burn if you sit out
here too long without some sort of protection for your skin."

The tech nodded. "The insidious thing about sunburn is that you only
turn a little pink as long as you're out in the sunlight. It's when
you've gone indoors, or the sun has set, or you put your clothes back
on that the red-hot burn begins to show up on your flesh."

"It's the light-pressure," said Jana. "As long as there's an influx
of ultraviolet, the flesh continues to absorb it without showing much
reaction. But as soon as you get away from the rays--the burns show
up.... I wonder how Norcriss is making out."


IV

"You mean, then," said the alien to Jerry, "that all the experiences
you undergo in Contact are held back under the surface of your mind,
waiting there until you let up on the incoming Contact experiences?"

"That's it," said Jerry, miserably. "In some of my Contacts, I've
undergone pretty painful experiences. I've had an eye twisted out, an
arm eaten and digested, been poisoned, nearly strangled--you name a
near-death; I've been through it."

"And your reaction?" thought the mind.

"Nil," said Jerry, ruefully. "When I awakened from a Contact, my memory
of my experiences was strictly a mental one. Like something I'd read in
a book. There was no emotional reaction whatsoever. My heart beat its
normal amount, my glands excreted normal perspiration, my muscles were
relaxed. Not a trace of shock or any other after effect."

"And later?" the mind asked gently.

"Back on Earth," said Jerry, "the Space Zoologists have a thing we
call the Comprehension Chamber. It's a room filled with couches and
helmets, in which we can listen--through replayed microtapes--to all
the Contacts our confreres have ever made. Perhaps 'listen' is a weak
word. For all practical purposes, we are in Contact, so long as the
tape runs. I thought this room was a wonderful adjunct to my education,
but nothing more. I went there a lot at first. It was even more fun
than the real thing because there was no danger of perishing. Tapes of
zoologists who died while in Contact are never used in the Chamber."

The mind waited, listening patiently.

"So one week--" Jerry's mind gave a mental twinge akin to a
physical shudder--"one week I got bored. I decided not to go to the
Comprehensive Chamber. I went out on a few dates, instead. Tennis, the
movies, like that. And on the third day, I woke in the morning with
a heart trying to pound its way through my ribs, with my bedsheets
dripping with cold perspiration, and lancing agony in my eye, my hand
knotted into a fist of pain, lungs burning for air...."

"Delayed reaction," said the mind.

"Yes," said Jerry. "That was it. I recognized the pains right away,
having been through them personally in Contact only a month before
them. I had a horrible inkling of what was occurring. I called the
medics at Space Corps Headquarters before I passed out. They came,
shot me full of morphine and stuck me into a helmet for twenty-four
hours straight, to cram my reactive agonies back beneath an overload
of vicarious Contacts. It worked pretty well. The pain was gone when
I awakened. But my nerves weren't the same afterward. I used to look
forward to Contacts because I enjoyed them. Now I look forward to them
because I dread what will happen if I don't have another one in time."

"In time?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"I find that I _must_ get to a Contact--real or vicarious--at least
once in forty-eight hours. I've been trapped by my job. I'm doomed to
do this job or die horribly. Some men, desperate for escape from this
treadmill, have quit the Corps, tried to battle this kickback-effect.
None of them have made it. They were found, all of them, in various
states of agony. Dead, broken, burnt, torn...."

"Psychosomatic pressures?" asked the mind.

"Yes. Their minds, overborne by their emotions, self-hypnotized them
into re-undergoing their experiences. And their bodies, duped by
their minds, reacted. On a normal man, a hypnotically suggested burn
can raise an actual blister. On a man who's opened his mind to the
Contact-power--his body can break, burn, dissolve or even evaporate."

"Poor Jerry," said the alien mind, soothingly. A tingle formed slowly
in Jerry's mind, a growing warmth, a vibration of utter affection. He
was being consoled, being loved by the alien. It knew his troubles. It
understood the sorrow of his life. It wanted only to keep him close,
to tell him not to be afraid, to make him happy, comfortable, safe....
Safe, and secure, and--

The glare of silent lightning leaped through Jerry's consciousness,
jerking him back from the unnervingly delightful torpor he'd been
letting overcome his thoughts.

Something hard bumped against his forehead. He realized that he'd just
sat up on the couch, knocking the helmet from his head with the shock
of the breaking Contact.

"Sir!" said the tech, pausing only to snap off the circuit switch
before dashing to his side. "What the hell happened? I never saw you
break Contact like that! Did you see the alien? Can it be destroyed?"

Jerry groaned, tried to speak, then fell back onto the thick padding,
unconscious.

"What's the matter with him?" cried Jana, sensing the fright in the
tech's attitude.

"I don't know," he whispered. "I've never seen him act this way
before. Whatever's out there, it's unlike anything we've ever
encountered before! Here, you get some of your medics up here to see to
him. I'm going to process this damned tape and see what's what!"

Her face pale, Jana hurried off to do his bidding. The tech began to
reset the machine so that the coded information on the tape might be
translated into legible words.

And Jerry Norcriss lay on the couch, sobbing and groaning like a man on
the rack, although his mind was blanked by merciful unconsciousness.

       *       *       *       *       *

"A baby?" choked the tech. "That thing out there is a _baby_?"

"Does the tape ever lie?" sighed Jerry, relaxing against the plump
white pillows Jana had arranged under his back and shoulders.

"Well, no," faltered the tech. "But a baby! Five hundred feet high--and
invisible--and able to carry on an intelligent conversation?"

"Which reminds me," said Jerry, sternly. "I am going to ask you to edit
both the tape and that typewritten translation of that conversation.
It's just as well too many people don't get the inside story on my job,
and its rather rugged drawback. And as for yourself.... Well, I can't
order you to forget what you've read there."

"I won't talk about it, sir, if that's what you mean," said the tech.
"It's not such a hard secret to keep. All the crewmen on the ship know
there's _something_ pretty awful about your job. I just happen to know
_what_. All I'd get for spilling the inside dope would be, 'Oh, is
_that_ what it is!' Hardly worth it."

"That's hardly a noble reason to keep a secret," Jerry murmured,
looking narrow-eyed at the tech.

The man grinned, then shrugged. "Makes my life easy, too. Now when you
flare up at me, I'll know why, and skip it."

"Thanks a hell of a lot," Jerry muttered.

The tech laughed aloud.

"But," the zoologist added soberly, "we did learn one surprising lesson
today. The forty-minute Contact period can be broken, under certain
stresses."

The smile left the tech's face, and he looked earnestly puzzled. "I
don't follow you, sir. There was nothing on the tape about--"

"Tape?" said Jerry. "You _saw_ how quickly I came out, didn't you?
What's that got to do with the tape?"

"Sir," the tech said hesitantly, "you were under the helmet for the
full forty."

Jerry flopped back upon the pillows, staring at the other man as if
he'd suddenly gone berserk. "That can't _be_," he said slowly. "I was
in a long-life host. The clouds weren't even moving. That baby was
living many subjective days in the forty-minute period."

"Begging your pardon, sir," said the tech, "but you must be mistaken.
You were gone the full forty."

"That's impossible," said Jerry.

Jana, who'd been standing back from the two men, stepped forward
cautiously, apprehensive at butting into something that was not really
her affair.

"Excuse me, Lieutenant Norcriss," she said softly, "but Bob's right.
You were gone as long as he says."

"You don't understand, either of you!" Jerry snapped. "My
time-awareness in a host is subject to the host's time-awareness. So
far as this host was concerned, a day was a confoundedly long period.
But I could tell the elapsed time by watching the clouds, the height of
the sun. They didn't move, either of them, visibly...."

"How's that again, sir?" asked the tech. "How long did you _seem_ to
spend?"

"Possibly an hour."

"Well, then." The tech shrugged.

"But this had nothing to do with the host's subjective sense of _time_,
Ensign. It was my own knowledge of _objective_ time through watching
the sun, the trees, the clouds. None of them moved during my subjective
hour in the host-alien. So no time--or very little time; barely a few
minutes--could have passed while I was enhosted, do you see?"

"Lieutenant Norcriss," said Jana, abruptly. "I'm sorry to interrupt,
but did you say clouds?"

"Yes," said Jerry, puzzled by her intensity. "Why?"

"There hasn't been a cloud in the sky today," she said awkwardly. "I
mean--Well, look for yourself!"

Jerry turned his gaze upward through the quartz ceiling of the
solarium. The sky, a rich turquoise, was smooth and unbroken save for
the glaring gold orb of the sun, Sirius. He sat up then, looking out
through the likewise transparent walls. As far as he could see, over
storetops, cottage roofs, and distant green glades, the sky was that
same unbroken blue.

"But that's crazy!" he said, sinking back against the pillows. "It
couldn't have been like that all the time I was in Contact. Could it?"

Jana and Bob exchanged an uncomfortable look.

"Well, sir," the tech said, "we weren't exactly _watching_ the sky, if
you know what I mean. But it was clear when you went into Contact. And
it's clear _now_."

His voice trailed off, uncertainly, but Jerry gave a slow thoughtful
nod. "You're right, Ensign. It is, and it was. The likelihood of its
clouding up for forty minutes, and then clearing again is so ridiculous
I can't even consider it.... And yet, I _saw_--"

Jerry stopped speaking, and shook his head. Then he waved a hand at the
tech, abstractedly. "Get me some coffee, Ensign. I have to think, hard."

       *       *       *       *       *

When nightfall had cloaked the planet in dark purple folds, Jerry was
still gazing intently at nothingness, racking his brain for an answer.
Bob, meantime, had checked the card against the ship's files on dealing
with alien menaces, and had found--much as both he and Jerry had
suspected--that there was no recommendation available. The menace was
new. It would have to be approached strictly _ad libidum_. Whatever
method served to rid the planet of the menace would then, not before,
be incorporated into the electronic memory of the brain on the ship, to
serve future colonies who might meet a similar alien species.

"Any ideas, sir?" asked the tech, after a long silence from his
superior.

"None," Jerry admitted, not turning his head. "It's pretty damned
difficult to find a solution to a problem until you're sure what the
problem _is_."

"Well," said the tech, "we played the radar all over the area where the
tape said the thing was located. We got nothing. Maybe the kid's mother
came back."

"Just a second--" said Jerry. "Ensign, could you rig the machine to
give us, not a written transcript of that alien's description, but a
drawing of it?"

"Jeepers, sir!" choked the tech, taken aback. "I don't know. I'd have
to talk with the engineers."

"It should be possible. Hell, it's got to be. When I was enhosted, my
mind transmitted back every bit of info on that body. A man who only
knew mechanical drawing could sketch that shape, simply by following
the measurement specifications as my mind recorded them. Go on, Ensign,
get with it. One way or the other, I want a look at what we're dealing
with."

It was nearly midnight when Bob shook Jerry gently awake and handed him
a small glossy rectangle of paper.

Jerry, blinking his eyes against the sudden onslaught of light in the
room as the tech threw the wall switch, stared blearily at the paper
for a moment, blank and disoriented.

"It's the picture, sir," Bob said, recognizing the bafflement on his
superior's face for what it was. "I finally had the bright idea of
turning the problem over to the brain, aboard the ship. It followed the
specifications from the tape by drawing the picture in periods."

"In what periods?" Jerry mumbled, still trying to come awake.

"Not time-periods, sir. Punctuation. Then, when it had the thing done,
on a ten-by-fourteen-inch sheet of feed-paper from its roller, I had
the ship's photographer take a snapshot and reduce it in size, so it
looks at least as good as the average newspaper half-tone job."

Jerry nodded, absorbing the information even as his eyes crept over the
image in his hands. "Looks strangely familiar," he said, studying it
closely.

"If you'll pardon what sounds like a gag, sir," began the tech, "I
think that the picture--in fact, we all think--"

"Yes?" said Jerry, looking at the man.

"Well, the consensus among the crew was that this baby here looks a
hell of a lot like _you_, sir."

Jerry sat where he was, his eyes on Bob's face, for a long moment,
as fingers of ice took hold of his spine. Then, with unreasoning
apprehension, he turned his gaze back upon the near-photographic
likeness he held. "Ensign," he said, after a minute. "This _is_ a
picture of me."

"But sir, it can't be," said the tech.

"You're wrong," said Jerry, letting the paper drop to the floor. "It
can be, because it is. And all at once I think I know why."

Without warning, Jerry swung his legs over the side of the couch and
jumped to his feet.

"Listen," he said urgently, "there's no time to lose. Get the hospital
staff together, fast, and bring me back their best psyche-man. I need a
hypnotist."

"A h-hyp--?" the tech blurted, confused, then gave an obedient nod and
hurried out, shaking his head all the way to the switch-board.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Never mind _why_, Doctor. Can you _do_ it? That's all I care to know,"
Jerry's voice crackled, his eyes flashing with authority.

"Y-Yes, I think so," quavered the other man. "If you _can_ be
hypnotized, I mean."

"All Space Zoologists have the brainpower necessary to be perfect
subjects," Jerry snapped. "Quickly, now, Doctor. I've wasted one
Contact already."

"Very well, sir," said the man. "If you'll lie back, now, and make your
mind blank--"

"I know, I know! Get _on_ with it, will you!"

Bob and Jana stood back in the shadows beside the towering metal
control board, listening in silence as the hypnotist put Jerry under,
deeper and deeper, until his mind was readily suggestible. Then he
made the statements Jerry had told him to make, and with a snap of his
fingers brought the zoologist out of hypnosis.

"You heard, Ensign?" asked Jerry. "Did he do exactly as I told him to?"

"Sir!" protested the doctor.

"I mean no offense," said Jerry. "But if your words left my mind too
free, too human somehow, the alien would sense it. And a ruse like
this one might not work on a second attempt, once the alien had been
apprised of our intent."

"He did, sir," said Bob. "Word for word, as you told it to him."

"Good," Jerry said. "Thank you, Doctor. And good night."

"Uh--yes," said the man, finally realizing he was being peremptorily
dismissed after coming all the way across the town from his warm bed in
the black morning hours. "Good night to you, sir."

       *       *       *       *       *

He fumbled his way out the door, and Jana, after a glance at Bob, shut
it after him. Bob stood beside the control board, waiting as Jerry once
more adjusted the helmet upon his head and lay back on the couch.

"All right?" he called to the tech, as Jana, now walking nervously on
tiptoe, though there'd been no injunction against noise, hurried to
Bob's side and took his arm.

"Ready, sir," Bob said, keeping his voice steady.

"You've set the stopwatch?" warned Jerry.

"I depress the starter the same instant I turn on the machine," said
Bob.

"All right, then," said Jerry.

Bob's right hand threw a switch.

Even as it snapped home, his left thumb had jabbed down upon the
stopwatch button. The long red sweephand began clicking with relentless
eagerness about the dial.

On the couch Jerry stiffened, then relaxed.

"You'd better stay with him," Bob cautioned Jana. "The machine's on
automatic. If I'm not back on time, it'll take care of itself."

"Back on time?" she gasped. "But you can't be, Bob. If what he said
about the timing--"

Bob shut his eyes and gripped his forehead between thumb and fingers.
"Yes, of course. I'm being an idiot. This maneuver is something new.
But--" he withdrew his hand from his face and smiled at the girl--"you
stay with him anyhow. I'd feel better--safer--if you weren't with me
and the others."

"Yes, Bob," she said, in a faint shadow of her normal voice. "Be
careful."

Bob grinned with more confidence than he felt, turned and hurried from
the room.

Jana moved slowly across the floor to the couch where Jerry Norcriss
lay in unnatural slumber, and stood staring down at his strange,
young-old face, and her eyes were bright with quiet wonder....


V

"What's this, what's this?" rasped Jerry's mind. "Where have I gotten
to, now?"

"It's all right," said a soothing voice. "You're with _me_, now."

"Oh? Oh?" Jerry's mind said, snickering. "And who might _you_ be?"

It was dark as he looked out through the alien eyes, but a quick
patting of his paw across his face reassured him that his sharp white
incisors, muzzle and stiff gray whiskers were intact and healthy.

"How can I be you?" asked Jerry. "If I'm a gray rat and you're a gray
rat, what am I doing here?"

"You've come to spy on me, I know," said the soothing voice. "But see?
You have nothing to fear, nothing at all. I'm not going to hurt you.
You find no menace in me. Do you?"

"No. No menace. No danger. I'm safe, I'm secure, I'm warm and loved...."

"Relax," said the alien. "Relax, and let me have full control again.
You can sleep if you do. You can rest. _I'll_ take care of you, trust
in that."

"Yes. Sleep. Rest. No more running, hiding, fearing...." said Jerry
Norcriss, the gray rat-mind in the invisible body of another rat much
like himself....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Come on with that flashlight, damn it!" Bob raged, leading the other
three crewmen through the woods. Two of them carried rifles, one had
a flamethrower, and Bob himself carried one of the new bazookas with
a potent short-range atomic warhead. Ollie, the man with the light,
hurried up to him with a quick apology.

"Okay, okay," Bob said. "But I've got to see this dial--Ah, yes. This
is the way, all right. Come on. Ollie, keep that beam so it spills on
the tracking-cone dial as well as on the earth. We don't dare risk
losing our way. There are only seven minutes left until Contact is
broken."

"Yes, sir. I'll keep it right on there," Ollie said. "But about the
lieutenant--are you _sure_ he won't--"

"That's what the stopwatch is for. We _must_ strike just as Contact
is being broken. Any sooner, and we kill Lieutenant Norcriss with the
alien. Any later, and the alien kills us. The same way it did the
others who came upon it."

"But what does it do? What does it look like?" Ollie persisted.

"Damn it, there's no time to talk now! Just keep that light steady, and
hurry!"

The men plunged onward through the woods, the white circle of light
from the arc-torch splashing the cold leaves and damp, colorless grass
with sickly, stark illumination.

       *       *       *       *       *

"If you would only release your hold," the alien was saying. Then its
mind-voice stopped.

Jerry, too, had seen the dancing white freckles that spattered the
boles and branches of the nearby trees. The darkness of the woods was
rent by streamers of ruler-straight light beams. They began to radiate
like luminous wheel-spokes through the tangled leaves of the woods.

"Men!" cried the alien mind. "Men are coming here. Men, our enemies!"

Jerry, still in partial control of the invisible rat-body, fought the
flight-impulse that began to stir beneath the unseen skin.

"Run!" shrieked the alien mind. "You fool, can't you see that we must
flee this place? Quickly, or we are done for!"

"Run--Flee--" Jerry said dully, within the alien mind. "Yes. Run from
men ... the eternal enemy, men. Run, hide, a dark corner, under a bush,
behind a tree...."

He felt his own mind joining that of the alien in the preliminary
tension that comes before flight.... Then the glaring beam of the
arc-torch was full in his eyes, and the hypnotic illusion, at this, the
trigger of his psyche, was shattered. And Jerry once again knew himself
to be a man.

A man in the body of a rat--the animal which Jerry Norcriss loathed
most of all creatures!

"Run!" screamed the alien. "Why don't you--!" Its commands ceased as it
realized the difference within the mind that had invaded its body. "You
again!" it cried, trying wildly to reassume the placid plump image of
that unseen baby once more.

"You're too late," said Jerry, fighting its will with his own as the
crewmen broke from the underbrush into the clearing, and the tech,
pointing straight at him, yelled a caution to the man with the flame
thrower. The man bringing up the terrible gaping mouth of that weapon
halted, waiting, as the tech stared at the stopwatch in his hand.

"Five seconds!" cried the tech. "Four ... three ... two ... one....
_Get_ it, quick!"

Jerry, still within the mind and watching with the same horrified
fascination as his host, saw the puff of flame within the flame-tube of
the weapon, then saw the insane red flower blossoming with its smoking
yellow tendrils toward his face--

And the silent white lightning flared--

And he sat up on the couch, back in the solarium.

       *       *       *       *       *

Jana hurried over to him.

"Did it work? Did it work, sir?" she cried. "Is Bob--"

Jerry patted her hand. "Bob's all right. He was on time. _Just_ on
time."

"I still don't understand, sir," said the nurse, sinking onto the couch
beside him without waiting for an invitation. "I don't understand _any_
of this!"

For an instant, Jerry resented this familiarity, then felt slightly
overstuffed, and slipped an arm paternally across her slim shoulders.

"I'll explain," he said. "It'll pass the time till he gets back."

Jana nodded.

"The alien," Jerry said softly, "was a mimic. A perfect mimic. It
was, while non-intelligent, of an abnormally well developed mind in
one function: telepathy. That's how it could carry on apparently
intelligent mental conversation with me, during my first contact.
It could sense my questions, then probe my mind for the answers I
wanted most to hear--and play them back to me. For my forty minutes
of contact, it told me only what I wanted to know, like a selective
echo. It needed no understanding of my questions, nor of the answers it
plucked from my mind. It had one instinct: self-preservation. It could
sense my question, select an uncontroversial answer from my mind and
feed it back to me, without really understanding how it warded me off
as a menace to it, any more than a dog understands why lowering its
ears and hanging its head as it whines can fend off the wrath of its
master. It works; that's all the creature cares about."

"But how did you _know_--?" Jana asked.

"I didn't," Jerry replied. "It fooled me completely. Until the
Ensign--Bob told me that my full forty minutes in Contact had elapsed,
despite my knowledge that the sun and clouds had remained motionless
during my Contact. That threw me, I'll admit, for quite a while. It
just didn't make sense."

Jana's eyes widened as she suddenly understood. "And then you realized
that you had seen the sun and clouds motionless because that was what
you _expected_ to experience when enhosted in a baby!"

"That's it," Jerry nodded. "It made an error with the baby, though. It
was able to duplicate it in almost every respect except two: Size and
appearance."

"Why?" asked Jana. "And why appear as a baby at all?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"I'm coming to that," said Jerry. "The size was off because the first
thing I saw when I blinked open my eyes was a distant copse of trees,
which I took to be an upright pile of leafy twigs. Since my mind
possessed information regarding the relative size of babies and twigs,
the alien immediately made sure my mind saw other things in the same
perspective. By the time it realized it had made an error, it was too
late to normalize the baby's dimensions; that would have given its
fakery away."

"But why did the thing choose a baby?"

"Because that was the thing's protection! It had a powerful hypnotic
power, one that worked on its victims' minds directly through its
telepathic interference with sensory perception. It always appeared as
the thing the victim would be least likely to harm. In my case, a baby.
But it made a slight error there, too. I'm a bachelor, Jana. There's
only one baby with whom I ever had any great amount of experience:
myself."

"And the invisibility?"

"I have no recollection, even now, of my body when I was a baby. I may
have stared at my toes, played with my fingers, but they just never
registered on my consciousness as being part of _myself_. So the thing
was stuck when it came to reproducing me visually, since it depended
upon my own memory for details. But it was able to supply the way I'd
_felt_ as a baby. Every baby has an acute awareness of its own skin; it
will cry if any particle of its flesh is bothered in the slightest. So
the alien fed the 'feel' of my baby-body back to me, if not the view.
Which is why the electronic brain on the ship was able to duplicate the
detail into an almost perfect replica of my babyhood likeness."

Jana nodded, as she finally understood the meaning of that strange
illusion. "And this time? That post-hypnotic suggestion you had the
doctor give you, I mean: that you'd think you were a gray rat until
such time as the light of the arc-torch caught you directly in the
eyes...."

"Duplicity, Jana. It had to be that way. The alien was very sure of its
powers. If I returned, and it were a baby again, I couldn't attack it
or thwart its ends. And such an attack was necessary. I had to be able
to fight it, to hold it in place for that last moment before it was
destroyed. Which is why I chose a gray rat, an animal I cannot bear the
sight of. When the light struck my eyes and I became myself again, I
caught the alien unawares. Then, before it could change to a baby, and
start lulling me back into camaraderie, it was too late. Bob had given
the order to fire. And here I am."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hurrying footsteps sounded in the corridor. The door burst open and Bob
rushed in, his face anxious and creased with worry until he saw Jerry
sitting on the couch, alive and well.

"Whoosh!" The tech expelled a mingled chuckle and sigh as he sank into
a chair opposite the zoologist. "Well, sir, I can't tell you how glad I
am to see you. I couldn't be sure you'd gotten out of that thing alive
until I got back here. Glad you made it, sir. Damn glad!"

"That 'thing' you mentioned," said Jerry. "What did it _actually_ look
like?"

Bob jerked his head toward the corridor. "The other guys are bringing
it along. I kind of thought you'd want a peep at it."

As more footfalls were heard from the corridor, Bob bounced to his feet
again, and stepped to the door. "Hold it a minute, guys," he said,
then turned back into the room. "Jana, I don't think you'd better stick
around for this. It's not very pretty."

The girl hesitated, then flashed him a smile and shook her head.
"I'll stay. It can't look as ugly as a bad case of peritonitis on the
surgeon's table. If I can take that without upchucking, I can take
anything."

Bob shrugged. "Suit yourself, honey. Just remember you got fair
warning." He leaned back out the door. "Okay. Bring it in."

The crewmen, looking a little ill, came slowly into the room, bearing
a bloated, scorched object on a stretcher they'd contrived from two
long poles and their jackets. They set it onto the tiled floor before
the zoologist, then stepped away, all of them wiping their hands hard
against their trousers in ludicrous unison, though their grip on the
poles had not brought them into actual contact with the alien's corpse.

"There it is, sir," said Ollie Gibbs. "And you are very welcome to it."

Jana, to her credit, had not upchucked, but she went a shade paler, and
her mouth grew tight.

Jerry studied the burnt husk, from its sharp-fanged mouth--easily
eighteen inches from side to side--to its stubby centipedal cilia under
the grossly swollen body.

"Damn thing's all bloat, slime and mouth," said the tech, suddenly
shuddering. "I wonder if its victims felt those jaws rending them open,
or if it kept their minds fooled through to the end?"

"I don't think we'll ever know that, Ensign," said Jerry. "Unless you
feel like going out there and playing victim to one of this thing's
confreres?"

"No thanks, sir," said Bob, so swiftly that Jana laughed. "I'd rather
fall out an airlock in hyperspace."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well, here's what we do to get rid of this thing, then," said Jerry.
"Since it assumes a form that's the least likely to be harmed by
whatever presence stimulates its mimetic senses, we'll have to trick
it. Before this thing decomposes too far, rig it up with an electrical
charge, and stimulate its nerve-centers artificially. That ought to
give you an accurate microtape of its life-pulse. Then hook the tape
to a scanner-beam, and _send_ the life-pulse into the mine-area. When
the fellows of this creature react to it, they'll assume the safest
possible form: their own."

"I get you, sir!" said Bob. "Then all the miners have to do is see it
for what it is, and shoot it."

Jerry nodded. "It'll mean all miners will have to go armed for awhile.
But that's better than getting eaten alive by one of these."

"You sure their presence won't trigger the thing's mimetic power?"
asked Bob, uneasily.

"Not if you give full power to the scanner-beam," Jerry replied. "It'll
muffle their life-pulse radiations under the brunt of the artificial
one."

"Good enough, sir," said Bob. "I'll rig it right away."

Jerry shook his head. "No need. You could use some rest, I'm sure. The
morning'll be soon enough. Meantime, you can see this young lady home.
The rest of you," he said to the hovering crewmen, "are dismissed, too."

The men, eager to be away from the thing, saluted smartly and hurried
out of the solarium, buzzing with wordy relief.

Jana paused a moment, staring at the creature whose strange powers had
destroyed her father. Then she turned to Bob.

"I think I'll go to Jim's place," she said. "I want him to know." She
moved her gaze to Jerry. "I owe you a lot," she said. "We all owe you a
lot."

Embarrassed by the warmth of her praise, Jerry could only mumble
something diffident and look the other way. He was taken quite by
surprise by the pressure of cool moist lips against the side of his
face.

When he looked back at the pair, Bob and Jana were on their way out
the door.

Only when he heard the elevator doors at the end of the corridor
close behind them did he move to the still-warm corpse of his onetime
adversary, with a look of deepest compassion on his face.

"Well," he said gently, "you've lost. The planet goes back to
the invaders. Once again, Earth has successfully obliterated the
opposition."

He reached out a hand and touched the hulking thing on the floor.
"Good-by," he said. "And I'm sorry."

Jerry Norcriss wasn't thinking about the deadliness of the thing,
nor of the deaths of the hapless miners, nor of the billions of
dollars he'd saved the investors holding Praesodynimium stock. He was
thinking of a voice that--even unintelligently, even in the course
of deception--had said, "Poor Jerry. Rest.... Relax. You're safe....
Secure...."

"You really had me going for a while, baby," he said, then blinked at
the sudden sharp sting in his eyes, and hurried from the room.

       *       *       *       *       *

Outside, the sun was glowing pink against the black eastern sky, and
the air was cool and fresh in his nostrils. As he crossed the street
from the hospital, heading toward the landing field and his shipboard
bunk, a hurrying figure from the end of the block caught up with him
and began to pace his stride, panting slightly.

"Talk about happy," said Bob, glumly. "When Jana told her boy friend
the news, they went into such a clinch I didn't even stick around to
be introduced. Seemed a nice enough guy, I guess. Hope she'll be happy
with him."

Jerry recognized the gloominess of the tech's mood, and its cause, so
didn't say anything. After a moment, Bob seemed to recover himself a
little.

"Sir," he said, "there's one thing still bugs me about this alien."

"Oh?" said Jerry, halting. "What's that, Ensign?"

"How'd the initial roborocket miss the thing and its kind when it
circled the planet before colonization began?"

"That's a moot question," said Jerry. "But my conjecture is that the
scanner always caught it when it was assuming some other form. Since
its victims were always indigenous to this planet, the things familiar
to them were also of this planet, and the scanner-beam couldn't detect
any life-pulses which were dissimilar to already-known species."

"I'll be damned," said Bob. "It's almost childishly simple when you
explain it." Then, as Jerry went to start off again, Bob stopped him
with an exclamation.

"What about that melting mine car I read about on the translation
sheets? Was that for real, or wasn't it?"

Jerry shook his head. "Part of the general mimetic illusion, like the
motionless clouds and unmoving trees. It let me see what I expected to
see. In reality, I was just in the woods near the mine area, where you
came upon the creature to destroy it." Jerry started slowly moving away
once more.

A few steps further, and Bob halted again. "One final point, sir. That
life-pulsing reading of point-nine-nine-nine. If the thing's pulsation
was that powerful, I should think it would've been a lot harder to
knock off than it was."

"You're right," said Jerry. "It would have been. But its life-pulse
wasn't nearly that high."

"But the scanner-beam--" Bob protested. "When the colony sent up
that roborocket, after those miners vanished, it reported an unknown
life-pulse of point-nine-nine-nine. If that wasn't the alien's
life-pulse, what the devil was it?"

Jerry patted Bob on the shoulder. "You're forgetting the mimicry. The
roborocket they sent up caught the alien off-guard, in its own shape,
not imitating some other life-form's pulsations. It detected the beam,
since a scanner picks up mental pulses, and it instantly assumed the
life-pulse of a creature it assumed no roborocket would worry about."

"What? What life-pulse, sir? What kind of life?"

"Atomic life, Ensign," said Jerry. "That bright green blip you and I
studied so assiduously was the life-pulse of an atom-powered creature.
It was another roborocket."

And as Bob stared after him, stupefied, Jerry Norcriss made his way
across the landing field toward a well-earned bed--and oblivion.





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