Stephen Goldin's Blog
At the top of the cliff, overlooking the highway and the ocean, was a small wooden cabin. It stood in the center of a cleared area, a simple understatement of human presence in the midst of nature. A car was parked beside the cabin on the gravel that had been spread around the structure's perimeter. The gravel extended for about ten yards, then gave way to loose dry dirt atop hard rock until it entered the trees another six yards. farther on.
There was a narrow dirt road that led up from the highway to the cabin. It did not come straight up, but wound snake-like among the trees until it reached the clearing. A pair of headlights could currently be seen weaving along that road, alternately vanishing and reappearing as the car rounded various curves or passed behind groups of cypress trees.
Stella Stoneham stood in the darkness, watching those headlights approach. Her internal organs were trying valiantly to tie themselves into knots as the lights came nearer. She took a final long drag on her cigarette and ground it out nervously beneath her foot in the gravel. If there were any person she didn't want to see right now it was her husband, but it looked as though the choice was not hers to make. She frowned and looked up into the sky. The night was fairly clear, with only a few small patches of cloud obscuring the stars. She looked back down at the headlights. He would be here in a minute. Sighing, she went back inside the cabin.
The interior normally cheered her with its brightness and warmth, but tonight there was an ironic quality about it that only deepened her depression. The room was large and uncrowded, giving the illusion of space and freedom that Stella had wanted. There was a long brown sofa along one wall, with a small reading table and lamp beside it. In the next corner, going clockwise, there was a sink and a small stove; a supply cupboard hung on the wall near them, elaborately carved out of hardwood, with scrollwork and little red gnomes in the corner holding it up. Also on the wall was a rack of assorted kitchen utensils, still shiny from lack of use. Continuing around the room there was a small white dinette set standing neatly in the third corner. The door to the back bedroom and bathroom stood half ajar, with light from the main room penetrating only slightly into the darkness beyond the threshold. Finally there was a writing desk with a typewriter and telephone and an old folding chair beside it in the corner nearest the door. The center of the room was bare except for a frayed brown carpet that covered the wooden floor. The place was not much to cling to, Stella knew, but if a fight were going to take place at all--as it now appeared it would--it would be better to handle it on her own territory.
She sat down on the sofa and stood up again immediately. She paced the length of the room, wondering what she would do with her hands while she was talking or listening. Men at least were lucky enough to have pockets. Outside she could hear the car crunch its way up the gravel to the very door of the cabin and stop. A car door opened and slammed shut. A man's footsteps clomped up the three front stairs. The door flew open and her husband walked in.
This was to be the eleventh solar system he had personally explored, which meant that, to Garnna iff-Almanic, the task of finding and examining planets had gotten as routine as a job that exotic could become. The Zartic had trained for years before even being allowed on the Project. There was, first of all, the rigorous mental training that would allow the combination of machines and drugs to project his mind away from his body and far out into the depths of space. But an Explorer had to have more training than just that. He would have to chart his course in the void, both in attempting to locate a new planet and in finding his way home again afterwards; that required an extensive knowledge of celestial navigation. He had to classify in an instant the general type of planet he was investigating, which called for up-to-the-minute expertise in the growing science of planetology. He would be called on to make a report on the life forms, if any, that the planet held; that necessitated a knowledge of biology. And, in the event that the planet harbored intelligent life, he had to be able to describe the level of their civilization from little more than a glance--and that required that he be made as free of personal prejudices and fears as possible, for alien societies had different ways of doing things that could send a normal Zartic into hysterical fits.
But most of all, be had had to overcome the instinctive Zartic fear of the Offasii, and that required the hardest training of the lot. His mind hovered above this new solar system, inspecting it for possibilities. It was the farthest Exploration made to date, well over a hundred parsecs from Zarti. The star was average, a yellow dwarf--the type frequently associated with having planetary systems. But as to whether this system had planetsÉ Garnna made a mental grimace. This was always the part he hated most.
He began to disperse himself through the space immediately surrounding the star. His mental fibers spread like a net, becoming thinner and thinner as he pushed his fragments of mind outward in all three dimensions in his quest for planets.
There! He touched one almost immediately, and discarded it just as quickly. It was nothing but an airless ball of rock, and not even within the star's zone of habitability for protoplasmic life. Although it was faintly conceivable that some sort of life might exist there, it did not bother him. He continued to spread his net outward.
Another planet. He was glad to find a second, because the three points that he now had--sun and two planets--would determine for him the ecliptic plane of the system. It had long since been discovered that planetary systems formed generally within a single plane, with only minor individual deviations from it. Now that he knew its orientation, he could stop his three-dimensional expansion and concentrate, instead, on exploring all the area within the ecliptic plane.
The second planet was also a disappointment. It was within the zone of habitability, but that was the only thing that could be said in its favor. The atmosphere was covered with clouds and filled with carbon dioxide, while the surface was so incredibly hot that oceans of aluminum and rivers of tin were commonplace. No protoplasmic life could exist here, either. Garnna continued on in his Exploration.
The next thing be encountered was a bit of a surprise--a double planet. Two large, planet-sized objects circled the star in a common orbit. Upon closer inspection, one of the planets appeared far more massive than the other; Garnna began to think of that one as the primary and the other as a satellite.
He tried to focus as much attention as he could on this system while still maintaining the net he had spread through space. The satellite was another airless gray ball, smaller even than the first planet outward, and appeared quite lifeless, but the primary looked promising. From space it had a mottled blue and white appearance. The white was clouds and the blue, apparently, was liquid water. Large quantities of liquid water. That boded well for the existence of protoplasmic life there. He checked the atmosphere and was even more pleasantly surprised. There were large quantities of oxygen freely available for breathing. He made himself a mental note to investigate it more closely if nothing even better should turn up, and continued expanding outwards in his search for planets.
The next one he discovered was small and red. What little atmosphere there was seemed to consist mainly of carbon dioxide, with almost no detectable free oxygen. The surface temperature was acceptable to protoplasmic life, but there seemed to be little, if any, water available--a very dismal sign. Though this place had possibilities, the primary of the double planet had more. Garnna continued his expansion.
The net was becoming very thin, now, as the Zartic stretched himself farther and farther. Images were becoming blurry and his mind seemed to hold only a tenuous grip on its own identity. He encountered some tiny rocks floating in space, but declined to even consider them. The next world out was a gas giant. It was very difficult to make it out because his mentality was stretched so thin at this point, but that was not necessary. The search for planets was over in this system, he knew, for he had passed outside the zone of habitability once more. A gas giant like this could not exist within that zone, according to theory. There might be other planets beyond the orbit of this one, but they wouldn't matter, either. The Offasii would not be interested in them, and therefore Garnna wasn't interested in them.
He returned his attention to the double planet system.
He felt enormous relief as he reeled in all the far-flung parts of his mind that had expanded through space. It was always a good feeling when the initial planetary survey was over, a feeling of bringing disparate elements together to form a cohesive whole once more. A feeling akin to making a Herd out of individuals, only on a smaller, more personal scale.
It was bad enough to be a lone Zartic out in space, cut off from the entire Herd not to mention the safety and security of his own iff-group. The job was necessary, of course, for the good of the Herd, but necessity did not make it any the more pleasant. And when an individual Zartic had to extend parts of himself until there was almost nothing left, that was almost unbearable. That was why Garnna hated that part of the mission the worst. But it was over, now, and he could concentrate on the real business of Exploration.
Wesley Stoneham was a big man, well over six feet, with broad, well-muscled shoulders and the face of a middle-aged hero. He still had all his hair, a thick black mane of it, cut so that it would even muss stylishly. The forehead beneath the hair was comparatively narrow and sported large, bushy eyebrows. His eyes were steel gray and determined, his nose prominent and straight. In his hand, he carried a medium-sized suitcase.
"I got your note," was all be said as he took a folded piece of paper from his pocket and flipped it to the ground at his wife's feet.
Stella exhaled softly. She recognized that tone all too well, and knew that this was going to be a long and bitter evening. "Why the suitcase?" she, asked.
"As long as I was driving up here, I thought I might as well stay the night." His voice was even and smooth, but there was an edge of command to it as he set the suitcase down on the floor.
"Don't you even bother asking your hostess's permission before moving in?"
"Why should I? This is my cabin, built with my money." The emphasis on the "my" in both cases was slight but unmistakable.
She turned away from him. Even with her back to him, though, she could still feel his gaze piercing her soul. "Why not finish the thought, Wes? 'My cabin, my money, my wife,' isn't that it?"
"You are my wife, you know."
"Not any more." Already she could feel the inside corners of her eyes starting to warm up, and she tried. to check her emotions. Crying now would do no good, and might defeat her purpose. Besides, she had learned from painful experience that Wesley Stoneham was not affected by tears.
"You are until the law says otherwise." He strode across the room to her in two large steps, grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. "And you are going to look at me when you talk to me."
Stella tried to shake herself out of his grip, but his fingers just tightened all the more into her skin, one of them (did he do it intentionally?) hitting a nerve, so that a streak of pain raced across her shoulders. She stopped twisting and eventually he took his arms away again.
"That's a little better," he said. "The least a man can expect is a little civility from his own wife."
"I'm sorry," she said sweetly. There was a slight crack in her voice as she tried to force some gaiety into it. "I should go over to the stove and bake my big, strong mansy-wansy a welcome home cake."
"Save the sarcasm for someone who likes that shit, Stella," Stoneham growled. "I want to know why you want a divorce."
"Why, my most precious one, it's--" she began in the same saccharine tones. Stoneham gave her a hard slap against the cheek. "I told you to can that," he said.
"I think my reasons should be more than apparent," Stella said bitterly. There was a flush creeping slowly into the cheek where she'd been hit. She raised her hand to the spot, more out of self-consciousness than pain.
Stoneham's nostrils flared, and his stare was supercold. Stella averted her eyes, but stubbornly stood her ground. There was ice on her husband's words as be asked, "Have you been having an affair with that overaged. hippie?"
It took a moment for her to realize who he meant. About a mile from the cabin, in Totido Canyon, a group of young people had moved into an abandoned summer camp and formed what they proudly called the "Totido Commune." Because of their unconventional behavior and dress, they were thought of by the surrounding residents as hippies and condemned accordingly. Their leader was an older man, at least in his late thirties, and he seemed to keep his group in order just this side of the law.
"Are you talking about Carl Polaski?" Stella asked incredulously.
"I don't mean Santa Claus."
Despite her nervousness, Stella laughed. "That's preposterous. And besides, he's not a hippie; he's a psychology professor doing research on the drop-out phenomenon."
"People tell me he's been hanging around this cabin a lot, Stell. I don't like that."
"There's nothing immoral about it. He runs some errands for me and does a few odd jobs. I pay him back by letting him use the cabin for writing. He types over here, because he can't get enough privacy to say what be really thinks at the commune. Sometimes we've talked. He's a very interesting man, Wes. But no, I haven't had any affairs with him, nor am I likely to."
"Then what's eating you? Why do you want a divorce?" He went to the sofa and sat down, never taking his eyes from her for an instant.
Stella paced back and forth in front of him a few times. She folded and unfolded her hands, and finally let them hang at her sides. "I want to be able to have some self-respect," she said at last.
"You have that now. You can hold your head up to anyone in the country."
"That's not what I meant. I'd like, just once, to be able to sign my name 'Stella Stoneham' instead of 'Mrs. Wesley Stoneham.' Maybe give a party for the people I like, instead of your political cronies. Wes, I want to feel like I'm an equal partner in this marriage, not just another tasteful accessory to your home."
"I don't understand you. I've given you everything any woman could possibly want--"
"Except identity. As far as you're concerned, I'm not a human being, just a wife. I decorate your arm at hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners and make charming noises at the wives of other would-be politicians. I make a corporate lawyer socially respectable enough to think of running for office. And, when you're not using me, you forget about me, send me away to the little cabin by the sea or leave me to walk by myself around the fifteen rooms of the mansion, slowly rotting away. I can't live this way, Wes. I want out."
"What about a trial separation, maybe a month or so--"
"I said 'out,' O-U-T. A separation wouldn't do any good. The fault, dear husband, is not in our stars but in ourselves. I know you too well, and I know you'll never change into something that is acceptable to me. And I'll never be satisfied with being an ornament. So a separation would do us no good at all. I want a divorce."
Stoneham crossed his legs. "Have you told anyone about this yet?"
"No." She shook her head. "No, I was planning to see Larry tomorrow, but I felt you should be told first."
"Good," Stoneham said in a barely audible whisper.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Stella asked sharply. Her hands were fidgeting, which was her cue to fumble through her purse on the writing desk for her pack of cigarettes. She needed one badly at this point.
But it wasn't until she got a cigarette between her lips that she realized she was out of matches. "Got a light?"
"Sure." Stoneham fished around in his coat pocket and pulled out a book of matches. "Keep them," he said as he flipped them to his wife.
Stella caught them and examined them with interest. The outside of the book was smooth silver, with red and blue stars around the border. In the center were words that proclaimed:
SAN MARCOS COUNTY
Inside, the paper matches alternated red, white and blue.
She looked quizzically up at her husband, who was grinning at her. "Like them?" he asked. "I just got them back from the printer's this afternoon."
"Isn't it a bit premature?" she asked sarcastically.
"Only by a couple of days. Old man Chottman is resigning from the Board because of ill health at the end of the week, and they're letting him name the man he wants as his successor to fill out his term. It won't be official, of course, until the governor appoints the man, but I have it from very reliable sources that my name is the one being mentioned. If Chottman says he wants me to fill his term, the governor will listen. Chottman is seventy-three and has a lot of favors to call in."
An idea began glimmering in Stella's brain. "So this is why you don't want a divorce, isn't it?"
"Stell, you know as well as I do what a puritan that Chottman is," Stoneham said. "The old guy is still firmly opposed to sin of any kind, and be thinks of divorce as a sin. God only knows why, but he does." He rose from the couch and went to his wife again, holding her shoulders tenderly this time. "That's why I'm asking you to wait. It would only be a week or two--"
Stella pulled away, a knowing, triumphant smile on her face. "So that's it. Now we know why the big, strong Wesley Stoneham comes crawling. You won't leave me even a vestige of self-respect, will you? You won't even let me think that you came because you thought there was something in our marriage worth saving. No, you come right out with it. It's a favor you want."
She struck a match furiously and began to puff on her cigarette like a steam locomotive climbing a hill. She tossed the used match into the ashtray, and the matchbook down beside it. "Well, I'm sick of your politics, Wesley. I'm tired of doing things so that it will make you look better or more concerned for the citizenry of San Marcos. The only person you ever consider is yourself. I suppose you'd even grant me the divorce uncontested if I were to wait, wouldn't you?"
"If that's what you want."
"Sure. The Great Compromiser. Make any deal, as long as it gets you what you want. Well, I've got a little surprise for you, Mister Supervisor. I do not make deals. I don't give a God damn whether you make it in politics or not. I intend to walk into our lawyer's office tomorrow and start the papers fluttering."
"Maybe I'll even have a little talk with the press about all the milk of human kindness that flows in your veins, husband dear."
"I'm warning you, Stella--"
"That would be a big tragedy, wouldn't it, Wes, if you had to actually get electedÉ"
"STOP IT, STELLA!"
"Éby the voters to get into office instead of being appointed all nice and neat by your buddies."
His hands were up to her throat as he screamed her name. He wanted her to stop, but she wouldn't. Her lips kept moving and moving, and the words were lost in a silencing mist that enveloped the cabin. Normal colorations vanished as the room took on a blood-red hue. He shook her and closed his huge hands tightly around her neck.
The cigarette dropped from her surprised fingers at the unexpected attack, spilling some of its ashes on the floor. Stella raised her hands against her husband's chest and tried to push him away. For a moment she succeeded, but he kept coming, fighting off her flailing arms to grip her with all the strength at his disposal.
There was a numbness in his fingers as they closed around her throat. He did not feel the soft warmth of her skin yielding under his pressure, the pulsing of the arteries in her neck or the instinctive tightening of her tendons. All he felt was his own muscles, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing.
Gradually, her struggling subsided. Her facial coloring seemed funny, even through the red haze that clouded his vision. Her bulging eyes looked ready to leap from their sockets, opened wide and staring at him, staring, staringÉ.
He let go. She fell to the ground, but slowly. Slow-motion slow, dream slow. Still there was no sound as she hit the floor. She crumpled, limp as a rag doll tossed aside for fancier toys. Except for that face, that purple, bloated face. Its tongue stuck out like a grotesquerie, the eyes glazed with horror. A tiny trickle of blood leaked from her nose, down her purpled lips and onto the faded brown carpet. A finger on her left hand twitched spasmodically two or three times, then became still.
The blue-white world was below him, awaiting the touch of his mind. Garnna dipped into the atmosphere and was overwhelmed by the abundance of life. There were creatures in the air, creatures on the land, creatures in the water. The first test, of course, was the search for any Offasii that might be around, but it took only a quick scan to reveal that none were there. The Offasii had not been found on any of the planets yet explored by the Zarticku, but the search had to go on. The Zartic race could not feel truly safe until they discovered what had happened to their former masters.
The primary purpose of the Exploration had now been accomplished. There remained the secondary purpose: to determine what kind of life did inhabit this planet, whether it was intelligent, and whether it might conceivably pose any threat to Zarti.
Garnna established another net, a smaller one this time. He encompassed the entire planet with his mind, probing for signs of intelligence. His search was instantly successful. Lights gleamed in bright patterns on the night side, indicating cities of large size. A profusion of radio waves, artificially modulated, were bouncing all over the atmosphere. He followed them to their sources and found large towers and buildings. And he found the creatures themselves who were responsible for the radio waves and the buildings and the lights. They walked erect on two legs and their bodies were soft, without the armor plating of a Zartic. They were short, perhaps only half as tall as Zarticku, and their fur seemed to be mostly concentrated on their heads. He observed their eating habits and realized with distaste that they were omnivores. To a herbivorous race like the Zarticku, such creatures seemed to have cruel and malicious natures, posing potential threats to a gentler species. But at least they were better than the vicious carnivores. Garnna had seen a couple of carnivore societies, where killing and destruction were everyday occurrences, and the mere thought of them sent imaginary shudders through his mind. He found himself wishing that all life in the universe were herbivorous, then checked himself. He was not supposed to allow his personal prejudices to interfere with the performance of his duties. His task now was to observe these creatures in the short time he had left to him and make a report that would be filed for future study.
He did see one hopeful note about these creatures, namely that they seemed to have the herd instinct rather than acting solely as individuals. They congregated in large cities and seemed to do most things in crowds. They did have the potential for being alone, but they didn't utilize it much.
He gathered his mind together once again and prepared to make detailed observations. He zoomed down to the surface of the world to watch. The creatures were obviously diurnal or they wouldn't have needed lights for their cities, so at first he picked a spot on the daylight hemisphere to observe. He had no worries at all about being spotted by the natives; the Zartic method of space exploration took care of that.
Basically, this method called for a complete separation of body and mind. Drugs were taken to aid the dissociation, while the Explorer rested comfortably in a machine. When the separation occurred, the machine took over the mechanical aspects of the body function--heartbeat, respiration, nourishment and so on. The mind, meanwhile, was free to roam at will wherever it chose.
Few limits had thus far been found for a freed mind. The speed at which it could "travel"--if, indeed, it could be said to go anywhere--was so fast as to be unmeasurable; theoretically, it might even be infinite. A freed mind could narrow its concentration down to a single subatomic particle, or expand to cover vast areas of space. It could detect electromagnetic radiation at any portion of the spectrum. And best of all from the standpoint of the cautious Zarticku, it could not be detected by any of the physical senses. It was a phantom that could not be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched. All of which made it the ideal vehicle with which to explore the universe beyond Zarti's atmosphere.
Garnna stopped at a place where the land was regularly laid out for growing crops. Farming varied but little throughout the societies he had investigated so far, probably because form followed function and the function was manifestly the same. These creatures were plowing with crude implements drawn by subservient, two-horned herbivore. This primitive state of agriculture did not seem consistent with a civilization that could also produce so many radio waves. In order to resolve the apparent paradox, Garnna reached out with his mind and touched the mind of one of the natives.
This was another advantage of the freed mind. It seemed to have the ability to "listen in" on the thoughts of other minds. It was telepathy, but in a very restricted sense for it worked only one way. Garnna would be able to hear the thoughts of others, but he himself would be undetectable.
The phenomenon was not nearly as helpful as it might first appear, however. Intelligent individuals think partly in words of their own language, partly in abstract concepts and partly in visual images. The thoughts go by very quickly and then are gone forever. Different species had different patterns of thought based primarily on differences in their sensory inputs. And within a race each individual had his own private code of symbolism.
Mindreading, therefore, tended to be a painstaking and very frustrating business. Garnna would have to sift through mountains of meaningless impressions that were bombarding him at an unbelievable rate to arrive at even the kernel of an idea. With luck, he would read some generalized emotions and learn a few of the basic concepts that existed within the mind he contacted. But he was experienced at this procedure and not afraid of hard work if it were for the good of the Herd, so, he dived right in.
After a good deal of probing and even more guesswork, Garnna was able to piece together a small picture of this world. There was only one intelligent race here, but it had fragmented into many individual cultures. Several constant patterns emerged in nearly all the cultures, though. The iff-groups here seemed generally to consist of only a few adults, usually related or mated, plus their offspring. The purpose of the iff-group was much more oriented towards the raising of the young than it was toward the providing of security for the individual. There seemed to be some individuals who survived entirely without iff-groups. The Herd was more an abstract concept here than an everyday reality as it was on Zarti.
He learned, also, that some of the cultures on the planet were richer than others. The richest could be currently found on the nighttime side of the planet. In that particular culture, many of the things done by hand here were done by machine, and there was supposed to be plenty of food for all. The thought that one portion of the Herd could be overfed while another portion went hungry seemed callous to the Zartic. He reminded himself once more to stifle his emotions. He was here only to observe, and he had best concentrate on that.
He decided to investigate that ultra-rich culture. In evaluating these creatures as a potential threat to the Herd, his superiors would only be interested in their highest capabilities. It wouldn't matter at all what the poorer cultures did if the richer ones possessed a method of physical interstellar travel coupled with a warlike nature.
At the speed of thought, Garnna zipped across an enormous expanse of ocean and arrived in the darkened hemisphere. He immediately found several large coastal cities blazing their lights at him. These creatures might be diurnal, but they certainly didn't let the darkness affect their lives to any great extent. There were parts of the cities that were lit up as bright as daytime. There was one place in one of the cities where throngs of the creatures gathered in seats to view the action that was taking place between a smaller number of the creatures down on a specially laid-out field. The pattern was similar to what had been seen on numerous other worlds, particularly where omnivores and carnivores were dominant--institutionalized competition. Instead of dividing what there was evenly for the good of the Herd, as would have been done on Zarti, these creatures felt compelled to compete, with the winners getting all and the losers nothing. Try as he would, Garnna could not fully comprehend what such competition would mean to these creatures.
He moved on. He observed the buildings of the natives and found them in many ways structurally superior to those on Zarti. The machines for transportation were also advanced, being both efficient and capable of traveling at great speeds. But he noticed, too, that they burned chemical fuels in order to propel themselves. That, for the moment, removed these beings from the threat list. They obviously would not use chemical fuels if they had discovered an efficient means of utilizing nuclear energy, and no race could hope to build a workable interstellar drive utilizing chemical fuels alone. These creatures might know of the existence of nuclear power--in fact, to judge from their very ample technology, Garnna would have been surprised if they didn't--but it was too large a jump from there to an interstellar drive; the Zarticku would not need to worry about this race posing a threat in the near future. Even the Zarticku hadn't perfected an interstellar drive yet--but of course, there had been extenuating circumstances.
He spent most of his time gathering the material he thought he would need for his report. As always, there was an overabundance of data, and he had to carefully eliminate some very interesting details to make room for trends which would help him build in his own mind a cohesive picture of this civilization. Again, the whole took precedence over its parts.
He finished his investigation and realized he still had a little time to spare before he was required to return to his body. He might as well use it. He had a small hobby, a harmless one. Zarti, too, had seacoasts, and Garnna had been born near one of them. He had spent his youth near the sea and had never tired of watching waves come in and break against the shore. So, whenever he found, himself with spare time on an alien world, he tried to fantasize back to his childhood at the edge of the ocean. It helped to make the alien seem familiar and caused no harm to anyone. So he glided gently along the seacoast of the enormous ocean on this strange world, watching and listening to the black, almost invisible water crashing along the darkened sands of this planet, a hundred parsecs from the place of his birth.
Something attracted his attention. Up on top of the cliffs that were overlooking the beach at this point, a light was shining. This must be an example of the solitary individual of the society, set out here far from the nearest large grouping of others of its race. Garnna. floated upwards.
The light came from a small building, poorly made in comparison with the buildings of the city but no doubt comfortable for a single creature to dwell in. There were two vehicles parked outside, both empty. Since the vehicles were not automatic, it implied that there must be at least two of the aliens inside.
Being a pure mentality Garnna went through the walls of the cabin as though they didn't exist. Inside were two of the creatures, talking to one another. The incident did not seem very interesting. Garnna made a brief note of the furnishings of the room and was about to leave when one of the creatures suddenly attacked the other one. It grabbed at the neck of its companion and began strangling it. Without even extending himself, Garnna could feel the rage that was emanating from the attacking creature. He froze. Normally the instincts of his species would have caused him to flee the vicinity at top speed--in this case, the speed of thought. But Garnna had undergone extensive training in order to conquer his instincts. He had been trained to be first, last and always an observer. He observed.
Reality returned slowly to Stoneham. It started with sound, a rapid ka-thud, ka-thud, ka-thud that he recognized belatedly as his own heart. He had never heard it so loud before. It seemed to drown out the universe with its thumping. Stoneham put his hands to his ears to hold out the noise, but it only made the situation worse. A ringing started, too--a high-pitched tingling like a soprano alarm clock going off inside his brain.
Then came smell. There seemed to be a queer odor in the air, a sickly, bathroomy odor. Stains were growing at the front and back of Stella's dress.
Taste. There was blood in his mouth, salty and tepid, and Stoneham realized he had bitten down on his own lips.
Touch. The tips of his fingers were tingling, there was a trembling in his wrists, his biceps relaxed after having been superhumanly taut.
Sight. Color returned to the normal world, and speed became as usual. But there was nothing to watch that moved. Just the body of his wife lying lifeless in the middle of the floor.
Stoneham stood there, for how many minutes he didn't know. His eyes roamed the room, seeking out the commonplace things it held, avoiding the body at his feet. But not for very long. There was a certain gruesome fascination about Stella's body that compelled his gaze, drawing it back from wherever in the room it had wandered.
He began to think again. He knelt belatedly at his wife's side and felt for a pulse that he knew would not be there. Her hand already felt slightly cold to his touch (or was that only his imagination?), and all pretense of life had gone. He quickly drew back his hand and stood up once more.
Walking over to the sofa, he sat down and stared for long minutes at the opposite wall. Headlines shrieked at him: PROMINENT LOCAL LAWYER HELD IN WIFE'S DEATH. The years of carefully planning his political career, of doing favors for people so that they, in turn, might someday do favors for him, of going to endless boring parties and dinnersÉ all this he saw sinking beneath the surface in a great vortex of calamity. And he saw long, empty years stretching ahead of him, gray walls and steel bars.
"No!" he cried. He looked down accusingly at the lifeless body of his wife. "No, you'd like that, wouldn't you? But I'm not going to let it happen, not to me. I've got too many important things I want to do before I go."
A surprising calm settled over his mind and he saw clearly what had to be done. He crushed out the still smoldering cigarette his wife had dropped. Then he walked to the utensil rack and took a carving knife from the wall, holding his pocket handkerchief around the handle so that he wouldn't leave any fingerprints. He went outside and cut off a large section of clothesline. Back inside the cabin, he tied his wife's hands behind her and bent her body backward so that he could tie her feet to her neck. ,
Taking up the knife again, he proceeded to make a neat slash across Stella's throat. Blood oozed out rather than spurting because it was no longer being pumped by the heart. He hacked roughly at her breasts and made an obscene gouge through her dress at her crotch. For good measure he slashed ruthlessly at her abdomen, face and arms. He cut her eyes out of their sockets and tried to cut off her nose, too, but it was too tough for his knife.
Next, he dipped the knife in her blood and wrote "Death to Pigs" on one wall. As a final gesture, he severed the telephone line with a decisive slash. Then he placed the knife down on the floor beside her body, at the same time picking up the note she had written him about her divorce intentions. He put the note in his pants pocket.
He stood up and looked himself over. His hands and clothes were liberally smeared with blood. That would never do. He would have to get rid of it somehow.
He scrubbed his hands well in the sink until he'd removed all traces of the blood. He looked around the room and spotted something that caught his breath: his personally printed matchbook sitting on the table by the ashtray. He strode over to it, thinking that it would be very foolish to leave a clue like that lying around for the police to find. He slipped the matchbook neatly into his pocket.
Then he went to his suitcase and took out a fresh suit of clothes. He quickly changed into them, thinking as he did so that he could bury his old clothes someplace a mile away so that they'd never be found. Then he could come back here and pretend to have discovered the body as it was. Since the phone wires were cut, he would have to drive somewhere else to call the police. The nearest neighbor with a phone, be recalled, was about two miles away.
Stoneham turned and surveyed his handiwork. Blood was smeared all over the floor and on some of the furniture, the body was dismembered in particularly gruesome fashion, the radical message was inscribed on the wall in plain view. It was a scene out of a surrealistic nightmare. No sensible killer would have performed a butchery like that. Blame would instantly fall on that hippie commune, maybe on Polaski himself. It would serve two purposes: cover up his guilt and rid San Marcos once and for all of those damned hippies.
There was a shovel in a small toolbox outside the cabin. Stoneham took it and walked off into the woods to bury his clothes. Since there had been no rain for months, the ground was dry and hard-packed; he left no footprints as he walked.
It did not take long for the bigger creature to kill the smaller. But after it was done, the killer seemed immobilized by its own actions. Gingerly, Garnna reached out a mental feeler and touched the killer's mind. The thoughts were a jumble of confusion. There were still swirling traces of anger, but they seemed to be fading slowly. Other feelings were increasing. Guilt, sorrow, fear of punishment; these were all things that Garnna knew as well. He pushed a little deeper into the mind and learned that the dead creature had been of the same iff-group as the survivor; in fact, it had been its mate. Garnna's horror at this was so strong that he raced out of the mind and curled himself up into a mental ball. Intellectually he could accept the idea of killing, possibly even of one's mate. But emotionally the shock of the direct experience set his mind quivering.
He existed there for minutes, waiting for the shock and disgust to pass. Finally, his training reasserted itself and he started observing his surroundings once more. The big creature was now hacking at the carcass of the little one with a knife. Was this some sort of ghastly custom? If so, these omnivores might have to be reevaluated with regard to their threat potential. Even the carnivores Garnna had observed had not behaved this obscenely.
It took all the self-control he had to enable him to make contact with the alien's brain once more. What he saw confused and disturbed him. For the first time, he witnessed directly an individual planning to perform an action that would run counter to the good of its Herd. There was guilt and shame in the mind, which led Garnna to believe that this killing was far from a customary practice. The herd instinct was still functioning, though quite suppressed. And overriding everything was the fear of punishment. The creature knew that what it had done was wrong, and its present horrible course of action was an attempt to evade--by what means, Garnna could not say--the punishment that would otherwise naturally come.
This was a unique situation. Never before, to Garnna's knowledge, had an Explorer ever become involved in an individual situation to this extent. It was always the big picture that mattered. But perhaps some insights could be gained by watching this situation develop. Even as he thought this, he "heard" a bell go off in his mind. This was the first warning that his time for Exploration was almost up. There would be one more in six minutes and then he would have to go back home. But he resolved to stay and watch the drama play out as much as possible before that happened.
He probed a little deeper into the alien's mind and witnessed the deceit within. The creature was going to attempt to avoid its just punishment by blaming the crime on some other innocent being. If the original crime had been hideous to Garnna, this compounding of it was unspeakable. It was one thing to let a moment of passion cause one to violate the rules of the Herd, but it was quite another to consciously and deliberately mislead others so that a different individual would be harmed. The creature was not only placing its welfare above that of the Herd, but above that of other individuals as well.
Garnna could no longer remain neutral and unconcerned. This creature must be, a deviant. Even allowing for differences in customs, no viable society could last long if these standards were the norm. It would fall apart under mutual hatred and distrust.
The creature had left the cabin now, and was walking slowly into the trees. Garnna followed it. The creature was carrying the clothes it had worn inside the room, as well as a tool it had taken from the cabin. When the creature had gone a mile from the building, it put down the clothes and started using the tool to dig a hole. When the hole was deep enough, the alien buried the old clothes in it and filled it up again, brushing the dirt around carefully so that the ground looked undisturbed.
Garnna caught flashes from the creature's mind. There was satisfaction at having done something successfully. There was an easing of fear now, since steps had been taken to avoid the punishment. And there was the feeling of triumph, of having somehow defeated or outwitted the Herd. The latter gave Garnna a mental shudder. What kind of creature was this, that could actually revel in causing harm to the rest of its Herd? This was wrong by any standards, it had to be. Something would have to be done to see that this deviant was discovered despite its deception. ButÉ.
The second alarm sounded within his mind. No! he thought. I don't want to go back. I must stay and do something about this situation.
But there was no choice. It was not known how long a mind could remain outside its body without dire consequences to one or the other. If he were to stay away too long his body might die, and it was problematical whether his mind could outlive it. It would accomplish no good at all if his mind were to be destroyed through carelessness.
Reluctantly, then, Garnna iff-Almanic's mind pulled itself away from the scene of the tragedy on the blue-white third planet of the yellow star and raced back to its body more than a hundred parsecs away.
As he walked back to the cabin Stoneham felt a certain satisfaction at having coped successfully with a bad situation. Even if the police didn't blame the hippies, there was no real evidence left with which to blame him, he thought. No motives, no evidence, no witnesses.
About a mile away, a girl named Deborah Bauer woke up from a nightmare, screaming.
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