Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Artwork by Lance W. Card
    by Al Sarrantonio

Who they are isn't important. They'd be the first to tell you that.

It's what they are that counts.

But I'm in the business of who, as well as what, where, when and why -- so that's what you get up top.

First there was Jen Jameson, who wasn't captain because there was no captain of this boat. They called her Specialist One, since her area of expertise was the worm holes that got us where we were going. She also had a good overview of every other system on the ship. She'd always be captain to me because if there was a fight, she'd be the one to give the orders.

Then there was Specialist One-A, Bill Felder, who looked the part of an exec but I keep forgetting this is no Navy. This is a World Council Designated Field Survey Expedition Ship, which meant that Earth had finally got around to setting up a wormhole system, and had grown the balls to use it. Those of us who didn't like saying World Council Designated etc. called it the Guinea Pig cruise, and let it go at that.

The ship had a name, the Russell, and though it looked like nothing so much as a giant battleship-gray golf ball, complete with dimples, I was told it would do its job, which was not to get us killed and maybe put us face-to-face, finally, with other ISs (intelligent species).

Jameson herself told us, at the one and only staff meeting we had, that the Russell wouldn't blow its bolts, or worse.

"You'll notice very little spacial change," she said, trying not to treat me like an idiot; she looked pretty spiffy in her World Council jumpsuit, blue with a Specialist One patch over her left breast, her only sign of rank. While regaining my seat, I took solace in the fact that the faces around me looked just as hungry for real information as mine; most of them were Seconds and Thirds, and knew as much about worm holes as I did, which was nada.

"Actually," she continued, using a few holograms of the Russell for emphasis. One of them showed the ship in hollow form, deck by deck; besides the core chamber and the skin itself, which I had been told aided in propulsion and navigation, there seemed to be very little in the way of equipment or armament. I'd been told that there was an armament system, but it sure wasn't obvious here. "Actually, the most you should notice while we transit a wormhole is something analogous to driving a car over a speed bump. We'll see more in the way of turbulence in actual space than while in a wormhole. And I use the word 'in' advisedly, since the transition from here to the other side will be, for all intents and purposes, instantaneous."

I stood up again. "But Cap," I asked, noting the slight scowl that passed over Jameson's face at the assumption of rank, "what's to keep us from tumbling end over end as we come out the other side, like, well, a golf ball off a nine iron?"

A few titters from the audience, but Jameson was unfazed. "Think of it as someone handing that golf ball gently through a doorway. One moment it's on one side of the door -- the next moment it's on the other side."

"And that 'bump' you talked about?"

She smiled -- and I'd remember that smile later; it was a little too knowing. "Just a bump," she said.


Just a bump, my rump.

When it happened the first time, I thought for sure the entire ship had blown to pieces. One moment I was in my bunk, strapped in like we'd all been told, speaking my brilliant thoughts into my thumb recorder -- and the next second it felt as if someone grabbed me by the chest hairs and tried to yank me up through the bunk above me. Anything in the room not tied down made a bee-line for the ceiling, including the one personal effect I'd brought, my Pearson Journalism Award -- and then, just as abruptly, everything, including the P.J., now in four pieces, shot back at the floor -- and that hand rammed me back into my bunk.

Alarm claxons were going off all over our deck, and I could hear Jim Postelwaite, one of the science specialists, in the bunk above me, groaning. The lights went off and just as quickly back on.

"Postelwaite, you okay?" I asked; and after a moment he answered.

"Yeah, I'm okay. Gonna have a bit of a bump on my forehead, though. Forgot to pull my upper chest restraint tight."

Out in the hallway I heard running and shouts -- and then the S.O. came on the horn.

"That was the 'little bump' I told you all about," she said, and I swear she had a little chuckle in her voice, and I'm paranoid enough to think it was just for me. "I trust you all were strapped in as instructed." At this, Postelwaite groaned and made an amendment to Jameson's title, adding a 'B' to the end, that would live in Russell fame.

But even Postelwaite forgot his woes a moment later when the S.O. added: "I'm happy to report that all systems are working. Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves at the beginning of a great adventure, and, hopefully, a successful mission. All chosen participants in Mission A please report to the bay in twenty minutes."

At that moment a holo opened on our opposite wall, as it did in every compartment on the ship, and there was a collective gasp of wonder: there, floating like a bizarrely colored Earth, with bright blue oceans and dark brown, almost black, land masses, punctuated by brilliant Kelly green patches, was our destination, planet two of the Epsilon Eridani system. Epsilon Eridani itself, smaller and redder than Sol, lay in the background, a deep red eye looking baleful.

"Think we'll find anything brainy on it?" I asked Postelwaite, but it was Koprowski who answered.

"I don't know," he growled in his basso voice, "but they better as hell be polite."

He jumped down from the top bunk at that moment, and I saw him slip a long length of heavy-looking pipe into the leg pocket of his work overalls. He winked at me. "I know about the reg on no weapons," he said. "And if anybody asks, this ain't a weapon -- it's a toothbrush."


I was at the entry to the docking bay fifteen minutes early, and still had to wait on line. There were eight of us going, I saw -- the S.O. was already inside and with her was her second, Bill Felder, a grin on his face as usual, and two of the other Specialist One A's: Marjorie O'Hearn, and Rasha Pikal. Rasha had something to do with biology and planetary atmospheres, and played an excellent game of chess. Marjorie was the closest thing I had to competition on the ship; she was the equivalent of a publicist, and I'd already had a couple of run-ins with her over what I considered censorship of the press. But she was a pretty good sort, and so far we hadn't come to blows.

Koprowski and three other techs rounded out the crew. Two of them bore equipment; Koprowski and the remaining crewman were engine specialists.

As I passed the S.O. into the shuttle I cracked, "We in for any more bumps, Cap?"

She pretended not the hear me, but Bill Felder laughed for both of them. "Just a routine ride this time, Mr. Fowler," he said. "Hopefully I'll put the shuttle down nice and easy."

"I'm counting on it," I said.


Inside, the shuttle was almost spacious compared to the cramped quarters of the Russell. My seat was padded, and there was even a footrest. I made sure to strap myself in tightly, though.

My nearest seat mate, Rasha Pikal, was asleep, which was a shame, because I was in the mood for a game of chess -- he had already beat me twice to my one win.

The ride down, which took a thousand times as long as the Russell's trip through the wormhole, was, as advertised, strictly routine. There was a little turbulence as we hit E-E 2's atmosphere, but Felder did as promised and put the boat down as gentle as a breath. I was out of my seat and toward the lock before Jameson's voice, sounding more and more like a true captain every minute, barked over the horn, "All personnel are to stay put until we finish atmospheric testing. Then, Mr. Pikal and I will disembark."

"C'mon, c'mon," I muttered, returning to my seat. "You tested the damned atmosphere from the Russell."

"Might be very different at ground level," Pikal said, yawning himself awake now. His coffee-colored face was impassive. "Pockets of toxins and such."

"Whatever. You owe me a game of chess."

Pikal smiled. "Perhaps you are still regretting that Queen to Rook 5 move you made yesterday?"

"It wasn't that dumb --"

"It was exceedingly dumb," Pikal replied, and then he laughed. "If it was a good move, I'll look forward to you making it again."

I answered sourly: "Like I said: whatever."

He grinned. "It would be my pleasure to beat you a third time."

"Don't be so sure --"

Jameson's voice intruded into my about-to-be foul language. "Mr. Pikal, please report to the air lock."

"That's my cue!" Pikal said, moving past me.

It was the last I ever saw of him.


We waited an hour, twenty minutes past the prescribed time, for Pikal and the cap to return. When they didn't, and when Felder couldn't raise them on either their direct link or the backup radio, he formed a rescue party made up of himself and two of the techs, including Koprowski. I noticed that one of the other techs, a guy named Quint, was paying a lot of attention to a section of the shuttle behind the pilot seating that looked a lot like a gunnery console; it had been sealed shut till now.

Seeing my interest, Felder said, "We've got more in the way of protection than the Council liked to let on. It was politic to keep it quiet. I assume you'll keep it quiet for now, also."

"Only too happy," I said, probably revealing more of my relief than I'd intended. I'd been truly afraid we'd come on this mission naked as a jaybird, as far as armaments were concerned.

"And the Russell?" I asked.

"Plenty there, if needed," he answered. He added quickly, "We hope it's not needed, of course."

"Of course."

He surprised me by saying, "Want to come along?"

"You don't need to ask twice!" I replied, retrieving my recording equipment and meeting him two minutes later at the lock.

I sidled up to Koprowski as the outer lock door slid open and said, "Still got your toothbrush?"

His grin spread from ear to ear. "I always worry about my teeth."

"Well, worry about mine, too."

He kept his grin as we stepped out.

It was greener -- and much brighter -- than I thought it would be. Apparently we'd landed in one of the 'vegetation oasis,' as Pikal had dubbed the green sections visible from orbit. The black patches, he'd explained, were analogous to sand, only more oxidized. "Like former organic areas that had been burned out," he'd said.

The sky was a sickly yellow-blue, with high, thin, wispy clouds. The ground was loamy and loose underfoot. But it was the trees that startled me. In no way could this be called a jungle -- the vegetation was set too wide apart -- but the trees were the most vivid shade of green I've ever seen, and the same color all the way from their boles up their smooth trunks to the tips of their broccoli-like leaf bunches, a couple of hundred feet in the air.

"Never did like broccoli," I said, but no one laughed. Felder was busy with one of the techs, pointing off into the thickest part of the 'forest'.

"Weren't the cap and Pikal being scanned from the The Russell?" I asked.

Without turning around, Felder replied, "Of course. One moment they were . . . there," he pointed to an area between two huge plants that was slightly darker than the surrounding area, "and then they were gone."

"I don't like that word: gone," I said.

"Neither do I," Felder answered.

It was then we heard shouts for help.


It was undeniably Jameson's voice, but it sounded as if it came from behind a wall. Koprowski instantly had his 'toothbrush' out. He took two steps forward, determined anger on his face -- and then he disappeared. There was a lightning quick blur where he had been, and then we heard his own voice added to that of the cap, sounding as if it was close, yet far away.

"Did you record that?" Felder said to the tech standing beside him.

"Got it," the tech said. "But I'm damned if I know what it means. According to this, Koprowski is right where he was, only ten feet lower."

Felder started to say something -- but then everything went haywire around me.

One moment I was looking at Bill Felder and the tech, and then the next I was surrounded by wet, sticky darkness. There was something oddly soothing about it -- like being held in your mother's arms -- but that didn't stop me from yelling my head off.

The next instant I was on my back, there was a hissing sound, the smell of baking bread, and I saw daylight again.

"What the --" I began, spitting a resinous material out of my mouth, along with every invective I could think of, and a few I made up along the way.

A hand helped me up, and then dropped me again. Through rheumy eyes I saw that it was one of the techs, and he was making disgusted sounds.

"Help him up, Simmons," Felder's voice ordered.

"But he's a mess, Sir!"

"Your service record will be a mess if you don't do what I say."

A moment later, amidst grumbling from Simmons, I was on my feet and wiping my eyes clear of the green goo that covered me.

At my feet, split open, lay something that looked a lot like a huge pea pod with a severed stem.

"Was I in that?" I said.

Felder answered, "It had you in a tenth of a second. If we hadn't cued the shuttle to scan for something that quick, it would have had you underground by now."

"I take it that's where the cap and Koprowski and Rasha are?"

"Not Rasha," Felder answered grimly. I then saw two techs bundling up a d-bag. Before I could ask, Felder answered my question. "Cut him cleanly in half. His reaction time was too good. He must have tried to jump out of the pod as it was closing around him. Part of him was up here, behind that nearest tree. The other part ended up . . ." He looked at the ground, and I winced.

I knelt down, running my finger lightly across the open lip of the pea pod I had been in. It was sharp as a knife and blade hard. At the stem end, where it had been severed by a beamer from the shuttle, was the remains of a tough, braided cord made of vegetable matter.

"I want everyone back to the shuttle," Felder ordered, to my surprise.

"But what about --?"

"We know where they are, we know they're alive," he answered. "The Russell's already scanned the substance in these pods, and it's not digestive in nature, so they're not being eaten alive." Again he anticipated my next question. "Now we have to figure out how to get to them."


To my further surprise, Felder took the shuttle back to the Russell. It was almost a full day before I heard anything more about Jameson and Koprowski. During that time I busied myself with getting the rest of the goo off whatever parts of my anatomy hadn't been protected by my jumpsuit, not easy in the cramped, stingy showers on the Russell, and sending a preliminary report off by drone to my network. The drone would take a roundabout route of wormholes, and be back on Earth in a month. It would take us that long to get home ourselves, since wormholes were all one way, and we couldn't go back the way we'd come. Felder's own preliminary report was on the same drone. From what I heard, it was not a happy one. What was left of Rasha Pikal, whose chess game and laughter I already missed, would be sent home later for burial, on one of the larger, scheduled drones.


It was during this period of maddening inaction that the singing began. I don't know exactly how it started, but once it did start it became legend, and forever part of the lore of the Russell.

And though I don't know how it started, I sure as hell know who started it.

Bella Post was a tech second class with a voice like a bellows. She wasn't big in the usual sense, actually she was no taller than five feet and slim as your arm, but she was big in the lungs, and you could hear her throughout whatever deck she happened to be on. She claimed later she didn't write the first song, but no one else stepped up to take credit, so it stuck with her. Someone of an historical bent told me it was like the sea shanties swabbies used to sing in the old Earth navies, and it became the usual thing to see Post, or a group of other techs up to the task, break out into it while working:

"The gals and guys of Number One

Are pledged to visit any sun!

We're ready to meet with anyone who

Wants to join our little zoo!

We techs are apt to groan and gripe --

We say: 'Speak softly -- and carry a big pipe!"

That last bit, of course, in honor of Koprowski, though I did notice that a lot of techs seemed to have that same long pocket sewed into the leg of their coveralls. Speaking of Koprowski: it was finally decided that the only way to go after him and the cap was to allow three or four heavily armed personnel to be captured by pea pods. It had been attempted to excavate the area where they had been taken, but just underneath the loamy soil, it was discovered, was an incredibly thick and resilient layer of vegetable fibers. The fibers could be cut by beamers, but the area almost instantly healed up again. Just under the surface, the entire planet was alive with plant life, to a depth of twenty feet. Epsilon Eridani Two was a huge artichoke. After some experimentation it was found that a small area could be cleared with heavy, sustained beamer fire. At first it was decided that with intensive, long-term fire the two captives might eventually be reached -- but it was Simmons who finally asked, "Isn't there a good chance we'd roast the S.O. and Koprowski along the way? Wouldn't it be quicker to go heavily armed, and let the pods take us down? Then we could just blast our way back up."

That became the plan.

Simmons's bright idea earned him a spot on the rescue team. It was an honor he didn't relish. After Felder and Jim Postelwaite and Quint, who, it turned out, could handle the biggest beamer rifle we carried, the last spot went to me over Marjorie O'Hearn, after I threatened to report terrible things about Felder and the rest of the crew if he didn't choose me over their Council publicity hack.

The shuttle had a full complement this time. Now, there was no politically correct language about weaponry. We were armed to the teeth. Inside the lightweight bio suit with oxygen compliment I wore, I carried everything but an old fashioned bazooka. I even did away with my pocket knife in favor of something Simmons provided me with that looked like a machete.

"Just keep it in the sheath or you'll cut yourself open like a melon," he said.

I noticed he had his own machete, as well as his Koprowski-style toothbrush stowed in his coveralls.


But we didn't get to use any of it. As soon as we landed, Epsilon Eridani Two simply swallowed us up whole, shuttle and all. A lightning quick pod larger than the shuttle (I watched the slo-mo pictures later) shot up out of the ground, grabbed us like an elephant taking a peanut, and yanked us down into the planet.

We quickly discovered why communications with the cap had been severed. We heard her yelling her head off as soon as we came to a halt. Which meant there was nothing wrong with her equipment, only with the layer of matter above us, which proved to be impenetrable to every communications frequency, up and down the spectrum.

"Gentlemen," Felder announced, "we are on our own. The Russell, as per contingency plans, will send another shuttle, but it will not land. It will attempt to beamer the area around us, but we know that will take some time and may not free us in the end. So . . ."

"Slice and dice," Simmons said, opening his own bio suit and hauling out his machete.

Felder kept the line open so we could all hear his conversation with the cap. Mostly, she was steamed, if you'll pardon the pun, but when she calmed down she was able to provide us with some information of value.

"I haven't been able to move much in the last twenty four hours," she said. "I was covered in a sticky green substance that eventually dried and flaked away, and the pod that snatched me opened on its own. But that left me in a green box, perfectly formed out of vegetation, just tall enough to stand in. The vegetation will move out of your way, but only when it wants to. Mostly, up to this point, it's wanted to keep me where I am. I can hear Koprowski cursing a blue streak not ten feet from me, but I haven't been able to get to him."

"We came fully loaded with weapons," Felder reported.

"Well, it's a funny thing -- they might not be of much use to you. I had a small burner, the kind you use to light camp fires, and when I lit it the green matter moved away from the heat in a hurry. But then, just as if it was curious, it crept slowly back and then . . ."

We waited, and then Felder said, "S.O.?"

She laughed. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe it. I'm still not sure I do. A hand formed out of the green matter. Then it reached out with two fingers and snuffed the flame."

"You said a hand?"

Again the laugh. "That's what I said, Bill. There were . . . other manifestations, also. When I got so tired I thought I'd have to sleep standing up and started to sag, a spot opened up for me, a kind of floor. I was able to sleep horizontally. And when I woke up . . ."

We all waited.

"Well," she continued, "there was a figure of some sort leaning over me. A human figure, made of green matter. When I yelped, it instantly melted back into the wall of green. I spent most of today trying to coax it back out, but no soap."

"Anything else?" Felder asked, but at that moment we heard Koprowski's invective-filled voice.

"Finally!" he said, after the cursing subsided. "Do you know how long I've been calling you apes?"

"Since you were captured, I imagine," Felder answered. " Radio frequencies don't penetrate to the surface. I'd guess we'd find some metal, possibly lead, mixed in with this vegetable matter."

"Wonderful! And here I am -- hey! Cut that out! I said cut that out!"

There followed what sounded like giggling.

Felder said, "Koprowski, you all right?"

The giggling intensified into blurts of laughter. "Stop it, dammit! I tol' you before --!"


"They been botherin' me since I got down here, Mr. Felder! Make 'em stop -- make 'em stop!"

Again he collapsed into peels of hysterical laughter.

"Too many hands! Too many! Hee-heeeeeee!"

Then his radio went dead.

Felder tried to get back in touch with him for five minutes, but no dice.

The cap's horn had suddenly gone dead, too.

Felder appeared in the cabin. "Neither of them is where they were," he said. "So here's what we do. We're going out, just as we planned. Set your beamers to mid-level -- I don't want to kill these things, whatever they are, just make 'em move away. I've got a signal on the S.O. It's weak, so we'll go after her first." He turned to Postelwaite. "Jim, you stay with the ship. If the other shuttle gets through from above, report what we've found. If they burn a big enough hole, and we're not back in two hours, tear the hell out of here. Got it?"

Postelwaite nodded. "Clear as ice."

Felder turned to the rest of us.

"Make sure those bio suits" -- he glared at Simmons, who was quickly climbing back into his -- "are tight, and your O2 is ready. Since we only have an hour of air, for now you can crack a vent and use the atmosphere outside." He looked from one to the other of us, then nodded. "Okay, let's do it."


When he opened the lock there was a smooth wall of green in front of us, luminescent as colored glass.

As soon as the door slid closed behind us, the wall turned into an army of figures.

They melted right out of it like liquid. They were human looking enough -- too human, if you know what I mean, since they weren't clothed. The gals looked like, well, gals, and the guys . . . you get the picture.

They had us surrounded before we knew what hit us. I was raising my beamer when one of them slipped his hand, smooth as can be, around my wrist and removed the weapon, like Mama removing a toy from a bad tot.

The smooth wall was still there, and it was moving back as we approached it. Then, abruptly, it receded a long way, making a perfect bright green hallway, which we were led through.

I turned my head and saw that there was now a solid wall behind us, keeping pace about ten feet back. The shuttle was nowhere to be seen.

When I looked forward again I stopped to study the face of my green escort. It looked vaguely familiar. One of the female figures accompanied Felder, and I studied her carefully --

"Hey, Mr. Felder," I murmured through my suit radio, as casually as I could, "you happen to notice --"

"I noticed," he answered. He sounded embarrassed.

Let me tell you: it wasn't every day you were chaperoned by a full sized naked green copy of your commanding officer.

Or of Koprowski.

"They forgot his toothbrush," I muttered.

"Excuse me?" Bill Felder asked, and I saw that he was staring straight ahead, trying not to look at any of the Caps or Koprowskis.

"Forget it," I answered.

As abruptly as they appeared, the bright green figures vanished. I watched one of them melt back into the wall to my left, another one pull up into the ceiling.

We were now in a box, a cube of green about eight feet to a side. I touched the walls. They were firm as concrete.

"Now what?" Simmons said.

"For now, we wait," Felder replied.

"That's fine with me," Simmons answered. "I've got plenty of images I want to leak out of my head."

I noted he had been surrounded by two Koprowskis.

"Oh, my images ain't so bad," Quint cracked; he had been accompanied by two copies of the Cap.

"That's enough," Felder ordered.

So we waited -- until naked copies of ourselves suddenly appeared, and led us on another trek, this one down a green set of stairs that materialized before us.

"Now I'm really gonna have nightmares!" Simmons groaned; this time he was accompanied by two pea-green naked versions of himself.

Quint laughed. "I don't blame you."

"Hey --"

"I said that's enough --" Felder snapped.

At the bottom of the stairs we came face to face with our shuttle -- only made completely of green vegetable matter.

"This can't be real --" Quint began, and Felder answered immediately.

"It isn't. It's a copy, just like the figures. We're forty feet below the real shuttle. I'm still reading its signal above us."

The green door on the green shuttle slid open, and we were escorted inside.

"Well you have to admit this copy is amazing," I remarked. There was exactitude down to the smallest detail, including Simmons' crossword puzzle tab where he'd left it on his seat.

And Science Specialist Jim Postelwaite, who we'd left behind.

He was all green, of course, and naked, but he sure as hell looked like Postelwaite.

Felder said, "Jim?"

The green Postelwaite looked at Felder and said, "Yes, Bill?"

"Hey, you're not the real --" I said.

Green Postelwaite looked at me and began to speak, but at that instant he melted away, along with the entire green shuttle we were in. We found ourselves standing on a flat green expanse -- and there in the distance marching toward us, flanked by one naked green Jameson and two naked green Koprowskis, were the real, fully clothed, captain and tech. They looked embarrassed but determined as hell. One of the naked green Koprowskis bore a closed green pod about three feet in length.

When the cap had reached us she greeted Felder and briefly acknowledged the rest of us. "I suggest we all keep our sight at eye level," she said, and she meant it. "Mr. Simmons, please give our friend here --" she indicated the green naked copy of herself "-- your bio suit. You don't need it to survive down here."

Simmons did as instructed, and there was an awkward silence while the naked green copy of the captain was helped into the bio suit. Once that was done the captain seemed to relax.

I couldn't keep my mouth shut: "Hey Cap," I said, "want us to give the naked Koprowskis our suits?"

"That won't be necessary," she answered. "They won't be staying."

With that, the two nude Koprowskis melted into the floor like water being poured into a drain, leaving the pod behind.

"Gentlemen," the S.O. said, "I'd like you to meet Rena. She'll be coming with us as a representative of her . . . people."

"Not 'people,' exactly, S.O.," the green figure in the bio suit corrected. I noticed that she now looked like Simmons.

As she looked at each of us in turn, she became our doppelganger.

"I can see this is going to be a problem," the cap said.

Rena replied, "Would you rather I assume one set of features?"

"That would be a good idea, if you don't mind."

"It's easily accomplished." She instantly reverted to an exact duplicate of the captain.

Captain Jameson began, "I don't think . . ."

"Hey S.O.," Koprowski cut in; it was the first time he'd spoken since arriving with two naked green duplicates of himself. He'd spent most of his time glowering at Quint, who had been barely hiding his laughter at Koprowski's discomfiture. "Why don't you let Rena be . . ." With his head, he indicated the pod.

Rena instantly approached the pod. She opened it along its seam, reached in briefly, then re-closed it.

When she stood back up she had assumed the features of Rasha Pikal.

I was staring at the pod as Jameson explained, "I assume the rest of Rasha's remains were found on the surface. All Rena needs is a sample of his genetic material to duplicate him."

"The accident is greatly regretted," the green Pikal said. "I shall stay in this shape, at least for the time being, if you wish. Perhaps it will serve as an homage to the slain entity."

"Okay if we call him Reno?" Bill Felder chimed in.

There were no objections. Jameson said, "Reno it is. And, as I said, Reno will be coming with us. This area we are in, which is a kind of oasis, is both one life form and many life forms. Each one of those green patches we saw from orbit is such a gestalt. Basically, they are the only living things in their areas. Even the trees and other plants we saw on the surface are extensions of this one creature. In fact, though they thrive on oxygen, they became plant life in order to produce their own oxygen. They nurture themselves. And though there is only one creature, it can live as separate parts. While Reno will be coming with us, he will remain, at the same time, this entire creature."

Reno said, "It will be our one chance to see the stars, and visit other worlds. We would be foolish to pass it up. And we will assist you as needed."

"Not a bad deal," Bill Felder said. "It's too bad poor Pikal didn't get to see this. He would have been thrilled."

"He is thrilled, I assure you," Reno said. "As long as I retain his shape and mass, I feel exactly what he would have felt. His brain patterns and memories have become my own. My reactions will be what his reactions would be. He is positively ecstatic, believe me."

"Would Pikal's family object . . .?" I began.

"We'll sort it out later," the cap said. "Right now I want to get back to the Russell."

Without any movement from Reno, we found ourselves on the surface of the planet, stepping out of what I later described as "elevator" pods. Another huge pod opened nearby, revealing the shuttle.

Pushing the sticky substance of the pod away from me, I said, "I'd like to get back to the ship too -- and take a shower."

As we stepped into the shuttle, greeted by a baffled, and decidedly ungreen, Postelwaite, the captain said to Reno, "Would you like to take a last look at what you're leaving?"

Reno answered, with what I thought was a trace of a smile, "But captain, I won't be leaving."

That was another one we had to sort out later.


And sort it out we did. We stowed the shuttle, and Jen Jameson plotted a slow boat course for our giant gray golf ball to hit a new wormhole which, when we went through it, would put us in the vicinity of another promising system. It was, I was told, three weeks away. Before we left Epsilon Eridani Two we shot the large scheduled probe out ahead of us, containing my full report, brilliantly written if I do say so myself, as well as the remains of Pikal. Don't ask me how, but with the vagaries of wormholes, the reply drone will be there waiting for us when we reach our next jump point, with the latest news of home, as well as word from Pikal's family.


Later: as advertised, that reply drone was waiting for us, and it was captured as we prepared to enter the new wormhole and set off on Mission B. The remains of my P. J. Award, glued together, have been stowed, along with anything else that might not like that bump.

We got word from Pikal's family: they would be honored to have our new addition exist in the likeness of Pikal. Which is fine with me, because Reno, like Pikal, is a heck of a good chess player. He's beaten me eight times so far, and the last game we played I made the same dumb Queen to Rook 5 move I made in the last game I played with Pikal.

We're about to go through; I can hear Bella Post's bellows of a voice booming through the hallways from her cubicle where she's strapped down like the rest of us. She and the other Techies are singing:

"We're ready to meet with anyone who

Wants to join our little zoo!"

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