The Flat-Eyed Monster
by William Tenn
For the first few moments, Clyde Manship—who up to then had been an assistant professor of Comparative Literature at Kelly University—for the first few moments, Manship tried heroically to convince himself that he was merely having a bad dream. He shut his eyes and told himself chidingly, with a little superior smile playing about his lips, that things as ugly as this just did not occur in real life. No. Definitely a dream.
He had himself half convinced, until he sneezed. It was too loud and wet a sneeze to be ignored. You didn’t sneeze like that in a dream—if you sneezed at all. He gave up. He’d have to open his eyes and take another look. At the thought, his neck muscles went rigid with spasm.
A little while ago, he’d fallen asleep while reading an article he’d written for a scholarly journal. He’d fallen asleep in his own bed in his own apartment in Callahan Hall—“a charming and inexpensive residence for those members of the faculty who are bachelors and desire to live on campus.” He’d awakened with a slightly painful tingling sensation in every inch of his body. He felt as if he were being stretched, stretched interminably and—and loosened. Then, abruptly, he had floated off the bed and gone though the open window like a rapidly attenuating curl of smoke. He’d gone straight up to the star-drenched sky of night, dwindling in substance until he lost consciousness completely.
And had come to on this enormous flat expanse of white tabletop, with a multivaulted ceiling above him and dank, barely breathable air in his lungs. Hanging from the ceiling were quantities and quantities of what was indubitably electronic equipment, but the kind of equipment the boys in the Physics Department might dream up, if the grant they’d just received from the government for military radiation research had been a million times larger than it was, and if Professor Bowles, the department head, had insisted that every gadget be carefully constructed to look substantially different from anything done in electronics to date.
The equipment above him had been rattling and gurgling and whooshing, glowing and blinking and coruscating. Then it had stopped as if someone had been satisfied and had turned off a switch.
So Clyde Manship had sat up to see who had turned it off.
He had seen all right.
He hadn’t seen so much who as he had seen what. And it hadn’t been a nice what. In fact, none of the whats he had glimpsed in that fast look around had been a bit nice. So he had shut his eyes fast and tried to find another mental way out of the situation.
But now he had to have another look. It might not be so bad the second time. “It’s always darkest,” he told himself with determined triteness, “before the dawn.” And then found himself involuntarily adding, “except on days when there’s an eclipse.”
But he opened his eyes anyway, wincingly, the way a child opens its mouth for the second spoonful of castor oil.
Yes, they were all as he had remembered them. Pretty awful.
The tabletop was an irregular sort of free-form shape, bordered by thick, round knobs a few inches apart. And perched on these knobs, about six feet to the right of him, were two creatures who looked like black leather suitcases. Instead of handles or straps, however, they sported a profusion of black tentacles, dozens and dozens of tentacles, every second or third one of which ended in a moist turquoise eye shielded by a pair of the sweepingest eyelashes Manship had ever seen outside of a mascara advertisement.
Embedded in the suitcase proper, as if for additional decorative effect, were swarms of other sky-blue eyes, only these, without eyelashes, bulged out in multitudes of tiny, glittering facets like enormous gems. There was no sign of ear, nose or mouth anywhere on the bodies, but there was a kind of slime, a thick, grayish slime, that oozed out of the black bodies and dripped with a steady splash-splash-splash to the floor beneath.
On his left, about fifteen feet away, where the tabletop extended a long peninsula, there was another one of the creatures. Its tentacles gripped a pulsating spheroid across the surface of which patches of light constantly appeared and disappeared.
As near as Manship could tell, all the visible eyes of the three were watching him intently. He shivered and tried to pull his shoulders closer together.
“Well, Professor,” someone asked suddenly, “what would you say?”
“I’d say this was one hell of a way to wake up,” Manship burst out, feelingly. He was about to go on and develop this theme in more colorful detail when two things stopped him.
The first was the problem of who had asked the question. He had seen no other human—no other living creature, in fact—besides the three tentacled suitcases anywhere in that tremendous, moisture-filled room.
The second thing that stopped him was that someone else had begun to answer the question at the same time, cutting across Manship’s words and ignoring them completely.
“Well, obviously,” this person said, “the experiment is a success. It has completely justified its expense and the long years of research behind it. You can see for yourself, Councilor Glomg, that one-way teleportation is an accomplished fact.”
Manship realized that the voices were coming from his right. The wider of the two suitcases—evidently “the professor” to whom the original query had been addressed—was speaking to the narrower one, who had swung most of his stalked eyes away from Manship and had focused them on his companion. Only where in blazes were the voices coming from? Somewhere inside their bodies? There was no sign anywhere of vocal apparatus.
AND HOW COME, Manship’s mind suddenly shrieked, THEY TALK ENGLISH?
“I can see that,” Councilor Glomg admitted with a blunt honesty that became him well. “It’s an accomplished fact, all right, Professor Lirld. Only, what precisely has it accomplished?”
Lirld raised some thirty or forty tentacles in what Manship realized fascinatedly was an elaborate and impatient shrug. “The teleportation of a living organism from astronomical unit 649-301-3 without the aid of transmitting apparatus on the planet of origin”
The Councilor swept his eyes back to Manship. “You call that living?” he inquired doubtfully.
“Oh, come now, Councilor,” Professor Lirld protested. “Let’s not have any flefnomorphism. It is obviously sentient, obviously motile, after a fashion—”
“All right. It’s alive. I’ll grant that. But sentient? It doesn’t even seem to pmbff from where I stand. And those horrible lonely eyes! Just two of them—and so flat! That dry, dry skin without a trace of slime. I’ll admit that—”
“You’re not exactly a thing of beauty and a joy forever yourself, you know,” Manship, deeply offended, couldn’t help throwing out indignantly.
“—I tend to flemomorphism in my evaluation of alien life-forms,” the other went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “Well, I’m a flefnobe and proud of it. But after all, Professor Lirld, I have seen some impossible creatures from our neighboring planets that my son and other explorers have brought back. The very strangest of them, the most primitive ones, at least can pmbff! But this—this thing. Not the smallest, slightest trace of a pmb do I see on it! It’s eerie, that’s what it is—eerie!”
“Not at all,” Lirld assured him. “It’s merely a scientific anomaly. Possibly in the outer reaches of the galaxy where animals of this sort are frequent, possibly conditions are such that pmbffing is unnecessary. A careful examination should tell us a good deal very quickly. Meanwhile, we’ve proved that life exists in other areas of the galaxy than its sun-packed core. And when the time comes for us to conduct exploratory voyages to these areas, intrepid adventurers like your son will go equipped with information. They will know what to expect.”
“Now, listen,” Manship began shouting in desperation. “Can you or can you not hear me?”
“You can shut off the power, Srin,” Professor Lirld commented. “No sense in wasting it. I believe we have as much of this creature as we need. If any more of it is due to materialize, it will arrive on the residual beam.”
The flefnobe on Manship’s left rapidly spun the strange spheroid he was holding. A low hum, which had filled the building and had been hardly noticeable before, now died away. As Srin peered intently at the patches of light on the surface of the instrument, Manship suddenly guessed that they were meter readings. Yes, that’s exactly what they were—meter readings. Now, how did I know that? he wondered.
Obvious. There was only one answer. If they couldn’t hear him no matter how loudly he shouted, if they gave no sign that they even knew he was shouting, and if, at the same time, they seemed to indulge in the rather improbable feat of talking his native language—they were obviously telepaths. Without anything that looked like ears or mouths.
He listened carefully as Srin asked his superior a question. It seemed to sound in his ears as words, English words in a clear, resonant voice. But there was a difference. There was a quality missing, the kind of realistic bite that fresh fruit has and artificial fruit flavoring doesn’t. And behind Srin’s words there were low, murmuring bubbles of other words, unorganized sentence fragments which would occasionally become “audible” enough to clarify a subject that was not included in the “conversation.” That, Manship realized, was how he had learned that the shifting patches of light on the spheroid were meter readings.
It was also evident that whenever they mentioned something for which no equivalent at all existed in English, his mind supplied him with a nonsense syllable.
So far so good. He’d been plucked out of his warm bed in Callahan Hall by a telepathic suitcase named something like Lirld which was equipped with quantities of eyes and tentacles. He’d been sucked down to some planet in an entirely different system near the center of the galaxy, clad in nothing but apple-green pajamas.
He was on a world of telepaths who couldn’t hear him at all, but upon whom he could eavesdrop with ease, his brain evidently being a sufficiently sensitive antenna. He was scheduled shortly to undergo a “careful examination,” a prospect he did not relish, the more so as he was evidently looked upon as a sort of monstrous laboratory animal. Finally, he was not thought much of, chiefly because he couldn’t pmbff worth a damn.
All in all, Clyde Manship decided, it was about time that he made his presence felt. Let them know, so to speak, that he was definitely not a lower form of life, but one of the boys. That he belonged to the mind-over-matter club himself and came of a long line of IQ-fanciers on both sides of his family.
Vague memories of adventure stories read as a boy drifted back to him. Explorers land on a strange island. Natives, armed with assorted spears, clubs and small boulders, gallop out of the jungle to meet them, their whoops an indisputable prelude to mayhem. Explorers, sweating a bit, as they do not know the language of this particular island, must act quickly. Naturally, they resort to—they resort to—the universal sign language! Sign language. Universal!
Still in a sitting position, Clyde Manship raised arms straight up over his head. “Me friend,” he intoned. “Me come in peace.” He didn’t expect the dialogue to get across, but it seemed to him that voicing such words might help him psychologically and thus add more sincerity to the gesture.
“—and you might as well turn off the recording apparatus, too,” Professor Lirld was instructing his assistant. “From here on out, we’ll take everything down on a double memory-fix.”
Srin manipulated his spheroid again. “Think I should modulate the dampness, sir? The creature’s dry skin seems to argue a desert climate.”
“Not at all. I strongly suspect it to be one of those primitive forms which can survive in a variety of environments. The specimen seems to be getting along admirably. I tell you, Srin, we can be very well satisfied with the results of the experiment up to this point.”
“Me friend,” Manship went on desperately, raising and lowering his arms. “Me intelligent entity. Me have IQ of 140 on the Wechsler-Bellevue scale.”
“You may be satisfied,” Glomg was saying, as Lirld left the table with a light jump and floated, like an oversized dandelion, to a mass of equipment overhead, “but I’m not. I don’t like this business one little bit.”
“Me friendly and intelligent enti—” Manship began. He sneezed again. “Damn this wet air,” he muttered morosely.
“What was that?” Glomg demanded.
“Nothing very important, Councilor,” Srin assured him. “The creature did it before. It is evidently a low-order biological reaction that takes place periodically, possibly a primitive method of imbibing glrnk. Not by any stretch of the imagination a means of communication, however.”
“I wasn’t thinking of communication,” Glomg observed testily. “I thought it might be a prelude to aggressive action.”
The professor skimmed back to the table, carrying a skein of luminescent wires. “Hardly. What could a creature of this sort be aggressive with? I’m afraid you’re letting your mistrust of the unknown run away with you, Councilor Glomg.”
Manship had crossed his arms across his chest and subsided into a helpless silence. There was evidently no way to make himself understood outside of telepathy. And how do you start transmitting telepathically for the first time? What do you use?
If only his doctoral thesis had been in biology or physiology, he thought wistfully, instead of The Use of the Second Aorist in the First Three Books of the Iliad. Oh, well. He was a long way from home. Might as well try.
He closed his eyes, having first ascertained that Professor Lirld did not intend to approach his person with the new piece of equipment. He wrinkled his forehead and leaned forward with an effort of extreme concentration.
Testing, he thought as hard as he could, testing, testing. One, two, three, four—testing, testing. Can you hear me?
“I just don’t like it,” Glomg announced again. “I don’t like what we’re doing here. Call it a presentiment, call it what you will, but I feel we are tampering with the infinite—and we shouldn’t.”
I’m testing, Manship ideated frantically. Mary had a little lamb. Testing, testing. I’m the alien creature and I’m trying to communicate with you. Come in, please.
“Now, Councilor,” Lirld protested irritably. “Let’s have none of that. This is a scientific experiment.”
“That’s all very well. But I believe there are mysteries that flefnobe was never meant to examine. Monsters as awful-looking as this—no slime on the skin, only two eyes and both of them flat, unable or unwilling to pmbff, an almost complete absence of tentacles—a creature of this sort should have been left undisturbed on its own hellish planet. There are limits to science, my learned friend—or there should be. One should not seek to know the unknowable!”
Cant you hear me? Manship begged. Alien entity to Srin, Lirld and Glomg: This is an attempt at a telepathic connection. Come in, please, someone. Anyone. He considered for a moment, then added: Roger. Over.
“I don’t recognize such limitations, Councilor. My curiosity is as vast as the universe.”
“That may be,” Glomg rejoined portentously. “But there are more things in Tiz and Tetzbah, Professor Lirld, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
“My philosophy—” Lirld began, and broke off to announce—“Here’s your son. Why don’t you ask him? Without the benefit of half a dozen scientific investigations that people like you have wanted to call off time after time, none of his heroic achievements in interplanetary discovery would be possible.”
Thoroughly defeated, but still curious, Manship opened his eyes in time to see an extremely narrow black suitcase swarm up to the tabletop in a spaghetti-cluster of tentacles.
“What is—that?” the newcomer inquired, curling a bunch of supercilious eye-stalks over Manship’s head. “It looks like a yurd with a bad case of hipplestatch.” He considered for a moment, then added, “Galloping hipplestatch.”
“It’s a creature from astronomical unit 649-301-3 that I’ve just succeeded in teleporting to our planet,” Lirld told him proudly. “Mind you, Rabd, without a transmitting outfit on the other end! I admit I don’t know why it worked this time and never before—but that’s a matter for further research. A beautiful specimen, though, Rabd. And as near as we can tell, in perfect condition. You can put it away now, Srin.”
“Oh, no you don’t, Srin—” Manship had barely started to announce when a great rectangle of some pliable material fell from the ceiling and covered him. A moment later, the tabletop on which he’d been sitting seemed to drop away and the ends of the material were gathered in underneath him and fastened with a click by a scuttling individual whom he took to be the assistant. Then, before he had time to so much as wave his arms, the tabletop shot up with an abruptness that he found twice as painful as it was disconcerting.
And there he was, packaged as thoroughly as a birthday present. All in all, things were not improving, he decided. Well, at least they seemed disposed to leave him alone now. And as yet they showed no tendency to shove him up on a laboratory shelf along with dusty jars of flefnobe fetuses pickled in alcohol.
The fact that he was probably the first human being in history to make contact with an extraterrestrial race failed to cheer Clyde Manship in the slightest.
First, he reflected, the contact had been on a distinctly minor key—the sort that an oddly colored moth makes with a collector’s bottle rather than a momentous meeting between the proud representatives of two different civilizations.
Second, and much more important, this sort of hands-across-the-cosmos affair was more likely to enthuse an astronomer, a sociologist or even a physicist than an assistant professor of Comparative Literature.
He’d had fantastic daydreams aplenty in his lifetime. But they concerned being present at the premiere of Macbeth, for example, and watching a sweating Shakespeare implore Burbage not to shout out the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech in the last act: “For God’s sake, Dick, your wife just died and you’re about to lose your kingdom and your life—don’t let it sound like Meg at the Mermaid screaming for a dozen of ale. Philosophical, Dick, that’s the idea, slow, mournful and philosophical. And just a little bewildered.”
Or he’d imagined being one of the company at that moment sometime before 700 B.C. when a blind poet rose and intoned for the first time: “Anger, extreme anger, that is my tale…”
Or being a house guest at Yasnaya Polyana when Tolstoy wandered in from the garden with an abstracted look on his face and muttered: “Just got an idea for a terrific yarn about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. And what a title! War and Peace. Nothing pretentious, nothing complicated. Just simply War and Peace. It’ll knock them dead in St. Petersburg, I tell you. Of course, it’s just a bare little short story at the moment, but I’ll probably think of a couple of incidents to pad it out.”
Travel to the Moon and the other planets of the solar system, let alone a voyage to the center of the galaxy—in his pajamas? No, that was definitely not a menu calculated to make Clyde Manship salivate. In this respect, he had wisted no farther afield than a glimpse, say, of Victor Hugo’s sky-high balcony in St. Germain des Pres or the isles of Greece where burning Sappho loved and, from time to time as it occurred to her, sang.
Professor Bowles, now, Bowles or any of the other slipstick-sniffers in the Physics Department—what those boys would give to be in his position! To be the subject of an actual experiment far beyond the dreams of even theory on Earth, to be exposed to a technology that was patently so much more advanced than theirs—why, they would probably consider that, in exchange for all this, the vivisection that Manship was morosely certain would end the evening’s festivities was an excellent bargain and verged on privilege. The Physics Department…
Manship suddenly recalled the intricately weird tower, studded with gray dipoles, that the Physics Department had been erecting in Murphy Field. He’d watched the government-subsidized project in radiation research going up from his window in Callahan Hall.
Only the evening before, when it had reached the height of his window, he’d reflected that it looked more like a medieval siege engine designed to bring down walled cities than a modern communicative device.
But now, with Lirld’s comment about one-way teleportation never having worked before, he found himself wondering whether the uncompleted tower, poking a ragged section of electronic superstructure at his bedroom window, had been partially responsible for this veritable puree-of-nightmare he’d been wading through.
Had it provided a necessary extra link with Lirld’s machine, sort of an aerial connection or grounding wire or whatever? If only he knew a little physics! Eight years of higher education were inadequate to suggest the barest aye or nay.
He gnashed his teeth, went too far and bit his tongue—and was forced to suspend mental operations until the pain died away and the tears dribbled out of his eyes.
What if he knew for certain that the tower had played a potent, though passive, part in his removal through interstellar space? What if he knew the exact part it had played in terms of megavolts and amperages and so forth—would the knowledge be the slightest use to him in this impossible situation?
No, he’d still be a hideous flat-eyed, non-intelligent monster plucked pretty much at random from the outer reaches of the universe, surrounded by creatures to whose minds his substantial knowledge of the many literatures of astronomical unit 649-301-3 would probably come across, allowing even for the miracle of translation, as so much schizophrenic word-salad.
In his despair, he plucked hopelessly at the material in which he’d been wrapped. Two small sections came away in his fingers.
There wasn’t enough light to examine them, but the feel was unmistakable. Paper. He was wrapped in an oversized sheet of something very much like paper.
It made sense, he thought, it made sense in its own weird way. Since the appendages of the flefnobes he had seen to date consisted of nothing more than slender tentacles ending in either eyes or tapered points, and since they seemed to need knoblike protuberances on the laboratory table in order to perch beside him, a cage of paper was pretty much escape-proof from their point of view. There was nothing for their tentacles to grip—and they evidently didn’t have the musculature to punch their way through.
Well, he did. Athletically, he had never amounted to much, but he believed, given enough of an emergency, in his ability to fight his way out of a paper bag. It was a comforting thought, but, at the moment, only slightly more useful than the nugget about the tower in Murphy Field.
If only there were some way of transmitting that bit of information to Lirld’s little group: Maybe they’d realize that the current flefnobe version of The Mindless Horror from Hyperspace had a few redeeming intellectual qualities, and maybe they could work out a method of sending him back. If they wanted to.
Only he couldn’t transmit information. All he could do, for some reason peculiar to the widely separate evolutionary paths of man and flefnobe, was receive. So former Assistant Professor Clyde Manship sighed heavily, slumped his shoulders yet a further slump—and stolidly set himself to receive.
He also straightened his pajamas about him tenderly, not so much from latent sartorial ambition as because of agonizing twinges of nostalgia: he had suddenly realized that the inexpensive green garment with its heavily standardized cut was the only artifact he retained of his own world. It was the single souvenir, so to speak, that he possessed of the civilization which had produced both Tamerlane and terza rima; the pajamas were, in fact, outside of his physical body, his last link with Earth.
“So far as I’m concerned,” Glomg’s explorer son was commenting—it was obvious that the argument had been breezing right along and that the papery barrier didn’t affect Manship’s “hearing” in the slightest—“I can take these alien monsters or leave them alone. When they get as downright disgusting as this, of course, I’d rather leave them alone. But what I mean—I’m not afraid of tampering with the infinite, like Pop here, and on the other side, I can’t believe that what you’re doing, Professor Lirld, will ever lead to anything really important.”
He paused, then went on. “I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings, sir, but that’s what I honestly think. I’m a practical flefnobe, and I believe in practical things.”
“How can you say—nothing really important?” In spite of Rabd’s apology, the professor’s mental “voice” as it registered on Manship’s brain positively undulated with indignation. “Why, the greatest concern of flefnobe science at the moment is to achieve a voyage to some part of the outer galaxy where the distances between stars are prodigious compared to their relative denseness here at the galactic center.
“We can travel at will between the fifty-four planets of our system and we have recently achieved flight to several of our neighboring suns, but going so far as even the middle areas of the galaxy, where this specimen originates, remains as visionary a project today as it was before the dawn of extra-atmospheric flight over two centuries ago.”
“Right!” Rabd broke in sharply. “And why? Because we don’t have the ships capable of making the journey? Not on your semble-swol, Professor! Why, since the development of the Bulvonn Drive, any ship in the flefnobe navy or merchant marine, down to my little three-jet runabout, could scoot out to a place as far as astronomical unit 649-301-3—to name just one example—and back without even hotting up her engines. But we don’t. And for a very good reason.”
Clyde Manship was now listening—or receiving—so hard that the two halves of his brain seemed to grind against each other. He was very much interested in astronomical unit 649-301-3 and anything that made travel to it easier or more difficult, however exotic the method of transportation employed might be by prevailing terrestrial standards.
“And the reason, of course,” the young explorer went on, “is a practical one. Mental dwindle. Good old mental dwindle. In two hundred years of solving every problem connected with space travel, we haven’t so much as pmbffed the surface of that one. All we have to do is go a measly twenty light-years from the surface of our home planet and mental dwindle sets in with a bang. The brightest crews start acting like retarded children and, if they don’t turn back right away, their minds go out like so many lights: they’ve dwindled mentally smack down to zero.”
It figured, Manship decided excitedly, it figured. A telepathic race like the flefnobes…why, of course! Accustomed since earliest infancy to having the mental aura of the entire species about them at all times, dependent completely on telepathy for communication since there had never been a need for developing any other method, what loneliness, what ultimate magnification of loneliness, must they not feel once their ships had reached a point too far from their world to maintain contact!
And their education now—Manship could only guess at the educational system of a creature so different from himself, but surely it must be a kind of high-order and continual mental osmosis, a mutual mental osmosis. However it worked, their educational system probably accentuated the involvement of the individual with the group. Once the feeling of involvement became too tenuous, because of intervening barrier or overpowering stellar distance, the flefnobe’s psychological disintegration was inevitable.
But all this was unimportant. There were interstellar spaceships in existence! There were vehicles that could take Clyde Manship back to Earth, back to Kelly University and the work-in-progress he hoped would eventually win him a full professorship in Comparative Literature: Style vs. Content in Fifteen Representative Corporation Reports to Minority Stockholders for the Period 1919-1931.
For the first time, hope sprang within his breast. A moment later, it was lying on its back and massaging a twisted knee. Because assume, just assume for the sake of argument, his native intelligence told him, that he could somehow get out of this place and pick his way about what was, by every indication, a complete oddity of a world, until he found the spaceships Rabd had mentioned—could it ever be believed by any imagination no matter how wild or fevered, his native intelligence continued, that he, Clyde Manship, whose fingers were all thumbs and whose thumbs were all knuckles, whose mechanical abilities would have made Swanscombe Man sneer and Sinanthropus snicker, could it ever be believed, his native intelligence inquired sardonically, that he’d be capable of working out the various gadgets of advanced spaceship design, let alone the peculiarities that highly unusual creatures like the flefnobes would inevitably have incorporated into their vessels?
Clyde Manship was forced to admit morosely that the entire project was somewhat less than possible. But he did tell his native intelligence to go straight to hell.
Rabd now, though. Rabd could pilot him back to Earth if (a) Rabd found it worthwhile personally and if (b) Rabd could be communicated with. Well, what interested Rabd most? Evidently this Mental Dwindle ranked quite high.
“If you’d come up with an answer to that, Professor,” he was expostulating at this point, “I would cheer so hard I’d unship my glrnk. That’s what’s kept us boxed up here at the center of the galaxy for too many years. That’s the practical problem. But when you haul this Qrm-forsaken blob of protoplasm out of its hole halfway across the universe and ask me what I think of it, I must tell you the whole business leaves me completely dry. This, to me, is not a practical experiment.”
Manship caught the mental ripples of a nod from Rabd’s father. “I’m forced to agree with you, son. Impractical and dangerous. And I think I can get the rest of the council to see it my way. Far too much has been spent on this project already.”
As the resonance of their thoughts decreased slightly in volume, Manship deduced they were leaving the laboratory.
He heard the beginnings of a desperate, “But—but—” from Lirld. Then, off in the distance, Councilor Glomg, evidently having dismissed the scientist, asked his son a question, “And where is little Tekt? I thought she’d be with you.”
“Oh, she’s out at the landing field,” Rabd answered, “supervising last-minute stuff going into the ship. After all, we begin our mating flight tonight.”
“A wonderful female,” Glomg told him in a “voice” that was now barely audible. “You’re a very lucky flefnobe.”
“I know that, Pop,” Rabd assured him. “Don’t think I don’t know that. The most plentiful bunch of eye-ended tentacles this side of Gansibokkle and they’re mine, all mine!”
“Tekt is a warm and highly intelligent female flefnobe,” his father pointed out severely from a great distance. “She has many fine qualities. I don’t like you acting as if the mating process were a mere matter of the number of eye-ended tentacles possessed by the female.”
“Oh, it isn’t, Pop,” Rabd assured him. “It isn’t at all. The mating process is a grave and—er, a serious matter to me. Full of responsibilities—er, serious responsibilities. Yes, sir. Highly serious. But the fact that Tekt has over a hundred and seventy-six slime-washed tentacles, each topped by a lovely, limpid eye, won’t do our relationship a bit of harm. Quite the contrary, Pop, quite the contrary.”
“A superstitious old crank and a brash bumpkin,” Professor Lirld commented bitterly. “But between them, they can have my appropriation shut off, Srin. They can stop my work. Just when it’s showing positive results. We’ve got to prepare counter-measures!”
Manship was not interested in this all-too-familiar academic despair, however. He was straining desperately after the receding minds of Glomg and Rabd. Not that he was at all intrigued by the elder’s advice on How to Have a Sane and Happy Sex Life Though Married.
What had excited him prodigiously was a mental by-product of a much earlier comment. When Rabd had mentioned the last-minute loading of his ship, another part of the flefnobe’s mind had, as if stimulated by association, dwelt briefly on the construction of the small vessel, its maintenance and, most important, its operation.
For just a few seconds, there had been a flash of a control panel with varicolored lights going on and off, and the beginnings of long-ago, often-repeated instruction: “To warm up the motors of the Bulvonn Drive, first gently rotate the uppermost three cylinders…Gently now!”
It was the kind of subliminal thought-picture, Manship realized excitedly, that had emanated from Srin a short while ago, and had enabled him to guess that the shifting light-patterns on the sphere the laboratory assistant held were actually meter readings. Evidently, his sensitivity to the flefnobe brain went deeper than the mental statements that were consciously transmitted by it and penetrated, if not the unconscious mind, at least the less submerged areas of personal awareness and memory.
But this meant—this meant—seated as he was, he still managed to stagger at the concept. A little practice, just a little acquired skill, and he could no doubt pick the brain of every flefnobe on the planet.
He sat and glowed at the thought. An ego that had never been particularly robust had been taking an especially ferocious pounding in the past half-hour under the contemptuous scrutiny of a hundred turquoise eyes and dozens of telepathic gibes. A personality that had been power-starved most of its adult life abruptly discovered it might well hold the fate of an entire planet in the hollow of its cerebrum.
Yes, this certainly made him feel a lot better. Every bit of information these flefnobes possessed was his for the taking. What, for example, did he feel like taking? For a starter, that is.
Manship remembered. His euphoria dwindled like a spat-upon match. There was only one piece of information he desired, only one thing he wanted to know. How to get home!
One of the few creatures on this planet, possibly the only one for all he knew, whose thoughts were of a type to make this possible, was on his way with his father to some flefnobe equivalent of Tony’s Bar and Grill. Rabd had, in fact, to judge from the silence reigning on the subject, just this moment passed out of effective telepathic range.
With a hoarse, anguished, yearning cry, similar to that of a bull who—having got in a juicy lick with his horns and having been carried by the momentum of his rush the full length of the bull-ring—turns, only to see the attendants dragging the wounded matador out of the arena…with precisely that sort of thoroughly dismayed bellow, Clyde Manship reached up, tore the surrounding material apart with one mighty two-handed gesture, and leaped to his feet on the in-and-out curving tabletop.
“…And seven or eight charts in full color, representing the history of teleportation prior to this experiment,” Lirld was telling his assistant at that moment. “In fact, Srin, if you have time to make three-dimensional charts, the Council is even more likely to be impressed. We’re in a fight, Srin, and we’ve got to use every—”
His thoughts broke off as an eyestalk curled around and regarded Manship. A moment later his entire complement of eyestalks as well as those of his assistant swished about and stopped, quivering, with their focus on the erect, emergent human.
“Holy, concentrated Qrm,” the professor’s mind barely transmitted the quavering thought. “The flat-eyed monster. It’s broken loose!”
“Out of a cage of solid paper!” Srin added in awe.
Lirld came to a decision. “The blaster,” he ordered peremptorily. “Tentacle me the blaster, Srin. Appropriation or no appropriation, we don’t dare take chances with a creature like this. We’re in a crowded city. Once it got out on a rampage—” He shuddered the entire black suitcase length of him. He made a rapid adjustment in the curlicued instrument that Srin had given him. He pointed it at Manship.
Having actually fought his way out of the paper bag, Manship had paused, irresolute, on the tabletop. Far from being a man of action in any sense, he now found himself distinctly puzzled as to just which way to act. He had no idea of the direction taken by Glomg pere and fils; furthermore he was at a loss as he looked around for anything that in any way resembled a door. He regretted very much that he had not noticed through which aperture Rabd had entered the room when the younger flefnobe had joined their jolly little circle.
He had just about made up his mind to look into a series of zigzag indentations in the opposite wall when he observed Lirld pointing the blaster at him with determined if unprofessional tremulousness. His mind, which had been filing the recent conversation between professor and assistant in an uninterested back-portion, suddenly informed him that he was about to become the first, and probably unrecorded victim, in a War of Worlds.
“Hey!” he yelped, entirely forgetting his meager powers of communication. “I just want to look up Rabd. I’m not going on any ramp—”
Lirld did something to the curlicued instrument that seemed like winding a clock, but was probably more equivalent to the pressing of a trigger. He simultaneously shut all of his eyes—no mean feat in itself.
That, Clyde Manship reflected later—when there was time and space to reflect—was the only thing which saved his life. That and the prodigious sideways broad-jump he made as millions of crackling red dots ripped out of the instrument toward him.
The red dots sped past his pajama-tops and into one of the lower vaults that made up the ceiling. Without a sound, a hole some ten feet in circumference appeared in the masonry. The hole was deep enough—some three or four feet—to let the night sky of the planet show through. A heavy haze of white powder drifted down like the dust from a well-beaten rug.
Staring at it, Manship felt the roll of tiny glaciers toward his heart. His stomach flattened out against its abdominal wall and tried to skulk quietly around his ribs. He had never felt so completely frightened in his life. “Hey-y-y—” he began.
“A little too much power, Professor,” Srin observed judiciously from where he rested easily with tentacles outspread against the wall. “A little too much power and not enough glrnk. Try a little more glrnk and see what happens.”
“Thank you,” Lirld told him gratefully. “Like this, you mean?”
He raised and pointed the instrument again.
“Hey-y-y!” Manship continued in the same vein as before, not so much because he felt the results of such a statement would be particularly rewarding as because he lacked, at the moment, the creative faculties for another, more elaborate comment. “Hey-y-y-y!” he repeated between chattering teeth, staring at Lirld out of eyes no longer entirely flat.
He held up a shaking, admonishing hand. Fear was gibbering through him like the news of panic through a nation of monkeys. He watched the flefnobe make the peculiar winding trigger adjustment again. His thoughts came to a stop and every muscle in his body seemed to tense unendurably.
Suddenly Lirld shook. He slid backward along the tabletop. The weapon dropped out of stiffened tentacles and smashed into bunches of circular wires that rolled in all directions. “Srin!” his mind whimpered. “Srin! The monster—Do—do you see what’s coming out of his eyes? He’s—he’s—”
His body cracked open and a pale, blue goo poured out. Tentacles dropped off him like so many long leaves in a brisk autumn wind. The eyes that studded his surface turned from turquoise to a dull brown. “Srin!” he begged in a tiny, faraway thought. “Help me—the flat-eyed monster is—help—help!”
And then he dissolved. Where he had been, there was nothing but a dark liquid, streaked with blue, that flowed and bubbled and dripped off the curving edge of the table.
Manship stared at it uncomprehendingly, realizing only one thing fully—he was still alive.
A flicker of absolutely mad, stampeding fear reached him from Srin’s mind. The laboratory assistant jumped from the wall against which he’d been standing, skidded across the tabletop with thrashing tentacles, paused for a moment at the knobs that lined its edge to get the necessary traction—and then leaped in an enormous arc to the far wall of the building. The zigzag indentations widened in a sort of lightning flash to let his body through.
So that had been a door after all. Manship found himself feeling rather smug at the deduction. With so little to go on—pretty smart, pretty smart.
And then the various parts of his brain caught up with current events and he began trembling from the reaction. He should be dead, a thing of shredded flesh and powdered bone. What had happened?
Lirld had fired the weapon at him and missed the first time. Just as he was about to fire again, something had struck the flefnobe about as hard as it had the Assyrian back in the days when the latter was in the habit of coming down like the wolf on the fold. What? Manship had been using no weapon of his own. He had, so far as he knew, no ally on this world. He looked about the huge, vaulted room. Silence. There was nothing else, nobody else in the place.
What was it the professor had screamed telepathically before he turned into soup? Something about Manship’s eyes? Something coming out of the Earthman’s eyes?
Still intensely puzzled—and despite his relief at having survived the last few minutes—Manship could not help regretting Lirld’s extinction. Possibly because of his somewhat similar occupational status, the flefnobe had been the only creature of his type toward whom Manship felt any sympathy. He felt a little lonelier now—and, obscurely, a little guilty.
The different thoughts which had been mashing themselves to and fro in his mind abruptly disappeared, to be replaced by a highly important observation.
The zigzag doorway through which Srin had fled was closing, was coming together! And, as far as Manship knew, it was the only way out of the place!
Manship bounced off the huge tabletop in a jump that for the second time in ten minutes did great credit to a few semester-hours of gym some six years ago. He reached the narrowing gap, prepared to claw his way through the solid stone if necessary.
He was determined not to be trapped in this place when the flefnobe police closed in with whatever they used in place of tear gas and machine guns. He had also not forgotten the need to catch up to Rabd and get two or three more driving lessons.
To his intense relief, the aperture dilated again as he was about to hit it. Some sort of photoelectric gadget, he wondered, or was it just sensitive to the approach of a body?
He charged through, and for the first time found himself on the surface of the planet with the night sky all around him.
The view of the sky almost took his breath away and made him forget, temporarily, the utterly strange city of the flefnobes that stretched away in every direction.
There were so many stars! It was as if these stellar bodies were so much confectioner’s sugar and someone had tossed a bagful at the heavens. They glowed with enough luminosity to maintain a three-quarters twilight. There was no moon, but its lack was not felt; rather it seemed that half a dozen moons had been broken up into quadrillions of tiny white dots.
It would be impossible, in this plenty, to trace out a single constellation. It would be necessary, instead, Manship guessed, to speak of a third brightest patch, a fifth largest sector. Truly, here in the center of the galaxy, one did not merely see the stars—one lived amongst them!
He noticed his feet were wet. Glancing down, he saw he was standing in a very shallow stream of some reddish liquid that flowed between the rounded flefnobe buildings. Sewage disposal? Water supply? Probably neither, probably something else completely out of the range of human needs. For there were other colored streams flowing parallel to it, Manship saw now—green ones, mauve ones, bright pink ones. At a street intersection a few yards from him, the reddish stream flowed away by itself down a sort of alley, while a few new colored ribbons joined the main body.
Well, he wasn’t here to work out problems in extraterrestrial sociology. He already had the sniffling intimation of a bad head cold. Not only his feet were wet in this spongelike atmosphere; his pajamas clung to his skin in dampest companionship and, every once in a while, his eyes got blurry with the moisture and he had to brush them dry with the back of a hand.
Furthermore, while he was not hungry, he had not only seen nothing resembling human-type victuals since his arrival, but also no evidence to suggest that the flefnobes had stomachs, let alone mouths.
Maybe they took in nourishment through the skin, soaked it up, say, from those differently colored streams that ran through their city. Red might be meat, green could be vegetables, white for dessert—
He clenched his fists and shook himself. I’ve no time for any of this philosophic badminton, he told himself fiercely. In just a few hours, I’m going to be extremely hungry and thirsty. I’m also going to be extremely hunted. I’d better get moving—work out some solutions!
Only where? Fortunately, the street outside Lirld’s laboratory seemed deserted. Maybe the flefnobes were afraid of the dark? Maybe they were all good, respectable homebodies and everyone, without exception, toddled into his bed at night to sleep the darkness through? Maybe—
Rabd. He had to find Rabd. That was the beginning and the end of the only solution to his problems he had come even close to, since his materialization on Professor Lirld’s lab table.
He tried “listening” with his mind. All kinds of drifting, miscellaneous thoughts were sloshing around in his brain, from the nearer inhabitants of the city.
“All right, darling, all right. If you don’t want to gadl, you don’t have to gadl. We’ll do something else…”
“That smart-aleck Bohrg! Will I fix him properly tomorrow.
“Do you have three zamshkins for a plet? I want to make a long-distance send…”
“Bohrg will roll in tomorrow morning, thinking everything is the same as it’s always been. Is he going to be surprised…”
“I like you, Nernt, I like you a lot. And that’s why I feel it’s my duty to tell you, strictly as a friend, you understand.
“No, darling, I didn’t mean that I didn’t want to gadl. I thought you didn’t want to; I was trying to be considerate like you always tell me to be. Of course I want to gadl. Now please don’t look at me like that…”
“Listen here. I can lick any flefnobe in the place…”
“To tell you the truth, Nernt, I think you’re the only one who doesn’t know. Everybody else…”
“So you’re all scared, huh? All right, I’ll take you on two at a time. Come on, come on….”
But no hint of Rabd. Manship began to walk cautiously down the stone-paved streets, sloshing through the little rivulets.
He stepped too close to the wall of the dark buildings. Immediately, a zigzag doorway opened its jagged invitation. He hesitated for a moment, then stepped through.
Nobody here either. Did the flefnobes sleep in some central building, dormitory fashion? Did they sleep at all? He must remember to tune in on some likely mind and investigate. The information might be useful.
This building seemed to be a warehouse; it was filled with shelves. The walls were bare, however—there seemed to be some flefnobe inhibition against putting objects against the walls. The shelves rose in tall tiers—again free-form shapes—from the center of the floor.
Manship strolled over to the shelving that was the height of his chest. Dozens of fat green balls rested in white porcelain cups. Food? Could be. They looked distinctly edible, like melons.
He reached out and picked one up. It immediately spread wings and flew away to the ceiling. Every one of the other green balls, on all the shelves, spread a similar set of multiple, tiny wings and flew upward, like so many spherical birds whose nests have been disturbed. When they reached the domed ceiling, they seemed to disappear.
Manship backed out of the place hurriedly through the jagged aperture. He seemed to be setting off alarms wherever he went!
Once out in the street, he sensed a new feeling. There was a sensation of bubbling excitement everywhere, a tense waiting. Very few individual thoughts were coming through.
Suddenly the restlessness coalesced into an enormous mental shout that almost deafened him.
“Good evening!” it said. “Please stand by for an emergency news bulletin. This is Pukr, the son of Kimp, coming to you on a planetwide, mind-to-mind hookup. Here is the latest on the flat-eyed monster:
“At forty-three skims past bebblewort, tonight, this creature was materialized by Professor Lirld from astronomical unit 649-301-3 as part of an experiment in one-way teleportation. Councilor Glomg was present as a witness to the experiment in the course of his official duties and, observing the aggressive way in which the monster comported itself, immediately warned Lirld of the dangers in letting it remain alive.
“Lirld disregarded the warning and, later, after Councilor Glomg had departed with his son, Rabd, the well-known interplanetary explorer and flefnobe-about-town, the monster ran amuck. Having fought its way out of a cage of solid paper, it attacked the professor with an unknown type of high-frequency mental beam that seems to emanate from its unbelievably flat eyes. This beam seems to be similar, in effect, to that thrown out by second-order grepsas when all fuses have blown. Our best psycho-physicists are, at this very moment, working feverishly on that aspect of the problem.
“But Professor Lirld paid with his life for his scientific curiosity and for disregarding the warnings of Councilor Glomg’s experience. Despite the best efforts of Srin, Lirld’s laboratory assistant, who fought a desperate and courageous diversionary action in an attempt to save the old scientist, Lirld perished horribly before the monster’s ferocious onslaught. With his superior dead, Srin retreated tentacle by tentacle, fighting all the way, barely managing to make his escape in time.
“This alien monster with its incredible powers is now loose in our city! All citizens are urged to remain calm, not to panic. Rest assured that as soon as the authorities know what to do, they will do it. Remember—above all—stay calm!
“Meanwhile, Rabd, the son of Glomg, has postponed his mating flight which was to have begun tonight. He is mating, as you all know, with Tekt, the daughter of Hilp—Tekt being the well-known star of fnesh and blelg from the southern continent. Rabd is leading a troop of volunteer flefnobes to the scientific quarters of the city, where the monster was last seen, in an attempt to exterminate it with already-existing, conventional weapons before the creature starts to reproduce. I will return with more bulletins when they are available. That is all for now.”
That was more than enough, Manship felt. Now there wasn’t any hope that he could work out some method of communication with these creatures and sit down for a little quiet conversation on ways and means of getting himself home—which seemed to be a conclusion earnestly desired by all. From now on the watchword was going to be Get That Manship!
He didn’t like that at all.
On the other hand, he didn’t have to wander after Rabd. If Manship can’t get to the flefnobe, the flefnobe will come to Manship. Heavily armed, however, and with homicidal intent…
He decided he had better hide. He stepped up to a building and wandered along a wall until the doorway opened. He walked through and watched it close behind him, then looked around.
To his relief, it seemed like an excellent place to hide. There were quantities of large, heavy objects in the center of the place, none of them, so far as he could tell, alive, and all of them satisfactorily opaque. He wedged himself between two of these, which looked like stored tabletops, and hoped wistfully that the flefnobe sensory apparatus did not boast any more detective mechanisms than he had already experienced.
What he wouldn’t give to be an assistant professor in Kelly University again instead of a flat-eyed monster ravening, all unwittingly, through an alien metropolis!
He found himself wondering about the strange powers he was supposed to possess. What was all this nonsense about a high-frequency mental beam emanating from his eyes? He hadn’t noticed anything coming out—and he should have noticed if anyone did, he felt. Yet Lirld had made some comment to that effect just before he dissolved.
Was it possible that there was some by-product of the human brain that was only visible to flefnobes and was highly deleterious to them?
After all, he could tune in on the flefnobes’ minds and they couldn’t tune in on his. Maybe the only way he could make his mental presence felt to them was in some prodigious blast of thought which literally ripped them apart.
But he apparently couldn’t turn it on and off at will—he hadn’t caused the slightest alteration in Lirld, the first time the professor had fired.
There were ripples of new, excited thoughts reaching him suddenly. They were coming from somewhere in the street outside.
Rabd had arrived with his posse.
“Three of you move down that way,” the young flefnobe ordered. “I want two each to cover the side streets. Don’t spend too much time searching through the buildings. I’m positive we’ll find this monster skulking somewhere in the dark streets, looking for new victims. Tanj, Zogt and Lewv—come with me. And keep on your tentacle-tips, everybody—this thing is crazy dangerous. But remember, we’ve got to blast it before it starts reproducing. Imagine what this planet would be like with a couple of hundred of these flat-eyed monsters running around!”
Manship let out a long, slow sigh of relief. If they hoped to find him on the streets, he might have a little time.
He let his mind follow that of Rabd. It wasn’t too hard—just a matter of concentration—and you pretty much blocked out the thoughts of the other individuals. Follow Rabd’s mind, Rabd’s thoughts. Now block out most of Rabd’s conscious thoughts. There. The subliminal layer, the memory patterns. No, not the stuff about that female flefnobe last month, all eyes and soft tentacles, dammit!
The memory patterns, the older ones. “When landing on a C-12 type planet…” No, not that one. A little further. There!… “Having fired the forward jet to clear it, gently depress the…”
Manship combed through the operational instructions in Rabd’s mind, pausing every once in a while to clear up a concept peculiar to flefnobe terminology, stopping now and then as a grinning thought about Tekt wandered in and threw everything out of focus.
He noticed that whatever information he absorbed in this fashion, he seemed to absorb permanently; there was no need to go back to previous data. Probably left a permanent print on his mind, he concluded.
He had it all now, at least as much about running the ship as it was possible to understand. In the last few moments, he had been operating the ship—and operating the ship for years and years—at least through Rabd’s memories. For the first time, Manship began to feel a little confident.
But how was he to find the little spaceship in the streets of this utterly strange city? He clasped his hands in perspired bafflement. After all this—
Then he had the answer. He’d get the directions from Rabd’s mind. Of course. Good old encyclopedia Rabd! He’d certainly remember where he parked the vessel.
And he did. With a skill that seemed to have come from ages of practice, Clyde Manship riffled through the flefnobe’s thoughts, discarding this one, absorbing that one—“…the indigo stream for five blocks. Then take the first merging red one and…”—until he had as thorough and as permanent a picture of the route to Rabd’s three-jet runabout as if he’d been studying the subject in graduate school for six months.
Pretty good going for a stodgy young assistant professor of Comparative Literature who up to this night had about as much experience with telepathy as African lion-hunting! But perhaps—perhaps it had been a matter of conscious experience of telepathy; perhaps the human mind was accustomed to a sort of regular, deep-in-the-brain, unconscious telepathy from infancy and being exposed to creatures so easy to receive from as flefnobes had brought the latently exercised powers to the surface.
That would explain the quickly acquired skill that felt so much like the sudden surprising ability to type whole words and sentences after months of practicing nothing but meaningless combinations of letters in certain set alphabetical patterns.
Well, it might be interesting, but that particular speculation was not his field of research and not his problem. Not for tonight, anyway.
Right now, what he had to do was somehow slip out of the building unobserved by the crowd of flefnobe vigilantes outside, and get on his way fast. After all, it might not be long before the militia was called out to deal with something as viciously destructive as himself…
He slipped out of his hiding place and made for the wall. The zigzag doorway opened. He stepped through—and bowled over a tentacled black suitcase who’d apparently been coming in.
The flefnobe recovered fast. He pointed his spiraly weapon at Manship from where he lay and began winding it. Once more, the Earthman went rigid with fright; he’d seen what that thing could do. To be killed now, after all he’d gone through…
And once more, there was a quiver and a mental scream of distress from the flefnobe: “The flat-eyed monster—I’ve found him—his eyes—his eyes. Zogt, Rabd, help! His eyes—”
There was nothing left but a twitching tentacle or two and a puddle of liquid rippling back and forth in a little hollow near the building wall. Without looking back, Manship fled.
A stream of red dots chattered over his shoulder and dissolved a domed roof directly ahead of him. Then he had turned the corner and was picking up speed. From the dwindling telepathic shouts behind him, he deduced with relief that feet moved faster than tentacles.
He found the correct colored streams and began to work his way in the direction of Rabd’s spaceship. Only once or twice did he come across a flefnobe. And none of them seemed to be armed.
At sight of him, these passersby wound their tentacles about their bodies, huddled against the nearest wall, and, after a few dismal mutters to the effect of “Qrm save me, Qrm save me,” seemed to pass out.
He was grateful for the absence of heavy traffic, but wondered why it should be so, especially since he was now moving through the residential quarters of the city according to the mental map he had purloined from Rabd.
Another overpowering roar in his mind gave him the answer.
“This is Pukr, the son of Kimp, returning to you with more news of the flat-eyed monster. First, the Council wishes me to notify all who have not already been informed through their blelg service that a state of martial law has been proclaimed in the city.
“Repeat: a state of martial law has been proclaimed in the city! All citizens are to stay off the streets until further notice. Units of the army and space fleet as well as heavy maizeltoovers are being moved in hurriedly. Don’t get in their way! Stay off the streets!
“The flat-eyed monster has struck again. Just ten short skims ago, it struck down Lewv, the son of Yifg, in a running battle outside the College of Advanced Turkaslerg, almost trampling Rabd, the son of Glomg, who courageously hurled himself in its path in a valiant attempt to delay the monster’s flight. Rabd, however, believes he seriously wounded it with a well-placed bolt from his blaster. The monster’s weapon was the high-frequency beam from its eyes—
“Shortly before this battle, the flat-eyed horror from the outer galactic wastes had evidently wandered into a museum where it completely destroyed a valuable collection of green fermfnaks. They were found in a useless winged condition. Why did it do this? Pure viciousness? Some scientists believe that this act indicates intelligence of a very high order indeed, and that this intelligence, together with the fantastic powers already in evidence, will make the killing of the monster a much more difficult task than the local authorities expect.
“Professor Wuvb is one of these scientists. He feels that only through a correct psycho-sociological evaluation of the monster and an understanding of the peculiar cultural milieu from which it evidently derives will we be able to work out adequate counter-measures and save the planet. Therefore, in the interests of flefnobe survival, we have brought the professor here tonight to give you his views. The next mind you hear will be that of Professor Wuvb.”
Just as the newcomer began portentously, “To understand any given cultural milieu, we must first ask ourselves what we mean by culture. Do we mean, for example—” Manship reached the landing field.
He came out upon it near the corner on which Rabd’s three-jet runabout was parked between an enormous interplanetary vessel being loaded with freight and what Manship would have been certain was a warehouse, if he hadn’t learned so thoroughly how wrong he could be about flefnobe equivalents of human activities.
There seemed to be no guards about, the landing field was not particularly well-lit, and most of the individuals in the neighborhood were concentrated around the freighter.
He took a deep breath and ran for the comparatively tiny, spherical ship with the deep hollow in the top and bottom, something like an oversized metallic apple. He reached it, ran around the side until he came to the zigzag line that indicated an entrance and squeezed through.
As far as he could tell, he hadn’t been observed. Outside of the mutter of loading and stowage instructions coming from the larger ship, there were only Professor Wuvb’s louder thoughts weaving their intricate sociophilosophical web: “…So we may conclude that in this respect, at least, the flat-eyed monster does not show the typical basic personality pattern of an illiterate. But then, if we attempt to relate the characteristics of a preliterate urban cultural configuration…”
Manship waited for the doorway to contract, then made his way hand over hand up a narrow, twisting ladderlike affair to the control room of the vessel. He seated himself uncomfortably before the main instrument panel and went to work.
It was difficult using fingers on gadgets which had been designed for tentacles, but he had no choice. “To warm up the motors of the Bulvonn Drive—” Gently, very gently, he rotated the uppermost three cylinders a complete turn each. Then, when the rectangular plate on his left began to show an even succession of red and white stripes across its face, he pulled on the large black knob protruding from the floor. A yowling roar of jets started from outside. He worked almost without conscious effort, letting memory take over. It was as if Rabd himself were getting the spaceship into operation.
A few seconds later, he was off the planet and in deep space.
He switched to interstellar operation, set the directional indicator for astronomical unit 649-301-3—and sat back. There was nothing else for him to do until the time came for landing. He was a little apprehensive about that part, but things had gone so well up to this point that he felt quite the interstellar daredevil. “Old Rocketfingers Manship,” he grinned to himself smugly.
According to Rabd’s subliminal calculations, he should be arriving on Earth—given the maximum output of the Bulvonn Drive which he was using—in ten to twelve hours. He was going to be more than a bit hungry and thirsty, but—What a sensation he was going to make! Even more of a sensation than he had left behind him. The flat-eyed monster with a high-frequency mental beam coming out of its eyes…
What had that been? All that had happened to him, each time a flefnobe dissolved before his stare, was a good deal of fear. He had been terribly frightened that he was going to be blasted into tiny pieces and had, somewhere in the process of being frightened, evidently been able to throw out something pretty tremendous—to judge from results.
Possibly the abnormally high secretion of adrenalin in the human system at moments of stress was basically inimical to flefnobe body structure. Or maybe there was an entirely mental reaction in Man’s brain at such times whose emanations caused the flefnobes to literally fall apart. It made sense.
If he was so sensitive to their thoughts, they should be sensitive to him in some way. And obviously, when he was very much afraid, that sensitivity showed up with a vengeance.
He put his hands behind his head and glanced up to check his meters. Everything was working satisfactorily. The brown circles were expanding and contracting on the sekkel board, as Rabd’s mind had said they should; the little serrations on the edge of the control panel were moving along at a uniform rate, the visiscreen showed—the visiscreen!
Manship leaped to his feet. The visiscreen showed what seemed to be every vessel in the flefnobe army and space fleet—not to mention the heavy maizeltoovers—in hot pursuit of him. And getting closer.
There was one large spacecraft that had almost caught up and was beginning to exude a series of bright rays that, Manship remembered from Rabd’s recollections, were grapples.
What could have caused all this commotion—the theft of a single jet runabout? The fear that he might steal the secrets of flefnobe science? They should have been so glad to get rid of him, especially before he started reproducing hundreds of himself all over the planet!
And then a persistent thought ripple from inside his own ship—a thought ripple which he had been disregarding all the time he had been concentrating on the unfamiliar problems of deep-space navigation—gave him a clue.
He had taken off with someone—or something—else in the ship!
Clyde Manship scurried down the twisting ladder to the main cabin. As he approached, the thoughts became clearer and he realized, even before the cabin aperture dilated to let him through, exactly whom he would find.
The well-known female star of fnesh and blelg from the southern continent and Rabd’s about-to-be bride cowered in a far corner; all of her tentacles—including the hundred and seventy-six slime-washed ones that were topped by limpid eyes—twisted about her tiny black body in the most complicated series of knots Manship had ever seen.
“Oo-ooh!” her mind moaned. “Qrm! Qrm! Now it’s going to happen! That awful, horrible thing! It’s going to happen to me! It’s coming closer—closer—”
“Look, lady, I’m not even slightly interested in you,” Manship began, before he remembered that he’d never been able to communicate with any flefnobe before, let alone a hysterical female one.
He felt the ship shudder as the grapples touched it. Well, here I go again, he thought. In a moment there would be boarders and he’d have to turn them into bluish soup.
Evidently, Tekt had been sleeping aboard the vessel when he took off. She’d been waiting for Rabd to return and begin their mating flight. And she was obviously a sufficiently important figure to have every last reserve called up.
His mind caught the sensation of someone entering the ship. Rabd. From what Manship could tell, he was alone, carrying his trusty blaster—and determined to die fighting.
Well, that’s exactly what he’d have to do. Clyde Manship was a fairly considerate individual and heartily disliked the idea of disintegrating a bridegroom on what was to have been his honeymoon. But, since he had found no way of communicating his pacific intentions, he had no choice.
“Tekt!” Rabd telepathed softly. “Are you all right?”
“Murder!” Tekt screamed. “Help-help-help-help…” Her thoughts abruptly disappeared; she had fainted.
The zigzag aperture widened and Rabd bounced into the cabin, looking like a series of long balloons in his spacesuit. He glanced at the recumbent Tekt and then turned desperately, pointing his curlicued blaster at Manship.
“Poor guy,” Manship was thinking. “Poor, dumb, narrow-minded hero type. In just a second, you’ll be nothing but goo.” He waited, full of confidence.
He was so full of confidence, in fact, that he wasn’t a bit frightened.
So nothing came out of his eyes, nothing but a certain condescending sympathy.
So Rabd blasted the ugly, obscene, horrible, flat-eyed thing down where it stood. And scooped up his bride with loving tentacles. And went back home to a hero’s reception.
Two days after Christmas 1954, the woman with whom I was living and with whom I was planning marriage made me a bang-up supper featuring all kinds of sharp spices. Two hours later, I was admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. As a free-lance writer, I had no medical insurance of any kind; my usually low bank account had to be completely emptied so that I could be admitted in a status other than that of charity patient.
The word spread rapidly through the New York City science-fiction community, and for some reason the word that was spread was that I gone to St. Vincent’s Hospital for an ordinary check-up. As a result, science-fiction folk showed up in my hospital room that night with all kinds of bizarre gag accouterments, only to find out that I was involved in some very serious business indeed. Harry and Joan Harrison, for example, came in holding a lily each—and were crushed to discover that the doctors were trying to decide if a dangerous immediate operation should be attempted.
After a conference, the doctors decided to hold off on the operation unless the bleeding intensified during the night. Then, one by one, the people around my bed drifted off, still apologizing for their jokey entrances. The last one to go was the woman with whom I was planning to share my life. She bent over me and put her warm, wet mouth to my ear.
Now I know that when a writer memoirizes some fifty years after the event, he cannot be expected to remember exactly every word of every speech. I therefore ask the reader to keep in mind two essential considerations: One, for most of my time on this planet, I have been blessed and cursed with almost perfect recall; and, two, such was the matter of her communication to me that it kind of seared itself into my brain.
“Now, darling,” she asked warmly, wetly. “Is it true that you are absolutely penniless?”
“Absolutely,” I told her. “My brother, Mort, cleaned out my whole bank account just to get me in here. I don’t know what I’ll do for next month’s rent. Not to mention the surgeon’s bill if they do decide to operate.”
“That’s what I thought,” she breathed, still warm and still wet. “Now sweetheart, please listen to me. You are flat on your back, physically, psychologically, and financially. There’s really nothing in this for me anymore. So I’ll be going. Goodbye, my darling.”
I pulled my head away and swiveled round to stare at her. “Hey,” I said. “You can’t be serious.”
“Now, don’t be selfish,” she said, backing away to the door. “Try to look at it from my point of view. Goodbye.”
Then she raised her right hand, waved it twice at me, closed the door behind her, and was gone.
I sat up in bed. I stared at the closed door for a long time. Then I picked up the telephone and called Horace Gold, the editor of Galaxy. (Horace was an agoraphobe and edited the magazine out of his apartment in Peter Cooper Village.)
Horace had heard what was going on with me. “Listen,” he said. “They tell me you’re in tough shape and you’re broke. I’ll put a voucher through tomorrow morning for five hundred dollars. You can have someone pick up the check for you about eleven a.m. What I want you to do for me…I want you to write a ten-thousand-word novelette—it should be very, very funny. Okay?”
“Thanks, Horace,” I said. “I’ll do it. If I live.”
“Right,” he agreed. “If you live. Meanwhile, don’t forget. Very, very funny.”
I hung up the phone, swallowed a large pill, and reached for the clipboard that my brother, Morton, and his wife, Sheila, had placed on my bedside table. What should I write? Well, there was the fact that Galaxy prided itself on not being a cheapo science-fiction magazine like those pulps that featured “bug-eyed monster” covers, with stories full of slime-dripping horrors to match. And there was my great fondness for two early stories by A.E. van Vogt, “Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet.” I had long dreamed of doing a minor and respectful parody of the sociological analysis of aliens both stories featured.
The nurse came in, took my temperature, urged me to rest and get a good night’s sleep—and left.
I picked up a pencil. Trying hard not to bleed, I began writing, in longhand, “The Flat-Eyed Monster.” Now, what, I mused to myself as I wrote, would Horace consider very, very funny?
Written 1954 / Published 1955