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Chapter 6

For Indira, at least, the terrible time which followed was but a pale shadow of the nightmare of the first day. For that reason, perhaps, she became more and more of the central figure in the human colony. Having been already deprived of her own children, she seemed better able than the others to withstand the despair which soon enveloped the colony, when it became obvious that they were doomed to die of starvation.

It had been she who forced the colonists to abandon the landing boats, which were far too cramped, and establish a camp on the hillside nearby. It had been she who organized the search for suitable materials with which to build shelter. It had been she who ordered a halt to all meat-eating, after the first three adults who attempted it died in convulsions. It was then she who organized the systematic experimentation with vegetable food. She used herself as a guinea pig more ruthlessly than anyone, suffering the vomiting and the cramps without complaint.

And while no one died from eating plant life, everyone got sick. Constant nausea became an accepted fact of colony life. Fortunately, only a few of the plants caused diarrhea, which can be so fatal for children, and the colony soon learned to avoid those.

For a while, hope was kindled. Nausea, after all, can be lived with. Only Koresz suspected the truth, from his examination of the colony's fecal waste. Diarrhea, no. But it was obvious to him that most of the "food" was being passed right through without use. Soon enough, it became obvious to everyone that the food was not sustaining them.

The children seemed somewhat more resilient than the adults. That fact, which Indira at first found reassuring, became another source of anxiety.

Who will take care of them when the adults are gone?

And the children were all very young. The oldest was only five. Most of them were three or four years old. That had been the Society's doing. The planning board had concluded, based on obscure psychological reasoning which Indira personally found suspect (but wasn't about to argue with, since she was a beneficiary), that the ideal colonists for the Magellan's expedition would be professional single parents in their mid-thirties with young (but not crib-age) children.


When all seemed lost, the owoc had saved them. The owoc, and the quick mind of Julius Cohen.

The colonists had known the owoc were there, almost from the beginning. The large creatures were impossible to miss. At first the humans had been afraid of the things, because of their size. But, in truth, the creatures seemed very timid. Certainly they never made any threatening motions, and they soon enough began to avoid the humans, staying on the southern side of the valley.

Julius had studied them, for several days. He reported that the creatures seemed to be herbivores, and explained that herbivores are seldom dangerous, so long as they do not feel threatened. Thereafter, the colonists made it a point not to venture onto the southern portion of the valley.

Then a child wandered off, a small boy named Manuel. His absence was not noticed for some time, partly because it was hard to keep track of each individual in the swarm of children, and partly because the adults were now greatly weakened and listless.

Eventually, his absence was noticed. Indira and Julius went in search. The four other adults who were still alive were too weak to do more than watch the children in the camp.

After two hours of scouring the immediate vicinity, they began searching toward the south. After another hour, they heard the faint sounds of a crying child coming from a grove of tall, vaguely fern-like growths. As quickly as their weakened condition permitted, they plunged into the thick foliage. The cries grew louder.

They came to the edge of a small clearing. Through a screen of ferns, they could see one of the herbivores, staring down at the tiny figure of the four year old boy. Manuel was sprawled before the huge creature, crying.

He was wearing, Indira noted absently, a khaki jumpsuit.

She and Julius hesitated, frozen between their fear for the boy and their uncertainty of how to scare away such a formidable-looking beast.

The creature reached down with four of its arms and lifted the boy. It drew him toward its beak. The beak gaped open.

Indecision vanished. Indira and Julius began frantically pushing their way through the last screen of ferns.

Suddenly, a stream of thick paste gushed from the creature's beak. The paste splattered over the child's head and shoulders.

Manuel's wails were extinguished, as a large portion of the paste went into his open mouth. The boy coughed and spluttered.

Indira felt a hand on her shoulder. Then, to her astonishment, Julius forced her to the ground.

"Stop!" he hissed.

She stared back at him. Slowly, Julius lowered himself next to her.

"It's not trying to hurt the boy," he whispered urgently. "It's trying to feed him."


"It's true. I've watched them—that's exactly how they feed their own young."

She looked back. In truth, the huge creature did not seem to be threatening the boy. It was simply holding him up, watching Manuel with its huge eyes (so uncannily like human eyes, except that they were four times larger).

The expression on the boy's face was almost comical. Utter bewilderment. His face, head and upper body were covered with paste. It was difficult to tell how much, for the color of the paste blended almost perfectly with his clothing.

Manuel's mouth gaped open again. To cry? No one would ever know, because another stream of paste gushed down his throat. He coughed, gagged. And swallowed. And then, while Indira watched in stunned silence, the bewilderment vanished from the child's face. He lifted his head, eyes closed, and opened his mouth once again.

There was no doubt now what emotion was being expressed by the child. Feed me.

Another stream of paste.

Indira tried to scramble to her feet.

"It's poison! Animal product!"

Again, Julius forced her down helplessly. (He had the great strength possessed by many large, fat men. Not all that strength had melted with the fat.)

"No! It's not milk, Indira. It's regurgitated vegetation."

"Are you certain?" she demanded.

He nodded. "Positive. This is actually quite a common method used by animals to feed their young. Especially when the food which the animals use is difficult—oh, my God!"

Julius was chewing on his upper lip, as he always did when he was pondering a problem. It was a slightly disgusting habit, in Indira's opinion, but she had not tried to break him of it. Her ex-husband had had no obnoxious personal habits; he'd just been a self-centered, unfeeling son-of-a-bitch.

She was still filled with anxiety.


"But what, Indira? What's the worst thing that can happen to the boy? Die? He's going to die, anyway. Look at him—he seems okay."

And it was true enough. In fact, at that very moment Manuel began laughing, and playing with one of the creature's arms.

Julius frowned. "There's bound to be some of the critter's fluids mixed with it—saliva, digestive juices, that kind of thing. But—not enough, I think, to hurt the kid. It's worth the chance."

Suddenly, she understood the hope that was dawning in her lover's mind.

"You think—?"

He shrugged. "Who knows? It's a long shot, like filling an inside straight. But we're fresh out of full houses. And it's possible, just maybe. The plant life on this planet isn't deadly to us, the way meat is. But there's something in the way it's put together that makes it too tough for our digestive systems to break down. That's exactly the problem lots of young animals face. Evolution has found several solutions. The solution mammals use is mother's milk. This is another."

She made a face. "It's disgusting."

"Not as disgusting as dying."

She shook her head. "Julius, this is still no good. We can't use a helpless four-year-old boy as a guinea pig."

He nodded. "You're right."

And began slowly crawling toward the center of the clearing.

As soon as he broke through the ferns and came into the clearing, he was spotted. The creature pivoted quickly on its two rail-like fleshy "feet." Julius stopped moving. He opened his mouth.

Slowly, the creature lowered the child to the ground. And edged back.

Julius crept forward, his mouth open.

The creature edged back. Its mantle was now rippling with alternating bands of ochre and pinkish-red.

Julius stopped again. He started chewing his upper lip furiously.

The frozen tableau held for a minute, until Julius suddenly grunted.

"Of course!" Indira heard him say. Slowly, Julius turned his head back to her. His eyes, for some reason, were feverishly scanning her body.

His rubbery upper lip twisted into a grimace of self-deprecation.

"I am so stupid. It's so obvious."

Then: "Go back to the camp, Indira. Find something khaki-colored—as close a match as you get to the shade of Manuel's jumpsuit. A cloth of some kind. A big one—big enough to cover me, or as much of me as possible."

Her brows were knitted. "I don't un—"

"Just do it!"

Uncertainty vanished. As she raced back to the camp, Indira felt like she was floating on air. She had only a vague understanding of what Julius was trying to do, but she was suddenly filled with total confidence in her lover.

And hope. And hope. And hope.

Back at the camp, she ignored all the questions hurled at her. She just cried, over and again— "Manuel's okay, he's okay, he's okay!"—while she rummaged furiously in the broken shell of the lifeboat. Within a minute (which seemed like a hour), she found the khaki canvas she was looking for.

Like an antelope, back to the clearing. Then, at the last curtain of ferns, she screeched to a halt. Knelt, the canvas over her shoulder, and slowly crawled into the clearing.

Julius was still there, now holding Manuel. The boy was asleep. And, to her vast relief, the creature had not moved. It was no longer alone, however. Another had joined it. The two animals were standing side by side, staring. Their hides, she noticed, were still mottled with ochre. But the pinkish-reds had faded considerably.

She hoped she knew what that meant.

A look of relief washed over Julius' face when he saw her enter the clearing. He extended his hand.

"Toss it to me."

She shook her head, and kept crawling toward him. Once at his side, she unfolded the canvas and draped it over both of them.

They knelt there, clasping each other, facing the monsters, their mouths open.

After a time, they saw the pinkish-red fade from the hides, replaced by thin wavering stripes of green. After a time, they saw the green grow into solid bands—still against ochre—and the creatures approach. And the beaks slowly open.

Khaki life washed over them.


Remembering that day, Indira flipped back through the pages of the notebook, looking for the entry.

I should had gotten it immediately. I knew the creatures were chromatophoric. It must be the principal method by which they communicate (outside of the hoots), although I suspect that there's a lot expressed in the way they curl their tentacles. (No—the proper word is "arm." "Tentacles" are those specialized arms that squids develop, the long ones that end in palps. Tentacles are arms specialized for mobile hunters, and these critters ain't hunters of any kind.)

Nice, shy, friendly, giant octopi.

Octopus-heads, I should say.

Okay. Just in case this notebook should someday fall into the hands of an expedition come to our rescue—about a thousand years from now, I estimate—let's try to describe these beautiful nightmares. I don't want to draw down the curses of the historian, like those dopes in Roanoke who didn't keep any diaries. No, sirree. Worst cussers in the universe, historians. I know. I'm in love with one.

Here goes:

Imagine a body shaped like the thorax of a lobster. About the size of a buffalo. Except that a lobster's thorax is the carapace of an arthropod—hard and rigid. The carapace of these creatures is more like the mantle of a squid, without the flukes. That's it. Mantles. They must have evolved from something like squids.

But a squid's mantle is too soft to serve for a land creature. These mantles are much tougher. Cartilaginous inside, I suspect. Squids on earth still have a vestige of a shell inside their mantles. I suspect that on this planet the "molluscs" evolved something that serves the same purpose as a skeleton. Any large terrestrial animal has to have some kind of hard structure to support its weight. Probably pieces of shell-like material, linked together by a network of cartilage and muscle. Terrestrial analogies can be thought of. Some of the dinosaurs maintained rigid tails in a similar way. (Okay. Loosely similar. Give me a break.)

I can't be sure, of course, without dissecting one of them. (Oh boy. I mutter that in my sleep, Indira might cut my throat.)

(Come to think of it, I might cut my own throat.)

The body of the creature is enclosed by the mantle. A hard, but not totally inflexible, carapace. A thick integument covers the mantle. The integument becomes especially thick and hard (almost like soft horn), at the front of the mantle. What I've decided to call the "cowl."

I call it that because the front edge of the mantle looms over and protects the head below. Necessary, I suspect, because the head of this critter has no skull. But we'll get to the head later.

How does this thing get around? Well, here's where the molluscan Bauplan shows its possibilities. I'd love to know what the ancestor looked like. Just when you think it must have been a pseudo-cephalopod, you look at this thing's feet.

A two-legged gastropod. I kid you not. They're not "legs," of course. Not the slightest resemblance. Instead, the creature's peds are like fleshy—what can I call them? The closest analogy I can think of is pontoons. Except pontoons are rigid, and these peds are semi-segmented, like lumpy treads. Again, without cutting them open (down, boy, down) there's no way to be sure—but I'd bet that there's a complicated structure in there. Something like what must exist inside the mantle: a network of "shell"-slivers, cartilage, and muscle.

Lots of muscle. These beasties are strong. The entire body is held up, about fifty centimeters off the ground, by the two rail-feet. (Yeck. Let's stick with "peds.") It's a clumsy-looking method of locomotion, but—

But nothing. It is clumsy. And slow. It's a marvel that a "molluscan" Bauplan could provide enough flexibility for these things to evolve into land animals. Let's not ask for miracles on top of that. The simple fact is that the vertebrate structure is vastly superior to that of the—what do I call this phylum? Panzerpoda? God, no; ain't the slightest resemblance between these sweet creatures and the Wehrmacht!

I'll figure out what to call them later. To get back to the subject, measured by any standard of speed and mobility, vertebrates have it all over these creatures. That's not chauvinism, it's just a fact. From everything I can see—not just these creatures, but all the life-forms I've seen—humans are at least twice as fast as anything that moves on Ishtar. And we're slow, compared to most big warm-blooded vertebrates.

(Oh, yeah, before I forget. The critters are warm-blooded. The genuine article, too—homeothermic, endothermic, and tachymetabolic. I admit I can't prove the last, because I don't have the equipment to precisely analyze their metabolism. But I'm positive about the homeothermy and the endothermy.)

Back to the point. Compared to the dominant large-bodied terrestrial phylum on this planet (whatever we wind up calling it), vertebrates are:

a) Much faster.

b) More mobile, by a large margin.

Score one for the home team. (Visiting team, I should say.)

BUT—any football team that had one of these guys for a fullback would be invincible. Here's how the game goes:

Kickoff. Ball goes into the end zone. Start on the twenty. Hand off to Slow-But-Sure. Three minutes later—one play, mind you—Slow-But-Sure racks up six points. Guaran-teed. And introduces the world to a new culinary delight: linebacker pancake.

I kid you not. I can't imagine being able to knock one of these things down. I'm not sure a rhinoceros could do it.

And they're quicker than you might think. Their reflexes don't seem to be any slower than ours. It's just that their basic structure is so much more limiting than that of vertebrates.

Okay. Let's get to the best part. The head.

The head itself looks—

Oh God, Thy Name is Convergence.

—like an octopus. Almost to a T. Bulging "brow" (only here that's for real—more on that later), two gorgeous eyes (almost human looking, except they're the size of saucer-plates, and the iris takes up more of the eyeball), and a beak for a mouth surrounded by eight tentacles (OK—arms).

There are some differences from octopi, of course. (If there weren't, I'd give up my profession and start spinning prayer wheels.) The eyes are located on the front of the head rather than the sides, giving them binocular vision. And everything seems harder and tougher than on an octopus. The skin, the features, everything. Inevitable. The exact pathway and method was different, but no creature I can imagine could make the transition from marine life to terrestrial life without developing a watertight outer membrane. It's fine for octopi in the ocean deep to have soft, slimy skins. Try that on land and you'll dessicate.

Then, the arms are only generically octopoid. There are at least two obvious differences, one of which is major. First, the minor difference: No suckers. None. Not a trace. Instead—the major difference:

They've got fingers. Sort of. The arms brachiate, more than three-quarters of the way down their length (which, by the way, I estimate at an average of seventy centimeters). The tips of the arms consist of two mini-"tentacles," which have the following chief features:

1) They're flexible, like tentacles; not segmentedly rigid, like fingers.

2) They're flattened—unlike the arms above the branch, which are more or less tubular. (Think of thick fleshy spatulas, about fifteen centimeters long.)

3) The inner surface of the "fingers" consists of a roughened pad, useful for gripping, which makes perfect sense because—you guessed it; give the man a prize—

4) The "fingers" are opposed.

Yup. The critters can manipulate. (So to speak. We'll stretch the Latin.)

A faint glimmer of a possibility is coming to life somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind, is it not?



They're intelligent.

Not intelligent like in: "Isn't he just the smartest little dog?"

No. Intelligent.

Like in: Critter sapiens.


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