The activity and drama in the submarine were not reflected on the surface of the Pacific. The sun beat down, the cool breeze blew, the eastern Pacific was, just as its name, peaceful.
Not so the western Atlantic. A storm raged off the Florida coast, not far from Cape Kennedy. The wind beat from the northeast, tossing freighters and tankers in waves that reached forty feet in height. Later those same waves broke on the Florida coast, slamming into pleasure boats in marinas and ripping at the mooring lines that held them.
And the waves beat on Cape Kennedy itself, within view of the office of Michael Luna, mission control chief on the Alpha Nae Space Probe Project. Luna paced back and forth like a great, caged cat, hunching his broad shoulders, wringing his square hands, shaking his half-bald head, and looking out at the storm.
“Janelle,” he muttered in the direction of his prim and proper secretary, who sat in one corner, a steno pad on her knees and a pencil poised over it. “I should never have left the magazine business.” A former science editor of Modern Today magazine, Luna had reentered the field of rocketry for which he was originally trained and which now paid more than magazines, and had risen quickly to his current post.
“Should I be taking notes, sir?”
“Not for this, for God’s sake! I was just making small talk.”
“You know what? It’s a good thing the probe didn’t come down out here where it was supposed to. Where in blazes were the meteorologists on this one? Nobody predicted a storm.”
“So it’s lucky it went down in the Pacific, and that the O.R.D. sub was in the area. At least I think it’s lucky. Either way it’s a damn mess for me. Be a lot of questions asked. The probe malfunctioned, to begin with. So even though we lucked out in having it picked up, they’ll ask a lot of questions about that. And even if it’d come down where it should have, we probably would’ve lost it in the storm. So no matter what, they’ll want to know why we miscalculated that, too. What a mess.”
He glared at her, and she looked confused.
“After all the trouble we had getting a budget for this project.”
She made no response.
“Well, first things first. What’s the latest on the progress?”
She blushed. “I forgot to tell you, sir,” she said as calmly as possible, “the admiral is on the phone, waiting for you to give him a report.”
He stopped, shocked, his nostrils quivering. “What? Omigod! On the phone? You forgot? Waiting now?”
“Yes, sir. Phone for you.”
He slapped his forehead. “Quick! Get Al! Get a report! I’ll stall him!”
She exited quickly to put a call to Al Calavicci at O.R.D headquarters, leaving Luna slapping both his ears with his fists.
Carr leaned through the bulkhead into the command mod. “I need two men to help me move the decon unit.”
Two crewmen immediately left their posts to join him.
Roy poked his head out of his communications compartment. “Carr? Like to take another look at this? I changed ‘hayseed’ to ‘rube.’ Lots more things rhyme with that, like tube, boob, lube....”
“Not now, Shelly!” He swatted the poem away. “Our country needs us!”
For a time they watched silently as the strange, bluish beings flitted around the sickbay. Penny’s odd laughter faded, and she too watched. The quiet was eerie, oppressive, as if forced upon them by the surrounding presence of these darting, round, almost transparent disks.
Suddenly the lights flashed on. Nelson stood at the control panel where he’d just flicked the switches. The beings were gone, or at least seemed to be gone, rendered again invisible, just as before the lights had been turned off.
For a long moment John and Nelson stared into the empty air of the room, blinking.
Then they noticed Penny. She stood rock still in the middle of the sickbay, her eyes closed, her fists clenched. Her face glistened with a dry sheen, the skin over her face and chest was drawn taut as a drumhead. Her eyelids trembled, then lifted. Her eyes were wide and glazed.
They stared at her speechlessly.
And in that instant one of the blue, cell-like beings appeared, emerging from the center of her glistening swimsuit. It remained motionless there for a moment. It emitted a brief, faint, shrill squawk, then left her chest and vanished.
It was all over in the twinkling of an eye, leaving the scientists mute and befuddled, almost doubting what they’d seen.
And at the same time the queer and frightful tightness of Penny’s skin was gone too, the sheen replaced with normal flesh tones. Tears rolled down Penny’s cheeks, unaccompanied by any sound of crying, as if they were just the willpower from a tiny dam between her eyes.
And at last from her mouth came chocked words, in a low and distant voice. “What happened....to me?”
They went quickly to her, each taking an arm gently.
“Penny,” John said softly, “You’re not supposed to be able to cry. What is it?”
The flow of tears ceased abruptly, and Penny, still wide-eyed, turned to Nelson and said deliberately, “What is the Children’s Happydays Club?
Nelson tensed, his jaw fell open. He took a step backward and put a hand to the side of his head. His voice was a thin rasp. “The only woman I ever loved and was willing to die for---when she was eight years old, she had been president of the Children’s Happydays Club in Seattle. She told me about it---nobody else---and I’ve never told anyone else.....” Then his eyes suddenly flushed with anger. “How do you know that? How do you know that?”
“I don’t know!” Penny shook her head in anguish. “I don’t know how!”
Nelson took a step toward her, holding his fists in front of his heaving chest. His mouth was a snarl. “If you ever mention it again, I’ll---I’ll....”
“Harry!” John stepped in front of him. “Don’t even think about it!”
Nelson stood glaring at Penny for a few seconds, breathing heavily. Then abruptly he turned on his heel and stalked out of the sickbay.
Penny was appalled. “Was what I said so ugly?”
John’s shoulders dropped, as if under a great weight. He shook his head. “No, not ugly. Maybe even beautiful, in a way. But too personal, I guess.” He looked off in the direction Nelson had gone.
“What do you mean, too personal?”
“There are things that each of us knows about himself, and maybe can live with, but we do not want them brought up. It wasn’t that the question was bad, but that it apparently reminded Nelson of something he didn’t want to be reminded of---something so terribly close to his heart that to hear of it brought him pain. And it shocked and angered him that somebody else knew about it.”
He looked at her and asked softly, “How did you know about that about Nelson?”
“I didn’t know it,” she said plaintively. “I didn’t know it at all. I just said it. I’ll never say it again. I don’t know why I said it. Why did I say it, Father? To cause him pain?”
He stared at her, as if listening to her words. Then he shook his head. “No. I don’t know why. Not any more than you do. I think if we knew why you said that to him Penny, we’d know what it is we’ve got to deal with.”
“You mean with those beings?”
“Yes. Perhaps those demons caused...”
“Not demons!” she said earnestly, in a suffering voice. “They’re not devils, Father. I know that. They’re not.”
“Then what are they, Penny?”
She hung her head. “I do not know.”
Nelson watched gravely---still angry---as Carr and two other crewmen carefully lifted the sealed decon chamber out of the airlock.
“Easy now,” Carr said, leading the way, “don’t jar it.”
It was heavier than they had anticipated, and unwieldy, too. They strained to fit it through the door into the airlock room, then carried it more easily aft, through the bulkhead, into the lab.
Nelson stood alone outside the airlock. Gradually the anger left his face, as if drained from some unseen siphon. His face turned pale. Then it flushed again, mottled, though not with anger, but with pain and suffering.
Sorrow flooded into him. Memories and regrets swelled his features until he could contain them no longer.
He slammed both fists into the side of the airlock, letting loose the pressures within him with that violent act. He calmed a bit and looked at his knuckles. Blood oozed from the wrinkles of skin over those small joints, and his hands felt numb. Already he could see the first signs of swelling.
“I can bleed,” he said softly to himself, “but I can’t hate. No. She didn’t know!” He looked up at the airlock wall as if speaking to it. “Don’t you see? She couldn’t possibly have known---there’s no way!”
He wrinkled up his eyes and stared at his knuckles curiously. “But she said it. She said it clearly, openly. Why?” He moaned slightly. “Why did she have to say it as if she knew it? Why would it happen?”
He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath, composing himself. “Okay, Harriman Nelson,” he said matter-of-factly, “you have the problem of figuring out how she could say it and have no way to know what she was talking about. You like problems, remember? Problems are but the beginning of solutions. Remember? They’re like poetry to you, Harriman Nelson, beautiful rhymes and meters to which you have only to add the missing line, remember?”
He turned to face toward the bulkhead that led to the lab. “Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Right? Right. Okay, jerk, don’t bleed---think!”
And with that he strode purposefully toward the lab where they had taken decon chamber.
“Put it over there, Carr, near the centrifuge.”
“This okay, Dr. Robinson?” Carr asked, as they set down the decon unit, with the probe inside, on the deck in front of the centrifuge---the small machine that was used to spin samples of seawater, blood, or other liquids so that they separated into basic components.
“Fine, Carr, fine.”
John and Penny, too, stared with some apprehension as Nelson entered the lab.
“Are you all right,” he asked him, turning his head slightly to the side to eye him a bit suspiciously.
“Is Jimmy Carter president?” he answered in a voice as spirited and jaunty as his step. “Now, back to the business at hand.....uh”----he turned to Penny---“sorry about before.”
Penny nodded. Her face revealed continued confusion.
“As I was saying,” Nelson went on, “returning to our business---what in blazes are we dealing with here?”
The apprehension slowly left John’s face, and he nodded, indicating that as of now they were back to work. “Ectoplasm. Like cells. Ghost beings. Things that are there but aren’t there. Things that aren’t things, but ‘beings.’ A mystery. Not a pleasant one. A mystery about invisible items in the air that may have voices.”
“At least we can see them,” Nelson said.
“No. Penny, can you still see them?”
“They’re in here?” Nelson asked. “In the lab?”
“Yes. They are everywhere. They follow us.”
“Nice to know we’re popular,” Nelson muttered.
“And since Penny can see them,” John said slowly, measuring his words, “then we know that they are there, and that the unique structure of Penny’s eyes allows him to see them.”
They both gazed at Penny’s brilliant, piercing green eyes.
Nelson scratched his head. “Her eyes may have other capacities that we never even suspected. Right, Penny?”
“I do not know. I did not even know that I could see these beings, until today.”
“In any case,” John went on, “we haven’t got time to play games. We’re going to have to stain some of them so that we can see them and find out what we’re dealing with.”
The intercom buzzed. “Dr. Nelson?” Roy said. “Al is on the line.”
“He said that you would say that, and for me to tell you this call takes precedence over all else.”
“That’s what he says about all his calls.”
“Better take it, Nelson,” John said reluctantly.
Nelson grunted. “Pipe it in here, Shelly.”
After a brief crackling while connections were made, Al’s voice came over. “Nelson?” he wailed. ” Nelson?”
“Yes, yes, Al,” Nelson groaned. “I’m listening to you.”
“Nelson! NASA wants an update on the recovery! Nelson?”
“I heard you. Is that all?”
“Is that all? For God’s sake, Nelson! That’s important.”
“Oh. Why didn’t you say so?” Nelson sat down on a c hair near the squawk box and clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back to gaze at the ceiling. “Well, then, tell them this: we have recovered the probe and are proceeding with it back to O.R.D. headquarters. We have the probe in the decon chamber and are putting it through various tests. Okay?”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me that you’d made the recovery?”
“Slipped my mind, Al. I figured it’d be taken for granted.”
There was some huffing and puffing on the line, and assorted garrumphs and hisses. “All right.”
“Bye, Al.” The line clicked dead, and Nelson swiveled around to face Penny and John. “Now, then,” he proceeded, as if there had been no interruption (a quality of concentration John greatly admired in him), “you know about these gizmos, Penny. Can they be stained or dyed somehow?”
“Not like cells. Not like viruses or germs either.”
“That’s just great. What then? Pour some wine on them and stain them like a white shirt? How can they be stained?”
“I do not know. Not by anything I have seen you use in the laboratory.”
“Then certainly we have nothing on board to make them visible,” John said. “What can make them visible in the light?”
“Wait!” Penny suddenly started pacing. “There is something. But it is so that you do not have it on board the submersible---nor do you have it in the lab.”
“Where then?” Nelson asked doubtfully. “Can we pick it up at a drugstore?”
“Sorry, John. Just trying to get things moving along.”
“I will get the dye,” Penny said. “Continue back to the O.R.D. lab. I will catch up with you.” He started forward to the airlock.
John put a hand on her arm. “Penny, I’m not sure you’re well enough to.....”
But Penny broke into a run, charged through the bulkhead into airlock control, jumped into the lock, and pulled the heavy, watertight door shut behind her.
John and Nelson came into the sphere a second later. Carr, unsure, held out his palms questioningly.
“Seal it up,” Nelson said, giving John a consoling pat on the shoulder.
Carr sealed the door, flooded the lock, and Penny departed into the sea.
John pressed the intercom button. “Okay, Chip, let’s head for the barn. But take it easy. Penny’ll be catching up with us.”
Penny exited the airlock into the ocean, loosened up quickly, and swam off toward the west at high speed. After some minutes, she began a rapid descent, undulating downward, flashing past fish, algae and sponges, heading toward the ocean floor.
Catching vibrations in the water head of her, she slowed, hovered, and peered.
She could make out in the distance before her a savage scene: a school of hammerhead sharks had set upon a dying---now dead----young sperm whale. Dozens of sharks swarmed around the carcass of the huge, white beast, slashing at it with gaping jaws, ripping away chunks of flesh, swirling, flailing, shaking the meat free with their dense rows of teeth.
Though Penny was friends with the sea and was at peace with its creatures, even she couldn’t dare to enter such an area of unbridled, instinctive fury created by these fierce eating machines.
She backtracked some meters, then adjusted her course to bypass them, giving a wide berth to the slashing hammerheads who were enjoying their roiling feast.
In time she reached for the deep floor, and swam along close above it, scanning left and right It was a familiar area to her, although it would not be to any ordinary human. There was a profusion of rocks, in clumps and singly arrayed over the bottom, rocks Penny knew would contain gold and magnesium and other minerals valuable to people. But they were not available to her in this endeavor, and they were not what she was looking for.
But this was the terrain she wished to search. Back and forth she swam, in a gridlike pattern, methodically covering the section of ocean floor she had staked out.
And then she saw it: a small, triangular pile of rocks---not like those odd-shaped hunks rich in ore, but smooth and flat.
She swam over to the stack of rocks and cautiously dropped down to plant her feet on either side of it. Her movements were careful, deliberate and precise. She stood astride the pile for a few seconds, looking and listening. Then slowly she bent down, holding her arms out to surround the pile. Suddenly she swept her arms in and smashed the pile, spraying the rocks out to either side.
At the same instant she leaped up into the water, where she remained hovering a few meters from the debris. Her green eyes were fixed, like those of a hawk, on the clutter. Then slowly she again descended, until she was close enough to reach out and touch the rocks.
When she did reach out, her arm moved like lightning. She plunged her hand into a space between several rocks and just as quickly withdrew it. He held, at arm’s length, a lashing, curling serpent, a yard long and two inches across, its body striped red, green, and yellow. Its head was shaped like a cobra’s, except that its fangs extended outward from its mouth. Penny had taken it firmly just behind that large, evil head, and she met the snakes unblinking eyes with her own.
Penny held the twisting snake out in front of her, her eyes firmly locked on those in that fanged head. Penny never blinked, but stared into the snake eyes. The wild coiling and lashing gradually diminished, until at last the snake hung limp from her hand. But it was neither dead nor unconscious. Its forked tongue flitted in and out.
When its long body was totally relaxed. Penny took it to the ocean floor. Still holding it be hind the head with one hand, she put her other hand close to the half-open mouth. She held her palm up to the jaws. She loosed the head and stroked the snake’s body to and fro. After some moments, the snake opened its jaws wide. Penny put her palm half into the mouth, and waited for what she was after.
The submersible, after cruising all night, slowly entered the tunnel beneath the cliffs over which towered the Oceanic Research Directorate building, and edged its way into the interior dock in the sub pen. It slowly ascended through the last few feet of water.
“All engines stop!” commanded Chip.
“All engines stop,” echoed the helmsman, as bells rang.
“All ballast blown! Conning tower is above surface!”
The sub, now with its conning tower visible to the dock crew, nudged into place at the dock. Lines were thrown and tied fast to cleats.
After a few moments, the hatch opened, Chip climbed out, then leaned back to extend a hand to John and Nelson.
The two scientists crossed the gangplank and headed toward the elevator.
“I can’t understand why she didn’t catch up with us,” John said slowly.
“You worked with dolphins, John,” Nelson said, smiling. “Like cats and dogs and some people, you can ask them to do all kinds of things, but they won’t punch a time clock. Penny will come when she gets here.”
They pushed the button and waited for the elevator.
“You think I’m overprotecting Penny, don’t you, Nelson?”
“In a word, you bet your Bunsen burner. Uh, what are you going to tell NASA?”
“What can I tell them? What do we know?”
“So that’s what Al will tell them.”
“What I meant, John, was that they’re going to want their space probe back.”
The elevator arrived and they stepped in to ride up to the lab.
“Harry, the probe’s contaminated somehow. We just can’t release it. We have to find out what it is that’s involving Penny.”
“Fair analysis. But will they buy it?”
“We got it for them, and naturally we’re going to give it to them----when we’re ready. It’s now on private property. By the time they get that all figured out, and what to do about it, we’ll be finished with it.”
They left the elevator to enter the spacious old converted mansion, with its magnificent views out over the Pacific. In the reception area, they exchanged greetings with Angela, the efficient O.R.D. secretary, then went to the rear, into the broad, main lab room.
There they saw Penny, wearing a white lab coat, mixing something in a small mortar-and-pestle.
“Hello, Father,” she said, looking up casually. “Hello, Nelson.”
They snatched their lab coats from hangars and went over to her.
“Have you decided to become a biochemist, Penny?” Nelson asked.
“Yes.” She held up the mortar, which contained a small amount of red liquid. “I have the dye. It will work. There isn’t much. They didn’t want me to make much.”
“The beings?” John quickly slipped into his lab coat. “They told you how much dye to make? How to make it so it would work?”
“They didn’t tell me,” Penny said, pouring the liquid into a small glass flask. “But they made me know. They want us to study them.”
“Really?” John bent over the table to look at the liquid. “Why?”
“I only know that they want us to.”
“How’d you manage to beat us back?”
Penny shrugged. “It didn’t take me long to find what I needed. And then I caught up with you. But you were going so slowly. I thought it would be easier and quicker just to swim on home, rather than bother with the airlock.”
“John was going to stay that he was worried about you, Penny.” Nelson said, grinning, “but then she decided not to.”
“There is no need to worry about me, when I am in the sea.”
“That’s why he didn’t say it,” said Nelson.
Penny was oblivious to the joke. She handed the flask of dye to Nelson. “We have to put down a piece of glass and spray it. Some of them will be on the glass.”
“How convenient!” Nelson crowed. “Will they jump onto my microscope slides and focus themselves for me?”
“No,” Penny said earnestly.
“Well, then, let’s get right to work.” Nelson put a chemical-spray stopper into the mouth of the flask and placed it on the table. Then he moved a frosted square of glass near it. “I’m ready if they are, Penny.”
“They are already on the glass.”
John and Nelson bent over the glass, seeing nothing.
Nelson lifted the flask from the table. The spray stopper which plugged the top had two tiny, curved tubes running through the plug down the bottom of the flask. Nelson leaned over the frosted glass, put one of the tubes to his mouth, and blew lightly into it. A thin spray of dye came out of the other tube and spread evenly over the glass.
At once five of the beings became visible, stained red by the dye. They clustered motionlessly on the glass.
Nelson gave Penny a questioning look.
“They have substance now, besides color,” Penny said. “You can examine them. They are expecting you to.”
Nelson gulped slightly, picked up a large magnifying glass, and bent over the small, red things. “Hmm. No visible eyes, ears, or mouths. No digestive tract. No arms or legs....”
“But they make sounds,” John said. “There must be some form of mouth, some opening.”
There was a soft buzz. John pressed the intercom button. “Yes, Angela?”
“Chip says they have the decon unit with the probe in it on the elevator, and asks if they should bring it up.”
John looked at Nelson, Nelson looked at John.
“It’s all right,” Penny said. “It doesn’t matter where it is.”
“Okay, Angela, send it up?”
Using a very thin implement like a miniature spatula, Nelson lifted one of the beings from the glass and transferred it to a microscope slide. “I think our first move is X-ray, agree?”
“Penny?” John said.
“The examination of them is up to you,” Penny said. “I think you should proceed normally.”
“Okay, Nelson, while you’re doing that, I’ll run a spectro-analysis.”
Holding the slide gingerly in front of him, Nelson walked over to the X-ray equipment. John transferred another being to a slide and took it to the spectro-analysis machine.
Carr and two crewmen carried in the decon unit.
“Anywhere,” Nelson said, waving, “just so it’s out of the way.”
They put it down in the middle of the lab, then stood fidgeting nervously.
“Penny?” Carr said. “Have I got any of them little bugs on me?”
“I do not believe so. Not that I can see.”
“Okay,” he said, not really convinced.
The three of them left, scratching vigorously here and there on their chests and arms.
Al entered the lab, all a-twitter, waving his hands. “All right! Where is it? Come on!”
“Right over there, Al,” John said.
Al looked down at the decon unit and wrinkled his nose, as if a bit disappointed. “I’ll call NASA.”
“Why don’t you wait for them to call you again, Al?” Nelson suggested. “We’ve got a bit of work to do with it yet.”
“But they’ve got to have it!”
“Not yet, I’m afraid.”
“What’ll I tell them?!”
John had been scribbling something on some note paper, and now he handed it to him. “When they call, tell them that.”
Al scanned the note, blanched, and hurried out.
It was not long before they called. Angela buzzed Al in his office, and he picked up the receiver to be greeted by Air Force Colonel John Caddy.
“Where’s my bird?” Caddy growled.
“It’s here, sir, being processed.”
“Processed! What kinda bullshit is that?”
“They’re running it through standard decontamination procedures, sir.”
“Too long! It’s taking too long! Listen, your job title is administrator for that hokey directorate you got---so administrate! Expedite! Al, your people have our space probe and we want it. It’s ours, for Chrissake! Now, when do you expect them to get here with it?”
“I didn’t say they would bring it there.”
“I can’t tell you any more than I have, Colonel.”
“Look, ace,“----his voice grew deeper and more ominous all the while....“I’ve got two generals, an admiral, and the senator who heads the Space Committee on my back!”
“What happened to Michael Luna? I thought he was chief of the mission.”
“Civilian! Flunky! Useless! I’m talking about the big boys!”
“I can understand the pressure on you.”
“Then gimme a timetable!”
“As soon as I can, Colonel.”
“Oh no, no you don’t! I’ll give you a timetable. That bird’s not on its way in one hour, we’ll be out there to get it!”
“I wouldn’t do that, Colonel,” Al fumbled quickly to get out of his pocket the slip of paper John had written on. He spread it on his desk before him, and read: “I think it would generate unfortunate publicity for you, were you to try to wrest by force the malfunctioned space probe that these scientists rescued for you.”
“What?! Hmmmph! Brrrk! Grrrf!” Colonel Caddy gurgled and choked. When he finally spoke, his voice was strangled. “Al, the buck doesn’t stop here. The buck starts here. I’m an old pro at buck-passing. I see what you’re trying to do. You don’t scare me. Within one hour I’ll be off the hook and you, asshole, will be on it. The generals will be calling you---the admiral and the senator, too. They’ll be calling you personally! Got it! You can just tell them your little story about publicity. They know all about that. And another thing they know all about, Al, is where your little operation gets its operating funds. Have fun, asshole!′
The receiver clicked dead in Al’s ear. He hung up and stared at the phone. His shoulders slumped. He walked out in the hall and headed toward the closed twin doors to the central lab.
“Angela,” he said morosely, pausing at her desk, “why is it that they always set me up so I have to take on some high-power officials?”
“Why Al,” she said, smiling coyly, “if they didn’t do it to you, who would they do it to?”
“Harrumph!” He stalked toward the doors.
“I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”
“They said something about disease germs loose.”
Al blanched, clutched his throat, stumbled backwards and raced into his office.
“None of it makes any sense,” Nelson said, shaking his head at the X-ray machine. “Look.”
He flicked on the large illuminator for the viewscreen. The image of the being appeared magnified several times. Within its skin there were no ordinary organs---confirming what Nelson had checked with the magnifying glass. All there was inside was a mare’s-nest jumble of extremely thin filaments wound around each other, serving no evident function.
All three of them stared at the screen.
“No heart or brain,” John mused, “no life-support organs of any kind. Just that tangle of something in there.”
“Yeah,” Nelson said, “like it swallowed a mass of microscopic string or something.”
“But it doesn’t even have a mouth. No eyes, no ears----nothing. But it thinks. It moves. It makes sounds. It can make itself solid enough for us to study, or become something akin to ectoplasm----even less than ectoplasm---and defy physical contact. It’s not possible.” He shook his head in bewilderment.
“What about the tests you ran?” Nelson asked.
“According to every technique presently available, using the most sophisticated hardware we’ve got, I’ve succeeded in proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what we’re seeing is not there---doesn’t exist!”
“My, my,” Nelson said softly.
“It’s not a virus,” he continued, “not a germ, nor anything animal, vegetable or mineral. They don’t exist, and if they did, your X-ray proves they couldn’t. Nothing we’ve uncovered so far gives even the slightest evidence that they are composed of anything that could qualify them as even the simplest form of ‘being.’”
“You’re forgetting one thing, Father.” Penny’s strange inflections caused them to turn around. Not only was her voice odd, but she was pacing to and fro, pumping an index finger into the air---an entirely uncharacteristic gesture. ’You’re forgetting that they can invade a being and control it, as they did with Penny.”
Nelson’s mouth dropped open, and Penny smiled at him. “You were going to say it yourself, Nelson. I said it for you.”
“My God!” Nelson turned pale. “It’s true! They’ve still got her, John!”
Suddenly the smile left Penny’s face. Her skin became very taut, with a ghostly sheen, as before. Her eyes went blank. Her jaw went slightly slack. She stood before them as if in a shock-induced stupor.
Her appearance jolted John into action. He lunged for his medical bag. “Check her pulse!”
Nelson grabbed Penny’s limp arm and put his fingers over the pulse. John shined a tiny flashlight into her eyes and examined them closely. Penny offered no resistance, nor did she react in any way to this furious examination.
“Pulse rate is even and normal,” Nelson said.
“No dilation or flutter in the eyes.”
“Breathing, heart, everything normal.”
They stepped back from her, gazing at her curiously afflicted state. Clearly Penny wasn’t in dangerous physical condition. And yet for all intents and purposes she seemed unconscious.
“The things!” Nelson hissed. “It’s like the damned things are toying with us!”
“We’ve got to find a way to destroy them!”
“No, I’m not sure....” Nelson suddenly seemed torn with doubt. “Maybe we can’t risk it. I’m not sure Penny would want....”
“They have Penny! They’ve taken her over! They might be destroying her, even now!”
“Yes.” Nelson nodded quickly. “You’re right.” He started toward the table where the frosted glass with more beings on it lay. The stain kept them visible. “There might be an acid that can do it. We can test it on these here.”
But the remaining three visible dyed beings began to change. The firmness of their skin seemed to evaporate. Before Nelson could touch them they were absorbed into the glass, and vanished before his eyes. “They’re gone!”
John snapped open the cabinet containing bottles with an assortment of acids. “There’s still a way to see them! Turn off the lights!”
Nelson reached for the switch.
“No!” Penny suddenly revitalized, grabbed her arm aggressively, shouting, “No killing!” She spun Nelson away from the switch and grabbed a chair. She swung it wildly over her head, smashing it down on the lab table, splintering the frosted glass from which the dyed spores had disappeared.
“They’re using her!” John cried, edging along the wall away from the acid cabinet. “They’ve got her in their clutches, and they’re using her against us!”
Nelson lunged back for the light switch. Penny hurled the chair across the room at him. Nelson ducked, but the chair grazed his shoulder and sent him tumbling to the floor.
At that instant, Penny froze in her tracks. She stared at Nelson with wide eyes, as if stunned by what she’d done to her friend and to the lab.
John approached her cautiously. “Penny?” he said softly.
She did not answer, just kept staring at the damage she’d wrought.
“Are you hurt, Harry?”
Nelson pushed the chair aside and got to his feet. “I’m okay.” He brushed himself off, keeping a wary eye on Penny. “It’s her I’m worried about.”
Penny turned her head slowly to look around the room. Then she shivered. “I’m cold, Father,” she said in a thin voice.
She moved over to the Bunsen burner which burned with a low flame, untouched by his attack on the lab table. Penny turned the flame up high, and started to put her hands into it.
John dove for her hands and pushed them away. “Penny, don’t do that,” he admonished breathlessly.
“I’ll get a blanket,” Nelson said, starting toward the door.
“Penny, you can’t be cold,” John insisted. “You’re naturally protected from cold. It’s heat you have no defense against.”
She turned and glared at him, her eyes bright with anger, her skin glistening with tautness. “I am cold!” she snarled.
She shoved him away from her and ran for the door.
“Harry!” he hollered.
Nelson spun around. Penny slammed past him, knocking him to the door. She tore on down the hall, whizzing past the baffled Angela, heading for the front door.
Nelson and John burst from the lab after her.
“Penny? Penny? Penny?” the three voices cried after her.
Al happened to be crossing the hallway in front of the door. Penny grazed him, sending him skittering into the wall. “What the---?” he said, looking wildly around.
Penny ripped open the front door and disappeared through it.
John, Nelson, and Angela came galloping toward Al, who slunk into a corner.
“What’s going on?” he whimpered.
“Lock the lab!” John shouted as he and Nelson sailed through the door. “Don’t let anyone into it.”
Angela stopped at the door.
“Angela,” Al said, his voice quaking, “what’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
Penny was already in a Directorate car, and he gunned the engine to life.
Nelson had just reached the car when Penny put it in gear and started to move. The front fender bumped Nelson, sending him rolling over the asphalt.
John was two strides behind, arriving just in time to be nicked harmlessly by the rear bumper as Penny swung the car around and headed for the big, wooden Directorate gate.
Nelson, unhurt, scrambled to his feet. He and John, not needing to say a word, scampered over to another Directorate car. John sprang behind the wheel, and Nelson slid in beside her. They roared after Penny, who had almost reached the gate.
John screamed; the big gate was closed.
Penny, never slowing, smashed through it, leaving a tangled trail of white lumber dancing behind him. She swung onto the road and careened away.