Both the troopers’ cars carried in their trunks emergency blankets; one of them also had a three-gallon plastic jerrycan of water.
John rested only briefly, long enough for his tortured breathing to subside. He was given a drink by one of the troopers, and then announced that he would take a blanket and the water can back into the desert, to Penny.
When he started out, both troopers moved to accompany him.
“No,” he said, waving them off, “I still have to do it alone. Please stay by your radios and direct the helicopter!
Both tried to dissuade him. “You’ve already been through a lot, mister,” said one.
“At least one of us could carry that jug for you,” said the other.
“No,” he mumbled, moving away.
“Chopper’s already been ordered up,” called the first. “I could direct it from out there with my walkie-talkie.”
But he had already disappeared into the dry wash, lugging the water can.
He wound his way heavily among the dunes, occasionally switching the water can from one hand to the other. For the first few hundred yards, she felt his restored strength, welcomed it, was buoyed by it. But all too quickly that strength, too, was used up, and he suffered as he had earlier.
And it got worse; the heavy water-can, with its contents sloshing to and fro, threw him off balance, further sapping whatever strength he had.
He didn’t know how far he had to go. He thought----though was by no means sure---that Nelson might still be advancing toward him. As he approached each new dune, he expected---or hoped---that Nelson, with Penny on his back, would be just on the other side.
When he didn’t meet them soon, he felt panic creep into his worn-out body. He grew more and more frightened the farther he went. It crossed his mind that perhaps they had come no way at all, that they might still be all the way back where he had left them.
He urged himself on, shifting the container of vital liquid from one cramping hand to the other. Even the blanket, light and manageable in the beginning, now began to feel heavy, and the wool scratched and burned against his skin.
Unconsciously, he let the blanket slide from his arm and drop onto the sand.
Then at last, mounting a dune, he spotted them. In an area about halfway between that dune and the next, he saw their small figures. He cried out and waved.
Nelson looked up and waved back feebly. He rose and stumbled toward him.
John found himself almost flying down the side of the dune, skipping among the rocks that protruded from the sand, feeling nothing in his legs. Faster and faster he ran.
Until suddenly he tipped. He tumbled head over heels. The heavy plastic water-can was flung over his hand, sailed through the air, and landed with a sickening crunch on the exposed tip of a rock.
The instant he stopped rolling, he was on his hands and knees, crawling wildly over to where the water can lay.
Suddenly he felt damp sand under his hands. The water can was leaking! He scrambled the last few feet and hurled his arms around the container and lifted it up.
It was too light. It had been more than leaking---its water had been gushing out through a three-inch gash in its side. It was empty, except for a final, tantalizing ounce.
“Damn,” he whispered, distraught. “Damn. Damn! Damn!” Tears poured from his eyes. He clutched the can to his chest as if to protect it, then dropped it and threw himself down on the muddy sand. He was sobbing hysterically when Nelson finally arrived.
He struggled up to him and dropped down on his knees beside him.
“I spilled the water!” he moaned, writhing with his sobs. “I killed her!”
“No.” Nelson looked around at the darkened sand. “No.” He was as distraught as John. “What happened?” he asked uselessly, already knowing the answer.
John was struggling to control himself, to force the panic out of hm. The will for survival quickly reasserted itself. He sat up, eyes flashing. “We can’t give up! Have to think!” He clapped his hands to the sides of his head. “Think! Have to find a way to keep her alive!”
Nelson, whose consciousness was addled from the effects of heat, dryness and exhaustion, could barely focus his thoughts on the crisis at hand. Still he struggled as mightily as John to think of something.
Suddenly John turned to him. “Harry! Scoop up the mud the water made! All you can carry!” He was already at work himself, leaning over the wet sand, spreading his arms wide and drawing great clumps of it to his chest. When he had all he could hold, he stood up and slogged off toward Penny.
Nelson started after him dumbly for a moment, then he, too, set to work gathering the muddy sand.
He arrived at Penny’s still, blackened body a few steps after her.
John was already at work on her. “Smear the wet mud on her face,” he said breathlessly, “just like I’m doing on her arms and midsection! As thick as you can!”
Both of them, their faces streaked with sweat and tears and dirt, frantically caked the cool, damp, restorative mud all over Penny’s body.
“Get more!” John cried. Nelson stumbled off after more mud while John sat back on his haunches, thinking intensely.
“Yes!” he announced to himself. “It might work!” He launched himself forward on hands and knees toward a nearby area of small rocks. He lifted a softball-sized stone and felt the bottom of it. It was cool!”
He gathered an armful of stones and rushed back to Penny, just as Nelson had reached her with an armload of mud.
“What are you doing?” Nelson asked, quickly spreading the new load of mud over her.
“Hurry! Get some rocks! I’ll show you!”
The action seemed to have provided them with renewed strength. John ran off to the rock bed while he began stacking his rocks around Penny.
Nelson came back and dumped more rocks into the sand.
“Just like this,” John said, working ferociously.
And so they piled the stones around her, cool sides down. Gradually it took shape---a cooling stone shelter was rising over her. It was a technique used a thousand years before by the Tejas Indians, and a thousand years before that by the Bedouins. It employed the technique used by snakes in the desert: hiding from the sun beneath the cool, damp underside of rocks.
Where John got the notion was a mystery, and would remain a mystery, even to him. From some dim, distant history classroom? A more recent magazine article or book? Spontaneous discovery brought about by a mind being utilized to its desperate outer limits?
No matter. Penny was nearly covered with the stones. Their hands worked feverishly, rock upon rock. Again and again Nelson returned to the rock bed for a new supply. The rocks clacked together rhythmically as they stacked them.
But then there was a new sound---duller than the clacking of rocks, a thudding, hollow sound.
They looked up.
“Thank God,” John sighed. “It’s the helicopter.”
They stood up, tottering, and waved wildly.”
The small Highway Patrol chopper moved in, hovered, and dropped slowly into the sand twenty-five meters away. The instant the landing skids had touched the sand, the pilot jumped out, grabbed the metal basket-stretcher from its mooring frame on the outside, and scampered toward them, ducking under the spinning rotors.
As much as the stones piled over Penny were vital minutes before, they were unwanted now. John began flinging them off as fast as possible, taking care only that none of them fell on Penny.
The pilot put the stretcher down beside Penny, stooped to look at her face and listen to the rasping death-rattle in her throat, then shook his head. “She doesn’t look or sound like she’ll make it to the hospital, Doc. Nearest one’s quite a ways.”
“We’re not taking her to a hospital!” John shouted over the noise of the rotors.
But the pilot was given no explanation. He helped John put the blanket over Penny and tuck it in under her, and then he strapped her in. John and Nelson then lifted the stretcher and hurried over to the chopper.
They clamped the stretcher into its frame. The pilot quickly checked all the connections, then turned to them.
“Only got room for one passenger in the bubble. Who’s going with me?”
“I am,” John said. “We’ve got to take the shortest course to the nearest water!”
“He said just what he meant,” Nelson shouted. “Water!”
The pilot shrugged, motioned for John to climb in, and scurried around to the pilot’s side.
Nelson stood clear. The pilot revved the engine, watching his gauges closely. Then he changed the pitch of the blades, and the chopper lifted. As Nelson watched and waved, the chopper tilted into a turn, then leaned forward and sped away, low over the dunes.
Once the pilot had reached a few hundred feet in altitude, he turned to John, raising his voice to be heard over the engine. “Nearest water’s the ocean, sir. And that’s quite a ways. Hospital’d be closer than that.”
“No, not the hospital, and not the ocean either!” John yelled back. “There must be some water closer than that!”
" ’Fraid not.”
The pilot nodded, picked up the radio mike, and mouthed some words into it that John couldn’t hear.
In a short time they were over a populated area. John scanned the scene below carefully. Then he sat straight up and pointed. “There!”
“That hotel, with the pool!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Take us down there! Take us out over the pool and down close to it!”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Get her into the pool!”
“So you want me to land on the roof of the hotel, or what?”
“No, just right over the pool.”
“You gonna just dump her into the pool!”
The pilot blinked several times. “But, sir, that stretcher ain’t no raft, you know. She’ll just plain sink!”
“Please,” John turned toward him, “just do it!”
The pilot shrugged and muttered something to himself. He began to drop the chopper down. “I’ll have to scatter them folks.”
Swimmers and sunbathers were already looking up curiously at the helicopter descending over them. Hovering over the pool, the pilot picked up the mike and switched on the exterior loudspeaker.
“THIS IS THE POLICE,” boomed his voice. “EVERYBODY OUT OF THE POOL. THIS IS A POLICE EMERGENCY. EVERYBODY GET OUT OF THE POOL, AND GO INSIDE THE HOTEL. THIS IS A POLICE EMERGENCY, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.....”
After a moment of stunned staring, the people below scattered, wildly grabbing up towels, transistor radios, sun lotions, and drinks. They pressed in a mob to get through the doors into the hotel.
When the pool and poolside were clear of people, the pilot skillfully dropped the chopper down to hover a few feet over the water. “Well, mister.....”
“Can you cut that stretcher loose from in here?”
“Well, uh, yes, sir,” he said nervously, “just these switches here. But what am I gonna tell my captain?”
“If we’re lucky, you may be able to tell him you helped save a life!”
“Yes, ma’am.” The pilot cast a prayerful glance skyward, then flipped the switches. The stretcher clanked free and dropped into the water, sinking slowly amid a sea of bubbles.
“Listen!” John leaned toward him and held out a business card. “Take this, call the number on it, at the Directorate. Tell them we need an ambulance here, pronto. Okay? You can take off now.”
“Well, what’re you going to do?”
John spun from him and pushed open his door.
He jumped out, hitting the water with a neat, straight, feet-first plunge.
Penny, motionless under the straps of the stretcher, lay on the bottom of the deep end, under ten feet of water.
His clothes slowing him, John dove down to him a fast as possible and began frantically working to open the straps. He got one undone, then had to surface for another breath. He dove again to remove the last three straps and swish off the blanket. He surfaced for another breath, then returned to roll her off the stretcher.
Cradling her under one arm in a rescue technique, he began to swim around the pool with her, forcing water into her mouth.
Just how all this must’ve looked to the mob of hotel guests whose faces were pressed against the windows to watch, he didn’t imagine. His concentration on Penny was total.
Surfacing occasionally for fresh breaths of air, he circled and circle the pool. The weariness from the day’s events, combined with the weight of his wet clothes and of Penny, made such swimming agony. He didn’t know how long he could go on, but he would go on until he himself sank.
He was not far at all from the limit of his endurance when he felt her move slightly under his arm. He stopped, treaded water, and turned her over.
Her eyes fluttered open. She looked at him. Gradually she edged out from under his arm and hovered in the water facing him. Forgetting, in his exhaustion and pleasure, where he was, he laughed. He choked with water, surfaced to clear his lungs, then submerged to be beside her as she breathed the water that brought her back to life.
Her eyes closed again, her body sagged. He held her. It would take more than these few minutes in the hotel pool to bring her around.
Just then he heard, filtered through the water, the whine of the ambulance siren.
Penny lay asleep on an examination table in the main Directorate lab. She was loosely, but securely, strapped down. John sat beside her, jotting down notes from time to time as he observed her.
She slept fitfully, a hand twitching occasionally, or a foot, or an eyelid. But other than that she appeared quite normal. The tight, shininess of the skin was gone; normal color had returned to her face and limbs. From the times he gently pried one eye slightly open without waking her, he could tell that even her eyes had lost that hideous glaze.
Feeling that she was progressing satisfactorily he relaxed somewhat and became aware of his own exhaustion. Gazing out the large windows toward the Pacific---the dark Pacific on which, far out to sea, could be seen the pinpoints of light from various fishing craft or passing freighters---reminded him that it was indeed night, and the he needed sleep.
Nelson came in, softly, looking as tired as John, with bags under his eyes and the flushed spots on his cheeks he always got when he was overly spent. He held two books under one arm, and a steaming hot cup of coffee in the other hand.
He put the coffee down in front of John and quietly pulled up another chair. “Any change?” he asked softly.
“No, not really. She still looks normal. I can’t see any signs of returning skin-shine or eye-glaze. She’s breathing fine. In pretty deep sleep. Although she’s not resting all that comfortably.”
Nelson noticed Penny’s fingers twitching. “I can see. But it’ll naturally take her some time to recover completely.”
“Any guesses about what caused the skin-surface changes?”
“I would say that it probably had to do with her biological reaction to being invaded by those things.”
Nelson nodded. “I’ve checked every source work that even remotely could have any connection with such a matter.” He tapped his books. “And I think what we’re dealing with is a hybrid spore---from deep space.”
John sipped his coffee, looking at the other man over the cup. “That’s something I’m almost afraid to think about.”
“But you do think about it.”
“Yeah. Anyway, we already know that it’s a frightening situation, even if they didn’t come from deep space. In fact, in a way I’d rather think they didn’t come from our own back yard.”
“My feelings exactly.”
“I heard you arguing with Al before, Harry. What was that about?”
“Oh, you know.” He shrugged and chuckled. “Just about the pressure he’s getting to give up the space probe and how he has to stall them.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Well, he’s doing it better and enjoying it less.”
John sighed, taking another sip of coffee. He looked over at Penny, who was stretched out on the table. “I was thinking about her----as we know her and as the spores made her act. It was as if she was possessed by demons---something out of a horror movie or something---that forced her to do things against her nature and her will.”
“She told us they weren’t demons,” Nelson said, looking warily around the room as if they might be hovering in the air, listening to what he said.
“Well, I hope not. I’ve been doing that myself, by the way.”
“Wondering if they’re still here.”
“Well, let’s find out.” Nelson reached for the light switch and turned it off.
They looked quickly around in the darkness. There was no sign of the spores on the walls or in the free air.
But they were there; the decon chamber glowed blue with spores. Dozens of them rested motionless on the surface of the space probe, clustering there like bees after sundown.
Though the scientists had seen them before, and half expected to see them again now, still their lingering presence struck an ominous note in the room, and caused John to shiver.
They both walked slowly over and peered down at them.
“They look like fireflies,” John said softly, as if not to disturb them on their roost. “They don’t look dangerous at all. It’s terrifying to realize that they can control a mind.”
“But apparently, John, they can.”
John backed away from the decon chamber and lowered his voice as if not to be heard by the spores. “We’ve got to find away to control or destroy them.”
“Do not try to destroy them, Father.” Penny’s voice from behind them caused them to flinch.
Nelson switched on the lights. Again the spores, in the light, seemed to vanish.
Penny was struggling under the straps that bound her to the table. John stepped to her side and put a hand gently on her shoulder. “Don’t fight the straps, Penny, just relax.”
“But why----why am I strapped down?” She looked up at him like a confused child. Gradually her expression changed, and she gave John a slight, wry, understanding smile. “Yes, I remember. I drove a car. Isn’t that right?”
“Fast. I drove very fast. I don’t know why. I don’t know how.”
Then suddenly for a moment, she looked forlorn. “I don’t even know how to drive a car, Father.”
She stared at the ceiling, as though watching the events replayed there. “And then I ran, into the desert. It was hot. I was.....I was.....”
“Why don’t you just stop thinking about it?”
“----I was burning. It was as if I was on fire. I couldn’t breathe. And yet I couldn’t stop. I ran. Then---then I was in the water, with you. Isn’t that right?”
“And now I’m here, strapped down.” Her voice trailed off sadly.
John watched her expressions carefully, fearing the return of the spores.
As she knew what he was thinking, Penny said, “They’re not controlling me now, Father. They don’t have to. They know me. Controlling me now is a waste. They hate waste.” She hesitated, then looked at him. “Will I be strapped down forever?”
“No, Penny.” She smiled warmly. “Just until, well....” He looked at Nelson, who shrugged. “Until now.” He loosened the straps over her chest and arms, while Nelson loosened those over her legs.
She sat up quickly and looked at them both. “I would be dead but for you. You saved me again. I know that. And they know that also.”
“I suppose so,” he said resignedly.
“And what does that mean to them?”
“I do not know. I do know that they are interested in discovering all our strengths and weaknesses.”
“What else do you know, Penny?”
“We must rest. We are tired.”
Suddenly John looked disturbed. “Did they tell you that?”
“No, you did, Father. You told me that human minds cannot function correctly without sufficient rest. Don’t you remember?”
John smiled. “Yes, I remember.”
She slid off the table and started directly for the elevator. They moved toward her. She held up a palm and smiled. “No, don’t worry. I must swim for a while in the ocean. It is for me a kind of rest, as you know. I feel the need to swim, to be alone, to think.” She pushed the elevator button and the doors opened immediately. She waved and stepped in. “Good night, Father. Good night, Nelson.”
The doors closed in front of her.
The scientists exchanged concerned, helpless looks. Then they both shrugged and sighed. The lab was suddenly very quiet, uncomfortably still.
They walked together toward the decon chamber, stopping a few feet away to stare into it.
What they stared at was the space probe, clean.....sterile....even....totally alone within the chamber.
But they knew it wasn’t alone. They knew that the hundreds of blue beings, uncontrollable but with the power to control others, were still clustered there, just resting.
It was a bright, warm, and friendly morning. Nelson drove through the shattered O.R.D. gate and pulled into her regular parking place. He took a moment to gaze at the peaceful surroundings and thought it would be a lovely day to play golf.
He chuckled. It would even, in some respects, be a lovely day to work in a coal mine rather than return to the problems that faced him in the lab.
But Nelson, as usual, approached problems with the pleasant anticipation that they would be solved. Problems were the steak and vegetables of his professional diet. He didn’t fret and complain and worry; Harriman Nelson had long since vowed to himself that he would never be a candidate for ulcers.
But there was no ignoring the fact that this particular set of problems was, at the very least, upsetting.
He sighed and pushed the creaky car door open and stepped out into the bright sun. For a moment he thought of this same sun beating down over the desert, and shuddered.
Then he headed with a sprightly step for the O.R.D. entrance.
Al stepped out the door to greet him---soft of. “Nelson, do you have any idea how many generals, admirals, senators, and NASA bigwigs I’ve talked to already this morning?”
“How many guesses do I get?” He brushed past Al and went in.
Al hopped along behind him. “Look, Nelson. Harry?!”
Nelson kept up his brisk pace, exchanging pleasant good mornings with Angela, the secretary.
“Nelson?” Al whined.
“My guess,” he said back over his shoulder, “is four-hundred-eighty-one. Am I close?”
“They’re screaming for their space probe,” Al said piteously.
“Burp them, give them a cookie, take two aspirin yourself, and call me in the morning.”
John came down the stairs from his bedroom on the second floor.
“John?” Al looked a him in appeal.
“Good morning, Al.”
“Nelson wouldn’t give me a straight answer, and I need a straight answer!”
“NASA wants the space probe back.”
“That’s not a question. And we already know that.”
“The question is, when do they get it?”
“Not now. They can’t have it just yet.”
The three of them stood at the bottom of the stairs, John looking at his nails, Nelson humming a faint tune, and Al waving his arms as if swatting bugs.
“It cost more than six-hundred-million dollars! We can’t just keep it!”
“The truth is, Al, that if the knew what was involved, they wouldn’t want it at twice the price.”
“Is it true that it’s got some disease aboard?” he asked, his eyes widening.
“Something like that.”
He brightened slightly. “Can I tell them that?”
“No.” John headed for Angela’s desk, Al trotting along in his wake.
“Any mail, Angela?”
“Nothing urgent, John.” The phone rang and Angela answered it. She listened a moment, then said, “Yes,” and pushed the “hold” button. “For you, Al. General Caddy.”
He moaned and flitted his eyes around. “Tell him I’m not here.”
“Sorry, I already told him you were. Want to take it in your office?”
"“Oh, why not,” he whimpered.
John went back down the hall to the lab. Nelson was seated on a stool, poring over some notes.
He looked up when John entered. “Quiet night?”
“Just me and all the fishes in the tanks around here.”
Throughout the lab there were small aquariums with many kinds of aquatic life, all subjects for their research.
“Penny was out all night?”
“You don’t seem terribly worried about it?”
“Well, like you said, I tend to be overprotective sometimes. He seemed fine when she left. So I didn’t worry. Why are all the shades pulled?”
Nelson turned back to his notes. “I’ve turned the lights off a couple of times and checked. All our spores are still here---at least I think they all are.”
“Still on the probe.”
“Yup. Moving around a little, but still in the decon chamber.”
The elevator doors hissed open, and they turned to see Penny emerge in street clothes.
“Well, hello, Penny,” Nelson said cheerily. “Why so dressed up?”
“I don’t know,” she said, coming into the lab. “I just felt like it, somehow. I’ve been doing research.”
“My kind. “In the ocean, while I swam.”
“Nelson meant, on what subject, Penny?” John asked.
Penny pulled up a stool and sat on it. “Remembering. Swimming and remembering. Adding what I remembered to what I know----the new things.”
“From the spores?”
“And from you.”
“I know some creatures.” She swiveled around and pointed to the decon chamber. “Some creatures like them.”
“Like them?” Nelson looked surprised. “What are they called?”
“In the sea, nothing has a name. Just a place, with beings, and brothers and sisters of beings. I don’t know what you call them. You’ve never mentioned them. So I assume you don’t know about them.”
Nelson and John exchanged a look.
“What are they like?” Nelson asked.
“They are the most fierce things.”
“At what depth do you find them?”
Penny paused. “They live at the deepest bottom. As with the spores from space, they cannot be seen in light---not by you. Unlike the spores, they cannot be seen by sea beings. Not even me. But all in the sea know they are there.”
She stopped and stared off at the shaded windows.
At that, Nelson got up and raised the shades, allowing the sunlight to fill the room and the Pacific to fill their view. He came back to his chair. “Tell us about them, Penny.”
Penny gazed into the distance. “They are most feared. They have no enemies that endanger them, but they are the enemies of all.” She hesitated, and looked at them for encouragement.
“Go on,” Nelson said gravely.
Penny nodded. “They live as you have told me an army lives. They have those who risk moving beyond protect to seek out knowledge, others who attack to find weaknesses. Each has a responsibility to all.” She looked back and forth at both of them. “Do you understand?”
“A communal organization,” John said, “perhaps like soldier ants. Yes. Go on.”
“They have only one plan---attack, learn; attack, learn; attack, attack, attack.”
“And they can’t be harmed by other sea creatures?” Nelson asked.
“Then how....” Nelson narrowed his eyes---“do any sea creatures survive?”
Penny looked puzzled.
“What Harry’s asking,” John said, “is why such creatures as you’ve described, in attacking and attacking and attacking, haven’t destroyed everything else in the sea. Have they any weaknesses at all?”
She wrinkled up her nose as if the conclusion were obvious. “No. Of course not. They only attack when they are invaded.” She looked at him poignantly. “These spores have been invaded, Father. Their place has been invaded. They have no choice.”
Suddenly she clamped her hands over her ears and rocked to and fro in pain. “They know I understand them!” she howled. As abruptly as the pain had hit her, it left. She dropped her hands and straightened up slowly. “I know when they speak,” she said more calmly, “but I cannot understand their language. But I know---they know---I understand them.”
She looked at the probe. “They’re gone,” she said soberly.
Nelson rushed to the windows and yanked down the shades.
They gazed through the darkness at the space probe. No longer was there the blue glow of hundreds of spores. But there was one: a single faint, spore still rested on the probe.
Penny was anguished, her voice a moan. “It’s as sentry! But they’ve gone! They’ve gone out into your world! What will they do, Father?”
John and Nelson were stunned, immobilized. Penny looked from one man to the other. Quickly realizing that they had no answer, a look of terror crossed Penny’s face. She whirled and ran for the door. She paused only to turn and swing her arm. “Come!” she yelled at them.
The pleasant, sunny day made the park an Eden. Boys played softball. Women wheeled babies in strollers. Dogs romped in the grass near their owners.
Under the dense shade of a big elm tree, two elderly men, stooped with age but purposeful in movement, were setting up a game of chess atop a concrete pedestal. They sat on the concrete benches moving the pieces into place on the board. Then they sat still, staring and smiling at the board, anticipating yet another of their marvelous daily challenges that made the days for each of these close friends very much worthwhile.
One of the men moved his white pawn out two squares, then leaned back and tapped his cane against his leg.
The other smiled and nodded. He would study his first move---as he would study each move---for a long time, stretching out the pleasure of the game for as long as possible.
As he was raptly studying the board, bent over it to focus his old eyes, a spore landed on the back of his neck. Unseen and unfelt, it vanished into his skin.
The other man leaned back, satisfied with his opening move, resting his eyes while his friend pondered his own first move. Between the wings of his open shirt collar, another spore alit and was instantly absorbed into him---equally unseen, unfelt, unnoticed.
Several minutes went by, during which the two elderly friends sat in the same positions beside their chess board, shielded from the sun by the magnificent old elm and from distractions by the weakness of their old ears and eyes.