Girl From Atlantis

7.

7:

Nelson, John and Penny ran from the lab. “This car over here!” Nelson shouted, heading for the nearest Directorate LeSabre.

“No, wait!” Penny stopped in the parking lot, looking around. “I don’t know where they’ve gone!”

They raced up to his side. “You think we should search on foot?” John asked.

“I don’t know,” she moaned.

“That’s right!” Nelson slapped a fist into his palm. “They could be anywhere! They could be in Philadelphia!”

The three stood panting.

Then Penny said, “No, they wouldn’t go there.”

“Why not?” Nelson was impatient.

“Because they don’t need to go there. They do not need to travel far for what they are after.”

“Then where?” Nelson looked around. “Could they be in those bushes here?”

“No. They will be looking for people.”

“Then in town, probably!” John said.

“Yes.”

“To the car then!” Nelson yelled. “Let’s go!”

They raced to the car.

“Will you be able to see them?” John asked as he ran.

“Yes.”

Nelson scrambled behind the wheel, and the others slid in beside him.

Just then Al came trotting out the front door, waving his arms. ” Hey! Ho! Hello! Stop!”

They stopped.

“The director of NASA operations is coming here with some senator or something to demand the space probe! He won’t take no for an answer!”

Nelson growled, shoved the car into gear, and sped out through the main gate, scattering workmen who were repairing it.

In the park, the two old men sat glaring at each other over the chessboard. Not a word had been spoken since they sat down to play, some time earlier. The old man with the cane had made the first move, and n move had been made since then.

For a while they had both stared at the board. Then slowly they lifted their heads to stare at each other. Now their filmy eyes were fixed coldly on each other as if they were mortal enemies.

Then the one who hadn’t yet made a move on the board straightened, snarled, and swept his arm across the table, swiping all the chessmen off to tumble over the grass.

The other man then straightened, puffed out his chest, brought up his cane, and rapped the first man smartly over the head.

The blow, by the hand of a man sufficiently enfeebled to insure against permanent harm, did nothing more than advance the fury of the other man. He grabbed up the chessboard, hoisted it over his head, and smashed it down on the head of his opponent, splitting the board in two.

The man with the cane growled and stood up, rocking a bit unevenly on his spindly legs.

The other man did likewise.

This time the man did not swing the cane but pulled it back along his side and then thrust it forward like a pool cue into the other man’s belly.

A few passersby now stopped to stare in curiosity, and they heard the second man say, “Whooof!” as the cane jabbed into him.

Again no permanent damage was done. Both old men stood rocking to and fro, one waving his cane, the other waving the two pieces of the broken chessboard. They all set to smacking at each other furiously, though all the blows were absorbed either by the cane or by the pieces of chessboard.

Two passersby stepped forward to intervene in this weird slugfest. But just then both old men slowed their movements and at once came to a stop. Their arms dropped down to their sides, and the cane and chessboard fell to the ground.

They stood still. Their eyes were glazed. Their skin was drawn taut as a bowstring over their faces and had a sallow sheen to it. They no longer rocked or glared; they stood like statues, their skin and eyes like marble.

Women wheeled their prams over; boys came lugging their softball bats; other old men left other chessboards and doddered to the scene. A murmur went through the growing crowd, as they stared at the stony figures.

Then a voice within the crowd hollered, “Somebody get a cop!”

There was a squirming and partial scattering of the crowd as people look this way and that for a patrolman or a phone.

But a park custodian, upon seeing the first blow of the cane, had already put in the call. A siren wailed in the distance, rapidly approaching.

Nelson drove swiftly to the town, then slowed to cruise, through the streets. The three of them scanned out the windows.

“Any sign of the spores, Penny?” John asked.

“No.”

They cruised up one residential street and down another.

“Nothing yet?”

“No.”

“It’s hopeless,” Nelson groaned. “A needle in a haystack. They could be anywhere----upstairs, downstairs, in a lady’s chamber, in a backyard pool, lying in a linen closet, perched on a chimney. It’s hopeless!”

“No, we will find them.”

Nelson perked up his ears. “That siren. Hear it? Maybe the siren is telling us where they are.”

“Want to have a look-see, Penny?”

“Yes.”

Nelson wheeled into a squealing right turn and headed in the direction of the siren.

They approached the park and immediately saw the twirling red dome-lights of the patrol cars as well as the crowd gathered on the grass. Nelson screeched to a stop in front of a fire hydrant, and they jumped out and ran over.

Two police officers were circulating through the knot of gawkers, asking questions of eyewitnesses and noting their answers on small pads. Two police paramedics were examining the two old men, who were still standing despite attempts to get them to lie down. Several other old men in the area were shaking their heads nervously, as if afraid that they too would turn into statues.

John and Nelson pushed their way through the crowd up to the principals.

“Stay back, please,” said one of the paramedics, turning to them with arms spread. “Back with the rest.”

“We’re doctors,” John said, flashing his I.D.

“Thank God! Take a look at these fellows here. I never seen anything like it. I thought I seen about everything. But not this. They seem fine except that they have no reactions---none at all.”

“What happened?” John asked, quickly stepping up to one old man while Nelson started to examine the other.

“Near as I can figure out, they was playing chess. Then next thing you know they was batting each other over the head. Then they just wound down and stopped like toy soldiers. And here we are.”

“Nelson?” John glanced at him. He nodded. They recognized the symptoms immediately. “Penny?” He looked around for her.

Penny, having seen the old men’s faces, also knew what had happened to them. She was scouting the nearby grounds anxiously. Her eyes fell on the beautiful old elm tree, about two meters up the trunk. There she saw them, the cluster of spores. She heard the thin, muted chatter of voices and cocked her head to listen closely. Then suddenly her eyes began flicking around. They were leaving the tree, flitting into the air; they were gone. “Father!”

She pushed through to John. “Father! They were there, on the tree! I don’t know where they’ve gone now!”

“We’ve got to find them!” He grabbed Nelson’s arm and they shoved back out through the crowd.

“Wait!” the paramedic called after them. “Aren’t you gonna write a prescription for these guys or nothin’?”

“You think they’re still around here, Penny?” John asked.

“No.”

“Then back in the car!′ Nelson shouted.

They clambered into the car, slammed the doors, and squealed away from the curb.

At the intersection of Lost Creek Boulevard and Oyster Creek Trail, not far from the middle of town, a policeman was directing traffic in his usual imaginative and entertaining style. Holding the whistle in his teeth and giving little blasts on it to get a driver’s attention, he waved his arms like a symphony conductor, twirling his white-gloved hand to bring in the traffic from one direction, arcing his other palm to stem the flow from the opposite side. He pirouetted, dancing back and forth, bowed, leaned, posed, hands always busily sweeping the air---with the whole performance set to the rhythm of his whistle-tweets.

He was a fixture on that corner, and motorists would often go out of their way to pass through his intersection, feeling uplifted by his buoyant, artistic, and friendly spirit.

He pivoted smoothly to his right and swept his left arm out grandly, signaling that for one lane of traffic to turn. As he was doing that, a spore landed on the back of his shirt. It wiggled slightly and vanished into the fabric.

A moment later, all traffic stopped. The policeman stood motionless in the middle of the intersection, the skin of his face taut, the complexion a high sheen. His arms hung limp at his sides, his eyes seemed fixed on the distance.

Motorists, used to obeying his every subtle direction and now getting no directions at all, did not budge. Nobody honked.

And then, in front of all these eyes from several lanes of traffic, this revered and polite performer suddenly drew his revolver. He pointed it straight up and extended his arm over his head. He fired six shots, evenly spaced.

Drivers and passengers ducked.

When they looked again, they saw the officer frozen as before, the gun dangling from his index finger at his side, his eyes glazed.

Gradually and slowly the traffic started to move, drivers eyeing the motionless, staring policeman cautiously as they eased through the intersection.

Nelson drove slowly along the downtown streets, looking for something he couldn’t have seen even if it was there. John did the same.

Penny looked too, searching everywhere, desperately trying to spot the spores which only she could see. “Stop!”

“Where, Penny?”

But it was a mistake. What Penny had thought to be a cluster of spores was just a display of blue spangles mounted on a pedestal in a jewelry-store window.

They moved on. As sure as Penny was that the spores were somewhere nearby;, she was just as sure that they were busy and active. With every passing minute she became more tense and jumpy.

“It occurs to me, John,” Nelson said calmly, “that there is a question I can’t answer. What’re we going to do if we do find them?”

“My God! I hadn’t even thought of that!” John said in a panic-fraught voice.

“I have,” Penny said firmly. “I understand them. They must remember me too. And they know I understand them. I will try to talk to them. Perhaps they will understand what I say.”

“And if they don’t?” Nelson raised his eyebrows.

“Then maybe they will know what I mean anyway.”

“Everything looks so damned normal,” John hissed.

“You don’t think they’d be back in the park, do you, Penny?”

“No. I believe they would be interested in trying different sections, learning about people in different areas. I believe they are finished with the park.”

“Why do you suppose they bothered messing with those harmless geezers back in the park anyway? What good could that do them?”

“I do not know. Perhaps they were a different age from what they’d tried before. Perhaps they wanted to test their capabilities in controlling older people.”

“What will happen to those old gents?”

“When the spores leave them, they will probably return to normal.”

“What if they don’t leave?”

“Either the men will remain as they are, or do whatever the spores direct them to do---for as long as the spores live in them.”

“How long could that be?”

“I do not know if these spores ever die.”

John and Nelson turned to look at her, shocked by the thought that maybe the spores were immortal.

“Well, whether they die or not,” Nelson said, gritting his teeth and clamping his hands firmer on the wheel, “they are disruptive little bastards.”

“Why do you suppose,” John asked pensively, “that they haven’t tried to control us, Harry and me?”

“I do not know. Maybe they already know enough about you.”

John sighed with relief.

“Or maybe it is not yet time.”

“You mean they could still....”

“I mean I do not know why they control the specific individuals they do, and not others.”

The car fell silent for a few moments. Nelson turned down Main Street, where the town’s largest department store was located.

“It may interest you to know, Penny,” Nelson said, pointing out the store, “that that building, now calling itself C.X. Huffman’s, claiming to have on its shelves everything under the sun, the town’s pride and joy, once housed a sweatshop factory, employing imported Chinese and Mexicans at slave wages, to manufacture....”

“There! Stop!” Penny gestured frantically at the store. “There!”

Nelson pulled abruptly to his left, crossing the oncoming lane of traffic, drawing several irate honks, and skidding to the opposite curb.

Penny was out of the car and running even before it stopped. Nelson and John followed close behind. Bumping pedestrians out of the way, Penny dove into the revolving doors, spinning unsuspecting shoppers wildly around and tossing them out onto the sidewalk.

John and Nelson trailed her in and found her standing in the middle of a huge expanse, looking feverishly around among the aisles of items, the racks of clothes, in and out of the sections of hardware, appliances, furniture, draperies, cosmetics, and cookware. She spun this way and that, flashing her green eyes into every nook and cranny of the main floor.

“Did you see them, Penny?” John called, running up to her. “Did you really see them?”

Suddenly her eyes caught a woman at the top of the down escalator. She had stopped, and shoppers bunched up behind her quickly but could not pass. She emitted a long, unearthly howl---although she seemed to be in no particular difficulty.

But Penny saw that her eyes were glazed and the skin was tight on her face. “There. They have her!”

Just as they started in that direction, they heard uproarious laughter coming from another. A man in an expensive pin-striped suit was standing in the lobby just inside the revolving doors, his head tipped back in a long, insane thunder of laughter, the mighty rumble of his weird glee matching the volume of the screams coming from the woman atop the escalator.

“There!” Penny shouted, pointing now toward the man. “Both of them!”

They looked from one to the other, unsure of which to run to first.

“They’re driving people to madness!” John cried.

“No!” Penny shook her head vigorously. “They are learning! They must learn!”

In the midst of all this screaming and laughing, which had brought the whole store to a halt, there came a loud crash from the clothing section. Then another, and another.

A young man with long brown hair in a ponytail and wearing a loose-fitting shirt across which was stenciled AEROSMITH, L.A. TOUR ’78, was methodically knocking over garment racks, smashing them to the lobby floor, and stomping on them. His skin too showed the effects of the spores.

And from the kitchen department there came a yowl of pain accompanied by the clashing of cymbals. A woman in a pantsuit was clapping two frying pans together and occasionally trying to clap them over the ears of somebody she could reach. The lucky ones ducked, the unlucky ones stumbled out of the department clutching their heads.

And still there was the laughing and screaming, the smashing of garment racks, all mixing with the clanging of frying pans.

And then above it all there came a shrill, constant whistle, loud as quitting time at a factory.

Penny, sensing the direction immediately, spun toward it. She leaped past stunned onlookers, skipped over fallen clothes, eluded the frying pans, and bounded down the escalator to the lower-level mall.

Nelson and John lost her momentarily, then spied the still-open path she had made through the chaos.

“Somebody call a doctor!” John shouted over his shoulder as they raced down after her.

The whistling had stopped as suddenly as it started. Penny fired looks around at the small shops and restaurants in the arcade.

The whistle blasted again. It came not from a machine but from a distinguished-looking man with a professional white beard. He stood outside a nature-food restaurant, his two index fingers between his teeth, his chest inflated to enormous proportions, transmitting a wail of a whistle sharp enough to shatter glass. His skin also revealed the presence of spores.

But the spores themselves were nowhere to be seen.

Abruptly the man turned and, continuing to whistle, charged into the restaurant.

The three raced in after him.

The man ran behind the service counter, pushing waitresses and cooks aside. A large, young, broad-shouldered busboy jumped at him and grabbed his arms, pulling the fingers out of his mouth and bringing the whistling to a halt.

In that instant of relative silence, Penny could hear that the laughing, screaming and rioting had also ceased---and she knew what the scene would be upstairs: the people invaded by the spores had fallen into silent, stiff stupors just like the old men in the park.

But the whistling man had not yet reached that stage. Though no longer whistling, he was a whirlwind of action. He squirmed out of the busboy’s grasp, lunged to grab a large metal canister with an aerosol tap, and held it above his head.

The busboy shrank back, as if expecting to be slugged with it.

But the man instead simply aimed the can down at the busboy and pressed the button, firing a quick stream of imitation whipped cream into the busboys’ face.

Momentarily blinded by the tasty foam, the busboy staggered backwards.

Customers were now laughing, not at the crazy manner of the man upstairs, but with genuine, gutbusting, choking guffaws, at the whole slapstick scene.

Penny and Nelson quickly reached the man and collared him, but by then it was no longer necessary. The man had relaxed, dropped the canister, and fallen into the same stupor as the others.

Still the customers continued to laugh and daub their tearing eyes with handkerchiefs at the sight of the busboy trying to plow the whipped cream off his face with his fingers and lap at it with his tongue.

“Don’t do that!” came a snarling command from among the customers. “Don’t you dare laugh!”

A woman of about thirty, wearing a neat and stylish pinafore over a short, blue dress, rose from her table, shaking her fist. The spores had clearly got to her.

Assuming she was part of the comedy, the customers increased their laughter.

“I told you to stop that!” she bellowed.

Laughter was uncontrollable. Customers doubled over, holding their shaking belies.

Suddenly she stopped, slid her arms under her table, and flipped it over, sending brown health food, brown ceramic dishes, glasses of purple juice, and wooden knives and forks spewing into the room like missiles. Everything crashed into the walls and onto the floor. “There will be no laughing ever!”

And presently there was none. All the customers gaped at her, some with crooked brown seeds on their foreheads, others with purple juice dripping off their ears.

Before any of the customers could react and recover their wits, Penny pointed to the wall and yelled, “They’re here---learning!”

The invisible cluster of spores on the wall began chattering. Their shrill voices quickly became louder and louder. Penny moved her lips fleetingly, then clapped her hands over her ears, stumbling backwards.

Customers’ eyes followed this latest scene with silent disbelief, their mouths hanging open.

Penny spun around, holding her ears, grimacing in pain. Then she stopped. Slowly she lowered her hands and straightened up. She looked at the wall.

John and Nelson came quickly to her side, also staring at the wall, seeing nothing but knowing well what Penny had seen---and felt.

“They’re gone,” Penny said slowly. Then lifting her head and clenching her fists, she cried into the room, “They won’t listen to me! They won’t hear!”

There was nothing they could do for those poor souls already affected by the spores, and apparently nothing they could do to prevent the free circulation of the spores or their invasions of more bodies.

The tumult in the store subsided, and aside from the stupefied people that remained as evidence of the marauders’ visit, the spores appeared to have left.

Rather than pursue their hopeless strategy of again trying to find and somehow contain the spores, Penny and the scientists decided they would do better by returning to the Directorate to contemplate the matter in relative quiet.

And so they returned, defeated and dismayed. But they didn’t relax. The defeat could not be allowed to be permanent. The implications of this line of beings remaining on the loose were horrendous.

Nelson went right to the phone; John went to his desk to study his notes about the spores for any possible clues to their behavior or any suggestions for a new strategy.

As Nelson talked quietly, John flipped through page after page, scanning the lines with his finger, hunting for any hidden meaning in what he had recorded.

At last he folded his notebook shut. Nothing new had been discovered in or between the lines. “Penny, we can’t just sit back and let them attack people and leave them like vegetables!”

Penny rubbed her palms together pensively. “I was like that, like a vegetable. It went away.” She looked at him. “And now I’m fine. Please don’t try to destroy them. They’ll know and they won’t have any choice. They will have to attack!”

John narrowed his eyes. “I seriously hope you’re not trying to defend them, Penny,” he growled softly.

“No, it’s not that, Father. I’m not defending them. I’m just stating facts about them---the reality as I have been made to know it. It is for our sakes, the sakes of everyone, that I say what I do. We must not provoke them into wider attacks!”

Nelson hung up and plodded over, his head drooping. “There are nine hundred cases in the hospitals already....”

“Nine hun....”

“It’s being diagnosed as everything from a new virus strain to effects of air pollution to coincidental mass hysteria followed by shock. It’s not centralized. Cases have cropped up over town.”

John gazed at Nelson for a few moments after the latter finished, then turned slowly to Penny. “Well,” he said coldly, “it seems that they have already enough widened their attacks quite enough to give us an indication of what’s in store. We’ve got to find some means of protecting ourselves, of controlling them.”

Penny didn’t respond. She turned away and gazed out the window.

“You said there’s some life form in the sea that’s like them,” John went on. “How are they controlled?” He waited. ” How are they controlled, Penny?”

“They control themselves,” she answered softly, without looking at him. “They have their place.”

“But why don’t they wander out to learn,” John persisted, “as the spores are wandering out to learn now?”

She whirled toward him. “Because they have their place!” she snapped.

They locked eyes briefly. Then Penny, clearly upset, exasperated, and ill at ease with what he was being asked, turned away and stalked out to the elevator. She stepped inside it and was gone.

John and Nelson watched her go, saying nothing, making no move to stop her.

“John, I’m afraid this is becoming a most insidious matter. I feel we can never be quite sure whether Penny is entirely free of them or not.”

“Or if she’s free physically, Harry. I’m not sure she’s free from them psychologically. It’s because she understands them, don’t you see? When you understand things----or people----it’s much harder to be objective or cold-blooded about them.”

“Much harder to hate them, you mean, much more difficult to accept the idea of wanting to harm them.”

“Yes, Harry, exactly.”

“But she doesn’t understand them, really. She says so herself. She doesn’t know much about them at all.”

“Apparently she knows enough about them to be convince that they’re being aggressive only in self-defense.”

“Self-defense? Hell! We’re the ones acting in self-defense. As far as spores are concerned, I’m not looking for trouble. They can go their way, I’ll go mine. I don’t want anything they have. I don’t want to move into their neighborhood. I don’t even want to know anything about them. I don’t care if I see another spore. Self-defense? Look, John, they climbed aboard that space probe and rode down here on their own. Nobody invited them. My guess is that they aren’t interested in self-defense at all. They just want to expand their world. Earth was a handy place---lots of nice towns to visit, people to live in. If they aren’t controlling Penny right now, at least she’s deluding herself. These little bastards are flat out evil!”

John didn’t react to his words, just sat disconsolately, idly drumming his fingers on the desk, staring at the wall. Finally he turned to him with sad and weary eyes. “So, Harry, just where the hell does that leave us?”

“Damned if I know.”

They were quiet for a while. Nelson paced back and forth, mumbling to himself. Then he said, “Maybe you and I should just take off, get out of here while we have a chance. Save ourselves before they take a fancy to our innards. We can go to Philadelphia---that’s the one place Penny specifically said the spores won’t go to .”

“But of course we’re not going anywhere.”

“Hmmph.”

“Because we brought this problem on ourselves. Remember? It’s our responsibility now. Unless.....” John smiled sardonically at him---“you want to tell NASA we’re afraid.”

Nelson stopped pacing, looking at John, then started to laugh. His laugh swelled until it was a roar. It swelled until John began to suspect that a spore had slipped into him.

Then his laugh calmed to a chuckle and finally stopped. He continued to smile. “John, you are wondrous, wonderful and unbeatable guy. I’m scared---you know that? And you know what else? I’m not gonna quit, either! We shall stay with the ship together! Man the ramparts shoulder to shoulder! Stand side by side against the common foe! And then.....”

“And then?”

“Maybe we’ll think of something.”

Penny sat alone on the deserted beach. She had walked out through the sub-pen dock and down along the base of the cliffs, until she could no longer see the Directorate. She wanted to be completely alone. The sun dipped low to the horizon, and the sky was streaked with pale purples, pinks, and greens. The tide was coming in, and she sat a few yards above the lapping waves, watching it slowly advance toward her.

It was the peacefulness of the rhythms of the sea she wanted, yet she wanted also to be in touch with the land. It was the symbol of her two lives.....or rather the two halves of her one life. For she was, despite the mysteries of her beginnings, no more or less than one individual being, with limits to his will and strength.

And from time to time, especially now, she felt torn by the demands of the worlds of the sea and the land, and by the friends she had in both.

And now too the demands of yet another world and its creatures---space and the spores----had come upon her. For a creature who knew so little of herself, who didn’t even know where she came from, it was a lot to handle.

As she sat staring at the lips of the advancing tide, voices---hers and John’s, his savior, benefactor, friend, and surrogate father---conversed in her head. They weren’t conversations she had exactly had, but synopses of them, boiled down to the basic truths each wanted to assert.

John: We have no choice, Penny. If we’re going to survive, we’ve got to destroy them.”

Penny: They haven’t taken a human life. How can we take theirs?”

John: Penny, we’re people helpless against those spores. We can’t accommodate them into our lives, yet they won’t live us alone. We’re defenseless against them. They’re attacking us. If they’re not destroyed, we---you and I---can’t survive.

(In her mind now they were on a downtown street, a deserted street. Yet down upon them gazed faces---the empty eyed face of those whom the spores had entered and in whom the spores had produced the awful stupor.)

John: They’re restless, Penny. Look, they’re moving. The spores have panicked the city. And now the streets are empty. It’s the hospitals now that are filled. Filled with people that used to walk these streets, smiling, talking, planning, hoping, loving----helpless people whom the spores have infected.

Penny: They don’t infect, they invade.

John: They invade bodies which aren’t theirs, which don’t belong to them in any way; bodies which have posed them no threat, done them no harm, owe them nothing. Old men playing chess. Shoppers in a store. Customers in a peaceful restaurant. Penny Robinson, who comes from the sea and is welcomed here in peace and friendship. These bodies they invade, with no cause, no justification. One small town in California today. And with their abilities they may invade New York tomorrow. Or Paris or Moscow or Peking or Philadelphia. It’s not we who wish to cause harm. But to save ourselves they must be exterminated.

Penny: Why? They do not kill or infect with disease. They invade. It is not the same thing. They do not destroy. They learn. They invade to learn.

John: Is that better? To invade in order to learn, yet leave their hosts deaf, mute, and blind, unable to sense the world around them, their own world? Is that better, or less destructive, than to put a bullet in the head, or a fatal germ in the heart? No, it’s not better. A wound can be healed, an infection cured. Invasion such as this is as destructive as anything in this world.

Penny: But they mean no harm.

John: Oh, Penny, harm inflicted innocently is no less a harm to the object of it. We suffered as much from the innocent sun in the desert as we would have from an evil sun that wished us pain. We have before us this question: What can we do to help the innocent people who are invaded and harmed by thinking, aggressive beings----innocent or not? We can’t do anything, Penny. We’re as helpless to help them as they are to protect themselves against such an unseen and unknown invasion.

Penny: It is unfortunate, I know. It is sad. I am deeply sad about it.

John: Penny, what can destroy those creatures in the sea that are like spores from space?

Penny: Nothing. Nothing destroys those in the sea, and nothing can destroy the spores.

John’s voice faded, drew gradually away from her, farther and farther, fainter and fainter. The last words he heard him say were, “Help us, Penny. Help me.”

As if she had been dreaming, she awoke now to sense a nearby presence. She looked up to see a little girl of maybe five years old standing beside her and staring at her. She was dressed in Bo-Peep jeans, ragged sneakers, and a floppy Snoopy sweatshirt. Her eyes were filled with innocence and vulnerability.

She held a handful of small seashells. She smiled at her and extended the handful of shells to her. Penny looked at the shells, then up at the little girl’s smiling eyes. Carefully she took one of the shells from her hand.

The child, seeming to glow with happiness, waggled her hand at Penny, turned, and ran merrily away down the beach.

Penny closed her eyes. “Will there be another morning, Father? Will we soon lose everything?”

She waited as if to summon her voice back, but no answer came.

“Must we?” she wailed in anguish into the sea-wind.

The lab was dark. Nobody was there. But the spores had clustered again on the space probe within the decontamination chamber.

Penny strode in quietly, saw the spores, and approached the chamber. The spores seemed suddenly restless, sliding around, lifting slightly, hovering, but not leaving the chamber.

Penny looked down at them, her eyes filled with passion and resolve. Her voice was hoarse. “You have to listen. You have to hear me!”

The spores became more agitated.

“I am the only one! You have to listen to me! You know already what I am about to say! But I must say it! You must listen!”

The room lights flashed on. Penny whirled around.

John and Nelson stood inside the door, facing her. Their eyes were glazed, their skin taut and shiny.

“No!” came Penny’s wretched cry. “No!”

And then came the burst of jangling voices from the spores, shrill ear-splitting shrieks surpassing anything they had emitted before. Penny clamped her hands over her ears and doubled up with pain. She stumbled back against the lab table, knocking over a microscope and a tray of bottles.

The crash of glass was unheard over the rabid screeching of the spores.

John and Nelson moved slowly toward her with heavy, plodding, deliberate steps, their eyes blank, their faces frozen like wax figures.

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