Welcome to the book club. Like each book club story on this blog, the reading and commenting is done at your own pace. Have fun and enjoy!
This novelette was co-authored in 1976 with George R.R. Martin’s personal friend and cohort, Howard Waldrop. In the portion of the fandom that extends beyond Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, during my passings through that wonderful world of online chats, it is this story that brings about a considerable amount of contention, moreso than how incest brings about a downfall of dynasties, no matter the story. Many try to connect the way nature behaves in this story as a way to ‘verify’ that the weirwoods from ASOIAF are actually villainous. I disagree as I see the trees and nature aspects as innocents being used and mind-controlled by the spores dispered by the (possibly alien-Others) fungus. It is these spores that essentially create what would be wights in ASOIAF. The setting and battle with the fungus is actually rather long night/A Game of Thrones prologue/Castle Black like. The fungus and its controlled mutations is rather old Valyria/dragon-like. The giant fifth tree that seems impossible to take down, yeah, that is a wighted free folk giant alright. A little of this, a little of that.
However, that is why I am providing this text; for you to read and decide on your own, therefore, I will keep my notes at a minimum (because there could be plenty).
The basic synopsis of this story takes place in George R. R. Martin’s fictional science fiction universe called The Thousand Worlds. This happens to be an unnamed planet as opposed to the many that he gives name to, usually based off of an element in Norse mythology. It follows a group of seven scientist living in a fortified base called Greywater Station as they try to use a native species to make weapons. This is an ethical no-no in Martinworld, the obsession with warfare and destruction of other humans. What they covet is a highly intelligent hive minded life form called The Fungus covers the planet. The Fungus has the ability to take over the minds of others organisms by releasing it’s spores into the air.
The story is told from the POV of the antagonists, in this case the scientists. GRRM has given the main POV to the antagonist in other stories such as The Glass Flower, Portraits of His Children, Sandkings, half the POV’s in Fevre Dream are from the antagonist telling, as well as a few other stories. These antagonists range in “bad guy” level from a touch of dark grey to mostly black in motive. In the first main scene, the five scientists witnessing the crash of a space ship transporting soldiers, first making a parallel to a falling star. They argue whether or not to try and save the surviving soldiers from being taken over by The Fungus. Sheridan argues it’s best to kill the survivors, since he deems it inevitable The Fungus will take over their minds. And send them against Greywater Station, with would me disastrous because the soldiers probably have more sophisticated weapons. Reyn want to save them and put them in quarantine. Granowitz, suggests using a not fully working vaccine on them.
A common theme to this story is the dilema of choice, the cup of ice – the cup of fire.
Who will win this game of destruction versus survival?
Which which is Which?
For some reason, as many times as I have read this short story, I still confuse the names to the characters and what their job title/mission is. This was a little the same when I first read Nightflyers. I find that it is important to pay attention to who with what job dies when, why and how. There are major similarities to this formula that GRRM uses across all of his Martinworld literature. Therefore, I am providing you with a character list:
- Eldon Sheridan, the bullet-headed zoologist,
- Jim Delvecchio, leader
- Bill Reyn, youngest, thick black hair
- Ike Granowitz, wiry extee psychologist, suggests vaccine
- Arnold Andrews, mycologist, quiet, small of stature
- Otis Sanderpay (telecom man)
- Ned Miterz (outside)
Blatt and Ryerson (geologist), died in a flyer crash eight months before the start of the story. The flyer crashed after it was knocked to bits by swampbats, a creature not unlike the shrieking wraiths/dragon-types seen in the GRRM stories.
Men of Greywater Station by George R.R. Martin
The men of Greywater Station watched the shooting star descend and they knew it for an omen. They watched it in silence from the laser turret atop the central tower. The streak grew bright in the northeast sky, divided the night though the thin haze of the spore dust. It went through the zenith, sank, fell below the western horizon.
Sheridan, the bullet-headed zoologist was the first to speak. “There they went,” he said, unnecessarily.
Delvecchio shook his head. “There they are,” he said, turning towards the others. There were only five there, of the seven who were left. Sanderpay and Miterz were still outside collecting samples.
“They’ll make it,” Delvecchio said firmly. “Took too long crossing the sky to burn up like a meteor. I hope we got a triangulation on them with the radar. They came in slow enough to maybe make it through the crash.”
Reyn, the youngest of the men at Greywater, looked up from the radar console and nodded “I got them, all right. Though it’s a wonder they slowed enough before hitting the atmosphere. From the little that got through jamming, they must have hit pretty hard out there.”
“If they live, it puts us in a difficult position,” said Delvecchio. “I’m not quite sure what comes next.”
“I am,” said Sheridan. “We get ready to fight. If anybody lives through the landing, we’ve got to get ready to take them on. They’ll be crawling with fungus before they get here. And you know they’ll come. We’ll have to kill them.”
Delvecchio eyed Sheridan with new distaste. The zoologist was always very vocal with his ideas. That didn’t make it any easier for Delvecchio, who then had to end the arguments that Sheridan’s ideas usually started “Any other suggestions?” he asked, looking to the others.
Reyn looked hopeful. “We might try rescuing them before the fungus takes over.” He gestured toward the window, and the swampy, fungus-clotted landscape beyond. “We could maybe take one of the flyers to them, shuttle them back to the station, put them in the sterilization ward…” Then his words trailed off, and he ran a hand nervously through his thick black hair. “No. There’d be too many of them. We’d have to make so many trips. And the swampbats…I don’t know.”
“The vaccine,” suggested Granowitz, the wiry extee psychologist. “Bring them some vaccine in a flyer. Then they might be able to walk in.”
“The vaccine doesn’t work right,” Sheridan said. “People build up an immunity, the protection wears off. Besides, who’s going to take it to them? You? Remember the last time we took a flyer out? The damn swampbats knocked it to bits. We lost Blatt and Ryerson. The Fungus has kept us out of the air for nearly eight months now. So what makes you think it’s all of a sudden going to give us a free pass to fly away into the sunset?
“We’ve got to try,” Reyn said hotly. From his tone, Delvecchio could see there was going to be a hell of an argument. Put Sheridan on one side of a fight and immediately Reyn was on the other.
“Those are men out there, you know,” Reyn continued. “I think Ike’s right. We can get them some vaccine. At least there’s a chance. We can fight the swampbats. But those poor bastards out there don’t have a chance against the fungus.”
“They don’t have a chance whatever we do,” Sheridan said “It’s us we should worry about. They’re finished. By now the fungus knows they’re there. It’s probably already attacking them. If any survived.”
“That seems to be the problem,” said Delvecchio quickly, before Reyn could jump in again. “We have to assume some will survive. We also have to assume the fungus won’t miss a chance to take them over. And that it will send them against us.”
“Right!” said Sheridan, shaking his head vigorously. “And don’t forget, these aren’t ordinary people we’re dealing with. That was a troop transport up there. The survivors will be armed to the teeth. What do we have besides the turret laser? Hunting rifles and specimen guns. And knives. Against screechers and 75 mikemikes and God knows what else. We’re finished if we’re not ready. Finished.”
“Well, Jim?” Granowicz asked. “Is he right? What do you think our chances are?”
Delvecchio signed. Being the leader wasn’t always a very comfortable position. “I know how you feel, Bill,” he said with a nod to Reyn. “But I’m afraid I have to agree with Sheridan. Your scheme doesn’t have much of a chance. And there are bigger stakes. If the survivors have screechers and heavy armament, they’ll be able to breach the station walls. You all know what that would mean. Our supply ship is due in a month. If the fungus gets into Greywater, then Earth won’t have to worry about the Fyndii anymore. The fungus would put a permanent stop to the war – it doesn’t like its hosts to fight each other.”
Sheridan was nodding again. “Yes. So we have to destroy the survivors. It’s the only way.”
Andrews, the quiet little mycologist, spoke up for the first time. “We might try to capture them,” he suggested. “I’ve been experimenting with methods of killing the fungus without damaging the hosts. We could keep them under sedation until I got somewhere.”
“How many years would that take?” Sheridan snapped.
Delvecchio cut in. “No. We’ve got no reason to think we’ll even be able to fight them, successfully. All the odds are with them. Capture would be clearly impossible.”
“But rescue isn’t.” Reyn was still insistent. “We should gamble,” he said, pounding the radar console with his fist. “It’s worth it.”
“We settled that, Bill,” Delvecchio said. “No rescue. We’ve got only seven men to fight off maybe hundreds – I can’t afford to throw any away on a useless dramatic gesture.”
“Seven men trying to fight off hundreds sounds like a useless dramatic gesture to me,” Reyn said. “Especially since there may be only a few survivors who could be rescued.”
“But what is all of them are left?” said Sheridan. “And all of them have already been taken over by the fungus? Be serious, Reyn. The spore dust is everywhere. As soon as they breathe unfiltered air, they’ll take it in. And seventy-two hours they’ll be like the rest of the animal life on this planet. Then the fungus will send them against us.”
“Goddammit, Sheridan!” yelled Reyn. “They could still be in their pods. Maybe they don’t even know what happened. Maybe they’re still asleep. How the hell do I know? If we get there before they come out, we can save them. Or something. We’ve got to try!”
“No. Look. The crash is sure to have shut the ship down. They’ll be awake. First thing they’ll do is check their charts. Only the fungus is classified, so they won’t know what a hell of a place they’ve landed on. All they will know is that Greywater is the only human settlement here. They’ll head toward us. And they’ll get infected and possessed.”
“That’s why we should work fast,” Reyn said. “We should arm three or four flyers and leave at once. Now.”
Delvecchio decided to put an end to the argument. The last one like this had gone all night. “This is getting us nowhere,” he said sharply, fixing both Sheridan and Reyn with hard stares. “It’s useless to discuss any longer. All we’re doing is getting mad at each other. Besides, it’s late.” He looked at his watch. “Let’s break for six hours or so and resume at dawn when we’re cooler and less tired. We’ll be able to think more clearly. And Sanderpay and Miterz will be back then, too. They deserve a voice in this.”
There were three rumbles of agreement. And one sharp note of dissent.
“No,” said Reyn. Loudly. He stood up, towering over the others in their seats. “That’s too late. There’s no time to lose.”
“Bill, you-“ Delvecchio started.
“Those men might be grabbed while we sleep,” Reyn went on, ploughing right over his superior. “We’ve got to do something.”
“No,” said Delvecchio. “And that’s an order. We’ll talk about it in the morning. Get some sleep, Bill.”
Reyn looked around for support. He got none. He glared at Delvecchio briefly. Then he turned and left the tower.
Delvecchio had trouble sleeping. He woke up at least twice, between the sheets that were cold and sticky with sweat. In his nightmare, he was out beyond Greywater, knee-deep in the grey-green slime, collecting samples for analysis. While he worked, he watched a big amphibious mud-tractor in the distance, wallowing toward him. On top was another human, his features invisible behind filter mask and skinthins. The dream Delvecchio waved to the tractor as it neared, and the driver waved back. Then he pulled up nearby, climbing down from the cab, and grasped Delvecchio in a firm handshake.
Only by that time, Delvecchio could see through the transparent filter mark. It was Ryerson, the dead geologist, his friend Ryerson. But his head was swollen grossly and there were trails of fungus hanging from each ear.
After the second nightmare he gave it up as a bad show. They never found Ryerson or Blatt after the crash. Though they knew from the impact that there wouldn’t be much to find. But Delvecchio dreamed of them often, and he suspected that some of the others did, too.
He dressed in darkness, and made his way to the central tower. Sanderpay, the telecom man, was on watch. He was asleep in the small ready bunk near the laser turret, where the station monitors could awaken him quickly if anything big approached the walls. Reinforced duralloy was tough stuff, but the fungus had some pretty wicked creatures at its call. And there were the airlocks to consider.
Delvecchio decided to let Sanderpay sleep, and went to the window. The big spotlights mounted on the wall flooded the perimeter around Greywater with night white lights that made the mud glisten sickly. He could see drifting spores reflected briefly in the beams. They seemed unusually think, especially toward the west, but that was probably his imagination. Then again, it might be a sign that the fungus was uneasy. The spores had always been ten times thick around Greywater as elsewhere on the planet’s surface. That had been one of the first pieces of evidence that the damned fungus was intelligent. And hostile. They still weren’t sure just how intelligent. But of the hostility there was no more doubt. The parasitic fungus infected every animal on the planet. And had used most of them to attack the station at one point or another. It wanted them. So they the blizzard of spores that rained on Greywater for more than a year now. The overhead force screens kept them out, though, and the sterilization chambers killed any that clung to the mug-tractor or skinthins or drifted into the airlocks. The fungus kept trying.
Across the room, Sanderpay yawned and sat up in his bunk. Delvecchio turned toward him. “Morning, Otis.”
Sanderpay yawned again, and stifled it with a big red hand. “Morning,” he replied, untangling himself from the bunk in a gangle of long arms and legs. “What’s going on? You taking Bill’s shift?”
Delvecchio stiffened. “What? Was Reyn supposed to relieve you?”
“Uh-huh,” said Sanderpay, looking at the clock. “Hour ago. The bastard. I get cramps sleeping in this thing. Why can’t we make it a little more comfortable, I ask you?”
Delvecchio was hardly listening. He ignored Sanderpay and moved swiftly to the intercom panel against one wall. Granowicz was closest to the motor pool. He rang him.
A sleepy voice answered. “Ike,” Delvecchio said. “This is Jim. Check the motor pool, quick. Count the flyers.”
Granowicz acknowledged the order. He was back in less than two minutes, but it seemed longer. “Flyer five is missing,” he said. He sounded awake all of a sudden.
“Shit,” said Delvecchio. He slammed down the intercom, and whirled toward Sanderpay. “Get on the radio, fast. There’s a flyer missing. Raise it.”
Sanderpay looked baffled, but complied. Delvecchio stood over him, muttering obscenities and thinking worse ones, while he searched through the static.
Finally an answer. “I read you, Otis.” Reyn’s voice, of course.
Delvecchio leaned toward the transmitter. “I told you no rescue.”
The reply was equal parts laughter and static. “Did you? Hell! I guess I wasn’t paying attention, Jim. You know how long conferences always bored me.”
“I don’t want a dead hero on my hands. Turn back.”
“I intend to. After I deliver the vaccine. I’ll bring as many of the soldiers with me as I can. The rest can walk. The immunity wears off, but it should last long enough if they landed where we predict.”
Delvecchio swore. “Dammit, Bill. Turn back. Remember Ryerson.”
“Sure I do. He was a geologist. Little guy with a pot belly, wasn’t he?”
“Reyn!” There was an edge to Delvecchio’s voice.
Laughter. “Oh, take it easy, Jim. I’ll make it. Ryerson was careless, and it killed him. And Blatt too. I won’t be. I’ve rigged some lasers up. Already got two big swampbats that came at me. Huge fuckers, easy to burn down.”
“Two! The fungus can send hundreds if it gets an itch. Damnit, listen to me. Come back.”
“Will do,” said Reyn. “With my guests.” Then he signed off with a laugh. Delvecchio straightened, and frowned.
Sanderpay seemed to think a comment was called for, and managed a limp, “Well…”
Delvecchio never heard him. “Keep on the frequency, Otis,” he said. “There’s a chance the damn fool might make it. I want to know the minute he comes back on.” He started across the room. “Look. Try to raise him every five minutes or so. He probably won’t answer. He’s in for a world of shit if that jury-rigged laser fails him.
Delvecchio was at the intercom. He punched Granowicz’s station. “Jim again, Ike. What kind of laser’s missing from the shop? I’ll hold on.”
“No need to,” came the reply. “Saw it just after I found the flyer gone. I think one of the standard tabletop cutters, low power job. He’s done some spot-welding, left the stat on the power box. Ned found that, and places where he’d done some bracketing. Also, one of the vacutainers is gone.”
“Okay, Thanks, Ike. I want everybody up here in ten minutes. War council.”
“Oh, Sheridan will be so glad.”
“No. Yes. Maybe he will.” He clicked off, punched for Andrews.
The mycologist took a while to answer. “Arnold?” Delvecchio snapped when the acknowledgment finally came. “Can you tell me what’s gone from stores?”
There were a few minutes of silence. Then Andrews was back. “Yeah, Jim. A lot of medical supplies. Syringes, bandages, vaccine, plastisplints, even some body bags. What’s going on?”
“Reyn. And from what you say, it sounds like he’s on a real mercy mission there. How much did he take?”
“Enough, I guess. Nothing we can’t replace, however.”
“Okay. Meeting up here in ten…five minutes.”
“Well, all right.” Andrews clicked off.
Delvecchio hit the master control, opening all the bitch boxes. For the first time in four months, since the slinkers had massed near the station walls. That had been a false alarm. This, he knew, wasn’t.
“Meeting in five minutes in the turret,” he said.
The words rang through the station, echoing off the cool humming walls.
“…that if we don’t make plans now, it’ll be way too late.” Delvecchio paused and looked at four men lounging on the chairs. Sanderpay was still at the radio, his long legs spilling into the center of the room. But the other four were clustered around the table, clutching coffee cups.
None of them seemed to be paying close attention. Granowicz was staring absently out the window, as usual, his eyes and forebrain mulling the fungus that grew on the trees around Greywater.
Andrews was scribbling in a notepad, very slowly. Doodling. Ned Miterz, big and blond and blocky, was a bundle of nervous tension; Bill Reyn was his closest friend. He alternated between drumming his fingers on the tabletop, swilling his coffee, and tugging nervously at his drooping blond mustache. Sheridan’s bullet-shaped head shared at the floor.
But they were all listening, in their way. Even Sanderpay, at the radio. When Delvecchio paused, he pulled his long legs back under him, and began to speak. “I’m sorry it’s come to this, Jim,” he said, rubbing his ear to restore circulation. “It’s bad enough those soldiers are out there. Now Bill has gone after them, and he’s in the same spot. I think, well, we have to forget him. And worry about attacks.”
Delvecchio sighed. “It’s hard to take, I know. If he makes it, he makes it. If he finds them, he finds them. If they’ve been exposed, in three days they’ll be part of the fungus. Whether they take the vaccine or not. If he brings them back, we watch them three days to see if symptoms develop. If they do, we have to kill them. If not, then nobody’s hurt, and when the rest walk in we watch for symptoms in them. But those are iffy things. If he doesn’t make it, he’s dead. Chances are, the troopers are dead. Or exposed. Either way, we prepare for the worst and forget Reyn until we see him. So what I’m asking for now are practical suggestions as to how we defend ourselves against well-armed soldiers. Controlled by some intelligence we do not understand.”
He looked at the men again.
Sanderpay whooped. He grabbed the console mike as they jumped and looked at him.
“Go ahead, Bill,” he said, twisting the volume knob over to the wall speaker. The others winced as the roar of frequency noise swept the room.
“…right. The damn thing’s sending insects into the ship. Smear…ing…smear windscreen…on instruments.” Reyn’s voice. There was a sound in the background like heavy rain.
“…swampbats just before they came…probably coming at me now. Goddamn laser mount loosened…” There was a dull thud in the background. “No lateral control…got that bastard…ohmigodd…” Two more dull thuds. A sound like metal eating itself.
“…in the trees. Altitude…going down…swampbats…something just got sucked in the engine…Damn, no power…nothing…if…”
Followed by frequency noise.
Sanderpay, his thin face blank and white, waited a few seconds to see if more transmission came through, then tried to raise Reyn on the frequency. He turned the volume down again after a while.
“I think that’s about what we can expect will happen to us in a couple of days,” said Delvecchio. “That fungus will stop at nothing to get intelligent life. Once it has the soldiers who survive, they’ll come after the station. With their weapons.”
“Well,” snapped Sheridan. “He knew not to go out there in that flyer.”
Miterz slammed down his coffee cup, and rose. “Goddamn you, Sheridan. Can’t you hold it even a minute? Bill’s probably dead out there. And all you want to do is say I-told-you-so.”
Sheridan jumped to his feet too. “You think I like listening to someone get killed on the radio? Just because I didn’t like him? You think it’s fun? Huh? You think I want to fight somebody who’s been trained to do it? Huh?” He looked at them, all of them, and wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “I don’t. I’m
scared. I don’t like making plans for war when men could be out there wounded and dying with no help coming.”
He paused. His voice, stretched thin, began to waver. “Reyn was a fool to go out there. But maybe he was the only one who let his humanity come through. I made myself ignore them. I tried to get you all to plan for war in case any of the soldiers made it. Damn you. I’m afraid to go out there. I’m afraid to go near the stuff, even inside the station. I’m a zoologist, but I can’t even work. Every animal on this planet has that- that stuff on it. I can’t bear to touch it. I don’t want to fight either. But we’re going to have to. Sooner or later.”
He wiped his head again, looked at Delvecchio. “I-I’m sorry, Jim. Ned, too. The rest of you. I’m- I have – I just don’t like it any more than you. But we have to.” He sat down, very tiredly.
Delvecchio rubbed his nose, and reflected again that being the nominal leader was more trouble than it was worth Sheridan had never opened up like this before. He wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
“Look,” he finally said. “It’s okay, Eldon” It was the first time he could remember that he – or any of them – had used Sheridan’s first name. “This isn’t going to be easy on any of us. You may be right about our humanity. Sometimes you have to put humanity aside to think about…well, I don’t know.
“The fungus has finally found a way to get to us. It will attack us with the soldiers, like it has with the slinkers and the swampbats and the rest, Like it’s trying to do now, while we’re talking, with the burrowing worms and the insects and the arthropodia. The station’s defenses will take care of those. All we have to worry about are the soldiers.”
“All?” said Granowicz, sharply.
“That, and what we’ll do if they breach the wall of the field. The field wasn’t built to take screechers or laser explosives. Just to keep out insects and flying animals. I think one of the first things we’ve got to do is find a way to beef up the field. Like running in the mains from the other power sources. But that still leaves the wall. And the entry chambers. Our weakest links. Ten or twenty good rounds of high explosives will bring it right down. How do we fight back?”
“Maybe we don’t,” said Miterz. His face was still hard and angry. But now the anger was turned against the fungus, instead of Sheridan. “Maybe we take the fight to them.”
The suggestions flew thick and fast from there on. Half of them were impossible, a quarter improbable, the most of what were left were crazy. At the end of an hour, they had gotten past the points of mining, pitfalls, electrocution. To Delvecchio’s ears, it was the strangest conversation he had ever heard. It was full of the madnesses of men plan against each other, made more strange by the nature of the men themselves. They were all scientists and technicians, not soldiers, not killers. They talked and planned without enthusiasm, with the quiet talk of men who must talk before being pallbearers at a friend’s funeral, or the pace of men who must take their turns as members of a firing squad the next morning.
In a way, they were.
An hour later, Delvecchio was standing up to his ankles in grey-green mud, wrestling with a powersaw and sweating freely under his skinthins. The saw was hooked up to the power supply on his mudtractor. And Miterz was sitting atop the tractor, with a hunting laser resting across his knee, occasionally lifting it to burn down one of the slinkers slithering through the underbrush.
Delvecchio had already cut through the bases of four of the biggest trees around the Greywater perimeter- about three quarters of the way through, anyway. Just enough to weaken them, so the turret laser could finish the job quickly when the need arose. It was a desperate idea. But they were desperate men.
The fifth tree was giving him trouble. It was a different species from the others, gnarled and overhung with creepers and rock-hard. He was only halfway through, and already he’d had to change the blade twice. That made him edgy. One slip with the blade, one slash in the skinthins, and the spores could get at him.
“Damn thing,” he said, when the teeth began to snap off for the third time. “It cuts like it’s half petrified. Damn.”
“Look at the bright side,” suggested Miterz. “It’ll make a mighty big splat when it falls. And even duralloy armor should crumple pretty good.”
Delvecchio missed the humor. He changed the blade without comment, and resumed cutting.
“That should do it,” he said after a while. “Looks deep enough. But maybe we should use the lasers on this kind, if we hit any more of them.”
“That’s a lot of power,” said Miterz. “Can we afford it?”
He raised his laser suddenly, and fired at something behind Delvecchio. The slinker, a four-foot-long mass of scales and claws, reared briefly from its stomach and then fell again, splattering mud in their direction. Its dying scream was a brief punctuation mark.
“Those things are thick today,” Miterz commented.
Delvecchio climbed up into the tractor. “You’re imagining things,” he said.
“No I’m not.” Miterz sounded serious. “I’m the ecologist, remember? I know we don’t have a natural ecology around here. The fungus sends us its nasties, and keeps the harmless life forms away. But now there’s even more than usual.” He gestured with the laser. Off through the underbrush, two big slinkers could be seen chewing at the creepers around a tree, the fungus hanging like a shroud over the back of their skulls.
“Look there. What do you think they’re doing?”
“Eating,” said Delvecchio. “That’s normal enough.” He started the tractor, and moved it forward jerkily. Mud, turned into a watery slime, spouted out behind the vehicle in great gushes.
“Slinkers are omnivores,” Miterz said. “But they prefer meat. Only ear creepers when there’s no prey. But there’s plenty around here.” He stopped, stared at the scene, banged the butt of the laser rifle on the cab flood in a fit of sudden nervous tension.
Then he resumed in a burst of words. “Damn it, damn it. They’re clearing a path!” His voice was an accusation. “A path for the soldiers to march on. Starting at our end and working toward them. They’ll get here faster if they don’t have to cut through the undergrowth.”
Delvecchio, at the wheel, snorted. “Don’t be absurd.”
“What makes you think it’s absurd? Who know what the fungus is up to. A living ecology. It can turn every living thing on this planet against us if it wants to. Eating a path through a swamp is nothing to something like that.”
Miterz’ voice was distant and brooding. Delvecchio didn’t like the way the conversation was going. He kept silent. They went on to the next tree, and then the next. But Miterz, his mind racing, was getting more and more edgy. He kept fidgeting in the tractor, and playing with the rifle, and more than once he absently tried to yank at his mustache, only to be stopped by the filtermask. Finally, Delvecchio decided it was time to head in.
Decontamination took the usual two hours. They waited patiently in the entry chamber and sterilization rooms while the pumps sprays, heatlamps, and ultraviolet systems did their work on them and the tractor.
They shed their sterilized skinthins as they came through the final airlock.
“Goddamn,” said Delvecchio. “I hope we don’t have to go out again. Decon takes more time than getting the work done.”
Sanderpay met them, smiling. “I think I found something we could use. Nearly forgot about them.”
“Yeah? What?” Miterz asked, as he unloaded the laser charge and placed it back in the recharge rack. He punched several buttons absently.
“The sounding rockets.”
Delvecchio slapped his head, “Of course. Damn. Didn’t even consider them.” His mind went back. Blatt, the dead meteorologist, had fired off the six-foot sounding rockets regularly for the first few weeks, gaining data on the fungus. They had discovered that spores were frequently found up to 50,000 feet, and a few even reached as high as 80,000. After Blatt covered that he still made a twice-daily ritual of firing the sounding rockets, to collect information on the planet’s shifting wind patterns. They had weather balloons, but those were next to useless; the swampbats usually vectored in on them soon after they were released. After Blatt’s death, however, the readings hadn’t meant as much, so the firings were discontinued. But the launching tubes were still functional, as far as he knew.
“You think you can rig them up as small guided missiles?” Delvecchio asked.
“Yep,” Sanderpay said with a grin. “I already started. But they won’t be very accurate. For one thing, they’ll reach about a mile in altitude before we can begin to control them. Then, we’ll be forcing the trajectory. They’ll want to continue in a long arc. We’ll want them back down almost to the launching point. It’ll be like wrestling a two-headed alligator. I’m thinking of filing half of them with that explosive Andrews is trying to make, and the rest with white phosphorus. But that might be tricky.”
“Well, do whatever you can, Otis,” said Delvecchio. “This is good news. We needed this kind of punch. Maybe it isn’t as hopeless as I thought.”
Miterz had been listening carefully, but he still looked glum. “Anything over the commo?” he put in. “From Bill?”
Sanderpay shook his head. “Just the usual solar shit, and some mighty nice whistlers. Must be a helluva thunderstorm somewhere within a thousand miles of here. I’ll let you know if anything comes in, though.”
Miterz didn’t answer. He was looking at the armory and shaking his head. Delvecchio followed his eyes. Eight lasers were on the racks. Eight lasers and sixteen charges, standard station allotment. Each charge good for maybe fifty fifth-second bursts. Five tranquilizer rifles, an assortment of syringes, darts, and projectiles. All of which would be useless against armored infantry. Maybe if they could adapt some of the heavier projectiles to H.E….but such a small amount wouldn’t dent duralloy. Hell.
“You know,” said Miterz. “If they get inside, we might as well hang it up.”
“If,” said Delvecchio.
Night at Greywater Station. They had started watch-and-watch.
Andrews was topside at the laser turret and sensor board. Delvecchio, Granowicz, and Sanderpay lingered over dinner in the cafeteria below. Miterz and Sheridan had already turned in.
Sanderpay was talking of the day’s accomplishments. He figured he had gotten somewhere with the rockets. And Andrews had managed to put together some explosive from the ingredients in Reyn’s lab.
“Arnold doesn’t like it much, though,” Sanderpay was saying. “He wants to get back to his fungus samples. Says he’s out of his field, and not too sure he knows what he’s doing. He’s right, too. Bill was your chemist.”
“Bill isn’t here,” Delvecchio snapped. He was in no mood for criticism. “Someone has to do it. At least Arnold has some background in organic chemistry, no matter how long ago it was. That’s more than the rest of us have.” He shook his head. “Am I supposed to do it? I’m an entomologist. What good is that? I feel useless.”
“Yep, I know,” said Sanderpay. “Still. It’s not easy for me with the rockets, either. I had to take half the propellant from each one. Worked nine hours, finished three. We’re gonna be fighting all the known laws of aerodynamics trying to force those things down near their starting point. And everybody else is having problems, too. We tinker and curse and it’s all a blind alley. If we do this, we gotta do that. But if we do that, it won’t work. This is a research station. So maybe it looks like a fort. That doesn’t make it one. And we’re still scientists, not demolition experts.”
Granowicz gave a thin chuckle. “I’m reminded of that time, back on Earth, in the 20th Century, when that German scientist…von Brau? von…Von Braun and his men were advised that the enemy forces would soon be there. The military began giving them close-order drill and marksmanship courses. They wanted them to meet the enemy on the very edge of their missile complex and fight them hand to hand.”
“What happened?” said Sanderpay
“Oh, they ran three hundred miles, and surrendered,” Granowicz replied dryly.
Delvecchio downed his two hundredth cup of coffee, and put his feet up on the table. “Great,” he said. “Only we’ve got no place to run to. So we’re going to have to meet them on the edge of our little missile complex, or whatever. And soon.”
Granowicz nodded. “Three days from now. I figure.”
“That’s if the fungus doesn’t help them,” said Delvecchio.
The other two looked at him. “What do you mean?” asked Granowicz.
“When Ned and I were out this morning, we saw slinkers. Lots of them. Eating away at the creepers to the west of the station.”
Granowicz had a light in his eyes. But Sanderpay, still baffled, said “So?”
“Miterz thinks they’re clearing a path.”
“Uh oh,” said Granowicz. He stroked his chin with a thin hand. “That’s very interesting, and very bad news. Clearing away at both ends, and all along, as I’d think it would do. Hmmmmm.”
Sanderpay looked from Delvecchio to Granowicz and back, grimaced, uncoiled his legs and then coiled them around his chair again in a different position. He said nothing.
“Ah, yes, yes,” Granowicz was saying. “It all fits, all ties in. We should have anticipated this. A total assault, with the life of a planet working for our destruction. It’s the fungus…a total ecology, as Ned likes to call it. A classic case of the parasitic collective mind. But we can’t understand it. We don’t know what its basic precepts are, its formative experiences. We don’t know. No research has been carried out on anything like it. Except maybe the water jellies of Noborn. But that was a collective organism formed of separate colonies for mutual benefit. A benign form, as it were. As far as I can tell, Greywater, the fungus, is a single all-encompassing mass, which took over this planet starting from some single central point.” He rubbed his hands together and nodded. “Yes. Based on that, we can make guesses as to what it thinks. And how it will act. And this fits, this total hostility.”
“How so?” asked Sanderpay.
“Well, it’s never run up against any other intelligence, you see. Only lower forms. That’s important. So it judges us by itself, the only mind it has known. It is driven to dominate, to take over all life with which it comes in contact. So it thinks we are the same, fears that we are trying to take over this planet as it once did.
“Only, like I’ve been saying all along, it doesn’t see us as the intelligence. We’re animals, small, mobile. It’s known life like that before and all lower form. But the station itself is something new, something outside its experience. It sees the station as the intelligence, I’ll bet. An intelligence like itself. Land, establishing itself, sending out extensions, poking at it and its hosts. And us, us poor animals, the fungus sees as unimportant tools.”
Delvecchio signed. “Yeah, Ike. We’ve heard this before. I agree that it’s a persuasive theory. But how do you prove it?”
“Proof is all around us,” said Granowicz. “The station is under a constant around-the-clock attack. But we can go outside for samples, and the odds are fifty-fifty whether we’ll be attacked or not. Why? We don’t kill every slinker we see, do we? Of course not. And the fungus doesn’t try to kill us, except if we get annoying. Because we’re not important, it thinks. But something like the flyers – mobile but not animal, strange – it tries to eradicate. Because it perceives them as major extensions of Greywater.”
“Then why the spores?” Delvecchio said.
Granowicz dismissed that with an airy wave. “Oh, the fungus would like to take us over, sure. To deprive the station of hosts. But it’s the station it wants to eradicate. It can’t conceive of cooperating with another intelligence – maybe, who knows, it had to destroy rival fungus colonies of its own species before it came to dominate this planet. Once it perceives intelligence, it is threatened. And it perceives intelligence in the station.”
He was going to go on. But Delvecchio suddenly took his feet from the table, sat up, and said, “Uh oh.”
Granowicz frowned. “What?”
Delvecchio stabbed at him with a finger. “Ike, think about this theory of yours. What if you’re right? Then how is the fungus going to perceive the spaceship?”
Granowicz thought a moment, nodded to himself, and gave a slow, low whistle.
“So? How?’ said Sanderpay. “Whattaya talking about?
Granowicz turned on him. “The spaceship was mobile, but not animal. Like the station. It came out of the sky, landed, destroyed a large area of the fungus and host forms. And hasn’t moved since. Like the station. The fungus probably sees it as another station, another threat. Or an extension of our station.”
“Yes,” said Delvecchio. “But it gets worse. If you’re right, then maybe the fungus is launching an all-out attack right at this moment- on the spaceship hull. While it lets the men march away unharmed.”
There was a moment of dead silence. Sanderpay finally broke it, looking at each of the others in turn, and saying in a low voice, “Oh. Wow. I see.”
Granowicz had a thoughtful expression on his face, and he was rubbing his chin again. “No,” he said at last. “You’d think that, but I don’t think that’s what is happening.”
“Why not?” asked Delvecchio.
“Well, the fungus may not see the soldiers as the major threat. But it would at least try to take them over, as it does with us. And once it had them, and their weapons, it would have the tools to obliterate the station and the spaceship. That’s almost sure to happen, too. Those soldiers will be easy prey for the spores. They’ll fall to the fungus like ripe fruit.”
Delvecchio clearly looked troubled. “Yeah, probably. But this bothers me. If there’s even a slight chance that the soldiers might get here without being taken over, we’ll have to change out plans.”
“But there’s no chance of that,” Granowicz said, shaking his head. “The fungus already has those men. Why else would it be clearing a path?”
Sanderpay nodded in agreement. But Delvecchio wasn’t that sure.
“We don’t know that it’s clearing a path,” he insisted. “That’s just what Miterz thinks is happening. Based on very scant evidence. We shouldn’t accept it as an accomplished fact.”
“It makes sense, though,” Granowicz came back.
“It would speed up the soldiers getting here, speed up the…”
The alarm from the turret began to hoot and clang.
“Slinkers,” said Andrews. “I think out by those trees you were working on.”
He drew on a pair of infrared goggles and depressed a stud on the console. There was a hum. Delvecchio peered through the binoculars.
“Think maybe it’s sending them to see what we were up to?”
“Definitely,” said Granowicz, standing just behind him and looking out the window over his shoulder.
“I don’t think it’ll do anything,” said Delvecchio, hopefully. “Mines or anything foreign it would destroy, of course. We’ve proved that. But all we did is slash a few trees. I doubt that it will be able to figure out why.”
“Do you think I should fire a few times?” Andrews asked from the laser console.
“I don’t know,” said Delvecchio. “Wait a bit. See what they do.”
The long, thick lizards were moving around the tree trunks. Some slithered through the fungus and the mud, others scratched and clawed at the notched trees.
“Switch on some of the directional sensors,” said Delvecchio.
Sanderpay, at the sensor bank, nodded and began flicking on the directional mikes. First to come in was the constant tick of the continual spore bombardment on the receiver head. Then as the mike rotated, came the hissing screams of the slinkers.
And then the rending sound of a falling tree.
Delvecchio, watching through the binoculars, suddenly felt very cold. The tree came down into the mud with a crashing thud. Slime flew from all sides, and several slinkers hissed out their lives beneath the trunk.
“Shit,” said Delvecchio. And then, “Fire, Arnold.”
Andrews pushed buttons, sighted in the nightscope, lined the crossnotches up on a slinker near the fallen tree, and fired.
To those not watching through goggles or binoculars, a tiny red-white light appeared in the air between the turret laser and the group of lizards. A gargling sound mixed with the slinker hissing. One of the animals thrashed suddenly, and then lay still. The others began slithering away into the undergrowth.
There was stillness for a second.
And on another part of the perimeter, a second tree began to fall.
Andrews hit more buttons, and the big turret laser moved and fired again. Another slinker died. Then, without waiting for another crash, the laser began to swivel to hit the slinkers around the other trees.
Delvecchio lowered the binoculars very slowly. “I think we just wasted a day’s work out there,” he said. “Somehow the fungus guessed what we were up to. It’s smarter than we gave it credit for.”
“Reyn,” said Granowicz.
“Reyn?” said Delvecchio. With a questioning look.
“He knew we’d try to defend the station. Given that knowledge, it’s logical for the fungus to destroy anything we do out there. Maybe Reyn survived the crash of his flyer. Maybe the fungus finally got a human.”
“Oh, shit,” said Delvecchio with expression. “Yes, sure, you might be right. Or maybe it’s all a big coincidence. A bunch of accidents. How do we know? How do we know anything about what the damned thing is thinking or doing or planning?” He shook his head. “Damn. We’re fighting blind. Every time something happens, there are a dozen reasons that might have been behind it. And every plan we make has to have a dozen alternatives.”
“It’s not that bad,” said Granowicz. “We’re not entirely in the dark. We’ve proved that the fungus can take over Earth forms. We’ve proved that it gets at least some knowledge from them; that it absorbs at least part of what they knew. We don’t know how big a part, true, however-”
“However, if, but, maybe,” Delvecchio swore, looking very disgusted. “Dammit, Ike, how big a part is the crucial question. If it has Reyn, and if it knows everything he knew, then it knows everything there is to know about Greywater and its defenses. In that case, what kind of chance will we have?”
“Well,” said Granowicz. He paused, frowned, stroked his chin. “I- hmmmmm. Wait, there are other aspects to this that should be thought out. Let me work on this a while.”
“Fine,” said Delvecchio. “You do that.” He turned to Andrews. “Arnold, keep them off the trees as best you can. I’ll be back up to relieve you in four hours.”
Andrews nodded. “Okay, I think,” he said, his eyes locked firmly on the nightscope.
Delvecchio gave brief instructions to Sanderpay, then turned and left the turret. He went straight to his bunk. It took him the better part of an hour to drift to sleep.
He was old, and cool. He saw the station from all sides in a shifting montage of images; some near the ground, some from above, wheeling on silent wings. In one image, he saw, or felt as a worm must feel, the presence of the heavy weight of sunlight.
He saw the station twisted, old, wrecked. He saw the station in a series of images from inside. He saw a skeleton in the corner of an indefinite lab, and saw through the eyes of the skull out into the broken station. Outside, he saw heaped duralloy bodies with grey-green growths sprouting from the cracked faceplates.
And he saw out of the faceplates, out into the swamp. Everywhere was grey-green, and damp and old and cold. Everywhere.
Delvecchio awoke sweating.
His watch was uneventful. The slinkers had vanished as suddenly as they had assembled, and he only fired the laser once, at a careless swampbat that flew near the perimeter. Miterz relieved him.
Delvecchio caught several more hours of sleep. Or at least of bunk time. He spent a large chunk of time lying awake, thinking.
When he walked into the cafeteria the next morning, an argument was raging.
Granowicz turned to him immediately. “Jim, listen,” he began, gesturing with his hands. “I’ve thought about this all night. We’ve been missing something obvious. If this thing has Reyn, or the soldiers, or any human, this is the chance we’ve been waiting for. The chance to communicate, to begin a mutual understanding. With their knowledge, it will have a common tongue with us. We shouldn’t fight it at all. We should try to talk to it, try to make it understand how different we are.”
“You’re crazy, Granowicz,” Sheridan said loudly. “Stark, raving mad. You go talk to that stuff. Not me. It’s after us. It’s been after us all along, and now it’s sending those soldiers to kill us all. We have to kill them first.”
“But this is our chance,” Granowicz said. “To begin to understand, to reach that mind, to-“
“That was your job all along,” Sheridan snapped. “You’re the extee psych. Just because you didn’t do your job is no reason to ask us to risk our lives to do it for you.”
Granowicz glowered. Sanderpay, sitting next to him, was more vocal. “Sheridan,” he said, “sometimes I wish we could throw you out to the fungus. You’d look good with grey-green growths coming out of your ears. Yep.”
Delvecchio gave hard glances to all of them. “Shut up, all of you,” he said simply. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense. I’ve been doing some thinking too.”
He pulled up a chair and sat down. Andrews was at another table, quietly finishing his breakfast. Delvecchio motioned him over, and he joined them.
“I’ve got some things I want to announce,” Delvecchio said. “Number one, no more arguments. We waste an incredible amount of time hashing out every detail and yelling at each other. And we don’t have time to waste. So, no more. I make the decisions, and I don’t want any screaming and kicking. If you don’t like it, you’re free to elect another leader. Understand?”
He looked at each of them in turn. Sheridan squirmed a little under the gaze, but none of them objected.
“Okay,” Delvecchio said finally. “If that’s settled, then we’ll move on.” He looked at Granowicz. “First thing is this idea of yours, Ike. Now you want us to talk. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Just last night you were telling us how the fungus, because of its childhood traumas, was bound to be hostile.”
“Yes,” began Granowicz, “but with the additional knowledge it will get from-“
“No arguments,” Delvecchio said sharply. Granowicz subsided. Delvecchio continued. “What do you think it will be doing while we’re talking? Hitting us with everything it’s got, if your theory was correct. And it sounded good to me. We’re dead men if we’re not ready, so we’ll be ready. To fight, not talk.
Sheridan was smirking. Delvecchio turned on him next. “But we’re not going to hit them with everything we’ve got as soon as we see them, like you want, Sheridan,” he said. “Ike brought up a point last night that’s been bothering me ever since. Nagging at me. There’s an outside chance the fungus might not even try to take over the soldiers. It might not be smart enough to realize they’re important. It might concentrate on the spaceship.”
Sheridan sat up straight. “We have to hit them,” he said. “They’ll kill us, Delvecchio. You don’t-“
Sanderpay, surprisingly, joined in. “It’s eating a path,” he said. “And the trees. And this morning, Jim, look out there. Slinkers and swampbats all around. It’s got them, I know it. It wouldn’t be building up this way otherwise.”
Delvecchio waved them both silent. “I know, Otis, I know. You’re right. All signs say that it has them. But we have to be sure. We wait until we see them, until we know. Then, if they’re taken, hit them with everything, at once. It has to be hard. If it becomes a struggle, we’ve lost. They outnumber and outgun us, and in a fight, they’d breach the station easy. Only the fungus might just march ‘em up. Maybe we can kill them all before they know what hit them.”
Granowicz looked doubtful. Sheridan looked more than doubtful. “Delvecchio, that’s ridiculous. Every moment we hesitate increases our risk And for such a ridiculous chance. Of course it will take them.”
“Sheridan, I’ve had about enough out of you,” Delvecchio said quietly. “Listen for a change. There’re two chances. One that the fungus might be too dumb to take them over. And one that it might be too smart.”
Granowicz raised his eyebrows. Andrews cleared his throat. Sheridan just looked insulted.
“If it has Reyn,” Delvecchio said. “Maybe it knows all about us. Maybe it won’t take the soldiers over on purpose. It knows from Reyn that we plan to destroy them. Maybe it will just wait.”
“But why would it have slinkers clearing a…” Sanderpay began, when shut up. “Oh. Oh, no. Jim, it couldn’t…”
“You’re not merely assuming the fungus is very intelligent, Jim” Granowicz said.
“You’re assuming it’s very devious as well.”
“No,” said Delvecchio. “I’m not assuming anything. I’m merely pointing out a possibility. A terrible possibility, but one we should be ready for. For over a year now, we’ve been constantly underestimating the fungus. At every test, it has proven just a bit more intelligent than we figured. We can’t make another mistake like that. No margin for error this time.”
Granowicz gave a reluctant nod.
“There’s more,” said Delvecchio. “I want those missiles finished today, Otis. In case they get here sooner than we’ve anticipated. And the explosive too, Arnold. And I don’t want any more griping. You two are relived of your watches until you finish those projects. The rest of us will double up.
“Also, from now on we all wear skinthins inside the station. In case the attack comes suddenly and the screens are breached.”
Everyone was nodding.
“Finally, we throw out all the experiments. I want every bit of fungus and every Greywater life form within this station eradicated.” Delvecchio thought of his dream again, and shuddered mentally.
Sheridan slapped the table, and smiled. “Now that’s the kind of thing I like to hear! I’ve wanted to get rid of those things for weeks.”
Granowicz looked unhappy, though. And Andrews looked very unhappy. Delvecchio looked at each in turn.
“All I have is a few small animals, Jim” Granowicz said. “Root-snuffs and such. They’re harmless enough, and safely enclosed. I’ve been trying to reach the fungus, establish some sort of communications-“
“No,” said Delvecchio. “Sorry, Ike, but we can’t take the chances. If the walls are breached or the station damaged, we might lose power. Then, we’d have contamination inside and out. It’s too risky. You can get new animals.”
Andrews cleared his throat. “But, well, my cultures,” he said. “I’m just getting them broken down, isolating properties of the fungus strains. Six months of research, Jim, and, well, I think-“ He shook his head.
“You’re got you research. You can duplicate it. If we live through this.”
“Yes, well-“ Andrews was hesitant. “But the cultures will have to be started over. So much time. And Jim-“ He hesitated again, and looked at the others.
Delvecchio smiled grimly. “Go ahead, Arnold. They might die soon. Maybe they should know.”
Andrews nodded. “I’m getting somewhere, Jim. With my work, the real work, the whole reason for Greywater. I’ve bred a mutation of the fungus, a non-intelligence variety, very virulent, very destructive of its hosts.
“I’m in the final stages now. It’s only a matter of getting the mutant to breed in the Fyndii atmosphere. And I’m near. I’m so near.” He looked at each of them in turn, eyes imploring. “If you let me continue, I’ll have it soon. And they could dump in on the Fyndii homeworlds, and well, it would end the war. All those lives saved. Think about all the men who will die if I’m delayed.”
He stopped suddenly, awkwardly. There was a long silence around the table. Granowicz broke it. He stroked his chin and gave a funny little chuckle. “And I thought this was such a bold, clean venture,” he said, his voice bitter. “To grope toward new intelligence, unlike any we had known, to try to find and talk to a mind perhaps unique in this universe. And now you tell me all my work was a decoy for biological warfare. Even here I can’t get away from that damned war.” He shook his head. “Greywater Station. What a lie.”
“It had to be this way, Ike.” Delvecchio said. “The potential for military application was too great to pass up, but the Fyndii would have easily found out about a big, full-scale biowar research project, But teams like Greywater’s – routine planetary investigation teams – are common. The Fyndii can’t bother to check on every one. And they don’t.”
Granowicz was staring at the table. “I don’t suppose it matters,” he said glumly. “We all may die in a few days anyway. This doesn’t change that. But- but-“ He stopped.
Delvecchio shrugged. “I’m sorry, Ike.” He looked at Andrews. “And I’m sorry about the experiments, too, Arnold. But your cultures have to go. They’re a danger to us inside the station.”
“But, well, the war- all those people.” Andrews looked anguished. “If we don’t make it through this, we lose it all anyway, Arnold” Delvecchio said.
Sanderpay put a hand on Andrews’ shoulder. “He’s right. It’s not worth it.”
Delvecchio rose. “Alright,” he said. “We’ve got that settled. Now we get to work. Arnold- the explosives. Otis- the rockets. Ike and I will take care of dumping the experiments. But first, I’m going to go brief Miterz. Okay?”
The answer was a weak chorus of agreement
It took them only a few hours to destroy the work of a year. The rockets, the explosives and the other defenses took longer, but in time, they too were ready. And then they waited, sweaty and nervous and uncomfortable in their skinthins.
Sanderpay monitored the commo system constantly.
Three, a day of incredible tension.
Four, and the strain began to tell.
Five, and they relaxed a bit. The enemy was late.
“You think they’ll try and contact us first?” Andrews asked at one point.
“I don’t know,” said Sanderpay. “Have you thought about it?”
“I have,” Granowicz put in. “But it doesn’t matter. They’ll try either way. If it’s them, they’ll want to reach us, of course. If it’s the fungus, it’ll want to throw us off our guard. Assuming it has absorbed enough knowledge from its hosts to handle a transmission, which isn’t established. Still, it will probably try, so we can’t trust a transmission.”
“Yeah,” said Delvecchio. “But, that’s the problem. We can’t trust anything. We have to suppose everything we’re working on. We don’t have any concrete information to speak of.”
“I know, Jim, I know”
On the sixth day, the storms screamed over the horizon. Spore clouds flowed by in the wind, whipped into random gaps. Overhead the sky darkened. Lightning sheeted in the west. The radio screeched its agony and crackled. Whistlers moved up and down the scale. Thunder rolled.
In the tower, the men of Greywater Station waited out the last few hours.
The voice had come in early that morning, had faded. Nothing intelligible had come through. Static had crackled most of the day.
The soldiers were moving on the edge of the storm, Delvecchio calculated.
Accident? Or planning? He wondered. And deployed his men. Andrews to the turret laser. Sanderpay at the rocket station. Sheridan and himself inside the station, with laser rifles. Granowicz to the flyer port, where the remaining flyers had been stocked with crude bombs. Miterz on the walls.
They waited in their skinthins, filtermasks looked on but not in place. The sky, darkened by the coming storm, was blackening toward twilight anyway. Soon night and the storm would reach Greywater Station hand and hand.
Delvecchio stalked through the halls impatiently. Finally he returned to the tower to see what was happening. Andrews, at the laser console, was watching the window. A can of beer sat next to him on the nightscope. Delvecchio had never seen the quiet little mycologist drink before.
“They’re out there, “Andrews said. “Somewhere.” He sipped at his beer, put it down again. “I wish that, well, they’d hurry up or something.” He looked at Delvecchio. “We’re all probably going to die, you know. The odds are so against us.”
Delvecchio didn’t have the stomach to tell him he was wrong. He just nodded, and watched the window. All the lights in the station were out. Everything was down but the generators, the turret controls, and the forcefield. The field, fed with the extra power, was stronger than ever. But strong enough? Delvecchio didn’t know. Near the field perimeter, seven or eight ghosting shapes wheeled against the storm. They were all wings and claw, and a long, razor-barbed tail. Swampbats. Big ones, with six-foot wingspans.
They weren’t alone. The underbrush was alive with slinkers. And the big leeches could be seen in the water near the south wall. All sorts of life were being pick up by the sensors.
Driven before the storm? Or massing for the attack? Delvecchio didn’t know that, either.
The tower door opened, and Sheridan entered. He threw his laser rifle on the table near the door. “These things are useless,” he said. “We can’t use them unless they get inside. Or unless we go out to meet them, and I’m not going to do that. Besides, what good will they do against all the stuff they’ve got?”
Delvecchio started to answer, but Andrews spoke first. “Look out there,” he said softly. “More swampbats. And that other thing. What is it?”
Delvecchio looked. Something else was moving through the sky on slowly moving leathery wings. It was black and big. Twice the size of a swampbat.
“The first expedition named them hellions,” Delvecchio said after a long pause. “They’re native to the mountains, a thousand miles from here.” Another pause. “That clinches it.”
There was general movement on the ground and in the water to the west of Greywater Station. Echoes of thunder rolled and then piercing the thunder came a shrill whooping shriek.
“What was that?” Sheridan asked.
Andrews was white. “That one I know,” he said. “It’s called a screecher. A sonic rifle breaks down cell walls with concentrated sound. I saw them used once. It almost makes flesh liquefy.”
“God!” said Sheridan.
Delvecchio moved to the intercom. Every box in the station was on full volume. “Battle stations, gentlemen.” He said, flipping down his filter mask. “And good luck.”
Delvecchio moved out into the hall and down the stairs. Sheridan picked up his laser and followed. At the base of the stairs, Delvecchio motioned for him to stop.
“You stay here, Eldon. I’ll take the main entry port.”
Rain had begun to spatter the swamps around Greywater, although the field kept it off the station. A great sheet of wind roared from the west and suddenly the storm was no longer approaching. It was here. A blurred outline of the force bubble could be seen against the churning sky.
Delvecchio strode across the yards through the halls and cycled through decon quickly to the main entry port. The large viewplate gave the illusion of a window. Delvecchio watched it sitting on the hood of a mudtractor. The intercom box was on the wall next to him.
“Burrowing animals are moving against the under-field, Jim,” Andrews reported from the turret. “We’re getting, oh, five or six shock inputs a minute. Nothing we can’t handle however.” He fell silent again and the only noise was the thunder.
Sanderpay began to talk, gabbing about the rockets. Delvecchio was hardly listening.
The perimeter beyond the walls was a morass of rain-whipped mud. Delvecchio could see little. He switched from the monitor he was tuned to and picked up the turret cameras. He and Andrews watched with the same eyes.
“Under-field contacts are up,” Andrews said suddenly. “A couple of dozen a minute now.”
The swampbats were wheeling closer to the perimeter. First one, then another, skirting the very edge of the field, riding terribly and silently on the wet winds. The turret laser rotated to follow each, but they were gone before it could fire.
Then, there was motion on the ground. A wave of slinkers began to cross the perimeter. The laser wheeled, depressed. A spurt of light appeared, leaving a quick vanishing roil of steam. One slinker died, then another.
On the south, a leech rose from the grey waters near the base wall of the station. The turret turned. Two quick spurts of red burned. Steam rose once. The leech twisted at the second burst.
Delvecchio nodded silently, clutched his riffle tighter. And Andrews voice came over the intercom. “There’s a man out there,” he said. “Near you, Jim.”
Delvecchio slipped on his infrared goggles and flicked back to the camera just outside the entry port. There was a dim shape in the undergrowth. “Just one?” asked Delvecchio.
“All I read,” Andrews said.
Delvecchio nodded and thought. Then, “I’m going out.”
Many voices at once on the intercom.
“That’s not wise. I don’t think,” said one, Granowicz?
Another said, “Watch it, Jim. Be careful,” Sanderpay, maybe.
And Sheridan, unmistakable, “Don’t, you’ll let them in!”
Delvecchio ignored them all. He hit the switch to open the outer port doors and slid down into the driver’s seat in the mudtractor. The doors parted. Rain washed into the chamber. The tractor moved forward, rattling over the entry ramp and sliding smoothly into the slime.
Now he was out in the storm and the rain tingled through his skinthins. He drove with one hand and held the laser with the other.
He stopped the tractor just outside the port and stood up.
“Come out!” he screamed as loud as he could, out shouting the thunder. “Let us see you! If you can understand me! If the fungus doesn’t have you! Come out now!”
He paused and hoped and waited a long minute. He was about to shout again when a man came running from the undergrowth. Delvecchio had a fleeting glimpse of tattered torn clothes. Bare feet stumbling in the mud. Rain drenched dark hair.
But he wasn’t looking at those. He was looking at the fungus that all but covered the man’s face and trailed across his chest and back.
The man – the thing – raised a fist and released a rock. It missed. He kept running and screaming. Delvecchio, numb, raised his rifle and fired. The fungus thing fell a few feet beyond the trees.
Delvecchio left the tractor where it was and walked back to the entry port on foot. The doors were still open. He went to the intercom. “It has them,” he said. Then, again, “It has them. And it’s hostile. So now we kill them.”
There were no answers. Just a long silence, and a stifled sob, and then Andrews’s slow, detached voice. “A new reading. A body of men – thirty, forty, maybe – moving from the west. In formation. A lot of metal – duralloy, I think.”
“The main force,” Delvecchio said. “They won’t be so easy to kill. Get ready. Remember, everything at once.”
He turned back into the rain, cradled his rifle, walked to the ramp. Through his goggles, Delvecchio saw the shapes of men. Only a few at first fanned out.
He went outside the station to the tractor, knelt behind it. As he watched, the turret turned. A red line reached out, touched the first dim shape. It staggered. New sheets of rain washed in, obliterating the landscape. The laser licked out again. Delvecchio very slowly, lifted his rifle to his shoulder and joined it, firing at the dim outlines seen through the goggles.
Behind him, he felt the first sounding rocket leave up the launch tube, and he briefly saw the fire of its propellant as it cleared the dome. It disappeared into the rain. Another followed it, then another, then the firings became regular.
The dim shapes were all running together; there was a large mass of men just a few yards deep in the undergrowth. Delvecchio fired into the mass, and noted where they were, and hoped Arnold remembered.
The turret laser depressed, sliced at the trunk of a nearby tree. There was the sound of wood tearing. Then the tree began to lean. Then it fell.
From what Delvecchio could see, it missed. Another idea that didn’t quite work, he reflected bitterly. But he continued to fire into the forest.
Suddenly, near the edge of the perimeter, water gouted up out of the swamp in a terrific explosion. Dwarfing all else. A slinker flew through the air, surprised at itself. It rained leech parts.
The first rocket.
A second later, another explosion, among the trees this time.
Then more, one after another. Several very close to the enemy. Two among the enemy. Trees began to fall. And Delvecchio thought he could hear screaming.
He began to hope. He continued to fire.
There was a whine in the sky above. Granowicz in the flier. Delvecchio took time to glance up briefly and watch it flit overhead towards the trees. Other shapes were moving up there too however, diving on the flier, but they were slower.
Granowicz made a quick pass over the perimeter dumping bombs. The swamp shook and the mud and water from the explosions mixed with the rain.
Now, definitely, he could hear screaming.
And then the answer began to come. Red tongues and pencil of light flicked out of the dark, played against the walls causing steam whirlpools which washed away in the rain.
Then projectiles. Explosions. A dull thud rocked the station. A second.
And somewhere in the storm, someone opened up with a screecher.
The wall him behind rang with a humming glow. And there was another explosion much bigger overhead against the forcefield dome. The rain vanished for an instant in a vortex of exploding gases. Wind whipped the smoke away and the station rocked.
Then the rains touched the dome again in sheets.
More explosions. Lasers spat and hissed in the rain. Back and forth the grizzly light show.
Miterz was firing from the walls. Granowicz was making another pass. The rockets had stopped falling. Gone already?
The turret fired, moved, fired, moved, fired. Several explosions rocked the tower.
The world was a madness of rain. Of noise. Of lightning. Of night.
Then, the rockets began again. The swamp and nearer forest shook to the hits. The eastern corner of the station moved as a sounding missile landed uncomfortably close.
The turret began to fire again. Short bursts lost in rain. Answering fire was thick. At least one screecher was shrieking regularly.
Delvecchio saw the swampbats appear suddenly around the flier. They converged from all sides, howling, bent on death. One climbed right up into the engine, folding its wings neatly. There was a terrible explosion that lit the night to ghosts of trailing rain.
More explosions around the force dome. Lasers screened off the dome and turret. The turret glowed red, steamed. On the south, a section of wall vanished in a tremendous explosion.
Delvecchio was still firing regularly, automatically. But, suddenly, the laser went dead, uncharged. He hesitated, rose. He turned just in time to see the hellion dive on the turret. Nothing stopped it. With a sudden chill, Delvecchio realized that the forcefield was out.
Laser riffles reached out at touched the hellion, but not the turret laser. The turret was still silent. The hellion hit the windows with a crash, smashing through, shattering glass and plastic and duralloy struts.
Delvecchio began to move back toward the ramp and the entry port. A slinker rose as he darted by, snapped at his leg. There was a red blur of pain, fading quickly. He stumbled, rose again, moved. The leg was numb and bleeding. He used the useless laser as a crutch.
Inside, he hit the switch to shut the outer doors. Nothing happened. He laughed suddenly. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. The station was breeched. The fields were down. The inner doors still work. He moved through, limped through the halls out to the yard. Around him he could hear the generators dying.
The turret was hit again and again. It exploded and lifted moaning. Three separate impacts hit the tower at once. The top half rained metal.
Delvecchio stopped in the yard, looked at the tower suddenly unsure of where he was going. The word “Arnold” formed on his lips, but stayed there.
The generators quit completely. Lasers and missiles and swampbats steamed overhead. All was night lit by lightning. By explosions. By lasers.
Delvecchio retreated to a wall and propped himself against it. The barrage continued. The ground inside the station was torn, turned, shook. Once there was a scream somewhere as though someone was calling him in their moment of death. He lowered himself to the ground and lay still clutching the rifle while more shells pounded the station. Then all was silent.
Propped up against a rubble pile, he watched helplessly as a big slinker moved toward him across the yard. It loomed large in the rain, but before it reached him, it fell screaming.
There was movement behind him. He turned. A figure in skinthins waved, took up a position near one of the ruined laboratories.
Delvecchio saw shapes moving on what was left of the walls, scrambling over. He wished he had a charge for his laser. A red pencil of light flashed by him in the rain. One of the shapes crumbled. The man behind him had fired too soon, though, and too obviously. The other figured leveled on him. Stabs of laser fire went searing over Delvecchio’s head. Answering fire came briefly, then stopped.
Slowly, slowly, Delvecchio dragged himself through the med, toward the labs. They didn’t seem to see him. After an exhausting effort, he reached the fallen figure in skinthins. Sanderpay, dead.
Delvecchio took the laser. There were five men ahead of him, more in the darkness beyond. Lying on his stomach, Delvecchio fired at one man, then another and another. Steam geysers rose around him as the shapes in duralloy fired back. He fired and fired and fired until all those around him were down. Then he plucked himself up, and tried to run.
The heel was shot off his boot, and warmth flooded his foot. He turned and fired, moved on, past the wrecked tower and the labs.
Laser stabs peeled overhead. Four, five, maybe six of them. Delvecchio dropped what had been a lab wall. He fired around the wall, saw one shape fall. He fired again. Then the rifle died on him.
Lasers tore into the wall, burning in, almost through. The men fanned. There was no hope.
Then the night exploded into fire and noise. A body, twisted flat, spun by. A stab of laser fire came on the teeth of the explosion, from behind Delvecchio.
Sheridan stood over him, firing into the men caught in the open, burning them down one by one. He quit firing for an instant, lobbed a vial of explosive, then went back to the laser. He was hit by a chunk of flying rubble, went down.
Delvecchio came back up as he did. They stood unsteadily. Sheridan wheeling and looking for the targets. But there were no more targets. Sheridan was coughing from exertion inside his skinthins. The rain lessened. The pain increased.
They picked their way through the rubble. They passed many twisted bodies in duralloy, a few skinthins. Sheridan paused at one of the armored bodies, turned it over. The faceplate had been burned away with part of the face. He kicked it back over.
Delvecchio tried another. He lifted the helmet off, searched the nostrils, the forehead, the eyes, the ears. Nothing.
Sheridan had moved away, and was standing over a body in skinthins half covered by rubble. He stood there for a long time.
“Delvecchio!” he called finally. “Delvecchio!”
Delvecchio walked to him, bent, pulled off the filtermask. The man was still alive. He opened his eyes.
“Oh, God, Jim,” he said “Why? Oh, why?”
Delvecchio didn’t say anything. He stood stock still and stared down.
Bill Reyn stared back up.
“I got through, Jim,” said Reyn, coughing blood. “Once the flier was down….no trouble. Close…I walked it. They…they were still inside mostly with the heat. Only a few…had gone out.”
Delvecchio coughed once, quietly.
“I got through…the vaccine…most, anyway. A few had gone out…infected…no hope. But…but, we took away their armor and their weapons…no harm that way. We…had to fight out way through. Me…left alone, but, God, those guys in duralloy lost some men…leeches…slinkers.”
Sheridan turned and dropped his rifle. He began to run towards the labs.
“We tried the suit radios, Jim, but the storm…should have waited, but the vaccine…short term….wearing off…we tried not to hurt you…started killing us.” He began to choke on his own blood.
Delvecchio, helpless, looked down. “Again,” he said in a voice that was dead and broken. “We underestimated it again. We…know. I…I…”
Reyn did not die for another three or four hours. Delvecchio never found Sheridan again. He tried to restart the generators alone, but to no avail. Just before dawn the skies cleared. The stars came through bright and white against the night sky. The fungus had not yet released new spores. It was almost like a moonless night on earth.
Delvecchio sat atop a mound of rubble. A dead soldier’s laser rifle in his hands. Ten or eleven charges on his belt. He did not look off to where Reyn lay. He was trying to figure out how to get the radio working. There was a supply ship coming.
The sky to the east began to lighten. A swamp bat, then another, began to circle the ruins of Greywater Station.
And the spores began to fall.
Credits to this story belong to author George R.R. Martin. Cover artist is Edward Soyka.
Published by N.Y. / New York: Kangaroo Pocket Book (disdtributed By PaperJacks, Ltd, Ontario ), 1977, 1st Edition, First Printing ( Canadian Imprint ), New York, NY(1977)
Other Transcripted Stories
I have provided a few other GRRM stories that are not widley available. Transcribed and noted in each link:
- Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark
- A Night in the Tarn House
- The Computer Cried Charge!
- The Needle Men
- Black and White and Red All Over, partial novel partially noted 🙂
Thanks for reading along with the jambles and jumbles of Fattest Leech of Ice and Fire, by Gumbo!