McGill Feighan is a "flinger"—able to teleport himself or anything else as far away as he can imagine (as long as he's been there before). He can travel across the universe in a flicker and a flash.
Despite the arrow-tipped winter winds, the giant gastropod form-flowed out of sheer enjoyment. On its home planet, in weather like this, it would be hibernating, but here the food supply didn't hide from the cold. What wonderful availability! Even halfway to the rocky island, it could break a tendril through the ice and pull seaweed from the bottom. Delicious!
It had no idea why the Far Being Retzglaran had sent it on its journey, but it didn't regret not asking for an explanation (its master being notoriously unable to abide inquisitive courtiers). Not that it cared. From budhood it had wanted to travel to the pinpricks of light that burst through the night sky, and now it had the opportunity.
Much opportunity, in fact, for the Far Being had sponsored a Galactic Grand Tour. Thirty-eight planets, so far, and the thirty-ninth was coming up, a new net node called Sol III. What an excursion! Twenty-six local days wandering in the undeveloped hinterlands of each planet, looking, smelling, nibbling on the local flora (unless the guidebooks said it was intelligent), and finding intimacy with the earth. It bore no responsibilities, except on the thirty-ninth planet, where a detailed schedule had been arranged. The itinerary was strange indeed, but the gastropod was not one to question a benefactor. After all, it wasn't paying for this trip, and if the Far Being wanted it to run an errand on the side, well, that was fine and dandy, no problem, no problem.
Snow crunched and compressed as it oozed up the ramp to the Customs Building, where a bored functionary coded its passchip and reminded it to change its local currency into FNC's before it left. Throngora II money was valueless anywhere but T-II itself. Even there, most natives ignored it, preferring to trade in the decorated shells they'd trusted for millennia.
Once inside the spacious Flinger Building, it swallowed its passchip into the appropriate stomach, searched out the second most recently activated file, and erased the visa from Delurc, its previous stopover. Just as its master had ordered.
The authorities thought civilians couldn't alter the card-sized passchips, for one entered date into them by realigning the molecular structure of their visa-files, but the authorities hadn't taken into account sentient metallurgical laboratories that could work on the subatomic level.
Exuding puffs of diluted fluorocarbons, it slithered to the Ticket Booth, a lashed-together grillwork of polished sticks. There sat a furry, big-eared Trainee Flinger, proud of her lustrous tunic. The gastropod squashed itself down to display its communication membrane. Across the membrane it wrote, in passable Throngornian, "A one-way ticket to Sol III, New York City, please."
Due to the atmosphere, and the distance from its primary, wintertime Throngora II was noted for dimness. Thus the Trainee's eyes were naturally huge, and it would be unfair to say that they widened with surprise. They did, however, bulge. "I apologize, honored sir," she said hesitantly, "but you are much too heavy to cast. There is a weight limit—"
"Mistake mine," it scribbled. "Apologies also mine. Will return." Rippling into reverse, it backed out of the building, slipping down the ramp into a snow-crusted field of boulders. With regret over its waste of valuable nutrients, it flushed all the rock and metal out of its system. It shrank as the pile beneath it rose; it squatted on 300 tonnes of stone like a mad brooding hen. But still it was some 87,000 kilograms overweight.
Sighing inside, it drained from its storage cells 99.5% of their fluids… steam rose on the winter wind, and ice crystallized almost audibly under the slag heap. Vacuoles vanished, cell walls contracted; layers of spongy flesh thinned and hardened. An hour later, the gastropod—now a quadruped with a coffin-shaped body that was almost all dry, dormant storage meat—tottered up the ramp and again requested a ticket.
The Trainee nodded her approval. "Fifty FNC's, please."
Elevating a forelimb with a hole in its end, the gastropod spat forth a single orange-white bill. After sucking up its change, it headed for Fling Booth 9, as the Trainee had indicated.
When it was inside, the Flinger on duty peered through the glass window. "Are you ready?" he called out.
The gastropod, so bulkless as to be sapped of energy, darkened with irritation as it showed the Flinger its membrane. "Yes," it scrawled abruptly.
Transition was always a time of frozen terror. One minute the gleaming white tiles of the Fling Booth surrounded one; the next, utter blackness dropped. It was true blackness, the absence of light (and the gastropod, sensitive to both infrared and ultraviolet, was perhaps more oppressed by this deprivation than most). Following hard on darkness' heels thundered contradiction: the traveler was growing, swelling, inflating beyond the galaxy's limits; at the same instant, it deflated, shrank, dwindled down to subatomic size. For a tenth of a pulse it was both infinitely large and infinitely small— and then came the tearing. It felt like the very molecules of its body had rebelled, half straining to speed off in one direction, the rest tugging in another. That lasted till the universe died of old age, though the gastropod was certain (having been reassured by no less an expert than the Far Being itself) that it was actually of no duration at all. Then tearing became healing; its cells sang the joys of reunion. The contradiction resolved itself with a return to normal size. Blackness fled from the gleaming white tiles of a Flop Booth. Through the glass window in the ceiling peeped a smooth, hairless face, one with two probable eyes, one bi-holed protrusion, one orifice—
"You okay?" called a voice in Terran.
Feebly, it tilted its forward end to the ceiling. "Yes," it wrote on its translucent membrane, "I fine am. Much thank. Need water."
"Restroom's to your right as you leave the Booth, then follow the signs to the Customs area." With a friendly salute, it disappeared.
The gastropod creaked out the door, found the lavatory, and turned on the faucet not a moment too soon. It was already collapsing from thirst as the first drops of water dampened its forelimb. It sucked. And grew enough to reach another sink. It gulped. It grew. Before too long, water splashed in every basin while the being lay on the dirty floor and distended like a sausage skin being stuffed.
Eighty-seven thousand kilograms of water later, it burped, shut off the taps, and wriggled out of the restroom. Six aliens waited angrily outside; two had embarrassed themselves because they hadn't been able to get in. "Apologies," it flashed, "death/life at stake." And it flowed past, ignoring their attempts to continue the dispute.
Down the hall, it submitted to a full-body scan, and cleared Customs with minimal trouble. In exchange for a 50 FNC deposit, a guarantee that it had a ticket off Earth, the Immigrations official affixed a visa to its passchip. When the last strand of red tape had fallen away and freed it, it snaked outside and emptied a passing garbage truck. Then it consulted the road map in the memory molecule its master had provided.
Unsure of how to begin, it waved an ochre pseudohand at a gesticulating biped, one whose starred cap and three-meter height suggested authority. Five minutes elapsed before it realized the biped was a computer-generated simulacrum. Then, locating the sensors in the generator pedestal, it pressed its membrane against a camera to ask, "Way which to Van Wyck Expressway?"
"Where are you headed?" monotoned the light sculpture.
"Cleveland," it replied, in boldface Gothic type. "Take I Van Wyck to Cross-Bronx to interstate 80, correct?"
"Correct, but—" The police-sim delineated the height and breadth requirements for highway travelers, which the alien far exceeded. "You're too wide!"
"Problem no," it flashed. ' Watch!" After a touch of tinkering, it had shortened and narrowed itself, although the redistributed flesh lengthened it to a good twenty meters. It would grow some more once it got some food in its belly. "Okay is?"
"What about your speed? The law sets a 60 kph minimum."
"Can do." More bioengineering produced 15 pair of two-meter high wheels, as well as a waver in the cop-sim while the computer searched for the appropriate program. "Side by side me," it wrote, "and measure."
The simulacrum, now fuzzy around the edges, simply waved a hand and said, "I believe you. Take off. Have a nice trip, and welcome to New York City."
It set out at once.
The 800-odd kilometers to Cleveland were among the smoothest of its recent excursions. It covered them in just over twelve hours, though the Pennsylvania hillsides tempted it with spring. For a while it weighed rumbling off the road and disappearing into the forests, where delicate buds fattened on the branches, but it had its mission. The Far Being had specified how it should spend its time on this planet, minute for minute almost, and what the master wanted, the master got. It contented itself with licking the dust off the highway, and found it nutritious, if bland.
The hovercars that howled past flashed windows full of gaping faces, but it didn't mind. It had been traveling now for some five years (in its own reckoning), and for that long it had been drawing stare-equivalents. In some places the inhabitants pointed; in others, they averted their buttocks; in still others, they writhed in the dusty sand until acrid crystals coated every square centimeter of their hides—but in each case, the notion behind the gesture was the same. Surprise—astonishment— and closer inspection of the odd being.
So it wheeled toward the heartland, splashing here and there through icy puddles of melting snow, especially in the higher regions of Pennsylvania. Smelling the air of forest and city, it watched the colors flash by—the greens of plants, the browns of treetrunks and soil, the variegated rusts, tans, and blacks of rock outcroppings… it stored these impressions like a squirrel its nuts, preserved them for later winters on its home planet, when there'd be little else to do but lie in a frozen burrow and untangle its chromosomes for the spring fission.
Turning off 80 onto 71, it rode that north into downtown Cleveland. The ancient Memorial Shoreway amused it, for a while, until it found its bearings and the off-ramp, and exited two blocks from Lakewood Hospital.
Yes, exactly as instructed. It was nighttime, and lights shone with awesome profligacy, lights and crowds and crawling traffic that slowed even further when the gastropod cruised past like a float in search of the Rose Bowl Parade. A policewoman flagged it down. After pointing out that it lacked a driver's license, registration, and license plates, she ordered it to follow her to the station. Demurring, it presented its passchip, in which the visa declared that self-propelled beings needed no such documentation.
The cop scratched her helmeted head, sighed at the size of the traffic jam accumulating, and waved it on.
So into the hospital parking lot it rolled, the overhead lights gleaming off its ochre skin. The building matched the Far Being's description brick for brick. Trundling around to the far side, it snuggled against the foundations. The ivy it crushed tasted delicious; well-tended gardens were always more savory than wildlife.
Soaking up the building's vented heat, it extruded, from the middle of its back, a pseudopod that became an Indian fakir's rope that became a periscope. Up it went, and up, and up, until it peered through the windows of the maternity ward. Fat women here, a skinny exhausted one there, white-clad nurses, next room, ah, yes, the children, row upon cribbed row of them.
The pseudopod flattened against the glass of the window, dimpled up a thousand tiny suckers, and heaved! The frame ripped out of the wall with a rending crash. A nurse screamed. An orderly dropped a tray, spun on his heel, and clattered away.
It gently set the window on the asphalt and returned to the breached wall. Again the pseudopod reshaped itself, this time into an elephant's trunk. It entered the gaping hole. What was the number? Four.
It counted down from the near wall. One, two, three— ah, four. The limb-tip poured over the baby in the crib, coating him like pancake batter. After a few seconds, it hardened, and slurped! When it raised itself, the infant was gone.
The clipboard at the end of the crib, swaying in the fresh spring breeze, said, "Baby Boy Feighan."
It was April 1, 2083.
Downstairs, people had begun to cluster around the giant ochre flanks. They were curious, mostly; a lot of aliens lived in Cleveland, but nothing—nothing—like this had been seen before. White-jacketed orderlies, under the direction of an elderly security guard, tried to keep the surging crowds back. They continued to advance, although their high tides fell a dozen meters short, as if it exerted two forces on them: one that drew them close, and another that kept them from coming too close.
The newspeople had arrived, too, and they were different. Unaware as yet of what it had done, they scampered between its wheels, thrust microphones under its ends (they couldn't figure out which was the talking and which was the, uh, other end), snapped holos of it from every angle, flipped through paperback copies of Audobon's Guide to Intelligent Extraterrestrials, hollered questions at it, and, in general, tried to work up front page articles.
At this moment, an elderly nurse leaned out a fourth-floor window and gave them their headline: "The monster ate a baby!" he shouted. "It ate a baby!"
The gastropod was vastly entertained by all these comings and goings. Having slithered the baby down the appropriate tubes, it now shifted the sac containing it to its outer side, where it transparented the skin so that the crowds could see the child. Across its membrane it wrote, "Will not harm baby, I; please provide proper nutrition in slot marked X." A smile spread across its front end, and above it appeared the letter "X" in violent violet. Then, perhaps sensing that the mood of the masses had soured suddenly, it triggered the biochemical thaumaturgy that rendered its hide invulnerable to just about every assault an intelligent entity could devise.
Such self-shelling had its disadvantages, it admitted. For one thing, motion was impossible. It couldn't even turn its head, not that it had one. It couldn't extrude pseudopods, couldn't spin its wheels, couldn't do a thing except sit tight, scrawl on its membrane, and wait for the fullness of time to remedy the situation, as the master had promised it would.
Police swarmed over the grounds like mosquitoes over a swamp, blowing their whistles, screeching their sirens, and shouting exasperated commands. Their weapons ranged from night sticks to automatic cannons; some carried shields, others staggered under the weight of bulky flak jackets. Their captain approached.
"Give him back!" he bellowed.
The translucent patch warped itself to focus on him; letters crawled across it: "Of course. In 71.4 hours, local time."
"What are you doing with him?"
"Examining, as by Far Being Retzglaran ordered."
"Mind never. Please in slot marked X provide proper nutrition. Will not harm baby, I. Okay is all. 71.4 hours." With that, it fell silent, and remained that way for the next three days, despite the impassioned pleas of doctors, nurses, policemen, orderlies, clergymen, the Feighan family, and a twelve-legged, blue-shelled baseball fan from Cygnus XII which, passing through town, had been drafted to help solve the problem.
For seventy-two hours it lay like a stone sphinx, displaying the baby through the window in its skin (a burly, thirty-eight-year veteran of the CPD said, "Damn slug's holding him as a hostage." A frail, sallow xenobiologist retorted, "Nonsense. It's studying him, as it said, but it's showing the boy to us as a sign, as proof, that it's not hurting him. And let's have no ethnic slurs, bohunk"). Impervious to assault (Army demolition men summoned to blow it open gave up in disgust when they couldn't slice even a piece of it loose, no matter how much power they pumped into their lasers), uncaring about trespassers (the director of the hospital, studying both the alien and the next year's budget, considered roping it off and charging five or ten bucks a head for the privilege of crawling on it; he was overruled by the Cleveland chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Extraterrestrials), it lay like so much breathing concrete until the time was up.
Then, on April 4, 2083, the epidermis split, top to bottom, like the temple in Jerusalem, and a moving slab of flesh thrust Baby Boy Feighan into the open air. He weighed ten pounds, four ounces; naked and clean and sweet-smelling, he had a smile on his miniature lips and a twinkle in his eyes. His mother, Nicole Buongiorno, heavily perfumed with rum, snatched him off the shelf and clutched him to her bosom. For a moment she stood dazed and red-eyed. Then she ran weeping for the family car in the north parking lot, looking back often, as though convinced the beast would change its mind and steal him again.
Flashing, "It's been wonderful, but I really must leave," on its forehead, the gastropod rearranged its body chemistry and revved its wheels. The crowd scattered. An irate policeman (due to start his vacation on the 2nd, he'd been called back for extra duty; his wife had gone on the trip without him but not, he was sure, alone) leveled his automatic rifle and fired a 200-round burst into its side.
It felt rain on its flanks, heard noisy chattering, smelled a peculiar acridity, and absorbed a bit of kinetic energy. Popping open a visual orifice, it studied the cop, who was inserting a metal cube into the shoulder end of his stick-weapon. The alien chuckled to itself. Silly thing, to think he could hurt it with that.
The patrolman ripped off another full burst and hastily reloaded.
Although unscathed by the 400 bullets that had zipped through its body, the being's feelings were hurt. It didn't like entities that became so angry that they wanted to kill. It didn't like hate.
Its spirits, however, were boosted by the onlookers, who seemed not to agree with the cop. Many were shouting at him to stop; some even attempted to disarm him. A few ran up to it and asked if it were wounded.
"No," it wrote, "but for asking many thanksyous. I really must go. My timetable quite tight is." It rolled forward, through the path the crowd had made for it, reached the highway in minutes, and sped back to the New York City Flinger Building.
Before departure, in accord with the instructions of the Far Being, it established a $10,000,000 (US) trust fund, the interest on which was to be applied to expenses incurred by the Feighan family in attempting to cope with the trauma they had undoubtedly suffered. That pleased it. It wouldn't want to think that its master was unfeeling.
Then, properly shrunk, it staggered to the Fling Booth. Its sole regret as it left the Earth was that it hadn't had time to go wandering through the wilderness.
The hospital staff reclaimed the baby from its distraught parents and quarantined it at once. They felt they had to: the child did not move. Initial tests suggested that his paralysis, if it were such, was not of physical origin. They imputed it to hysteria.
Medical experts from the world over descended upon Cleveland in such droves that car rental agencies ran out of luxury models, hotel rooms were as available as free consultations (desk clerks willing to relinquish the reserved suites obtained all the medical advice they needed, gratis), and half a dozen country clubs canceled guest privileges because their own members couldn't get onto the courses.
Each doctor had his own theory, and his optimum means of proving it. Some wanted blood samples; others, bone fragments. Some yearned to scan, others to skin. Biopsies were demanded a hundred times an hour. The baby (now named McGill no-middle-name Feighan) had his fingers pricked so often that he couldn't have sucked his thumb even if he could have moved it to his mouth.
The researchers requested so much material from McGill that a hospital intern, not entirely facetiously, suggested that they sacrifice and quick-freeze him, then take as many cross-sections as possible. It was a sign of scientific frenzy that the motion was voted down 1307-1211…
The psychologists and psychiatrists, there to cure his hysteria, fought for their share of experimentation. Roughly half wanted to put him in an isolation cell and observe him till he reached puberty; the others opted for the age of twenty-one.
Six weeks after the alien had left, Patrick Sean Feighan, the baby's almost-forgotten father, stormed into the hospital, raving that he'd have his son or the heads of those who got in his way. A bull of a man, an erstwhile professional football player who worked out regularly and whose shoulders were so broad he had to go through most doors sideways, he got attention.
"Mr. Feighan," said the receptionist, "I'm afraid the doctor's in conference right now, if you'll take a seat—"
"I'll just pop in, won't be a minute, it's the release, you know, it must be signed." Pulling a cookie from his pocket— snacks helped him cope—he headed for the varnished oak door.
The nurse shrugged to herself, and pressed the disguised button that activated the door's electro-lock. "Mr. Feighan," she said, swiveling her chair around, "really, the doctor is very busy, and he'll see you as soon—"
"He'll see me now," bit off Feighan, "or— hunh. Locked, is it? Well now, what can we—" He wrapped his fingers around the handle and pressed his shoulder to the wood. "—do about that, I wonder?" Grunting, he heaved forward, as though it were some damn fool trying to protect his quarterback.
Like most blockers who'd confronted him during his career, it yielded. He smiled into the doctor's plushly carpeted office, shook his head, and said, "It's the humidity that warps it, sir, and it's the warp that sticks it to its frame. Ah, they just don't make things like they used to, now do they?" Still smiling, he rested the unhinged door against an inner wall. The lock plate lost its charge and fell to the floor. "It's my son I've come about," he said, sauntering up to the doctor's glossy desk. His ankles swished through blue wool. He curled his knuckles into his palm, rested them on the desk, and leaned forward. "You won't be causing the mother of my son any more heartache by being stubborn about his release, now, will you?"
Two security guards, alerted by the receptionist, burst into the room. The senior said, "All right, Mr. Feighan, let's just leave quietly, all right?"
Feighan had been feeling feisty since he'd rolled out of bed, so he turned and said, "As quietly as a lamb, my boys. The instant my son is placed in my own two arms. It's home I'll be taking him."
The doctor shook his head. "Throw him out," he ordered the guards.
They approached with exaggerated wariness, remembering, perhaps, Super Bowl CXII, in which he'd thrown a 280-pound tackle over the goalpost.
Feighan beamed. "What great good fortune," he told them. "The ambulance boys won't have so far to wheel you to the Emergency Room."
The guards stopped, thought it over, and smiled to the doctor. "Nice visiting with you, doc," said one. "Mr. Feighan, if I could get your autograph? It's for my son, he's a wowser fan of yours."
By this time, the Feighan family lawyer had arrived, and presented the doctor with a summons ordering him to show .cause why he should not be indicted for kidnapping.
Reluctantly, the doctor signed the discharge papers.