about the author…
(from Wikipedia) Robert Sheckley was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1931 the family moved to Maplewood, New Jersey. Sheckley attended Columbia High School, where he discovered science fiction. He graduated in 1946 and hitchhiked to California the same year, where he tried numerous jobs: landscape gardener, pretzel salesman, barman, milkman, warehouseman, and general laborer “board man” in a hand-painted necktie studio. Finally, still in 1946, he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea. During his time in the army he served as a guard, an army newspaper editor, a payroll clerk, and guitarist in an army band. He left the service in 1948.
Sheckley then attended New York University, where he received an undergraduate degree in 1951. The same year he married for the first time, to Barbara Scadron. The couple had one son, Jason. Sheckley worked in an aircraft factory and as an assistant metallurgist for a short time, but his breakthrough came quickly: in late 1951 he sold his first story, Final Examination, to Imagination magazine. He quickly gained prominence as a writer, publishing stories in Imagination, Galaxy, and other science fiction magazines. The 1950s saw the publication of Sheckley’s first four books: short story collections Untouched by Human Hands (Ballantine, 1954), Citizen in Space (1955), and Pilgrimage to Earth (Bantam, 1957), and a novel, Immortality, Inc. (first published as a serial in Galaxy, 1958).
Sheckley and Scadron divorced in 1956. The writer married journalist Ziva Kwitney in 1957. The newly married couple lived in Greenwich Village. Their daughter, Alisa Kwitney, born in 1964, would herself become a successful writer. Applauded by critic Kingsley Amis, Sheckley was now selling many of his deft, satiric stories to mainstream magazines such as Playboy. In addition to his science fiction stories, in 1960s Sheckley started writing suspense fiction. More short story collections and novels appeared in the 1960s, and a film adaptation of an early story by Sheckley, The 10th Victim, was released in 1965.
Sheckley spent much of 1970s living on Ibiza. He and Kwitney divorced in 1972 and the same year Sheckley married Abby Schulman, whom he had met in Ibiza. The couple had two children, Anya and Jed. The couple separated while living in London. In 1980, the writer returned to the United States and became fiction editor of the newly established OMNI magazine. Sheckley left OMNI in 1981 with his fourth wife, writer Jay Rothbell a.k.a. Jay Sheckley, and they subsequently traveled widely in Europe, finally ending up in Portland, Oregon, where they separated. He married Gail Dana of Portland in 1990. Sheckley continued publishing further science fiction and espionage/mystery stories, and collaborated with other writers such as Roger Zelazny and Harry Harrison.
During a 2005 visit to Ukraine for the Ukrainian Sci-Fi Computer Week, an international event for science fiction writers, Sheckley fell ill and had to be hospitalized in Kiev on April 27. His condition was very serious for one week, but he appeared to be slowly recovering. Sheckley’s official website ran a fundraising campaign to help cover Sheckley’s treatment and his return to the United States. Sheckley settled in Red Hook, in northern Dutchess County, New York, to be near his daughters Anya and Alisa. On November 20 he had surgery for a brain aneurysm; he died in a Poughkeepsie hospital on December 9, 2005.
about the narrator…
Nathaniel Lee is Escape Pod’s assistant editor and sometime contributor. His writing can be found at various online venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and all of the EA podcasts. He lives somewhat unwillingly in North Carolina with his wife and son and their obligatory authorial cats.
Keep Your Shape
by Robert Sheckley
Pid the Pilot slowed the ship almost to a standstill, and peered anxiously at the green planet below.
Even without instruments, there was no mistaking it. Third from its sun, it was the only planet in this system capable of sustaining life. Peacefully it swam beneath its gauze of clouds.
It looked very innocent. And yet, twenty previous Grom expeditions had set out to prepare this planet for invasion—and vanished utterly, without a word.
Pid hesitated only a moment, before starting irrevocably down. There was no point in hovering and worrying. He and his two crewmen were as ready now as they would ever be. Their compact Displacers were stored in body pouches, inactive but ready.
Pid wanted to say something to his crew, but wasn’t sure how to put it.
The crew waited. Ilg the Radioman had sent the final message to the Grom planet. Ger the Detector read sixteen dials at once, and reported, “No sign of alien activity.” His body surfaces flowed carelessly.
Noticing the flow, Pid knew what to say to his crew. Ever since they had left Grom, shape-discipline had been disgustingly lax. The Invasion Chief had warned him; but still, he had to do something about it. It was his duty, since lower castes such as Radiomen and Detectors were notoriously prone to Shapelessness.
“A lot of hopes are resting on this expedition,” he began slowly. “We’re a long way from home now.”
Ger the Detector nodded. Ilg the Radioman flowed out of his prescribed shape and molded himself comfortably to a wall.
“However,” Pid said sternly, “distance is no excuse for promiscuous Shapelessness.”
Ilg flowed hastily back into proper Radioman’s shape.
“Exotic forms will undoubtedly be called for,” Pid went on. “And for that we have a special dispensation. But remember—anyshape not assumed strictly in the line of duty is a foul, lawless device of The Shapeless One!”
Ger’s body surfaces abruptly stopped flowing.
“That’s all,” Pid said, and flowed into his controls. The ship started down, so smoothly co-ordinated that Pid felt a glow of pride.
They were good workers, he decided. He just couldn’t expect them to be as shape-conscious as a high-caste Pilot. Even the Invasion Chief had told him that.
“Pid,” the Invasion Chief had said at their last interview, “we need this planet desperately.”
“Yes, sir,” Pid had said, standing at full attention, never quivering from Optimum Pilot’s Shape.
“One of you,” the Chief said heavily, “must get through and set up a Displacer near an atomic power source. The army will be standing by at this end, ready to step through.”
“We’ll do it, sir,” Pid said.
“This expedition has to succeed,” the Chief said, and his features blurred momentarily from sheer fatigue. “In strictest confidence, there’s considerable unrest on Grom. The Miner caste is on strike, for instance. They want a new digging shape. Say the old one is inefficient.”
Pid looked properly indignant. The Mining Shape had been set down by the Ancients fifty thousand years ago, together with the rest of the basic shapes. And now these upstarts wanted to change it!
“That’s not all,” the Chief told him. “We’ve uncovered a new Cult of Shapelessness. Picked up almost eight thousand Grom, and I don’t know how many more we missed.”
Pid knew that Shapelessness was a lure of The Shapeless One, the greatest evil that the Grom mind could conceive of. But why, he wondered, did so many Grom fall for His lures?
The Chief guessed his question. “Pid,” he said, “I suppose it’s difficult for you to understand. Do you enjoy Piloting?”
“Yes, sir,” Pid said simply. Enjoy Piloting! It was his entire life! Without a ship, he was nothing.
“Not all Grom feel that way,” the Chief said. “I don’t understand it either. All my ancestors have been Invasion Chiefs, back to the beginning of time. So of course I want to be an Invasion Chief. It’s only natural, as well as lawful. But the lower castes don’t feel that way.” The Chief shook his body sadly. “I’ve told you this for a reason. We Grom need more room. This unrest is caused purely by crowding. All our psychologists say so. Another planet to expand into will cure everything. So we’re counting on you, Pid.”
“Yes, sir,” Pid said, with a glow of pride.
The Chief rose to end the interview. Then he changed his mind and sat down again.
“You’ll have to watch your crew,” he said. “They’re loyal, no doubt, but low-caste. And you know the lower castes.”
Pid did indeed.
“Ger, your Detector, is suspected of harboring Alterationist tendencies. He was once fined for assuming a quasi-Huntershape. Ilg has never had any definite charge brought against him. But I hear that he remains immobile for suspiciously long periods of time. Possibly, he fancies himself a Thinker.”
“But, sir,” Pid protested. “If they are even slightly tainted with Alterationism or Shapelessness, why send them on this expedition?”
The Chief hesitated before answering. “There are plenty of Grom I could trust,” he said slowly. “But those two have certain qualities of resourcefulness and imagination that will be needed on this expedition.” He sighed. “I really don’t understand why those qualities are usually linked with Shapelessness.”
“Yes, sir,” Pid said.
“Just watch them.”
“Yes, sir,” Pid said again, and saluted, realizing that the interview was at an end. In his body pouch he felt the dormant Displacer, ready to transform the enemy’s power source into a bridge across space for the Grom hordes.
“Good luck,” the chief said. “I’m sure you’ll need it.”
The ship dropped silently toward the surface of the enemy planet. Ger the Detector analyzed the clouds below, and fed data into the Camouflage Unit. The Unit went to work. Soon the ship looked, to all outward appearances, like a cirrus formation.
Pid allowed the ship to drift slowly toward the surface of the mystery planet. He was in Optimum Pilot’s Shape now, the most efficient of the four shapes alloted to the Pilot caste. Blind, deaf and dumb, an extension of his controls, all his attention was directed toward matching the velocities of the high-flying clouds, staying among them, becoming a part of them.
Ger remained rigidly in one of the two shapes alloted to Detectors. He fed data into the Camouflage Unit, and the descending ship slowly altered into an alto-cumulus.
There was no sign of activity from the enemy planet.
Ilg located an atomic power source, and fed the data to Pid. The Pilot altered course. He had reached the lowest level of clouds, barely a mile above the surface of the planet. Now his ship looked like a fat, fleecy cumulus.
And still there was no sign of alarm. The unknown fate that had overtaken twenty previous expeditions still had not showed itself.
Dusk crept across the face of the planet as Pid maneuvered near the atomic power installation. He avoided the surrounding homes and hovered over a clump of woods.
Darkness fell, and the green planet’s lone moon was veiled in clouds.
One cloud floated lower.
“Quick, everyone out!” Pid shouted, detaching himself from the ship’s controls. He assumed the Pilot’s Shape best suited for running, and raced out the hatch. Ger and Ilg hurried after him. They stopped fifty yards from the ship, and waited.
Inside the ship a little-used circuit closed. There was a silent shudder, and the ship began to melt. Plastic dissolved, metal crumpled. Soon the ship was a great pile of junk, and still the process went on. Big fragments broke into smaller fragments, and split, and split again.
Pid felt suddenly helpless, watching his ship scuttle itself. He was a Pilot, of the Pilot caste. His father had been a Pilot, and his father before him, stretching back to the hazy past when the Grom had first constructed ships. He had spent his entire childhood around ships, his entire manhood flying them.
Now, shipless, he was naked in an alien world.
In a few minutes there was only a mound of dust to show where the ship had been. The night wind scattered it through the forest. And then there was nothing at all.
They waited. Nothing happened. The wind sighed and the trees creaked. Squirrels chirped, and birds stirred in their nests. An acorn fell to the ground.
Pid heaved a sigh of relief and sat down. The twenty-first Grom expedition had landed safely.
There was nothing to be done until morning, so Pid began to make plans. They had landed as close to the atomic power installation as they dared. Now they would have to get closer. Somehow, one of them had to get very near the reactor room, in order to activate the Displacer.
Difficult. But Pid felt certain of success. After all, the Grom were strong on ingenuity.
Strong on ingenuity, he thought bitterly, but terribly short of radioactives. That was another reason why this expedition was so important. There was little radioactive fuel left, on any of the Grom worlds. Ages ago, the Grom had spent their store of radioactives in spreading throughout their neighboring worlds, occupying the ones that they could live on.
Now, colonization barely kept up with the mounting birthrate. New worlds were constantly needed.
This particular world, discovered in a scouting expedition, was needed. It suited the Grom perfectly. But it was too far away. They didn’t have enough fuel to mount a conquering space fleet.
Luckily, there was another way. A better way.
Over the centuries, the Grom scientists had developed the Displacer. A triumph of Identity Engineering, the Displacer allowed mass to be moved instantaneously between any two linked points.
One end was set up at Grom’s sole atomic energy plant. The other end had to be placed in proximity to another atomic power source, and activated. Diverted power then flowed through both ends, was modified, and modified again.
Then, through the miracle of Identity Engineering, the Grom could step through from planet to planet; or pour through in a great, overwhelming wave.
It was quite simple.
But twenty expeditions had failed to set up the Earth-end Displacer.
What had happened to them was not known.
For no Grom ship had ever returned to tell.
Before dawn they crept through the woods, taking on the coloration of the plants around them. Their Displacers pulsed feebly, sensing the nearness of atomic energy.
A tiny, four-legged creature darted in front of them. Instantly, Ger grew four legs and a long, streamlined body and gave chase.
“Ger! Come back here!” Pid howled at the Detector, throwing caution to the winds.
Ger overtook the animal and knocked it down. He tried to bite it, but he had neglected to grow teeth. The animal jumped free, and vanished into the underbrush. Ger thrust out a set of teeth and bunched his muscles for another leap.
Reluctantly, the Detector turned away. He loped silently back to Pid.
“I was hungry,” he said.
“You were not,” Pid said sternly.
“Was,” Ger mumbled, writhing with embarrassment.
Pid remembered what the Chief had told him. Ger certainly did have Hunter tendencies. He would have to watch him more closely.
“We’ll have no more of that,” Pid said. “Remember—the lure of Exotic Shapes is not sanctioned. Be content with the shapeyou were born to.”
Ger nodded, and melted back into the underbrush. They moved on.
At the extreme edge of the woods they could observe the atomic energy installation. Pid disguised himself as a clump of shrubbery, and Ger formed himself into an old log. Ilg, after a moment’s thought, became a young oak.
The installation was in the form of a long, low building, surrounded by a metal fence. There was a gate, and guards in front of it.
The first job, Pid thought, was to get past that gate. He began to consider ways and means.
From the fragmentary reports of the survey parties, Pid knew that, in some ways, this race of Men were like the Grom. They had pets, as the Grom did, and homes and children, and a culture. The inhabitants were skilled mechanically, as were the Grom.
But there were terrific differences, also. The Men were of fixed and immutable form, like stones or trees. And to compensate, their planet boasted a fantastic array of species, types and kinds. This was completely unlike Grom, which had only eight distinct forms of animal life.
And evidently, the Men were skilled at detecting invaders, Pid thought. He wished he knew how the other expeditions had failed. It would make his job much easier.
A Man lurched past them on two incredibly stiff legs. Rigidity was evident in his every move. Without looking, he hurried past.
“I know,” Ger said, after the creature had moved away. “I’ll disguise myself as a Man, walk through the gate to the reactor room, and activate my Displacer.”
“You can’t speak their language,” Pid pointed out.
“I won’t speak at all. I’ll ignore them. Look.” Quickly Ger shaped himself into a Man.
“That’s not bad,” Pid said.
Ger tried a few practice steps, copying the bumpy walk of the Man.
“But I’m afraid it won’t work,” Pid said.
“It’s perfectly logical,” Ger pointed out.
“I know. Therefore the other expeditions must have tried it. And none of them came back.”
There was no arguing that. Ger flowed back into the shape of a log. “What, then?” he asked.
“Let me think,” Pid said.
Another creature lurched past, on four legs instead of two. Pid recognized it as a Dog, a pet of Man. He watched it carefully.
The Dog ambled to the gate, head down, in no particular hurry. It walked through, unchallenged, and lay down in the grass.
“H’m,” Pid said.
They watched. One of the Men walked past, and touched the Dog on the head. The Dog stuck out its tongue and rolled over on its side.
“I can do that,” Ger said excitedly. He started to flow into the shape of a Dog.
“No, wait,” Pid said. “We’ll spend the rest of the day thinking it over. This is too important to rush into.”
Ger subsided sulkily.
“Come on, let’s move back,” Pid said. He and Ger started into the woods. Then he remembered Ilg.
“Ilg?” he called softly.
There was no answer.
“What? Oh, yes,” an oak tree said, and melted into a bush. “Sorry. What were you saying?”
“We’re moving back,” Pid said. “Were you, by any chance, Thinking?”
“Oh, no,” Ilg assured him. “Just resting.”
Pid let it go at that. There was too much else to worry about.
They discussed it for the rest of the day, hidden in the deepest part of the woods. The only alternatives seemed to be Man or Dog. A Tree couldn’t walk past the gates, since that was not in the nature of trees. Nor could anything else, and escape notice.
Going as a Man seemed too risky. They decided that Ger would sally out in the morning as a Dog.
“Now get some sleep,” Pid said.
Obediently his two crewmen flattened out, going immediately Shapeless. But Pid had a more difficult time.
Everything looked too easy. Why wasn’t the atomic installation better guarded? Certainly the Men must have learned something from the expeditions they had captured in the past. Or had they killed them without asking any questions?
You couldn’t tell what an alien would do.
Was that open gate a trap?
Wearily he flowed into a comfortable position on the lumpy ground. Then he pulled himself together hastily.
He had gone Shapeless!
Comfort was not in the line of duty, he reminded himself, and firmly took a Pilot’s Shape.
But a Pilot’s Shape wasn’t constructed for sleeping on damp, bumpy ground. Pid spent a restless night, thinking of ships, and wishing he were flying one.
He awoke in the morning tired and ill-tempered. He nudged Ger.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said.
Ger flowed gaily to his feet.
“Come on, Ilg,” Pid said angrily, looking around. “Wake up.”
There was no reply.
“Ilg!” he called.
Still there was no reply.
“Help me look for him,” Pid said to Ger. “He must be around here somewhere.”
Together they tested every bush, tree, log and shrub in the vicinity. But none of them was Ilg.
Pid began to feel a cold panic run through him. What could have happened to the Radioman?
“Perhaps he decided to go through the gate on his own,” Ger suggested.
[original: Ilg suggested (n. of transcriber)]
Pid considered the possibility. It seemed unlikely. Ilg had never shown much initiative. He had always been content to follow orders.
They waited. But midday came, and there was still no sign of Ilg.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Pid said, and they started through the woods. Pid wondered if Ilg had tried to get through the gates on his own. Those quiet types often concealed a foolhardy streak.
But there was nothing to show that Ilg had been successful. He would have to assume that the Radioman was dead, or captured by the Men.
That left two of them to activate a Displacer.
And he still didn’t know what had happened to the other expeditions.
At the edge of the woods, Ger turned himself into a facsimile of a Dog. Pid inspected him carefully.
“A little less tail,” he said.
Ger shortened his tail.
Ger lengthened his ears,
“Now even them up.”
They became even.
Pid inspected the finished product. As far as he could tell, Ger was perfect, from the tip of his tail to his wet, black nose.
“Good luck,” Pid said.
“Thanks.” Cautiously Ger moved out of the woods, walking in the lurching style of Dogs and Men. At the gate the guard called to him. Pid held his breath.
Ger walked past the Man, ignoring him. The Man started to walk over. Ger broke into a run.
Pid shaped a pair of strong legs for himself, ready to dash if Ger was caught.
But the guard turned back to his gate. Ger stopped running immediately, and strolled quietly toward the main door of the building.
Pid dissolved his legs with a sigh of relief … and then tensed again.
The main door was closed!
Pid hoped the Radioman wouldn’t try to open it. That was not in the nature of Dogs.
As he watched, another Dog came running toward Ger. Ger backed away from him. The Dog approached and sniffed. Ger sniffed back.
Then both of them ran around the building.
That was clever, Pid thought. There was bound to be a door in the rear.
He glanced up at the afternoon sun. As soon as the Displacer was activated, the Grom armies would begin to pour through. By the time the Men recovered from the shock, a million or more Grom troops would be here, weapons and all. With more following.
The day passed slowly, and nothing happened.
Nervously Pid watched the front of the plant. It shouldn’t be taking so long, if Ger were successful.
Late into the night he waited. Men walked in and out of the installation, and Dogs barked around the gates. But Ger did not appear.
Ger had failed. Ilg was gone. Only he was left.
And still he didn’t know what had happened.
By morning, Pid was in complete despair. He knew that the twenty-first Grom expedition to this planet was near the point of complete failure. Now it was all up to him.
He saw that workers were arriving in great number, rushing through the gates. He decided to take advantage of the apparent confusion, and started to shape himself into a Man.
A Dog walked past the woods where he was hiding.
“Hello,” the Dog said.
It was Ger!
“What happened?” Pid asked, with a sigh of relief. “Why were you so long? Couldn’t you get in?”
“I don’t know,” Ger said, wagging his tail. “I didn’t try.”
Pid was speechless.
“I went hunting,” Ger said complacently. “This form is ideal for Hunting, you know. I went out the rear gate with another Dog.”
“But the expedition—your duty—”
“I changed my mind,” Ger told him. “You know, Pilot, I never wanted to be a Detector.”
“But you were born a Detector!”
“That’s true,” Ger said. “But it doesn’t help. I always wanted to be a Hunter.”
Pid shook his entire body in annoyance. “You can’t,” he said, very slowly, as one would explain to a Gromling. “The Huntershape is forbidden to you.”
“Not here it isn’t,” Ger said, still wagging his tail.
“Let’s have no more of this,” Pid said angrily. “Get into that installation and set up your Displacer. I’ll try to overlook this heresy.”
“No,” Ger said. “I don’t want the Grom here. They’d ruin it for the rest of us.”
“He’s right,” a nearby oak tree said.
“Ilg!” Pid gasped. “Where are you?”
Branches stirred. “I’m right here,” Ilg said. “I’ve been Thinking.”
“Pilot,” Ger said sadly, “why don’t you wake up? Most of the people on Grom are miserable. Only custom makes us take the caste-shape of our ancestors.”
“Pilot,” Ilg said, “all Grom are born Shapeless!”
“And being born Shapeless, all Grom should have Freedom of Shape,” Ger said.
“Exactly,” Ilg said. “But he’ll never understand. Now excuse me. I want to Think.” And the oak tree was silent.
Pid laughed humorlessly. “The Men will kill you off,” he said. “Just as they killed off all the other expeditions.”
“No one from Grom has been killed,” Ger told him. “The other expeditions are right here.”
“Certainly. The Men don’t even know we exist. That Dog I was Hunting with is a Grom from the twelfth expedition. There are hundreds of us here, Pilot. We like it.”
Pid tried to absorb it all. He had always known that the lower castes were lax in caste-consciousness. But this was preposterous!
This planet’s secret menace was—freedom!
“Join us, Pilot,” Ger said. “We’ve got a paradise here. Do you know how many species there are on this planet? An uncountable number! There’s a shape to suit every need!”
Pid ignored them. Traitors!
He’d do the job all by himself.
So Men were unaware of the presence of the Grom. Getting near the reactor might not be so difficult after all. The others had failed in their duty because they were of the lower castes, weak and irresponsible. Even the Pilots among them must have been secretly sympathetic to the Cult of Shapelessness the Chief had mentioned, or the alien planet could never have swayed them.
What shape to assume for his attempt?
A Dog might be best. Evidently Dogs could wander pretty much where they wished. If something went wrong, Pid could change his shape to meet the occasion.
“The Supreme Council will take care of all of you,” he snarled, and shaped himself into a small brown Dog. “I’m going to set up the Displacer myself.”
He studied himself for a moment, bared his teeth at Ger, and loped toward the gate.
He loped for about ten feet and stopped in utter horror.
The smells rushed at him from all directions. Smells in a profusion and variety he had never dreamed existed. Smells that were harsh, sweet, sharp, heavy, mysterious, overpowering. Smells that terrified. Alien and repulsive and inescapable, the odors of Earth struck him like a blow.
He curled his lips and held his breath. He ran on for a few steps, and had to breathe again. He almost choked.
He tried to remold his Dog-nostrils to be less sensitive. It didn’t work. It wouldn’t, so long as he kept the Dog-shape. An attempt to modify his metabolism didn’t work either.
All this in the space of two or three seconds. He was rooted in his tracks, fighting the smells, wondering what to do.
Then the noises hit him.
They were a constant and staggering roar, through which every tiniest whisper of sound stood out clearly and distinct. Sounds upon sounds—more noise than he had ever heard before at one time in his life. The woods behind him had suddenly become a mad-house.
Utterly confused, he lost control and became Shapeless.
He half-ran, half-flowed into a nearby bush. There he re-Shaped, obliterating the offending Dog ears and nostrils with vicious strokes of his thoughts.
The Dog-shape was out. Absolutely. Such appalling sharpness of senses might be fine for a Hunter such as Ger—he probably gloried in them. But another moment of such impressions would have driven Pid the Pilot mad.
What now? He lay in the bush and thought about it, while gradually his mind threw off the last effects of the dizzying sensory assault.
He looked at the gate. The Men standing there evidently hadn’t noticed his fiasco. They were looking in another direction.
… a Man?
Well, it was worth a try.
Studying the Men at the gate, Pid carefully shaped himself into a facsimile—a synthesis, actually, embodying one characteristic of that, another of this.
He emerged from the side of the bush opposite the gate, on his hands and knees. He sniffed the air, noting that the smells the Man-nostrils picked up weren’t unpleasant at all. In fact, some of them were decidedly otherwise. It had just been the acuity of the Dog-nostrils, the number of smells they had detected and the near-brilliance with which they had done so, that had shocked him.
Also, the sounds weren’t half so devastating. Only relatively close sounds stood out. All else was an undetailed whispering.
Evidently, Pid thought, it had been a long time since Men had been Hunters.
He tested his legs, standing up and taking a few clumsy steps. Thud of foot on ground. Drag the other leg forward in a heavy arc. Thud. Rocking from side to side, he marched back and forth behind the bush. His arms flapped as he sought balance. His head wobbled on its neck, until he remembered to hold it up. Head up, eyes down, he missed seeing a small rock. His heel turned on it. He sat down, hard.
The ankle hurt. Pid curled his Man-lips and crawled back into the bush.
The Man-shape was too unspeakably clumsy. It was offensive to plod one step at a time. Body held rigidly upright. Arms wobbling. There had been a deluge of sense-impressions in the Dog-shape; there was dull, stiff, half-alive inadequacy to the Man-shape.
Besides, it was dangerous, now that Pid thought it over, as well as distasteful. He couldn’t control it properly. It wouldn’t look right. Someone might question him. There was too much about Men he didn’t—couldn’t—know. The planting of the Displacer was too important a thing for him to fumble again. Only luck had kept him from being seen during the sensory onslaught.
The Displacer in his body pouch pulsed and tugged, urging him to be on his way toward the distant reactor room.
Grimly, Pid let out the last breath he had taken with his Man-lungs, and dissolved the lungs.
What shape to take?
Again he studied the gate, the Men standing beside it, the building beyond in which was the all-important reactor.
A small shape was needed. A fast one. An unobtrusive one.
He lay and thought.
The bush rustled above him. A small brown shape had fluttered down to light on a twig. It hopped to another twig, twittering. Then it fluttered off in a flash, and was gone.
That, Pid thought, was it.
A Sparrow that was not a Sparrow rose from the bush a few moments later. An observer would have seen it circle the bush, diving, hedgehopping, even looping, as if practicing all maneuvers possible to Sparrows.
Pid tensed his shoulder muscles, inclined his wings. He slipped off to the right, approached the bush at what seemed breakneck speed, though he knew this was only because of his small size. At the last second he lifted his tail. Not quite quickly enough. He swooped up and over the top of the bush, but his legs brushed the top leaves, his beak went down, and he stumbled in air for a few feet back-forward.
He blinked beady eyes as if at a challenge. Back toward the bush at a fine clip, again up and over. This time cleanly.
He chose a tree. Zoomed into its network of branches, wove a web of flight, working his way around and around the trunk, over and under branches that flashed before him, through crotches with no more than a feather’s-breath to spare.
At last he rested on a low branch, and found himself chirping in delight.
The tree extruded a feeler from the branch he sat on, and touched his wings and tail.
“Interesting,” said the tree. “I’ll have to try that shape some time.”
“Traitor,” hissed Pid, growing a mouth in his chest to hiss it, and then he did something that caused Ilg to exclaim in outrage.
Pid flew out of the woods. Over the underbrush and across the open space toward the gate.
This body would do the trick!
This body would do anything!
He rose, in a matter of a few Sparrow heartbeats, to an altitude of a hundred feet. From here the gate, the Men, the building were small, sharp shapes against a green-brown mat. Pid found that he could see not only with unaccustomed clarity, but with a range of vision that astonished him. To right and to left he could see far into the hazy blue of the sky, and the higher he rose the farther he could see.
He rose higher.
The Displacer pulsed, reminding him of the job he had to do.
He stiffened his wings and glided, regretfully putting aside his desires to experiment with this wonderful shape, at least for the present. After he planted the Displacer, he would go off by himself for a while and do it just a little more—somewhere where Ilg and Ger would not see him—before the Grom Army arrived and the invasion began.
He felt a tiny twinge of guilt, as he circled. It was Evil to want to keep this alien flying shape any longer than was absolutely necessary to the performance of his duty. It was a device of the Shapeless One—
But what had Ilg said? All Grom are born Shapeless. It was true. Grom children were amorphous, until old enough to be instructed in the caste-shape of their ancestors.
Maybe it wasn’t too great a sin to alter your Shape, then—just once in a long while. After all, one must be fully aware of the nature of Evil in order to meaningfully reject it.
He had fallen lower in circling. The Displacer pulse had strengthened. For some reason it irritated him. He drove higher on strong wings, circled again. Air rushed past him—a smooth, whispering flow, pierced by his beak, streaming invisibly past his sharp eyes, moving along his body in tiny turbulences that moved his feathers against his skin.
It occurred to him—or rather struck him with considerable force—that he was satisfying a longing of his Pilot Caste that went far deeper than Piloting.
He drove powerfully with his wings, felt tonus across his back, shot forward and up. He thought of the controls of his ship. He imagined flowing into them, becoming part of them, as he had so often done—and for the first time in his life the thought failed to excite him.
No machine could compare with this!
What he would give to have wings of his own!
… Get from my sight, Shapeless One!
The Displacer must be planted, activated. All Grom depended on him.
He eyed the building, far below. He would pass over it. The Displacer would tell him which window to enter—which window was so near the reactor that he could do his job before the Men even knew he was about.
He started to drop lower, and the Hawk struck.
It had been above him. His first inkling of danger was the sharp pain of talons in his back, and the stunning blow of a beak across his head.
Dazed, he let his back go Shapeless. His body-substance flowed from the grasp of the talons. He dropped a dozen feet and resumed Sparrow-shape, hearing an astonished squawk from the attacker.
He banked, and looked up. The Hawk was eyeing him.
Talons spread again. The sharp beak gaped. The Hawk swooped.
Pid had to fight as a Bird, naturally. He was four hundred feet above the ground.
So he became an impossibly deadly Bird.
He grew to twice the size of the Hawk. He grew a foot-long beak with a double razor’s edge. He grew talons like six inch scimitars. His eyes gleamed a red challenge.
The Hawk broke flight, squalling in alarm. Frantically, tail down and widespread, it thundered its wings and came to a dead stop six feet from Pid.
Looking thoughtfully at Pid, it allowed itself to plummet. It fell a hundred feet, spread its wings, stretched its neck and flew off so hastily that its wings became blurs.
Pid saw no reason to pursue it.
Then, after a moment, he did.
He glided, keeping the Hawk in sight, thoughts racing, feeling the newness, the power, the wonder of Freedom of Shape.
He did not want to give it up.
The bird-shape was wondrous. He would experiment with it. Later, he might tire of it for a time and assume another—a crawling or running shape, or even a swimming one. The possibilities for excitement, for adventure, for fulfilment and simple sensual pleasure were endless!
Freedom of Shape was—obviously, now that you thought on it—the Grom birthright. And the caste-system was artificial—obviously. A device for political and priestly benefit—obviously.
Go away, Shapeless One … this does not concern you.
He rose to a thousand feet, two thousand, three. The Displacer’s pulse grew feebler and finally vanished.
At four thousand feet he released it and watched it spin downward, vanish into a cloud.
Then he set out after the Hawk, which was now only a dot on the horizon. He would find out how the Hawk had broken flight as it had—skidded on air—he wanted to do that too! There were so many things he wanted to learn about flying. In a week, he thought, he should be able to duplicate all the skill that millennia had evolved into Birds. Then his new life would really begin.
He became a torpedo-shape with huge wings, and sped after the Hawk.