by Alan Carl Nicoll
Fred Becker, eleven years old, a tow head with blue eyes, had been in the village only a couple of weeks before he discovered the old house. It was set apart from the village, beside a badly maintained dirt road. It seemed to him at first to be a huge pile of green rocks, but as he got closer, passing out of the grove of blossomy trees that had obscured his view, he saw that it was indeed a house, but unlike any house he had ever seen. It seemed like a stack of boxes with no overall plan, like something piled haphazardly in the corner of a dark and spiderwebby garage with dead leaves on the floor.
The road was overgrown with weeds and the surface was full of old, hard ruts, as though a car had driven through during or after a heavy rain, making deep trenches in the mud, which mud then baked in the sun into indestructible reddish-brown adobe.
Now it was early on a Saturday and Fred was going to the old house for a closer look. The morning was bright and warm, a beautiful spring morning with an abundance of singing birds—warblers, kingbirds, orioles, sparrows, blackbirds—and clouds of butterflies in brilliant white, yellow, and blue. The air smelled fresh, and fragrant with the blossoms of the grove of trees on either side of the road. The sun streamed through the trees from his right, and Fred caught a glimpse of the house between the trees. The old tennis shoes on his feet were comfortable and made little noise as he walked on the bare patches of hard mud between tall weeds with tiny yellow flowers with a scattering of bees. Fred was not worried about the bees, having the conviction that they would not bother him if he didn’t bother them. He knew bees.
Passing into the open, he looked alternately at the old house and at the road to guide his feet.
Up close, the house didn’t look particularly old; it was dark green all over, with a thin, ghostly patina of minute white crystals, beneath which the green looked nearly black. Windows were few, and mostly on upper floors; the windows at ground level were tightly shuttered, while windows an upper levels add the shutters open and several had broken glass, jagged triangles accusing each other across a blank gap of darkness. When the boy stepped onto the porch—a thick green rectangular slab without a railing—he heard, barely, a sound: sigh, groan, exhalation of some sort, he knew not what, nor where it came from. It was a faint sound, the faintest imaginable, indeed, most likely he imagined it.
The slab on which he stood echoed no hollowness—it could have been solid basalt or some other impenetrable stone, yet it did not look like stone, or metal, or even plastic. Certainly not wood. It had a fine texture, almost invisible, of tiny, regular ridges, as though a thousand spiders had woven a thousand webs for a thousand years, a million layers of dark green webs to make this foot-thick slab on which he stood, looking down. He bent down and touched the slab, noticed with a start that there were no leaves, twigs, dead insects, not even any dust, anywhere on the slab that he could see. The slab felt smoother than glass, slightly warm, and unnaturally slippery. It made him think of velvet.
He straightened up and looked up at the house. A jumble. Directly above him was a large cube, overhanging the porch. To its left was a corner of a thin oblong, set diagonally against the cube. Both of these shapes rested on a huge rectangular shape that one might assume contained a normal, if rather oversized, living room.
Before him was a kind of door set in the huge rectangle, but there were no windows on either side. The door was set into the rectangle in a depression or niche about three feet deep; the door itself looked like more of the same flawless material on which he was standing. There was neither nob nor knocker. He turned away from the door and saw something that astonished him: his own footprints on the dark slab, foot-shaped depressions, very shallow and getting shallower as he watched, until they faded out of sight altogether.
“Kewl,” Fred said. He took a step and looked down—his latest footprints were being erased. The same slow process.
He stepped close to the door, felt it, pushed—it slid away from him an inch deeper into the niche, then it glided noiselessly to the side, revealing a dark hallway the same size as the niche, about six feet high by four wide. Not quite normal door proportions, and cramped for a hallway.
“Huh,” he said. “Hello?” His voice seemed deadened, muffled. Then he yelled “Hello!” There was no answer, no sound. He stepped in, more amazed and curious than fearful. The wall into which the door had moved showed not the slightest crack or seam.
The hall was dark as he advanced. He was thinking of returning home for a flashlight when all light suddenly disappeared and he realized that the door had closed behind him.
“Hey!” he yelled. He felt for the door, touched it, and immediately it opened again. “Don’t do that!” he said, and he hurried out of the building and down the road. The road was too treacherous to allow running, but he hustled as fast as he could, through the grove of trees and into the village, and ran the rest of the way home.
Fred returned half an hour later with a rucksack clanking on his back and a flashlight in his pocket. He searched among the weeds near the house, eventually finding a suitable large rock. He put his rucksack on the ground, then took out a screwdriver. He dug around the rock with the screwdriver, pried it loose from the ground, dropped the screwdriver back in the rucksack, carried the rock with difficulty—it was the size of a cantaloupe—up onto the slab, put the rock on the slab inside the door niche, returned to his rucksack and put it on, then finally returned to the slab. The rock had moved, was moving.
Feeling a creepy tingle run up his spine and over his scalp, Fred watched the rock move slowly out of the niche towards him. He backed away from the rock and stepped off the slab. The rock kept coming. He backed down the road, feeling his way with his feet. The rock reached the edge of the slab and toppled off. It lay at the edge of the slab, pressing down the fresh-looking weeds. The rock wasn’t moving any more.
“That’s why it’s so clean,” he said aloud.
The rock wasn’t moving. Fred picked it up and carried it to the doorway, then, holding the rock against his body with his left arm, he pressed on the door with his right hand. The door opened as before. Fred put the rock down where the door had disappeared into the wall, took out his flashlight and turned it on, then stepped into the hall and turned to watch. The rock was moving again, toward the edge of the slab. The door closed.
“Crap,” he said. He turned and faced down the hall, shining the beam of the flashlight ahead of him. Even with the flashlight, it was hard to see. The dark green material scattered very little light. He looked closely at the wall next to him. It seemed to be the same texture as the slab outside, except that the whitish coating was missing.
He advanced down the hall, his footsteps making almost no sound. Indeed, the silence was oppressive—he could hear nothing but the slight sounds he was making.
“Hello?” he said. “Anybody here?”
He stepped on something soft which immediately pulled away from under his foot. “Hey!” he yelled as he jumped back and shined the flashlight on the floor. Something dark, large, moved very quickly away from him before he could get a good look at it. He had an impression of something like a small dog or large cat, but with too many legs… Was that right? Dark on dark it had been. Moving with absolute silence. It had disappeared with amazing quickness, seeming to have merely grown too dark to be seen, somewhere down the hall.
He knelt and looked intently at the floor. Sniffed. Touched. Was it a bit warmer there? Had something been sleeping there? A dog, maybe. He stepped on a little dog, on his foot… He didn’t believe it. It was something—not of this earth, he decided. Something alien… but curiously not frightening.
He gave a mental shrug, stood up, shined the light upward. He could see nothing above him. That seemed very odd. Reaching upward, then jumping with his hand extended, he couldn’t touch the ceiling. He should have been able to touch the ceiling.
He took a pebble from his pocket—he had several—and tossed it straight up. Waited. If it came down, he didn’t see or hear it. He took out a larger rock, the size of his thumb, and threw it hard upward. It made a very faint sound, like “pwt.” Not a rock-like sound at all. Well!
Fred Becker thought of himself as a scientist—not a future scientist, but a scientist now, at eleven. He could identify any bird in the area, except of course for the Empidonax flycatchers, he knew all the major constellations, and he was getting started on the trees, he knew algebra, could program in BASIC and LISP, and he was a whiz at chemistry. And he had never seen anything, heard of anything, like this place.
He had to collect data. He would come up with a theory when he had more data—he knew from reading Sherlock Holmes to avoid premature theorizing. So he advanced down the hall, thinking of himself as a scientist, cool and observant, and tried not to think of the hollow feeling in his stomach, the watery feeling of his legs, and the abnormally high sensitivity of the back of his neck.
He had advanced several more steps into the weird darkness when something passed overhead, blowing a puff of air down on his head. He shined the flashlight upward and when he saw the thing, he gasped. It flowed, pulsated like a jellyfish, a huge, bell-like shape that contracted and expanded, blowing air down to move itself upward and forward. It looked to Fred like a thin white curtain moved by a gust of wind, or a ghost without a face. With a start he saw that the alien—it could be nothing else, he thought—did have hands, or… tentacles, perhaps, two groups of short, dark tentacles dangling on either side of the cup shape. It looked beautiful to him as it moved slowly toward the door. Except for the tentacles part. Ick.
Fred watched in wonder as the ghost thing dropped lightly into the hall between him and the door. That seemed threatening, maybe it didn’t want him to leave. It settled onto the floor and began shrinking, and shrinking more, condensing and getting darker, silently shrinking down to an amorphous mound with short dark tentacles or fingers on either side. It glided toward him, tentacles reaching—how did it know where he was if it had no eyes? Fred moved against the wall to let the dark mound pass, but it stopped in front of him and turned toward him—was this what he had stepped on?—tentacles reaching towards him.
Fred jumped away, back toward the door, and the thing touched the wall where he had been standing. It oozed against the wall and soon it was climbing the flat surface like a slug, a snail without a shell. It climbed to about three feet above the floor and stopped.
Reassured, he watched it, a mere lump on the surface of the wall, and he guessed that it might disappear into the surface as the door had done, but it didn’t. It hung there like a limpet, not moving, and the tentacles were no longer visible. Was it asleep? Was it waiting? Did it know where he was, and perhaps was waiting for him to do something? No way to know, and he had nothing yet to base a guess on. What would happen…
He stepped close and rested a hand on the lump.
Nothing in his life could have prepared him for what happened next. He felt a confused mix of emotions—curiosity, fear, wonder—and something in his mind that was not normal, not under his control, changing with great rapidity—and he knew the taste of the wall. It had to be coming from the creature, and somehow traveling up his arm into his mind. An impossibility, he would have said.
The creature did not react physically, but the mental effect that Fred felt—if that’s what it was—became more fragmentary, agitated, even violent. Fred began getting images, visual images, yet he knew now that this creature had no sense of sight. Its world was an absolutely dark world of textures, tastes, and shapes, yet he was receiving visual images. One such image was of this creature riding on top of a very large creature or machine as big as a car but like a dark purple spider with two large white discs on the front, eyes through which the slug creature could see.
Was the alien getting pictures from his mind? He knew that the answer was yes when he suddenly had a visual of Mr. Moore standing in the front of his classroom where Fred had to go five days a week. The alien had somehow gotten the picture from his mind—his brain?—without Fred’s being aware, then fed it back to him when he asked himself the question.
Also without Fred being aware of it, the creature had begun covering, engulfing, Fred’s hand and was now creeping up his arm like a coat of living paint. Fred concentrated on the images he was seeing and the bizarre tastes and the vibration sense of the alien. The alien replayed his own alien memories, transmitting them to Fred, so Fred now knew what it was like to fly, what it was like to receive the faint tremors that Fred caused in the floor as he had walked down the hall, what it was like to smell himself with the taste-smell sense of the alien, and indeed, what it was like to be a sluglike, air-jellyfish-like, spider-riding alien with borrowed eyes.
And Fred was excited to know that this was an alien from elsewhere—another star, probably! And the alien let Fred see that this “old house” was really the living covering for a planetary landing ship that had been on earth for almost a hundred years, collecting information about human beings, and even collecting human beings themselves, by merging with them as he, Fred, was even now being merged with.
The living paint that was the polymorphic body of the alien had covered most of Fred’s body underneath his clothes; all that remained to be done was for Fred to close his eyes and mouth and thus let the alien cover him completely. Then Fred would be part of the Sssll race—the word was unpronounceable by humans and could not be written in any human language—and he would learn, as a matter of course, all that these immortals had to teach. This would occur on his first mating with a Sssll. His human body would be absorbed into a Sssll, and their memories would merge, and after a brief period the unified pair would divide into four young Sssll, each of the four siblings having identical bodies and minds, with the two previous bodies, previous lives and existences, become one-in-four.
And, later, when the ship left Earth forever, he as one-in-four would participate in the group link, a writhing mass of hundreds of Sssll, all in mental contact, loving contact, at the same time, and he as one-in-four would learn all the new memories, all the new experiences that the others had experienced while separated, and all the others would learn the memories and new experiences that Fred Becker had brought to the Sssll, at the relatively small cost that was the individual being who no longer existed as an individual.
A very small cost, as it seemed to the Sssll, in exchange for what they offered.
It was impossible to refuse. Fred Becker closed his eyes and mouth and became—Sssll.