Либрусек (книги fb2)
Homefaring by Robert Silverberg
McCulloch was beginning to molt. The sensation, inescapable and unarguable, horrified him—it felt exactly as though his body was going to split apart, which it was— and yet it was also completely familiar, expected, welcome. Wave after wave of keen and dizzying pain swept through him. Burrowing down deep in the sandy bed, he waved his great claws about, lashed his flat tail against the pure white sand, scratched frantically with quick worried gestures of his eight walking-legs.
He was frightened. He was calm. He had no idea what was about to happen to him. He had done this a hundred times before.
The molting prodrome had overwhelming power. It blotted from his mind all questions, and, after a moment, all fear. A white line of heat ran down his back—no, down the top of his carapace—from a point just back of his head to the first flaring segments of his tail-fan. He imagined that all the sun’s force, concentrated through some giant glass lens, was being inscribed in a single track along his shell. And his soft inner body was straining, squirming, expanding, filling the carapace to overflowing. But still that rigid shell contained him, refusing to yield to the pressure. To McCulloch it was much like being inside a wet-suit that was suddenly five times too small.
—What is the sun? What is glass? What is a lens? What is a wet-suit?
The questions swarmed suddenly upward in his mind like little busy many-legged creatures springing out of the sand. But he had no time for providing answers. The molting prodrome was developing with astounding swiftness, carrying him along. The strain was becoming intolerable. In another moment he would surely burst. He was writhing in short angular convulsions. Within his claws, his tissues now were shrinking, shriveling, drawing back within the ferocious shell-hulls, but the rest of him was continuing inexorably to grow larger.
He had to escape from this shell, or it would kill him. He had to expel himself somehow from this impossibly constricting container. Digging his front claws and most of his legs into the sand, he heaved, twisted, stretched, pushed. He thought of himself as being pregnant with himself, struggling fiercely to deliver himself of himself.
Ah. The carapace suddenly began to split.
The crack was only a small one, high up near his shoulders—shoulders?—but the imprisoned substance of him surged swiftly toward it, widening and lengthening it, and in another moment the hard horny covering was cracked from end to end. Ah. Ah. That felt so good, that release from constraint! Yet McCulloch still had to free himself. Delicately he drew himself backward, withdrawing leg after leg from its covering in a precise, almost fussy way, as though he were pulling his arms from the sleeves of some incredibly ancient and frail garment.
Until he had his huge main claws free, though, he knew he could not extricate himself from the sundered shell. And freeing the claws took extreme care. The front limbs still were shrinking, and the limy joints of the shell seemed to be dissolving and softening, but nevertheless he had to pull each claw through a passage much narrower than itself. It was easy to see how a hasty move might break a limb off altogether.
He centered his attention on the task. It was a little like telling his wrists to make themselves small, so he could slide them out of handcuffs.
—Wrists? Handcuffs? What are those?
McCulloch paid no attention to that baffling inner voice. Easy, easy, there—ah—yes, there, like that! One claw was free. Then the other, slowly, carefully. Done. Both of them retracted. The rest was simple: some shrugging and wiggling, exhausting but not really challenging, and he succeeded in extending the breach in the carapace until he could crawl backward out of it. Then he lay on the sand beside it, weary, drained, naked, soft, terribly vulnerable. He wanted only to return to the sleep out of which he had emerged into this nightmare of shellsplitting.
But some force within him would not let him slacken off. A moment to rest, only a moment. He looked to his left, toward the discarded shell. Vision was difficult—there were peculiar, incomprehensible refraction effects that broke every image into thousands of tiny fragments—but despite that, and despite the dimness of the light, he was able to see that the shell, golden-hued with broad arrow-shaped red markings, was something like a lobster’s, yet even more intricate, even more bizarre. McCulloch did not understand why he had been inhabiting a lobster’s shell.
Obviously because he was a lobster; but he was not a lobster. That was so, was it not? Yet he was under water. He lay on fine white sand, at a depth so great he could not make out any hint of sunlight overhead. The water was warm, gentle, rich with tiny tasty creatures and with a swirling welter of sensory data that swept across his receptors in bewildering abundance.
He sought to learn more. But there was no further time for resting and thinking now. He was unprotected. Any passing enemy could destroy him while he was like this. Up, up, seek a hiding-place: that was the requirement of the moment.
First, though, he paused to devour his old shell. That too seemed to be the requirement of the moment; so he fell upon it with determination, seizing it with his clumsy-looking but curiously versatile front claws, drawing it toward his busy, efficient mandibles. When that was accomplished—no doubt to recycle the lime it contained, which he needed for the growth of his new shell—he forced himself up and began a slow scuttle, somehow knowing that the direction he had taken was the right one.
Soon came the vibrations of something large and solid against his sensors—a wall, a stone mass rising before him—and then, as he continued, he made out with his foggy vision the sloping flank of a dark broad cliff rising vertically from the ocean floor. Festoons of thick, swaying red and yellow water plants clung to it, and a dense stippling of rubbery-looking finger-shaped sponges, and a crawling, gaping, slithering host of crabs and mollusks and worms, which vastly stirred McCulloch’s appetite. But this was not a time to pause to eat, lest he be eaten. Two enormous green anemones yawned nearby, ruffling their voluptuous membranes seductively, hopefully. A dark shape passed overhead, huge, tubular, tentacular, menacing. Ignoring the thronging populations of the rock, McCulloch picked his way over and around them until he came to the small cave, the McCulloch-sized cave, that was his goal.
Gingerly he backed through its narrow mouth, knowing there would be no room for turning around once he was inside. He filled the opening nicely, with a little space left over. Taking up a position just within the entrance, he blocked the cave-mouth with his claws. No enemy could enter now. Naked though he was, he would be safe during this vulnerable period.
For the first time since his agonizing awakening, McCulloch had a chance to halt: rest, regroup, consider.
It seemed a wise idea to be monitoring the waters just outside the cave even while he was resting, though. He extended his antennae a short distance into the swarming waters, and felt at once the impact, again, of a myriad sensory inputs, all the astounding complexity of the reef-world. Most of the creatures that moved slowly about on the face of the reef were simple ones, but McCulloch could feel, also, the sharp pulsations of intelligence coming from several points not far away: the anemones, so it seemed, and that enormous squid-like thing hovering overhead. Not intelligence of a kind that he understood, but that did not trouble him: for the moment, understanding could wait, while he dealt with the task of recovery from the exhausting struggles of his molting. Keeping the antennae moving steadily in slow sweeping circles of surveillance, he began systematically to shut down the rest of his nervous system, until he had attained the rest state that he knew— how?—was optimum for the rebuilding of his shell. Already his soft new carapace was beginning to grow rigid as it absorbed water, swelled, filtered out and utilized the lime. But he would have to sit quietly a long while before he was fully armored once more.
He rested. He waited. He did not think at all.
After a time his repose was broken by that inner voice, the one that had been trying to question him during the wildest moments of his molting. It spoke without sound, from a point somewhere within the core of his torpid consciousness.
—Are you awake?
—I am now, McCulloch answered irritably.
—I need definitions. You are a mystery to me. What is a McCulloch?
—That does not help.
—A male human being.
—That also has no meaning.
—Look, I’m tired. Can we discuss these things some other time?
—This is a good time. While we rest, while we replenish ourself.
—Ourselves, McCulloch corrected.
—Ourself is more accurate.
—But there are two of us.
—Are there? Where is the other?
McCulloch faltered. He had no perspective on his situation, none that made any sense.—One inside the other, I think. Two of us in the same body. But definitely two of us. McCulloch and not-McCulloch.
—I concede the point. There are two of us. You are within me. Who are you?
—So you have said. But what does that mean?
—I don’t know.
The voice left him alone again. He felt its presence nearby, as a kind of warm node somewhere along his spine, or whatever was the equivalent of his spine, since he did not think invertebrates had spines. And it was fairly clear to him that he was an invertebrate.
He had become, it seemed, a lobster, or, at any rate, something lobster-like. Implied in that was transition: he had become. He had once been something else. Blurred, tantalizing memories of the something else that he once had been danced in his consciousness. He remembered hair, fingers, fingernails, flesh. Clothing: a kind of removable exoskeleton. Eyelids, ears, lips: shadowy concepts all, names without substance, but there was a certain elusive reality to them, a volatile, tricky plausibility. Each time he tried to apply one of those concepts to himself—“fingers,” “hair,” “man,” “McCulloch”—it slid away, it would not stick. Yet all the same those terms had some sort of relevance to him.
The harder he pushed to isolate that relevance, though, the harder it was to maintain his focus on any part of that soup of half-glimpsed notions in which his mind seemed to be swimming. The thing to do, McCulloch decided, was to go slow, try not to force understanding, wait for comprehension to seep back into his mind. Obviously he had had a bad shock, some major trauma, a total disorientation. It might be days before he achieved any sort of useful integration.
A gentle voice from outside his cave said, “I hope that your growing has gone well.”
Not a voice. He remembered voice: vibration of the air against the eardrums. No air here, maybe no eardrums. This was a stream of minute chemical messengers spurting through the mouth of the little cave and rebounding off the thousands of sensory filaments on his legs, tentacles, antennae, carapace, and tail. But the effect was one of words having been spoken. And it was distinctly different from that other voice, the internal one, that had been questioning him so assiduously a little while ago.
“It goes extremely well,” McCulloch replied: or was it the other inhabitant of his body that had framed the answer? “I grow. I heal. I stiffen. Soon I will come forth.”
“We feared for you.” The presence outside the cave emanated concern, warmth, intelligence. Kinship. “In the first moments of your Growing, a strangeness came from you.”
“Strangeness is within me. I am invaded.”
“Invaded? By what?”
“A McCulloch. It is a man, which is a human being.”
“Ah. A great strangeness indeed. Do you need help?”
McCulloch answered, “No. I will accommodate to it.”
And he knew that it was the other within himself who was making these answers, though the boundary between their identities was so indistinct that he had a definite sense of being the one who shaped these words. But how could that be? He had no idea how one shaped words by sending squirts of body-fluid into the all-surrounding ocean-fluid. That was not his language. His language was—
He trembled in sudden understanding. His antennae thrashed wildly, his many legs jerked and quivered. Images churned in his suddenly boiling mind: bright lights, elaborate equipment, faces, walls, ceilings. People moving about him, speaking in low tones, occasionally addressing words to him, English words—
—Is English what all McCullochs speak?
—So English is human-language?
—Yes. But not the only one, said McCulloch. I speak English, and also German and a little—French. But other humans speak other languages.
—Very interesting. Why do you have so many languages?
—Because—because—we are different from one another, we live in different countries, we have different cultures—
—This is without meaning again. There are many creatures, but only one language, which all speak with greater or lesser skill, according to their destinies.
McCulloch pondered that. After a time he replied:
—Lobster is what you are. Long body, claws and antennae in front, many legs, flat tail in back. Different from, say, a clam. Clams have shell on top, shell on bottom, soft flesh in between, hinge connecting. You are not like that. You have lobster body. So you are lobster.
Now there was silence from the other.
Then—after a long pause—
—Very well. I accept the term. I am lobster. You are human. They are clams.
—What do you call yourselves in your own language?
—What’s your own name for yourself? Your individual self, the way my individual name is McCulloch and my species-name is human being?
—Where am I, anyway?
Silence, still, so prolonged and utter that McCulloch wondered if the other being had withdrawn itself from his consciousness entirely. Perhaps days went by in this unending silence, perhaps weeks: he had no way of measuring the passing of time. He realized that such units as days or weeks were without meaning now. One moment succeeded the next, but they did not aggregate into anything continuous.
At last came a reply.
—You are in the world, human McCulloch.
Silence came again, intense, clinging, a dark warm garment. McCulloch made no attempt to reach the other mind. He lay motionless, feeling his carapace thicken. From outside the cave came a flow of impressions of passing beings, now differentiating themselves very sharply: he felt the thick fleshy pulses of the two anemones, the sharp stabbing presence of the squid, the slow ponderous broadcast of something dark and winged, and, again and again, the bright, comforting, unmistakable output of the other lobster-creatures. It was a busy, complex world out there. The McCulloch part of him longed to leave the cave and explore it. The lobster part of him rested, content within its tight shelter.
He formed hypotheses. He had journeyed from his own place to this place, damaging his mind in the process, though now his mind seemed to be reconstructing itself steadily, if erratically. What sort of voyage? To another world? No: that seemed wrong. He did not believe that conditions so much like the ocean floor of Earth would be found on another—
All right: significant datum. He was human, he came from Earth. And he was still on Earth. In the ocean. He was—what?—a land-dweller, an air-breather, a biped, a flesh-creature, a human. And now he was within the body of a lobster. Was that it? The entire human race, he thought, has migrated into the bodies of lobsters, and here we are on the ocean floor, scuttling about, waving our claws and feelers, going through difficult and dangerous meltings—
Or maybe I’m the only one. A scientific experiment, with me as the subject: man into lobster. That brightly lit room that he remembered, the intricate gleaming equipment all about him—that was the laboratory, that was where they had prepared him for his transmigration, and then they had thrown the switch and hurled him into the body of—
No. No. Makes no sense. Lobsters, McCulloch reflected, are low-phylum creatures with simple nervous systems, limited intelligence. Plainly the mind he had entered was a complex one. It asked thoughtful questions. It carried on civilized conversations with its friends, who came calling like ceremonious Japanese gentlemen, offering expressions of solicitude and good will.
New hypothesis: that lobsters and other low-phylum animals are actually quite intelligent, with minds roomy enough to accept the sudden insertion of a human being’s entire neural structure, but we in our foolish anthropocen-tric way have up till now been too blind to perceive—
No. Too facile. You could postulate the secretly lofty intelligence of the world’s humble creatures, all right: you could postulate anything you wanted. But that didn’t make it so. Lobsters did not ask questions. Lobsters did not come calling like ceremonious Japanese gentlemen. At least, not the lobsters of the world he remembered.
Improved lobsters? Evolved lobsters? Super-lobsters of the future? —When am I?
Into his dizzied broodings came the quiet disembodied internal voice of not-McCulloch, his companion:
—Is your displacement then one of time rather than space?
—I don’t know. Probably both. I’m a land creature.
—That has no meaning.
—I don’t live in the ocean. I breathe air.
From the other consciousness came an expression of deep astonishment tinged with skepticism.
—Truly? That is very hard to believe. When you are in your own body you breathe no water at all?
—None. Not for long, or I would die.
—But there is so little land! And no creatures live upon it. Some make short visits there. But nothing can dwell there very long. So it has always been. And so will it be, until the time of the Molting of the World.
McCulloch considered that. Once again he found himself doubting that he was still on Earth. A world of water? Well, that could fit into his hypothesis of having journeyed forward in time, though it seemed to add a layer of implausibility upon implausibility. How many millions of years, he wondered, would it take for nearly all the Earth to have become covered with water? And he answered himself: In about as many as it would take to evolve a species of intelligent invertebrates.
Suddenly, terribly, it all fit together. Things crystallized and clarified in his mind, and he found access to another segment of his injured and redistributed memory; and he began to comprehend what had befallen him, or, rather, what he had willingly allowed himself to undergo. With that comprehension came a swift stinging sense of total displacement and utter loss, as though he were drowning and desperately tugging at strands of seaweed in a futile attempt to pull himself back to the surface. All that was real to him, all that he was part of, everything that made sense—gone, gone, perhaps irretrievably gone, buried under the weight of uncountable millennia, vanished, drowned, forgotten, reduced to mere geology—it was unthinkable, it was unacceptable, it was impossible, and as the truth of it bore in on him he found himself choking on the frightful vastness of time past.
But that bleak sensation lasted only a moment and was gone. In its place came excitement, delight, confusion, and a feverish throbbing curiosity about this place he had entered. He was here. That miraculous thing that they had strived so fiercely to achieve had been achieved—rather too well, perhaps, but it had been achieved, and he was launched on the greatest adventure he would ever have, that anyone would ever have. This was not the moment for submitting to grief and confusion. Out of that world lost and all but forgotten to him came a scrap of verse that gleamed and blazed in his soul: Only through time time is conquered.
McCullouch reached toward the mind that was so close to his within this strange body.
—When will it be safe for us to leave this cave? he asked.
—It is safe any time, now. Do you wish to go outside?
The creature stirred, flexed its front claws, slapped its flat tail against the floor of the cave, and in a slow ungraceful way began to clamber through the narrow opening, pausing more than once to search the waters outside for lurking enemies. McCulloch felt a quick hot burst of terror, as though he were about to enter some important meeting and had discovered too late that he was naked. Was the shell truly ready? Was he safely armored against the unknown foes outside, or would they fall upon him and tear him apart like furious shrikes? But his host did not seem to share those fears. It went plodding on and out, and in a moment more it emerged on an algae-encrusted tongue of the reef wall, a short distance below the two anemones. From each of those twin masses of rippling flesh came the same sullen pouting hungry murmurs: “Ah, come closer, why don’t you come closer?”
“Another time,” said the lobster, sounding almost playful, and turned away from them.
McCulloch looked outward over the landscape. Earlier, in the turmoil of his bewildering arrival and the pain and chaos of the molting prodrome, he had not had time to assemble any clear and coherent view of it. But now— despite the handicap of seeing everything with the alien perspective of the lobster’s many-faceted eyes—he was able to put together an image of the terrain.
His view was a shortened one, because the sky was like a dark lid, through which came only enough light to create a cone-shaped arena spreading just a little way. Behind him was the face of the huge cliff, occupied by plant and animal life over virtually every square inch, and stretching upward until its higher reaches were lost in the dimness far overhead. Just a short way down from the ledge where he rested was the ocean floor, a broad expanse of gentle, undulating white sand streaked here and there with long widening gores of some darker material. Here and there bottom-growing plants arose in elegant billowy clumps, and McCulloch spotted occasional creatures moving among them over the sand that were much like lobsters and crabs, though with some differences. He saw also some starfish and snails and sea urchins that did not look at all unfamiliar. At higher levels he could make out a few swimming creatures: a couple of the squid-like animals— they were hulking-looking ropy-armed things, and he disliked them instinctively—and what seemed to be large jellyfish. But something was missing, and after a moment McCulloch realized what it was: fishes. There was a rich population of invertebrate life wherever he looked, but no fishes as far as he could see.
Not that he could see very far. The darkness clamped down like a curtain perhaps two or three hundred yards away. But even so, it was odd that not one fish had entered his field of vision in all this time. He wished he knew more about marine biology. Were there zones on Earth where no sea animals more complex than lobsters and crabs existed? Perhaps, but he doubted it.
Two disturbing new hypotheses blossomed in his mind. One was that he had landed in some remote future era where nothing out of his own time survived except low-phylum sea-creatures. The other was that he had not traveled to the future at all, but had arrived by mischance in some primordial geological epoch in which vertebrate life had not yet evolved. That seemed unlikely to him, though. This place did not have a prehistoric feel to him. He saw no trilobites; surely there ought to be trilobites everywhere about, and not these oversized lobsters, which he did not remember at all from his childhood visits to the natural history museum’s prehistory displays.
But if this was truly the future—and the future belonged to the lobsters and squids—
That was hard to accept. Only invertebrates? What could invertebrates accomplish, what kind of civilization could lobsters build, with their hard unsupple bodies and great clumsy claws? Concepts, half-remembered or less than that, rushed through his mind: the Taj Mahal, the Gutenberg Bible, the Sistine Chapel, the Madonna of the Rocks, the great window at Chartres. Could lobsters create those? Could squids? What a poor place this world must be, McCulloch thought sadly, how gray, how narrow, how tightly bounded by the ocean above the endless sandy floor.
—Tell me, he said to his host. Are there any fishes in this sea?
The response was what he was coming to recognize as a sigh.
—Fishes? That is another word without meaning.
—A form of marine life, with an internal bony structure—
—With its shell inside?
—That’s one way of putting it, said McCulloch.
—There are no such creatures. Such creatures have never existed. There is no room for the shell within the soft parts of the body. I can barely comprehend such an arrangement: surely there is no need for it!
—It can be useful, I assure you. In the former world it was quite common.
—The world of human beings?
—Yes. My world, McCulloch said.
—Anything might have been possible in a former world, human McCulloch. Perhaps indeed before the world’s last Molting shells were worn inside. And perhaps after the next one they will be worn there again. But in the world I know, human McCulloch, it is not the practice.
—Ah, McCulloch said. Then I am even farther from home than I thought.
—Yes, said the host. I think you are very far from home indeed. Does that cause you sorrow?
—Among other things.
—If it causes you sorrow, I grieve for your grief, because we are companions now.
—You are very kind, said McCulloch to his host.
The lobster asked McCulloch if he was ready to begin their journey; and when McCulloch indicated that he was, his host serenely kicked itself free of the ledge with a single powerful stoke of its tail. For an instant it hung suspended; then it glided toward the sandy bottom as gracefully as though it were floating through air. When it landed, it was with all its many legs poised delicately en pointe, and it stood that way, motionless, a long moment.
Then it suddenly set out with great haste over the ocean floor, running so lightfootedly that it scarcely raised a puff of sand wherever it touched down. More than once it ran right across some bottom-grubbing creature, some slug or scallop, without appearing to disturb it at all. McCulloch thought the lobster was capering in sheer exuberance, after its long internment in the cave; but some growing sense of awareness of his companion’s mind told him after a time that this was no casual frolic, that the lobster was not in fact dancing but fleeing.
—Is there an enemy? McCulloch asked.
The lobster’s antennae stabbed upward at a sharp angle, and McCulloch, seeing through the other’s eyes, perceived now a large looming cylindrical shape swimming in slow circles near the upper border of their range of vision. It might have been a shark, or even a whale. McCulloch felt deceived and betrayed; for the lobster had told him this was an invertebrate world, and surely that creature above him—
—No, said the lobster, without slowing its manic sprint. That animal has no shell of the sort you described within its body. It is only a bag of flesh. But it is very dangerous.
—How will we escape it?
—We will not escape it.
The lobster sounded calm, but whether it was the calm of fatalism or mere expressionlessness, McCulloch could not say: the lobster had been calm even in the first moments of McCulloch’s arrival in its mind, which must surely have been alarming and even terrifying to it.
It had begun to move now in ever-widening circles. This seemed not so much an evasive tactic as a ritualistic one, now, a dance indeed. A farewell to life? The swimming creature had descended until it was only a few lobster-lengths above them, and McCulloch had a clear view of it. No, not a fish or a shark or any type of vertebrate at all, he realized, but an animal of a kind wholly unfamiliar to him, a kind of enormous worm-like thing whose meaty yellow body was reinforced externally by some sort of chitinous struts running its entire length. Fleshy vane-like fins rippled along its sides, but their purpose seemed to be more one of guidance than propulsion, for it appeared to move by guzzling in great quantities of water and expelling them through an anal siphon. Its mouth was vast, with a row of dim little green eyes ringing the scarlet lips. When the creature yawned, it revealed itself to be toothless, but capable of swallowing the lobster easily at a gulp.
Looking upward into the yawning mouth, McCulloch had a sudden image of himself elsewhere, spreadeagled under an inverted pyramid of shining machinery as the countdown reached its final moments, as the technicians made ready to—
—to hurl him—
—to hurl him forward in time—
Yes. An experiment. Definitely an experiment. He could remember it now. Bleier, Caldwell, Rodrigues, Mortenson. And all the others. Gathered around him, faces tight, forced smiles. The lights. The colors. The bizarre coils of equipment. And the volunteer. The volunteer. First human subject to be sent forward in time. The various rabbits and mice of the previous experiments, though they had apparently survived the round trip unharmed, had not been capable of delivering much of a report on their adventures. “I’m smarter than any rabbit,” McCulloch had said. “Send me. I’ll tell you what it’s like up there.” The volunteer. All that was coming back to him in great swatches now, as he crouched here within the mind of something much like a lobster, waiting for a vast yawning predator to pounce. The project, the controversies, his coworkers, the debate over risking a human mind under the machine, the drawing of lots. McCulloch had not been the only volunteer. He was just the lucky one. “Here you go, Jim-boy. A hundred years down the time-line.”
Or fifty, or eighty, or a hundred and twenty. They didn’t have really precise trajectory control. They thought he might go as much as a hundred twenty years. But beyond much doubt they had overshot by a few hundred million. Was that within the permissible parameters of error?
He wondered what would happen to him if his host here were to perish. Would he die also? Would he find himself instantly transferred to some other being of this epoch? Or would he simply be hurled back instead to his own time? He was not ready to go back. He had just begun to observe, to understand, to explore—
McCulloch’s host had halted its running, now, and stood quite still in what was obviously a defensive mode, body cocked and upreared, claws extended, with the huge crusher claw erect and the long narrow cutting claw opening and closing in a steady rhythm. It was a threatening pose, but the swimming thing did not appear to be greatly troubled by it. Did the lobster mean to let itself be swallowed, and then to carve an exit for itself with those awesome weapons, before the alimentary juices could go to work on its armor?
“You choose your prey foolishly,” said McCulloch’s host to its enemy.
The swimming creature made a reply that was unintelligible to McCulloch: vague blurry words, the clotted out-spew of a feeble intelligence. It continued its unhurried downward spiral.
“You are warned,” said the lobster. “You are not selecting your victim wisely.”
Again came a muddled response, sluggish and incoherent, the speech of an entity for whom verbal communication was a heavy, all but impossible effort.
Its enormous mouth gaped. Its fins rippled fiercely as it siphoned itself downward the last few yards to engulf the lobster. McCulloch prepared himself for transition to some new and even more unimaginable state when his host met its death. But suddenly the ocean floor was swarming with lobsters. They must have been arriving from all sides— summoned by his host’s frantic dance, McCulloch wondered?—while McCulloch, intent on the descent of the swimmer, had not noticed. Ten, twenty, possibly fifty of them arrayed themselves now beside McCulloch’s host, and as the swimmer, tail on high, mouth wide, lowered itself like some gigantic suction-hose toward them, the lobsters coolly and implacably seized its lips in their claws. Caught and helpless, it began at once to thrash, and from the pores through which it spoke came bleating incoherent cries of dismay and torment.
There was no mercy for it. It had been warned. It dangled tail upward while the pack of lobsters methodically devoured it from below, pausing occasionally to strip away and discard the rigid rods of chitin that formed its superstructure. Swiftly they reduced it to a faintly visible cloud of shreds oscillating in the water, and then small scavenging creatures came to fall upon those, and there was nothing at all left but the scattered rods of chitin on the sand.
The entire episode had taken only a few moments: the coming of the predator, the dance of McCulloch’s host, the arrival of the other lobsters, the destruction of the enemy. Now the lobsters were gathered in a sort of convocation about McCulloch’s host, wordlessly manifesting a commonality of spirit, a warmth of fellowship after feasting, that seemed quite comprehensible to McCulloch. For a short while they had been uninhibited savage carnivores consuming convenient meat; now once again they were courteous, refined, cultured—Japanese gentlemen, Oxford dons, gentle Benedictine monks.
McCulloch studied them closely. They were definitely more like lobsters than like any other creature he had ever seen, very much like lobsters, and yet there were differences. They were larger. How much larger, he could not tell, for he had no real way of judging distance and size in this undersea world; but he supposed they must be at least three feet long, and he doubted that lobsters of his time, even the biggest, were anything like that in length. Their bodies were wider than those of lobsters, and their heads were larger. The two largest claws looked like those of the lobsters he remembered, but the ones just behind them seemed more elaborate, as if adapted for more delicate procedures than mere rending of food and stuffing it into the mouth. There was an odd little hump, almost a dome, midway down the lobster’s back—the center of the expanded nervous system, perhaps.
The lobsters clustered solemnly about McCulloch’s host and each lightly tapped its claws against those of the adjoining lobster in a sort of handshake, a process that seemed to take quite some time. McCulloch became aware also that a conversation was under way.
What they were talking about, he realized, was him.
“It is not painful to have a McCulloch within one,” his host was explaining. “It came upon me at molting time, and that gave me a moment of difficulty, molting being what it is. But it was only a moment. After that my only concern was for the McCulloch’s comfort.”
“And it is comfortable now?”
“It is becoming more comfortable.”
“When will you show it to us?”
“Ah, that cannot be done. It has no real existence, and therefore I cannot bring it forth.”
“What is it, then? A wanderer? A revenant?”
“A revenant, yes. So I think. And a wanderer. It says it is a human being.”
“And what is that? Is a human being a kind of McCulloch?”
“I think a McCulloch is a kind of human being.”
“Which is a revenant.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“This is an Omen!”
“Where is its world?”
“Its world is lost to it.”
“Yes, definitely an Omen.”
“It lived on dry land.”
“It breathed air.”
“It wore its shell within its body.”
“What a strange revenant!”
“What a strange world its world must have been.”
“It is the former world, would you not say?”
“So I surely believe. And therefore this is an Omen.”
“Ah, we shall Molt. We shall Molt.”
McCulloch was altogether lost. He was not even sure when his own host was the speaker.
“Is it the Time?”
“We have an Omen, do we not?”
“The McCulloch surely was sent as a herald.”
“There is no precedent.”
“Each Molting, though, is without precedent. We cannot conceive what came before. We cannot imagine what comes after. We learn by learning. The McCulloch is the herald. The McCulloch is the Omen.”
“I think not. I think it is unreal and unimportant.”
“Unreal, yes. But not unimportant.”
“The Time is not at hand. The Molting of the World is not yet due. The human is a wanderer and a revenant, but not a herald and certainly not an Omen.”
“It comes from the former world.”
“It says it does. Can we believe that?”
“It breathed air. In the former world, perhaps there were creatures that breathed air.”
“It says it breathed air. I think it is neither herald nor Omen, neither wanderer nor revenant. I think it is a myth and a fugue. I think it betokens nothing. It is an accident. It is an interruption.”
“That is an uncivil attitude. We have much to learn from the McCulloch. And if it is an Omen, we have immediate responsibilities that must be fulfilled.”
“But how can we be certain of what it is?”
May I speak? said McCulloch to his host.
—How can I make myself heard?
—Speak through me.
“The McCulloch wishes to be heard!”
“Hear it! Hear it!”
“Let it speak!”
McCulloch said, and the host spoke the words aloud for him, “I am a stranger here, and your guest, and so I ask you to forgive me if I give offense, for I have little understanding of your ways. Nor do I know if I am a herald or an Omen. But I tell you in all truth that I am a wanderer, and that I am sent from the former world, where there are many creatures of my kind, who breathe air and live upon the land and carry their—shells—inside their body.”
“An Omen, certainly,” said several of the lobsters at once. “A herald, beyond doubt.”
McCulloch continued, “It was our hope to discover something of the worlds that are to come after ours. And therefore I was sent forward—”
“A herald—certainly a herald!”
“—to come to you, to go among you, to learn to know you, and then to return to my own people, the air-people, the human people, and bring the word of what is to come. But I think that I am not the herald you expect. I carry no message for you. We could not have known that you were here. Out of the former world I bring you the blessing of those that have gone before, however, and when I go back to that world I will bear tidings of your life, of your thought, of your ways—”
“Then our kind is unknown to your world?”
McCulloch hesitated. “Creatures somewhat like you do exist in the seas of the former world. But they are smaller and simpler than you, and I think their civilization, if they have one, is not a great one.”
“You have no discourse with them, then?” one of the lobsters asked.
“Very little,” he said. A miserable evasion, cowardly, vile. McCulloch shivered. He imagined himself crying out, “We eat them!” and the water turning black with their shocked outbursts—and saw them instantly falling upon him, swiftly and efficiently slicing him to scraps with their claws. Through his mind ran monstrous images of lobsters in tanks, lobsters boiling alive, lobsters smothered in rich sauces, lobsters shelled, lobsters minced, lobsters rendered into bisques—he could not halt the torrent of dreadful visions. Such was our discourse with your ancestors. Such was our mode of interspecies communication. He felt himself drowning in guilt and shame and fear.
The spasm passed. The lobsters had not stirred. They continued to regard him with patience: impassive, unmov-ing, remote. McCulloch wondered if all that had passed through his mind just then had been transmitted to his host. Very likely; the host earlier had seemed to have access to all of his thoughts, though McCulloch did not have the same entree to the host’s. And if the host knew, did all the others? What then, what then?
Perhaps they did not even care. Lobsters, he recalled, were said to be callous cannibals, who might attack one another in the very tanks where they were awaiting their turns in the chef’s pot. It was hard to view these detached and aloof beings, these dons, these monks, as having that sort of ferocity: but yet he had seen them go to work on that swimming mouth-creature without any show of embarrassment, and perhaps some atavistic echo of their ancestors’ appetites lingered in them, so that they would think it only natural that McCullochs and other humans had fed on such things as lobsters. Why should they be shocked? Perhaps they thought that humans fed on humans, too. It was all in the former world, was it not? And in any event it was foolish to fear that they would exact some revenge on him for Lobster Thermidor, no matter how appalled they might be. He wasn’t here. He was nothing more than a figment, a revenant, a wanderer, a set of intrusive neural networks within their companion’s brain. The worst they could do to him, he supposed, was to exorcise him, and send him back to the former world.
Even so, he could not entirely shake the guilt and the shame. Or the fear.
Bleier said, “Of course, you aren’t the only one who’s going to be in jeopardy when we throw the switch. There’s your host to consider. One entire human ego slamming into his mind out of nowhere like a brick falling off a building—what’s it going to do to him?”
“Flip him out, is my guess,” said Jake Ybarra. “You’ll land on him and he’ll announce he’s Napoleon, or Joan of Arc, and they’ll hustle him off to the nearest asylum. Are you prepared for the possibility, Jim, that you’re going to spend your entire time in the future sitting in a loony-bin undergoing therapy?”
“Or exorcism,” Mortenson suggested. “If there’s been some kind of reversion to barbarism. Christ, you might even get your host burned at the stake!”
“I don’t think so,” McCulloch said quietly. “I’m a lot more optimistic than you guys. I don’t expect to land in a world of witch-doctors and mumbo-jumbo, and I don’t expect to find myself in a place that locks people up in Bedlam because they suddenly start acting a little strange. The chances are that I am going to unsettle my host when I enter him, but that he’ll simply get two sanity-stabilizer pills from his medicine chest and take them with a glass of water and feel better in five minutes. And then I’ll explain what’s happening to him.”
“More than likely no explanations will be necessary,” said Maggie Caldwell. “By the time you arrive, time travel will have been a going proposition for three or four generations, after all. Having a traveler from the past turn up in your head will be old stuff to them. Your host will probably know exactly what’s going on from the moment you hit him.”
“Let’s hope so,” Bleier said. He looked across the laboratory to Rodrigues. “What’s the count, Bob?”
“T minus eighteen minutes.”
“I’m not worried about a thing,” McCulloch said.
Caldwell took his hand in hers. “Neither am I, Jim.”
“Then why is your hand so cold?” he asked.
“So I’m a little worried,” she said.
McCulloch grinned. “So am I. A little. Only a little.”
“You’re human, Jim. No one’s ever done this before.”
“It’ll be a can of corn!” Ybarra said.
Bleier looked at him blankly. “What the hell does that mean, Jake?”
Ybarra said, “Archaic twentieth-century slang. It means it’s going to be a lot easier than we think.”
“I told you,” said McCulloch, “I’m not worried.”
“I’m still worried about the impact on the host,” said Bleier.
“All those Napoleons and Joans of Arc that have been cluttering the asylums for the last few hundred years,”
Maggie Caldwell said, “Could it be that they’re really hosts for time-travelers going backward in time?”
“You can’t go backward,” said Mortenson. “You know that. The round trip has to begin with a forward leap.”
“Under present theory,” Caldwell said. “But present theory’s only five years old. It may turn out to be incomplete. We may have had all sorts of travelers out of the future jumping through history, and never even knew it. All the nuts, lunatics, inexplicable geniuses, idiot-savants—”
“Save it, Maggie,” Bleier said. “Let’s stick to what we understand right now.”
“Oh? Do we understand anything?” McCulloch asked.
Bleier gave him a sour look. “I thought you said you weren’t worried.”
“I’m not. Not much. But I’d be a fool if I thought we really had a firm handle on what we’re doing. We’re shooting in the dark, and let’s never kid ourselves about it.”
“T minus fifteen,” Rodrigues called.
“Try to make the landing easy on your host, Jim,” Bleier said.
“I’ve got no reason not to want to,” said McCulloch.
He realized that he had been wandering. Bleier, Maggie, Mortenson, Ybarra—for a moment they had been more real to him than the congregation of lobsters: he had heard their voices, he had seen their faces, Bleier plump and perspiring and serious, Ybarra dark and lean, Maggie with her crown of short upswept red hair blazing in the laboratory light—and yet they were all dead, a hundred million years dead, two hundred million, back there with the triceratops and the trilobite in the drowned former world, and here he was among the lobster-people. How futile all those discussions of what the world of the early twenty-second century was going to be like! Those speculations on population density, religious belief, attitudes toward science, level of technological achievement, all those late-night sessions in the final months of the project, designed to prepare him for any eventuality he might encounter while he was visiting the future—what a waste, what a needless exercise. As was all that fretting about upsetting the mental stability of the person who would receive his transtemporalized consciousness. Such qualms, such moral delicacy—all unnecessary, McCulloch knew now.
But of course they had not anticipated sending him so eerily far across the dark abysm of time, into a world in which humankind and all its works were not even legendary memories, and the host who would receive him was a calm and thoughtful crustacean capable of taking him in with only the most mild and brief disruption of its serenity.
The lobsters, he noticed now, had reconfigured themselves while his mind had been drifting. They had broken up their circle and were arrayed in a long line stretching over the ocean floor, with his host at the end of the procession. The queue was a close one, each lobster so close to the one before it that it could touch it with the tips of its antennae, which from time to time they seemed to be doing; and they all were moving in a weird kind of quasi-military lockstep, every lobster swinging the same set of walking-legs forward at the same time.
Where are we going? McCulloch asked his host.
—The pilgrimage has begun.
—What pilgrimage is that?
—To the dry place, said the host. To the place of no water. To the land.
—It is the custom. We have decided that the time of the Molting of the World is soon to come; and therefore we must make the pilgrimage. It is the end of all things. It is the coming of a newer world. You are the herald; so we have agreed.
—Will you explain? I have a thousand questions. I need to know more about all this, McCulloch said.
—Soon. Soon. This is not a time for explanations.
McCulloch felt a firm and unequivocal closing of contact, an emphatic withdrawal. He sensed a hard ringing silence that was almost an absence of the host, and knew it would be inappropriate to transgress against it. That was painful, for he brimmed now with an overwhelming rush of curiosity. The Molting of the World? The end of all things? A pilgrimage to the land? What land? Where? But he did not ask. He could not ask. The host seemed to have vanished from him, disappearing utterly into this pilgrimage, this migration, moving in its lockstep way with total concentration and a kind of mystic intensity. McCulloch did not intrude. He felt as though he had been left alone in the body they shared.
As they marched, he concentrated on observing, since he could not interrogate. And there was much to see; for the longer he dwelled within his host, the more accustomed he grew to the lobster’s sensory mechanisms. The compound eyes, for instance. Enough of his former life had returned to him now so that he remembered human eyes clearly, those two large gleaming ovals, so keen, so subtle of focus, set beneath protecting ridges of bone. His host’s eyes were nothing like that: they were two clusters of tiny lenses rising on jointed, movable stalks, and what they showed was an intricately dissected view, a mosaic of isolated points of light. But he was learning somehow to translate those complex and baffling images into a single clear one, just as, no doubt, a creature accustomed to compound-lens vision would sooner or later learn to see through human eyes, if need be. And McCulloch found now that he could not only make more sense out of the views he received through his host’s eyes, but that he was seeing farther, into quite distant dim recesses of this sunless undersea realm.
Not that the stalked eyes seemed to be a very important part of the lobster’s perceptive apparatus. They provided nothing more than a certain crude awareness of the immediate terrain. But apparently the real work of perceiving was done mainly by the thousands of fine bristles, so minute that they were all but invisible, that sprouted on every surface of his host’s body. These seemed to send a constant stream of messages to the lobster’s brain: information on the texture and topography of the ocean floor, on tiny shifts in the flow and temperature of the water, of the proximity of obstacles, and much else. Some of the small hairlike filaments were sensitive to touch and others, it appeared, to chemicals; for whenever the lobster approached some other life-form, it received data on its scent—or the underwater equivalent—long before the creature itself was within visual range. The quantity and richness of these inputs astonished McCulloch. At every moment came a torrent of data corresponding to the landslide senses he remembered, smell, taste, touch; and some central processing unit within the lobster’s brain handled everything in the most effortless fashion.
But there was no sound. The ocean world appeared to be wholly silent. McCulloch knew that that was untrue, that sound waves propagated through water as persistently as through air; indeed, faster. Yet the lobster seemed neither to possess nor to need any sort of auditory equipment. The sensory bristles brought in all the data it required. The “speech” of these creatures, McCulloch had long ago realized, was effected not by voice but by means of spurts of chemicals released into the water, hormones, perhaps, or amino acids, something of a distinct and readily recognizable identity, emitted in some high-redundancy pattern that permitted easy recognition and decoding despite the difficulties caused by currents and eddies. It was, McCulloch thought, like trying to communicate by printing individual letters on scraps of paper and hurling them into the wind. But it did somehow seem to work, however clumsy a concept it might be, because of the extreme sensitivity of the lobster’s myriad chemoreceptors.
The antennae played some significant role also. There were two sets of them, a pair of three-branched ones just behind the eyes and a much longer single-branched pair behind those. The long ones restlessly twitched and probed inquisitively and most likely, he suspected, served as simple balancing and coordination devices much like the whiskers of a cat. The purpose of the smaller antennae eluded him, but it was his guess that they were involved in the process of communication between one lobster and another, either by some semaphore system or in a deeper communion beyond his still awkward comprehension.
McCulloch regretted not knowing more about the lobsters of his own era. But he had only a broad general knowledge of natural history, extensive, fairly deep, yet not good enough to tell him whether these elaborate sensory functions were characteristic of all lobsters or had evolved during the millions of years it had taken to create the water-world. Probably some of each, he decided. Very likely even the lobsters of the former world had had much of this scanning equipment, enough to allow them to locate their prey, to find their way around in the dark sub-oceanic depths, to undertake their long and unerring migrations. But he found it hard to believe that they could have had much “speech” capacity, that they gathered in solemn sessions to discuss abstruse questions of theology and mythology, to argue gently about omens and heralds and the end of all things. That was something that the patient and ceaseless unfoldings of time must have wrought.
The lobsters marched without show of fatigue: not scampering in that dancelike way that his host had adopted while summoning its comrades to save it from the swimming creature, but moving nevertheless in an elegant and graceful fashion, barely touching the ground with the tips of their legs, going onward, step by step by step, steadily and fairly swiftly.
McCulloch noticed that new lobsters frequently joined the procession, cutting in from left or right just ahead of his host, who always remained at the rear of the line; that line now was so long, hundreds of lobsters long, that it was impossible to see its beginning. Now and again one would reach out with its bigger claw to seize some passing animal, a starfish or urchin or small crab, and without missing a step would shred and devour it, tossing the unwanted husk to the cloud of planktonic scavengers that always hovered nearby. This foraging on the march was done with utter lack of self-consciousness; it was almost by reflex that these creatures snatched and gobbled as they journeyed.
And yet all the same they did not seem like mere marauding mouths. From this long line of crustaceans there emanated, McCulloch realized, a mysterious sense of community, a wholeness of society, that he did not understand but quite sharply sensed. This was plainly not a mere migration but a true pilgrimage. He thought ruefully of his earlier condescending view of these people, incapable of achieving the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel, and felt abashed: for he was beginning to see that they had other accomplishments of a less tangible sort that were only barely apparent to his displaced and struggling mind.
“When you come back,” Maggie said, “you’ll be someone else. There’s no escaping that. It’s the one thing I’m frightened of. Not that you’ll die making the hop, or that you’ll get into some sort of terrible trouble in the future, or that we won’t be able to bring you back at all, or anything like that. But that you’ll have become someone else.”
“I feel pretty secure in my identity,” McCulloch told her.
“I know you do. God knows, you’re the most stable person in the group, and that’s why you’re going. But even so. Nobody’s ever done anything like this before. It can’t help but change you. When you return, you’re going to be unique among the human race.”
“That sounds very awesome. But I’m not sure it’ll matter that much, Mag. I’m just taking a little trip. If I were going to Paris, or Istanbul, or even Antarctica, would I come back totally transformed? I’d have had some new experiences, but—”
“It isn’t the same,” she said. “It isn’t even remotely the same.” She came across the room to him and put her hands on his shoulders, and stared deep into his eyes, which sent a little chill through him, as it always did; for when she looked at him that way there was a sudden flow of energy between them, a powerful warm rapport rushing from her to him and from him to her as though through a huge conduit, that delighted and frightened him both at once. He could lose himself in her. He had never let himself feel that way about anyone before. And this was not the moment to begin. There was no room in him for such feelings, not now, not when he was within a couple of hours of leaping off into the most unknown of unknowns. When he returned—if he returned—he might risk allowing something at last to develop with Maggie. But not on the eve of departure, when everything in his universe was tentative and conditional. “Can I tell you a little story, Jim?” she asked.
“When my father was on the faculty at Cal, he was invited to a reception to meet a couple of the early astronauts, two of the Apollo men—I don’t remember which ones, but they were from the second or third voyage to the Moon. When he showed up at the faculty club, there were two or three hundred people there, milling around having cocktails, and most of them were people he didn’t know. He walked in and looked around and within ten seconds he had found the astronauts. He didn’t have to be told. He just knew. And this is my father, remember, who doesn’t believe in ESP or anything like that. But he said they were impossible to miss, even in that crowd. You could see it on their faces, you could feel the radiance coming from them, there was an aura, there was something about their eyes. Something that said, I have walked on the Moon, I have been to that place which is not of our world and I have come back, and now I am someone else. I am who I was before, but I am someone else also.”
“But they went to the Moon, Mag!”
“And you’re going to the future, Jim. That’s even weirder. You’re going to a place that doesn’t exist. And you may meet yourself there—ninety-nine years old, and waiting to shake hands with you—or you might meet me, or your grandson, or find out that everyone on Earth is dead, or that everyone has turned into a disembodied spirit, or that they’re all immortal superbeings, or—or—Christ, I don’t know. You’ll see a world that nobody alive today is supposed to see. And when you come back, you’ll have that aura. You’ll be transformed.”
“Is that so frightening?”
“To me it is,” she said.
“Why is that?”
“Dummy,” she said. “Dope. How explicit do I have to be, anyway? I thought I was being obvious enough.”
He could not meet her eyes. “This isn’t the best moment to talk about—”
“I know. I’m sorry, Jim. But you’re important to me, and you’re going somewhere and you’re going to become someone else, and I’m scared. Selfish and scared.”
“Are you telling me not to go?”
“Don’t be absurd. You’d go no matter what I told you, and I’d despise you if you didn’t. There’s no turning back now.”
“I shouldn’t have dumped any of this on you today. You don’t need it right this moment.”
“It’s okay,” he said softly. He turned until he was looking straight at her, and for a long moment he simply stared into her eyes and did not speak, and then at last he said, “Listen, I’m going to take a big fantastic improbable insane voyage, and I’m going to be a witness to God knows what, and then I’m going to come back and yes, I’ll be changed— only an ox wouldn’t be changed, or maybe only a block of stone—but I’ll still be me, whoever me is. Don’t worry, okay? I’ll still be me. And we’ll still be us.”
“Whoever us is.”
“Whoever. Jesus, I wish you were going with me, Mag!”
“That’s the silliest schoolboy thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“Well, I can’t go. Only one at a time can go, and it’s you. I’m not even sure I’d want to go. I’m not as crazy as you are, I suspect. You go, Jim, and come back and tell me all about it.”
“And then we’ll see what there is to see about you and me.”
“Yes,” he said.
She smiled. “Let me show you a poem, okay? You must know it, because it’s Eliot, and you know all the Eliot there is. But I was reading him last night—thinking of you, reading him—and I found this, and it seemed to be the right words, and I wrote them down. From one of the Quartets.”
“I think I know,” he said:
“ ‘Time and past and future
“That’s a good one too,” Maggie said. “But it’s not the one I had in mind.” She unfolded a piece of paper. “It’s this:
“ ‘We shall not cease from exploration
“ ‘—And know the place for the first time,’ ” he completed. “Yes. Exactly. To arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”
The lobsters were singing as they marched. That was the only word, McCulloch thought, that seemed to apply. The line of pilgrims now was immensely long—there must have been thousands in the procession by this time, and more were joining constantly—and from them arose an outpouring of chemical signals, within the narrowest of tonal ranges, that mingled in a close harmony and amounted to a kind of sustained chant on a few notes, swelling, filling all the ocean with its powerful and intense presence. Once again he had an image of them as monks, but not Benedictines, now: these were Buddhist, rather, an endless line of yellow-robed holy men singing a great Om as they made their way up some Tibetan slope. He was awed and humbled by it—by the intensity, and by the whole-heartedness of the devotion. It was getting hard for him to remember that these were crustaceans, no more than ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas; he sensed minds all about him, whole and elaborate minds arising out of some rich cultural matrix, and it was coming to seem quite natural to him that these people should have armored exoskeletons and joined eye-stalks and a dozen busy legs.
His host had still not broken its silence, which must have extended now over a considerable period. Just how long a period, McCulloch had no idea, for there were no significant alternations of light and dark down here to indicate the passing of time, nor did the marchers ever seem to sleep, and they took their food, as he had seen, in a casual and random way without breaking step. But it seemed to McCulloch that he had been effectively alone in the host’s body for many days.
He was not minded to try re-enter contact with the other just yet—not until he received some sort of signal from it. Plainly the host had withdrawn into some inner sanctuary to undertake a profound meditation; and McCulloch, now that the early bewilderment and anguish of his journey through time had begun to wear off, did not feel so dependent upon the host that he needed to blurt his queries constantly into his companion’s consciousness. He would watch, and wait, and attempt to fathom the mysteries of this place unaided.
The landscape had undergone a great many changes since the beginning of the march. That gentle bottom of fine white sand had yielded to a terrain of rough dark gravel, and that to one of a pale sedimentary stuff made up of tiny shells, the mortal remains, no doubt, of vast hordes of diatoms and foraminifera, that rose like clouds of snowflakes at the lobsters’ lightest steps. Then came a zone where a stratum of thick red clay spread in all directions. The clay held embedded in it an odd assortment of rounded rocks and clamshells and bits of chitin, so that it had the look of some complex paving material from a fashionable terrace. And after that they entered a region where slender spires of a sharp black stone, faceted like worked flint, sprouted stalagmite-fashion at their feet. Through all of this the lobster-pilgrims marched unperturbed, never halting, never breaking their file, moving in a straight line whenever possible and making only the slightest of deviations when compelled to it by the harshness of the topography.
Now they were in a district of coarse yellow sandy globules, out of which two types of coral grew: thin angular strands of deep jet, and supple, almost mobile figures of a rich lovely salmon hue. McCulloch wondered where on Earth such stuff might be found, and chided himself at once for the foolishness of the thought: the seas he knew had been swallowed long ago in the great all-encompassing ocean that swathed the world, and the familiar continents, he supposed, had broken from their moorings and slipped to strange parts of the globe well before the rising of the waters. He had no landmarks. There was an equator somewhere, and there were two poles, but down here beyond the reach of direct sunlight, in this warm changeless uterine sea, neither north nor south nor east held any meaning. He remembered other lines:
Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep
What was the next line? Something about great whales coming sailing by, sail and sail with unshut eye, round the world for ever and aye. Yes, but there were no great whales here, if he understood his host correctly; no dolphins, no sharks, no minnows; there were only these swarming lower creatures, mysteriously raised on high, lords of the world. And mankind? Birds and bats, horses and bears? Gone. Gone. And the valleys and meadows? The lakes and streams? Taken by the sea. The world lay before him like a land of dreams, transformed. But was it, as the poet had said, a place which hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain? It did not seem that way. For light there was merely that diffuse faint glow, so obscure it was close to nonexistent, that filtered down through unknown fathoms. But what was that lobster-song, that ever-swelling crescendo, if not some hymn to love and certitude and peace, and help for pain? He was overwhelmed by peace, surprised by joy, and he did not understand what was happening to him. He was part of the march, that was all. He was a member of the prilgrimage.
He had wanted to know if there was any way he could signal to be pulled back home: a panic button, so to speak. Bleier was the one he asked, and the question seemed to drive the man into an agony of uneasiness. He scowled, he tugged at his jowls, he ran his hands through his sparse strands of hair.
“No,” he said finally. “We weren’t able to solve that one, Jim. There’s simply no way of propagating a signal backward in time.”
“I didn’t think so,” McCulloch said. “I just wondered.”
“Since we’re not actually sending your physical body, you shouldn’t find yourself in any real trouble. Psychic discomfort, at the worst—disorientation, emotional upheaval, at the worst a sort of terminal homesickness. But I think you’re strong enough to pull your way through any of that. And you’ll always know that we’re going to be yanking you back to us at the end of the experiment.”
“How long am I going to be gone?”
“Elapsed time will be virtually nil. We’ll throw the switch, off you’ll go, you’ll do your jaunt, we’ll grab you back, and it’ll seem like no time at all, perhaps a thousandth of a second. We aren’t going to believe that you went anywhere at all, until you start telling us about it.”
McCulloch sensed that Bleier was being deliberately evasive, not for the first time since McCulloch had been selected as the time-traveler. “It’ll seem like no time at all to the people watching in the lab,” he said. “But what about for me?”
“Well, of course for you it’ll be a little different, because you’ll have had a subjective experience in another time-frame.”
“That’s what I’m getting at. How long are you planning to leave me in the future? An hour? A week?”
“That’s really hard to determine, Jim.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know, we’ve sent only rabbits and stuff. They’ve come back okay, beyond much doubt—”
“Sure. They still munch on lettuce when they’re hungry, and they don’t tie their ears together in knots before they hop. So I suppose they’re none the worse for wear.”
“Obviously we can’t get much of a report from a rabbit.”
“You’re sounding awfully goddamned hostile today, Jim. Are you sure you don’t want us to scrub the mission and start training another volunteer?” Bleier asked.
“I’m just trying to elicit a little hard info,” McCulloch said. “I’m not trying to back out. And if I sound hostile, it’s only because you’re dancing all around my questions, which is becoming a considerable pain in the ass.”
Bleier looked squarely at him and glowered. “All right. I’ll tell you anything you want to know that I’m capable of answering. Which is what I think I’ve been doing all along. When the rabbits come back, we test them and we observe no physiological changes, no trace of ill effects as a result of having separated the psyche from the body for the duration of a time-jaunt. Christ, we can’t even tell the rabbits have been on a time-jaunt, except that our instruments indicate the right sort of thermodynamic drain and entropic reversal, and for all we know we’re kidding ourselves about that, which is why we’re risking our reputations and your neck to send a human being who can tell us what the heck happens when we throw the switch. But you’ve seen the rabbits jaunting. You know as well as I do that they come back okay.”
Patiently McCulloch said, “Yes. As okay as a rabbit ever is, I guess. But what I’m trying to find out from you, and what you seem unwilling to tell me, is how long I’m going to be up there in subjective time.”
“We don’t know, Jim,” Bleier said.
“You don’t know? What if it’s ten years? What if it’s a thousand? What if I’m going to live out an entire life-span, or whatever is considered a life-span a hundred years from now, and grow old and wise and wither away and die and then wake up a thousandth of a second later on your lab table?”
“We don’t know. That’s why we have to send a human subject.”
“There’s no way to measure subjective jaunt-time?”
“Our instruments are here. They aren’t there. You’re the only instrument we’ll have there. For all we know, we’re sending you off for a million years, and when you come back here you’ll have turned into something out of H. G. Wells. Is that straightforward enough for you, Jim? But I don’t think it’s going to happen that way, and Mortenson doesn’t think so either, or Ybarra for that matter. What we think is that you’ll spend something between a day and a couple of months in the future, with the outside possibility of a year. And when we give you the hook, you’ll be back here with virtually nil elapsed time. But to answer your first question again, there’s no way you can instruct us to yank you back. You’ll just have to sweat it out, however long it may be. I thought you knew that. The hook, when it comes, will be virtually automatic, a function of the thermodynamic homeostasis, like the recoil of a gun. An equal and opposite reaction: or maybe more like the snapping back of a rubber band. Pick whatever metaphor you want. But if you don’t like the way any of this sounds, it’s not too late for you to back out, and nobody will say a word against you. It’s never too late to back out. Remember that, Jim.”
McCulloch shrugged. “Thanks for leveling with me. I appreciate that. And no, I don’t want to drop out. The only thing I wonder about is whether my stay in the future is going to seem too long or too goddamned short. But I won’t know that until I get there, will I? And then the time I have to wait before coming home is going to be entirely out of my hands. And out of yours too, is how it seems. But that’s all right. I’ll take my chances. I just wondered what I’d do if I got there and found that I didn’t much like it there.”
“My bet is that you’ll have the opposite problem,” said Bleier. “You’ll like it so much you won’t want to come back.”
Again and again, while the pilgrims traveled onward, McCulloch detected bright flares of intelligence gleaming like brilliant pinpoints of light in the darkness of the sea. Each creature seemed to have a characteristic emanation, a glow of neural energy. The simple ones—worms, urchins, starfish, sponges—emitted dim gentle signals; but there were others as dazzling as beacons. The lobster-folk were not the only sentient life-forms down here.
Occasionally he saw, as he had in the early muddled moments of the jaunt, isolated colonies of the giant sea anemones: great flowery-looking things, rising on thick pedestals. From them came a soft alluring lustful purr, a siren crooning calculated to bring unwary animals within reach of their swaying tentacles and the eager mouths hidden within the fleshy petals. Cemented to the floor on their swaying stalks, they seemed like somber philosophers, lost in the intervals between meals in deep reflections on the purpose of the cosmos. McCulloch longed to pause and try to speak with them, for their powerful emanation appeared plainly to indicate that they possessed a strong intelligence, but the lobsters moved past the anemones without halting.
The squid-like beings that frequently passed in flotillas overhead seemed even keener of mind: large animals, sleek and arrogant of motion, with long turquoise bodies that terminated in hawser-like arms, and enormous bulging eyes of a startling scarlet color. He found them ugly and repugnant, and did not quite know why. Perhaps it was some attitude of his host’s that carried over subliminally to him; for there was an unmistakable chill among the lobsters whenever the squids appeared, and the chanting of the marchers grew more vehement, as though betokening a warning.
That some kind of frosty detente existed between the two kinds of life-forms was apparent from the regard they showed one another and from the distances they maintained. Never did the squids descend into the ocean-floor zone that was the chief domain of the lobsters, but for long spans of time they would soar above, in a kind of patient aerial surveillance, while the lobsters, striving ostentatiously to ignore them, betrayed discomfort by quickened movements of their antennae.
Still other kinds of high-order intelligence manifested themselves as the pilgrimage proceeded. In a zone of hard and rocky terrain McCulloch felt a new and distinctive mental pulsation, coming from some creature that he must not have encountered before. But he saw nothing unusual: merely a rough grayish landscape pockmarked by dense clumps of oysters and barnacles, some shaggy out-croppings of sponges and yellow seaweeds, a couple of torpid anemones. Yet out of the midst of all that unremarkable clutter came clear strong signals, produced by minds of considerable force. Whose? Not the oysters and barnacles, surely. The mystery intensified as the lobsters, without pausing in their march, interrupted their chant to utter words of greeting, and had greetings in return, drifting toward them from that tangle of marine underbrush.
“Why do you march?” the unseen speakers asked, in a voice that rose in the water like a deep slow groaning.
“We have had an Omen,” answered the lobsters.
“Ah, is it the Time?”
“The Time will surely be here,” the lobsters replied.
“Where is the herald, then?”
“The herald is within me,” said McCulloch’s host, breaking its long silence at last.
—To whom do you speak? McCulloch asked.
—Can you not see? There. Before us.
McCulloch saw only algae, barnacles, sponges, oysters.
—In a moment you will see, said the host.
The column of pilgrims had continued all the while to move forward, until now it was within the thick groves of seaweed. And now McCulloch saw who the other speakers were. Huge crabs were crouched at the bases of many of the larger rock formations, creatures far greater in size than the largest of the lobsters; but they were camouflaged so well that they were virtually invisible except at the closest range. On their broad arching backs whole gardens grew: brilliantly colored sponges, algae in somber reds and browns, fluffy many-branched crimson things, odd complex feathery growths, even a small anemone or two, all jammed together in such profusion that nothing of the underlying crab showed except beady long-stalked eyes and glinting claws. Why beings that signalled their presence with potent telepathic outputs should choose to cloak themselves in such elaborate concealments, McCulloch could not guess: perhaps it was to deceive a prey so simple that it was unable to detect the emanations of these crabs’ minds.
As the lobsters approached, the crabs heaved themselves up a little way from the rocky bottom, and shifted themselves ponderously from side to side, causing the intricate streamers and filaments and branches of the creatures growing on them to stir and wave about. It was like a forest agitated by a sudden hard gust of wind from the north.
“Why do you march, why do you march?” called the crabs. “Surely it is not yet the Time. Surely!”
“Surely it is,” the lobsters replied. “So we all agree. Will you march with us?”
“Show us your herald!” the crabs cried. “Let us see the Omen!”
—Speak to them, said McCulloch’s host.
—But what am I to say?
—The truth. What else can you say?
—I know nothing. Everything here is a mystery to me.
—I will explain all things afterward. Speak to them now.
—Tell them what you told us.
Baffled, McCulloch said, speaking through the host, “I have come from the former world as an emissary. Whether I am a herald, whether I bring an Omen, is not for me to say. In my own world I breathed air and carried my shell within my body.”
“Unmistakably a herald,” said the lobsters.
To which the crabs replied, “That is not so unmistakable to us. We sense a wanderer and a revenant among you. But what does that mean? The Molting of the World is not a small thing, good friends. Shall we march, just because this strangeness is come upon you? It is not enough evidence. And to march is not a small thing either, at least for us.”
“We have chosen to march,” the lobsters said, and indeed they had not halted at all throughout this colloquy; the vanguard of their procession was far out of sight in a black-walled canyon, and McCulloch’s host, still at the end of the line, was passing now through the last few crouching-places of the great crabs. “If you mean to join us, come now.”
From the crabs came a heavy outpouring of regret. “Alas, alas, we are large, we are slow, the way is long, the path is dangerous.”
“Then we will leave you.”
“If it is the Time, we know that you will perform the offices on our behalf. If it is not the Time, it is just as well that we do not make the pilgrimage. We are—not— certain. We—cannot—be—sure—it—is—an—Omen—”
McCulloch’s host was far beyond the last of the crabs. Their words were faint and indistinct, and the final few were lost in the gentle surgings of the water.
—They make a great error, said McCulloch’s host to him. ” If it is truly the Time, and they do not join the march, it might happen that their souls will be lost. That is a severe risk: but they are a lazy folk. Well, we will perform the offices on their behalf.
And to the crabs the host called, “We will do all that is required, have no fear!” But it was impossible, McCulloch thought, that the words could have reached the crabs across such a distance.
He and the host now were entering the mouth of the black canyon. With the host awake and talkative once again, McCulloch meant to seize the moment at last to have some answers to his questions.
—Tell me now—he began.
But before he could complete the thought, he felt the sea roil and surge about him as though he had been swept up in a monstrous wave. That could not be, not at this depth; but yet that irresistible force, booming toward him out of the dark canyon and catching him up, hurled him into a chaos as desperate as that of his moment of arrival. He sought to cling, to grasp, but there was no purchase; he was loose of his moorings; he was tossed and flung like a bubble on the winds.
—Help me! he called. What’s happening to us?
—To you, friend human McCulloch. To you alone. Can I aid you?
What was that? Happening only to him? But certainly he and the lobster both were caught in this undersea tempest, both being thrown about, both whirled in the same maelstrom—
Faces danced around him. Charlie Bleier, pudgy, earnest-looking. Maggie, tender-eyed, troubled. Bleier had his hand on McCulloch’s right wrist, Maggie on the other, and they were tugging, tugging—
But he had no wrists. He was a lobster.
“No! Not yet!”
McCulloch struggled to free himself from their grasp. As he swung his arms in wild circles, Maggie and Bleier, still clinging to them, went whipping about like tethered balloons. “Let go,” he shouted. “You aren’t here! There’s nothing for you to hold on to! You’re just hallucinations! Let—go—!”
And then, as suddenly as they had come, they were gone.
The sea was calm. He was in his accustomed place, seated somewhere deep within his host’s consciousness. The lobster was moving forward, steady as ever, into the black canyon, following the long line of its companions.
McCulloch was too stunned and dazed to attempt contact for a long while. Finally, when he felt some measure of composure return, he reached his mind into his host’s:
—I cannot say. What did it seem like to you?
—The water grew wild and stormy. I saw faces out of the former world. Friends of mine. They were pulling at my arms. You felt nothing?
—Nothing, said the host, except a sense of your own turmoil. We are deep here: beyond the reach of storms.
—Evidently I’m not.
—Perhaps your homefaring-time is coming. Your world is summoning you.
Of course! The faces, the pulling at his arms—the plausibility of the host’s suggestion left McCulloch trembling with dismay. Homefaring-time! Back there in the lost and inconceivable past, they had begun angling for him, casting their line into the vast gulf of time—
—I’m not ready, he protested. I’ve only just arrived here! I know nothing yet! How can they call me so soon?
—Resist them, if you would remain.
—Will you help me?
—How would that be possible?
—I’m not sure, McCulloch said. But it’s too early for me to go back. If they pull on me again, hold me! Can you?
—I can try, friend human McCulloch.
—And you have to keep your promise to me now.
—What promise is that?
—You said you would explain things to me. Why you’ve undertaken this pilgrimage. What it is I’m supposed to be the Omen of. What happens when the Time comes. The Molting of the World.
—Ah, said the host.
But that was all it said. In silence it scrabbled with busy legs over a sharply creviced terrain. McCulloch felt a fierce impatience growing in him. What if they yanked him again, now, and this time they succeeded? There was so much yet to learn! But he hesitated to prod the host again, feeling abashed. Long moments passed. Two more squids appeared: the radiance of their probing minds was like twin searchlights overhead. The ocean floor sloped downward gradually but perceptibly here. The squids vanished, and another of the predatory big-mouthed swimming-things, looking as immense as a whale and, McCulloch supposed, filling the same ecological niche, came cruising down into the level where the lobsters marched, considered their numbers in what appeared to be some surprise, and swam slowly upward again and out of sight. Something else of great size, flapping enormous wings somewhat like those of a stingray but clearly just a boneless mass of chitin-strutted flesh, appeared next, surveyed the pilgrims with equally bland curiosity, and flew to the front of the line of lobsters, where McCulloch lost it in the darkness. While all of this was happening the host was quiet and inaccessible, and McCulloch did not dare attempt to penetrate its privacy. But then, as the pilgrims were moving through a region where huge, dim-witted scallops with great bright eyes nestled everywhere, waving gaudy pink and blue mantles, the host unexpectedly resumed the conversation as though there had been no interruption, saying:
—What we call the Time of the Molting of the World is the time when the world undergoes a change of nature, and is purified and reborn. At such a time, we journey to the place of dry land, and perform certain holy rites.
—And these rites bring about the Molting of the World? McCulloch asked.
—Not at all. The Molting is an event wholly beyond our control. The rites are performed for our own sakes, not for the world’s.
—I’m not sure I understand.
—We wish to survive the Molting, to travel onward into the world to come. For this reason, at a Time of Molting, we must make our observances, we must demonstrate our worth. It is the responsibility of my people. We bear the duty for all the peoples of the world.
—A priestly caste, is that it? McCulloch said. When this cataclysm comes, the lobsters go forth to say the prayers for everyone, so that everyone’s soul will survive?
The host was silent again: pondering McCulloch’s terms, perhaps, translating them into more appropriate equivalents. Eventually it replied:
—That is essentially correct.
—But other peoples can join the pilgrimage if they want. Those crabs. The anemones. The squids, even?
—We invite all to come. But we do not expect anyone but ourselves actually to do it.
—How often has there been such a ceremony? McCulloch asked.
—I cannot say. Never, perhaps.
—The Molting of the World is not a common event. We think it has happened only twice since the beginning of time.
In amazement McCulloch said:
—Twice since the world began, and you think it’s going to happen again in your own lifetimes?
—Of course we cannot be sure of that. But we have had an Omen, or so we think, and we must abide by that. It was foretold that when the end is near, an emissary from the former world would come among us. And so it has come to pass. Is that not so?
—Then we must make the pilgrimage, for if you have not brought the Omen we have merely wasted some effort, but if you are the true herald we will have forfeited all of eternity if we let your message go unheeded.
It sounded eerily familiar to McCulloch: a messianic prophecy, a cult of the millennium, an apocalyptic transfiguration. He felt for a moment as though he had landed in the ninth century instead of in some impossibly remote future epoch. And yet the host’s tone was so calm and rational, the sense of spiritual obligation that the lobster conveyed was so profound, that McCulloch found nothing absurd in these beliefs. Perhaps the world did end from time to time, and the performing of certain rituals did in fact permit its inhabitants to transfer their souls onward into whatever unimaginable environment was to succeed the present one. Perhaps.
—Tell me, said McCulloch. What were the former worlds like, and what will the next one be?
—You should know more about the former worlds than I, friend human McCulloch. And as for the world to come, we may only speculate.
—But what are your traditions about those worlds?
—The first world, the lobster said, was a world of fire. —You can understand fire, living in the sea? —We have heard tales of it from those who have been to the dry place. Above the water there is air, and in the air there hangs a ball of fire, which gives the world warmth. Is this not the case?
McCulloch, hearing a creature of the ocean floor speak of things so far beyond its scope and comprehension, felt a warm burst of delight and admiration.
—Yes! We call that ball of fire the sun.
—Ah, so that is what you mean, when you think of the sun! The word was a mystery to me, when first you used it. But I understand you much better now, do you not agree?
—You amaze me.
—The first world, so we think, was fire: it was like the sun. And when we dwelled upon that world, we were fire also. It is the fire that we carry within us to this day, that glow, that brightness, which is our life, and which goes from us when we die. After a span of time so long that we could never describe its length, the Time of the Molting came upon the fire-world and it grew hard, and gathered a cloak of air about itself, and creatures lived upon the land and breathed the air. I find that harder to comprehend, in truth, than I do the fire-world. But that was the first Molting, when the air-world emerged: that world from which you have come to us. I hope you will tell me of your world, friend human McCulloch, when there is time.
—So I will, said McCulloch. But there is so much more I need to hear from you first!
—The second Molting—the disappearance of my world, the coming of yours—
—The tradition is that the sea existed, even in the former world, and that it was not small. At the Time of the Molting it rose and devoured the land and all that was upon it, except for one place that was not devoured, which is sacred. And then all the world was covered by water, and that was the second Molting, which brought forth the third world.
—How long ago was that?
—How can I speak of the passing of time? There is no way to speak of that. Time passes, and lives end, and worlds are transformed. But we have no words for that. If every grain of sand in the sea were one lifetime, then it would be as many lifetimes ago as there are grains of sand in the sea. But does that help you? Does that tell you anything? It happened. It was very long ago. And now our world’s turn has come, or so we think.
—And the next world? What will that be like? McCulloch asked.
—There are those who claim to know such things, but I am not one of them. We will know the next world when we have entered it, and I am content to wait until then for the knowledge.
McCulloch had a sense then that the host had wearied of this sustained contact, and was withdrawing once again from it; and, though his own thirst for knowledge was far from sated, he chose once again not to attempt to resist that withdrawal.
All this while the pilgrims had continued down a gentle incline into the great bowl of a sunken valley. Once again now the ocean floor was level, but the water was notably deeper here, and the diffused light from above was so dim that only the most rugged of algae could grow, making the landscape bleak and sparse. There were no sponges here, and little coral, and the anemones were pale and small, giving little sign of the potent intelligence that infused their larger cousins in the shallower zones of the sea.
But there were other creatures at this level that McCulloch had not seen before. Platoons of alert, mobile oysters skipped over the bottom, leaping in agile bounds on columns of water that they squirted like jets from tubes in their dark green mantles: now and again they paused in mid-leap and their shells quickly opened and closed, snapping shut, no doubt, on some hapless larval thing of the plankton too small for McCulloch, via the lobster’s imperfect vision, to detect. From these oysters came bright darting blurts of mental activity, sharp and probing: they must be as intelligent, he thought, as cats or dogs. Yet from time to time a lobster, swooping with an astonishingly swift claw, would seize one of these oysters and deftly, almost instantaneously, shuck and devour it. Appetite was no respecter of intelligence in this world of needful carnivores, McCulloch realized.
Intelligent, too, in their way, were the hordes of nearly invisible little crustaceans—shrimp of some sort, he imagined—that danced in shining clouds just above the line of march. They were ghostly things perhaps an inch long, virtually transparent, colorless, lovely, graceful. Their heads bore two huge glistening black eyes; their intestines, glowing coils running the length of their bodies, were tinged with green; the tips of their tails were an elegant crimson. They swam with the aid of a horde of busy finlike legs, and seemed almost to be mocking their stolid, plodding cousins as they marched; but these sparkling little creatures also occasionally fell victim to the lobsters’ inexorable claws, and each time it was like the extinguishing of a tiny brilliant candle.
An emanation of intelligence of a different sort came from bulky animals that McCulloch noticed roaming through the gravelly foothills flanking the line of march. These seemed at first glance to be another sort of lobster, larger even than McCulloch’s companions: heavily armored things with many-segmented abdomens and thick paddle-shaped arms. But then, as one of them drew nearer, McCulloch saw the curved tapering tail with its sinister spike, and realized he was in the presence of the scorpions of the sea.
They gave off a deep, almost somnolent mental wave: slow thinkers but not light ones, Teutonic ponderers, grapplers with the abstruse. There were perhaps two dozen of them, who advanced upon the pilgrims and in quick one-sided struggles pounced, stung, slew. McCulloch watched in amazement as each of the scorpions dragged away a victim and, no more than a dozen feet from the line of march, began to gouge into its armor to draw forth tender chunks of pale flesh, without drawing the slightest response from the impassive, steadily marching column of lobsters.
They had not been so complacent when the great-mouthed swimming thing had menaced McCulloch’s host; then, the lobsters had come in hordes to tear the attacker apart. And whenever one of the big squids came by, the edgy hostility of the lobsters, their willingness to do battle if necessary, was manifest. But they seemed indifferent to the scorpions. The lobsters accepted their onslaught as placidly as though it were merely a toll they must pay in order to pass through this district. Perhaps it was. McCulloch was only beginning to perceive how dense and intricate a fabric of ritual bound this submarine world together.
The lobsters marched onward, chanting in unfailing rhythm as though nothing untoward had happened. The scorpions, their hungers evidently gratified, withdrew and congregated a short distance off, watching without much show of interest as the procession went by them. By the time McCulloch’s host, bringing up the rear, had gone past the scorpions, they were fighting among themselves in a lazy, half-hearted way, like playful lions after a successful hunt. Their mental emanation, sluggishly booming through the water, grew steadily more blurred, more vague, more toneless.
And then it was overlaid and entirely masked by the pulsation of some new and awesome kind of mind ahead: one of enormous power, whose output beat upon the water with what was almost a physical force, like some massive metal chain being lashed against the surface of the ocean. Apparently the source of this gigantic output still lay at a considerable distance, for, strong as it was, it grew stronger still as the lobsters advanced toward it, until at last it was an overwhelming clangor, terrifying, bewildering. McCulloch could no longer remain quiescent under the impact of that monstrous sound. Breaking through to the sanctuary of his host, he cried:
—What is it?
—We are approaching a god, the lobster replied.
—A god, did you say?
—A divine presence, yes. Did you think we were the rulers of this world?
In fact McCulloch had, assuming automatically that his time-jaunt had deposited him within the consciousness of some member of this world’s highest species, just as he would have expected to have landed, had he reached the twenty-second century as intended, in the consciousness of a human rather than in a frog or a horse. But obviously the division between humanity and all sub-sentient species in his own world did not have an exact parallel here; many races, perhaps all of them, had some sort of intelligence, and it was becoming clear that the lobsters, though a high life-form, were not the highest. He found that dismaying and even humbling; for the lobsters seemed quite adequately intelligent to him, quite the equals—for all his early condescension to them—of mankind itself. And now he was to meet one of their gods? How great a mind was a god likely to have?
The booming of that mind grew unbearably intense, nor was there any way to hide from it. McCulloch visualized himself doubled over in pain, pressing his hands to his ears, an image that drew a quizzical shaft of thought from his host. Still the lobsters pressed forward, but even they were responding now to the waves of mental energy that rippled outward from that unimaginable source. They had at last broken ranks, and were fanning out horizontally on the broad dark plain of the ocean floor, as though deploying themselves before a place of worship. Where was the god? McCulloch, striving with difficulty to see in this nearly lightless place, thought he made out some vast shape ahead, some dark entity, swollen and fearsome, that rose like a colossal boulder in the midst of the suddenly diminutive-looking lobsters. He saw eyes like bright yellow platters, gleaming furiously; he saw a huge frightful beak; he saw what he thought at first to be a nest of writhing serpents, and then realized to be tentacles, dozens of them, coiling and uncoiling with a terrible restless energy. To the host he said:
—Is that your god?
But he could not hear the reply, for an agonizing new force suddenly buffeted him, one even more powerful than that which was emanating from the giant creature that sat before him. It ripped upward through his soul like a spike. It cast him forth, and he tumbled over and over, helpless in some incomprehensible limbo, where nevertheless he could still hear the faint distant voice of this lobster host:
—Friend human McCulloch? Friend human McCulloch?
He was drowning. He had waded incautiously into the surf, deceived by the beauty of the transparent tropical water and the shimmering white sand below, and a wave had caught him and knocked him to his knees, and the next wave had come before he could arise, pulling him under. And now he tossed like a discarded doll in the suddenly turbulent sea, struggling to get his head above water and failing, failing, failing.
Maggie was standing on the shore, calling in panic to him, and somehow he could hear her words even through the tumult of the crashing waves: “This way, Jim, swim toward me! Oh, please, Jim, this way, this way!”
Bleier was there too, Mortenson, Bob Rodrigues, the whole group, ten or fifteen people, running about worriedly, beckoning to him, calling his name. It was odd that he could see them, if he was under water. And he could hear them so clearly, too, Bleier telling him to stand up and walk ashore, the water wasn’t deep at all, and Rodrigues saying to come in on hands and knees if he couldn’t manage to get up, and Ybarra yelling that it was getting late, that they couldn’t wait all the goddamned afternoon, that he had been swimming long enough. McCulloch wondered why they didn’t come after him, if they were so eager to get him to shore. Obviously he was unable to help himself.
“Look,” he said, “I’m drowning, can’t you see? Throw me a line, for Christ’s sake!” Water rushed into his mouth as he spoke. It filled his lungs, it pressed against his brain.
“We can’t hear you, Jim!”
“Throw me a line!” he cried again, and felt the torrents pouring through his body. “I’m—drowning—drowning—”
And then he realized that he did not at all want them to rescue him, that it was worse to be rescued than to drown. He did not understand why he felt that way, but he made no attempt to question the feeling. All that concerned him now was preventing those people on the shore, those humans, from seizing him and taking him from the water. They were rushing about, assembling some kind of machine to pull him in, an arm at the end of a great boom. McCulloch signalled to them to leave him alone.
“I’m okay,” he called. “I’m not drowning after all! I’m fine right where I am!”
But now they had their machine in operation, and its long metal arm was reaching out over the water toward him. He turned and dived, and swam as hard as he could away from the shore, but it was no use: the boom seemed to extend over an infinite distance, and no matter how fast he swam the boom moved faster, so that it hovered just above him now, and from its tip some sort of hook was descending—
“No—no—let me be! I don’t want to go ashore!”
Then he felt a hand on his wrist: firm, reassuring, taking control. All right, he thought. They’ve caught me after all, they’re going to pull me in. There’s nothing I can do about it. They have me, and that’s all there is to it. But he realized, after a moment, that he was heading not toward shore but out to sea, beyond the waves, into the calm warm depths. And the hand that was on his wrist was not a hand; it was a tentacle, thick as heavy cable, a strong sturdy tentacle lined on one side by rounded suction cups that held him in an unbreakable grip.
That was all right. Anything to be away from that wild crashing surf. It was much more peaceful out here. He could rest, catch his breath, get his equilibrium. And all the while that powerful tentacle towed him steadily seaward. He could still hear the voices of his friends on shore, but they were as faint as the cries of distant sea-birds now, and when the looked back he saw only tiny dots, like excited ants, moving along the beach. McCulloch waved at them. “See you some other time,” he called, “I didn’t want to come out of the water yet anyway.” Better here. Much much better. Peaceful. Warm. Like the womb. And that tentacle around his wrist: so reassuring, so steady.
—Friend human McCulloch? Friend human McCulloch?
—This is where I belong. Isn’t it?
—Yes. This is where you belong. You are one of us, friend human McCulloch. You are one of us.
Gradually the turbulence subsided, and he found himself regaining his balance. He was still within the lobster; the whole horde of lobsters was gathered around him, thousands upon thousands of them, a gentle solicitous community; and right in front of him was the largest octopus imaginable, a creature that must have been fifteen or twenty feet in diameter, with tentacles that extended an implausible distance on all sides. Somehow he did not find the sight frightening.
“He is recovered now,” his host announced.
—What happened to me? McCulloch asked.
—Your people called you again. But you did not want to make your homefaring, and you resisted them. And when we understood that you wanted to remain, the god aided you, and you broke free of their pull.
His host indicated the great octopus.
It did not seem at all improbable to McCulloch now. The infinite fullness of time brings about everything, he thought: even intelligent lobsters, even a divine octopus. He still could feel the mighty telepathic output of the vast creature, but though it had lost none of its power it no longer caused him discomfort; it was like the roaring thunder of some great waterfall, to which one becomes accustomed, and which, in time, one begins to love. The octopus sat motionless, its immense yellow eyes trained on McCulloch, its scarlet mantle rippling gently, its tentacles weaving in intricate patterns. McCulloch thought of an octopus he had once seen when he was diving in the West Indies: a small shy scuttling thing, hurrying to slither behind a gnarled coral head. He felt chastened and awed by this evidence of the magnifications wrought by the eons. A hundred million years? Half a billion? The numbers were without meaning. But that span of years had produced this creature. He sensed a serene intelligence of incomprehensible depth, benign, tranquil, all-penetrating: a god indeed. Yes. Truly a god. Why not?
The great cephalopod was partly sheltered by an overhanging wall of rock. Clustered about it were dozens of the scorpion-things, motionless, poised: plainly a guard force. Overhead swam a whole army of the big squids, doubtless guardians also, and for once the presence of those creatures did not trigger any emotion in the lobsters, as if they regarded squids in the service of the god as acceptable ones. The scene left McCulloch dazed with awe. He had never felt farther from home.
—The god would speak with you, said his host.
—What shall I say?
McCulloch’s lobster moved forward until it stood virtually beneath the octopus’s huge beak. From the octopus, then, came an outpouring of words that McCulloch did not immediately comprehend, but which, after a moment, he understood to be some kind of benediction that enfolded his soul like a warm blanket. And gradually he perceived that he was being spoken to.
“Can you tell us why you have come all this way, human McCulloch?”
“It was an error. They didn’t mean to send me so far— only a hundred years or less, that was all we were trying to cross. But it was our first attempt. We didn’t really know what we were doing. And I suppose I wound up halfway across time—a hundred million years, two hundred, maybe a billion—who knows?”
“It is a great distance. Do you feel no fear?”
“At the beginning I did. But not any longer. This world is alien to me, but not frightening.”
“Do you prefer it to your own?”
“I don’t understand,” McCulloch said.
“Your people summoned you. You refused to go. You appealed to us for aid, and we aided you in resisting your homecalling, because it was what you seemed to require from us.”
“I’m—not ready to go home yet,” he said. “There’s so much I haven’t seen yet, and that I want to see. I want to see everything. I’ll never have an opportunity like this again. Perhaps no one ever will. Besides, I have services to perform here. I’m the herald; I bring the Omen; I’m part of this pilgrimage. I think I ought to stay until the rites have been performed. I want to stay until then.”
“Those rites will not be performed,” said the octopus quietly.
“You are not the herald. You carry no Omen. The Time is not at hand.”
McCulloch did not know what to reply. Confusion swirled within him. No Omen? Not the Time?
—It is so, said the host. We were in error. The god has shown us that we came to our conclusion too quickly. The time of the Molting may be near, but it is not yet upon us. You have many of the outer signs of a herald, but there is no Omen upon you. You are merely a visitor. An accident.
McCulloch was assailed by a startlingly keen pang of disappointment. It was absurd; but for a time he had been the central figure in some apocalyptic ritual of immense significance, or at least had been thought to be, and all that suddenly was gone from him, and he felt strangely diminished, irrelevant, bereft of his bewildering grandeur. A visitor. An accident.
—In that case I feel great shame and sorrow, he said. To have caused so much trouble for you. To have sent you off on this pointless pilgrimage.
—No blame attaches to you, said the host. We acted of our free choice, after considering the evidence.
“Nor was the pilgrimage pointless,” the octopus declared. “There are no pointless pilgrimages. And this one will continue.”
“But if there’s no Omen—if this is not the Time—”
“There are other needs to consider,” replied the octopus, “and other observances to carry out. We must visit the dry place ourselves, from time to time, so that we may prepare ourselves for the world that is to succeed ours, for it will be very different from ours. It is time now for such a visit, and well past time. And also we must bring you to the dry place, for only there can we properly make you one of us.”
“I don’t understand,” said McCulloch.
“You have asked to stay among us; and if you stay, you must become one of us, for your sake, and for ours. And that can best be done at the dry place. It is not necessary that you understand that now, human McCulloch.”
—Make no further reply, said McCulloch’s host. The god has spoken. We must proceed.
Shortly the lobsters resumed their march, chanting as before, though in a more subdued way, and, so it seemed to McCulloch, singing a different melody. From the context of his conversation with it, McCulloch had supposed that the octopus now would accompany them, which puzzled him, for the huge unwieldy creature did not seem capable of any extensive journey. That proved to be the case: the octopus did not go along, though the vast booming resonances of its mental output followed the procession for what must have been hundreds of miles.
Once more the line was a single one, with McCulloch’s host at the end of the file. A short while after departure it said:
—I am glad, friend human McCulloch, that you chose to continue with us. I would be sorry to lose you now.
—Do you mean that? Isn’t it an inconvenience for you, to carry me around inside your mind?
—I have grown quite accustomed to it. You are part of me, friend human McCulloch. We are part of one another. At the place of the dry land we will celebrate our sharing of this body.
—I was lucky, said McCulloch, to have landed like this in a mind that would make me welcome.
—Any of us would have made you welcome, responded the host.
McCulloch pondered that. Was it merely a courteous turn of phrase, or did the lobster mean him to take the answer literally? Most likely the latter: the host’s words seemed always to have only a single level of meaning, a straightforwardly literal one. So any of the lobsters would have taken him in uncomplainingly? Perhaps so. They appeared to be virtually interchangeable beings, without distinctive individual personalities, without names, even. The host had remained silent when McCulloch had asked him its name, and had not seemed to understand what kind of a label McCulloch’s own name was. So powerful was their sense of community, then, that they must have little sense of private identity. He had never cared much for that sort of hive-mentality, where he had observed it in human society. But here it seemed not only appropriate but admirable.
—How much longer will it be, McCulloch asked, before we reach the place of dry land?
—Can you tell me where it is?
—It is in the place where the world grows narrower, said the host.
McCulloch had realized, the moment he asked the question, that it was meaningless: what useful answer could the lobster possibly give? The old continents were gone and their names long forgotten. But the answer he had received was meaningless too: where, on a round planet, is the place where the world grows narrower? He wondered what sort of geography the lobsters understood. If I live among them a hundred years, he thought, I will probably just begin to comprehend what their perceptions are like.
Where the world grows narrower. All right. Possibly the place of the dry land was some surviving outcropping of the former world, the summit of Mount Everest, perhaps, Kilimanjaro, whatever. Or perhaps not: perhaps even those peaks had been ground down by time, and new ones had arisen—one of them, at least, tall enough to rise above the universal expanse of sea. It was folly to suppose that any shred at all of his world remained accessible: it was all down there beneath tons of water and millions of years of sediments, the old continents buried, hidden, rearranged by time like pieces scattered about a board.
The pulsations of the octopus’s mind could no longer be felt. As the lobsters went tirelessly onward, moving always in that lithe skipping stride of theirs and never halting to rest or to feed, the terrain rose for a time and then began to dip again, slightly at first and then more than slightly. They entered into waters that were deeper and significantly darker, and somewhat cooler as well. In this somber zone, where vision seemed all but useless, the pilgrims grew silent for long spells for the first time, neither chanting nor speaking to one another, and McCulloch’s host, who had become increasingly quiet, disappeared once more into its impenetrable inner domain and rarely emerged.
In the gloom and darkness there began to appear a strange red glow off to the left, as though someone had left a lantern hanging midway between the ocean floor and the surface of the sea. The lobsters, when that mysterious light came into view, at once changed the direction of their line of march to go veering off to the right; but at the same time they resumed their chanting, and kept one eye trained on the glowing place as they walked.
The water felt warmer here. A zone of unusual heat was spreading outward from the glow. And the taste of the water, and what McCulloch persisted in thinking of as its smell, were peculiar, with a harsh choking salty flavor. Brimstone? Ashes?
McCulloch realized that what he was seeing was an undersea volcano, belching forth a stream of red-hot lava that was turning the sea into a boiling bubbling cauldron. The sight stirred him oddly. He felt that he was looking into the pulsing ancient core of the world, the primordial flame, the geological link that bound the otherwise vanished former worlds to this one. There awakened in him a powerful tide of awe, and a baffling unfocused yearning that he might have termed homesickness, except that it was not, for he was no longer sure where his true home lay.
—Yes, said the host. It is a mountain on fire. We think it is a part of the older of the two former worlds that has endured both of the Moltings. It is a very sacred place.
—An object of pilgrimage? McCulloch asked.
—Only to those who wish to end their lives. The fire devours all who approach it.
—In my world we had many such fiery mountains, McCulloch said. They often did great destruction.
—How strange your world must have been!
—It was very beautiful, said McCulloch.
—Surely. But strange. The dry land, the fire in the air—the sun, I mean—the air-breathing creatures—yes, strange, very strange. I can scarcely believe it really existed.
—There are times, now, when I begin to feel the same way, McCulloch said.
The volcano receded in the distance; its warmth could no longer be felt; the water was dark again, and cold, and growing colder, and McCulloch could no longer detect any trace of that sulphurous aroma. It seemed to him that they were moving now down an endless incline, where scarcely any creatures dwelled.
And then he realized that the marchers ahead had halted, and were drawn up in a long row as they had been when they came to the place where the octopus held its court. Another god? No. There was only blackness ahead.
—Where are we? he asked.
—It is the shore of the great abyss.
Indeed what lay before them looked like the Pit itself: lightless, without landmark, an empty landscape. McCulloch understood now that they had been marching all this while across some sunken continent’s coastal plain, and at last they had come to—what?—the graveyard where one of Earth’s lost oceans lay buried in ocean?
—Is it possible to continue? he asked.
—Of course, said the host. But now we must swim.
Already the lobsters before them were kicking off from shore with vigorous strokes of their tails and vanishing into the open sea beyond. A moment later McCulloch’s host joined them. Almost at once there was no sense of a bottom beneath them—only a dark and infinitely deep void. Swimming across this, McCulloch thought, is like falling through time—an endless descent and no safety net.
The lobsters, he knew, were not true swimming creatures: like the lobsters of his own era they were bottom-dwellers, who walked to get where they needed to go. But they could never cross this abyss that way, and so they were swimming now, moving steadily by flexing their huge abdominal muscles and their tails. Was it terrifying to them to be setting forth into a place without landmarks like this? His host remained utterly calm, as though this were no more than an afternoon stroll.
McCulloch lost what little perception of the passage of time that he had had. Heave, stroke, onward, heave, stroke, onward, that was all, endless repetition. Out of the depths there occasionally came an upwelling of cold water, like a dull, heavy river miraculously flowing upward through air, and in that strange surging from below rose a fountain of nourishment, tiny transparent struggling creatures and even smaller flecks of some substance that must have been edible, for the lobsters, without missing a stroke, sucked in all they could hold. And swam on and on. McCulloch had a sense of being involved in a trek of epic magnitude, a once-in-many-generations thing that would be legendary long after.
Enemies roved this open sea: the free-swimming creatures that had evolved out of God only knew which kinds of worms or slugs to become the contemporary equivalents of sharks and whales. Now and again one of these huge beasts dived through the horde of lobsters, harvesting it at will. But they could eat only so much; and the survivors kept going onward.
Until at last—months, years later?—the far shore came into view; the ocean floor, long invisible, reared up beneath them and afforded support; the swimmers at last put their legs down on the solid bottom, and with something that sounded much like gratitude in their voices began once again to chant in unison as they ascended the rising flank of a new continent.
The first rays of the sun, when they came into view an unknown span of time later, struck McCulloch with an astonishing, overwhelming impact. He perceived them first as a pale greenish glow resting in the upper levels of the sea just ahead, striking downward like illuminated wands; he did not then know what he was seeing, but the sight engendered wonder in him all the same; and later, when that radiance diminished and was gone and in a short while returned, he understood that the pilgrims were coming up out of the sea. So they had reached their goal: the still point of the turning world, the one remaining unsubmerged scrap of the former Earth.
—Yes, said the host. This is it.
In that same instant McCulloch felt another tug from the past: a summons dizzying in its imperative impact. He thought he could hear Maggie Caldwell’s voice crying across the time-winds: “Jim, Jim, come back to us!” and Bleier, grouchy, angered, muttering, “For Christ’s sake, McCulloch, stop holding on up there! This is getting expensive!” Was it all his imagination, that fantasy of hands on his wrists, familiar faces hovering before his eyes?”
“Leave me alone,” he said. “I’m still not ready.”
“Will you ever be?” That was Maggie. “Jim, you’ll be marooned. You’ll be stranded there if you don’t let us pull you back now.”
“I may be marooned already,” he said, and brushed the voices out of his mind with surprising ease.
He returned his attention to his companions and saw that they had halted their trek a little way short of that zone of light which now was but a quick scramble ahead of them. Their linear formation was broken once again. Some of the lobsters, marching blindly forward, were piling up in confused-looking heaps in the shallows, forming mounds fifteen or twenty lobsters deep. Many of the others had begun a bizarre convulsive dance: wild twitchy cavorting, rearing up on their back legs, waving their claws about, flicking their antennae in frantic circles.
—What’s happening? McCulloch asked his host. Is this the beginning of a rite?
But the host did not reply. The host did not appear to be within their shared body at all. McCulloch felt a silence far deeper than the host’s earlier withdrawals; this seemed not a withdrawal but an evacuation, leaving McCulloch in sole possession. That new solitude came rolling in upon him with a crushing force. He sent forth a tentative probe, found nothing, found less than nothing. Perhaps it’s meant to be this way, he thought. Perhaps it was necessary for him to face this climactic initiation unaided, unaccompanied.
Then he noticed that what he had taken to be a weird jerky dance was actually the onset of a mass molting prodrome. Hundreds of the lobsters had been stricken simultaneously, he realized, with that strange painful sense of inner expansion, of volcanic upheaval and stress: that heaving and rearing about was the first stage of the splitting of the shell.
And all of the molters were females.
Until that instant McCulloch had not been aware of any division into sexes among the lobsters. He had barely been able to tell one from the next; they had no individual character, no shred of uniqueness. Now, suddenly, strangely, he knew without being told that half of his companions were females, and that they were molting now because they were fertile only when they had shed their old armor, and that the pilgrimage to the place of the dry land was the appropriate time to engender the young. He had asked no questions of anyone to learn that; the knowledge was simply within him; and, reflecting on that, he saw that the host was absent from him because the host was wholly fused with him; he was the host, the host was Jim McCulloch.
He approached a female, knowing precisely which one was the appropriate one, and sang to her, and she acknowledged his song with a song of her own, and raised her third pair of legs to him, and let him plant his gametes beside her oviducts. There was no apparent pleasure in it, as he remembered pleasure from his days as a human. Yet it brought him a subtle but unmistakable sense of fulfillment, of the completion of biological destiny, that had a kind of orgasmic finality about it, and left him calm and anchored at the absolute dead center of his soul: yes, truly the still point of the turning world, he thought.
His mate moved away to begin her new Growing and the awaiting of her motherhood. And McCulloch, unbidden, began to ascend the slope that led to the land.
The bottom was fine sand here, soft, elegant. He barely touched it with his legs as he raced shoreward. Before him lay a world of light, radiant, heavenly, a bright irresistible beacon. He went on until the water, pearly-pink and transparent, was only a foot or two deep, and the domed upper curve of his back was reaching into the air. He felt no fear. There was no danger in this. Serenely he went forward— the leader, now, of the trek—and climbed out into the hot sunlight.
It was an island, low and sandy, so small that he imagined he could cross it in a day. The sky was intensely blue and the sun, hanging close to a noon position, looked swollen and fiery. A little grove of palm trees clustered a few hundred yards inland, but he saw nothing else, no birds, no insects, no animal life of any sort. Walking was difficult here—his breath was short, his shell seemed to be too tight, his stalked eyes were stinging in the air—but he pulled himself forward, almost to the trees. Other male lobsters, hundreds of them, thousands of them, were following. He felt himself linked to each of them: his people, his nation, his community, his brothers.
Now, at that moment of completion and communion, came one more call from the past.
There was no turbulence in it this time. No one was yanking at his wrist, no surf boiled and heaved in his mind and threatened to dash him on the reefs of the soul. The call was simple and clear: This is the moment of coming back, Jim.
Was it? Had he no choice? He belonged here. These were his people. This was where his loyalties lay.
And yet, and yet: he knew that he had been sent on a mission unique in human history, that he had been granted a vision beyond all dreams, that it was his duty to return and report on it. There was no ambiguity about that. He owed it to Bleier and Maggie and Ybarra and the rest to return, to tell them everything.
How clear it all was! He belonged here, and he belonged there, and an unbreakable net of loyalties and responsibilities held him to both places. It was a perfect equilibrium; and therefore he was tranquil and at ease. The pull was on him; he resisted nothing, for he was at last beyond all resistance to anything. The immense sun was a drumbeat in the heavens; the fiery warmth was a benediction; he had never known such peace.
“I must make my homefaring now,” he said, and released himself, and let himself drift upward, light as a bubble, toward the sun.
Strange figures surrounded him, tall and narrow-bodied, with odd fleshy faces and huge moist mouths and bulging staring eyes, and their kind of speech was a crude hubbub of sound-waves that bashed and battered against his sensibilities with painful intensity. “We were afraid the signal wasn’t reaching you, Jim,” they said. “We tried again and again, but there was no contact, nothing. And then just as we were giving up, suddenly your eyes were opening, you were stirring, you stretched your arms—”
He felt air pouring into his body, and dryness all around him. It was a struggle to understand the speech of these creatures who were bending over him, and he hated the reek that came from their flesh and the booming vibrations that they made with their mouths. But gradually he found himself returning to himself, like one who has been lost in a dream so profound that it eclipses reality for the first few moments of wakefulness.
“How long was I gone?” he asked.
“Four minutes and eighteen seconds,” Ybarra said.
McCulloch shook his head. “Four minutes? Eighteen seconds? It was more like forty months, to me. Longer. I don’t know how long.”
“Where did you go, Jim? What was it like?”
“Wait,” someone else said. “He’s not ready for debriefing yet. Can’t you see, he’s about to collapse?”
McCulloch shrugged. “You sent me too far.”
“How far? Five hundred years?” Maggie asked.
“Millions,” he said.
“He’s dazed,” a voice said at his left ear.
“Millions of years,” McCulloch said in a slow, steady, determinedly articulate voice. “Millions. The whole earth was covered by the sea, except for one little island. The people are lobsters. They have a society, a culture. They worship a giant octopus.”
Maggie was crying. “Jim, oh, Jim—”
“No. It’s true. I went on migration with them. Intelligent lobsters is what they are. And I wanted to stay with them forever. I felt you pulling at me, but I—didn’t—want— to—go—”
“Give him a sedative, Doc,” Bleier said.
“You think I’m crazy? You think I’m deranged? They were lobsters, fellows. Lobsters.”
After he had slept and showered and changed his clothes they came to see him again, and by that time he realized that he must have been behaving like a lunatic in the first moments of his return, blurting out his words, weeping, carrying on, crying out what surely had sounded like gibberish to them. Now he was rested, he was calm, he was at home in his own body once again.
He told them all that had befallen him, and from their faces he saw at first that they still thought he had gone around the bend: but as he kept speaking, quietly, straightforwardly, in rich detail, they began to acknowledge his report in subtle little ways, asking questions about the geography, about the ecological balance in a manner that showed him they were not simply humoring him. And after that, as it sank in upon them that he really had dwelled for a period of many months at the far end of time, beyond the span of the present world, they came to look upon him—it was unmistakable—as someone who was now wholly unlike them. In particular he saw the cold glassy stare in Maggie Caldwell’s eyes.
Then they left him, for he was tiring again; and later Maggie came to see him alone, and took his hand and held it between hers, which were cold.
She said, “What do you want to do now, Jim?”
“To go back there.”
“I thought you did.”
“It’s impossible, isn’t it?” he said.
“We could try. But it couldn’t ever work. We don’t know what we’re doing, yet, with that machine. We don’t know where we’d send you. We might miss by a million years. By a billion.”
“That’s what I figured too.”
“But you want to go back?”
He nodded. “I can’t explain it. It was like being a member of some Buddhist monastery, do you see? Feeling absolutely sure that this is where you belong, that everything fits together perfectly, that you’re an integral part of it. I’ve never felt anything like that before. I never will again.”
“I’ll talk to Bleier, Jim, about sending you back.”
“No. Don’t. I can’t possibly get there. And I don’t want to land anywhere else. Let Ybarra take the next trip. I’ll stay here.”
“Will you be happy?”
He smiled. “I’ll do my best,” he said.
When the others understood what the problem was, they saw to it that he went into re-entry therapy—Bleier had already foreseen something like that, and made preparations for it—and after a while the pain went from him, that sense of having undergone a violent separation, of having been ripped untimely from the womb. He resumed his work in the group and gradually recovered his mental balance and took an active part in the second transmission, which sent a young anthropologist named Ludwig off for two minutes and eight seconds. Ludwig did not see lobsters, to McCulloch’s intense disappointment. He went sixty years in the future and came back glowing with wondrous tales of atomic fusion plants.
That was too bad, McCulloch thought. But soon he decided that it was just as well, that he preferred being the only one who had encountered the world beyond this world, probably the only human being who ever would.
He thought of that world with love, wondering about his mate and her millions of larvae, about the journey of his friends back across the great abyss, about the legends that were being spun about his visit in that unimaginably distant epoch. Sometimes the pain of separation returned, and Maggie found him crying in the night, and held him until he was whole again. And eventually the pain did not return. But still he did not forget, and in some part of his soul he longed to make his homefaring back to his true kind, and he rarely passed a day when he did not think he could hear the inaudible sound of delicate claws, scurrying over the sands of silent seas.