The man came right out through the sphere onto the walkway - and then everything speeded up!
He shuttered his red eyes against the sudden light, shouted an astonished denial in a language Jazz half-way understood or felt he should understand, and fell into a defensive crouch. Then the film had suddenly come alive. Before, the sounds had seemed muted: the occasional low cough, nervous conversation, feet shuffling in the background, and now and then the springs of weapons being eased or tested and the unmistakable metallic clatter of magazines slapped into housings. But all of it seeming dull and a little out of tune, like the first few minutes of a film in a cinema, where your ears are still tuned to the street and haven't yet grown accustomed to the new medium of wall to wall sound.
Now, however, the sound was very much tied to the film. Khuv's voice, shouting: Take him alive! Don't shoot him! I'll court martial the first man who pulls a trigger! He's only a man, can't you see? Go in and capture him.r
Figures in combat uniforms ran past the camera, caused the cameraman and therefore the film to jiggle a little, burst into view on the screen and almost blotted out the picture. Having been ordered not to shoot, they carried their weapons awkwardly, seemed not to know what to do with them. Jazz could understand that: they'd been told that hideous death lurked in the sphere, but this seemed to be just a man. How many of them would it take to cow just one man? With an assortment of weapons at their fingertips, they must feel like men swatting midges with mallets! But on the other hand, some damned weird things had come out of that sphere, and they knew that, too.
The man from the sphere saw them coming, straightened up. His red eyes were now at least partly accustomed to the light. He stood waiting for the soldiers, and Jazz had thought: this lad has to be six and a half feet if he's an inch! Yes, and I'd bet he can look after himself, too. And certainly he would have won his bet! The walkway was maybe ten feet wide. The first two soldiers approached the near-naked man from the sphere on both sides, and that was a mistake. Shouting at him to put his hands up in the air and come forward, the fastest of the two reached him, made to prod him with the snout of his Kalashnikov rifle. With astonishing speed the intruder came to life: he batted the barrel of the gun aside with his left hand, swung the weapon he wore on his right hand shatteringly against the soldier's head.
The left side of the soldier's head caved in and the hooks of the gauntlet caught in the broken bones of his skull. The intruder held him upright for a moment, flopping uselessly like a speared fish. But it was all nervous reaction, for the blow must have killed him instantly. Then the man from the Gate snarled and jerked his hand back, freeing it, and at the same time shouldered his victim from the walkway. The soldier's body toppled out of sight.
The second soldier paused and looked back, his face bloodless where the camera caught his indecision. His comrades were hot on his heels, outraged, eager to bring this unknown warrior down. Made brave by their numbers, he faced the intruder again and swung his rifle butt-first toward his face. The man grinned like a wolf and ducked easily under the blow, at the same time swinging his gauntlet in a deadly arc. It tore out the soldier's throat in a scarlet welter and knocked him sideways. He went sprawling, got to his knees - and the intruder brought his weapon down on top of his head, caving in his fur hat, skull and all!
Then the rest of the combat-suited figures were surging all around the warrior, clubbing with their rifles and kicking at him with booted feet. He slipped and went down under their massed weight, howling his hatred and fury. The yelling of the soldiers was an uproar, over which Jazz had recognized Khuv's voice shouting: 'Hold him down but don't kill him! We want him alive - alive, do you hear?'
Then Khuv himself had come into view, advancing onto the walkway and waving his arms frantically over his head. 'Pin him down,' he yelled, 'but don't beat him to a pulp! We want him ... in one piece?' The final three words were an expression of Khuv's astonishment, his disbelief. And watching the film Jazz had been able to see why, had understood the change in Khuv's voice, had almost been able to sympathize with him.
For the strange warrior had quite genuinely slipped when he went down - possibly in blood - and that was the only reason he'd gone down. The five or six soldiers where they crowded him, hampered by their weapons and desperate not to come in range of that terrible mincing-machine he wore on his right hand, weren't even a match for him! One by one they'd rear up and back, clutching at torn throats or mangled faces; two of them went flying over the rim of the walkway, plunging sixty-odd feet to the basin-like magmass floor; another, hamstrung as he turned away, was kicked almost contemptuously into empty air by the warrior - who finally stood gory and unfettered, and alone, on the red-slimed boards of the walkway. And then he had seen Khuv, and nothing between them but four or five swift paces across the planking.
'Flame-thrower squad!' Khuv's voice was hoarse, almost a whisper in the sudden, awed silence of the place. To me - quickly!" He hadn't looked back, dared not for a moment take his eyes off the menacing man from the sphere.
But the warrior had heard him speak. He cocked his head on one side, narrowed his red eyes at Khuv. Perhaps he took the KGB Major's words for a challenge. He answered: a short, harshly barked sentence - probably a question - in a language which once again Jazz had felt he should understand, a question which ended in the word 'Wamphyri?' He took two paces forward, repeated the enigmatic, vaguely familiar words of the sentence. And this time the last word, 'Wamphyri?', was spoken with more emphasis, threateningly and with something of fierce pride.
Khuv went down on one knee and cocked an ugly, long-barrelled automatic pistol. He pointed it waveringly at the warrior, used his free hand to beckon men urgently forward from behind him. 'Flame-thrower squad!' he croaked. There had been no spittle in his throat, nor in Jazz's throat, by the time the film had reached this point.
And then the warrior had loped forward again, only this time he hadn't looked like stopping; and the look on his face and the way he held his deadly gauntlet at the ready spoke volumes for his intentions. The clatter of booted feet sounded and figures darkened the sides of the screen where men hurried forward, but Khuv wasn't waiting. His own orders about the use of weapons were forgotten now, so much hot air. He held his automatic in both trembling hands, fired point-blank, twice, at the menacing human death-machine from the other side.
His first shot took the warrior in the right shoulder, under the clavicle. A dark blotch blossomed there like an ugly flower in the moment that he was thrown backwards, sent sprawling on the boards. The second shot had apparently missed him entirely. He sat up, touched the hole in his slumped shoulder, stared in open astonishment at the blood on his hand. But pain didn't seem to have registered at all - not yet. When it did, a second later -
The warrior's howl wasn't a human sound at all. It was something far more primal than that. It came from night-dark caverns in an alien world beyond strange boundaries of space and time. And it was shocking and frightening enough to match the man himself.
He would have hurled himself at Khuv, indeed he crouched down and made ready to do so, but the three-man flame-thrower squad was in the way. The machine they handled wasn't the small man-pack variety that can be carried on one man's back; it was a weighty thing consisting of a fuel tank on a motorized trolley which one man controlled while another walked alongside with the flame-projector. The third member of the squad held a large flexible asbestos shield, fragile protection against blow-back.
The man from the sphere, wounded though he was, smashed his gauntlet weapon through the asbestos shield and almost succeeded in knocking it from the keeper's hands. Before he could withdraw the gauntlet, which seemed to be stuck, Khuv shouted: 'Show him your fire! But only show it to him - don't burn him!'
Perhaps they were a little too eager: a jet of flame lashed out, lapped at the warrior's side where he screamed his rage and terror and turned away. And when the fire was snuffed out at its source, still chemical flames leaped up the man's body from his side, burning away his beard, eyebrows, and setting fire to the single lock of black hair on his head.
He began to blister, screamed his agony and beat at the flames with his left hand. Then he snatched the asbestos shield from the soldier who held it and hurled it at the squad. Before they could recover from this, he turned and staggered, still smoking, back toward the shiny white sphere.
'Stop him!' Khuv shouted. 'Shoot him - but in the legs! Don't let him go back!' He began firing, and the man jerked and staggered as bullets smashed into the back of his naked thighs and lower legs. He had almost reached his objective when a lucky shot hit him behind the right knee and knocked him down. But he was close enough to the sphere to try hurling himself into it. Except - It threw him back! It was as if he'd tried to dive through a brick wall.
And at that moment, watching the film, Jazz had known - as those who had been present had known, and everyone who'd seen the film since - that the Gate was a mantrap. Like the pitcher plant, it allowed its victims access, then denied them egress. Once through the Gate, the creatures from the other side were stuck here. And Jazz had wondered: would it be the same for someone going through from this side? Except of course there was no way anyone was ever going to find out - was there?
'Now he has to come quietly!' Khuv was jubilant. As the firing ceased he ran down the walkway toward the flame-thrower squad, stood behind them watching the pitiful antics of the man from the Gate. At that moment Jazz had found himself feeling sorry for the weird visitor, but the moment had not lasted long.
The man sat up, shook himself dazedly, reached out a hand toward the shining sphere. His hand met resistance, could not proceed. He got to his knees, turned to face his tormentors. His scarlet eyes opened wide and glared his hatred at them; he hissed at them, spat his contempt onto the walkway. Even with great yellow blisters bursting and seeping their fluid all down his right side, crippled and -helpless? - still he defied them.
Khuv stepped to the fore, pointed at the gauntlet on the warrior's right hand. 'Take it off!' he made unmistakable gestures. 'Get rid of it - now!'
The man looked at his gauntlet and, incredibly, struggled to his feet. Khuv backed away, aimed his gun. 'Take that bloody thing off your hand!' he demanded.
But the man from the sphere only smiled. He looked at Khuv's gun, at the flame-projector whose nozzle pointed directly at him, and smiled a twisted smile. It was a strange expression, combining triumph, unbearable irony, even sardonic sadness or melancholy. But never a sign of fear. 'Wamphyri,' the man thumbed his chest, lifting his head in pride. Then ... he laid back his head and literally howled the word: 'Wamphyri.r
As the echoes of that cry died away, he thrust his face forward and glared once more at the men on the walkway, and there was that in his look which said: 'Do your worst. You are nothing. You know nothing!'
'The gauntlet!' Khuv cried again, pointing. He fired a shot in the air for emphasis, aimed his gun at the warrior's heart. But in the next moment he inhaled sharply, audibly, and let his air out in a gasp.
Standing there on the walkway, swaying a little from side to side, the man from the sphere had opened his jaws, opened them impossibly wide. A forked tongue, scarlet, lashed in the cavern of his mouth. The gape of his jaws expanded more yet; they visibly elongated, making a sound like tearing sailcloth. And because all else was total silence and the rest of the tableau was frozen, the sight and sounds of his metamorphosis were that much more vivid.
Jazz had held his breath as he watched; and now, in his cell, he held it again at the very memory of what he'd seen:
The warrior's fleshy lips had rolled back, stretching until they split, spurting blood and revealing crimson gums and jagged, dripping teeth. The entire mouth had resembled nothing so much as the yawning muzzle of a rabid wolf - but the rest of the face had been as bad if not worse! The squat, flattened nose had grown broader, developed convoluted ridges like the snout of a bat, whose oval nostrils were shiny-black flaring pits in dark, wrinkled leather. The ears, previously flat to the head, had sprouted patches of coarse hair, growing upward and outward to form scarlet-veined and nervously mobile shapes like fleshy conchs; and in this respect, too, the effect was bat like. Or perhaps demoniac.
For certainly hell was written in those outlines, was limned in the nightmarish expression of that face: a visage which was part bat, part wolf, and all horror! And still the change was incomplete.
The eyes, which before were small and deep-sunken, had now grown large as gorged leeches until they bulged crimson in their sockets. And the teeth... the teeth gave a new meaning to nightmare. For growing and curving up through the lacerated ribbons of the creature's gums, those bone daggers had so torn his mouth that it filled to overflowing with his own blood; and his teeth snarled through the blood like the awesome fangs of some primal carnivore!
As for the rest of his body, that had remained mercifully anthropomorphic; but through all of his metamorphosis his ravaged trunk and legs had taken on the dull gleam of lead, and every inch of his body had vibrated with an incredible palsy. But finally - Finally it was done. And knowing what he was doing, at last the man, or thing, from the sphere reached out its arms and took one more, stumbling step forward. And with that last lurching step in Khuv's direction, the creature gurgled: 'Wamphyri!'
Khuv had thought the thing was human, and he'd scarcely had time to recover from the shock of his error. His nerves, legs, voice - all of these things almost failed him. And that would have been a fatal malfunction. But in the last moment he stepped back out of range and croaked: 'Burn him - it! God, burn the whore's bastard to hell.'
That was all the man with the hose had been waiting for; he needed no further urging, and it required only the pressure of his forefinger on the trigger. A yellow jet of flame with a searing white core roared out from the nozzle, broadened, enveloped the horror from the Gate. For long seconds the squad hosed the thing down with chemical fire, and it simply stood there. Then the shape in the heart of the fire crumpled, seemed to melt down into itself, collapsed into a sitting position.
'Stop!' Khuv covered his face with a handkerchief. The roaring stream of fire continued for a second or two, hissed into silence as it was shut off at source. But the alien warrior continued to burn. Fire leaped up from him, rising six or seven feet above the black oval core which was his melting head, and there turned to foul, stinking smoke. Jazz hadn't been able to smell it, but still he'd known how it must have stank.
The flames burned lower, hissing and crackling, and the slumped shape shrank as its juices bubbled and boiled. Something that might have been a long, tapering arm rose up from the tarry remains in the fire, undulated like a crippled cobra in the clouds of smoke, began a violent shuddering which ceased when it collapsed back into the mess on the burning walkway.
'One more burst,' said Khuv, and the squad obliged. And in a very short space of time it was finished...
Then the film had come to an end and the screen flickered with white light, but Jazz and Khuv had continued to sit and stare at the scenes burned in their minds. Only after the last inch of film clattered from its free-spinning reel had Khuv moved, reaching to switch off the projector and turn up the lights.
After that ... it had been time for another drink. And rarely in Jazz's life had alcohol been more welcome...
While Michael J. Simmons sat on his bunk and thought about all the things he'd seen and heard, gradually the heartbeat or pulse of the complex slowed and took on something of a soft regularity. Outside it was night, and so in here it was a time for sleeping. But not all of the Projekt's staff and supporting units slept (there were, for instance, those who guarded the Gate, who were very much awake) and as for the one creature in the complex which was neither human nor anything else of Man's world: that hardly seemed to sleep at all.
So thought its keeper, Vasily Agursky, where he sat with his chin and drawn cheeks cupped in the palms of his too-large hands, gazing at Encounter Three through the thick glass wall of its tank. Agursky was a small man, no more than five-three in height, slender, slope-shouldered and with a large head whose dome came shiny and pointed through its uneven halo of dirty-grey down. Behind thick lenses his magnified eyes were light-brown in a pale face; they were red-rimmed, tiredly mobile under thin but expressive eyebrows. Thin-lipped and big-eared, he looked somehow gnomish in a paradoxically uncomical sort of way.
The red lighting of the thing's room was turned low so as not to frighten it down out of sight beneath the sand of its tank; it 'knew' Agursky and rarely became excited in his presence; while he sat observing the thing, with his skinny legs astride a steel chair and his elbows on the backrest, so it sprawled on the floor of its tank watching him. At present it was a leech-thing with a rodent face. A pseudopod, sprouting from a spot on its rear left-hand side, moved slowly on starfish feet, independently examining pebbles and lumps of crusted sand, then laying them aside. The pseudopod's single rudimentary eye was alert and unblinking.
The creature was hungry, and Agursky - unable to sleep despite the half-bottle of vodka he'd consumed -had decided to come down here and feed it. The queer thing (one of many queer things) was this: that lately he'd noticed how its moods seemed to affect him. When it was restless, so was he. Likewise when it was hungry. Tonight, despite the fact that he'd eaten fairly well during the day, he had felt hungry. And so he'd known that it must be hungry, too. It didn't really need to eat, not that he'd been able to discover, but it did like to. Offal from the cookhouse, blood of slaughtered beasts, the matted hides and hooves, eyes and brains and guts which men scorned - all of these things were grist for its mill. Ground up, they'd all go in through its feeder tube, and the thing in the tank would devour the lot.
'What the hell are you?' Agursky asked the creature for what must have been the thousandth time since it came into his care. Frustrating to say the least, for if anyone should have known the answer to his question it was Agursky himself. Zoology and psychology were his 'A' subjects; he'd been brought in specifically to study the thing and find out what made it tick, but all he'd discovered so far was that it ticked. After he'd worked with it for only a month or so other scientists, supposedly better qualified, had come to see it. Agursky had been slacking, apparently. But they'd looked at it, studied his notes, shaken their heads and gone away baffled. And he'd been left to get on with it. But get on with what? He knew the creature as intimately as any man could possibly wish to know it, and still he didn't know it.
Its blood was similar to the blood of all Earth's myriad animals, but sufficiently dissimilar to any of them as to make it alien. On the scales of intelligence it was not a higher species - not in comparison with Man, the dolphins, canines, apes - and yet it did have a certain sly intelligence. Its eyes, for example, were near-hypnotic. Every now and then Agursky had to stop staring it down and look away, or he was liable to go to sleep. The thing had put him to sleep on several occasions. And nightmares had invariably brought him gibbering awake.
It could be taught but resisted learning: it knew, for instance, that when its keeper showed it a white card food was coming. Also that a black card meant it was in danger of receiving an electrical shock. It had learned, painfully, that white and black cards together meant: 'Don't touch the food until the black card is taken away'. But to show it those cards together would produce a great fury in it. When food was available it did not like being denied it, or threatened through it. These were a few of the things Agursky had learned about the creature, but he would get the uncomfortable feeling just looking at it that it had learned far more about him. Another thing he knew about it was this: that it had a capacity for hate. And he knew who it hated.
'Feeding time,' he told it. 'I'm going to pump some vile, rancid, gone-off shit in there with you. And you're going to slurp it up like mother's milk and honey sweet from the comb - you bloody thing.' Doubtless it would prefer a live white rat or two, but the sight (even the thought) of that had already given Agursky too many bad dreams. For that was something else he'd learned about the thing in the tank: that while it would take dead, clotted blood readily enough, it in fact preferred it straight from a perforated, pulsing artery. Namely, that it was a vampire.
As Agursky stood up and began to prepare the feeding apparatus, he remembered the first time he'd tried the thing with a live rat. That had meant first drugging the creature in the tank and putting it well and truly to sleep. A small amount of blood containing a massive dose of tranquillizing agent had seen to that; after the thing had groggily retreated beneath the sand of its tank to sleep, then the heavy lid had been undamped and lifted, and the wriggling rat inserted. Three hours later (a remarkably short spell for the drug dosage) the thing had regained its senses and surfaced to see what was going on.
The rat hadn't stood a chance. Oh, it had fought as only a cornered rat can fight, but to no avail. The vampire had held it down, bitten through its neck and siphoned off its living blood. And it had formed a pair of fleshy, needle-tipped tubes to do so, actual siphons which it had slid into the rat's severed vessels.
The 'meal' had taken only a minute or two to complete, and Agursky had never seen the creature so avid for its food. After that... occasionally the thing would take on certain rodent characteristics, which its keeper assumed it had 'learned' from the creature it devoured. Nor was 'devoured' too strong a word for it; for after leeching the rat's blood, then the creature had consumed skin, bones, tail and all!
From this and subsequent meals of living food, Agursky had drawn several conclusions, however unproven. Encounter One had been a vampire; or if not vampiric, certainly it had been a carnivore. It had been seen to devour men whole before it fled the complex. Encounter Two, the wolf, was also a predator, a flesh-eater. Four was a bat - but specifically a vampire bat. And five... he had declared himself to be Wamphyri. Was there anything at all in that world beyond the Gate which was not vampiric or savagely carnivorous? Agursky's conclusion: that world was not one he would care to visit to find out at first hand.
Another speculation or line of thought which might lead to a number of unthinkable conclusions was this: that three of the five encounters - the five incursions from beyond - had been shape-changers, creatures which were not bound to one form. The thing in the tank, having examined and eaten a rat, could now assume an imperfect rodent identity. Would it also be able to emulate a man? Which in turn begged the question, was the Wamphyri warrior a man with the ability to change his shape, or had he been something else which now merely imitated a man?
Morbid thoughts and questions such as these had driven Agursky to drink, and thinking them again now made him wish he had a bottle with him right here, right now. But he didn't. The sooner he could get done with this, the sooner he'd be able to get back to his quarters and drink himself to sleep.
Just inside the door stood a trolley with the creature's food in a lidded container. The container was hooked up to an electric pump. Agursky wheeled the trolley closer to the tank and plugged in to the power supply. He coupled up the container's outlet to a feeder tube in the end wall of the tank, turned the valves on the container and tank to the open position and started the motor. The electric motor was quietly efficient; with a cough and a gurgle, glutinous liquids commenced to flow.
As he worked, Agursky had been aware that the thing was watching him. Strangely, it had not turned toward the food supply but remained in the position in which he'd left it. Only its eyes had swivelled to follow his movements. Agursky was puzzled. Dark red lumps of minced meat in a stream of semi-clotted beast-blood were jetting in sporadic spurts into the tank, forming a foul heap of guts on the sand at that end of the thing's 'lair'. And still it hadn't moved.
Agursky frowned. The creature could consume half its own weight at a time, and it hadn't been fed for four days. Could it be sick? Was its air supply OK? And now what the hell was it doing?
He went back to his chair and seated himself as before, with his arms folded on the backrest and his chin resting on the back of his left hand. The creature stared back at him through eyes which now seemed very nearly human. Its face, too, had lost much of its rodent identity and had taken on more nearly human outlines. The leech-like body sac was elongating, losing its dark colour and corrugations. Legs were developing, and arms - and breasts?
'What?' Agursky hissed the single word from between clenched teeth. 'What...?'
The spurious pebble-examining member shrank, was withdrawn into the main mass of the body. That body was now very nearly human, in shape if nothing else. It was like a girl, even had a girl's flowing hair. But on the creature's head that mass of hair was coarse and lacklustre, like the false hair of a poorly made doll. The breasts were lumpy and without nipples, like pallid blobs of flesh stuck on a flat male chest. The size, too, was wrong, for the thing only had the mass of a large dog, which even remodelled made for a very small woman.
With every passing second the expression on Agursky's face grew that much more disgusted. The creature was attempting to resemble a woman, but it was making a nightmarishly horrific job of it. Its 'hands' had now shaped themselves into appendages very like human hands, but the nails on the too-slender fingers were bright scarlet and far too long. Worse, its 'feet' were also hands: the creature couldn't discriminate. Then... the thing's simpering, idiot face smiled at Agursky, and suddenly he knew where he'd seen that smile before.
It was the face and smile, even the hair, of that sex-starved hag Klara Orlova, a spindly theoretical physicist who was fascinated by the creature and occasionally came in here to admire it! It had seen her face, her hands with their brightly painted nails, the upper roundness of her bosom where she wore that gown of hers unbuttoned to titillate the common soldiers - but it didn't know she had nipples, and it hadn't seen her feet at all. It had simply assumed that her feet were like her hands!
Agursky checked himself: no, for that would be to grant the thing too high a level of intelligence, and he had already satisfied himself that it was not especially bright. This mimicking was like the mindless, human-seeming cry of a parrot, or the ape wearing spectacles to 'read' a book. Indeed it was less than the latter, for it was purely instinctive. Like the colour change of a chameleon, or better still the chameleon's colour control plus the elasticity of the octopus.
Even while he was thinking these thoughts the thing had been ironing out certain imperfections. The skin tone was more nearly correct, as was the painted Cupid's bow of the mouth. The vampire's nose and dark nostrils, however, were still ugly and alien, ridged, convoluted and quivering. In its natural environment (wherever the hell that was) its sense of smell might well be its most important tool for survival; to change that organ's shape would be to drastically degrade its function. In any event, the final image which the thing presented - for all that it was still wrong, still grotesque - was at least something of ... an attempt?
But an attempt at what?
Suddenly, unreasonably, Agursky felt fury surging in him. Was this... this damned, flesh-eating slime actually trying to seduce him?
'Damn you - you thing! - that's it, isn't it?' he cried, jumping to his feet. 'You know the difference between us - or at least you sense it. And you'd like to use it! You think I'll be a little nicer to my plastic, blood-guzzling, alien little whore if 1 think I can maybe make love to it, eh? By God! - have you got the wrong man!'
Like a playful cat the thing stretched, rolled on its back, thrust its pale, useless breasts at him. There was no navel in its belly, but a little below where a navel should be was a protuberant, pulsing tube of flesh that could only be the thing's conception of a human vulva. The sexual implications turned Agursky white with rage in a moment. The thing was trying to seduce him! He yanked a black card from the pocket of his smock, showed it to the half-smiling, half-grimacing thing.
'You see this, you motherless monstrosity? How'd you like to dance for uncle, eh? You don't like that, do you?' But it was a bluff and the creature knew it. Its limpid eyes looked through the glass, this way and that all around the room, but Agursky hadn't brought the shock-box with him. He was impotent to carry out his threat.
The gurgling, crimson mess from the feeder tube continued to pump into the tank. The container was almost empty, and still the thing hadn't been tempted to start feeding. But now, as Agursky tremblingly took his seat again, a stream of scarlet seepage from the pile of offal found a zigzag route to the creature and touched its side. The metamorphosis which took place in it then was rapid indeed.
Its neck twisted round at an impossible angle to allow its quasi-human face to peer at the blood spreading round its flank. Then the face turned back and Agursky saw that the thing's eyes had taken on the hue of the blood it had observed. Hell glared out of those eyes at him. The grotesque, imitation face began to melt into another shape, another form. The mouth widened until it spanned almost the entire face, opened to display a cavernous gape where crooked, needle-sharp teeth lined a scarlet throat as far back as Agursky cared to look. And a forked snake's tongue vibrated in there, the tips of the fork flickering this way and that between the slime-dripping lips of the thing.
'That's more like it!' Agursky cried, feeling that he'd achieved something of a victory. 'Your little plan didn't work, so now let's see you as you really are.'
Contact with the raw red pulp had triggered the thing's hunger, ripped away its mask. In the face of instinctive urges it was incapable of keeping up the deception. Except ... for all the time he'd spent with the creature, Agursky had never seen anything quite like this before. Its food was there and the thing from beyond the Gate knew it, but more than just hunger and blood-lust had been triggered. And again the scientist wondered: is it ill? Is it suffering? And if so, from what?
For as if the vibration of the tongue had been only the start of it, the catalyst, now the thing's entire body was beginning to tremble. The human paleness of its protoplasm (Agursky could scarcely bring himself to think of it simply as 'flesh') was turning a slaty, almost leprous colour and tufts of coarse hair were sprouting everywhere. Limbs retracted, withering back into the main mass, and the vibrations of the whole began to come in regular, almost seismic spasms.
Watching it - fascinated despite himself, so that he was unable to take his eyes off it - Agursky's lips drew back from his yellow teeth in a silent snarl of loathing. God, the thing resembled nothing so much as a vast, diseased placenta - with a head!
But its crimson eyes still glared at him, and even as he continued to observe it so the thing curled back its forked tongue to reach far back into its own throat. Its spasms became retching movements, until finally the creature coughed its tongue back into view. Balanced in the slightly upward curving fork was a quivering, misted-pearl sphere about as big as a small boy's marble.
Agursky quickly stood up, went to the tank, crouched down and stared hard at the strange blob of matter in the creature's gaping mouth. Whatever it was, he could see that it was alive! Its surface was aswim with a pearly film, but Agursky believed he could see rows of flickering cilia around its circumference, causing the sphere to turn vertically on its own axis where it rested in the fork of the thing's tongue.
'Now what - ?' he started to say - but at that precise moment the creature thrust its head forward and its tongue uncoiled, hurling the pearly sphere directly at the scientist's face!
Agursky automatically jerked back, went sprawling on his backside. A ridiculous reaction, for of course the creature could do him no harm while the thick glass of the tank separated them. That was where the shimmering blob of matter had landed, flattening itself to the glass wall and clinging there. But even as Agursky stood up and shakily dusted himself down, so the sphere was on the move.
It slipped down the inner wall of the tank, came to rest - however briefly - on the blood-slimed sand and pebbles. Then it resumed its spherical shape, floating like a pearly bubble on the film of blood. And with its myriad flickering cilia propelling it, it swiftly followed the stream back to its source beneath the feeder tube. Then, an astonishing thing:
Like a ping-pong ball riding a jet of water, the spheroid climbed the last thick trickle of gore to the tube's inlet and disappeared inside. Frowning, jaw hanging slack, Agursky stepped to that side of the tank. The valves were still open, of course, and ... it would be wonderful to isolate this thing, this - parasite? Is that what it was? Some parasitic creature inhabiting the alien's body? Perhaps, but -
All sorts of ideas, words, were going through Agursky's mind. He had likened the creature itself to a placenta in the moment before it coughed this thing up. Maybe the connection he'd made there hadn't been too wild after all. The creature had seemed to undergo a sort of cataplasia, a reversion of its cells and tissues to a more primitive, almost embryonic form. Placenta, cataplasia, embryo -protoplast?
Agursky turned off the valves and pump, pulled the trolley close and lifted the heavy lid of the food container. Inside, central on the bottom of the container, floating on a film of blood amidst a few lumps of red gristle and unidentifiable debris, the pearly sphere whirled in a blur of almost invisible cilia. Agursky stared at it and shook his head in bewilderment.
In a moment of carelessness, fascinated and simply forgetting what he was dealing with here, he reached into the container and gently nudged the thing with the digit finger of his right hand. In the moment of contact he realized the folly of his action, but it was already too late.
The spheroid turned blood red in a moment - and ran up his hand under the cuff of his white laboratory smock. Agursky gave a gurgling cry, rearing up and back, away from the trolley. He could feel the spheroid wetly mobile on his forearm, moving swiftly to his upper arm, his shoulder. In a moment it was on his neck, coming out from under his collar. Dancing like a maniac, he cursed and slapped at the thing, felt it damp against his palm and for a single instant of time believed he'd crushed it. But then it was on the back of his neck.
Which was exactly where it wanted to be! The vampire egg soaked like quicksilver through Agursky's skin and settled on his spinal column.
Incredible pain at once filled his body, his limbs, his brain. Out of sheer reaction, like a man grasping a live cable, he bounded, bounded again and again. He crashed into a wall, lurched dizzily away from it, crumpled to his knees. Somehow he forced himself upright again, waded across the room through an ocean of pain. He must do something; but this hideous... this unbearable...
Red rockets were bursting, burning in his brain. Someone - something - was dripping acid on nerve-endings which were as raw as if recently severed. Agursky screamed, and as the entire world began to turn crimson saw his only possible salvation: the black alarm button in its red-framed glass box on the wall.
Even as he passed out he summoned sufficient strength to throw a punch at the glass box...