Though Laura was the strongest and most self-assured person Jack had ever known, he worried about her. The world was hard, full of nasty surprises, even here in the rural peace of Pine County. And people, including the toughest of them, could get ground up suddenly by the wheels of fate, crushed and broken in the blink of an eye.

"You take care of yourself," he said softly. "You take care and come back to me."


SEED DROVE TEEL PLEEVER'S BATTERED OLD JEEP WAGON TO THE END OF the abandoned logging road and turned right onto a narrow blacktop lane. In a mile the hills descended into flatter land, and the forest gave way to open fields.

At the first dwelling, Seed stopped and got out of the jeep. Drawing upon its host's store of knowledge, Seed discovered this was "the Halliwell place." At the front door, it knocked sharply.

Mrs. Halliwell, a thirtyish woman with amiable features, answered the knock. She was drying her hands on her blue-and-white-checkered apron. "Why, Mr. Pleever, isn't it?"

Seed extruded tendrils from its host's fingertips. The swift, black lashes whipped around the woman, pinning her. As Mrs. Halliwell screamed, a much thicker stalk burst from Pleever's open mouth, shot straight to the woman, and bloodlessly pierced her chest, fusing with her flesh as it entered her.

She never finished her first scream.

Seed took control of her in seconds. The tendrils and stalks linking the two hosts parted in the middle, and the glistening, blue-spotted black alien substance flowed partly back into Teel Pleever and partly into Jane Halliwell.

Seed was growing.

Searching Jane Halliwell's mind, Seed learned that her two young children had gone to school and that her husband had taken the pickup into Pineridge to make a few purchases at the hardware store. She had been alone in the house.

Eager to acquire new hosts and expand its empire, Seed took Jane and Teel out to the jeep wagon and drove back onto the narrow lane, heading toward the county road that led into Pineridge.


MRS. CASWELL ALWAYS BEGAN THE MORNING WITH A HISTORY LESSON. Until he had landed in her sixth-grade class, Jamie Watley had thought that he didn't like history, that it was dull. When Mrs. Caswell taught history, however, it wasn't only interesting but fun.

Sometimes she made them act out roles in great historical events, and each of them got to wear a funny hat suitable to the character he was portraying. Mrs. Caswell had the most amazing collection of funny hats. Once, when teaching a lesson about the Vikings, she had walked into the room wearing a horned helmet, and everyone had busted a gut laughing. At first Jamie had been a bit embarrassed for her; she was his Mrs. Caswell, after all, the woman he loved, and he couldn't bear to see her behaving foolishly. But then she showed them paintings of Viking longboats with intricately carved dragons on the prows, and she began to describe what it was like to be a Viking sailing unknown misty seas in the ancient days before there were maps, heading out into unknown waters where—as far as people of that time knew you might actually meet up with dragons or even fall off the edge of the earth, and as she talked her voice grew softer, softer, until everyone was leaning forward, until it seemed as if they were transported from their classroom onto the deck of a small ship, with storm waves crashing all around them and a mysterious dark shore looming out of the wind and rain ahead. Now Jamie had ten drawings of Mrs. Caswell as a Viking, and they were among his favorites in his secret gallery.

Last week a teaching evaluator name Mr. Enright had monitored a day of Mrs. Caswell's classes. He was a neat little man in a dark suit, white shirt, and red bow tie. After the history lesson, which had been about life in medieval times, Mr. Enright wanted to question the kids to see how much they grasped of what they had been taught. Jamie and the others were eager to answer, and Enright was impressed. "But, Mrs. Caswell," he said, "you're not exactly teaching them the six-grade level, are you? This seems more like about eighth-grade material to me."

Ordinarily, the class would have reacted positively to Enright's statement, seizing on the implied compliment. They would have sat` up straight at their desks, puffed our their chests, and smiled smugly. = But they had been coached to react differently if this situation arose, so they slumped in their chairs and tried to look exhausted.

Mrs. Caswell said, "Class, what Mr. Enright means is that he's afraid I'm pushing you too fast, too hard. You don't think that I demand too much of you?"

The entire class answered with one voice: "Yes!"

Mrs. Caswell pretended to look startled. "Oh, now, I don't overwork you."

Melissa Fedder, who had the enviable ability to cry on cue, burst into tears, as if the strain of being one of Mrs. Caswell's students were just too much to bear.

Jamie stood, shaking in make-believe terror, and delivered his one speech with practiced emotion: "Mr. En-Enright, we can't t-t-take it any more. She never lets up on us. N-n-never. We c-c-call her Miss Attila the Hun."

Other kids began to voice rehearsed complaints to Mr. Enright:

"—never gives us a recess—"

"—four hours of homework every night—"

"—too much—"

"—only sixth-graders—"

Mr. Enright was genuinely appalled.

Mrs. Caswell stepped toward the class, scowling, and made a short chopping motion with her hand.

Everyone instantly fell silent, as if afraid of her. Melissa Fedder was still crying, and Jamie worked hard at making his lower lip tremble.

"Mrs. Caswell," Mr. Enright said uneasily, "uh, well, perhaps you should consider sticking closer to the sixth-grade texts. The stress created by—"

"Oh!" Mrs. Caswell said, feigning horror. "I'm afraid it's too late, Mr. Enright. Look at the poor dears! I'm afraid I've worked them to death."

At this cue, all the kids in the class fell forward on their desks, as if they had collapsed and died.

Mr. Enright stood in startled silence for a moment, then broke into laughter, and all the kids laughed too, and Mr. Enright said, "Mrs. Caswell, you set me up! This was staged."

"I confess," she said, and the kids laughed harder.

"But how did you know I'd be concerned about your pushing them past sixth-grade material?"

"Because everyone always underestimates kids," Mrs. Caswell said. "The approved curriculum never challenges them. Everyone worries so much about psychological stress, the problems associated with being an overachiever, and the result is that kids are actually encouraged to be underachievers. But I know kids, Mr. Enright, and I tell you they're a much tougher, smarter bunch than anyone gives them credit for being. Am I right?"

The class loudly assured her that she was right.

Mr. Enright surveyed the class, pausing to study each child's face, and it was the first time all morning that he had really looked at them. At last he smiled. "Mrs. Caswell, this is a wonderful thing you've got going here."

"Thank you," said Mrs. Caswell.

Mr. Enright shook his head, smiled more broadly, and winked. "Miss Attila the Hun indeed."

At that moment Jamie was so proud of Mrs. Caswell and so in love with her that he had to struggle valiantly to repress tears far more genuine than those of Melissa Fedder.

Now, on the last Monday morning in October, Jamie listened to Miss Attila the Hun as she told them what medical science was like in the Middle Ages (crude) and what alchemy was (lead into gold and all sorts of crazy-fascinating stuff), and in a while he could no longer smell the chalk dust and child scents of the classroom but could almost smell the terrible, reeking, sewage-spattered streets of medieval Europe.


IN HIS TEN-FOOT-SQUARE OFFICE AT THE FRONT OF THE HOUSE, JACK Caswell sat at an ancient pine desk, sipping coffee and rereading the chapter he'd written the previous day. He made a lot of pencil corrections and then switched on his computer to enter the changes.

In the three years since his accident, unable to return to work as a game warden for the department of forestry, he had struggled to fulfill his lifelong desire to be a writer. (Sometimes, in his dreams, he could still see the big truck starting to slide on the ice-covered road, and he felt his own car entering a sickening spin too, and the bright headlights were bearing down on him, and he pumped the brake pedal, turned the wheel into the slide, but he was always too late. Even in the dreams, he was always too late.) He had written four fast-paced detective novels in the last three years, two of which had sold to New York publishers, and he had also placed eight short stories in magazines.

Until Laura came along, his two great loves had been the outdoors and books. Before the accident, he had often hiked miles up into the mountains, to places remote and serene, with his backpack half filled with food, half with paperbacks. Augmenting his supplies with berries and nuts and edible roots, he had remained for days in the wilderness, alternately studying the wildlife and reading. He was equally a man of nature and civilization; though it was difficult to bring nature into town, it was easy to carry civilization—in the form of books—into the wild heart of the forest, allowing him to satisfy both halves of his cleft soul.

These days, cursed with legs that would never again support him on a journey into the hills, he had to be content with the pleasures of civilization—and, damn it, he soon had to make a better living with his writing than he had managed thus far. From the sales of eight stories and two well-reviewed novels spread over three years, he had not earned a third as much as Laura's modest teaching salary. He was a long way from reaching the best-seller lists, and life at the lower end of the publishing business was far from glamorous. Without his small disability pension from the department of forestry, he and Laura would have had serious difficulty keeping themselves housed, clothed, and fed.

When he remembered the worn brown cloth coat in which Laura had gone off to school that morning, he grew sad. But the thought of her in that drab coat also made him more determined than ever to write a breakthrough book, earn a fortune, and buy her the luxuries that she deserved.

The strange thing was that if he had not been in the accident, he would not have met Laura, would not have married her. She'd been at the hospital visiting a sick student, and on the way out she had seen Jack in the hall. He was in a wheelchair, sullenly roaming the corridors. Laura was incapable of passing an obviously depressed man in a wheelchair without attempting to cheer him. Filled with self-pity and anger, he rebuffed her; however, rejection only made Laura try harder. He didn't know what a bulldog she was, but he learned. Two days later, when she returned to visit her student, she paid a call on Jack as well, and soon she was coming every day just to see him. When he resigned himself to life in a wheelchair, Laura insisted that he work longer and harder with a therapist every day and that he at least try to learn to walk with braces and a cane. After some time, when the therapist had only moderate success with him, Laura wheeled him, protesting, into the therapy room every day and put him through the exercises a second time. Before long, her indomitable spirit and optimism infected Jack. He became determined to walk again, and then he did walk, and somehow learning to walk led to love and marriage. So the worst thing that had ever happened to him—the leg-crushing collision—had brought him to Laura, and she was far and away the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Screwy. Life sure was screwy.

In the new novel on which he was working, he was trying to write about that screwiness: the bizarre way that bad things could lead to blessings while blessings sometimes ended in tragedy. If he could thread that observation through a detective story in such a way as to explore the more profound aspects of it, he might be able to write not only a big-money book but also a book of which he could be proud.

He poured another cup of coffee and was about to start a new chapter when he looked out the window to the left of his desk and saw a dirty, dented jeep station wagon pull off the county road into his driveway.

Wondering who could be calling, he immediately levered himself up from the chair and grabbed his cane. He needed time to get to the front door, and he hated to keep people waiting.

He saw the jeep stop in front of the house. Both doors flew open, and a man and a woman got out.

Jack recognized the man, Teel Pleever, whom he knew slightly. Just about everyone in Pine County knew Pleever, but Jack figured that, like him, most folks didn't really know the man well.

The woman was vaguely familiar to him. She was about thirty, attractive, and he thought perhaps she had a child in Laura's class and that he had seen her at a school function. In only a housedress and an apron, she was not properly clothed for the chilly October morning.

By the time Jack caned halfway across the office, his visitors had begun to knock on the front door.


SEED PULLED OFF THE HIGHWAY AS SOON AS IT SAW THE NEXT DWELLING. After centuries of dreamy half-life, it was eager to expand into more hosts. From Pleever, it knew that five thousand people lived in the town of Pineridge, in which Seed intended to arrive by noon. Within two days, three at most, it would assume control of every one of the town's citizens and then would spread throughout Pine County, until it seized the bodies and imprisoned the minds of all twenty thousand residents in that entire rural area.

Although spread among many hosts, Seed remained a single entity with a single consciousness. It could live simultaneously in tens of millions or even billions of hosts, absorbing sensory input from billions of eyes and billions of ears and billions of noses, mouths, and hands, without risking confusion or information overload. In its countless millions of years of drifting through the galaxies, on the more than one hundred planets where it had thrived, Seed had never encountered another creature with its unique talent for physical schizophrenia.

Now it took its two captives out of the jeep and marched them across the lawn to the front-porch steps of the small white house.

From Pine County it would send its hosts outward, fanning across this continent, then to others, until every human being on the face of the earth had been claimed. Throughout this period, it would destroy neither the mind nor the individual personality of any host but would imprison each while it used the host's body and store of knowledge to facilitate its conquest of the world. Teel Pleever, Jane Halliwell, and all the others would be horribly aware during their months of total enslavement: aware of the world around them, aware of the monstrous acts they were committing, and aware of Seed nesting within them.

It walked its two hosts up the porch steps and used Pleever to knock loudly on the front door.

When no man, woman, or child on earth remained free, Seed would advance to the next stage, the Day of Release, abruptly allowing its hosts to resume control of their bodies, though in each of them would remain an aspect of the puppetmaster, always gazing out through their eyes and monitoring their thoughts. By the Day of Release, of course, at least half of the hosts would be insane. Others, having held on to sanity in hope of eventual release from torment, would be rocked by the realization that even after regaining control of themselves, they must endure the cold, parasitic presence of the intruder forever; they too would then go slowly mad. That was what always happened. A smaller group would inevitably seek solace in religion, forming a socially disruptive cult that would worship Seed. And the smallest group of all, the tough ones, would remain sane and either adapt to Seed's presence or seek ways to evict it, a crusade that would not prove successful.