Seed rapped on the door again. Perhaps no one was at home.
"Coming, coming," a man called from inside.
Following the Day of Release, the fate of this sorry world would conform to the usual pattern: mass suicides, millions of homicides committed by psychopaths, complete and bloody social collapse, and an irreversible slide into anarchy, barbarism.
Creating chaos, spreading chaos, nurturing chaos, observing and relishing chaos were Seed's only purposes. The thing had been born in the genesis explosion at the start of time. Before that, it had been part of the supreme chaos of supercondensed matter in the time before time began. When that great undifferentiated ball of genesis matter exploded, the universe was formed; unprecedented order arose in the void, but Seed was not part of that order. It was a remnant of precreation chaos; protected by an invincible shell, it drifted forth into the blossoming galaxies, in the service of entropy.
A man opened the door. He was leaning on a cane.
"Mr. Pleever, isn't it?" he said.
From Jane Halliwell, Seed extruded black tendrils.
The man with the cane cried out as he was seized.
A blue-spotted black stalk burst from Jane Halliwell's mouth, pierced the crippled man's chest, and in seconds Seed had its third host: Jack Caswell.
The man's legs had been so badly damaged in an accident that he wore metal braces. Because Seed did not want to be slowed down by a crippled host, it healed Caswell's body and shucked off the braces.
Drawing upon Caswell's knowledge, Seed discovered that no one else was at home. It also learned that Caswell's wife taught at an elementary school and that this school, containing at least a hundred and sixty children and their teachers, was only three miles away. Rather than stop at every dwelling on the road into Pineridge, Seed could more effectively go to the school, seize control of everyone, and then spread out with all those hosts in every direction.
Jack Caswell, though imprisoned by Seed, was privy to his alien master's thoughts, because they shared the same cerebral tissue and neural pathways. Upon realizing that the school was to be attacked, Caswell's trapped mind squirmed violently, trying to slip free of its shackles.
Seed was surprised by the vigor and persistence with which the man resisted. With Pleever and the Halliwell woman, it had noticed that human beings—as they called themselves—possessed a far more powerful will than any species with which it had previously enjoyed contact. Now Caswell proved to have a considerably stronger will than either Pleever or Halliwell. Here was a species that obviously struggled relentlessly to create order out of chaos, that tried to make sense of existence, and that was determined to impose order on the natural world by the sheer power of its will. Seed was going to take special pleasure in leading humanity into chaos, degeneration, and ultimately into devolution.
Seed shoved the man's mind into an even darker, tighter corner than that to which it first confined him, chained him more securely. Then, in the form of its three hosts, it set out for the elementary school.
JAMIE WATLEY WAS EMBARRASSED TO ASK MRS. CASWELL FOR PERMISSION to go to the bathroom. He wanted her to think that he was special, wanted her to notice him in a way that she did not notice the other kids, wanted her to love him as much as he loved her—but how could she think that he was special if she knew that he had to pee like any other boy? He was being silly, of course. Having to go to the bathroom was nothing to be ashamed about. Everyone peed. Even Mrs. Caswell
No! He wouldn't think about that. Impossible.
But all through the history lesson he did keep thinking about his own need to pee, and by the time they were finished with history and halfway through math, he could no longer contain himself.
"May I have a lavatory pass, Mrs. Caswell?"
The lavatory passes were on a corner of her desk, and he had to walk by her to reach them. He hung his head and refused to look at her because he didn't want her to see that he was blushing brightly. He snatched the pass off the desk and hurried into the hall.
Unlike other boys, he did not dawdle in the restroom. He was eager to get back to class so he could listen to Mrs. Caswell's musical voice and watch her move back and forth through the room.
When he came out of the lav, three people were entering the end of the corridor through the outside door to the parking lot: a man dressed in hunting clothes, a woman in a housedress, and a guy in khaki pants and a maroon sweatshirt. They were an odd trio.
Jamie waited for them to pass because they looked as if they were in a hurry about something and might knock him down if he got in their way. Besides, he suspected that they might ask where to find the principal or the school nurse or somebody important, and Jamie enjoyed being helpful. As they drew abreast of him, they turned toward him, as one.
He was snared.
SEED WAS NOW FOUR.
By nightfall it would be thousands.
In its four parts, it walked down the hall toward the classroom to which Jamie Watley had been returning.
A year or two hence, after the entire population of the world had become part of Seed, when bloodshed and chaos were then initiated with the Day of Release, the entity would remain entirely on—planet only a few weeks to witness firsthand the beginning of the human decline. Then it would form a new shell, fill that vessel with part of itself, and break free of the earth's gravity. Returning to the void, it would drift for tens of thousands or even millions of years until it found another likely world, where it would descend and await contact with a member of the dominant species.
During its long cosmic journeying, Seed would remain in contact with the billions of parts of itself that it left behind on earth, although only as long as those fragments had hosts to inhabit. In a way, therefore, it would never really leave this planet until the last human being was destroyed centuries hence in one terminal act of chaotic violence, whereupon the remaining bit of earthbound Seed would die with that final host.
Seed reached the door of Laura Caswell's classroom.
The minds of Jack Caswell and Jamie Watley, hot with anger and fear, tried to melt through the shackles in which Seed bound them, and it paused briefly to cool them down and establish full control. Their bodies twitched, and they made gurgling sounds as they strove to scream a warning. Seed was shocked by the rebellion; while having no slightest chance of success, their resistance was nevertheless greater than any it had ever before encountered.
Exploring the minds of Jack and Jamie, Seed discovered that their impressive, stubborn exercise of will had been powered not by fear for themselves but by fear for Laura Caswell, teacher of one and wife of the other. They were angry about their own enslavement, yes, but they were even angrier about the possibility of Laura being possessed. They were both in love with her, and the purity of that love gave them the strength to resist the horror that had engulfed them.
Seed had encountered the concept of love among half of the species that it had destroyed on other worlds, but nowhere had it perceived the force of love as strongly as in these human beings. Now it realized for the first time that the will of an intelligent creature wasn't the only important power in the employ of universal order; love also fulfilled that function. And in a species that had both a strong will and an unusually well-developed ability to love, Seed had found the most formidable enemy of chaos.
Not formidable enough, of course. Seed was unstoppable, and within twenty-four hours all of Pineridge would be absorbed.
Seed opened the classroom door. The four of it went inside.
LAURA CASWELL WAS SURPRISED TO SEE HER HUSBAND ENTER THE ROOM with Richie Halliwell's mother, that old scoundrel Teel Pleever, and Jamie. She couldn't imagine what any of them, other than Jamie, was doing there. Then she realized that Jack was walking, actually walking, not shuffling, not dragging himself along stiff legged but walking easily like any man.
Before the wonder of Jack's recovery could sink in, before Laura could ask him what was happening, even as her students were turning in their seats, terror struck. Jamie Watley held his hands toward a classmate, Tommy Albertson, and hideous, black, wormlike tendrils erupted from his fingertips. They lashed around Tommy, and as the snared boy cried out, a repulsive snakelike thing burst from Jamie's breastbone and pierced Tommy's chest, linking them obscenely.
The children screamed and pushed up from their desks to flee, but with astonishing speed they were attacked and silenced. Hateful, glossy worms and thicker snakes spewed forth from Mrs. Halliwell, Pleever, and Jack. Three more of Laura's nineteen students were seized. Suddenly Tommy Albertson and the other contaminated children joined in the attack; worms and snakes erupted from them toward new victims only seconds after they themselves had first been pierced.
Miss Garner, the teacher in the next room, stepped through the door to see what the shouting was about. She was taken before she could cry out.
In a single minute all but four thoroughly terrorized children had been taken firmly under the control of some nightmare organism. The four survivors—including Jane Halliwell's son, Richie—gathered around Laura; two were stunned into silence and two were crying. She pushed the kids behind her, into a corner by the chalkboard, and stood between them and the monstrosity that wanted them.
Fifteen possessed children, Pleever, Mrs. Halliwell, Miss Garner, and Jack gathered before her, staring with predatory intensity. For a moment all were still and silent. In their eyes she saw not merely reflections of their own tortured souls but the inhuman hunger of the thing that had taken control of them.
Laura was scared and sick at heart to think of that glistening black thing curled inside her Jack, but she was not hobbled by either confusion or disbelief, because she had seen her share of the movies that, for decades, had been preparing the world for precisely this nightmare. Invaders from Mars. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The War of the Worlds. She knew immediately that something from beyond the stars had at last found the earth.
The question was: Could it be stopped—and how?
She realized that she was holding her chalkboard pointer as if it were a mighty sword and as if the nineteen alien-infected people in front of her would be kept at bay by that useless weapon. Silly. Nevertheless, she did not cast the pointer aside but thrust it forward challengingly.
She was dismayed to see her hand shaking. She hoped that the four children crouching behind her were not aware that she was in the grip of terror.
From the possessed group that confronted her, three moved slowly forward: Jane Halliwell, Jamie Watley, and Jack.
"Stay back," she warned.
They took another step toward her.
A bead of perspiration trickled down Laura's right temple.
Mrs. Halliwell, Jack, and Jamie advanced another step.
Suddenly they didn't seem to be as well controlled as the others, because they began to twitch and jerk with muscle spasms. Jack said, "Noooo," in a horrible, low, agonized voice. And Jane Halliwell said, "Please, please," and shook her head as if to deny the orders that she had been given. Jamie was trembling violently and holding his hands to his head as though trying to get at the thing inside him and wrench it out.
Why were these three being forced to complete the subjugation of the classroom? Why not others?
Laura's mind worked feverishly, sensing an advantage, searching for it, but not sure if she would recognize it when she found it. Perhaps the thing in Jane Halliwell wanted her to infect her own son, Richie, who hid behind Laura's skirts, as a test of its control over the woman. And for the same reason it might want Jack to experience the horror of inducting his wife into this colony of the damned. As for poor Jamie ... well, Laura was aware of the boy's fierce crush on her, so maybe he was being tested as well, to see if he could be made to attack the person he loved.
But if they had to be tested, their master was not yet entirely certain of its dominance. And where it had doubt, surely its intended victims had hope.
SEED WAS IMPRESSED WITH THE RESISTANCE EXHIBITED BY THREE OF ITS hosts when the moment came to infect their loved ones.
The mother was furious at the thought of her son being brought into the fold. She pried at the restraints on her mind and struggled fiercely to regain her body. She posed a mildly difficult problem of control, but Seed squeezed her consciousness into an even tighter, darker place than that to which it had at first condemned her. It pushed her mind down, down, as if it were thrusting her into a pool of water, and then it weighted her in that deep place as if stacking heavy stones upon her.
Jamie Watley was equally troublesome, motivated as he was by pure, clean puppy love. But Seed reasserted authority over Jamie as well, stopped the boy's muscle spasms, and forced him forward toward the woman and children in the corner of the room.
The husband, Jack Caswell, was the most difficult of the three, for his will was the strongest; and his love was the most powerful. He raged against confinement, actually bent the bars of his mental prison, and would have gladly killed himself before taking Seed to Laura Caswell. For more than a minute he resisted his master's orders, and for one startling moment he seemed about to break free of control, but at last Seed squeezed him into full if grudging compliance.
The fourteen other captured children in Mrs. Caswell's sixth-grade class were easily seized and controlled, although they also exhibited signs of rebellion. As the teacher backed into the corner, as the three chosen hosts approached her, a hot wave of rage went through every child in the room, for they all loved her and could not bear the thought of her possessed. Seed clamped down on them at once, hard, and their brief exertions of will faded like sparks on an arctic wind.
Under the guidance of Seed, Jack Caswell stepped in front of his wife. He tore the pointer out of her hand and threw it aside.
Seed burst from Jack's fingertips, seized Laura, and held her, although she struggled fiercely to pull free. Opening the mouth of its host, Seed shot forth a thick stalk, pierced the woman's breast, and surged into her, triumphant.
Laura felt it slithering along her nervous system, questing coldly in her brain, and she denied it. With the iron determination that she had brought to her campaign to make Jack walk, with the unlimited patience that she always brought to the instruction of her students, with the unshakable sense of self-worth and individuality with which she faced every day of her life, she fought the thing at every turn. When it cast restraining bands of psychic energy around her mind, she snapped them and threw them off. When it tried to drag her into a dark place and imprison her there under psychic stones, she threw off those weights as well and soared to the surface. She sensed the thing's surprise, and she took advantage of its confusion, delving into its mind, learning about it. In an instant she realized that it dwelled in all the minds of its hosts simultaneously, so she reached out to Jack and found him—