For a moment, I was disoriented. Before me was the real Graham Stone, and a false shell separating from him. It looked like I had double vision, with the two images overlapping slightly. Then he snarled and smashed the simulacrum away as it separated from him. On his hands, ugly brown bubbles of flesh rose up, burst free, and spun at me like biological missiles.
I stepped backward, swung the pipe, and broke open one of the spinning ... seeds, spores, whatever the hell they were. Instantly, the end of the pipe was sheathed in writhing white fibers. The fungus spread inexorably down toward my hand, and I had to drop the pipe. The second bubble had struck the doorjamb; a colony of cobweb fungus wriggled along the wood and aluminum, anchoring itself, spreading outward in all directions.
"Hold it right there!" I said, pretending that I was tough.
His hands came up again. I could see the spores forming. The skin turned brown, bulged, leaped away from him.
One of them burst on the wall next to me and sent climbing white tendrils toward the ceiling and the floor. Cracks appeared in the fiberboard as the stuff ate its way into the core of the ship.
The second spore struck my sports-coat sleeve, exploded with a bubbling froth of white growth. Never before or since have I stripped off a coat that fast, not even when a delectable blonde was waiting for me and cooing sweet things; I nearly strangled myself in the damn thing, but I got rid of it. By the time the coat hit the floor, the albino fronds were trembling like the hairs on the back of my neck.
Stone stepped out of the bathroom into the companionway, raising those hands at me again, and I turned and ran like hell.
Once before, I said that a private detective is finished when his nerve cracks, that the first time he backs down is the point at which his career begins to terminate. Well, I stand by that. I wasn't turning chicken. I was just using my head for once. Those who fight and run away—live to fight another day. So I ran. There are times when you know it isn't sensible to take on a tank with a target pistol, because you'll be standing there holding your target pistol and looking at the twelve-inch hole they just put in your gut.
Besides, this creepy Stone character wasn't playing the same game I was. He didn't know the rules. Even the crummiest two-bit punk will give you half a chance. He'll use a rod or a knife or even a jar full of sulfuric acid. But nothing this tricky. Stone didn't have any respect for tradition.
Topside, I ran—to the bow of the craft and checked the onrushing bank of the river. It seemed no more than two hundred feet away now. It was the most welcome sight of my life. On the rail next to me, a pod of fibrous death split and wrapped spidery tentacles around the iron, bored into the metal, and began to greedily devour it. I was struck with the notion that these pods were more virulent than those that had killed the gang-bangers in the alleyway.
I dove to the right, behind an exhaust housing. Cautiously, I peered over the top and saw Stone standing by the wheelhouse steps, his bright eyes flashing, his palms flattened in my direction.
The boat rushed closer to the shore.
But not fast enough to suit me.
Two pods spun over my head, landed on the deck behind, and ate down through the planking. Before long, the yacht was going to be honeycombed with the white tentacles, each as thin as a thread but as strong, surely, as a steel wire.
A whining sound arose, the sound of tortured metal. The deck of the boat shuddered, and we seemed almost to come to a stop. Then there was a jolt, and we sped forward again. The bottom had dragged over a shoreline rock formation, but we had not been grounded.
And then we were.
The boat hit the second reef, tore out its bottom, and settled into four feet of water, most of its bulk still high and dry.
I rolled back across the deck, grabbed the rail, heaved myself over the side. I struck shallow water and went under, striking my jaw on a hunk of smooth driftwood. My mouth sagged open, and I swallowed water. So this is what it's like to drown, I thought. Then I closed my stupid kisser and struggled to the surface again. I broke water, flailed my arms, pushed up, and staggered toward that blessed beach, sputtering and coughing and trying not to pass out.
I may not have a number of qualities that modern society considers admirable—like refined tastes and finesse. But there's one thing I do have, damn it. Grit.
I was five short steps from dry ground when the pods of fungus erupted before me. Two. Then two more. A wild tangle of white snakes rose up to block my escape. I turned and looked back. Graham Stone, alien Anglophile, looking like an evil Cary Grant, had left the ship too. He was splashing toward me.
I turned to my right. Two spores fell there. The pale snakes twisted out of the water, seeking, wriggling toward me.
On my left, two more.
No respect for tradition at all.
The water was only halfway up my calves, not deep enough for me to go beneath the surface and swim away. Besides, if the fungus was going to take me, I'd rather it happened up here, where I could see what those filaments were doing.
Graham Stone came relentlessly onward, holding his fire now. He knew he had me.
We were on a dark stretch of shore. No one to whom I could call for help.
Then from the left arose the furious whine of a small powerboat driven to the limits of its performance. A whooping siren wailed to life, one of those ooga horns from ancient automobiles. Out of the gloom and the falling snow, Bruno appeared. He was standing in a two-seat twelve-footer, holding on to the wheel for all he was worth. The craft was hitting better than fifty miles an hour. It skimmed the water, the bow in the air. Since the boat sat higher in the water than the yacht, it passed over the rock formations and kept coming.
"Bruno!" I shouted.
He was a textbook example of a man—or a bear—in the grip of an anxiety attack. His big eyes rolled wildly, and he braced for the worst.
The little boat hit the beach, the screws churning frantically. It slammed forward through the sand at twenty miles an hour for ten feet or so, struck a rock, stopped dead, and pitched the bruin over the windshield, across the bow, and onto the beach, flat on his enormous back.
And he got up. He looked dizzy, and he was covered with sand, but he had survived.
I started jumping up and down in the water yelling, "Get him, Bruno! Get him now!"
Those white tentacles were threading their way closer to me, even though Graham Stone had stopped approaching.
The bear raised his head, looked at me, felt for his floppy hat, then shrugged when he couldn't find it.
"Get him, Bruno, get him!" I bellowed.
He took out that silly-looking pistol of his, and while Stone tried to hit him with a spore of fungus, my friend the bear burned the sonofabitch on the spot with the Disney .780 Death Hose. The only thing left was some ashes, which floated away.
I knew I was going to have to get one of those. Maybe Mickey Mouse sold them out of a secret shop in Tomorrow Land.
"You killed him!" I shouted as Bruno burned down the white forest of fungus on all other sides of me.
Then I must have had an attack of low blood sugar or something, because I passed out. I'm sure I didn't faint.
WE HAD TO DISPOSE OF THE YACHT. IN ABOUT FIFTEEN SECONDS, WHEN Bruno was done with it, it was only a dusting of ashes slowly washing away on the water. No fire, really. Just whoosh—and it was nothing but dust. He destroyed the powerboat too, every trace of what had taken place here this evening.
We walked the dark shore for about a mile, until we found a waterside club where we could call a cab, and went back to my place. The driver kept wanting to know if Bruno had won the prize at the costume party, but we didn't answer him.
At home, we cleaned up, ate every steak in my refrigerator, every egg, every slice of cheese, every—well, everything. Then we finished off three bottles of Scotch between us—though I have to admit that he drank most of it himself.
We didn't talk about Graham Stone once. We talked a lot about being a cop—both the private and the badge-carrying kind. We talked about the types of punks at work out there—and discovered that they don't vary much from probability to probability. He explained why my Earth is not civilized enough to be welcomed into the probability societies—besides that credit thing. Strangely, he said that it won't be quite good enough until my type has all but vanished from the face of the Earth. Yet he liked me. I'm sure of that. Strange.
Shortly before dawn, he gave himself an injection that sobered him instantly. We shook hands (or at least he reached down and shook mine) and parted company. He went off to find a transmitting point to return to his own probability. And I went to sleep.
I never saw Bruno again.
But there have been other odd characters. Stranger than all the crooks I've known in this city. Stranger than Benny "the Ostrich" Deekelbaker and Sam "the Plunger" Sullivan. Stranger than Hunchback Hagerty, the deformed hired killer. Stranger, in fact, than either Graham Stone or Bruno. I'll tell you about them sometime. Right now, I've got a date with the cutest redhead you ever saw. Her name's Lorella, she can dance like a dream, and aside from a weird interest in ventriloquist dummies, she's got her head on straight.
JONATHAN, JESSICA, AND I ROLLED OUR FATHER THROUGH THE DINING room and across the fancy Olde English kitchen. We had some trouble getting Father through the back door, because he was rather rigid. This is no comment on his bearing or temperament, though he could be a chilly bastard when he wanted. Now he was stiff quite simply because rigor mortis had tightened his muscles and hardened his flesh. We were not, however, to be deterred. We kicked at him until he bent in the middle and popped through the door frame. We dragged him across the porch and down the six steps to the lawn.
"He weighs a ton!" Jonathan said, mopping his sweat-streaked brow, huffing and puffing.
"Not a ton," Jessica said. "Less than two hundred pounds."
Although we are triplets and are surprisingly similar in many ways, we differ from one another in a host of minor details. For example, Jessica is by far the most pragmatic of us, while Jonathan likes to exaggerate, fantasize, and daydream. I am somewhere between their two extremes. A pragmatic daydreamer?
"What now?" Jonathan asked, wrinkling his face in disgust and nodding toward the corpse on the grass.
"Burn him," Jessica said. Her pretty lips made a thin pencil line on her face. Her long yellow hair caught the morning sun and glimmered. The day was perfect, and she was the most beautiful part of it. "Burn him all up."
"Shouldn't we drag Mother out and burn the two of them at the same time?" Jonathan asked. "It would save work."
"If we make a big pyre, the flames might dance too high," she said. "And we don't want a stray spark to catch the house on fire."
"We have our choice of all the houses in the world!" Jonathan said, spreading his arms to indicate the beach resort around us, Massachusetts beyond the resort, the nation past the state's perimeters—the world.
Jessica only glared at him.
"Aren't I right, Jerry?" Jonathan asked me. "Don't we have the whole world to live in? Isn't it silly to worry about this one old house?"
"You're right," I said.
"I like this house," Jessica said.
Because Jessica liked this house, we stood fifteen feet back from the sprawled corpse and stared at it and thought of flames and ignited it in an instant. Fire burst out of nowhere and wrapped Father in a red-orange blanket. He burned well, blackened, popped, sizzled, and fell into ashes.
"I feel as if I ought to be sad," Jonathan said.
"Well, he was our father," Jonathan said.
"We're above cheap sentimentality." Jessica stared hard at each of us to be certain we understood this. "We're a new race with new emotions and new attitudes."
"I guess so." But Jonathan was not fully convinced.
"Now, let's get Mother," Jessica said.
Although she is only ten years old—six minutes younger than Jonathan and three minutes younger than I—Jessica is the most forceful of us. She usually has her way.
We went back into the house and got Mother.
THE GOVERNMENT HAD ASSIGNED A CONTINGENT OF TWELVE MARINES and eight plainclothes operatives to our house. Supposedly, these men were to guard us and keep us from harm. Actually, they were there only to be sure that we remained prisoners. When we were finished with Mother, we dragged these other bodies onto the lawn and cremated them one at a time.
Jonathan was exhausted. He sat down between two smoldering skeletons and wiped sweat and ashes from his face. "Maybe we made a big mistake."
"Mistake?" Jessica asked. She was immediately defensive.
"Maybe we shouldn't have killed all of them," Jonathan said.
Jessica stamped one foot. Her golden ringlets of hair bounced prettily. "You're a stupid bastard, Jonathan! You know what they were going to do to us. When they discovered just how far-ranging our powers were and just how fast we were acquiring new powers, they finally understood the danger we posed. They were going to kill us."
"We could have killed just a few of them to make our point," Jonathan said. "Did we really have to finish them all?"
Jessica sighed. "Look, they were like Neanderthals compared to us. We're a new race with new powers, new emotions, new attitudes. We are the most precocious children of all time—but they did have a certain brute strength, remember. Our only chance was to act without warning. And we did."
Jonathan looked around at the black patches of grass. "It's going to be so much work! It's taken us all morning to dispense with these few. We'll never get the whole world cleaned up."
"Before long, we'll learn how to levitate the bodies," Jessica said. "I feel a smidgen of that power already. Maybe we'll even learn how to teleport them from one place to another. Things will be easier then. Besides, we aren't going to clean up the whole world—just the parts of it we'll want to use for the next few years. By that time, the weather and the rats will have done the rest of the job for us."
"I guess you're right," Jonathan said.
But I knew he remained doubtful, and I shared some of his doubt. Certainly, we three are higher on the ladder of evolution than anyone who came before us. We are fledgling mind readers, fortune tellers, capable of out-of-body experiences whenever we desire them. We have
that trick with the fire, converting thought energy into a genuine physical holocaust. Jonathan can control the flow of small streams of water, a talent he finds most amusing whenever I try to urinate; though he is one of the new race, he is still strangely enchanted by childish pranks. Jessica can accurately predict the weather. I have a special empathy with animals; dogs come to me, as do cats and birds and all manner of offal-dropping creatures. And, of course, we can put a stop to the life of any plant or animal just by thinking death at it. Like we thought death at all the rest of humanity. Perhaps, considering Darwin's theories, we were destined to destroy these new Neanderthals once we developed the ability. But I cannot rid myself of the nagging doubt.