"The Replicators" (1965) by A. E. van Vogt

(actualisé le ) by A. E. van Vogt

Steve Matlin is an particularly ornery, introverted, stubborn and combative farmer (and WW2 veteran) who comes across a very big and very strange alien monster on a back road near his farm, so as he was out on an (illegal) hunting expedition anyways, he shot the thing, of course.

Well, the duplicate copies of this alien visitor to Earth - who had never encountered such wanton aggressiveness in all their journeys throughout the galaxy - decide to go after Steve in a big way to get even, but although they can and do replicate (on a much bigger and more menacing scale) everything Steve or anyone else throws in their way, our ex-Marine is a tough nut to crack, and the ensuing ding-dong battle between these aliens and Steve and his compatriots provides the story line of this late but really quite successful van Vogt tale.

In fact, Steve being about the most self-centred example of humanity in the whole history of literature, there are moments when the story becomes frankly hilarious - perhaps the only case of such light-heartedness in the whole oeuvre of Canada’s bestest-selling author, Mr. van Vogt.

With the original WORLDS OF IF SCIENCE FICTION illustrations by Morrow, and cover art by McKenna [1].



e-books of this good read are available for downloading below.


THE REPLICATORS

I

Standing there, after killing the monster, Matlin began to get mad.
In its death throes, the twelve-foot creature had done a violent muscular convulsion and somersaulted over into the dump section of Matlin’s truck.
There it lay now, with its elephantine head and quarter-length trunk twisted to one side, and a huge arm and hand flung up and visible over the rear end. What must have been tons of shiny, black body was squashed limply down in­to the bottom of the cavernous metal carrier . . . creating a problem.
That was all it was to Matlin: a problem.
Steve Matlin was an abysmally suspicious and angry man. His im­pulse now was to dump the beast in the weeds beside the road. Re­luctantly, he decided against that. He had unfortunately been seen driving along this little used lake road by the two officers of a high­way patrol car. If the patrolmen found the creature’s body, they would assume that he had shot it.
This benighted man, Matlin, en­visioned himself as being the person who would have to see to the disposition of the dead monster. As he reasoned it out, if he made the mistake of dumping it in the wrong place, he’d have to hire a crane to get it into his truck again. And if he simply took it home, he’d have the job of digging a hole for it.
"Better take it to the police," he decided gloomily, "and follow their advice like a good little fel­low."
Seething at the nuisance, but re­signed, he drove to the main high­way. There, instead of turning left to his farm, he headed for Minden, the nearest suburb of the city. Ar­rived in town, he drove straight to the police station, braked to a halt, and vigorously honked his horn.
Nobody showed.
The exasperated Matlin was about to lean on his horn and really blast them with sound, when he made an electrifying discovery. The police headquarters was on a side street and, whatever the reason, there wasn’t a car or person in sight.
. . . Hot afternoon, empty street, rare opportunity —
Matlin tripped the lever that started the dump mechanism. A mo­ment later, he felt the beast’s body shift. He simply drove out from un­der it and kept on going, gunning his motor and reversing the dump mechanism.

II

That night before they went to bed, his wife, Cora, said to him, "Did you hear about the crea­ture from space?"
Matlin’s mind leaped to the mem­ory of the beast he had carted into town. He thought scathingly: "Those nuts! Creature from space indeed!" But he said aloud, gruffly, "You watching that junk on TV?"
"It was in the news report," she said defensively. "They found it right there in the street."
So it was the thing he had killed. He felt a sudden glee. He’d got away with it. He thought smugly: "Saved myself twenty-five bucks. Time I had a little luck."
He went silently to bed.
Cora lay for a while, listening to his peaceful breathing, thinking of the monster from space — and thinking of the universe that she knew existed somewhere beyond the narrow world of Steve Matlin. She had once been a teacher. But that was four children and two decades ago. It was a little hard sometimes to realize how far away the real world was these days.
Out there, a creature never be­fore seen on earth had been found lying dead in the street in front of the Minden police station. The TV cameras brought front views, side views and top views into every­body’s living room. No one had any idea how the thing had gotten where it was discovered, and, according to the news commentators, top govern­ment and military officials were be­ginning to gather around the colos­sal corpse like buzzing flies.
Two days went by. A monster-hunting expedition arrived at the Matlin farm — among other places — but Cora shook her head to their questions and denied in a take-it-for-granted tone that Steve was the one who had transported the beast. "After all," she said scathingly, "he would have told me. Surely, you — uh!"
She stopped, thought: "That man! That incredible man! He could have."
The visitors seemed unaware of her sudden confusion. And they also evidently believed that a hus­band would have told his wife. The principal spokesman, a fine looking, soft-voiced man of her own age, who had introduced himself as John Graham — and who was the only person present not in a police or military uniform — said in a kind­ly tone, "Tell your husband there’s quite a reward already, something like a hundred thousand dollars, for anyone who can help us effectively."
The expedition departed in a long line of noisy motorcycles and cars.

It was about mid-morning the next day when Steve Matlin saw the second monster.
He had been following the trail of the first one from the lake road. And suddenly here was another.
He dived into a gully and lay there, breathless.
What he had expected, in coming here by himself, Matlin had never considered clearly. When Cora had told him of the reward money, he had instantly derided her trusting nature.
"Those S.O.B.’s will never split that reward with anyone who hasn’t got his claim staked and ready to fight," he had said.
He had come to stake his claim.
His shock on seeing this second creature was like a multitude of flames burning inside him. He was aware of the heat rising along his spine and searing his brain. Fear! Trembling, he raised his rifle.
As he did so, the creature —which had been bending down —came up with something that glinted in the sun. The next instant, a bullet whistled past Matlin’s head and struck a tree behind him with an impact like a clap of thunder. The ground trembled. An instant later, the sound of an explosion came to Matlin’s ears.
The explosion was loud enough to have come from a small cannon.
Even as he made the mental com­parison from his experience as a Marine in World War II, the dis­tant rifle — it looked like a rifle, though a huge one — spat flame again. This time the bullet struck the rock ten yards in front of Matlin and sprayed him with a shower of rock splinters. His body stung all over, and when he was able to look again — after the second explosion had echoed from the distance —he saw that his hands were covered with dozens of droplets of his blood.
The sight was both terrifying and galvanizing. He slid back, rolled over, half-clawed to his feet and, bending low, ran to the gully’s end, stopping only when he realized that it was becoming too shallow to be a shelter.
What could he do?

Shadowy memories came of war­time risks he had taken. At the time he had felt enforced, compelled by the realities of a war he never ac­cepted — a war that had wasted several years of his life. But he remembered moving, crouching, going forward. He had always thought what a mad thing it was for a sensible person to force himself into enemy territory. Yet under the hated pressure of wartime discipline, he had resignedly gone into the most deadly situations.
Was it possible he would have to do that now — because of his own foolishness in coming here?
As he crouched there, appalled, two more cannonlike shells splatter­ed the rock where he had been seconds before. A cannon against a rifle! Matlin wanted out, wanted away. The angry scheme he had had to get for himself whatever might be at the end of this search had no meaning in the face of the firepower that was seeking, his destruction with each booming shot.
He lay cringing at the shallow end of the gully, not even daring to raise his head.
His own rifle seemed like a mere toy now . . .

The phone rang. When Cora an­swered, it took her several moments to recognize the hoarse voice at the other end as her husband’s.
"I’m calling from a roadside pay phone. Can you find out where that monster-hunting expedition is now?" he said.
"Mamie just called. They were over at her farm. Why?"
"It’s chasing me," he said. "Tell ’em I’m coming toward the high­way from the boathouse. It’s driving a dump truck as big as a house."
"What’s chasing you?" Cora yelled into the mouthpiece. "Where?"
"A second one of the monsters. On that back road to the lake," Mat­lin moaned. And hung up.

III

The battle on the highway be­gan about two o’clock in the afternoon. The creature climbed out of the cab of a dump truck that stood twenty feet high. Crouching behind the vehicle, it fired with a rifle the size of a cannon at any­thing that moved.
The two dozen men with their frail cars and tiny rifles crouched in the underbrush. Lying beside Gra­ham, Matlin heard the man say ur­gently to an army major: "Call again for an air strike!"
It was about ten minutes after that that the first helicopter appear­ed on the horizon. It turned out to be an enterprising TV station’s ve­hicle, with cameras aboard. The fluttering monstrosity of flying ma­chine circled the dump truck, taking pictures of the great being be­side it. At first it did not seem to occur to the creature to look at the sky for the source of the sound. But suddenly it got the idea.
Up came that long rifle. The first bullet smashed through the cockpit. A splinter from somewhere hit the pilot and knocked him un­conscious. The helicopter flew off erratically. As it retreated, another gigantic bullet smashed its tail. The stricken whirlibird fluttered down among the trees on the other side of a low hill.
Worse, when the military heli­copters arrived, they no longer had the advantage of surprise. The can­non-rifle fired at them as they ap­proached. They veered off—but not before three went down, one in flames. With one exception, the oth­ers began to shoot back from a dis­tance.
The exception flew off to the left, disappearing low behind a hill. It reappeared presently to the rear of the monster and, while the other machines kept up a barrage from in front, this lone helicopter came in on the target from behind.
The barrage of bullets that its pilot loosed downward almost tore off the great head of a creature which did not even see where the death came from.
Matlin walked forward with the others, angrily fingering the "claim" he had written out. It in­furiated him that they were not of­fering to honor his rights. Even though he had expected it, the real­ity was hard to take.
Arrived at the truck, he stood im­patiently by while the men examined the creature, the huge vehicle and the rifle. Matlin was drawn abrupt­ly out of his irritated self-absorption with the realization that he had been twice addressed. Graham indicated the ten-foot rifle.
"What do you make of that?"
The question approach, the appeal to him on an equal basis, momentar­ily neutralized the timeless anger in Matlin. "Now!" he thought. He handed Graham his claim with the request, "I’d like you to sign this." Then he bent down beside the huge weapon and examined it.
He commented presently, "Looks like a pump action repeater, much like the one I’ve got, only many times as big. Could have been made by the same company."
It irritated him as he spoke to realize that Graham still held the claim sheet in his hand; had not even glanced at it.
Graham said in an odd tone, "What company?"
"Mine is a Messer," said Matlin.
Graham sighed and shook his head in bewilderment. "Take a look at the nameplate on that big gun," he said.
Matlin bent down. The word, "MESSER-made", stared back at him in indented, black metal lettering.
"And what’s the name of your dump truck?" Graham asked.
Silently, Matlin loped around to the front of the over-sized truck, and peered up at the letters. They were exactly the same as on his own dump truck: FLUG.
When Matlin returned with the identification, Graham nodded, and then handed him back his claim sheet, and said evenly, "If I were to write that claim, Mr. Matlin, it would read: ’As the man who has done the most to prevent the crea­ture from space being traced down, I recognize myself—’ meaning you, Mr. Matlin— ’as the one person least qualified to receive the re­ward.’ "
It was such an unexpected reac­tion, so instantly threatening to his rights, so totally negative, that Mat­lin blanched. But he was stopped by the words only for a moment. Then the anger poured.
"Why, you damned swindler!" he began.
"Wait!" Graham spoke piercingly, raised his hand in a warning ges­ture. His steely gray eyes were cyn­ical as he continued: "Now, if you were to lead us onto the real back­track, help us locate these creatures, I’ll reconsider that judgment. Will you?"

Night came and caught them on the hunt.
As the monster-hunting expedi­tion camped beside the lake, the darkness was shattered by a thun­derous roaring sound. Matlin tum­bled from the back seat of his car, ran to the lake shore, and peered across the dark waters toward the island in the lake’s center. He was aware of other men coming up be­hind and beside him.
It was from the island that the noise came.
"Sounds like a whole battery of jet engines," somebody yelled above the roar, "and it seems to be com­ing this way."
Abruptly, the truth of that was borne out. The jet sound was sud­denly above them. Framed in a patch of dark blue sky, a monstrous sized helicopter was momentarily visible.
It disappeared into a cloud bank. The great roaring receded, became a remote throb.
In the darkness, Graham came up beside Matlin, said, "Didn’t you tell me you had a lakeside cabin near here?"
"Yeh." Matlin said wary.
"Got a boat there?"
Matlin jumped to a horrid con­clusion. "You’re not thinking of go­ing over to the island?" he gulped. "Now!"
Graham said earnestly, "We’ll pay you for the rent of the boat, and guarantee you against damages—in writing. And if that’s the base these creatures operate from, I’ll sign your claim."
Matlin hesitated. The boat and the lakefront property were his one dream. No one, not even Cora, had ever realized how much they meant to him. On the very day that he had killed the first monster, he had taken a load of sand from his farm and dumped it lovingly on the water’s edge.
Standing there, Matlin visualized what the reward money would do for his dream: the rough shoreline fully sanded in, a hunting and fish­ing lodge, and a larger boat, the kind he had often fantasied but never managed to acquire.
"I’ll do it," he said.

On the island, using his flashlight sparingly, Matlin led Graham and two other men to where the ground suddenly felt . . . harder.
When they dug down, they found metal bare inches under the grass.
Graham talked softly by two-way radio to the camp they had left and then held his radio for Matlin and himself to hear the answer: a parachute army would be called by way of the more powerful radio at the camp. By dawn, several hundred seasoned men with tanks, demolition units, and cannon would be down with them.
But, as the radio shut off, they were alone once more in the dark. The reinforcements of the morning were still hours away.
It was Matlin—again—who found the overhang that led into a huge, brightly lighted ship.
He was so intent, and interested, that he was inside the first chamber with the others before he clearly realized how far he had come.
He stopped. He half turned to run. But he didn’t move.
The scene held him.
They were in a circular room about 400 feet in diameter. A num­ber of solidly built metallic extru­sions came up from the floor or down from ceiling. Except for them the room was empty.
Matlin went with the others to where a ramp led down to the next level. Here there were more of the huge, built-in machines—if that was what they were—but this level, also, was deserted.
On the third level, they found two sleeping "children".
Each lay on its back in a long, black, metal, box-like structure. The larger was about half the size of a full-grown alien, the smaller a mere bit of a thing two feet long. Both were stocky of body and were, unmistakably, younger versions of the two creatures that had already been killed.
As the three men—Graham and the two officers—glanced at each other questioningly, Matlin drew out his claim sheet, and held it toward Graham. The government agent gave him a startled look; then, evidently realizing Matlin meant it, he nodded resignedly, took the pen and signed.
The moment he had the claim sheet back in his hands, Matlin head­ed for the ramp.
He was sweating now with fear. Yet he realized he had had no alter­native. He had to have that sig­nature. But now—
. . . Get away from all this stuff that was none of his business!
When he reached the lakeshore, he started the motor of the motor­boat, and headed back toward his boathouse. He locked up the boat, walked stealthily through the dark­ness to his car, and drove off.
As he came out of the line of trees a mile from his farm, he saw the entire yard was on fire. He heard the thunder of gigantic engines—
His house, his barn, his machine shed—all were burning! In the vivid, fitful light from the flames he saw the huge helicopter lift up from the far side and soar up into the night sky.
So that was where it had gone!
It passed by above him somewhat to his right, a colossal sound, the source of which was now completely invisible in the darkness of an over­cast sky.
Matlin found Cora and the son that was not away at school crouch­ing in the field. She mumbled something about the monster having come over and looked down at them. She said wonderingly, "How did it know this was your farm? That’s what I don’t understand."

IV

The fire was dwindling. People were beginning to drive into the yard. Car doors slammed. In the fading brightness, Matlin in a be­mused state carried his son and walked beside Cora to his station wagon.
He was having a different kind of thought. Why hadn’t the creature killed his wife and child? Cora and the boy had been as completely at its mercy as the farm.
A neighbor named Dan Gray touched his arm and said, "How about you and Cora and the boy staying at my place tonight, Steve?"
By the time they got over on the Gray farm, a man was on TV de­scribing how Steve Matlin had left three men at the mercy of the re­turning alien.
He named Matlin.
Matlin recognized the man who was talking as a member of the monster-hunting expedition.
He glanced around, saw that Gray, Gray’s wife—a tall, thin woman—and Cora were staring at him. Cora said in horror: "Steve, you didn’t!"
Matlin was amazed. "I’m going to sue that fellow for libel!" he yelled.
"Then it isn’t true," Cora wailed. "What an awful thing for them to say such a lie!"
Matlin was outraged at her mis­understanding. "It’s not a lie, just a bunch of baloney. Why should I stay on that island? If they want to be crazy, that’s their business."
He saw from their faces that his perfectly obvious truth was not ob­vious to them. He became grim. "Okay, I can see I’m no longer wel­come. Come along, Cora."
Mrs. Gray said, tightlipped, "Cora and the boy can stay."
Matlin was quite willing, already at peace with their foolishness. "I’ll pick you up in the morning," he said to his wife.
Cora did not reply.
Gray accompanied Matlin to his car. When he came back into the living room, he was shaking his head. He said to Cora, "One thing about that husband of yours. He lets you know where he stands."
Cora said stiffly, "He’s let me know once too often. Imagine leav­ing those men!" There were tears in her eyes.
"He says they lured him over to the island."
"Nobody lures Steve. His own scheming got him over there."
"He says he suddenly realized the generals had done it again—got a private into the front line. And since this was not his war—"
"If it isn’t his war, whose is it? He fired the first shot."
"Well, anyway, the generals are on the firing line, and no one could care less than Steve. I can tell you that."
"’That’s the astonishing thing," said Cora, wonderingly. "He thinks World War II was a conspiracy to waste his time. He lives entirely in his own private world. Nothing can shake him, as you just saw."

Matlin drove back to his farm and slept there in the back of his car.
When he returned to the Gray farm in the morning, Dan Gray came out to meet him. He was grin­ning. He said, "Well, Steve, it’s finally going to be your war."
Matlin stared at the knowing smile on the somewhat heavy face of his neighbor, but the words seemed meaningless. So he made no reply but simply got out of his car and walked into the house.
The two women were watching the TV. Matlin did not even glance at the picture.
"Ready, Cora?" he said.
Both women turned and looked at him strangely. Finally, Mrs. Gray said breathlessly, "You’re taking it very calmly."
"Taking what calmly?"
Mrs. Gray looked helplessly at Cora. "I can’t tell him," she almost whispered.
Matlin glanced questioningly at his wife. She said, "You might as well hear it. The creature came back and found Mr. Graham and his two companions on the island. And it talked to them through some kind of mechanical translation device. It said it was going to leave earth but that first it was going to accomplish one thing. It said—it said—"
Matlin said impatiently, "For Pete’s sake, Cora, let’s go. You can tell me on the way."
Cora said, "It said—it was going to kill you first."
For once Matlin was speechless.
At last he stammered: "Me!" Af­ter a moment, he added, incredulous, "That’s ridiculous. I haven’t anything to do with this business."
"It says you’re the only one on earth who made it your business."

The shock was growing on Matlin. He could not speak, could not deny the charge in words. Inside his head, he protested silently. "But that first beast was coming toward me. How was I supposed to know?"
Cora was continuing in a grief-filled voice: "It says that on all the planets it’s visited, no one has ever before killed without warning, with­out asking any questions."
Matlin stared at her with hope­less eyes. He felt battered, defeated, ultimately threatened. For a moment, again, he could scarcely believe. He thought: "I only want to be left alone!"
The thought stopped. Because he knew suddenly that all these years he had been maintaining an un­truth: that what went on elsewhere was none of his affair.
He had pretended so hard, gone into such instant rages, that other people simply glanced at each other significantly and fell silent, and thereafter never brought up the sub­ject again. He had always thought with satisfaction, "By damn, they’d better not say anything but—" con­temptuously— "let them think what they want."
And now, he was the only human being that a visitor from another planet felt motivated to kill . . .
He grew aware once more of Dan Gray’s smile. The man spread his hands helplessly. "I can’t help it, Steve. Believe it or not, I like you. I even think I understand you. But —forgive me, Cora—this seems to me to be a case of poetic justice. I can’t think of anyone else who’s had something like this coming to him for so long."
Matlin turned and walked out of the room. He was aware of Cora following him hastily. "Just a min­ute, Steve," she said, "I have some­thing for you."
Matlin turned. They were alone in the hallway. He grew aware that she was tugging at her wed­ding ring. "Here," she said, "I should have given you this nineteen years ago, but I let the coming of our first child stop me."
She opened his palm, placed the ring in it, and closed his fingers over it. "You’re on your own, Steve. After twenty years of being the most selfish, self-centered man in the world, you can face this as you should, by yourself."
Matlin scowled down at the ring, then: "Bah! When you look at me, you see the human race as it really is. I’ve never gone in for the shams, that’s all."
He slipped the ring into his pocket.
"I’m going to keep this and give it back to you when you get over this foolish feeling. My feeling for you was never a sham."
He turned and walked out of the room and out of the house.

A car was pulling up in front of the Gray house. John Graham was inside it. He climbed out and walked over to where Matlin was about to get into his station wagon, said, "I came over to see you."
"Make it quick!" said Matlin.
"I have three messages for you."
"Shoot!"
"Obviously," said Graham, "the U.S. government will not allow one of its citizens to be casually exterminated."
Accordingly—he continued for­mally—all of the armed forces would be interposed between Steve Matlin and the alien.
Matlin stared at him with uncom­promising hostility. "He can dupli­cate anything we’ve got, so those are just big words."
Graham said in the same formal way that the ability of the creature to duplicate, first, the rifle, then the truck, and then the helicopter, had been taken note of by the military.
Matlin’s curt laugh dismissed as asinine the notion that the generals would know what to do with such information. "C’mon, c’mon," he said roughly, "what’s the second message?"
"It’s personal," said Graham.
He stepped forward. His fist came up, connected perfectly with Matlin’s jaw. Mifflin was knocked back against his car. He sank to the ground, sat there rubbing his jaw and looking up at Graham. He said in an even tone: "Just about every­body seems to agree I had that com­ing to me, so I’ll take it. What’s the last message?"
Graham, who had evidently ex­pected a battle, stepped back. His savage mood softened. He shook his head wonderingly. "Steve," he said, "you amaze me. Maybe I even re­spect you."
Matlin said nothing. He just sat there, elbows on knees.
After a moment, Graham contin­ued: "The way the generals figure it, there’s got to be another reason why the creature wants to kill you. Maybe you know something." His gray eyes watched Matlin closely. "Have you been holding anything back?"
Matlin shook his head but he was interested. He climbed slowly to his feet, frowning, thoughtful as he dusted himself off.
Graham persisted. "It is proposed that its ability to duplicate is based upon a kind of perception that human beings don’t have."
"Hey!" said Matlin, eyes wide. "You mean like the homing pigeon, or birds flying south, or salmon coming back to their little pool where they were born?"
"The reasoning is," said Graham, "that you got some feedback on whatever it is, and so the creature wants to kill you before you can pass on to anybody else what you know."
Matlin was shaking his head. "They’re off their rocker. I don’t know a thing."

Graham watched him a moment longer. Then, clearly satisfied, he said, "Anyway, the military feel that they can’t take a chance with a creature that has made a death threat against an American citizen. So they’re going to drop an atomic bomb on it and end the matter once and for all."
For some reason, Matlin felt an instant alarm. "Just a minute," he said doubtfully. "Suppose it dupli­cates that? Then it’ll have everything we’ve got, and we still won’t have seen a thing it’s got."
Graham was tolerant. "Oh, come now, Steve. The bomb will be a small one but the right size to pul­verize that spaceship. I personally feel strong regrets about this but I have no doubt of the outcome. Once the bomb drops, it’ll have nothing to duplicate with—and it won’t be around to do any duplicating."
Matlin said, "Better tell them to hold that bomb till they’ve thought about it some more."
Graham was looking at his watch. "I’m afraid it’s a little late for that, Steve. Because they figured you might have some telepathic connec­tion with this creature, I’ve been holding back the fact that the bomb is being dropped—right—now!"
As he spoke, there was a sound of distant thunder.
Involuntarily, the two men ducked. Then they straightened and looked over the near farms, past the trees in the distance, beyond the low hills. A small but familiar and sin­ister mushroom was rising from the other side of the horizon.
"Well," said Graham, "that does it. Too bad. But it shouldn’t have made that threat against you."
"What about the other ship?" Matlin asked.
"What other ship?" said Graham.
They had both spoken involuntar­ily. Now, they stared at each other.
’Graham broke the silence. "Oh, my God!" he said.

V

There were stubborn people at G.H.Q.
For two decisive days, they re­jected the idea that there might be another ship.
Then, late in the afternoon of the third day, radar reported a small ob­ject high above field H from which the atomic plane had taken off to destroy the spaceship on the island.
Control tower challenged the ap­proaching airborne machine. When there was no response, somebody became anxious and sounded a bomb alarm. Then he dived down a chute that took him head first into a shel­ter far below.
His quick action made him one of about 800 fast-reflex people who survived.
Seconds after he made his dive to safety, an atomic bomb demolished field H.
About the same time, a TV heli­copter was hovering above the island in Matlin’s lake, taking pictures of the bomb crater there. Suddenly a spaceship came silently down from great height and landed.
The helicopter did not tarry. It look rear view pictures as it was fleeing the scene.
Graham went to see Cora, look­ing for Matlin.
But she could only shake her head. "Steve said he was going on the road till this whole thing blew over. He said he figured he’d better not be sitting still when that creature came looking for him."
They put Matlin’s photo on TV,
On the fourth day after that, Graham interviewed four sullen young men who had tried to seize Matlin, their intention being to de­liver him to the monster. As their spokesman put it, "By handing over the one guy who was really involved in this business, the rest of us could have gone back to our daily affairs."
They filed out, one on crutches, two with arms in slings, all ban­daged in some way, groaning a little.
The following day, Graham in­terrogated two people who claimed to have witnessed a duel on an open stretch of highway between Matlin in a station wagon and the monster flying an enormous jet plane. Matlin had had a bazooka and the beast had finally beat a retreat.
General Maxwell Day, who was with Graham, wondered aloud if Matlin might not be the man who had raided a Marine armory and taken a 3.5 rocket launcher and a quarter of a ton of ammunition for it.
Graham phoned Cora. "I’m checking a report," he said. "Would Steve have thought of utilizing Marine equipment?"
Cora answered carefully: "That weapon belonged to the people of the U.S., didn’t it?"
"Yes."
"Well, then, I think Steve would regard himself as part owner, as a citizen, and without any guilt since he would consider either that he paid for it with taxes or earned it in World War II."
Graham put his hand over the mouthpiece, said, "I gather he would have thought of such a thing."
The Marine officer held his hand out for the phone. "Let me talk to her," he said. A moment later: "Mrs. Matlin?"
"Yes?"
"May I ask you some very per­sonal questions about your hus­band?"
"You may."
"Now, Mrs. Matlin, Mr. Graham here has the highest respect for your opinions, so think carefully about this one: Is your husband intelli­gent?"
Cora hesitated; then: "I know ex­actly what you mean. On some lev­els, no; on others, extremely intelligent."
"Is he brave?"
"To hear him talk, no. But my feeling is, totally. I think you’d have to engage his interest, though."
"What does he think of generals?"
"They’re idiots?
"Is he an honest man?"
"We-1-l-l-l, that depends. For ex­ample, he had that rifle along that first day in the hope that he’d be able to kill a deer illegally."
"I mean is he responsible for his debts?"
"If I may quote him—he wouldn’t give the so and so’s the satisfaction of owing them money."
General Day smiled. "Now, Mrs. Matlin, would you take your hus­band back if I made a sergeant out of him?"
"Why not a captain?"
"I’m sorry, Mrs. Matlin, if you’ll think a little bit, you’ll realize that he’d never sink that low."
"Oh, I don’t have to think. You’re right. Well—yes, I might take him back. B-but he’s not in the Marines anymore."
"He will be, Mrs. Matlin. Good-by."
He hung up.
An hour later it was announced on TV, radio and the newspapers that Matlin had been re-inducted in­to the Marines, and that he was or­dered to report to the nearest Marine station.

About midnight that night a jet, with Graham and several officers aboard, flew down to the Marine base where Matlin was re­signedly waiting for them. They se­cured a Marine private’s uniform. As the grim, unshaved man reluc­tantly donned it, they interrogated him. They were interested in any thought whatsoever that may have flitted through Matlin’s mind for any reason.
Matlin objected: "That’s crazy. I don’t know anything special—ex­cept the thing is out to get me."
"We think you do."
"But that’s a lot of—"
"Private Matlin! That’s an order!"
Glumly—but thoroughly—Matlin complied with the orders. He told them everything that had passed through his mind about the creature in the past few days. And there had been things, many things, things that had seemed crazy and distorted to him, until he thought he was be­ginning to lose his mind. Visions of a home on a planet of another star. Visions of long, long years of travel. Visions of the buried ship at the lake, where thousands of atomic bombs were in process of being dup­licated.
His listeners turned pale, but Gra­ham urged, "Go on."
Matlin continued: There was only one creature, but it had brought with it a number of spare bodies and could grow even more.
Then he stopped. "Damn it," he growled, "I don’t like to say this stuff! Why do you want to hear it, anyway? It’s just crazy dreams."
Graham glanced at the Marine commander, then at Matlin. He said, "Matlin, we don’t think it’s dreams at all. We think that you are in re­sonance—somehow!—with the crea­ture’s mind. And we need to know what it has in its mind—so, for heaven’s sake, go on!"

The story, by the time Matlin got through piecing it together, made a pattern:
The alien had arrived in the solar system in two ships, with its bodies in various growth stages and evenly distributed between the two vessels. When one ship—and its cargo of bodies—was later destroyed, it made a duplicate, and now again had two.
As body after body was de­stroyed, the next in line was trig­gered into rapid growth and awak­ened to full adulthood in about two days. Each new body had the com­plete "memory" of what had hap­pened to the ones that preceded it; it automatically recorded by ESP everything that happened to its pre­ceding self.
On arrival, the first body had awakened in a state of total recep­tiveness. It had wanted to be able to duplicate the thoughts and feelings of the inhabitants of this newly found planet.
—Be like them, think like them know their language—
It was in this helpless, blank con­dition, when it stumbled on Steve Matlin.
And that was the story. The crea­ture had been imprinted with the personality of Matlin.
Graham said, "Steve, do you real­ize that this being got all these de­structive ideas from you?"
Matlin blinked. "Huh!"
Graham, remembering some things that Cora had told him, said, "Do you have any friends, Steve? Anybody you like? Anybody any­where?"
Matlin could think of no one. Ex­cept, of course, Cora and the kids. But his feelings about them were not unmixed. She had insisted on sending the three older children to school in town. But he did feel a genuine affection for her, and them, at some level.
Graham said tensely, "That’s why she’s alive. That’s why the creature didn’t kill her the day it burned your farm."
"B-but—" Matlin protested, "why destroy the farm?"
"You hate the damn place, don’t you?"
Matlin was silent. He’d said it a thousand times.
"What do you think we ought to do with about half the people in this country, Steve?"
"I think we ought to wipe the human race off the map and start over again," said Matlin automat­ically.
"What do you think we ought to do with the Russians?"
"If I had my way," said Matlin, "we’d go over there and plaster the whole of Asia with atomic bombs."
After a little, Graham said softly, "Like to change any of those ideas, Steve?"
Matlin, who had finished dress­ing, scowled into a mirror. "Look," he said finally, "you’ve got me where I can’t hit back. And I’m ready to be loused up by what the idiot generals have got in their crazy noodles. So tell me what you want me to do."

At that precise moment, That ceased its feverish duplication of man’s atomic bombs . . . and became itself.
Its compulsive mental tie with Matlin was severed.
Shuddering, That made a report, on an instantaneous relay-wave transmitter whose receiver was light-years away:
"What we always feared would happen on one of these blank mind approaches to a new planet finally happened to me. While I was enor­mously receptive to any thought, my first body was destroyed by a two-legged inhabitant of this system, a being with the most incredible ideas —which are apparently due to some early mistreatment. This inability to slough off early shock conditioning seems to be a unique phenomenon of the people of this planet.
"Realizing how trapped I was while he remained alive, I made sev­eral attempts to kill him. I was unsuccessful in this because he turned out to be unexpectedly resourceful. But he has now put on a suit called a uniform, and this has immediately turned him into a peaceful person.
"Thus I was able to free myself. Naturally, I can still sense where he is, but he can no longer receive my thoughts nor I his. However, I must report that I am pinned down here by an air fleet. My image as a good­will visitor has been completely nul­lified by what has happened. Ob­viously, I won’t use any weapons against them; so perhaps this expedi­tion is doomed."
A team of astronauts was sent up. The team successfully boarded That’s second spaceship, reporting that it was occupied by four bodies in various growth stages.
Even as they blew up the ship in its silent orbit, on earth Matlin was driven to the edge of the lake. There, a government launch was provided him. While Graham and General Day watched through binoculars, Matlin drove the $30,000 craft right onto the beach of the island, careless of any damage to it.
"I think he smashed the launch," said Graham.
"Good."
"Good?"
"My whole theory about him would collapse if he treated government property with the same care that he gave his own possessions. It reassures me that he’s exactly the man I thought."
Matlin came to where the second alien ship lay at the bottom of the blast pit. Water had filtered down into the clay. Having his orders, Matlin dutifully slid down into the goo. He held his rifle high, cursed, and started for the entrance.

VI

Graham, General Day, and an ar­tillery major watched Matlin’s progress on a portable TV. The pic­ture was coming from a ship some 70,000 feet above the island. The scene below was crystal clear. Through the marvelous telescopic lens, Matlin actually looked like a tiny human being walking.
"But why send anyone?" Graham protested. "Why not just blast it? As you’ve already pointed out, we’ve got enough power up there—" he indicated the sky above — "to ex­terminate him."
General Day explained that he now favored Graham’s earlier view. The alien might be able to defend itself.
"But it’s too late for caution," Graham interjected. "We’ve burned our bridges."
It would be unwise, the Marine officer explained, to provoke the creature further until a confronta­tion had taken place.
"A confrontation between a super-being — and Matlin!"
"Who else should we send? Some poor devil? No, Matlin is oriented to this. Seeing the creature face on is not a new experience to him as it would be to some other lower ranks."
"Why not send you? Me?"
Day answered in a steady voice that such decisions as were re­quired here should not be made by people who reasoned on the basis of official attitudes.
"How do you think I got to be a general? When in doubt, I listened to what the men thought. They have a basic canniness that trans­cends intellect."
With an effort, Graham recover­ed. "You heard Matlin’s basic truth," he said. "His opinion of the human race —"
General Day gave him a surprised look. "You mean to tell me that isn’t your opinion also?"
"No."
"You don’t think that human be­ings are absolutely impossible?"
"No, I think they’re pretty terri­fic," said Graham.
"Boy, are you far gone," said the general in a tolerant voice. "I can see that we Marines have an understanding of human behavior that beats all you brain-washed people." He broke off. "Matlin was badly handled in World War II."
"What?" Graham groped.
"You ask, what has that got to do with it? Plenty. You see, Mr. Graham, you have to understand that a true Marine is a king. Now, Matlin is the true Marine type. But he was treated like an ordinary private. He never got over it; so he’s been seething for 20 years, waiting for recognition. I’m giving it to him. A king Marine, Mr. Graham, can direct a war, take com­mand of a city, or negotiate with a foreign power like a government. Marines who get to be generals are considered sub-level versions of this species. All Marines understand this perfectly. It will not occur to Matlin to consult me, or you, or the U.S. Government. He’ll size up the situ­ation, make a decision, and I shall back him up."
He turned to the major, com­manded, "All right, start firing!"
"Firing!" Graham yelled.
Day explained patiently as to a child that it was necessary in this extreme emergency to reindoctrinate this particular Marine, and grind in the simple truth — to him — that generals always loused things up. "A quick reminder, that’s all, Mr. Graham."

Matlin was still skidding around in the mud when the first shell landed to his left. It sprayed him with fine droplets of wet dirt. The second shell landed to his right. The debris from it missed him en­tirely, but he was now in such state of rage that he didn’t notice.
By the time the shelling ceased, his anger was gone and he was in that peculiar state of mind which can only be described with one word: Marine.
The man who presently entered the alien ship knew that life was tough, that other people could not be trusted, that no one cared about him. It was a truth he had always fought with bitterness and rage.
But there was no longer any doubt in his mind. People were what they were. They would shoot you in the back if they couldn’t get you from in front.
Understanding this, you could be friendly with them, shake their hands. enjoy their company — and be completely free of any need to judge them or condemn them.
But you were on your own, day and night, year in and out.
As he saw the creature, Matlin used his gun for the purpose that he had brought it. Deliberately, he tossed.it down. It struck the metal floor with a clatter.
The echoes of the sound faded —and there was silence. Alien and human stood there staring.
Matlin waited.

Suddenly, the hoped-for voice came from a speaker in the ceiling:
"I am talking to you through a computer, which is translating my thoughts into your language. It will do the same for yours. Why have they sent you to me — the one man I threatened to kill?"
That added: "I no longer plan to kill you. So you may talk freely."
Matlin said bluntly, "We’re trying to decide what to do with you. Do you have any suggestions?"
"I wish to leave the planet for­ever. Can you arrange it?"
Matlin was practical. Could the creature leave whether human be­ings like it or not? "No."
The simple negative took Matlin slightly aback. "You have no special weapons from — from where you come from?"
"None," admitted the alien.
That admission also startled Mat­lin. "You mean to tell me we can do what we want with you? You can’t stop us?"
"Yes, except —"
Matlin wanted to know except what?
The great eyes blinked at him, its black, fold-like eyelids rolling up and down in a skin and muscle complex unlike that of any creature Matlin had ever seen before.
"Except that it will do you no good to kill me."
"You’d better make damn clear what you mean," Matlin said.
Watching him, That gave its ex­planation.
And Matlin realized that what That said was true. For once in the history of the human race, killing an enemy would solve nothing.

Matlin’s boat was almost water­logged by the time he success­fully beached it near where Graham and the others were waiting.
He came up to them and saluted. General Day returned the salute smartly, and said: "Your report."
"I told him he could go," said Matlin. "He’ll be leaving when I signal."
"What?" That was Graham, his voice sounding shrill and amazed in his own ears. "But why?"
"Never mind why," said General Day. "That’s the way it’s going to be."
He spoke into his mike: "Men, this alien ship is going to lift from here in a few minutes. Let it go through. A duly authorized person has negotiated this solution."
The language was not clear to Matlin. "Is it okay?" he asked ques­tioningly.
For an instant, it seemed to Graham, Day hesitated. Graham said urgently into that instant: "At least, you’re going to find out what made him agree?"
Day seemed to have come to a decision; his momentary hesitation ended. "Okay!" he said to Matlin. "Okay, sergeant."
Matlin raised his rifle, and fired it into the air.
To Graham, Day said, "I’ve never lost a bet on a king Marine, and I don’t expect to now."
The interchange ended. For on the island, the ship was lifting.
Silent, jetless, rocketless power drove it up on a slant.
It passed over their heads, gather­ing speed. It grew small and, as they watched, became a dot and vanished.
Aboard it, the creature to which Matlin had talked performed the preliminaries necessary to an inter­stellar voyage, and then retired to one of the sleep boxes. Soon it was in a state of suspended animation . . .
Thereupon happened what the monster had told Matlin — the un­derlying reality, which made it useless, unnecessary, even dangerous, to destroy it and its vessel.
On a planet many light-years away, the real That stirred, awakened and sat up.


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Footnotes

[1the cover image relates to another story in this issue, Small One by E. Clayton Mcarty.