“Totipotent,” Dr. Weiss said sharply. “Universally potent. Any fragment of it is totipotent. Given time, a single bacterium from Saybrook’s Planet can convert all of Earth into a single organism! We’ve got the experimental proof of that.”
Drake said unexpectedly, “You know, I think I’m a millionaire, Doc. Can you keep a secret?”
Weiss nodded, puzzled.
“I’ve got a souvenir from Saybrook’s Planet,” Drake told him, grinning. “It’s only a pebble, but after the publicity the planet will get, combined with the fact that it’s quarantined from here on in, the pebble will be all any human being will ever see of it. How much do you suppose I could sell the thing for?”
Weiss stared. “A pebble?” He snatched at the object shown him, a hard, gray ovoid. “You shouldn’t have done that, Drake. It was strictly against regulations.”
“I know. That’s why I asked if you could keep a secret. If you could give me a signed note of authentication-What’s the matter, Doc?”
Instead of answering, Weiss could only chatter and point. Drake ran over and stared down at the pebble. It was the same as before-
Except that the light was catching it at an angle, and it showed up two little green spots. Look very closely; they were patches of green hairs.
He was disturbed. There was a definite air of danger within the ship. There was the suspicion of his presence aboard. How could that be? He had done nothing yet. Had another fragment of home come aboard and been less cautious? That would be impossible without his knowledge, and though he probed the ship intensely, he found nothing.
And then the suspicion diminished, but it was not quite dead. One of the keen-thinkers still wondered, and was treading close to the truth.
How long before the landing? Would an entire world of life fragments be deprived of completeness? He clung closer to the severed ends of the wire he had been specially bred to imitate, afraid of detection, fearful for his altruistic mission.
Dr. Weiss had locked himself in his own room. They were already within the solar system, and in three hours they would be landing. He had to think. He had three hours in which to decide.
Drake’s devilish “pebble” had been part of the organized life on Saybrook’s Planet, of course, but it was dead. It was dead when he had first seen it, and if it hadn’t been, it was certainly dead after they fed it into the hyper-atomic motor and converted it into a blast of pure heat. And the bacterial cultures still showed normal when Weiss anxiously checked.
That was not what bothered Weiss now.
Drake had picked up the “pebble” during the last hours of the stay on Saybrook’s Planet-after the barrier breakdown. What if the breakdown had been the result of a slow, relentless mental pressure on the part of the thing on the planet? What if parts of its being waited to invade as the barrier dropped? If the “pebble” had not been fast enough and had moved only after the barrier was reestablished, it would have been killed. It would have lain there for Drake to see and pick up.
It was a “pebble,” not a natural life form. But did that mean it was not some kind of life form? It might have been a deliberate production of the planet’s single organism-a creature deliberately designed to look like a pebble, harmless-seeming, unsuspicious. Camouflage, in other words-a shrewd and frighteningly successful camouflage.
Had any other camouflaged creature succeeded in crossing the barrier before it was re-established-with a suitable shape filched from the minds of the humans aboard ship by the mind-reading organism of the planet? Would it have the casual appearance of a paperweight? Of an ornamental brass-head nail in the captain’s old-fashioned chair? And how would they locate it? Could they search every part of the ship for the telltale green patches- even down to individual microbes?
And why camouflage? Did it intend to remain undetected for a time? Why? So that it might wait for the landing on Earth?
An infection after landing could not be cured by blowing up a ship. The bacteria of Earth, the molds, yeasts, and protozoa, would go first. Within a year the non-human young would be arriving by the uncountable billions.
Weiss closed his eyes and told himself it might not be such a bad thing. There would be no more disease, since no bacterium would multiply at the expense of its host, but instead would be satisfied with its fair share of what was available. There would be no more overpopulation; the hordes of mankind would decline to adjust themselves to the food supply. There would be no more wars, no crime, no greed.
But there would be no more individuality, either.
Humanity would find security by becoming a cog in a biological machine. A man would be brother to a germ, or to a liver cell.
He stood up. He would have a talk with Captain Loring. They would send their report and blow up the ship, just as Saybrook had done.
He sat down again. Saybrook had had proof, while he had only the conjectures of a terrorized mind, rattled by the sight of two green spots on a pebble. Could he kill the two hundred men on board ship because of a feeble suspicion?
He had to think!