(This is the second of two parts; if you missed yesterday’s installment, go back and read it first!)
“Doc, honey, what can you tell me about the slugs?”
“You mean the limaxomorphs? We don’t know much about them yet; they spend most of their time submerged in the lakes, and don’t do much of interest when they’re basking. We’ve never even found remains to examine, but long-distance scans seem to indicate a very simple bodily structure, much lower on the evolutionary scale than the earthly gastropods they resemble.”
“Could they be intelligent?”
“Mercy, no, dear girl; they don’t seem to have anything like a brain that we can detect, though again we would need to dissect one to be sure. Still, we’ve never observed any behavior that would seem to indicate intelligence.”
“How about coordinated group activity?”
“That’s not really a sign of intelligence per se; ant and bee colonies have very sophisticated group behavior, but they’re not intelligent as we understand the term.”
“So, abducting women wouldn’t qualify?”
“Well, it depends; group hunting behaviors are not…wait, are you saying this isn’t a theoretical question?”
“Not as such, no.”
“They actually abducted you? When? How? Where are you now? What are they doing?”
“I’d call it dancing.” While I had been talking, the slugs had seemed to become increasingly…well, excited, and sort of throbbed while swaying forward and backward. And just as the Doc started to ask those rapid-fire questions, they had begun to slowly slide sideways in a circle around me, not getting any closer. The ones who were not in direct proximity to me were still swaying and throbbing, as if to music I couldn’t hear. And the weirdest part of the whole performance? I wasn’t scared at all.
“I took a lot of lessons as a girl, Doc; dancing would be the word I’d use. Artistic expression through rhythmic movement.”
“That still doesn’t mean they’re intelligent; birds do mating dances, for example.”
“I don’t think they want to mate with me, Doc; I think they’re trying to communicate.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Call it a hunch. I’m going to ring off now; I want to see how they react to that. But don’t worry, I’ll call as soon as something changes, and I’ll answer if anyone calls me.”
When I broke the connection, they abruptly stopped moving; they did not resume when I started talking to myself out loud, but did when I called the club again.
“Tell Doc they’re sensitive to radio waves,” I told Frances, then “I’ll call when I learn anything else.”
The slugs were still again for quite some time, and I began to get a bit thirsty. I hadn’t intended to be gone so long, so I hadn’t filled my water bottle; fortunately the air recirculator had recently been serviced, so I wouldn’t suffocate unless I stayed here for several days. After a while I got up to stretch my legs; there was no reaction at all from my strange hosts. It was as though the only thing that excited them was electromagnetic energy.
That stray thought gave me an idea, so I activated my built-in torch and played the light over the slugs in the front row. The effect was almost immediate; they started to sway again for a few moments, then gorgeous ripples of color began to play over them as though someone were putting on a laser show. The colors changed, brightened and dimmed and moved in waves from slug to slug, not stopping for an instant when crossing between individuals, as though they were all part of a greater whole…Say, what if they were?
“Frances, put Doc on again…Doc, could all the slugs be one creature?”
“You mean like a bee colony, many creatures bound together in a swarm?”
“Sort of, only more so; what if the slugs aren’t actually individuals at all, but simply cells connected together by telepathy or radio waves or something?” I explained how they had reacted to my light, and as I spoke they began to do their dance again while the colors ebbed and flowed among them in intricate patterns, like unearthly flowers blossoming and dying on shifting dunes, or like silent fireworks merged with rolling waves. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my entire life.
“I think you may be onto something, my dear! If each limaxomorph is merely part of the greater whole…oh, my!”
“What?” I asked after a few moments of silence.
“They – or if we’re right, it – may assume that we’re connected to each other just as they are. Perhaps your abduction was, to it, nothing more than a tap on collective humanity’s shoulder?”
“And the reason they – it – gets excited when I’m talking on the phone is that it believes I’m communicating to the rest of you like its cells communicate! Yes, that must be it! Doc, I’m going to try a few things here, so don’t get worried if I’m quiet for a while.”
I rang off, and though I expected it I couldn’t help being disappointed when the color waves and dancing abruptly stopped. So I turned on the light again, and was rewarded with the colors; I called a friend I knew wasn’t home, and the dance continued until her answering machine got tired of my talking nonsense and hung up on me. Then I stood up again, and started moving toward the entrance; the slugs didn’t budge. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get out of here until it was satisfied that we had understood whatever it was trying to say.
Sometime after midnight I fell asleep, but I didn’t sleep well; I was haunted by nightmares of an immense, formless something peeling off my clothes and trying to get into my skull via my ears. Doc called once and Frances twice, and though the slug-collective responded as usual to the calls, it didn’t do anything else.
If you’ve never slept in a spacesuit, I have some advice for you: Don’t. They’re not made for it, and you’ll ache all over and be grumpy all the next day. So I was in absolutely no mood to deal with the first phone call of the morning, Marshal McBusybody himself.
“What is going on, Miss Trevor? I called your office and they said you were out.”
“You expected the owner of a nightclub to be awake at 0900?”
“Not really, but I heard that you left in a huff last night, never came back, and that Dr. Robinson spent the entire evening in your office.”
“So you’re spying on me, too? I don’t think that’s playing strictly by the rules, Marshal.”
“You still haven’t answered my question; what exactly is going on?”
“Ask your spies,” I said, and hung up. Frances would get an earful from me later for letting him bully her into giving out my personal phone code. I had rather hoped that an angry conversation would cause a different reaction in the slugs, but no such luck; they reacted exactly the same way as before, and stopped when the call did. I tried explaining to them/it that I was hungry, exhausted, cramped and dying for a cigarette, and that I really despised having to take care of personal business in a spacesuit, but it was no use; I wasn’t even sure they could hear me.
The morning dragged on, and though I tried everything from semaphore with my suit light to my best Ginger Rogers impression (or the closest to it I could get in space boots), the only reactions I got were the same ones I had before. Then at 11:37 I heard the amplified voice of my new adversary calling down from above, and the slugs didn’t seem to like him any more than I did.
“MISS TREVOR, THIS IS MARSHAL McBAIN. ARE YOU DOWN THERE?”
“Of course I’m down here, you imbecile! You obviously used a robohound to track me to this hole in the ground, so where did you think I’d be? In Detroit?”
“ARE YOU IN ANY IMMEDIATE DANGER?”
“If I were in immediate danger, I’d have been dead hours ago! Any more stupid questions?”
“WE’RE GOING TO LOWER YOU A LINE.”
“You do that. Is Doc with you?”
“I’m here, dear girl!” he shouted down. “This is amazing; we had no idea there were this many of them in the area!”
“Yeah, well try to keep Captain Gungho there from killing ‘em all until I get upstairs,” I said as I adjusted the sling around my torso; “I think I know what they want.”
Later in his office, I tried to drive my theory into the marshal’s thick skull. “Look, it’s not that complicated. If Doc and I are right, the slugs are one big creature. Not just in that lake, but all over Titan; your men found slime trails leading out in every direction from that cave. One single creature, spread out over a whole world.”
“So how do you think you’d feel if you were the only intelligent creature on a whole planet, with nobody else to talk to? And what if another creature came along that was so different from anything you knew, that you at first thought it wasn’t intelligent, but then you realized it might be? Wouldn’t you try to talk to it?”
“I suppose I would.”
“Well of course you would, Marshal! And let’s say it ignored your first few attempts…”
“Who knows? It could’ve been sending out all kinds of signals we didn’t recognize as communication, right Doc?”
“Like he said. So wouldn’t you eventually get frustrated and go to even greater lengths to attract the stranger’s attention? Try to talk to her? To impress her with your charm and personality?”
“You think the slugs were flirting with you?” he asked incredulously, and with undisguised disgust.
“Not with me, Marshal, with us. It’s one big organism, more than the sum of its parts, so naturally it thinks humanity is as well. Heck, maybe it’s even right, in a way. But you seem to think loneliness is all about sex; it’s not, you know. Not for slugs, and not for humans, either.”
He looked at me for a long time before speaking. “Perhaps I misjudged you, Miss Trevor. You may be more of an asset to this colony than I had at first imagined.”
“We all do that sometimes, Marshal; until last night, we thought the slugs were just mindless bottom-feeders. It takes a big person to admit he misjudged somebody or something.”
For the first time since I’d met him, I saw a slight smile crack his face. “Well, I hope we still see a lot of each other.”
I blew smoke in his direction and smiled back. “Count on it.”