by Margaret St. Clair
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This story features male immobilization, although it has to be said that he doesn’t get much enjoyment out of it. Even so, it did provide the inspiration for my own Flotsam series.
Originally published as by “Idris Seabright” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 4 No. 3, March 1953 [left]
(the magazine was established in 1949 and is still in publication today.)
Reprinted with minor revisions in Change the Sky and Other Stories by Margaret St. Clair, Ace Books, Inc. New York, serial no. 10258 (pre-ISBN), 1974 [right]
Both texts were consulted when editing this on-line version.
Text scanned using TextBridge Classic.
Edited, proofread and html coded using Word 97.
Converted to CSS by hand, August 2004.
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This story, which takes place on Venus, incorporates a long-standing science fictional cliché, namely that Mars is a desert world, dying from lack of water (hence the canals, built by a dying civilisation to conserve what precious little water they had left) and that Venus, under its impenetrable clouds, has a superabundance of water. After all, clouds make rain, don’t they?
In fact, even by the time this story was published in the mid-1950s, these ideas were becoming obsolete thanks to astronomical observations, which were confirmed by American and Russian space probes in the 1970s.
It turned out that Mars had a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere incapable of sustaining life (and hence, sadly, had no canals or dying civilisations).
By contrast, Venus’ clouds were found to be composed of sulphuric acid, and covered a planet whose runaway greenhouse effect made its surface hotter than an oven. And as if that weren’t bad enough it also had a crushing atmospheric pressure, 90 times that of Earth - roughly equivalent to the water pressure 900 metres below the sea on Earth. It’s enough to make the most seasoned adventurer want to stay home.
(For more on planetary science I suggest you visit the official NASA website.)
I hope this doesn’t spoil your enjoyment of the story, but I wouldn’t want you to blindly accept “facts” which have been disproven by science.
Copyright © 1953 by Mercury Press Inc.; Copyright © 1974 by Ace Books Inc.
Brian was riding hard when he reached the sanctuary at twilight. He had foundered two mounts under him since yesterday, and for all his haste the Hrothy, howling like a pack of dervishes, were close behind him. He rose in the stirrups and looked back anxiously.
Yes, in forty seconds or so Megath’s relatives would be within bowshot. When they caught him they would, he knew, hang him up by the heels and shoot at him with blunted arrows for two or three days before letting him die. He shuddered. The opening of the shrine was dark and uninviting, but he was almost certain that the Hrothy would respect its sacred character; and the sanctuary looked, to his inexperience, like any other of the shrines that dotted the surface of the second planet. It was a piece of extreme luck that he had found it. He jumped from the back of his rox and plunged into it.
The Hrothy got up to the winded rox about fifty seconds later. It was plain enough where Brian was. They looked at each other in silence. Megath’s uncle, who had been the hottest in pursuit of any of the Hrothy, gave a short laugh. Man after man began to dismount without speaking.
The Hrothy considered that Brian, in first violating and then deserting Megath, had committed an unforgivable sin. (It was not so much his taking her violently as his subsequent tiring of her that they objected to. They objected to it profoundly. It went against all their mores. They liked their violations to stick.) But they thought, from stories they had heard and from experience, that if Brian stayed inside the square stone shrine for the next twelve hours, their grudge against him would be satisfied. Megath would be avenged. Silently the tribesmen seated themselves in a semicircle outside the entrance of the shrine.
Brian, peering from within the opening, was both puzzled and relieved. He had been afraid they would light some of the damp blue river grass and try to smoke him out All that fuss over a woman whose skin was definitely, if faintly, purple! But apparently they were counting on starvation. He patted the bottles of food-tablets in his pockets and grinned. He had a flask, too. They’d have a long wait, a good long wait.
Their continued silence - the Hrothy were usually noisily emotional - bothered him. He peeked at them doubtfully once more. But apparently they were going to respect the shrine’s sanctity; there was nothing to worry about.
He stumbled back a few paces into the shrine’s interior. It was quite dark. The floor seemed to be made of slick mud. (Actually, it was an exceedingly durable moisture-resistant plastic, but Brian couldn’t know that.) He hesitated, and then lay down on it. He’d had an exhausting day.
He meant to stay awake, on guard, but his fatigue was overpowering. Inside ten minutes he was fast asleep.
As soon as his smoother breathing gave the signal, the scanning rays went to work on him. His pulse was taken, his respiration timed, his oxygen consumption checked.
A tiny pad slipped into his damp armpit and came out with perspiration to be analyzed. When he began to snore another tiny pad slipped momentarily into his open mouth. And when he was quite, quite thoroughly asleep, a minute needle drew a drop of blood from his flaccid earlobe. A highly refined technique of zone electrophoresis was exercised on the sample.
The night was well advanced when the scanners completed their diagnosis. In many ways, Brian puzzled them. Physiologically, he was far from what they were used to. But he lay, though just barely, within the range of permissible variation. The mechanism of the scanners had become a little worn. After an almost human pause, the conditioning installations in the shrine went to work on him.
The Hrothy, outside in the cloudy night, waited in wolfish silence. It was not the sacred character of the shrine they were respecting, it was its competence as a factory.
Brian woke at last. He had an impression that much time had passed, and while this was not true chronologically, it was quite accurate physiologically: a lot had happened to him while he was alseep.
The idea of much elapsed time alarmed him. What had the Hrothy been doing while he was unconscious? Still dazed with sleep, he hurried to the opening of the shrine and peered out.
The tribesmen were seated as he had last seen them, squatting in a semicircle in the light drizzle outside the shrine, with their brightly colored cloaks wrapped tightly around them. They must be intending to wait until hunger drove him out. Brian gave a derisive snort and turned back to the interior of the sanctuary. As he pivoted about he struck his head painfully and unexpectedly on the stone lintel of the shrine opening.
For a moment physical distress obscured the meaning of what had happened. He stood blinking tears of pain from his eyes and cursing softly to himself. Then the significance of the incident came to him suddenly He had bumped his head on the door lintel. But last night the lintel had been two or three feet above the top of his head.
He looked up. His thick black oily hair was brushing against the ceiling. What the hell - what had happened to him? Had the building somehow shrunk? Or had he grown, was he somehow bigger than he had been last night?
For a moment he wondered whether he had caught some fever. Venus abounded in them, and hallucinatory ideas about bodily size characterized one or two of them. And he was thirsty, he felt oddly hot.
He looked down at his hands. His cuffs were only an inch or two below his elbows. Unless he was having a remarkably consistent hallucination.... It couldn’t be a fever; he didn’t feel feverish at all, only thirsty and hot. Anyhow, he’d had shots for all the endemic Venusian diseases before he’d left Dindymene. He’d gotten bigger during the night, that was all.
Oddly, the idea did not alarm him. He was rather pleased with it. For a moment he thought of stepping boldly out of the shrine and spreading some havoc among the squatting Hrothy. He’d teach them to annoy a man who was eight - no, more nearly nine feet tall. But there were twenty of them, and they had lots of arrows. He’d better not.
Besides, he was feeling somnolent and lethargic, not at all combative. He couldn’t imagine what had happened to him, but it didn’t seem to matter. He decided to sit down on the floor and have a drink of water from his flask.
The silvery container was dwarfed in his big new hands; He tipped the flask up to get the last drops, and then tossed it from him petulantly. It was water, all right, but he didn’t want water. What he wanted was something more dense.
He crossed his legs under him and leaned back against the slick wall. He closed his eyes; he thought it would help him to think better. In a little while he was asleep.
This time it was late afternoon when he awoke. It was raining hard. Without moving from his sitting position, he peered out of the sanctuary, noting absently as he did so that this back seemed somewhat stiff.
The Hrothy were gone. There wasn’t a sign of them in the damp landscape, not even a used beetla stick or a clot of rox dung. It was probably a trap; they must be lurking in the neighborhood. Or they might have gone back to the village for reinforcements. Brian grinned. He didn’t think he’d be fooled easily. He decided to get up.
He tried to move: nothing happened. Well, he had been in a cramped position for a long time. His legs must have gone to sleep.
Once more he gave his body the order. Once more nothing happened. Brian licked his lips nervously. Was he paralyzed? What was the matter with him? He began to be really frightened. It was at this point that a plunp came in.
Now, the plunp are the oddest of the native peoples of Venus. Some workers who have studied them insist that their material backwardness hides a singularly rich and varied spiritual life. Other ethnologists deny this passionately and say that their pointless, rambling creation legends and inept totem poles show that their spiritual life is just about what you’d expect.
Be that as it may, the plunp are not prepossessing. They have exceedingly slick grayish skins, long shallow jaws with ferocious teeth, and fierce yellow eyes. They wear no clothing, not even a pubic leaf. They smell a little like frogs.
This one came into the sanctuary and stopped in front of Brian. He made a sketchy gesture with one hand; it might have been meant as a respectful salutation or, more informally, been simply his way of saying “Hi!” He looked at Brian calculatingly and then nodded. He opened the hollowed-out areda nut that depended from a length of vine around his neck.
Brian watched. There wasn’t much else he could do, and the plunp’s coming seemed somehow significant. He watched the creature with fascinated repulsion (the plunp are not prepossessing) while it took a hunk of yellowish ointment out of the nut and smeared the stuff over itself. Then the plunp began to rotate slowly in front of Brian, its twiggy, slick-skinned arms outstretched expectantly.
Almost as soon as the yellow goo touched the plunp’s glabrous skin, Brian felt an extraordinary excitement in himself. It had the intensity of a sexual urge, but there was emphatically nothing sexual in its fleshless, cold imperative. It was as if all the myriad cells of his body were thirsty, thirsty as individuals, for the yellow ointment and the moisture in the plunp’s slick skin under it The water in Brian’s flask hadn’t been dense enough to satisfy his thirst; this moisture would.
He felt a kind of aura, a projection of himself, reach out. It was not a matter of conscious will; even as he made the immaterial contact with the plunp, he resented it. He was thirsty, yes, but it seemed to him that in dehydrating the plunp he was performing an intimate service, submitting to an odious familiarity, with a creature that revolted him unspeakably. A close contact, no matter how impalpable, with a plunp...! It made him hate himself. But he couldn’t help it.
(The parallelism between this compulsion and that which he had inflicted on Megath escaped him. Even if he had thought of it, he would not have been edified. He was not a man who edified easily.)
The plunp continued to revolve in front of him, turning first one side and then the other toward the intoxicating dryness it felt emanating from him. It came to Brian that its attitude was that of a worshiper toward a good, serviceable god. Its yellow eyes were closed; its slick skin seemed to be becoming more wrinkled and slack from moment to moment as the dehydration of its tissues continued. Its narrow face wore an expression of repulsive bliss. If he could have moved, Brian felt sure he would have vomited.
Oh, odious. An odious service performed for an odious being. And it felt, somehow, self-destructive, for all Brian’s need of moisture. It felt as if Brian, in his new body, had not been quite designed for it. In the contact with the plunp, he was like a plant, which, in default of sulphur in its soil, must perforce absorb selenium. He felt almost as if he were poisoning himself.
In this supposition Brian was quite right. The shrine was not really a shrine; in the first instance, it had been a factory. It had been originally designed by biologists of the fourth planet to help their colonists on the second planet adjust to the (for them) overwhelmingly damp environment of Venus.
There are two possible ways of dealing with dampness. One is to be water-proof, as are a duck’s well-oiled feathers. The Martians tried this and disliked it. They sweltered miserably in the damp heat of their own impervious bodies. So they adopted the second course, which is to enjoy water, to be water-craving, as is a frog. This solution meant far greater physiological adaptation than had the first one, but the Martians were more satisfied with it.
After they were adapted, they were continually sucking in water through their pores from their damp surroundings, using it in their metabolism, and exhaling dry air out again. There was some degree of selectivity in the process. They could choose which of several objects they wanted to draw water from. It worked fine for the Martians, though in the dry season they were uncomfortable, and. when they went home for vacations they were miserable. But Brian hadn’t been a Martian to begin with, and the scanners had become a little deranged in the long eons that had passed since there had last been Martians on Venus. It was different with him.
To the plunp, he was a delightfully hygroscopic god. To himself, he was a man afflicted with a peculiarly horrid curse.
The plunp went away at last, its skin hanging in lank folds. It staggered a little as it went over the threshold, as if it were drunk. It had left the empty areda nut behind it. Brian watched it weaving away through the pouring sheets of rain.
He couldn’t move; he couldn’t even wriggle. His back had grown completely stiff. He wasn’t sure how he was breathing. But he was sure of one thing: he wasn’t going to draw water from a plunp again.
If he got thirsty again, how could he help it? He didn’t know, but ignorance had no effect on his determination As he sat immobile, watching the rain turning to chilly darkness, he felt a tiny surge of hope. What had happened to him was impossible. It just couldn’t be. So it couldn’t go on forever. Sooner or later, somebody would find him. A plant collector, a man doing a govenment survey - somebody. All he had to do was to stay alive until then.
It rained pouringly all next day. Brian remembered having heard that in this part of Venus the rainfall could, during the rainy season, exceed thirty inches in twenty-four hours.
About noon on the day after that four plunp came. Brian had been able to satisfy a little of his tormenting thirst from the moisture in the air, and he had laid his plans. As the plunp, anointed with yellow ointment, pirouetted in front of him, he drew into himself. It was like being deaf to a barrage of thunder, like refusing to see a blinding light He didn’t know how he was doing it. But he was.
The plunp slithered to a stop. They looked at each other wordlessly and began to wave their twiggy hands. Brian felt a flash of triumph; he’d beaten the hated, wretched creatures. He felt even more triumphant when, after another silent round robin, they went out.
They came back in a moment, carrying a sharp cornered wooden chest. (The plunp were not clever enough. to make such a thing themselves - they had traded for it with the more civilized Orths.) They opened it. Inside there was a drippy, clinging, gelatinous reddish paste. The plunp had had some prior experience with recalcitrant gods.
The plunp whose skin was grayest wound a gob of the paste on the end of a stick. Rather cautiously he held it out toward Brian. He waved it back and forth across his chest and under the end of his nose.
The result, for Brian, was catastrophic. He felt as if he were being turned inside out With wild, forced, hateful speed he began to dehydrate the plunp with the grayest skin. It was like falling endlessly down the black face of a vertical cliff, and getting sicker all the time.
The plunp left at last, when it was nearly dark. They were doing little dance steps and making histrionic gestures with their stick-like arms. They waved their hands in salutation to Brian as they went.
He watched them frozenly. He could not even tremble. The moisture he had taken perforce from them had bloated him by a third; he was distended too with rage and helplessness. This time it had been ten - a hundred times worse than at first. After this he’d accept his degradation docilely. Anything was better than having them force him as they had today.
He sat through the night in a trance of glassy horror. At times he was no longer sure who Brian was. He only knew that Brian had endured something he should not have endured. Someone had learned a dreadful secret about Brian. Numbly he waited for day.
That day it rained less, and only one plunp came. The god who had been Brian thought, “I can stand it if it’s only one of them. Yesterday was much worse.”
But the day after there were five and then two and then three. It went on day after day, with more plunp as the season advanced and the rain grew heavier. Day after day. The Hrothy would have been more than satisfied.
Brian hated his glassy-eyed worshipers with a fury that was at first murderous and then became turned inward. If he could have moved, could have done anything at all except loathsomely dehydrate the plunp, he would have killed himself. He would dwell with black self-hatred on the intricate details of his self-destruction. Whether it should be by knives, or fire, or corrosive poisons, he could not decide. He wanted the one that would hurt most.
From one point of view, his ingenious preoccupation with the minutiae of his destruction was a blessing. It kept him from suffering anxiety or apprehension as his advancing physical degeneration became evident. His masochism was genuine; each new evidence of failure - patchy vision, auditory failure, permanent bloat - he greeted with delight He might even have come to welcome the moisture-drawing service the plunp required of him, since it was the primary cause of his breaking up. That, however, remained beyond him. The violence to his ego was too great.
Time passed Rain rained. Sometimes as many as twenty plunp stood in the shrine before him, revolving drunkenly, their faces blank. Then, as the days grew longer, the rain began to abate. There was one clear day and then another and then two in a row. The dry summer was setting in.
Worshipers began to come less frequently. When they did, they did not stay long. The gradual drying out of the plunp’s slick tissues by the heat of summer did not intoxicate them; it made them sleepy. They were no longer interested in gods and hygroscopy and yellow goo. They were, in fact, beginning to estivate.
Brian at first did not dare to believe in it. But when nearly a week had passed without a single plunp presenting itself for him to dehydrate, he let himself be invaded by a most passionate relief. There were no more demands. The days grew longer and brighter. And there were no more plunp.
Then, as the air grew progressively dryer, Brian found that he was beginning to shrink.
He was not alarmed, he was puzzled. He still sat immobile in his corner, his legs crossed under him, but each day he was smaller, lighter, dryer, than he had been the day before. He passed the point of normal physical size where he had been before the mechanism of the shrine had changed him, and receded from it His bloated skin was shriveling dustily on him. Still he shrank.
He was not alarmed. His puzzlement was a vague and not alarming emotion. And as time passed there were long blank spaces, stretches of faintly voluptuous blackness, in his thoughts.
It came to him slowly that this creeping blackness, this increasingly welcome annihilation of mentality, meant death. Death? Not the agonizing destructions he had pantingly planned for himself, but something better. He rejoiced in it. But - he still had faint curiosities - but why?
Well, he supposed, even gods don’t live forever, and he had done an incredible amount of dehydration for the plunp. He had worn himself out with it, and the dry season had finished him. Next year the plunp - for the first time since his agony had begun he felt like laughing - next year the plunp would have to find another god.
At last he sat in his corner shrunken no bigger than a doll. He no longer heard or saw or felt His mind had stopped. He had shriveled up to nothing; his arms and legs were as small as darning balls. There was no more Brian If he had had a spark of ego left to make the statement, he would have said that he was dead.
But the plunp were in no immediate danger of losing their deity. When the rainy season came, Brian would wake up again. Once more he would resume his loathsome service for them.
Like worshiper, like god. Brian had years more of hygroscopic action for the plunp before him. But now it was summer. Synchronous with the cycle of his worshipers, the god of the plunp was estivating too.
--Margaret St. Clair
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