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Robert Sheckley - Ghost V

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  1. G h o s t V
  2.  
  3. by Robert Sheckley
  4.  
  5.  
  6. "He's reading our sign now," Gregor said, his
  7. long bony face pressed against the peephole in the
  8. office door.
  9. "Let me see," Arnold said.
  10. Gregor pushed him back. "He's going to knock -
  11. no, he's changed his mind. He's leaving."
  12. Arnold returned to his desk and laid out
  13. another game of solitaire. Gregor kept watch at
  14. the peephole.
  15. They had constructed the peephole out of
  16. sheer boredom three months after forming their
  17. partnership and renting the office. During that time,
  18. the AAA Ace Planet Decontamination Service had
  19. had no business - in spite of being first in the telephone
  20. book. Planetary decontamination was an old, established
  21. line, completely monopolized by two large outfits. It
  22. was discouraging for a small new firm run by two young
  23. men with big ideas and a lot of unpaid-for equipment.
  24. "He's coming back," Gregor called. "*Quick* -
  25. look busy and important!"
  26. Arnold swept his cards into a drawer and just
  27. finished buttoning his lab gown when the knock came.
  28. Their visitor was a short, bald, tired-looking
  29. man. He stared at them dubiously.
  30. "You decontaminate planets?"
  31. "That is correct, sir," Gregor said, pushing
  32. away a pile of papers and shaking the man's moist hand.
  33. "I am Richard Gregor. This is my partner, Doctor Frank
  34. Arnold. "
  35. Arnold, impressively garbed in a white lab gown
  36. and black horn-rimmed glasses, nodded absently and
  37. resumed his examination of a row of ancient, crusted test
  38. tubes.
  39. "Kindly be seated, Mister - "
  40. "Ferngraum."
  41. "Mr. Ferngraum. I think we can handle just about
  42. anything you require," Gregor said heartily. "Flora or
  43. fauna control, cleansing atmosphere, purifying water
  44. supply, sterilizing soil, stability testing, volcano and
  45. earthquake control - anything you need to make a planet fit
  46. for human habitation."
  47. Ferngraum still looked dubious. "I'm going to
  48. level with you. I've got a problem planet on my hands."
  49. Gregor nodded confidently. "Problems are our business."
  50. "I'm a freelance real-estate broker," Ferngraum
  51. said. "You know how it works - buy a planet, sell a planet,
  52. everyone makes a living. Usually I stick with the scrub
  53. worlds and let my buyers do their decontaminating. But a
  54. few months ago I had a chance to buy a real quality planet -
  55. took it right out from under the noses of the big operators."
  56. Ferngraum mopped his forehead unhappily.
  57. "It's a beautiful place," he continued with no
  58. enthusiasm whatsoever. "Average temperature of
  59. seventy-one degrees. Mountainous, but fertile. Waterfalls,
  60. rainbows, all that sort of thing. And no fauna at all."
  61. "Sounds perfect," Gregor said. "Microorganisms?"
  62. "Nothing dangerous."
  63. "Then what's wrong with the place?"
  64. Ferngraum looked embarrassed. "Maybe you heard
  65. about it. The Government catalogue number is RJC-5. But
  66. everyone else calls it 'Ghost V.'"
  67. Gregor raised an eyebrow. "Ghost" was an odd
  68. nickname for a planet, but he had heard odder. After all,
  69. you had to call them something. There were thousands of
  70. planet-bearing suns within spaceship range, many of them
  71. inhabitable or potentially inhabitable. And there were plenty
  72. of people from the civilized worlds who wanted to colonize
  73. them. Religious sects, political minorities, philosophic groups -
  74. or just plain pioneers, out to make a fresh start.
  75. "I don't believe I've heard of it," Gregor said.
  76. Ferngraum squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.
  77. "I should have listened to my wife. But no - I was gonna be a
  78. big operator. Paid ten times my usual price for Ghost V and
  79. now I'm stuck with it."
  80. "But what's *wrong* with it?" Gregor asked.
  81. "It seems to be haunted," Ferngraum said in despair.
  82. Ferngraum had radar-checked his planet, then leased
  83. it to a combine of farmers from Dijon VI. The eight-man
  84. advance guard landed and, within a day, began to broadcast
  85. garbled reports about demons, ghouls, vampires, dinosaurs
  86. and other inimical fauna.
  87. When a relief ship came for them, all were dead.
  88. An autopsy report stated that the gashes, cuts and marks on
  89. their bodies could indeed have been made by almost anything,
  90. even demons, ghouls, vampires or dinosaurs, if such existed.
  91. Ferngraum was fined for improper decontamination.
  92. The farmers dropped their lease. But he managed to lease it to
  93. a group of sun worshipers from Opal II.
  94. The sun worshipers were cautious. They sent their
  95. equipment, but only three men accompanied it, to scout out
  96. trouble. The men set up camp, unpacked and declared the place
  97. a paradise. They radioed the home group to come at once - then,
  98. suddenly, there was a wild scream and radio silence.
  99. A patrol ship went to Ghost V, buried the three
  100. mangled bodies and departed in five minutes flat.
  101. "And that did it," Ferngraum said. "Now no one will
  102. touch it at any price. Space crews refuse to land on it. And I
  103. still don't know what happened."
  104. He sighed deeply and looked at Gregor. "It's your
  105. baby, if you want it."
  106. Gregor and Arnold excused themselves and went
  107. into the anteroom.
  108. Arnold whooped at once, "We've got a job!"
  109. "Yeah," Gregor said, "but what a job."
  110. "We wanted the tough ones," Arnold pointed out.
  111. "If we lick this, we're established - to say nothing of the
  112. profit we'll make on a percentage basis."
  113. "You seem to forget," Gregor said, "I'm the one who
  114. has to actually land on the planet. All you do is sit here
  115. and interpret my data."
  116. "That's the way we set it up," Arnold reminded
  117. him. "I'm the research department - you're the troubleshooter.
  118. Remember?"
  119. Gregor remembered. Ever since childhood, he
  120. had been sticking his neck out while Arnold stayed home
  121. and told him why he was sticking his neck out.
  122. "I don't like it," he said.
  123. "You don't believe in ghosts, do you?"
  124. "No, of course not."
  125. "Well, we can handle anything else. Faint heart
  126. ne'er won fair profit." Gregor shrugged his shoulders. They
  127. went back to Ferngraum.
  128. In half an hour, they had worked out their terms -
  129. a large percentage of future development profits if they
  130. succeeded, a forfeiture clause if they failed.
  131. Gregor walked to the door with Ferngraum. "By
  132. the way, sir," he asked, "how did you happen to come to us?"
  133. "No one else would handle it," Ferngraum said,
  134. looking extremely pleased with himself. "Good luck."
  135.  
  136.  
  137. Three days later, Gregor was aboard a rickety space
  138. freighter, bound for Ghost V. He spent his time studying
  139. reports on the two colonization attempts and reading
  140. survey after survey on supernatural phenomena.
  141. They didn't help at all. No trace of animal life had
  142. been found on Ghost V. And no proof of the existence of
  143. supernatural creatures had been discovered anywhere in the
  144. galaxy.
  145. Gregor pondered this, then checked his weapons as
  146. the freighter spiraled into the region of Ghost V. He was
  147. carrying an arsenal large enough to start a small war and win
  148. it.
  149. *If* he could find something to shoot at ...
  150. The captain of the freighter brought his ship to
  151. within several thousand feet of the smiling green surface
  152. of the planet, but no closer. Gregor parachuted his equipment
  153. to the site of the last two camps, shook hands with the captain
  154. and 'chuted himself down.
  155. He landed safely and looked up. The freighter was
  156. streaking into space as though the furies were after it.
  157. He was alone on Ghost V.
  158. After checking his equipment for breakage, he
  159. radioed Arnold that he had landed safely. Then, with drawn
  160. blaster, he inspected the sun worshipers' camp.
  161. They had set themselves up at the base of a
  162. mountain, beside a small, crystal-clear lake. The prefabs
  163. were in perfect condition.
  164. No storm had ever damaged them, because Ghost V
  165. was blessed with a beautifully even climate. But they looked
  166. pathetically lonely.
  167. Gregor made a careful check of one. Clothes were
  168. still neatly packed in cabinets, pictures were hung on the
  169. wall and there was even a curtain on one window. In a corner
  170. of the room, a case of toys had been opened for the arrival of
  171. the main party's children.
  172. A water pistol, a top and a bag of marbles had
  173. spilled on to the floor.
  174. Evening was coming, so Gregor dragged his equipment
  175. into the prefab and made his preparations. He rigged an alarm
  176. system and adjusted it so finely that even a roach would set it
  177. off. He put up a radar alarm to scan the immediate area. He
  178. unpacked his arsenal, laying the heavy rifles within easy reach,
  179. but keeping a hand-blaster in his belt. Then, satisfied, he ate a
  180. leisurely supper.
  181. Outside, the evening drifted into night. The warm
  182. and dreamy land grew dark. A gentle breeze ruffled the surface
  183. of the lake and rustled silkily in the tall grass.
  184. It was all very peaceful.
  185. The settlers must have been hysterical types, he
  186. decided. They had probably panicked and killed each other.
  187. After checking his alarm system one last time,
  188. Gregor threw his clothes on to a chair, turned off the lights
  189. and climbed into bed. The room was illuminated by starlight,
  190. stronger than moonlight on Earth. His blaster was under his
  191. pillow. All was well with the world.
  192. He had just begun to doze off when he became
  193. aware that he was not alone in the room.
  194. That was impossible. His alarm system hadn't
  195. gone off. The radar was still humming peacefully.
  196. Yet every nerve in his body was shrieking alarm.
  197. He eased the blaster out and looked around.
  198. A man was standing in a corner of the room.
  199. There was no time to consider how he had come.
  200. Gregor aimed the blaster and said, "Okay, raise your hands,"
  201. in a quiet, resolute voice.
  202. The figure didn't move.
  203. Gregor's finger tightened on the trigger, then
  204. suddenly relaxed. He recognized the man. It was his own
  205. clothing, heaped on a chair, distorted by the starlight and
  206. his own imagination.
  207. He grinned and lowered the blaster. The pile of
  208. clothing began to stir faintly. Gregor felt a faint breeze
  209. from the window and continued to grin.
  210. Then the pile of clothing stood up, stretched
  211. itself and began to walk toward him purposefully.
  212. Frozen to his bed, he watched the disembodied clothing,
  213. assembled roughly in manlike form, advance on him.
  214. When it was halfway across the room and its
  215. empty sleeves were reaching for him, he began to blast.
  216. And kept on blasting, for the rags and remnants
  217. slithered toward him as if filled with a life of their own.
  218. Flaming bits of cloth crowded toward his face and a belt
  219. tried to coil around his legs. He had to burn everything to
  220. ashes before the attack stopped.
  221. When it was over, Gregor turned on every light
  222. he could find. He brewed a pot of coffee and poured in
  223. most of a bottle of brandy. Somehow, he resisted an urge
  224. to kick his useless alarm system to pieces. Instead, he
  225. radioed his partner.
  226. "That's very interesting," Arnold said, after
  227. Gregor had brought him up to date. "Animation! Very
  228. interesting indeed."
  229. "I hoped it would amuse you." Gregor answered
  230. bitterly. After several shots of brandy, he was beginning
  231. to feel abandoned and abused.
  232. "Did anything else happen?"
  233. "Not yet."
  234. "Well, take care. I've got a theory. Have to do
  235. some research on it. By the way, some crazy bookie is
  236. laying five to one against you."
  237. "Really?"
  238. "Yeah. I took a piece of it."
  239. "Did you bet for me or against me?" Gregor asked, worried.
  240. "For you, of course," Arnold said indignantly.
  241. "We're partners, aren't we?"
  242. They signed off and Gregor brewed another pot of
  243. coffee. He was not planning on any more sleep that night. It
  244. was comforting to know that Arnold had bet on him. But, then,
  245. Arnold was a notoriously bad gambler.
  246.  
  247.  
  248. By daylight, Gregor was able to get a few hours of
  249. fitful sleep. In the early afternoon he awoke, found some
  250. clothes and began to explore the sun worshipers' camp.
  251. Toward evening, he found something. On the wall
  252. of a prefab, the word "*Tgasklit*" had been hastily scratched.
  253. *Tgasklit.* It meant nothing to him, but he relayed it to
  254. Arnold at once.
  255. He then searched his prefab carefully, set up
  256. more lights, tested the alarm system and recharged his blaster.
  257. Everything seemed in order. With regret, he
  258. watched the sun go down, hoping he would live to see it rise
  259. again. Then he settled himself in a comfortable chair and tried
  260. to do some constructive thinking.
  261. There was no animal life here - nor were there
  262. any walking plants, intelligent rocks or giant brains dwelling
  263. in the planet's core. Ghost V hadn't even a moon for someone to
  264. hide on.
  265. And he couldn't believe in ghosts or demons. He
  266. knew that supernatural happenings tended to break down,
  267. under detailed examination, into eminently natural events.
  268. The ones that didn't break down - stopped. Ghosts just
  269. wouldn't stand still and let a nonbeliever examine them. The
  270. phantom of the castle was invariably on vacation when a
  271. scientist showed up with cameras and tape recorders.
  272. That left another possibility. Suppose someone
  273. wanted this planet, but wasn't prepared to pay Ferngraum's
  274. price? Couldn't this someone hide here, frighten the settlers,
  275. kill them if necessary in order to drive down the price?
  276. That seemed logical. You could even explain the
  277. behavior of his clothes that way. Static electricity,
  278. correctly used, could -
  279. Something was standing in front of him. His
  280. alarm system, as before, hadn't gone off.
  281. Gregor looked up slowly. The thing in front of him
  282. was about ten feet tall and roughly human in shape, except
  283. for its crocodile head. It was colored a bright crimson and
  284. had purple stripes running lengthwise on its body. In one claw,
  285. it was carrying a large brown can.
  286. "Hello," it said.
  287. "Hello," Gregor gulped. His blaster was on a
  288. table only two feet away. He wondered, would the thing
  289. attack if he reached for it?
  290. "What's your name?" Gregor asked, with the
  291. calmness of deep shock.
  292. "I'm the Purple-striped Grabber," the thing
  293. said. "I grab things."
  294. "How interesting." Gregor's hand began to creep
  295. toward the blaster.
  296. "I grab things named Richard Gregor," the
  297. Grabber told him in its bright, ingenuous voice. "And I
  298. usually eat them in chocolate sauce." It held up the brown
  299. can and Gregor saw that it was labelled "Smigs Chocolate -
  300. An Ideal Sauce to Use with Gregors, Arnolds and Flynns."
  301. Gregor's fingers touched the butt of the
  302. blaster. He asked, "Were you planning to eat me?"
  303. "Oh, yes," the Grabber said.
  304. Gregor had the gun now. He flipped off the
  305. safety catch and fired. The radiant blast cascaded off
  306. the Grabber's chest and singed the floor, the walls and
  307. Gregor's eyebrows.
  308. "That won't hurt me," the Grabber explained. "I'm too tall."
  309. The blaster dropped from Gregor's fingers.
  310. The Grabber leaned forward.
  311. "I'm not going to eat you now," the Grabber said.
  312. "No?" Gregor managed to enunciate.
  313. "No. I can only eat you tomorrow, on May first.
  314. Those are the rules. I just came to ask a favor."
  315. "What is it?"
  316. The Grabber smiled winningly. "Would you
  317. be a good sport and eat a few apples? They flavor the
  318. flesh so wonderfully."
  319. And, with that, the striped monster vanished.
  320. With shaking hands, Gregor worked the radio
  321. and told Arnold everything that had happened.
  322. "Hmm," Arnold said. "Purple-striped Grabber,
  323. eh? I think that clinches it. Everything fits."
  324. "What fits? What is it?"
  325. "First, do as I say. I want to make sure."
  326. Obeying Arnold's instructions, Gregor unpacked
  327. his chemical equipment and laid out a number of test tubes,
  328. retorts and chemicals. He stirred, mixed, added and subtracted
  329. as directed and finally put the mixture on the stove to heat.
  330. "Now," Gregor said, coming back to the radio,
  331. "tell me what's going on."
  332. "Certainly. I looked up the word '*Tgasklit.*'
  333. It's Opalian. It means 'many-toothed ghost.' The sun
  334. worshipers were from Opal. What does that suggest to you?"
  335. "They were killed by a hometown ghost,"
  336. Gregor replied nastily. "It must have stowed away on their
  337. ship. Maybe there was a curse and - "
  338. "Calm down," Arnold said. "There aren't any
  339. ghosts in this. Is the solution boiling yet?"
  340. "No. "
  341. "Tell me when it does. Now let's take your
  342. animated clothing. Does it remind you of anything?"
  343. Gregor thought. "Well," he said, "when I was a
  344. kid - no, that's ridiculous."
  345. "Out with it," Arnold insisted.
  346. "When I was a kid, I never left clothing on a
  347. chair. In the dark, it always looked like a man or a dragon
  348. or something. I guess everyone's had that experience. But it
  349. doesn't explain - "
  350. "Sure it does! Remember the Purple-striped Grabber now?"
  351. "No. Why should l?"
  352. "Because you invented him! Remember? We must
  353. have been eight or nine, you and me and Jimmy Flynn. We
  354. invented the most horrible monster you could think of - he
  355. was our own personal monster and he only wanted to eat you or
  356. me or Jimmy - flavored with chocolate sauce. But only on the
  357. first of every month, when the report cards were due. You had to
  358. use the magic word to get rid of him."
  359. Then Gregor remembered and wondered how he
  360. could ever have forgotten. How many nights had he stayed up
  361. in fearful expectation of the Grabber? It had made bad report
  362. cards seem very unimportant.
  363. "Is the solution boiling?" Arnold asked.
  364. "Yes," said Gregor, glancing obediently at the
  365. stove. "What color is it?"
  366. "A sort of greenish blue. No, it's more blue than - "
  367. "Right. You can pour it out. I want to run a few
  368. more tests, but I think we've got it licked."
  369. "Got *what* licked? Would you do a little explaining?"
  370. "It's obvious. The planet has no animal life.
  371. There are no ghosts or at least none solid enough to kill
  372. off a party of armed men. Hallucination was the answer, so I
  373. looked for something that would produce it. I found plenty.
  374. Aside from all the drugs on Earth, there are about a dozen
  375. hallucination-forming gases in the _Catalogue of Alien Trace
  376. Elements_. There are depressants, stimulants, stuff that'll
  377. make you feel like a genius or an earthworm or an eagle. This
  378. particular one corresponds to Longstead 42 in the catalogue.
  379. It's a heavy, transparent, odorless gas, not harmful physically.
  380. It's an imagination stimulant."
  381. "You mean I was just having hallucinations? I tell you - "
  382. "Not quite that simple," Arnold cut in. "Longstead
  383. 42 works directly on the subconscious. It releases your
  384. strongest subconscious fears, the childhood terrors you've
  385. been suppressing. It animates them. And that's what you've
  386. been seeing."
  387. "Then there's actually nothing here?" Gregor asked.
  388. "Nothing physical. But the hallucinations are
  389. real enough to whoever is having them."
  390. Gregor reached over for another bottle of
  391. brandy. This called for a celebration.
  392. "It won't be hard to decontaminate Ghost V,"
  393. Arnold went on confidently. "We can cancel the Longstead 42
  394. with no difficulty. And then - we'll be rich, partner!"
  395. Gregor suggested a toast, then thought of
  396. something disturbing. "If they're just hallucinations,
  397. what happened to the settlers?"
  398. Arnold was silent for a moment. "Well," he
  399. said finally, "Longstead may have a tendency to stimulate
  400. the mortido - the death instinct. The settlers must have gone
  401. crazy. Killed each other."
  402. "And no survivors?"
  403. "Sure, why not? The last ones alive committed
  404. suicide or died of wounds. Don't worry about it. I'm chartering
  405. a ship immediately and coming out to run those tests. Relax.
  406. I'll pick you up in a day or two."
  407. Gregor signed off. He allowed himself the rest
  408. of the bottle of brandy that night. It seemed only fair. The
  409. mystery of Ghost V was solved and they were going to be rich.
  410. Soon *he* would be able to hire a man to land on strange
  411. planets for him, while *he* sat home and gave instructions
  412. over a radio.
  413.  
  414. * * *
  415.  
  416. He awoke late the next day with a hangover. Arnold's
  417. ship hadn't arrived yet, so he packed his equipment and
  418. waited. By evening, there was still no ship. He sat in the
  419. doorway of the prefab and watched a gaudy sunset, then went
  420. inside and made dinner.
  421. The problem of the settlers still bothered
  422. him, but he determined not to worry about it. Undoubtedly
  423. there was a logical answer.
  424. After dinner, he stretched out on a bed. He
  425. had barely closed his eyes when he heard someone cough
  426. apologetically.
  427. "Hello," said the Purple-striped Grabber.
  428. His own personal hallucination had returned to
  429. eat him. "Hello, old chap," Gregor said cheerfully, without a
  430. bit of fear or worry.
  431. "Did you eat the apples?"
  432. "Dreadfully sorry. I forgot. "
  433. "Oh, well." The Grabber tried to conceal his
  434. disappointment. "I brought the chocolate sauce." He held up
  435. the can.
  436. Gregor smiled. "You can leave now," he said.
  437. "I know you're just a figment of my imagination. You can't
  438. hurt me."
  439. "I'm not going to hurt you," the Grabber said.
  440. "I'm just going to eat you."
  441. He walked up to Gregor. Gregor held his ground,
  442. smiling, although he wished the Grabber didn't appear so solid
  443. and undreamlike. The Grabber leaned over and bit his arm
  444. experimentally.
  445. He jumped back and looked at his arm. There
  446. were toothmarks on it. Blood was oozing out - real blood -
  447. *his* blood.
  448. The colonists had been bitten, gashed, torn and ripped.
  449. At that moment, Gregor remembered an exhibition
  450. of hypnotism he had once seen. The hypnotist had told the
  451. subject he was putting a lighted cigarette on his arm. Then he
  452. had touched the spot with a pencil.
  453. Within seconds, an angry red blister had appeared
  454. on the subject's arm, because he *believed* he had been burned.
  455. If your subconscious thinks you're dead, you're dead. If it
  456. orders the stigmata of toothmarks, they are there.
  457. *He* didn't believe in the Grabber.
  458. But his subconscious did.
  459. Gregor tried to run for the door. The Grabber cut
  460. him off. It seized him in its claws and bent to reach his neck.
  461. The magic word! What was it?
  462. Gregor shouted, "*Alphoisto*?"
  463. "Wrong word," said the Grabber. "Please don't squirm."
  464. "*Regnastikio*?"
  465. "Nope. Stop wriggling and it'll be over before you - "
  466. "*Voorshpellhappilo*!"
  467. The Grabber let out a scream of pain and
  468. released him. It bounded high into the air and vanished.
  469. Gregor collapsed into a chair. That had been
  470. close. Too close. It would be a particularly stupid way to die -
  471. rent by his own death-desiring subconscious, slashed by his
  472. own imagination, killed by his own conviction. It was fortunate
  473. he had remembered the word. Now if Arnold would only hurry ...
  474. He heard a low chuckle of amusement.
  475. It came from the blackness of a half-opened
  476. closet door, touching off an almost forgotten memory. He
  477. was nine years old again, and the Shadower - his Shadower -
  478. was a strange, thin, grisly creature who hid in doorways,
  479. slept under beds and attacked only in the dark.
  480. "Turn out the lights," the Shadower said.
  481. "Not a chance," Gregor retorted, drawing his
  482. blaster. As long as the lights were on, he was safe.
  483. "You'd better turn them off."
  484. "No!"
  485. "Very well. Egan, Megan, Degan!"
  486. Three little creatures scampered into the room.
  487. They raced to the nearest light bulb, flung themselves on it
  488. and began to gulp hungrily.
  489. The room was growing darker.
  490. Gregor blasted at them each time they
  491. approached a light. Glass shattered, but the nimble creatures
  492. darted out of the way.
  493. And then Gregor realized what he had done.
  494. The creatures couldn't actually eat light. Imagination
  495. can't make any impression on inanimate matter. He had
  496. *imagined* that the room was growing dark and -
  497. He had shot out his light bulbs! His own
  498. destructive subsconscious had tricked him.
  499. Now the Shadower stepped out. Leaping from
  500. shadow to shadow, he came toward Gregor.
  501. The blaster had no effect. Gregor tried frantically
  502. to think of the magic word - and terrifiedly remembered
  503. that no magic word banished the Shadower.
  504. He backed away, the Shadower advancing, until
  505. he was stopped by a packing case. The Shadower towered
  506. over him and Gregor shrank to the floor and closed his eyes.
  507. His hands came in contact with something cold.
  508. He was leaning against the packing case of toys for the
  509. settlers' children. And he was holding a water pistol.
  510. Gregor brandished it. The Shadower backed
  511. away, eyeing the weapon with apprehension.
  512. Quickly, Gregor ran to the tap and filled the
  513. pistol. He directed a deadly stream of water into the
  514. creature.
  515. The Shadower howled in agony and vanished.
  516. Gregor smiled tightly and slipped the empty gun
  517. into his belt.
  518. A water pistol was the right weapon to use
  519. against an imaginary monster.
  520.  
  521.  
  522. It was nearly dawn when the ship landed and Arnold
  523. stepped out. Without wasting any time, he set up his tests.
  524. By midday, it was done and the element definitely established
  525. as Longstead 42. He and Gregor packed up immediately and
  526. blasted off.
  527. Once they were in space, Gregor told his partner
  528. everything that had happened.
  529. "Pretty rough," said Arnold softly, but with deep feeling.
  530. Gregor could smile with modest heroism now
  531. that he was safely off Ghost V. "Could have been worse,"
  532. he said.
  533. "How?"
  534. "Suppose Jimmy Flynn were here. There was a kid
  535. who could really dream up monsters. Remember the Grumbler?"
  536. "All I remember is the nightmares it gave me,"
  537. Arnold said.
  538. They were on their way home. Arnold jotted down
  539. some notes for an article entitled "The Death Instinct on
  540. Ghost V: An Examination of Subconscious Stimulation, Hysteria,
  541. and Mass Hallucination in Producing Physical Stigmata." Then he
  542. went to the control room to set the autopilot.
  543. Gregor threw himself on a couch, determined to
  544. get his first decent night's sleep since landing on Ghost V. He
  545. had barely dozed off when Arnold hurried in, his face pasty with
  546. terror.
  547. "I think there's something in the control room,"
  548. he said. Gregor sat up. "There can't be. We're off the - "
  549. There was a low growl from the control room.
  550. "Oh, my God!" Arnold gasped. He concentrated furiously
  551. for a few seconds. "I know. I left the airlocks open when I landed.
  552. We're still breathing Ghost V air!"
  553. And there, framed in the open doorway, was an
  554. immense gray creature with red spots on its hide. It had an
  555. amazing number of arms, legs, tentacles, claws and teeth, plus
  556. two tiny wings on its back. It walked slowly toward them,
  557. mumbling and moaning.
  558. They both recognized it as the Grumbler.
  559. Gregor dashed forward and slammed the door in its
  560. face. "We should be safe in here," he panted. "That door is airtight.
  561. But how will we pilot the ship?"
  562. "We won't," Arnold said. "We'll have to trust
  563. the robot pilot - unless we can figure out some way of
  564. getting that thing out of there."
  565. They noticed that a faint smoke was beginning
  566. to seep through the sealed edges of the door.
  567. "What's that?" Arnold asked, with a sharp edge
  568. of panic in his voice.
  569. Gregor frowned. "You remember, don't you? The
  570. Grumbler can get into any room. There's no way of keeping
  571. him out."
  572. "I don't remember anything about him,"
  573. Arnold said. "Does he eat people?"
  574. "No. As I recall, he just mangles them thoroughly."
  575. The smoke was beginning to solidify into
  576. the immense gray shape of the Grumbler. They retreated
  577. into the next compartment and sealed the door. Within seconds,
  578. the thin smoke was leaking through.
  579. "This is ridiculous," Arnold said, biting his
  580. lip. "To be haunted by an imaginary monster - wait! You've
  581. still got your water pistol, haven't you?"
  582. "Yes, but - "
  583. "Give it to me!"
  584. Arnold hurried over to a water tank and
  585. filled the pistol. The Grumbler had taken form again and
  586. was lumbering towards them, groaning unhappily. Arnold
  587. raked it with a stream of water.
  588. The Grumbler kept on advancing.
  589. "Now it's all coming back to me," Gregor said.
  590. "A water pistol never could stop the Grumbler."
  591. They backed into the next room and slammed
  592. the door. Behind them was only the bunkroom with nothing
  593. behind that but the deadly vacuum of space.
  594. Gregor asked, "Isn't there something you can do
  595. about the atmosphere?"
  596. Arnold shook his head. "It's dissipating now.
  597. But it takes about twenty hours for the effects of Longstead
  598. to wear off."
  599. "Haven't you any antidote?"
  600. "No."
  601. Once again the Grumbler was materializing, and
  602. neither silently nor pleasantly.
  603. "How can we kill it?" Arnold asked. "There
  604. must be a way. Magic words? How about a wooden sword?"
  605. Gregor shook his head. "I remember the
  606. Grumbler now," he said unhappily.
  607. "What kills it?"
  608. "It can't be destroyed by water pistols, cap guns,
  609. firecrackers, slingshots, stink bombs, or any other childhood
  610. weapon. The Grumbler is absolutely unkillable."
  611. "That Flynn and his damned imagination! Why
  612. did we have to talk about him? How do you get rid of it then?"
  613. "I told you. You don't. It just has to go away of its
  614. own accord."
  615. The Grumbler was full size now. Gregor and
  616. Arnold hurried into the tiny bunkroom and slammed their last
  617. door.
  618. "*Think*, Gregor," Arnold pleaded. "No kid invents
  619. a monster without a defense of some sort. *Think*!"
  620. "The Grumbler cannot be killed," Gregor said.
  621. The red-spotted monster was taking shape again.
  622. Gregor thought back over all the midnight horrors he had ever
  623. known. He *must* have done something as a child to neutralize
  624. the power of the unknown.
  625. And then - almost too late - he remembered.
  626.  
  627.  
  628. Under autopilot controls, the ship flashed Earthward
  629. with the Grumbler as complete master. He marched up and
  630. down the empty corridors and floated through steel partitions
  631. into cabins and cargo compartments, moaning, groaning and
  632. cursing because he could not get at any victim.
  633. The ship reached the solar system and took up
  634. an automatic orbit around the moon.
  635. Gregor peered out cautiously, ready to duck back
  636. if necessary. There was no sinister shuffling, no moaning or
  637. groaning, no hungry mist seeping under the door or through the
  638. walls.
  639. "All clear," he called out to Arnold. "The Grumbler's gone."
  640. Safe within the ultimate defense against night
  641. horrors - wrapped in the blankets that had covered their
  642. heads - they climbed out of their bunks.
  643. "I told you the water pistol wouldn't do any
  644. good," Gregor said. Arnold gave him a sick grin and put the
  645. pistol in his pocket. "I'm hanging on to it. If I ever get married
  646. and have a kid, it's going to be his first present. "
  647. "Not for any of mine," said Gregor. He patted the
  648. bunk affectionately. "You can't beat blankets over the head for
  649. protection."
  650.  
  651.  
  652.  
  653. "Ghost V," by Robert Sheckley. Copyright © 1957 by Robert Sheckley
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