Professor Lees, chief radiobiologist at the Kendall nuclear research and power station, was showing his son some slides he had prepared weeks earlier from pond and seawater in irradiated test tubes. David was only seven, but already he could understand much of what his famous father said.
“Look,” the professor explained as the boy peered eagerly into the microscope. “That’s an amoeba, quite dead, killed off by radiation. Just like a little jellyfish, isn’t it? And this…” he swapped slides, “…is a tiny wee plant called a diatom. It’s dead too—they all are—that’s what hard radiation does to living things…”
“What’s this one?” David asked, changing the slides himself.
“That’s a young flatworm, David. It’s a tiny freshwater animal. Lives in pools and streams. Funny little thing. That one’s a type with very strange abilities. D’you know, when one planarian (that’s what they’re called) eats another—” David looked up sharply at his father, who smiled at the boy’s expression. “Oh, no! They’re not cannibals—at least I don’t think so—but if a dead worm is chopped up and fed to another, why! the live worm ‘inherits’ the knowledge of the one it’s eaten!”
“Knowledge?” David looked puzzled. “Are they clever, then?”
“Noooo, not strictly clever, but they can be taught simple things like how a drop in temperature means it’s feeding time, stuff like that. And, as I’ve said, when one of them is dead and chopped up, whatever he knew before he died is passed on to the planarian who eats him.”
“And they’re not cannibals?” David still looked puzzled.
“Why, no,” the professor patiently explained. “I don’t suppose for one minute they’d eat each other if they knew what they were eating—we do chop them up first!” He frowned. “I’m not absolutely sure though.…You could, I suppose, call them unwilling cannibals if you wished. Is it important?”
But David was not listening. Suddenly his attention seemed riveted on the tiny creature beneath the microscope.
“No he didn’t, David. That’s just your imagination. He couldn’t move, he’s dead.” Nonetheless the scientist pulled his son gently to one side to have a look himself. It wasn’t possible—no, of course not. He had been studying the specimens for three weeks, since the experiment, watching them all die off, and since then there had not been a sign of returning life in any of them. Certainly there could be none now. Even if the sustained blast of hard radiation had not killed them off proper (which of course it had), then colouring them and fixing them to the slides certainly must have. No, they were dead, all of them, merely tiny lumps of useless gelatin…
* * *
The next day was Saturday and David was not at school. He quit the house early saying he was going fishing at the pool. Shortly after he left, his father cleaned off his many slides, hardly missing the one with the tiny planarium worm, the one in David’s pocket!
David knew he had seen the worm move under the microscope—a stiff, jerky movement, rather like the slug he had pinned to the garden with a twig through its middle one evening a few weeks earlier…
David’s pool was his own. It lay in the grounds of the house, set far back from the road, in the copse that marked the boundary of his father’s land. In fact it was a runoff from the river, filled nine months of the year by high waters flooding the creek running to it. There were fish, but David had never caught any of the big ones, not with his bent pin. He had seen them often enough in the reeds—even a great pike—but his catches were never any bigger than the occasional newt or minnow. That Saturday it was not even his intention to fish; that had only been an excuse to his mother to allow him to get down to the pool.
The truth was that David was a very humane boy really and the idea that the flatworm had been alive on that slide, no matter how, was abhorrent to him. His father had said that the creature was a freshwater dweller; well, if it was alive, David believed it should be given another chance. Immersion in water, its natural habitat, might just do the trick!
He put the slide down on a stone in a part of the pool not quite so shaded by the surrounding trees, so that the creature upon it might benefit from what was left of the late summer sun. There he could see it just beneath the surface of the water. He kept up a watch on the tiny speck on the slide for almost an hour before growing tired of the game. Then he went home to spend the rest of the day in the library boning up on planarian worms.
* * *
In defiance of everything the books said, “Planny” (as David christened the creature the day after he saw it detach itself from the slide and swim almost aimlessly away) grew up very strangely indeed. Instead of adopting a worm shape as it developed, with a lobey, spade-shaped head, it took on one more like that of an amoeba. It was simply a shapeless blob—or, at best, a roundish blob.
Now one might ask: “Just how did David manage, in such a large pool, to follow the comings and goings of such a small animal?” And the answer would be that Planny did not stay small for very long. Indeed, no, for even on that morning when he got loose from the slide he trebled his size: that is, he converted many times his own weight in less wily, even smaller denizens of David’s pool. In just a day or two he was as big as a Ping-Pong ball, and David had taken to getting up very early, before school, so that he could go down to the copse to check the creature’s rate of growth.
Two weeks later there was not a single minnow left in the pool, nor a stickleback, and even the numbers of the youngest of the larger fish were on a rapid decline.
David never discovered just how Planny swam. He could see that there were no fins or anything, no legs, yet somehow the animal managed quite nimbly in the water without such extensions—and especially after dining on the first of the larger fish. It had been noticeable, certainly, how much the freakish flatworm “learned” from the minnows: how to hunt and hide in the reeds, how to sink slowly to the bottom if ever anything big came near, things like that. Not that Planny really needed to hide, but he was not aware of that yet; he only had the experience (“inherited” of course) of the minnows and other fish he had eaten. Minnows, being small, have got to be careful…so David’s worm was careful too! Nor did he get much from the bigger fish; though they did help his self-assurance somewhat and his speed in the water, for naturally, they had the bustling attitude of most aquatic adults.
Then, when Planny was quite a bit bigger, something truly memorable happened! He was all of five weeks reborn when he took the pike: David was lucky enough to see the whole bit. That old pike had been stalking Planny for a week, but the radiation-transformed worm had successfully managed to avoid him right until the best possible moment: that is, until their sizes were more or less equal…in mass if not in shape.
David was standing at the poolside, admiring Planny as he gently undulated through the water, when the ugly fish came sliding out of the reed patch, its wicked eyes fixed firmly on the vaguely globular, greyish-white thing in the water. David’s worm had eyes too, two of them, and they were fixed equally firmly on the pike.
The boy gawked at the way it happened. The fish circled once, making a tight turn about his revolving “prey,” then flashed in to the attack at a speed which left David breathless. The boy knew all about this vicious species of fish, especially about the powerful jaws and great teeth, but the pike in question might never have had any teeth at all—might well have been a caviar sandwich—for all Planny worried! He simply opened up, seeming to split down the middle and around his circumference until David, still watching from the poolside, thought he must tear himself in two. But he did not. David saw a flash of rapidly sawing rows of rasplike teeth marching in columns along Planny’s insides, and then the creature’s two almost-halves ground shut on the amazed pike.
Planny seemed to go mad then, almost lifting himself (or being lifted) out of the water as the fish inside him thrashed about. But not for long. In a few seconds his now somewhat elongated shape became very still, then wobbled tiredly out of sight into deeper water to sleep it off…
* * *
For a full four days after this awesome display David’s worm was absent from its rebirth-place. There had been some rain and the creek was again swollen, which was as well for the oddly mutated flatworm, for there were no fish left in the pool. In fact, there was not much of anything left in the pool—at least, not until the afternoon of the pike’s vanquishment, when heavy rain brought the river waters to restock the Planny-depleted place. For that ugly, sadly vulnerable fish had been the pool’s last natural inhabitant, and until the rain came it would have been perfectly true to say of David’s pool that it was the most sterile stretch of open water in the whole world!
Now it is probably just as well that the majority of tales told by fishermen are usually recognized for what they usually are, for certainly a few strange stories wafted up from the riverside during that four-day period, and not all of them from rod-and-liners. Who can say what the result might have been had anyone really tried to check these stories out?
For Planny was coming along nicely, thank you, and in no time at all he had accumulated all the nastiness of quite a large number of easily devoured pike of all sizes. He had developed a taste for them. Also, he had picked up something of the unreasonable antagonism of a particularly unfriendly, yappy little dog whose master called for him in vain from the riverbank until late into the fourth night.
On the fifth morning, having almost given up hope of ever seeing the curious creature again, David went down to the pool as usual. Planny was back, and much bigger! Not only had he put on a lot of weight but his capacity for learning had picked up, too. The little dog had gone down (or rather in!) almost without a burp, and Planny’s very efficient digestive system had proved only slightly superior to his “natural” talent for, well, picking brains.
But while the animal’s hidden abilities were not so obvious, his growth assuredly was!
David gaped at the creature’s size—almost two feet in diameter now—as it came sliding out of the reed patch with the top three inches of its spongy, greyish-white bulk sticking up out of the water. The eyes were just below the surface, peering out liquidly at the boy on the bank. It is not difficult to guess what was going on in Planny’s composite knowledge-cells…or brain…or ganglia…or whatever! The way he had been hiding in the reeds and the way he carefully came out of them undoubtedly highlighted a leftover characteristic from his earlier, minnow period. The gleam in his peculiar eyes (of which David was innocently unaware) was suspiciously like that glassiness, intense and snide, seen in the eyes of doggies as they creep up on the backsides of postmen, and there was also something of a very real and greedy intent in there somewhere. Need we mention the pike?
Up into the shallows Planny came, flattening a little as his body edged up out of the water, losing something of its buoyancy, and David—innocent David—mistakenly saw the creature’s approach as nothing if not natural. After all, had he not saved the poor thing’s life?—and might he not therefore expect Planny to display friendship and even loyalty and gratitude? Instinctively he reached out his hand…
Now dogs are usually loyal only to their rightful masters, and minnows are rarely loyal at all, except perhaps to other minnows. But pike? Why the pike is a notoriously unfriendly fish, showing never a trace of gratitude or loyalty to anyone…
* * *
Approximately one hundred and thirty yards away and half an hour later, Professor Lees and his wife rose up from their bed and proceeded to the kitchen where they always had breakfast. A rather pungent, stale-water smell had seemingly invaded the house, so that the scientist’s wife, preceding her husband, sniffed suspiciously at the air, dabbing at her nose with the hem of her dressing gown as she opened the kitchen door and went in.
Her throbbing scream of horror and disbelief brought her husband in at the run through the open kitchen door a few seconds later. There was his wife, crouched defensively in a corner, fending off a hideously wobbly something with her bleeding, oddly dissolved and pulpy hands.
David’s father did not stop to ponder what or why, fortunately he was a man of action. Having seen at a glance the destructive properties of Planny’s weird acid make-up, he jumped forward, snatching the patterned cloth from the table as he went. Flinging the tablecloth over the bobbing, roughly globular thing on the floor, he hoisted it bodily into the air. Fortunately for the professor, Planny had lost much of his bulk in moisture-seepage during his journey from the pool, but even so the creature was heavy. Three quick steps took the scientist to the kitchen’s great, old-fashioned all-night fire. Already feeling the acid’s sting through the thin linen, he kicked open the heavy iron fire-door and bundled his wobbly, madly pulsating armful—tablecloth and all—straight in atop the glowing coals, slamming the door shut on it. Behind him his wife screamed out something ridiculous and fainted, and almost immediately—even though he had put his slippered foot against it—the door burst open and an awfully wounded Planny leapt forth in a hissing cloud of poisonous steam. Slimy and dripping, shrunken and mephitic, the creature wobbled drunkenly, dementedly about the floor, only to be bundled up again in the space of a few seconds, this time in the scientist’s sacrificed dressing gown, and hurled once more to the fire. And this time, so as to be absolutely sure, David’s father put his hands to the hot iron door, holding it firmly shut. He threw all his weight into the job, staying his ground until his fingers and palms, already blistered through contact with Planny’s singular juices, blackened and cracked. Only then, and when the pressures from within ceased, did he snatch his steaming, monstrously damaged hands away…
It was only in some kind of blurred daze that Professor Lees managed to set the wheels of action in motion from that time onwards. Once the immediate panic had subsided a sort of shocked lethargy crept over him, but in spite of this he cleaned up his unconscious wife’s bubbly hands as best he could, and his own—though that proved so painful he almost fainted himself—and then, somehow, he phoned for the doctor and the police.
Then, after another minute or so, still dazed but remembering something of the strange things his wife had screamed before she fainted, David’s father went upstairs to look for his son. When he found the boy’s room empty he became once more galvanized into frantic activity. He began rushing about the house calling David’s name before remembering his son’s odd habit of the last month or so—how he would get up early in the morning and go off down to the pool before school.
As he left the house a police car was just pulling up on the drive outside. He shouted out to the two constables, telling them they would find his wife in the house…would they look after her? Then, despite the fact that they called out after him for an explanation, he hurried off toward the copse.
At first the policemen were appalled by the loathsome stench issuing undiluted from the house; then, fighting back their nausea, they went in and began doing what they could to improve Mrs. Lees’s lot. The doctor arrived only a moment later. He could see instantly what was wrong: there had been some sort of accident with acid. Relieved at the arrival of this sure-handed professional, the bewildered policemen followed the scientist’s tracks to the pool.
There they found him sitting at the poolside with his head in his tattily bandaged hands. He had seen the slide on the stone in the pool, and, in a dazed sort of fashion, he had noted the peculiar, flattened track in the grass between the house and the copse. And then, being clever, totalling up these fragile facts, he had finally arrived at the impossible solution…
It all hinged, of course, on those mad things his wife had screamed before fainting. Now, thinking back on those things, David’s father could see the connections. He remembered now that there had been a slide missing from his set. He recalled the way in which David had declared the flatworm—the planarian worm—on a certain slide to be alive.
Quite suddenly he took one hand from his face and shoved it into his mouth right up to the bandaged knuckles. Just for a moment his eyes opened up very wide, and then he let both his hands fall and turned his face up to the patient policemen.
“God…God…God-oh-God!” he said then. “My wife! She said…she said…”
“Yes, sir—” one of the officers prompted him, “what did she say?”
Aimlessly the professor got to his feet. “She said that—that it was sitting at the breakfast table—sitting there in David’s chair—and she said it called her Mummy!”
Copyright © 2002 by Brian Lumley