Keep your shape, p.1
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Keep Your Shape


  Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net

  Transcriber's Note:

  This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction November 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.

  KEEP YOUR SHAPE

  By ROBERT SHECKLEY

  Illustrated by VIDMER

  _Only a race as incredibly elastic as the Grom could have a single rule of war:_

  * * * * *

  Pid the Pilot slowed the ship almost to a standstill, and peeredanxiously at the green planet below.

  Even without instruments, there was no mistaking it. Third from itssun, it was the only planet in this system capable of sustaining life.Peacefully it swam beneath its gauze of clouds.

  It looked very innocent. And yet, twenty previous Grom expeditions hadset out to prepare this planet for invasion--and vanished utterly,without a word.

  Pid hesitated only a moment, before starting irrevocably down. Therewas no point in hovering and worrying. He and his two crewmen were asready now as they would ever be. Their compact Displacers were storedin body pouches, inactive but ready.

  Pid wanted to say something to his crew, but wasn't sure how to putit.

  The crew waited. Ilg the Radioman had sent the final message to theGrom planet. Ger the Detector read sixteen dials at once, andreported, "No sign of alien activity." His body surfaces flowedcarelessly.

  * * * * *

  Noticing the flow, Pid knew what to say to his crew. Ever since theyhad left Grom, shape-discipline had been disgustingly lax. TheInvasion Chief had warned him; but still, he had to do something aboutit. It was his duty, since lower castes such as Radiomen and Detectorswere notoriously prone to Shapelessness.

  "A lot of hopes are resting on this expedition," he began slowly."We're a long way from home now."

  Ger the Detector nodded. Ilg the Radioman flowed out of his prescribedshape and molded himself comfortably to a wall.

  "However," Pid said sternly, "distance is no excuse for promiscuousShapelessness."

  Ilg flowed hastily back into proper Radioman's shape.

  "Exotic forms will undoubtedly be called for," Pid went on. "And forthat we have a special dispensation. But remember--any shape notassumed strictly in the line of duty is a foul, lawless device of TheShapeless One!"

  Ger's body surfaces abruptly stopped flowing.

  "That's all," Pid said, and flowed into his controls. The ship starteddown, so smoothly co-ordinated that Pid felt a glow of pride.

  They were good workers, he decided. He just couldn't expect them to beas shape-conscious as a high-caste Pilot. Even the Invasion Chief hadtold him that.

  "Pid," the Invasion Chief had said at their last interview, "we needthis planet desperately."

  "Yes, sir," Pid had said, standing at full attention, never quiveringfrom Optimum Pilot's Shape.

  "One of you," the Chief said heavily, "must get through and set up aDisplacer near an atomic power source. The army will be standing by atthis end, ready to step through."

  "We'll do it, sir," Pid said.

  "This expedition has to succeed," the Chief said, and his featuresblurred momentarily from sheer fatigue. "In strictest confidence,there's considerable unrest on Grom. The Miner caste is on strike, forinstance. They want a new digging shape. Say the old one isinefficient."

  Pid looked properly indignant. The Mining Shape had been set down bythe Ancients fifty thousand years ago, together with the rest of thebasic shapes. And now these upstarts wanted to change it!

  "That's not all," the Chief told him. "We've uncovered a new Cult ofShapelessness. Picked up almost eight thousand Grom, and I don't knowhow many more we missed."

  Pid knew that Shapelessness was a lure of The Shapeless One, thegreatest evil that the Grom mind could conceive of. But why, hewondered, did so many Grom fall for His lures?

  * * * * *

  The Chief guessed his question. "Pid," he said, "I suppose it'sdifficult for you to understand. Do you enjoy Piloting?"

  "Yes, sir," Pid said simply. _Enjoy_ Piloting! It was his entire life!Without a ship, he was nothing.

  "Not all Grom feel that way," the Chief said. "I don't understand iteither. All my ancestors have been Invasion Chiefs, back to thebeginning of time. So of course _I_ want to be an Invasion Chief. It'sonly natural, as well as lawful. But the lower castes don't feel thatway." The Chief shook his body sadly. "I've told you this for areason. We Grom need more room. This unrest is caused purely bycrowding. All our psychologists say so. Another planet to expand intowill cure everything. So we're counting on you, Pid."

  "Yes, sir," Pid said, with a glow of pride.

  The Chief rose to end the interview. Then he changed his mind and satdown again.

  "You'll have to watch your crew," he said. "They're loyal, no doubt,but low-caste. And you know the lower castes."

  Pid did indeed.

  "Ger, your Detector, is suspected of harboring Alterationisttendencies. He was once fined for assuming a quasi-Hunter shape. Ilghas never had any definite charge brought against him. But I hear thathe remains immobile for suspiciously long periods of time. Possibly,he fancies himself a Thinker."

  "But, sir," Pid protested. "If they are even slightly tainted withAlterationism or Shapelessness, why send them on this expedition?"

  The Chief hesitated before answering. "There are plenty of Grom Icould trust," he said slowly. "But those two have certain qualities ofresourcefulness and imagination that will be needed on thisexpedition." He sighed. "I really don't understand why those qualitiesare usually linked with Shapelessness."

  "Yes, sir," Pid said.

  "Just watch them."

  "Yes, sir," Pid said again, and saluted, realizing that the interviewwas at an end. In his body pouch he felt the dormant Displacer, readyto transform the enemy's power source into a bridge across space forthe Grom hordes.

  "Good luck," the chief said. "I'm sure you'll need it."

  * * * * *

  The ship dropped silently toward the surface of the enemy planet. Gerthe Detector analyzed the clouds below, and fed data into theCamouflage Unit. The Unit went to work. Soon the ship looked, to alloutward appearances, like a cirrus formation.

  Pid allowed the ship to drift slowly toward the surface of the mysteryplanet. He was in Optimum Pilot's Shape now, the most efficient of thefour shapes alloted to the Pilot caste. Blind, deaf and dumb, anextension of his controls, all his attention was directed towardmatching the velocities of the high-flying clouds, staying among them,becoming a part of them.

  Ger remained rigidly in one of the two shapes alloted to Detectors. Hefed data into the Camouflage Unit, and the descending ship slowlyaltered into an alto-cumulus.

  There was no sign of activity from the enemy planet.

  Ilg located an atomic power source, and fed the data to Pid. The Pilotaltered course. He had reached the lowest level of clouds, barely amile above the surface of the planet. Now his ship looked like a fat,fleecy cumulus.

  And still there was no sign of alarm. The unknown fate that hadovertaken twenty previous expeditions still had not showed itself.

  Dusk crept across the face of the planet as Pid maneuvered near theatomic power installation. He avoided the surrounding homes andhovered over a clump of woods.

  Darkness fell, and the green planet's lone moon was veiled in clouds.

  One cloud floated lower.

  And landed.

  "Quick, everyone out!" Pid shouted, detaching himself from the ship'scontrols. He assumed the Pilot's Shape best suited for running, andraced out the hatch. Ger and Ilg hurried after him. They stopped fiftyyards from the ship, and waited.

  Inside the ship a little-used circuit closed. There was a silentshudder, and the ship began to melt. Plastic dissolved, metalcrumpled. Soon the ship was a great pile of junk, and still theprocess went on. Big fragments broke into smaller fragments, andsplit, and split again.

  Pid felt suddenly helpless, watching his ship scuttle itself. He wasa Pilot, of the Pilot caste. His father had been a Pilot, and hisfather before him, stretching back to the hazy past when the Grom hadfirst constructed ships. He had spent his entire childhood aroundships, his entire manhood flying them.

  Now, shipless, he was naked in an alien world.

  * * * * *

  In a few minutes there was only a mound of dust to show where the shiphad been. The night wind scattered it through the forest. And thenthere was nothing at all.

  They waited. Nothing happened. The wind sighed and the trees creaked.Squirrels chirped, and birds stirred in their nests. An acorn fell tothe ground.

  Pid heaved a sigh of relief and sat down. The twenty-first Gromexpedition had landed safely.

  There was nothing to be done until morning, so Pid began to makeplans. They had landed as close to the atomic power installation asthey dared. Now they would have to get closer. Somehow, one of themhad to get very near the reactor room, in order to activate theDisplacer.

  Difficult. But Pid felt certain of success. After all, the Grom werestrong on ingenuity.

  Strong on ingenuity, he thought bitterly, but terribly short ofradioactives. That was another reason why this expedition was soimportant. There was little radioactive fuel left, on any of the Gromworlds. Ages ago, the Grom had spent their store of radioactives inspreading throughout their neighboring worlds, occupying the ones thatthey could live on.

  Now, colonization barely kept up with the mounting birthrate. Newworlds were constantly needed.

  This particular world, discovered in a scouting expedition, wasneeded. It suited the Grom perfectly. But it was too far away. Theydidn't have enough fuel to mount a conquering space fleet.

  Luckily, there was another way. A better way.

  Over the centuries, the Grom scientists had developed the Displacer. Atriumph of Identity Engineering, the Displacer allowed mass to bemoved instantaneously between any two linked points.

  One end was set up at Grom's sole atomic energy plant. The other endhad to be placed in proximity to another atomic power source, andactivated. Diverted power then flowed through both ends, was modified,and modified again.

  Then, through the miracle of Identity Engineering, the Grom could_step_ through from planet to planet; or pour through in a great,overwhelming wave.

  It was quite simple.

  But twenty expeditions had failed to set up the Earth-end Displacer.

  What had happened to them was not known.

  For no Grom ship had ever returned to tell.

  * * * * *

  Before dawn they crept through the woods, taking on the coloration ofthe plants around them. Their Displacers pulsed feebly, sensing thenearness of atomic energy.

  A tiny, four-legged creature darted in front of them. Instantly, Gergrew four legs and a long, streamlined body and gave chase.

  "Ger! Come back here!" Pid howled at the Detector, throwing caution tothe winds.

  Ger overtook the animal and knocked it down. He tried to bite it, buthe had neglected to grow teeth. The animal jumped free, and vanishedinto the underbrush. Ger thrust out a set of teeth and bunched hismuscles for another leap.

  "_Ger!_"

  Reluctantly, the Detector turned away. He loped silently back to Pid.

  "I was hungry," he said.

  "You were not," Pid said sternly.

  "Was," Ger mumbled, writhing with embarrassment.

  Pid remembered what the Chief had told him. Ger certainly did haveHunter tendencies. He would have to watch him more closely.

  "We'll have no more of that," Pid said. "Remember--the lure of ExoticShapes is not sanctioned. Be content with the shape you were born to."

  Ger nodded, and melted back into the underbrush. They moved on.

  At the extreme edge of the woods they could observe the atomic energyinstallation. Pid disguised himself as a clump of shrubbery, and Gerformed himself into an old log. Ilg, after a moment's thought, becamea young oak.

  The installation was in the form of a long, low building, surroundedby a metal fence. There was a gate, and guards in front of it.

  The first job, Pid thought, was to get past that gate. He began toconsider ways and means.

  From the fragmentary reports of the survey parties, Pid knew that, insome ways, this race of Men were like the Grom. They had pets, as theGrom did, and homes and children, and a culture. The inhabitants wereskilled mechanically, as were the Grom.

  But there were terrific differences, also. The Men were of fixed andimmutable form, like stones or trees. And to compensate, their planetboasted a fantastic array of species, types and kinds. This wascompletely unlike Grom, which had only eight distinct forms of animallife.

  And evidently, the Men were skilled at detecting invaders, Pidthought. He wished he knew how the other expeditions had failed. Itwould make his job much easier.

  * * * * *

  A Man lurched past them on two incredibly stiff legs. Rigidity wasevident in his every move. Without looking, he hurried past.

  "I know," Ger said, after the creature had moved away. "I'll disguisemyself as a Man, walk through the gate to the reactor room, andactivate my Displacer."

  "You can't speak their language," Pid pointed out.

  "I won't speak at all. I'll ignore them. Look." Quickly Ger shapedhimself into a Man.

  "That's not bad," Pid said.

  Ger tried a few practice steps, copying the bumpy walk of the Man.

  "But I'm afraid it won't work," Pid said.

  "It's perfectly logical," Ger pointed out.

  "I know. Therefore the other expeditions must have tried it. And noneof them came back."

  There was no arguing that. Ger flowed back into the shape of a log."What, then?" he asked.

  "Let me think," Pid said.

  Another creature lurched past, on four legs instead of two. Pidrecognized it as a Dog, a pet of Man. He watched it carefully.

  The Dog ambled to the gate, head down, in no particular hurry. Itwalked through, unchallenged, and lay down in the grass.

  "H'm," Pid said.

  They watched. One of the Men walked past, and touched the Dog on thehead. The Dog stuck out its tongue and rolled over on its side.

  "I can do that," Ger said excitedly. He started to flow into the shapeof a Dog.

  "No, wait," Pid said. "We'll spend the rest of the day thinking itover. This is too important to rush into."

  Ger subsided sulkily.

  "Come on, let's move back," Pid said. He and Ger started into thewoods. Then he remembered Ilg.

  "Ilg?" he called softly.

  There was no answer.

  "Ilg!"

  "What? Oh, yes," an oak tree said, and melted into a bush. "Sorry.What were you saying?"

  "We're moving back," Pid said. "Were you, by any chance, Thinking?"

  "Oh, no," Ilg assured him. "Just resting."

  Pid let it go at that. There was too much else to worry about.

  * * * * *

  They discussed it for the rest of the day, hidden in the deepest partof the woods. The only alternatives seemed to be Man or Dog. A Treecouldn't walk past the gates, since that was not in the nature oftrees. Nor could anything else, and escape notice.

  Going as a Man seemed too risky. They decided that Ger would sally outin the morning as a Dog.

  "Now get some sleep," Pid said.

  Obediently his two crewmen flattened out, going immediately Shapeless.But Pid had a more difficult time.

  Everything looked too easy. Why wasn't the atomic installation betterguarded? Certainly the Men must have learned something from theexpeditions they had captured in the past. Or had they killed themwithout asking any questions?

  You couldn't tell what an alien would do.

  Was that open gate a trap?

  Wearily he flowed into a comfortable position on the lumpy ground.Then he pulled himself together hastily.

  He had gone Shapeless!

  Comfort was not in the line of duty, he reminded himself, and firmlytook a Pilot's Shape.

  But a Pilot's Shape wasn't constructed for sleeping on damp, bumpyground. Pid spent a restless night, thinking of ships, and wishing hewere flying one.

  He awoke in the morning tired and ill-tempered. He nudged Ger.

  "Let's get this over with," he said.

  Ger flowed gaily to his feet.

  "Come on, Ilg," Pid said angrily, looking around. "Wake up."

  There was no reply.

  "Ilg!" he called.

  Still there was no reply.

  "Help me look for him," Pid said to Ger. "He must be around heresomewhere."

  Together they tested every bush, tree, log and shrub in the vicinity.But none of them was Ilg.

  Pid began to feel a cold panic run through him. What could havehappened to the Radioman?

  "Perhaps he decided to go through the gate on his own," Ger suggested.[original: Ilg suggested (n. of transcriber)]

  Pid considered the possibility. It seemed unlikely. Ilg had nevershown much initiative. He had always been content to
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