This section deals with the first encounters with the worm and events current at that time.
Viewers familiar with this subject may pass on to the next section.
Please select PASS or CONTINUE.
The all peered into the fish tank. There wasn't much to see There were a few rocks and what appeared to be an enormous off-white furry caterpillar. As they watched it became clear that part of the caterpillar was buried in a hole of around two centimetres in diameter. They examined it from all angles as best they could. If they had not been told that it was a creature of some sort, all of them would have said that it looked like the end of a cylindrical bottle brush. As far as they could tell the creature had no legs. Its fur was stiff enough to support its weight. There were no signs of any orifices. As they watched they became aware of a faint hissing sound. It was a little like the sound of frying eggs or the noise of a sensitive radio receiver that was not tuned to a station. George lifted the lid of the tank a little and the noise became more distinct.
After a moment or two of thought he said. "If Jane Wanneroo received an acid burn from this little fellow, I guess that it is still producing an acid to dissolve the rocks. The fizzing noise sounds like something being dissolved in acid."
Ivan said. "It must be pretty powerful. If you look here you can see a patch on the glass that looks like it has been etched."
Marita said. "There is another similar patch here. It looks as if it either has tried to get out or has just had a taste of the glass. We know that Peter kept adding to the rocks in its original container and it did not try to eat its way out through the glass. I can think of nothing stranger than a creature that eats nothing but rocks but that is what it appears to be doing right now."
Leonov said. "We will have to ask Peter what its rate of consumption is and how fast it is growing. It will have to be kept in a fairly large container. What do you think George?"
"I have been trying to calculate its rate of growth from the facts that we know. The rocks were kept aboard the Undepoldus ship until they were brought to Earth. They were then distributed to places like the University here. That was four months ago. We can assume that it did not grow much during its trip to the Solar System because it was kept in a freezer. I guess that it would have started growing when it was warm enough. At a guess I would say that it is about 20 centimetres long now. If it carries on growing at the same rate it could be enormous in a year's time." George paused for a moment as he re-checked his calculations on his pocket processor. "The figures look impossible. If the worm was only one centimetre long when it came to Earth, and its present rate of growth continued for another year, it would be two kilometres long!"
Marita asked. "What do you think that its daily growth rate is George?"
"It looks like something between 2.5% and 3.0% a day. Marita, When you landed on the planet you chose a place where there were some caves. What if those caves were in fact tunnels produced by this chap's relatives? Would that make sense?
"It would make 101% sense George. If a giant version of our little friend here was eating the rocks under the place where we landed, it would explain the planet quake that we experienced. The ground seemed to drop away as we took off. It could have been caused by the collapse of tunnels underneath us."
Ivan said. "All creatures grow rapidly when they are small. A human foetus grows at an enormous rate but we do not grow into giants - do we?"
"You speak for yourself, Ivan," Answered Marita. "But you are right. Even I stopped growing when I was around eighteen or so."
Leonov and George laughed at Marita's joke.
George said. "We don't know much about our little friend yet, but the evidence, such as it is, indicates that he will grow into a fairly big animal. I think that we should think about finding a fairly big home for him before long."
Leonov answered. "That could be a very big problem in more ways than one. We can keep him secure here for a while but when he gets too big for us to keep, it would be impossible to keep him hidden."
Marita then posed a question. "You have all been assuming that the worm is male. What if it is female and has babies?"
George said. "I have been trying to work out what sex it is but it does nor seem to have any. However, a lot of Earth creatures appear to be sexless when they are immature and some species change sex as adults. I think that we have got to be prepared to cover the possibility that it may have offspring as an adult."
"I have been thinking about where the creature might be housed later on." said Ivan. He continued as if he were thinking aloud. "There is a place that might be able to accommodate him that is not a million miles away from here. He is an animal and the Fauna Preservation Trust at Regent's Park would have a moral duty to preserve him."
"That is a brilliant idea Ivan." said Leonov. I am sure that they would appreciate a donation from the Spacers League to cover the cost of his accommodation and feeding. Ivan, is Admiral van Wijk in the club?
"No, Leonov. She is in Chichester. I can contact her tomorrow if you want me to."
"I do. Please ask her if she would like a consultation in your office at her convenience. I think that we should now adjourn for dinner unless anyone wants to prolong the discussion."
Nobody did. George absented himself for a minute as they made their way to the dining room. When he rejoined the party he was wearing a sporty suit over his formfit.
At the table Leonov said. "As this is an informal gathering,
I suggest that you inform the robowaiters what you would like
for your own menus. Sil please introduce yourself to Peter and
show him how to address a robowaiter. Jane, please tell me about
"Just before Sil and I entered the laboratory, all the main lights went off. There was still some light from the emergency lighting. Peter's pass card opened the door for us and we went in. I checked that Peter's processor was not running on a backup supply before we went over to the tank. Sil put some rocks into the fish tank as I took the lid of the sample cabinet that held the worm. I couldn't see it at first in the dim light, but when I spotted it I reached in and picked it up easily with one hand. It felt wet. It was less than a second later that I realised that the wetness was due to an acid of some kind. I dropped the worm into the fish tank and ran to the sink to wash the acid off my hand. Sil and I had agreed not to talk and to make as little noise as possible in case there was an audio bug still active. I was in agony and I dare not utter a sound. Sil guessed that something was wrong. She thought that I had been bitten. We beat a hasty retreat and locked the lab door behind us. It was only when we were in the floater that I could tell her about the acid. I have received excellent treatment from the dispensary and I am no longer in pain. I have been told that I will only be able to perform restricted duties for 30 days. That is all sir - I mean Leonov".
"You did well Jane. I have been told by the monitors that the only sound they heard was of a tap running for a few seconds. I shall add a commendation to your report.
Peter, please tell us what you know that we haven't already discovered."
"I first noticed something odd about one lot of samples around seven weeks ago. It was one of those things where you know something has changed but you cannot say what has changed. I took images of all the sample cases and the lab so that I could use them to check if something noticeable had occurred. Three days later I was able to see that the rocks in one cabinet had moved slightly. At first I thought that the movement could have been caused by the rocks readjusting their positions from a slightly unstable heap to a more stable one. The cabinet seal was intact so I felt that it was unlikely that it was caused by decomposition of some of the material because of the Earth's atmosphere. When I looked more closely I could see where the bottom of the tank had been wet and subsequently dried. I tried to work out what could have produced liquid from the rocks naturally. I was stumped. I then checked the atmosphere in the cabinet. The original gas composition was 92% nitrogen, 4% oxygen, 2% methane and 1% carbon dioxide and 1% noble gases. This was the best match that could be found from included gases in some of the samples. When I checked I found 90% nitrogen, 8% oxygen, 1% methane and 1% noble gases. The carbon dioxide had gone. It seemed to me that this is what would happen if there was a plant in the cabinet. I checked for signs of anything resembling a plant but all that was visible were a few holes in the rocks and traces of dried-out wetness. I checked again several times a day to see if I could discover anything that was causing the changes. After a week I saw something that I had not noticed before. It was the worm. It was attacking the rocks and leaving a slurry. Then it went over the slurry and dried it up. It would attack one type of rock for a while and then change to another. I checked the gases in the cabinet and found that the oxygen level had reached 11% and the nitrogen had gone down to 87%. The remaining methane had gone. It seemed to me that the worm liked carbon because the carbon in the gases had disappeared. I then thought that the atmosphere in the cabinet was not too different from that on Earth and it would be worth the risk to open the cabinet to see if the worm was affected. I had not checked the gas pressure when I did the analyses so it was a surprise when I opened the valve. If I had not opened the valve, the cabinet would have burst within a few weeks. The worm had converted a significant quantity of rock into gas. I opened the lid and allowed normal air to mix with the gases in the cabinet. The worm carried on attacking the rocks exactly as it had done before. I tried to estimate its rate of growth and came to the conclusion that it grew around 2% larger each day. It was starting to make a noticeable difference in the amount of rock in the cabinet so I started putting in samples from the Solar System sources. It seemed to like these just as much as those it had started with. Then I decided to try it on rocks from Earth. It seemed to prefer these. When it had chalk and limestone available it spent a bit more time attacking them than the others and its growth rate increased to around 4% per day. I could see that it looked as if it was thriving in an Earth-type environment and would soon get too big to keep in my lab. I then contacted Marita. You know the rest."
"That was a prodigious summary Peter." said Jane. She looked at Peter intently for a moment then said. "Congratulations! Who did the makeup?"
"It was a Spacer called Martha. She said that I couldn't have a real tattoo until I had enrolled at the Spacers College. Does it look alright?"
Leonov answered. She did a good job. It doesn't look new and she has included something that I have recommended for you. Your mock tattoo shows that you are a cadet who has been mentioned in dispatches for outstanding work."
"I feel honoured. Thank you." said Peter.
The rest of the group offered their congratulations and Peter had to blink back the tears in his eyes.
Ivan said. "Peter, we hope to transfer the worm to Regents Park when it is big enough. If the Fauna Preservation Trust agrees, we will build a special house for it so that the public can see the first extra-terrestrial creature to arrive on Earth."
George said. "What you have said about its rate of growth is disturbing. I calculated that its average growth rate was less than three percent but you said that you thought that it was more than four percent now. What size do you think it will become?"
Peter thought for a minute before answering. "I think that will grow to around twenty metres long when it has been on the Earth for a year. Of course that is assuming that it can get all the rocks it wants. I don't know when it will stop growing because it seems to be like a plant. It could grow like a crocus or an apple tree or a giant redwood. It is quite unlike anything that has existed on Earth but it seems to be carbon based like life on Earth."
Marita said. "George and I will look after the worm for you Peter. I am sure that the Spacers College will arrange that you can keep in touch to see how he is progressing. Leonov, when do you think that we should let the public know that the worm exists?"
"That depends on the Fauna Preservation Trust Marita. I am sure that Admiral Anne-Marie will approve funding for a special building for it. If all goes well we could make an announcement in a fortnight's time."
A robowaiter approached Leonov and displayed a message that only he could see. He frowned and said. "We have a problem. A student was stabbed to death at the University this evening when the lights were out. Two people, one of whom is thought to be a Spacer, were seen approaching the University shortly before the lights went out. They were seen leaving the area after the lights came on again. Two policemen are at reception and wish to speak to me. Ivan. Please obtain the records for Jane and Sil. George, Jane and Sil, please go to the conference room and wait there. Peter and Marita, come with me."
The two policemen looked a trifle uncomfortable as they stood up when the Rear Admiral and the other entered the reception area. Three Spacers had sat opposite to them wearing only their formfits. The girls had carried on a conversation discussing the talents and techniques used by their various partners in voices loud enough for the policemen to hear every word. When they saw the Rear Admiral, they acknowledged his presence and got up and left. Marita smiled to herself. It was a very old game. Find your opponent's weakness and use it to put her off balance. She wondered who had told them to be there. Of course, there was only one person who could have organised it while Ivan was having dinner. It must have been Charlie Potter, the Commander's civilian assistant. One could write a book about Charlie. He used to be a market trader and was married with two grown-up children. He was an expert at maintaining smooth relations between the Spacers and the Brits.
The policemen straightened themselves and tried to look formal
as one of the said. Good evening sir. I am Superintendent Abdullah
and this is Sergeant Fisher. Would you as the Spacer's Ambassador
in London permit us to interview two of your staff?"
Leonov replied "It has been reported to me that there has been a death at the University. I know that none of my officers could have been responsible, but you are welcome to interview two of them who I know were near the University this evening. Please accompany me. I have arranged for a room where you may interview them freely. My officers and I will be present but our presence will not cause the two Spacers to give you answers that would have been any different if we were not there. Although you are on Spacer sovereign territory, you may proceed as if this was not the case."
Leonov led the way to the conference room followed by the two policemen with Peter and Marita acting as an escort.
When they had all sat down in the conference room, Leonov said. "Before you begin your interview I must ask you a question. Can you say what the price would be for the most valuable animal on Earth?
The two policemen looked at each other for inspiration and found none. Eventally one asked. "Would you mean something like a racehorse sir?"
"That would do." Leonov answered enigmatically.
"I would guess that a big prize-winner would be worth several millions." he said.
"Leonov said. In the fish tank in front of you is an animal that has cost 230 billion Spacer credits. You may now begin your interview with Lieutenant Commander Jane Wanneroo and Lieutenant Sil Agonistes."
The senior policeman said. "I am Superintendent Abdullah and this is Detective Sergeant Fisher. Were you in the vicinity of London University this evening?"
Jane answered. "Yes, we were."
"What were you doing there.?"
"We were going to commit a burglary."
The Superintendent was amazed at her frankness but gave only a hint that Jane's answer was quite unexpected.
"Did you commit the burglary."
"Yes. It went very well."
"Was this burglary authorised by the Spacers League?"
"No. Not exactly. They were not informed about it."
"Did you commit this burglary on your own initiative?"
"No, but we volunteered."
"What was the purpose of the burglary?"
"To ensure the safety of the animal in the fish tank in front of you."
"What do you mean?"
"The animal was found by Peter Whitfield here in rocks brought back from a planet near Alpha Centauri. It was in Peter Whitfield's laboratory. We broke in to his lab using Peter Whitfield's key card, stole the animal and brought it here."
Sergeant Fisher asked. "Can you prove that you never went near the dormitory block?"
"No. But I have some evidence that I picked up the worm from Mr. Whitfield's laboratory."
She showed the Sergeant her bandaged hand.
The Superintendent asked. "Did it bite you?"
"No. The worm eats rocks with acids. This bandage covers a severe acid burn."
The Sergeant said. "I have often heard of a criminal admitting to a lesser crime to provide a sort of alibi for a major crime. Your story of going to a laboratory to steal a worm seems very unusual. It takes a lot of believing. Is there any way that you can prove that you never went near the dormitory block?
"No. We did everything to try to make sure that nobody saw us enter the University. We used Mr. Whitfield's entry card and pass codes with his approval. We do not and did not want news of the existence of an animal from another world to become public until the time is right. We knew that Mr. Whitfield's laboratory was bugged so we had to get the worm without the snoopers knowing it existed or that we had taken it away. Everything we did this evening was done so covertly that there is no way that we can prove that we were anywhere. With the Rear Admiral's permission I wish to show you the worm."
Sil picked up the fish tank and showed it to the policemen. The worm was not visible.
At this point Jane showed just a little loss of composure but carried on. "The worm eats rocks. You can see the holes in the rocks that it has made. It is like a mole or an earthworm. It buries itself a lot of the time so that you can't see it. I know that you can't see it now but I can assure you that it is in there somewhere."
Jane looked at the sergeant with an element of pleading in her eyes. Her look turned to horror as she saw the worm slowly making its way along the back of his chair.
"Don't move Sergeant. The worm has escaped. It is on the back of your chair. Don't touch it sir, you could end up burned like me!" She exclaimed to the Superintendent who was about to pick it up. Sil walked round to the back of the Sergeant's chair with the fish tank, hoping to entice the worm back into it. The worm ignored the tank and began to crawl onto the sergeant's shoulder. The others watched fascinated, wondering what the worm would do. They all stared as the worm steadily made its way down the sergeant's arm, over his hand and onto the table. There was not the slightest sign of acid. The sergeant's jacket and hand were unscathed. The worm rustled as it made its way around the table. It seemed as if it was doing a tour of inspection because it paused momentarily in front of everyone in turn. Sil put the fish tank back on the table. The worm went up to it the crawled all around it. It then started another tour. The superintendent looked at the Spacers and saw that they were watching the worm as if it would begin to speak to them as it passed by. They could all see that it was almost featureless. The only thing that could be seen was a brownish patch at its front end. Otherwise it just looked like a cylinder of whitish whiskery fur. It stopped in front of Jane. Then it went to the edge of the table to be nearer her and stopped again. Jane didn't move. After about a minute the worm moved a little towards the centre of the table and stopped again. Then it exuded some foul-smelling liquid from its brown patch. The table was unaffected. It was regularly polished. The acid had no effect on its polished surface. After a pause the worm applied its brown patch to the small pool of liquid. Then when it moved away there was not a trace of moisture where the liquid had been. The worm then crawled towards the fish tank. It stopped by the tank and reared up slightly. George broke the silence. "I am sure that it is trying to communicate with us somehow. Its movements show some sort of intelligence. It seems to recognise Jane. I don't know how because it does not seem to have any eyes. I will try an experiment. If it fails, rush me to the dispensary."
George got up and went over towards the fish tank. he then rested one elbow on the table with his hand resting on the top of the tank. After a short while the worm crawled onto his arm and up his sleeve until it reached his hand. It then pressed its brown patch against George's hand. Then it continued over his hand and into the tank. George looked at his hand. It had not been burned with acid but there was a very slight dampness where the worms brown patch had touched it.
The policemen had almost forgotten their interview with Jane.
The Superintendent spoke. "That thing is nothing like I have ever seen or heard of. How much did you say it cost to bring it to Earth Mr. Ambassador?
"Two hundred an thirty billion Spacer Credits. If one takes Earthly inflation into account it would be about four hundred billion credits at today's prices."
"Now I see the relevance of the question you asked when we came in here. Miss Wanneroo, if I put in my report that a hairy worm about twenty centimetres long did its best to verify your story, I would be advised to retire immediately. I saw it appear to recognise you, drop some liquid, pick it up again and then go back to its tank. Even a trained dog could not have done better, yet it is clear that this creature has had no training of any kind. I accept your story and I can believe that the worm is not an Earth type animal. Now I have one more question but it is for you, Mr. Ambassador. "Were you responsible for the power failure at the University?"
Leonov answered. "Before I answer that question Superintendent, I would like you and the sergeant to promise me that you will say nothing about the worm until after we have held a news conference to publicise its existence. Can we trust you to keep this confidence?"
The Superintendent and the sergeant looked at each other and nodded. "Yes, Mr. Ambassador, you have our promise. The existence of this creature is world-shaking news. I can fully understand why you do not want any publicity about it at the moment."
"Well, I must confess that some of my officers did arrange the power failure at the University. However, we never dreamed that it could possibly lead to a tragedy. I am sure that you can now understand why we did what we did. The safety of the worm was our primary concern. We hope to arrange with our Admiral van Wijk that the worm is put on show in Regent's Park in a secure environment when its existence has been publicised. Admiral van Wijk is coming from Chichester to visit us tomorrow. Now superintendent, I think that I may have some news. We have a caller. Sil, please open the door."
"Lieutenant Commander Rachel McInnes sir." Announced Sil.
Rachel came into the room and made a slight formal bow in the direction of the Rear Admiral.
"Sir. I have important news for the Superintendent. May I give it to him sir?"
"Of course Lieutenant Commander. Proceed."
"Sir, one of my colleagues saw a person running from the University at 22:10 today. This person was carrying a knife and had bloodstains on his clothes. My colleague challenged the man and he attempted to stab her with his knife. The knife failed to penetrate her formfit. She was able to overpower the man and take the knife from him. She persuaded the man to accompany her to the Spacers Club. Under the treaty she wishes to have the man charged with the attempted murder of a Spacer. He is now detained in a room adjoining the reception area. My colleague suspects that the man may have been involved in a previous offence involving grievous bodily harm to a non-Spacer. Would you like to interview this man sir?"
"Yes, of course madam. I will be with you shortly. Mr. Ambassador, I would be grateful if you treated my interview with Miss Wanneroo as if it had never happened. Neither the sergeant or I will refer to it again."
Thank you Superintendent. I am glad that you are unconcerned about the way we conduct our business. George, please stay here with the worm. It seems to like you. Sil, would you please escort the policemen to reception. Rachel, was your colleague injured by the attack?"
"Lieuntenant Adedeyo reported one breast bruised sir. She said she was fit for duty sir."
"Thank you Rachel. Peter, Ivan will show you where you will sleep tonight. Transport will be provided for you after breakfast. Marita and Jane, please accompany me to the bar. Rachel, please resume your duties."
"Thank you sir."
When the policemen arrived at reception they saw the three girls who had taunted them earlier. Now they were serious and obviously standing guard by the entrance to the room where the suspected murderer was confined. One of them opened the door as the policemen approached. As they entered the room the man turned to them with a look of desperation in his eyes. Standing in a corner of the room was a small Spacer with the upper part of her formfit removed. The man was sitting at a table. His body language was that of someone who was seriously frightened. He cowered as the Spacer came towards him.
"Lieutenant Adedeyo at your service gentlemen. This man
attacked me. This is the injury he caused. I request that he be
arrested and charged with the attempted murder of a Spacer."
The Sergeant addressed the prisoner. "I am Sergeant Fisher of the Metropolitan Police. I am charging you with the attempted murder of Miss Adedeyo. I must warn you that anything you say may be treated as evidence if a prosecution case is brought against you. Furthermore, if you choose to remain silent, that will also be treated as evidence. Do you understand the charge?"
The man nodded.
"Have you anything to say in answer to the charge that has been made against you?"
The man just said "Please get me away from her. She is a witch. I tried to stab her but she has a skin like iron and she cast a spell on me."
"Has she hurt you physically?"
"No. She just took me by the hand and asked me to come here with her. I tried to run away from her but I couldn't get free of her hand. Any woman with a grip like that and can't be stabbed must be a witch."
When the sergeant produced some handcuffs the man seemed to look upon them as a form of protection. He said no more as he left with the sergeant.
Lieutenant Adedeyo had restored her formfit to its usual arrangement
when the superintendent turned to talk to her.
"Miss Adedeyo, you are only around 140 centimetres tall, how did you overpower that man?"
"I broke his knife in my hands and threatened to do the same to his testicles. He believed that I could. He came along with me very easily. He begged me not to hurt him and I didn't. He had never encountered a formfit before. It is practically impervious to penetration. It is made of diamond fibre. As you see, it is quite transparent. He never noticed the collar and thought that the formfit was my skin. He would have broken my ribs if he had hit me harder but he expected the knife to penetrate easily. I think that man has killed somebody this evening. The blood on the knife and his clothes make me think that. I have asked you to charge him so that you have a good reason to keep him in custody while you find out who he has injured. If and when you find that he has committed another serious offence that you can charge him with, I will ask you to withdraw the charge made on my behalf."
"Thank you Miss Adedeyo. A murder took place this evening at the University and I think that you may have captured the perpetrator. You know, the more I see of you Spacers, the more you amaze me. Please can you tell me why you were near the university tonight?"
"That is simple. I volunteered to be bodyguard to Lieutenant Commander Wanneroo and Lieutenant Agonistes. They were on a very important mission."
"That I have already heard about that and almost wish that I had not. Thank you Miss Adedeyo for your courage and prompt action. I think that you may have saved us a lot of work."
"I am at your service sir."
Goodbye Miss Adedeyo and thank you again."
As he left the Superintendent remembered that he had forgotten to ask the Lieutenant how she had been able to break a steel knife with her bare hands. She was smaller than his thirteen year old daughter yet she had voluntered to be a bodyguard to two women who were nearly twice her size. She had also overpowered the well-built man who had attacked her. If he had wanted a bodyguard, he would have chosen the giant woman who was there but said nothing. If a little Spacer girl could do what what she had evidently done, what were the bigger Spacers capable of doing? In the old story, Samson's strength was in his hair yet all these Spacers were bald as eggs. He resolved to spend some time finding out a bit more about the strange people that he had encounterd.
George was left alone with the worm when all the others had
left. It was lying on the top of the rocks in its tank. George
peered at it to try to gain some sort of insight into its morphology.
As there was little to see but its whiskers he studied them intently.
However, whenever he tried to focus on one whisker, it almost
disappeared. Then he noticed something that triggered a half-remembered
fact that related to the movement. A suggestion of a pattern had
begun and disappeared in a fleeting moment. Try as he might, George
could not recall what made it vaguely familiar. He screwed up
his eyes to try to view the worm as a whole, albeit out of focus.
The movements of individual whiskers and small groups of whiskers
formed dancing patterns that came and went. This observation reminded
him of something he was more familiar with. It was the sight of
a vidcom when there was no signal. The engineers called it white
noise. The George laughed at himself for thinking that a picture
might appear in the creatures whiskers. Then he thought of what
the creature might be like when it was bigger. If the whiskers
were bigger, their movements would cause a small draught or even
a slight noise. He recalled the sound of wind blowing through
long grass. The worm changed its position and reared up its front
end to rest on the top edge of the tank. George slowly put his
left hand on the top of the tank near the worm to see what it
would do. The worm had not burned him when it had crawled over
his arm before so he did not think that it would do so now. Jane's
burns had not come from the worm's digestive organ. She had been
burned by the acid it had produced that was smeared over its body.
The worm ignored him for a long while then gradually turned towards
his hand. He watched as its front end moved slowly closer and
noticed that the brown patch was also covered in whiskers. They
were shorter and very distinctly coloured like a deep brown sherry
or strong tea. Most of them were laid flat like the hairs on a
Jack Russell terrier. The remainder waved slowly like searching
antennae or the arms of an anemone. There was a slight tickling
as one then more of the brown whiskers touched his hand. Some
pushed harder than others but the effect was like the bristles
on a nail brush. George remained as still as possible while the
worm examined the back of his hand. When the worm encountered
the sleeve of his jacket it paused again. George thought that
he could smell a trace of the worm's acid but it was gone almost
before he noticed it. Then the worm progressed along his arm and
up to his shoulder at a much faster speed than it had done previously.
H resisted the impulse to turn to look at it, feeling its slight
weight as it reached his collar. It stopped there as he felt whiskers
touching the back of his neck. It reared up and the whiskers touched
his ear. Then the worm made its way around his neck until it was
resting on the collar of his formfit under his chin. George nearly
went boss-eyed trying to look at it without moving his head. George
waited for it to move again but it seemed to like its new resting
What do I do now? he thought. He decided to stand up slowly to see if the worm made a move. It stayed exactly where it was. There were no mirrors in the conference room so George was unable to see what he looked like. He guessed that the worm would look like a fur collar from the front. He walked slowly to the door to see if the worm would be disturbed by the movement. It still didn't move. the George decided that he would go and join the others in the bar to see what they thought of his newly-acquired fur collar.
The bar was crowded so George's approach went unnoticed until
he pulled up a chair and sat down at the table where the Rear
Admiral and Marita were sitting. Loenov spoke first. "Hello
George, how is our little friend? I trust that you have left someone
in charge of him."
"He is very well, as far as I can see. He is very comfortable and is being well cared for."
Marita asked. "Did you find out any more about him while you were alone with him?"
"Not much. He seems to like human company and shows that he has some sort of intelligence. I would think that he is about as advanced as a three week old kitten."
Jane joined the conversation. "Who is looking after him now?"
George smiled. "He is looking after himself. He has chosen a comfortable place where it is nice and warm and then apparently gone to sleep."
"Leonov frowned. "George, answer me directly. Who is in charge of him at the moment?"
Marita laughed. "Leonov, didn't you notice? He is resting on George's collar!"
"Well bless me. You had me worried for a moment George. I'm glad that he seems to have taken a liking to you. No-one would have guessed that you would be wearing him. I guess that he will be OK where he is until he gets hungry. When you have got yourself a drink we will drink a toast to him. what would you like George?"
"Please order me a beer. I'm thirsty."
Martha came up to the table and said. "Marita, a woman has broken into your flat. Lieutenant Gurprit Singh is monitoring what she is doing. We think that she has an accomplice but we haven't located him or her yet. The London police have been informed that we want to catch the accomplice if there is one. We have asked them to do nothing near Marita's flat until we ask them to. Superintendent Abdullah was off duty when we called but has contacted Gurprit from his home. Boku Adedeyo is in mufti, posing as a prostitute within sight of Marita's flat. She is carrying a camera. Martha turned to the Rear Admiral and said. Sir, permission to activate case one, sir?"
"Affirmative Lieutenant. Has the Commander been informed?"
"Very good Lieutenant. Use your judgement. If you require authorisation for case two, you have it, but inform me immediately."
Martha made an acknowledgement and left.
Marita stood up. "Permission to volunteer sir."
"Declined Lieutenant Commander. Please sit down. All members of the Undepoldus crew are under a protection order. You are forbidden to deliberately engage in any occupation that may be hazardous to your person by order of the Council."
Marita looked stunned. "I understand sir."
Jane said. "Don't take it too hard Marita. We all know how competent you are and how you are prepared to handle dangerous situations. There isn't a Spacer who doesn't treat you as a role model. You have got to face the fact that you are very precious to all of us."
"Hear hear!" George exclaimed in approval.
Leonov said. "Marita, I am tempted to relieve you of the shared duty of looking after the worm. However, it was not your decision, it was mine. I am sure that caring for a worm would not normally be regarded as a hazardous occupation and that the problems that we have now will soon be over. Now, since you now have a drink George, we can drink to the health of our little friend. I propose a toast to Undepoldus, the worm who came to us by accident. May he live long and be happy during his time on Earth. To Undepoldus!"
George stood up carefully, not wishing to disturb his companion. As the assembled party echoed "To Undepoldus," he felt the brush of whiskers under his chin. Then as he was about to take a sip he realised that the worm had beaten him to it. Its front end was in his beer. He froze then announced. "It looks like Undepoldus is drinking his own health."
"Lets hope that he doesn't get drunk." said Marita.
They all watched as the level in George's glass fell a few millimetres. The worm withdrew and settled itself back on George's collar. George sniffed his beer before tasting it to see if Undepoldus had altered its bouquet. George cautiously took a sip. Its taste seemed unaltered.
"Well, that is another observation to go into the record books. Our friend likes his beer."
Peter had remained silent apart from the toast. He was somewhat overwhelmed by the evening's events and by the way the Spacers dealt with them. He was conscious that he was a stranger in the company and the talents that won him high esteem at the University were just at the average level among Spacers. He had witnessed Spacer efficiency and kindness and inferred that they controlled great power and resources. He found their protocols confusing. They seemed to switch from military discipline to civilian informality and back again at the drop of a hat. He ventured to enter the general conversation. "There is something that I never considered when I was observing the worm - er - Undepoldus. It grew in the absence of water so I presumed that it did not need any. Now I think that it should be provided with something to drink as well as having rocks to eat."
George answered. "It looks as if he has told us that in his own way. Now I think that we should offer him a wide range of things to see what he really likes. Anyway Peter, your suggestion will be adopted. It may be that he can manage without water if he has to, but can make use of it when it is available. Mind you, if he gets as big as we think that he might be - and likes beer - he will be a rather expensive guest to keep."
Leonov said. "It has been a busy day. I suggest that we adjourn this meeting until tomorrow. Marita, I am sure that we can find you a cabin for tonight. I wouldn't mind betting that the Commander has already arranged it. Thank you everyone for your contributions and your company. I wish you all a very good night."
George stayed at the table and so did Marita as the others
took their leave. Marita asked. "How will you look after
I will ask the Commander if he can share my room providing that he does not object to a non-Spacer using the club's facilities."
Marita spoke in a mock formal voice. By the powers invested in me, I grant Spacer status to our friend Undepoldus. May he remain ever faithful to the Spacer's code."
"How will you give him a tattoo?" George asked.
"I won't need to. The brown patch at his front end marks him out as a Spacer Alien First Class."
They both laughed.
Martha came back to the table and said. "Marita, your flat is now secure. Some of your papers are in the hands of the London police. They have been retained as evidence of the burglary. The woman and two of her accomplices have been arrested. Boku caught one of them in her own inimitable way. He tried to use a gun on her. She managed to put her hand over the muzzle as he fired. It was messy. Have you ever seen a pistol explode? He is now in a prison hospital."
"Marita asked. Was Boku hurt?"
"No way. I'm sorry, perhaps you didn't know. Boku has prosthetic hands. They are made of a special diamond coated steel. She is the ideal guard, anyone who doesn't know her completely underestimates her capabilities."
"That explains it. The man that attacked her earlier tonight couldn't understand how she broke his knife in her bare hands."
"If you want to see what happened from Boku's point of view, the recording she made will be shown in the conference room to the London police in a few minutes. I may see you there."
Martha left them as quickly as she had arrived.
George said. "I wonder what group of people would try
so desperately to get information about us. I know that we restrict
the information that we pass on to Earth people but we don't have
many secrets - do we?"
"You should know better than I do. Do you know what they call me at the University behind my back?"
"No. Well maybe the Female Giant or Super Woman?"
"You are not even close George. They call me 'Rock of Ages' or 'Mrs. Rip van Winkle'. Twenty years is a long time to be out of touch with what has happened on Earth. I probably know less about Spacer affairs than the average Earther."
"You seem to have adjusted OK to the way the Universe is now."
"Well, you could say that, but I find that I am totally ignorant of a lot of things that Spacers and Earthers take for granted. Whould you like to hear a long story?"
"Go on. You have me intrigued."
When I started at the University I didn't know London at all well. I had been to London several times when I was a student and had bought a street map book to find my way around. I brought the book with me because I didn't think that London would have changed that much in twenty-five years. I was wrong. The layout was much the same and I had expected to see more strips, but I had not expected the rail stations to disappear. There are offices where Euston Station used to be. I made a mistake when taking a strip along Marylebone Road and ended up in a tunnel. I wasn't watching the guide lights because I presumed that the strip would come to the surface in a minute or two. Then I began to look around and saw signs for Wimbledon and Richmond coming up. I changed strips at Richmond and ended up on the surface at Kingston. Then I was arrested as a charge dodger. They asked me why I was travelling without a strip card. I said that I didn't know anything about strip cards, I had been away from Earth for nearly 21 years. At first the security guards must have thought that I was mentally defective. They said 'Pull the other one' when I said that I was Marita Andersson. They said that they knew that I was lying because they had seen Marita Andersson in the news with the Queen of Sweden the night before. One said: "Marita Andersson is bald because she is a Spacer. You have hair." The wig I was wearing covered the tattoo on my forehead so I did not look like a Spacer."
"I then decided to have a bit of fun with them. They took me to the manager's office. Whenever the manager asked me a question in English, I answered him in Swedish. He got angry with me and was about to have me taken to the nearest police station. Then one of his staff used his processor to translate the recording of our conversation. I remember hearing the question 'How old are you' and my answer 'Fyrtiosju.' followed by 'forty seven.' Then he said that I didn't look old enough to have been in the Olympic Games when Marita Andersson won a gold medal. I was sitting in front of an office desk while he was interviewing me. I tried to think of a way to show him that I was nearly as fit and strong as I was 29 years ago. Then I put my hand under the top of the desk and lifted it up a few centimetres. It wasn't very heavy - about 40 kilos. He was a bit shocked and surprised and did not like my idea of a joke. I then lifted the desk above my head while I was still sitting down. I then said in English. "I feel a lot more comfortable now that desk is not in the way. What is your next question? Do you want to know how far I can throw it?" He looked at me in amazement at first then I could see that my demonstration had proved a point. Then he said that I didn't look like Marita Andersson the Spacer. I then pulled my wig off with my free hand. "Do I now?" I asked. He cringed visibly and then became quite apologetic. Then one brave girl who had not been involved with the questioning asked. 'Miss Andersson, please can I have your autograph?'
She held a pad and a stylus in front of me so I dropped the wig on my lap and signed her pad as she held it. It was a bit like the game I used to play with naughty students. I like turning the tables on people so I thought that I would take the chance to do it literally. I rotated the desk 180 degrees before putting it down again. Then I said. "I have been away from Earth for 21 years and it is 25 years since I was last in London. Now I need to know how your transport system operates, how one pays for transport, where one can obtain a strip card, where one can get a map of the routes, and the transit times from one place to another. Can you arrange these things for me now? I have some Spacer credits that I hope that you will accept as payment." I felt in my bag and found the set of coins that I had been presented with at Lagrange Five. I grabbed a handful and put them on the desk. I estimate that I produced around CR200 million for them to look at."
"Didn't he make a grab for them?"
"No. The manager had never seen Spacer coins close up before. He began to sort them with his finger tip to make it easier to count them. I then said. "If you don't think that is enough, I have some more." I put the rest of the coins on the desk. I knew that there was a CR1 billion amongst them. There was enough money there to buy a transport network."
The manager said. "I heard that you and the rest of the Undepoldus crew were given a set of coins but I never thought that you would carry them around in your handbag."
"I like to look at Spacer coins. They are pretty and they sparkle. I never thought of them as being more than pretty baubles to look at until I was presented with a need for money."
George said. "You certainly had enough with you. I usually carry a few CR10s and CR1s with me in case I need to buy any Earth things. Most restaurants in London will give you a handsome dinner for two in exchange for a one credit piece. They love Spacer money. They never spend it. What was the reaction to your collection?"
"The group of transport staff around the desk could not have been more overawed if I had put the British Crown jewels on the desk. Now I come to think of it, those coins were worth a set of Crown jewels. One of the staff produced a camera and took a lot of images of me and the coins on the desk. Another kindly person brought me a cup of coffee.
Then the manager said. 'I have never seen so much money in one place. You have CR1,888,888,888 here. In money terms you must be one of the richest women in the world. I collect coins and I know that this collection is beyond price. The one credit piece is alone worth three or four hundred euros to a coin collector. It would be worth the unlimited use of the London strips for several months. Now I think about it I can see that effectively you have no money at all. You have a presentation collection that should never be split up. In any case, anyone who is not a Spacer who was found in possession of any of these coins worth more than CR200 would be presumed to have come by it dishonestly. They are not circulated on Earth.'
"He was right there. Almost all the Spacer coins that have been circulated on Earth have ended up in collections. I don't think that any coin worth more than CR200 has ever been used to pay for anything. What did you do then?"
"I had scored an overwhelming moral advantage so I was content to let the manager decide what should happen next. I said. "I can get Earth money to pay you within a few hours. How much do I owe you?
'You do not owe me anything Miss Andersson.' He said. 'I do not own the London strips. Please put your money back in your bag. I have heard people say that something is worth a king's ransom but the coins you have there would ransom a regiment of kings. I will arrange that two of my security staff will accompany you to where you want to go. I suggest that you find a suitable safety deposit at a bank for your coins as soon as possible. I apologise for the way you have been treated but I am sure that you can appreciate how unlikely your story sounded when you were arrested. With your wig on you do not look like a Spacer, just a tall and beautiful Earth girl. I presume that you do not want to look like a Spacer when you are travelling. It has been an honour and a pleasure to meet you Miss Andersson. I would have gone to China to see and touch a Spacer coin collection like yours. If you come to Kingston again, please come and visit us. You will be made very welcome.'
I got a package from the London Strip Transport Company the
next day. It contained guides to all the existing strips and the
new ones that will soon be built. There was also a strip card
with 'Complimentary' and a holo of me embossed in its surface.
I have never had to pay for the strips since."
"What did you do with the coins?"
I gave the coins to the Commander to look after. At first he didn't know what to do with them. Then he arranged that they would be put in a place where nobody would look for them. He had them fixed to a hardened steel plate and had a holograph made of them. The holograph was then attached to the plate. The plate is very securely fixed to the wall in his cabin. Underneath is says A HOLOGRAPH OF SPACER COINAGE. Nobody knows except him and me, and now you, that there are real coins under the holograph. The holograph is under glass like most holographs so nobody would ever guess the truth."
Sil came to join Marita and George. "Marita, the Commander has fixed up a cabin for you, number 53. Gurprit has taken the liberty of bringing your wardrobe and effects from your flat. Rear Admiral Chebychev suggests that you should not go back there unless you have a very pressing reason to do so."
"Thank you Sil. That was timely. I should get some sleep now because I have a lecture to give in the morning. George, look after Undepoldus for me. I'm sorry that I won't be with you tonight to help look after him."
"He seems happy with me but I am sure that he wouldn't mind being with both of us. Goodnight Marita. Sleep well."
Sil asked. "Share, George?"
George replied. "Why not?"
The next section deals mainly with the Spacers' expanding knowledge of the worm's capabilities.
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