Not Born a Man

Lost on the Last Continent is on hiatus for the month of October. Episodes resume November 7th. In the meanwhile, tales from the Unconquered Earth Sequence, my earliest foray into science fiction, will be posted in this space.

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Not Born a Man

John C Wright

Originally published in Aberrations #24, October (1994)

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Rhadamanthus O’Brian woke choking, with thin spidery tickles touching his face.  During the night-watch, a cluster of fleshy, gray vines had crawled in through the window, breaking the thick bottle-glass pane out of the crude wood windowframe, dislodging a stone or two from the wall.  The gray vines fell in through the window, spread in a thicket over the bed.  One vine had thrust a root-tip into his mouth as he slept, and reached down his throat; thin vine-twigs were clinging and crawling over the flesh of his face, groping blindly.  The whole mass of wet vines was trembling with slow glee.

Rhadamanthus gave a gargling grunt of fear, and tore the root with both hands from his mouth.  There was blood on the root-tip. The tendrils shivered and tightened, trying to catch him in their thicket.  He slid from under the wool blanket to the floor-boards.

On a peg in the stone wall above his bed, next to his musket, hung his poison-sprayer.  It was too far; the grotesque fleshy leaves were already beginning to stir and thrash, and several bulbous knots along the vine-lengths squeezed open, revealing pale round eyes.  Stings and thorns, dripping venom, slid trembling out from the root-ends.

But beneath the bed was a bed-warmer, a long-handled pan filled with coals from the grate.  Rhadamanthus swung the pan up and dashed the smoking coals into the tangle of vines across the bed.

The vines recoiled, shivering and thrashing in pain.  During that moment, he was up, across the bed, and had the sprayer in his hand.  He pumped the brass plunger vigorously; flammable poison sprayed across the vines.  Where the poison splattered across the coals, thick smoke boiled up, and sparks and little darts of flame appeared.

With a grinding and slithering stir of motion, the vine mass pulled itself massively back out the window, releasing clouds of stinging insects as it did.  Out the window, in the smoky red light of the unseen sun, Rhadamanthus could see where the vines had crept up across the garden-wall, snaked across the lawn, and thrust into the wall of the house.  He saw where two goat-kids had died, no doubt by nibbling at the vines.  They lay on their backs, spore-growths like sponges growing up from their mouths and eye­sockets.  He saw a second set of vines had thrust into the window of his brother Minos’ room.

Beyond the garden wall rose a rounded bulk of gray flesh; presumably the intelligence directing the vines.  Rhadamanthus wanted to leap out the window with his musket to pursue it, for, even as he watched, the gray bulk was dispersing into chunks of slime and starting to slide away down through the ferns and monoliths, down the mountain slope.  But he could not leave; with one hand, he beat with his bed-blanket at the fire in his bed; with the other hand, he sprayed poison at the swarm of insects, holding the plunger in his teeth, and jerking the spray-can back and forth.

He was stung in several places before the swarm dispersed and died, and his head began to swim.  Rhadamanthus stumbled to his night-stand.  Here was a pitcher of chemical water standing in a

bowel, next to it, the brass needles his brother Nemisis had made, coated with disinfectants and antidotes.  Rhadamanthus found the one he wanted and stabbed his arm; the faintness passed.

In the mirror above the night-stand, Rhadamanthus saw his face; he was a gray-eyed, dark-haired young man, straight of nose and lean of cheek.  On or two thin gray shoots had taken root in the flesh of his cheeks; he opened his shaving razor and scraped them out.  The shoots had not been present long enough to spore. There was no time for a proper cleansing; he merely dumped the pitcher over his head and body, shuddering as the stringent chemicals stung his flesh.  And, because the root had been in his mouth, he swallowed a mouthful of the horrid stuff from the bottom of the pitcher.  It burned his throat; he spat and retched.

A moment later, a cloak thrown over his nudity, and his musket in hand, he was dashing down the corridor to his bother’s room.  Over his shoulder he had flung the belt from which dangled his powder-horn and worm-box, and his little sack of musket-balls.     As he reached the door to Minos’ room, he saw one of his other brothers, Aeceus, wandering absent-mindedly down the hall-way, eyes glassy.

Since Aeceus he seemed not at first to recognize him, Rhadamanthus turned his musket toward him.  “Show me you are Aeceus, and not some thing which mocks his shape!”

Aeceus blinked. “I am a son of our Father.  My blood is red, not gray.”

“They have broken into Minos’ rooms.  Go! Rouse the house!”  said Rhadamanthus, but Aeceus only gazed blankly at him.

Rhadamanthus threw open the door.  The room beyond was a surging mass of glistening tentacles, which had thrown the enamel furniture asunder.  There was no sign of Minos.  Already a clot of tentacles had formed in the center of the room with the crude and distorted outline of a human face and head.  The grisly eyes rolled when Rhadamanthus opened the door; the misshapen mouth fell open, drooling, and gargled with slurred laughter.

But when Rhadamanthus drew back his hand as if to throw the entire contents of his sprayer into the room, Aeceus caught at his arm.

“Brother, wait!” Aeceus said. “We dare not anger them!”

“Are you mad?  Unhand me!” Rhadamanthus said.

A group of tendrils was crawling across the floor toward the open door.  By common impulse, both brothers thrust shut the door.  Like all doors in the High House, the wood of this door was impregnated with many layers of disinfectant paint.  The tendrils scraped tentatively against the wood; they heard the scratching; but the main vines did not try to press against the doorplanks.

Aeceus’ eyes were wide and wild.  He spoke in a rushed whisper.  “You endanger us, if you resist them.  We must appease them, the gray people.”

Rhadamanthus said, “Have you forgotten that Nemisis was killed and replaced by a Shapethief?  We still don’t know how long it lived among us, learning our ways, reading Father’s Books From Earth.  Have you forgotten the hive of Impersonators we found inside Forseti’s stomach when we autopsied him?”

“They are right to be angry with us!  We used to help them, have you forgotten that? They did not have circulatory systems, or sugar energy cycles, till we showed them how earthlife did these things.  We have so much wealth, so much knowledge.  We can spare a few sheep!  They cannot evolve without our help!  They need us!” Even as he spoke, there came a rustling slither from behind the door.

“Unhand me, or I swear I will kill you,” Rhadamanthus said.

Aeceus released, but continued to fluttering his finger near his brother’s face, as if wanted to lay hold of him, but feared him. “Wait! Wait! Heed reason!  The gray folk are many, and we are few.  I think it is you who have forgotten, Rhadamanthus!  Forgotten that we are the only humans here, stranded on this alien world, just Father and we children.  Fourteen of us against the gathered might of all the world!  We dare not even leave the mountain shadow!  The dream-people told me…”

Rhadamanthus gave him a hard look.  Aeceus shrank back, his hands before his mouth.

The dream-people were things Aeceus had invented during his hallucinations; he had tried to convince his brothers that the dream-people were real, that they whispered secret things to him his brothers could not hear.

Rhadamanthus pushed his brother up against the wall, and pushed his hands aside.  Aeceus struggled feebly, but Rhadamanthus pried open his mouth.

Aeceus’ tongue was gray and his teeth were slick with slime.

Rhadamanthus pushed him away. “You have been out in the sunlight.  You have been down to the sea.”

Aeceus mumbled, “The gray weed is special.  It gives me dreams.  The dream people told me that only they are real; that all this world is a false illusion.”  Aeceus hunched against the wall, pouting. “You can’t understand these deep things.”

“Forseti also ate forbidden food,” said Rhadamanthus. “It absorbed the cells from the lining of his stomach, and learned the gene-combinations to make itself into the homunculi that killed him.  This I understand.  The thing beyond this door probably killed Minos, the same way the maggot-worms killed Hammurabi.”

“No.  Hammurabi was calling out in the distance.  I heard him through the window.  It was his voice.”

“Hammurabi is dead.  What you heard was not human.”

“Minos heard it too.  I saw him go down the mountain,

following the voice.  Minos has gone down to the sea.”

Angrily, Rhadamanthus turned away from Aeceus.  He tried to thrust open the door, but the creatures beyond had piled the bedframe against the door.

Rhadamanthus put the nozzle of his sprayer into the door­lock, and pushed the plunger home.  There came a bubbling shriek of hatred and pain from beyond the door, and the frenzied thrashing of tentacles.  Rhadamanthus smiled coldly.

He went to the main hall vestibule and dressed.  Rhadamanthus put on his tunic, waist-coat and pantaloons, and pulled on the high black boots one needed to walk the outcropping of sharp basalt rock of the mountainside.  From a tub in the vestibule, he took a  dripping black cloak.  It had been soaked in disinfectant, so that every fiber was swollen with poison.  He squeezed and wrung the excess back into the tub, and slung the cloak over his shoulders.

He took a wide-brimmed black hat from the many hanging on pegs against the wall.  Rhadamanthus saw Minos’ hat still hanging on its peg.  He grimaced.  He had hoped Minos would resist the temptation to expose his skin to sunlight, that Minos would somehow find the fortitude.

From a jar, he took the thick brown cream he spread upon his hands and face to protect him from the sunlight.  Around his neck he slung the dark glass goggles.  His brother Vindictus had done the glass­blowing, but the lenses were warped and crude, and Rhadamanthus preferred not to wear them except in need.

He took a brace of worm lock pistols and tamped powder and shot in to the enamel barrels, and thrust them in the through his belt.  There was not enough metal to spare from the construction of Father’s Revenge Weapon to forge pistol barrels; these barrels had been grown out of hard shell-like enamels by his brother Justinian.

He cocked back the hammer and fitted a worm from his worm-box into the clamp of the hammer.  He touched the worm with his tongue to make certain it still was healthy.  The worm jarred him with an electric jolt.  He made sure the pistol’s touchhole was covered by its lid; he did not want a spark from the worm to touch off the powder prematurely.

Now he ventured outside to find Minos.  The motionless sun, smoldering red and dim, was hidden, as ever, behind the bulk of the mountain-side.  At the apex of the mountain gleamed the Weapon of Father’s Revenge, a tall cylinder of steel, a metal Rhadamanthus had never seen any other place but built into the Weapon.  On the other peaks were the domes of the countermeasure gear and dishes of the radar array, grown elaborately out of choral and bone, surrounded with the gray fibers of the worm-grass which housed the worms which powered the machines.

Rhadamanthus went to the garden wall and climbed it.  To one side of him was the long rambling wooden structure of the High House, the gardens and arbors in which green earth-plants grew.  Further up on the mountainside, were their other outbuildings and plots of ground, lawns for sheep to graze, pens for pigs, each surrounded by its wall of fitted gray stones.  Little lambs frisked on the grass on the mountainside.

To his left, somewhat far downslope, was the house where his brother Lycurgus once had lived.  He had once invited one of the emissaries of Princes from the Sea to eat with him, to negotiate a peace.  The chimney of the House of Lycurgus now was overgrown with moss and eye-weed.  The roofbeam had cracked, and from the lower windows spilled many long gray trunks of flesh, and snakelike tongues which writhed and swayed, even when there was no breeze.  No one knew what lived in the upper stories now in the house of Lycurgus, but occasionally one of the brothers saw lights glimmering in the upper windows, and heard violent gusts of laughter, screams, or the noise of strange music.

A broken and chaotic landscape of crags and deep valleys, narrow hills and crumbling cliffs fell away down the mountainside into the sea.   In many places grew the monoliths of bone which were one of the few fixed features of the terrain.  To the west, a forest of spore-ferns had grown up since the last time he slept.  Beyond them, a herd, or perhaps a forest, of pyramids of gray slime had migrated up from the lower slopes, leaving long trails of pulsating fiber behind them.  The fibers ran all the way down the many hills into the sea.  The pyramids were some agency of the Princes from Below the Sea.  The Princes never came above the sea, but they could shape the flesh they touched to do their will; the things would be freed of the Prince’s control if the fibers could be cut.

On a tall hill beyond the pyramids, half obscured by the smoke from the forges and smokeholes of the Deformed Ones who lived and stirred in the valley between, rose up the huge sphinxlike shape of the Northwest Watching Thing.  The Northwest Watching Thing moved too slowly for human eyes to see, but measurements taken over a span of years by his brother Nemesis had proved the Thing was slowly creeping toward the house.

The Northwest Thing was crouching along the crest of its hill, its gigantic mask, frozen forever in a grimace of hatred, pointing this way.  Its lidless eyes were larger than shields, and brighter than mirrors.  Rhadamanthus defiantly saluted the Thing with a wave of his musket.

Turning to the east, he saw the flat hill on which the Northeast Listening Thing was crouched had been overgrown with a flock of funguses and writhing snakes.  It blind face was hidden behind the curtain of growth, but the great webs of ear tissue were unobscured.

Downslope from the Thing, clouds had blown in from the sea and formed a fog against the mountainsides.  A dull haze hovered below the clouds.  The clouds were composed, not of water vapor, but of seething airborn spores.  They were raining swarms of insects, which mutated and recombined as they fell.

The forest of knotted shapes of bone and thorn which had covered the eastern slopes had apparently been poisoned and destroyed by this rain.  Long bare shelves of rock now went down the hill-slopes to the sea.  The monstrosities had apparently lost their consistency in the rain; where once huge behemoths had lumbered, now only pools of blood and floating gristle slid and crawled, mounds of jelly the size of ponds.  It seemed a clear route to the sea.

Rhadamanthus was off the wall and running down the slopes of barren rock a moment later.  He hurried down the hillslopes, trying to avoid the pools.  He hurried because already some of the pools were collecting themselves back together, the organs and veins floating in their mass gathering slowly into knots in the center of the pools.

He crested a tall hill and found himself suddenly in the place his oldest brother Solon had been buried, back in the days before they cremated their dead, before Father realized how swiftly the gray creatures could absorb and mimic human genes.

The mound of the grave had been broken open by a tree of bone, hung with many blobs of face shaped like his dead brother’s face.  Their eyes all opened when Rhadamanthus ran through the burial spot, and their mouths worked silently.  All about the edge of the burial place, plants shaped like human arms and fingers, his brother’s hands, had grown up in multitudes.  Here and there, surrounded by veins, grew teeth, or intestines, or shards and joints of bone.  The fingers caught at the edges of his cloak as his leaped over the thicket of them.

Then he was beyond that spot.  Ahead was a forest of thick gray ferns and webs of ropy flesh, but these things shuddered and drew aside at the brush of his poisoned cloak.  He pushed threw them and found himself in a narrow valley leading to the shore.

Ahead of him, in the sand, were footprints, made either by a human, or something mimicking a human.  Rhadamanthus climbed a small rise and saw the shore.  Near him lay the black folds of an abandoned cloak:  Minos’ cloak.

Rhadamanthus looked back and forth across the ocean shore. There were no tide-lines.  This world forever kept the same face turned toward the sun.  Rhadamanthus was still in the shadow of the mountain.  That shadow never moved, except that during the winter, the shadow crept a mile or two to the west, and, during summer, crept east again.

The terminator was not far from him.  Rhadamanthus was not in the sunlight, but the red glow reflected off the sand was bright enough to send waves of strange drunk pleasure through his body.  He felt a shivering of sickening intoxication tremble inside his groin and stomach.  Rhadamanthus controlled his breathing, and recited the table of laws and edicts in his mind until the trembling stopped.

He still felt warm in his face, and strange, evil thoughts swam in his brain, but he was a man, and would resist.

Now he looked out.  The ocean was gray and mauve in each direction, with high waves in some places, and the crests of those waves erupted into swarms of midges and flying worms.  In other places, the consistency of the oceanic fluid had thickened, and mounds of gelatin held slowly squirming shapes.  There were other mountains which rose up like this one from the sea; the mounds and schools of wormlike organisms tended to collect in the shadows of these mountains.

Rhadamanthus had been told that, in the early years, when Father first had been stranded here, the shadowed sides of the mountains had held no life.  But now, the slopes of nearby mountains were covered by writhing forests and pools of creeping slime.

Only the organisms out of the sunlight, on the northern slopes, or below the sea, were stable, and kept their same shapes for many daywatches, or even several seasons.  The things boiling the waves changed and fought and mutated and dissolved hour by hour.

On a tall rock overlooking the sea to Rhadamanthus’ left stood the ruins of the altar which Forseti had maintained in secret, offering blood taken from his own veins to hungry Mimes and Shapethieves, and receiving the hallucinogenic gray weed in return.

Below that shadow of that same altar-stone, Minos now was crawling through the tangled rocks toward a pool from the sea.  Minos was out of the shadow of the mountain; his shirt was off, and his flesh gleamed strangely in the sunlight.

Rhadamanthus ran.  More than once he lost sight of Minos, since the rocks below the altar stood in a chaotic cluster, like a labyrinth.  But Rhadamanthus ran a twisting trail back and forth between the boulders, and came suddenly to where Minos was crouching by the pool.

Rhadamanthus stayed in the shadow of the rock, with a wall to either side of him, but the nearby beams of smoky sunlight dazed him with strange passions.  He fought the desires back; he recalled that he was a man.

He looked, and suddenly he was not certain whether or not Minos was a man.

The thing that looked like Minos was kneeling by the pool and scooping inky slime into his mouth.  The slime wriggled and stirred in his hands as he gulped it down.  Now Minos threw himself on his belly and ducked his head beneath the pool.

Rhadamanthus raised his musket and drew back the hammer. “Minos! Stop!”

Minos startled, scuttled around from the pool, slime dribbling from his nose and mouth.  He moved strangely, his palms and footsoles kicking sand, his elbows and knees jerking as he turned, and he never rose from all fours.

Minos cocked his head sideways. “I am the son of our Father.  My blood is red, not gray.”  But the words were slurred, as if thick jelly clotted his throat.  Or, perhaps, as if the words were made by organs not quite shaped like a man’s.

“True men are poisoned by the gray food.” Rhadamanthus said sternly.

Minos croaked, “A lie. The gray food makes me stronger; I feel it seething and spreading inside me like a thousand tickling strands.  My dreams are filled with things which human words are far too weak to name.  I hear the soaring words of those who lurk beneath the sea ringing in my brain.”

“You are drugged.  Come back with me.  Stand up like a man, and walk.  We will return to house.  You will see green grass and flowers, sit in a chair at our table by the fire like a man, eat wholesome food, quaff rich ale, and listen to music.  You will remember what true humans must be.”

“I will not return. The High House will fall one day; it is inevitable.  Our ecology is too complex, too selfish to exist.  Each predator cares nothing for his prey, each tree extends its roots to poison and to strangulate those all around it.  The time will come when all the selfish germ-seeds of all earthly life will fail, and the Princes rise in triumph from the sea.  On that day, all life will be made as one life, one homogenous gray slime, drinking sun and sea-water, and there shall be no more need for teeth or claws, or eyes to see.”

“Or brains to think.”

“Human thought is all the stuff of phantasies and lies.  But I do not blame you, brother; your thoughts are no more than the secretions of the earthly flesh you wear.  That flesh is not meant for this world; your thoughts are not apt for this world, and you can understand no truth.  Kneel.  Eat the slime, and your thoughts will rollick in your brain, and you will understand.”

Minos, still crouching like a dog, reached back and scooped a handful of the stuff and proffered it to Rhadamanthus.  To his horror, Rhadamanthus found he was attracted by the smell.  He wondered what it would be like to force the cold slime trickling down his throat…

Minos flicked his wrist and tossed the slime-ball at him.  The slime struck his shoulder and put out roots and tendrils, trying to cling.  The disinfectants in the cloak-fibers made it loose its purchase.  The slime slid off.

At that same moment, Minos drew his own pistol from his breeches.  It was a foolish gesture; Rhadamanthus was the truest shot of all of them.  His musket-ball shattered Minos’ wrist and elbow.  Minos flopped backward on the sand, spilling out black blood, yowling and gibbering.  Rhadamanthus saw no tongue in the open mouth, but a white barbed claw.  Where the bone was laid open on the arm, black worms and twisting roots writhed inside the muscles, and little midges spilled out amidst the blood, and began to spin stands of silk back and forth across the wound to close it.

Rhadamanthus dropped his musket, drew out both his pistols and stepped forward out of the shadow of the boulders walls.

A soft voice behind him spoke. “Rhadamanthus O’Brian, kill not your brother.

He turned.  Two Princes from the Sea had been seated, one to either side of the rock wall, out of his line of sight till now.

The one on the left was human shaped, hooded and cloaked with soft layers of spun spider-silk.  Nothing could be seen of this one except his mouth and chin, and small spiders fell out of mouth when he spoke, drifting on strands of silk.

“Your brother is as much a man as you, which is to say, not at all.  True, you have found he is an imitator.  So are you.  So are all the sons of O’Brian.  Have you never wondered how it was that O’Brian had no wife, and yet has sons enough to do his chores, to draw his water and hew his wood, and build his weapons of impossible revenge?”

Rhadamanthus pointed his pistol with steady hand.  “I am a man.   I am loyal to my Father.”

“Do you recall your birth?  You were not born a man.”

Rhadamanthus said, “No man recalls his birth.  Whatever I was born, I am now a man.  I have made myself a man.”

The Prince to the right was also human-shaped, dressed in skin of brown and oily leather, with a long cloak of fluttering black tissue flowing from his shoulders and sweeping many yards behind him.  This prince had no face; to the front of his head was clamped a featureless bony shell.  From the rim of the shell armored legs and claws dug into his cheeks and ears, and the claws slowly opened and closed.

The faceless prince held up an wet and shiny organism shaped like a pair of blowing lungs, crowned with a tubelike membrane, opening up into lips and teeth and tongue.

The tube spoke in a breathy voice: “My master says there is no earth, no earthmen, no sky-ship of evil soldiers who stranded O’Brian here so many years ago.  No sky ship ever shall return years hence.  There will be no Vengeance.  Your weapon will never fire.  Your life is a lie. You are no more than the playthings of some master of the darkest deep, created and cast out from the waters to amuse him, but he has died, or forgotten you, and you have forgotten him, and think you are fallen from the sky.  One drop of your blood will prove all my master says.  Prod your finger.  Black ink will come forth, not red blood.”

Rhadamanthus pointed his pistols, one in each hand, at both princes; but now his back was to his brother.  His only place to move, to keep all three before him, would be to step in the sunlight.  He drew the goggles up from around his neck and donned them.  During that moment, he was not covering the Princes with his pistols; yet they did nothing.  He stepped into the light.

Rhadamanthus staggered when the red sun-beams smote him, and his brain swam with evil imaginings, as if he wanted to dance, or die, or scream, or dissolve.  He gritted his teeth.

The hooded one spoke, and spiders floated up from his mouth, trailing silk.  “You know our reproductive process.  We are composed of colonies of independent cells.  Our bodies must shatter and return to pools of slime to free the cells to divide.  This division requires sunlight.  Hiding in the gloom as you do, you can arrest the desire to reproduce, but only for a time.  Your blood will show the truth in time.  Look.  Even now your skin turns gray.  Can you deny that you are one of us?”

Rhadamanthus could see that his hands, clutching the pistols, were loosing their color.

The hooded one spoke again.  “Merge with us.  We dissolve and slay each other, it is true, but our brain cells retain part of the knowledge they had learned when they were gathered together into webs of nervous systems.  When enough brain-cells come together in our flesh, we wake.  If we are eaten, not by lower creatures, but by each other, no continuity is lost.  We die, but fragments of our memories endure.  Join us, and your memories will not be lost.”

The faceless one held up his lung-creature. “We will draw you down into the black depth, and take you in honor to our feast hall, and lay you on our table, and strike your skull asunder with a sharpened axe, and press our muzzles forward into the bleeding mass, each of us to swallow down some part of your brains.  You will live in many bodies, your selfishness erased and blended all together with the swirl of our thoughts and passions.  You will dissolve into the greater whole.  Come.  Join us.  We see the thought is tempting to you.  Lay down the burden of your individuality.  Rest from futile thought.”

The hooded one raised his face.  Behind his eyelids there were no eyes, but squirming clusters of furry insect bodies, their many spidery legs wrapped all around each other.

“The greatest of us dwell at the very bottom of the deep, like huge mountain-shapes composed entirely of brain, intellects vast and slow beyond your reckoning.  Our perfect gardens below the ocean are controlled and organized, free from the competition and selfishness of your ecology.  Each living thing there eats and is eaten according to the grand design, and the weak are aided by the strong, not victimized.  Can you dare to match or to oppose the tremendous philosophy of the Great Brains?  They have discovered the futility of all conceptualization, the superstition of believing in causality.  The universe is mad and random, and thought is selfish.  But passions, desires, dreams, these things spring from the whole and serve the whole.”

Rhadamanthus said angrily, “Is this why the seas above your perfect gardens ever are afloat with corpses, stale blood, rottenness and filth?”  but he was staring steadily at his hands.  His flesh was now as gray as lead.

The faceless one said gestured with his lung thing. “On the dark side of the world lurks a single super-organism, continents broad and miles deep.  Soon it reaches out its miles-wide arms to crush all dayside life, and absorb us all back into primordial bliss and thoughtless unity.”

The hooded one shouted. “We are the masters of all pleasure, the lords of all life.  Living things will serve as we direct!  Submit!  Our slaves receive their due pleasures!  Observe!”

A tongue of the sea surged forward, sending out sprays of insects, worms, and strands of flesh.  A bubble of clear gelatin formed and rose to the surface.  The membranes of gelatin slid aside to reveal within a nude woman of perfect face and figure, round-bosomed, narrow-waisted, full-hipped.  Long golden hair framed her beautiful face.  Her red lips curved in sensuous smile; her green eyes burned with evil passion.

She looked like a woman from one of the pictures in Father’s books, from earth.  Rhadamanthus wondered how they had made her; perhaps by combining the sexual genes from two dead brothers, to produce an XX rather than an XY.

The woman turned toward Minos and extended her slim arms pleadingly to him.  At once he was scrambling across the sand, ignoring his brother’s warning cries.  Minos fell into the arms.

Rhadamanthus, from the side, could see what Minos, seeing her straight-on, could not.  The woman’s back was open, and greasy veins and tubes and nerves and organs reached out from inside her skin into the gelatinous mass she rested upon, controlling her like a puppet, or part of a vaster creature hanging below the black waves.  It was as if they had constructed a woman, but could not discover how to fit all of her organs correctly within the confines of the flesh.

Rhadamanthus raised his pistol to fire at the hollow woman.  But a spider, ejected from the hooded prince by his last shout, landed on the pistol barrel, and stung something into the enamel.  The barrel twisted and darkened, and the wooden stock warped.  It was too late to stop his finger; the trigger pulled, the hammer struck the worm into the touch-hole; the angry worm gave off sparks, touching off the powder.  Rhadamanthus flung the gun from him as it back-fired and exploded.

The hooded one crowed. “Your metals and stone we cannot touch, but whatever was alive, enamel, wood, or bone, is not outside the orbit of our power!”

The membranes surrounding the woman folded around Minos as they embraced, drawing them both beneath the waves.  There was a swirl of gray water; and Minos was gone.

The faceless prince, meanwhile, had stood, flinging wide his cloak.  The black tissues of the cloak erupted into a cloud of filmy black wings, and flew out in a silent flock.  Several of them fell on Rhadamanthus, and tried to sting him, but were defeated by the thickness of his poisonous cloak.

One landed on his face, and tricked to drive its sting into his eye.  The stinger scraped against the brown glass of the goggles.  With his free hand, Rhadamanthus reached into his worm­box, drew out a handful of electric worms, and struck himself in the face.

He was jolted from his feet.  The black flapping thing fell off his face, dead.  The pistol was still in his hand.  But the black things were in cloud all around him, and swarms of spiders were skittering across the sand from beneath the hem of the hooded one’s robe.

As he had done before, he took up his poison sprayer in his teeth and jerked the can back and forth.  Drops of poison turned the things ash-gray where they fell.  The black flying things dispersed, disobeying whatever control the faceless one was exerting.

Now Rhadamanthus rose to one knee, and, pulling off the lid of the poison sprayer with his teeth, dashed the whole contents of the canister at the faceless one’s body.  The leather skins sagged and fell asunder; the whole body swayed and fell.

From beneath the pile of shivering skins, the hard mask darted forth, scuttling on its crab-legs, and ran across the sand into the sea.  The pile of skins wiggled and began to spread out aimlessly.

The hooded figure stepped forward slowly, its many layers of filmy spider-silk spreading and floating as it came forward. “Now, loyal son of O’Brian, now you must deal with me.  How will you destroy me with but a single musket ball?  My brains and hearts are not kept in any single spot within my frame.  I am not a single organism, but a collection of multitudes.  You have cast your poison all away, but I, I need but land a single of my host upon your flesh to sting you into death.”

Rhadamanthus dropped his aim. “I will not kill all of you.  I will only shoot whichever of your legs steps forward first.  Perhaps the organism of your legs are willing to make the sacrifice for the good of the whole.”

The hooded one swayed.  “Do not be foolish.  You can not turn me against myself by so transparent a deception. I need but step forward…”  But the hooded figure was already dropping to the ground, as the flesh of his legs melted and slid aside.

The skin erupted as it fell, and swarms of spiders scuttled out in all directions.  The bones of the legs were exposed, but apparently even these were made up of smaller creatures, and dissolved into clusters of small, white, hard, scuttling insects.

Rhadamanthus strode away, and the head and torso of the hooded one shouted terrible oaths and imprecations, snarled, and began to drag itself into the sea.

Rhadamanthus shouldered his musket.  Only then did he stare at his hands, and squint, face cold and calm and terrible to behold, as if he fought in his mind against some nearly ­irresistible but utterly unspeakable temptation.  After many minutes, they iron-gray hue left his skin, and his hands returned to a healthy pink color.

“I am a man,” he whispered to himself.

He had returned home, and rested, and ate wholesome food.  He listened to gentle music, while sitting upright in a chair, like a man, and studied a work on ethics by Aristotle.

Only then did he seek out his father, climbing the hillside to find the old man among the highest and oldest of the arbors.

Inside the wall protecting this arbor, grew old and stately apple-trees, and when the breeze blew, the scent of apple-blossoms floated on the air, and green leaves floated down to rest on green grass.

His father was white-haired and white-bearded, unbowed by age, but standing straight and tall.  In one hand he held a thick wood staff.

The apple tree he faced had turned all gray and black, and it swayed and started pulling up its roots.  Little hairs like tendrils writhed out from underneath the running bark, and it began to wave its branches threateningly.

Father drove a sharpened funnel into the bark with a blow from his staff, and poured some fluid from a jug he held into the interior of the tree.  He put his mouth near the bark and spoke soft, soothing words.  In a few moments the tree grew motionless, still and calm, replaced its roots back down into the dirt, and stood once again, an apple tree.

Rhadamanthus had come up during this procedure, but stood silently aside till it was done.

Now he spoke: “Father, Minos is dead.  He was pulled beneath the sea.”

Father nodded gravely, seeming sad, but not surprised.  “Minos was smart, but not wise, and he did not trust his own thinking.”

“The princes from below have told me I am like one of them.”

Again, father nodded. “They have known and forgotten this many times before.  Their brains are savage and chaotic, and dissolve and recombine in unsteady combinations.” Now he looked carefully at Rhadamanthus.  “And what did you say to this news?”

“I told them what you have always taught us; that man is a creature of a self-made soul.  That we have no instinctual knowledge, no automatic behaviors, and that what we think and what we do is a matter entirely of our own making.  That we are born as mere clusters of animal flesh, but that we must make ourselves men.”

Father nodded gravely.  He pointed with his staff up to the mountain-peak not far above, where the weapon gleamed in its steel cylinder. “Not even all men can make themselves into men.”  Now he spoke in a voice like one reciting a ritual.  Rhadamanthus had heard the speech many times before; nonetheless, he stood in a posture of careful attention.

“Even I was evil at first,” father recited, “When first I signed aboard the Robin Hood, eager to make war upon the innocent flower-creatures of a far star.  But I repented halfway through the long decades of the flight, and so they stranded me here, where they had stopped to take on oxygen and water, and left me with nothing but a few supplies.  This is the only other world, other than old earth, with free oxygen within its atmosphere.  I know that they must stop here again, their hands still reeking with the blood of genocide of the innocents.  To live, to grow food, to dig up uncontaminated water, and, especially, to make the weapon to avenge myself, I needed helping hands.  This apple garden was the first place I stood when I understood the way: I had thrown an apple-core away, and returned the next daywatch to find a beautiful orchard.  Are you sorry that I brought you and your brothers into being?  Do you regret that I have forced you to live as men?”

It was a ritual question; Rhadamanthus spoke a spontaneous answer, as fervidly as if he had not heard the question a thousand times before.

He said: “Never do I regret being a man.  If I had been born in the sea, in the sunlight, like my ancestors, I would be one unfocused group of wandering thoughts and mad passions floating through a disordered collective consciousness.  Now I am a creature with an ego, proud, self-reliant, independent.  I will never yield my consciousness to another.  You raised us and we love you, we alone of all creatures on this planet, know and love the one who brought us into being.  Some of us have fallen away.  Some of us have stopped thinking like men and returned to the state of imitators. But I will never give up.  But you can trust me, at least, father.”

“I do trust you.  I trust you most of all,” the old man said.  For a moment, his face seemed to darken, and his features blurred and shifted like plastic.  The hair of his head and beard stood up and writhed and swayed.  He doused himself with the fluid from the jug he held, and stood, breathing deeply, till his face grew pale and still again.

“I trust you most of all, and I am old.  I would like you to take my place as father after me, Rhadamanthus.  I am not the first father, nor was the father before him, nor the one before him. Nor, I deem, shall I be the last. But whenever a father thinks he cannot hold away the temptations to return to the sea for long, that is when he should pass the mantle of fatherhood along.  You are the hardiest and sternest of us; never allow us to deviate one inch from the principles the first father laid down for us.  He was a true man, and came from the stars.  His dream of vengeance has far outlived him, and woke to a life of its own.  From such questionable beginnings, great can good come.  Now then; Let us go into the lab; we will need a sterile needle to pierce into my brain.”

“But what will you do?” Rhadamanthus asked, amazed.

The old man chuckled.  “If I survive the operation, perhaps I shall become the next Minos.  We always should have at least one Minos around here, to provoke debate, if nothing else.”