Pid the Pilot slowed the ship almost to a stand-still and peered anxiously at the green planet below.
Even without instruments, there was no mistaking it. Third from its sun, 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 had set out to prepare this planet for invasion--and vanished utterly, without a word.
Pid hesitated only a moment before starting irrevocably down. There was no point in hovering and worrying. He and his two crewmen were as ready now as they would ever be. Their compact Displacers were stored in body pouches, inactive but ready.
Pid wanted to say something to his crew, but wasn't sure how to put it.
The crew waited. Ilg the Radioman had sent the final message to the Grom planet. Ger the Detector read sixteen dials at once and reported, "No sign of alien activity." His body surfaces flowed carelessly.
Noticing the flow, Pid knew what to say to his crew. Ever since they had left Grom, shape-discipline had been disgustingly lax. The Invasion Chief had warned him; but still, he had to do something about it. It was his duty, since lower castes such as Radiomen and Detectors were 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 prescribed shape and molded himself comfortably to a wall.
"However," Pid said sternly, "distance is no excuse for promiscuous Shapelessness."
Ilg flowed hastily back into proper Radioman's shape.
"Exotic forms will undoubtedly be called for," Pid went on. "And for that we have a special dispensation. But remember--any shape not assumed strictly in the line of duty is a foul, lawless device of The Shapeless One!"
Ger's body surfaces abruptly stopped flowing.
"That's all," Pid said and flowed into his controls. The ship started down, so smoothly coordinated that Pid felt a glow of pride.
They were good workers, he decided. He just couldn't expect them to be as shape-conscious as a high-caste Pilot. Even the Invasion Chief had told him that.
"Pid," the Invasion Chief had said at their last interview, "we need this planet desperately."
"Yes, sir," Pid had said, standing at full attention, never quivering from Optimum Pilot's Shape.
"One of you," the Chief said heavily, "must get through and set up a Displacer near an atomic power source. The army will be standing by at this end, ready to step through."
"We'll do it, sir," Pid said.
"This expedition has to succeed," the Chief said, and his features blurred momentarily from sheer fatigue. "In strictest confidence, there's considerable unrest on Grom. The Miner caste is on strike, for instance. They want a new digging shape. Say the old one is inefficient."
Pid looked properly indignant. The Mining Shape had been set down by the Ancients fifty thousand years ago, together with the rest of the basic shapes. And now these upstarts wanted to change it!
"That's not all," the Chief told him. "We've uncovered a new Cult of Shapelessness. Picked up almost eight thousand Grom, and I don't know how many more we missed."
Pid knew that Shapelessness was a lure of The Shapeless One, the greatest evil that the Grom mind could conceive of. But why, he wondered, did so many Grom fall for His lures?
The Chief guessed his question. "Pid," he said, "I suppose it's difficult 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 it either. All my ancestors have been Invasion Chiefs, back to the beginning of time. So of course I want to be an Invasion Chief. It's only natural, as well as lawful. But the lower castes don't feel that way." The Chief shook his body sadly. "I've told you this for a reason. We Grom need more room. This unrest is caused purely by crowding. All our psychologists say so. Another planet to expand into will 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 sat down 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 Alterationist tendencies. He was once fined for assuming a quasi-Hunter shape. Ilg has never had any definite charge brought against him. But I hear that he remains immobile for suspiciously long periods of time. Possibly, he fancies himself a Thinker."
"But, sir," Pid protested." "If they are even slightly tainted with Alterationism or Shapelessness, why send them on this expedition?"
The Chief hesitated before answering. "There are plenty of Grom I could trust," he said slowly. "But those two have certain qualities of resourcefulness and imagination that will be needed on this expedition." He sighed. "I really don't understand why those qualities are usually linked with Shapelessness."
"Yes, sir," Pid said.
"Just watch them."
"Yes, sir," Pid said again, and saluted, realizing that the interview was at an end. In his body pouch he felt the dormant Displacer, ready to transform the enemy's power source into a bridge across space for the Grom hordes.
"Good luck," the chief said. "I'm sure you'll need it."