Blake nodded. “Poor Silv. Poor all of us. She’s right, Eller. We’re monsters.” His fragile lips curled. “They’ll destroy us back on Terra. Or lock us up. Maybe a quick death would be better. Monsters, freaks, hairless hydrocephalics.”
“Not hydrocephalics,” Eller said. “Your brain isn’t impaired. That’s one thing to be thankful for. We can still think. We still have our minds.”
“In any case we know why there isn’t life on the asteroid,” Blake said ironically. “We’re a success as a scouting party. We got the information. Radiation, lethal radiation, destructive to organic tissue. Produces mutation and alteration in cell growth as well as changes in the structure and function of the organs.”
Eller studied him thoughtfully. “That’s quite learned talk for you, Blake.”
“It’s an accurate description.” Blake looked up. “Let’s be realistic. We’re monstrous cancers blasted by hard radiation. Let’s face it. We’re not men, not human beings any longer. We’re –”
“I don’t know.” Blake lapsed into silence.
“It’s strange,” Eller said. He studied his fingers moodily. He experimented, moving his fingers about. Long, long and thin. He traced the surface of the table with them. The skin was sensitive. He could feel every indentation of the table, every line and mark.
“What are you doing?” Blake said.
“I’m curious.” Eller held his fingers close to his eyes, studying them. His eyesight was dimming. Everything was vague and blurred. Across from him Blake was staring down. Blake’s eyes had begun to recede, sinking slowly into the great hairless skull. It came to Eller all at once that they were losing their sight. They were going slowly blind. Panic seized him.
“Blake!” he said. “We’re going blind. There’s a progressive deterioration of our eyes, vision and muscles.”
“I know,” Blake said.
“But why? We’re actually losing the eyes themselves! They’re going away, drying up. Why?”
“Atrophied,” Blake murmured.
“Perhaps.” Eller brought out a log book from the table, and a writing beam. He traced a few notes on the foil. Sight diminishing, vision failing rapidly. But fingers much more sensitive. Skin response unusual. Compensation?
“What do you think of this?” he said. “We’re losing some functions, gaining others.”
“In our hands?” Blake studied his own hands. “The loss of the nails makes it possible to use the fingers in new ways.” He rubbed his fingers against the cloth of his uniform. “I can feel individual fibers which was impossible before.”
“Then the loss of nails was purposeful!”
“We’ve been assuming this was all without purpose. Accidental burns, cell destruction, alteration. I wonder. . . ” Eller moved the writing beam slowly across the log sheet. Fingers: new organs of perception. Heightened touch, more tactile response. But vision dimming. . . .
“Cris!” Silvia’s voice came, sharp and frightened.
“What is it?” He turned toward the vidscreen.
“I’m losing my sight. I can’t see.”
“It’s all right. Don’t worry.”
“I’m — I’m afraid.”
Eller went over to the vidscreen. “Silv, I think we’re losing some senses and gaining others. Examine your fingers. Do you notice anything? Touch something.”
There was an agonizing pause. “I seem to be able to feel things much differently. Not the same as before.”
“That’s why our nails are gone.”
“But what does it mean?”
Eller touched his bulging cranium, exploring the smooth skin thoughtfully. Suddenly he clenched his fists, gasping. “Silv! Can you still operate the X-ray equipment? Are you mobile enough to cross the lab?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Then I want an X-ray plate made. Make it right away. As soon as it’s ready i notify me.”
“An X-ray plate? Of what?”
“Of your own cranium. I want to see what changes our brains have undergone. Especially the cerebrum. I’m beginning to understand, I think.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll tell you when I see the plate.” A faint smile played across Eller’s thin lips. “If I’m right, then we’ve been completely mistaken about what’s happened to us!”
For a long time Eller stared at the X-ray plate framed in the vidscreen. Dimly he made out the lines of the skull, struggling to see with his fading eyesight. The plate trembled in Silvia’s hands.
“What do you see?” she whispered.
“I was right. Blake, look at this, if you can.”
Blake came slowly over, supporting himself with one of the chairs. “What i is it?” He peered at the plate, blinking. “I can’t see well enough.”
“The brain has changed enormously. Notice how much enlargement there is here.” Eller traced the frontal lobe outline. “Here, and here. There’s been growth, amazing growth. And greater convolution. Notice this odd bulge off the frontal lobe. A kind of projection. What do you suppose it might be?”
“I have no idea,” Blake said. “Isn’t that area mainly concerned with higher processes of thought?”
“The most developed cognitive faculties are located there. And that’s where the most growth has taken place.” Eller moved slowly away from the screen.
“What do you make of it?” Silvia’s voice came.
“I have a theory. It may be wrong, but this fits in perfectly. I thought of it almost at first, when I saw that my nails were gone.”
“What’s your theory?”
Eller sat down at the control table. “Better get off your feet, Blake. I don’t think our hearts are too strong. Our body mass is decreasing, so perhaps later on –”
“Your theory! What is it?” Blake came toward him, his thin bird-like chest rising and falling. He peered down intently at Eller. “What is it?”
“We’ve evolved,” Eller said. “The radiation from the asteroid speeded up cell growth, like cancer. But not without design. There’s purpose and direction to these changes, Blake. We’re changing rapidly, moving through centuries in a few seconds.”
Blake stared at him.
“It’s true,” Eller said. “I’m sure of it. The enlarged brain, diminished powers of sight, loss of hair, teeth. Increased dexterity and tactile sense. Our bodies have lost, for the most part. But our minds have benefited. We’re developing greater cognitive powers, greater conceptual capacity. Our minds are moving ahead into the future. Our minds are evolving.”
“Evolving!” Blake sat down slowly. “Can this be true?”
“I’m certain of it. We’ll take more X-rays, of course. I’m anxious to see changes in the internal organs, kidneys, stomach. I imagine we’ve lost portions of our –”
“Evolved! But that means that evolution is not the result of accidental external stresses. Competition and struggle. Natural selection, aimless, without direction. It implies that every organism carries the thread of its evolution within it. Then evolution is ideological, with a goal, not determined by chance.”
Eller nodded. “Our evolution seems to be more of an internal growth and change along distinct lines. Certainly not at random. It would be interesting to know what the directing force is.”
“This throws a new light on things,” Blake murmured. “Then we’re not monsters, after all. We’re not monsters. We’re — we’re men of the future.”
Eller glanced at him. There was a strange quality in Blake’s voice. “I suppose you might say that,” he admitted. “Of course, we’ll still be considered freaks on Terra.”
“But they’ll be wrong,” Blake said. “Yes, they’ll look at us and say we’re freaks. But we’re not freaks. In another few million years the rest of mankind will catch up to us. We’re moving ahead of our own time, Eller.”
Eller studied Blake’s great bulging head. He could only dimly make out its lines. Already, the well-lighted control room was turning almost dark. Their sight was virtually gone. All he could make out was vague shadows, nothing more.
“Men of the future,” Blake said. “Not monsters, but men from tomorrow. Yes, this certainly throws a new light on things.” He laughed nervously. “A few minutes ago I was ashamed of my new appearance! But now –”
“But now what?”
“But now I’m not so sure.”
“What do you mean?”
Blake did not answer. He had got slowly to his feet, holding onto the table.
“Where are you going?” Eller said.
Blake crossed the control room painfully, feeling his way toward the door. “I must think this over. There are astonishing new elements to be considered. I agree, Eller. You’re quite right. We have evolved. Our cognitive faculties are greatly improved. There’s considerable deterioration in body functions, of course. But that’s to be expected. I think we’re actually the gainers, everything considered.” Blake touched his great skull cautiously. “Yes, I think that in the long run we may have gained. We will look back on this as a great day, Eller. A great day in our lives. I’m sure your theory is correct. As the process continues I can sense changes in my conceptual abilities. The Gestalt faculty has risen amazingly. I can intuit certain relationships that –”
“Stop!” Eller said. “Where are you going? Answer me. I’m still captain of this ship.”
“Going? I’m going to my quarters. I must rest. This body is highly inadequate. It may be necessary to devise mobile carts and perhaps even artificial organs as mechanical lungs and hearts. I’m certain the pulmonary and vascular systems are not going to stand up long. The life expectancy is no doubt greatly diminished. I’ll see you later, Major Eller. But perhaps I should not use the word see.” He smiled faintly. “We will not see much any more.” He raised his hands. “But these will take the place of vision.” He touched his skull. “And this will take the place of many, many things.”
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