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I eat, therefore I am.
Such was the extent of the Vom’s consciousness.
This had not always been so, but at the moment there was no way the Vom could become aware of it. The mechanical process of remembering required energy the Vom did not have to spare. All of the tiny amount of radiant energy from the system’s sun that the Vom could convert was needed to preserve the life-sense.
To do this the Vom had assumed a special configuration. At present it varied in thickness from a few millimeters to several microns. It had done this out of necessity, millennia ago. How many millennia? The Vom did not know or remember.
It couldn’t spare the energy.
The System hadn’t always been dead. At one time this planet had harbored a modestly successful ecosystem: plants and animals from the one- celled to the very complex; vertebrates, invertebrates, things warm- and coldblooded, gymnosperms, fungi, lichens, fliers, burrowers, crawlers, runners and swimmers. It was ruled by an undistinguished if moderately intelligent race. It had begun to die when the Vom arrived.
As to the method of arrival, the Vom could recall neither when nor how. Dimly it could remember a state of former greatness, of which its present self was less than a shadow. In that state it had dominated a thousand systems.
Arriving in this one, it had toyed with the local dominants. Its persistent and strenuous attempts at achieving mental assimilation with another life-form failed, as it had failed a hundred thousand times before. That didn’t keep the Vom from trying.
The race resisted with violence. It was consumed. The planet was rich in life-force of more primitive kind. Having absorbed that of the most intelligent beings, the Vom began on those less so. It worked its voracious way slowly through the ecosystem, down through the simple plants and fungi and even to the bacteria and viroids. The Vom was frighteningly efficient. It ate until the globe was scoured clean, clean. Then nothing moved on its surface or in its seas except wind, water, and the Vom.
Sated, the Vom rested for a long time. Then, using its always successful ploy of contacting another intelligent race and taking control of the curious vessels that would come to investigate, it broadcast into the space around it. Once carried by unwilling servitors to a new planet, it would begin the cycle of feeding anew.
But this time the Vom had waited too long. The race it contacted came, but they were strong—stronger than any the Vom had ever encountered. Its mental control wavered. For the first time in its well-ordered existence, the Vom panicked. It destroyed all aboard the approaching ships. A fatal error. The race was made aware of the true nature of the horror that had contacted it. The next time, it sent robot warships with a single prepared Guardian. One of their most powerful and capable minds, the Guardian was not understood even by its own kind. The Vom now tried to attract the ships of another species, but space-going races were scarce in this section of the galaxy. Those few who did send ships were warned away or destroyed by the robot watchers. As its stored energy was drained by these efforts the Vom grew progressively weaker, shrinking in power and ability. No longer necessary, many of the robot warships were recalled by their builders. There was a great war with another race tormenting the center of the galaxy.
Almost, the Vom escaped. A wild photonic storm tore through that section of space. The few remaining robot controls were incapacitated. Even the Guardian itself was weakened. The Vom drew some strength from the strange life-forms that rode the storm, but . . . not enough. In utter terror the Vom discovered that every space-going race within its reduced sphere of influence had died off or perished in the storm. Its mental collapse was hastened by hopelessness.
Now the Vom had plenty of time to reflect on its mistakes. It had used the planet too thoroughly, scoured it too clean of life. The system had been overemployed. Enough should have been left to reproduce and maintain a reasonable ecosystem, for just such an emergency. But the Vom had glutted itself thoroughly. Not a living cell had existed on the planet for a thousand years. Great as it was, it could not create life.
So, one by one, the higher functions were shut down, lost, as the great organic factory that was the Vom ran down, until only the barest flicker of life remained.
One day—the Vom knew it was day because of the presence of solar energy—a ship came down. It was not a large ship, being midway between courier and destroyer classification. But it was quite well armed and very functional, as were all the ships of the AAnn.
By rights the reptiles had no business in this part of space, on the fringes of the Humanx Commonwealth. The immensity of nothingness, however, made an excellent hiding place. Occasionally, daring scouts penetrated the humanx patrol cordon in search of unexplored systems possessed of exploitable resources—and sometimes on even less savory missions.
They nosed around, nowtimes finding something, nowtimes running afoul of a Church patrol (and then there would be empty places in many nests), rarely discovering something. All traveled without Empire sanction. Since by treaty with the Commonwealth this was prohibited, all such activities were of course quite illegal. However, since goods not traded for on a legal footing were exempt from taxation, the rewards for the AAnn businessman who backed a successful incursion were often enormous. In this respect the Emperor indirectly condoned such actions.
Rockets flared at the base of the small vessel. Being a scout, it was expected to have to land on planets not equipped with shuttle facilities. This was as expensive as it was necessary. Naturally, it could not land on interstellar drive (the AAnn equivalent of the advanced humanx KK drive propulsive system). The gigantic artificial mass generated by a KK or similar drive system could not impinge on the real mass of a planetary surface without something giving. Matter caught in such a manner invariably reacted. Violently. So ships used advanced shuttle-vessels to transfer passengers and goods from the surface to orbiting ships. A scout could, in effect, become its own shuttle.
The vessel set down close by the southern edge of the Vom. That section of the creature reveled in the sudden, unexpected surge of radiant energy. Within the metal capsule that rode the column of energy it sensed far stronger forces in the form of clean life-force. Almost, it reached out for them. Then a feeble spark of thought overrode primal instincts.
Not yet! Not yet! Patience! Besides, there was a more urgent need for the surprise gift of energy.
The Vom began to wake itself up.