The Drone by Abraham Merritt
First published in Fantasy Magazine, September 1934
Also published as "The Drone Man" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, August
FOUR MEN sat at a table of the Explorers' Club—Hewitt,
just in from two years botanical research in Abyssinia; Caranac, the
ethnologist; MacLeod, poet first, and second the learned curator of the
Asiatic Museum; Winston, the archeologist, who, with Kosloff the Russian, had
worked over the ruins of Khara-Kora, the City of the Black Stones in the
northern Gobi, once capital of the Empire of Genghis Khan.
The talk had veered to werewolves, vampires, fox-women, and similar
superstitions. Directed thence by a cabled report of measures to be taken
against the Leopard Society, the murderous fanatics who drew on the skins of
leopards, crouched like them on the boughs of trees, then launched themselves
down upon their victims tearing their throats with talons of steel. That, and
another report of a "hex-murder" in Pennsylvania where a woman had been
beaten to death because it was thought she could assume the shape of a cat
and cast evil spells upon those into whose houses, as cat, she crept.
Caranac said: "It is a deep-rooted belief, an immeasurably ancient, that a
man or woman may assume the shape of an animal, a serpent, a bird, even an
insect. It was believed of old everywhere, and everywhere it is still
believed by some—fox-men and fox-women of China and Japan, wolf-people,
the badger and bird people of our own Indians. Always there has been the idea
that there is a borderland between the worlds of consciousness of man and of
beast—a borderland where shapes can be changed and man merge into beast
or beast into man."
MacLeod said: "The Egyptians had some good reason for equipping their
deities with the heads of birds and beasts and insects. Why did they portray
Khepher the Oldest God with the head of a beetle? Why give Anubis, the
Psychopomp, Guide of the Dead, the head of a jackal? Or Thoth, the God of
Wisdom, the head of an ibis; and Horus, the Divine son of Isis and Osiris,
the head of a hawk? Set, God of Evil, a crocodile's and the Goddess Bast a
cat's? There was a reason for all of that. But about it one can only
Caranac said: "I think there's something in that borderland, or
borderline, idea. There's more or less of the beast, the reptile, the bird,
the insect in everybody. I've known men who looked like rats and had the
souls of rats. I've known women who belonged to the horse family, and showed
it in face and voice. Distinctly there are bird people—hawk-faced,
eagle-faced—predatory. The owl people seem to be mostly men and the
wren people women. There are quite as distinct wolf and serpent types.
Suppose some of these have their animal element so strongly developed that
they can cross this borderline—become at times the animal? There you
have the explanation of the werewolf, the snake-woman, and all the others.
What could be more simple?"
Winston asked: "But you're not serious, Caranac?"
Caranac laughed. "At least half serious. Once I had a friend with an
uncannily acute perception of these animal qualities in the human. He saw
people less in terms of humanity than in terms of beast or bird. Animal
consciousness that either shared the throne of human consciousness or sat
above it or below it in varying degrees. It was an uncomfortable gift. He was
like a doctor who has the faculty of visual diagnosis so highly developed
that he constantly sees men and women and children not as they are but as
diseases. Ordinarily he could control the faculty. But sometimes, as he would
describe it, when he was in the Subway, or on a bus, or in the theater
—or even sitting tête-à-tête with a pretty woman,
there would be a swift haze and when it had cleared he was among rats and
foxes, wolves and serpents, cats and tigers and birds, all dressed in human
garb but with nothing else at all human about them. The clear-cut picture
lasted only for a moment—but it was a highly disconcerting moment."
Winston said, incredulously: "Do you mean to suggest that in an instant
the musculature and skeleton of a man can become the musculature and skeleton
of a wolf? The skin sprout fur? Or in the matter of your bird people,
feathers? In an instant grow wings and the specialized muscles to use them?
Sprout fangs... noses become snouts..."
Caranac grinned. "No, I don't mean anything of the sort. What I do suggest
is that under certain conditions the animal part of this dual nature of man
may submerge the human part to such a degree that a sensitive observer will
think he sees the very creature which is its type. Just as in the case of the
friend whose similar sensitivity I have described."
Winston raised his hands in mock admiration. "Ah, at last modern science
explains the legend of Circe! Circe the enchantress who gave men a drink that
changed them into beasts. Her potion intensified whatever animal or what-not
soul that was within them so that the human form no longer registered upon
the eyes and brains of those who looked upon them. I agree with you, Caranac
—what could be more simple? But I do not use the word simple in the
same sense you did."
Caranac answered, amused: "Yet, why not? Potions of one sort or another,
rites of one sort or another, usually accompany such transformations in the
stories. I've seen drinks and drugs that did pretty nearly the same thing and
with no magic or sorcery about them—did it almost to the line of the
Winston began heatedly: "But—"
Hewitt interrupted him: "Will the opposing counsel kindly shut up and
listen to expert testimony. Caranac, I'm grateful to you. You've given me
courage to tell of something which never in God's world would I have told if
it were not for what you've been saying. I don't know whether you're right or
not, but man—you've knocked a hag off my shoulders who's been riding
them for months! The thing happened about four months before I left
Abyssinia. I was returning to Addis Ababa. With my bearers I was in the
western jungles. We came to a village and camped. That night my headman came
to me. He was in a state of nerves. He begged that we would go from there at
dawn. I wanted to rest for a day or two, and asked why. He said the village
had a priest who was a great wizard. On the nights of the full moon the
priest turned himself into a hyena and went hunting. For human food, the
headman whispered. The villagers were safe, because he protected them. But
others weren't. And the next night was the first of the full moon. The men
were frightened. Would I depart at dawn?"
"I didn't laugh at him. Ridiculing the beliefs of the bush gets you less
than nowhere. I listened gravely, and then assured him that my magic was
greater than the wizard's. He wasn't satisfied, but he shut up. Next day I
went looking for the priest. When I found him I thought I knew how he'd been
able to get that fine story started and keep the natives believing it. If any
man ever looked like a hyena he did. Also, he wore over his shoulders the
skin of one of the biggest of the beasts I'd ever seen, its head grinning at
you over his head. You could hardly tell its teeth and his apart. I suspected
he had filed his teeth to make 'em match. And he smelled like a hyena. It
makes my stomach turn even now. It was the hide of course—or so I
"Well, I squatted down in front of him and we looked at each other for
quite a while. He said nothing, and the more I looked at him the less he was
like a man and more like the beast around his shoulders. I didn't like it
—I'm frank to say I didn't. It sort of got under my skin. I was the
first to weaken. I stood up and tapped my rifle. I said, 'I do not like
hyenas. You understand me.' And I tapped my rifle again. If he was thinking
of putting over some similar kind of hocus-pocus that would frighten my men
still more, I wanted to nip it in the bud. He made no answer, only kept
looking at me. I walked away."
"The men were pretty jittery all day, and they got worse when night began
to fall. I noted there was not the usual cheerful twilight bustle that
characterizes the native village. The people went into their huts early. Half
an hour after dark, it was as though deserted. My camp was in a clearing just
within the stockade. My bearers gathered close together around their fire. I
sat on a pile of boxes where I could look over the whole clearing. I had one
rifle on my knee and another beside me. Whether it was the fear that crept
out from the men around the fire like an exhalation, or whether it had been
that queer suggestion of shift of shape from man to beast while I was
squatting in front of the priest I don't know—but the fact remained
that I felt mighty uneasy. The headman crouched beside, long knife in
"After a while the moon rose up from behind the trees and shone down on
the clearing. Then, abruptly, at its edge, not a hundred feet away I saw the
priest. There was something disconcerting about the abruptness with which he
had appeared. One moment there had been nothing, then—there he was. The
moon gleamed on the teeth of the hyena's head and upon his. Except for that
skin he was stark naked and his teeth glistened as though oiled. I felt the
headman shivering against me like a frightened dog and I heard his teeth
"And then there was a swift haze—that was what struck me so forcibly
in what you told of your sensitive friend, Caranac. It cleared as swiftly and
there wasn't any priest. No. But there was a big hyena standing where he had
been—standing on its hind feet like a man and looking at me. I could
see its hairy body. It held its forelegs over its shaggy chest as though
crossed. And the reek of it came to me—thick. I didn't reach for my
gun—I never thought of it, my mind in the grip of some incredulous
"The beast opened its jaws. It grinned at me. Then it walked— walked
is exactly the word—six paces, dropped upon all fours, trotted
leisurely into the bush, and vanished there."
"I managed to shake off the spell that had held me, took my flash and gun
and went over to where the brute had been. The ground was soft and wet. There
were prints of a man's feet and hands. As though the man had crawled from the
bush on all fours. There were the prints of two feet close together, as
though he had stood there erect. And then—there were the prints of the
paws of a hyena."
"Six of them, evenly spaced, as though the beast had walked six paces upon
its hind legs. And after that only the spoor of the hyena trotting with its
unmistakable sidewise slinking gait upon all four legs. There were no further
marks of man's feet—nor were marks of human feet going back from where
the priest had stood."
Hewitt stopped. Winston asked: "And is that all?"
Hewitt said, as though he had not heard him: "Now, Caranac, would you say
that the animal soul in this wizard was a hyena? And that I had seen that
animal soul? Or that when I had sat with him that afternoon he had implanted
in my mind the suggestion that at such a place I would see him as a hyena?
And that I did?"
Caranac answered: "Either is an explanation. I rather hold to the
Hewitt asked: "Then how do you explain the change of the human foot marks
into those of the beast?"
Winston asked: "Did anyone but you see those prints?"
Hewitt said: "No. For obvious reasons I did not show them to the
Winston said: "I hold then to the hypnotism theory. The foot marks were a
part of the same illusion."
Hewitt said: "You asked if that was all. Well, it wasn't. When dawn came
and there was a muster of men, one was missing. We found him—what was
left of him—a quarter mile away in the bush. Some animal had crept into
the camp—neatly crushed his throat and dragged him away without
awakening anybody. Without even me knowing it—and I had not slept.
Around his body were the tracks of an unusually big hyena. Without doubt that
was what had killed and partly eaten him."
"Coincidence," muttered Winston.
"We followed the tracks of the brute," went on Hewitt. "We found a pool at
which it had drunk. We traced the tracks to the edge of the pool.
He hesitated. Winston asked, impatiently: "But?"
"But we didn't find them going back. There were the marks of a naked human
foot going back. But there were no marks of human feet pointing toward the
pool. Also, the prints of the human feet were exactly those which had ended
in the spoor of the hyena at the edge of the clearing. I know that because
the left big toe was off."
Caranac asked: "And then what did you do?"
"Nothing. Took up our packs and beat it. The headman and the others had
seen the footprints. There was no holding them after that. So your idea of
hypnotism hardly holds here, Winston. I doubt whether a half dozen or less
had seen the priest. But they all saw the tracks."
"Mass hallucination. Faulty observation. A dozen rational explanations,"
MacLeod spoke, the precise diction of the distinguished curator submerged
under the Gaelic burr and idioms that came to the surface always when he was
"And is it so, Martin Hewitt? Well, now I will be telling you a story. A
thing that I saw with my own eyes. I hold with you, Alan Caranac, but I go
further. You say that man's consciousness may share the brain with other
consciousness—beast or bird or what not. I say it may be that all life
is one. A single force, but a thinking and conscious force of which the
trees, the beasts, the flowers, germs and man and everything living are
parts, just as the billions of living cells in a man are parts of him. And
that under certain conditions the parts may be interchangeable. And that this
may be the source of the ancient tales of the dryads and the nymphs, the
harpies and the werewolves and their kind as well."
"Now, listen. My people came from the Hebrides where they know more of
some things than books can teach. When I was eighteen I entered a little mid-
west college. My roommate was a lad named—well, I'll just be calling
him Ferguson. There was a professor with ideas you would not expect to find
"'Tell me how a fox feels that is being hunted by the hounds,' he would
say. 'Or the rabbit that is stalked by the fox. Or give me a worm's eye view
of a garden. Get out of yourselves. Imagination is the greatest gift of the
gods,' he said, 'and it is also their greatest curse. But blessing or curse
it is good to have. Stretch your consciousness and write for me what you see
"Ferguson took to that job like a fly to sugar. What he wrote was not a
man telling of a fox or hare or hawk—it was fox and hare and hawk
speaking through a man's hand. It was not only the emotions of the creatures
he described. It was what they saw and heard and smelt and how they saw and
heard and smelt it. And what they—thought."
"The class would laugh, or be spellbound. But the professor didn't laugh.
No. After a while he began to look worried and he would have long talks in
private with Ferguson. And I would say to him: 'In God's name how do you do
it, Ferg? You make it all seem so damned real.'"
"'It is real,' he told me. 'I chase with the hounds and I run with the
hare. I set my mind on some animal and after a bit I am one with it. Inside
it. Literally. As though I had slipped outside myself. And when I slip back
inside myself—I remember.'"
"'Don't tell me you think you change into one of these beasts!' I said. He
hesitated. 'Not my body,' he answered at last. 'But I know my mind... soul...
spirit... whatever you choose to call it—must.'"
"He wouldn't argue the matter. And I know he didn't tell me all he knew.
And suddenly the professor stopped those peculiar activities, without
explanation. A few weeks later I left college."
"That was over thirty years ago. About ten years ago, I was sitting in my
office when my secretary told me that a man named Ferguson who said he was an
old schoolmate was asking to see me. I remembered him at once and had him in.
I blinked at him when he entered. The Ferguson I'd known had been a lean,
wiry, dark, square-chinned, and clean-cut chap. This man wasn't like that at
all. His hair was a curious golden, and extremely fine—almost a fuzz.
His face was oval and flattish with receding chin. He wore oversized dark
glasses and they gave the suggestion of a pair of fly's eyes seen under a
microscope. Or rather—I thought suddenly—of a bee's. But I felt a
real shock when I grasped his hand. It felt less like a man's hand than the
foot of some insect, and as I looked down at it I saw that it also was
covered with the fine yellow fuzz of hair. He said:"
"'Hello, MacLeod, I was afraid you wouldn't remember me.'"
"It was Ferguson's voice as I remembered it, and yet it wasn't. There was
a queer, muffled humming and buzzing running through it."
"But it was Ferguson all right. He soon proved that. He did more talking
than I, because that odd inhuman quality of the voice in some way distressed
me, and I couldn't take my eyes off his hands with their yellow fuzz, nor the
spectacled, eyes and the fine yellow hair. It appeared that he had bought a
farm over in New Jersey. Not so much for farming as for a place for his
apiary. He had gone in for bee keeping. He said: 'I've tried all sorts of
animals. In fact I've tried more than animals. You see Mac—there's
nothing in being human. Nothing but sorrow. And the animals aren't so happy.
So I'm concentrating on the bee. A drone, Mac. A short life but an
exceedingly merry one.'"
"I said: 'What in the hell are you talking about?'"
"He laughed, a buzzing, droning laugh. 'You know damned well. You were
always interested in my little excursions, Mac. Intelligently interested. I
never told you a hundredth of the truth about them. But come and see next
Wednesday and maybe your curiosity will be satisfied. I think you'll find it
"Well, there was a bit more talk and he went out. He'd given me minute
directions how to get to his place. As he walked to the door I had the
utterly incredulous idea that around him was a droning and humming like an
enormous bagpipe, muted."
"My curiosity, or something deeper, was tremendously aroused. That
Wednesday I drove to his place. A lovely spot—all flowers and blossom-
trees. There were a couple of hundred skips of bees set out in a broad
orchard. Ferguson met me. He looked fuzzier and yellower than before. Also,
the drone and hum of his voice seemed stronger. He took me into his house. It
was an odd enough place. All one high room, and what windows there were had
been shuttered—all except one. There was a dim golden-white light
suffusing it. Nor was its door the ordinary door. It was low and broad. All
at once it came to me that it was like the inside of a hive. The unshuttered
window looks out upon the hives. It was screened."
"He brought me food and drink—honey and honeymead, cakes sweet with
honey, and fruit. He said: 'I do not eat meat.'"
"He began to talk. About the life of the bee. Of the utter happiness of
the drone, darting through the sun, sipping at what flowers it would, fed by
its sisters, drinking of the honey cups in the hive... free and careless and
its nights and days only a smooth clicking of rapturous seconds..."
"'What if they do kill you at the end?' he said. 'You have lived—
every fraction of a second of time. And then the rapture of the nuptial
flight. Drone upon drone winging through the air on the track of the virgin!
Life pouring stronger and stronger into you with each stroke of the wing! And
at last... the flaming ecstasy... the flaming ecstasy of the fiery inner core
of life... cheating death. True, death strikes when you are at the tip of the
flame... but he strikes too late. You die—but what of that? You have
cheated death. You do not know it is death that strikes. You die in the heart
of the ecstasy... '"
"He stopped. From outside came a faint sustained roaring that steadily
grew stronger. The beating of thousands upon thousands of bee wings... the
roaring of hundreds of thousands of tiny planes..."
"Ferguson leaped to the window."
"'The swarms! The swarms!' he cried. A tremor shook him, another and
another—more and more rapidly... became a rhythm pulsing faster and
faster. His arms, outstretched, quivered... began to beat up and down, ever
more rapidly until they were like the blur of the hummingbird's wings... like
the blur of a bee's wings. His voice came to me... buzzing, humming... And
tomorrow the virgins fly... the nuptial flight... I must be there... must...
mzzz... mzzz... bzzz... bzzzzzzz... zzzzmmmm... '"
"For an instant there was no man there at the window. No. There was only a
great drone buzzing and humming... striving to break through the screen... go
"And then Ferguson toppled backward. Fell. The thick glasses were torn
away by his fall. Two immense black eyes, not human eyes but the multiple
eyes of the bee stared up at me.
"I bent down closer, closer, I listened for his heart beat. There was
none. He was dead."
"Then slowly, slowly the dead mouth opened."
Through the lips came the questing head of a drone... antennae wavering...
eyes regarding me. It crawled out from between the lips. A handsome drone...
a strong drone. It rested for a breath on the lips, then its wings began to
vibrate... faster, faster...
"It flew from the lips of Ferguson and circled my head once and twice and
thrice. It flashed to the window and clung to the screen, buzzing, crawling,
beating its wings against it..."
"There was a knife on the table. I took it and ripped the screen. The
drone darted out—and was gone—"
"I turned and looked down at Ferguson. His eyes stared up at me. Dead
eyes. But no longer black... blue as I had known them of old. And human. His
hair was no longer the fine golden fuzz of the bee—it was black as it
had been when I had first known him. And his hands were white and sinewy and