Like every farmer on every planet, Duncan had to hunt down anything that damaged his crops—even though he was aware this was—
The tracks went up one row and down another, and in those rows the vua plants had been sheared off an inch or two above the ground. The raider had been methodical; it had not wandered about haphazardly, but had done an efficient job of harvesting the first ten rows on the west side of the field. Then, having eaten its fill, it had angled off into the bush—and that had not been long ago, for the soil still trickled down into the great pug marks, sunk deep into the finely cultivated loam.
Somewhere a sawmill bird was whirring through a log, and down in one of the thorn-choked ravines, a choir of chatterers was clicking through a ghastly morning song. It was going to be a scorcher of a day. Already the smell of desiccated dust was rising from the ground and the glare of the newly risen sun was dancing off the bright leaves of the hula-trees, making it appear as if the bush were filled with a million flashing mirrors.
Gavin Duncan hauled a red bandanna from his pocket and mopped his face.
"No, mister," pleaded Zikkara, the native foreman of the farm. "You cannot do it, mister. You do not hunt a Cytha."
"The hell I don't," said Duncan, but he spoke in English and not the native tongue.
He stared out across the bush, a flat expanse of sun-cured grass interspersed with thickets of hula-scrub and thorn and occasional groves of trees, criss-crossed by treacherous ravines and spotted with infrequent waterholes.
It would be murderous out there, he told himself, but it shouldn't take too long. The beast probably would lay up shortly after its pre-dawn feeding and he'd overhaul it in an hour or two. But if he failed to overhaul it, then he must keep on.
"Dangerous," Zikkara pointed out. "No one hunts the Cytha."
"I do," Duncan said, speaking now in the native language. "I hunt anything that damages my crop. A few nights more of this and there would be nothing left."
Jamming the bandanna back into his pocket, he tilted his hat lower across his eyes against the sun.
"It might be a long chase, mister. It is the skun season now. If you were caught out there...."
"Now listen," Duncan told it sharply. "Before I came, you'd feast one day, then starve for days on end; but now you eat each day. And you like the doctoring. Before, when you got sick, you died. Now you get sick, I doctor you, and you live. You like staying in one place, instead of wandering all around."
"Mister, we like all this," said Zikkara, "but we do not hunt the Cytha."
"If we do not hunt the Cytha, we lose all this," Duncan pointed out. "If I don't make a crop, I'm licked. I'll have to go away. Then what happens to you?"
"We will grow the corn ourselves."
"That's a laugh," said Duncan, "and you know it is. If I didn't kick your backsides all day long, you wouldn't do a lick of work. If I leave, you go back to the bush. Now let's go and get that Cytha."
"But it is such a little one, mister! It is such a young one! It is scarcely worth the trouble. It would be a shame to kill it."
Probably just slightly smaller than a horse, thought Duncan, watching the native closely.
It's scared, he told himself. It's scared dry and spitless.
"Besides, it must have been most hungry. Surely, mister, even a Cytha has the right to eat."
"Not from my crop," said Duncan savagely. "You know why we grow the vua, don't you? You know it is great medicine. The berries that it grows cures those who are sick inside their heads. My people need that medicine—need it very badly. And what is more, out there—" he swept his arm toward the sky—"out there they pay very much for it."
"I tell you this," said Duncan gently, "you either dig me up a bush-runner to do the tracking for me or you can all get out, the kit and caboodle of you. I can get other tribes to work the farm."
"No, mister!" Zikkara screamed in desperation.
"You have your choice," Duncan told it coldly.
He plodded back across the field toward the house. Not much of a house as yet. Not a great deal better than a native shack. But someday it would be, he told himself. Let him sell a crop or two and he'd build a house that would really be a house. It would have a bar and swimming pool and a garden filled with flowers, and at last, after years of wandering, he'd have a home and broad acres and everyone, not just one lousy tribe, would call him mister.
Gavin Duncan, planter, he said to himself, and liked the sound of it. Planter on the planet Layard. But not if the Cytha came back night after night and ate the vua plants.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Zikkara was racing for the native village.
Called their bluff, Duncan informed himself with satisfaction.
He came out of the field and walked across the yard, heading for the house. One of Shotwell's shirts was hanging on the clothes-line, limp in the breathless morning.
Damn the man, thought Duncan. Out here mucking around with those stupid natives, always asking questions, always under foot. Although, to be fair about it, that was Shotwell's job. That was what the Sociology people had sent him out to do.
Duncan came up to the shack, pushed the door open and entered. Shotwell, stripped to the waist, was at the wash bench.
Breakfast was cooking on the stove, with an elderly native acting as cook.
Duncan strode across the room and took down the heavy rifle from its peg. He slapped the action open, slapped it shut again.
Shotwell reached for a towel.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Cytha got into the field."
"A kind of animal," said Duncan. "It ate ten rows of vua."
"Big? Little? What are its characteristics?"
The native began putting breakfast on the table. Duncan walked to the table, laid the rifle across one corner of it and sat down. He poured a brackish liquid out of a big stew pan into their cups.
God, he thought, what I would give for a cup of coffee.
Shotwell pulled up his chair. "You didn't answer me. What is a Cytha like?"
"I wouldn't know," said Duncan.
"Don't know? But you're going after it, looks like, and how can you hunt it if you don't know—"
"Track it. The thing tied to the other end of the trail is sure to be the Cytha. Well find out what it's like once we catch up to it."
"The natives will send up someone to do the tracking for me. Some of them are better than a dog."
"Look, Gavin. I've put you to a lot of trouble and you've been decent with me. If I can be any help, I would like to go."
"Two make better time than three. And we have to catch this Cytha fast or it might settle down to an endurance contest."
"All right, then. Tell me about the Cytha."
Duncan poured porridge gruel into his bowl, handed the pan to Shotwell. "It's a sort of special thing. The natives are scared to death of it. You hear a lot of stories about it. Said to be unkillable. It's always capitalized, always a proper noun. It has been reported at different times from widely scattered places."
"No one's ever bagged one?"
"Not that I ever heard of." Duncan patted the rifle. "Let me get a bead on it."
He started eating, spooning the porridge into his mouth, munching on the stale corn bread left from the night before. He drank some of the brackish beverage and shuddered.
"Some day," he said, "I'm going to scrape together enough money to buy a pound of coffee. You'd think—"
"It's the freight rates," Shotwell said. "I'll send you a pound when I go back."
"Not at the price they'd charge to ship it out," said Duncan. "I wouldn't hear of it."
They ate in silence for a time. Finally Shotwell said: "I'm getting nowhere, Gavin. The natives are willing to talk, but it all adds up to nothing."
"I tried to tell you that. You could have saved your time."
Shotwell shook his head stubbornly. "There's an answer, a logical explanation. It's easy enough to say you cannot rule out the sexual factor, but that's exactly what has happened here on Layard. It's easy to exclaim that a sexless animal, a sexless race, a sexless planet is impossible, but that is what we have. Somewhere there is an answer and I have to find it."
Now hold up a minute," Duncan protested. "There's no use blowing a gasket. I haven't got the time this morning to listen to your lecture."
"But it's not the lack of sex that worries me entirely," Shotwell said, "although it's the central factor. There are subsidiary situations deriving from that central fact which are most intriguing."
"I have no doubt of it," said Duncan, "but if you please—"
"Without sex, there is no basis for the family, and without the family there is no basis for a tribe, and yet the natives have an elaborate tribal setup, with taboos by way of regulation. Somewhere there must exist some underlying, basic unifying factor, some common loyalty, some strange relationship which spells out to brotherhood."
"Not brotherhood," said Duncan, chuckling. "Not even sisterhood. You must watch your terminology. The word you want is ithood."
The door pushed open and a native walked in timidly.
"Zikkara said that mister want me," the native told them. "I am Sipar. I can track anything but screamers, stilt-birds, longhorns and donovans. Those are my taboos."
"I am glad to hear that," Duncan replied. "You have no Cytha taboo, then."
"Cytha!" yipped the native. "Zikkara did not tell me Cytha!"
Duncan paid no attention. He got up from the table and went to the heavy chest that stood against one wall. He rummaged in it and came out with a pair of binoculars, a hunting knife and an extra drum of ammunition. At the kitchen cupboard, he rummaged once again, filling a small leather sack with a gritty powder from a can he found.
"Rockahominy," he explained to Shotwell. "Emergency rations thought up by the primitive North American Indians. Parched corn, ground fine. It's no feast exactly, but it keeps a man going."
"You figure you'll be gone that long?"
"Maybe overnight. I don't know. Won't stop until I get it. Can't afford to. It could wipe me out in a few days."
"Good hunting," Shotwell said. "I'll hold the fort."
Duncan said to Sipar: "Quit sniveling and come on."
He picked up the rifle, settled it in the crook of his arm. He kicked open the door and strode out.
Sipar followed meekly.
Duncan got his first shot late in the afternoon of that first day.
In the middle of the morning, two hours after they had left the farm, they had flushed the Cytha out of its bed in a thick ravine. But there had been no chance for a shot. Duncan saw no more than a huge black blur fade into the bush.
Through the bake-oven afternoon, they had followed its trail, Sipar tracking and Duncan bringing up the rear, scanning every piece of cover, with the sun-hot rifle always held at ready.
Once they had been held up for fifteen minutes while a massive donovan tramped back and forth, screaming, trying to work up its courage for attack. But after a quarter hour of showing off, it decided to behave itself and went off at a shuffling gallop.
Duncan watched it go with a lot of thankfulness. It could soak up a lot of lead, and for all its awkwardness, it was handy with its feet once it set itself in motion. Donovans had killed a lot of men in the twenty years since Earthmen had come to Layard.
With the beast gone, Duncan looked around for Sipar. He found it fast asleep beneath a hula-shrub. He kicked the native awake with something less than gentleness and they went on again.
The bush swarmed with other animals, but they had no trouble with them.
Sipar, despite its initial reluctance, had worked well at the trailing. A misplaced bunch of grass, a twig bent to one side, a displaced stone, the faintest pug mark were Sipar's stock in trade. It worked like a lithe, well-trained hound. This bush country was its special province; here it was at home.
With the sun dropping toward the west, they had climbed a long, steep hill and as they neared the top of it, Duncan hissed at Sipar. The native looked back over its shoulder in surprise. Duncan made motions for it to stop tracking.
The native crouched and as Duncan went past it, he saw that a look of agony was twisting its face. And in the look of agony he thought he saw as well a touch of pleading and a trace of hatred. It's scared, just like the rest of them, Duncan told himself. But what the native thought or felt had no significance; what counted was the beast ahead.
Duncan went the last few yards on his belly, pushing the gun ahead of him, the binoculars bumping on his back. Swift, vicious insects ran out of the grass and swarmed across his hands and arms and one got on his face and bit him.
He made it to the hilltop and lay there, looking at the sweep of land beyond. It was more of the same, more of the blistering, dusty slogging, more of thorn and tangled ravine and awful emptiness.
He lay motionless, watching for a hint of motion, for the fitful shadow, for any wrongness in the terrain that might be the Cytha.
But there was nothing. The land lay quiet under the declining sun. Far on the horizon, a herd of some sort of animals was grazing, but there was nothing else.
Then he saw the motion, just a flicker, on the knoll ahead—about halfway up.
He laid the rifle carefully on the ground and hitched the binoculars around. He raised them to his eyes and moved them slowly back and forth. The animal was there where he had seen the motion.
It was resting, looking back along the way that it had come, watching for the first sign of its trailers. Duncan tried to make out the size and shape, but it blended with the grass and the dun soil and he could not be sure exactly what it looked like.
He let the glasses down and now that he had located it, he could distinguish its outline with the naked eye.
His hand reached out and slid the rifle to him. He fitted it to his shoulder and wriggled his body for closer contact with the ground. The cross-hairs centered on the faint outline on the knoll and then the beast stood up.
It was not as large as he had thought it might be—perhaps a little larger than Earth lion-size, but it certainly was no lion. It was a square-set thing and black and inclined to lumpiness and it had an awkward look about it, but there were strength and ferociousness as well.
Duncan tilted the muzzle of the rifle so that the cross-hairs centered on the massive neck. He drew in a breath and held it and began the trigger squeeze.
The rifle bucked hard against his shoulder and the report hammered in his head and the beast went down. It did not lurch or fall; it simply melted down and disappeared, hidden in the grass.
"Dead center," Duncan assured himself.
He worked the mechanism and the spent cartridge case flew out. The feeding mechanism snicked and the fresh shell clicked as it slid into the breech.
He lay for a moment, watching. And on the knoll where the thing had fallen, the grass was twitching as if the wind were blowing, only there was no wind. But despite the twitching of the grass, there was no sign of the Cytha. It did not struggle up again. It stayed where it had fallen.
Duncan got to his feet, dug out the bandanna and mopped at his face. He heard the soft thud of the step behind him and turned his head. It was the tracker.
"It's all right, Sipar," he said. "You can quit worrying. I got it. We can go home now."
It had been a long, hard chase, longer than he had thought it might be. But it had been successful and that was the thing that counted. For the moment, the vua crop was safe.
He tucked the bandanna back into his pocket, went down the slope and started up the knoll. He reached the place where the Cytha had fallen. There were three small gouts of torn, mangled fur and flesh lying on the ground and there was nothing else.
He spun around and jerked his rifle up. Every nerve was screamingly alert. He swung his head, searching for the slightest movement, for some shape or color that was not the shape or color of the bush or grass or ground. But there was nothing. The heat droned in the hush of afternoon. There was not a breath of moving air. But there was danger—a saw-toothed sense of danger close behind his neck.
"Sipar!" he called in a tense whisper, "Watch out!"
The native stood motionless, unheeding, its eyeballs rolling up until there was only white, while the muscles stood out along its throat like straining ropes of steel.
Duncan slowly swiveled, rifle held almost at arm's length, elbows crooked a little, ready to bring the weapon into play in a fraction of a second.
Nothing stirred. There was no more than emptiness—the emptiness of sun and molten sky, of grass and scraggy bush, of a brown-and-yellow land stretching into foreverness.
Step by step, Duncan covered the hillside and finally came back to the place where the native squatted on its heels and moaned, rocking back and forth, arms locked tightly across its chest, as if it tried to cradle itself in a sort of illusory comfort.
The Earthman walked to the place where the Cytha had fallen and picked up, one by one, the bits of bleeding flesh. They had been mangled by his bullet. They were limp and had no shape. And it was queer, he thought. In all his years of hunting, over many planets, he had never known a bullet to rip out hunks of flesh.
He dropped the bloody pieces back into the grass and wiped his hand upon his thighs. He got up a little stiffly.
He'd found no trail of blood leading through the grass, and surely an animal with a hole of that size would leave a trail.
And as he stood there upon the hillside, with the bloody fingerprints still wet and glistening upon the fabric of his trousers, he felt the first cold touch of fear, as if the fingertips of fear might momentarily, almost casually, have trailed across his heart.
He turned around and walked back to the native, reached down and shook it.
"Snap out of it," he ordered.
He expected pleading, cowering, terror, but there was none.
Sipar got swiftly to its feet and stood looking at him and there was, he thought, an odd glitter in its eyes.
"Get going," Duncan said. "We still have a little time. Start circling and pick up the trail. I will cover you."
He glanced at the sun. An hour and a half still left—maybe as much as two. There might still be time to get this buttoned up before the fall of night.
A half mile beyond the knoll, Sipar picked up the trail again and they went ahead, but now they traveled more cautiously, for any bush, any rock, any clump of grass might conceal the wounded beast.
Duncan found himself on edge and cursed himself savagely for it. He'd been in tight spots before. This was nothing new to him. There was no reason to get himself tensed up. It was a deadly business, sure, but he had faced others calmly and walked away from them. It was those frontier tales he'd heard about the Cytha—the kind of superstitious chatter that one always heard on the edge of unknown land.
He gripped the rifle tighter and went on.
No animal, he told himself, was unkillable.
Half an hour before sunset, he called a halt when they reached a brackish waterhole. The light soon would be getting bad for shooting. In the morning, they'd take up the trail again, and by that time the Cytha would be at an even greater disadvantage. It would be stiff and slow and weak. It might be even dead.
Duncan gathered wood and built a fire in the lee of a thorn-bush thicket. Sipar waded out with the canteens and thrust them at arm's length beneath the surface to fill them. The water still was warm and evil-tasting, but it was fairly free of scum and a thirsty man could drink it.
The sun went down and darkness fell quickly. They dragged more wood out of the thicket and piled it carefully close at hand.
Duncan reached into his pocket and brought out the little bag of rockahominy.
"Here," he said to Sipar. "Supper."
The native held one hand cupped and Duncan poured a little mound into its palm.
"Thank you, mister," Sipar said. "Food-giver."
"Huh?" asked Duncan, then caught what the native meant. "Dive into it," he said, almost kindly. "It isn't much, but it gives you strength. We'll need strength tomorrow."
Food-giver, eh? Trying to butter him up, perhaps. In a little while, Sipar would start whining for him to knock off the hunt and head back for the farm.
Although, come to think of it, he really was the food-giver to this bunch of sexless wonders. Corn, thank God, grew well on the red and stubborn soil of Layard—good old corn from North America. Fed to hogs, made into corn-pone for breakfast back on Earth, and here, on Layard, the staple food crop for a gang of shiftless varmints who still regarded, with some good solid skepticism and round-eyed wonder, this unorthodox idea that one should take the trouble to grow plants to eat rather than go out and scrounge for them.
Corn from North America, he thought, growing side by side with the vua of Layard. And that was the way it went. Something from one planet and something from another and still something further from a third and so was built up through the wide social confederacy of space a truly cosmic culture which in the end, in another ten thousand years or so, might spell out some way of life with more sanity and understanding than was evident today.
He poured a mound of rockahominy into his own hand and put the bag back into his pocket.
"You were not scared today when the donovan threatened to attack us."
"No, mister. The donovan would not hurt me."
"I see. You said the donovan was taboo to you. Could it be that you, likewise, are taboo to the donovan?"
"Yes, mister. The donovan and I grew up together."
"Oh, so that's it," said Duncan.
He put a pinch of the parched and powdered corn into his mouth and took a sip of brackish water. He chewed reflectively on the resultant mash.
He might go ahead, he knew, and ask why and how and where Sipar and the donovan had grown up together, but there was no point to it. This was exactly the kind of tangle that Shotwell was forever getting into.
Half the time, he told himself, I'm convinced the little stinkers are doing no more than pulling our legs.
What a fantastic bunch of jerks! Not men, not women, just things. And while there were never babies, there were children, although never less than eight or nine years old. And if there were no babies, where did the eight-and nine-year-olds come from?
I suppose," he said, "that these other things that are your taboos, the stilt-birds and the screamers and the like, also grew up with you."
"That is right, mister."
"Some playground that must have been," said Duncan.
He went on chewing, staring out into the darkness beyond the ring of firelight.
"There's something in the thorn bush, mister."
"I didn't hear a thing."
"Little pattering. Something is running there."
Duncan listened closely. What Sipar said was true. A lot of little things were running in the thicket.
"More than likely mice," he said.
He finished his rockahominy and took an extra swig of water, gagging on it slightly.
"Get your rest," he told Sipar. "I'll wake you later so I can catch a wink or two."
"Mister," Sipar said, "I will stay with you to the end."
"Well," said Duncan, somewhat startled, "that is decent of you."
"I will stay to the death," Sipar promised earnestly.
"Don't strain yourself," said Duncan.
He picked up the rifle and walked down to the waterhole.
The night was quiet and the land continued to have that empty feeling. Empty except for the fire and the waterhole and the little micelike animals running in the thicket.
And Sipar—Sipar lying by the fire, curled up and sound asleep already. Naked, with not a weapon to its hand—just the naked animal, the basic humanoid, and yet with underlying purpose that at times was baffling. Scared and shivering this morning at mere mention of the Cytha, yet never faltering on the trail; in pure funk back there on the knoll where they had lost the Cytha, but now ready to go on to the death.
Duncan went back to the fire and prodded Sipar with his toe. The native came straight up out of sleep.
"Whose death?" asked Duncan. "Whose death were you talking of?"
"Why, ours, of course," said Sipar, and went back to sleep.
Duncan did not see the arrow coming. He heard the swishing whistle and felt the wind of it on the right side of his throat and then it thunked into a tree behind him.
He leaped aside and dived for the cover of a tumbled mound of boulders and almost instinctively his thumb pushed the fire control of the rifle up to automatic.
He crouched behind the jumbled rocks and peered ahead. There was not a thing to see. The hula-trees shimmered in the blaze of sun and the thorn-bush was gray and lifeless and the only things astir were three stilt-birds walking gravely a quarter of a mile away.
"Sipar!" he whispered.
"Keep low. It's still out there."
Whatever it might be. Still out there and waiting for another shot. Duncan shivered, remembering the feel of the arrow flying past his throat. A hell of a way for a man to die—out at the tail-end of nowhere with an arrow in his throat and a scared-stiff native heading back for home as fast as it could go.
He flicked the control on the rifle back to single fire, crawled around the rock pile and sprinted for a grove of trees that stood on higher ground. He reached them and there he flanked the spot from which the arrow must have come.
He unlimbered the binoculars and glassed the area. He still saw no sign. Whatever had taken the pot shot at them had made its getaway.
He walked back to the tree where the arrow still stood out, its point driven deep into the bark. He grasped the shaft and wrenched the arrow free.
"You can come out now," he called to Sipar. "There's no one around."
The arrow was unbelievably crude. The unfeathered shaft looked as if it had been battered off to the proper length with a jagged stone. The arrowhead was unflaked flint picked up from some outcropping or dry creek bed, and it was awkwardly bound to the shaft with the tough but pliant inner bark of the hula-tree.
"You recognize this?" he asked Sipar.
The native took the arrow and examined it. "Not my tribe."
"Of course not your tribe. Yours wouldn't take a shot at us. Some other tribe, perhaps?"
"Very poor arrow."
"I know that. But it could kill you just as dead as if it were a good one. Do you recognize it?"
"No tribe made this arrow," Sipar declared.
"What would child do way out here?"
"That's what I thought, too," said Duncan.
He took the arrow back, held it between his thumbs and forefingers and twirled it slowly, with a terrifying thought nibbling at his brain. It couldn't be. It was too fantastic. He wondered if the sun was finally getting him that he had thought of it at all.
He squatted down and dug at the ground with the makeshift arrow point. "Sipar, what do you actually know about the Cytha?"
"Nothing, mister. Scared of it is all."
"We aren't turning back. If there's something that you know—something that would help us...."
It was as close as he could come to begging aid. It was further than he had meant to go. He should not have asked at all, he thought angrily.
"I do not know," the native said.
Duncan cast the arrow to one side and rose to his feet. He cradled the rifle in his arm. "Let's go."
He watched Sipar trot ahead. Crafty little stinker, he told himself. It knows more than it's telling.
They toiled into the afternoon. It was, if possible, hotter and drier than the day before. There was a sense of tension in the air—no, that was rot. And even if there were, a man must act as if it were not there. If he let himself fall prey to every mood out in this empty land, he only had himself to blame for whatever happened to him.
The tracking was harder now. The day before, the Cytha had only run away, straight-line fleeing to keep ahead of them, to stay out of their reach. Now it was becoming tricky. It backtracked often in an attempt to throw them off. Twice in the afternoon, the trail blanked out entirely and it was only after long searching that Sipar picked it up again—in one instance, a mile away from where it had vanished in thin air.
That vanishing bothered Duncan more than he would admit. Trails do not disappear entirely, not when the terrain remains the same, not when the weather is unchanged. Something was going on, something, perhaps, that Sipar knew far more about than it was willing to divulge.
He watched the native closely and there seemed nothing suspicious. It continued at its work. It was, for all to see, the good and faithful hound.
Late in the afternoon, the plain on which they had been traveling suddenly dropped away. They stood poised on the brink of a great escarpment and looked far out to great tangled forests and a flowing river.
It was like suddenly coming into another and beautiful room that one had not expected.
This was new land, never seen before by any Earthman. For no one had ever mentioned that somewhere to the west a forest lay beyond the bush. Men coming in from space had seen it, probably, but only as a different color-marking on the planet. To them, it made no difference.
But to the men who lived on Layard, to the planter and the trader, the prospector and the hunter, it was important. And I, thought Duncan with a sense of triumph, am the man who found it.
"Out there. Skun!"
"Out there, mister. Across the river."
Duncan saw it then—a haze in the blueness of the rift—a puff of copper moving very fast, and as he watched, he heard the far-off keening of the storm, a shiver in the air rather than a sound.
He watched in fascination as it moved along the river and saw the boiling fury it made out of the forest. It struck and crossed the river, and the river for a moment seemed to stand on end, with a sheet of silvery water splashed toward the sky.
Then it was gone as quickly as it had happened, but there was a tumbled slash across the forest where the churning winds had traveled.
Back at the farm, Zikkara had warned him of the skun. This was the season for them, it had said, and a man caught in one wouldn't have a chance.
Duncan let his breath out slowly.
"Bad," said Sipar.
"Yes, very bad."
"Hit fast. No warning."
"What about the trail?" asked Duncan. "Did the Cytha—"
Sipar nodded downward.
"Can we make it before nightfall?"
"I think so," Sipar answered.
It was rougher than they had thought. Twice they went down blind trails that pinched off, with sheer rock faces opening out into drops of hundreds of feet, and were forced to climb again and find another way.
They reached the bottom of the escarpment as the brief twilight closed in and they hurried to gather firewood. There was no water, but a little was still left in their canteens and they made do with that.
After their scant meal of rockahominy, Sipar rolled himself into a ball and went to sleep immediately.
Duncan sat with his back against a boulder which one day, long ago, had fallen from the slope above them, but was now half buried in the soil that through the ages had kept sifting down.
Two days gone, he told himself.
Was there, after all, some truth in the whispered tales that made the rounds back at the settlements—that no one should waste his time in tracking down a Cytha, since a Cytha was unkillable?
Nonsense, he told himself. And yet the hunt had toughened, the trail become more difficult, the Cytha a much more cunning and elusive quarry. Where it had run from them the day before, now it fought to shake them off. And if it did that the second day, why had it not tried to throw them off the first? And what about the third day—tomorrow?
He shook his head. It seemed incredible that an animal would become more formidable as the hunt progressed. But that seemed to be exactly what had happened. More spooked, perhaps, more frightened—only the Cytha did not act like a frightened beast. It was acting like an animal that was gaining savvy and determination, and that was somehow frightening.
From far off to the west, toward the forest and the river, came the laughter and the howling of a pack of screamers. Duncan leaned his rifle against the boulder and got up to pile more wood on the fire. He stared out into the western darkness, listening to the racket. He made a wry face and pushed a hand absent-mindedly through his hair. He put out a silent hope that the screamers would decide to keep their distance. They were something a man could do without.
Behind him, a pebble came bumping down the slope. It thudded to a rest just short of the fire.
Duncan spun around. Foolish thing to do, he thought, to camp so near the slope. If something big should start to move, they'd be out of luck.
He stood and listened. The night was quiet. Even the screamers had shut up for the moment. Just one rolling rock and he had his hackles up. He'd have to get himself in hand.
He went back to the boulder, and as he stooped to pick up the rifle, he heard the faint beginning of a rumble. He straightened swiftly to face the scarp that blotted out the star-strewn sky—and the rumble grew!
In one leap, he was at Sipar's side. He reached down and grasped the native by an arm, jerked it erect, held it on its feet. Sipar's eyes snapped open, blinking in the firelight.
The rumble had grown to a roar and there were thumping noises, as of heavy boulders bouncing, and beneath the roar the silky, ominous rustle of sliding soil and rock.
Sipar jerked its arm free of Duncan's grip and plunged into the darkness. Duncan whirled and followed.
They ran, stumbling in the dark, and behind them the roar of the sliding, bouncing rock became a throaty roll of thunder that filled the night from brim to brim. As he ran, Duncan could feel, in dread anticipation, the gusty breath of hurtling debris blowing on his neck, the crushing impact of a boulder smashing into him, the engulfing flood of tumbling talus snatching at his legs.
A puff of billowing dust came out and caught them and they ran choking as well as stumbling. Off to the left of them, a mighty chunk of rock chugged along the ground in jerky, almost reluctant fashion.
Then the thunder stopped and all one could hear was the small slitherings of the lesser debris as it trickled down the slope.
Duncan stopped running and slowly turned around. The campfire was gone, buried, no doubt, beneath tons of overlay, and the stars had paled because of the great cloud of dust which still billowed up into the sky.
He heard Sipar moving near him and reached out a hand, searching for the tracker, not knowing exactly where it was. He found the native, grasped it by the shoulder and pulled it up beside him.
Sipar was shivering.
"It's all right," said Duncan.
And it was all right, he reassured himself. He still had the rifle. The extra drum of ammunition and the knife were on his belt, the bag of rockahominy in his pocket. The canteens were all they had lost—the canteens and the fire.
"We'll have to hole up somewhere for the night," Duncan said. "There are screamers on the loose."
He didn't like what he was thinking, nor the sharp edge of fear that was beginning to crowd in upon him. He tried to shrug it off, but it still stayed with him, just out of reach.
Sipar plucked at his elbow.
"Thorn thicket, mister. Over there. We could crawl inside. We would be safe from screamers."
It was torture, but they made it.
"Screamers and you are taboo," said Duncan, suddenly remembering. "How come you are afraid of them?"
"Afraid for you, mister, mostly. Afraid for myself just a little. Screamers could forget. They might not recognize me until too late. Safer here."
"I agree with you," said Duncan.
The screamers came and padded all about the thicket. The beasts sniffed and clawed at the thorns to reach them, but finally went away.
When morning came, Duncan and Sipar climbed the scarp, clambering over the boulders and the tons of soil and rock that covered their camping place. Following the gash cut by the slide, they clambered up the slope and finally reached the point of the slide's beginning.
There they found the depression in which the poised slab of rock had rested and where the supporting soil had been dug away so that it could be started, with a push, down the slope above the campfire.
And all about were the deeply sunken pug marks of the Cytha!
Now it was more than just a hunt. It was knife against the throat, kill or be killed. Now there was no stopping, when before there might have been. It was no longer sport and there was no mercy.
"And that's the way I like it," Duncan told himself.
He rubbed his hand along the rifle barrel and saw the metallic glints shine in the noonday sun. One more shot, he prayed. Just give me one more shot at it. This time there will be no slip-up. This time there will be more than three sodden hunks of flesh and fur lying in the grass to mock me.
He squinted his eyes against the heat shimmer rising from the river, watching Sipar hunkered beside the water's edge.
The native rose to its feet and trotted back to him.
"It crossed," said Sipar. "It walked out as far as it could go and it must have swum."
"Are you sure? It might have waded out to make us think it crossed, then doubled back again."
He stared at the purple-green of the trees across the river. Inside that forest, it would be hellish going.
"We can look," said Sipar.
"Good. You go downstream. I'll go up."
An hour later, they were back. They had found no tracks. There seemed little doubt the Cytha had really crossed the river.
They stood side by side, looking at the forest.
"Mister, we have come far. You are brave to hunt the Cytha. You have no fear of death."
"The fear of death," Duncan said, "is entirely infantile. And it's beside the point as well. I do not intend to die."
They waded out into the stream. The bottom shelved gradually and they had to swim no more than a hundred yards or so.
They reached the forest bank and threw themselves flat to rest.
Duncan looked back the way that they had come. To the east, the escarpment was a dark-blue smudge against the pale-blue burnished sky. And two days back of that lay the farm and the vua field, but they seemed much farther off than that. They were lost in time and distance; they belonged to another existence and another world.
All his life, it seemed to him, had faded and become inconsequential and forgotten, as if this moment in his life were the only one that counted; as if all the minutes and the hours, all the breaths and heartbeats, wake and sleep, had pointed toward this certain hour upon this certain stream, with the rifle molded to his hand and the cool, calculated bloodlust of a killer riding in his brain.
Sipar finally got up and began to range along the stream. Duncan sat up and watched.
Scared to death, he thought, and yet it stayed with me. At the campfire that first night, it had said it would stick to the death and apparently it had meant exactly what it said. It's hard, he thought, to figure out these jokers, hard to know what kind of mental operation, what seethings of emotion, what brand of ethics and what variety of belief and faith go to make them and their way of life.
It would have been so easy for Sipar to have missed the trail and swear it could not find it. Even from the start, it could have refused to go. Yet, fearing, it had gone. Reluctant, it had trailed. Without any need for faithfulness and loyalty, it had been loyal and faithful. But loyal to what, Duncan wondered, to him, the outlander and intruder? Loyal to itself? Or perhaps, although that seemed impossible, faithful to the Cytha?
What does Sipar think of me, he asked himself, and maybe more to the point, what do I think of Sipar? Is there a common meeting ground? Or are we, despite our humanoid forms, condemned forever to be alien and apart?
He held the rifle across his knees and stroked it, polishing it, petting it, making it even more closely a part of him, an instrument of his deadliness, an expression of his determination to track and kill the Cytha.
Just another chance, he begged. Just one second, or even less, to draw a steady bead. That is all I want, all I need, all I'll ask.
Then he could go back across the days that he had left behind him, back to the farm and field, back into that misty other life from which he had been so mysteriously divorced, but which in time undoubtedly would become real and meaningful again.
Sipar came back. "I found the trail."
Duncan heaved himself to his feet. "Good."
They left the river and plunged into the forest and there the heat closed in more mercilessly than ever—humid, stifling heat that felt like a soggy blanket wrapped tightly round the body.
The trail lay plain and clear. The Cytha now, it seemed, was intent upon piling up a lead without recourse to evasive tactics. Perhaps it had reasoned that its pursuers would lose some time at the river and it may have been trying to stretch out that margin even further. Perhaps it needed that extra time, he speculated, to set up the necessary machinery for another dirty trick.
Sipar stopped and waited for Duncan to catch up. "Your knife, mister?"
Duncan hesitated. "What for?"
"I have a thorn in my foot," the native said. "I have to get it out."
Duncan pulled the knife from his belt and tossed it. Sipar caught it deftly.
Looking straight at Duncan, with the flicker of a smile upon its lips, the native cut its throat.
He should go back, he knew. Without the tracker, he didn't have a chance. The odds were now with the Cytha—if, indeed, they had not been with it from the very start.
Unkillable? Unkillable because it grew in intelligence to meet emergencies? Unkillable because, pressed, it could fashion a bow and arrow, however crude? Unkillable because it had a sense of tactics, like rolling rocks at night upon its enemy? Unkillable because a native tracker would cheerfully kill itself to protect the Cytha?
A sort of crisis-beast, perhaps? One able to develop intelligence and abilities to meet each new situation and then lapsing back to the level of non-intelligent contentment? That, thought Duncan, would be a sensible way for anything to live. It would do away with the inconvenience and the irritability and the discontentment of intelligence when intelligence was unneeded. But the intelligence, and the abilities which went with it, would be there, safely tucked away where one could reach in and get them, like a necklace or a gun—something to be used or to be put away as the case might be.
Duncan hunched forward and with a stick of wood pushed the fire together. The flames blazed up anew and sent sparks flying up into the whispering darkness of the trees. The night had cooled off a little, but the humidity still hung on and a man felt uncomfortable—a little frightened, too.
Duncan lifted his head and stared up into the fire-flecked darkness. There were no stars because the heavy foliage shut them out. He missed the stars. He'd feel better if he could look up and see them.
When morning came, he should go back. He should quit this hunt which now had become impossible and even slightly foolish.
But he knew he wouldn't. Somewhere along the three-day trail, he had become committed to a purpose and a challenge, and he knew that when morning came, he would go on again. It was not hatred that drove him, nor vengeance, nor even the trophy-urge—the hunter-lust that prodded men to kill something strange or harder to kill or bigger than any man had ever killed before. It was something more than that, some weird entangling of the Cytha's meaning with his own.
He reached out and picked up the rifle and laid it in his lap. Its barrel gleamed dully in the flickering campfire light and he rubbed his hand along the stock as another man might stroke a woman's throat.
"Mister," said a voice.
It did not startle him, for the word was softly spoken and for a moment he had forgotten that Sipar was dead—dead with a half-smile fixed upon its face and with its throat laid wide open.
Sipar was dead and there was no one else—and yet someone had spoken to him, and there could be only one thing in all this wilderness that might speak to him.
"Yes," he said.
He did not move. He simply sat there, with the rifle in his lap.
"You know who I am?"
"I suppose you are the Cytha."
"You have done well," the Cytha said. "You've made a splendid hunt. There is no dishonor if you should decide to quit. Why don't you go back? I promise you no harm."
It was over there, somewhere in front of him, somewhere in the brush beyond the fire, almost straight across the fire from him, Duncan told himself. If he could keep it talking, perhaps even lure it out—
"Why should I?" he asked. "The hunt is never done until one gets the thing one is after."
"I can kill you," the Cytha told him. "But I do not want to kill. It hurts to kill."
"That's right," said Duncan. "You are most perceptive."
For he had it pegged now. He knew exactly where it was. He could afford a little mockery.
His thumb slid up the metal and nudged the fire control to automatic and he flexed his legs beneath him so that he could rise and fire in one single motion.
"Why did you hunt me?" the Cytha asked. "You are a stranger on my world and you had no right to hunt me. Not that I mind, of course. In fact, I found it stimulating. We must do it again. When I am ready to be hunted, I shall come and tell you and we can spend a day or two at it."
"Sure we can," said Duncan, rising. And as he rose into his crouch, he held the trigger down and the gun danced in insane fury, the muzzle flare a flicking tongue of hatred and the hail of death hissing spitefully in the underbrush.
"Anytime you want to," yelled Duncan gleefully, "I'll come and hunt you! You just say the word and I'll be on your tail. I might even kill you. How do you like it, chump!"
And he held the trigger tight and kept his crouch so the slugs would not fly high, but would cut their swath just above the ground, and he moved the muzzle back and forth a lot so that he covered extra ground to compensate for any miscalculations he might have made.
The magazine ran out and the gun clicked empty and the vicious chatter stopped. Powder smoke drifted softly in the campfire light and the smell of it was perfume in the nostrils and in the underbrush many little feet were running, as if a thousand frightened mice were scurrying from catastrophe.
Duncan unhooked the extra magazine from where it hung upon his belt and replaced the empty one. Then he snatched a burning length of wood from the fire and waved it frantically until it burst into a blaze and became a torch. Rifle grasped in one hand and the torch in the other, he plunged into the underbrush. Little chittering things fled to escape him.
He did not find the Cytha. He found chewed-up bushes and soil churned by flying metal, and he found five lumps of flesh and fur, and these he brought back to the fire.
Now the fear that had been stalking him, keeping just beyond his reach, walked out from the shadows and hunkered by the campfire with him.
He placed the rifle within easy reach and arranged the five bloody chunks on the ground close to the fire and he tried with trembling fingers to restore them to the shape they'd been before the bullets struck them. And that was a good one, he thought with grim irony, because they had no shape. They had been part of the Cytha and you killed a Cytha inch by inch, not with a single shot. You knocked a pound of meat off it the first time, and the next time you shot off another pound or two, and if you got enough shots at it, you finally carved it down to size and maybe you could kill it then, although he wasn't sure.
He was afraid. He admitted that he was and he squatted there and watched his fingers shake and he kept his jaws clamped tight to stop the chatter of his teeth.
The fear had been getting closer all the time; he knew it had moved in by a step or two when Sipar cut its throat, and why in the name of God had the damn fool done it? It made no sense at all. He had wondered about Sipar's loyalties, and the very loyalties that he had dismissed as a sheer impossibility had been the answer, after all. In the end, for some obscure reason—obscure to humans, that is—Sipar's loyalty had been to the Cytha.
But then what was the use of searching for any reason in it? Nothing that had happened made any sense. It made no sense that a beast one was pursuing should up and talk to one—although it did fit in with the theory of the crisis-beast he had fashioned in his mind.
Progressive adaptation, he told himself. Carry adaptation far enough and you'd reach communication. But might not the Cytha's power of adaptation be running down? Had the Cytha gone about as far as it could force itself to go? Maybe so, he thought. It might be worth a gamble. Sipar's suicide, for all its casualness, bore the overtones of last-notch desperation. And the Cytha's speaking to Duncan, its attempt to parley with him, contained a note of weakness.
The arrow had failed and the rockslide had failed and so had Sipar's death. What next would the Cytha try? Had it anything to try?
Tomorrow he'd find out. Tomorrow he'd go on. He couldn't turn back now.
He was too deeply involved. He'd always wonder, if he turned back now, whether another hour or two might not have seen the end of it. There were too many questions, too much mystery—there was now far more at stake than ten rows of vua.
Another day might make some sense of it, might banish the dread walker that trod upon his heels, might bring some peace of mind.
As it stood right at the moment, none of it made sense.
But even as he thought it, suddenly one of the bits of bloody flesh and mangled fur made sense.
Beneath the punching and prodding of his fingers, it had assumed a shape.
Breathlessly, Duncan bent above it, not believing, not even wanting to believe, hoping frantically that it should prove completely wrong.
But there was nothing wrong with it. The shape was there and could not be denied. It had somehow fitted back into its natural shape and it was a baby screamer—well, maybe not a baby, but at least a tiny screamer.
Duncan sat back on his heels and sweated. He wiped his bloody hands upon the ground. He wondered what other shapes he'd find if he put back into proper place the other hunks of limpness that lay beside the fire.
He tried and failed. They were too smashed and torn.
He picked them up and tossed them in the fire. He took up his rifle and walked around the fire, sat down with his back against a tree, cradling the gun across his knees.
Those little scurrying feet, he wondered—like the scampering of a thousand busy mice. He had heard them twice, that first night in the thicket by the waterhole and again tonight.
And what could the Cytha be? Certainly not the simple, uncomplicated, marauding animal he had thought to start with.
A hive-beast? A host animal? A thing masquerading in many different forms?
Shotwell, trained in such deductions, might make a fairly accurate guess, but Shotwell was not here. He was at the farm, fretting, more than likely, over Duncan's failure to return.
Finally the first light of morning began to filter through the forest and it was not the glaring, clean white light of the open plain and bush, but a softened, diluted, fuzzy green light to match the smothering vegetation.
The night noises died away and the noises of the day took up—the sawings of unseen insects, the screechings of hidden birds and something far away began to make a noise that sounded like an empty barrel falling slowly down a stairway.
What little coolness the night had brought dissipated swiftly and the heat clamped down, a breathless, relentless heat that quivered in the air.
Circling, Duncan picked up the Cytha trail not more than a hundred yards from camp.
The beast had been traveling fast. The pug marks were deeply sunk and widely spaced. Duncan followed as rapidly as he dared. It was a temptation to follow at a run, to match the Cytha's speed, for the trail was plain and fresh and it fairly beckoned.
And that was wrong, Duncan told himself. It was too fresh, too plain—almost as if the animal had gone to endless trouble so that the human could not miss the trail.
He stopped his trailing and crouched beside a tree and studied the tracks ahead. His hands were too tense upon the gun, his body keyed too high and fine. He forced himself to take slow, deep breaths. He had to calm himself. He had to loosen up.
He studied the tracks ahead—four bunched pug marks, then a long leap interval, then four more bunched tracks, and between the sets of marks the forest floor was innocent and smooth.
Too smooth, perhaps. Especially the third one from him. Too smooth and somehow artificial, as if someone had patted it with gentle hands to make it unsuspicious.
Duncan sucked his breath in slowly.
Or was his imagination playing tricks on him?
And if it were a trap, he would have fallen into it if he had kept on following as he had started out.
Now there was something else, a strange uneasiness, and he stirred uncomfortably, casting frantically for some clue to what it was.
He rose and stepped out from the tree, with the gun at ready. What a perfect place to set a trap, he thought. One would be looking at the pug marks, never at the space between them, for the space between would be neutral ground, safe to stride out upon.
Oh, clever Cytha, he said to himself. Oh, clever, clever Cytha!
And now he knew what the other trouble was—the great uneasiness. It was the sense of being watched.
Somewhere up ahead, the Cytha was crouched, watching and waiting—anxious or exultant, maybe even with laughter rumbling in its throat.
He walked slowly forward until he reached the third set of tracks and he saw that he had been right. The little area ahead was smoother than it should be.
"Cytha!" he called.
His voice was far louder than he had meant it to be and he stood astonished and a bit abashed.
Then he realized why it was so loud.
It was the only sound there was!
The forest suddenly had fallen silent. The insects and birds were quiet and the thing in the distance had quit falling down the stairs. Even the leaves were silent. There was no rustle in them and they hung limp upon their stems.
There was a feeling of doom and the green light had changed to a copper light and everything was still.
And the light was copper!
Duncan spun around in panic. There was no place for him to hide.
Before he could take another step, the skun came and the winds rushed out of nowhere. The air was clogged with flying leaves and debris. Trees snapped and popped and tumbled in the air.
The wind hurled Duncan to his knees, and as he fought to regain his feet, he remembered, in a blinding flash of total recall, how it had looked from atop the escarpment—the boiling fury of the winds and the mad swirling of the coppery mist and how the trees had whipped in whirlpool fashion.
He came half erect and stumbled, clawing at the ground in an attempt to get up again, while inside his brain an insistent, clicking voice cried out for him to run, and somewhere another voice said to lie flat upon the ground, to dig in as best he could.
Something struck him from behind and he went down, pinned flat, with his rifle wedged beneath him. He cracked his head upon the ground and the world whirled sickeningly and plastered his face with a handful of mud and tattered leaves.
He tried to crawl and couldn't, for something had grabbed him by the ankle and was hanging on.
With a frantic hand, he clawed the mess out of his eyes, spat it from his mouth.
Across the spinning ground, something black and angular tumbled rapidly. It was coming straight toward him and he saw it was the Cytha and that in another second it would be on top of him.
He threw up an arm across his face, with the elbow crooked, to take the impact of the wind-blown Cytha and to ward it off.
But it never reached him. Less than a yard away, the ground opened up to take the Cytha and it was no longer there.
Suddenly the wind cut off and the leaves once more hung motionless and the heat clamped down again and that was the end of it. The skun had come and struck and gone.
Minutes, Duncan wondered, or perhaps no more than seconds. But in those seconds, the forest had been flattened and the trees lay in shattered heaps.
He raised himself on an elbow and looked to see what was the matter with his foot and he saw that a fallen tree had trapped his foot beneath it.
He tugged a few times experimentally. It was no use. Two close-set limbs, branching almost at right angles from the hole, had been driven deep into the ground and his foot, he saw, had been caught at the ankle in the fork of the buried branches.
The foot didn't hurt—not yet. It didn't seem to be there at all. He tried wiggling his toes and felt none.
He wiped the sweat off his face with a shirt sleeve and fought to force down the panic that was rising in him. Getting panicky was the worst thing a man could do in a spot like this. The thing to do was to take stock of the situation, figure out the best approach, then go ahead and try it.
The tree looked heavy, but perhaps he could handle it if he had to, although there was the danger that if he shifted it, the bole might settle more solidly and crush his foot beneath it. At the moment, the two heavy branches, thrust into the ground on either side of his ankle, were holding most of the tree's weight off his foot.
The best thing to do, he decided, was to dig the ground away beneath his foot until he could pull it out.
He twisted around and started digging with the fingers of one hand. Beneath the thin covering of humus, he struck a solid surface and his fingers slid along it.
With mounting alarm, he explored the ground, scratching at the humus. There was nothing but rock—some long-buried boulder, the top of which lay just beneath the ground.
His foot was trapped beneath a heavy tree and a massive boulder, held securely in place by forked branches that had forced their splintering way down along the boulder's sides.
He lay back, propped on an elbow. It was evident that he could do nothing about the buried boulder. If he was going to do anything, his problem was the tree.
To move the tree, he would need a lever and he had a good, stout lever in his rifle. It would be a shame, he thought a little wryly, to use a gun for such a purpose, but he had no choice.
He worked for an hour and it was no good. Even with the rifle as a pry, he could not budge the tree.
He lay back, defeated, breathing hard, wringing wet with perspiration.
He grimaced at the sky.
All right, Cytha, he thought, you won out in the end. But it took a skun to do it. With all your tricks, you couldn't do the job until....
Then he remembered.
He sat up hurriedly.
"Cytha!" he called.
The Cytha had fallen into a hole that had opened in the ground. The hole was less than an arm's length away from him, with a little debris around its edges still trickling into it.
Duncan stretched out his body, lying flat upon the ground, and looked into the hole. There, at the bottom of it, was the Cytha.
It was the first time he'd gotten a good look at the Cytha and it was a crazily put-together thing. It seemed to have nothing functional about it and it looked more like a heap of something, just thrown on the ground, than it did an animal.
The hole, he saw, was more than an ordinary hole. It was a pit and very cleverly constructed. The mouth was about four feet in diameter and it widened to roughly twice that at the bottom. It was, in general, bottle-shaped, with an incurving shoulder at the top so that anything that fell in could not climb out. Anything falling into that pit was in to stay.
This, Duncan knew, was what had lain beneath that too-smooth interval between the two sets of Cytha tracks. The Cytha had worked all night to dig it, then had carried away the dirt dug out of the pit and had built a flimsy camouflage cover over it. Then it had gone back and made the trail that was so loud and clear, so easy to make out and follow. And having done all that, having labored hard and stealthily, the Cytha had settled down to watch, to make sure the following human had fallen in the pit.
Hi, pal," said Duncan. "How are you making out?"
The Cytha did not answer.
"Classy pit," said Duncan. "Do you always den up in luxury like this?"
But the Cytha didn't answer.
Something queer was happening to the Cytha. It was coming all apart.
Duncan watched with fascinated horror as the Cytha broke down into a thousand lumps of motion that scurried in the pit and tried to scramble up its sides, only to fall back in tiny showers of sand.
Amid the scurrying lumps, one thing remained intact, a fragile object that resembled nothing quite so much as the stripped skeleton of a Thanksgiving turkey. But it was a most extraordinary Thanksgiving skeleton, for it throbbed with pulsing life and glowed with a steady violet light.
Chitterings and squeakings came out of the pit and the soft patter of tiny running feet, and as Duncan's eyes became accustomed to the darkness of the pit, he began to make out the forms of some of the scurrying shapes. There were tiny screamers and some donovans and sawmill birds and a bevy of kill-devils and something else as well.
Duncan raised a hand and pressed it against his eyes, then took it quickly away. The little faces still were there, looking up as if beseeching him, with the white shine of their teeth and the white rolling of their eyes.
He felt horror wrenching at his stomach and the sour, bitter taste of revulsion welled into his throat, but he fought it down, harking back to that day at the farm before they had started on the hunt.
"I can track down anything but screamers, stilt-birds, longhorns and donovans," Sipar had told him solemnly. "These are my taboos."
And Sipar was also their taboo, for he had not feared the donovan. Sipar had been, however, somewhat fearful of the screamers in the dead of night because, the native had told him reasonably, screamers were forgetful.
Forgetful of what!
Forgetful of the Cytha-mother? Forgetful of the motley brood in which they had spent their childhood?
For that was the only answer to what was running in the pit and the whole, unsuspected answer to the enigma against which men like Shotwell had frustratedly banged their heads for years.
Strange, he told himself. All right, it might be strange, but if it worked, what difference did it make? So the planet's denizens were sexless because there was no need of sex—what was wrong with that? It might, in fact, Duncan admitted to himself, head off a lot of trouble. No family spats, no triangle trouble, no fighting over mates. While it might be unexciting, it did seem downright peaceful.
And since there was no sex, the Cytha species was the planetary mother—but more than just a mother. The Cytha, more than likely, was mother-father, incubator, nursery, teacher and perhaps many other things besides, all rolled into one.
In many ways, he thought, it might make a lot of sense. Here natural selection would be ruled out and ecology could be controlled in considerable degree and mutation might even be a matter of deliberate choice rather than random happenstance.
And it would make for a potential planetary unity such as no other world had ever known. Everything here was kin to everything else. Here was a planet where Man, or any other alien, must learn to tread most softly. For it was not inconceivable that, in a crisis or a clash of interests, one might find himself faced suddenly with a unified and cooperating planet, with every form of life making common cause against the interloper.
The little scurrying things had given up; they'd gone back to their places, clustered around the pulsing violet of the Thanksgiving skeleton, each one fitting into place until the Cytha had taken shape again. As if, Duncan told himself, blood and nerve and muscle had come back from a brief vacation to form the beast anew.
"Mister," asked the Cytha, "what do we do now?"
"You should know," Duncan told it. "You were the one who dug the pit."
"I split myself," the Cytha said. "A part of me dug the pit and the other part that stayed on the surface got me out when the job was done."
"Convenient," grunted Duncan.
And it was convenient. That was what had happened to the Cytha when he had shot at it—it had split into all its component parts and had got away. And that night beside the waterhole, it had spied on him, again in the form of all its separate parts, from the safety of the thicket.
"You are caught and so am I," the Cytha said. "Both of us will die here. It seems a fitting end to our association. Do you not agree with me?"
"I'll get you out," said Duncan wearily. "I have no quarrel with children."
He dragged the rifle toward him and unhooked the sling from the stock. Carefully he lowered the gun by the sling, still attached to the barrel, down into the pit.
The Cytha reared up and grasped it with its forepaws.
"Easy now," Duncan cautioned. "You're heavy. I don't know if I can hold you."
But he needn't have worried. The little ones were detaching themselves and scrambling up the rifle and the sling. They reached his extended arms and ran up them with scrabbling claws. Little sneering screamers and the comic stilt-birds and the mouse-size kill-devils that snarled at him as they climbed. And the little grinning natives—not babies, scarcely children, but small editions of full-grown humanoids. And the weird donovans scampering happily.
They came climbing up his arms and across his shoulders and milled about on the ground beside him, waiting for the others.
And finally the Cytha, not skinned down to the bare bones of its Thanksgiving-turkey-size, but far smaller than it had been, climbed awkwardly up the rifle and the sling to safety.
Duncan hauled the rifle up and twisted himself into a sitting position.
The Cytha, he saw, was reassembling.
He watched in fascination as the restless miniatures of the planet's life swarmed and seethed like a hive of bees, each one clicking into place to form the entire beast.
And now the Cytha was complete. Yet small—still small—no more than lion-size.
"But it is such a little one," Zikkara had argued with him that morning at the farm. "It is such a young one."
Just a young brood, no more than suckling infants—if suckling was the word, or even some kind of wild approximation. And through the months and years, the Cytha would grow, with the growing of its diverse children, until it became a monstrous thing.
It stood there looking at Duncan and the tree.
"Now," said Duncan, "if you'll push on the tree, I think that between the two of us—"
"It is too bad," the Cytha said, and wheeled itself about.
He watched it go loping off.
"Hey!" he yelled.
But it didn't stop.
He grabbed up the rifle and had it halfway to his shoulder before he remembered how absolutely futile it was to shoot at the Cytha.
He let the rifle down.
"The dirty, ungrateful, double-crossing—"
He stopped himself. There was no profit in rage. When you were in a jam, you did the best you could. You figured out the problem and you picked the course that seemed best and you didn't panic at the odds.
He laid the rifle in his lap and started to hook up the sling and it was not till then that he saw the barrel was packed with sand and dirt.
He sat numbly for a moment, thinking back to how close he had been to firing at the Cytha, and if that barrel was packed hard enough or deep enough, he might have had an exploding weapon in his hands.
He had used the rifle as a crowbar, which was no way to use a gun. That was one way, he told himself, that was guaranteed to ruin it.
Duncan hunted around and found a twig and dug at the clogged muzzle, but the dirt was jammed too firmly in it and he made little progress.
He dropped the twig and was hunting for another stronger one when he caught the motion in a nearby clump of brush.
He watched closely for a moment and there was nothing, so he resumed the hunt for a stronger twig. He found one and started poking at the muzzle and there was another flash of motion.
He twisted around. Not more than twenty feet away, a screamer sat easily on its haunches. Its tongue was lolling out and it had what looked like a grin upon its face.
And there was another, just at the edge of the clump of brush where he had caught the motion first.
There were others as well, he knew. He could hear them sliding through the tangle of fallen trees, could sense the soft padding of their feet.
The executioners, he thought.
The Cytha certainly had not wasted any time.
He raised the rifle and rapped the barrel smartly on the fallen tree, trying to dislodge the obstruction in the bore. But it didn't budge; the barrel still was packed with sand.
But no matter—he'd have to fire anyhow and take whatever chance there was.
He shoved the control to automatic, and tilted up the muzzle.
There were six of them now, sitting in a ragged row, grinning at him, not in any hurry. They were sure of him and there was no hurry. He'd still be there when they decided to move in.
And there were others—on all sides of him.
Once it started, he wouldn't have a chance.
"It'll be expensive, gents," he told them.
And he was astonished at how calm, how coldly objective he could be, now that the chips were down. But that was the way it was, he realized.
He'd thought, a while ago, how a man might suddenly find himself face to face with an aroused and cooperating planet. Maybe this was it in miniature.
The Cytha had obviously passed the word along: Man back there needs killing. Go and get him.
Just like that, for a Cytha would be the power here. A life force, the giver of life, the decider of life, the repository of all animal life on the entire planet.
There was more than one of them, of course. Probably they had home districts, spheres of influence and responsibility mapped out. And each one would be a power supreme in its own district.
Momism, he thought with a sour grin. Momism at its absolute peak.
Nevertheless, he told himself, it wasn't too bad a system if you wanted to consider it objectively.
But he was in a poor position to be objective about that or anything else.
The screamers were inching closer, hitching themselves forward slowly on their bottoms.
"I'm going to set up a deadline for you critters," Duncan called out. "Just two feet farther, up to that rock, and I let you have it."
He'd get all six of them, of course, but the shots would be the signal for the general rush by all those other animals slinking in the brush.
If he were free, if he were on his feet, possibly he could beat them off. But pinned as he was, he didn't have a chance. It would be all over less than a minute after he opened fire. He might, he figured, last as long as that.
The six inched closer and he raised the rifle.
But they stopped and moved no farther. Their ears lifted just a little, as if they might be listening, and the grins dropped from their faces. They squirmed uneasily and assumed a look of guilt and, like shadows, they were gone, melting away so swiftly that he scarcely saw them go.
Duncan sat quietly, listening, but he could hear no sound.
Reprieve, he thought. But for how long? Something had scared them off, but in a while they might be back. He had to get out of here and he had to make it fast.
If he could find a longer lever, he could move the tree. There was a branch slanting up from the topside of the fallen tree. It was almost four inches at the butt and it carried its diameter well.
He slid the knife from his belt and looked at it. Too small, too thin, he thought, to chisel through a four-inch branch, but it was all he had. When a man was desperate enough, though, when his very life depended on it, he would do anything.
He hitched himself along, sliding toward the point where the branch protruded from the tree. His pinned leg protested with stabs of pain as his body wrenched it around. He gritted his teeth and pushed himself closer. Pain slashed through his leg again and he was still long inches from the branch.
He tried once more, then gave up. He lay panting on the ground.
There was just one thing left.
He'd have to try to hack out a notch in the trunk just above his leg. No, that would be next to impossible, for he'd be cutting into the whorled and twisted grain at the base of the supporting fork.
Either that or cut off his foot, and that was even more impossible. A man would faint before he got the job done.
It was useless, he knew. He could do neither one. There was nothing he could do.
For the first time, he admitted to himself: He would stay here and die. Shotwell, back at the farm, in a day or two might set out hunting for him. But Shotwell would never find him. And anyhow, by nightfall, if not sooner, the screamers would be back.
He laughed gruffly in his throat—laughing at himself.
The Cytha had won the hunt hands down. It had used a human weakness to win and then had used that same human weakness to achieve a viciously poetic vengeance.
After all, what could one expect? One could not equate human ethics with the ethics of the Cytha. Might not human ethics, in certain cases, seem as weird and illogical, as infamous and ungrateful, to an alien?
He hunted for a twig and began working again to clean the rifle bore.
A crashing behind him twisted him around and he saw the Cytha. Behind the Cytha stalked a donovan.
He tossed away the twig and raised the gun.
"No," said the Cytha sharply.
The donovan tramped purposefully forward and Duncan felt the prickling of the skin along his back. It was a frightful thing. Nothing could stand before a donovan. The screamers had turned tail and run when they had heard it a couple of miles or more away.
The donovan was named for the first known human to be killed by one. That first was only one of many. The roll of donovan-victims ran long, and no wonder, Duncan thought. It was the closest he had ever been to one of the beasts and he felt a coldness creeping over him. It was like an elephant and a tiger and a grizzly bear wrapped in the selfsame hide. It was the most vicious fighting machine that ever had been spawned.
He lowered the rifle. There would be no point in shooting. In two quick strides, the beast could be upon him.
The donovan almost stepped on him and he flinched away. Then the great head lowered and gave the fallen tree a butt and the tree bounced for a yard or two. The donovan kept on walking. Its powerfully muscled stern moved into the brush and out of sight.
"Now we are even," said the Cytha. "I had to get some help."
Duncan grunted. He flexed the leg that had been trapped and he could not feel the foot. Using his rifle as a cane, he pulled himself erect. He tried putting weight on the injured foot and it screamed with pain.
He braced himself with the rifle and rotated so that he faced the Cytha.
"Thanks, pal," he said. "I didn't think you'd do it."
"You will not hunt me now?"
Duncan shook his head. "I'm in no shape for hunting. I am heading home."
"It was the vua, wasn't it? That was why you hunted me?"
"The vua is my livelihood," said Duncan. "I cannot let you eat it."
The Cytha stood silently and Duncan watched it for a moment. Then he wheeled. Using the rifle for a crutch, he started hobbling away.
The Cytha hurried to catch up with him.
"Let us make a bargain, mister. I will not eat the vua and you will not hunt me. Is that fair enough?"
"That is fine with me," said Duncan. "Let us shake on it."
He put down a hand and the Cytha lifted up a paw. They shook, somewhat awkwardly, but very solemnly.
"Now," the Cytha said, "I will see you home. The screamers would have you before you got out of the woods."
hey halted on a knoll. Below them lay the farm, with the vua rows straight and green in the red soil of the fields.
"You can make it from here," the Cytha said. "I am wearing thin. It is an awful effort to keep on being smart. I want to go back to ignorance and comfort."
"It was nice knowing you," Duncan told it politely. "And thanks for sticking with me."
He started down the hill, leaning heavily on the rifle-crutch. Then he frowned troubledly and turned back.
"Look," he said, "you'll go back to animal again. Then you will forget. One of these days, you'll see all that nice, tender vua and—"
"Very simple," said the Cytha. "If you find me in the vua, just begin hunting me. With you after me, I will quickly get smart and remember once again and it will be all right."
"Sure," agreed Duncan. "I guess that will work."
The Cytha watched him go stumping down the hill.
Admirable, it thought. Next time I have a brood, I think I'll raise a dozen like him.
It turned around and headed for the deeper brush.
It felt intelligence slipping from it, felt the old, uncaring comfort coming back again. But it glowed with anticipation, seethed with happiness at the big surprise it had in store for its new-found friend.
Won't he be happy and surprised when I drop them at his door, it thought.
Will he be ever pleased!
—CLIFFORD D. SIMAK