The Terrans drew together again.
"Zid?" Jeff echoed.
Chafi Four relieved his fellow of the strain by trying his own rusty croak. "A vicious Canthorian predator, combing the island at this moment for prey. You must help us to recapture it."
"So that you may identify it," Chafi Three finished helpfully, "the Zid has this appearance."
His psi projection of the Zid appeared on the dock before them with demoniac abruptness--crouched to leap, twin tails lashing and its ten-foot length bristling with glassy magenta bristles. It had a lethal pair of extra limbs that sprang from the shoulders to end in taloned seizing-hands, and its slanted red eyes burned malevolently from a snouted, razor-fanged face.
It was too real to bear. Jeff stepped back on suddenly unreliable legs. Jennifer fainted against him and the unexpected weight of her sent them both sprawling to the dock.
"We lean on weak reeds," Chafi Three said. "Creatures who collapse with terror at the mere projection of a Zid can be of little assistance in recapturing one."
Chafi Four agreed reluctantly. "Then we must seek aid elsewhere."
When Jeff Aubray pulled himself up from the planking, the apparitions were gone. His knees shook and perspiration crawled cold on his face, but he managed to haul Jennifer up with him.
"Come out of it, will you?" he yelled ungallantly in her ear. "If a thing like that is loose on the island, we've got to get help!"
Jennifer did not respond and he slapped her, until her eyes fluttered angrily.
"There's an EI communicator in my cabin," Jeff said. "Let's go."
Memory lent Jennifer a sudden vitality that nearly left Jeff behind in their dash for the cottage up the beach.
"The door," Jeff panted, inside. "Fasten the hurricane bolt. Hurry."
While she secured the flimsy door, he ripped through his belongings, aligning his EI communicator again on his breakfast table. Finding out where the islanders got their calm-crystals had become suddenly unimportant; just then, he wanted nothing so much as to see a well-armed patrol ship nosing down out of the Calaxian sunrise.
He was activating the screen when Jennifer, in a magnificent rage in spite of soaked blouse and dungarees, advanced on him.
"You're an Earth Interests spy after all," she accused. "They said in the Township you are no artist, but Uncle Charlie and I--"
Jeff made a pushing motion. "Keep away from me. Do you want that devil tearing the cabin down around us?"
She fell quiet, remembering the Zid, and he made his call. "Aubray, Chain 147. Come in, Consulate!"
There was a sound of stealthy movement outside the cabin and he flicked sweat out of his eyes with a hand that shook.
"EI, for God's sake, come in! I'm in trouble here!"
The image on his three-inch screen was not Consul Satterfield's but the startled consulate operator's. "Trouble?"
Jeff forced stumbling words into line. The EI operator shook his head doubtfully.
"Consul's gone for the day, Aubray. I'll see if I can reach him."
"He was about to send out an EI patrol ship to take over here in the islands," Jeff said. "Tell him to hurry it!"
He knew when he put down the microphone that the ship would be too late. EI might still drag the secret of the calm-crystal source out of the islanders, but Jeff Aubray and Jennifer Mack wouldn't be on hand to witness their sorry triumph. The flimsy cabin could not stand for long against the sort of brute the owls had shown him, and there was no sort of weapon at hand. They couldn't even run.
"There's something outside," Jennifer said in a small voice.
Her voice seemed to trigger the attack.
The Zid lunged against the door with a force that cracked the wooden hurricane bolt across and opened a three-inch slit between leading edge and lintel. Jeff had a glimpse of slanted red eyes and white-fanged snout before reflex sent him headlong to shoulder the door shut again.
"The bunk," he panted at Jennifer. "Shove it over."
Between them, they wedged the bunk against the door and held it in place. Then they stood looking palely at each other and waiting for the next attack.
It came from a different quarter--the wide double windows that overlooked the bay. The Zid, rearing upright, smashed away the flimsy rattan blinds with a taloned seizing-hand and looked redly in at them.
Like a man in a dream, Jeff caught up his communicator from the table and hurled it. The Zid caught it deftly, sank glistening teeth into the unit and demolished it with a single snap.
Crushed, the rig's powerful little battery discharged with a muffled sputtering and flashing of sparks. The Zid howled piercingly and dropped away from the window.
That gave Jeff time enough to reach the storm shutters and secure them--only to rush again with Jennifer to their bunk barricade as the Zid promptly renewed its ferocious attack on the door.
He flinched when Jennifer, to be heard above the Zid's ragings, shouted in his ear: "My Scoop should have the Queen afloat by now. Can we reach her?"
"Scoop?" The Zid's avid cries discouraged curiosity before it was well born. "We'd never make it. We couldn't possibly outrun that beast."
The Zid crashed against the door and drove it inches ajar, driving back their barricade. One taloned paw slid in and slashed viciously at random. Jeff ducked and strained his weight against the bunk, momentarily pinning the Zid's threshing forelimb.
Chafi Three chose that moment to reappear, nearly causing Jeff to let go the bunk and admit the Zid.
"Your female's suggestion is right," the Ciriimian croaked. "The Zid does not swim. Four and I are arranging escape on that premise."
The Zid's talons ripped through the door, leaving parallel rows of splintered breaks. Both slanted red eyes glared in briefly.
"Then you'd damn well better hurry," Jeff panted. The door, he estimated, might--or might not--hold for two minutes more.
The Ciriimian vanished. There was a slithering sound in the distance that sounded like a mountain in motion, and with it a stertorous grunting that all but drowned out the Zid's cries. Something nudged the cottage with a force that all but knocked it flat.
"My Scoop!" Jennifer exclaimed. She let go the barricade and ran to the window to throw open the storm shutters. "Never mind the door. This way, quick!"
She scrambled to the window sill and jumped. Numbly, Jeff saw her suspended there, feet only inches below the sill, apparently on empty air. Then the door sagged again under the Zid's lungings and he left the bunk to follow Jennifer.
He landed on something tough and warm and slippery, a monstrous tail fluke that stretched down the beach to merge into a flat purplish acreage of back, forested with endless rows of fins and spines and enigmatic tendrils. The Scoop, he saw, and only half believed it, had wallowed into the shallows alongside his dock. It had reversed its unbelievable length to keep the head submerged, and at the same time had backed out of the water until its leviathan tail spanned the hundred-odd yards of sloping beach from surf to cabin.
Just ahead of him, Jennifer caught an erect fin-spine and clung with both arms. "Hang on! We're going--"
The Scoop contracted itself with a suddenness that yanked them yards from the cottage and all but dislodged Jeff. Beyond the surf, the shallows boiled whitely where the Scoop fought for traction to draw its grounded bulk into the water.
Jeff looked back once to see the Zid close the distance between and spring upward to the tail fluke behind him. He had an instant conviction that the brute's second spring would see him torn to bits, but the Scoop at the moment found water deep enough to move in earnest. The Zid could only sink in all six taloned limbs and hold fast.
The hundred-odd yards from cabin to beach passed in a blur of speed. The Scoop reached deeper water and submerged, throwing a mountainous billow that sent the Island Queen reeling and all but foundered her.
Jeff was dislodged instantly and sank like a stone.
He came up, spouting water and fighting for breath, to find himself a perilous twenty feet from the Zid. The Zid, utterly out of its element, screamed hideously and threshed water to froth, all its earlier ferocity vanished under the imminent and unfamiliar threat of drowning. Jeff sank again and churned desperately to put distance between them.
He came up again, nearly strangled, to find that either he or the Zid had halved the distance between them. They were all but eye to eye when Jennifer caught him and towed him away toward the doubtful safety of the Island Queen.
Chafis Three and Four appeared from nowhere and stood solemnly by while the Zid weakened and sank with a final gout of bubbles.
"We must have your friend's help," Chafi Three said to Jennifer then, "to recover our investment."
Jeff wheeled on him incredulously. "Me go down there after that monster? Not on your--"
"He means the Scoop," Jennifer said. "They brought it ashore to help us out of the cabin. Why shouldn't it help them now?"
The Scoop came up out of the water so smoothly that the Island Queen hardly rocked, dangling the limp form of the Zid from its great rubbery lips like a drowned kitten.
"Here," Jennifer said.
The Scoop touched its vast face to the Queen's rail and dropped the unconscious body to the deck. The Zid twitched weakly and coughed up froth and water.
Jeff backed away warily. "Damn it, are we going through all that again? Once it gets its wind back--"
Chafi Three interrupted him this time. "The crystal now. We must have it to quiet the Zid until it is safely caged again."
Jennifer turned suddenly firm. "No. I won't let this EI informer know about that."
The Ciriimians were firmer.
"It will not matter now. Galactic Adjustment will extend aid to both Calaxia and Terra, furnishing substitutes for the crystals you deal in. There will be no loss to either faction."
"No loss?" Jennifer repeated indignantly. "But then there won't be any demand for our crystals! We'll lose everything we've gained."
"Not so," Chafi Three assured her. "Galactic will offer satisfactory items in exchange, as well as a solution to Terra's problems."
The Scoop, sensing Jennifer's surrender, slid its ponderous bulk nearer and opened its mouth, leaving half an acre of lower jaw resting flush with the Island Queen's deck. Without hesitation, Jennifer stepped over the rail and vanished into the yawning pinkish cavern beyond.
Appalled, Jeff rushed after her. "Jennifer! Have you lost your mind?"
"There is no danger," Chafi Three assured him. "Scoops are benevolent as well as intelligent, and arrived long ago at a working agreement with the islanders. This one has produced a crystal and is ready to be relieved of it, else it would not have attached itself to a convenient human."
Jeff said dizzily, "The Scoops make the crystals?"
"There is a nidus just back of a fleshy process in its throat, corresponding to your own tonsils, which produces a crystal much as your Terran oyster secretes a pearl. The irritation distracts the Scoops from their meditations--they are a philosophical species, though not mechanically progressive--and prompts them to barter their strength for a time to be rid of it."
Jennifer reappeared with a walnut-sized crystal in her hand and vaulted across the rail.
"There goes another Scoop," she said resignedly. "The Queen will have to tack with the wind for a while until another one shows up."
"So that's why your sails bellied backward when you came in to harbor," said Jeff. "The thing was towing you."
A thin, high streak of vapor-trail needling down toward them from the sunrise rainbow turned the channel of his thought.
"That will be Satterfield and his task force," Jeff told the Chafis. "I think you're going to find yourselves in an argument over that matter of squeezing Terra out of the crystal trade."
They reassured him solemnly.
"Terra has no real need of the crystals. We can offer a tested genetics program that will eliminate racial anxiety within a few generations, and supply neural therapy equipment--on a trade basis, of course--that will serve the crystals' purpose during the interim."
There should be a flaw somewhere, Jeff felt, but he failed to see one. He gave up trying when he found Jennifer eying him with uncharacteristic uncertainty.
"You'll be glad to get back to your patrol work," she said. It had an oddly tentative sound.
Somehow the predictable monotony of consulate work had never seemed less inviting. The prospect of ending his Calaxian tour and going back to a half-barren and jittery Earth appealed to Jeff even less.
"No," he said. "I'd like to stay."
"There's nothing to do but fish and sail around looking for Scoops ready to shed their crystals," Jennifer reminded him. "Still, Uncle Charlie has talked about settling in the Township and standing for Council election. Can you fish and sail, Jeff Aubray?"
The consulate rocket landed ashore, but Jeff ignored it.
"I can learn," he said.
By JACK DOUGLAS
Out on the ice-buried planet, Commander Red Stone led his Free Companions to almost certain death. They died for a dangerous dream that had only one chance in a thousand trillion to come true. Is there a better reason for dying?