"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.