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.