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.