"Don't bother," said the girl. "He was stung last week."
Morgan stared at her silently for a moment. She seemed not in the least perturbed. If the man had been stung by an Orenian, he was lost anyway. Ruefully, he rebuttoned his shirt.
"I leapt to a bad conclusion."
"That he was an Orenian? He would have been, soon. Besides--you have to leap to conclusions nowadays, to stay alive."
"You don't seem to worry."
"I told you, he was going to kill me."
"Because--" She paused and stared out across the twilight water, gathering a slow frown. "Because he was crazy."
Morgan's eyes flickered over her trim figure, and he thought--maybe. She had a trace of Seminole blood, he decided--with the quiet sultriness that it leant to her face.
"I'm heading west," he announced.
"To the cypress?" She cooly inspected his sturdy arms, clipped features, and the hatchet in his belt-rope. She nodded faintly to herself. "Want company?"
He shrugged and turned half away. "It's okay with me." He set off down the road and she followed a few feet to the rear.
"Florida coast's getting to be lousy with them," she called.
"Yeah. Whole truckload of them passed through yesterday. On their way to Miami, I guess. One man said he saw an airplane yesterday."
"They must be reviving the industry up north."
"Yeah. Trucks by the dozen. Say--where've you been hiding?"
"Mangrove island. Been there six months."
"And tired of sitting still. Small island."
"You should have stayed--but I'm glad you didn't."
He shot her a sharp glance. She failed to look bereaved at the loss of her mate. But that was not unusual. Most marriages nowadays were contracted by brute force--and dissolved the same way. She probably felt that rolling the fat one in the drink gave her a claim on him.
When the last trace of gray fled from the west, they walked westward along the old highway beyond the limits of the coastal town which was now nearly deserted. They talked softly as they trudged along, and he learned that her name was Shera and that she had been a dancer in a small Miami nightspot, before the Orenians came. She had joined the fat one a year ago--because he owned a gun, and was therefore good insurance against wandering Orenians. But when the ammunition was gone, she tried to leave him, which resulted in the incident by the waterfront.
Morgan was irked that he had blundered into a family affair, and troubled that he had relieved the fellow of all worldly cares. Nevertheless, if the man had been stung, the free world would say--"job well done." For in a few weeks he would have ceased to be strictly human, becoming a dangerous threat to his fellows. And if the girl had been unable to escape from him before that time, she would have been subject to the same plight. Morgan decided that he would have done the same thing if given time to weigh the situation beforehand.
"How far are we going?" she asked.
"We're turning off on the next side-road," he grunted.
"You know the country?"
"I used to." He waved his arm to the south. "Road winds through a swamp, then climbs to high ground. Ends in a spruce forest."
"Got any food?"
"Will have, tomorrow. Ditches are full of warmouth perch. Plenty of swamp cabbage, wild oranges, bull frogs, papaya."
"I'm hungry now."
She whimpered a little but soon fell silent. He saw she was limping, and he slowed his pace. Pity was a lost emotion in an age of chaos; but she was strong, healthy, and appeared capable of doing a day's work. He decided to humor her, lest she decide to trudge alone.
When they reached the swamp, branches closed over the narrow trail road, screening off the sky and hiding the thin slice of moon. The girl hung close to his elbow. A screech owl hooted in the trees, and a thousand frogs clamored in the blackness. Once the scream of a panther split the night, and the girl sobbed as if echoing the cry. They hurried ahead through the overgrown weeds.
"Drop flat!" he hissed suddenly.
She obeyed without a sound. They crouched together at the edge of the road, listening. A distant rustling came from the roadway to the south.
"Orenians?" she whispered.
"Can't tell. They always march in step. Keep quiet."
Morgan gripped the hatchet and set himself for a quick spring. As they drew nearer, he decided that there were two of them. Their movements were perfectly coordinated, since they were of one mind, one consciousness--that of Oren. The girl tapped his arm with the blade of a knife.
"I'll take one," she breathed.
When the footsteps were almost upon them, Oren halted. There was no outcry; the Orenians had no need for vocal communication; their thought-exchange was bio-electromagnetic.
"Now!" howled Morgan, and launched himself at the enemy.
His hatchet cleft the face of the nearest foe, and he turned instantly to help the girl. A pair of bodies thrashed about on the ground. Then she stood up, and he heard her dry the knife on some grass. It was over in an instant.
"That was too easy," he said. "I don't like it."
"They don't ambush that easy unless they're in rapport with another group someplace close. We'll have some more of them after us if we don't get away."
They hurried about the unpleasant task of splitting open the once-human skulls to remove the legless parasite-entities that filled the bony hollows where brains belonged. The Oren creatures lived in their stolen homes long after the borrowed body died, and they could signal others to the vicinity. Morgan tossed the globular little creatures in the ditch where they lay squeaking faintly--helpless, once-removed from the body of the host who had long since ceased to exist as a human being.
"Let's go!" he grunted.
"But they came from that way!"
"Have to chance it. Too dangerous, hanging around the highways. Out here we can find places to hide."
They set off at a trot, chancing an ambush in reverse. But Morgan reasoned that the Orenians had been returning to the highway after a day's exploring on the side-roads. After plunging for half-an-hour through the darkness, the road began winding upward. The cypress archway parted, revealing star-scattered sky. They slowed to a walk.
"Can't we sit down to rest?" she panted.
"Can if you like. Alone."
She shuddered and caught at his arm. "I'll stick."
"Sorry," he murmured. "We can stop soon. But they'll be chasing along the road looking for us. I want to get into the spruce forest first."
She was silent for a time, then said; "With Earlich, it was the other way around."
"Earlich? The fat boy? What do you mean?"
"I always had to wait on him."
"Did you wait?"
"Until he ran out of bullets."
Morgan clucked in mock disapproval. But he was not in the least shocked. In the flight from Oren, it was devil take the hindmost. Weaklings, and people who paused for pity, had long since been stung. After several weeks of agony in which the brain became the nutrient fodder of the growing Oren embryo, they were lost in the single communal mind of Oren, dead as individuals. The adult parasite assumed the bodily directive-function of the brain. The creatures so afflicted became mere cells in a total social organism now constituting a large part of humanity.
Shera suddenly whistled surprise. "Is that a cabin there?--through the trees?"
They had penetrated several hundred yards into the spruce. A black hulk lay ahead in a small clearing.
"Yeah," Morgan grunted. "I'd hoped it'd still be there."
She nudged him hard. "Close-mouthed, aren't you?"
"If I told you it was here, and then it was gone--how would you feel?"
"You think about things like that?" She stared at him curiously in the faint moonlight. "Nobody else does. Not now."
"Come on," he growled. "Let's see if it's occupied."
The door was locked. Morgan chopped it open without ceremony. The cabin was vacant except for a corpse on the floor. The corpse was of ancient vintage and slightly mummified. He noticed that it had killed itself with a shotgun--possibly because of an Oren-sting. He caught up the scarce weapon lest the girl grab it and run. Then he dragged the corpse out by the foot and left it under an orange tree. The oranges were green, but he picked a few to stave off the pangs of hunger.
When he returned, Shera had found matches and a lamp. She sat at a table, counting twelve-gauge shells.
"Even dozen." She gazed greedily at the gun. "I won't steal it."
He pitched her an orange and propped the gun in the corner. "If you did, it would be a mistake."
Her eyes followed him about the room as he inspected the meagre, dust-laden furnishings.
"I like you, Morgan," she murmured suddenly.
"Like you liked fat-boy?"
"He was a pig."
"But you liked his gun."
"You'd do all right without a gun."
"Why don't we team up?"
"Whoa! We may not be looking for the same things."
She shrugged and toyed with the shells while she stared thoughtfully into the lamplight. "What's there to look for? Besides escape from Oren."
"But you think so, huh?"
He straightened suddenly and waggled a pair of cans over his head for her to see--beans, and a tin of tobacco. He set them aside and continued searching the cupboards.
"But you think so, huh?" she repeated.
"Shut up and heat the beans."
Shera caught the can and speared it with her knife. It spewed. She sniffed, cursed, and threw them out. "We eat oranges."
"But what are you looking for, Morgan?"
He rolled himself a cigarette with the aged tobacco which was little more than dust. He came to the table and sat facing her. She had placed an orange before him. Almost absently he laid the blade of his hatchet atop it. The weight of it split the fruit neatly.
"Sharp," she muttered.