"Sharp enough to split Oren skulls."
"And that's all you're looking for?"
"I don't know. Ever hear of the Maquis?"
She hesitated. "Two wars ago? The French underground? I remember vaguely. I was a little urchin then."
"They had a goal like mine, I guess. To harass. They couldn't win, and they knew it. They killed and wrecked and maimed because they hated. I want to organize a band of Oren-killers--with no purpose save to ambush and slaughter. I sat on that island and thought and thought--and I got disgusted with myself for hiding."
The girl munched a cheekful of bitter orange pulp and looked thoughtful. "Wish I had some clothes," she muttered indifferently.
He shot her a hard glance then stood up to pace the floor. "Ambush, slaughter, and rob," he amended, and looked at her sharply again.
"Oren's taken our cities. He's reorganizing industry. With individuals coordinated by a mass-mind, it'll be a different kind of industry, a more efficient kind. Think of a factory in which a worker at one position shares consciousness with a worker in another position. Does away with control mechanisms."
"You said 'rob'."
He grinned sourly. "When they get production started, there'll be plenty to steal. Guns; explosives--clothes."
She nodded slowly. "Trouble is: every time you kill an Orenian, they all feel him die. They come running."
"Sometimes. Unless they're too busy. They don't care too much about individual deaths. It's the total mental commune of Oren that matters. Like now. They could find us if they really tried. But why should they? They'd come as recruiting agents--with bared stingers--if they came."
"They'll come tomorrow," she said fatalistically.
"We'll try to be ready."
She inspected him carefully, as if weighing his size and strength. "I still want to team up with you."
He recalled how quickly she had knifed the Orenian to death on the road. "Okay--if you'll follow me without argument."
"I can take orders." She folded her arms behind her head and leaned back with a grin. Her breasts jutted haughtily beneath a torn blouse. "Most orders, that is."
"Hell, I'm not marrying you!" he snapped.
She laughed scornfully. "You will, Morgan, you will."
Morgan lashed the shotgun to a chair, aimed it at the door, and ran a length of cord from the trigger to the shattered lock. "Don't trip over the cord in the night," he warned as he blew out the lamp. Then he bedded down in the corner on the floor.
A short time later he heard her sobbing softly. "What the devil's wrong?" he snarled disgustedly.
"Thanks, Morgan--thanks," she whispered.
For a moment he felt sorry for her. Apparently she was thanking him for the bed. Fat boy had evidently taken the best of everything and given her the crumbs of Lazarus. Such were the mores of chaos. But Morgan quit congratulating himself. He had chosen the floor because it looked cleaner than the bed.
He was awakened before dawn by the rapid sputter of rain on the roof. It dribbled through several holes and spread across the floor. He sat up shivering. Shera was a glowing cigarette near the window.
"Can't sleep?" he asked.
"I'm scared," she answered.
Faintly he could see her profile silhouetted against the pane. She was watching outside the cabin.
"I've got a funny feeling--that something's out there."
"Just a feeling."
Morgan felt ice along his sides. "Shera--do you get hunches, feelings, intuitions very often?" His voice was hushed, worried.
"Have you always?"
"No--I don't think I used to."
He was silent for a long time; then he hissed, "Are you sure you haven't been stung recently?"
Another brief silence. Then the girl laughed softly. A wave of prickles crept along his scalp.
"I've got the shotgun in my lap, Morgan."
"How long?" he whispered in horror.
"Six months! You're lying! You'd be fully depersonalized! You'd be in complete liaison with Oren!"
"But I'm not. Sometimes I can feel when they're near. That's all."
"But if it were true--your brain would be replaced by the parasite!"
"I wouldn't know. Apparently it's not."
Morgan couldn't believe it. But he sat stunned in the darkness. What was this thing in the cabin with him? Was she still human? He began inching along the wall, but a board creaked.
"I don't want to shoot you, Morgan. Don't rush me. Besides--there's something outside, I tell you."
"Why should you worry about that?--if you've really been stung."
"The first sting evidently didn't take. The next one might. That's why."
"You weren't sick?"
"During the incubation period? I was sick. Plenty sick."
Morgan shook his head thoughtfully. If she had been through the violent illness of the parasite's incubation, she should now have one of the squeaking little degenerates in place of a brain. The fibers of the small animals grew slowly along the neural arcs, replacing each nerve cell, forming a junction at each synapse. There was reason to believe that the parasite preserved the memories that had been stored in the brain, but they became blended with all the other individualities that comprised Oren, thereby losing the personality in the mental ocean of the herd-mind. Was it possible that if one invader were out of mental contact with the herd-mind, that the individual host might retain its personality? But how could she be out of contact?
"They're getting close to the door," she whispered.
Morgan gripped his hatchet and waited, not knowing who would be the greater enemy--the girl or the prowlers.
"When the door opens, strike a match. So I can see to shoot."
Morgan crouched low. There came a light tapping at the torn screen, then several seconds of silence. Someone pushed at the door. It swung slowly open.
"Jerry?" called a faint voice. "Jerry--thet you in theah?"
Morgan breathed easily again. An Orenian would not have called out. "Who is it?" he barked.
There was no answer. Morgan groped for the lamp, found it, and held the match poised but not lighted.
"Come in here!" he ordered. "We've got a gun."
A shadow appeared in the door frame. Morgan struck the match. It was an ancient Negro with a burlap sack in one hand and a bloodstained pitchfork in the other. He stood blinking at Shera's shotgun and at the lamp as Morgan lit it. His overalls were rainsoaked, his eyes wild.
"Come in and sit down."
"Thankya suh, thankya." He shuffled inside and slumped into a rickety chair.
"What're you doing wandering around like this?"
"Been a hunting. Yes, suh, been doing me a little hunting." He sighed wearily and mopped the rain out of his tight coils of graying hair.
Morgan eyed the burlap sack suspiciously. It was wet, and it wriggled. "What's that?"
"'Ass my night's work," said the man and jerked a corner of the sack. It opened, and three Oren parasites spilled out with weak squeaks of anguish.
The girl gasped angrily. "They're still in contact with Oren. Kill them!"
"Yes'm, they're in contact--but without eyes, how're they gonna know wheah they are?"
Morgan made a wry mouth at Shera. The old man was smart--and right. But he felt another uneasy suspicion. The old man said "hunting." Hunting for what--food? The idea twisted disgust in Morgan's stomach.
"What're you going to do with them?"
"Oh--" The oldster kicked one of them lightly with his toe. The pink thing rolled against the wall. There were vestigial signs of arms, legs, but tiny and useless, grown fast to the body. The visitor glanced up with a sheepish grin.
"I feed 'em to my dawgs, suh. Dawgs like 'em. Getting so my dawgs can smell the difference twixt a man and an Orenian. I'm training 'em. They help me with my hunting."
Morgan sat up sharply. "How many dogs you got, and where do you live?"
"Fo' dawgs. I live in the swamp. They's a big hollow cypress--I got my bed in it."
"Why didn't you move in here?"
The old man looked at the place in the center of the floor where the dust outlined the shape of a human body. "Suicide," he muttered. Then he looked up. "'Tain't superstition, exactly. I just don't--"
"Never mind," Morgan murmured. He glanced at the girl. She had laid the shotgun aside and was lighting a cigarette. He tensed himself, then sprang like a cat.
The gun was in his hands, and he was backing across the room before she realized what had happened. Her face went suddenly white. The old man just sat and looked baffled.
"Can you call one of your dogs?"
"Yes, suh, but--"
"Call one, I want to try something."
Shera bit her lip. "Why, Morgan? To see if what I said is true?"
"I'll save you the trouble." She stared into his face solemnly and slowly opened her mouth. From beneath her tongue, a barb slowly protruded until its point projected several inches from her lips. Morgan shivered.
The Negro, who was sitting rigidly frozen, suddenly dove for his pitchfork with a wild cry. "Witcherwoman! Oren-stinger!"
Shera darted aside as the pitchfork sailed toward her and shattered the window. She seized it quickly and held him at bay. The old man looked startled. Orenians tried to sting, not to fight.
"Hold it!" bellowed Morgan.
Reluctantly, the oldster backed away and fell into the chair again. But his eyes clung to the girl with hatred.
"She stung ya, suh?"
"No, and she won't sting you." He gazed at Shera coldly. "Drop that fork."
She propped it against the wall but stayed close to it. "Okay, Morgan," she purred. "It's your show."
"It's going to be yours. Sit down and tell us everything that happened before you were stung and after. I want to figure out what makes you different from the others, and why you aren't in liaison with Oren."
She smiled acidly. "You won't believe it."
"You'll tell it though," he growled darkly.
She turned to gaze at the door. "Earlich had a little girl--by his first wife. She got stung eight months ago. Before she ran away, she stung her pet kitten. I didn't know it. The kitten stayed with us. It stung me." She paused. "Here's the part you won't believe: before Earlich killed it, I was coming into liaison with the cat."