"Have you ever stung anyone?"
"No. Earlich didn't even know."
"Any desire to?"
She reddened slowly and set her jaw.
The old man giggled. "Wants ta sting a cat, ah bet, suh."
She shot him a furious glance, but didn't deny it. They sat for a long time in silence. Morgan lowered the shotgun, then laid it aside.
"Thanks," she murmured, and looked really grateful.
But Morgan was staring thoughtfully at the oldster. "Your dogs ever tree a panther?"
"Yas, suh, they're good at that!" He grinned and waggled his head.
"Many panthers in the swamp?"
"Lo'dy, yes--" He paused. His eyes widened slightly.
Both of them looked suddenly at the girl. Her eyebrows arched, her mouth flew open. She put a frightened hand to her throat.
"Oh no! Oh God, nooo!" she shrilled.
Morgan glanced at the window, sighed, and stood up.
"It's getting light outside. We better hunt some food."
Morgan and the old man, whose name was Hanson, went out to prowl along the outskirts of the swamp. They returned at mid-morning with a string of perch, a rabbit, and a heart of swamp cabbage. The girl cooked the meal in silence, scarcely looking at them. Her face was sullen, angry. Morgan turned while he was eating and saw her staring contemplatively at the back of his neck--where the Oren-sting was usually planted.
"Nobody's going to force you into anything, Shera," he said quietly. "We won't mention it again."
She said nothing, but stopped glaring at him. He wondered how much the Oren organ had affected her personality.
"Do you still feel the same--as you did a year ago?" he asked her. "Any difference? Any loss of memory? Loss of function?"
"That means the alien organ exactly duplicates the neural circuits it supplants."
"So the rapport is the only special feature. Without it, you're apparently still human."
"Thanks." It was a bitter, acid tone.
"I can't understand why the cat-business caused ... unless ... rapport is achieved by a sort of resonance--and you couldn't get it with a cat and with humans too--"
"Drop it, will you!" She turned and stalked out of the shanty. At the doorway, she broke into a run.
Morgan looked at Hanson. Hanson waggled his head and grinned ruefully. "That--uh--lady likes you, suh."
Morgan snorted and went to the door. She was just disappearing into a tangle of weeds that had once been an orange grove. He set off after her at a quick trot. "Shera, wait--"
He caught up with her at the edge of the swamp, where she was backing quickly away from a coiled water-moccasin. He tossed a stick at the snake, and it slithered into the shallow water. Then he caught her arms, and she whirled to face him with defiant eyes.
"You think I'm a--a--"
"You act like I'm barely human."
"I didn't mean it that way--"
"You don't even trust me, and you want me to--"
"Trust me." She nodded.
She stamped her foot in the soft muck. "Then kiss me."
A grim possibility occurred to him, and he hesitated an instant too long. She wrenched herself free with a snarl and bolted back toward the shanty. "I could have done that last night," she snapped over her shoulder, "while you were asleep."
The chase led back to the house. When he burst back inside, she was already panting over the sink, scraping plates. When he approached her from behind, she whirled quickly, clenching a platter in both hands. When she brought it down across his head with a clatter of broken china, Morgan gave up. He retreated, nursing his scalp, then stalked angrily out to join Hanson. Dogs were baying to the north. The old man looked worried.
"They're comin', suh. Must be a lot of 'em. I got my dawgs trained so they don't bark less they's a bunch of 'em."
Morgan listened for a moment. "I hear a truck."
"That's so?" Hanson shook his head. "They ain't never come in a truck before."
"Truck--must be a dozen of them at least." He eyed Hanson sharply. "Run or fight?"
The old man scratched his toe in the dirt. "Ain't never yet run from a fight."
Morgan turned silently and strode back in the house for the gun. Shera ignored him. "Orenians coming," he grunted, and went back out to join the oldster.
Morgan and Hanson trotted through the scrub spruce, heading for the roadway. But they turned short and cut north through the edge of the brush. Morgan caught a glimpse of the truck far ahead. Hanson's hounds were snarling about the wheels and leaping up toward the bed. The road was soft sand to their right. Ducking low, they darted ahead until it appeared firm enough to admit the truck.
"We want them to get past us," he hissed to Hanson. "When they do, you stand up and show yourself. When they start piling out, I'll start shooting. Okay?"
"Yes, suh." He patted his pitchfork and grinned. They stopped and crouched low in the brush.
"Please, suh--don't hit my dawgs."
"I'm counting on them to help."
The truck grumbled slowly past them. The hounds were snapping furiously as they tried to leap over the tailgate. Morgan caught a glimpse of white faces, staring fixedly at nothing. Then he nudged the oldster.
Hanson stood up, shaking his pitchfork and shrieking hate at the occupants. The truck moved on a few yards, then ground to a stop.
"Come and join us," thundered a collective voice. "For we are Oren, who is one."
Morgan could see nothing through the screen of foliage. But the old man was still howling invective.
"From the stars comes Oren. To the stars he goes. Come and join us."
"Come get me, you devils. I'll kill ya!"
"Oren is millions. He cannot die. We come."
Hanson's foot nudged Morgan's nervously. Still he lay under cover, waiting for their advance. Feet shuffled on the bed of the truck. The hounds were going wild. There was something weird about sounds of Orenian movement. It was always coordinated--so many marionettes with one set of controls. But they could shift from parallel coordination to complementary, dovetailing each set of movements to achieve the common purpose.
Morgan burst forth from the brush and fired at the tight group of bodies near the back of the truck. They were packed in a circle to protect the group from the slashing fangs of the dogs. Two of them fell, without outcries. He fired three times before they broke apart. There were still at least eight of them, but the dogs had two down.
"Oh, God! Children!" Morgan bellowed. "Call off the dogs!"
"Not human children."
"Call them off!"
Hanson obeyed reluctantly. A pair of calm-eyed child-things scrambled to their feet and began advancing with the group of adults. The Orenians fanned out and began closing in like the fingers of a giant fist. Morgan shot four of them before the circle closed to hatchet range. He and Hanson stood back to back, slashing out at the ring of fanged faces.
The attackers were weaponless. They cared nothing for individual bodies. The collectivum swayed, writhed, darted in--and fell in blood. The wounded crawled close to their ankles, barbs protruding from their lips. They roared constantly, "Oren is paradise. Come to Oren."
A child, who had been rescued from one of the dogs, crawled among the legs of the adults and lunged for Morgan's feet. He was forced to kick it back with a hard heel.
Suddenly their ranks broke. There were only four of them left standing. They backed away and stopped--three men and a middle-aged woman. "Oren will return." They turned and marched toward the truck.
"We need the truck," panted Morgan.
Hanson flung his pitchfork and caught the last one in the center of the back. The others moved on unheeding. Morgan sadly lifted the shotgun.
When it was over, they went to look at the two child-things. One was unconscious, but not badly wounded. The other had a broken arm. It shot out its fang and circled. With a sick heart, Morgan lashed out and caught it by the hair, before it could sting him.
"See if there's pliers in the truck," he muttered.
Hanson returned with them after a moment's rummaging. They jerked out its fang and let it go. It walked calmly to the north, purpose defeated. They did the same to the other.
"It's crazy," he was gasping. "Stark crazy. They spend over a dozen Orenians just to get two of us. And they didn't want to kill us at that."
"Lo'dy, suh! Who is Oren? You know?"
Morgan shook his head. "He's the collectivum, Han."
"But suh--he had to come from some place. People weren't like this--"
"Yeah. I guess he came from space, like they say."
"Just them little pink brain-gobblers?"
"Uh-uh! Scientists figure they came in some alien host. The hosts couldn't take Earth conditions. They stung a few humans and died."
"Anybody ever see 'em?"
"Not that I know of. Nor found their ships."
"O Lo'dy, I'm sick, suh."
"Let's go back to the shanty, Han."
"Yes, suh. Look on the back o' my neck, will you suh?"
Morgan looked, then turned slowly away.
"Is it, suh?"
Morgan took a deep breath. "I--I--guess--"
"I stumbled once. I guess he got me then."
Morgan laid a hand on the old man's arm. There was nothing to say.
"Mistuh Morgan--would you do me a favo'?"
Morgan knew what he wanted. "I can't shoot you, Han. I'll leave you the gun, though."
"No, suh, that ain't it. I was wondering--could you help me catch a painter tonight--before I go?"
"A panther?" Morgan squeezed his arm and blinked hard. He grinned. "Sure, Han."
"Guess it'll be two, three days afore it starts happening to me."
"Yeah. Will you want the gun?"
"No, suh, don't think much of suicide. I'll just go out and wrestle me a 'gator in the swamp."