No Species Alone
Editor's note: There is a strong moral component in most of Godwin's stories. Courage, by itself, is never enough. There also has to be an underlying sense of empathy for other creatures. In Godwin's universe, selfishness is perhaps the ultimate sin. We've seen that theme appear many times in his stories. And, here again:
The morning was, to Jim Hart, exactly like any other June morning but for the presence of Gwen—eight weeks was not yet long enough for him to take her as fully for granted as he would in the months and years to come. She hummed to herself as she finished wiping the breakfast dishes. Out on the porch Susie and six of the kittens, having just lapped up their own breakfast, were engaged in the after-meal practice of making themselves neat and clean as is the manner of cats. The sky was a flawless sapphire blue with the touch of the sun as warm and gentle as a benediction while the meadowlarks filled the air with their soft melodies.
There was nothing about the morning's soft beauty to presage sudden and vicious peril.
He checked to make sure he had his surveying compass as he stood in the doorway then glanced across the brush-and-tree-dotted flat that extended to the mouth of the canyon a thousand feet away. There the flat broke abruptly along the high, steep bank, a trail leading from the cabin to the break. There was no sign of the pup along the trail, which meant Flopper had gone on up the canyon—he had made so many trips to the uranium prospect that spring that Flopper knew as well as he where they were going for the day.
Gwen wiped the last dish and came over to stand beside him, her head leaned against his shoulder.
"So it's off for the day you go again." She sighed. "I'm glad this is the last day of it."
"Less than a day—I'll be back by noon. Also, from now on we're all set—I found that uranium myself and it's good. My company will take it without a doubt and then I'll be a well-to-do uranium property owner rather than just an employed mining engineer. Doesn't that sound like a bright and pleasant future for us?"
"It sounds wonderful," she agreed. "You can be home all the time and every young wife should have a man around the place—preferably her husband. And another thing—" She looked at the cat and kittens. "If you had to go back to work and they sent you off to South America or somewhere—what would become of them?"
"You gave yourself responsibility when you picked them up. You shouldn't be so soft-hearted. 'Poor little things—out by this lonely road and it's raining and they're cold and hungry and have no home.' That's what you said, and now we have to buy a case of canned milk every month for them. If I had my own way—"
"You did," she pointed out sweetly. "You said, 'Don't just stand there—let's load 'em in the car and be going.' "
"Well—" He considered his defense. "I was weak that night."
"And the pup, Flopper?" she demanded.
"Another weak spell—like the day I finally consented to marry you."
"You consented?" She straightened with indignation. "You consented?"
"Mm-hmm." He nodded with grave seriousness. "I felt sorry for you."
"Why, you—you—" She stuttered, and tried again. "You consented? You—"
"Please, Gwen, do you have to keep repeating everything I tell you, over and over?"
"You told me—I didn't—I mean—oh!" She struck a small fist against his arm. "You're just trying to make me mad again—why are you always doing that?"
"Practice," he said succinctly and put his arm around her shoulders to draw her close to him. "When we have our first big fight, we don't want to be amateurs, you know."
"One of these days," she said, "you're going to really make me mad," but the threat of her words was belied by the way she once again rested her head against his shoulder. "Now, admit the truth—you wanted to give Flopper a home and you wanted to give Susie and the kittens a home, didn't you?"
"O.K.—I admit it," he said. "It seems to be a human characteristic to want pets around. Illogical—but human nature."
"Logic, fooey!" She turned her head and made a face at him. "A computing machine is infallibly logical, but do you think I'd ever want to marry one?"
He raised his brows. "I certainly hope not, that would be ridiculous. Also, you'd get bored with life-with-an-adding-machine."
"I'd sue it for divorce on grounds of mental cruelty. Imagine how life would be if you had to always be logical in everything you did and never did anything because you wanted to, like going swimming and playing games and giving homes to lost dogs and cats and—and—" She broke off to stare past him, toward the mouth of the canyon. "Look!" She pointed, sudden excitement in her voice. "There alongside the trail—the spotted kitten. He wasn't here for breakfast—there he is now. Susie got her fourth one yesterday and now he's found one!"
He followed her gaze and saw the half-grown spotted kitten some three hundred feet away and perhaps fifty feet to one side of the trail. As he watched the kitten circled a few steps, carefully keeping its eyes on whatever it was circling as it did so. It was, he saw, holding something at bay in a small area free of brush but was not yet making an effort to kill it.
"It's another one," he said, turning back into the cabin. "I'll kill it on my way to work."
He went into the bedroom and came back with a .38 automatic pistol in his hand. "I used to be a pretty good shot with one of these," he remarked in explanation. "A shovel would do just as well, but I think I'll see if I've lost the ability to hit the broad side of a barn."
"Do a good job," she said. "As soon as I sweep and do a few other things, I'm going up to the creek to get some watercress for salad. I hope—" She frowned worriedly. "I hope this is the last one—I'm afraid of the things."
"Susie would have had this one by now if it hadn't been for her having to take time off to drink her breakfast milk and wash her face. The wind's in the wrong direction for her to smell it yet, but she'd have spotted it before it got much closer to the cabin." He stepped off the porch and started up the trail. "I'll be back about noon. Be careful when you go after that watercress and don't wear those idiotic cutaway moccasins."
"I won't," she answered, for once not disputing his opinion of her footwear.
He was still a hundred feet from the spotted kitten when he heard the low, dry buzz. It was a rattlesnake, as he had known it would be. It was coiled, its head weaving restlessly, and the kitten was watching it with cold intentness. The rattlesnake turned away from the kitten as he came up to them and tried to slither away to the cover of the nearest bush. The kitten darted around in front of it, just beyond striking range, and cut off its retreat.
The snaked stopped, to coil and wait with its head poised to strike. The kitten stood before it as motionless as a little statue, only a faint tremor to the end of its tail to indicate any emotion. That, and its eyes. They were, as Hart observed on previous such occasions, quite wide and green and mercilessly cold. There was always something different about the look in a cat's eyes when it watched a snake; a concentration, a hair-trigger alertness, and an icy, implacable hatred. Yet, despite the kitten's alertness, there was an air of calmness in the way it watched the snake, almost contempt. It knew instinctively that the snake was deadly dangerous but that instinctive knowledge was outweighed by the other instinctive knowledge; the knowledge that the snake was afraid of it and would never dare to deliberately come within striking range. The rattlesnake would never dare approach the kitten; it had but one desire—to escape.
* * *
The two were motionless for a few seconds with the snake waiting to strike, its triangular head, two-thirds as wide as Hart's hand, poised and ready. Then the snake broke and tried to dart away from the kitten. The kitten flashed in front of it, still just out of striking range, and the snake stopped to coil and squirm in indecision, its red tongue flickering in and out and its buzzing rising higher and higher in pitch as its agitation increased.
Hart looked back toward the cabin and saw that Susie and the kittens were still on the porch. He raised his voice and called to her: "Susie—snake!"
He had taught her to recognize the word and she was off the porch at once, to come trotting up the trail with the five kittens stringing out behind her and Gwen standing in the doorway, shading her eyes against the sun with one hand as she watched.
He turned back to the snake. It wouldn't be long—not after Susie got there.
The snake's head was weaving restlessly as it tried to evade the stare of the kitten and find a way to escape. It tried again to dart away, and again the kitten flashed in front of it to cut off its retreat. The snake stopped, unable to reach the safety of the bush, unable in its fear to pass near the kitten. Its fear was visibly increasing and so was its hate; a vicious, reptilian hatred for the half-grown kitten that stood before it. But, greater than the hatred was the fear; the old, old instinctive fear of a cat that was common to all snakes.
It was strange, the way snakes feared cats. One strike with that broad head and there would be enough venom in the kitten's body to kill a dozen like it, yet the snake did not dare to strike. Should the kitten come within striking range, it would strike—but it was afraid to approach the kitten with the purpose of striking it. There was something about the way the kitten stared at it, the cold lack of fear, that the snake could not understand and feared. And the longer the kitten stared at the snake, the greater the snake's fear would become.
There were animals that enjoyed an immunity from the bite of a rattlesnake; a hog, protected by its fat, could kill a rattlesnake; a band of sheep, protected by their wool, would blindly trample a rattlesnake to death. Some animals could kill rattlesnakes; a deer could, some small, fast dogs could. But the rattlesnake feared none of these, would try to strike any of them. Yet the kitten, completely vulnerable with neither wool nor fat to protect it, did not fear the snake and knew the snake feared it. It was something peculiar to cats and snakes; an inherent hatred and enmity that went back to the dawn of creation.
Susie trotted up and took in the scene with one swift glance. The kitten relaxed as he turned the job over to the more capable paws of his mother and she stood a moment just beyond striking range, studying the snake. It coiled closer, afraid to try to escape from her for such an action would render it vulnerable by forcing it to uncoil, knowing in its tiny reptilian mind that in the lean, wise old cat before it was Death.
Susie paused only briefly in her appraisal of it, then she stepped forward with her eyes fixed on the wide-jawed head and her body as tense as a coiled spring. She calmly, deliberately, came within striking range and waited for it to strike at her, one forepaw slightly lifted. The snake struck, then; the very thing Susie had intended for it to do. Its head flicked forward in a motion too fast for Hart to see and at the same time, and even faster, there was the flash of Susie's paw. That, and her backward leap.
It was a blur of movement too swift for human eyes to follow but in that split-second the snake had struck, its fangs had encountered only thin air where Susie had been and, simultaneously, it had felt the sharp rip of her claws down its venomous head. Then they were poised again, as before, but this time there were three slashes down the top of the snake's head from which blood was beginning to ooze.
She moved in on it again, her pupils two razor-edge slits in eyes that were like hard emeralds. She came within range and the snake struck again. It was the same as before; the invisibly swift stab of the white fangs was too slow to equal the speed of the slashing claws. There were more bloody furrows down the snake's head when the blur of movement was over. The next time there would be still more, and it would go on until the snake's head was half torn from its body and it was dead. It could end no other way; it was not the nature of a cat to permit a snake to live.
There was insane fury, now, to the quick coiling of the snake, the high, shrill buzzing of its tail and the frantic flickering of its head. It was reaching the stage where its rage and fear was nothing short of madness and it would deliberately attack anything in the world—except a cat. Hart threw a cartridge into the chamber of the .38. He had no desire to see anything die a slow death, not even a rattlesnake. Although, it seemed to him, there was something downright splendid about the way Susie—and all other cats—could put the fear of Eternity into man's traditional enemy, the serpent.
As Susie began easing back within range of the snake Hart lined the sights on its head and pulled the trigger. The snake's head smashed to the ground at the impact of the bullet and the cats jumped back in startled surprise at the crack of the pistol.
Susie looked at the dead, writhing snake with a sudden and complete lack of interest, gave Hart a look that seemed to contain definite disgust and went over to sit in the shade of a bush.
"Sorry, Susie—I know you didn't really need any help," he apologized.
The kittens were crowding around the snake, attacking it in emulation of their mother's fight with it. They were only kittens, but they were learning. By the time they were grown he and Gwen would have a very efficient crew to rid the place of rattlesnakes. Susie, alone, had killed four in the past two months that he knew of for certain—and one of them had crawled into the cabin while Gwen was gone, to lay coiled under the butane range. Had it not been for the vigilance of Susie, it would still have been there when Gwen returned to prepare dinner, her bare, brown legs the target for its striking fangs. By that one act, alone, Susie had far more than repaid them for giving her and her kittens a home.
He picked the snake up on the end of a stick and tossed it far out in the brush. The kittens watched it arc through the air and fall from sight; with the snake no longer there, they lost interest in the past events and wandered over to join their mother. He hefted the pistol in his hand, wondering whether to take it with him or take it back to the cabin. Deciding one was as much trouble as the other, he waved to Gwen who was still watching from the doorway and started up the trail.
He was some distance up it when he looked back to see the ubiquitous spotted kitten following him—or following in so far as necessary delays to inspect interesting scents and insects along the trail would permit. The red kitten was watching the spotted one, apparently with half a mind to go, too. He went on—they wouldn't follow him very far up the canyon, anyway. Perhaps as far as the creek; perhaps they'd change their minds and return to the cabin.
At the edge of the sagebrush flat the trail went down into the canyon, following along the side of the steep wall in a gentle grade. He made his way along the narrow trail, which was sixty feet above the floor of the canyon at its highest point, and down to the bottom of the canyon. It was as he started up the canyon that he first detected the odor. It was very faint, so faint that he could not place it. His thoughts were upon the survey he would make that morning and he was hardly conscious of it, though a part of his mind noted it and was vaguely disturbed by it. He walked on, past the place along the creek where Gwen would gather the watercress, and there an almost imperceptible breeze drifted down from the up-canyon. It brought the odor stronger and he stopped, the vague uneasiness in his mind suddenly awakening to wary alertness.
It was the odor of a snake.
He looked about him, but there was nothing to be seen. He knew he could not have gotten any of the odor of the snake he had killed on his clothes, and the odor coming down the canyon was not quite that of a rattlesnake; it was fully as offensive and reptilian, but different.
He shook his head, puzzled, and walked on. Two hundred feet farther on the canyon swung in a bend and the trail took a shortcut through a thick growth of junipers. Here the odor became definitely stronger and a creepy feeling ran up his spine. He kept his eyes on the ground, watching where he was stepping as he went through the heavy underbrush. There was no doubt about the odor; while not quite like that of a rattlesnake, it was certainly the odor of some kind of a snake. Or several snakes, judging by the strength of it.
He stepped out of the thicket of trees and brush to the sandy bed of the canyon and looked up. There, not fifty feet in front of him, was Flopper—and the thing he had smelled.
* * *
The Slistian scout ship drifted down through the darkness, silently, undetected. Sesnar watched the little that the viewscreen could show in the darkness, his eighteen-foot snake-like body coiled in the concave pilot's chair before the control board, and patiently heard the thoughts that emanated from the spherical device beside him.
"Is there any evidence of intelligent life in the immediate vicinity?" the thought from the transmitter sphere asked.
"None," Sesnar's own thought replied. "I'm descending over an isolated section of the western part of the continent. The instruments indicate considerable mineralization in this area under me, including uranium. There are the lights of some kind of a small city in the far distance, but that is all."
The sphere made no comment and Sesnar asked, "Shall I sterilize the area in which I shall land?"
It required the usual two seconds for the sphere to project his thought through a hundred lightyears of space to his superior on Slistia and another two seconds for the reply to come back. "No. Although your observations have shown no great technological knowledge on the part of the natives, they may possess means of detecting your use of the sterilizer ray. They do possess the atomic and hydrogen bombs, we know, and the discovery upon their planet of an alien spaceship equipped with such a weapon as the sterilizer ray would most certainly cause them to attempt to interfere with your preliminary surveys and your capture of some of the natives for examination and study. When you are near the surface you shall proceed toward the area the instruments show to contain radioactive ores, flying low and watching for evidences of habitation, such as the lights of individual dwellings."
Sesnar duly acknowledged the order.
It did not seem strange to him that he, alone, should have been dispatched to make the preliminary survey of the new world while the nine members of the psychologist-strategist board remained upon Slistia to direct his most detailed activities by means of the thought transmitter sphere. It was merely coldly logical. No Slistian could foretell the degrees of civilization, if any, on a world a hundred lightyears away. Such a world might possess defensive weapons unknown to the Slistians. Such a thing had never happened—and no Slistian doubted ultimate Slistian victory—but the preliminary survey would disclose the weapons, if any, that the natives possessed; would disclose the resources of the new world, including the vital radioactive ores, and would provide specimens of the native intelligent life for study and ultimate vivisection. The weapons of the Slistians were many and deadly, with the hypnotic power of the Slistian mind the most insidiously deadly weapon of all. Yet there was always the small possibility of the natives possessing deadly weapons of their own and an exploration scout, such as Sesnar, proceeded under the constant supervision of the highly learned, very systematic, psychologists-strategists of the Colonization Board. The scout ship was equipped with every needed device and instrument to survey the new world, from mapping its continents to analyzing its air and determining what harmful viruses might be present. It carried robotic equipment to mine and refine radioactive ores for powering the force field it would throw around the mineralized area; the area that would become the Slistian headquarters for their Extermination Force ships. It carried a well-equipped laboratory where the captured native specimens could be probed and questioned by Sesnar's mind until their own minds were drained dry of information. After that, they would be placed on the tables and the viewscreen overhead would permit the Colonization Board on Slistia, as well as the Extermination Force Board, to learn the physical structure of the natives as Sesnar methodically vivisected them.
* * *
It was all very logical and carefully planned. A scout ship required a considerable amount of uranium-based fuel and the supply still remaining upon Slistia and the two worlds Slistia had captured was limited. Although thought waves could be transmitted across a hundred lightyears of space in two seconds, the material body of the ship required eight months to traverse the same distance. One Slistian could, with the specially-equipped ship, do as quick and thorough a job of surveying a new planet as a crew of Slistians could do and additional Slistians, plus additional food for the eight months voyage, would have required an additional amount of fuel; fuel that would be needed by the Extermination Force ships that would follow later. It was only necessary to know that the new world possessed the radioactive ores and to learn of what means of defense the natives might have.
The latter was very important; upon the study of the specimens of native life and their weapons would depend the strategy of the Extermination Force. They were quite efficient in ridding a world of its natives and their efficiency was due to careful planning beforehand; to equipping the Extermination Force ships with the most suitably destructive weapons for the job.
Sesnar halted the descent of the ship a few hundred feet above the surface and let it travel slowly in the direction of the uranium mineralization. He was almost to the bulk of a mountain when he saw the yellow light. He notified his superiors at once.
"There is a yellow-white rectangle of light some distance away. It's apparently artificial light from the window of a native's dwelling."
"Pass it by." The command was from Eska, head of the Colonization Board. "Take no chance of detection at this time. Pass it by and conceal your ship near the area of greatest mineralization."
Sesnar continued on his way, rising as he did so to clear the foothills of the mountain. He had gone a relatively short distance, the rectangle of light in the native's dwelling still visible behind him, when the instruments told him he was directly over the deposit of uranium. He descended to the ground, letting the robotic control scan the terrain under the ship with its radar eyes and select a safe and level spot. The ship settled to earth and he notified Eska of the fact.
There was a certain emotionless satisfaction in Eska's thought as he said, "The nearness of the native's dwelling to the uranium deposit simplifies things. Tomorrow you can accomplish both the capture of natives for study and the erection of the force field. In the meantime, you shall remain in the ship."
The latter order was not without sound reasons of caution; some creatures could see excellently in the dark and no Slistian could use its hypnotic powers on an animal it could not see.
Sesnar waited until dawn, then he reached out with the two small arms that were the only interruption of the snake-like form of his body and picked up his menta-blaster, to snap it down on the four metal studs set in the tough scales of the top of his head. He took no other weapon with him as he crawled forth from the ship; he needed no other weapon and only the most unexpected circumstances could cause him to need it, the hypnotic power of its mind serving very well to force other creatures to do as he willed.
The ship had landed in the bottom of a small canyon. There had been something in the canyon very recently, he saw, something that had dug some narrow trenches across what he presumed to be the deposit of uranium ore. He reported the fact to Eska.
"The work of the natives, obviously," Eska commented. "It would not be advisable to lift the ship at present. Reconnoiter—there should be some kind of a path the natives have made and it will lead to the dwelling. Follow the path for a short distance and report what you find."
The thoughts of Eska, broadcast by the sphere inside the ship, came clearly to Sesnar and he obeyed the orders, pausing only long enough to try the menta-blaster on a small bush beside the path. It vanished in a puff of dust.
The menta-blaster was a Slistian achievement and one that could be used only by Slistians. It was operated by certain thought patterns, the type and intensity of the beam regulated at will. Since the thought pattern that operated it had to be very precise, it was useless to any warm-blooded animal; only a Slistian could produce the necessary pattern with the necessary machine-like precision. It was a characteristic of warm-blooded animals to be emotional to a certain extent and no emotional animal, no matter how intelligent, could be sure of suppressing its emotions sufficiently to always duplicate the rigid, precise thought pattern. Although it might seem to the warm-blooded, intelligent animal that its emotions were completely in check and its mind free of all influence from them, the emotional influence over the pure, cold logic would still be there to some slight extent, enough to prevent exact duplication of the thought pattern built into the menta-blaster.
The menta-blaster was, to the Slistians, quite unnecessary proof that cold-blooded and logical life forms were superior to warm-blooded and emotional life forms.
The path was easily found and he followed it. He had gone only a short distance when the canyon emptied into a much larger one; a canyon that led in the general direction of the native's dwelling. The path followed the creek bank down the larger canyon and there, feeding on the green vegetation beside the path, he saw the first specimen of the planet's life.
It was a small quadruped with long ears and its sensitive ears detected the whisper in the sand of Sesnar's coming at almost the same moment he saw it. It sat up high on its hind legs to stare at him, its nose twitching, then it wheeled to bound away. He brought it under hypnotic control and it fell limply to the ground.
It was, of course, still alive and conscious; merely held helpless. Sesnar crawled to it and searched its mind. Its mind held no information of any value, its intelligence was of a very low order. Obviously, it was not a member of the planet's intelligent form of life.
He touched the rabbit with his small, lizard-like hands, feeling the fast flutter of its heart, then ripping a sharp claw down its belly. The entrails spilled out on the ground and he observed with interest that the animal was strictly herbivorous. He reported the fact to Eska who then ordered him to release the rabbit from hypnotic control so that its reaction to pain might be observed.
At the release of hypnotic control it leaped high in the air with a thin, shrill scream, then fell back to lay flopping and kicking in the sand, its bloody entrails trailing behind it. Its efforts to escape quickly weakened and soon it could do no more than lie and watch Sesnar with intense fear in its eyes.
"A high degree of sensitivity to pain, with no desire to destroy the inflictor of the pain," Eska remarked. "No revenge instincts whatever. Should this characteristic of complete non-aggressiveness apply to the intelligent creatures, our colonization program should need relatively little aid from the Extermination Force."
Sesnar waited until the rabbit died, reporting its resistance to death. It took a remarkably long time for it to die—that is, for a warm-blooded animal. The characteristic sensitivity to pain of warm-blooded animals was usually one of the factors that hastened their death when badly injured. When it finally stopped panting he crawled on, both he and Eska feeling well satisfied on the whole, though the high resistance to death was not to be desired.
He had not crawled very far down the canyon when he encountered the next quadruped, coming upon it suddenly where the trail swung around a sharp bend in the canyon. It was trotting up the trail toward him, unable to scent him with the breeze momentarily blowing up the canyon and he brought it under control the moment he saw it. He left it standing on its four legs and went down to it. It was considerably larger than the quadruped he had killed, shorter of ear and a different species altogether. He probed into its mind and found its intelligence to be of the third order; very high for a non-reasoning animal.
"Does its mind contain any information concerning the dominant form of life?" Eska asked.
"The dominant form is biped and this animal lives with two of them," Sesnar replied. "It exhibits an odd regard for them; an illogical emotional regard."
He went on to explain the affection of the dog for its masters and their affection for it as best he could. It was not a new thing to either Sesnar or Eska—they had observed similar attachments among other warm-blooded species—but it was impossible for them to comprehend the desire of two creatures of different species to be near each other and find pleasure in each other's company.
Eska dismissed it as of no importance. "Apparently the same as the attachment between the natives of Venda and the small animals they used to keep around before our arrival. It might be termed a symbiosis of the emotions—utterly illogical and no more than another example of their mental inferiority. What other information does the quadruped's mind contain?"
"It isn't a mature specimen but its thoughts are quite clear. It lives with two of these bipeds—a male and a female—in the dwelling near here. The male biped is to pass this way very soon and the quadruped has a strong desire for the biped to make its appearance. It's afraid of me but it seems confident the biped will either kill me or frighten me away."
"It has no doubt of the biped's ability to destroy you?" Eska asked.
"None whatever. Although it possesses no technical knowledge, of course, and is unable to supply me with any information concerning the biped's weapons."
"I think you will find the animal's confidence in the invincibility of the biped is due to the regard of the weaker for the stronger," Eska said. "Since the actions and abilities of the biped are beyond the quadruped's intelligence to comprehend it assumes, having no experience to the contrary, that nothing can be superior to the biped it depends upon for protection.
"Now, if you have extracted all the information of value in the animal's mind, kill it and conceal yourself near the path the biped is to use. A search of the biped's mind will reveal if there are any other bipeds in the vicinity, other than the biped's mate. If not, you will capture her, too, and return with both of them to your ship. You will then throw a force field around that area and lift ship to complete your mapping of the opposite hemisphere. The minds and bodies of the biped and its mate can be studied enroute."
"The path goes through a dense thicket of small trees a very short distance ahead of me," Sesnar said. "They would afford perfect concealment—"
He stopped as he caught the crunching of footsteps from within the trees. He reported to Eska, then watched the spot where the trail emerged from the trees. In a few moments the maker of the sounds appeared.
"It is the biped."
"If it shows no hostility toward you, do not bring it under full and immediate control," Eska ordered. "Let it remain in a hypnotic semi-trance until you have questioned it. It will eventually realize you are searching its mind, of course, and when that happens you will bring it under full control and proceed in the usual manner. But, until it is aware of your purpose, you can extract information from it with little difficulty."
* * *
Hart thought at first that the thing must be a boa constrictor that had escaped from a circus. Then he saw the hands. The two arms sprouted from tiny shoulders like two thick bullsnakes and terminated in pale green lizard-like hands, the size of a woman's hands. The forward portion of the body was erect with the belly a glazed yellow. The head was broad and slightly domed, swaying in the air nearly six feet above the ground. There was something mounted on the snake's head; a flat object with a short tube projecting a little in front of it. He noticed it only vaguely, his attention caught by the snake's eyes.
They seemed to possess an intelligence, even at a distance, and they fascinated him. He walked forward to see them better, remembering the pistol in his pocket as something of casual importance. The eyes were quite large, dead black in color with thin orange rims. There was an intelligence behind them, an intelligence as great as his own, and he could feel it studying him. Some instinct within him was trying to warn him—danger—but it was not until he had stopped before the snake and breathed the heavy, nauseating odor of it that the spell broke.
Snake! Men did not walk up to snakes as a hypnotized sparrow might do—but he had just done so.
He saw the intelligence in the snake's eyes for what it was, then; a cold, alien appraisal of him with the same objective detachment with which an entomologist might inspect an insect. It had not moved and there was no threat in its manner, other than the alienness of it and the way it had drawn him so irresistibly to it, but that was warning enough. He let his hand slide to his hip pocket and grasp the hard butt of the pistol, not drawing it but wanting it ready should he need it. Until, and if, the snake made a threatening move, he would try to question it. It very obviously was not of Earth and to kill it first then ask questions later would be both uninformative and stupid. It might intend him no harm; he would wait and see and keep his hand on the pistol.
It would most likely be from another planet of the solar system. He could draw a diagram of the solar system in the sand—there were no humans near but for Gwen at the cabin—and find out which planet it came from. Venus should be the one, the second from the sun—she should be along in a few minutes—
He stopped, suddenly aware of the random thoughts. His mind spoke another one: She would be after watercress and would not be armed as he was—
He cut the thought off with the chilling realization that the snake was questioning him. It could be nothing else. As the source of a motor nerve, when touched in an exposed brain, will make the corresponding muscle twitch, so the snake was questioning him; touching with its mind at the proper memory cells, exciting the desired memory responses.
The snake-thing wanted both him and Gwen. Why?
The implications of the question broke the hypnosis and the warning instinct screamed frantically: Kill it—while you can!
His arm jerked to whip the pistol from his pocket—and froze. His entire body was abruptly as motionless and powerless as though locked in a vice. He could not move—he had heeded the warning too late.
* * *
"The biped has an intelligence of the first order," Sesnar reported. "It became aware of my control before I had completed the questioning and attempted to kill me the moment it realized my intentions. I put it under full control before it could harm me, of course."
"Determine its full resistance to questioning while under muscular control," Eska ordered.
His entire body from the neck down was separated from the control of his brain. He was standing before the snake and could see it watching him, smell the odor of it; he was normal and the sensory nerves were functioning as always. He could feel the weight of the pistol in his pocket and his fingers could feel the butt of it as they held it half drawn from the pocket. The sensory nerves were functioning normally but his commands to his muscles were being cut off. His mind could formulate the commands and try to send them with all its power but nothing happened. Somewhere in his brain where the pure thought was transformed into a neural impulse, the snake had seized control. At that relay station his own commands were being cut off and the snake's commands substituted.
* * *
He had made a grave mistake; he had underestimated his opponent. He had reached for the pistol with his mind wide open, with his intention plain there for the snake to read. He should have kept the thought subdued, should have covered it over with other, stronger, thoughts. He had learned a lesson—perhaps it would not be too late. Physically he was helpless but his mind was still his own. His only resistance to the snake would have to be mental for the time being. In the end, if he made no more mistakes, he might win the game of wits and kill it before it killed him and Gwen.
A question came from the snake's mind, not the touching at the memory cells as before but a direct question.
"What is the percentage of uranium in the ore samples at your dwelling?"
It was, he realized, a test of his ability to withstand questioning. The snake would not care what the percentage might be—it was a test, the first won.
"Why do you want to know?" he asked.
The snake's answer was to touch quickly at the memory cells where the information lay and to repeat over and over: The percentage—the percentage—
Three point one four one five nine, he thought rapidly, and multiply by the diameter and you have the circumference. The circumference is—the percentage—the percentage— The thought was insistent, demanding an answer— The circumference is pi times the diameter and how do you like those onions?
The reply from the snake was a greater insistence upon an answer. The percentage—the percentage—the percentage— It hammered at his mind and the answer was there, eager to respond to the snake's touch and make itself heard. It was there, just below the level of expression, and he fought to keep it there, submerged, while he covered it over with other thoughts.
According to the semanticists, a thought cannot be conceived clearly without its conversion to words. Not necessarily spoken, but the thought conceived with the aid of the semantic expressions to outline it, to detail and clarify it. Forty-one percent, expressed in words, is a very definite part of the whole. Forty-one percent as a thought unaccompanied by the proper semantic equivalent is an indefinite minor proportion. He could not block the snake from probing at his memory cells but he could let the answer the probing evoked remain a wordless thought, an impression in his mind that was not clear even to himself, by keeping the answer below the level of semantic expression and covering it up with other thoughts of his own making and spoken aloud.
The percentage—the percentage— It was coming harder, with the full force of the snake's mind behind it, and he met it with every evasion he could contrive. He recited mathematical formulae to it, he told it an Aesop fable, he gave it portions of the federal mining laws. The question flicked relentlessly at his mind—the percentage—the percentage—and his words that kept the answer submerged came more swiftly and louder as the moments went by, his concentration became more intense.
He was telling it of the crystallographic structure of tourmaline when it was abruptly out of his mind, to stand silently before him as though meditating.
"Well," he asked, his voice dropping to normal pitch, "did you find out anything?"
It gave no indication that it heard him.
* * *
"Its resistance to questioning is unexpectedly high," Sesnar reported. "As with all warm-blooded animals, its means of communication is vocal and I left its vocal organs uncontrolled that it might accompany its answer with the semantic expressions that would give the answer the greatest clarity. It exhibited considerable cunning by taking advantage of the freedom of its vocal organs to use them to speak other thoughts and keep the answer I desired submerged."
"Pain will break its resistance," Eska replied. "The combination of pain plus control will quickly destroy its ability to keep the answer submerged. Use your menta-blaster with care, however—the biped must not be so severely injured that it will be unfit for complete questioning and physical study when you take it and its mate to the ship. Use the Type 4 beam."
* * *
He had won! The power of the snake's mind, great as it was, had not been great enough to force him to answer. It was only the first victory—he was still held as powerless as before—but it had been a victory. There would be other tests but he knew, now, that the snake-thing was incapable of hypnotizing a human. It could only assume control of the body, not of the mind.
Flopper was standing fifteen feet to one side of him, held by the same control. Or even more so—Flopper could not turn his head. He could move his eyes but that was all. Flopper was watching him now, fear in his eyes and a look of hopeful expectancy; a faith that his master would destroy the thing before them. It was pathetically humorous; he was the pup's god and a pup knows that its god can do anything.
Then the snake was speaking to his mind again, very concisely, very menacingly.
"You will tell me the percentage of uranium in the ore samples. You will tell me at once and with no attempts to submerge the answer."
Well, here we go again, he thought. He had an unpleasant premonition that this time it would not be so easy—but he would soon find out.
"Go to hell," he said.
The tube on the snake's head glowed a deep violet and something like the blades of incandescent knives stabbed into his chest and began to cut slowly across it. It was a searing, burning pain that ripped down his stomach and up his neck, to explode like a white light in his brain. The question was coming again—the percentage—the percentage—lashing at his mind like a whip through the glare of pain. The percentage—the percentage— The pain intensified and tore at every nerve in his body while the question goaded incessantly: The percentage—the percentage— He fought against it and the white glare engulfed his brain until the question was no longer a question but a knife thrusting again and again into his mind while he was an entity composed of pain and spinning in a hell-fire of agony, writhing blind and mindless in the white glare while the question stabbed at him—the percentage—the percentage—
It was meaningless, as meaningless as his own thought in return: thirty-five percent—thirty-five percent— Meaningless. He had been going to fight something—he couldn't remember what it was. His mind was blinded by the pain and he couldn't remember—nothing existed but pain, unbearable pain . . .
The chaos faded slowly and the white glare melted away. The knife was no longer in his brain and the tube on the snake's head was crystal white again. He knew, then, that he had lost.
His heart was pounding violently and his chest was an intolerable aching and burning. He looked down at it. Something like a row of sharp knives had cut halfway across it. The cuts were not bleeding—the knives had cauterized as they cut . . .
* * *
"The biped's resistance was greater than expected," Sesnar said. "I was forced to cut and burn it rather severely, but it will still be able to serve our purpose."
"Proceed to the place where the biped's mate is to come," Eska ordered. "If she is there, return with both of them to your ship. If not, continue on to the dwelling and get her. Nothing is to be gained by waiting and there is always the slight possibility that other bipeds might make an unexpected appearance. The sooner you can return to the ship with the two natives and erect the force field, the better."
* * *
There was a command from the snake to turn and step forward. He started to turn, then, even as the movement was begun, there came another command from the snake: Stop.
He stopped and stood motionless. The snake was looking beyond him, at something in the junipers behind him. Its full attention, but for its control over him, seemed to be on whatever it saw. The seconds went silently by as the snake stared and as they passed he felt an almost imperceptible lessening of the control; a faint tremor to his arm and hand as he tried to force them to obey his will. Something in the junipers was loosening the snake's control over him.
A brief glow of dim red came from the tube on the snake's head, existing barely long enough to be seen and then vanishing. With its vanishing the control weakened to the point where he could move his arm. It was like fighting against the drag of quicksand, but he could move it. He dropped his eyes to the target, the glistening yellow belly where he could bring the pistol up with the minimum amount of movement.
The pistol was almost free of his pocket when the snake abruptly returned its attention to him; seizing control with a savagery that ripped at his muscles like an electric shock. His fingers flew open and the pistol dropped back into his pocket. His hand was jerked around and slammed against his side. The snake permitted his knotted muscles to relax, then, but the tightening of his chest muscles had torn at the wounds and for what seemed a long time a sickness and a blackness swirled around him, the bulging eyes of the snake seemed to advance and retreat through it.
The blackness dispersed, though the sickness remained, and the dizziness left him. The snake was not moving and he could, for the first time, sense vague thoughts impinging upon its mind. Apparently the thing in the junipers had so disturbed the snake that it was unconsciously letting some of its own thoughts come through with the control. There was a distinct impression that it was communicating with another of its kind but there was no clue as to the identity of the thing in the junipers.
"A small animal suddenly appeared in the trees behind the biped," Sesnar said. "That is, I think it was an animal."
"You think it was an animal?" Eska's thought was a cold hiss. "What is the meaning of this? You were not sent on this mission to indulge in guessing—determine if it's an animal."
"I tried to—and I couldn't!"
"Explain yourself. I sense an agitation in your mind. Explain!"
"This animal is different to any we've ever encountered—if it is an animal," Sesnar said, his agitation becoming more evident as he spoke. "I cannot determine what it is because I not only cannot control it—I cannot enter its mind!"
Eska was silent for a while. "This is incredible," he said at last. "It cannot be! The mathematics of Kal, as well as our own centuries of colonization of alien worlds, have irrefutably proven that no warm-blooded creature can resist the power of the Slistian mind!"
"This one did."
"Perhaps," suggested Eska, "it is such a low form of life that it has no mind to enter, existing solely by instinct as the mollusks do."
"It is physically far too high on the evolutionary scale to not possess an intelligence," Sesnar said. "It has the appearance of an animal but that is all I can learn about it. I cannot control it, I cannot enter its mind, and—" Sesnar paused, as though dreading to reveal the rest. "It disturbs my mind!"
"Impossible!" Eska stated flatly. "No creature can disturb the mind of a Slistian."
"This one did," Sesnar repeated. "It disturbs me so that I cannot project the thought pattern into my menta-blaster. I tried to kill it, but despite my efforts to produce a full-force blast I was able to activate the menta-blaster for but a moment and then at such low intensity that the creature never felt it."
"Your menta-blaster must have developed a defect," Eska said. "I refuse to believe that any creature could so affect a Slistian. Is the creature still in view?"
"No. It vanished when I tried to activate the menta-blaster and is now watching me from the concealment of the trees."
"How do you know it is?"
"I can sense it watching me."
"Your menta-blaster has no doubt become defective," Eska said again. "Test it. Lower your head behind the protection of the biped and test it."
Sesnar dropped his head lower and his eyes searched for a suitable target. They fell on the quadruped, still motionless under his control. It would serve the purpose admirably and it was of no other use to him. With the biped's body between himself and the thing in the trees the disturbance was gone from his mind. He felt the familiar thought patterns come easily: Type I, quarter force—fire!
* * *
Confused thoughts swirled in Hart's mind. Why had the snake not killed whatever it saw behind him? It had started to do so—there had been the first dim glow from the tube on its head—and then it had stopped? Why? The snake had been disturbed by what it saw—why hadn't it eliminated it?
He turned his head as far as he could but the trees were directly behind him and he could not see them. Neither could he tell what it might have been by Flopper's reaction; the pup's back was to the trees, too.
The faith was still in Flopper's eyes. He was afraid of the thing before them and could not understand the awful paralysis that held him, but he knew with all his dog's heart that his master would help him. Then the snake dropped its head to the level of Hart's chest and looked directly at the pup. Frantic, imploring appeal flashed into Flopper's eyes as he sensed what was coming.
There was a blue-white flash from the tube on the snake's head and a crackling sound. A puff of dust hid Flopper from view for a moment. When it cleared he was lying on the ground, broken and still, a tiny trickle of blood staining his mouth.
"The blaster functions perfectly, the thought patterns are produced without effort, when I am not under the direct gaze of the thing in the trees," Sesnar reported.
"Proceed with the biped toward its dwelling," Eska ordered. "Permit it to retain its weapon—should the other thing appear again, force the biped to kill it."
* * *
It had killed Flopper!
Hart felt sick with the futility of his hatred for the stinking, scaly thing before him; he wanted, more than he had ever wanted anything in his life, to reach the pistol and empty it into the glazed belly, to watch the snake fall and then tramp its head into a shapeless mass. He wanted—but the command came to turn and he was doing so.
He turned and began the walking back down the trail, the snake slithering along beside him. They passed the limp little bundle of black and white fur that had been Flopper and went on, bypassing the shortcut through the junipers and following the sandy canyon bed. Was the thing still afraid of what it had seen in the trees? His chest was a sheet of fire and his heart was slugging heavily. Then the trees were behind them and they were back on the trail again, passing by the place where Gwen had intended to get the watercress. Were they going to the cabin? They came to the place where the trail climbed out of the canyon and his heart pounded harder as they started up it. There was a limit to the injury and pain a man could stand, no matter how hard he might fight to ignore it, and he had withstood injury and pain to such an extent that his body could take little more of it.
They were climbing up the grade and the snake could have but one reason for going to the cabin. It wanted Gwen; it wanted a pair of specimens of the native life to study; specimens that it would crush and examine as emotionlessly as he would crush and examine a specimen of ore. It hadn't told him, but he knew. It would force him to stand there where the trail came out on top of the bank and motion to Gwen to come to him. She might even now be starting out to gather the watercress; she would be able to see him easily from the cabin and she would come without question when he motioned her to do so. She had no reason to suspect any danger.
He would have to do something—what? His breath was coming harsh and labored and a blur kept trying to form before his eyes. It was hard to think, yet he had to think. He had to do something, and quickly. He was weakening and his time for action was running short—
He stopped, the snake beside him, and wondered why they had done so. It was looking up the trail, up at the top of the climb, and he shook his head to clear the blur away from his eyes. There was something gray there—
He saw what it was as his hand obediently reached for the pistol. It was one of the gray kittens. Why didn't the snake kill it? He thought of the rattlesnake he had killed so long ago and he knew what it was the snake-thing had seen in the trees, knew why its cold, merciless mind had been so disturbed.
Kill it—he must kill the kitten because the snake was afraid of it! The snake couldn't kill it! There was a flooding of hope through him. He had a plan, now; held deep and vague in his mind as he brought the sights of the pistol in line with the kitten's face. There was no time to inspect the plan, not even the hazy sub-conversion inspection it would have to be. He had been ordered to kill the kitten and his muscles were no longer his own; he could not disobey. His mind was his own, however, and he could—
The front sight was on the kitten's head, outlined in the rear sight, and he made his thought sharp and clear: This pistol shoots low; I must draw a coarse bead. Another thought tried to make itself heard: No—no—it shoots high. He drowned it out with the one of his own creating: Shoots low—draw a coarse bead. The front sight came up in obedience to the thought he was making sharp and clear, the snake unable to read the thought he was keeping submerged. The sight loomed high in the notch of the rear sight and he pressed the trigger. The startled kitten vanished in the brush beside the trail as the bullet snapped an inch over its head.
I did it! There was exultation in the thought—it was difficult to keep it hidden. There was a plan that would work—it would have to work—
"What is your plan?"
The snake's question came hard and cold and the tentacles flicked at his mind—the plan—the plan—
His hope became despair. He had let part of his thoughts get through to the surface, and now the snake knew of them—the plan—the plan— The tube was coming in line with his chest again. He would, in the end, tell the snake what it wanted to know—his mind would be sent spinning into the glare of pain and it would no longer be his own. But if he could delay it for a while . . .
"I'll tell you," he said calmly. The snake waited, the tube still in line with his chest. "Cats—they chase mice," he went on, his mind two things; a frenzied effort to think and to talk calmly to the snake with one part of it and a desperate planning in the darkness of sub-conversion with the other part. "Cats chase mice and I was going to yell at them—Susie—SNAKE!"
At his shout he expected, with the part of his mind he was keeping hidden from the snake, that the tube would flash violet again as the snake detected the subterfuge. But it had not—not for the moment, at least. Susie would come, she had to—
"They always chase these mice and the reason I sent for them—" The snake wouldn't let him talk nonsense for long—Susie would have to come soon— "I sent for them because the mice scared the farmer's wife when the clock—" What if she had gone back to the cabin? What if there was nothing to hear him but the gray kitten?— "struck one. I—"
"You are hiding something."
The tube flashed violet and his mind went reeling into the white glare where the tentacles lashed like whips—the plan—the plan— Something was saying: You are a snake and snakes are afraid of cats. I called Susie so you couldn't use the tube—so I could kill you before you could kill Gwen and me . . .
His mind came out of the glare again, out of the blinding intensity of pain. Vision returned and he saw the snake before him, with the tube once again crystal white. It knew, now, of his plan—he had resisted the questioning as long as he could and all he could do now was hope that Susie had heard him, that she was coming and had not returned to the cabin, after all. The cabin was too far away for her to have heard his call from there . . .
The snake was watching the top of the trail, its little hands fidgeting. He followed the snake's gaze, to find the trail empty. Susie—Susie—he thought—don't fail us now. It's Gwen and me and maybe every human on Earth if this thing isn't killed. Hurry, Susie, and help me—help me so I can kill it—
Then something appeared at the top of the trail, something gray. Susie! She had heard him! She came down the trail without pausing, flowing along low to the ground with her eyes fixed on the snake. She stopped eight feet short of them, her eyes stone-hard and unwavering in their stare.
There was a hint of emotion to the command this time; a touch of urgency where, before, the commands of the snake had been as dispassionate as its own hard-scaled face.
Again his hand brought up the pistol, but this time his will was delaying it a little. Not much, but a little. Susie was not a kitten; she was a mature cat with a mature cat's contempt for snakes. A cat, even a kitten, instinctively knows the difference between a harmless snake, such as a garter snake, and a poisonous snake, such as a rattlesnake. A small kitten will kill a garter snake but it will not tackle a rattlesnake until it has acquired the necessary strength, speed and experience. For all its size, the snake-thing before Susie was still a snake; a snake without fangs. It could not harm her except by physical force and to do so it would have to move faster than she did. All her experience had taught her that no snake could ever equal her own lightning coordination. The effect of her stare upon the snake would be far stronger than that of a kitten; that it was stronger was made evident by the manner in which his hand was bringing up the pistol so slowly. She could not harm the snake, but such would not be necessary. She had only to sit there and torment its mind with her cold stare—in the end the snake-thing's mind and will would break, its fear would become so complete that it would lose all control over him. And then—he would kill the thing—
The command was more urgent and he was raising the pistol faster despite his efforts to hold it back. It would take time for her stare to fully affect the thing and it was not going to permit that. The sights were coming in line with Susie's face—all his will could not halt the movement and he was going to kill her. When he shot her, he would destroy the only hope for survival—when he pulled the trigger he would be killing himself and Gwen as surely as though the muzzle was against their own heads. He tried the subterfuge of thinking the gun shot low, but it failed. His hand brought the front sight down low in the notch of the rear sight and his finger tightened on the trigger. He concentrated on the movement of the finger, forgetting everything else in the effort to delay the squeeze of the trigger. The command came again: Kill— It broke and he felt the control lessen.
It came once more, but differently: Kill them!
Them? The pistol had dropped and was no longer in line with Susie. He looked up the trail and saw why; the two gray kittens were trotting down the trail. They stopped beside their mother, one on each side of her, and their eyes as coldly upon the snake as hers.
No further command came for the time and the snake's hands fluttered with greater nervousness. The pistol was still in his hand but the muzzle had dropped toward the ground. There were six green eyes watching the snake now, and it was getting worried.
It would try again—it would have to try again, and soon. It took a little time for the stare of a cat to break a snake and the snake knew it. It was a snake and there was something about the impenetrable mind of a cat that it feared—but it was intelligent and it knew it could still escape if it acted quickly enough . . .
Gravel rattled down the face of the cliff his back was against. He twisted his neck to look up and saw the yellow kitten making its way along the ledge over his head. The kitten stopped just over him and there were eight cold eyes watching the snake. Three kittens to go, he thought, and then someone is going to get hurt. There was another yellow one and the red one, and the far-ranging spotted one should have been the one the snake saw in the trees—it should be coming up the trail any moment.
More gravel fell from the ledge above him; the other yellow one. The snake was darting its glance from the kittens on the ledge to Susie and the two beside her and did not see the spotted one trot up the trail and stop near the end of its long, thin tail. The red one was at the spotted one's heels and stopped beside it.
There was a trembling to his legs as the control lessened. The snake was breaking—he could not raise the gun to shoot the snake; it could not force him to shoot the cats. He felt an elation through the sickness and pain. The snake would break soon, would break and turn to flee. When it did the control would vanish and he would kill it. He would empty the pistol into the mottled green coils of it . . .
"Drop the weapon!"
His hand tried to spread open to drop the pistol and he tried to force it to clench the pistol tighter. If he dropped the pistol, the snake would scoop it up and use it to kill the cats—but his fingers were obeying the command, they were spreading apart.
He spoke quickly: "Did you know there are two more at your tail?"
It had the affect he had hoped for; the snake flicked its glance toward the two kittens, then there was a flurry of movement as it whipped its tail away from them and closer about its body.
His grip was firmer on the pistol and for the first time he smiled at the snake. "Disconcerting, aren't they?"
* * *
"There are seven of the creatures," Sesnar reported. "I am not sure whether or not they can harm me physically—they display a complete lack of fear as though they might possess some power to destroy me of which I am unaware. The biped has now become a menace; I am losing control of it and when my control weakens sufficiently it intends to kill me. It is too strong for me to wrest the weapon from its hand but it is rapidly weakening from the effects of its injuries. As soon as it weakens sufficiently, I shall take the weapon away from it. Since the biped's primitive weapon operates by manual control, I can use it to kill the other creatures. I am now going to release the biped of all control but for the hand that holds the weapon. This will cause it to feel the full extent of its injuries and reduce it to helplessness very quickly. My control, itself, is steadily deteriorating but the biped is so severely injured that I have no doubt it will be helpless long before my control over it is completely gone."
* * *
He was standing with his back to the cliff, his feet spread a little, when the control over everything but his hand suddenly vanished. His knees turned to rubber and he fell back against the cliff. He had not realized, while his muscles were under the absolute control of the snake, just how weak he was. His back bumped against the cliff and he braced his feet, shoving as hard as his weakness would permit against the cliff to keep himself standing. It was not enough and he began to drop, his backbone scraping along the rough rock face. For a moment a fold in his shirt caught on a projection and supported him, then it slipped off and he dropped to the ground in a squatting position. It seemed he dropped with a terrible jar and the hell-fire rippled across his chest. The sickness flooded over him and the blur clouded his eyes. He put all his will into one thought: Hold tight to the pistol!
The blur faded away and he could see the snake, its head now above him. He was sitting with his legs doubled under him and his heart was a small flub-flub within him. He was sweating the cold sweat of shock and the hand that held the pistol was no longer tan but an odd grayish color. He watched it and waited, hoping the spell would pass before the snake realized how weak he was.
The worst of it did pass and a little color came back to his hand. His heart, relieved of the burden of supplying his legs with blood, began to beat a little stronger and the blackness that had hovered around him withdrew.
The snake was in a close coil a few feet before him, the coils sliding and slithering together and the snake-like arms a succession of nervous ripplings.
"Afraid, aren't you?" he asked. "You need a dog—cats run from dogs." He kept his mind free of information-giving surface thoughts and went on to bait it. "You could easily control a dog and force it to chase all these cats away."
The snake asked the question he had expected. "What is a dog?"
"The animal you killed was a dog."
He regretted that the snake's expressionless face prevented his seeing the effect of the disclosure but the thought would be galling bitterness in the snake's mind. It had no emotions—but one. There was one emotion it had to have; the fear of death. Without that a species would never survive. It was afraid, now, and the greater its fear became, the weaker its control over him would become. He would have no time to spare; the blackness had merely withdrawn a little way and it kept threatening to swoop back over him. He would have to fight it off as best he could and at the same time do what he could to increase the snake's fear.
"Cats," he said to it. "You're afraid of them and they're not afraid of you. Do you know why they're not afraid of you?"
"Why?" The question was like a quick hiss, intense in its desire to know.
"Ask them," he answered. "They know; they can tell you. Ask them—look at them, go into their minds and learn why they don't fear you. Go ahead—go into their minds—"
A wisp of the darkness reached out to cloud his eyes and he waited for it to pass, holding tight to the pistol. The darkness withdrew and he repeated: "Go ahead—go into their minds. Burn them like you did me—make them tell you—go ahead—try it." He smiled up at the snake, twisted and mirthless. "They know what's going on in your mind; they know how they're breaking you without ever touching you. Why don't you go into their minds and learn why they hate you and hold you in contempt? Look into their eyes—go deep into their minds and see what you find . . ."
The cloud came again and he let his voice trail off to concentrate on holding to the pistol.
* * *
"The biped has not weakened yet?" Eska asked.
"It is weakening very rapidly, though not yet helpless," Sesnar replied.
"We dare take no risks—this absurd situation must be remedied at once," Eska informed him. "The thought pattern of your menta-blaster is on file and will be given to myself and the other eight members of the Colonization Board present here. The recording projector is being set up now. As soon as the last connections are made the pattern of your blaster will be projected to you with the power of the nine minds of the Board behind it. Since none of us are under the influence of the creatures before you, the pattern projection will be of absolute precision and irresistible power. Your own mind need serve only as the carrier. The final connections are being made now and you will receive the pattern projection at any moment."
* * *
He shook his head, trying to drive the darkness away. It withdrew, slowly and reluctantly, hovering near to close in on him again. His time was running out—all his will and determination could not much longer hold unconsciousness at bay. Time—he needed more time. Susie and the kittens were doing the best they could but their only weapon was the green stare of their eyes. In the end they would break the snake—but he would have to be there to kill it when they did so. If he lost consciousness all would be lost; the snake would use the pistol to kill the cats, it would go on to the cabin where Gwen was . . .
He needed time and he could not have it. He would have to bring it all to a showdown fast—in the little time he did have. Maybe if the cats were closer . . .
He called to Susie. His voice was a vague mutter and he tried again, making it clear. "Susie, come here—snake, Susie—snake!"
She came at his call, with the same silent, flowing motion. She stopped close beside him, so near that her whiskers tickled the back of his hand that held the pistol as she stared up at the snake's head and the writhing arms of it.
* * *
"The biped has called the largest of the creatures to its side," Sesnar reported. "I can see nothing about the creature capable of harming me but I sense a distinct menace—an utter lack of fear. It must possess some means of harming me of which I am unaware, otherwise it would not display this complete lack of fear. The effect of its stare upon my control over the biped is considerably greater at this close range and I am afraid to delay any longer. I am sure the biped has now weakened sufficiently for me to wrest the weapon from its grasp. I cannot wait any longer or my control over it will be completely gone. Project my menta-blaster pattern as soon as possible but I must take the biped's weapon now and kill it and the other creatures."
"The connections have been made and the charge is building up in the relay now," Eska said. "The moment it reaches full potential you will receive the pattern."
* * *
The snake settled lower in its coils until its head was barely a foot higher than his own. "I wish to talk to you," it said, leaning forward a little toward him. "I intend you no harm."
Subterfuge! The foreknowledge of the snake's intention was an electric shock through the haze of pain and sickness. Subterfuge—it was trying to put him off guard a little before it snatched the pistol from his hand.
The showdown had come.
He moved with all the desperate quickness his weakness would permit, trying to bring his left hand over in time to help his still-controlled right hand hold onto the pistol. The movement was hardly begun when the hand of the snake flashed out. At the same moment it ordered with all the force at its command: "Release the weapon!"
Susie reacted then, instinctively and instantaneously. It was beyond her ability to understand that the snake wanted only the pistol; that it wanted no contact with her. She had been waiting and watching, her eyes and body coordinated like a perfect machine and ready to act at the lightning-fast instant of her command. The snake-like arm darted toward her, as a rattlesnake would strike, and she replied to its threat as she would to the strike of a rattlesnake. Its hand was yet four inches from the pistol when her paw made its invisibly swift slash and the razor-sharp claws laid the soft-scaled hand open in four long gashes.
It flipped its body back at the slash of her claws and the control was suddenly gone, something like a scream coming through the channel where it had been. It was soundless but it was terror, complete and absolute.
Now! The glazed yellow belly was before him and the control was gone. He brought the pistol up, spurred by the frantic fear that the snake would resume control when victory was only a split second away. Up, where the sickening glaze was so near him—up and in line— The pistol barked, vicious and savage, and the snake lurched from the impact, a small, round hole in the glaze. Up and fire—up and fire— It was as he had wanted it to be when the snake held him helpless; as he raised the pistol and fired, raised and fired, the little black holes ran up the glazed belly while the snake kept lurching from the impacts and leaning farther backward, out over the edge of the trail. There were six of the little black holes in it when it toppled over and fell into the canyon below.
He heard the thump of it as it hit the bottom and he crawled to the rim of the trail to look down at it. It was lying in the sand of the canyon floor, twisting aimlessly, sometimes the dark green back up and sometimes the glistening yellow belly up.
It was twisting and turning as all dead snakes do; it was going nowhere; it was no longer a menace.
He turned away from it and saw that Susie and all the kittens were lined up beside him, looking down at the thing they had helped kill.
"I think," he said to them, "that the hungry old cat and the scrawny kittens we gave a home to one cold, rainy night have repaid us."
* * *
He was still in the hospital nine months later—with release a month away—when Earth's first spaceship was completed and the christening ceremony held. The snake-thing's ship had possessed every conceivable kind of weapon as well as the hyper-space drive and the military had been given orders, and unlimited priority, to create a Hyperspace Interceptor Fleet. There had been tapes and records in the ship that had left no doubt as to the snake-thing's mission. Industry had combined genius and mass-production to do the impossible; it had turned out the first complete and fully armed interceptor in less than nine months.
Gwen made her daily visit on the afternoon of the day of the ship's christening.
"This one will be the flagship, I guess you'd call it," she said. "Now that they're tooled up for production, they say they'll be turning out a ship a week."
"The things might try again," he said. "I don't think they will for some time; when Susie struck the snake it let its mind go wide open to my own mind for a moment—not only its mind but I could sense the thoughts of the other ones that it was in communication with—and they were afraid. Even the others were afraid, afraid because the one here was terrorized by something it couldn't control or understand. I think these snake-things got where they are by pure, unemotional logic; they happened to be an older form of life than the ones on the worlds they conquered and their knowledge of physical things, such as weapons, was greater. I suppose they had plans for ultimately conquering every habitable world in the galaxy. They were utterly without mercy in their plans; they, alone, were entitled to life because they, alone, had developed methods of destroying all other forms of life. They knew all about physical laws and they made use of their knowledge to devise weapons that made them invincible. But they overlooked what I like to think is a law higher than any they knew: the law that no species alone, is entitled to survival."
Gwen smiled at him. "The law that causes people to feel sorry for lost and hungry dogs and cats and want to give them a home. It's a good law, and it doesn't have to be written down for people; it's just our nature like it was the nature of that snake-thing to be cold and logical in everything it did."
"And its cold logic caused it to die," he said, "with it, even as it died, still wondering at our illogical affection for other creatures. And speaking of other creatures; how is Susie taking all the publicity and fame?"
"She's completely unphotogenic, and bewildered besides. She just wants to keep on being a common cat and she can't understand why all those people keep coming to see her and take her picture."
"Well—after all, she can't know just how important was the thing she and the kittens did. That thing was a snake and she was a cat; she just did the usual, normal thing for a cat to do."
"She was wanted at the ship's christening today, too," Gwen said. "They wanted her there to go out over all the television channels. I had to put my foot down flat on the idea, though."
Gwen smiled again. "Because she was too busy today doing something else that is the usual, normal thing for a cat to do—she was having kittens."