On and on Coeurl prowled. The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded
reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. It was a vague
light that gave no sense of approaching warmth. It slowly revealed a nightmare
Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain took form around him. A pale
red sun peered above the grotesque horizon. Fingers of light probed among the shadows.
And still there was no sign of the family of id creatures that he had been trailing
now for nearly a hundred days.|
He stopped finally, chilled by the reality. His great forelegs twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that grew from his shoulders undulated tautly. He twisted his great cat head from side to side, while the hairlike tendrils that formed each ear vibrated frantically, testing every vagrant breeze, every throb in the ether.
There was no response. He felt no swift tingling along his intricate nervous system. There was no suggestion anywhere of the presence of the id creatures, his only source of food on this desolate planet. Hopelessly, Coeurl crouched, an enormous catlike figure silhouetted against the dim, reddish sky line, like a distorted etching of a black tiger in a shadow world. What dismayed him was the fact that he had lost touch. He possessed sensory equipment that could normally detect organic id miles away. He recognized that he was no longer normal. His overnight failure to maintain contact indicated a physical breakdown. This was the deadly sickness he had heard about. Seven times in the past century he had found coeurls, too weak to move, their otherwise immortal bodies emaciated and doomed for lack of food. Eagerly, then, he had smashed their unresisting bodies, and taken what little id was still keeping them alive.
Coeurl shivered with excitement, remembering those meals. Then he snarled audibly, a defiant sound that quavered on the air, echoed and re-echoed among the rocks, and shuddered back along his nerves. It was an instinctive expression of his will to live.
And then, abruptly, he stiffened.
High above the distant horizon he saw a tiny glowing spot. It came nearer. It grew rapidly, enormously, into a metal ball. It became a vast, round ship. The great globe, shining like polished silver, hissed by above Coeurl, slowing visibly. It receded over a black line of hills to the right, hovered almost motionless for a second, then sank down out of sight.
Coeurl exploded from his startled immobility. With tigerish speed, he raced down among the rocks. His round, black eyes burned with agonized desire. His ear tendrils, despite their diminished powers, vibrated a message of id in such quantities that his body felt sick with the pangs of his hunger.
The distant sun, pinkish now, was high in the purple and black sky when he crept up behind a mass of rock and gazed from its shadows at the ruins of the city that sprawled below him. The silvery ship, in spite of its size, looked small against the great spread of the deserted, crumbling city. Yet about the ship was a leashed aliveness, a dynamic quiescence that, after a moment, made it stand out, dominating the foreground. It rested in a cradle made by its own weight in the rocky, resisting plain which began abruptly at the outskirts of the dead metropolis.
Coeurl gazed at the two-legged beings who had come from inside the ship. They stood in little groups near the bottom of an escalator that had been lowered from a brilliantly lighted opening a hundred feet above the ground. His throat thickened with the immediacy of his need. His brain grew dark with the impulse to charge out and smash these flimsy-looking creatures whose bodies emitted the id vibrations.
Mists of memory stopped that impulse when it was still only electricity surging through his muscles. It was a memory of the distant past of his own race, of machines that could destroy, of energies potent beyond all the powers of his own body. The remembrance poisoned the reservoirs of his strength. He had time to see that the beings wore something over their real bodies, a shimmering transparent material that glittered and flashed in the rays of the sun.
Cunning came, understanding of the presence of these creatures. This, Coeurl reasoned for the first time, was a scientific expedition from another star. Scientists would investigate, and not destroy. Scientists would refrain from killing him if he did not attack. Scientists in their way were fools.
Bold with his hunger, he emerged into the open. He saw the creatures become aware of him. They turned and stared. The three nearest him moved slowly back toward larger groups. One individual, the smallest of his group, detached a dull metal rod from a sheath at his side, and held it casually in one hand.
Coeurl was alarmed by the action, but he loped on. It was too late to turn back.
Elliott Grosvenor remained where he was, well in the rear, near the gangplank. He was becoming accustomed to being in the background. As the only Nexialist aboard the Space Beagle, he had been ignored for months by specialists who did not clearly understand what a Nexialist was, and who cared very little anyway. Grosvenor had plans to rectify that. So far, the opportunity to do so had not occurred.
The communicator in the headpiece of his space suit came abruptly to life. A man laughed softly, and then said, "Personally, Im taking no chances with anything as large as that."
As the other spoke, Grosvenor recognized the voice of Gregory Kent, head of the chemistry department A small man physically, Kent had a big personality. He had numerous friends and supporters aboard the ship, and had already announced his candidacy for the directorship of the expedition in the forthcoming election. Of all the men facing the approaching monster, Kent was the only one who had drawn a weapon. He stood now, fingering the spindly metalite instrument.
Another voice sounded. The tone was deeper and more relaxed. Grosvenor recognized it as belonging to Hal Morton, Director of the expedition. Morton said, "That's one of the reasons why you're on this trip, Kent -- because you leave very little to chance."
It was a friendly comment. It ignored the fact that Kent had already set himself up as Mortons opponent for the directorship. Of course, it could have been designed as a bit of incidental political virtuosity to put over to the more naive listeners the notion that Morton felt no ill will towards his rival. Grosvenor did not doubt that the Director was capable of such subtlety. He had sized up Morton as a shrewd, reasonably honest, and very intelligent man, who handled most situations with automatic skill.
Grosvenor saw that Morton was moving forward, placing himself a little in advance of the others. His strong body bulked the transparent metalite suit. From that position, the Director watched the catlike beast approach them across the black rock plain. The comments of other departmental heads pattered through the communicator into Grosvenors ears.
"I'd hate to meet that baby on a dark night in an alley."
"Don't be silly. This is obviously an intelligent creature. Probably a member of the ruling race."
"Its physical development," said a voice, which Grosvenor recognized as that of Siedel, the psychologist, "suggests an animal-like adaptation to its environment. On the other hand, its coming to us like this is not the act of an animal but of an intelligent being who is aware of our intelligence. You will notice how stiff its movements are. That denotes caution, and consciousness of our weapons. Id like to get a good look at the end of those shoulder tentacles: If they taper into handlike appendages or suction cups, we could start assuming that its a descendant of the inhabitants of this city." He paused, then finished, "It would be a great help if we could establish communication with it. Offhand, though, Id say that it has degenerated into a primitive state."
Coeurl stopped when he was still ten feet from the nearest beings. The need for id threatened to overwhelm him. His brain drifted to that ferocious edge of chaos, where it cost him a terrible effort to hold back. He felt as if his body were bathed in molten liquid. His vision kept blurring.
Most of the men walked closer to him. Coeurl saw that they were frankly and curiously examining him. Their lips moved inside the transparent helmets they wore. Their form of intercommunication -- he assumed that was what he sensed -- came to him on a frequency that was well within his ability to receive. The messages were meaningless. In an effort to appear friendly, he broadcast his name from his ear tendrils, at the same time pointing at himself with one curving tentacle.
A voice Grosvenor didn't recognize drawled, "I got a sort of static in my radio when he wiggled those hairs, Morton. Do you think--"
"Its possible," the leader answered the unfinished question. "That means a job for you, Gourlay. If it speaks by means of radio waves, we might be able to create some sort of language code for him."
Mortons use of the mans name identified the other. Gourlay, chief of communications. Grosvenor, who was recording the conversation, was pleased. The coming of the beast might enable him to obtain recordings of the voices of all the rest of the important men aboard the ship. He had been trying to do that from the beginning.
"Ah," said Siedel, the psychologist, "the tentacles end in suction cups. Provided the nervous system is complex enough, he could with training operate any machine."
Director Morton said, "I think wed better go inside and have lunch. Afterwards, well have to get busy. Id like a study made of the scientific development of this race, and particularly I want to know what wrecked it. On Earth, in the early days before there was a galactic civilization, one culture after another reached its peak and then crumbled. A new one always sprang up in its dust. Why didn't that happen here? Each department will be assigned its special field of investigation."
"What about pussy?" somebody said. "I think he wants to come in with us."
Morton chuckled, then said seriously, "I wish there were some way we could take it in with us, without forcibly capturing it. Kent, what do you think?"
The little chemist shook his head decisively. "This atmosphere has a higher chlorine than oxygen content, though actually not much of either. Our oxygen would be dynamite to his lungs."
It was clear to Grosvenor that the catlike being had not considered that danger. He watched the monster follow the first two men up the escalator and through the great door.
The men glanced back towards Morton, who waved a hand at them and said, "Open the second lock and let him get a whiff of the oxygen. That'll cure him."
A moment later the Directors amazed voice was loud on the communicator. "Well, Ill be damned! He doesn't notice the difference! That means he hasn't any lungs, or else the chlorine is not what his lungs use. You bet he can go in! Smith, here's a treasure house for a biologist -- harmless enough if we're careful. What a metabolism!"
Smith was a tall, thin, bony man with a long, mournful face. His voice, unusually forceful for his appearance, sounded in Grosvenor's communicator. "In the various exploring trips I've been on, I've seen only two higher forms of life. Those dependent on chlorine, and those who need oxygen -- the two elements that support combustion. I've heard vague reports of a fluorine-breathing life form, but I've yet to see an example. Id almost stake my reputation that no complicated organism could ever adapt itself to the actual utilization of both gases. Morton, we mustn't let this creature get away if we can help it."
Director Morton laughed, then said soberly, "He seems anxious enough to stay."
He had been riding up the escalator on one side of the gangplank. Now he moved into the air lock with Coeurl and the two men. Grosvenor hurried forward, but he was only one of a dozen men who also entered the large space. The great door swung shut, and air began to hiss in. Everybody stood well clear of the catlike monster. Grosvenor watched the beast with a growing sense of uneasiness. Several thoughts occurred to him. He wished he could communicate them to Morton. He should have been able to. The rule aboard these expeditionary ships was that all heads of departments should have easy access to the director. As head of the Nexial department -- though he was the only one in it -- that should have applied to him also. The communicator of his space suit should have been fitted so that he could talk to Morton as did the heads of the other departments. But all he had was a general receiver. That gave him the privilege of listening in to the great men when they were doing field work. If he wanted to talk to anyone, or if he were in danger, he could throw a switch that would open a channel to a central operator.
Grosvenor did not question the general value of the system. There were just under one thousand men aboard, and it was obvious that all of them could not talk to Morton whenever they pleased.
The inner door of the lock was opening. Grosvenor pushed his way out with the others. In a few minutes they were all standing at the bottom of a series of elevators that led up to the living quarters. There was a brief discussion between Morton and Smith. Finally, Morton said, "Well send him up alone if he'll go."
Coeurl offered no objection until he heard the door of the elevator clang shut behind him, and the closed cage shot upward. He whirled with a snarl. Instantly, his reason twisted into chaos. He pounced at the door. The metal bent under his plunge, and the desperate pain maddened him. Now he was all trapped animal. He smashed at the metal with his paws. He tore the tough welded panels loose with his thick tentacles. The machinery screeched in protest. There were jerks as the magnetic power pulled the cage along in spite of projecting pieces of metal scraping against the outside walls. Finally, the elevator reached its destination and stopped. Coeurl snatched off the rest of the door and hurtled into the corridor. He waited there until the men came up with drawn weapons.
Morton said, "Were fools. We should have shown him how it works. He thought wed double-crossed him, or something."
He motioned to the monster. Grosvenor saw the savage glow fade from the beasts coal-black eyes as Morton opened and closed the door of a near-by elevator several times. It was Coeurl who ended the lesson. He trotted into a large room that led off from the corridor.
He lay down on the carpeted floor and fought down the electric tautness of his nerves and muscles. He was furious at the fright he had shown. It seemed to him that he had lost the advantage of appearing a mild and placid individual. His strength must have startled and dismayed them.
It meant greater danger in the task he must accomplish: to seize this ship. On the planet from which these beings had come, there would be unlimited id.