"Don't smile, 'Quilon," the big man said, forearms flexing on the controls.
The girl beside him put both hands to her lips in a naturally graceful reaction, searching, as though afraid her features had betrayed her.
"'Quilon," Veg continued, "you know you're a mir'cle of beauty in summer shorts. Be a shame to ruin it with a little smile, now."
Aquilon leaned over, unsmiling, to rest her forehead against his muscular shoulder. "Don't," she pleaded quietly.
Veg stared ahead, realizing that he had hurt her but not understanding why. The truth was that he rather admired Aquilon's composure; it lent her features a classic splendor that few living women possessed. He had known many smiling females and respected none; they were always to be found hanging around the spaceport, eager for his money and his muscle and most of all for his notoriety: a spaceman. The mature ones were competent--and expensive--and not always trustworthy. The teeners were agog with puppylike willingness, anxious to question him on what simply had to be exciting, and too often taking the more prosaic truth for some veiled criticism of their feminine worth.
He was not a philosophic man, apart from one area that he kept to himself, and craved little more than physical pleasure and honest companionship; but circumstances had forced cynicism upon him. He was unsatisfied, and when driven to probe the reasons for this had realized that it was because he was in fact a non-person. The dedicated women of the spaceport were eager for news of space and for proximity to it--though not eager to undertake offworld voyages themselves. They had little interest in the personal needs or feelings of the man within the uniform. They paid off in sex and thought that was enough. It was true that he needed sex--but that was only the physical side of the coin. Sex was minutes; what about the hours remaining?
Aquilon was different. First, she had come to space herself, and that was a definite signal of determination, talent and courage. Second, she was young and astonishingly beautiful--an almost foolproof formula for serious trouble in space. She gave no shred of encouragement to any man but she needed a man, if only to protect her boundaries from other males.
She had come to Cal.
If the choice seemed ludicrous, it was quickly apparent that it was not. Cal had no designs on her, and was knowledgeable about many things. She could talk to him without affectation or defensiveness, and touch him without being forcibly reminded that they were male and female. She could sleep in his cabin safely, for he forced himself on no person in any way. Indeed, she served him by bringing him books from the ship's library, by making up his bunk and cleaning his instruments and buttoning his uniform for him the few times uniforms were used in space. Cal was not always strong enough to do these things for himself.
No one interfered. At first there had been little restlessness, but Veg had talked to the men in question and it passed.
"As with Ferrovius and the Roman courtier," Cal had remarked sagely. Veg had failed to comprehend, and so the little man explained. "Ferrovius was a character in Shaw's play Androcles and the Lion. He was constructed somewhat like you, Veg, and I think there would be a fair comparison in temperament too. He was an early Christian, back in the days when such faith was unfashionable, and pledged to nonviolence. When the Roman struck him on the cheek, he dutifully turned the other cheek--but then he suggested that the Roman should try a similar exercise. "I sat up all night with that youth wrestling for his soul;" he tells us, "and in the morning not only was he a Christian, but his hair was as white as snow."
After that Veg, who had little interest in literature, had taken the trouble to read the complete play, and had discovered that the Irish playwright himself was a vegetarian. Small cosmos.
At any rate, Veg had impressed upon the remaining complement of the ship that Cal was his friend. When Aquilon entered the picture, she became Cal's second friend. It was that simple. What upset her, upset Cal--and that in turn made Veg restless and brought about Ferrovian exercises of pacifism.
The relationship between Veg and Aquilon was somewhat cooler. It was absolutely polite, and there was even innocent banter, as there had been just now--but they did not quite understand each other, as the recent dialogue had just reminded him.
She touched his tense biceps. "I'm sorry, Veg. My fault."
"Naw," he said, grinning. Suddenly his world was bright, though what he viewed was not. He swung the tractor around one of the giant fungi, wrinkling his nose at the fetid odor he fancied he smelled. He squinted through the front screen, trying to penetrate the haze that covered the planet of Nacre. The level plain ahead became lost in the gloom, its foreground broken only by the massive fungoid growths ballooning out of the fertile dust.
"Are we near the mountains?" Aquilon asked, slender fingers toying with a small but rather special art brush. Veg grunted.
The tractor accelerated, forging through the thick atmosphere. The wind whipped into the open cockpit, carrying Aquilon's hair out in short blonde streamers. She faced ahead, inhaling deeply through the concealed nostril filters. She did not smile.
Veg eased up as the mountain ridge appeared. Nacre had never been mapped, largely because there was no economical way to do it, but men were working on the problem now, and he enjoyed exploring. The outcroppings at the base of these hills of his were stark, while the tops projected into the encompassing mist and vanished. Aquilon's fingers moved in air, shaping the vision she saw, eager to express it on canvasite.
"Look at the vegetation!" she exclaimed. "The toadstools!"
Now that they were moving slowly, Veg could see what she meant. The plain had been largely featureless, a foggy desert, but the foot of the mountain at close view was covered with fungoid brilliance. What had seemed like bare stone was actually gray and blue fungus, its hugely spreading tops an umbrella over the lesser growths. What appeared to be sand was the salt and pepper of myriad tiny spokes emerging from a brown spongelike underpinning. Between were layered colors--red, yellow, blue and black, the individual plants shaped like funnels, horns, brackets, plates and, yes, toadstools. From a distance it was all a blur, largely the fault of the atmosphere; close, it was a wonderland of shape and color. He pulled to a halt.
"Don't touch anything," he warned her. "Some of these mushrooms could be poisonous." Then he felt foolish, remembering her training; she should be warning him. There was no danger of anyone taking a bite.
Aquilon unfolded a tripod from her pad and painted busily. She wore brown shorts and a white blouse and filled both so well Veg found it hard to look at her. He wondered again why she had deserted the popular life she could have had on Earth to venture into lonely space. But she offered no hint, as she twirled her brush and duplicated item after item in full color.
He walked to the rear of the tractor and lifted the catch on the back equipment hold. There, suspended in a comprehensive padded harness, was a very small, thin, bespectacled man with sparse brown hair. His trousers and sleeves were full length, as though he did not want people to see his limbs, and his shirt came together in a snug collar about a small neck.
"How you doing, Cal?"
The little man smiled bravely. "Well enough," he said, but his face was pinched and white.
"We stopped to draw some pictures," Veg explained. "Maybe you want a few samples?"
The sunken eyes brightened. "You found some distinctive varieties!" The emaciated hands came up to touch the fastenings of the harness, then dropped wearily. "Perhaps you could select a few for me."
"Sure," Veg said, embarrassed. He could see that the ride had been hard on his friend. He kept forgetting that others did not always share his enthusiasm for speed. Cal had not adapted properly to the gravity of Nacre, though it was less than that of Earth, and the filters impeded his breathing. In space, under null--gravity conditions, he was all right, and he had a liquid suspension bath for conditions of acceleration. On land--he suffered. But Cal was Cal, and had insisted on coming on the exploratory excursion, rough as the journey might be. He was as excited as Aquilon about what might lie in the mountain range. It was not courage he lacked, but strength.
Veg donned protective gloves and marched toward the most luxuriant display. "Not those!" Aquilon cried, startling him into drawing a breath through his mouth. Her voice was apt to do that to him. He expelled the air hastily, realizing that she wanted to preserve that particular group for a portrait, and moved over.
The atmosphere of Nacre had been exhaustively tested and pronounced safe--in moderation. A few breaths through the mouth would not cause serious discomfort, and all personnel were trained to breathe automatically through the filters, even in sleep. Veg knew this, but the unfiltered air seemed unclean and it upset him to inhale it.
The flora and fauna were another matter. Some of these were deadly in unexpected ways, and most had yet to be tested and classified. The rule: Do not touch until the laboratory has taken apart and approved.
Aquilon glanced at him as he advanced upon the bend of the outcropping, but he did not interrupt her sketching. Veg stopped, spread out a collection sheet, and carefully reached out to grip the nearest offerings.
The fungi were even fancier than he had thought, and so thickly packed that there was no clear way to isolate them for individual harvest. Yellow goo flowed where his feet had crushed minute growths, and he regretted this accidental destruction. He reached for an Earth-sky-blue six-inch stinkhorn, afraid the projecting tip would break off and crumble in his hand, but to his relief and surprise it was as solid as a stick of wood. He worked it free, sadly snipping off the wirelike root strands, and laid it on the cloth.
Farther along was a specimen about the size of a softball, with innumerable spaghetti--like threads twisting about. These moved as his hand approached, startling him. He jerked back, almost losing his balance, and glanced over the outcropping of mushroom-rock into the alcove beyond.
He stiffened."'Quilon," he called in a low tone.
She knew immediately that something important was there. She came swiftly and quietly and followed the direction of his gaze. "I see it," she said, as tense and quiet now as he.
It was a bay in the sea of dust, and squatting in front of a smaller inlet was a creature about the size of a small crouched man. From this vantage point the most distinctive feature was its enormous single eye.
"What is it?" she asked him. Veg did not reply. The creature stood unmoving, its eye, three inches across, focused unwaveringly upon them. The body was hunched into a globular mass balanced upon a single muscular foot.
They exchanged glances. Veg shook his head at the unspoken question. "We're only supposed to note the lay of the land," he said. "We don't dare mess with the local life--not something as strange as this."
"It doesn't look dangerous."
"But eighteen men were killed before we arrived--by something." He did not need to say more. They were conditioned to caution as members of a semiprivate troubleshooting expedition investigating a promising but dangerous planet. Pay was to some extent contingent upon success in solving the problem, and qualified volunteers were scarce. Strange people enlisted and strange things happened--but individuals avoided risks not so much for personal safety as from consideration for the needs of the expedition. A foolishly brave man was a liability.
Veg had wondered from time to time why Cal was allowed to stick with the group, since he was most apt to get himself killed. Perhaps it was because he was also most apt to put his finger, feeble as it might be, directly upon the source of trouble, and thus save many other lives and much time.
At any rate, they were bound to watch this strange creature, but not to approach it, however much they might be tempted to.
Aquilon was already sketching, wasting no motions. Color flowed from her brush, seemingly of its own volition. She flicked it, once, at Veg; a bright red dab flew to spatter against his cheek. Satisfied, she returned to her picture, the magic strokes quickly evoking a lifelike image of the animal ahead.
"Got a tail," Veg said, wiping at his face with good humor, "but no jaws. Not like the omnivore. How does it fight?"
She did not comment, rapidly filling new sheets of canvasite. All the animals they had observed on Nacre--and there were not many--were constructed on a roughly similar blueprint, as though radiating from a common ancestor. Just as the animals of Earth had settled on four limbs and two eyes, regardless of the vertebrate species, those of Nacre stayed with one foot and one eye. But, as on Earth, these animals diverged into large and small, bold and shy, predator and prey. The most savage of them all was the omnivore.
"Could have weapons that don't show," Veg said, having nothing to do while Aquilon painted. "That eye--"
Even from this distance the eye was impressive. It glittered from a convex surface like a lens, as deep and dark as a well. Inside, perhaps just beyond the visible spectrum, there seemed to be a flicker, almost a glow.
"...something about it," Aquilon agreed, sketching an enlarged view of the organ.
Veg drew her back at last, his two hands on her slender shoulders while she continued to paint. "We'd better get home and report this thing. Might be important."
She acquiesced reluctantly. They backed away until the creature was hidden from view behind the projecting arm of the mountain; then Veg stood guard while Aquilon ran to the tractor to explain the situation to Cal. Veg kept his hand on his sidearm, hoping he would not have to draw it. For one thing, he never liked using a weapon, though he did when he had to; for another, he had no guarantee that the repellant fog it emitted would be effective, since this creature was quite different from any seen before.
After allowing Aquilon time, he backed the rest of the way to the tractor. He had been careless to harvest mushrooms without checking the area thoroughly first. The thing could have crept upon them silently...
"That's all I got," he said apologetically to Cal as he deposited the single fungus and closed up the compartment. The little man only nodded, and Veg knew he was wishing he had been able to see the new creature. A single glance would mean more to Cal than ten minutes to Veg. "I'll glide by it as we go. You can watch through your periscope."
"If only radio worked on this planet--" Aquilon complained as he joined her in the front. It was a familiar grumble; parties did not like being out of contact with the main base, but the dust seemed to blank out most electromagnetic radiation in the atmosphere. Later, alternative communication would be worked out; but now they had to desert a phenomenal discovery because they could not summon another party from the base. "We may never see it again."
He started the huge motors and ground slowly forward. The vehicle rounded the edge of the mountain and cut into the bay.
The animal remained, flickering inscrutably. Veg drew carefully opposite, then stopped and turned, hoping Cal was getting a satisfactory view. The man was fascinated by extraterrestrial life of all kinds, but especially by the larger animals. This would make his day.
The tractor spun to face its own retreating spoor. Aquilon, still curious, mounted the back of the seat to watch over the top of the vehicle as they departed. Veg glanced once at the several square inches of soft thigh exposed, then bit his lip and concentrated upon his driving. His expression was thoughtful.
The creature moved. Veg could see it in the rear vision screen. It made an awkward, high leap, twisting in the air to land on its foot a dozen feet nearer the tractor. The lambent alien eye still watched intently.
"I think it's as curious about us as we are about it," Aquilon said brightly, still facing behind as they picked up speed. "It's following us."
Veg grinned, relieved now that the three were safely in the moving machine. "Maybe it wants to race." He accelerated to an even twenty miles per hour. "Let me know when it gives up."
"Not yet," the girl said. She watched the creature leap and leap again, approaching the tractor, while Veg watched her watching. "It's catching up to us."
Veg grunted and played with the controls, letting out the mighty engine until the indicator registered thirty-five.
"It's still gaining," Aquilon said, genuinely excited now and even more attractive in that condition. "But--it isn't the same. I mean--" She faltered and glanced at him as though expecting a rebuke. "It--I think it changed its shape. To hop faster."
This was no overstatement, as he could see for himself. The body had flattened out and elongated, and the bounding effect was gone. The foot had become a pistonlike pushing member, touching the ground at intervals of twenty feet, sending the body forward in long shallow trajectories. The large eye was in the front of a head now tapered like a rocket, fading back into a neckless trunk, and the long tail streamed behind.
Veg tried to watch screen, girl and the view ahead, but had to alternate. "We latched on to something here," he muttered, rising to the challenge. "But if it really wants to race--"
Once more the tractor accelerated. It had been built for high speed over rough terrain, and was as potent a machine as Earth produced. Veg switched on the headlights and maneuvered deftly around the rapidly looming fungi. Aquilon hung on to the hand rail behind the seat as the thick wind tore at her body. Her blouse inflated and hair shot over her face in a rigid bonnet. She faced back still, a look of solemn excitement on her comely features, lips parted but breathing through her nose, intent on the uniped behind. At sixty it began, slowly, to fall away.
Aquilon reluctantly lowered herself down into the seat, fighting the fierce currents and jolts. "I never saw anything so fast--" She realized only then that her blouse had torn free of the elastic waistband and now hung loosely over the shoulders and arms.
Veg nodded appreciatively but made no comment He wasn't going to get her mad at him again!
She tucked herself together and leaned over to view the screen before the driver. "Look!"
Directly behind, the creature was gaining again.
Veg's mouth dropped open. "But we're doing seventy-five!" he protested.
Aquilon watched closely, while Veg peered in frustration past her head. He did not really have the tune to concentrate on the screen at this velocity. He was approaching the limit of forward visibility under Nacre conditions, and Cal would not be appreciating the roughness of the ride.
"It changed again," she said, a little smugly, and described it to him. The thing no longer leaped or pushed at all; instead it stayed close to the ground, its foot moving so rapidly that it was invisible at contact. The body moved on an almost level course, flattened all the way into a thin disk ten feet in diameter. The vast front eye still stared ahead, hypnotic, glowing darkly.
"How could I have thought it awkward?" Aquilon whispered. "It's the most beautiful thing, like a butterfly--no, like a swimming manta ray, back on Earth. Only it swims in the air, so swift--"
The tractor leaped forward, its motors roaring. "This time," Veg said with grim enthusiasm, "this time I'm really going to show it dust!" He touched a button and an armored canopy slid over the cockpit, killing the turbulence within. But heavy vibration jarred the occupants as the vehicle sped over the plain in a straight course, blasting apart the mists and shattering the fungi in its path. He was proud of the machine, with its engine composed of a motor for every wheel and its overwhelming impetus.
The thick dust stirred at last, obscuring the afterview, and once again the pursuer was lost to sight. But in a moment it reappeared, off to the side and still gaining over the tractor's speed of ninety-five.
"Is there any limit?" Aquilon breathed, staring raptly at it. "Such a performance..."
As the tractor continued to accelerate, the flat thing outside slowly forfeited ground, and was finally lost again in the mists. This time it did not return.
Veg eased off slowly, somewhat intoxicated by the speed. He seldom had a pretext to really push the tractor.
Aquilon was first to react, lifting her flaxen head like an alert doe. "Burning," she said. "Something is burning!"
Veg laughed and pinched her bare knee with corded fingers. Then he smelled it. "Oh--oh."
The tractor slued alarmingly. "Wheel's froze up," he grunted. "Got to cut that motor. Damn dust must've--"
It lurched again, throwing them both to one side. Veg cursed and fought the controls; Aquilon unplastered her bosom from his shoulder and braced herself against the opposite corner. The dust ascended in surging clouds, hiding earth and sky.
The sturdy vehicle did not topple. They sat quietly while the pocket storm outside subsided, then choked jointly as the reek of well-charred insulation fumed in. Veg released the canopy and forced it back by hand. The incoming swirl of dust washed out the bitter air and gave their filters something tangible to work on.
"We're stranded," Veg said bluntly. "Own fault. This machine won't move for weeks."
Aquilon worked it out for herself. "In this mist and dust there won't be any tracks to follow by the time they realize we're lost ... and we can't signal them. A full search pattern would take too long."
There was a groan. Her eyes widened. "We forgot Cal!"
Veg banged the door open and jumped to the ground. Aquilon slid over and dismounted more carefully. Together, they circled through the settling particles to the rear of the tractor.
Cal's glasses were broken and hooked over one ear, but there was no blood on his face. Veg unfastened the harness and lifted him down.
Aquilon flung both arms about the unconscious man and held him up while Veg checked his body quickly for injuries. "He's okay," he announced. "Spinout must've made him light-headed." He hoped he was right.
Aquilon set Cal on the ground and cradled his head upon her thighs. Before long his eyes opened. "There appears to have been a--shake-up," he murmured.
Veg relaxed, only now allowing himself to admit how worried he had been. The shock could have thrown his friend into a coma, and if there had been any internal injury--a shake-up! "Friend, if I woke up in a lap like that, I'd be shook up, and I'd damn well think of something better to say than--!" He was compensating for his concern by showing mock gruffness.
Cal smiled but Aquilon did not. Veg turned away, irked yet again by his seeming ability to say the wrong thing. They all knew that his little jokes were just thinly veiled appeals for--
For what? For the same thing the spaceport professionals provided for pay or glamor? Was he that hard up already, that he had to chase after the friend of his friend? And if by some mischance he got her--would she then be no more to him than those contemptible others? Aquilon was a nice girl. What demon prompted him to dream of destroying her?
"Spores," Cal said, sitting up with Aquilon's help.
"Spores?" For a moment Veg was afraid Cal's mind had been affected.
"This is a fungus world--insufficient light for chlorophyll plants, on the ground, at any rate. Much of this "dust" is in reality a surplus mass of spores, microscopically small, since that is the way most fungi reproduce. A palynologist will tell you that you could fit fifty sextillion of them in a level teaspoon. They float in the air and get into everything, and there are so many types that even on Earth they are constantly feeding on new materials. Probably some worked into the wheel bearings and sprouted in the oil, leading to--"
Cal was back to normal.
Veg moved over to stand before a locker in the side of the tractor. He stared silently into the ulterior, frowning.
"Supplies?" Aquilon inquired. Her head, as she came to stand beside him, barely passed his shoulder.
"Steam rifle and a compass," he said with disgust. "We're in trouble, Beautiful."
She ducked under his arm and poked into the compartment. "It's a complete survival pack," she said, pleased. "Knives, matches, first aid, handbook ... We can hike back to the base, with this."
Veg studied her.
"Why look," she continued innocently. "The compass shows only twenty-four miles. That's not so far--" She broke off, noticing that Veg wasn't responding. "What's the matter?"
"I never met a woman yet who could think straight That score miles is straight cross-country; follow level ground, it's more like a hundred. We were a couple of hours out, in the tractor. You and I,'Quilon, might make it."
"Oh." Her hand flew to her mouth. "Cal."
"Yeah." Veg got to work unloading the compartment and setting up the knapsack provided.
Already a thin film of the ubiquitous powder falling naturally had formed on the horizontal surfaces of the vehicle. Only the ghostly, dead, white fungus giants interrupted the obscurity of the shrouded plain. It was not cold, but Veg saw Aquilon shiver as he tightened the pack, picked up the rifle, and took his bearing from the compass.
"Couldn't you cut across by yourself and bring help?" she asked without particular hope. "You could make it in a day and we'd be safe in the tractor."
"If I knew the terrain, yes," Veg said seriously. "But there are some bad drop-offs around, worse because you can't see 'em. The camp sits right under a cliff. If something happened to me, or even if I were delayed only a little, you'd be finished. With only one real weapon, no food and precious little water, we can't split up." He chucked her under the chin, trying to break the mood. "Besides, I want you where I can keep an eye on you." He pointed across the fog. "That way--and pray it stays level after all. Help the lady, Cal."
Aquilon caught the hint and took hold of the little man's elbow. They moved out, following Veg's lead. The pace was slow--hardly two miles an hour, but Cal stumbled almost immediately. He had discarded the useless glasses, but that was only part of the problem; he could see well enough at intermediate range, and wouldn't need to read on the journey. Sweat beaded his brow as he struggled to advance, but it was evident that even this slow pace was too much for his wasted body.
The woman, half a head taller than he and heavier, put her arm around his waist firmly and half-lifted him, helping him forward. Cal grimaced at the pressure of her arm but did not speak. Veg, rifle ready and eyes scanning the trek facing them, tried not to look back, but he slowed his pace until a balance was struck.
Two hours later they hove in sight of a group of animals. "Herbivores," Veg said. "No danger."
"Food," Aquilon said. "Why don't we wait here while you bring back a small one? We could use the break." She meant that Cal could use it, principally.
Veg started to say something, then changed his mind. She had forgotten; that was all. Still, he could bring back a live one for her. He slung the pack to the ground and headed for the herd at a rapid pace, still wearing the rifle.
Over twenty miles to go! He could make it so easily, and so could Aquilon. But Cal--
The trouble was they could not do it at Cal's pace. That would take three days at least, with the frequent rests, and while they might last that long without food, the lack of water would bring them down. He was thirsty already, and there was only a quart bottle of sterile water, intended for first-aid use. They would drink that, of course--but for how long?
Sooner or later it would occur to Cal that he was impeding their chances. Then there would really be trouble. Veg had no intention of deserting his friend. He would simply have to carry him; maybe that way they could make good enough time. Aquilon could carry the pack. He'd have to strip it down, throw out everything they weren't sure they'd need.
He kicked at a football-sized fungus bulging out of a crevice in the dust. It held its ground and absorbed his boot spongily, almost tripping him. Veg cursed and recovered his balance, as angry at himself for taking out his passion on an innocuous living thing as at it for resisting the blow. There was transparent moisture dripping from his toe; he had wounded it after all. He went on, nagged by something but unable to place it, quite.
He approached the edge of the herd, not bothering to unstring the rifle. The peaceful herbivores of Nacre were common, and no threat to anyone. Their flesh was edible, but he did not propose to slaughter one, not even for Aquilon. She would have to do that herself--and he didn't think she would.
Like virtually all the animals here, these were one-legged. He could see several hopping about, covering two or three feet with each effort. Racers they were not; they did not travel much, and a herd migrated only gradually in much the same manner as a dune of sand: one particle at a tune. There were about fifty members here, and no more than half a dozen were moving, seeking fresher pasture at the forward edge. The others were grazing, their long pink breathing gills extending from the tops of their knoblike heads to give individuals a faintly rabbit appearance. The group, inspected as a whole, resembled a field of gently waving grain. He had heard that those gills extracted water, among other things, from the atmosphere; too bad human beings couldn't do that.
The herbivores came in all colors of gray and all sizes of medium and grew, as nearly as had been determined, for life. A few were taller than himself and somewhat more massive.
He stooped to pick up a medium-small representative that looked as though it weighed no more than fifty pounds. He had had contact with these creatures before, but had never quite overcome his amazement at the complete alienness of them.
He put his hands on this one's narrowest part, catching it just above the circular foot before it could realize what he was doing and hop away. He heaved. It came up easily, making no sound. The foot, splayed in a full circle to feed on the nutrient dust, flopped loosely as he lifted the creature into the air and held it before him.
The globular body rose in a hump like that of an octopus, and the single eye bulged placidly. The long breathing gill flowered at an angle now, an undulating mass of fine fibers.
The waving antenna brushed his face with a damp and gentle touch, and through it he saw Aquilon coming up to the herd. "Your pet!" he shouted, knowing that the noise would not disturb these creatures; no animal so far discovered on Nacre made any vocal noise or possessed hearing apparatus. It was a silent planet--which, as Cal had pointed out, was strange, because the perpetual mist made sight a far less useful perception than it was elsewhere. The falling dust inhibited light and damped out beams and signals of any--
The distance between himself, and Aquilon had halved, and she was waving her arms and shouting. "Veg! Behind you!"
He whirled, still holding the herbivore. Something bounded out of the herd, rising far too high to be a normal member of its company. Sleek and black, its body contrasted sharply with the gray shades of its neighbors, too. A great eye shone from the thing, unnaturally malignant and totally unlike the empty mirrors of the herbivores. It landed at the edge of the group nearest Veg and moved toward him, flattening into a suddenly familiar shape.
"The manta!" Aquilon screamed.
Veg dropped his burden and slid the rifle into one hand with an experienced twitch of the shoulder. This was the last thing he had expected, and he felt naked in the presence of such a menace. A race in the tractor had been one thing; but to meet it in the open.
The heat chamber of his rifle flared as it built up pressure. His hands had been doing the right things automatically, as though they were more eager to kill than he was. It only took a few seconds for the steam to form--seconds that seemed very long, right now--but after that the rifle was good for service limited only by the aim of the marksman and the quantity of ammunition.
The manta came, shimmying toward the side, incredibly fast. Now he saw the whiplike tail, and with a sick insight he realized what that tail could do. He hadn't wanted to fire, but there was no longer a choice.
The steam hissed as he squeezed the trigger: once, twice. The manta came on, unhurt. Cursing, Veg ripped an explosive shell from the stock and clapped it into the auxiliary chamber. He held back another moment, however, despising the shell as, at best, unsporting.
The manta was little more than a thin line, head on, moving now at such a velocity that it was over Veg before he could aim properly the second time. It passed a foot above his head--but did not strike.
Now it landed between him and Aquilon, facing her. Veg saw her recoil in terror from its immense disk, she who had thought it so beautiful, with the trailing tail and the great eye that seemed to plummet through its entire length. It was after her!
Veg fired. This time the manta shook as the shell tore open its body. It spun, coalescing in mid-air, then fell heavily and moved no more.
He had killed it after all.