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The Citadel was a spike in relief against the mottled turquoise sky. There was no bulky starship on the landing platform beside the tower.

Don Slade swore very mildly, his voice as leaden as his heart. He stepped aside to let the work gang pass him as the trail dipped back into the jungle.

This was the one vantage point on the trail's length. Slade had cradled the short barrel of his powergun in the crook of his left arm as he marched ahead of the column. Now he held the weapon vertical for safety. The butt was against his hip, and the muzzle touched at eyebrow height the tree against which the tanker leaned wearily.

Bedyle, the foreman, stopped beside his superior. "Problems, sir?" the lightly-built humanoid asked in Spaceways English. The language differed radically from the version of English Slade had learned to speak as a boy on Tethys, but it—Spanglish—provided a medium of trade throughout the human universe . . . and beyond that universe, as on Terzia. Though it was sometimes difficult for Slade to remember that he and the Terzia herself were the only two humans on the planet.

"No problem, Bedyle," Slade said. "Nothing new, at any rate. There's just no ship. Still."

Slade's black hair was cropped short on his head and jaw for comfort. Hair coiled like strands of honeysuckle over his bare chest and splashed down his limbs to the backs of his hands and feet. From a distance, he had a bestial appearance which the calm of his expression belied. Slade was taller by forty centimeters than the tallest of the work gang; taller and stronger besides than most of the humans whom he had met in a life of knocking about the universe.

"You know, Bedyle . . ." the big man said. His eyes were on the distant spire, but his mind was much farther away. "You'd think after nine days in the copper-pod jungle, that place would look good. But . . . if there was a Palamede slave-ship docked there, I'd ship out in its hold before I'd take another step through the gate of the Citadel."

"Your life is so very bad, then?" the foreman asked softly.

The workers were filing past, chanting something melodious and without meaning. Slade had been unable in a year to learn a word of the native language. The Terzia swore that when her ancestors had landed on the planet, the autochthones already spoke Spanglish. There was no reason to believe that she was lying . . . or that she was telling the truth, for that matter. Slade had no way to judge the Terzia's statements.

The locals, males and females alike, carried fifty-kilo burdens of copper-pods without signs that their frail-looking bodies were being strained. They were nude. Only in the greenish cast underlying their brown skins, and in the lack of external genitals in the males, were they demonstrably inhuman.

Slade had personal experience of the human characteristics of some of the females.

"Bad?" Don Slade said, echoing the foreman. The sounds of lesser animals seeped from the jungle and merged with the voices of the work gang. "Via, no, Bedyle. Life isn't bad. I've got every luxury I could dream of, and the most beautiful woman I've ever met. I've got a job I'm needed at—" he nodded toward the workers he supervised and protected—"and it keeps me on my toes besides. I don't even get bored, what with all the different habitats we crop. I'd have to say my life is perfect."

The man paused. He turned to scan as much of his surroundings as he could see through the broad-leafed, ten-meter plants that made up the basic vegetation of this spot. A train of colorful, multi-legged creatures chased itself around one fleshy stem. The joints of the beasts' exoskeletons clattered softly.

"The only problem is," Slade went on, "its not the life I want to live. And there's not a curst thing anybody can do about that until another ship sets down."

The sucking sound of a tree being pushed up from beneath was overlaid by the scream of the worker caught in the first pair of pincers.

Slade pumped the fore-end to charge his weapon as he pivoted the butt to his shoulder. The monster's emerging head was toward the back of the file. It curved from the ground, dripping loam from its compound eyes and from the agate-melded segments of its broad carapace. A workman, streaming blood where the knife-edged pincers entered his body, was being transferred to the maw that gaped sideways to receive him. Slade had no time to pick his shot there, however. The real danger lay at the other end of the carnivore's rising body.

Along ten meters of the trail, pairs of pincer-tipped legs slashed out of the soil like sprouts in time-lapse. Three other workmen had been caught and were being swung toward the head end for ingestion. The survivors of the file screamed and leaped into the jungle. Their burdens tumbled in the air behind them.

At the further end, toward the Citadel, waved the tail and the slim, meter-long cone of the creature's sting. Slade fired at the base of it.

The carnivore lay ambushed on its back beneath the trail. As the pincers struck upward, the tail arched toward its prey. Large prey would be dispatched by a sting, while numbers of smaller victims—like the file of laborers—would be immobilized by sprayed venom even if they had escaped the first thrust of pincers. Now the impact of the bolt caused the tail to spasm. It drove a stream of chartreuse venom from the sting a moment before it would have been properly aimed at the work gang.

Slade was turning toward the monster's head again even as the jet of poison splattered onto the foliage above. The ground beside the man was cracked and heaving. A jointed leg as thick as his wrist lashed toward him, pincers clicking. The carnivore was squirming to turn its body upright.

Slade fired, stepped sideways, and fired twice more in rapid succession. A drop of poison struck his right shoulder and splashed upward across his neck, ear, and biceps.

The first three bolts from the powergun had shattered the creature's armor. The sting hung askew, one of the foremost pair of legs had been blown from its socket, and the cyan flash of the third round had cratered the curve of the head shield. The bolts liberated their energy instantaneously, however. Despite the amount of surface damage the powergun did, no single shot could penetrate to the vitals of this huge, loosely-organized carnivore. Slade's fourth round was aimed at the ulcer left by the third. The bolt struck in a gout of vaporizing internal tissue as the poisoned gunman screamed and dropped his weapon.

Skin was already sloughing where the venom drop had struck. Over the areas of secondary contact the skin was turning gray and black. Slade slapped his chest injector plate with his left hand because his right arm and side had gone numb. Leaf mold steamed beneath the hot iridium barrel of the gun he had dropped. The injector dumped stimulant and anti-allergenic directly into Slade's anterior vena cava. Under its impact and that of the venom, he staggered. He fumbled a medicated compress out of the kit at his belt and scrubbed at the damaged area. The fire in Slade's blood damped down as the compress debrided, then covered, the swatches where the skin was dead.

Although Slade had not lost consciousness, his conscious mind was surprised to find that he was kneeling beside his gun. His torso felt as if it swelled and relaxed with every beat of his heart. There had been enough breeze to carry one droplet of the unaimed venom to him. It had almost been enough to be fatal.

The creature was dying with the noisy lethality of a runaway truck. It hammered its surroundings. The middle part of its body was still within the trench in which it had lain hidden, while both ends lashed the vegetation above. Across the trail and the heaving exoskeleton from Slade, a stunned laborer tried to drag himself further into the jungle. A pincered leg gouged the earth beside him. Slade cursed and tried to leap to the injured worker's aid.

Slade had forgotten the amount of damage done to his own system by the drugs and counter-drugs that roiled within him.

Instead of clearing the monster as he had intended, the man landed on the blotchy carapace. His feet slid out from under him. The carnivore was trying to arch its center segments from the trench. Its weight pinned Slade's shins to the soft loam. The laborer scuttled safely behind the bole of a tree. The leg whose wild thrashings had endangered the native now recoiled toward the man. The creature's optic nerves and central ganglion had been destroyed, but its autonomic nervous system was making a successful attempt to heave the great body erect reflexively.

The powergun would have been useless even if Slade still held it. The carnivore was dead, but only time or a nuclear weapon would keep its corpse from being dangerous. Slade grabbed the limb as it swung for him. His biceps swelled as they directed the pincers down onto the dirt a hand's breadth short of his chest. They dug into the soil like the recoil spades of projectile artillery. That gave the leg purchase against the massive thrust it exerted a moment later.

The creature squirmed wholly clear of the trench. Its meter-thick body carried Slade up with it as its weight released him. There were tiny chitinous projections where the carapace armor joined that of the belly. They flayed the big man's calves through the tough, loose trousers that had covered them.

Slade threw himself out of the way. He was limited to the strength of his upper body because his legs were still numb. The creature was squirming off mindlessly into the jungle like a giant centipede. One of the legs of a rear segment still impaled a laborer. The corpse's drag kept that limb out of synchrony with the fluttering fore-and-aft motion of the others. The body segment itself twitched out of the line the remainder of the creature was trying to take.

In the dirt behind the carnivore dangled its sting. The plates that should have held and directed the weapon were shattered. Chartreuse venom still dripped and left a dark trail on the ground. In the wake of the creature's clattering exit, the jungle came alive with the moans of injured laborers.

Slade staggered to the fallen bundle that held the main medical supplies. When he had an opportunity, he would do something about the bloody agony of his own calves. They would wait—would have to wait—for Slade to treat the laborers who were already going into shock from trauma or poisoning.

The Citadel was temporarily only a memory behind a curtain of sweat and adrenalin.


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