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Co-Operate—Or Else!

As the spaceship vanished into the steamy mists of Eristan II, Professor Jamieson drew his gun. He felt physically sick, battered, by the way he had been carried for so many long moments in the furious wind stream of the great ship. But the sense of danger held him tense there in the harness that was attached by metal cables to the now gently swaying antigravity plate above him. With narrowed eyes, he stared up at the ezwal which was peering cautiously down at him over the edge of the antigravity plate.

Its three-in-line eyes, gray as dully polished steel, gazed at him, unwinking; its massive blue head poised there alertly and—Jamieson knew—ready to jerk back the instant it read in his thoughts an intention of shooting.

"Well," said Jamieson harshly, "here we are, both of us about a hundred thousand years from our respective home planets. And we're falling down into a primitive jungle hell that you, with only your isolated life on Carson's Planet to judge by, cannot begin to imagine despite your ability to read my thoughts. Even a six-thousand-pound ezwal hasn't got a chance down there—alone!"

A great, long-fingered, claw-studded paw edged gingerly over the side of the raft, flicked down at one of the four metal cables that supported Jamieson's harness. There was a bright, steely ping. The cable parted like rotted twine before the ferocity of that one cutting blow.

Like a stream of blurred light, the enormous arm jerked back out of sight; and then there was only the great head and the calm, unwinking eyes peering down at him. Finally, a thought penetrated to Jamieson, a thought cool and unhurried:

"You and I, Professor Jamieson, understand each other very well. Of the hundred-odd men on your ship, only you remain alive. Out of all the human race, therefore, only you know that the ezwals of what you call Carson's Planet are not senseless beasts, but intelligent beings.

"I could have stayed on the ship, and so eventually reached home. But rather than take the slightest risk of your escaping the jungle dangers below, I took the desperate chance of jumping on top of this antigravity raft just as you were launching yourself out of the lock.

"What I cannot clearly understand is why you didn't escape while I was still battering down the control-room door. There is a blurred fear-picture in your mind, but—"

Jamieson was laughing, a jarring sound in his own ears, but there was genuine amusement in the grim thoughts that accompanied it. "You poor fool!" he choked at last. "You still don't realize what you're falling down to. While you were hammering away at that door, the ship was flying over the biggest ocean on this planet. All those glints of water down there are really continuation of the ocean, and every pool is swarming with malignant beasts.

"And, somewhere ahead of us, are the Demon Straits, a body of water about fifty miles wide that separates this ocean-jungle from the mainland beyond. Our ship will crash somewhere on that mainland, about a thousand miles from here, I should say. To reach it, we've got to cross that fifty miles of thing-infested sea. Now you know why I was waiting, and why you had a chance to jump onto that antigravity plate. I—"

His voice collapsed in an "ugh" of amazement as, with the speed of a striking snake, the ezwal twisted up, a rearing, monstrous blue shape of frightful fangs and claws that reached with hideous power at the gigantic bird that dived straight down at the shining surface of the antigravity raft.

The bird did not swoop aside. Jamieson had a brief, terrible glimpse of its merciless, protruding, glassy eyes, and of the massive, hooked, pitchfork-long claws, tensing for the thrust at the ezwal; and then—

* * *

The crash set the raft tossing like a chip in stormy waters. Jamieson swung with a mad, dizzy, jerky speed from side to side. The roar of the wind from the smashing power of those mighty wings was like thunder that stunned his brain with its fury. With a gasp, he raised his gun. The red flame of it reached with blazing hunger at one of those wings. The wing turned a streaky black, collapsed; and, simultaneously, the bird was literally flung from the raft by the raging strength of the ezwal.

It plunged down, down, became a blurred dot in the mist, and was lost against the dark background of ground.

Above Jamieson, the ezwal, dangerously off balance, hung poised over the edge of the raft. Four of its combination leg-arms pawed the air uselessly; the remaining two fought with bitter effort at the metal bars on top of the raft—and won. The great body drew back, until, once again, only the massive blue head was visible. Jamieson lowered his gun in grim good humor.

"You see," he said, "even a bird was almost too much for us—and I could have burned your belly open. I didn't because maybe it's beginning to penetrate your head that we've got to postpone our private quarrel, and fight together if we ever hope to get out of the hell of jungle and swamp below."

The answering thought was as cold as the sleet-gray eyes that stared down at him so steadily:

"Professor Jamieson, what you could have done was unimportant to me who knew what you would do. As for your kind offer to ally yourself with me, I repeat that I am here to see you dead, not to protect your pitiful body. You will, therefore, refrain from further desperate appeals, and meet your fate with the dignity becoming a scientist."

* * *

Jamieson was silent. A thin, warm, wet wind breathed against his body, bringing the first faint, obscene odors from below. The raft was still at an immense height, but the steamy mists that clung with a limp, yet obscuring strength to this primeval land had yielded some of their opaqueness. Patches of jungle and sea that, a few minutes before, had been blurred by that all-pervading fog, showed clearer now, a terrible, patternless sprawl of dark trees alternating with water that shone and flashed in the probing sunlight.

Fantastic, incredible scene. As far as the eye could see into the remote mists to the north, there was steaming jungle and foggy, glittering ocean—the endless, deadly reality that was Eristan II. And, somewhere out there, somewhere in the dimness beyond the concealing weight of steam, those apparently interminable jungles ended abruptly in the dark, ugly swell of water that was the Demon Straits!

"So," said Jamieson at last, softly, "you think you're going to get through. All your long life, all the long generations of your ancestors, you and your kind have depended entirely on your magnificent bodies for survival. While men herded fearfully in their caves, discovering fire as a partial protection, desperately creating weapons that had never before existed, always a bare jump ahead of violent death—all those millions of years, the ezwal of Carson's Planet roamed his great, fertile continents, unafraid, matchless in strength as in intellect, needing no homes, no fires, no clothing, no weapons, no—"

"You will agree," the ezwal interrupted coolly, "that adaptation to a difficult environment must be one of the goals of the superior being. Human beings have created what they call civilization, which is actually merely a material barrier between themselves and their environment, so vast and unwieldy that keeping it going occupies the entire existence of the race. Individually, man is a frivolous, fragile, inconsequential slave, who tugs his mite at the wheel, and dies wretchedly of some flaw in his disease-ridden body.

"Unfortunately, this monstrous, built-up weakling with his power lusts and murderous instincts is the greatest danger extant to the sane, healthy races of the Universe. He must be prevented from contaminating his betters."

Jamieson laughed curtly. "But you will agree, I hope, that there is something wonderful about an insignificant, fearful jetsam of life fighting successfully against all odds, aspiring to all knowledge, finally attaining the very stars!"

"Nonsense!" The answer held overtones of brittle impatience. "Man and his thoughts constitute a disease. As proof, during the past few minutes, you have been offering specious arguments, apparently unbiased, actually designed to lead once more to an appeal for my assistance, an intolerable form of dishonesty.

"As further evidence I need but anticipate intellectually the moment of our landing. Assuming that I make no attempt to harm you, nevertheless your pitiful body will be instantly and, thereafter, continuously in deadly danger, while I—you must admit that, though there are beasts below physically stronger than I, the difference is not so great that my intelligence, even if it took the form of cunning flight, would more than balance the weakness. You will admit furthermore—"

"I admit nothing!" Jamieson snapped. "Except that you're going to get the surprise of your life. And you're going to regret beyond all your present capacity for emotionalism the lack of those very artificialities you despise in man. I do not mean material weapons, but—"

"What you mean is unimportant. I can see that you intend to persist in this useless, mendacious type of reasoning, and you have convinced me that you will never emerge alive from that island jungle below. Therefore—"

The same, tremendous arm that a few minutes before had torn steel chain, flashed into sight and downward in one burst of madly swift gesture.

The two remaining cables attached to Jamieson's harness parted like wet paper; and so great was the force of the blow that Jamieson was jerked a hundred feet parallel to the distant ground before his long, clenched body curved downward for its terrific fall.

A thought, cool with grim irony, struck after him:

"I notice that you are a very cautious man, professor, in that you have not only a packsack, but a parachute strapped to your back. This will enable you to reach ground safely, but your landing will be largely governed by chance. Your logical mind will doubtless enable you to visualize the situation. Good-by and—bad luck!"

* * *

Jamieson strained at the thin, strong ropes of his parachute, his gaze narrowed on the scene below. Through the now almost transparent mist, and somewhat to the north, was a green-brown blaze of jungle. If he could get there—

He tugged again at the ropes, and with icy speculation watched the effect, calculated the mathematical possibilities. He was falling slowly; that would be the effect of the heavy air of this planet: pressure eighteen pounds per square inch at sea level.

Sea level! He smiled wryly, without humor. Sea level was approximately where he would be in a very few minutes.

There was, he saw, no sea immediately beneath him. A few splotches of water, yes, and a straggle of trees. The rest was a sort of clearing, except that it wasn't exactly. It had a strange, grayish, repellent appearance like—

The terrible shock of recognition drained the blood from his cheeks. His mind shrank as from an unthinkably lecherous thought. In panic he tore at the ropes, as if by sheer physical strength he would draw the tantalizingly near jungle to him. That jungle, that precious jungle! Horrors it might contain, but at least they were of the future, while that hellish stuff directly below held no future, nothing but a gray, quagmire trap, thick mud choking—

Abruptly, he saw that the solid mass of trees was beyond his reach. The parachute was less than five hundred feet above that deadly, unclean spread of mud. The jungle itself—stinking, horrible jungle, blatantly exuding the sharp, evil odors of rotting vegetation, yet suddenly the most desirable of places—was about the same distance to the northwest.

To make it would require a forty-five-degree descent. Carefully, he manipulated the rope controls of the parachute. It caught the wind like a glider; the jungle drew closer, closer—

He landed triumphantly in a tiny straggle of trees, a little island separated from the main bulk of forest by less than a hundred and fifty feet.

The island was ten feet long by eight wide; four trees, the longest about fifty feet tall, maintained a precarious existence on its soggy, wet, comparatively firm base.

Four trees, representing a total of about a hundred and eighty feet. Definitely enough length. But—his first glow of triumph began to fade—without a crane to manipulate three of those trees into place, the knowledge that they represented safety was utterly useless.

Jamieson sat down, conscious for the first time of the dull ache in his shoulders, the strained tenseness of his whole body, a sense of depressing heat. He could see the sun, a white blob barely visible through the white mists that formed the atmosphere of this deadly, fantastic land.

The blur of sun seemed to fade into remoteness; a vague darkness formed in his mind; and then a sharp, conscious that that he had been asleep.

He opened his eyes with a start. The sun was much lower in the eastern sky and—

His mind stopped from the sheer shock of discovery. Instantly, however, it came alive, steady, cool, despite the vast, first shock of amazement.

What had happened was like some fantasy out of a fairy story. The four trees, with the tattered remains of his parachute still clinging to them, towered above him. But his plan for them had taken form while he slept.

A bridge of trees, thicker, more solid than any the little island could have produced, stretched straight and strong from the island to the mainland. There was no doubt, of course, as to who had performed that colossal feat: the ezwal was standing unconcernedly on two of its six legs, leaning manlike against the thick trunk of a gigantic tree. Its thought came:

"You need have no fear, Professor Jamieson. I have come to see your point of view. I am prepared to assist you to reach the mainland and to co-operate with you thereafter. I—"

Jamieson's deep, ungracious laughter cut off the thought. "You damned liar!" the scientist said finally. "What you mean is that you've run up against something you couldn't handle. Well, that's all right with me. So long as we understand each other, we'll get along."

* * *

The snake slid heavily out of the jungle, ten feet from the mainland end of the bridge of trees, thirty feet to the right of the ezwal. Jamieson, scraping cautiously toward the center of the bridge, saw the first violent swaying of the long, luscious jungle grass—and froze where he was as the vicious, fantastic head reared into sight, following by the first twenty feet of that thick, menacing body.

Briefly, the great head, in its swaying movement, was turned directly at him. The little pig eyes seemed to glare straight into his own stunned, brown eyes. Shock held him, sheer, unadulterated shock at the incredibly bad luck that had allowed this deadly creature to find him in such an immeasurably helpless position.

His paralysis there, under those blazing eyes, was a living, agonizing thing. Tautness struck like fire into every muscle of his body; it was an instinctive straining for rigidity, unnormal and terrible— but it worked.

The fearsome head whipped aside, fixed in eager fascination on the ezwal, and took on a rigidity of its own.

Jamieson relaxed; his brief fear changed to brief, violent anger; he projected a scathing thought at the ezwal:

"I understood you could sense the approach of dangerous beasts by reading their minds."

No answering thought came into his brain. The giant snake flowed farther into the clearing; and before that towering, horned head rearing monstrously from the long, titanically powerful body, the ezwal backed slowly, yielding with a grim reluctance to the obvious conviction that it was no match for this vast creature.

Cool again, Jamieson directed an ironic thought at the ezwal:

"It may interest you to know that as chief scientist of the Interstellar Military Commission, I reported Eristan II unusable as a military base for our fleet; and there were two main reasons: one of the damnedest flesh-eating plants you ever saw, and this pretty little baby. There's millions of both of them. Each snake breeds hundreds in its lifetime, so they can't be stamped out. They're bisexual, attain a length of about a hundred and fifty feet and a weight of ten tons."

* * *

The ezwal, now some fifty feet away from the snake, stopped and, without looking at Jamieson, sent him a tight, swift thought:

"Its appearance did surprise me, but the reason is that its mind held only a vague curiosity about some sounds it had heard, no clear, sharp thought such as an intention to murder. But that's unimportant. It's here; it's dangerous. It hasn't seen you yet, so act accordingly. It doesn't think it can get me, but it's considering the situation. In spite of its desire for me, the problem remains essentially yours; the danger is all yours."

The ezwal concluded almost indifferently: "I am willing to give you limited aid in any plan you might have, but please don't offer any more nonsense about our interdependence. So far there's been only one dependent. I think you know who it is."

Jamieson was grim. "Don't be too sure that you're not in danger.

That fellow looks muscle bound, but when he starts moving, he's like a steel spring for the first three or four hundred feet—and you haven't got that much space behind you."

"What do you mean? I can run four hundred feet in three seconds, Earth time."

Coldly, the scientist whipped out: "You could, if you had four hundred feet in which to run. But you haven't. I've just been forming a mental picture of this edge of jungle, as I saw it just before I landed.

"There's about a hundred and fifty feet of jungle, then a curving shore of mud plain, a continuation of this mud here. The curve swings back this way, and cuts you off neatly on this little outjutting of jungle. To get clear of the snake, you've got to dart past him. Roughly, your clearance is a hundred and fifty feet all around—and it isn't enough! Interdependent? You're damned right we are. Things like this will happen a thousand times a year on Eristan II."

There was startled silence; finally: "Why don't you turn your atomic gun on it—burn it?"

"And have it come out here, while I'm helpless. These big snakes are born in this mud, and live half their lives in it. It would take five minutes to burn off that tough head. By that time I'd be swallowed and digested."

The brief seconds that passed then were vibrant with reluctant desperation. But there could be no delay; swiftly the grudging request came:

"Professor Jamieson, I am open to suggestions—and hurry!"

* * *

The depressing realization came to Jamieson that the ezwal was once more asking for his assistance, knowing that it would be given; and yet it itself was giving no promise in return.

And there was no time for bargaining. Curtly, he projected:

"It's the purest case of our acting as a team. The snake has no real weakness—except possibly this:

"Before it attacks, its head will start swaying. That's almost a universal snake method of hypnotizing victims into paralysis. Actually, the motion is also partially self-hypnotizing. At the earliest possible moment after it begins to sway, I'll burn its eyes out—and you get on its back, and hang on. Its brain is located just behind that great horn. Claw your way there, and eat in while I burn—"

The thought scattered like a chaff, as the tremendous head began to move. With a trembling jerk, Jamieson snatched his gun—

It was not so much, then, that the snake put up a fight, as that it wouldn't die. Its smoking remains were still twisting half an hour later when Jamieson scrambled weakly from the bridge of trees and collapsed onto the ground.

When finally he climbed to his feet, the ezwal was sitting fifty feet away under a clump of trees, its middle legs also on the ground, its forelegs folded across its chest—and it was contemplating him.

It looked strangely sleek and beautiful in its blue coat and in the very massiveness of its form. And there was immeasurable comfort in the knowledge that, for the time being at least, the mighty muscles that rippled underneath that silk-smooth skin were on his side.

Jamieson returned the ezwal's stare steadily; finally he said:

"What happened to the antigravity raft?"

"I abandoned it thirty-five miles north of here."

Jamieson hesitated; then: "We'll have to go to it. I practically depowered my gun on that snake. It needs metal for recharging; and that raft is the only metal in bulk that I know of."

He was silent again; then softly: "One thing more. I want your word of honor that you won't even attempt to harm me until we are safely on the other side of the Demon Straits!"

"You'd accept my word?" The steel-gray, three-in-line eyes meditated on him curiously.


"Very well. I give it."

Jamieson shook his head, smiling darkly. "Oh, no, you don't, not as easily as that."

"I thought you said you'd accept my word." Peevishly.

"I will, but in the following phraseology." Jamieson stared with grim intentness at his mighty and deadly enemy. "I want you to swear by the sun that rises and by the green, fruitful earth, by the joys of the contemplative mind and the glory of immortal life—"

He paused. "Well?"

There was a gray fire in the ezwal's gaze, and its thought held a ferocious quality when finally it replied:

"You are, Professor Jamieson, even more dangerous than I thought. It is clear there can be no compromise between us."

"But you'll make the limited promise I ask for?"

The gray eyes dulled strangely; long, thin lips parted in a snarl that showed great, dark fangs.

"No!" Curtly.

"I thought," said Jamieson softly, "I ought to get that clear."

No answer. The ezwal simply sat there, its gaze fixed on him.

"Another thing," Jamieson went on, "stop pretending you can read all my thoughts. You didn't know that I knew about your religion. I'll wager you can only catch my sharpest idea-forms, and those particularly when my mind is focused on speech."

"I made no pretenses," the ezwal replied coolly. "I shall continue to keep you as much in the dark as possible."

"The doubt will, of course, harass my mind," said Jamieson, "but not too much. Once I accept a theory, I act accordingly. If I should prove wrong, there remains the final arbiter of my atomic gun against your strength. I wouldn't bet on the victor.

"But now"—he hunched his long body, and strode forward— "let's get going. The swiftest method, I believe, would be for me to ride on your back. I could tie a rope from my parachute around your body just in front of your middle legs and by hanging onto the rope keep myself from falling off. My only qualification is that you must promise to let me off before making any hostile move. Agreeable?"

The ezwal hesitated, then nodded: "For the time being."

Jamieson was smiling, his long, spare, yet strong face ironical.

"That leaves only one thing: What did you run up against that made you change your mind about killing me immediately? Could it have been something entirely beyond the isolated, static, aristocratic existence of the ezwal?"

"Get on my back!" came the snarling thought. "I desire no lectures, nor any further sounds from your rasping voice. I fear nothing on this planet. My reasons for coming back have no connection with any of your pitiful ideas; and it would not take much to make me change my mind. Take warning!"

Jamieson was silent, startled. It had not been his intention to provoke the ezwal. He'd have to be more cautious in the future, or this great animal, bigger than eight lions, deadlier than a hundred, might turn on him before it itself intended.

* * *

It was an hour later that the long, fish-shaped spaceship swung out of the steamy mists that patrolled the skies of Eristan II. It coasted along less than a thousand feet up, cruel-looking as a swordfish with its finely pointed nose.

The explosive thought of the ezwal cut into Jamieson's brain: "Professor Jamieson, if you make so much as a single effort at signaling, you die—"

Jamieson was silent, his mind held stiff and blank, after one mental leap. As he watched, the great, half-mile-long ship sank visibly lower and, as it vanished beyond the rim of the jungle ahead, there was no doubt that it was going to land.

And then, the ezwal's thoughts came again, sly now, almost exultant:

"It's no use trying to hide it—because now that the actuality is here, I remember that your dead companions had awareness of another spaceship in the back of their minds."

Jamieson swallowed the hard lump in his throat. There was a sickness in him, and a vast rage at the incredibly bad luck of this ship coming here—now!

Miserably, he gave himself to the demanding rhythm of the ezwal's smooth gallop; and for a while there was only that odor-tainted wind, and the pad of six paws, a dull, flat flow of sound; and all around was the dark jungle, the occasional, queer lap, lap of treacherous, unseen waters. And it was all there, the strangeness, the terribleness of this wild ride of a man on the back of a blue-tinted, beast-like being that hated him—and knew about that ship.

At last, grudgingly, he yielded. He said snappishly, as if his words might yet snatch victory from defeat:

"Now I know, anyway, that your thought-reading ability is a damned sketchy thing. You didn't begin to suspect why you were able to conquer my ship so easily."

"Why should I?" The ezwal was impatient. "I remember now there was a long period when I caught no thoughts, only an excess of energy tension, abnormally more than were customary from your engines. That must have been when you speeded up.

"Then I noticed the cage door was ajar—and forgot everything else."

The scientist nodded, gloom a sickish weight on him. "We received some awful buffeting, nothing palpable, of course, because the interstellars were full on. But, somewhere, there must have been a blow that knocked our innards out of alignment.

"Afterward, we watched for dangers from outside; and so you, on the inside, got your chance to kill a hundred men, most of them sleeping—"

He tensed his body ever so carefully, eyes vaguely as possible on the limb of the tree just ahead, concentrating with enormous casualness on the idea of ducking under it— Somehow, his real purpose leaked from his straining brain.

In a single convulsion of movement, like a bucking horse, the ezwal reared. Shattering violence of movement! Like a shot from a gun, Jamieson was flung forward bang against that steel-hard back. Stunned, dizzy, he fought for balance—and then it was over.

* * *

The great animal plunged aside into a thick pattern of jungle, completely away from the protruding limb that had momentarily offered such sweet safety. It twisted skillfully between two giant trees, and emerged a moment later onto the beach of a long, glittering bay of ocean.

Fleet as the wind, it raced along the deserted sands, and then on into the thickening jungles beyond. No thought came from it, not a tendril of triumph, no indication of the tremendous victory it had just won.

Jamieson said sickly: "I made that attempt because I know what you're going to do. I admit we had a running fight with that Rull cruiser. But you're crazy if you think they mean advantage for you.

"Rulls are different. They come from another galaxy. They're—"

"Professor!" The interrupting thought was like metal in the sheer, vibrating force of it. "Don't dare try to draw your gun to kill yourself. One false move, and I'll show you how violently and painfully a man can be disarmed."

"You promised," Jamieson almost mumbled, "to make no hostile move—"

"And I'll keep that promise—to the letter, after man's own fashion, in my own good time. But now—I gathered from your mind that you think these creatures landed because they detected the minute energy discharge of the antigravity raft."

"Pure deduction." Curtly. "There must be some logical reason, and unless you shut off the power as I did on the spaceship—"

"I didn't. Therefore, that is why they landed. Their instruments probably also registered your use of the gun on the snake. Therefore they definitely know someone is here. My best bet, accordingly, is to head straight for them before they kill me accidentally. I have no doubt of the welcome I shall receive when they see my captive, and I tell them that I and my fellow ezwals are prepared to help drive man from Carson's Planet. And you will have gotten off my back unharmed—thus my promise—"

The scientist licked dry lips. "That's bestial," he said finally. "You know damned well from reading my mind that Rulls eat human beings. Earth is one of the eight planets in this galaxy whose flesh is palatable to these hell-creatures—"

The ezwal said coldly: "I have seen men on Carson's Planet eat ezwals with relish. Why shouldn't men in turn be eaten by other beings?"

Jamieson was silent, a shocked silence at the hatred that was here. The flintlike thought of the other finished:

"You may not realize how important it is that no word of ezwal intelligence get back to Earth during the next few months, but we ezwals know.

"I want you dead!"

* * *

And still there was hope in him. He recognized it for what it was: that mad, senseless hope of a man still alive, refusing to acknowledge death till its gray chill lay cold on his bones.

A crash of brush roused him out of himself. Great branches of greater trees broke with wheezing unwillingness. A monstrous reptile head peered at them over a tall tree.

Jamieson had a spine-cooling glimpse of a scaly, glittering body; eyes as red as fire blazed at him—and then that lumbering nightmare was far behind, as the ezwal raced on, contemptuous, terrible in its unheeding strength.

And after a moment, then, in spite of hideous danger, in spite of his desperate conviction that he must convince the ezwal how wrong it was—admiration flared inside him, a wild, fascinated admiration.

"By God!" he exclaimed, "I wouldn't be surprised if you really could evade the terrors of this world. In all my journeys through space, I've never seen such a perfect combination of mind and magnificent muscle."

"Save your praise," sneered the ezwal.

Jamieson hardly heard. He was frowning in genuine thoughtfulness:

"There's a saber-toothed, furred creature about your size and speed that might damage you, but I think you can outrun or outfight all the other furred animals. Then there are the malignant plants, particularly a horrible creeper affair—it's not the only intelligent plant in the galaxy, but it's the smartest. You'd need my gun if you got tangled up with one of those.

"You could evade them, of course, but that implies ability to recognize that one's in the vicinity. There are signposts of their presence but"—he held his mind as dim as possible, and smiled grimly—"I'll leave that subject before you read the details in my brain.

"That leaves the great reptiles; they can probably catch you only in the water. That's where the Demon Straits would be a mortal handicap."

"I can swim," the ezwal snapped, "fifty miles in three hours with you on my back."

"Go on!" The scientist's voice was scathing. "If you could do all these things—if you could cross oceans and a thousand miles of jungle, why did you return for me, knowing, as you must now know, that I could never reach my ship alone? Why?"

"It's dark where you're going," the ezwal said impatiently, "and knowledge is not a requirement for death. All these fears of yours are but proof that man will yield to unfriendly environment where he would be unflinching in the face of intelligent opposition.

"And that is why your people must not learn of ezwal intelligence.

Literally, we have created on Carson's Planet a dumb, beastlike atmosphere where men would eventually feel that nature was too strong for them. The fact that you have refused to face the nature-environment of this jungle planet of Eristan II and that the psycho-friction on Carson's Planet is already at the factual of point 135 is proof that—"

"Eh?" Jamieson stared at that gleaming, blue, rhythmically bobbing head, "You're crazy. Why, 135 would mean—twenty-five—thirty million. The limit is point 38."

"Exactly," glowed the ezwal, "thirty million dead."

A gulf was opening before Jamieson's brain, a black realization of where this—monstrous—creature's thoughts were leading. He said violently:

"It's a damned lie. My reports show—"

"Thirty million!" repeated the ezwal with a deadly satisfaction. "And I know exactly what that means in your terms of psycho-friction: point 135 as compared to a maximum safety tension limit of point 38. That limit, of course, obtains when nature is the opponent. If your people discovered the cause of their agony was an intelligent race, the resistance would go up to point 184—and we'd lose. You didn't know we'd studied your psychology so thoroughly."

Whitely, shakily, Jamieson replied: "In five years, we'll have a billion population on Carson's Planet, and the few ezwals that will have escaped will be a small, scattered, demoralized—"

"In five months," interrupted the ezwal coldly, "man will figuratively explode from our planet. Revolution, a blind mob impulse to get into the interstellar transports at any cost, mad flight from intolerable dangers. And, added to everything, the sudden arrivals of the Rull warships to assist us. It will be the greatest disaster in the long, brutal history of conquering man."

With a terrible effort, Jamieson caught himself into a tight matter-of-factness: "Assuming all this, assuming that machines yield to muscles, what will you do with the Rulls after we're gone?"

"Just let them dare remain!"

Jamieson's brief, titanic effort at casualness collapsed into a wave of fury:

"Why, you blasted fools, man beat the Rulls to Carson's Planet by less than two years. While you stupid idiots interfered with us on the ground, we fought long, delaying actions in the deeps of space, protecting you from the most murderous, ruthless, unreasonable things that the Universe ever spawned."

He stopped, fought for control, said finally with a grim effort at rational argument: "We've never been able to drive the Rull from any planet where he has established himself. And he drove us from three major bases before we realized the enormousness of the danger, and stood firm everywhere regardless of military losses."

He stopped again, conscious of the blank, obstinate, contemptuous wall that was the mind of this ezwal.

"Thirty million!" he said almost softly, half to himself. "Wives, husband, children, lovers—"

A black anger blotted out his conscious thought. With a single, lightning-swift jerk of his arm, he drew his atomic gun, pressed its muzzle hard against the great blue-ridged backbone.

"By Heaven, at least you're not going to get the Rulls in on anything that happens."

His finger closed hard on that yielding trigger; there was a white blaze of fire that—missed! Amazingly—it missed.

Instants passed before his brain grasped the startling fact that he was flying through the air, flung clear by one incredibly swift jerk of that vast, blue body.

He struck brush. Agonizing fingers of sticky jungle vine wrenched at his clothes, ripped his hands, and tore at the gun, that precious, all-valuable gun.

His clothes shredded, blood came in red, ugly streaks—everything yielded to that desperate environment but the one, all-important thing. With a bitter, enduring singleness of purpose, he clung to the gun.

He landed on his side, rolled over in a flash—and twisted up his gun, finger once more on the trigger. Three feet from that deadly muzzle, the ezwal drew up with a hideous snarl of its great, square face—jumped thirty feet to one side, and vanished, a streak of amazing blue, behind a thick bole of steel-hard jungle fungi.

Shaky, almost ill, Jamieson sat up and surveyed the extent of his defeat, the limits of his victory.

* * *

All around was a curious, treeless jungle. Giant, ugly, yellow fungi towered thirty, fifty, eighty feet against a red-brown-green sky line of tangled brown vines, green lichens and bulbous, incredibly long, strong, reddish grass.

The ezwal had raged through other such dense matted wilderness with a solid, irresistible strength. For a man on foot, who dared not waste more than a fraction of the waning power of his gun, it was a pathless, a major obstacle to the simplest progress—the last place in the world he would have chosen for a last-ditch fight against anything. And yet—

In losing his temper he had hit on the only possible method of drawing his gun without giving the ezwal advance warning thoughts. At least, he was not being borne helplessly along to a great warship loaded with slimy, white Rulls and—


With a gasp, Jamieson leaped to his feet. There was a treacherous sagging of the ground under his feet, but he simply, instinctively stepped onto a dead patch of fungi; and the harsh, urgent tones of his voice were loud in his ears, as he said swiftly:

"We've got to act fast. The discharge of my gun must have registered on Rull instruments, and they'll be here in minutes. You've got to believe me when I tell you that your scheme of enlisting the Rulls as allies is madness.

"Listen to this: all the ships we sent into their galaxy reported that every planet of a hundred they visited was inhabited by—Rulls. Nothing else, no other races. They must have destroyed every other living, intelligent creature.

"Man has forty-eight hundred and seventy-four nonhuman allies. I admit all have civilizations that are similar to man's own; and that's the devil of the type of historyless, buildingless, ezwal culture. Ezwals cannot defend themselves against energies and machines. And, frankly, man will not leave Carson's Planet till that overwhelmingly important defense question has been satisfactorily mastered.

"You and your revolution. True, the simple people in their agony may flee in mad panic, but the military will remain, a disciplined, undefeatable organization, a hundred battleships, a thousand cruisers, ten thousand destroyers for that one base alone. The ezwal plan is clever only in its grasp of human psychology and because it may well succeed in causing destruction and death. But in that plan is no conception of the vastness of interstellar civilization, the responsibilities and the duties of its members.

"The reason I was taking you to Earth was to show you the complexities and honest problems of that civilization, to prove to you that we are not evil. I swear to you that man and his present grand civilization will solve the ezwal problem to ezwal satisfaction. What do you say?"

His last words boomed out eerily in the odd, deathly, late-afternoon hush that had settled over the jungle world of Eristan II. He could see the blur of sun, a misty blob low in the eastern sky; and the hard realization came:

Even if he escaped the Rulls, in two hours at most the great fanged hunters and the reptilian flesh-eaters that haunted the slow nights of this remote, primeval planet would emerge ravenous from their stinking hideaways, and seek their terrible surcease.

He'd have to get away from this damned fungi, find a real tree with good, strong, high-growing branches and, somehow, stay there all night. Some kind of system of intertwining vines, properly rigged up, should warn him of any beast intruder—including ezwals.

He began to work forward, clinging carefully to the densest, most concealing brush. After fifty yards, the jungle seemed as impenetrable as ever, and his legs and arms ached from his effort. He stopped, and said:

"I tell you that man would never have gone into Carson's Planet the way he did, if he had known it was inhabited by intelligent beings. There are strict laws that govern even under military necessity."

* * *

Quite abruptly, answer came: "Cease these squalling, lying appeals. Man possesses no less than five thousand planets formerly occupied by intelligent races. No totality of prevarication can cover up or ever excuse five thousand cosmic crimes—"

The ezwal's thought broke off; then, almost casually: "Professor, I've just run across an animal that—"

Jamieson was saying: "Man's crimes are as black as his noble works are white and wonderful. You must understand those two facets of his character—"

"This animal," persisted the ezwal, "is floating above me now, watching me, but I am unable to catch a single vibration of its thought—"

"More than three thousand of those races now have self-government. Man does not long deny to any basically good intelligence the liberty and freedom of action which he needs so much himself—"

"Professor!" The thought was like a knife piercing, utterly urgent. "This creature has a repellent, worm-shaped body, and it floats without wings. It has no brain that I can detect. It—"

Very carefully, very gently, Jamieson swung himself behind a pile of brush and raised his pistol. Then softly, swiftly, he said:

"Act like a beast, snarl at it, and run like hell into the thickest underbrush if it reaches with one of those tiny, wormlike hands toward any one of the half a dozen notches on either side of its body.

"If you cannot contact its mind—we never could get in touch with it in any way—you'll have to depend on its character; as follows:

"The Rull hear only sounds between five hundred thousand and eight hundred thousand vibrations a second. That is why I can talk out loud without danger. That, also, suggests that its thought moves on a vastly different vibration level; it must hate and fear everything else, which must be why it is so remorselessly impelled on its course of destruction.

"The Rull does not kill for pleasure. It exterminates. It possibly considers the entire Universe alien which, perhaps, is why it eliminates all important creatures on any planet it intends to occupy. There can be no intention of occupying this planet because our great base on Eristan I is only five thousand light-years or twenty-five hours away by warship. Therefore it will not harm you unless it has special suspicions. Therefore be all animal."

He finished tensely: "What's it doing now?"

There was no answer.

* * *

The minutes dragged; and it wasn't so much that there was silence. Queer, little noises came out of nearness and remoteness: the distant crack of wood under some heavy foot, faint snortings of creatures that were not exactly near—but too near for comfort.

A memory came that was more terrible than the gathering night, a living flame of remembrance of the one time he had seen a Rull feeding off a human being.

First, the clothes were stripped from the still-living victim, whose nervous system was then paralyzed partially by a stinger that was part of the Rull's body. And then, the big, fat, white worm crawled into the body, and lay there in that abnormal, obscene embrace while thousand of little, cuplike mouths fed—

Jamieson recoiled mentally and physically. Abrupt, desperate, panicky fear sent him burrowing deeper into the tangle of brush. It was quiet there, not a breath of air touched him. And he noticed, after a moment, that he was soaked with perspiration.

Other minutes passed; and because, in his years, courage had never been long absent from him, he stiffened with an abrupt anger at himself—and ventured into the hard, concentrated thought of attempted communication:

"If you have any questions, for Heaven's sake don't waste time."

There must have been wind above his tight shelter of brush, for a fog heavily tainted with the smell of warm, slimy water drifted over him, blocking even the narrow view that remained.

Jamieson stirred uneasily. It was not fear; his mind was a clenched unit, like a fist ready to strike. It was that—suddenly—he felt without eyes in a world of terrible enemies. More urgently, he went on:

"Your very act of asking my assistance in identifying the Rull implied your recognition of our interdependence. Accordingly, I demand—"

"Very well!" The answering thought was dim and far away. "I admit my inability to get in touch with this worm ends my plans of establishing an antihuman alliance."

There was a time, such a short time ago, Jamieson thought drearily, when such an admission would have brought genuine intellectual joy. The poor devils on Carson's Planet, at least, were not going to have to fight Rulls as well as their own madness—as well as ezwals.

He braced himself, vaguely amazed at the lowness of his morale. He said almost hopelessly:

"What about us?"

"I have already repaid your initial assistance in that, at this moment, I am leading the creature directly away from you."

"It's still following you?"

"Yes! It seems to be studying me. Have you any suggestions?"

Weariness faded; Jamieson snapped: "Only on condition that you are willing to recognize that we are a unit, and that everything else, including what man and ezwal are going to do about Carson's Planet must be discussed later. Agreed?"

The ezwal's thought was scarcely more than a snarl: "You keep harping on that!"

Momentarily, the scientist felt all the exasperation, all the strain of the past hours a pressing, hurting force in his brain. Like a flame, it burst forth, a flare of raging thought:

"You damned scoundrel, you've forced every issue so far, and all of them were rooted in that problem. You make that promise—or just forget the whole thing."

The silence was a pregnant emotion, dark with bitter, formless thought. Around Jamieson, the mists were thinning, fading into the twilight of that thick jungle. Finally:

"I promise to help you safely across the Demon Straits; and I'll be with you in minutes—if I don't lose this thing first."

Jamieson retorted grimly: "Agreement satisfactory—but don't expect to lose a Rull. They've got perfect antigravity, whereas that antigravity raft of ours was simply a superparachute. It would eventually have fallen under its own weight."

He paused tensely; then: "You've got everything clear? I'll burn the Rull that's following you, then we'll beat it as fast as your legs can carry us."

"Get ready!" The answer was a cold, deadly wave. "I'll be there in seconds."

There was no time for thought. Brush crashed. Through the mist, Jamieson caught one flashing glimpse of the ezwal with its six legs. At fifty feet, its slate-gray, three-in-line eyes were like pools of light. And then, as he pointed his gun in a desperate expectation—

"For your life!" came the ezwal's thought, "don't shoot, don't move. There're a dozen of them above me and—"

Queerly, shatteringly, that strong flow of thought ended in a chaotic jumble as energy flared out there, a glaring, white fire that blinked on, and then instantly off.

* * *

The mist rolled thicker, white-gray, noxious stuff that hid what must be happening.

And hid him.

Jamieson lay stiff and cold—and waited. For a moment, so normal had mind-reading become in these hours, that he forgot he could only catch thoughts at the will of the ezwal, and he strained to penetrate the blackout of mind vibrations.

He thought finally, a tight, personal thought: The Rulls must have worked a psychosis on the ezwal. Nothing else could explain that incoherent termination of thought in so powerful a mind. And yet—psychosis was used mainly on animals and other uncivilized and primitive life forms, unaccustomed to that sudden interplay of dazzling lights.

He frowned bleakly. Actually, in spite of its potent brain, the ezwal was very much animal, very much uncivilized, and possibly extremely allergic to mechanical hypnosis.

Definitely, it was not death from a heavy mobile projector because there would have been sound from the weapon, and because there wouldn't have been that instantaneous distortion of thought, that twisting—

He felt a moment's sense of intense relief. It had been curiously unsettling to think of that mighty animal struck dead.

He caught his mind into a harder band: So the ezwal was captive not corpse. So—what now?

Relief drained. It wasn't, he thought blankly, as if he could do anything against a heavily armored, heavily manned cruiser—

Ten minutes passed; and then out of the deepening twilight came the thunderous roar of a solid bank of energy projectors. There was answering thunder on a smaller scale; and then, once again, though farther away now, the deep, unmistakable roar of a broadside of hundred-inch battleship projectors.

A battleship! A capital ship from the Eristan I base, either on patrol or investigating energy discharges. The Rulls would be lucky if they got away. As for himself—nothing!

Nothing but the night and its terrors. True, there would be no trouble now from the Rulls, but that was all. This wasn't rescue, not even the hope of rescue. For days and days, the two great ships would maneuver in space; and, by the time the battleship reported again to its base, there wouldn't be very much thought given to the why of the Rull cruiser's presence on or near the ground.

Besides, the Rull would have detected its enemy before its own position would be accurately plotted. That first broadside had easily been fifty miles away.

The problem of ezwal and man, that had seemed such an intimate, soluble pattern when he and the great animal were alone, was losing its perspective. Against the immeasurably larger background of space, the design was twisting crazily.

It became a shapeless thing, utterly lost in the tangle of unseen obstacles that kept tripping him, as he plunged forward into the dimming reaches of jungle.

* * *

In half an hour it was pitch dark; and he hadn't penetrated more than a few hundred yards. He would have blundered on into the black night, except that suddenly his fingers touched thick, carboniferous bark.

A tree!

Great beasts stamped below, as he clung to that precarious perch. Eyes of fire glared at him. Seven times in the first hour by his watch, monstrous things clambered up the tree, mewing and slavering in feral desire. Seven times his weakening gun flashed a thinner beam of destroying energy—and great, scale-armored carnivores whose approach shook the earth came to feed on the odorous flesh—and passed on.

One hour gone!

A hundred nights like this one, to be spent without sleep, to be defended against a new, ferocious enemy every ten minutes, and no power in his gun.

The terrible thing was that the ezwal had just agreed to work with him against the Rulls. Victory so near, then instantly snatched afar—

Something, a horrible something, slobbered at the foot of the tree. Great claws rasped on bark, and then two eyes, easily a foot apart, started with an astounding speed up toward him.

Jamieson snatched at his gun, hesitated, then began hastily to climb up into the thinner branches. Every second, as he scrambled higher, he had the awful feeling that a branch would break, and send him sliding down toward the thing; and there was the more dreadful conviction that great jaws were at his heels.

Actually, however, his determination to save his gun worked beyond his expectations. The beast was edging up into those thin branches after him when there was a hideous snarl below, and another greater creature started up the tree.

The fighting of animal against animal that started then was absolutely continuous. The tree shook, as saber-toothed beasts that mewed fought vast, grunting, roaring shapes. And every little while there would be a piercing, triumphant scream as a gigantic dinosaur-thing raged into the fight—and literally ate the struggling mass of killers.

Toward dawn, the continuous bellowing and snarling from near and far diminished notably, as if stomach after eager stomach gorged itself, and retired in enormous content to some cesspool of a bed.

At dawn he was still alive, completely weary, his body drooping with sleep desire, and in his mind only the will to live, but utterly no belief that he would survive the day.

If only, on the ship, he had not been cornered so swiftly in the control room by the ezwal, he could have taken antisleep pills, fuel capsules for his gun and—he laughed in sharp sardonicism as the futility of that line of reasoning penetrated—and a lifeboat which, of course, would by itself have enabled him to fly to safety.

At least there had been a few hundred food capsules in the control room—a month's supply.

He sucked at one that was chocolate flavored, and slowly climbed to the bloodstained ground.

* * *

There was a sameness about the day, a mind-wearing sameness! Jungle and sea, different only in the designs of land shape and in the way the water lapped a curving, twisting shore. Always the substance was unchanged.

Jungle and sea—

Everything fought him—and until midafternoon he fought back. He had covered, he estimated, about three miles when he saw the tree—there was a kind of crotch high up in its towering form, where he could sleep without falling, if he tied himself with vines.

Three miles a day. Twelve hundred miles, counting what he still had to cover of this jungle ocean, counting the Demon Straits— twelve hundred miles at three miles a day.

Four hundred days!

He woke up with the beasts of the Eristan night coughing their lust at the base of his tree. He woke up with the memory of a nightmare in which he was swimming the Demon waters, pursued by millions of worms, who kept shouting something about the importance of solving the ezwal problem.

"What," they asked accusingly, "is man going to do with civilizations intellectually so advanced, but without a single building or weapon or—anything?"

Jamieson shook himself awake; and then: "To hell with ezwals!" he roared into the black, pressing, deadly night.

For a while, then, he sat shocked at the things that were happening to his mind, once so stable.

Stable! But that, of course, was long ago.

* * *

The fourth day dawned, a misty, muggy replica of the day before. And of the day before that. And before that. And—

"Stop it, you idiot!" said Professor Jamieson aloud, savagely.

He was struggling stubbornly toward what seemed a clearing when a gray mass of creepers to one side stirred as in a gentle wind, and started to grow toward him. Simultaneously, a queer, hesitant thought came into his mind from—outside!

"Got them all!" it said with a madly calm ferociousness. "Get this—two-legged thing—too. Send creepers through the ground."

It was such an alien thought form, so unsettlingly different, that his brain came up from the depths to which it had sunk, and poised with startled alertness, abruptly, almost normally fascinated.

"Why, of course," he thought quite sanely, "we've always wondered how the Rytt killer plant could have evolved its high intelligence. It's like the ezwal. It communicates by mental telepathy."

Excitement came, an intense, scientific absorption in all the terrifically important knowledge that he had accumulated—about ezwals, about Rulls, and the way he had caught the Rytt plant's private vibrations. Beyond all doubt, the ezwal, in forcing its thoughts on him, had opened paths, and made it easier for him to receive all thoughts. Why, that could mean that he—

In a blaze of alertness, he cut the thought short; his gaze narrowed on the gray creepers edging toward him. He backed away, gun ready; it would be just like the Rytt to feint at him with a slow, open, apparently easily avoidable approach. Then strike like lightning from underground with its potent, needle-sharp root tendrils.

There was not the faintest intention in him to go back, or evade any crisis this creature might force. Go back where?—to what?

He skirted the visible creepers, broke through a fifty-foot wilderness of giant green ferns; and, because his control of himself was complete now, it was his military mind, the mind that accepted facts as they were, that took in the scene that spread before him.

In the near distance rested a two-hundred-foot Rull lifeboat. Near it, a dozen wanly white Rulls lay stiff and dead, each tangled in its own special bed of gray creepers. The creepers extended on into the open door of the lifeboat; and there was no doubt that it had "got them all!"

The atmosphere of lifelessness that hung over the ship, with all its promise of escape, brought a soaring joy, that was all the sweeter because of the despair of those days of hell—a joy that ended as the cool, hard thought of the ezwal struck into his brain:

"I've been expecting you, professor. The controls of this lifeboat are beyond my abilities to operate; so here I am waiting for you—"

From utter despair to utter joy to utter despair in minutes—

* * *

Cold, almost desolate, Jamieson searched for his great and determined enemy. But there was nothing moving in the world of jungle, no glimpse of dark, gleaming blue, nothing but the scatter of dead, white worms and the creeper-grown lifeboat to show that there ever had been movement.

He was only dimly aware of the ezwal's thoughts continuing:

"This killer plant was here four days ago when I landed from the antigravity raft. It had moved farther up the island when these Rulls brought me back to this lifeboat. I had already thrown off the effects of the trick-mirror hypnotism they used on me; and so I heard the human battleship and the Rull cruiser start their fight. These things seemed unaware of what was wrong—I suppose because they didn't hear the sounds—and so they laid themselves out on the wet, soggy ground.

"That was when I got into mental communication with the plant, and called it back this way—and so we had an example of the kind of co-operation which you've been stressing for so long with such passionate sincerity, only—"

The funny thing was that, in spite of all he had fought through, hope was finally dead. Every word the ezwal was projecting so matter-of-factly showed that, once again, this immensely capable being had proved its enormous capacity for taking care of itself.

Co-operation with a Rytt killer plant—the one thing on this primitive world that he had really counted on as a continuous threat to the ezwal.

No more; and if the two worked together against him— He held his gun poised, but the black thought went on:

It was obvious that man would never really conquer the ezwal. Point 135 psycho-friction meant there would be a revolution on Carson's Planet, followed by a long, bloody, futile struggle and—He grew aware that the ezwal was sending thoughts again:

"—only one fault with your reasoning. I've had four days to think over the menace of the Rulls, and of how time and again I had to cooperate with you. Had to!

"And don't forget, in the Rytt-intelligence, I've had a perfect example of all the worst characteristics of ezwals. It, too, has mental telepathy. It, too, must develop a machine civilization before it can hope to hold its planet. It's in an earlier stage of development, so it's even more stubborn, more stupid—"

Jamieson was frowning in genuine stark puzzlement, scarcely daring to let his hope gather. He said violently:

"Don't try to kid me. You've won all along the line. And now, of your own free will, you're offering, in effect, to help me get back to Carson's Planet in time to prevent a revolution favorable to the ezwals. Like hell you are!"

"Not my own free will, professor," came the laconic thought. "Everything I've done since we came to this planet has been forced on me. You were right in thinking I had been compelled to return for your aid. When I landed from the raft, this creeper-thing was spread across the entire peninsula here, and it wouldn't let me pass, stubbornly refused to listen to reason.

"It's completely ungrateful for the feast of worms I helped it get; and at this moment it has me cornered in a room of this ship.

"Professor, take your gun, and teach this damned creature the importance of—co-operation!"

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