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When Danrich Parrol, general manager of the Giard Pharmaceutical Station on Nandy-Cline, stepped hurriedly out of an aircab before the executive offices, he found Dr. Nile Etland's blazing blue PanElemental already parked on the landing strip next to the building entrance.
Parrol pushed through the door, asked the receptionist, "When did she get here, and where is she now?"
The girl grinned, checked her watch. "She arrived four minutes ago and went straight into Mr. Weldrow's office. They called in Freasie immediately. Welcome home, Mr. Parrol! We've had a dull time since you leftat least until this thing came up."
Parrol smiled briefly, said, "Put any calls for me on Weldrow's extension, will you?" and went down the hall. At the far end, he opened the door to an office. The three people standing in front of a wall map looked around at him. Ilium Weldrow, the assistant manager, appeared relieved to see him.
"Glad you're here, Dan!" he said heartily. "It seems that . . . "
"Dan, it's a mess!" Dr. Nile Etland interrupted. The head of Giard's station laboratory appeared to have dressed hastily after Parrol called her at the spaceport hotelshe would have had to, to show up here within ten minutes. Her coppery hair was still piled high on her head; the intent face with its almost too perfectly chiseled features was innocent of make-up. She nodded at the heavily built woman beside Weldrow. "Apparently it isn't an epidemic. Freasie says there's been no trace of disease in the specimens and samples that came through the lab."
"Naturally not!" the lab's chief technician said sourly. "If the material hadn't been absolutely healthy, it would have been returned with a warning to the ranches that supplied it."
"Of course. And there've been no reports of sea beef carcasses seen floating around," Nile Etland went on.
Parrol asked, "Exactly what does seem to have happened? The news report I picked up at the hotel just now didn't tell much, but it didn't sound like an epidemic. The man talked of `mysterious wholesale disappearances' among the herds in this area. The way he put it almost implied that one or the other of the local ranchers is suspected of rustling stock."
Nile turned to the wall map. "That's darn improbable, Dan! Here, let me show you. The trouble started there . . . a hundred and fifty miles up the coast. Eight days ago. Throughout the week the ranches south of that point have been hit progressively.
"The worst of it is that the estimated losses are going up fast! It was five to ten per cent in the first herds affected. But the report this morning was that Lipyear's Oceanic is missing almost sixty per cent of its stock."
"Lipyear's? Sixty per cent!" Parrol repeated incredulously. "The newscast said nothing of that."
"I called the Southeastern Ranchers Association on my way here," Nile told him. "That's the figure Machon gave me. They haven't put it out yet. It's a big jump over yesterday's estimate, and Machon seemed to be in a state of shock about it. There are plenty of wild rumors but no useful explanation of what's happening."
Parrol looked at Weldrow, asked, "What have you done so far, Weldrow?"
The assistant manager frowned. Nile Etland said impatiently, "Weldrow's done exactly nothing!" She turned to the door, added, "Come on, Freasie! Let's get things set up in the lab. Be back in ten minutes, Dan."
Ilium Weldrow was a chubby, pink-faced man, Parrol's senior by ten years, whose feelings were easily bruised. As an assistant manager on a world like Nandy-Cline he was pretty much of a dead loss; but a distant relative on Giard's board of directors had made it impossible to ship him quietly back to the Federation's megacities where he should have been more in his element.
He was disturbed now by Nile Etland's comment, and Parrol spent a few minutes explaining that the coastal ranchersparticularly the ones under contract to Giarddepended on the company's facilities and expensively trained trouble-shooters to help them out in emergencies . . . and that if anything serious should happen to the local sea beef herds, Giard would drop a fortune in the medicinal extracts obtained by its laboratory from the glands of the specific strain of sea beef grown on Nandy-Cline and obtainable nowhere else.
Weldrow seemed to get the last point; his expression shifted from petulance to concern.
"But, Dan, this problem . . . whatever it turns out to be . . . appears to affect only this area of the eastern coast! What is to keep us from getting the required materials from sea beef ranches on the other side of the continent?"
"Mainly," Parrol said, "the fact that those ranches are under contract to outfits like Agenes. Can you see Agenes loosening up on its contract rights to help out Giard?"
Again the point seemed to sink in. Even Weldrow couldn't help being aware that Agenes Laboratories was Giard's most prominent competitor and one with a reputation for complete ruthlessness.
"Well," he said defensively, "I haven't had an easy time of it during the two and a half months you and Dr. Etland were in the Hub, Dan! My duties at the station have absorbed me to the extent that I simply haven't been able to give much attention to extraneous matters."
Parrol told him not to worry about it. On the way out, he instructed the receptionist, "If there are any calls for me during the next few hours, I'll be either at the Southeastern Ranchers Association or in Dr. Etland's car. That's the new job she had shipped out from Orado with us. She's had its call number registered here."
A few minutes later, he was easing Nile Etland's PanElemental off the landing terrace and into the air, fingering the controls gingerly and not without misgivings, while the doctor took care of her makeup.
"Don't be timid with the thing," she advised Parrol, squinting into her compact. "There's nothing easier to handle, once you get the hang of it."
He grunted. "I don't want to cut in its spacedrive by mistake!"
"That's impossible, dope . . . unless you're in space. Put up the windscreen, will you? Fourth button, second row, left side. Agenes? Well, I don't know. If those beef things were dying instead of disappearing, I'd be wondering about Agenes, too, of course."
Parrol found the windscreen button and shoved at it. The air whistling about them was abruptly quiet. Somewhat reassured about the PanElemental's tractabilitynobody but Nile would sink two years' salary into a quadruple-threat racing carParrol stepped up their speed and swung to the right, towards the sea. A string of buildings rushed briefly towards them and dropped below, and the sun-bright blue rim of Nandy-Cline's world-spanning ocean came into view.
"Would there be chemical means of inducing a herd of sea beef to move out of a specific body of water?" Parrol asked.
"Naturally. But who's going to give that kind of treatment to a body of water a hundred and fifty miles long and up to eighty miles wide? Besides, they haven't all moved out." She loosened her hair, fluffed, shook and stroked it into place. "Better try another theory, Danny," she added.
"Do you have one?"
"No. We'll see what goes on at the ranchers' emergency meeting first." Nile motioned with her head towards the back of the car. "I dumped some testing equipment in there, in case we want to go for a dip afterwards."
There was silence for some seconds; then Parrol said, "Looks about normal down there, doesn't it?"
He had swung the PanElemental left again, slowing and dropping towards the shoreline of the continental shelf. Near low tide at present, the shelf stretched away for almost sixty miles to the east, a great saline swamp and, from this altitude, a palette of bilious pigments. A number of aircars cruised slowly over it, and power launches were picking their way through the vegetation of the tidal lakes.
"Lipyear's Oceanic," Nile observed, "seems to have about every man they employ out spot-counting what's left!" She hesitated, added, "You're right about the herds we can see showing no sign of disturbance. Of course, nothing does disturb sea beef much."
Parrol sighed, said, "Well, let's get on to the meeting."
By midmorning the sun was getting hot on the shelf, turning the air heavy with mingled smells of salt water and luxuriating vegetation. Escorted by a scolding flock of scarlet and black buzzbirds, Danrich Parrol brought a water scooter showing the stamp of Lipyear's Oceanic down to the edge of an offshore tidal pool. The buzzbirds deserted him there. The scooter settled to the water, drifted slowly across the pool towards Nile's PanElemental, berthed on the surface between two stands of reeds.
Parrol looked thoughtfully about. Passing overhead through the area half an hour earlier, he had seen the slender, long-legged figure of Dr. Etland standing in swim-briefs and flippers on her car. At the moment she was nowhere in sight. An array of testing equipment lay helter-skelter about on the Pan's hood, and the murkily roiled water indicated sea beef was feeding below the surface.
Parrol stepped over into the big car and tethered the scooter to it. He was wearing trunks and flippers; attached to his belt were an underwater gun and knife. The shelf ranchers were rarely invaded by the big deep-water carnivores, but assorted minor vermin wasn't too uncommon. He reached back to the rack of the scooter, fished cigarettes out from among a recorder, a case of maps and charts, a telecamera, a breather and a pocket communicator. As he was lighting a cigarette, a flat, brown animal head, fiercely whiskered and carrying a ragged white scar-line diagonally across its skull, broke the surface twenty feet away and looked at him.
"Hi, Spiff," Parrol said conversationally, recognizing the larger of the two hunting otters Nile kept around as bodyguards when engaged in water work. "Where's the boss?"
The otter grunted, curved over and submerged his nine-foot length again with a motion like flowing dark oil. Parrol waited patiently. A minute or two later there was a splash on his left. The face that looked at him this time showed the patrician features of Dr. Nile Etland. She came stroking over to him, and Parrol held a hand down to her. She grasped it, swung herself smoothly up on the hood of the PanElemental, squeezed water out of her hair and pulled off the transparent breather which had covered her face and the front part of her head.
She glanced at the watch on her wrist, inquired, "Well, did you find out anything new during the past hour and a half?"
"I picked up a few items. Just how meaningful" Parrol checked himself. Slowly and almost without sound, a vast, pinkish-gray bulk rose above the surface near the center of the tidal pool. A pair of bulging, morose eyes regarded the humans and their vehicles suspiciously. Terra's hippopotamus amphibious, adapted to a salt water life with its richer food and increased growth potential, enlarged, tenderized and reflavored, had become the sea beef which provided the worlds of the Federation with a considerable share of their protein staples. This specimen, Parrol saw, was an old breed bull, over thirty feet long, with a battle-scarred hide and Oceanic's three broad white stripes painted across its back.
"Is that ancient monster what you're messing around with here?" Parrol asked.
"Uh-huh." Nile was taking an outsized hypodermic from a flap in one of her flippers. She placed it on the hood. "He's a bit reluctant to let me have a blood sample."
"Why bother with him?"
She shrugged. "Just a hunch. What were you about to say?"
"Well, there's one detail about the big beef disappearance I can't see as a coincidence," Parrol told her. "The thing started at the north bend of the continent. It's taken it a week to move a hundred and fifty miles down the coast to Lipyear's Oceanic. That's almost the exact rate of speed with which the edge of the Meral Current passes along the shelf of the Continental Rift."
Nile nodded. "That's occurred to me. If it's only a coincidence, it's certainly an odd one. But deciding the Meral's involved doesn't answer the big question, does it?"
"Where have the stupid things gone? No, it doesn't." Parrol scowled. "None of the theories brought up at the meeting made sense to me. Animal predators can't have caused it. I've checked with half the northern ranches, and they've noticed no unusual numbers of dead or wounded beef floating aroundor obviously sick ones either. And nobody's been running them off. There'd be no place to hide them in quantities like that, even if they could be moved off the ranches without attracting attention.
"I did hear about one thing I intend to look into immediately. Somewhat over two months agoalmost immediately after we'd left for the Hub, as a matter of factthe Tuskason Sleds reported to mainland authorities that something had killed off their entire fraya pack."
Nile whistled soundlessly. "That's bad news, Dan! I'm sorry to hear it. You think there's a connection?"
"I don't know. The authorities sent investigators who couldn't find anything to show the pack hadn't died of natural causes. The sledmen claimed the frayas were deliberately poisoned, but they had no significant evidence to offer. The feeling here is they were fishing for federal indemnification. I've asked Machon to find out where the Tuskason fleet is cruising at present. He'll let me know as soon as it's been located, and I'll fly out there."
He added, "Then something occurred to me that might help explain the problem on the ranches. There's a possibility that it's chiefly the spot-counts on the beef that are way off at the moment. The computers figure that beef which is feeding submerged or napping on the bottom will, on the average, surface every ten minutes to breathe.
"But say something's happened to poison them mildly, make them exceptionally sluggish. If every animal in the herds is now surfacing only when it absolutely has to breath, it might almost make up for the apparent drop in their numbers."
"That's an ingenious theory," Nile said. "You've suggested an underwater check?"
"Yes. It will be a monstrous job, of course, particularly in an area the size of Lipyear's, but some of the ranchers are going at it immediately. You didn't . . . "
She shook her head. "So far there's been nothing in the water and blood samples I've sent in to the lab to suggest poisoning of any kind as a causative agent in the disappearances. But, as a matter of fact, I have noticed something which supports your idea."
"The old bull who showed up just now," Nile said. "I don't know if you were watching him, but he went down again almost immediately. And one reason I wanted a blood sample from him is that he did not surface to breathe in anything like ten minutes after I'd started checking the pool. When you arrived, he'd been under water for better than half an hour. However, he isn't acting sluggish down there. He's busy feeding his face. In fact, I don't remember seeing a beef stuff away with quite that much steady enthusiasm before."
"Now why," Parrol said, puzzled, "would that be?"
Nile shrugged. "I don't knowyet." She picked up the king-sized syringe again. "Like to come down and help me get that sample? He doesn't want to let me get behind him, and Spiff and Sweeting aren't much help in this case because he simply ignores them."
The bull was stubborn and belligerent, not unusual qualities in the old herd leaders. Parrol wasn't too concerned. He and Nile Etland were natives of Nandy-Cline, born in shallows settlements a thousand miles from the single continent, quite literally as much at home in the water as on land. Nile, if one could believe her, had been helping herd her settlement's sea beef by the time she was big enough to toddle. She slipped away from the bull's ponderous lunges now with almost the easy grace of her otters; then, while Parrol began to move about near the gigantic head, fixing the beef's attention on himself, she glided out of sight behind it.
She emerged a minute or two later, held the blood-filled hypodermic up for Parrol to see, and stroked up to the surface.
Parrol followed. They climbed back up on the Pan, leaving the sea beef to return to its surly feeding, and pulled off their breathers.
"I'm going to pack up here now, Dan, and move on," Nile said. She'd stored the hypodermic away, was arranging her equipment inside the car. "I'll drop this stuff off at the lab for Freasie to work over, then run eighty miles south and duplicate the samplings in an area where the herds don't seem to be affected yet. That might give us a few clues. Want to come along, or do you have other immediate plans?"
"I . . . just a moment!" The communicator on the rack of Parrol's borrowed scooter was tinkling. He reached over, picked up the instrument, said, "Parrol here. Go ahead!"
"Machon speaking." It was the voice of the secretary of the Ranchers Association. "We've contacted the Tuskason Sleds, Dan, and they very much want to see you! They've been waiting for you to get back from Orado. Here's their present location . . . "
Parrol scribbled a few notes on the communicator's pad, thanked Machon and switched off. "I'll fly out at once," he told Nile. "Typhoon seasonI'd better take the Hunter. Give me a call if you hit on anything that looks interesting."
She nodded, said, "Throw your stuff in the back while I get in Sweeting and Spiff. I'll give you a ride to the station . . . "
The sun wasn't far from setting when Parrol took his Hunter up from the deck of the Tuskason headquarters sled and started it arrowing back towards the mainland. He was glad he hadn't decided on a flimsier vehicle. The Tuskason area lay well within the typhoon belt, and the horizon ahead of him was leaden gray and black, walls of racing cloud banks heavy with rain.
He had let himself be delayed longer than he'd intended by his discussions with the sledmen; and the information he'd gained did not seem to be of any immediate value. The probability was that he'd simply burdened himself with a new and unrelated problem now. The Tuskason Sleds handled a fleet of chemical harvesting machines for Giard Pharmaceuticals and in consequence regarded Parrol and Nile Etland as their only dependable mainland contacts. The destruction of their fraya pack was a very serious economic loss to them.
The frayas were Nandy-Cline's closest native approximation of rich red mammalian meat, ungainly beasts with a body chemistry and structure which almost paralleled that of some of Terra's sea-going mammals, but with a quite unmammalian life cycle. Their breeding grounds lay in ocean rifts and trenches half a mile to a mile deep, and each pack had its individual ground to which it returned annually. Here the fraya changed from an omnivorous, air-breathing surface swimmer to a bottom-feeder, dependent on a single deepwater plant form. Within a few weeks it had doubled its weight, had bred, and was ready to return to the surface. Every pack was the property of one of the sledmen communities, and at the end of the breeding period as many frayas as were needed to keep the sleds' mobile storehouses filled were butchered. Then the annual cycle began again. The animals weren't the sledmen's only food source by any means, but they were the principal one, the staple.
The Tuskason Sleds were certain their pack had been killed deliberately by a mainland organization, either one of the sea-processing concerns or a big rancher, with the intention of forcing them out of their sea area and taking over the chemical harvesting work there. The frayas had been within a hundred miles of their breeding ground and hurrying toward it when the disaster occurred. The following herd sleds were unaware of trouble until they found themselves riding through a floating litter of the beasts. The entire pack appeared to have died within minutes. It was a genuine calamity because the breeding ground could not be restocked now from other fraya packs. There was a relationship of mutual dependency between the animals and the chalot, the food plant they subsisted on during the breeding season. Each was necessary in the other's life cycle. If the frayas failed to make their annual appearance, the chalot died; and it could not be re-established in the barren grounds.
If some mainland outfit was found to be responsible, the Tuskason Sleds could collect a staggering indemnification either from those who were guilty or from the Federation itself. But aside from the reported blips of what might have been two submersible vessels moving away from the area, they had no proof to offer. Parrol promised to do what he could in the matter, and the sledmen seemed satisfied with that.
Otherwise, the afternoon had not brought him noticeably closer to answering the question of what was happening to the coastal ranchers' sea beef. The frayas had died outright, either through human malice or through the eruption of some vast bubble of lethal gas from the depths of the oceanwhich seemed to Parrol the more probable explanation at the moment. The beef, so far as anyone could tell, wasn't dying. It simply wasn't around any more.
Parrol battered his way through typhoon winds for a while, then made use of the first extensive quiet area to put calls through to the mainland. At the Southeastern Ranchers Association, he was routed at once to the secretary's office. Machon was still on duty; his voice indicated he was close to exhaustion. He had one favorable fact to report: Parrol's hunch that an underwater check might reveal some of the missing stock had been a good one. At Lipyear's Oceanic, the estimated loss might be cut by almost a quarter now, and some of the northern ranches were inclined to go above that figure. But that left approximately seventy-five per cent of the vanished animals to be accounted for; and reports of new disappearances were still coming in from farther down the coast.
Parrol called the Giard Pharmaceuticals Station next. Nile Etland had been in and out during the day; at the moment she was out. She had left no message for him, given no information about where she might be reached. Freasie, at the laboratory, told him the checks Nile had them running on the sea beef specimens had been consistently negative.
He switched off as fresh gusts of heavy wind started the Hunter bucking again, gave his full attention for a time to the business of getting home alive. He'd already buzzed Nile's PanElemental twice and received no response. She could have called the Hunter if she'd felt like it. The fact that she hadn't suggested she had made no progress and was in one of her irritable moods.
By the time the Hunter had butted through the last of the typhoon belt, Parrol was becoming somewhat irritable himself. He reached for one of the sandwiches he'd brought along for the trip, realized he'd long ago finished the lot and settled back, stomach growling emptily, to do some more thinking, while the car sped along on its course. Except for scattered thunderheads, the sky was clear over the mainland to the west. He rode into the gathering night. Zetman, the inner moon, already had ducked below the horizon, while Duse rode, round, pale and placid, overhead.
An annoyingly vague feeling remained that there should be a logical connection between the two sets of events which had occupied him during the day. The disappearing herds of beef. The Tuskason Sleds' mysteriously stricken fraya pack . . .
Details of what the sledmen had told him kept drifting through Parrol's mind. He gave his visualization of the events they had reported free rein. Sometimes in that way
The scowl cleared suddenly from his face. He sat still, reflective, then leaned forward, tapped the listings button on the communicator.
"ComWeb Service," said an operator's voice.
"Give me Central Library Information."
A few moments later, Parrol was saying, "I'd like to see charts of the ocean currents along the east coast, to a thousand miles out."
He switched on the viewscreen, waited for the requested material to be shown.
Another hunch! This one looked hot!
The location indicator showed a hundred and three miles to the Giard Station. Parrol was pushing the Hunter along. He was reasonably certain he had part of the problem boxed now, but he wanted to discuss it with Nile, and that annoying young woman still had not made herself available. The PanElemental did not respond to its call number, and it had been three hours since she last checked in at the station.
Mingled with his irritation was a growing concern he was somewhat reluctant to recognize. Nile was very good at taking care of herself, and the thing he had discovered with the help of Central Library made it seem less probable now that human criminality was directly responsible for what had happened to the herds. But still . . .
The communicator buzzed. Parrol turned it on, said, "Parrol speaking. Who is it?"
A man's voice told him pleasantly, "My mistake, sir! Wrong call number."
Parrol's eyes narrowed. He didn't replythe voice was a recording, and a signal from Nile. He snapped a decoder into the communicator's outlet, slipped on its earphones and waited. The decoder was set to a system they had developed to employ in emergencies when there was a chance that unfriendly ears were tuned to the communicators they were using.
After some seconds the decoder's flat, toneless whisper began:
"Alert. Alert. Guns. Air. Water. Land. Nile. Water. East. Fifty-eight. North. Forty-six. Come. Caution. Caution. Call. Not."
After an instant the message was repeated. Then the decoder remained silent.
Parrol removed the earphones, glanced at the speed indicator which showed the Hunter already moving along at its best clip, chewed his lip speculatively.
That meant, rather definitely, that a human agency was involved in the sea beef problem! Which didn't in itself disprove his latest conclusions but added another angle to them. Nile liked to dramatize matters on occasion but wasn't given to sending out false alarms. Guns . . . the possibility of an attack by air, water, or land. By whom? She didn't know or she would have told him. She'd called from the surface of the sea, fifty-eight miles east of the Giard Station, forty-six miles to the north. That would put her due east of the upper edge of the Lipyear's Oceanic ranch, beyond the shallows of the shelf, well out above the half-mile-deep canyon of the Continental Rift.
Parrol slid out the Hunter's swivel-gun, turned on the detection screens, dropped to a water-skimming level, and sped on in a straight course for Lipyear's.
Fog banks lay above the Rift. Except for a slow swell, the sea was quiet. Half a mile from the location she had given him, Parrol settled the Hunter on the surface, rode the swells in to the approximate point where Nile should be waiting. He snapped the car's canopy back, waited another minute, then tapped the Hunter's siren. As the sound died away, there came an answering brief wail out of the eddying fog. Dead ahead, simultaneously, a spark of blurred light flared and vanished. Parrol grinned with relief, turned on the Hunter's running lights and came in on the PanElemental lying half submerged in the swells. Its canopy was down; an anchor engine murmured softly. The subdued glow of instrument lights showed Nile standing in her swim rig in the front section, hands on her hips, watching him move in.
Parrol cut his drive engine and lights, switched on the sea anchor as the cars nosed gently together.
"Everything all right here?" he asked.
"More or less."
"From whom are you hiding?"
"I'm not sure. At a guess, Agenes Laboratories is the villain in the act, as you suspected. Come into my car, Dan."
Parrol grunted, stepped across and down into the PanElemental. He asked, "What makes you think so?"
"The fact that around noon today somebody scorched my beautiful left ear lobe with a needle beam."
Nile shrugged. "I never saw him at all. I was checking out ranch beef about a hundred miles south, and this character fired out of a bunch of reeds thirty feet away. He'd sneaked up under water obviously. I peppered the reed bed with the UW. Probably missed him, but he must have got discouraged and dived, because there was no more shooting."
"You reported it?"
She shook her head. "No."
Parrol looked at her suspiciously. "Where were the otters?"
"The otters? Well . . . they may have gone after him, I suppose. Matter of fact, I remember there was some little screeching and splashing back among the reeds. I didn't go look. Blood upsets me."
"Yes, I've noticed," Parrol said. "Where are the otters now?"
"Turned them loose in their sea run at Lipyear's before I came out here. I thought it would be best if whoever sent a needle-beam operator after me didn't find out for a while that the trick hadn't worked. It might keep them from trying something new immediately. But it's a cinch somebody doesn't want us to poke around too far into the mystery of the vanishing beef. You were right about that."
Parrol frowned. "Uh-huh. The fact is I'd just finished convincing myself I'd been wrongthat there was no human agency back of this."
"What gave you that idea?" Nile reached under the instrument shelf, brought out a sandwich, asked, "Have you eaten? I've a stack of these around."
"Glad to hear it," Parrol said gratefully, taking the sandwich. "I've been getting downright ravenous the past couple of hours."
She watched him reflectively while he told her about his visit to the Tuskason Sleds. "Now here's the point," he continued. "The sled-men think their animals were hit by a couple of subs which released something like a nerve gas beneath them. The gas killed the frayas, reached the surface and dissipated instantly into the air."
Nil nodded. "Could be done just like that, Dan."
"I don't doubt it," Parrol said. "But for the past half hour my theory has been that it wasn't done by something that dissipated instantly into the air."
"Because the spot where this happened is near the northern edge of the Meral Current. The pack was destroyed around two and a half months ago, shortly after we'd left for the Hub. Anything drifting on from there with the Meral would reach the Continental Rift, and this section of the coast, in approximately that time."
Nile frowned, rubbed the tip of her nose. "Meaning that the trouble with the sea beef wasn't intendedthat it was an accidental aftermath of poisoning the fraya pack?"
"That's what I was assuming," Parrol said. "That whatever hit the Tuskason pack two months or so ago has been hitting the local sea beef during the past week. It didn't have anything like the same instantaneously deadly effect here because it was widely dispersed by now. But suppose the stuff is brought into the shallows with the tides. Some of the beef absorbs enough of it to get very uncomfortable and starts moving out to sea to escape from what's bothering it. The nearest drift-weed beds are around a hundred and ten miles out. The tubs could make the trip if they got the notion, and until they were discovered there they would seem to have disappeared.
"But the fact that a direct attempt has been made to kill you changes the picture in one important respect. Somebody else evidently knows what's going onand that makes it appear that Giard may have been the real target throughout. If the beef herds on our contract ranches can be destroyed and the sleds that work for us starved out of their area, our operations on Nandy-Cline would be shot, perhaps permanently. Agenes and a few others would have the field to themselves.
"My guess is now that the business with the Tuskason pack and the trouble with the sea beef were two different maneuvers, though carried out by the same people, and that the stuff that's affected the beef was scattered out over the Continental Rift not far north of the coastal ranches with the idea of letting the Meral carry it south."
Nile shook her head.
"I think you came closer with your other idea," she said.
"What makes you say so?"
"Two things I discovered while you were gone. I'll let you see for yourself." She nodded toward the rear of the car. "You'll find your trunks and diving gear back there. If you'll climb into them, we'll go for a dip."
"To get your unprejudiced impression of something I noticed a few hours ago. Use the helmet instead of the breather so we can talk."
The water was comfortably warm. Quite dark, but the combined pulse of the two anchor engines made a beacon of sound behind them. A glimmer of phosphorescence came from the surface fifteen feet above. Nile Etland was a vague shadow on Parrol's left.
"All right, we're here," Parrol said. "Now what?"
"Let's circle around the cars at about this level," the helmet communicator told him.
Parrol turned to the left, aware that she was turning with him. He stroked along twenty or thirty yards was about to speak impatiently again when Nile asked, "You can hold your breath just under four minutes, can't you, Dan?"
"As you know."
"Just establishing the fact. Start holding it now and keep on swimming."
"What's the . . . " Parrol broke off. She seemed dead serious about this. He stopped breathing, stroked on, turning gradually to keep the sound of the sea anchors at the same distance to his left. The shadow-shape of Nile dropped back behind him.
Irritation was simmering in Parrol, but so was curiosity. He was quite certaincertain in a somehow unpleasant waythat Nile wasn't playing some game in order to be mysterious. He kept moving along, jumbled questions and surmises flashing through his mind. After a time, his lungs labored heavily for breath, became quiet again. The sea water suddenly seemed colder. He realized the double pulse of the anchor engines had receded somewhat, turned in more sharply towards them. How long had he been swimming by now? It must be
He opened his mouth, took in a lungful of air.
"Yes?" he said hoarsely.
"How do you feel?"
"Liar! You're scared spitless! I don't blame you. You've been holding your breath since I asked you to?"
"That's been"a pause"eight minutes and fifteen seconds, Dan!"
For a moment it made no sense. Then it did. Parrol felt numbed. He said at last, "That was the unprejudiced observation you wanted me to make?"
"Yes. Let's go up and get back into the car."
She swung herself into the PanElemental ahead of him, turned as he started to follow her. "Better stay out till you're dry, Dan. You'd soak the upholstery. Climb on the hood and I'll toss you a towel."
Parrol inquired presently, drying himself, "Same thing with you?"
"It would have been if I'd been holding my breath."
"That old herd bull we were monkeying with this morning . . . "
"Uh-huh. He might come to the surface occasionally but not because he had to breathe. Same thing again with a lot of the other beef that's stayed on the ranches. That's why the spot checks were so far off. Something the matter?"
Parrol had sworn aloud in surprise. The towel in his hand was dripping wet now, while he didn't seem to be any drier. "Toss me another towel, will you?"
Nile made an odd, choking sound. "Here it is, Dan."
He caught it, looked over at her suspiciously, looked down again at himself. Water was trickling over every portion of his skin as freely as if he'd just climbed out of the sea.
"What the devil's going on?" he demanded.
She made the choked sound again. "I . . . don't worry about it, Dan! It'll stop in a minute or two. The same thing happened to me this afternoon. I'd probably have to dissect you under a microscope to be able to say exactly what's happening."
"An educated guess will do for now."
"An educated guess? Wellthe thing that we, and the beef, picked up has developed some biological mechanism for drawing water in through our skin, extracting the oxygen from the water, and expelling the water again. We've become gills all over, so to speak. Did you feel your lungs start trying to work while you were holding your breath?"
Parrol reflected, nodded. "For just an instant."
"That," Nile said, "seems to be what brings the water-breathing mechanism into actionthe first oxygen-shortage reflex. I think you can dry yourself and stay dry now, by the way. You noticed a feeling of cold immediately afterwards?"
Parrol asked distastefully, "That was the sea water coming through my skin?"
"Yes. As I say, I don't think it's anything to worry about. The mechanism should dissolve again in a day or two if we don't pick up any more of the stuff."
"No permanent changes?"
"At a guess again, no. If you hadn't held your breath while you were under water just now, you probably never would have known there had been any change in you. You look like you're going to stay dry now, so come on inside."
She held out a sandwich as he swung down into the car's interior. "Still hungry?"
"No. I" Parrol broke off, looked surprised. "I certainly am! Like that bull beef stuffing himself, eh?"
"Yes. Whatever that breathing mechanism is, it eats up a lot of energy fast. Here, take itI've been piling away calories all afternoon. And here's my other piece of evidence."
She thrust the sandwich into his hand, swung a camera recorder out of its compartment, settled it on the instrument shelf before Parrol. Her fingers spun the dial setting back a few turns, pushed the start button. The front surface of the recorder turned into a viewscreen.
"Fire forest," Parrol said, chewing. A flat stretch of sea floor had appeared in the screen, shot from a slight angle above it. Dotting the silt were clumps of shrublike and treelike growths, burning eerily with all the colors of the spectrum. Towards the background they blended into a single blanket of blazing white which forced the gloom of the abyss up a hundred feet above the floor. Parrol asked, "The local one?"
"Yes," Nile said. "The section immediately beneath us. I put in the last couple of hours prowling around the floor of the Rift. Now watch!"
The pickup swung about to a point where a cluster of giant yellow blooms was being slowly agitated by something dark moving through them. The view blurred for an instant as magnification cut in, then cleared.
Parrol paused on a bite of the sandwich, swallowed, leaned forward.
"Oh, no!" he said. "The floor's over a half-mile down! That isn't . . . but it is, of course!"
"Sea beef down in the Rift, aliveand feeding!" Nile agreed. "That's where something like eighty per cent of the missing stock seems to be now. I can show you whole herds in a minute. They're thickest a little farther south. Here's a closer look at this specimen."
The magnification stepped up again. After a moment Parrol said, "You get the impression it's lost half its blubber! No wonder the thing's gorging on fire plants. Energy loss through adaptation again, I suppose?"
"Of course," Nile said. "There'd be rather drastic changes needed to let sea beef live even a minute down there."
"Lungs, ears, sinuses . . . yes, there would. It's almost unbelievable! But wait a second! Supposing we"
"Apparently," Nile said, "the process is similar to that of the development of the underwater breathing mechanism. The outer stimulus is required. As the beef moved down into the Rift, it adapted to deep-water living. The ones that stayed in the ranches weren't subjected to the same succession of stimuli, therefore didn't change."
Parrol cleared his throat. "So you think that if we started swimming down without suits . . .
"Well, we might find ourselves starting to adapt. Care to try it?"
"Not for anything!"
"Nor I. The sea beef's taking it, evidently. What would happen to a human body is something I don't care to discover in person. That's the end of the sequence. Want to see the herds to the south now?"
Parrol shook his head. "Skip that. I'll take your word that most of them are down there."
She turned the recorder off, swung it back into the compartment. "What do you make of it all, Dan?"
"Just what you're making of it, apparently," Parrol said. "When the Tuskason frayas turned belly up and died, they were around a hundred miles southwest of their breeding ground, headed there. And the breeding groundthe Tuskason Riftlies inside the Meral Current. There's that symbiotic relationship between the frayas and the chalot, their food plant during the breeding period. The chalot produces mobile spores as the frayas start arriving. Spore enzymes produce reactions in the frayas to turn them into their deep-water breeding form"
He paused, scowling. The frayas were living anachronisms among Nandy-Cline's present animal forms, the last of a class of pelagic browsers in whose life cycle certain luminants of the fire forests had been intricately involved. "The chalot spores are assumed to actively seek out the frayas when they appear in the breeding grounds," he went on slowly. "But this time, when the chalot released its spores into the Tuskason Rift the fraya pack didn't show up. Eventually the Meral carried the free spores off, and eventually it brought them along the Continental Rift and into the shore ranches. Terran mammalssea beef and humans, in this caseare a much closer approximation to frayas than any of Nandy-Cline's modern life strains. So the chalot spores settled for us! And we've responded to their enzymes almost as the frayas did."
"That's what it looks like," Nile agreed.
After a moment Parrol asked, "What makes you so sure the changes won't be permanent?"
"Simply the fact that the chalot doesn't grow here. The frayas maintain their deep-water form as long as there is chalot around for them to feed on. By the time the seasonal supply is exhausted, they've bred and are ready to return to their pelagic shape. The spores bring about only the initial reaction. It's maintained by contact with the parent plants. Some of the sea beef that went down into the Rift here may already be losing the effect and coming back to the surface, for that matter."
"All right," Parrol said. "We know now that the trouble with the beef wasn't planned. It was an accidental result of wiping out the fraya pack. But we're still thinking of Agenes. If they killed the frayas, their biochemists would realize soon enough what's happening nowand that would be a good enough reason to send needle-beam men after us before we worked it out. But why kill the frayas in the first place?"
"That's what I'm wondering," Nile said. "Agenes has all the sea harvest territory it can use."
Parrol said, "So it does. But it occurs to me now that the Grenley Banks are about two hundred miles north of the Tuskason Rift."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"You may remember," Parrol said, "that a week or two before we left Orado there was a report that Giard had lost a submarine harvester here which was working along the Grenley Banks the last time it gave its position."
Nile's eyes widened an instant.
"I'd forgotten! That does look interesting. Agenes knocks off one of our harvesters roughly three hundred miles north of the point they knocked off the fraya pack. Why? They had something going in the area they didn't want the sub to stumble overor maybe it did stumble over it. Why kill the pack before that, three hundred miles to the south?"
"To keep it from going on toward the breeding grounds," Parrol said.
"Of course! The Tuskason herd sleds were following the frayas. If somebody attacked the sleds, the whole planet would hear about it. But with the frayas dead, the sleds has no reason to go on to the breeding grounds, and didn't. Now . . . "
"The breeding grounds!" Parrol said. "A fire forest, Nile!"
She was silent a moment, said, "You're right, Dan! It has to be that. A new nidith bed Narcotics hasn't found out about!"
It was almost certainly the answer, Parrol thought. The luminant nidith plant was the source of a drug of unique medical properties when used with strict safeguards, viciously habit-forming when not. It could be harvested legally only under direct government supervision and in amounts limited to the actual medicinal demand. The nidith beds required for that purpose were patrolled; in the other fire forests on the planet Narcotics teams had painstakingly exterminated the plant.
But if a fresh bed had sprung up and been discovered by the wrong people . . .
"Agenes would take a chance on it!" he said. "Two or three seasonal hauls would be worth everything else they could expect to get out of the planet."
"That's what it is!" Nile said. She stared at him a moment, teeth worrying her upper lip. "How do we pin it on them, Dan?"
Parrol said, "This is about the peak of the nidith harvest season, isn't it?"
"Of course. They should be working there right now! Whom do we give it to? Fiawa and the cops? Narcotics? No, wait . . . "
"Uh-huh," Parrol agreed. "I just had that thought, too."
"They can harvest it on the quiet," Nile said, "at the expense of a few murders if somebody happens by. But they can't haul it off Nandy-Cline unless they've got people both in Narcotics and among the mainland police bought and paid for. This thing's organized to the hilt! If we blow our horn and nobody happens to be at the nidith bed at the moment, we'll never hang it on Agenes. We're got to be sure they're caught with the goods before we make another move."
Ilium Weldrow appeared disturbed. He had stared at Parrol and Nile with unconcealed disapproval when they called him into Parrol's office on their return to the station. By contrast with the assistant manager in his trimly proper business suit, the pair looked like criminally inclined beachcombers. Both wore their guns, and Parrol hadn't troubled to do more than pull his trousers back on over his swim trunks, while Nile had added only a short jacket to her swimming attire. But it was more than the lack of outer respectability in his colleagues that had upset Weldrow.
"I'm afraid I don't follow you, Dan," he said, frowning. "I'm to stay in your office, gluedas you sayto your private communicator, while the station is to remain darkened and locked after you leave. Why the latter?"
"Because if you indicate you're here during the next few hours, somebody might blow that pointed little head off your shoulders," Nile told him inelegantly.
Weldrow's face showed alarm. "But what is this desperate business all about?"
"If you don't know what it's about, you won't be involved in it," Parrol said. "And you'll be in no danger if you simply carry out your instructions and don't stick your neck out of the station before we get back. Let's go over the instructions now to make sure you've got them straight."
The assistant manager complied grudgingly. He was to wait here for a call from a Captain Mace, on the Giard cropper tender Attris. The call should come within three to six hours and would be an innocuous request to have certain spare parts flown out to the tender. This would be Weldrow's cue to dial two emergency call numbers on Parrol's communicator. One would put him in contact with Chief of Police Fiawa, the other with a Federation Narcotics man with whom Parrol had worked before. When they responded, he was to press the transmission button on the communicator's telewriter, which contained certain coded information Parrol had fed into it, and silently switch the machine off again.
Weldrow appeared to have absorbed the instructions well enough, Parrol decided. Even if he slipped up, it shouldn't do more than delay action by a few hours.
The night sky was clear above the Meral Current and Duse floodlighted the sky. "You're sure that's the Attris ahead?" Nile Etland asked.
Parrol said, "Uh-huh. Mace is around forty miles off his check point, but it's the Attris. I know that tub." The magnified image of the cropper tender eight thousand feet below was centered in the ground-view screen. Two flocks of pelagic cropping machines near it rose and sank slowly on the shimmer of the swells. The croppers were restless in the full moonlight, and the tender's chase-plane was circling beyond the farther of the two flocks, guiding a few runaways back to the fold.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Nile asked.
Parrol glanced over at her. "You've checked your position chart?"
"Of course. The ship's anchored above the north third of the Tuskason Rift. I see. You feel she'd be in danger if somebody spots the Pan snooping around the floor of the Rift?"
"She might be in danger, and in any case she's too close to where we want to operate," Parrol said. "If they're loading nidith down there, they're nervous people. They know a ship of that type can't spot them, but the mere fact the tender's at anchor here will make them that much more ready to dump the evidence and run at the first hint that something's wrong."
"So what do you want to do?"
"Go aboard, tell Mace to move his croppers fifty miles west and wait for us there. That will get him out of everybody's hair. He'll know something unusual is up, but he never asks questions. Give them the visual signal."
Nile's hand moved, and the Giard identification light . . . blue . . . blue . . . red . . . flashed out beneath the PanElemental. After a ten-second pause it was repeated. The communicator burred.
"Negative," Nile muttered. Her fingers shifted on the signal box; a purple glow appeared beneath them. As it faded, the communicator burr ended and Giard's blue-blue-red flickered up at them from the tender.
Nile said, "He's got the idea that we don't want conversation." She flashed the coming-in signal. A few moments later a clear green spark showed on the Attris.
Nile snapped off the signal box. "That's it! Let's go down." She shoved the car's nose over and fed it speed as Parrol switched off the ground-view plate. The sea was rising towards them, moonlit and stirring; then it tilted sharply up to the right, swung back and was level again just below. Water hissed under them as the Pan knifed lightly through the back of a swell. The tender's stern appeared ahead, its details outlined in Duse's light. Several men stood about the deck. Two of them . . .
Parrol had no time to complete the warning. On the deck of the Attris a piece of shielding had dropped. Behind it stood a squat gun, nose pointed at them. Nile saw the trap in the moment he did, reacted instantly. The Pan shot down toward the water.
A blaze of light filled the screen and a giant fist rammed the car up and around. Nile was flung heavily over on Parrol, dropped away. He was struggling to reach the flight controls while the car flipped through the air, engine roaring wildly. In the screen, he had a flashing glimpse of the bow of the Attris receding from them, another of the tender's chase-plane darting past. A hail of steel rattled and tore at the PanElemental for an instant. Then the engine was dead. He had the car under partial control for the moment needed to straighten it out before it crashed into the sea.
The water was pitch-black all around. The PanElemental, sinking tail first now, ruined engine section flooded, settled heavily against some yielding obstruction, dropped again a few feet, was checked once more. It swayed over slowly into something close to a horizontal position, turned sideways and lay still in a grappling tangle of the vegetation that rode the Meral Current below the surface.
Parrol, out of his trousers and shoes, tightened the dive belt around his waist, groped about for the scattered rest of their diving equipment, cursing the darkness, the treachery of the Attris crew, his own stupidity. With an illegal source of drugs, that could make millionaires out of a thousand men, to exploit, Agenes would have had no difficulty in finding all the useful confederates it needed. Now he and Nile had one slim chance to outlive their blunder at least for a short while. They had to be out of the crippled car and away in the sea before the Attris got divers down to make sure they were finished off.
Nile lay doubled half across the slanted instrument board at his feet. There had been no time to find out how badly she was injured. She was certainly unconscious. But he could handle her in the water.
Parrol found the two sets of flippers behind the seat, had just finished slipping his on when there was a flicker of light in the blackness. He glanced around, startled, saw above and to the right what might have been a moving cluster of fireflies. Comprehension came instantly . . . the vision screen was showing him a group of jet divers approaching from the Attris.
Which left him perhaps thirty seconds to be away from here
Swearing savagely, Parrol snapped the other set of flippers to his belt, squirmed around the front seat, picked up Nile and clamped her against him. His free hand groped about for the manual canopy release, found it. He pulled down the rear release first, instantly grasped the other and wrenched at it.
There was a roar, a momentary cold brutal pounding that smashed the air from his lungs, whirled him upwards.
He rolled over in water above the car, clutching Nile, came up against the rubbery trunk of a giant drift plant and straightened out. The fireflies were bigger and brighter here, turning toward the uprush of air from the PanElemental, moving closer through the great sodden underwater thicket in which it hung, gradually illuminating it. Parrol swung away from the lights, floated behind the car, saw a patch of empty blackness before and below him. He shifted Nile to his left arm, grasped the lower edge of the car's open section, reached down with his legs and gripped two of the plant trunks between his thighs. Locking himself to the plants, he hauled at the car. It swung around heavily, then began to turn, was suddenly sliding past him. In an instant, it had plunged out through the thicket and disappeared below.
Parrol turned around with Nile and went stroking steadily down at a steep slant into the chilled night of the Tuskason Rift.
It had been horribly hungry and weak; and now it was eating. Its memory and awareness covered almost nothing but that. There were blurred visual impressionslight, darkness, colorindicating other things out there which interested it not at all. There were booming, whistling, chirping sounds; and those it also ignored.
Taste and touch held interest, however. The eating process was a simple one. Something was put into its mouth, and it swallowed; and as soon as it had swallowed, something was put into its mouth again, and it swallowed again. Occasionally there would be a pause before something new came into its mouth; and then it had a feeling of anxiety. But the pauses were always short.
Its awareness of taste and touch was connected with whatever was brought into its mouth. There would be one kind of thing for a while, then another. There were variations in flavor, in saltiness, in slipperiness, degree of firmness. But it was all very good.
"I must have been nearly starved to death!" it thought suddenly. It wondered then what "I" was, but almost at once forgot the matter again.
A while later, it had another thought. It decided it didn't want to eat any more, at least not just now. Something was being pushed into its mouth, but it ejected the something and closed its mouth firmly. There was no impulse to do anything else. It remained exactly where it was, contentedly unmoving.
Now its other senses began to click in. It discovered the blue was gone from its vision and that there was a wide, colorful vista out there, full of individual details. There were things that moved, and many more things that stood still. It became aware of sounds again and for a while tried unsuccessfully to connect them to things it could see. Then there was a sudden awareness of buoyancy, of near-weightlessness. At once it knew what that meant!
"I'm under water . . . "
" . . . And I'm me, of course!" Nile Etland concluded, with a pleased sense of summing up the situation.
She was sitting here, upright, in the underwater ooze. Not quite uprightshe was leaning back a little, against something hard.
Something moved. Nile tilted her head to look down at it. It was an arm. A repulsive arm-thick, mottled-gray, with corrugated, oily-looking skin. It was reaching around from behind her, and the cupped hand at its end held some bluish, sloppy oblongs, lifting them toward her face.
She realized that the hard thing she leaned against was the monster to which this arm was attached.
Nile jerked upward convulsively to get away from the thing. Somewhat to her surprise she succeeded. Next a powerful stroke of flipper-tipped legs that knocked up a cloud of ooze, and she was driving straight across the bottom towards an electric-blue stand of fan-shaped luminants.
Luminants! Where . . . ?
Memory blazed up. The stern deck of the Attris, ghostly clear in white moonlight, the sudden appearance of the gun. They'd been hit
Nile twisted about, braking her forward momentum, got her legs under her and turned, looking back.
The gray thing which had to be Danrich Parrol was on its feet but making no attempt to follow. Nile's gaze went beyond him, to the dense, multihued ranks of a fire forest burning coldly in endless night on the floor of the Tuskason Rift.
Slowlyshocked, horrified, oddly fascinatedshe brought up her hands and stared at them, twisted and turned briefly to inspect as much as she could of her body, ran palms like hard rubber over her rubbery face and head. The sense of shock drained away. Aesthetically she had nothing on Parrol; the pattern of modifications seemed much the same, was presumably identical. It still beat, by a long way, being dead.
He wasn't moving from where he stood, probably to avoid alarming her again. Nile went stroking back, stopped a few feet away, a little above him. The changed, ugly face turned toward her; otherwise he remained motionless. Armies of tiny luminous feeders darted about his trunklike legs, crept in the soft mud, swarming about the litter of a smashed shells, cracked carapaces and other remnants of their own ravenous feeding.
She studied him quickly, no longer repelled by what she saw. There were transparent horny sheaths over the eyes, bulging outward a little. She had them, too. The lids wouldn't close over them, but there was no discomfort involved with that. Their outer ears were covered by a bone-hard growth like a thick, curved sausage. Whatever the internal arrangement was, the growths were excellent sound conductors. Broadened noses with no indications of nostrils. When she tried to expand or compress her lungs, nothing happened. Lungs were out of the picture here. The shape remained humanoid if not human, thickened, coarsened, grotesque, but functional, at least temporarily, beneath more than a thousand feet of water. She felt strong and vigorous; the awkward-looking body had responded to her purpose with agile ease. It was better, miraculously so, than they could have had any reason to expect!
She drifted closer to Parrol, touched his shoulder with her hand. His face split in a rather grisly grin; then he turned, momentarily scattering the feeders, and crouched beside a creamy luminous globe protruding from the ooze a few feet away. Nile floated down to see what he was doing.
Parrol laid a fingertip on the plant-animal's surface. The luminant shuddered. A dark spot appeared where the finger touched it. The finger moved slowly up along the glowing surface, curved down again. A line of darkness followed it as the creature's surface cells reacted to the touch. Parrol was, Nile realized suddenly, writing on his living parchment. After a few seconds she read:
She moved her head irritably up and down, telling herself it wasn't an entirely unreasonable question. The transformed Parrol produced his unpleasantly transformed grin again, detached something from his belt, held it up to her. With a shock of pleasure Nile recognized her gun. She clipped the sheathed UW to her belt while he resumed writing, then shifted to where she could read over his shoulder.
The two words of the question had almost faded out. New words appeared gradually:
OUR FRIENDS ARE HERE.
Nile gave him a startled glance. He nodded, motioned her to follow, turned and swam toward the thicket of brilliant-blue luminants for which she had headed when she broke away from him. Half crawling, half swimming, he moved into the thicket, Nile close behind. After some fifty feet they came into a less dense but much taller stand of a darkly red growth; here Parrol moved more cautiously. Presently he stopped, beckoned Nile up to him, pushed a few soggy armfuls of the red fronds apart.
Nile found herself looking down a sharply slanted rock slope at another section of the Rift floor a hundred yards below. The fire forest began again at the foot of the shelf, stretched away, clearly detailed nearby but blurring quickly as distance increased into a many-colored glow. Following Parrol's pointing finger, she could barely make out the long dark hull of a submarine harvester grounded along the towering wall of the side of the Rift on the right. Two other harvesters lay farther out among the luminants. Together the ships formed a rough triangle, within which Nile now began to detect the moving figures of men, bulky in deep-water armor.
There was no mistaking the nature of their activity. The nidith was pale blue, a slender two-foot structure, individually unobtrusive among the greater luminants. But from the top of the shelf it was apparent that there must be millions of them in the bed which stretched away up the floor of the Rift, forming an unbroken carpet of undergrowth among the thickets and groves of the fire forest.
Parrol pointed to the right. About halfway between their position and the harvesters, a single armored figure sat astride a beam-gun floating just off the bottom, its short snout pointed upwards.
Nile nodded comprehendingly. Of the myriads of creatures that crawled, walked and swam among the fire forest's branches and over the ooze, almost all were completely harmless from the viewpoint of a man in underwater armor. But a few species were far from harmless. As she looked, the beam-gun made an abrupt half-turn, following something which slithered rapidly through the fringes of darkness overhead, vanished upward into the gloom again without attempting to descend.
She felt a brief inward shudder. One glimpse of that flattened, rubbery twenty-foot disk had been enough to identify ita cloakfish, a rather small one but quite large enough to be an immediate menace to any member of the nidith harvesting gang outside of the ships. The cloakfish ordinarily were found clinging to the walls of the ocean rifts they inhabited, grinding into the rock with the multiple sets of jaws lining their undersides to get at a variety of burrowing wormlike creatures within. But they put no strict limitation on their diet, frequently attacked divers on sight, and had been known to saw open a deep-water suit in less than a minute.
Parrol turned away, motioned with his head. She wasn't sure what he intended but guessed he wanted to follow the edge of the shelf to a point on the right where a cluster of luminants rose high enough to let them drop into the lower section of the Rift without being detected by the guard riding the beam-gun. She nodded agreement, followed as Parrol wound his way through the thicket, moving parallel to the open slope.
As they approached the stand of tall growth, a curious thudding sensation reached Nile through the water, followed within seconds by another. She puzzled over that a moment, decided that beam-guns stationed on the far side of the harvesters had opened fire on some assailant. The gang probably had been at work here for a week or two; by now the area would be swarming both with cloakfish and with other predators gathered to feed on cloaks the guns had crippled or killed.
Predators such as that twenty-foot snake shape which came eeling up over the edge of the shelf a few yards away! It might have picked up their scent in the water, for it darted at her instantly, jaws yawning wide.
Nile wasn't quite sure how it happened. She had pulled back slightly as the head struck past. Immediately afterwards, her legs were clamped about the slick, sinuous body, her arms locking her against it
And her teeth were sunk into the thing! Not simply biting, but digging, slashing, cutting deeper through slimy hide that should have turned a knife, tearing the hide away and returning instantly to slice at unprotected flesh. The thicket of red luminants whirled about her, then open water; the section of snake body she gripped was knotting and twisting with monstrous strength. Bottom silt exploded in a dense cloud as they struck into it. For a moment, lifted high above her, she saw the thing's head, great jaws snapping wildly, Parrol leeched to its neck.
Those were blurred, remote impressions. The only clear impressions were the savage hunger that blazed up in her as the creature drove at them and the horrified delight with which she was satisfying it in quickly gulped bites of salty flesh untilalmost as suddenly as it had awakenedthe hunger feeling was gone. It was like a fog clearing from her mind.
She pushed away from the snakelike thing. It was still writhing, but for all practical purposes it was dead. The big head flopped loosely, seemed half torn from the body. They appeared to have rolled into the tall stand of luminants in the lower section of the Rift for which she had thought Parrol was heading when the creature attacked. Parrol floated a few yards away, looking at her. Nile glanced up the length of the sea thing again and saw that he had been feeding, too. His response must have been as immediate and violent as hersthey'd had their guns within reach and made no attempt to use them!
She looked at the mangled beast and tried to feel disgust for what had happened. But there was no disgust. Her changed body had demanded nourishment, and meeting the demand had been a wholly agreeable experience. When the hunger surge rose again, she would feed it again.
Three or four generations of children in the shallows settlements, Parrol thought, must have had stories of Nandy-Cline's sea hags recounted to them by their elders. In the version he had heard when very young, the sea hags were anthropomorphic ogres who lived in the depths of the ocean but came to the surface for the specific purpose of eating small boys who swam out farther than grownups thought they should go. The legend was supposed to have been created by the sledmen who had settled to live on the ocean world fifty or sixty years before the first Hub colonists arrived.
It seemed it hadn't been entirely a legend. When the sledmen began to follow the fraya packs, an uncounted number of them would have come unknowingly into contact with the chalot spores and undergone this weird transformationsome to be slaughtered by their horrified companions when they climbed back on the sleds, maddened by the change hunger, others meeting death in one form or another in the rifts and trenches where the chalot grew, their disappearance charged off to the giant predators that prowled the breeding grounds during the season. The last such occurrencebefore thismight lie many decades in the past. The sledmen nowadays regarded it as extremely bad luck to swim about in rift waters when the frayas bred and carefully refrained from it, although they weren't aware of the specific danger that had created the superstition.
At the moment, however, the sea hag shape was the one great advantage he had. And he couldn't have asked for a better companion than another of those watery bogy-men beside him, controlled by Nile Etland's intelligence. Flattened out and buried to the eyes in flowing ooze, they were edging forward toward a group of tall, golden luminants standing some thirty feet back of the guard on the floating beam-gun. These were plant-animals with some rudimentary intelligence, known to students of the fire forest fauna as starbursts. For several more minutes they remained undisturbed, the clusters of tentacle arms at their tips fanning the water with slow, rhythmic motions.
Then, on the far side of the group, one individual began to move off toward the beam-gun. While it was capable of gliding slowly along the ooze on the widened base of its stem, it was not moving of its own volition now but being half carried, half pushed through the silt. The starburst was in a state of considerable agitation. Its tip had opened out into something like an inverted umbrella, and from the edges of this hood the gleaming tentacles flailed anxiously through the water.
Parrol let it down suddenly, jabbed Nile. Both settled a little deeper into the silt. The gun was swinging around toward them, then stopped, pointing in their general direction. The guard's face couldn't be seen behind the headpiece of his suit, but presumably he was staring a little suspiciously at the starburst. He might not remember how close the luminant had been to him, but the disturbed silt behind it indicated it had been moving.
However, it had stopped its advance now; and in spite of a vague resemblance to a fifteen-foot golden squid standing on end, starbursts were known to be utterly inoffensive creatures. The guard swung the gun around again, facing the nidith bed, to watch for cloakfish.
Parrol gripped the starburst, began climbing to his feet, lifting it clear of the mud. Nile rose with him. Together, in a plodding rush, they carried the writhing luminant up behind the guard. Its top end tilted forward and down, and an instant later the upper part of the guard's suit was enclosed in the widespread hood and thrashing arms of the alarmed creature. He was jerked out of the gun's saddle, pulled down into the ooze, the starburst knotting itself about him and clinging with grim desperation.
Parrol was immediately in the saddle, gripping the steering bar, while Nile swung herself into the lower part of the framework and found handholds there. The beam-gun swung around, darted off toward the rocky slope leading to the shelf from which they had come, up along it. Looking back, Nile saw guard and starburst roll together into another cluster of luminants where the entangled pair created considerable disturbance. No doubt the guard already was broadcasting his predicament over the suit communicator, but several minutes would pass before anyone could get over from the subs to release him.
A few hundred yards beyond the edge of the shelf, Parrol turned the gun's snout up, steering it into the darkness pressing down toward the Rift's floor. They would assume back there that the guard had inadvertently knocked over the acceleration switch when he was hauled out of the seat by his strange attacker, and that the gun was now roaming about the Rift on its own. It was unlikely that they'd waste any time trying to find it again.
The magic gleanings of the fire forest faded below and the ocean night closed in. Parrol slowed the gun's ascent, checked their position carefully in the green glow of the instrument panel. Nile came clambering up, groped through the gun's tool pockets, pulled a spotlight out of one, a heavy-duty UW handgun out of another. She settled down on the edge of the panel, and Parrol heard a click through the water as she readied the gun. Cloakfish were welcome to show up any time now!
They exchanged sea hag grins, which somehow no longer seemed at all grotesque. Now they had the beam-gun, there were several courses of action open. It wasn't merely a matter of trying to stay alive long enough to find out whether a human body which had undergone the chalot change could survive when the effect of the spores wore off. They should, Parrol thought, be able to do much better than that.
The nidith gang believed them drowned near the surface. The Attris wouldn't have opened fire on the PanElemental if they hadn't known who was in it and known, too, that if they disposed of Nile and Parrol their secret should still be safe. Which meant that Ilium Weldrow had succumbed to the big-money lure of the drug outfit, along with Captain Mace and the rest of the Attris crew. The assistant manager had been the logical one to buy to keep Giard from interfering with the operation. When the time came, he'd passed along the word that Parrol and Nile Etland had picked up the trail and were on their way to the Tuskason Rift to confirm their suspicions.
He and Nile almost had got killed because they hadn't thought of that possibility. But as a result, the nidith harvesters now felt secure and were open in turn to surprise attacks. Parrol steered the beam-gun up slowly, constantly checking his position and alert for signs of physical discomfort in himself or Nile. Others had returned alive to the surface in the sea hag form, long ago, but there were too many uncertainties about that to be at all hasty in their ascent. After a minute or two, Nile leaned forward, shaking her head, and moved the acceleration switch over. The gun surged upward. Parrol glanced at her, decided to go along with her judgment. He kept watching the depth gauge. When it showed them at a point four hundred feet below the surface, he halted the gun, brought it into a horizontal position, turning it slightly. The target-light above the muzzle stabbed out, disclosed a section of the Rift wall. Parrol played the beam up and along the wall. It sloped away here at an angle which indicated they might be approaching the top of the Rift.
Eighty feet farther up they were there. A dark sea floor stretched away before them to rise through a series of shelves toward the barely submerged shallows five miles to the east. Parrol began moving the machine horizontally back along the edge of the drop-off. When he stopped it again, it was at a point he calculated to be immediately above the submarine harvesters in the nidith bed.
Here might be the opportunity to strike the most telling blow of all. Nile knew by now what he was looking for. When he started forward again, gliding in slowly across the sea floor, she was leaning far out over the panel, head shifting this way and that, as she followed the sweep of the target-light. Suddenly she lifted a hand
And this could be it, Parrol thought, excitement surging in him. A vertical dark ridge, some fifty feet high, perhaps three hundred yards up the sloping floor. The surface behind it was smooth, flat, level with the top of the ridgea lake of sediment and sand, drifted down from the upper shelves, blocked off from the Tuskason Rift by a wall of rock.
A few minutes later, he was sure of it. He backed the gun away twenty yards, set the energy beam to full power, flicked it on. Something smashed into the ridge, began to move along it, water and rock boiling off in thick clouds at its touch. The gun bucked and danced as shock waves poured back at it. Parrol cut the beam, rode back another twenty yards, turned it on again. Now the gun was steady. The beam ate a fifty-foot gash slowly across the face of the ridge, returned along it.
A little over half the gun's charge was spent when the upper section of the ridge at last toppled ponderously forward. A river of mud and sand spilled down through the opening, flowed along the sea floor to the edge of the Rift, rolled thickly into it . . .
Enough there, Parrol thought, watching the dark slop stream by beneath the swaying gun, more than enough, to bury not only the harvester stationed against the wall, but the two other ships in the nidith bed with it. And burying any one of them with a nidith load on board was all that was necessary. Some of the divers outside might get away if they moved fast enough. The rest of the work gang was caught. They'd live because ships and suits were designed to preserve life even under the smashing blow of a deep-water muck avalanche; but they'd stay exactly where they were until somebody came along to dig them out.
On the surface above the Tuskason Rift the cropper tender Attris rode the long, slow swells, anchor engines humming. Duse had set, and cloud banks were spread over half the night sky. To the north and west, fog was forming. For most of the past hour, the ship's communicator had been babbling excitedly. The Attris' captain looked distracted and harried.
From the edge of one of the nearby herds of pelagic croppers a single machine began moving toward the west, slowly at first but increasing speed as it drew farther away from the Attris.
Thirty minutes later, the wandering cropper reached a point eight miles west of the tender. In the Attris' chase-plane an automatic buzzer woke the pilot. He looked up at the glowing location chart above his bunk, saw the flashing red dot at the fringe of the eight-mile circle, swore sleepily, climbed out of the bunk and got on his direct line to the tender.
"What do you want?" his skipper's voice inquired hoarsely.
"Got a stray showing," the pilot began. "I"
"Go after it, stupid! You know things are supposed to look right around here!" The line went dead.
The pilot scowled, yawned, sat down at the controls. The chase-plane slithered past the bow of the Attris, lifted into the air. Within a few minutes it was hovering above the cropping machine. The pilot directed an override beam at the cropper's engine shed, twisted the override control knobs and discovered that the cropper's automatic steering mechanisms were not responding. He muttered in annoyance. He'd have to reset them manually.
He brought the plane down, tethered the cropper to it, walked along a planking to the machine shed, opened the door and stepped inside. An instant later, there was a wild screech from within the shed, then a brief, violent splashing in the water beneath it. That ended, was followed presently by deep, croaking noises with odd overtones of human speech.
A sea hag appeared in the door of the shed, the unconscious and half-drowned pilot slung across its shoulder. Another hag came out behind it. They were breathing air with apparent difficulty, but they were breathing. The first one climbed into the plane with the pilot. The other detached the cropper, kicked it off, and joined its companion.
The plane swung about, rose from the surface and sped away, due west.
Shortly before daybreak, heavy fog rolled in over the shore ranches of the continental coast, drifted inland. The Giard Pharmaceuticals Station was thickly blanketed by it. Inside, most sections of the station were dark and deserted. But Parrol's office was lit; and in it a bulky figure with a grotesquely ugly, gray-mottled head, encased in a cloaklike garment which appeared to have been cut in haste out of a length of canvas, was painstakingly at work before a stenog machine. The screen above the machine showed the enlargement of a lengthy coded message. A number of minor deletions and revisions were being produced in it now. Finally, the cloaked shape switched off the machine. The screen disappeared, and a bloated-looking gray forefinger pushed at a tab on the side of the stenog. Two cards covered with microprint popped out on the table. The figure picked them up, glanced at them, came heavily to its feet.
From the open door to the office, a harsh, roughened voice, which nevertheless was recognizably the voice of Nile Etland, said, "I was finally able to contact Freasie, Dan. She's on her way to the hospital to set things up. Thirty minutes from now, we'll be able to get in quietly any time by the service entrance. Nobody but Freasie and Dr. Tay will know we're there or what condition we're in."
Parrol said, "Half an hour is about what it should take here." His voice was as distorted as hers but also recognizable. "I'll tell Fiawa, of course, that we'll be at the hospital."
"Yes, he should know."
"Did you explain to Freasie what happened?"
"Not in detail." Nile came into the room. She, too, wore a makeshift cloak covering everything but her head yet not adequately concealing the fact that the body beneath it was a ponderous caricature of her normal shape. "I told her we picked up the infection that hit the sea beef herds, and that when she sees us we'll look as if we'd been dead and waterlogged for the past two weeks."
Parrol grunted. "Not a bad description! We were prettier as deep-water sea hags than in this half-way state!"
"Do you still seem to be swelling?"
He held up his deformed fingers, studied them. "Apparently. I don't believe they looked as bad as that half an hour ago. I also feel as if most of my innards were being slowly pulled apart."
"I have that, too," Nile said. "I'm afraid we may be in for a very unpleasant time, Dan. But we definitely are changing back."
"Trying to change back?"
"Yes. No way of knowing exactly what will happen. But the sea beef may have been able to reverse the process successfully. Perhaps we can, too. And perhaps we can't." She looked across the room to an armchair in which the chase-plane pilot sprawled. His clothing, the chair, and the carpet beneath were soaked with water, and his eyes were closed. "How's our trigger-happy friend doing?"
"I don't know," Parrol said. "I haven't paid him any attention since I dumped him there. He doesn't seem to have moved. I expect dragging him in through the shore swamps on the last stretch didn't do him much good."
Nile went over to the pilot, reached for his wrist, announced after a moment, "He's alive, anyway. I picked up some dope in the lab office. I'll give him a shot to make sure he stays quiet until the police come for him. Any immediate plans for Ilium Weldrow?"
"No," Parrol said. "I was hoping we'd find him still here. I would have enjoyed seeing his face when we walked in on him. But we'll leave him to Fiawa. Let's get out our reports and get the show on the road."
Nile brought a dope gun out from under her cloak, bent briefly over the pilot with it, replaced it and joined Parrol at the communicator. He was feeding the cards into the telewriting attachment.
"They're for Dabborn at Narcotics," he said. "I used his personal code. I've warned him there may be a leak in the office and that if he tries to talk to me from there, the higher-ups in the nidith business could get the word immediately and take steps to avoid being implicated. We'll talk to Fiawa at his home. He and Dabborn can get together then and work out the details of the operation."
Nile nodded. Parrol turned on the communicator, dialed a number. The connection light went on immediately. He depressed the transmission button on the telewriter.
A woman's voice said quietly, "Message received. Do you want to wait for a reply?"
Parrol remained silent. Some ten seconds later, the connection light went out.
"Dabborn's secretary," he said. "So he's in the office. Now let's get our chief of police out of bed, and things should start moving." He flicked out the cards, dropped them into a disposer, dialed another number.
It took Fiawa about a minute to get to the communicator. Then his deep, sleep-husky voice announced, "Fiawa speaking. Who is it?"
"For a man," Machon observed, "who's just put in seven weeks in the hospitaltoo deathly ill to see visitorsyou seem remarkably fit!"
Parrol grinned across the dinner table at him.
"I had a few visitors," he said. "Dabborn and Fiawa dropped in from time to time to let me know how they were coming along with the nidith operation."
"They've done a bang-up job of rounding up the Agenes gang!" the secretary of the Ranchers Association assured him. "A couple of the big shots just might get off. The rest of them are nailed down!"
"I know itand I'm glad I'll be there as a prosecution witness." Parrol hesitated, added, "Strictly speaking, neither Nile nor I have been ill. We were extremely uncomfortable for a while, but we could have received visitors any time after the first two weeks in the hospital. But Nile insisted no one should see us until we were ready to be discharged, and except for talking to Dabborn and Fiawa I've gone along with her in that. I think I can tell you about it privately now. She's prepared a paper for her xenobiological society covering the whole affair, and the paper will be out in a few weeks. But I warn you Nile still wouldn't want the details of our experience to become general knowledge."
"Don't worryI can keep my mouth shut," Machon told him. "Go ahead."
"Well, I'll give you Nile's theory. It seems essentially correct. There's that fraya-chalot symbiosis pattern. Temporarily it's a complete symbiosis in every sense. The fraya has to be adapted to underwater living for a short period each year, then readapted promptly to surface living. And the frayas are pseudomammalian. Their bodies are no more capable of rearranging themselves suddenly to such a drastic extent than the sea beef's or our own."
"Wait a minute!" Machon said. "The way I got it, you did adaptfantastically! You and Nile literally turned into sea hags, didn't you?"
"We didbut we didn't actually change. The chalot was building on what was there. What we had to do was supply material for it to work with. In other words, we ate. When the changes are of a minor kind, you get hungry. When they're major ones, you find yourself periodically ravenous. The chalot builds its structures and maintains them. It has to be fed, or the structures collapse. If you don't supply it with extraneous food, it starts in on your body reserves. We found that out. You feel you're starving to death fast, which probably is exactly what would happen if you did nothing about it. So you eat compulsively.
"The chalot has to accomplish two things with its host animals. It has to enable them to get down into the fire forests and live there a time so they can eat the adult chalot plants and release the seeds of the plants by doing it. And it has to avoid killing or injuring the host, so the host can come back next year and repeat the process. It does nothing directly to the host body unless it has to draw on it for food. It turns itself into body supplements which combine with the host body to perform various functions. It's an unstable unit, but it's a unit which can exist for a while on the bottom of the ocean trenches.
"It remains a unit only as long as there is chalot around to keep it up. The frayas feed on the adult plants in the rifts, and they retain their underwater form throughout the breeding season. Then they've cleaned out the current crop of chalot and come back to the surface. The sea beef that got out into the Continental Rift here remained underwater breathers and feeders only for the days it took the cloud of chalot spores that had originated in the Tuskason Rift to pass through on the Meral. There are no chalot plants in the local fire forests, so up the beef came again. They were pretty plump animals when they were brought in, weren't they?"
"Yes," Machon said. "That fire forest diet didn't hurt them any. In fact, they seem to have thrived on it. But what they'd put on was mostly fat."
Parrol said wryly, "Uh-huh! Mostly fat . . . Nile and I picked up a load of the spores in one of the ranch farms here and probably another one in the water beyond the shelf. The spores added water-breathing equipment to our systems but nothing else, until we had to go down in the Tuskason Rift. We needed a complete change then and got it. We turned into the chalot's human deep-water variantsea hagson the way. But we stayed sea hags only a few hours because the spores we'd originally absorbed here were being used up in maintaining the change structures, and there was no live chalot left in the Tuskason Rift to replace them.
"The chalot evidently has had genetic experience with a wide variety of hosts. The fraya is the only native host left, but Nandy-Cline was swarming once with pseudomammals of that class. We can assume that many of them had a similar symbiotic relationship with the chalot the fraya still has, because the adaptations the chalot performs vary with the species and are according to the needs of the species. The sea beef really showed much less change than the fraya does in its underwater form.
"On the other hand, the change from an air-breathing human to a deep-water sea hag is an extremely radical one. The chalot went all out on us, and at intervals during those hours we had to eat ravenously to give it what it needed to maintain the form. Lord, how we ate!
"And then we were up on the surface again and began to change back. Nile didn't mention it at the time, but she suspected what was happening when she saw the manner in which we were changing back."
"Yes?" said Machon.
"Fat," Parrol said. "When all that elaborate, dense chalot structure which keeps you alive and in action under a thousand feet of ocean begins to break down, it's converted into fatthe host body's fat! That's lovely if you're a fraya. For them, it's a kind of bonus they get out of their relationship with the chalot. They don't have to eat for a month afterwards. In the sea beef it wasn't too noticeable because the chalot hadn't added too much to them to start with.
"But Nile and I!"
He shook his head. "I won't drag in all the grisly details, but Dr. Tay had to use plastiskin to hold us together. Literally. We were monstrous. He had us floating in tanks and kept whittling away at us surgically for the first ten days. After that, he figured a crash diet would see us through. It did, but it's taken almost two months to get back to normaland it wasn't more than two weeks ago that Nile would let even me see her again.
"She's got that old figure back now, but her vanity's still hurt. She'll get over it presently. But if anyone happens to smile when they mention something overweightlike sea beefto her for another month or so, my guess is they'll still be inviting a fast fist in the eye."
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