by Edward Rodosek
“Lonnegan, Vicky Lonnegan,” she corrected him. “You just call me Vicky, Mr. Reuben.”
“Oh, you know–everybody around calls me Kirk.”
“Okay, Kirk. As you probably know, the ‘Space Cosmopolitan’ paid for my voyage from Earth on this planet. I was told you’re the most experienced colonist here and there isn’t anyone more qualified to help me discover some of Cetus' remarkable features than you.”
Kirk Reuben shrugged his shoulders and poured some more drink into his glass. “Sorry, I can hardly follow your way of talking, Miss Linneker. You better tell me in a few simple words what you’re really up to.”
The reporter smiled inwardly. “Okay, Kirk, you got me. The only reason for my voyage here is to find out all the facts about your greatest mystery–the Sphinx.”
The old man glanced her, his voice dubious. “All the facts about the Sphinx?”
She nodded briskly. “That’s right. I’d like to hear from you only the reality–without any legends. Beside that, my editor is expecting a genuine and intriguing story.. . . Do you mind telling me how much pension you get each month?”
“Not at all.” She caught a glimpse of a golden molar when he grinned from ear to ear. “That’s commonly known to all settlers in the Colony.” He told her the number.
“Very well. If you'd tell me a story that’s good enough, you’ll get twice–maybe even three times–that much. Yet, if I can’t use it for my article then I can’t give you anything at all. In that case, you and I would have wasted this beautiful, sunny afternoon. What do you say?”
Kirk reached forth his hand, dotted with freckles. “It’s a deal,” he said. “I’ve the fullest confidence in your judgment. After all–what else can an old man like me do than relate stories from times past?”
“I’d come here to Cetus,” began Kirk, “from Earth thirty years ago, with the second spaceship, when the Colony was only just being set up. Then I got a permanent residence permission simply because of my profession, which had been then much wanted on the newly colonized planet.”
The reporter nodded. “Don’t be too modest, Kirk. I’ve read you were then–despite your meager twenty-six years of age–already famous as a hunter. You’ve made your name as the exterminator of the infamous Monster from Perseus and, especially, the Auriga Ghost, which had earlier slaughtered several dozens of people, including two hunters.”
Kirk grinned. “I see you’ve done your homework. In the next three decades I managed to clean quite a lot of Cetus’ territory around the spot where the first space ship from Earth had landed. So, the original settlement began to spread up, and nowadays one would need more then a day by car to pass along the entire Colony’s border. Yet, everything else around the Colony remains an unknown and probably unsafe wilderness.”
“Am I right in thinking that’s the main point on which you disagree with the Colony authorities?”
The old hunter nodded gloomily. “Those cocky fools keep assuring everyone that the Colony is perfectly safe for everybody living here. Only I permanently contested that naïve, dangerous presumption. For many years I’ve been trying to persuade the governor that I, a single man with a car, could not possibly supervise such a long border adequately.”
“I heard about that, too. You’ve persistently demanded erecting a fence around the entire Colony. Why is that so important to you?”
“Why? For heaven’s sake, a fence would, at least, prevent the most dangerous beasts from encroaching on the Colony from the surrounding wilderness. But all my efforts remained in vain. Except for several long and fruitless discussions about the enormous cost of such a fence, nothing has happened.”
Miss Lonnegan nodded. “Go on, please.”
“One day I broke my damned left leg.” Kirk fetched a deep sigh. “The medical prognoses about my recovery weren’t good at all. They called for two months of repose and, after that, at least half a year of rehabilitation.”
He paused but the reporter didn’t want to say anything.
“I was fully aware what that meant–my career as a hunter was over. And I’ve told that to the Colony management without any dissemblance. So, an interplanetary invitation for the post of new hunting supervisor was published in several big media outlets. And, after some months, among many applications, a young man from Earth with excellent references was chosen.”
When Peter Stubbins arrived at Cetus’ spaceport, none of the officials were there. He wasn’t disappointed about that; he simply swung his marine sack on his shoulder and started to march toward the cluster of buildings he saw in the distance. As he was passing by a hydroponics greenhouse, a small farm tractor with a loaded trailer moved out of it. The driver was a girl wearing blue overalls and with muddied boots.
She looked round in surprise.
“Can you tell me how can I find Mr. Reuben’s house?”
“Oh, I see.” Her cordial smile seemed to Peter Stubbins like sunshine. “That’s rather complicated. You probably wouldn’t find the right way to Kirk’s cottage. It’d be much better if I’d drive you there.”
“Are you sure? What about your work here?”
“Don’t worry. You just give me a hand if you don’t care about dirt.”
Peter helped her to dismount the trailer and then he climbed to the tractor’s chassis, behind her seat. During the ride he couldn’t help admiring her violet, slightly slanting eyes, her long black eyelashes, which would have aroused jealousy in many a movie starlet, and two lovely little dimples on her cheeks. Her voice was vivacious, yet somehow subdued, and over the loud noise of the engine he could hardly understand what she was talking about.
“My name's Peter,” he said. “And what’s yours?”
She burst into laughter. “Peter, ha? Like Peter–the Rock?” She looked at him, smiling, her headscarf fluttering in the wind that blew against them. “It doesn’t seem to me you could be compared to a rock; well . . . perhaps with a pebble. Peter–pebble. But I shouldn’t tease you. Don’t take it personally, Peter. You know, I joke about everything. My name is Pat; everybody calls me that. You know, my present job in the Biological Station is interesting and all the people are friendly to me. And you? What are your plans here, Peter?”
Before he managed to answer, she started to show him the buildings and places they were passing–the new bridge, the hospital, the fountain on some small square, the elementary school, the big self-service . . . She was as proud of all the Colony’s achievements as if she’d created them herself.
Peter was impressed with Pat’s freshness and her youthful charm. He couldn’t avert his gaze from her lips, her long eyelashes and her blushful cheeks. Even before they stopped in front of Reuben’s cottage, Peter Stubbins was struck by the fact he was suddenly and inexplicably in love with Pat.
Kirk Reuben poured the last drops of wine from his bottle and Miss Lonnegan waved to the waiter for another.
“I suppose Peter Stubbins and you got on well?”
“Oh, sure. Miss Linneker, that lad was something, you better believe that.” Kirk’s voice was excited. “He tackled his new, difficult task enthusiastically and, during time, proved himself an excellent hunter. He was full of new, surprising ideas. Often, when I’ve watched him, I felt like I was seeing myself from a long-ago past, when I was of the same age and ambition as Peter. Gradually he set up many simple lookouts in treetops and six or seven modest shelters in which he could stay overnight if necessary.”
“I assumed,” said the reporter, “all that had something to do with the Stubbin’s wish to stay permanently in the Colony?”
The old hunter grinned. “Certainly; and everybody could have understand why was Stubbins so eager to stay. His relationship with Pat Shapiro had grown into a steady, warm inclination. Oh, Miss Linneker, there wasn’t anything they wouldn’t do for each other, you know. After half a year, when Peter’ trial period went over, the governor admitted the security against wild animals in the Colony was at an enviably high degree. So Peter was appointed as a permanent hunter of the Colony, and I could retire, finally.”
The reporter fidgeted a bit on her chair. “That’s all very interesting, Kirk, but when will you get–”
“–to the Sphinx?” he finished her sentence. “Please, don’t be impatient, Miss Linneker. I’m going to describe the key event, without which the whole mystery wouldn’t be understandable. The next evening after Peter’s appointment, Pat and he visited me for a little celebration Peter brought me a bottle of local brandy and Pat presented me a wool sweater that she’d knitted herself. After a modest bite, I lay down on the couch and stretched my smarting leg to the agreeable heat of my fireplace. Peter was sitting, absorbed in his thoughts, on the fur perhalli rug that was spread out on the floor, and now and then he stoked the fire with a poker. Pat was laying close by her sweetheart, rolled up like a pussycat, with her head on his lap.”
He paused for a while but the reporter didn’t want to urge him.
“We were looking like a family, I thought, like the family that I never had. A family I didn’t think about as long as I was young, and then it was too late.” The old hunter rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I still remember every moment of that evening, you know. Pat’s deep, violet eyes, slightly slanted and somehow mysterious, reminded me of something beyond memory’s grasp. I couldn’t recollect where I had seen eyes like Pat’s before–the eyes, filled with a wild, hopeless longing for something beyond reach.”
This time the silence was so long the reporter couldn’t endure it. “And?”
Kirk Reuben glanced at her like awaking from dozing. “Well, I must have dropped off then. In short, I noticed the lovers had gone away. At that fleeting moment between sleep and wakefulness, I suddenly remembered where I’d seen those unusual eyes and that thought bathed me in shivers.”
“Don’t torment me any more, Kirk.”
“The Sphinx had exactly the same eyes.”
One late afternoon, both hunters were sitting on the veranda of Reuben’s cottage, as they often did at sunset.
“Pat and I looked yesterday, again, at your album ‘The Animals of Cetus’,” said Peter Stubbins. “We admired all those meticulous descriptions and beautiful snapshots and 3-D images of the Cetus animals that you’ve collected over all those years.”
“Well, during the long decades of my living on Cetus I had more then enough opportunities to closely examine the entire fauna on the territory.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself, Kirk. I’m impressed by it every time.
Each time when I hold that album in my hands, in my mind I’m back on Earth
again, in the
“I’m flattered to hear that. And I’m glad Pat and you are so happy together.”
“Pat is very fond of you, Kirk. Once she told me, you've been her oldest confidante since she was a little girl. All the more so because her stepfather–she always says father to him–and she were never close to each other.”
Kirk nodded slowly, absorbed in thought. “Yes, I remember those bygone days. When I, twenty years ago, found Pat under that bush and carried her to the police station, I couldn’t possibly imagine–”
“What?” Peter’s voice was trembling with excitement. “You found Pat? In the forest?”
“Oh,” mumbled the old hunter. “It seems I’ve blown it, haven’t I? I thought Pat must have told you that she was a foundling.”
“Why–she explained me she was an orphan, and that she’d never known her real parents. But she’s never told me that it was you, of all the people in Colony, who found her in the wood. I'd no idea about–”
“You're making too much of it, Peter. Whoever came across that poor, frail creature, would have acted in the same manner.” Reuben thoughtfully shook his head. “She was naked, her little body covered with dirt, and her skin was a bit scratched from branches. But she didn’t cry at all. I didn’t even notice her until I’d almost stumbled over her. Right away, I wrapped her up in my jacket and put her in the back seat of my car. Oh, I’ll never forget that wild, three-hour drive! My first stop was at the Hoskins’ farm, where Mary gave her some tepid milk and dressed her in some infant clothes.”
“She must have been very young . . . How old was she then?”
“How I could have known that?” grumbled Kirk. “Mary supposed the baby was at least a year and a half, maybe even two years old. But she wasn’t able to walk or stand, and she wouldn’t take anything but milk. For the next several days, the police and I combed the woods around the spot where I’d found her, but without any success. There were no traces of footprints, tire tracks, or anything like that. The official report was nothing more than a supposition: ‘. . . the unintentional or intentional abandoning of a baby from a single person or several persons unknown’.”
“Oh, my God!” Peter burst out. “That’s a real thriller! Does Pat know about all this?”
“Certainly she does. But we hoped her unknown parents, or at least her mother, would appear some day. Therefore we didn’t want to implant in the baby's mind any possible hatred toward them.”
“But her real parents, obviously, have never appeared.”
“Indeed they haven’t. Mrs. and Mr. Shapiro, having no children of their own, then adopted Pat. Only a few years later Pat’s foster mother died; and since then the little girl got by with plenty of spoiling from half a dozen women from the neighborhood. The old Shapiro was always a careful stepfather. But he wasn’t able to talk with her, not really. So, it was no wonder that Pat, whenever she got tired of the women’s permanent mewing all around her, would run to me. She was simply enchanted with my hunting stories. After she'd finished elementary school, she told me I was the one who had evoked a lively interest in wildlife in her. Later she registered as a student of biology. And the rest you already know.”
Peter Stubbins parked his four-wheel drive car at the small clearing, surrounded on three sides with trees and dense undergrowth. Up to now, he'd never been so far away from the central settlement. Now he was far outside the territory for which Reuben had made several rough and inexact, but yet highly useful sketches. He pulled the car key out of the ignition, took his double-barreled rifle from the back seat, and carefully stepped into the darkish brushwood.
The dazzling white, almost bluish sun, half the size of Sol, was sending sharp rays into the darkness of the wood. Marked black-and-white contrasts blurred Peter’s power of observation. All he could see was an indistinct, changeable twinkling. The silhouettes of the trees and shrubbery kept a strange, mysterious appearance. Two or three times he thought he’d seen an indistinct moving of some big quadrupeds and once he heard a clumping so near that he brought up his rifle. His boots sometimes got entrapped among the branches and creepers on the ground, and countless insects were persistently searching the opportunity to suck his blood.
Peter arrived at a small clearing, leaned his rifle against the trunk of a huge slidder and tried, unsuccessfully, to wipe the sweat from his face with a soaking wet neck cloth. He poured some tepid tea from his thermos into a plastic cup.
After a while, he decided to continue his walk. But, at that instant, an uncommon sight froze his hand as he intended to reach for his rifle.
Beyond the barrier of trees, only twenty steps away, some eyes were motionlessly gazing at him–the lustrous, mysterious eyes of some giant four-footed beast. Through the shrubbery Peter could more suspect than see an oblong, muscular body, charged with a wild energy, tense like a bent bow, leering at him.
A predator, thought Peter. The huge, dangerous carnivore, a horrible beast, is now eyeing me from head to foot–a good meal that unexpectedly volunteered itself.
My rifle. I'll lift it up–quickly, quickly–release the safety, lean it on my cheek, aim at the beast and pull the trigger.
Nonsense. Before I could do even half of all that, the mighty beast would be over me, its huge fangs already stabbing into my throat, its hooked claws would be digging at my guts, my blood jetting high . .
No–I must stand totally still. I must hold even my breath. I must be motionless, like a tree, like a rock. That’s my only hope. Maybe the beast won’t attack a tree, a rock. The beast is staying quiet, too. It, too, is transforming into a rock. But it’s still gazing at me, persistently. It’s awaiting a movement. It’s expecting my mistake. But I won’t make a mistake. I’ll endure, I’ll hold out for as long as necessary.
Then, the beast moved, a tiny bit–Peter’s heart halted–but then it stopped and stood still again. Now he could see better its strong, sinewy trunk; the strained ropes of its muscles were swelling its skin, overgrown with a short, yellowish fur on which shadows of branches were throwing many dark streaks. Peter gazed spellbound at the beast and now he caught sight of a long, ugly scar on its left side. Abruptly its long tail swung to the left and to the right and then it made a halt again in a raised, threatening position. Only the head of the beast was still in the deep shadow.
At this instant a breeze breathed through the trees, the branches swung, and their shadows with them–all but the shadows on the beast’s skin. Those remained where they were–not shadows but irregular black stripes.
A tiger, or Cetus’ version of the Earth’s tiger, a horrible predator. As mighty and bloodthirsty a beast as a tiger–maybe even more so.
A light wind moved the branches again and now, only for a second, Peter caught sight of the tiger’s head. Then the huge beast turned around inaudibly and vanished in several magnificent jumps into the darkness of the virgin forest.
But in this short, fleeting moment, the image of the tiger’s head impressed on Stubbin’s mind an image as incredible and shocking as a nightmare.
Later, Stubbins remembered his drive home only in cloudy fragments.
Mechanically moving on his weak-kneed legs, his hand’s convulsive clinging to the rifle, the grateful relief when he caught sight of his car again. The loud roaring of its engine, twisting cones of glaring headlights projecting fleeting silhouettes on the black background of the forest. The spasmodic squeezing of his jaws, torpid fingers clasping the steering wheel, a nagging doubt about finding the right way. After a while, in the far distance were the comforting lights of the Duggert’s home. Further, further, without a stop, forcing a higher gear, a night wind tousling his hair and then, finally, the feeble shining of a main settlement, and, at the same time, the first, warning coughs of the engine running out of fuel.
Oh, God, please let me get to Pat somehow . . .
The last hundred yards up to his own front yard he rolled in the silence of the extinct engine, all the red indicators in front of him glowing in his face. He stumbled on the outer stairs, opened the front door and saw the surprised face of his beloved wife. He dropped his rifle on the floor, moved a few steps forward and felt Pat’s firm, comforting hug and felt her soft lips on his cheek.
“You know, Kirk,” said Peter in a low voice. “I couldn’t have told Pat all I’d seen. I’ve told her about the tiger but I didn’t explain to her anything about its face. Now, after a day and a half, it seems to me that I’ve perhaps been the victim of a hallucination because of that hellish heat. But I’ve decided to tell you, all the same. Do you think I’m crazy, Kirk?”
The old hunter shook his head. “No, I don’t. But, if you are crazy–then I’m crazy, as well.”
“I don’t quite follow you.”
Kirk got up from his chair, stepped about on the veranda and then goggled annoyingly at his young visitor.
“Why do you think I’ve kept demanding so persistently that the governor have that damn fence put up? I haven’t been concerned about valhallas, nor about smooties, not even the bloody perhallies. All those are well-known beasts that can be kept under control. The only . . creature I’ve been really afraid of was that unknown, mysterious monster, which you saw yesterday. The Sphinx.”
“The Sphinx? I've heard rumors about that term before but I didn't ever . . Kirk, have you seen that beast, too?” asked Stubbins astonishingly. “That mighty predator with . . .”
“. . . With a human face?” Kirk completed the unfinished sentence. “Why don’t you dare say that loud? Of course, I’ve seen it. I’ve met it at least a dozen times in all those years, in various places and times. I’ve even shot at it, repeatedly. Still, each time up to now, I’ve missed it–except once. If you saw that scar on it, well, that’s definitely from my shot. But, as you could see, I've failed to destroy it then and later, too. It’s been much too quick for me or much too clever. Or both.”
“But . . . But why haven't you warned me–or at least gave me a hint about . . .”
“Because I was afraid you’d considering me a lunatic, a worn-out old fool.”
Peter remained quiet for a while. Finally, he decided to break the silence. “Listen, Kirk, did your . . . tiger have a female face, too?”
“Definitively not. Besides, that beast had not seemed like a tiger at all; it looks much more like a lion. A lion with a threatening but dignified male face. With the face of some distinguished person–maybe of some king. That’s why I named it the Sphinx.”
“By gosh,” complained the reporter. “You, Kirk, have seen a lion with a male head, and Mr. Stubbins has met a tiger with a female head. Why do you assume that we're talking in both cases about the same kind of predator–the same Sphinx?”
Reuben shook his head. “Miss Linneker, I’m not assuming anything like that. I do not even affirm there has been anything supernatural about that beast–or those beasts. It’s possible that I’d had a drop too much each time I thought I’d saw the Sphinx.”
“Don’t run away from things,” objected Miss Lonnegan. “Are you going to claim that Mr. Stubbins was also drunk when he met the Sphinx?”
“No, I definitely won’t,” replied the retired hunter. “I’ve never seen Peter drinking anything but water or herbal tea. But let us analyze the facts sedately: both of us saw that odd monster every time just for a few seconds, and that in deep shadow or, at best, in twilight. Actually, the only real evidences of Sphinx’ existence are its tracks. Its paw prints are nothing like any known beast’s–on Earth or Cetus.”
“Well then,” said the reporter.
“Well what? That proves nothing more than we’re talking about an endemic, ferocious animal of an unknown kind. Because it’s a predator, we’re afraid of it and we consider it mysterious. It isn’t strange at all that our imagination makes it even stranger, and that several people are ascribing to it some half-human properties. Come on, Miss Linneker, you’re an educated woman.”
“I’m still behind you.”
“Why, you’ve certainly seen many ancient drawings showing animals with a human head. Even I’ve seen the Egyptian Sphinx in times gone by. Maybe that’s why my imagination has transplanted a royal male head on the king of all beasts–a lion. And Stubbins, who is a great admirer of the tiger–in his eyes the mightiest predators on the Earth–has, of course, pictured a tiger.” Kirk poured the last drops out of the bottle. “You know, some years ago I managed to shoot my first perhalli–a horrible creature resembling a grizzly, nearly seven feet high. I must admit that was the most dangerous hunting in my whole life–just a hair’s breadth difference and it would have claimed me as booty.”
He remained silent, absorbed in his thoughts, until the reporter broke the silence. “Well?”
“Several months after that happened I met the Sphinx once again; and, strange as it may appear, this time its head looked like the perhalli’s.”
“That’s truly odd, Kirk,” said the reporter dryly. “I’ve the distinct impression you’re trying in every possible way to describe all those obscure adventures of yours as entirely ordinary matters. You obviously don’t care a jot for my money, do you?”
“Oh, yes, I do,” said the old man. “But you’ve demanded from me only the facts and not some local legends, remember?”
She didn’t answer, perhaps because she was just changing a cassette in her tape recorder.
“May I, for a change, ask you a question, Miss Linneker? Which animal do you have the greatest admiration for? Who is, in your opinion–on the Earth, of course–the real king of all the carnivores, among the predators that you’re most afraid of?”
After a while, Miss Lonnegan smiled inwardly. “I think, in my childhood, the black panther Bagheera from Kipling’s The Jungle Book left the strongest and the deepest impression on me. Why are you interested in that?”
“Oh, no particular reason,” said Kirk, evading a straight answer. “You know, Miss Linneker, it’s getting hot here. We might move to a cooler place. I’ve parked my jeep out there and in no more than ten minutes we could already be in my little shelter. What do you say?”
The reporter nodded and he politely accompanied her to his car. Vicky Lonnegan found the fast drive enjoyable although the seat was hard and the wind ruffled her hair. Reuben’s shelter was in fact a wooden hut among the thick branches of a huge tris, about twenty yards above the ground.
“Are you mad?” complained she. “I’m not going to climb that high, not for the world.”
The old hunter tried to encourage her. “Come on, Miss Linneker, it’s much easier than it looks. Just look–I’ve made such broad stairs, with a rail on each side. You should just walk, slowly, step by step. And make sure you don’t look down--not once.”
After the first few timid steps, she realized that Kirk was right; she didn’t need much skill for the climbing. Only for a moment or two did she feel a little dizzy, somewhere about halfway up, where she recalled Kirk’s earlier warning not to look down and, naturally, she looked down. Finally, she reached the wooden platform at the top of the stairs a bit out of breath but enormously proud of herself.
Several months after Peter Stubbins' fleeting meeting with the Sphinx, everything was going with a swing. Since Reuben’s leg was much better, he often joined his younger comrade on his regular patrol. The retired hunter had recently noticed some changes in Peter’s young wife. Pat was less talkative than before and her free laugh had given way to a kind, placid smile. Her earlier naive sweetness had matured in a way; her violet eyes were darker and she radiated some quiet gladness. Kirk assumed that she was simply happy and he was glad for her. Not until Peter told him did he find out the real reason for these changes–that Pat was expecting her first baby.
It was a late, sunny afternoon, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first landing of the Earth’s spaceship on Cetus. A great number of settlers were erecting platforms and stalls at the central square and everybody was looking forward to the great evening celebration. The colonists were transporting great barrels of beer, wicker baskets of bread and fresh fruit and vegetables. There was a fire supporting a huge roasting-spit, and baked hagenna, a Cetus substitute for apple-pie, was giving off its pleasant scent everywhere.
Pat Stubbins drew a baking tin out of the oven, sniffed the pie, and tapped its coarse crust with a fingernail. Then she tied her headscarf, took her carefully covered baking tin and went across the side road to call her friend Leticia, an unmarried woman of her age.
They started together along a curved path that wound around spreading slidders and ozunnies and then through some tall grass. There was about a half an hour’s walk up to Babbet’s cottage, the most remote house of the settlement. Babett had been bedridden with rheumatism for several weeks and Pat wished to allow the poor old woman at least some company, as well as some dessert, on this feast-day. Leticia and she would also tidy up the cottage. Then they’d return home in the evening, getting back before Peter returned from his patrolling.
Peter Stubbins was forcibly pressing the accelerator of his car because he’d been unexpectedly detained that evening. He was surprised when he saw their darkish house. Inside, glancing over Pat’s message, where she’d promised to return before dark, he grew upset. He jumped into his car again and started to drive at full speed along the narrow path toward Babbet’s cottage.
He knew he was driving fast but still wasn’t aware of his enormous speed. At the instant he caught a glimpse of a dim figure, he braked violently, but the car still slid at least twenty yards before it stopped. He leaped out of the car in a cloud of dust and there, scarcely two feet in front of the bumper, was standing a woman who hadn’t even tried to evade the car. She was as pale as a ghost, her feverish eyes stared into space in horror; her mouth was open in a dumb scream and she hugged herself with both arms as though trying to protect herself from something horrible.
Peter recognized Pat’s friend Leticia. Her hair was disheveled, full of leaves and tiny sprigs, her cheeks were scratched and she was gasping hastily. Peter took her arm and led her to the front seat of the car. She obeyed him like she was a little child. Then he took his thermos of tea, put it to her mouth and raised it a little, but she took neither thermos nor tea, and the liquid trickled uselessly down her chin.
Peter realized he couldn't draw any reasonable words out of her, about Pat or anything else. She probably wasn’t even aware of him. He slammed the door of his car, and continued to drive at full speed toward Babbet’s cottage. He had to hold Leticia’s shoulders because she was swaying to and fro like a tailor’s dummy.
When Peter knocked on the door of the cottage, Babbet was already slumbering. His unexpected knocking frightened her almost to death and Peter had to waste some valuable time cheering her up, while impatience burned at his insides.
No, she hadn’t seen Pat today, or Leticia, claimed Babbet. She’d been here entirely alone, and everybody had forgotten about her. Not a living soul on the whole world cared to look after a poor, sick woman. But then, later, when it's too late, everybody would be sorry because they’d abandoned an old, God-fearing woman and then . . .
Babbet’s mournful lamentation went with Peter while he hurried to his car and Leticia, still sitting mutely and motionlessly as a statue. He felt his frenzied pulse, dry mouth and wet palms all the way toward the settlement’s hospital. There he wildly pressed the car horn until a nurse appeared. The instant after Leticia was placed on a stretcher he drove off like a madman toward the main square, where he hoped to find some help in searching for Pat.
But there, despite his persistent efforts, he could not convince anybody to ride with him. Everybody tried to persuade him to be reasonable, for God's sake. Tomorrow morning, at the crack of dawn, everybody would help him out. But not now, during a moonless night, when it was much too dark for such a search to be successful. No one among them mentioned the festivities were just about to start.
Bitterly let down, Peter finally drove off to Reuben’s cottage and started to pound on his door. At the instant the crippled old hunter heard about Pat’s disappearance, he donned a leather jacket over his nightshirt, took his old, double-barreled rifle, crossed himself and zealously climbed into Stubbin’s car.
They’d spent more than an hour before they managed to find Leticia’s footprints, showing that she’d straggled around in senseless circles for some time. After that, both of them tried to find Pat’s tracks for several hours in vain. Peter searched excitedly and tirelessly through the thick undergrowth, stumbling over rocks, wrathfully pushing through the bushes that were holding him back and cursing when his feet sunk into a soft rottenness. The old man lit a pocket torch, strained his weakened eyes in hopes of seeing anything promising and clenched his teeth because his leg began to smart again. It was well past midnight before Stubbins admitted that such darkness made any searching futile.
At daybreak, almost a hundred people set out from the settlement in search of Pat–in trucks and tractors, cars and bikes, on horseback and on foot. They were equipped with hunting dogs and bloodhounds, ropes and ladders, axes and machetes, rifles and signal guns, whistles and first aid requirements, woolen blankets and warm clothes, nourishment and thermos bottles with hot tea.
Kirk Reuben had been so exhausted that he didn’t wake until ten o’clock. He cursed himself and drove after all the others to the spot where Peter and he had searched the previous day.
After he’d arrived there, he instantly saw that his worst foreboding had come true. The excited but unskilled crowd had trodden down all that was possible to tread down. If there had been any traces whatever, be they of Pat or some beast, there weren’t there now.
They searched all around, in every possible angle and in each direction, high and low, all day long without finding any useful clue about Pat’s disappearance. About noon, many searchers went off to have lunch but after that, most didn’t return. Only the most devoted friends persisted in helping Stubbins and Reuben, carrying on through twilight.
The old hunter had avoided looking into the eyes of the young hunter, who was becoming more and more distressed. In the last rays of sunset, Kirk returned toward his jeep when he stumbled over a branch lying on the ground, almost falling. He grimaced from the pain in his leg and when he bowed down to massage it, he abruptly caught sight of something odd.
It was an even, clay-like surface the size of a kitchen table. In the middle of it Kirk noticed the distinct mark of a huge paw: the deep, narrow imprints of three front claws and the single thick imprint of a blunt rear claw.
This was doubtless the mark of the Sphinx’s paw. In that instant, Kirk realized that nobody would see Pat Stubbins ever again.
Two days later Leticia recovered enough to tell the police inspector about the few events of that fatal evening. Both young women had been rushing through the first twilight, when, abruptly, as if dropped from the sky, some horrible, horrible monster appeared in front of them. It didn’t roar; it didn’t even open its jaws–it just stood there before them, motionless, threatening. Both women also stood there as though frozen. Then, instantaneously, the beast made a step forward–and Leticia gave a shriek and took off in aimless flight as fast as her legs could carry her. She was running somewhere into the thicket without knowing where to, just away, away from that terrible, silent monster . .
Leticia couldn’t remember what had happened to Pat. Did she flee too? Did the monster kill her? Did Leticia perhaps hear any other sound? Did she hear a struggle? Blows? Pat’s shouting? The roar of the beast? Anything at all?
To those and similar questions of the inspector, Leticia just shook her head without any answer. Every time he asked her to try to describe the beast she began to tremble with horror and her eyes bulged, so there was a danger she could fall into the convulsions again. The inspector finally ended his interrogation. After that, everybody stopped searching for Patricia Shapiro. For the police, for the government, for the whole Colony, that case was closed, for good.
Peter Stubbins was the only person in settlement who did not stop trying to find Pat. From then on that was his sole occupation. He didn’t appear in the settlement for weeks except to replenish his supplies. Once a local priest accosted him in the grocery and told him it would be fitting to arrange a Requiem Mass for his late wife, but Stubbins didn’t respond to him at all. And when the priest insisted, Stubbins stepped menacingly toward him and the priest withdrew quickly.
Peter persisted in searching the surroundings where Pat had disappeared. Stubbornly and systematically, he traced in larger and larger circles. Peter had gotten himself two dogs, which he began to take with him everywhere. The first was a tracker dog, a hound of keen scent, the best in the settlement; the second was a huge mastiff, famous for the time it overcame, alone, three valhallas.
Kirk Reuben noticed the young man had been totally changed. In time he was reduced to a mere skeleton, his cheekbones protruded, dark, circular bags grew under his feverish eyes, and his tightly pressed lips resembled a thin cut. He paid no heed to anything, returning no greetings he got, not even going to Reuben’s cottage.
Weeks passed away, then months, but nothing happened regarding Pat during all that time. Kirk began to be afraid that Peter, despite his enormous energy, might suddenly break down some day. Recently, the young hunter had stopped visiting the settlement altogether. One day he was seen carting off a full sack of his personal property from the house in which Pat and he used to live. Kirk supposed the young man had started staying overnight in some of his shelters because his house was too full of painful memories. Yet, Peter occasionally visited the hydroponics greenhouse where he had first met Pat. Usually, he turned up in the late evening when nobody was there.
Late one afternoon, Kirk Reuben drove there firmly determined to say some comforting words to his young friend–life must go on, and so on. He parked his jeep about fifty yards away from the greenhouse and went on foot toward the entrance. The tracker dog barked, but the instant it saw the old hunter it hushed, wagging its tail; next to it the mastiff was enjoying a peaceful nap.
Peter was sitting at Pat’s former desk, leaning on his elbows and gazing into something on the desk in front of him. He probably wasn’t aware of Kirk’s arrival, or he simply didn’t care. Only when Peter turned over a leaf did Kirk realize his friend was browsing through the old album ‘The Animals of Cetus.’
The old man was standing hesitatingly by the entrance and couldn’t decide what to do. Inside the greenhouse was such a dead silence that Kirk could hear even the mastiff’s equable panting. After a while, Kirk became aware that Peter was immovably gazing at the same page all the time. At the same instant when Kirk finally took a decision and stepped forward, Peter covered his eyes with his palms and his shoulders began to tremble in a mute, convulsive shudder.
The old hunter turned and went silently out of the greenhouse.
Kirk Reuben was marching through the wood with his double-barreled rifle in his hand when he suddenly heard a drumming from somewhere. That made him angry–and in that moment, he awoke in his bed. But the drumming didn’t stop; he realized somebody was knocking loudly at his door. He put on his slippers, tied his robe and unlocked the door.
“May I come in, Kirk?”
Peter’s voice was eager; his words flowed impatiently from his mouth. He passed by his host, seized a bottle of brandy and poured some of it into a glass, like he’d been there only the day before. Kirk barely contained his surprise; then he poured some brandy for himself and sat down facing his unexpected guest.
“I’ve seen that . . . well, that tigress again, Kirk,” murmured Peter, who could hardly control himself. “I saw her early this morning, in the middle of the greenhouse! And that wasn’t all. I saw its–her–cub as well.”
Kirk was sitting there, confused, without any response.
“For God’s sake, why don’t you say something, Kirk? I swear, it . . . She . . That damned Sphinx was pottering around, among those shelves and tables, for some minutes, as if it were her own lair! And her young one was–”
“Take it easy, lad,” Kirk tried to calm him. “Did you say in the greenhouse? Are you sure that was Sphinx and not perhaps some other animal? You know–if one is expecting something strongly, then, often . . .”
“KIRK!” Peter’s cry was hardly human. “I came to you because I hoped you would help me to understand! Outside there are enough of those who doubt in my saneness. Of course that was Sphinx! The characteristic posture of her body, the manner of her moving and, above all, an indisputable proof–dozens and dozens of tracks left among the vegetable patches!”
“And you believe that it . . . Well, she . . . didn’t attack you at all?” Kirk’s voice was full of disbelief. “A female predator with her cub–the most dangerous combination that any hunter could imagine?”
Peter shook his head and helplessly spread his hands out. “You’re right–that’s the craziest of all. She showed no hostility at all! She was behaving like I were . . . Like I were some good, old friend of hers.” He paused, frowning and biting his lips. “Kirk, listen: I think–no, I’m sure–that was not the same Sphinx I’d met in the forest some months ago! The one in the greenhouse seemed a bit smaller, younger and much more supple then the earlier one. Besides, this one has no scars at all.”
“I still can’t grasp all this. What . . . What about your dogs, Peter? What did that wild mastiff do?”
“The wild mastiff barely brought up his head after the Sphinx came in; but then it decided to snooze further. I couldn’t have incited it against the tigress in any way by that time she and her young one had finally left the greenhouse and disappeared into the nearest thicket. And the tracker dog didn’t prove useful either. I urged it to follow them, but it was just running among the patches and garden beds, wagging its tail as if altogether amused. Believe or not–it completely ignored the scent of both beasts!”
Kirk shook his head. “I don’t understand that. I’ve hunted with that dog before, more than once; it used to get restless over the trace of a field mouse! Sometimes at the evening it was so eager to track that I had to drag it into my car by force.”
“Kirk,” asked Peter, “I beg you, come with me to the greenhouse at once and take a close look! I want you to look at the whole situation on the spot so you can tell me then what you in fact saw there, and what your opinion is about the whole matter. Until then I won’t be sure I’m not losing my mind.”
In the next few hours Peter and Kirk repeatedly walked through all the paths and passages among the vegetable patches, hotbeds and shelves inside the greenhouse, and together they combed every nook and cranny. But after all that, Kirk had to admit they were no wiser than before. How both beasts could remain unnoticed by settlers during their long walk or run from the thicket and through half a settlement up to the greenhouse–that was another enigma.
The old hunter made a few plaster casts of the adult beast’s footprints, which he intended to match with those he’d made many years ago. But he knew that all this wasn’t necessary because he had his eyes; there was no doubt that this was the Sphinx.
Then Kirk made a few plaster casts of the cub, too. The cub was obviously still unripe, wholly dependent on its mother’s milk. Kirk knelt on the ground repeatedly, sniffed the scents alone and retrieved a small tuft of yellowish fur from a thorn bush. This he gave to the tracer dog to sniff but the dog just wagged his tail and looked closely into Kirk’s eyes to make him understand everything was perfectly okay.
“Well, Peter,” sighed the old hunter, “matters go from bad to worse. Before we came here I’d suspected you perhaps weren’t in your right mind; but now I suspect both of us are crazy.”
“Swell,” said Peter resignedly. “In that case, I could tell you something else about that meeting of mine, which I’d, at first, decided to hide from you.”
“Why? Because it’s too crazy, even for me?”
“Because it’s too crazy for anyone in any of the worlds we know.” Peter was trying to find the proper words. “Then, I had a silly feeling–don’t ask me why or where from–that damned tigress had come to me because . . . Because she wanted to show me her cub. It seemed to me that she was proud of her baby and that she wished . . .” The young hunter didn’t finish his sentence, swinging his hand in despair.
“Peter, listen to me,” said Kirk in a low voice. “Up to now you’ve told me nothing about the most important matter. That greenhouse is fairly well lit and this time the beast didn’t come into sight for just a moment, like then in the forest. Am I right?”
The young hunter nodded looking the other way.
“Well, Peter, answer me this simple question: did you, this time, get a clear view of the Sphinx’ head–were you able to see its face?”
Peter nodded again; his bearded face was sad and lost in thought. “I did. Kirk, it was Pat’s face! That was her face, undoubtedly. And, besides, before she left she called
me–she called out my name, Kirk! I heard her voice–Pat’s voice–as distinctly and clearly as I hear you now.”
“Peter!” Kirk’s confusion was complete. He carefully chose his words. “You know I’m your friend and you know I believe all of what you’ve told me so far. Absolutely all–up to now. But this . . . God knows what it seemed to you that you heard–that voice could have come from whomever . . . From whatever. How could you affirm that–”
“Kirk,” Peter interrupted him, “I’m positive about what I’ve heard because of this simple reason: nobody–nobody on this planet–but Pat has ever called me that! Besides, she only did it when we were alone. That . . That nickname of mine used to be our private joke from the first moment we met and nobody else knows about it.”
“Nickname?” Reuben fixed his eyes on his friend. “Well, how did she call you?”
“She called me: Peter-pebble.”
Kirk Reuben remained silent for so long the reporter finally had to start talking.
“Well? What happened afterwards?”
“Afterwards?” The retired hunter shrugged with his shoulders; suddenly, he seemed gloomy. “Nothing happened afterwards; that was all. That day I spoke with Peter Stubbins for the last time. The next day he disappeared and nobody saw him ever again. As expected, he didn’t leave behind any trace; such an excellent hunter didn’t have to be taught how to leave without a trace. He left all his belongings in one of his shelters on the edge of the settlement; he took nothing, neither his two dogs nor even his rifle. We searched him for a whole week, some of us even longer; then we gave up. And after all that happened, finally, the governor ordered that bloody fence around the whole settlement–high and strong and dense barbed wire.”
“The one you wanted for so many years?”
“The same.” The retired hunter spit wrathfully over the rail. “Then, after Stubbin’s disappearance it became possible, finally, to find somewhere, somehow enough money for such a barrier. Too late, as always. Afterwards the hunting service in the Colony was unnecessary and Peter Stubbins remains the last hunter on Cetus.”
The reporter opened her mouth to ask something but Reuben brought up his hand authoritatively.
“I beg you, Miss Linneker, don’t spoil everything now! Don’t ask me for my opinion, for what I think might have happened to the poor lad. I know nothing more than you do about that. I’ve told you only the plain facts, as you wanted; so you mustn’t try to make some legend out of these true events just to sell more papers.”
“I won’t do that in any way,” said the reporter, a bit offended. “First, because the ‘Space Cosmopolitan’ never publishes sensationalistic stories. And, second, because I think that your story was a vivid, interesting testimony about a part of life in your Colony that doesn’t need any enrichment. I’m glad we didn’t waste this beautiful, sunny afternoon.”
She laid out the promised sum of money on a rough-hewn table, then switched off her tape recorder and put it in her handbag.
The old man gazed hesitantly at the heap of banknotes. “Are you sure you can find the proper justification for spending such an enormous sum of money? Maybe you should think it over once again? I would be content–”
“Don’t worry, Kirk. You’ve earned every penny of that honorarium. And if you'd now be so kind to encourage me to climb down from this dizzying height, I’ll thank you for a pleasant talk.” She handed him her handbag and Kirk politely offered her his hand.
“Take your time, Miss Linneker, step by step, your left hand all the time on the rail. Swell; and make sure you don’t–”
“Look down; that much I remember! Thank you. Oh dear, how high we are!”
Before Vicky Lonnegan stepped on the first stair she looked round for the last time. She was fascinated by the spectacular view. The slanting orange rays of the setting sun were piercing through the darkish treetops of slidders and ozunies like glittering spears of fire. And under them, on the ground, in the middle of a small clearing, she cast a glance at . . . at something hardly perceivable, silently moving.
She gazed at three Bagheeras.
There were three panthers, as black as soot, with elegant, muscular bodies and slowly waving tails. Both adult beasts were staring with their slanting, violet eyes upwards, directly at her, and the young one was clumsily frolicking under their bellies.
Vicky Lonnegan felt dizzy for just a moment, and she had to close her eyes. When she reopened them, there was just an ordinary clearing, surrounded with dense thicket, darkish and mysterious, under the last rays of the dying alien sun.