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Title: Collectivum
Author: Lewis, Mike
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Collectivum" ***

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                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Space Science Fiction July 1953.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.


                             COLLECTIVUM


                            BY MIKE LEWIS


                         ILLUSTRATED BY SMITH


     The Oren were one and their strength was legion. They had it
     all figured out, in their own parasitical, cold-blooded way.
     But they'd neglected one she-cat of a girl....

       *       *       *       *       *



He crossed the rickety bridge at sundown and saw the squat, fat fellow
whipping the girl with a board. His mind leaped to a conclusion: _an
Orenian prowler, convincing his victim to hold still_. He clubbed the
fat fellow with a rock and toppled him over the seawall into the
lagoon where he floated face-down.

"Are you stung?" he asked the girl.

She picked herself up weakly, and she was a gold-bronze beauty with a
black mane of hair and long, narrow eyes. She shook her head to his
question and whimpered slightly while she examined her bruises.

"He was my husband," she explained.

"Not an Orenian?" he gasped.

She shook her head. "But he was going to kill me."

Morgan shot a horrified glance at the body floating far out on the
swift tide. Three sharks were circling lazily. He looked around for a
boat, saw none. He swiftly estimated his chances of swimming out after
the fat man and towing him in. The chances appeared to be nil.
Nevertheless, he began stripping off his shirt.

"Don't bother," said the girl. "He was stung last week."

[Illustration]

Morgan stared at her silently for a moment. She seemed not in the
least perturbed. If the man had been stung by an Orenian, he was lost
anyway. Ruefully, he rebuttoned his shirt.

"I leapt to a bad conclusion."

"That he was an Orenian? He would have been, soon. Besides--you _have_
to leap to conclusions nowadays, to stay alive."

"You don't seem to worry."

"I told you, he was going to kill me."

"Why?"

"Because--" She paused and stared out across the twilight water,
gathering a slow frown. "Because he was crazy."

Morgan's eyes flickered over her trim figure, and he thought--_maybe_.
She had a trace of Seminole blood, he decided--with the quiet
sultriness that it leant to her face.

"I'm heading west," he announced.

"To the cypress?" She cooly inspected his sturdy arms, clipped
features, and the hatchet in his belt-rope. She nodded faintly to
herself. "Want company?"

He shrugged and turned half away. "It's okay with me." He set off down
the road and she followed a few feet to the rear.

"Florida coast's getting to be lousy with them," she called.

"Orenians?"

"Yeah. Whole truckload of them passed through yesterday. On their way
to Miami, I guess. One man said he saw an airplane yesterday."

"They must be reviving the industry up north."

"Yeah. Trucks by the dozen. Say--where've _you_ been hiding?"

"Mangrove island. Been there six months."

"Get lonesome?"

"And tired of sitting still. Small island."

"You should have stayed--but I'm glad you didn't."

He shot her a sharp glance. She failed to look bereaved at the loss of
her mate. But that was not unusual. Most marriages nowadays were
contracted by brute force--and dissolved the same way. She probably
felt that rolling the fat one in the drink gave her a claim on him.

When the last trace of gray fled from the west, they walked westward
along the old highway beyond the limits of the coastal town which was
now nearly deserted. They talked softly as they trudged along, and he
learned that her name was Shera and that she had been a dancer in a
small Miami nightspot, before the Orenians came. She had joined the
fat one a year ago--because he owned a gun, and was therefore good
insurance against wandering Orenians. But when the ammunition was
gone, she tried to leave him, which resulted in the incident by the
waterfront.

Morgan was irked that he had blundered into a family affair, and
troubled that he had relieved the fellow of all worldly cares.
Nevertheless, if the man had been stung, the free world would
say--"job well done." For in a few weeks he would have ceased to be
strictly human, becoming a dangerous threat to his fellows. And if the
girl had been unable to escape from him before that time, she would
have been subject to the same plight. Morgan decided that he would
have done the same thing if given time to weigh the situation
beforehand.

"How far are we going?" she asked.

"We're turning off on the next side-road," he grunted.

"You know the country?"

"I used to." He waved his arm to the south. "Road winds through a
swamp, then climbs to high ground. Ends in a spruce forest."

"Got any food?"

"Will have, tomorrow. Ditches are full of warmouth perch. Plenty of
swamp cabbage, wild oranges, bull frogs, papaya."

"I'm hungry now."

"That's tough."

She whimpered a little but soon fell silent. He saw she was limping,
and he slowed his pace. Pity was a lost emotion in an age of chaos;
but she was strong, healthy, and appeared capable of doing a day's
work. He decided to humor her, lest she decide to trudge alone.

       *       *       *       *       *

When they reached the swamp, branches closed over the narrow trail
road, screening off the sky and hiding the thin slice of moon. The
girl hung close to his elbow. A screech owl hooted in the trees, and a
thousand frogs clamored in the blackness. Once the scream of a panther
split the night, and the girl sobbed as if echoing the cry. They
hurried ahead through the overgrown weeds.

"Drop flat!" he hissed suddenly.

She obeyed without a sound. They crouched together at the edge of the
road, listening. A distant rustling came from the roadway to the
south.

"Orenians?" she whispered.

"Orenians."

"How many?"

"Can't tell. They always march in step. Keep quiet."

Morgan gripped the hatchet and set himself for a quick spring. As they
drew nearer, he decided that there were two of them. Their movements
were perfectly coordinated, since they were of one mind, one
consciousness--that of Oren. The girl tapped his arm with the blade
of a knife.

"I'll take one," she breathed.

When the footsteps were almost upon them, Oren halted. There was no
outcry; the Orenians had no need for vocal communication; their
thought-exchange was bio-electromagnetic.

"Now!" howled Morgan, and launched himself at the enemy.

His hatchet cleft the face of the nearest foe, and he turned instantly
to help the girl. A pair of bodies thrashed about on the ground. Then
she stood up, and he heard her dry the knife on some grass. It was
over in an instant.

"Not stung?"

"No."

"That was too easy," he said. "I don't like it."

"Why?"

"They don't ambush that easy unless they're in rapport with another
group someplace close. We'll have some more of them after us if we
don't get away."

They hurried about the unpleasant task of splitting open the
once-human skulls to remove the legless parasite-entities that filled
the bony hollows where brains belonged. The Oren creatures lived in
their stolen homes long after the borrowed body died, and they could
signal others to the vicinity. Morgan tossed the globular little
creatures in the ditch where they lay squeaking faintly--helpless,
once-removed from the body of the host who had long since ceased to
exist as a human being.

"Let's go!" he grunted.

"Same way?"

"Yeah."

"But they _came_ from that way!"

"Have to chance it. Too dangerous, hanging around the highways. Out
here we can find places to hide."

They set off at a trot, chancing an ambush in reverse. But Morgan
reasoned that the Orenians had been returning to the highway after a
day's exploring on the side-roads. After plunging for half-an-hour
through the darkness, the road began winding upward. The cypress
archway parted, revealing star-scattered sky. They slowed to a walk.

"Can't we sit down to rest?" she panted.

"Can if you like. Alone."

She shuddered and caught at his arm. "I'll stick."

"Sorry," he murmured. "We can stop soon. But they'll be chasing along
the road looking for us. I want to get into the spruce forest first."

She was silent for a time, then said; "With Earlich, it was the other
way around."

"Earlich? The fat boy? What do you mean?"

"I always had to wait on him."

"Did you wait?"

"Until he ran out of bullets."

Morgan clucked in mock disapproval. But he was not in the least
shocked. In the flight from Oren, it was devil take the hindmost.
Weaklings, and people who paused for pity, had long since been stung.
After several weeks of agony in which the brain became the nutrient
fodder of the growing Oren embryo, they were lost in the single
communal mind of Oren, dead as individuals. The adult parasite assumed
the bodily directive-function of the brain. The creatures so afflicted
became mere cells in a total social organism now constituting a large
part of humanity.

Shera suddenly whistled surprise. "Is that a _cabin_ there?--through
the trees?"

They had penetrated several hundred yards into the spruce. A black
hulk lay ahead in a small clearing.

"Yeah," Morgan grunted. "I'd hoped it'd still be there."

She nudged him hard. "Close-mouthed, aren't you?"

"If I told you it was here, and then it was gone--how would you feel?"

"You think about things like that?" She stared at him curiously in the
faint moonlight. "Nobody else does. Not now."

"Come on," he growled. "Let's see if it's occupied."

The door was locked. Morgan chopped it open without ceremony. The
cabin was vacant except for a corpse on the floor. The corpse was of
ancient vintage and slightly mummified. He noticed that it had killed
itself with a shotgun--possibly because of an Oren-sting. He caught up
the scarce weapon lest the girl grab it and run. Then he dragged the
corpse out by the foot and left it under an orange tree. The oranges
were green, but he picked a few to stave off the pangs of hunger.

When he returned, Shera had found matches and a lamp. She sat at a
table, counting twelve-gauge shells.

"How many?"

"Even dozen." She gazed greedily at the gun. "I won't steal it."

He pitched her an orange and propped the gun in the corner. "If you
did, it would be a mistake."

Her eyes followed him about the room as he inspected the meagre,
dust-laden furnishings.

"I like you, Morgan," she murmured suddenly.

"Like you liked fat-boy?"

"He was a pig."

"But you liked his gun."

"You'd do all right without a gun."

"So?"

"Why don't we team up?"

"Whoa! We may not be looking for the same things."

She shrugged and toyed with the shells while she stared thoughtfully
into the lamplight. "What's there to look for? Besides escape from
Oren."

"Nothing maybe."

"But you think so, huh?"

He straightened suddenly and waggled a pair of cans over his head for
her to see--beans, and a tin of tobacco. He set them aside and
continued searching the cupboards.

"But you think so, huh?" she repeated.

"Shut up and heat the beans."

Shera caught the can and speared it with her knife. It spewed. She
sniffed, cursed, and threw them out. "We eat oranges."

"But what _are_ you looking for, Morgan?"

       *       *       *       *       *

He rolled himself a cigarette with the aged tobacco which was little
more than dust. He came to the table and sat facing her. She had
placed an orange before him. Almost absently he laid the blade of his
hatchet atop it. The weight of it split the fruit neatly.

"Sharp," she muttered.

"Sharp enough to split Oren skulls."

"And that's all you're looking for?"

"I don't know. Ever hear of the Maquis?"

She hesitated. "Two wars ago? The French underground? I remember
vaguely. I was a _little_ urchin then."

"They had a goal like mine, I guess. To harass. They couldn't win, and
they knew it. They killed and wrecked and maimed because they hated. I
want to organize a band of Oren-killers--with no purpose save to
ambush and slaughter. I sat on that island and thought and
thought--and I got disgusted with myself for hiding."

The girl munched a cheekful of bitter orange pulp and looked
thoughtful. "Wish I had some clothes," she muttered indifferently.

He shot her a hard glance then stood up to pace the floor. "Ambush,
slaughter, and _rob_," he amended, and looked at her sharply again.

"Rob?"

"Oren's taken our cities. He's reorganizing industry. With individuals
coordinated by a mass-mind, it'll be a different kind of industry, a
more efficient kind. Think of a factory in which a worker at one
position shares consciousness with a worker in another position. Does
away with control mechanisms."

"You said 'rob'."

He grinned sourly. "When they get production started, there'll be
plenty to steal. Guns; explosives--clothes."

She nodded slowly. "Trouble is: every time you kill an Orenian, they
all feel him die. They come running."

"Sometimes. Unless they're too busy. They don't care too much about
individual deaths. It's the total mental commune of Oren that matters.
Like now. They could find us if they really tried. But why should
they? They'd come as recruiting agents--with bared stingers--if they
came."

"They'll come tomorrow," she said fatalistically.

"We'll try to be ready."

       *       *       *       *       *

She inspected him carefully, as if weighing his size and strength. "I
still want to team up with you."

He recalled how quickly she had knifed the Orenian to death on the
road. "Okay--if you'll follow me without argument."

"I can take orders." She folded her arms behind her head and leaned
back with a grin. Her breasts jutted haughtily beneath a torn blouse.
"_Most_ orders, that is."

"Hell, I'm not marrying you!" he snapped.

She laughed scornfully. "You will, Morgan, you will."

Morgan lashed the shotgun to a chair, aimed it at the door, and ran a
length of cord from the trigger to the shattered lock. "Don't trip
over the cord in the night," he warned as he blew out the lamp. Then
he bedded down in the corner on the floor.

A short time later he heard her sobbing softly. "What the devil's
wrong?" he snarled disgustedly.

"Thanks, Morgan--thanks," she whispered.

For a moment he felt sorry for her. Apparently she was thanking him
for the bed. Fat boy had evidently taken the best of everything and
given her the crumbs of Lazarus. Such were the mores of chaos. But
Morgan quit congratulating himself. He had chosen the floor because it
looked cleaner than the bed.

He was awakened before dawn by the rapid sputter of rain on the roof.
It dribbled through several holes and spread across the floor. He sat
up shivering. Shera was a glowing cigarette near the window.

"Can't sleep?" he asked.

"I'm scared," she answered.

Faintly he could see her profile silhouetted against the pane. She was
watching outside the cabin.

"I've got a funny feeling--that something's out there."

"Heard anything?"

"Just a feeling."

Morgan felt ice along his sides. "Shera--do you get hunches, feelings,
intuitions very often?" His voice was hushed, worried.

"Yeah."

"Have you always?"

"No--I don't think I used to."

He was silent for a long time; then he hissed, "Are you _sure_ you
haven't been stung recently?"

Another brief silence. Then the girl laughed softly. A wave of
prickles crept along his scalp.

"I've got the shotgun in my lap, Morgan."

       *       *       *       *       *

"How long?" he whispered in horror.

"Six months."

"_Six months!_ You're lying! You'd be fully depersonalized! You'd be
in complete liaison with Oren!"

"But I'm not. Sometimes I can feel when they're near. That's all."

"But if it were true--your brain would be replaced by the parasite!"

"I wouldn't know. Apparently it's not."

Morgan couldn't believe it. But he sat stunned in the darkness. What
was this thing in the cabin with him? Was she still human? He began
inching along the wall, but a board creaked.

"I don't want to shoot you, Morgan. Don't rush me. Besides--there's
something outside, I tell you."

"Why should _you_ worry about that?--if you've really been stung."

"The first sting evidently didn't take. The next one might. That's
why."

"You weren't sick?"

"During the incubation period? I was sick. Plenty sick."

Morgan shook his head thoughtfully. If she had been through the
violent illness of the parasite's incubation, she should now have one
of the squeaking little degenerates in place of a brain. The fibers of
the small animals grew slowly along the neural arcs, replacing each
nerve cell, forming a junction at each synapse. There was reason to
believe that the parasite preserved the memories that had been stored
in the brain, but they became blended with all the other
individualities that comprised Oren, thereby losing the personality in
the mental ocean of the herd-mind. Was it possible that if one
invader were out of mental contact with the herd-mind, that the
individual host might retain its personality? But how could she be out
of contact?

"They're getting close to the door," she whispered.

Morgan gripped his hatchet and waited, not knowing who would be the
greater enemy--the girl or the prowlers.

"When the door opens, strike a match. So I can see to shoot."

Morgan crouched low. There came a light tapping at the torn screen,
then several seconds of silence. Someone pushed at the door. It swung
slowly open.

"Jerry?" called a faint voice. "Jerry--thet you in theah?"

Morgan breathed easily again. An Orenian would not have called out.
"Who is it?" he barked.

There was no answer. Morgan groped for the lamp, found it, and held
the match poised but not lighted.

"Come in here!" he ordered. "We've got a gun."

"Yes, suh!"

A shadow appeared in the door frame. Morgan struck the match. It was
an ancient Negro with a burlap sack in one hand and a bloodstained
pitchfork in the other. He stood blinking at Shera's shotgun and at
the lamp as Morgan lit it. His overalls were rainsoaked, his eyes
wild.

"Come in and sit down."

"Thankya suh, thankya." He shuffled inside and slumped into a rickety
chair.

"What're you doing wandering around like this?"

"Been a hunting. Yes, suh, been doing me a little hunting." He sighed
wearily and mopped the rain out of his tight coils of graying hair.

Morgan eyed the burlap sack suspiciously. It was wet, and it wriggled.
"What's that?"

"'Ass my night's work," said the man and jerked a corner of the sack.
It opened, and three Oren parasites spilled out with weak squeaks of
anguish.

The girl gasped angrily. "They're still in contact with Oren. Kill
them!"

"Yes'm, they're in contact--but without eyes, how're they gonna know
wheah they are?"

Morgan made a wry mouth at Shera. The old man was smart--and right.
But he felt another uneasy suspicion. The old man said "hunting."
Hunting for what--food? The idea twisted disgust in Morgan's stomach.

"What're you going to do with them?"

"Oh--" The oldster kicked one of them lightly with his toe. The pink
thing rolled against the wall. There were vestigial signs of arms,
legs, but tiny and useless, grown fast to the body. The visitor
glanced up with a sheepish grin.

"I feed 'em to my dawgs, suh. Dawgs like 'em. Getting so my dawgs can
smell the difference twixt a man and an Orenian. I'm training 'em.
They help me with my hunting."

Morgan sat up sharply. "How many dogs you got, and where do you live?"

"Fo' dawgs. I live in the swamp. They's a big hollow cypress--I got my
bed in it."

"Why didn't you move in here?"

The old man looked at the place in the center of the floor where the
dust outlined the shape of a human body. "Suicide," he muttered. Then
he looked up. "'Tain't superstition, exactly. I just don't--"

"Never mind," Morgan murmured. He glanced at the girl. She had laid
the shotgun aside and was lighting a cigarette. He tensed himself,
then sprang like a cat.

The gun was in his hands, and he was backing across the room before
she realized what had happened. Her face went suddenly white. The old
man just sat and looked baffled.

"Can you call one of your dogs?"

"Yes, suh, but--"

"Call one, I want to try something."

Shera bit her lip. "Why, Morgan? To see if what I said is true?"

"Yeah."

"I'll save you the trouble." She stared into his face solemnly and
slowly opened her mouth. From beneath her tongue, a barb slowly
protruded until its point projected several inches from her lips.
Morgan shivered.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Negro, who was sitting rigidly frozen, suddenly dove for his
pitchfork with a wild cry. "Witcherwoman! Oren-stinger!"

Shera darted aside as the pitchfork sailed toward her and shattered
the window. She seized it quickly and held him at bay. The old man
looked startled. Orenians tried to sting, not to fight.

"Hold it!" bellowed Morgan.

Reluctantly, the oldster backed away and fell into the chair again.
But his eyes clung to the girl with hatred.

"She stung ya, suh?"

"No, and she won't sting you." He gazed at Shera coldly. "Drop that
fork."

She propped it against the wall but stayed close to it. "Okay,
Morgan," she purred. "It's your show."

"It's going to be yours. Sit down and tell us everything that happened
before you were stung and after. I want to figure out what makes you
different from the others, and why you aren't in liaison with Oren."

She smiled acidly. "You won't believe it."

"You'll tell it though," he growled darkly.

She turned to gaze at the door. "Earlich had a little girl--by his
first wife. She got stung eight months ago. Before she ran away, she
stung her pet kitten. I didn't know it. The kitten stayed with us.
_It_ stung me." She paused. "Here's the part you won't believe: before
Earlich killed it, I was coming into liaison with the cat."

"_God!_"

"It's true."

"Have you ever stung anyone?"

"No. Earlich didn't even know."

"Any desire to?"

She reddened slowly and set her jaw.

The old man giggled. "Wants ta sting a cat, ah bet, suh."

She shot him a furious glance, but didn't deny it. They sat for a long
time in silence. Morgan lowered the shotgun, then laid it aside.

"Thanks," she murmured, and looked really grateful.

But Morgan was staring thoughtfully at the oldster. "Your dogs ever
tree a panther?"

"Yas, _suh_, they're good at that!" He grinned and waggled his head.

"Many panthers in the swamp?"

"Lo'dy, yes--" He paused. His eyes widened slightly.

Both of them looked suddenly at the girl. Her eyebrows arched, her
mouth flew open. She put a frightened hand to her throat.

"Oh _no_! Oh God, _nooo_!" she shrilled.

Morgan glanced at the window, sighed, and stood up.

"It's getting light outside. We better hunt some food."

Morgan and the old man, whose name was Hanson, went out to prowl along
the outskirts of the swamp. They returned at mid-morning with a string
of perch, a rabbit, and a heart of swamp cabbage. The girl cooked the
meal in silence, scarcely looking at them. Her face was sullen, angry.
Morgan turned while he was eating and saw her staring contemplatively
at the back of his neck--where the Oren-sting was usually planted.

"Nobody's going to force you into anything, Shera," he said quietly.
"We won't mention it again."

She said nothing, but stopped glaring at him. He wondered how much the
Oren organ had affected her personality.

"Do you still feel the same--as you did a year ago?" he asked her.
"Any difference? Any loss of memory? Loss of function?"

"No."

"That means the alien organ exactly duplicates the neural circuits it
supplants."

"So?"

"So the rapport is the only special feature. Without it, you're
apparently still human."

"Thanks." It was a bitter, acid tone.

"I can't understand why the cat-business caused ... unless ... rapport
is achieved by a sort of resonance--and you couldn't get it with a cat
and with humans too--"

"Drop it, will you!" She turned and stalked out of the shanty. At the
doorway, she broke into a run.

Morgan looked at Hanson. Hanson waggled his head and grinned ruefully.
"That--uh--lady likes you, suh."

Morgan snorted and went to the door. She was just disappearing into a
tangle of weeds that had once been an orange grove. He set off after
her at a quick trot. "Shera, wait--"

He caught up with her at the edge of the swamp, where she was backing
quickly away from a coiled water-moccasin. He tossed a stick at the
snake, and it slithered into the shallow water. Then he caught her
arms, and she whirled to face him with defiant eyes.

"You think I'm a--a--"

"I don't."

"You act like I'm barely human."

"I didn't mean it that way--"

"You don't even trust me, and you want me to--"

"I _don't_."

"Trust me." She nodded.

"I do."

She stamped her foot in the soft muck. "Then kiss me."

A grim possibility occurred to him, and he hesitated an instant too
long. She wrenched herself free with a snarl and bolted back toward
the shanty. "_I could_ have done _that_ last night," she snapped over
her shoulder, "while you were asleep."

       *       *       *       *       *

The chase led back to the house. When he burst back inside, she was
already panting over the sink, scraping plates. When he approached her
from behind, she whirled quickly, clenching a platter in both hands.
When she brought it down across his head with a clatter of broken
china, Morgan gave up. He retreated, nursing his scalp, then stalked
angrily out to join Hanson. Dogs were baying to the north. The old man
looked worried.

"They're comin', suh. Must be a lot of 'em. I got my dawgs trained so
they don't bark less they's a bunch of 'em."

Morgan listened for a moment. "I hear a truck."

"That's so?" Hanson shook his head. "They ain't never come in a truck
before."

"Truck--must be a dozen of them at least." He eyed Hanson sharply.
"Run or fight?"

The old man scratched his toe in the dirt. "Ain't never yet run from a
fight."

Morgan turned silently and strode back in the house for the gun. Shera
ignored him. "Orenians coming," he grunted, and went back out to join
the oldster.

Morgan and Hanson trotted through the scrub spruce, heading for the
roadway. But they turned short and cut north through the edge of the
brush. Morgan caught a glimpse of the truck far ahead. Hanson's hounds
were snarling about the wheels and leaping up toward the bed. The road
was soft sand to their right. Ducking low, they darted ahead until it
appeared firm enough to admit the truck.

"We want them to get past us," he hissed to Hanson. "When they do, you
stand up and show yourself. When they start piling out, I'll start
shooting. Okay?"

"Yes, suh." He patted his pitchfork and grinned. They stopped and
crouched low in the brush.

"Please, suh--don't hit my dawgs."

"I'm counting on them to help."

The truck grumbled slowly past them. The hounds were snapping
furiously as they tried to leap over the tailgate. Morgan caught a
glimpse of white faces, staring fixedly at nothing. Then he nudged the
oldster.

Hanson stood up, shaking his pitchfork and shrieking hate at the
occupants. The truck moved on a few yards, then ground to a stop.

"_Come and join us_," thundered a collective voice. "_For we are Oren,
who is one._"

Morgan could see nothing through the screen of foliage. But the old
man was still howling invective.

"_From the stars comes Oren. To the stars he goes. Come and join us._"

"Come get me, you devils. I'll kill ya!"

"_Oren is millions. He cannot die. We come._"

Hanson's foot nudged Morgan's nervously. Still he lay under cover,
waiting for their advance. Feet shuffled on the bed of the truck. The
hounds were going wild. There was something weird about sounds of
Orenian movement. It was always coordinated--so many marionettes with
one set of controls. But they could shift from parallel coordination
to complementary, dovetailing each set of movements to achieve the
common purpose.

Morgan burst forth from the brush and fired at the tight group of
bodies near the back of the truck. They were packed in a circle to
protect the group from the slashing fangs of the dogs. Two of them
fell, without outcries. He fired three times before they broke apart.
There were still at least eight of them, but the dogs had two down.

"Oh, God! Children!" Morgan bellowed. "Call off the dogs!"

"Not _human_ children."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Call them off!"

Hanson obeyed reluctantly. A pair of calm-eyed child-things scrambled
to their feet and began advancing with the group of adults. The
Orenians fanned out and began closing in like the fingers of a giant
fist. Morgan shot four of them before the circle closed to hatchet
range. He and Hanson stood back to back, slashing out at the ring of
fanged faces.

The attackers were weaponless. They cared nothing for individual
bodies. The collectivum swayed, writhed, darted in--and fell in blood.
The wounded crawled close to their ankles, barbs protruding from their
lips. They roared constantly, "_Oren is paradise. Come to Oren._"

A child, who had been rescued from one of the dogs, crawled among the
legs of the adults and lunged for Morgan's feet. He was forced to kick
it back with a hard heel.

Suddenly their ranks broke. There were only four of them left
standing. They backed away and stopped--three men and a middle-aged
woman. "_Oren will return._" They turned and marched toward the truck.

"We need the truck," panted Morgan.

Hanson flung his pitchfork and caught the last one in the center of
the back. The others moved on unheeding. Morgan sadly lifted the
shotgun.

When it was over, they went to look at the two child-things. One was
unconscious, but not badly wounded. The other had a broken arm. It
shot out its fang and circled. With a sick heart, Morgan lashed out
and caught it by the hair, before it could sting him.

"See if there's pliers in the truck," he muttered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hanson returned with them after a moment's rummaging. They jerked out
its fang and let it go. It walked calmly to the north, purpose
defeated. They did the same to the other.

"It's crazy," he was gasping. "Stark crazy. They spend over a dozen
Orenians just to get two of us. And they didn't want to kill us at
that."

"Lo'dy, suh! Who _is_ Oren? You know?"

Morgan shook his head. "He's the collectivum, Han."

"But suh--he had to come from some place. People weren't like this--"

"Yeah. I guess he came from space, like they say."

"Just them little pink brain-gobblers?"

"Uh-uh! Scientists figure they came in some alien host. The hosts
couldn't take Earth conditions. They stung a few humans and died."

"Anybody ever see 'em?"

"Not that I know of. Nor found their ships."

"O Lo'dy, I'm sick, suh."

"Let's go back to the shanty, Han."

"Yes, suh. Look on the back o' my neck, will you suh?"

Morgan looked, then turned slowly away.

"Is it, suh?"

Morgan took a deep breath. "I--I--guess--"

"I stumbled once. I guess he got me then."

Morgan laid a hand on the old man's arm. There was nothing to say.

"Mistuh Morgan--would you do me a favo'?"

Morgan knew what he wanted. "I can't shoot you, Han. I'll leave you
the gun, though."

"No, suh, that ain't it. I was wondering--could you help me catch a
painter tonight--before I go?"

"A panther?" Morgan squeezed his arm and blinked hard. He grinned.
"Sure, Han."

"Guess it'll be two, three days afore it starts happening to me."

"Yeah. Will you want the gun?"

"No, suh, don't think much of suicide. I'll just go out and wrestle me
a 'gator in the swamp."

They went back to the house. Shera was sitting on the step.

"I've made up my mind," she said dully.

"About what?"

"I'll do it."

She got up and walked away. When Morgan tried to follow, she turned
and flicked out the barb at him, then laughed coldly. Shivering, he
turned away.

That night the dogs treed a panther, and Hanson died. It happened
while he was climbing with pole and rope, angling to get a noose on
the lithe beast while Morgan waited with another rope below. The
lantern was hung from a branch while Hanson inched out on the limb.
When he thrust the noose forward, the panther brushed it aside with a
quick slap. It leaped. Hanson lost his balance and crashed to the
ground with a howl. The panther slapped a dog spinning and darted away
in the night with three dogs following.

Morgan knelt quickly beside the old man. His back was broken.

"Please, suh--don't move me. The Lo'd's a-comin' fo' old Han."

"Hush, fellow," Morgan murmured.

"Suh, that painter's a she. And they's cubs somewheres."

"Cubs?"

"Yes, suh. She's spooky-like. Cubs. You stay with my dawgs. Take care
of 'em, suh."

"Sure, Han."

"You lemme be now, suh. Lemme be alone." His voice was a faint
whisper. "I gotta die by myself. Man oughtn't to have company then."

Morgan hesitated. He sighed and climbed slowly to his feet. He
stumbled away, leaving the lantern hanging overhead. He sat a hundred
yards away in the shadow of a gaunt cypress, listening to the baying
of the hounds, the moaning of the old man, and the croaking of the
swamp. When he returned, the oldster was dead.

Morgan returned to the shanty at dawn, carrying a pair of whimpering
panther cubs and the skin of the mother. He exchanged a dark glance
with Shera at the door. She took them silently and fondled them for a
moment.

"Hanson's dead."

She nodded gravely. "Soon there'll be no one but Oren."

"The collectivum."

They went inside and sat facing one another. His eyes moved over the
dark slope of her shoulders, the proud set of her breasts, and back to
the sweetly sullen face with its narrow eyes.

"I'm going to join you," he said.

The eyes widened a little. She shook her head quickly. "In a liaison
of two? No. It might spread, get linked up with Oren."

"Not if it's through these." He stroked one of the cubs. It snarled.

"It's a chance."

"We'll take it." He leaned forward to kiss her....

       *       *       *       *       *

A year had passed since the night of Hanson's death. A freight train
dragged southward in the twilight, wending its way through pine forest
and scrubland. Oren was its crew. It crossed a trestle and moved
through a patch of jungle. A sudden shadow flitted from the brush,
leaped the ditch, and sprinted along beside the rails. Another
followed it, and another. The low-flying shadows slowly overtook the
engine. The leader sprang, clung for a moment by its forepaws, and
pulled itself aboard. Brakes howled on the rails as Oren stopped the
train. Two man-figures leaped from the cab--and into the jaws of a
killer-cat.

Another cat scrambled upon the tender, leaped to the top of a box-car
and sped backward along the train to seek the rest of the crew. The
bodies were left in the ditches.

When it was over, the cats collected in a group on the road-bed. They
sat licking their forepaws while a dozen shabbily dressed guerrillas
moved out of the jungle in a disorderly band.

"Joe, have your bunch unload the dynamite!" bawled a burly leader.
"We'll take the tank-car. Emmert, get the packs on those carts."

"I wonder," said a voice to a comrade, "who's controlling those
animals. You'd think they were Oren. Why don't they sting?"

"Stingers ripped out, chum. Why ask questions? They're on our side.
And we'll win, eventually--if this keeps up."

       *       *       *       *       *

As a group, the panthers looked at the two men as they passed. One of
them shuddered.

"Lordy! I'd swear those cats were grinning!"

       *       *       *       *       *





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