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Title: Rough Beast
Author: Aycock, Roger D.
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 "Rough Beast" ***

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                             _ROUGH BEAST_

               The most dangerous, utterly vicious
               carnivorous animal the Galactics knew had
               escaped ... to Earth! Because contact with
               Earth was forbidden, they knew little of
               Earth ... which led to certain false
               conclusions. _=BY ROGER DEE=_

------------------------------------------------------------------------

[Illustration: Illustrated by Barbereis]

------------------------------------------------------------------------


■ The field of the experimental Telethink station in the Florida Keys
caught the fleeing Morid’s attention just as its stolen Federation
lifeboat plunged into the outer reaches of nightside atmosphere.

The Morid reacted with the instant decision of a harried wolf stumbling
upon a dark cave that offers not only sanctuary but a lost lamb for
supper as well. With the pursuing Federation ship hot on its taloned
heels, the Morid zeroed on the Telethink signals—fuzzy and
incomprehensibly alien to its viciously direct mentality, but indicating
life and therefore food—and aimed straight for their source.

The lifeboat crashed headlong in the mangroves fringing Dutchman’s Key,
perhaps ten miles west of the Oversea Highway and less than two from the
Telethink station. The Morid emerged in snarling haste, anticipating the
powerplant’s explosion by a matter of seconds, and vanished like a
magenta-furred juggernaut into the moonlit riot of vegetation that
crowded back from the mangroved strip of beach. The Morid considered it
a success.

The lifeboat went up in a cataclysmic roar and flare of bluish light
that brought Vann, the Telethink operator on duty, out of his goldberg
helmet with a prickly conviction of runaway range missiles. It all but
blinded and deafened Ellis, his partner, who was cruising with a
portable Telethink in the station launch through a low-lying maze of
islands a quarter of a mile from Dutchman’s Key.

Their joint consternation was lost on the Morid because both at the
moment were outside its avid reach. The teeming welter of life on
Dutchman’s Key was not. The Morid headed inland, sensing abundant quarry
to satisfy the ravening hunger that drove it and, that craving
satisfied, to offer ample scope to its joy of killing.

                  *       *       *       *       *

The Morid’s escape left Xaxtol, Federation ship’s commander, in a
dilemma bordering upon the insoluble.

It would have been bad enough to lose so rare a specimen even on a
barren world, but to have one so voracious at large upon one so
teeming—as the primitive Telethink signals demonstrated—with previously
unsuspected intelligence was unthinkable.

This, at the outset, was Xaxtol’s problem:

Forbidden by strictest Galactic injunction, he could not make planetfall
and interfere with a previously unscouted primitive culture.
Contrariwise, neither could civilized ethic condone his abandoning such
an unsuspecting culture to the bloody mercies of a Morid without every
effort to correct his blunder.

Hanging in stationary orbit in order to keep a fixed relation to the
Morid’s landing site, the Federation commander debated earnestly with
his staff until a sudden quickening of the barbarous Telethink net made
action imperative.

Two of the autochthons were isolated on a small island with the Morid.
Unwarned, they were doomed.

So he grouped his staff about him—sitting, crouching, coiling or
hovering, as individual necessity demanded—and as one entity put the
whole into rapport with the all-but-meaningless signals that funneled up
from the Telethink station in the Florida Keys.

And, in doing so, roused a consternation as great as his own and
infinitely more immediate.

                  *       *       *       *       *

The flash brought Vann away from the Telethink console and out of the
quonset station to stare shakenly across the tangle of mangroved islands
to the west. Weyman came out a moment later, on the run, when the
teeth-jarring blast of the explosion woke him. They stood together on
the moon-bright sand and Vann relayed in four words the total of his
information.

“It fell over there,” Vann said.

A pale pinkish cloud of smoke and steam rose and drifted
phosphorescently toward a noncommittal moon.

“Second key out,” Weyman said. “That would be Dutchman’s, where the
hermit lives.”

Vann nodded, drawing minimal reassurance from the fact that there had
been no mushroom. “It shouldn’t be atomic.”

The Gulf breeze was steady out of the west, freighted with its perpetual
salt-and-mangrove smell.

“The Geigers will tell us soon enough,” Weyman said. “Not that it’ll
help us, with Ellis out in the launch.”

They looked at each other in sudden shock of joint realization.

“The launch,” Vann said. “Ellis is out there with the portable Telethink
rig. We were working out field-strength ratios for personal equipment—”

They dived for the quonset together. Vann, smaller and more agile than
the deliberate Weyman, reached the Telethink first.

“Nothing but the regular standby carrier from Washington,” Vann said.
“Ellis may have been directly under the thing when it struck. He was
working toward Dutchman’s Key, hoping for a glimpse of the hermit.”

“Maybe he wasn’t wearing the Telethink when the blast came,” Weyman
said. Then, with characteristic practicality: “Better image Washington
about this while we’re waiting for Ellis to report in. Can’t use the net
radio—we’d start a panic.”

Vann settled himself at the console.

“I’ll try. That is, if I can get across anything beyond the sort of
subliminal rot we’ve been trading lately.”

He signaled for contact and felt the Washington operator’s answering
surge of subconscious resentment at being disturbed. With the closing of
the net the now-familiar giddiness of partial rapport came on him,
together with the oppressive sense of bodily sharing.

There was a sudden trickle of saliva in his mouth and he resisted the
desire to spit.

“Washington is having a midnight snack,” Vann said. “Rotted sardines and
Limburger, I think.”

He made correction when the Washington operator radiated indignation.
“Goose liver and dill pickles, then, but you wouldn’t guess it. Salt
tastes like brass filings.”

Weyman said shortly, “Get on with it. You can clown later.”

Vann visualized the flare of explosion and winced at the panicky
hammer-and-sickled surmise that came back to him.

“How would I know?” he said aloud. “We have a man out—”

He recalled the inherent limitation of phonetics then and fell back upon
imagery, picturing Ellis’ launch heading toward an island luridly
lighted by the blast. For effect he added, on the key’s minuscule beach,
a totally imaginary shack of driftwood, complete with bearded hermit.

He knew immediately when authority arrived at the other end of the net.
There was a mental backwash of conversation that told him his orders
even before the Washington operator set himself for their relay.

“They want an eyewitness account from Ellis,” he told Weyman. “As if—”

Ellis broke into the net at that moment, radiating a hazy image—he was
still partially blinded from the glare of the blast—of a lowering key
overhung by a dwindling pall of pinkish smoke. In the foreground of
lagoon and mangroves stood a stilted shack not unlike the one Vann had
pictured, but without the hermit.

Instead, the rickety elevation of thatched porch was a blot of sable
darkness relieved only by a pair of slanted yellow eyes gleaming close
to the floor.

                  *       *       *       *       *

Climactically, Xaxtol entered the net then with an impact of total
information that was more than the human psyche, conditioned to
serialized thinking by years of phonetic communication, could bear.

The Washington operator screamed and tore off his helmet, requiring
restraint until he could compose himself enough to relay his message.

Ellis, in his launch, fainted dead away and ran the boat headlong
aground on the beach of Dutchman’s Key.

Vann reeled in his chair, teetering between shock and lunacy, until
Weyman caught him and slid the Telethink from his head. It was minutes
before Vann could speak; when he did, it was with a macabre flippancy
that Weyman found more convincing than any dramatics.

“It’s come,” Vann said. “There’s an interstellar ship out there with a
thousand-odd crew that would give Dali himself nightmares.”

Weyman had to shake him forcibly before he could continue.

“They’re sorry they can’t put down and help us,” Vann said. “Galactic
regulations, it seems. But they feel they should warn us that they’ve
let some sort of bloodthirsty jungle monster—a specimen they were
freighting to an interplanetary zoo—escape in a lifeboat. It’s loose
down here.”

“Dutchman’s Key,” Weyman breathed. “What kind of brute could live
through a blast like _that_?”

“It left the lifeboat before the power plant blew,” Vann said. “They’re
tracking its aura now. It’s intelligent to a degree—about on par with
ourselves, I gather—and it’s big. It’s the largest and most vicious life
form they’ve met in kilo-years of startrading.”

He frowned over a concept unsuited to words. “Longer than thousands.
Their culture goes back so far that the term doesn’t register.”

“Ellis,” Weyman said. “Tell him to sheer off. Tell him to keep away from
that island.”

Vann clapped on the Telethink helmet and felt real panic when he found
the net vacant except for a near-hysterical Washington operator.

“Aliens are off the air,” he said. “But I can’t feel Ellis.”

“Maybe he isn’t wearing his Telethink. I’ll try his launch radio.”

He had the microphone in his hand when Vann said, “They got the message
in Washington, and they’re petrified. I asked for a copter to pick up
Ellis—and the hermit, if they can reach them before this _thing_
does—but they’re thinking along different lines. They’re sending a
squadron of jet bombers with nonatomic HE to make sure the beast doesn’t
escape to the mainland and devastate the countryside.”

Weyman said incredulously, “They’ll blow the key to bits. What about
Ellis and the hermit?”

“Ellis is to evacuate him if possible. They’re giving us twenty minutes
before the jets come. After that—”

He didn’t have to finish.

                  *       *       *       *       *

At midnight old Charlie Trask was wading knee-deep in the eastside grass
flats of his private lagoon, methodically netting shrimp that darted to
the ooze-clouded area stirred up by his ragged wading shoes. An empty
gunny sack hung across one shoulder, ready for the coon oysters he would
pick from mangrove roots on his way back to his shack.

In his dour and antisocial way, Charlie was content. He had nearly
enough shrimp for boiling and for bait, with the prospect of coon oyster
stew in the offing. He had tobacco for his pipe and cartridges for his
single-shot .22 rifle and a batch of potent homebrew ready for the
bottling.

What more could a man want?

The blast and glare of the Morid’s landing on the western fringe of his
key jarred Charlie from his mellow mood like a clear-sky thunderbolt.
The concussion rattled what teeth remained to him and brought a distant
squall from his cat, a scarred and cynical old tom named Max, at the
shack.

_Damn rockets_, was Charlie’s instant thought. _Fool around till they
blow us all to hell._

The rosy phosphorescence drifting up from the mangroves a quarter of a
mile away colored his resentment with alarm. A blast like that could
start a fire, burn across the key and gut his shack.

Grumbling at the interruption of his midnight foray, Charlie crimped the
lid tight on his shrimp bucket and stalked back along the lagoon toward
his shack. The coon oysters would have to wait.

Five minutes later he reached his personal castle, perched on precarious
piling in a gap hewn from the mangroves. The moon made it, to Charlie, a
thing of black-and-silver beauty, with Max’s yellow eyes gleaming from
the porch floor like wicked, welcoming beacons.

Still muttering, Charlie waded out of the shallow-water ooze and stumped
in squishing shoes up the ladder to his shack. The shrimp bucket he hung
on a wall peg out of Max’s calculating reach. He found his pipe in the
kitchen and loaded and lighted it, deliberately because the capacity for
haste was not in him. His homebrew crock bubbled seductively and he took
time out to raise the grimy toweling that covered it and sniff
appreciatively.

“Ready to cap by the time I come back and get the shrimp graded,” he
told Max.

He changed his dripping brogans for a pair of snake-proof boots and took
down his .22 rifle from its pegs, not because he really imagined that
anyone might have lived through such a blast but because strangers—them
radio fellows two keys east, for instance—might take it into their heads
to come prying around.

He was halfway across the key when the drone of Ellis’ launch entering
his lagoon justified his suspicions.

                  *       *       *       *       *

Charlie’s investigation was soon over.

A dying plume of steam rising from a circle of battered mangroves told
him that no danger of fire impended, and he turned back in relief. It
did not occur to him that the pilot of his hypothetical rocket might be
lying desperately injured in the shallow water, at the mercy of sharks
and crocodiles. If it had, he would not have moved to help. Any fool who
got himself into such a spot, in Charlie’s rude philosophy, could get
himself out.

The drone of the launch’s engine was loud when he reached his shack. The
boat, handled by a pilot grotesque in what Charlie took at first for a
diver’s helmet, was heading directly for his landing at an unsafe speed.

“Serve him right if he shoals on a oyster bed and rips his bottom,”
Charlie said.

As if on cue, the boat swerved sharply. Its pilot came half erect, arms
flung wide in a convulsive gesture. The engine roared wildly; the boat
heeled, slamming its occupant against the right gunwale, and blasted
straight for Charlie’s shack.

Miraculously, it missed the shack’s piling and lunged half its length
upon the sand. The engine-roar died instantly. The pilot was thrown
headlong overside, goldberg helmet flying off in mid-arc, to lie stunned
at the foot of Charlie’s ladder.

Callously, Charlie stepped over Ellis’ twitching form and stumped up the
ladder to his shack. Max, who had taken to the porch rafters at the
crash of the launch, came meowing gingerly down to meet him.

“It’s all right,” Charlie told him. “Just some fool that don’t know how
to handle a boat.”

He leaned his rifle against the wall and brought a split-bamboo chair
from the kitchen. He was not too late; the bucket, when he took it from
its peg, still slithered satisfactorily with live shrimp.

The squawking of the launch radio roused Ellis. He groaned and sat up,
dazed and disoriented by the combined shock of Xaxtol’s telepathic
bombshell and his own rude landing, just as Weyman gave up his attempt
at radio contact. In the silence that fell, Ellis would have fainted
again except for the chilling knowledge that he was unarmed and afoot on
the same key with a man-eating alien monster that might make its
appearance at any moment.

He collected wits and breath to stave off the black pall of shock that
still threatened.

“Come down from there and help me push the launch off,” he called up to
Charlie Trask. “We’ve got to get off this key. Fast!”

Charlie separated a menu-sized shrimp from his bucket.

“You grounded her,” he said sourly. “Push her off yourself.”

“Listen,” Ellis said desperately. “That blast was a ship from space,
from another star. A wild animal escaped from it, something worse than
you ever dreamed of. We’ve got to get out of here before it finds us.”

Charlie grunted and chose another shrimp.

The Morid, as Xaxtol had pictured it, rose vividly in Ellis’ memory,
fanged and shaggy and insatiably voracious, a magenta-furred ursine
embodiment of blood-lust made the worst by its near-human intelligence.

He described it in dogged haste, his eyes frozen to the tangle of inland
underbrush behind the shack.

“No such varmint in these kays,” old Charlie said.

The launch radio blared again in Weyman’s voice, speaking urgently of
jet bombers and deadlines. A glance at his watch brought Ellis up from
the sand in galvanic resolution.

“In twelve minutes,” he said grimly, “a squadron of planes will pinpoint
this key and blast it out of the water. I’m not going to be eaten alive
or blown to bits arguing with you. If I can’t push the launch off alone,
I’ll swim.”

He scooped up his fallen Telethink helmet and ran for the launch. At the
fourth step his foot caught in the iron-hard stump of a mangrove root
that had been chopped off inches above the sand and he fell heavily.
Pain blinded him; his right ankle lanced with fire and went numb.

He fought to rise and fell again when the ankle collapsed under him.

“_Hell_,” he said, just before blackness claimed him for the second
time. “I’ve broken my leg!”

                  *       *       *       *       *

His twelve minutes had dwindled to seven when Ellis roused. He tried to
stand, his twisted ankle momentarily forgotten, and gave it up when the
mangroves spun dizzily before his eyes. He couldn’t afford to pass out
again.

He made one last-ditch bid for help.

“My leg’s broken,” he yelled up at old Charlie Trask. “Get down here and
lend a hand!”

Charlie glowered and said nothing.

Max bounded down the ladder, tail stiffly erect and scarred ears cocked
at the underbrush in baleful curiosity.

“The thing is coming this way,” Ellis called. “Your cat scents it. Will
you let us all be killed?”

Charlie Trask graded another shrimp.

Swearing bitterly, Ellis caught up his Telethink helmet and slid it over
his head. He found the net in a welter of confusion. Washington demanded
further information; Vann, at the station, was calling him frantically.
His own scramble for help-images only added to the mental babel.

On the Federation ship, confusion was nearly as rampant.

Xaxtol’s dilemma still held: he could not make planetfall—time was too
short for aid now, in any case—but neither could he, with clear Galactic
conscience, desert the harried primitives below while hope remained.

Ellis’ predicament forced Xaxtol to decision; he could only follow the
Morid’s aura and relay its progress.

It could not be helped that the relayed image was blurred of definition
and weirdly askew; the Morid’s visual and auditory range differed so
sharply from either human or Galactic that even over the ship’s
wonderfully selective telecommunicator little of the Morid’s immediate
surroundings came through clearly. Its aura arrived with a burning
intensity that turned Xaxtol and his group faint with empathetic horror,
but the fact that the Morid had just made its first kill obliterated all
detail for the moment beyond a shocking welter of blood and torn flesh.

Ellis fared a little better under the second telepathic blast than under
the first—he managed to snatch off his Telethink helmet just in time.

“The thing just killed something out there,” he yelled at Charlie Trask.
“It’s coming this way. Are you going to sit there and—”

Charlie graded his last edible shrimp, took up his bucket and went
inside. The leisurely clinking of homebrew bottles drifted after him,
clear and musical on the still, hot air.

Ellis looked at his watch and considered prayer. He had three minutes
left.

                  *       *       *       *       *

When the Morid came, Ellis was sitting dumbly on the sand, nursing his
broken ankle and considering with a shock-detached part of his mind a
fragmentary line of some long-forgotten schooldays poem.

_What rough beast is this_ ... the rest eluded him.

The underbrush beyond the shack rustled and the Morid’s ravening image
sprang to Ellis’ mind with a clarity that shook his three
net-participants to the core—one of them past endurance.

Vann, in the station, said “_Dear God_,” and braced himself for the end.
In Washington, the operator fainted and had to be dragged from his
console.

Aboard the Federation ship, Xaxtol radiated a shaken “Enough!” and
tentacled a stud that sent his craft flashing on its way through
subspace.

At Charlie Trask’s shack, Max bounded across the clearing and into the
brush. There followed a riot of squalling and screaming that brought
Charlie out of his shack on the run. Ellis sat numbly, beyond shock,
waiting for the worst.

Unaccountably, the worst was delayed.

Charlie came back, clutching a protesting Max by the scruff of the neck,
and threw down something at Ellis’ feet. Something small and limp and
magenta-furred, smeared with greenish blood and very, very dead.

“There’s your varmint,” said Charlie.

With one minute remaining before the promised bombers roared over,
Ellis, with a frozen clarity he had not dreamed he possessed, radiated a
final message before he fainted again.

“Call off the jets,” he said, in effect. “It’s over. The beast is dead.
The hermit’s cat killed it.”

                  *       *       *       *       *

An hour later at the station, his ankle bandaged and his third cup of
coffee in hand, Ellis could review it all with some coherence.

“We didn’t consider the business of relative size,” he said. “Neither
did our Galactic friends. Apparently they’re small, and so are all the
species they’ve met with before. Maybe we’re something unique in the
universe, after all. And maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t land and
learn how unique.”

“It figures,” Weyman said. “Washington let it out on the air that DF
stations made a fix on the spaceship before it jumped off. It measured
only twenty-two feet.”

Vann said wonderingly, “And there were hundreds of them aboard.
Gentlemen, we are Brobdingnagians in a universe of Lilliputians.”

“I’ve been trying,” Ellis said irrelevantly, “to recall a poem I read
once in school. I’ve forgotten the author and all the verse but one
line. It goes—”

“_What rough beast is this_,” Vann quoted. “You were thinking about it
hard enough when the debacle in the brush took place. The image you
radiated was rough enough—it shocked the pants off us.”

“And off the Galactics,” Weyman said. “The shoe is on the other foot
now, I think.”

He went to the quonset door and looked out and up, listening. “Jets. The
Washington brass on its way to cross-examine us.”

“The other foot?” Vann said. “Don’t be cryptic, man. Whose foot?”

“Theirs,” Ellis said. “Don’t you see? One of these days we’ll be going
out there to make our own place in the galaxy. With our size and
disposition, how do you think we’ll seem to those gentle little people?”

Vann whistled in belated understanding.

“Rough,” he said.


                                THE END

------------------------------------------------------------------------



                           TRANSCRIBER’S NOTE


Punctuation and hyphenation have been normalized.

Minor typographical errors have been corrected.

This e-text was produced from Analog March 1962. Extensive research did
not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was
renewed.

Italicized words and phrases are presented by surrounding the text with
_underscores_; boldfaced words and phrases are surrounded with =equal
signs=.





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