Now, with DoOon Mode, Piers Anthony at last delivers the breathtaking climax to this awesome saga. Fearing the heroine Coleen's dawning power, the depraved Emperor Ddwng dispatches a terrible Mind Monster to assault her soul and bend her to his will. To protect herself, and those she loves, Coleen must journey back through many worlds to her own home on Earth, face her deepest and darkest fears, and draw the strength for a final confrontation to save the multiverse from tyranny and domination.
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Cat crouched on the stand, pondering. It was not given to the stresses of emotion, but did feel troubled. The situation of their trio was not good, and the Feline nulls were suffering. Something needed to be done, but the course of action that offered was not benigh. Perhaps they would be best off if they simply waited out the negative period, trusting to time to ameliorate the problem.
Cat felt as if its tail were twitching nervously, though of course there was no tail. The course of action that offered had a limited period for adoption, and that period ended in one more day. Thereafter that option would be lost, and it seemed unlikely that it would be repeated. Cat suspected that it related to the Virtual Mode project; if so, it was of special interest to the Felines. Perhaps it should be mentioned to the others. Yet their emotions governed them unduly; it was their nature. They were too apt to react rashly.
There was one day remaining to decide. Cat put its head down and napped, awaiting the return of the others.
There was no mistaking their arrival. Tom's extended toe-claws clacked against the floor, evidence of anger. Pussy was mewling, evidence of grief. Something ill had happened.
They burst into the chamber. Tom was a powerful figure of a human man, his only feline aspects being his head, retractable claws, and a certain furriness. Pussy was a lovely figure of a human female, with the facial features of her feline persuasion. They were really human androids with their features tweaked tomake them suggest cats, exactly as was the case with Cat itself. Male, female, and neuter: the Feline nulls.
"Oh, Cat!" Pussy cried, stepping into Cat's reassuring embrace. "It was awful!" Now, in privacy, she felt free to let her tears flow.
"It was an outrage!" Tom snapped, striking the featureless dummy and raking it with his claws.
"Let me guess," Cat said, letting Pussy sob into its shoulder. "The Swine?"
"The Swine," Tom agreed. "We were just trying to dance at the null club. No one asked us, so Pussy addressed a Canine. Hound looked interested. They were about to dance, when Sow cut in and took Hound herself. The others laughed. They won't let us forget, even for a moment." He clawed the dummy again.
"Hound would have danced with me," Pussy said brokenly "He liked me. I could tell. He would have taken me into the private stall and humped me. I haven't been humped in a month! And Sow knew it."
"And I can't hump any of the females," Tom growled. "They all look down on me, because I'm unemployed."
"Because we're unemployed," Cat said. "Remember, we are in this together."
"I wish we could get an assignment," Pussy sobbed, not much comforted. "Why can't we?"
"You know why," Tom said, clawing the dummy again. "The employers don't want us."
"But it wasn't our fault?"
"But they still blame us," Tom said. This time he actually gouged out a chunk of material.
"It's so unfair! We're good nulls. We never fouled up."
Cat was on the verge of deciding. He postponed it for a moment by clarifying their situation once agian. "We are good nulls, and it is unfair to make us pariahs. But this is the way the limited minds of the Swine work, and the others take their cues from them."
"Because the Swine serve Ddwng," Tom said. This time he punched the dummy, and it rocked back with the force of the blow. Because his hands were essentially human, he could do this when he chose.
"So they fouled up," Pussy said, finally disengaging from Cat. "So why aren't they blamed?"
Cat tried to find a way to explain it that she could accept. She was emotional, and that got in the way of her thinking. "It is the convention that the master can't make a mistake. So when something goes wrong, someone else must be blamed. I doubt that anyone could have protected Ddwng from that error, but it is the job of the Swine to facilitate his convenience in any way feasible, so the implication is that they failed. They can't accept that, so they suggest that we, as the nulls serving the alien visitor, must have been at fault. Therefore the blame falls on us, and we have no one to pass it along to. We have become the pariahs of convenience. Therefore unemployable, until the situation changes."
"Just what did go wrong?" Tom asked. "All I heard was that Ddwng was ready to go with the alien party, there in the palace. Then he changed his mind, and they were gone without him."
"There was a factor none of us in the DoOon Mode understood," Cat said. "Do you remember the horse?"
"Horse?" Pussy asked blankly.
"The young woman Colene came with a beast of burden, a horse," Cat explained. "A stallion who was immediately stabled. It seems that the animal was telepathic."
"Telepathic! You mean it could read minds?"
"Yes. That horse was in mental contact with the girl. It was able to receive and project thoughts. When Ddwng was ready to travel on the Virtual Mode, the horse sent him a thought: a command to free the anchor. Ddwng did that without realizing it until after the fact. I believe it was a very sudden, very powerful thought, striking at a time when the master was making an effort to be mentally receptive to the nature of the Virtual Mode. So he was ambushed, and the alien party escaped."
"But a horsea literal horse, not an Equine null? They don't have human intelligence. How could a mere horse do such a thing?"
"Whether the animal was sapient at the human level I don't know," Cat said. "I suspect there are stranger things on the Virtual Mode than we know. But it may not have needed such intelligence. It merely obeyed the will of the girl. She was the key to the loss of the Virtual Mode. It seems that Ddwng seriously misjudged the situation, not realizing the power the girl had through the horse."
"So she tricked Ddwng, and he is angry, and the blame descends on us because we served her man, Darius," Pussy said, finally getting it.
"Yes. Perhaps we should have fathomed that aspect, and warned Ddwng. We did not, and could not, because it seems that Darius himself did not know of the horse's nature. The Swine should have fathomed it."
"It isn't fair," she repeated, her delicate whiskers trembling.
"If only we could fight back!" Tom said.
Cat decided. "Perhaps we can."
Both oriented on the neuter, knowing that it never made foolish or emotional statements. "How?" Tom demanded.
"It is dangerous."
"Anything," Pussy said.
So Cat told them. "As you know, I am undistracted by most passions of the flesh, so I have attention for intellectual pursuits. I track the releases of special projects. One is now available that I strongly suspect relates to the Virtual Mode."
"Where Darius came from," Pussy said. "Is he coming back?" She had on one occasion come close to seducing the man, and surely had a hankering to complete that business.
"Perhaps. I understand there are different Virtual Modes, with different travelers. But it seems likely, because Darius had the use of a Chip. I believe the Swine have been watching, and are aware when an anchor changes. I think they want to be ready the next time there is opportunity for our Mode to become an anchor. Since there needs to be an anchor person or persons, they may have in mind training suitable prospects. Of course this is mere conjecture on my part; I am surely mistaken on details, or perhaps on the whole."
"But you know something," Tom said.
"What I know is that there is an opening for volunteers to undertake dangerous training for an important mission. It may not be this one. But if it is, we may have an inherent advantage, because we have had contact with a man who has traveled a Virtual Mode."
"Darius," Pussy said dreamily "I just know I can do him the favor of seducing him."
"I think not," Cat said firmly "The aliens seemed to have different ideas about sexual relations. The man may have been amenable, but the young woman did not wish him to indulge with anyone except her."
"But she didn't indulge with him," Pussy protested. "I just know it."
"Different cultures, different foibles. It is possible that one reason the woman wished to escape our Mode was that she did not like your association with Darius."
She pondered that. "So I may not seduce him?"
"Not until we know his situation better. But this is academic; we don't know that we will see him again."
"Unless we take that opening," Tom said gruffly.
"Agreed. And it may be for something else entirely. The chance of mortality is listed at fifty percent. So this is not something to undertake lightly."
"But it would redeem us?" Pussy asked hopefully.
"I believe so, if we survive it."
"So we'll take it," Tom said.
Cat looked at Pussy. She nodded. "We'll take it."
* * *
Emperor Ddwng himself made the presentation. He was a man in his fifties, portly and with receding reddish hair, but with piercing black eyes. There was an intensity about him that would have alerted others even if he were not supreme. "Eight teams of nulls are competing. Your mission is to obtain this flag and bring it back here." He held up a silver banner. "When this one is taken, it will be replaced by a lesser flag; the team that brings that one back will be the reserve. There are no other rules." He paused, and they realized that this meant that they could cheat and kill if they had reason. "But there is a complication. You will be accompanied by two human nulls in the forms of our recent visitors from the Virtual Mode: a mature man named Dar and a young woman named Col. The man is trustworthy and knows the location of the flag. The woman can not be trusted, but she knows the route, and will do what the man wishes. She may have special powers. The man will not reveal the location of the flag unless persuaded, and the one who can most readily, persuade him is the woman. Thus you will have to relate to these two people, as well as to the hazards of the course itself. The people will not cooperate unless induced. You will be issued pain controls that will work on nulls, but caution is advised because once you hurt them, they will feel free to hurt you. We judge the likely mortality rate to be fifty percent, but this is approximate; it is possible that all of you will die."
He gave them a moment to assimilate this, then spoke again. "The winning team will go into training for travel on a Virtual Mode. This is a mission of honor, and the team members will assume the temporary status of full human officers of my court, with the right to address me personally. If the mission on the Virtual Mode is successful, that status will become permanent."
All around them, the assembled nulls reacted. Human officer status! This was an unprecedented reward. Cat was not given to emotion, but even it felt the magnitude of this potential. Tom was staring, and Pussy seemed about to faint. The other nulls were responding similarly. All of them were awed. This was a prospect well worth the risk of death. Seldom did any null trio achieve such recognition.
"Your prisoners are in the eight scattered cubicles," Ddwng continued after a moment. "Proceed." He turned away, dismissing them from his attention.
There was a scramble to reach the cubes. "Let's wait a moment," Cat murmured. "We may profit from observing."
Tom had been about to launch toward the nearest cube, and Pussy was not far behind. But at Cat's words, they both drew back. They trusted its judgment.
There were eight trios and eight cubes, but in their eagerness to be first, three teams converged on the closest cubethe one that the felines would have gone to. These were Ovine, Bovine, and Equine. The Equine horse saw the problem and called off the stallion and mare; they galloped for a farther cube. But the Ovine ram and Bovine bull came together before the cube, lowering their heads. They were of similar sizehumanand similar temperamentmaleand similar armamenthorns. But the use of the horns differed. The ram tried to butt, while the bull tried to gore. The contest was brief and inconclusive, as their neuters called them off and guided them to different cubes. The closest cube was left free.
"Wait longer," Cat said. "Watch."
So they did not approach the cube. Instead they watched the other nulls as they went to the cubes and opened the doors. This much was routine; the man and woman emerged when released, seeming amenable. The male was slightly taller than the male nulls, and the female was somewhat shorter than the female nulls; she was in fact small for a grown woman. Neither was particularly imposing; the man was not muscular and the girl was not buxom.
The Swine were the first to get on their way They ran, and the prisoners ran ahead of them. "They are using the pain buttons," Cat said. It brought out the one they had been given. "The pain is generalized, but strongest nearest the button. So the prisoners are being caused to run by a lash at their backsides, as it were. That is evidently effective, but for how long?"
"Those buttons hurt," Pussy said. "They can hurt a lot."
She was thinking of the time the Felines had been assigned to be with a visiting woman of somewhat sadistic nature. Pussy had done her best to oblige, but the woman seemed to resent her sexy nature, and had burned her on any pretext. Cat had been unable to prevent this mistreatment. They had of course not spoken of it to any other human, but the other nulls had known, and soon the button was replaced with one whose pain was nominal. Pussy had known immediately to act as if the pain were its usual intensity, and so they had gotten by The masters and mistresses were not normally cruel to nulls, but visitors could be.
"How do you think a willful human would react to being prodded in this manner?" Cat asked Pussy.
"He would be angry," she said immediately. "He would strike back, when he had the chance."
Cat nodded. "The customary arrogance of the Swine may be their own undoing."
Meanwhile the other teams were proceeding at a slower pace. The general pattern seemed to be a somewhat threatening posture by the male, so that the prisoners realized that it was safest for them to cooperate. They were moving out, but did not seem entirely happy about it.
"They're getting ahead of us," Tom said restlessly.
"Perhaps. Would there be an advantage to persuasion?" Cat inquired rhetorically.
Tom let his claws spring out from his right hand. "I can persuade as well as any."
"That is not persuasion," Cat said. "That is threat. How would you do it, Pussy?"
"I would seduce the male," she said.
"You tried that before," Tom reminded her. "And made an enemy of the girl."
"Meow," she said, embarrassed. "Maybe I should befriend the girl instead."
"I suspect that would be wise," Cat said. "Other teams are using force of one kind or another. That may indeed be the answer. But we were warned that there will be surprises. Some of them may be in the nature of the prisoners. I think we should set ourselves apart from the others by truly befriending the prisoners, if that is feasible. That may not be the winning strategy, but it would be different, and sometimes difference is the key to success. I suspect we would be well advised to try an alternate strategy."
"Befriend them?" Tom asked.
"You could befriend the man, Tom, and Pussy could befriend the girl, trying to help them and make them feel at ease with us. If that encouraged them to cooperate fully, we would not have to watch them, and might even prevail in the contest."
Tom shrugged. "I can try it."
"Will they believe us?" Pussy asked.
"Perhaps they will, if we give them the pain button."
Both stared at Cat. "But that would give them the power!" Tom said.
Cat faced Pussy. "If a Master gave you the button, would you still serve him?"
"Oh, yes, of course!" she exclaimed. "Gladly Because I'm still a null."
"And they will still be prisoners," Cat said. "They will know that."
She nodded. "If they are like me, they will be grateful."
"But they could use the pain on us," Tom protested.
"That is the risk we take. Are you willing?"
Tom spread his hands in a human gesture. "If you think it will help."
"I think the chance that it will help is about one in three. But our chance of prevailing by acting as the other teams do is about one in eight. So, yes, it may help, though it is risky."
"So no sex appeal from me, no violence from Tom, and no smarter-than-thou words from you," Pussy said. "We put ourselves in their hands."
"That is essentially it," Cat agreed.
They approached the cube. It had a simple bar dosing the door from the outside, so the prisoners could not escape. Tom was about to remove it, but Cat cautioned him with a gesture. Instead, he made a knuckle and rapped on the door. "May we enter?" he called.
There was a brief pause. Then a female human voice replied. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"We are a trio of Feline nulls. We want to be your friends."
There was another pause. This time a male human voice replied. "Then enter."
Now Tom lifted the bar and set it aside. He drew the door slowly open.
The inside of the cube was a residential containment cell, the kind used to house prisoners who were not being punished. It had a bed big enough for one person, and a table with a jug of water and a loaf of bread. There was barely room for the three additional bodies. The man was, as expected, taller than any of the Felines, and the woman was smaller, really a girl, just as they had seen with the other teams. He was ruggedly handsome, and she was rather pretty in her fashion. Both were clothed, he in brown trousers and a long-sleeved gray shirt, she in white blouse and black skirt reaching to her knees. She also wore a red ribbon in her hair.
"We have not been told what's going on," the man said. "But we assume that you are to be our keepers for the duration."
"I can clarify the situation if you wish," Cat said.
"Yes, we wish," the man said. "I am Dar, and my companion is Col. We are Human nulls."
"But no neuter?" Pussy asked, then put her hand to her mouth, realizing that she had spoken impulsively.
"No neuter," the girl agreed. "We are Special Purpose androids."
Of course they knew the Feline names, as all animal nulls were identified similarly, but Cat introduced them anyway. "This is Tom, our male, and Pussy, our female, and I am Cat, our neuter. This is the situation: eight teams of Animal nulls are competing to obtain a silver flag. The team that brings it back will qualify for a special mission on a Virtual Mode. There are no rules, which means that the competition may become ugly. We understand that one of you knows the best route, and the other knows the location of the flag, so we need your cooperation if we are to prevail."
"Why should we help you?" Dar asked.
"I will answer," Cat said carefully. "But first I must inquire what fate awaits you after this mission is done."
"It is unspecified, but we assume that we will be melted back into the pool."
Cat nodded. "If you would prefer to keep your present identities, we might be able to encourage thatif we win the contest."
"Why should we trust you?" Col demanded.
"Trust is difficult between strangers," Cat said. "But motives are more reliable. We are in bad repute, and wish to redeem ourselves. The mission for which we compete should accomplish that. We are prepared to do what is required. We believe that your willing cooperation is our best chance. How can we obtain it?"
"You can't," the girl said. "We don't care about your mission."
"Then perhaps you will at least trust our motivation," Cat said. "Name your desire."
"We want to go with you on the Virtual Mode."
Cat shook its head. "We can't promise that. It would be meaningless. Even our plea on your behalf may not be effective."
"Then let us go now," Dar said.
"We can do that. But we doubt it would help you. This is an established competition range, well guarded. I doubt you could escape it."
"We could if we had the pain button," the girl said.
Cat wore the button on a cord around its neck. It lifted it off and proffered it to her.
"It's a trick!" she said, shying away from it.
Cat offered it to Dar. The man took it.
"It's a dummy," the girl said.
Dar touched the side of the button with his thumb. Cat, closest to it, felt sudden burning pain across his front. His breath hissed inward as he stiffened.
"You're faking," Col said.
Dar swung the button toward her. Cat's pain eased, while the gift stiffened. Now she believed.
"Where's the catch?" she asked.
"We believe that just as our success depends on your willing cooperation, your success depends on our success," Cat said. "We ask you to help us, and tell us how we can help you."
"It makes sense," Dar said. "I think we'll have to trust them."
"Okay," Col said. "We'll risk it. At least this way we'll have a chance to avoid the melting pot."
"Then, perhaps, we should move rapidly," Cat said. "The other teams are already well on their way."
"We will accompany you without duress," Dar said. "But you are not yet ready. This is as much as I can say."
Cat hesitated. He believed the man. These two were surely programmed to react in prescribed ways, depending on circumstances. The effort to gain their cooperation seemed to be successful, but they remained limited. What was the key?
It was Pussy who caught on. "You want to help, but can't volunteer?" she cried. "We have to ask you."
"You got it, puss," Col said. "We can answer some questions, and I don't have to tell the truth. But we can't warn you of what you don't suspect."
Cat nodded. "If we want to be sure of truth, we must ask Dar. But you are the one who knows the route. So we will have to trust you."
"I can lead you into disaster," Col agreed.
"But if we don't trust you, we will lose," Pussy said. "So we have to."
"Did we start right?" Tom asked Dar.
"Yes. There are other ways, but yours is the most likely to succeed."
"The first portion of the course is a deep forest," Cat said. "I doubt that it is safe to cross without preparation. What is its danger?"
Col's answer was surprisingly complete. "There are teams of null predators, one for each contestant team. If you defeat the beasts, you will not be attacked again within the forest; you will be able to move swiftly through it to the next obstacle. Each team consists of a raptor, a snake, and a bear. They will attack simultaneously, one to a Feline. We Humans will be ignored. If you die, we will be free to return to our base."
"Is this the outcome you prefer?" Cat asked Dar.
Cat wasn't quite satisfied. "You answer truthfully, but do you have to tell the whole truth?"
"No. Not unless asked."
"What is the whole truth?"
"If you abuse us, we would prefer to see you die. If you treat us well and keep the faith, we prefer to see you win. Thus the case will differ between contestants, depending on their treatment of their prisoners."
"But you aren't prisoners any more," Pussy protested.
"We nevertheless remain bound," Col said.
"We do mean to treat you well," Cat said. "We gave you the pain button."
Tom had a concern. "You say the predators won't attack you. So why do you need the pain button?"
"We don't," Dar said.
"What is the whole truth?" Cat asked.
"The pain button works only on human-based nulls. Since you have agreed not to hurt us, it does not matter who possesses it."
"It won't work on the predators?" Tom asked.
"So we have no use for it either," Cat said. "Keep it. If we die, you may be in danger from other contestants. It may enable you to escape them."
"You really are trying to befriend us," Col said. "May I kiss you?"
Surprised, Cat agreed. She embraced it and kissed it firmly on the mouth. Cat was of course not given to sexual feeling, but her gesture was pleasant. Had she kissed Tom that way, he would have wanted to hump her.
"Does this action have significance?" Cat asked Dar.
"Yes. It signifies Col's acceptance of your friendship. She will now help you actively, without deceit."
So they had achieved another level of cooperation. "What is the distinction between active and passive help?"
"Now she will be alert for threats, and advise you of what she sees," Dar said. "This may be helpful if you are distracted. But we still can not assist you physically, or tell you how to handle threats."
The man's responses were becoming more helpful; evidently the girl's signal of friendship applied to him too. "Thank you. We appreciate your commitment." Cat turned to Tom. "How will we handle a raptor, a snake, and a bear?"
"We must have weapons," Tom said. "Raptors swoop down from cover and attack before the prey knows it. Then it is too late. The snake will likely be poisonous, and strike without warning. The bear will probably be our best warning, because it will have to charge us. Then we will know that the other two are about to strike. But maybe the others will strike first, diverting us while the bear charges. Each of us will have to handle one attacker. I think Pussy should take the raptor, and you should take the snake. I will take the bear, which will be the most dangerous attacker."
"But the bear will be too strong for you," Cat said.
"I will distract and delay it while you deal with the others," Tom said. "Then the three of us can handle it."
"I hope so," Cat said.
"How can even three Felines handle a savage bear?" Pussy asked. "That thing may mass as much as all of us together, and be able to dispatch any one of us with one swipe."
"The right weapons can do it," Tom said. "Together with a plan of combat. It will not be easy, but is possible. Have courage."
"I'm not strong on that," she said.
"Fortunately Tom is," Cat said. "Let's get our weapons."
Neither Dar nor Col commented, but Cat saw Dar nod. They were on the right course. How many of the other trios were?
They left the cube and walked toward the forest. There was a scream that sounded Equine. A team was under attack within the forest.
Tom took charge. Physical combat was his specialty, just as physical appeal was Pussy's. "Pussy, find a branch with foliage. That will foul the wings of the raptor, and then you can claw it to death. Cat, find a forked stick. That will enable you to pin the snake's head to the ground, and then you can throttle it with your hands. I will seek more formidable weapons."
They got busy, while the two human nulls watched. There were many fallen branches of different sizes, and soon Pussy and Cat had suitable implements. Meanwhile Tom gathered a number of sticks and stones and made a pile of them.
There were too many for the three of them to carry, especially if they had to be ready to fight at any instant. "You may not help us fight, but will you carry our weapons?" Cat asked Dar.
This time it was Tom and Pussy who nodded, impressed. Cat had found a way by using its mind. "Thank you." The Human nulls were becoming increasingly useful.
They set off into the forest. "Col, I would be grateful if you would help me watch for raptors," Pussy said with the niceness that came naturally to her.
"And I would be similarly appreciative for help in watching for snakes," Cat said to Dar.
That would leave Tom free to focus his full attention on the bear. Tom as the combat specialist would be aware of the creature before any of the rest of them were. It was the predators who would lurk motionless until striking that were the most immediately dangerous, as Tom had suggested.
They moved cautiously through the forest until they came to a glade. Tom paused, wise in the ways of the hunt. "This is dangerous; the bird has room to swoop, and the grass conceals the snake. We'd better go around."
But thickets surrounded the glade, and extended some distance to either side, into marshy regions. "We'll have better footing here," Cat said. "Maybe we should try to trigger their attack, and be done with it."
Tom nodded. "Maybe they'll go for a ruse." He threw one of his stones into the grassy center, hard.
It worked. A viper rose up and hissed, searching for its target. Cat leaped forward with his forked stick, trying for its neck.
Pussy followed him, waving her bushy branch. Col cried out "Raptor!" Sure enough, a hawk came diving down, trying for the back of Cat's neck. Pussy intercepted it with her branch, foiling its attack. That gave Cat time to trap the snake's head with the fork of the stick, pinning it to the ground.
Meanwhile the bear appeared, as if from nowhere. Tom hurled a makeshift spear at it. His aim was good, but the wooden point was not sharp enough to do much damage. The bear shook it off and continued its charge toward Cat. Cat realized that their choices of creatures to fight did not match the assignments of the predators; the bear was coming after Cat, not Tom.
But that meant that Tom could attack it from the side. He did, running in close and bashing it across the head with a heavy wooden club. That had more effect, but still didn't stop the solid creature.
Cat had a wild notion. It pounced on the viper and hauled it up between its paws, clasping it by the neck. As the bear bore down on them, jaws gaping, Cat whirled and hurled the snake into its face. The viper hissed and wrapped part way around the bear's nose. Surprised, the bear bit through its body. The snake fell in two pieces, both twitching desperately.
Seeing that, Pussy pounced on the entangled bird, wrapping it in foliage. She shoved the package at the bear's snout. The bear lifted a paw and batted the branch so hard that it flew far across the glade. The bird fluttered weakly and did not fly again; it, too, had been taken out by its own ally.
Dar and Col, watching, both nodded.
Now the three of them concentrated on the bear. Cat danced before it, leaping backwards, so that it continued to orient on him. Pussy got stones from Col and hurled them at the creature's head. Several bounced harmlessly off, but then she got lucky and scored on its eye. Half blinded, it still came after Cat.
Then Tom scored on its delicate nose, taking out another important sense. Pussy circled behind it, got more stones, and aimed for the remaining eye. Soon she scored, for the range was very short and she had mousing reflexes. Now the creature was reduced to hearing. But it did not know its prey by that sense alone, and started going for anything that made a sound.
Cat called out to Tom. "I see little point in slowly killing this creature. I doubt it will be much further danger to us. Let's let it go, and be on our way."
Tom, in the throes of battle fever, didn't want to break off, but Pussy joined in. She could enjoy playing cat and mouse as readily as any Feline, but had a gentler temperament. "Please, Tomwe can save time."
Grudgingly, Tom agreed. He backed away, leaving the bear to snarl in one direction, then another, trying to locate something to obliterate. They threw stones ahead of it, and as it went in pursuit of their noise, quietly circled behind it and on beyond the glade. In the process they came across the tattered body of a Bovine null, a bull whose belly had been ripped open. A swipe of the bear's paw must have done it. There was no sign of the other members of that team. Obviously it was no longer in contention, even if the cow and steer survived.
"You handled that obstacle well," Col remarked.
"Our first requirement is survival," Cat said. "Our second is swiftness. We surely started slowest of all the teams, but your warning enabled us to survive well. We do appreciate it."
"You had the wit to make a fair deal with us," Dar said.
And evidently the Bovines had not, and had been caught unprepared. "Are you allowed to warn us of the next hazard?"
"Yes. Col knows all the geographical obstacles."
That was an interesting qualification. There would be more than geographical challenges. But for the moment, those were what they faced. Cat addressed the girl. "What is it?"
"A raging torrent you must cross. There will be several means to pass it, but each has its liability That is all I know."
They heard a vague sound ahead, and as they advanced toward it, it increased in volume, becoming a sustained roar. That would be the torrent. It was evidently a river crossing the full area, and there would be no feasible way around it.
They reached the bank, and were daunted. The stream was a good four man-lengths across, and its flow was ferocious. There were rocks in it making tiny islands, but in no pattern suitable for crossing. It might be possible to wedge or roll one stone to another place, to make a stepping stone, but that would entail struggling in the fierce current. Cat took a stick and poked it into the waterand a toothy fish darted in to bite at it. There would be no wading there.
They walked along the bank. A short distance downstream there were several large logs, possibly suitable for making a raft. "We could lash those together with vines, and pole across," Tom said. "The current would carry us downstream, but a few good shoves would get us to the far bank."
"That's a bit too obvious," Cat said. "I distrust it."
"Oh, come on," Pussy said. "We can do it quickly, and be across before any other danger threatens."
"Perhaps. Still, I recommend caution." Cat, covertly watching the human nulls, saw another slight nod.
Pussy shrugged. Guided by Cat's hesitancy, they concealed themselves in brush and watched the logs.
It was just as well, for soon a Canine hound appeared, carrying an armful of vines. Evidently the logs had been collected by the Canines, who now were scrounging for vines. If the felines had tried to take them, they would soon have been in a scrap with the Canines. The natural challenges were enough; it made no sense to fight with other trios.
The hound began tying the vines around the logs.
"I could distract him," Pussy whispered. "So that you could overcome him and take the raft."
Surely she could, for male nulls liked female nulls of any persuasion except their own. They were made that way so that there would be no sexual interactions within persuasions. But Cat did not trust this either. "Canines are not stupid. Hound may be aware of us. Note that their human nulls are not in evidence."
"Which means they have been parked elsewhere," Tom agreed.
So they waited longer. Then an Ovine female appeared from the down-river side. "Hello, Hound," she said in a dulcet bleat.
"Hello, Ewe," he replied, seeming nonchalant.
"I seem to have lost my way," she said, sitting on the edge of the raft. Cat, from the vantage of the neuter kind, noted how artfully Ewe's firm thighs parted toward the male and how firmly her breasts moved with her breathing. She was making sure she compelled his attention. And where were the Ovine trio's human nulls?
"You sure have," Hound agreed. He moved so suddenly it was a blur, knocking her backwards so that her dainty hind hoofs flew up. He pinned her beneath him, working his body around to get between her legs.
"But I would give you a hump willingly," she protested. "There is no need to rape me."
"I'm in a hurry," Hound said as he shoved into her cleft. Cat saw that she was not resisting at all.
There was the beat of charging hoofs. Ram appeared, evidently from hiding, his horns lowered. Hound heard him and tried to get out of the way, but Ewe held him in place with arms and legs wrapped around his body, not nearly as helpless as she had seemed. She had evidently set out to distract Hound, exactly as Pussy had thought to do, to set him up for Ram.
But even as Ram connected, Bitch appeared from a lair under the logs. She had a crude net of vines, which she threw over Ram, entangling him. She tried to bite him as he fell. It was a countertrap.