gaping hole in the floor showed where the Kyth had come up from underneath, and one in the ceiling showed where it stopped and came down again -- the first time. Lell could see the dark blue sky of Siita through it. The room was strewn with torn metal and other construction materials and bits and pieces of equipment. Not to mention the stains. Victims always leave stains.

"Damn thing killed five men here," said Albrecht. "We never recovered the bodies of two of them. Those it ate. Got a ravenous appetite, the Kyth does. Doesn't always care to chew its food, either. Time before this I was close enough to see it swallow a man whole.


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No closer though, I'm glad to say." He hesitated, then went on, though he was obviously shaken. "The three men the Kyth didn't eat were killed by decompression and exposure when the roof tore open.

"It won't be an easy job, Lell."

No, Lell thought, looking around. It won't.

He was standing at the edge of the hole, looking down. Far down he could see the dark gap of a tunnel, already filling back up with silt and

sand. But the shell stood on a heavy-duty concrete foundation, manmade and thick, to say nothing of strong. The thing drilled up through it.

He said, "I'm counting on the equipment in my hopper to even things up some."

"Well, I hope you're right," Albrecht said. But he didn't seem convinced.

He was large, though not really tall. Heavily muscled. An air mask and the hood of an exposure suit hid most of his face but Lell could see his eyes and those incredibly thick eyebrows of his through the hood's plexy. Lell was aware the man was reluctant to accompany him. Lell didn't take him for a coward; you don't boss a construction crew on a frontier planet if you're a coward. But

 

that's a job you don't get as a reward for being reckless, either.

"Well, I've seen all of this I need to," Lell said. "Shall we get back to the hopper?"

Stepping carefully over debris he made his way toward the nearest airlock. Both airlock hatches were open, of course, an automatic precaution so many minutes after total decompression, intended to facilitate rescue attempts. But no one here had time to reach emergency stations when the roof came off, and when the rescue crews reached here there was no one to save.

At the airlock he looked back. Albrecht was still there, glaring down at the tunnel through which the monster had come.

"This shell was a prefab hut like all the others, meant in this case to house workmen," said Albrecht. He was shaking as he said it but Lell knew it wasn't fear he was shaking with. It was a sense of helplessness that was alien to the makeup of a man whose job -- whose routine of life -- was the conquest of alien environments. Lell had seen it before on a dozen planets and he knew it could wear off once the hunt began. Or it could mean trouble.

Lell moved outside and looked around. The site consisted of the skeleton of the huge dome intended to cover the city. There were plenty of huts and shells of various sorts scattered around, and even a large tank that looked like the start of an atmosphere plant. The Kyth had done a lot of damage to the nearby shells, most of which were simple storage and mechanical hutches, then gone. There were plenty of other shells in the area that hadn't been touched -- so far. Some of them were barracks for workers -- as this one had been -- and were now abandoned.


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He saw a gaping hole at the edge of the wreckage zone and walked over to it. There was no concrete here, just soft soil and sand. The thing had drilled straight down. How far couldn't be gauged by sight because of the darkness and the clutter of sand caved in from the sides. The Kyth didn't much care whether its tunnels were safely shored up after it used them.

It was an important project. They were building a city and they were building it in the last great unconquered section of the planet's equatorial desert, a section called the Great Salt Waste. It had probably been named by some orbiting map maker with a romantic streak, who never set foot on the planet. There was no salt but Lell looked around at the distant horizon and had to agree the area was great, and there was plenty of waste.

And more waste now. This thing, this being called the Kyth that had stopped the construction and caused them to call in someone of Lell's reputation to kill it, was a legend. A simple bit of local folklore, considered a demon by the natives. It was supposed to leap up from the bowels of hell.

Albrecht came out of the ruined hutch and walked toward him. "I'm sorry," he said as he came up. "I'm not like this, ordinarily."

"Never thought you were," said Lell.

  #########

"Back when they first explored this planet a couple of these things were sighted. Haven't been any more sightings in decades. Thought they were extinct. Then this one shows up."


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"It'll be extinct when I'm through with it," Lell said. And started to the hopper.

The hopper was a small gravity powered craft where the third member of the expedition waited for them. Macey was the pilot, technically, but he knew enough about the detection equipment Lell had asked for to be especially #########

 

valuable. As they approached the hopper, Lell heard Macey's voice over the earphones. "Something on the seismograph. Slight, very slight, but definitely anomalous. Could be your animal."

To their right, about thirty feet away was the scaffolding of the city's dome, a skeleton rising from the desert. It was designed for workmen, with access rungs and lift valves at handy intervals. Lell turned toward it

"We can get off the ground," he said into his microphone. "You go ahead and take off. With luck I can get a clear shot from up on the scaffold."

But before he could reach the scaffold, before the hopper could even get off the ground, the ground exploded.

It seemed to explode directly under the hopper. Sand and concrete from the construction site's landing pad flew in the air. Something seemed to kick the underside of the hopper and it flipped up and over into the air and came down several yards away with a resounding crash and rending of metal. Lell caught a glimpse of quick, flowing movement behind the hopper, and the hopper shredding apart. He heard Macey's screams over his radio but only briefly. Then the screams were gone and the Kyth was gone, and the crumpled remains of the hopper were rocking gently on the ground, back and forth like a crumbled leaf in a strong wind.

Lell got to his feet and ran toward the hopper.

There was a hole in the sand with soil and rock and bits of concrete piled up around it, and another hole in the underside of the hopper's hull. The ground was amazingly plowed up and Lell could see another hole where the Kyth had apparently escaped. Holding his energy rifle, he looked around but saw nothing except the wreckage the creature had left. To tell the truth, he did not expect to see any more than that.


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He climbed through the rent in the ship. The interior was a mess. Instruments were smashed and ripped from their connections. Glancing toward the rear of the ship, Lell could see where the drive units had been torn loose. The only trace of Macey was the splattered blood all over the interior bulkheads and the blood drenched strip of cloth caught on a piece of jagged metal.

Lell went to the vehicle's radio and pushed buttons and flipped dials until he was satisfied it was smashed beyond use.

Albrecht stood at the tear in the hull and said, "Smashed. It's all smashed."

"That is a fact," said Lell. He made his way carefully back toward the emergency locker. It was at the rear of the cabin and the trip was made hard by the fact the vehicle was on its side. But he reached it and got the door open without hurting himself and checked the contents.

He and Albrecht were each equipped with atmosphere regeneration packs that could manufacture air for them for several days. Their survival packs had an almost equivalent supply of food concentrates and a water recycler that would last as long as the air would. Neither would be very fresh toward the end. But safety is in redundancy and the exploration of space had fostered generations of men and women who were great believers in redundancy. He found extra air regenerators and water recyclers as well as more packs of food. He tossed one of each to Albrecht and selected another set for himself.

"What are you thinking?" Albrecht said.

 

"That we may need these to stay alive with," said Lell.

"You aren't thinking of trying to cross that desert, are you?"

"Not unless we have to," he said. "As soon as they realize we aren't checking in back at Port City, they'll start doing recon on us."

"Satellite photos."

"Yes but not just sat photos. They'll send a ship to investigate, with orders to land only if they see signs that we're still alive."

"But if we stay here," said Albrecht, "and that thing hangs around and knows we're here . . . we sure won't be alive."

"That brings us back to trying to cross the desert, doesn't it?" said Lell. Albrecht's eyes widened at that suggestion but he said nothing. Lell went on. "If this were a more developed planet, we could expect rescue within a day at the outside. But Siita isn't the most developed world in the Galaxy and the truth is we can't even be sure there's a satellite positioned so it can take photos of this area. Or another hopper available to pick us up. I suspect we may have a wait as long as three or four days. So we might find that extra gear useful before this is over."

"You mean we're going to stay out there?"

Lell didn't even dignify that with an answer. He hefted the gear onto his back and pushed past


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Albrecht, out of the ship.

Albrecht followed, bringing gear of his own.

The first time the Kyth had struck, it tore up a project power house. The second time it took out the barracks. It was when it caught a group of men out in the open that the company decided things were serious enough to close down the project and call in Lell. Luckily he was vacationing within ten light years of here. Within an hour after receiving their offer he was heading off that vacation world toward Siita. He never vacationed without all his hunting gear. He seldom turned down a job.

At the top of the dome was an area called the crow's nest. It was little more than a platform made of heavy, reinforced steel set on I-beams and intended as a warehouse or emergency facility. It could be pressurized, either completely or in part, as needed. Lell and Albrecht climbed the long climb to the top of the dome and made their camp inside the crow's nest. It had emergency stores, which extended their supply of food, air and water.

It was high off the ground also, which made Albrecht feel better. Lell wasn't so sure. What he'd seen of the Kyth's speed and agility made him suspect no place was totally out of reach of the creature, unless it was a lot more fortified and a lot farther off the ground than this. But it was a place where they might find some possibility of safety, and he could see no other that offered even that. So this was where they would remain until and unless they had to run. He decided they would spend most of their time on opposite sides of the crow's nest so that one would have a better chance of getting away if the other were attacked.

 

When he woke the next morning, Lell saw the sun rising on the other side of the room. He crawled out of his sleeping bag and noticed Albrecht stirring into wakefulness some distance away. Through the closest window he could see stars in the dark blue sky. Across the room the sky was lighter, but the local sun was not yet up. The sun was not too bright here, though it provided enough warmth to support water in a liquid state. But the atmosphere was almost cloudless, and the planet was located near a heavy cluster of stars that provided a lot more illumination than stars did on Earth. He scanned the desert for several minutes, then turned away from the window to see Albrecht puttering about among their supplies for breakfast.

"What do you want to eat?" Albrecht asked.

"What are my choices?"

"Breakfast bars or dinner bars."

"Let's go with breakfast," said Lell.

Albrecht nodded and tossed a couple of the bars on the small folding table near the room's kitchen area. He started to make coffee.

While they were eating, Lell said, "There's a sand beetle out there, about two miles away."

Albrecht looked up. "What's a sand beetle got to do with us? You thinking the Kyth will catch it and not worry about us?"

"Not quite. The Kyth never strikes at night, does it?"

"The theory is the cold makes it torpid. Nobody really knows."


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"But we might have some time, right? Maybe an hour?"

"We'd be better off staying here until somebody comes for us," Albrecht said.

"That could be a couple days. Meantime, I still have a job to do."

"What makes you think a trap would work?"

"Old-fashioned self-confidence," said Lell. "The Kyth must have lived off something before humans came here, and the sand-beetle is a likely candidate for that honor. For one thing, it's about as big an animal as you can find on Siita."

"And you think you can stake one out and then wait and the Kyth will come for it?"

"That's right."

"How do you make the sand beetle come back here?" Albrecht said. "It's not likely to want to. And it sound like to me your plan calls for us to be up off the ground, so that means climbing up on one of the girders. There's no trees out there."

"I've dealt with sand beetles before," said Lell. "You can get one to do just about anything with a little effort."

"Sand beetles, maybe. What abut the Kyth?"

 

"Well, I've never dealt with one before," said Lell. "But all I really want is a shot at this one with this energy gun at full power."

The sand beetle was moving toward the construction site, possibly lured by the moss that had been cultivated in patches at the edge of the area. Lell and Albrecht circled around behind it and made themselves known to the creature, to encourage it to continue moving toward the site.

The sand beetle was about the size of a large Terrestrial horse, though nothing like the shape. It was more mammal than insect but its configuration had given it its name. It had a rhinoceros-thick hide that was its main defense against everything and which would probably be no defense at all against a Kyth. It seemed uncertain at first whether or not to pay any attention to the two humans and by the time it made up its mind, it was almost at the dome.

But not quite. It just stopped and stood there, looking back at the two alien creatures that were following it.

"Now what?" Albrecht said. "You can't get a clear shot unless we get it closer to the dome and it doesn't seem to want to go."

Lell had left most of his equipment back at the dome but he carried a good length of strong, lightweight rope. He said, "Give me a hand," to Albrecht and walked up to the creature.

He looped the rope around its neck, just behind the large elephantine ears that were its most un-beetle like characteristic. He knotted it carefully and tested the rope to make sure it would not choke the animal. He handed the end of the rope to Albrecht.


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ou pull," he said.

"What?"

"Toward the dome. You pull and I'll push."

"This is crazy," said Albrecht.

"No it isn't. Just pull."

Albrecht took the rope and, moving ahead of the creature, yanked. The sand beetle gave a snort and pulled back with its head, but didn't budge. Albrecht said, "He isn't going to cooperate."

Lell took his knife out and moved to the rear of the creature. "Try again."

Albrecht must have seen what he planned but if he thought it might work, his bushy eyebrows, about all of his face that Lell could see with him wearing that hood, gave no indication. He pulled again on the rope, harder this time.

And Lell jabbed the sand beetle's haunch with the point of the knife.

The animal's hide was too tough for the knife to cut, but it could still feel, and Lell's action was rewarded by the creature jumping forward. It did not jump far, but it was movement never the less and it was forward. Albrecht tugged on the

 

rope again and before Lell could apply the knife point, the creature moved. It allowed itself to be led forward at a reasonable, if not locomotive speed.

They got it to the construction site without incident and as he tied the end of the rope to a stake in the ground, Lell felt a pang of regret. The sand beetle was a magnificent specimen and deserved a better fate. The creature seemed unconcerned. If this was Kyth hunting ground, it seemed to have no knowledge of the threat. It watched Lell with disinterest a few moments, then discovered a close by patch of lichen and began munching.

The sun had been up a while and temperature was rising. Lell made his way to the dome, thirty feet away, and climbed up to the platform he had chosen for himself. He had rigged a safety harness out of rope and slipped it on and fastened it. Albrecht was already in his own harness.

He checked his energy rifle, looking again to make sure it was on full power. He clicked the safety off and made himself comfortable for the wait. Albrecht, not as used to this sort of thing as Lell was, stirred restlessly.

Not five minutes had passed before the sand beetle lifted its head and snorted at the air.

It was not much of a gesture but in the sand beetle it seemed almost abrupt. Lell stretched out on the platform and brought the energy rifle to his shoulder, straining to hear something in the awful morning silence.

Very slightly the platform began to vibrate.

The Kyth came.


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It leaped out of the ground directly under the sand beetle, lifting the poor animal straight up into the air. Lell saw the thick, twenty foot long wormlike body with its wild flurry of sharp teeth that tore and ripped at the screaming, dying sand beetle.

Lell fired, aiming by instinct, and the blast caught the Kyth full, right below its head.

It twisted and writhed in midair, then fell to the ground. The now dead sand beetle fell heavily to the ground beside it. The Kyth squirmed and whipped around, then went straight to the sand beetle as if nothing had happened.

Lell fired again and scored another direct hit in almost the same spot. The Kyth raised its head, wriggled around in a manner that might have indicated some confusion, but no apparent ill-effect. Lell fired again, and again he hit the Kyth.

This time the Kyth reacted. Like a suddenly released spring it bolted wildly toward the dome frame, striking one of the support girders and causing the whole structure to shake, just as Lell fired again. His shot went wild, turning a patch of sand molten. He lost his balance and the gun slipped from his hands. Only the harness kept Lell from following after it.

Below, the Kyth seemed confused, as if unable to find what it was searching for. It darted to the place where Lell's wild shot had heated the sand. It half dug in; then, after some wild thrashing, streaked back to the sand beetle. Moments later, both the Kyth and its victim were gone.

 

Lell fumbled at the harness that had saved his life, then started toward the ladder to the ground.

"Are you all right?" Albrecht called after him.

"I'm fine," said Lell. "You?"

He scurried down the ladder, Albrecht following after. "I'm fine," he said, once he was on the ground. "You see what you're up against now?"

Lell picked up his energy gun. A quick check showed him it was unhurt, though covered with sand. He hastily brushed it off. "It's not damaged," he said.

"What difference does that make?" Albrecht said. "That thing can't stop the Kyth. The only thing we can do is hide up there and wait for them to pull us out."

"I don't think we can hide from that thing," Lell said. "When it gets hungry enough, it'll just come after us."

"You're a fool," Albrecht said. "You'll get both of us killed."

"What do you suggest we do?"

"Get up on the platform," Albrecht said. "Wait until they send a rescue party for us and then go back to Cerberus or Port City."

"And leave that thing still out here?"


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Albrecht indicated the gun. "You can't kill it with that thing, can you?"

"You have any other ideas?"

"I got no more ideas than you have," said Albrecht. "Just to climb to the highest point and wait for rescue."

"And if it isn't high enough?" said Lell.

Albrecht gave him a lost, hopeless look.

Lell said, "You saw that thing move. You saw how it can jump. If it comes up directly under it, my guess is it can jump high enough to reach the top of the dome."

"Then what can we do? Are you saying we're dead, either way?"

"I don't think so," Lell said. He was gazing off to the left of the dome. "Is that tank over there what I think it is?"

Albrecht turned to look. "Oxygen storage. For the atmosphere plant they were starting to put in when they had to leave this place."

"Had they yet?"

"Filled it!"

 

"With oxygen."

"What has that got to do --." He stopped. "Yeah, I think so."

"That's good to know. I need to know one thing more. This is a construction site. Where are the explosives kept?"

The explosives were kept in a shed well away from the rest of the site, although it was safety stuff with little chance of an accidental detonation. But it was high quality material as one would expect of a top construction project like this and Lell was pleased with it.

By the time he had explained his plan to Albrecht and selected the equipment he would need, it was midday. They broke for lunch and retreated to the crow's nest at the top of the dome.

"The Kyth seems to hunt by detecting heat," Lell said. "Body heat, and so on. I noticed when I fired at it and missed earlier, it dove toward the sand I'd scorched with the energy gun."

"That makes sense," Albrecht said. "Since it travels underground, it would need to locate its prey either by heat or vibration, and it sets up a lot of vibrations of its own."

"That's right. But the other interesting thing is that it only shows up during the day."

"And you're saying that if it hunts by detecting heat, it would be easier to do that after the sun has gone down."


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Lell nodded. "Pretty much. My guess is that the drop in temperature affects the Kyth and makes it less active. You mentioned that earlier. Heat may actually have the opposite affect on it, although the energy gun seemed to at least annoy it. Just not enough to more than confuse it."

"But cold," said Albrecht. "That's something else . . ."

They discussed it some more and decided to wait until night to finish the job they'd started. The Kyth had fed that day but no one really knew how often it could feed. If it had digested the sand beetle and was ready for more food, it could easily attack them while they were at work. They decided to spend the afternoon sleeping and finish their work during the night.

The original purpose of the tanks was to provide oxygen and other gases to the atmosphere plant that controlled pressure and livability inside the dome. It was filled now because the tank was supposed to be serving its function in regard to the various offices, barracks and other facilities provided the work crew, when the job had shut down.

It was raised off the ground by a heavy alloy framework, and to these braces and girders, Lell and Albrecht carefully applied measured packets of explosives.

There was some debate over whether or not to set any explosives against the hull of the tank itself. "It's a well-made tank," Albrecht pointed out. "A drop, even this much of a drop, isn't likely to breach that tank." Lell wasn't counting on it to, but he recognized that it might not hurt to take the extra precaution, and he fixed a small charge to the underside of the tank. He was afraid that if he used any more than that, it might create enough heat to evaporate the oxygen before it had done its job. Neither he nor Albrecht were expert

 

enough on the subject to know for sure, so the rule had to be to err on the side of caution.

They dug a hole about ten feet deep under the tank and set what Lell hoped was the right amount of explosive in it. Then they filled it up again. Lell set the fuse on the ground above the explosives, making sure it was where he could see it from the dome.

It was almost dawn.

They returned to the crow's nest and ate something while waiting for the sun to rise. It came up and they waited some more. If Albrecht was still nervous, he seemed to be dealing with it. He seemed almost as calm as Lell.

Finally, Lell pushed himself to his feet and said, "Let's go."

They dressed hurried and moved outside.

A catwalk surrounded the platform, and from it, with dome still just a frame of metal, they had a good view of the tank and the grounds around and under it. They were not too close. It would be a tricky shot to set off the detonators, but Lell wasn't worried about that. He'd have more than one shot if he needed it. He unfolded his gun and checked the field of view through his sight.

God, I hope this works, he told himself.

Then he heard a sound.

It took a moment for him to realize what it was. Then he turned and saw it. A hopper, coming into view on his right, from behind the wall of the crow's nest. It must have come in from behind them, hugging the low undulating ground, looking for signs of survivors or wreckage, and that had muffled the sound until it was on top of them. He and Albrecht should have heard signals from the hopper over their suit radios but they had not bothered


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to turn the radios on because they were working with detonators, some of which would be set off electronically.

The hopper was maneuvering for a landing, dropping closer to the ground.

"To hell with the risk," Lell said. "Use your suit radio. Call them off."

Albrecht reached for the button.

Then the ground erupted almost under the hopper and something long and thick and furious tore into the air, flipping like a fish leaping from a lake, and smacking the hopper's hull.

The hopper started spinning and bobbing in the air. The Kyth dropped back to the ground, disappeared almost at once.

The hopper still spun.

Lell took quick aim and fired.

The buried explosives under the oxygen tank erupted in a flare of sand androck and fire, and very loud noise. There was dust and smoke but even through that the ground was glowing red.

The pilot on the hopper managed to control the vehicle enough to stop its spin. It described a shallow arc low to the ground and skidded.

I hope this works, Lell found himself thinking. It was almost a prayer.

 

The ground tore apart under the tank and something rose up out of it and slapped against the tank. Albrecht slapped the detonator controls, tearing the braces and supports from under the tank, and at the same time, Lell fired again, setting off the charges on the tank itself.

Liquid oxygen poured out of the gaping hole in the tank onto the Kyth.

The creature fell back to the ground and writhed and struggled and fought and seemed to have lost none of its strength whatsoever. Lell fought against the temptation to fire at it again.

But the Kyth didn't dig back into the ground. It didn't go after the hopper. Half buried under the wreckage of the tank, it just squirmed and struggled and the struggles became weaker and weaker, and finally they stopped.

"Jesus," said Albrecht, behind him. Then he said it again.

Lell just stared. He stared for a long time waiting for the Kyth to come back to life, to retreat into the ground, to strike the hopper, anything.

The hopper's hatches opened and a man came out and looked around. He saw the Kyth, the wreckage of the tank. Lell wondered what he must be thinking.

Lell stood up. He powered down his gun, folded it up and put it away. He glanced at Albrecht and said, "Let's go get rescued."

And Albrecht followed without argument.

The End

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CONTENTS