Cat crouched on the stand, pondering. It was not at 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 benign. 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 headdown 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 to make 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 horse--a 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 eagernessto be first, three teams converged on the closest cube--the 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 size--human--and similar temperament--male--and similar armament--horns. 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 otherhuman, 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 bedifferent, 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 closing the door from the outside, so the prisoners could not escape. Tom was about to remove it, but Cat cautioned himwith 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 teamsof 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 that--if 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 girl 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 mustask 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 cannot 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 thebear 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. Colcried 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, Tom--we 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 bemore 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 water--and 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 forvines. 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 inplace 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.
Sheep, the neuter Ovine, appeared. It grabbed Bitch from behind, hurling her to the ground. Counter-countertrap.
Then of course Dog appeared, swinging a club at Sheep. Sheep ducked down and butted Dog in the belly. Meanwhile Ram was working his way free of the net. Neither trap had worked perfectly; they were canceling out.
Now it was hand to hand. The carnivores were all fighters, of course, but so were the herbivores. They were fairly evenly matched. But because they were fighting each other, both were likely to be losers.
The action was brief but vicious. Hound bit Ewe on the neck, robbing her of coordination. Ram bashed Bitch's head against a log, knocking her senseless. The two victors leaped up, about to tackle each other. Dog and Sheep seemed evenly matched. They grappled, being able to get in neither a good bite nor butt, and rolled into the river. In a moment both screamed as the fish attacked.
Hound and Ram ran to rescue their neuters, for the moment forgetting their own fight. They reached down to grab hold of Dog and Sheep.
And three Swine appeared, armed with clubs. They quickly bashed Hound and Ram from behind, knocking them into the water. Then they focused on the two females. "Take one, toss the other," Pig said tersely.
Boar got down on helpless Ewe, while Sow hauled Bitch to the water and rolled her in. Then she joined Pig,using clubs to bash back any who tried to scramble out of the water. Meanwhile Boar finished with Ewe, hauled her up, and heaved her also into the water. In a moment she too was carried away by the torrent. If she didn't drown, the chances were that her teammates would. Both Ovines and Canines seemed to be finished. Their human nulls would be free to desert them.
After that the three Swine finished the work on the raft and got on it, poling it across the river. Their two prisoners were bound and hobbled, and made no resistance. The Felines merely watched.
"We could have taken them," Tom said.
"And maybe gotten ambushed by the next team," Pussy countered.
"Time to find out," Cat said.
They rose from their concealment and walked to the site of the mayhem. "Any other teams watching?" Cat called, not loudly.
After a moment there was a stirring in the brush, and the Caprines emerged: Buck, Goat, and Doe. All had horns, beards, and hind hooves. Along with them were two human nulls almost identical to the ones the Felines had. "What is your position, Cat?" Goat inquired.
"We suspect that cooperation is better than conflict," Cat said. "At least at this stage."
"We agree, Cat. Can we do each other any good?"
"We have useful information."
"We have another way to cross the river."
Cat glanced at the other Felines. "Shall we declare a truce, not to be broken until after fair notice?"
"We agree. What is your information?"
"What is your way?"
Buck walked to a hiding place, and lifted a sizable coil of rope. "Tie this to a bough, swing across," he said.
"Why haven't you done this already?"
"Our captives won't go."
Cat nodded. "Or rather, you can't trust them to go across, since they might run away if not immediately threatened."
"We didn't threaten them," Doe protested. "But they are reluctant."
"Our information will solve that problem," Cat said.
"We thought it might," Goat said. "We observed yours carrying weapons for you."
"Here is the key," Cat said. "Ours are not prisoners. They help us because it is in their best interest to do so. Yours will help you similarly, if you give them reason."
Goat looked at the Feline's Dar. "True?"
The man did not respond. "You are free to speak," Cat reminded him.
"True," Dar agreed.
"How did they persuade you?" Goat asked.
"They freed us," Dar said.
"Why did you not then run away?"
"We have no reason to run, and we do have reason to stay. We are better off with them than without them."
Goat looked at Cat. "We must talk," it said.
They walked a bit away from the group, and Cat explained about the agreement to speak for the Human nulls after the mission, and about giving them the pain button. Goat was dubious, but decided to try it.
"However," Goat said, "this does not settle the matter of the contest. We can't promise our Humans much if we do not win."
"The second finisher is the reserve," Cat reminded it. "That also should be worth something. The Humans should understand."
Goat nodded. "Perhaps so," it agreed. "And perhaps also, when we have privileges, we could request the services of those Humans as our nulls. We could then treat them well."
Cat hadn't thought of that. "This may be feasible. Perhapswe should extend the truce, and try to finish first and second. Second place would be better than death."
"Three teams have already perished," Goat agreed. "We would not care to do business with the Swine. That leaves only two in doubt."
"Equine and Fowl," Cat agreed. "With some luck we can avoid them and beat them."
"But the Swine will have to be dispatched."
Cat nodded. "No truce with Swine. Suppose we cooperate until we have the first and second places secured, then have an honest, nonviolent, fair contest with agreed rules to determine which team wins?"
Goat nodded in return. They had an understanding.
They returned to the others. "We have agreed to cooperate throughout," Cat said. "To take first and second places, then decide amicably which team wins. We will avoid other teams, but will try to dispatch the Swine. We believe that this will make both survival and winning far more likely."
"I will address our Human companions," Goat said. "The rest of you may get acquainted." Goat walked toward the two Human nulls who stood within sight.
"Oh, goody!" Pussy exclaimed. "Come here, Buck."
"Come here, Tom," Doe said, smiling.
The males were glad to accede. The two couples went behind trees, already embracing.
"That looks like fun," Col said somewhat wistfully.
"Are you permitted to interact sexually?" Cat asked, surprised.
"We are allowed to resist rape," Col said. "But the pain pills make that possible. You have freed us from that threat."
"But you may have sex if you choose?"
Cat looked at Dar. "May I have a more complete answer?"
"We are permitted, if our controlling nulls wish it," Dar said. "But we are not permitted to seduce them."
"So you can accede, but not initiate."
"Yes," Col said. "You may have noticed that neither I nor my counterpart with the Caprine trio have acted at all seductively. But neither have we made ourselves ugly."
Cat was thoughtful. "We interacted for a time with the originals you emulate. Darius was interested in Pussy, but Colene did not approve. We concluded that sexual interaction was appropriate only between the two humans, though there was none. You differ?"
"We are nulls, like you," Col said. "We may not indulge with our own companions, only with nulls of other persuasions."
"What about with alternate Human nulls?"
Both of them looked surprised. "That didn't come up in our indoctrination," Col said. "I suppose we could. But since we can't initiate, it won't happen unless we are directed to do it."
"Is it something you would wish to do?"
"No," Dar said. "No more than your Tom would wish to indulge with a foreign Pussy."
"If we succeed, with the Caprines, in securing the two winning places, we believe that the second place finishers will still be treated well, because they will be held in reserve for the Virtual Mode mission. The winners will go with the real Darius and Colene, but the second place team will request to be assigned their human nulls as servants. That should secure your identities also. If you then wish to indulge with our males and females, they should be happy to do it. We believe we can make a good life for you, at least until the mission is concluded. Therefore you should find it worthwhile to cooperate with us even if we finish second."
"Yes," Dar agreed.
Goat returned with the other couple. "They agree," it said. "They have the pain button."
"Shall we call our Humans Feline Dar and Col, and yours Caprine Dar and Col?" Cat asked.
"Call them F-Dar, F-Col, C-Dar, and C-Col," Goat said.
The two couples returned from their copulations, and the ten of them got to work completing the rope, which was made from rolled wiry grasses the Caprines sniffed out. The four human nulls worked with them, satisfied that their personal interests aligned. Soon the rope was ready.
They found a tree with a stout branch leaning out across the river. Tom, good at climbing, went up to tie the rope to the branch, so that it hung down to the ground in a broad curve. They made a small loop for a foot. Then each individual held it and swung across, almost grazing the water, and letting go as it reached the far side. They had a set order: Tom, Doe, F-Dar, Goat, C-Col, Buck, Pussy, C-Dar, Cat, and F-Col. That kept the two teams thoroughly mixed, so there was no temptation for anyone to separate when across the river. There was no reason to suppose anyone would violate the truce, but Cat and Goat agreed to buttress agreement with caution.
When they were all across, Cat thought of something. "Do we want to leave the rope there?"
"Do we want to return this way?" Goat asked in return.
"If any teams remain behind us," Tom said, "they can use it and still be behind us." He was always aware of tactical situations.
"They will hesitate, fearing a trap," one of the Human nulls said. It was C-Col. Cat and Goat nodded; she was right.
Buck glanced at her. "I could get to like you."
"Want me to inhale or bend over, big boy?"
He was almost taken aback. "In good time, perhaps."
So the Human nulls could respond readily enough, Catthought. The girl was definitely flirting, teasing Buck about his combination of human and animal traits without suggesting that she found either objectionable.
They moved on. "The terrain opens out ahead, becoming hilly," Col said. "The flag is beyond the worst of it."
She was correct: the trees faded and hills formed, with gullies between them. They became increasingly steep, but the girl knew the best paths around the obstructions, generally following a contour. They saw no other teams.
They came in due course to truly challenging geography. It seemed as though a mountain had been riven by an earthquake so that the two halves of it wedged apart, leaving a chasm between. The far side was a virtual mirror image of the near side, because of the manner of its formation, but both were endlessly jagged and devious. It was hard to see any continuous path through this dangerous maze. "This is as far as my knowledge goes," F-Col said, and C-Col agreed. "The flag is in this region."
"I can show it to you," F-Dar said. "There is a place where a sighting can be made. That is the extent of my knowledge."
He led them up a path along a ledge cut into the nearer slope, until they reached a flat-faced boulder with a crevice of its own. Dar sighted through this. "There it is."
Cat looked. There was a silver flag perched on a spire of rock directly across from them. Now they knew where it was; they would have to find a way to reach it.
"We had better get going," Buck said, looking down into the chasm. "The Equines and Fowl are ahead of us."
Cat looked down while Goat peered through the slit at the flag. The two other teams seemed to be racing each other. "Not much hope of catching them," Tom said. "They have too much of a lead."
"We Caprines can catch them," Buck said. "We're adapted to climbing."
Goat looked at Cat. "This disturbs me. There's a smell in the air."
"I agree," Cat said. "It is too straightforward. We were warned of the unexpected. It shouldn't be a straight foot race."
"Well, it is a foot race," Tom said. "And every moment counts. Let's stop wasting time."
"Two things," Goat said. "First, the smell. It warned us of the attack of the beasts, so that the Bovines got slaughtered instead of us. It made us cautious when the Ovines and Canines fought. We had best heed it now, for it is when things look obvious that they may be most treacherous. Second, we don't have to be first to fetch the flags, merely the first to bring them back. The other teams will have to pass us as they return."
"And where are the Swine?" Cat asked. "They were also ahead of us, but aren't in the chasm." For everything was visible; the Swine were not ahead of the other teams.
"They're behind us!" Buck said. "Waiting to ambush us."
"So we have to watch behind as well as ahead," Goat said. It turned to Cat. "Suppose we Caprines outrace the others, to get the flags, while you Felines hunt the Swine so our return is safe?"
"I agree in principle," Cat said. "You can perform better on such a slope, and we can hunt better. But I remain suspicious. I think we are missing something."
Goat nodded. "I agree. For one thing, it might be a tactical mistake to divide our force; the two leading teams might unite against us, and the Swine are neither stupid nor scrupulous. We may yet need to fight together."
"But we have to get the flag!" Pussy cried, and Doe agreed.
"We have to be best prepared for victory," Cat said, and Goat agreed. "I think we should tarry and try to fathom the mystery."
"Sometimes you neuter intellects give me a pain in the udder," Doe said, smiling obliquely at Tom.
"True," Tom agreed quickly. He did not try to conceal his interest in the Caprine female. They had coupled once, but seemed to be developing more than a sexual relationship. "You spend so much time analyzing, you don't get much done."
"Nevertheless," Cat said evenly, "we believe we should consider a bit longer. We are not driven by sexual passions."
"However," Goat said, "those of you who are so driven may as well indulge yourselves while we ponder."
The sexed nulls needed no urging. Tom took Doe to a nook in the rocks, and Buck took Pussy to another. Because they had to be prepared for any likely degree of interest by masters or mistresses, nulls were almost indefatigable in this respect. In addition, Tom and Pussy had been long denied. Caprine males had a reputation for randyness, and Doe was an uncommonly lovely example of her kind.
"And you human nulls," Cat said. "I suggest you take a walk through the brush, spread out, and protect yourselves if menaced."
"But do not seek any quarrels," Goat said. "If you see anything of interest, you may inform us when you return, if you wish." The phrasing was careful, reminding them that they were being treated as associates, not servants.
"You have our approval, should you need to use the pain buttons," Cat said. "But it might be better to conceal them unless there is no choice. The Swine are arrogant and cunning; the former trait may prevent them from suspecting the degree of autonomy you have, but the latter should not be underestimated."
The two Dars and two Cols nodded and set out on a walk that would cover a fair swatch of territory. They understood that they were scouting for the allied teams;they would try to locate the Swine without alerting them. Swine, being what they were, would probably try to rape them if they caught them. Not just the Boars with the girls; the sows could do weird things with males when they had the chance. It was not often that any null could get away with any such act against a human-seeming person.
Meanwhile the two neuters put their heads together and conversed quietly. "I believe the Swine are watching us, and will ambush us very soon after we get the flag," Cat said.
"But three should not fare well against six."
"Perhaps we should reduce it to three before they strike, tempting them into overconfidence."
Goat stroked his beard. "Mock fight?"
Cat nodded. "We can fetch the flag, and you can betray us and butt us into the chasm. The Swine will not question that; it is the way they operate. Then we can circle behind the Swine and counterambush them as they strike."
"This requires considerable trust on our part."
"We can lead the way, if you prefer. I merely thought we would be better at hunting and pouncing, once we are away from the rocks."
Now Goat nodded. "Without trust, nothing is viable. You will trust us with the flag; we shall trust you with our lives."
"To facilitate trust, we can exchange human nulls. I think ours will not serve you directly, if they distrust your motive, and vice versa."
"Agreed. Do you know where the flag is?"
"I suspect it is on this side of the chasm, not far from us."
Now Goat was surprised. "This side?"
"We need to be alert for surprises. This chasm setup is too pat. I think the far side is a reflection."
"Your mind is truly devious!"
"No, I had come to a similar conclusion in principle, if not in detail. I thought the visible flag might be a decoy, but your analysis seems more apt. Very well, you fetch it, we'll betray you and head back, you circle behind. This will require some choreography."
"Each couple can plan its own," Cat said. "We can advise them quietly, then you and I can do a search for the flag. I think anyone who falls into the chasm can't be seen from the trail side."
"Understood." They separated, looking for the two couples.
Cat found Buck and Pussy, who had evidently finished one bout and were warming up for another. Cat suspected that Buck was flattered by Pussy's unusual ardor; she wanted all the humping she could get, after her drought. "We believe we know where the flag is," Cat said. "The Felines will find the flag, and be betrayed by the Caprines, who will take it back to be ambushed by the Swine. Then the Felines--"
"Got it," Buck said. "I'll do Tom, and Doe can do Pussy. Let's check sites."
Males were very quick to catch on to the possibilities for violence. The two moved off as Cat returned to the base of the crag where the sighting crevice was. It saw that the human nulls were returning. "Anything there?"
"Swine tracks," F-Dar said. "But we didn't see the Swine themselves."
"Is there a likely site for an ambush?"
"The Felines are about to fetch the flag. The Caprines will betray us and hurl us into the chasm. But when the Caprines are in turn ambushed by the Swine, the Felines will ambush the Swine in a countertrap. We do not ask you human nulls to participate, except to this degree: you who are with us, go with the Caprines."
F-Col pursed her lips. "Clever. Cat. It will not pay us to let the Caprines take the flag in by themselves."
"Nor will it pay the C-Humans to let us do so." Cat agreed. "We buttress our trust in this manner. Are you amenable?"
"Yes." F-Dar said.
"Then if you would be so kind. clarify this matter with the C-Humans, and exchange places. We prefer the Swine to mistake you for the Caprines guides."
"Got it." F-Col said. They moved off.
Then Cat returned to the crag. Goat met it there. "Are we in order?"
Cat climbed cautiously up along the crag, while Goat checked the rock to the side. Goat would find a suitable place for Cat to land, when betrayed.
The flag was absurdly easy to find. It was on the chasm side of the rock whose split gave them the view of its reflection. Now Cat could see its own reflection, reaching around to catch the flag. So simple a ruse, yet it had fooled all of them except those who had paused to consider. Exactly as some aspect of the Virtual Mode might deceive those who trod it carelessly.
Cat took the flag and made its way down the slope in the direction Goat had gone. "I have the flag!" Cat called to the others.
Then Goat sprang out, head down. "Shrouded crevice to your left," it said as it charged.
Cat jumped into the crevice, holding the flag high. Goat leaped over the crevice, catching the flag as it did. "Mine!" it bleated.
In moments the three Caprines were together. "Come, Humans," Goat called. "We have the flag. We're going back."
F-Dar and F-Col joined them and the group set off for the return. Soon they were out of sight.
Meanwhile Cat, Tom, and Pussy were slinking from their hiding places and circling out. C-Dar and C-Col saw them but did not react; instead they began walking disconsolately in the direction the Caprine party had taken. There was no way to tell that they were not the Feline's guides, bereft of their company.
Cat remembered something, and hurried back to the spot where it had found the flag. Yes, there was a second flag behind it that it hadn't seen before, this one blue. Cat took that flag and tucked it into its pocket. The back-up position was important too.
Cat looked to where the Caprines had gone. C-Dar and C-Col were waiting. "I thought you had gone with the others, Cat told them as it caught up.
"Sneaking and pouncing is not in our program," C-Dar said.
"It is in mine," Cat said. "I must be there when my trio members join the action."
"We understand," C-Col said. "We want to thank you for enabling us to be well treated."
"We can't guarantee that beyond this contest," Cat reminded her. "In fact, only the winner will have any real input on your treatment thereafter."
"And who will that be?" C-Dar asked.
"I don't know. If both of our teams make it safely back, we shall have to decide on the winner. Perhaps by lot."
"And if you lose the lot?" C-Col asked.
"Then we lose the flag," Cat said simply. "I have no true betrayal in mind, and I doubt Goat does."
"If you lose the flag, and are second, will you ask for us as your nulls?" C-Dar asked.
"No. We will ask for the Feline Humans. They are the ones to whom we are committed."
"Yet you expect us Caprine Human nulls to help you," C-Col said.
"You are not with me to help me," Cat said patiently."You are here to ensure that I don't betray your associates, the Caprines."
"How can we do that?" C-Dar asked.
"You have the pain button. Use it when you see fit."
They nodded. Then Cat slunk into the brush, while they walked straight ahead.
The path passed between outcroppings of rock capable of concealing an ambush. Cat saw the Caprines marching innocently into it, with the two Humans. Cat got as close as possible without showing itself, ready for action.
But there was no ambush. The open party passed on through unscathed. Where were the Swine?
Then, in an open area, the ground suddenly caved in. Buck, walking ahead, fell into it, and Doe stopped just at the brink. "Pitfall!" Goat cried. "Seek cover!"
But already the Swine were charging in from the sides, bearing home-crafted spears. The Caprines, caught in a bad position, seemed vulnerable. The two Humans with them stood still, not acting.
Tom pounced from cover, landing on Boar's back. Boar squealed, but Tom's claws were already ripping at his throat. But Boar's hide was tough, and he tried to throw Tom off; the two fell to the ground in a tangle.
Sow turned around, surprised. Pussy sprang at her. "But you're dead!" Sow squealed, amazed.
"No, you are," Pussy replied, stabbing her in the neck with a crude stone dagger. But Sow, too, was tough; she knocked the stone aside and barreled into Pussy. They, too, fell to the ground, locked in combat.
Meanwhile Cat was bounding toward Pig. But Pig had too much warning, and was standing its ground, holding up its spear. This was heading for a standoff.
Cat halted, needing a way to get around that spear. Then Pig brought out its pain button. Cat backed up, trying to get out of range, but Pig was advancing, keeping pace. This was mischief indeed.
Suddenly Pig squealed in agony and fell to the ground, untouched. The spear fell and the pain button rolled away. What had happened? Was this a ruse?
Then Cat saw C-Col standing near Pig, holding forth her own pain button. The Swine had ignored the Humans as noncombatants, and never suspected that the pain buttons would be in their hands. That had been a fatal oversight.
Cat swept up the loose pain button, then the spear, and turned back to deal with Pig. Before Cat got there, Buck had scrambled out of the pit and stomped Pig with sharp hooves. It was no thoughtless rage; the hooves were precisely placed, cutting through the tough skin of Pig's neck. In a moment the life blood was flowing.
Cat veered off and went to help Pussy dispatch Sow. The spear and pain button made it easy. The two Caprine Humans went to join Tom with Boar, and in another moment Boar's squealing doubled. The second Human pain button was being applied.
It was an ugly contest, but no contest; the Swine were overwhelmed, and soon all three of them were dead. The counterambush had been successful. Their own losses were slight; Tom had been gored in one arm, and Pussy had been bitten on one knee. The three Caprines were untouched.
"You fought for us!" Cat said to the Humans, surprised in retrospect.
"You gave the right answers," C-Dar said.
"But you are the Caprine Humans," Pussy said.
"With whom the Felines are allied."
"It sure surprised the Swine when our Humans fought them with the pain buttons," Tom said with satisfaction.
"They thought our alliance was with only the Caprines," Cat said. "Not also with the Humans."
They left the Swine and moved on as a group. But Catwas dubious. This seemed too easy, challenging as it had been. "Dar," he said.
Both Dars turned to him. "Yes?" they said together.
"F-Dar, is there something else we should know?"
"What is it?"
"There is a fifth obstacle."
Cat reviewed their encounters. "The vicious animals, the raging river, the mirror-chasm. I make it three so far."
"The ambush," Goat said. "We had to pass an animate threat, then an inanimate one, then solve a riddle, then handle treachery. Four obstacles, each of a different type. Those who set up this contest knew that there would be trouble between teams."
"So we may anticipate a type we have not seen before," Cat said. "Occurring in territory we have already traversed."
"So it is not terrain," Goat agreed. "Dar, are you permitted to tell us what it is?"
"We do not know its nature," C-Dar said. "Only that it is formidable."
The party halted. "Could there be something to intercept us?" Cat asked.
"That seems likely," Goat said. "I doubt we can avoid it, any more than we could the other obstacles. It may seek us out."
"Then perhaps it would not be wise to delay."
"Unless it is triggered by our approach to the finish."
"That does seem likely," Cat agreed. "What, then, should be our best strategy?"
"Perhaps we should consider it another ambush," Goat said. "One team can invoke it, and the other team can deal with it."
"Unless it is immediately lethal."
They looked at the others. No one commented. "Shall we agree on a strategy?" Goat asked.
"One team can take the flag and run for the finish," Cat said. "The other team watches. If the first team gets through, it is the winner."
"Agreed. Which team leads?"
"We will," Goat said.
"You will take the risk of ambush?"
"And of victory. We Caprines prefer to charge ahead when in doubt."
"As you wish. We Felines prefer to lurk and watch."
Goat took the silver flag and charged ahead, followed closely by Buck and Doe and the two C-Humans, now back with their own team. The Feline group moved more circuitously, as they had for the prior ambush, staying clear of the main path. The Feline Humans split, with Dar accompanying Tom and Col going with Pussy.
Nothing happened. The Caprines came within sight of the starting line, which was now the finish line, without event. Was the final hurdle a bluff, to make the credulous pause and lose the victory? Cat had not thought of that, which meant it was indeed unexpected. Had they casually thrown away victory? A deal was a deal, but perhaps the gamble had lost. Cat watched from the cover of a tree, seeing its strategy defeated. Well, at least they had given it a good try. The Caprines were certainly worthy.
Goat stepped over the finish line--and suddenly floated into the air with a surprised bleat. The other Caprines halted, amazed. Goat was flying!
But not under control. Goat was flailing its legs, trying to get a footing, but the feet were not touching the ground. There seemed to be a wind bearing it back toward the forest. The others were trying to catch Goat, but it was floating too high. It was borne back over the forest, still ascending--and then abruptly descended.
Goat struck the branch of a tree, then dropped to the ground. F-Col, closest to that spot, ran over. She bent overthe injured Caprine, then looked up, horrified. "Goat's done for," she gasped.
Pussy ran over. "No!" She dropped down beside Goat's form. "Hang on," she said tearfully. "We can help you."
Goat stirred. It was alive, but at least one limb was broken, and probably internal organs were damaged. It tried to speak, then collapsed into unconsciousness.
"We can help," Pussy repeated. "Help me carry Goat to treatment."
"Goat said something to me," F-Col said. "Magic."
"Magic?" Pussy asked blankly.
"Yes. I'm sure that was the word."
Cat was looking all around, trying to fathom what had happened. Doe was running toward Goat, but Buck, evidently dazed, was stepping back to the line.
"Don't go there!" Tom cried. But he was too late: Buck had stepped across the finish line, and was sailing into the air. All they could do was watch helplessly while he was swept up and toward the forest.
"There must be some force," Cat said. "Something pushing up from below."
Tom ran under Buck, but encountered no resistance. The Caprine floated on over him.
"Or an invisible cord from above," Cat said. "He can't just float without support."
"Maybe he can," Pussy said. "What Goat said to F-Col--remember how Darius came from a Mode of magic?"
"Magic!" Tom scoffed. "That's impossible."
But Pussy would not be deterred. "Buck, I conjure you, come down," she called. "Slowly."
Buck descended, slowly.
"Land gently, and stay on the ground," Pussy called. "I conjure you."
The Caprine came gently to the ground. "You saved me!" he said, hugging Pussy as she ran to join him.
"Magic," Cat said thoughtfully. "It does exist in some Modes. We have to be ready for it too. So they arranged for an emulation of magic. That never occurred to me."
"Because you're too rational," Pussy said. "Magic makes more sense emotionally." She kissed Buck.
"A fitting test," Cat agreed.
"But we didn't figure it out in time for us," Doe said sadly. "We can't go on without Goat."
"Goat's alive," Pussy said. "You can go on."
"Not if there's a Virtual Mode soon," Doe said. "It will take time for Goat to recover."
Cat agreed. "Carry Goat across the finish line, with the silver flag. Conjure yourselves back to the ground. Be the winner. If there is a Virtual Mode too soon, the second team will take it. Otherwise it's yours."
"Thank you," Doe said, her lovely eyes moist.
"It was our deal. We did not seek to destroy you, merely to follow another strategy."
Buck, Doe, and their two Humans carried Goat across the line. They all rose into the air--and sank slowly down again, the victors.
"We could have had it," Tom said.
"Not with honor," Cat said. "Without honor, neither of our deals would have been valid."
"True," F-Dar agreed.
"And it was Goat who figured it out," Pussy said. "He told us, but it was the Caprines who deserved it. We couldn't steal it from them."
"Now we must take second place, before another team comes to grab our flag," Cat said. "We still have a plea to make on behalf of our companions. Considering the circumstances, I think it will be honored."
They moved ahead as a group of five, toward the finish line.