James Schmitz has long been a favorite author of mine. He was one of the first science fiction authors I came across who wrote strong female characters. They were a bit superwomany, but that was still a vast improvement over much of what was available at the time. This Telzey Amberdon is resonating with me recently for some reason.
It had been a trap in several ways then. If she’d entered Robane’s house, she would have vanished in the explosion with him. Since she’d checked first, they’d turned this thing on her. It was either to destroy her outright or force her into behavior that would identify her to its masters—and she had to get rid of it before the need to sleep brought down her defenses.
She felt the psi bolt begin to assemble itself. No ordinary brief sharp slash of psi was likely to serve here. She’d turn the heaviest torrent of energy she could channel on her uncanny pursuer. Something like a black electric swirling about her was sending ripples over her skin. Not at all a pleasant sensation, but she let it develop. It would be to her disadvantage to wait any longer; and since the psis weren’t around themselves, this was as good a place as any for the encounter. The Cloudsplitter was drifting up a wide valley into the higher ranges of the park. There was a chill in the breeze and few tourists about. At the moment she saw only three aircars, far ahead.
The energy pattern grew denser, became a shuddering thunder. She gathered it in, held it aimed like a gun, let it build up until she was trembling almost unbearably with its violence, then abruptly released her shield.
Almost at once, seeing the dark shape plunge at her through the nothing-space of psi, she knew that on this beast it wasn’t going to work. Energy smashed about it but found no entry point; it wasn’t being touched. She expended the bolt’s fury as the shape rushed up, snapped the shield shut before it reached her—immediately found herself slewing the Cloudsplitter around in a sharp turn as if to avoid a physical collision. There was a sound then, a deep bubbling howl, which chilled her through and through.
Glancing around, she saw it for an instant twenty feet behind the car—no mind image, but a thick powerful animal body, plunging head downward, stretched out as if it were diving, through the air of Melna Park. Then it vanished.
It was a psi creature whose natural prey were other psi creatures, she thought; that was why she hadn’t been able to touch it. Its species had a developed immunity to such defensive blasts and could ignore them. It had a sense through which it traced out and approached the minds of prospective victims, and it had the psi ability to flick itself across space when it knew by the mind contact where they were to be found. For the kill it needed only physical weapons—the strength of its massive body, its great teeth and the broad flat nails of the reaching beast hands which had seemed only inches from her when the shield shut them from view. If she hadn’t swerved aside in that instant, the thing would have crashed down into the car and torn the life out of her moments later.
Her attempt to confront it had made the situation more immediately dangerous. Handling that flood of deadly energy had drained her strength; and a kind of dullness was settling on her now, composed in part of growing fatigue and in part of a puzzled wonder that she really seemed able to do nothing to get away from the thing. It was some minutes before she could push the feeling aside and get her thoughts again into some kind of order.
The creature’s dip through space seemed to have confused it temporarily; at any rate, it had lost too much contact with her to materialize near her again, though she didn’t doubt it was still very close mentally. There were moments when she thought she could sense its presence just beyond the shield. She’d had a respite, but no more than that. It probably wasn’t even a very intelligent animal; a species with its abilities and strength wouldn’t need much mental equipment to get along in its world. But she was caught in a game which was being played by the animal’s rules, not hers, and there still seemed no way to get around them.
Some time past the middle of the afternoon, she edged the Cloudsplitter down into a cluster of thickets on sloping ground, brushing through the vegetation until the car was completely concealed. She shut off its engines and climbed out, stood swaying unsteadily for a moment, then turned and pushed her way out of the thickets.
If she’d remained sitting in the car, she would have been asleep in minutes. By staying on her feet, she might gain another period of time to work out the solution. But she wasn’t far from the point where she’d have to call the park rangers and ask them to get a fix on her and come to her help. Stimulants could keep her awake for several days.
At that point, she would have invited danger from a new source. A public appeal for help from someone in Melna Park could be a beacon to her enemies; she had to count on the possibility that they waited alertly for just such an indication that their hunter had the quarry pinned down. She might be identified very quickly then.
But to try to stay awake on her own for even another fifteen or twenty minutes could be fatal.