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The Most Dangerous Game
with apologies to Richard Connell


By: Centris124


Author's Notes: I'm not sure what sort of fic this is. 'Pastiche' was suggested by Hanako, and that's probably as close as we're gonna get. That 'literary crossover,' The Most Dangerous Game, is a short-story written by Richard Connell. Some sections of this story are directly quoted from Connell, and some are written entirely by me. But the bulk of this story is a combination. It was much more difficult than I had expected to take an interaction between two characters and make it fit as an interaction between three...and it's downright disconcerting to have the spell check picking up misspelled words from sections I didn't write! I might go so far as to say that it's easier to do an entire story from scratch. Anyway, any section in which Bob and Dot are interacting is either written, or heavily edited, by me.

This story takes place towards the end of season 2, when it looks like Bob and Dot are getting closer and maybe something might happen. I originally thought that I was pushing things a bit when it came to the portrayal of their relationship in this fic, but then I saw those game pictures and...well...it did put a new perspective on things. In this fic, 'Matrix' refers to Dot. I do recommend you read the original short story.



 

“Dot, wait up!”

Bob ran after the File Manager of Mainframe, owner of a very successful Diner, partner in numerous business ventures...and very exasperated big sister. She showed no signs of slowing for a moment, then seemed to give in and slacken her pace enough for him to catch up without an all-out sprint.

“I’m sorry, Bob. It’s just...”

“No, it’s okay...guess having to pull Enzo out of trouble again this cycle was the last straw, huh?”

“You know I love him dearly. But sometimes...ugh, I could almost delete the child! How does he get in those situations, Bob? He’s probably getting it from you.” Dot turned and started walking again, glaring at the ground. Bob trotted along in her wake, knowing the remark wasn’t really directed at him.

“You just need a break, that’s all. No one blames you for getting fed up sometimes. You do everything around here.”

Dot shrugged, shoulders showing her tension. “Whatever. I just...need a walk.”

“Want me to leave you alone?”

She was tempted to say yes, but the scolded-puppy look on his face was too much. She shook her head. “No, you can come along. Just don’t expect me to be the best company.”

Bob merely shrugged haphazardly and caught up to her again. “You at your worst is still the best company I can think of.”

Dot tried to think of an appropriate comeback, but concluded she was too strung out to be properly astute. So she stayed silent, keeping her gaze fixed on the ground.

Bob merely accompanied her as she wandered around the sector. He hadn’t expected an answer anyway. And when he reached over to rub some of the tension out of her neck, she didn’t shake him off.

When it came to Dot Matrix, he took what he could get.

***

Towards the end of Baudway her footsteps slowed and finally came to a stop. She just stood for a long moment, then gave a slight shudder all over. Bob took back his hand.

“Do they teach that at the Academy?” She’d finally turned around, looking tired, but much more peaceful.

Bob blinked, confused. “What?”

“Good shoulder rubs. Do they teach that at the Academy?” she repeated, showing a hint of returned good humor.

“Natural talent.” he remarked with his best showboat grin. She rolled her eyes at him in her usual amused fashion.

“We should head back. I’ve been away too long.”

Bob was about to do his damnedest to talk her into taking a more lengthy break, when a familiar purple glow filled the energy sky.

*Warning: Incoming Game.*

Bob sighed and turned to Dot, shrugging. “Guess it’ll have to wait for a bit...that game’s landing right on top of us.”

Dot echoed the sigh, and looked up at the descending cube. “It’s always something.”
 

 

***

 

It was very, very dark. Nearly pitch-black, in fact, with the murky exception of where the two sprites found themselves standing. They looked around, trying to make out their surroundings through the heavy encroaching darkness.

“I think we’re on a boat.” Bob said, fingers hovering near his icon.

Dot looked uncomfortable. “Like a User boat? So that’s...water down there?”

Bob nodded, leaning over the rail to get a better look. Dot latched onto his arm, pulling him back. He raised an eyebrow questioningly. Dot shrugged, looking at the ground. “You should be more careful. And water gives me the jaggies.”

Bob wanted to pursue the matter further, but something about the way she said it made him reconsider. Instead, he said, “Well, we’d better reboot and see what happens.”

Dot’s shoulders slumped a bit, but she nodded. “Right.” Simultaneously they double-clicked their icons, and the familiar green glow of downloaded code enveloped them. When the process was over, they surveyed the results.

Both wore much looser clothing than the usual Mainframe attire. A simple white button-down shirt, dark breeches and a longish fitted sort of coat...the only real differences were in the shade of breeches and coat, and the slightly more feminine cut to Dot’s shirt and jacket. Fastened to Bob’s belt were two pistols, on Dot’s a pistol and a dagger.

“Glitch, game stats.” The keytool chittered and whirred for a few seconds, then apparently printed out its reading. Dot was bemused as Bob shook his wrist irritably and repeated, “Glitch, stats!”

“What’s processing?”

Bob frowned. “Glitch is reading things funny...or maybe it’s the game. But Glitch is showing the game’s name only as The Most Dangerous...and the goal is just...’defeat the User’.”

“But we already know that!” Dot said, trying to see the little keytool’s face. Bob nodded slowly.

“I know...this is not good.”

Dot picked at her shirt sleeve. “It’s so hot here. And the air feels...somehow...thick.” She stifled a squeak as a slight but stinging pain went through her forearm. Reflexively she slapped the spot, and brought her hand away with a smear of purple-red on her fingers. “Bob...what’s this?”

Bob blinked, staring at her outstretched hand. “Energy...how’d that happen?”

Dot’s next comment was interrupted by the arrival of another person. He didn’t look like a traditional User...his rendering was much better, and he looked a lot like a sprite, aside from the odd pale shade of his skin and his dull dark hair. Bob eyed the stranger warily, ready to attack. But the man only stopped in front of them, smiling with pleasant familiarity. He spoke.

“Good evening, Rainsford.” The surroundings lagged a bit, as they tended to do when a game was forced to process new information. “Matrix.”

Bob and Dot shared a confused glance, then Dot nodded a solemn greeting and Bob replied, “Good evening to you.”

The man nodded back and drifted to the rail of the boat’s stern. Bob and a slightly more reluctant Dot joined him. He crossed his arms on the railing, gazing off into the black night. After a moment, he spoke again.

"Off there to the right--somewhere--is a large island," he said. "It's rather a mystery--"

Bob processed a moment, then answered, "What island is it, Whitney?" The name came to him from out of nowhere, but it was apparently correct.

"The old charts call it 'Ship-Trap Island,"' Whitney replied. "A suggestive name, isn't it? Sailors have a curious dread of the place. I don't know why. Some superstition--"

"But we can't see it," said Dot, trying to peer through the dank tropical night that was palpable as it pressed its thick warm blackness in upon the yacht. Bob nodded agreement.

“You've both good eyes," said Whitney, with a laugh, "and I've seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can't see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night."

The dialog confused the sprites even as the game’s programming translated it into understandable terms. "Nor four yards," admitted Bob finally. "Ugh! It's like moist black velvet." Dot eyed him sidelong, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. He made a face back, knowing she was amused at how the game was forcing him to speak in such a poetic manner.

"It will be light enough in Rio," promised Whitney. "We should make it in a few days. I hope the jaguar guns have come from Purdey's. We should have some good hunting up the Amazon. Great sport, hunting."

"The best sport in the world," Bob agreed, unsure of anything else to say.

"For the hunter," amended Whitney. "Not for the jaguar."

"Don't talk rot, Whitney," Bob couldn’t help it; the words seemed completely preprogrammed. It was odd to be saying such things and not knowing at all what you were talking about. "You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?"

"Perhaps the jaguar does," observed Whitney.

"They've no understanding."

"Even so, I rather think they understand one thing--fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death."

"Nonsense," Bob replied mechanically. "This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes--the hunters and the
huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters. Do you think we've passed that island yet?"

"I can't tell in the dark. I hope so."

"Why?" Dot asked, entering the conversation again.

"The place has a reputation--a bad one."

"Cannibals?" suggested Bob, shrugging as he saw Dot mouth the words ‘what are cannibals?’

“Hardly. Even cannibals wouldn't live in such a God-forsaken place. But it's gotten into sailor lore, somehow. Didn't you notice that the crew's nerves seemed a bit jumpy today?"

"They were a bit strange, now you mention it. Even Captain Nielsen--"

"Yes, even that tough-minded old Swede, who'd go up to the devil himself and ask him for a light. Those fishy blue eyes held a look I never saw there before. All I could get out of him was 'This place has an evil name among seafaring men, sir.' Then he said to me, very gravely, 'Don't you feel anything?'--as if the air about us was actually poisonous. Now, you mustn't laugh when I tell you this--I did feel something like a sudden chill. There was no breeze. The sea was as flat as a plate-glass window. We were drawing near the island then. What I felt was a--a mental chill; a sort of sudden dread."

"Pure imagination," Bob replied flippantly. “One superstitious sailor can taint the whole ship's company with his fear."

"Maybe. But sometimes I think sailors have an extra sense that tells them when they are in danger. Sometimes I think evil is a tangible thing--with wave lengths, just as sound and light have. An evil place can, so to speak, broadcast vibrations of evil. Anyhow, I'm glad we're getting out of this zone. Well, I think I'll turn in now, Rainsford."

“I'm not sleepy," said Bob. "I'm going to smoke another pipe up on the afterdeck."

“Matrix?”

“I think I’ll stay and chat with B...er...Rainsford for a little while.”

"Good night, then, Rainsford, Matrix. See you at breakfast."

"Right. Good night, Whitney."
 

 

***

 

Bob and Dot watched the departing figure, then turned to each other and shrugged in unison. Dot grinned slightly. “Bob? What’s a pipe?”

“I have no idea.” He shrugged again, comically, then sighed. “This is a strange game, Dot. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Dot sobered as well. “The Most Dangerous.” she said pensively. “The most dangerous what? The most dangerous game?”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

Dot suppressed a shiver, peering into the inky blackness that must be the water. “Me either.”

Bob and Dot stood together in silence for a long time, gazing out into the dark heavy night. There was no sound but a muffled throb that might come from some sort of engine.

Bob broke the almost perfect quiet. " It's so dark..." he said thoughtfully, "that I could sleep without closing my eyes; the night would be my eyelids--"

Dot smiled piquantly. “When did you get so poetic?”

Bob shrugged, starting to answer when an abrupt sound startled him. Three sharp cracks, off to the right. Somewhere, off in the blackness, someone had fired a gun three times. Unable to keep himself back, he climbed up on the rail, hardly aware of Dot’s frightened gasp behind him. He strained his eyes, trying to see into the darkness. Suddenly, though, he realized he had leaned too far, and he could not regain his balance. He was falling.

But slender familiar fingers closed around his wrist. Dot winced in pain, but obviously had no intention of letting him go. She backed slowly away from the rail, dragging him back onto the boat inch by inch. Somewhere in the back of his mind he stored the thought of how amazing she was; a thought to be taken out and considered at a later, less critical time.

Unfortunately, times didn’t seem to be getting any less critical. He heard a scrape on the deck as Dot’s boots slipped, and the pull on his arm slackened as his weight and her forward momentum pulled her over the railing. She screamed.

The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea dosed over her head.
 

 

***

 

Bob struggled up to the surface and tried to call out to the boat, but the choked on a mouthful of salty water. Coughing, he tried to swim after the departing lights that had to be the boat, but was stopped dead by the sound of another soul choking nearby.

Dot.

Somehow he found her in all the darkness and confusion, just before she went under again. By the time he reached her, she wasn’t choking any longer...in fact she wasn’t moving at all. By the time Bob had gotten rid of her heavy boots and his own, the lights of the yacht had become faint and ever-vanishing fireflies; then they were blotted out entirely by the night. Having little time to think, Bob looped one arm around Dot and tried to remember the direction the gunshots had come from. He struck out in that direction, towing his companion as gently as he could manage. Thank the User he had to practice this sort of thing at the Academy.

Still, it was becoming harder and harder to keep swimming. Glitch was no help, apparently affected by the water or by the game itself. Bob was beginning to wonder how long he could keep swimming, when suddenly he heard a sound. It came out of the darkness, a high screaming sound, the sound of an animal in an extremity of anguish and terror.

Bob didn’t know what made the sound, and in truth he didn’t really want to. He could, however, use the sound to orient himself, and he swam towards it with renewed strength. He heard the scream again, then it was cut short by another noise, crisp, staccato.

"Pistol shot," muttered Bob to himself, swimming on.

He had been swimming again for a fairly short while when he caught the sound of waves breaking on a rocky shore, recognizing it through the programming his reboot had given him. Bob was at the end of his strength as he dragged himself and Dot towards the shore. Somehow he managed to shift Dot’s weight to his back and pull himself up a jagged cliff-face until he reached a place flat enough to rest in. After a small pause he started up the cliff again, finally coming to the top. A thick tangle of trees and plants grew right to the edge of the cliff, but Bob found a small clearing and knew he could go no farther without rest.

Gently he settled Dot in the clearing. Having won the fight against the sea for his (and her) life, he realized that she had grown pale and translucent, an unmistakable sign of oncoming deletion. True fear struck him for the first time since the game had landed, and in pure terror he grabbed Dot by the shoulders, hauling her to a sitting position and shaking her.

“Dot! Dot, log on! Dot...come on!” She didn’t respond. Desperately he tried to recall anything that might help her. When his panicked processing provided no answers, he let instinct take over. Dragging her into his lap, he pounded on her back as hard as he dared, tears blurring his vision as her complexion flickered dangerously. He paused, praying to anything he could think of. She didn’t move.

“Dot, NO!” He shook her again, more out of terrified frustration than a renewed effort to bring her back on-line. But suddenly he felt her fingers tighten slightly on his arm. Almost as suddenly she pushed away from him, rolling over on one side and choking as she coughed up the brackish water that had flooded her systems.

When the last of her worst coughing had passed, Dot felt as weak as a newly-compiled puppy. She wanted to tell Bob she was all right, but she just didn’t have the strength to sit up, and she couldn’t seem to stop shaking.

“Dot?” She heard his voice from nearby, tentative, as if afraid to hope for an answer.

She swallowed hard, sucked in a breath with slow deliberation to keep from coughing again. She wanted badly to reassure him, tell him she was fine...though she didn’t feel fine at all...but all she managed was a strained “Yeah?”

She heard a small strangled sort of noise, then suddenly she was gathered up in his arms again, held close against his chest. Her pride told her to wriggle free and stop acting so weak and childish. The saltwater-soggy rest of her promptly told her pride to go to rot, and she had the luxury of giving in to her emotions to the point of wrapping her arms around Bob’s neck and just being held, for the first time she could remember since the twin city had gone down. Gradually her shuddering eased, and she fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

Bob had hardly dared to hope that she might have fought her way back to him. He was sure he had never felt such relief in his life as when she rolled out of his arms and began to cough. Still, worry reigned supreme as he saw how sick she was. Automatically he reached out and pulled her back into his arms, dimly surprised that she didn’t try to escape him again. The surprise flared brighter as he felt her arms around his neck, and he held her gently and as delicately as if she were fashioned of spun glass. After awhile he began rubbing her back carefully, and finally her shakes seemed to have passed. Suddenly realizing she was asleep and safe for now, the burden of grief and worry that had been keeping him awake was replaced with the effects of the ordeal they had just experienced. He tumbled headlong into the deepest sleep of his life.

***

Dot started to awaken feeling as tired as she could ever remember, sore all over, roasting hot and sun bleached, gritty and salt-crusted and sick to her stomach...and somehow...very, very safe. Struggling slowly to full wakefulness, she realized with something of a shock exactly where she was. Bob was curled up against her back with one arm draped loosely over her waist, his chin tucked against the top of her head. She could tell by his breathing that he was still sound asleep, and much as she rather enjoyed where she was, she carefully pulled herself away from his grasp. Staying would almost certainly end up forcing out some matters that she wasn’t sure she was ready to face yet. She wandered stiffly to the cliff side, looking out over the dazzling water. She knew from the position of the sun that it was late in the afternoon. Sleep had given her new vigor; a sharp hunger was picking at her. Dot looked about her, almost cheerfully.

"Where there are pistol shots, there are men. Where there are men, there is food," she reasoned out loud to herself. But what kind of men, she wondered, in so forbidding a place? An unbroken front of snarled and ragged jungle fringed the shore.

She saw no sign of a trail through the closely knit web of weeds and trees; it was easier to go along the shore, and she floundered along by the water. Not far from where she and Bob had struggled ashore, she stopped.

Some wounded thing--by the evidence, a large animal--had thrashed about in the underbrush; the jungle weeds were crushed down and the moss was lacerated; one patch of weeds was stained crimson. A small, glittering object not far away caught Dot’s eye and she picked it up. It was an empty cartridge.

“A twenty-two," a familiar voice remarked from behind her, though she was still badly startled. Bob smiled apologetically in response to her glare, and she turned back to the trail when she felt herself starting to blush. Bob went on, "That's odd. It must have been a fairly large animal too. The hunter had his nerve with him to tackle it with a light gun. It's clear that the brute put up a fight. I suppose the first three shots we heard was when the hunter flushed his quarry and wounded it. The last shot was when he trailed it here and finished it."

Her blush was not lost on Bob, and he began to color a bit himself as he realized that the dream of being curled up next to her that he had had earlier might have not been a dream after all. He in turn examined the ground, and in doing so noticed the print of hunting boots. They pointed along the cliff in the direction he had been going. Forgetting the tension in his excitement at finding a sign of life, he grabbed for Dot’s hand and pulled her along, following the trail of broken jungle foliage. She actually laughed a bit, though carefully, as they made their way along the path. Night was beginning to settle on the island.

Bleak darkness was blotting out the sea and jungle when they sighted the lights. The pair came upon the lights as they turned a crook in the coast line; and their first thought was that they had come upon a village, for there were many lights. But as they forged along they saw that all the lights were in one enormous building--a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom. Their eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows.

"Mirage," Dot whispered. But it was no mirage, they found, when Bob opened the tall spiked iron gate. The stone steps were real enough; the massive door with a leering gargoyle for a knocker was real enough; yet above it all hung an air of unreality.

Bob lifted the knocker, and it creaked up stiffly, as if it had never before been used. He let it fall, and it startled them both with its booming loudness. Bob thought he heard steps within; the door remained closed. Again he lifted the heavy knocker, and let it fall. The door opened then--opened as suddenly as if it were on a spring--and the two sprites stood blinking in the river of glaring gold light that poured out. The first thing their eyes discerned was the largest man that either of them had ever seen--a gigantic creature, solidly made and black bearded to the waist. In his hand the man held a long-barreled revolver, and he was pointing it straight at them. Bob stepped in front of Dot protectively.

Out of the snarl of beard two small eyes regarded him.

"Don't be alarmed," said Bob, with a smile which he hoped was disarming. "I'm no robber. I fell off a yacht. My name is Robert Rainsford of New York City." He blinked, puzzled, as Dot poked him in the back. He tilted his shoulders in response her unspoken question.

The menacing look in the eyes did not change. The revolver pointing as rigidly as if the giant were a statue. He gave no sign that he understood Bob’s words, or that he had even heard them. He was dressed in uniform--a black uniform trimmed with gray astrakhan.

"I'm Robert Rainsford of New York," Bob tried again. "This is Dot Matrix. We fell off a yacht. We’re hungry."

The man's only answer was to raise with his thumb the hammer of his revolver. Then Bob saw the man's free hand go to his forehead in a military salute, and he saw him click his heels together and stand at attention. Another man was coming down the broad marble steps, an erect, slender man in evening clothes. He advanced to the sprites and held out his hand.

In a cultivated voice marked by a slight accent that gave it added precision and deliberateness, he said, "It is a very great pleasure and honor to welcome Mr. Robert Rainsford, the celebrated hunter, to my home."

Automatically Bob shook the man's hand.

"I've read your book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet, you see," explained the man. "I am General Zaroff. And who is this lovely lady?" Dot had stepped out from behind Bob, offering her hand as well.

“I’m-” The game lagged again, as the excess data was being processed. “-Dorothea Matrix.” Bob elbowed her gently, revenge for her earlier prodding over his own game name. General Zaroff brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. Bob glowered slightly, but Dot merely smiled graciously and inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Please, call me Dot.”

Bob’s first impression was that the man was singularly handsome; his second was that there was an original, almost bizarre quality about the general's face. He was a tall man past middle age, for his hair was a vivid white; but his thick eyebrows and pointed military mustache were as black as the night from which Bob had come. His eyes, too, were black and very bright. He had high cheekbones, a sharpcut nose, a spare, dark face--the face of a man used to giving orders, the face of an aristocrat. He also had, of course, the same amazing rendering that the man ‘Whitney’ had boasted. Turning to the giant in uniform, the general made a sign. The giant put away his pistol, saluted, withdrew.

"Ivan is an incredibly strong fellow," remarked the general, "but he has the misfortune to be deaf and dumb. A simple fellow, but, I'm afraid, like all his race, a bit of a savage."

"Is he Russian?" Bob asked, stumbling slightly over the unfamiliar term.

"He is a Cossack," said the general, and his smile showed red lips and pointed teeth. "So am I."

"Come," he said, "we shouldn't be chatting here. We can talk later. Now you want clothes, food, rest. You shall have them. This is a most-restful spot."

Ivan had reappeared, and the general spoke to him with lips that moved but gave forth no sound.

"Follow Ivan, if you please, Mr. Rainsford, Ms. Matrix." said the general. "I was about to have my dinner when you came. I'll wait for you. You'll find that my clothes will fit you, I think. Ms. Matrix, I’m sure we can find something for you as well."

It was to a huge, beam-ceilinged bedroom with a canopied bed big enough for six men that Bob followed the silent giant, a bit nervous from being separated from Dot, even if only temporarily. Ivan laid out an evening suit, and Bob...or rather, Robert...as he put it on, noticed that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke. He chalked this knowledge up to his game character...he had never heard such terms in his own life.
 

 

***

 

The dining room to which Ivan conducted him was in many ways remarkable. There was a medieval magnificence about it; it suggested a baronial hall of feudal times with its oaken panels, its high ceiling, its vast refectory tables where twoscore men could sit down to eat. About the hall were mounted heads of many animals--lions, tigers, elephants, moose, bears; larger or more perfect specimens Bob had never seen. At the great table the general was sitting, alone.

"You'll have a cocktail, Mr. Rainsford," he suggested. The cocktail was surpassingly good; and, Bob noted, the table appointments were of the finest--the linen, the crystal, the silver, the china.

Zaroff suddenly looked towards the entry to the dining hall as smiled. “Ah, Ms. Matrix. I’m so glad you found something that suited you so well.”

Dot was standing in the foyer, attired in a long old-fashioned and elegant gown of dark purple silk. The bodice and sleeves fitted snugly, then flared in a cascade of violet skirt that fell to her feet and puddled in a short train behind her. Silver filigree shone at her neck, wrists, waist, and in her hair. She smiled a bit tightly as she stepped into the room, trying to keep her equilibrium about her as she moved in the unfamiliar weight of the heavy skirts. She managed to keep her balance, and settled gracefully in the chair General Zaroff offered.

Bob, on the other hand, was off balance entirely. He quite frankly stared, and Dot avoided looking at him until General Zaroff spoke again, as the first course of the meal arrived.

They were eating borsch, a rich, red soup with whipped cream dear to Russian palates. Half apologetically General Zaroff said, "We do our best to preserve the amenities of civilization here. Please forgive any lapses. We are well off the beaten track, you know. Do you think the champagne has suffered from its long ocean trip?"

"Not in the least," said Bob politely. He was finding the general a most thoughtful and affable host, a true cosmopolite. But there was one small trait of the general's that made Bob uncomfortable. Whenever he looked up from his plate he found the general studying him, appraising him narrowly.

"Perhaps," said General Zaroff, "you were surprised that I recognized your name. You see, I read all books on hunting published in English, French, and Russian. I have but one passion in my life, Mr. Rainsford, Ms. Matrix...and it is the hunt."

"You have some wonderful heads here," said Bob as he ate a particularly well-cooked filet mignon. "That Cape buffalo is the largest I ever saw." Dot remained silent, finding the glassy gaze of the trophies disconcerting. She was perfectly content to let Bob do the talking.

"Oh, that fellow. Yes, he was a monster."

"Did he charge you?"

"Hurled me against a tree," said the general. "Fractured my skull. But I got the brute."

"I've always thought," said Bob, "that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game."

For a moment the general did not reply; he was smiling his curious red-lipped smile. Then he said slowly, "No. You are wrong, sir. The Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous big game." He sipped his wine. "Here in my preserve on this island," he said in the same slow tone, "I hunt more dangerous game."

Bob expressed his surprise. "Is there big game on this island?"

The general nodded. "The biggest."

"Really?"

"Oh, it isn't here naturally, of course. I have to stock the island."

"What have you imported, general?" Bob asked. "Tigers?"

The general smiled. "No," he said. "Hunting tigers ceased to interest me some years ago. I exhausted their possibilities, you see. No thrill left in tigers, no real danger. I live for danger, Mr. Rainsford."

The general took from his pocket a gold cigarette case and offered his guest a long black cigarette with a silver tip; it was perfumed and gave off a smell like incense.

"We will have some capital hunting, you two and I," said the general. "I shall be most glad to have your society."

"But what game--" began Bob.

"I'll tell you," said the general. "You will be amused, I know. I think I may say, in all modesty, that I have done a rare thing. I have invented a new sensation. May I pour you another glass of port?"

"Thank you, general."

The general filled both glasses, and said, "God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter. My hand was made for the trigger, my father said. He was a very rich man with a quarter of a million acres in the Crimea, and he was an ardent sportsman. When I was only five years old he gave me a little gun, specially made in Moscow for me, to shoot sparrows with. When I shot some of his prize turkeys with it, he did not punish me; he complimented me on my marksmanship. I killed my first bear in the Caucasus when I was ten. My whole life has been one prolonged hunt. I went into the army--it was expected of noblemen's sons--and for a time commanded a division of Cossack cavalry, but my real interest was always the hunt. I have hunted every kind of game in every land. It would be impossible for me to tell you how many animals I have killed."

The general puffed at his cigarette.

"After the debacle in Russia I left the country, for it was imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay there. Many noble Russians lost everything. I, luckily, had invested heavily in American securities, so I shall never have to open a tearoom in Monte Carlo or drive a taxi in Paris. Naturally, I continued to hunt--grizzliest in your Rockies, crocodiles in the Ganges, rhinoceroses in East Africa. It was in Africa that the Cape buffalo hit me and laid me up for six months. As soon as I recovered I started for the Amazon to hunt jaguars, for I had heard they were unusually cunning. They weren't." The Cossack sighed. "They were no match at all for a hunter with his wits about him, and a high-powered rifle. I was bitterly disappointed. I was lying in my tent with a splitting headache one night when a terrible thought pushed its way into my mind. Hunting was beginning to bore me! And hunting, remember, had been my life. I have heard that in America businessmen often go to pieces when they give up the business that has been their life."

"Yes, that's so," contributed Dot, speaking for the first time since she had taken her seat. She didn’t know many of the terms the General was using, but she did know business when she heard it.

The general smiled. "I had no wish to go to pieces," he said. "I must do something. Now, mine is an analytical mind, Ms. Matrix. Doubtless that is why I enjoy the problems of the chase. So," continued the general, "I asked myself why the hunt no longer fascinated me. You are much younger than I am, Mr. Rainsford, Ms. Matrix, and have not hunted as much, but you perhaps can guess the answer."

"What was it?" Bob took the bait.

"Simply this: hunting had ceased to be what you call 'a sporting proposition.' It had become too easy. I always got my quarry. Always. There is no greater bore than perfection."

The general lit a fresh cigarette.

"No animal had a chance with me any more. That is no boast; it is a mathematical certainty. The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason. When I thought of this it was a tragic moment for me, I can tell you."

Bob leaned across the table, absorbed in what his host was saying.

“It came to me as an inspiration what I must do," the general went on.

"And that was?"

The general smiled the quiet smile of one who has faced an obstacle and surmounted it with success. "I had to invent a new animal to hunt," he said.

"A new animal? You're joking."

"Not at all," said the general. "I never joke about hunting. I needed a new animal. I found one. So I bought this island built this house, and here I do my hunting. The island is perfect for my purposes--there are jungles with a maze of traits in them, hills, swamps--"

"But the animal, General Zaroff?"

"Oh," said the general, "it supplies me with the most exciting hunting in the world. No other hunting compares with it for an instant. Every day I hunt, and I never grow bored now, for I have a quarry with which I can match my wits."

Bob’s bewilderment showed in his face.

"I wanted the ideal animal to hunt," explained the general. "So I said, 'What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?' And the answer was, of course, 'It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason."'

"But no animal can reason," objected Dot.

"My dear lady," said the general, "there is one that can."

"But you can't mean--" gasped Dot.

"And why not?"

"I can't believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke."

"Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting."

"Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder." Bob interjected, as he realized what the General was talking about.

The general laughed with entire good nature. He regarded Bob and Dot quizzically. "I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a pair as you two seem to be harbor romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war--"

"Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder," finished Bob stiffly.

Laughter shook the general. "How extraordinarily droll you are!" he said. "One does not expect nowadays to find a young man of the educated class, even in America, with such a naive, and, if I may say so, mid-Victorian point of view. It's like finding a snuff box in a limousine. Ah, well, doubtless you had Puritan ancestors. So many Americans appear to have had. I'll wager you'll forget your notions when you go hunting with me. You've a genuine new thrill in store for you, Mr. Rainsford."

"Thank you, I'm a hunter, not a murderer."

"Dear me," said the general, quite unruffled, "again that unpleasant word. But I think I can show you that your scruples are quite ill founded."

"Yes?"

"Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships--a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them."

"But they are men," said Dot hotly.

"Precisely," said the general. "That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. So they are dangerous."

"But where do you get them?"

The general's left eyelid fluttered down in a wink. "This island is called Ship Trap," he answered. "Sometimes an angry god of the high seas sends them to me. Sometimes, when Providence is not so kind, I help Providence a bit. Come to the window with me."

Bob went to the window and looked out toward the sea. Dot got up as well and followed, more slowly.

"Watch! Out there!" exclaimed the general, pointing into the night. The sprites’ eyes saw only blackness, and then, as the general pressed a button, far out to sea they saw the flash of lights.

The general chuckled. "They indicate a channel," he said, "where there's none; giant rocks with razor edges crouch like a sea monster with wide-open jaws. They can crush a ship as easily as I crush this nut." He dropped a walnut on the hardwood floor and brought his heel grinding down on it. "Oh, yes," he said, casually, as if in answer to a question, "I have electricity. We try to be civilized here."

"Civilized? And you shoot down men?" Dot had turned away from the window, eyes blazing with fury.

A trace of anger was in the general's black eyes, but it was there for but a second; and he said, in his most pleasant manner, "Dear me, what a righteous young woman you are! I assure you I do not do the thing you suggest. That would be barbarous. I treat these visitors with every consideration. They get plenty of good food and exercise. They get into splendid physical condition. You shall see for yourself tomorrow."

"What do you mean?" Bob interjected suspiciously.

"We'll visit my training school," smiled the general. "It's in the cellar. I have about a dozen pupils down there now. They're from the Spanish bark San Lucar that had the bad luck to go on the rocks out there. A very inferior lot, I regret to say. Poor specimens and more accustomed to the deck than to the jungle." He raised his hand, and Ivan, who served as waiter, brought thick Turkish coffee. Dot, with an effort, held her tongue in check.

"It's a game, you see," pursued the general blandly. "I suggest to one of them that we go hunting. I give him a supply of food and an excellent hunting knife. I give him three hours' start. I am to follow, armed only with a pistol of the smallest caliber and range. If my quarry eludes me for three whole days, he wins the game. If I find him "--the general smiled--" he loses."

"Suppose he refuses to be hunted?" Bob again took control of the conversation.

"Oh," said the general, "I give him his option, of course. He need not play that game if he doesn't wish to. If he does not wish to hunt, I turn him over to Ivan. Ivan once had the honor of serving as official knouter to the Great White Czar, and he has his own ideas of sport. Invariably, Mr. Rainsford, invariably they choose the hunt."

"And if they win?"

The smile on the general's face widened. "To date I have not lost," he said. Then he added, hastily: "I don't wish you to think me a braggart, Mr. Rainsford. Many of them afford only the most elementary sort of problem. Occasionally I strike a tartar. One almost did win. I eventually had to use the dogs."

"The dogs?"

“This way, please. I'll show you. Ms. Matrix, if you would come along as well?"

The general steered the two to a window. The lights from the windows sent a flickering illumination that made grotesque patterns on the courtyard below, and Bob and Dot could see moving about there a dozen or so huge black shapes; as they turned toward him, their eyes glittered greenly.

"A rather good lot, I think," observed the general. "They are let out at seven every night. If anyone should try to get into my house--or out of it--something extremely regrettable would occur to him." He hummed a snatch of song from the Folies Bergere.

"And now," said the general, "I want to show you my new collection of heads. Will you come with me to the library?"

"I hope," said Dot levelly, "that you will excuse me tonight, General Zaroff. I'm really not feeling well."

"Ah, indeed?" the general inquired solicitously. "Well, I suppose that's only natural, after your long swim. You need a good, restful night's sleep, both of you. Tomorrow you'll feel like new, I'll wager. Then we'll hunt, eh? I've one rather promising prospect--" Dot was hurrying from the room. Bob looked back at the general, then hurried after her.

"Sorry you can't go with me tonight," called the general. "I expect rather fair sport--a big, strong...he looks resourceful--Well, good night, Mr. Rainsford, Ms. Matrix; I hope you have a good night's rest."
 

 

***

 

The bed was good, and the pajamas of the softest silk, and he was tired in every fiber of his being, but nevertheless Bob could not quiet his brain with the opiate of sleep. He lay, eyes wide open.

A while later, he thought he heard stealthy steps in the corridor outside his room. They stopped outside his room, and slowly the door opened inward. Bob slid out of the bed quietly and took on a fighting stance. The door swung wide, and a figure stepped through, bearing a flickering candle.

“I couldn’t sleep.” the intruder said mournfully. The wavering candlelight threw shadows across Dot’s face.

Bob let out a sigh of relief, straightening. “I thought you were the general.”

Dot stepped into the room and eased the door shut behind her. “Sorry, Bob. I didn’t mean to scare you. Were you asleep?” When he shook his head, she carefully she lit a couple of lamps from the candle she was carrying. “I just...sort of...needed someone to talk to.”

Bob was touched that she had sought him out, though really there weren’t many alternatives. Still, he was glad for her company, and he felt more at ease having her close by. “Have a seat?”

“Thanks.” She drifted across the room, casting about for a chair and finally settling for a perch on the side of the draperied bed. “This place gives me the jaggies. I kept hearing things, and everyone here is so...what are you grinning about?”

Bob tried to wipe the smile off his face, but it returned with a vengeance. “Uhm. That.” He sidled over to her long enough to tug at the sleeve of her nightgown. She slapped his hand away with half-hearted irritation, then a giggle slipped free.

“It is something, isn’t it?” Dot picked lightly at the long frothy beruffled confection that had been set out for her, then drew her knees up onto the bed and pulled the gown’s hem over her feet, childlike. Then she fell silent, a small frown creasing her forehead.

“What’s processing?” Bob debated seating arrangements for a moment, then flopped down on the opposite side of the bed, pulling a pillow under the back of his neck.

“We’ve been in here a long time.” Dot replied, resting her cheek against her drawn-up knees. “They’re probably worried sick about us.”

“Not much we can do about that.” Bob pointed out, scrunching the pillow into a more appealing shape. Dot glared at him.

“How can you be so casual about this? We’re stuck in here with no stats, no way to know what’s going on, all of these creepy people-” She was cut off abruptly by a flying pillow, at a velocity not meant to harm, but merely interrupt. It worked, but not for long. “What was that for?”

Bob sighed, reaching over to reclaim the pillow. “Dot, we can’t answer any of those questions.”

Dot glowered at him for a moment more, then sighed. “I know, I know, you’re right...I just ...”

“Get some sleep?” Bob suggested delicately.

“That’s why I came in here, to talk. I can’t sleep, not with everything going on. And Enzo...oh, I hope someone’s watching out for him because he’s bound to get into trouble, and how will Cecil run the Diner if I’m not back soon and...”

Bob fiddled with Glitch for a bit, nodding helpfully and making little sympathetic noises as Dot rambled on...until he suddenly realized that the tirade had grown progressively fainter, then ended.

“Dot?”

He leaned over and found her curled around a pillow, sound asleep. Enveloped in the ruffled white nightgown and with the worry gone from her features, she looked nearly as young as Enzo. Bob sighed, daring to gently brush a strand of black hair from her forehead.

“You work too hard, love, you know that?”

He paused for a moment, surprised at what he had called her. Speculation revealed nothing he didn’t truly already know, so he rose from the bed and wandered to the window. He looked out. His room was high up in one of the towers. The lights of the chateau were out now, and it was dark and silent; but there was a fragment of sallow moon, and by its wan light he could see, dimly, the courtyard. There, weaving in and out in the pattern of shadow, were black, noiseless forms; the hounds heard him at the window and looked up, expectantly, with their green eyes. Bob went back to the bed, paused, then took one of the blankets and settled into a large easy chair by the window. By many methods he tried to put himself to sleep. He had achieved a doze when, just as morning began to come, he heard, far off in the jungle, the faint report of a pistol.

***

General Zaroff did not appear until luncheon. He was dressed faultlessly in the tweeds of a country squire. He was solicitous about the state of the sprites’ health.

"As for me," sighed the general, "I do not feel so well. I am worried, Mr. Rainsford, Ms. Matrix. Last night I detected traces of my old complaint." To Rainsford's questioning glance the general said, "Ennui. Boredom."

Then, taking a second helping of crêpes Suzette, the general explained: "The hunting was not good last night. The fellow lost his head. He made a straight trail that offered no problems at all. That's the trouble with these sailors; they have dull brains to begin with, and they do not know how to get about in the woods. They do excessively stupid and obvious things. It's most annoying. Will you have another glass of Chablis, Ms. Matrix?"

"General," said Bob firmly, "We wish to leave this island at once."

The general raised his thickets of eyebrows; he seemed hurt. "But, my dear friends," the general protested, "you've only just come. You've had no hunting--"

"We wish to go today," said Bob, after sharing a glance with Dot. He saw the dead black eyes of the general on him, studying him. General Zaroff's face suddenly brightened.

He filled the sprites' glasses with venerable Chablis from a dusty bottle.

"Tonight," said the general, "we will hunt--you and I."

Dot frowned and shook her head. "No, general," she said. "We will not hunt."

The general shrugged his shoulders and delicately ate a hothouse grape. "As you wish, my friends," he said. "The choice rests entirely with you. But may I not venture to suggest that you will find my idea of sport more diverting than Ivan's?"

He nodded toward the corner to where the giant stood, scowling, his thick arms crossed on his hogshead of chest.

"You don't mean--" cried Dot, suddenly chilled.

"My dear fellows," said the general, "have I not told you I always mean what I say about hunting? This is really an inspiration. I drink to foemen worthy of my steel--at last." The general raised his glass, but the two sat staring at him.

"You'll find this game worth playing," the general said enthusiastically. "Your brains against mine. Your woodcraft against mine. Your strength and stamina against mine. Outdoor chess! And the stake is not without value, eh?"

"And if we win--" began Bob huskily.

"I'll cheerfully acknowledge myself defeated if I do not find you by midnight of the third day," said General Zaroff. "My sloop will place you on the mainland near a town." The general read what Bob was thinking. "Oh, you can trust me," said the Cossack. "I will give you my word as a gentleman and a sportsman. Of course you, in turn, must agree to say nothing of your visit here."

"We'll agree to nothing of the kind," said Dot forcefully.

"Oh," said the general, "in that case--But why discuss that now? Three days hence we can discuss it over a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, unless--"

The general sipped his wine.

Then a businesslike air animated him. "Ivan," he said to Bob and Dot, "will supply you with hunting clothes, food, knives. I suggest you wear moccasins; they leave a poorer trail. I suggest, too, that you avoid the big swamp in the southeast corner of the island. We call it Death Swamp. There's quicksand there. One foolish fellow tried it. The deplorable part of it was that Lazarus followed him. You can imagine my feelings. I loved Lazarus; he was the finest hound in my pack. Well, I must beg you to excuse me now. I always take a siesta after lunch. You'll hardly have time for a nap, I fear. You'll want to start, no doubt. I shall not follow till dusk. Hunting at night is so much more exciting than by day, don't you think? Au revoir, my friends, au revoir." General Zaroff, with a deep, courtly bow, strolled from the room.

From another door came Ivan. Under one arm he carried their hunting clothes of the day before, a haversack of food, a leather sheath containing a long-bladed hunting knife; his right hand rested on a cocked revolver thrust in the crimson sash about his waist.
 

 

***

 

Dot and Bob had fought their way through the bush for two hours. "I must keep my nerve. I must keep my nerve," Bob said through tight teeth. Dot looked at him, expression unreadable.

He had not been entirely clearheaded when the chateau gates snapped shut behind him. His whole idea at first was to put distance between him and Dot and General Zaroff; and, to this end, he had plunged along, spurred on by the sharp rowers of something very like panic. Dot had kept up for the first few hours, then stopped him and told him to get a grip on himself. Currently, she was taking stock of the situation. She pointed out that straight flight was futile; inevitably it would bring them face to face with the sea. They were in a picture with a frame of water, and their operations, clearly, must take place within that frame.

“Let’s give him a trail to follow," muttered Dot, and they struck off from the rude path they had been following into the trackless wilderness. They executed a series of intricate loops; Dot had them double back on the trail again and again. Night found them leg-weary, with hands and face lashed by the branches, on a thickly wooded ridge. Bob knew it would be insane to blunder on through the dark, even if they had the strength. The need for rest was imperative, and he reached out to stop Dot. She turned on him.

“What are you talking about!? We can’t stop, he’ll get us!” Now it was her turn to panic, as the dense jungle night settled in. She made as if to keep going, but Bob grabbed her wrist.

“Dot, we have to stop for the night. If we keep going in the dark, one of us is bound to get hurt, and then we’re easy prey...”

Dot looked ready to yell at him again, but as he watched her, he could see her reigning in her fear. Finally, she admitted, “Look, I’m scared.” A tear slid down her cheek, and she brushed it away with an irritated gesture.

Bob knew it must have been hard for her to say it, and he gently pulled her into his arms. The gesture seemed to release a floodgate, and she sobbed against his chest. He tried to comfort her as best he knew how, and finally she pushed away from him, wiping at her nose with the sleeve of her hunting jacket. “Sorry...” she said thickly, gesturing to the now-soaked front of his shirt. He shrugged, with a half-smile.

“Don’t worry about it. Come on, we need to hide.” He reached for her hand again and pulled her to a big tree with a thick trunk and outspread branches near by. Taking care to leave not the slightest mark, they climbed up into the crotch, and, stretching out on one of the broad limbs, after a fashion, rested. Dot dozed fitfully, but the rest brought Bob new confidence and almost a feeling of security. Even so zealous a hunter as General Zaroff could not trace them there, he told himself; only the devil himself could follow that complicated trail through the jungle after dark. But perhaps the general was a devil--

An apprehensive night crawled slowly by like a wounded snake and sleep did not visit Bob, although the silence of a dead world was on the jungle. Toward morning when a dingy gray was varnishing the sky, the cry of some startled bird focused Rainsford's attention in that direction. Something was coming through the bush, coming slowly, carefully, coming by the same winding way Dot and Bob had come. He flattened himself down on the limb and, through a screen of leaves almost as thick as tapestry, he watched. . . . That which was approaching was a man.

It was General Zaroff. He made his way along with his eyes fixed in utmost concentration on the ground before him. He paused, almost beneath the tree, dropped to his knees and studied the ground. Rainsford's impulse was to hurl himself down like a panther, but he saw that the general's right hand held something metallic--a small automatic pistol.

The hunter shook his head several times, as if he were puzzled. Then he straightened up and took from his case one of his black cigarettes; its pungent incenselike smoke floated up to Bob's nostrils.

Bob held his breath. The general's eyes had left the ground and were traveling inch by inch up the tree. Bob froze there, every muscle tensed for a spring. But the sharp eyes of the hunter stopped before they reached the limb where Bob and Dot lay; a smile spread over his brown face. Very deliberately he blew a smoke ring into the air; then he turned his back on the tree and walked carelessly away, back along the trail he had come. The swish of the underbrush against his hunting boots grew fainter and fainter.

The pent-up air burst hotly from Bob's lungs. His first thought made him feel sick and numb. The general could follow a trail through the woods at night; he could follow an extremely difficult trail; he must have uncanny powers; only by the merest chance had the Cossack failed to see his quarry. Slowly he turned to look at Dot, who had awakened, but had wisely kept perfectly still. Her eyes were wide with apprehension.

Bob's second thought was even more terrible. It sent a shudder of cold horror through his whole being. Why had the general smiled? Why had he turned back?

Bob did not want to believe what his reason told him was true, but the truth was as evident as the sun that had by now pushed through the morning mists. The general was playing with them! The general was saving them for another day's sport! The Cossack was the cat; they were mice. Then it was that Bob knew the full meaning of terror.

"I will not lose my nerve. I will not."

Dot crept along the branch to where he was resting and slipped a comforting arm around his shoulders. After a moment they slid down from the tree, and struck off again into the woods. Three hundred yards from their hiding place he stopped where a huge dead tree leaned precariously on a smaller, living one. Throwing off the sack of food, Bob took his knife from its sheath and began to work with all his energy.

The job was finished at last, and he threw himself down behind a fallen log a hundred feet away, pulling Dot with him. He did not have to wait long. The cat was coming again to play with the mice.

Following the trail with the sureness of a bloodhound came General Zaroff. Nothing escaped those searching black eyes, no crushed blade of grass, no bent twig, no mark, no matter how faint, in the moss. So intent was the Cossack on his stalking that he was upon the thing Bob had made before he saw it. His foot touched the protruding bough that was the trigger. Even as he touched it, the general sensed his danger and leaped back with the agility of an ape. But he was not quite quick enough; the dead tree, delicately adjusted to rest on the cut living one, crashed down and struck the general a glancing blow on the shoulder as it fell; but for his alertness, he must have been smashed beneath it. He staggered, but he did not fall; nor did he drop his revolver. He stood there, rubbing his injured shoulder, and the sprites, with fear again gripping their hearts, heard the general's mocking laugh ring through the jungle.

"Rainsford, Matrix," called the general, "if you are within sound of my voice, as I suppose you are, let me congratulate you. Not many know how to make a Malay mancatcher. Luckily for me, I, too, have hunted in Malacca. You are proving interesting, friends. I am going now to have my wound dressed; it's only a slight one. But I shall be back. I shall be back."

When the general, nursing his bruised shoulder, had gone, Bob and Dot took up their flight again. It was flight now, a desperate, hopeless flight, that carried them on for some hours. Dusk came, then darkness, and still they pressed on. The ground grew softer under their moccasins; the vegetation grew ranker, denser; insects bit them savagely.

Suddenly, as Bob stepped forward, his foot sank into the ooze. He tried to wrench it back, but the muck sucked viciously at his foot as if it were a giant leech. Dot immediately saw the danger and wrapped her arms around his waist, pulling him back. With a violent effort, she tore him loose. They knew where they were now. Death Swamp and its quicksand.

Bob’s hands were tight closed as if his nerve were something tangible that someone in the darkness was trying to tear from his grip. However,the softness of the earth had given Dot an idea. She pulled her companion back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so and, like some huge prehistoric beaver, she began to dig.

Bob’s rebooted memories told him that his game character, Rainsford, had dug himself in in France when a second's delay meant death. That had been a placid pastime compared to this digging now. The pit grew deeper as Bob added his strength; when it was above his shoulders, Dot climbed out and from some hard saplings cut stakes and sharpened them to a fine point. These stakes she planted in the bottom of the pit with the points sticking up. With flying fingers she wove a rough carpet of weeds and branches and with it she covered the mouth of the pit. Then, wet with sweat and aching with tiredness, Dot and Bob crouched behind the stump of a lightning-charred tree.

They knew his pursuer was coming; they heard the padding sound of feet on the soft earth, and the night breeze brought him the perfume of the general's cigarette. It seemed to them that the general was coming with unusual swiftness; he was not feeling his way along, foot by foot. The two sprites, crouching there, could not see the general, nor could he see the pit. They lived a year in a minute. Then Bob felt an impulse to cry aloud with joy, for he heard the sharp crackle of the breaking branches as the cover of the pit gave way; he heard the sharp scream of pain as the pointed stakes found their mark. He leaped up from his place of concealment, then he cowered back as Dot reached up to pull him down again. Three feet from the pit a man was standing, with an electric torch in his hand.

"You've done well." the voice of the general called. "Your Burmese tiger pit has claimed one of my best dogs. Again you score. I think, my friends, I’ll see what you can do against my whole pack. I'm going home for a rest now. Thank you for a most amusing evening."

At daybreak Dot, lying near the swamp, was awakened by a sound that made her know that she had new things to learn about fear. It was a distant sound, faint and wavering, but she knew it. It was the baying of a pack of hounds.

After Dot had roused Bob from his own restless sleep, they knew they could do one of two things. They could stay where they were and wait. That was suicide. They could flee. That was postponing the inevitable. For a moment they stood there, thinking. An idea that held a wild chance came to Bob, and, tightening his belt, he grabbed Dot by the elbow and headed away from the swamp.

The baying of the hounds drew nearer, then still nearer, nearer, ever nearer. On a ridge Bob climbed a tree. Down a watercourse, not a quarter of a mile away, he could see the bush moving. Straining his eyes, he saw the lean figure of General Zaroff; just ahead of him Bob made out another figure whose wide shoulders surged through the tall jungle weeds; it was the giant Ivan, and he seemed pulled forward by some unseen force; Bob knew that Ivan must be holding the pack in leash.

They would be on them any minute now. His mind worked frantically. His game programming kicked in, and he thought of a native trick his character had learned in Uganda. He slid down the tree. He caught hold of a springy young sapling and to it he fastened his hunting knife, with the blade pointing down the trail; with a bit of wild grapevine he tied back the sapling. Then he returned to Dot silently and they ran for their lives. The hounds raised their voices as they hit the fresh scent. Bob knew now how an animal at bay feels.

They had to stop to get their breath. The baying of the hounds stopped abruptly, and their hearts stopped too. The hounds must have reached the knife.

Bob shinnied excitedly up a tree and looked back. His pursuers had stopped. But the hope that was in Rainsford's brain when he climbed died, for he saw in the shallow valley that General Zaroff was still on his feet. But Ivan was not. The knife, driven by the recoil of the springing tree, had not wholly failed.

Bob had hardly tumbled to the ground when the pack took up the cry again.

"Nerve, nerve, nerve!" Dot panted, as they dashed along. A blue gap showed between the trees dead ahead. Ever nearer drew the hounds. Dot forced them on toward that gap. They reached it. It was the shore of the sea. Across a cove he could see the gloomy gray stone of the chateau. Twenty feet below him the sea rumbled and hissed. Bob hesitated, but Dot pulled on his arm frantically.

“Look who's flying by the seat of their pants now...” he murmured, with a sad half-smile. Dot stared at him, then slowly took a step forward. Her gaze was intense.
“You know this is the only way out. User help us, this might be my last chance...”

The last seemed mostly to herself, but Bob nodded slightly. However, his thoughts seemed to drift as she drew closer, a look of determination on her features. She was very, very close. She reached out tentatively and drew her fingers slowly along the side of his face; her lips were inches from his own.

Suddenly her gaze snapped to a spot over his shoulder, and she bit her lip, yanking back almost violently. He heard the hounds. She stepped the the edge of the cliff and gazed down at the waves crashing on the rocks below. Bob touched her shoulder gently. "You know this is the only way out." He repeated. She shook her head miserably, tears running down her cheeks. "I won't let you go..." Bob said softly. He turned her around to face him, shaking her shoulders gently. "Trust me." A hound belled just behind them. She dragged him stumbling to the cliff’s edge and they leaped far out into the sea. . . .

When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped. For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.
 

 

***

 

General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the Americans hadn't played the game--so thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called, "Better luck another time," to them. Then he switched on the light.

Two figures, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, were standing there.

"Rainsford! Matrix!" screamed the general. "How in God's name did you get here?"

"Swam," said Bob. "We found it quicker than walking through the jungle."

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. "I congratulate you," he said. "You have won the game."

Bob did not smile. "I am still a beast at bay," he said, in a low, hoarse voice. "Get ready, General Zaroff."

The general made one of his deepest bows. "I see," he said. "Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford." . . .
 

 

***

 

*Game Over. Game Over. Game Over.*

The cube of purple energy lifted, leaving behind two tattered and exhausted sprites. Bob was sprawled on his face in the street. Dot unclenched her hand and dropped to her knees beside him, shaking his shoulders. “Bob! Log on, are you all right?”

“Been better...” replied the Guardian weakly, rolling over onto his back. “General swiped me...thank the User you’d grabbed that sword, Dot, or he would’ve gotten us both.”

Dot prodded the shallow gash in his body armor, frowning as it seeped a small amount of purplish energy. “He cut you...” She tore the sleeve of her jumpsuit at the elbow, using it as a makeshift bandage.

Despite her protests, Bob wrapped an arm over his stomach and struggled to his feet, then pulled her to hers. “We’d better get back. That game must have been here a long time...”

Dot ducked under his arm as he wobbled a bit, bristling with irritation at his refusal to stay still. “Fine then, but you’re going straight to Phong.”

“Yes Ma’am.” He laughed weakly, then sighed. “We’d better tell him about the game, too...if we get any more of those in Mainframe...” The two sprites shared a shudder.

Dot steadied him again and frowned, puzzled. “What kind of game was that, anyway? I’d never seen anything like it.”

Bob shook his head, slowly raising his arm to look at Glitch. He stopped, tripping up Dot slightly, as he stared in surprise at the display.

“What is it, Bob?” Dot tiptoed to see over his shoulder. She read out loud from the tiny printed display:
 

 

“-He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.”
The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell

END

 

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