The Arak was nowhere to be seen. It was off hunting, somewhere in flight high over the dun-colored plains of Koutar, riding the thermal currents that marked the approaching hour of twilight. Waxman stared out over the limitless expanse of the Koutar spread out beneath him. The air was filled with a soft, golden radiance, a gentle effusion of light that preceded the coming of dark and of the cold.
Waxman fought to subdue his excitement. He had been tracking the Arak for weeks now, studying its habits, following the pattern of its flight. He had narrowed the focus of his search to this one area, an elevated plateau of fractured rock and wind swept rubble that was bleak and isolated even as such terms were understood in the Koutar.
Waxman pushed his way through a tangle of brush and dried bracken, made his way up a steep incline, using his hands to help him climb. He planted his feet with care, testing the ground beneath him, knowing how treacherous it was and how thin the margin for safety. At length he staggered out on to a narrow stone ledge that afforded a view of all the country laid out below.
There he discovered the nest - a score of eggs nestled protectively in a little hollow of kirrel grass. It was a sight that few men had ever beheld, that stirred Waxman to the depths and set his heart to racing. The eggs resembled so many precious stones set out for Waxman to inspect, each bearing its own particular mark of distinction. One was a delicate coffee color dusted with a spray of gold freckles. Another, smaller egg, was the color of the sky just at daybreak: a distant, ethereal shade of blue, so tentative and precarious that one was certain it could not last, certain it must be washed away by the gathering strength of the sun.
The trick now was to study each egg in turn, weighing their respective qualities and merits, and select only the one egg, the Alpha prime. Waxman must fight the impulse to seize the first egg that his hand fell upon and flee, making good his escape before the return of the Arak. He stood spellbound examining the nest, intoxicated by the opportunity that presented itself, terrified lest he allow it to slip through his fingers. All of the eggs would bear chicks, it was true. But the vast majority were beta offspring, feeble imitations that would never fulfill the promise of their ancestry or achieve their true potential. They would not fly with the grace and blinding speed of the pure Arak, would not hunt with the same matchless ferocity and courage. They were fit only for yard fowl, were fit only for the cooking pot.
Which egg? Waxman lifted the nearest from the nest of kirrel grass. It was an imperial shade of violet, recalled twilight as the blue egg recalled the dawn. Waxman balanced the egg between his hands, marveled at the pure, elliptical symmetry of it, the perfection of form, the harmony of the whole. Thus too was the Arak; its grace, cunning and strength all harnessed to the act of flight, geared to the supreme fulfillment of the hunt. Surely it must be this egg and no other. Form and function were one. The logic could not be more plain or incisive. And yet . . .
Waxman set the egg down, lifted another. The shell was a burnt, scoured tan, the interior, dense, weighty, compact, holding much but disclosing little. This, too, might be said of the Arak. The hunter never revealed all of its strategy, always held something in reserve. The Arak was more than tendon, ligament and sinew. It transcended talon and beak, was greater than the mere sum of its parts. It retained, always, some quality of the unknown, some particle of the intangible.
Logic alone would not disclose the Alpha, that was apparent. Each egg might in some manner be interpreted as best representing the Arak. It was yet another facet of the legend that surrounded the Arak, the mystery, that it produced so many eggs. No one knew why. Was it only a matter of camouflage, an elaborate subterfuge designed to fool potential predators? Or was it something more? The dazzling profusion of eggs, their beauty and variety, seemed almost a conscious act of defiance, a calculated attempt to alleviate the barren sameness of the Koutar, to redress its searing emptiness.
Yet, paradoxically, in resorting to such a subterfuge the Arak revealed much about itself. Given time and opportunity Waxman might unravel all that was to be known about the great predator. He might pour over the eggs as a scholar over a trove of books, might read and decipher the meaning of each. In the course of such study he could compile a profile that, when complete, would be indistinguishable from that of the Arak itself.
Waxman looked up. He thought he heard the beating of wings, sensed the fluid rush of air that would mark the approach of the Arak. He crouched in terror, drawing his cloak over his head. To be caught plundering the nest of the Arak – it would mean certain death. A sharp scent of fear filled Waxman’s nostrils. He crawled along the ledge, seeking shelter. His hand brushed another egg, this ivory with a roseate flush. It bore a deeply incised V near its top. Waxman was unable to interpret the mark, unable to reconcile it with his understanding of the concept of egg. It seemed to belong to a different order of creation, a different scheme of conception and birth. The imperfection resembled - Waxman squeezed his eyes shut, bit his lip hard - that resulting from a severed umbilical cord.
This egg! Waxman’s mind screamed. This was the Alpha! He had only to seize it, to flee into the gathering dusk. His hand darted forward and he cradled the egg to his chest. He could sense the life which resided within. Its heart beat in concert with his own, its embryonic yearnings found answering echo in his own. Blood called out to blood.
A sudden bolt of insight swamped Waxman, left him breathless and chilled through to the bone. How blind he had been, how narrow and conventional in his thinking! The Arak was more than any mere bird. In stealth and cunning, in pure ferocity and fixity of purpose, it resembled no animal so much as it resembled Man.
A thick edge of menace bled through the enveloping silence. Waxman peeked from beneath his cloak. At the far end of the ledge perched the Arak, shadow within the deeper shadow of the night. Once, in a distant time, in a less harsh and exacting age, a species which commanded little attention or regard. But now, combining the instincts of two formidable predators, it had ascended to the top of the food chain. It had come into its own.
The Arak’s eyes fixed upon Waxman with bright, sensual warmth. Waxman was unable to move, unable so much as to turn and look away. Of the Arak he knew much, its hunting, its flight, its matchless strength and ferocity; all these he had studied in great detail. But of its mating habits little was known. There was only rumor and supposition, only odd scraps plucked from the accounts of those who had ventured into the Koutar and had managed to make their way back out again.
The Arak stalked forward, stiff-legged. She fell upon Waxman with a flurry of wings, with a passion not to be thwarted or denied. The vast expanse of the Koutar echoed with Waxman’s cries, as night closed over them both.