Again we had reason to be grateful to Wunderland gravity. Cars have limited gliding qualities. I kept the car flying as long as I could, putting more kilometers between us and the caves. We landed on a low mesa in arid, deserted country. The Hohe Kalkstein and the Drachenhohlen were a blue line on the eastern horizon, the farmlands still far to the west.
The damage was obvious. The kzin's claws had opened the metal at the rear of the car and at one point punctured a hydrogen fuel line. It was a tiny puncture, barely visible, but with liquid hydrogen fuel under high pressure it was enough. I doubted the puncture could be plugged reliably. The line and its fittings would have to be replaced. We had been lucky to get as far as we had. I had loaded the car with all sorts of spares, including, of course, spare fuel cells, and mercifully I had secured them thoroughly. But it would be a long job.
As I looked at the evidence of the power of those claws I realised again how lucky we had been. Suddenly we seemed to be still all too close to the Drachenhohlen. I had loaded a camouflaged biologist's field tent among the stores and we draped this over the car. It didn't cover it entirely but I hoped it might break up the silhouette. I would like to have had us both checked by the car's doc, but was not sure I could trust it after the rough time it had had.
Perhaps it was thinking of that which caused the sedatives still washing round in my system to kick in again just as the flight-or-fright was wearing off. I began to remove the damaged panels but started fumbling and dropping tools. Finally I gave it up and mumbled that I would have to rest again. When sleeping out in Wunderland it is ingrained in us to search out any cuddly little Beam's beasts and other small but dangerous creatures. I just about managed to inspect the neighboring small rocks, and we placed a couple on the car to break up its silhouette a little more.
Our elevation gave us a good view in all directions but also made me feel unpleasantly visible. We crawled under the tent and Dimity covered me with a blanket. When I next woke up it was night. My chest felt as if it was on fire. Even for Wunderland, I thought, there seemed once again to be an unusual number of meteors in the sky. I felt my head wasn't working well, but Dimity, sleeping apparently peacefully beside me, was something to cling to. The western sky was particularly bright. I could hear thunder and see distant lightning flashes.
Meteors and lightning storms? Lightning storms in a cloudless sky? Meteors visible in a cloud-covered one? I shook Dimity awake just in time for us to see the familiar rhomboid pattern of one of the bigger low-orbit billboards explode in golden fire.
Were there black shapes passing against the luminous band of the Serpent Swarm? They must be either huge or very low.
A burning thing like a tiny comet fell out of the sky and hit the ground with a fierce explosion a few miles to the north. We heard it and then felt the shock-wave.
The mayday alarm on the car began to howl. An emergency call close by. There was still plenty of battery power for the dashboard display. A spacecraft's escape module was descending almost on top of us. With the dashboard telltale to guide us, I picked up its blinking beacon visually with binoculars.
The sides of the mesa were partly eroded, and it was easy enough to jump down from rock to rock. The module landed as we approached and the hatch opened. We saw the pilot jump from it and run. I started toward him, but Dimity grabbed me.
"Wait," she snapped. "If he's running away from it, don't run towards it."
She dragged me partly behind the cover of a boulder. The pilot was running more or less in our direction, presumably because our car's alarm unit had fed back to him at least a rough position for us.
A dark wedge-shaped thing flashed out of the sky, swooping low. There was no time to make out details. I saw greenish points of fire flashing under stubby wings. The escape module exploded in a fireball. The dark thing was gone. We heard debris falling out of the sky.
Now we hurried to the pilot. He wore the insignia of a member of the Meteor Guard. He looked about as one would expect a crash survivor to look, and, his first energy gone, needed some help to walk.
"That thing will be back!" he croaked. He was breathing with difficulty. "Get under cover fast."
"Can it track our receiver?" asked Dimity.
"I don't think so. Not yet. But if they see us moving in the open we're dead."
Bearing a good deal of his weight and breathing shallowly made it difficult for me to talk as we shuffled back toward the mesa. Dimity asked: "Are they the cats?"
Burning wreckage was scattered over a wide area. As we climbed into the shadows of the mesa, the same black craft or another swooped down and fired another missile into the biggest piece. We were far enough away not to be involved but the explosion threw us flat.
"Heat. Don't give them heat to home in on," he told us. Then he added, "If they're shooting up ground targets like that now, it must be just about over. . . . Well, we gave it our best shot."
He told us to turn off the battery power and all electronics. We laid him in the back of the car under the cover and got his pressure suit off. Space pilots are scrupulously, fanatically clean. This man stank as if he had lived in the suit for days, for weeks. Many spacers are funny colors, often starkly piebald unless they are born black. This one had the space pallor in his face overlaid with dirt, sweat, oil and blood. He looked in terrible shape and again I wanted to use the doc. Again I decided against it. We're all in bad shape, I thought. Munchen hospital will be our next port of call. I wish I had thought to fit a portable shower setup in the car. I sponged his face with a cleaner and something came off, dirt or protection. I recognised Commander Kleist of the Meteor Guard.
At least I had some explorer's brandy. That and a meal was something we could use. Then he began to talk. He was exhausted, shocked and bruised, but he talked.
"We got notice of Outsiders long before even you were told," he said. "The powers that be on Wunderland didn't tell us too much and the public heard even less. Apparently the idea was that negotiation was a possibility. We were under orders to say nothing."
"You said little enough," I said, "when the first Defense Council meeting was called."
"That was orders. They said there had been some 'unfortunate incident' with Sol ships and if these were the same aliens we would have to approach them carefully and diplomatically. By the time that first meeting was called the fighting had already been going on for weeks. 'There must be no panic'. . . . That was what they kept saying: 'No panic. But let them see we are aware of the problem and are doing something.' Were our people insane?"
"Inexperienced, anyway," said Dimity.
"We had the meeting you attended, and saw the various committees set up. We know now they'd been landing small parties for some time."
"We know that too."
"Not what we'd been watching for. We thought—I don't know if we knew what we thought, but we had some idea they'd approach us with some sort of ceremony . But the overall idea of everybody was that with a little talk they could be friends.
"When something was first detected coming in some thought it might be a new comet. But comets don't maneuver.
"We were excited, of course, and one ship didn't seem to be all that threatening. Some argued that the fact they had sent a single ship was an indication that they were peaceful. Our mass detectors didn't record it as very large, and it never occurred to us that its true size might be cloaked. We took what we thought were precautions. We sent a team of four ships, the anti-meteor lasers ready in case of trouble. I'm alive, so you can see I wasn't with them.
"It was quick. The Outsider ship dropped its cloak. Grew into something huge on the screens, travelling at comet speeds, then with other blips streaming away from it. It was a carrier, full of war craft.
"Our ships didn't last long. The Outsider craft could make turns without losing velocity, where ours had to maneuver with attitude jets. No answers to our signals, no negotiations. That time, none of ours even lasted long enough to get off a shot.
"The only thing that saved the rest of our ships was the distances of space. That and the orbiting laser stations. The outsiders evidently didn't know what those were, and came in range. They had good people on the stations, used to picking off meteors.
"We had fusion-pumped lasers to fire in the paths of meteors, as well as the big cannons. But meteors move in predictable lines. They hit several of that first flight of the Outsider ships before the Outsiders realized what was happening and began jilling around.
"At .8 lightspeed and more, with inertialess turns, they easily evaded any bombs or beams we could throw at them except at short range. The stations went on fighting and got a couple more, but they were all destroyed in a week. Suicide attacks by our ships did no better.
"Then we found at least one sane thing had been done . . . or I suppose it was sane: The Serpent Swarmers had been alerted, and they came in strong. They always said their meteor defenses were faster and better than ours, and they proved it over the next few weeks.
"But the real point was, the Swarmers had ramjets with them, which we'd never use so close to a planet, and they used the ramscoop fields as weapons. They also had a tactic of turning away with really large attitude jets that they had lashed on and using their drive flames like swords. A lot of them were robots—humans couldn't stand the G-forces. They made a sweep too fast for the outsiders to dodge, but it was the ramscoops that saved us.
"We didn't know if the ramscoop fields would affect the Outsiders like other chordates, but they did. The Outsiders had learned not to attack from behind, and seemed to prefer head-on attacks anyway. They'd come barreling in, and until they wised up the Swarmers had a real turkey-shoot. A squadron of Outsider ships that passed through a ramscoop field was suddenly manned by dead Outsiders."—He gave an odd laugh.—"Or inside-out-siders as we called them. Look at one and you'll see why.
"Off Tiamat a Wunderland–Serpent Swarm force boarded one of these dead squadrons. They had no time to find out the principles of their drive, though we know it affects gravity fields. But the Swarmers learned to fly the ships and use their weaponry, and they counterattacked. They destroyed more Outsider ships and even damaged the mother-carrier.
"That bought us time. The mother-carrier hauled off and we had a few weeks' breathing space."
"We didn't know any of this," I told him.
"None of the craft we captured and used survived the attack on the carrier," he went on. "But at least with what we had learned from them we were able to duplicate some of their more esoteric weapons—things like bomb-missiles whose detonation, as well as pumping lasers, could be lethal across a huge globe of space, for example. They have a heat-induction ray but we don't understand it. It's too slow for a military weapon anyway.
"We learned another tactic that cost them a lot of ships: strap big attitude jets on our craft and use them to spin like catherine wheels with the main reaction drives still firing. Not only did it give us better maneuverability, but it turned the reaction drive into a swinging sword even they could hardly dodge. We couldn't do it with manned ships—the inertial forces were too great—but we did it with drone craft. We began to win some more. If we'd had more motors, and more craft, and more resources, and more time . . . but that stopped them for a while.
"We studied their tactics, and an odd thing was, some of their behavior seemed almost as amateurish as ours. More than once they came straight at us, in an undeviating line, when a straight-on attack was the one thing we could meet with a good chance of hitting them. At the Second Battle of Tiamat's Lead Trojan, their big ships came at us in a column. It looked pretty frightening, seeing ship after ship closing with us like that—but what it meant was that we could hardly miss them. It was as if they were unimaginative. Or inexperienced. It didn't make sense."
We sat in silence for a moment. Something that might have been a meteor but probably wasn't streaked by far above. The scattered wreckage of the crashed ship had just about burned itself out.
"It might make sense," said Dimity. "Maybe they are inexperienced. At least in dealing with humans . . ." Her face went slack in a way that I had seen before.
"We took it for granted that space-traveling races would be too intelligent and civilized to fight," she said. "Perhaps we were nearly right. What if peaceful, civilized space-traveling races are the norm? Or were the norm. There may not be any others left now.
"Given that, the Kzin wouldn't have much experience of war. You need a fighting enemy to teach you to fight. What if when they meet other races they simply devour them. There's no more fight than there is between a tigripard and a lamb."
"One of the first human ships out of Sol that they attacked was able to beat them," Kleist said. "It used a com-laser as a weapon. Some of us in the Meteor Guard actually think aspects of our missile technology are as good as theirs or better. It suggests they come from a much cleaner system than this.
"Or sometimes it seemed as if they were not in control of their own minds," he went on. "Sometimes they seemed undisciplined . We analysed our own successful tactics, and realized that when we had been, almost unconsciously, provoking them to attack, baiting them, they would often leap and take the bait. Our ace pilots had been doing that, it seemed, by instinct. Someone said it was the instinct of the monkey to tease the leopard.
"At other times they would stalk us like cats. A particularly weird thing was that one of the larger enemy command ships had behaved at times as if its crew or something aboard it could actually read our minds. When that ship was destroyed the tactical efficiency of the rest fell off appreciably.
"We salvaged more of their wreckage, and began to study their drive and everything else. We were putting improvements into our ships. Reinforcements were coming from Wunderland and the Swarm. We got more confident.
"There was even talk of finding where they had come from and chasing them—counterattacking. We thought we had a superweapon in the ramscoop.
"Then they came back. If they had been inexperienced, they had learned from experience like us. They'd got more cunning.
"They avoided ramscoops, and seemed to flee from them. That lured us in. Then we found it was a trick. They generated magnetic fields of their own to distort ramscoop fields, or simply dropped things into them.
"We know they had taken human prisoners and perhaps they had learned things from them. Not just in space. When we killed one of their ships and boarded it we found bodies of human civilians from Wunderland.
"Apparently the Outsiders have been landing scouts in small cloaked ships for some time."
"I'm surprised. If they are so aggressive, why didn't they just attack in force?"
"Cats stalk their prey. They study the ground before they pounce. It's after the pounce begins that their control goes. This may be the same thing. Some of the humans they took had kept hidden records, hidden in their cages. Apparently the Kzin didn't care. Why should they? They aren't nice reading.
"Our eggheads are puzzled. These creatures are something out of a nightmare: cruel, man-eating, killing, but with science that is in so many ways ahead of ours. It shouldn't have happened, but it has. I'm told there have been quite a lot of suicides among our eggheads. . . . Oh yes, and from the prisoners' notes we found out why they sometimes behaved as if they could read our minds. They can."
"They can. Or a few of them can. Apparently it's rare. But you can tell when they are doing it: a sudden violent headache. It also explains how they came to know our languages so quickly—which they do."
That hit me like a physical blow, though it took me a few moments to realize why.
"Can it be resisted?" asked Dimity.
"Don't know. The prisoners we know they tried it on were terrorized, injured, starving, tortured already. In no shape to resist. Anyway, that's the war, and it's been going on for weeks. . . . I don't know how long. . . . I think it's nearly over now."
"We've heard nothing of this," I said again. "We've been told nothing."
"What was the point of telling?"
"It might have meant better war production."
"I think so. Others thought it would lead to 'a collapse of civilian morale.' I think it was their own morale that was actually collapsing. They said there was as much material getting up to us as could be reasonably expected."
I remembered my speed-reading of the last few weeks, and the attempted defense of Singapore in the Second World War. As the Japanese advanced down the Malay Peninsula towards it, the defending general had refused to construct field defenses in case they lowered the spirits of the civilians. It had not been a good decision.
"If people knew too much, I gather, it was feared they would simply flee into the hills, or mob the slowboats," he went on. "And then there was that . . . that one brief shining moment . . . when it looked as if we were winning.
"There was another matter too, which we found out late in the day: Some of our politicians minimized the threat because they hoped to enlist the Kzin as allies for their own factions in our internal disputes here."
I wished I could have said I found that unbelievable, but I knew too much.
"Maybe, if we could have duplicated their drive," he went on, "got factories into production, maybe if we had had a few more months, or a year, we could have fought them on equal terms. As it is . . .
"Wunderland is their prime target, of course. Anyway, the Swarm is more difficult to subdue. Dozens of inhabited asteroids, with defenses now. But we haven't much left here. Those drives and weapons are too good for us. And they've got reinforcements too. More of the big carrier ships have arrived."
"They could hardly have been alone," said Dimity. "With drives like that and what we know about them from Sol. Where there was one ship there would be more coming . . .
"Tell me," she asked him, "Is there any suggestion, any indication, that they may have got through the light-barrier?"
"No. They get close to the speed of light. They can match velocities with any of our ships, and of course they are much more maneuverable."
"Could they have a superluminal drive in outer space and drop into subluminal close to star systems?"
"I don't know. We've not been in a position to observe. There's no evidence of it. Anyway it's impossible. Why do you ask?"
"I only saw a bit of what was happening. I'm just a meteor jockey. The fighting was spread all over the system."
"You must have learned a bit about these creatures. Language, that sort of thing?"
"A bit." The pilot took a red disk from a pocket. "It's here, what we know. The spoken language is hard to understand, even with a computer, at present impossible to imitate, although some people are trying. The written is a little easier, at least when it's not in war code. It's another of those things we might have got better at with time."
"Can I play it?"
He shrugged and passed it to her. "I don't see why not. But what do you intend to do now?"
"Repair the car as soon as I can," I said.
"You can't show a light or heat source. They're still around up there."
"Well, we can't trek very far on foot, and we can't stay here. In any case, there are almost certainly a group of aliens in the Hohe Kalkstein caves. We know there's one."
"Kzin," he said. He pronounced it differently, a snarling cough it made my vocal chords ache just to hear. "They are called Kzin. Plural and possessive kzinti, we think."
"Oh yes, I know."
Kleist's nervous excitement was running down now. We were all pretty beaten up, and he and I sank into a sort of doze. Dimity had earphones on, and was playing the disk, staring at the screen. More than once I saw dark shapes, too sharp-edged to be cloud, driving high and silent across the luminous bands of the Swarm and the Milky Way, and more sliding lights that might have been meteors.