Comfort, content, delight—
The ages' slow-bought gain—
They shrivelled in a night.
Only ourselves remain
There was a view from space of Munchen and the surrounding territory. Large areas of the suburbs were still in flames. To the east continuing fire and explosions as well as beams suggested a human army was still fighting. To the southwest, Dresden was a firestorm. Other screens showed human refugees, some scattering out to the north and the farms of the northwest and northeast without apparent plan or purpose, others, who seemed to be in a more organized column, heading for the hills.
"That looks another futile stand," I said, indicating a knot southwest of the crater at Manstein's Folly. The abbot shook his head. He seemed to take my presence for granted but perhaps that was an effect of extreme weariness.
"Not altogether. They know what they're doing. It's drawing off kzin from the city and the refugees. The humans have done better than I thought. Are still doing better. At this rate it'll take the kzin weeks or months to destroy all the pockets of resistance. It's still buying time, at least."
"Time for what?" I said, thinking of von Diderachs's words. I moved behind him and stepped back to get an overall view.
"At the moment, time is valuable for its own sake. It takes their attention from the slowboats."
"They could shoot them down if they wanted to."
"It also gives time to get more people into the hills. And . . . it seems from intercepted transmissions that the Kzin may actually . . . respect a bit of resistance, somehow."
However weary he was, he spoke with some calm authority. And guessing what I had guessed, I felt myself blazing with simultaneous hope and fury.
"You know a lot, don't you?"
"As much as I can learn."
"Inside information from military channels?"
"I've been calling in favors lately."
I moved my hand to my belt as unobtrusively as possible. With my next words things might get difficult.
"You knew for a long time."
"Yes. More or less."
"Where are these pictures coming from?"
"A satellite, obviously." The abbot's voice implied he didn't know or care which.
"The Kzin have destroyed all satellites."
"They must have overlooked this one, then."
He was too keyed up to feel the tiny prick on the back of his neck from the little collecting-gun's microscopic, instantly dissolving, sliver of tranquillizer. It seemed the first time in a long while that my professional training and equipment had been of use to me.
"Because it's shielded?"
"How should I know?" He put his hand up to his neck and patted it vaguely. His voice was changing. I hoped that a sudden shock now would get the truth out of him.
"How should you know?"
I had the strakkaker out now. I jumped across the desk and grabbed him by the throat, jabbing the muzzle under his nose.
"Don't play games with me! You know exactly what I mean!"
"Brother! . . . Professor! . . . Nils?"
"It's disguised, isn't it? And it's not a satellite so much as a spaceship in orbit?"
He didn't try to dissemble.
"How did you know?"
"I remembered what you said, the night it all began: 'We came here independently. . . . It almost bankrupted the Vatican.' Passage in a big slowboat would have been expensive, but not that expensive. I searched some of the old records when we got them up, and found no mention of your people on any of the slowboat passenger lists. My conclusion was: You came to Wunderland on your own ship."
"Yes. We left later than the original slowboats but we came faster. The state of the art had advanced by the time it was launched."
"Where did that ship go? Not back to Earth. There would be no justification for sending an empty craft all the way back. So it's still here. Isn't it?"
"In a system as full of rubble as this it would be easy enough to cover with rocks and dust so it looks like another planetoid. With a low albedo and a high orbit it would be more or less unnoticeable from the ground among everything else that's up there. Your ace in the hole in case you really had to run or fight?"
"You made sure it was forgotten."
"Yes. Later we did a deal with some of the Families. Records of how we arrived were removed and people forgot. But we argued that in an emergency the ship would be at their disposal or ours—as lifeboat or . . . or warship. Then time went by and they forgot about it too. Who cared?"
"You denied it to the defense effort now, when we needed every ship we had to defend our world against alien invaders."
"But it was deactivated. There are no weapons aboard. It couldn't have helped the defense effort."
Weapons could have been fitted, and it might have been used for an ambush. Any spaceship is a weapon, properly used. But I let it pass. It would simply have been destroyed without affecting the eventual outcome of events, and at least it was a ship in being now.
"And now it's been activated again. These transmissions prove it."
"Yes. One of the families helped us, and we have a shuttlecraft.
"You can put that gun down," he said, "I'm not going to fight you. We have enough problems already."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Get some of our people away, and some refugees. But it's a small ship. We can't take many."
"No. Earth is plainly under attack as well. What would be the point? I'm thinking of sending it to We Made It."
"First, to give them warning. Second, because it's taking some of our eggs out of two threatened baskets. These kzin may not know of We Made It."
"No. You must send it to Earth. With Dimity Carmody aboard."
"Why? She is a shapely and clever young lady, and I know that you are in love with her. But your subjective feelings are not important now, Nils. As God is my witness I'm sorry, but to send her would be at the cost of not sending somebody else. It seems to me she is better equipped to survive here than some. If any are to survive the kzin."
"At this moment she is in your infirmary, badly injured. Head injured. Isn't regrowing brain and central nervous tissue the hardest surgical procedure of all?"
It stopped him for a moment. But he replied:
"You must see that that makes no better case for her. To take her in that condition with a lot of medical equipment—equipment that's needed here—would mean leaving even more of the others behind. . . . You cannot think I enjoy making decisions like this?
"I, of course will not go," he went on. "These are my flock and I will not abandon them. In any case, I have already told you that it will not go to Earth. Earth warned us, remember. They already know of the kzin attack even if they are not directly experiencing it. And I can tell you we have had no laser messages from Sol System for some time. That strongly suggests their big lasers are busy." The drug might be making him tell the truth but I could see it was not affecting his willpower.
"I will stay here if I must, but send her to Earth!" I shouted. "She thinks she has . . . she knows she has made a mathematical discovery that may have military applications."
"Can you believe that?" He was nodding in his chair now. I hoped he was not going to lose consciousness.
"Do you know of her work?"
"I've heard of it. Who hasn't?"
"Given her own chair and research unit at the age of sixteen. Discoverer of Carmody's Transform. Can't you take what I say on trust? And if the Kzin get her . . ."
"If the Kzin get her she dies. Or perhaps not. Again, as a man, I'm more sorry than I can say, but I believe my duty is clear. I've thought of you as a friend and I've no wish to hurt you or any man or woman. But a lot of people are going to die. Having more neuronic connections in her brain than average doesn't morally entitle her to special treatment."
"She has a military value. This is not for me or for her. The survival of the human race may depend on it."
"Perhaps I should ask her."
There was a soft phut , a pneumatic sound. I saw a dart appear in the back of my right hand. I reached to pull it out but it worked quicker and more heavily than the one I had used. The room began to go black. As I fell I saw Brother Peter advancing, with his own collecting gun.
I came around on a couch in the same room. The daylight slanting through the window told me a night and more had passed. And it was a smoky light, pulsating with distant fire. I felt, stupidly, for my strakkaker. It was gone, of course.
"How do you feel?" the abbot asked.
"Rotten." There were pains everywhere. The locator implant in my arm was doing something. I thought in a disorganized way that it was probably triggered by my generally disordered metabolism.
"Well, you can be thankful. She's gone. You convinced me. You and rereading the effects and importance of Carmody's Transform and her other published work."
"To We Made It."
"That was a mistake."
"Think about it. The Kzin have let the slowboats go so far. They may change their minds and pursue them. If so, they'll be likely to go after the big ones, which are all going the same way, only a few days apart. A smaller and faster ship on its own may have more chance. Anyway, she's safely away.
"The Kzin have been landing heavier warcraft in the last few hours and using heavier weapons," he went on. "Apparently they've had enough play."
"I could have gone with her."
"I have watched you since you were a child. You have always been one of our human insurance policies, and now you are one of the few of them left alive. That last night you came here to the monastery, after the first feline was seen, I knew a storm was coming. The real reports from the Meteor Guard had been passed on to us for some time. Our culture was soft, complacent, faction-ridden, our people had lost much of their pioneering heritage very quickly, and few had survival skills. You have no faction and you know something of survival. You are even a public figure. You are needed here . . . as a leader, now.
"There is another thing," he went on, meeting my gaze. "The shuttle was full. I had to have twelve people dragged off as it was to accommodate her and her medical equipment. God help me! The rest were families. Should I have broken them up to make room for one more?"
"Yes, God help you!" Then, loath as I was to ask him anything further, "Can I . . . see the ship?"
"Are you sure you want to?"
"You can't see her," he said, "Even if you should. She's in coldsleep. But you can see she's out of this horror. She's as safe as any can hope to be. And so is whatever's in her brain. There's a camera on the ship. You can see she's getting away."
He touched the desk. There was a framed view of Wunderland from space, already shrinking. At one corner of the screen I could see some of the stony plating that had disguised the ship, now shed and tumbling rapidly away. Then we saw something else. I think we both cried out together. The abbot had fallen on his knees and was praying loudly. Something about a cup passing.
Two points of light on the screen: A red ovoid ship, moving fast, and behind it (or I guessed behind it—such things are almost impossible to judge in space except by comparing relative sizes) a black dot with a yellow halo: a reaction-drive ship, pursuing.
I saw the hull metal around the camera port beginning to change color, volatilize. The kzin ship was holding a laser on the fleeing vessel. It seems so intent on its attack as not to see the reaction-drive ship closing. Then I saw the reaction-drive ship firing at the Kzin. There was the beginning of an explosion, and the screen went blank.
"So the Kzin did pursue them. Why did you think they would not?"
I could have killed him as he knelt there. Bare-handed, I nearly tried, but an overwhelming sense of futility prevented me. Besides, it was not his fault. He had more or less done for Dimity what I had wanted him to do.
The only ones to blame were the Kzin. And she would have died in sleep without the least knowledge. A better death than many would have on this planet . . . or on Earth, perhaps. I realized that perhaps taking the chance to send her to We Made It had been the right one: the Kzin would not spare Sol System, and the refugees cramming the big slowboats had probably bought themselves no more than a temporary lease of life that would be spent in coldsleep. Besides, I thought more savagely, killing him in these circumstances was too kind. The little ginger cat jumped suddenly onto his shoulder and looked at me with bright button eyes. It patted at something glittering on his fat cheek which I realised was a tear. He lifted the cat down, stroking it.
I don't know how much he read in my face. His voice was calm now.
"And now I have something else to do. Come with me."
I followed him. He climbed a spiral staircase to a room I had not seen before, lined with old books. He threw open a window.
"You get a better view from here," he said: "Look!"
There were the armed monks on the walls. A small door within the large main gates was open and people were entering the garth through it. Outside was a great crowd, more streaming to join it all the time.
"You can't take them all," I said, stating the obvious.
"That's hardly the most pressing concern." He handed me some high-magnification binoculars and gestured to the southwest. "Look toward Munchen."
More refugees. The line seemed to reach to the horizon. The fueling depot for the shuttle rocket had been demolished and was a smoking crater. But there was something else. I edited out the drifting smoke and haze. Above the straggling humans was the red ovoid of a kzin war-machine.
"They're coming." I felt some malicious satisfaction. "The refugees are drawing them to you."
"Yes, but they aren't attacking the refugees."
"I suppose they want to keep their meat fresh." I saw him flinch.
"What will you do?" I pressed him. It was sheer viciousness on my part, since there was so obviously nothing to be done. "You can't flee into the mountains or the swamp. And doesn't your church disapprove of suicide?"
"It is a great sin," he said, but his voice seemed abstracted and far away. "Condemned by solemn anathema from the days of the earliest councils."
"So what will you do?"
His momentary composure was gone again. If he was no longer weeping, there were beads of sweat running down his pasty brows to his face, and his voice shook. "What Pope Leo did."
I had no idea what Pope Leo did. I stood silent, staring with loathing at this fat, frightened little man who I had once thought of as a teacher and friend. There was an old paper-knife by one of the books. I reminded myself that was pointless for me to kill him when I doubted I could give him a worse death than the Kzin would, but I hoped that I might live long enough to see him die. He beckoned me back to his study.
He opened a standing closet and began to pull things from it. I smelled a musty whiff of aged fabric preservative and noted it somewhere even at that moment.
He pulled the colored fabrics over his head and around his shoulders, dressing himself in stranger clothes than I had seen him wear before, flowing multicolored robes with a vaguely horned-like hat. He groped in the closet again and brought forth a peculiar carved rod with an ornate, curved handle.
"I told you I am also a bishop," he said, as though that explained everything.
"Do you expect God to intervene? He's hardly been noticeable by his presence so far."
"He did when Pope Leo stopped Attila the Hun from sacking Rome."
"How did he do that?"
"He asked him not to."
"You intend to ask them ?"
"We have made some progress in understanding the kzin language," he said. "It cost my friends in the government nothing to send me the reports of its work in that direction, and several of the brothers are scholars.
"I could not try to speak the Kzin's language, but I have some words of their script." He showed me a cloth on which strange marks had been made in bright colours. "I have tried to keep it short and simple," he went on. "I was going to write: 'Spare this place!' However, if there is a word for 'spare' in that sense we haven't found it. 'We ask for mercy' has the same problem—no word for 'mercy.' I hope that what this says is: "This place is sacred."
"They do have a word for 'sacred'?" I said it trying to wound.
"Yes. I think so. There are some hopes riding on our translation being correct."
"You think that will deter them?"
"Can you think of anything better?"
I said nothing.
"Come with me."
"I don't think Pope Leo faced Attila alone. I've seen old pictures of that confrontation. They seem to respect courage. You have obviously been injured recently and if you are seen standing with me it may have some small effect."
I followed him. The monks cleared the way at the gate for us and we stepped out to meet the advancing kzin.
* * *
"Are you afraid?" I asked him.
"Yes. I have never been so afraid. . . . Rykermann, please, don't leave me to face them alone."
I hated him more than any living creature, but I stayed. I no longer cared what happened to me, and I know part of me wanted to see him die. But there was something else, too. I couldn't leave him, white-faced, blue lips moving in prayer, as he stood there shaking and did not run.
The kzin warcraft drew nearer, and details became plainer. It was a huge thing, now plainly the familiar combinations of wedge and ovoid, with the bulges and turrets of weapons. None of the makeshift weapons-systems that Wunderland had put together in the preceding months was even remotely comparable in size or power. How helpless and pitiful it made the fleeing humans look! It could have destroyed them, and us, like ants. But the kzin were still not firing.
It seemed to swell in size as it drew closer yet. There was no spitting of dust and gravel beneath it as there would have been with a human ground-effect car. The machine even had a certain majesty in its power and size. The ripping-cloth sound grew. We could see armoured aliens behind translucent ports.
It stopped. Like a scene from old fictions of alien first contact, a ramp was lowered. A kzin in ornate clothing and with an injured arm descended, followed by others less ornately dressed. The abbot held up his sign. I recognized the kzin: It was the only living one I had ever seen closely in the light.
Did it recognize me? Its huge violet eyes held mine. It thrust its sidearm into its belt and raised two objects: one was the modem from the cave-habitat that linked to the locator implant in my arm.
So that was how it had found me among the scattering hordes of human ants. Had I drawn it here? The other object was something smaller that I could not make out.
It ground out a distorted human word I recognised as "cave." Then it touched the belt it wore, the one that we had dropped to it. It placed the objects it held on the ground.
If the abbot could stand so could I. And some instinct told me it was better to stand and face this creature than either fall on my knees in supplication or turn to flee. Remembering the old game of "Tiger, Man, Gun," I folded my arms and puffed out my chest. In the game that had indicated I was a man, and proud of it, though in the game the tiger ate the man. Also, it gave me something to do with my arms. I felt that however the kzin interpreted the gesture, it could not be seen as too subservient, but could not be taken as a threat. We were plainly weaponless.
"Cave," I replied.
The kzin raised its huge sidearm and fired. But the bolt smashed into a derelict, abandoned ground-car that it evidently considered was an asset humans should not possess. Its gaze passed from me to the abbot and his sign. It opened its jaws and licked its black lips with a huge tongue.
I remembered a line from The War of the Worlds : "I was on the verge of screaming; I bit my hand." It seemed a good idea.
Then it turned and reentered the vehicle, the others following.
There was a long pause as we stood there, then the ramp retracted and the great warcraft rose and turned away, back toward the city. Its guns fired two or three times, picking off vehicles and bits of machinery. We heard a confused clamoring of voices from the monastery and the crowd of refugees.
"We must give thanks," said the abbot. "We have been granted a miracle." There was puzzlement more than anything else in his expression and voice. He seemed to be trying to come to terms with a completely new and strange problem. His hand fluttered to his chest. "I have been allowed to live to see a miracle."
I was not so sure. It seemed to me likely that, with the war plainly all but won, the kzin must be thinking of preserving the human population for their own purposes. I did not even think then that the kzin had sought me out specially: It had merely wanted to know where all the humans were heading for, and the monastery was the last place before the swamp and sea and mountains where they could gather. But all the same, things might have gone very differently.
"Come with me to the chapel," said the abbot. "I must call the brothers to prayer and thanksgiving." He clasped his chest harder and gave a sudden cry. He staggered in a circle, then fell, writhing. I bent over him.
"Heart," he whispered. "A fat old man's heart . . ." His voice and his respiration were rising and falling in an odd way. "Yes, listen. . . . Do you recognize it, scientist? Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Something few heard on this world when everyone had a doc. But I've attended the dying. . . . You will hear a lot more of it as the docs fail, I fear. . . . I'm not good at fear. . . . This . . . this is another miracle. It will save me much fear." His voice rallied for a moment.
"Rykermann, you may hate me, and God knows I am a sinner. But let me give you my blessing."
I shrugged. Hatred seemed unimportant now.
"My personal unworthiness does not affect the quality of it, you know," he whispered with a shadow of his old manner. "As for Masonry, I doubt you can teach the Kzin the handclasp. They haven't the fingers for it. But be careful of the—"
His writhing stopped. He mumbled feebly, then his voice grew a little stronger and he muttered something in a language I did not understand and raised his hand from his chest, waving it at me as though trying to give me something invisible. I bent closer to catch his words but as I did so he died.
I heard something else then, where the kzin had stood. Along with the locator modem it had left me Dimity's music box. It must have found it in the module, and it must just now have wound the tiny handle with the huge claws of its undamaged arm.
I walked slowly back to the monastery. The infirmary was still stocked, I knew. I had plenty of means of killing myself. Dimity was gone. She had, at least, I kept telling myself, died quickly and cleanly in space, and her knowledge was lost to the Kzin and their mind-readers. But she was lost to me forever. Forever? I remembered my profession of belief in a Supreme Being and turned it over in my mind to see if it helped. To opt out of this horror would be to do nothing, not even to mourn.
I also had, I now realized, a duty to survive. I was a professor of biology and a sort of chemist, and I would be needed. If not for my degrees and papers, then for the fact that my expeditions had made me, as I thought naïvely then, one of the few modern urban Wunderlanders who had any experience of camping and surviving in genuinely primitive conditions.
And there was another matter. Cats did not like fire. Bones and nitric acid made phosphorus. Caves with deep drifts of morlock and mynock bones would be a source of phosphorus. Guano, rich in nitrates, would be a prime source of low-tech explosives, a precious strategic resource if there was someone to build a factory to process them. That someone would have to know organic chemistry, and know at least a little of survival in the wild. Ceramics and armor to withstand laser-blasts, fabricated in hidden factories with improvised plant, would also need someone with chemical knowledge. There were probably no living humans, now, whose knowledge of the great caves of the Hohe Kalkstein came close to mine. Those caves would be a huge strategic resource.
From the makeshift and growing refugee camp I could already hear the sounds of babies crying from hunger. A live Nils Rykermann might be able to help there as well.
The abbot had shown me the reality of duty. As for that odd thing called honor, I thought I had seen a shape of that somewhere between van Roberts and von Diderachs, between the abbot and the kzin.
The first person I recognised in the refugee camp was Leonie Hansen. She had brought away as much equipment from the laboratory as she could carry and with a couple of others had set up a sort of clinic. A lot of it was very simple stuff—test tubes, optical microscopes, filtration paper I saw, all now beyond price. She, or somebody, had seen that the ultrasophisticated equipment of modern laboratories, like autodocs, would be useless without power sources and maintenance. I thought then that many things would go on, and that she would also be needed.
First, of course they asked her name.
"My name is Dimity Carmody."
That was not a We Made It name. But it was not a We Made It ship. The design, the specifications and part numbers showed it had been built on Earth, a long time before.
"What is your position?"
"Special . . . Special . . . Special Professor of Mathematics and Astrometaphysics."
"That's not a crew mustering. And you look too young."
They said "look too young," not "are too young." She had been in Coldsleep a long time. She tried to cooperate.
"No . . . I . . . I don't know what it is."
"Were you crew?"
"I don't know."
"I don't remember."
They let her rest, and though it obliterated some memory potential they applied stronger nerve-growth factors and other regeneration therapy to the brain and where the central nervous tissue had been destroyed. They showed her pictures of the ship as it had been when they had boarded it.
"What do you remember?" The healers on We Made It were gentle and patient.
"I am Dimity Carmody."
"You came in an Earth ship. Did you come from Earth?"
"Where do you come from?"
"Munchen. I grew up in Munchen. My father let me play with his computer."
"Munchen?" They looked up an old Earth atlas and found pictures of it. But when they showed her the pictures they meant nothing to her. They found New Munchen in the records and showed her that: the last pictures they had were of a small town of a few thousand people. She did not recognize the old buildings but she recognized the star patterns.
"That's Wunderland." That solved part of the puzzle. And the memory pictures could be Wunderland. Someone showed her flash cards of Wunderland and general human scenes. They showed her a copy of her own memory of the man with the yellow Wunderland beard, and that brought an almost overwhelming response of love and loss and grief so that they feared for her, but she could not put a name to the man and eventually it passed. At a picture of a cat she laid her ears back. Then they examined her ears again and found the characteristic musculature of some of the aristocratic Wunderland families. They found another picture of what looked like a cat, very distorted, in her own memory and showed it to her but it meant nothing though she flinched from it.
"This isn't Wunderland."
"What year is it, Dimity?" They meant, of course, what year did she remember it as being.
"I don't know."
She never on that world remembered the Kzin or what had happened on Wunderland, though she remembered her theoretical work at length, when the Outsiders sold We Made It a manual for a faster-than-light shunt whose first operating principles she alone could recognize and understand.
Hroarh-Officer's deep radar projected a hologram of the nearer caves. A three-dimensional labyrinth of interconnecting tunnels and cavities of all sizes, it looked much more like a diagram of living organs than like a stone formation.
The resemblance was complete to the detail that there was movement going on in those tunnels and cavities. The radar could give only a blurred impression of the activity in the nearest parts, but like most of Wunderland's caves, with hordes of flying creatures importing protein each day, the great caverns of the Hohe Kalkstein contained a massive amount of life. Some of that life was human and dangerous. Some of it was nonhuman and also dangerous.
The long cliffs that marked the escarpment of the Hohe Kalkstein reared before them, honeycombed, honey-coloured for the most part (the Kzin had discovered honey fairly recently and were still deciding what they thought of it), in places blackened by fumes or gleaming white where explosions had blasted great shards of the outer limestone away. Here and there were the black entrances of the caves, dangerous and fascinating.
Along the dead ground at the foot of the cliffs the kzin infantry battalion were deploying from their vehicles. Not a huge force, but enough, it was thought, to sweep this cave system of the human and other vermin that infested it.
Corporal surveyed the eight members of his section, anticipating the inspections Sergeant and Platoon Officer would make before the final deployments. They looked Heroic enough, and their equipment complete.
He scanned the horizon about. There were flying creatures in the air about the scarp, coming and going at the cave entrances. Movements of small animals here and there on the plains. Certainly nothing for kzin regular infantry to fear.
Company by company they moved off, each assigned to a major entrance. Vehicles were expensive, and parking them immediately below the cliffs would risk attacks on them from the still-unseen enemy. The final approach was made on foot.
Any tame humans in the area kept well away or out of sight. With Heroes slavering to come to grips with the Enemy, any human that raised its head during a kzin military operation would have been distinctly unwise. On the other claw, Corporal thought as he looked about the quiet landscape, there was little point in professional soldiers simply massacring unarmed anthropoids which were, after all, part of Wunderland's wealth and infrastructure. This was the Patriarch's Army, too disciplined to kill valuable slaves and taxpayers needlessly.
Already in these derelict farmlands—marginal when, after the first kzin landings, dispossessed humans had tried to cultivate them, and now long gone to ruin—they had rounded up a couple of very young feral humans: wild-eyed, with long tangled hair, and extremely dirty. They were either too knowing or too terrified to make trouble or flee, and Hroarh-Officer ordered them taken to the rear. If they were clever enough to be decorous, they might have a future as slaves in his household. Hroarh-Officer was a follower of Chuut-Riit's ideas and a student of humans, which was one reason he had been assigned to this force. They had also found a couple of very young kzinti—wild orphans, who had also been sent to the rear. Once these would have been left to fend for themselves, to perish or not as the Fanged God decreed for His bravest sons, but things were a little different now, and there were more than a few kzin orphans. . . .
The caves were, it was thought, an important base and resource to the feral humans. Ambushes were possible even before they reached them—possible but unlikely. Humans generally lacked the spirit to attack a kzin military force in the open.
Once a jerky, unnatural movement brought the platoon leaping to the ready. It was only an ancient human farming robot, long unmaintained and unreprogrammed, grubbing in the dust beside a shattered irrigation canal where crops had once grown. It was small for such a machine, unpleasantly suggestive of a living being grown crippled and stupid with age. Platoon Officer raised his sidearm as if to blow it to pieces, then lowered it again. The fact that the thing still had power to function, years after human attempts at farming had ceased here, suggested it had a power-source which it would be as well to leave alone. It might accidentally harvest some unwary human or kzin—in fact there appeared to be bones in a basket it carried that might have been meant to hold vegetable crops—but that would teach those concerned to keep a better lookout.
The limestone cliffs, crowned by the red vegetation of Ka'ashi, folded into a long canyon as the ground under their feet rose. Eagerly, kzin officers and troops broke into a trot. Detachments split off to guard the many exits.
So far there had been no activity from the feral humans. That might mean the kzin expedition had surprised them. But that was unlikely, Corporal thought. Humans' eyes and ears were poor, but they had many of them.
Urrr . . . if the ferals did the right thing, promotion might come. It was possible to dream.
Corporal, not uniquely among Ka'ashi-born kzin of his generation, had a more complex attitude to humans than he realized. On one claw, like all sapient non-kzin life-forms, they were slaves and prey. There were kz'eerkti—monkeys—on Homeworld. The very brightest of those made slaves, the rest reasonable sport, and their tricks and monekyshines could make good stories. Yet on the other claw, these particular kz'eerkti with guns and spaceships who had colonized Ka'ashi from Sol system were not like the other alien races the Kzin had smashed so easily.
True, kzin conventionally regarded them in their wild state as simply vermin, and Corporal had shared the rage of all the kzin of the Alpha Centauri system when the fleets sent against Sol limped back with their dead and their shame, but some, including most importantly Chuut-Riit, the new Planetary Governor and of the Patriarch's blood, had come to feel them worth studying, and sometimes odd similarities between kzin and humans had emerged from that study. There were some who had called to mind from the classics certain ancient verses composed by the Prophet Kdarka-Riit, one day when the Sage had been celebrating after a sucessful Kz'eerkti-hunt on Homeworld:
The war will be both long and strange
If one day under distant suns
Kzinti find Kz'eerkti carrying guns
And kzinti destiny will change.
There were even some Kzin who were thought to be too interested in humans, and there was a term for these, which if uttered in their hearing (but obviously never in the hearing of Chuut-Riit) could be taken as an automatic challenge to a death-duel. Corporal, for his part, had felt a slight fondness for some of the human slaves who had raised him. Also, one or two had served him satisfactorily since. He was, however, a professional. If Chuut-Riit and Hroarh-Officer said humans were to be studied, he would study them. Otherwise he would supervise them or kill them impartially as ordered.
There was a small library of ancient human military books at the NCO training school now, part of Chuut-Riit's encouragement of Thinking Soldiers in general and of Human Studies in particular. Human military records on Wunderland—all dating from their ancient days on their homeworld before space-flight—had been sparse and fragmentary, but there were memorable gleams here and there among them. He remembered one passage now, a surviving fragment of an old book:
Many years ago, hoping some day to be an officer, I was poring over the "Principles of War" listed in the old Field Service Regulations when the Sergeant-Major came upon me. "Don't bother your head about them things, me lad," he said. "There's only one principle of war and that's this: Hit the other fellow, as quick as you can, and as hard as you can, where it hurts most, when he ain't lookin'!"
The author had been a human "named" Slim, a word meaning Thin. It did not sound like a warrior's Name. His rank-title when he wrote the book had been something called Field-Marshal. Somehow Corporal felt he could imagine the human Slim and the human Sergeant-Major in the scene he described. Hoping to be an officer . . . That brought his thoughts back to his own position, and he focused his attention on the task before them.
It might, Corporal thought, have been more effective to send a small force of two or three Heroes to spy out the land thoroughly, taking advantage of the humans' poor sight and hearing, before launching the main attack. That sort of thing had been done at the time of the first landings, when humans were an unknown quantity—these very caves had been a lurking-place for some of the first kzinti scouts.
However, and whatever Chuut-Riit said, many in the kzin military command had been reluctant to descend to using spies against monkey activities since then. It smacked of caution. Which may be one reason why this war against them is taking so long to finish, Corporal thought. The column was moving at a good pace, and he snarled at a couple of troopers who were losing their position, though with private thoughts that their close formation was inviting an ambush and hopes that any feral humans about had not also read Slim.
Not only would a more covert and dispersed attack have been a good idea, thought Corporal, but a night approach would have given them a greater advantage and been more comfortable than this jogging in the sun.
On the other claw, he conceded, a small scouting force might have trouble with the creatures the humans called morlocks—semi-sapient, roughly human-sized predators which had ruled the top of the great caves' food-chains. Though they were mere animals—no match for any Hero—they were night-eyed, silent, savage, knew the caves as their own habitat and could form packs. No Hero had deigned to learn much about them—they tasted foul—but at least they would give a kzinti force of this size no trouble, only entertainment.
He was pleased they were only lightly clad with a few leather straps to hold gear and accoutrements. Kzin wore armor in proper battle against enemies with appropriate technology, but few liked it. In the caves it would suggest faint-heartedness and would also be awkward and a nuisance. Heroes pursuing feral humans should need only teeth, claws, w'tsais , and beam rifles, with heavier squad weapons to call upon if need be. Flame-jets of superheated plasma gas could clean tunnels out quickly, but they made respirators and heat-resistant coveralls necessary. Nerve gas was also to be used with restraint: It would destroy a whole ecosystem that might have valuable products. On Homeworld in the ancient days there had been great exploits in caves in plenty, and cave fighting had an honorable tradition. It was decorous that a kzintosh warrior pursing his enemy into a cave should have equipment that hearkened back to that of Ancestors as much as possible.
There was something else: Apart from sheer love of claw-and-tooth fighting and the opportunities for individual heroism that it offered, apart from even the desire to preserve assets—slaves, prey and taxpayers—for themselves, something in the Kzin psyche was . . . not attracted to the quick use of weapons of mass destruction. The original conquest of Wunderland had involved probably less than an eight-squared of nuclear bombs on various human centers of resistance. The Kzin knew much about relativity weapons, anti-matter, neutron bombs, gravity planers, heat induction and now, as a result of contact with humans, the lethal properties of ramscoop fields and reaction drives in general. Deep-penetration bomb-missiles with nuclear warheads could destroy not only these caves but bring down the entire escarpment and irradiate the wild country beyond. But they were also plains cats whose ancestors not so long before had been plains hunters, and their feelings for the Fanged God's creation were complex. Seas, which they disliked, were a different matter, and they had invented the heat-induction ray to boil seas if necessary on planets whose populations resisted Conquest for too long. The Wunderland human who suggested to an audience of either kzinti or fellow-humans that the Kzin had scruples would not have been well received.
The gray walls of the canyon rose higher. Now they were in the entrance to the first cave. In that first great chamber, still lit by some daylight, they halted and deployed. Hroarh-Officer, the company commander, checked each platoon with the lesser officer directly responsible for it. Sergeants and NCOs made their own checks once again. There was the sharp smell of limestone and wet earth, mixed with many other smells, organic and inorganic. There were exotic life-forms here, as was to be expected, and also familiar ones. The temperature fell as the dark closed over them, becoming agreeably cool.
They passed the remnants of an old human structure in the twilight zone, broken open and plundered thoroughly long ago. Flap-winged creatures rose shrieking and fled through the air before them. They passed beside a tinkling stream into a deeper darkness which, with their sensitive noses and light-trapping eyes, was stimulating rather than inconvenient. Bones lay about, large and small. Some of the larger bones were plainly human. Others were kzin. Others—many others—were neither.
Here the labyrinth of tunnels began. It was the work of a few moments to make final lights and weapon checks. There were also preparations to be made against possible monkey tricks. Heat-detecting infrared wave cameras, nuclear, biological and chemical mass spectrometers and pathogen detectors were set up, along with the deep radars. Armored heavy troopers were assigned to guard them.
The companies split into platoons. Officers adjusted the goggles which could instantly compensate for near-total darkness or the flash of a major explosion. Hroarh-Officer inspected them quickly once again, his body language bespeaking valor and eagerness. Corporal noticed his own Platoon Officer's body language betrayed what could be taken as impatience with this delay, but only when he was well out of his superior's line of sight.
Kzin could, compared to humans, see in the dark. They loved lurking and stalking prey in the near-total darkness of caves, their pupils expanded to trap every particle of light. But even that superb light-collecting mechanism which was the Kzin eye could not see in absolute darkness. Smell was helpful but by no means a complete substitute for vision: While their sense of smell was many times more acute than that of humans, smells in the confined space of organically-rich caves could become overwhelming, especially once fighting started. Their equipment for cave fighting included not only modern lamps but also bioluminescent patches. These gave a dim greenish glow and had been a part of kzinti caving equipment since before ever the Jotok had introduced their forefathers to beam weapons and space drives. Now the platoons moved off into the tunnels.
Farther and deeper, past more bones and bits of human litter. Corporal wondered what weapons the feral humans had. Not much, he suspected. Years of unremitting warfare had worn them down, and many of their secret factories and arsenals in the back-country had been found. But even the smallest laser could blind.
"Monkeys have been active," said Platoon Officer.
Before them was a great pit. Not terribly deep or steep-sided, but wide and long, running off into darkness. Limestone pinnacles of stalagmites reared from it, discolored and broken.
Generations of cave creatures had built up deep deposits of guano here. The line that marked the old floor showed how great the volume of it must have been. Now it was gone, presumably taken by humans for fertilizer to promote the growth of the vegetable matter they ate (hardly different to eating the dung direct, Corporal thought), or perhaps to make chemical explosives. The latter idea was less disgusting but not comfortable. Such primitive compounds would not be very powerful by kzin military standards, but in the right place they could do a lot of damage.
Platoon Officer led them straight across the pit. Corporal thought uneasily that its sides high above them might make a good place for an enemy ambush. "Always scout your territory before you leap. Always have forward and rear scouts and flank guards. Spend time freely in scouting, for it is never wasted." So Chuut-Riit's new Manual of Infantry Training said.
There were the prints of human feet—many of them. Water seeping into some from the damp floor suggested they were very fresh. The kzinti followed them to a large hole, the top of a fairly steep downward slope. Kzinti had a rudimentary ability, called ziirgah, to pick up the emotions of other sapient beings—which in the case of non-kzinti generally meant prey or emenies—that Corporal thought would be useful to consult before battle but which many were ashamed to use because it was connected to the talent of the despised telepaths. None seemed to be using it on this occasion, nor was it necessary. From the darkness beyond the tunnel-like hole they could hear sounds that suggested human voices.
Scouting might be important, but Platoon Officer made no bones about his impatience now. Like all Nameless kzintosh who had climbed high enough to dream such dreams, Platoon Officer was desperate for a Name beyond all other things. Indeed a Name brought all other things: honor, esteem, fertile females, the right to breed.
There were many Nameless officers, and many high officers who had no more than partial Names, and a few, a very few, senior NCOs who had partial Names too. In the noncommissioned ranks these were an Order of the Elite of the Elite. Corporal had met one or two, and looked on them with awe, though a Name was far beyond his own ambitions. But valor and blood-lust were still the way to Names, victories won by no more preparation than a scream and leap, whatever the Manual said.
Corporal guessed Platoon Officer despised the cautious injunctions of the Manual as monkey thinking, despite its fearsome and illustrious author. Corporal was aware that he himself was too cautious to be an ideal Hero. He thought of the little group among his fellow recruits who had once been his particular companions: Most of them had been more recklessly daring than he, and many of them would be of superior rank or even Name if they had still been alive. That was another reason he would like a mate and a son: Sometimes late at night the dead were not satisfactory company.
Sergeant turned to him. "Corporal, you and your eight will guard the rear!" In strict military practice that was Sergeant's task, but Sergeant had no intention of accepting a position that carried relatively little chance of glory. Corporal obeyed unquestioningly. Sergeant also had the speed and strength for his orders to be unquestioned. And anyway, Corporal told himself, in these tunnels, where anything might be behind them, the position of rearguard was not actually shameful. Weapons were raised.
"Forward!" Platoon Officer rushed the tunnel, two eights of Heroes behind him, shrieking.
What happened next was hard for Corporal to follow. The shrieks changed in pitch into insensate screams—the screams of kzinti who realized something terrible but incomprehensible had been done to them. He heard their bodies crashing down to the flat ground at the foot of the slope.
He saw a couple of their lights swing through wild arcs, revealing nothing. Then the screams died away. There was another sound, plainly the sound of a kzin scrambling back up the slope. It stopped, and slid back. There was nothing more.
Corporal called, but no answer came. There were still some faint sounds but they were dying away. The smell of blood—kzin blood, mixed with the smells of marrow and entrail and pain—rose up the passage in a cloud.
One trooper, plainly maddened by what he heard and smelled, charged headlong down the passage, ignoring Corporal's shouted command to be still. Whatever happened to the others happened to him. A shriek, and then silence save for the thud of his body landing far below.
Kzin are not easily horrified, but Corporal paused. One part of his mind and his emotions stated imperiously that it was his duty to charge down after the others. If there was danger, a Hero attacked head-on, reckoning nothing of the odds. He was the senior surviving rank, and now the leader.
But the fact he was the only surviving NCO, he thought, put a different cast on things: he commanded an eight of troopers—eight minus one now—and without him they would be leaderless. He had seen before the consequences of that. Monkey tactics had always been to kill the kzin officers and NCOs first—a strategy in which, he thought, kzin officers and NCOs had often been only too willing to cooperate. Now he had a duty not to risk himself.
There was nothing to see down the tunnel but a dim light, presumably reflected from some of the Heroes' glow-patches at the bottom. Nothing to smell but waves of blood and death that drowned out all other smells. There might be human or morlock there.
"I wish a volunteer to explore the tunnel," he told the troopers.
"Command us, Corporal!" It was a unanimous shout and snarl. No kzin soldier would dream of not volunteering for hazardous duty.
"You." He picked the nearest trooper. He spoke with emphasis: "You are ordered to go slowly and cautiously. Tell me everything you smell, see, and hear as you go. When you have detected the danger return to us. Do not attempt to fight it alone."
Trooper advanced on all fours.
"It is a steep incline," he called back, "but my claws hold me. The ground is firm enough. I see nothing. I smell only the blood of Heroes. . . ."
"Still nothing," he called a few moments later. "Blood smell is stronger. . . . There is . . . a sting . . . my face. PAIN!"
"Come back! Come back at once! That is an order!" If Trooper were injured, an examination of his injuries might tell them what devilish thing awaited Heroes in that tunnel. And Trooper did not seem to be badly hurt yet. He heard Trooper scrabbling back, saying nothing. He seemed to be breathing with a peculiar wet noise.
Trooper came out of the tunnel. But he looked different. He shook his head and staggered as he moved. In the dim light it took corporal a second to see his face was a mask of blood.
"What happened? Report!" As he spoke he gestured for the unit medical kit to be brought.
"Pain . . ." Trooper's head fell apart. Corporal saw bone, brain, flesh and gushing blood. Trooper fell forward, plainly dead.
Roars of rage from every kzin throat. They surged about the top of the fall, preparing another mass-charge down it. Corporal cuffed them back with unsheathed claws, snarling curses. At last he got them into some sort of order, and held them till their fury had been brought under control.
There was only one possible course now. Corporal picked the oldest and, he hoped, the wisest of his Heroes. "I will explore the tunnel myself alone," he said. "If this kills me, take command and report to higher authority what has happened. Do not follow me."
It was as the Trooper had said. The tunnel was wide enough for Kzin on all fours, or even standing partly erect, to charge down it at a good pace. The floor of it was fairly firm and gave a good purchase for claws, but even in Wunderland's light gravity the bulk of a kzin's body had a tendency to run away downhill on such a slope. He stopped just before it began to level off a little.
This was, he thought, as far as Trooper had got.
Something like an insect tickled the tip of his nose. He drew back instantly, raised one hand, and felt it. His massive, stubby fingers came away wet with blood.
He waited. There was a stinging pain on the sensitive skin of his nose now, but from the amount of blood it was not a serious injury.
His strained his eyes to see anything in the gloom.
There was a fine line in mid-air. A fine dark line. He touched it with the tip of his w'tsai . There was a scraping sound.
It was fiendish and simple. A length of superfine metal wire, perhaps a single molecule in thickness, had been stretched across the tunnel. Listening careefully, he heard a tiny buzzing or droning sound. A miniaturized engine, he guessed, would make it vibrate minutely to increase the cutting effect.
The charging kzinti, going downhill with gravity adding to their speed, had simply cut themselves in half on it. No wonder there was so much blood. It was so fine that it caused little or no immediate pain and even Trooper going more cautiously had not realized what was happening when it was inside his head. Now there was enough blood and tissue on it for it to be visible.
He backed away up the slope. It would have been possible to crawl under the wire, but it was too late to help those below. In any case, he realized, there might be other such wires strung almost anywhere. He felt the eyes of the others upon him: they were waiting to be led.
How much of the wire did the humans have? That was a fairly meaningless question. Kzin grew such wire in space—it needed zero gravity and vacuum—but Markham and other ferals had spaceships and could be supplying it. He remembered Hroarh-Officer's warning now: "They can make anything into a weapon." It had been placed at the bottom of the steepest part of the slope, where the kzinti would run into it at the greatest speed. No doubt the humans were waiting in the chambers below for his own section either to come charging down after their comrades and share their fate, or to realize what had happened to them and depart, leaving the humans to pillage Heroes' sliced-up corpses of their gear and weapons and perhaps (he had heard rumors about human ferals) to eat the meat from their bones in a declaration of Conquest. Platoon Officer's radar, presenting an instant three-dimensional picture of the cave complex, might also be a prize for the humans worth more than w'tsais and beam rifles.
Well, it would not be borne. Quickly he told the troopers what had happened.
Should he report that this section of the caves was infested with ferals and the best thing to do would be to seal the entrances and pump in nerve gas or fire the plasma cannon to exhaust the oxygen and cook everything in the nearer tunnels? Perhaps detonate a dirty bomb in one of the big chambers and let the radiation do the business? But it would take time to evacuate the other kzin forces, and he had an obligation to avenge Platoon Officer, Sergeant, and the Troopers personally. It was not the kzin way to retreat from trouble. Traps were a contemptible monkey trick to be despised and destroyed. His w'tsai was also monomolecular-edged.
The w'tsai 's blade brought him to a stop as he started down the slope a second time. The wire itself was plainly very strong—in fact, he found, there were two wires strung a little way apart, and several reinforcing and bracing strands. Scraping the blade back and forth along the wire, following the sound, brought him to the anchor points. Using the squad's heavy weapon to destroy them would cost more time and perhaps collapse the tunnel. He marked them instead and crawled on under them, w'tsai held before him in one hand, beam rifle ready in the other, his troopers following close behind.
Below him was a scrabbling sound. He heard a confused clamor of human voices. He could see no more wires at the end of the slope, but held his w'tsai ready and launched himself.
He landed on the pile of sliced-up kzin bodies. He made a diving role forward through the fragments, hoping the humans' sight and other senses would not be acute enough for them to understand what was happening. The stench of kzin blood, rage, terror, and agony (some of them had lived a little after being bisected, long enough at least to know what had been done to them) almost made him lose control.
His troop followed hard behind. The humans scuttled away. One or two fired wild shots, and the kzin troopers hosed fire after them. Several fell to kzinti speed and accuracy before they reached the stalagmite groves. Corporal went for them in a standing leap that covered several body-lengths. His jaws clashed together in one's chest so that he felt its heart lurching before it stopped. At the same instant his claws ripped at another, tearing it into two pieces that he flung flapping away. His tail lashed out to trip another, curling around its spindly legs. He jerked it and brought it down. Another smash of his great claw to its head, the claw coming away slimy with the human's brains. Rifles blazed and the air shook as his squad leaped up to him, roaring and screaming with vengeance. Humans fell to left and right. Then they were gone.
The other kzinti would have leaped after the retreating simians, becoming separated in the darkness or hurling themselves, for all he knew, onto more traps and snares, if he had not called them back. He licked the blood from his lips. They formed a ring at the bottom of the slope, about the pile of dead, weapons pointing outward into the surrounding darkness.
Claws dug at his shoulder. It was Sergeant, mangled and mutilated like the rest, but not dead yet. His grip was still powerful, though his death-struggle was past. He turned Corporal to him and fixed him with his dying eyes.
"Win battle," he muttered. "Have caution." Then he tore a badge from the monkey-leather strap that held his decorations and passed it to Corporal in a hand that dripped with his own blood. He gasped out a few more words as he died: "You are Sergeant now."
He had not thought of that. But his promotion was quite orthodox. Most kzin got their ranks when those above them died in battle. He had been young to be Corporal and he was young to be Sergeant. It would be interesting to see if he grew any older. There was no time to think of it further. One or two of the other ill-fated Heroes might be alive, and would wish to be dispatched to the Fanged God with speed and dignity. There was also the securing of the area and the deployment of his troops. He had but six Heroes about him. True, there was no limit to what seven Heroes might achieve, but the caves were large. In any event, their objective was not security but pursuit and revenge. Somewhere a way off there was an explosion, and that momentarily lit the mouth of one of the tunnels snaking into this cavern. He guessed from the smell that the humans were using their nitrate bombs. Better lights would have been helpful, he thought. Next time we must bring better lights. The beasts might be anywhere.
He could make out a chaos of stalagmites, stalactites, columns, boulders, flowstone, fantastic twisting heligtites. He found the remains of Platoon Officer, but neither his radar nor most of the platoon's weapons were to be seen. He gathered up a few beam rifles and charges the humans had missed and issued them to his own Heroes. Ammunition expenditure was likely to be heavy. Somewhere was a rushing and bubbling of water—the stream or river that had made this cave. It sounded like a big one.
There were other sounds of movement in the darkness. One Hero fired instantly at the sound, but the beam struck a stalagmite only a few body lengths away. There was a shattering explosion of rock-crystals, giving lacerations to several Heroes.
If the humans had thrown one of their primitive nitrate-bombs in the direction of the kzin group and only narrowly missed it, the result would have been similar. Indeed for a moment Sergeant thought that was what had happened. Had they not been in a combat situation, trouble would have resulted. As it was the overeager Hero responsible received only glares and snarls from the others that suggested the matter might be taken up again when they returned to the surface. There was an odd rustling sound he could not place.
The great pillar glowed green for some time after the ray had hit it, glowed darker green and faded to black at last. These formations had enough crystal facets to trap light for an appreciable time. Bright beams of cooler light stabbed out from the section's lamps and dialed-down lasers but showed only a chaos of pillars, rocks, and shifting shadows. In fact the contrast between the lights and the shadows they cast made things worse for the night-eyed kzin, though they could consciously control the expansion and contraction of their irises. Sergeant found Platoon Officer's goggles but for the moment they were little help.
Then, out of the darkness he heard a high wailing sound: The humans had ratchet knives, although as far as his ears could tell, less than an eight of them. Kzin w'tsais rang and flashed as they were drawn. Beam rifles were cocked with a rippling, metallic rattle and crash. Seven Heroes against what sounded like about three eights of humans. It would be a quite serious battle, but, given the speed, strength and coordination of Heroes, not too serious. In hand-to-hand combat they had beaten far greater odds before. And vengeance fired their livers.
Black shapes darker than the darkness behind them. Swift and silent. He spun round. They stood for a second in the light, huge bulging eyes blinded, fangs dripping. Not humans, morlocks.
The things were as ugly as humans and smelled worse. They were carrion eaters, as contemptible as omnivores if not more so. And, he realized, the carrion they sought to eat was the flesh of Heroes. He advanced on the brainless things, expecting them to flee. But they held their ground, and, beyond the beam of his light, he could see the dark shapes of others advancing. There was something unpleasantly like coordination and purpose in that advance. They were spreading out to surround the living kzin. Dimly through the stalactite groves he saw more, flitting like ghosts. They were as silent as one would expect cave-predators to be.
Urrr. A modern beam rifle could dispose of the creatures quickly. There was a real enemy to fight without these other vermin wasting time and resources.
Something struck him hard on the head, knocking him sprawling.
"Down, Dominant One!" cried a Trooper. A beam cracked into the limestone beside him. A smoking, bisected morlock dropped from his shoulders. The creature had dropped on him from the roof. And he saw why its impact had stunned him. It clasped a heavy, pointed rock, perhaps the tip of a stalactite, but at any rate a weapon and tool. Even in Ka'ashi's gravity it could have split his skull.
He swung the beam of his light upward. The spiky roof of the cavern was seething with morlocks, so many of them the stones themselves seemed to be crawling.
Kzin beam rifles fired on the instant, nearly killing Sergeant and all his Heroes: the blasts knocked tons of stalactite and rock from the cave roof—calcite crystal formations like giant spears, hard, heavy, and as deadly to those below as any dumb missile might be.
The kzin had never questioned that beam rifles in a confined space should make short work of such creatures. A few minutes' experience showed this was not the case.
Firing up at the morlocks was clearing the cave roof of them, but slowly, and with a large expenditure of charges, apart from the menace of the great crystal missiles falling from the roof each time they fired. With the lights casting wildly waving shadows, the creatures blended easily into the darkness and dodged behind the protection of thick stalactites and columns.
Clearing the area around them was even more difficult than clearing the roof. The innumerable columns and pinnacles of stalactites and stalagmites made it a stony jungle, with endless places of shelter and cover. Heaps of rock and dark shadows concealed the entrances of tunnels. Further, the facets of crystal split and reflected the beams: It was like firing a laser into an infinity of tiny mirrors. Certainly the stone could be melted and blasted away with a concentrated beam, but the charges of the rifles would not last forever.
Still, the professionals of the Patriarch's Army knew their business. They adjusted quickly, kept cover, and when they fired an enemy usually fell. Sergeant looked back at the upward-leading tunnel, straining to see through the fumes and dust now filling the air.
He threw himself down and turned his eyes away just in time as a beam stabbed out to smash the rock just above him. There were humans at the tunnel. He lived because, like all their kind, they were slow, even without the weight of the kzin weapons they were using. He gestured to the Trooper near him to lay down a suppressing fire in that direction. Still, it was another complicating factor: a force of well-armed humans was positioned between them and retreat—if it had to come to retreat.
Aim. Fire. Aim. Fire. Then lights on the other side of the great cavern. The roars of kzintosh voices. It was another squad, attracted from other tunnels by the noise, charging into the battle.
The morlocks fell on them from the roof like black leaves in a forest storm. He and his troopers shot a few as they fell. Screams and snarls of the other kzin force, beams arching in all directions. Humans running and firing, to be hit by the Troopers' quick, accurate bursts.
"Forward!" cried Sergeant. "I lead my Heroes!" The squad leaped after him. No time to be concerned with traps now. In moments the stalagmite forest blinded the humans' weapons as it had blinded the kzinti's.
A huge crash just beside him. Dust and rubble flying. The humans had a new tactic: They were firing into the cave-roof above the kzinti, deliberately bringing it down. Urrr, two could do that. He turned and fired at the cave roof above the human position, noting as he did so that it was alive with morlocks. As they began to drop he wondered if the humans had noticed them too. In any event, they did soon enough. Beams blasting the darkness from the human position near the tunnel looked remarkably like the beams blasting out of the position near the second entrance where the kzin relief force was fighting, with him and his squad between the two.
Let the humans and the morlocks kill one another for the moment. The principle of concentration of force demanded that he reinforce the other kzinti.
To get straight to them across the cavern would take some time, he thought, not only because of the risk of being hit by their fire, but also with morlocks covering the roof. Best clear the roof first. A heap of boulders seemed to offer more shelter, at least from overhead attack. Gathering his Heroes about him, he made for this. Progress was slower than he had anticipated in the stifling smoke, and with morlocks about them on the ground, but at last they made the shelter of the large overhanging rocks.
Another sound grabbed at him, a kzin call, but the high, warbling note of a very young kzin. His ears swiveled to a black, jagged hole from which it came, and he rushed forward to it. As for the threat of wires, he could only hold his w'tsai before him and hope for the best.
There was another tunnel, a short one. Beyond it another cleared space, piled with bones and carrion. Even for a kzin warrior the stench was almost insupportable.
A curve of rock contained a labyrinth of holes—morlock dwellings. In front was a clearer space. Two creatures lay there: a part-grown kzinrret well short of adulthood, and a human. The kzinrret was spitting and snarling, but dragging herself in a way that showed Sergeant she was injured: Her back legs seemed to be broken, and there was something wrong with her forelimbs too. The human was unmoving and seemed incapable of doing anything but moan, but Sergeant guessed from the twisted, unnatural position of its own legs that it was in a similar case. Presumably that was how the morlocks kept their food. Kzin did the same at times. His rage made the dark cavity appear to turn red around him.
He dispatched the human with a quick blow to the head. Kzin never scrupled about inflicting pain or torture if this gave some advantage, but to allow sapients to suffer it pointlessly was considered indecorous. He counseled the kzinrret youngster to silence. He hoped she was bright enough to understand. He was glad she did not seem to be sexually mature. The last thing he needed now was the scent of a female to distract his or his Troopers' thinking. "Heroes will return for you soon," he told her in the simple words of the female tongue. "Ignore pain." There was no time for more, but it would have been an unfortunate morlock that showed itself to the kzin at that moment. He came out of the short tunnel and back into the main cavern at a crouching run, jaws agape, rifle ready, calling his Heroes about him.
On to the embattled kzin squad. The morlock tactics were simple: to drop onto kzin, weighting and hardening their impact with the rocks they clutched, and bite at their heads, eyes and throats, burrowing into them as they might, while others rushed them from the front and sides. At first no morlock lasted long against a kzin—dead morlocks and pieces of them were beginning to build a type of wall around the kzin position—but each ripping bite from those morlock fangs did damage.
Sergeant and his squad waded into the fight, taking the ground-fighting morlocks from behind. The morlocks were quicker than humans, but not as quick as a kzintosh, and nothing like as strong. His instincts and training merged, his slashing claws and teeth meshed together into the perfect killing machine they were.
The Kzin were battered, bleeding and exhausted when their claws and w'tsais stopped swinging, and the stocks of more than one of their beam rifles glowed with the yellow warning-lights of Insufficient Charge. But the wall of dead morlocks was high, and the rocks and the ground around were dark and slippery with morlock blood and fragments.
And still the fighting was going on in the cavern. Beam rifles flamed through the now dense, choking smoke and dust. Ratchet knives keened. The morlocks and the humans were still in battle.
Sergeant and his Heroes had been fighting hard and fast. He paused now and drew breath, ears knotting a little in amusement at this other fight. If the morlocks and humans decided to reduce each other's numbers while he and his Heroes readied for another attack he was happy to let them do it.
He checked his Heroes. The other squad had, he now realized, been very badly mauled. They had no officer or NCO left, though they had a medical orderly. Well, they had Sergeant now, and—kzin fighting spirits revived quickly—a bigger command for him was no bad thing.
Despite the number of Heroes dead, those still alive did not appear sufficiently wounded to be excused combat duty. They still had most of their eyes and all their limbs, and though some had deep and major lacerations, they also had field dressings in place. Where limbs had actually been broken, field prostheses were unfolded and applied and supported them.
The morlocks seemed to be holding back now. Perhaps they were all engaged with the humans, or perhaps they were redeploying. His light darted around the roof, but between the columns and the shifting shadows it was hard to make out much. Once, long ago, he realized, this cavern must have been nearly full of water, and flowstone had spread out on the surface of that water to make suspended tables, attached to the ceiling and hard to see from below. There might be any number of them there.
He deployed his Heroes in a conventional defensive position, with a rise of rocks in the center where they might stand if necessary. In the roiling smells of pulverized limestone, guano dust clouds, burned flesh, blood, and smoke, his nose was of little use. It was time to reconnoiter.
Sending Trooper down the tunnel to his death had been an operational necessity. But he would not send a subordinate out twice. Kzinti, and especially newly promoted Sergeants, led their Heroes. Once again he placed Senior Trooper in charge and headed back to the rock heap, running almost on all fours, threading the glades of stone cat-swift and silent.
A morlock, more silent than a kzin, leaped up at him, striking with a daggerlike pointed stone. It tore a burning furrow across his chest spurting purple blood. He hoped the creatures were too stupid to know of poisons. It leaped backward with the slash, but his right claws held it and his left claws tore its face away. He flung it from him, leaving it eyeless, screeching. Good! Let it terrify the others! Its screech went into ultrasonic.
Above him something was happening. The whole pile of boulders was shifting. It was slow at first, but like the movement of a hill. Another trap, and evidently the morlock's dying shriek had triggered it. Cleverer than we thought. He leaped aside, into the short tunnel leading to the morlock den. Not quite quickly enough. A section of stalactite the width of a tree trunk fell across him, pinning his legs and the lower part of his body. He struggled to push it clear, but even in that gravity it weighed too much. Fortunately the ends were held on other rocks. It pinned him down but did not crush him.
The dust cleared. He was unsure if he had lost consciousness, or if he had taken a fatal blow to the skull. He lay completely still, his fur lifting and lowering minutely to compensate for the movement of his breathing. His surface blood vessels contracted. A heat sensor would have picked him up, but a motion detector might not have. A corpse in the rubble.
The short tunnel seemed partially blocked by fallen rocks, but the banks of this chamber were so honeycombed with holes there might be any number of other entrances. The injured kzinrret youngster was mewling where he had left it. Could it help him? No, even if it could understand him its injuries were plainly disabling.
Ziirgah, developed for stalking, was very little use to a non-telepath in a situation like this. Too many stressed and desperate minds nearby reduced its simple impressions to confusion, and it was better blocked out.
There was a scrabbling sound from one tunnel. The morlocks were returning. Nothing for it but to lie still and hope to kill a few when they came within reach of his claws. They would probably draw back then and stone him to death. It would be painful and undignified. He would never have a Name or a line. The Fanged God would have no use for a son who had not died as a Hero should, on the attack. Death loomed huge and dark as he waited there, like the Emptiness of Space. I am afraid, he suddenly realized. The realization was more terrible than the fear itself. He would go to the Fanged God not merely with the shameful death of helpless prey in a trap, but a coward. There was the glow of a lamp. But morlocks had no lamps. Then he saw the scrabbling creature. It was not a morlock but a human. It approached the young kzinrret and bent over it.
Unable to control himself further, he snarled a challenge. The human jumped away, a weapon flashing into its hands as it vanished behind a rock.
The kitten was crying out now, in the nursery tongue.
"Come back! Pain! Pain! Help me!"
The human cried back. But it was speaking the nursery version of the kzin tongue too. He recognized its voice as that of a female.
"Be still! Try not to move. Help will come!"
Sergeant was amazed. He had been raised by human slaves in his Sire's house, and he knew some humans understood and even spoke the simpler kzin tongues, the soft sounds and small vocabularies of females and kittens. He knew—it was part of their alienness—that human females were sapient. But why did this human speak to a young kzinrret?
He had regained control of himself now. If he could not move he could speak.
"What are you doing?" He spoke in the slaves' patois, a combination of the female and the nursery tongues plus some Heroic and Wunderlander words and constructions.
She approached him cautiously, weapon raised. But he was plainly trapped and helpless. That, presumably, was why she did not fire. The sounds of fighting in the main chamber seemed to have stopped, and he wondered what that meant.
"Some of us have been caring for this one," she answered. She spoke in Wunderlander, the human tongue, which he like many Ka'ashi-born kzintosh understood but found hard to speak.
She turned the lamp to a greater brightness, inspecting him.
"Light keep morlocks away," he said in the patois.
"No, their eyes are for twilight zones. Bright lights, they close eyes. I was a research student once."
If this monkey is talking she is not killing me, he thought. Keep her talking. He remembered how, as a kit, he had learned to wheedle sugary cakes and other favors from his human nurse-slave. Wheedling had been better than claws, from which her predecessors had simply learned to flee.
"Why you feed small one?" he asked.
"Some of us began caring for her before morlocks attacked," she replied.
"Why? You are ferals."
"There were feral children. Human and kzin. They had set up a camp in the caves . . . together. Most of them, human and kzinti, were much younger than this one. It would have been impossible otherwise." That was certainly true, he thought. It seemed impossible enough anyway. Young kzin kittens might play with strange species till they decided it was time to try their teeth and claws on them, but kzin adolescents of either sex were ferocious, predatory, and xenophobic far beyond even adult kzintosh. The only regard they gave other life-forms was as links on their food chain and their value as sport. That was especially true of the males after a little training. But evidently something very odd had happened here.
"This one, and that dead human, both older, seem to have held them together," the female man continued. "She is a young kzinrret only but she seemed to have some . . . instinct I do not understand. She is special. We found out too late. The morlocks carried them off and when we followed, she and he were all that was left. Then there was more fighting and we lost them."
"Why you feed small one?" he repeated.
"Have I not explained?"
"No. She is kzin, you are monkey."
"I don't know. It is a thing some humans do. Evidently it is a thing some kzin may do too."
"She will eat monkey-meat one day."
"We have our own sense of honor . . . some of us."
"Wire is honor?"
"Wire is war. Is war too hard for kzintosh?"
Sergeant checked his convulsive effort to throw off the rock and leap with the thought that perhaps the monkey was deliberately trying to madden him with the insult. He would not oblige. He remembered one of Chuut-Riit's lectures: "You think you understand them, and find you do not. You think you do not understand them, and find you do. They are full of paradoxes, but with a few generations of proper culling, this will be a most useful species." He thought upon what it had said:
"Ferals? Human cubs and kzin kittens? Together?"
The human looked at him. This time he detected something complex in the emotions emanating from it, but it was as if he had passed some kind of test. It reminded him of the feelings of old Kiirg-Greater-Sergeant when he survived his recruit training.
"How close together I do not know. They were in the same part of the cave system. But morlocks got them anyway. They will be back soon."
"Lift this rock off me!"
"I cannot. And if I could, it would not be wise."
"I fight morlocks. Morlocks eat you."
"You would eat us too."
That was certainly true.
"Give me your word that you will not fight me and I will not eat you now," he said. "We need to fight morlocks."
"Better for me to kill one kzin than an eight-squared of morlocks. And morlocks are victims like humans. They fight invaders of their world."
He had no idea what the word "victims" meant but he saw the human's military logic. Indeed he appreciated it. Arguing with a monkey! he thought. Still, I must get this creature to be of use. My duty is to return to my Heroes.
"Kill me and they kill you," he replied. "Break legs like kitten, like monkey."
"Instead of kzin killing us? What difference does it make?"
The voice reminded him again of old nurse-slave, and he repeated something it had once said. "Live to fight another day." It was not an argument that would affect most kzintosh, but he thought he knew something of human psychology. He thought of something else, but it was difficult to say it without giving the impression that he was trying to beg for his life. Better a thousand times to die at the hands of a monkey than that a monkey should think that. She was raising the beam rifle.
"Kzin remember," he said.
That made her hesitate.
"You will not harm me," she said. "Your Name as your Word."
"I have no Name. My Rank and my Sire's Honor as my Word. Release me I will not harm you while we are in this cave, or during the day that we leave it."
He saw her dial the rifle down. Did she mean to cook him slowly? Then she fired it into the ground beside him, the blast digging a shallow pit. Slowly, she moved the beam an inch or two toward him, the heat of it scorching his fur and skin. Then, staying out of reach of his claws, she climbed onto the pillar, and smashed the butt of the rifle down onto the crust of flow-stone that remained. She dialed the rifle up to full beam and showed him the lights on the stock indicated that it was fully charged. She crouched and held it on him with one hand, steadying its weight on her bent leg, while with the other hand she scraped smashed rock away.
"Stay still," she ordered him. She backed away, then settled herself into a bay of rock that protected her back and flanks.
"Now move," she said.
Lurching and twisting, he was able to get to this cavity and work himself free. The human lay prone, pointing the beam rifle at him. Her finger was pressed on the firing-button and the light on the stock showed it was at first pressure. The dot of its laser sight was on the fur in the center of his torso. Deliberately, he turned away from her so that he could not spring.
"We fight morlocks now," he said.
"So be it," she said. She stood on her hind legs, but with the weapon still held ready. "We fight morlocks. Poor bastards! They did us no harm."
Sergeant felt an odd conflict of emotions in this human. It must have been strong to register with him. He continued speaking to her in an attempt to steady her, asking the question which another kzin would find of the greatest importance and which he assumed mattered to monkeys equally.
"You have human Name?"
"What does it mean?"
"What is lion?"
"A cat. A big, ferocious cat."
"Is that a joke?"
"No. We used to think cats were beautiful. . . ."
He recognized the emphatic human past tense but did not pursue the matter. Something had evidently happened to make them change their minds.
"Truce now," he said.
"Yes, truce now. I find I do not want to die in this stinking hole. Does our truce hold into the next cave?"
"No sense if it does not."
"I suggest it holds until we both agree to end it. Your Rank and your Sire's Honor as your Word."
"Yes. And yours."
"Yes. If you trust a monkey."
"You could have killed me already. I trust."
"Markham told us kzinti keep their word when it is solemnly given, usually."
"Usually. But do not trust too much."
"The main tunnel seems blocked," she said. "There are others. We should go before the morlocks return. But we cannot move the kitten. Broken legs. Marrow get into blood. Die."
"She is kzin. She is female but she is brave. Other Heroes will get her. Or she will die like kzin."
"We could move her slowly and carefully into a shallow hole. It may kill her but it is a chance we must take. Then with your Hero's strength you could move a big rock across the entrance. Too big for Morlocks to move easily."
"Then, if we die, Heroes not find her. She starve. She die." He realized with an odd feeling that he had just said "we" to a monkey—a feral, at that.
"It would not be a perfect seal. Just to delay the morlocks getting to her. If we die she can scream and alert other kzin when they come. But I suggest we hurry. This is not the place for us to be caught by the morlocks in our turn."
The tunnel she led him through was long and winding. At certain places he saw that something—humans, he guessed—had widened it. With the human going ahead he did not fear wires.
There was the tunnel mouth. He poised to leap.
"No! There!" she pointed. He could not see it but guessed there was a wire. "There!" Putting his life in the monkey's hands, he charged, bursting out through a curtain of straw stalactites and a lacy stone shawl, sending crystal fragments flying.
The great cave had far fewer lights now, only a few swirls and flashes of beams and glow-lamps from a single source, a high place beside one of the cave streams. It formed a natural amphitheater, and Sergeant had briefly noted it previously. But he could see the swift dark shapes of morlocks attacking from the roof and through the stalagmite groves. And there were two very distinct sets of voices coming from the single patch of the lights.
"Listen," Leonie said. "It sounds as if human and kzinti have made a truce there, too."
"Urrr. Should turn up lights. Blind morlocks."
"More likely to blind themselves if they do. Morlocks don't like light but have thick eyelids. I think with most cave lights, they can close eyes and simply stay in total dark. Need very bright light to drive away."
"You know lot about morlocks. Urrr."
"I've dissected them. I told you I was a student of life once."
"We join companions. Come."
They got most of the way to the amphitheatre before the morlocks rushed them. They came from above and behind, piling on the human female first. She snarled and screamed in a way that reminded him she was named for a cat. He turned and saw she was fighting, but giving ground. There were too many morlocks for her. He screamed and leaped into the fight.
Now it was the morlocks who were giving ground. Or rather, dying where they stood. There was a trail of the things dead and dying behind him, but as he advanced alone into the thick of them he was being outflanked. In a moment, he knew, he would be surrounded. He began to back away. Then he stumbled over a torn, writhing body, slipped in the blood now covering the cave floor, and fell. As he tried to rise morlocks leaped onto his shoulders from behind, biting at his throat.
"Drop, Tabby!" he heard the human female. Thoughts too fast to describe as he clawed and fought. "Tabby" was a nursery word humans used sometimes for kzinti, though not in their hearing. Was she cursing him to his death?
"Drop," she cried again, and this, he just recognized, in the imperative tense of the Heroes' Tongue. It was the same warning Trooper had given him previously. He threw himself forward and the female struck with her ratchet knife, sending the morlocks flying in pieces.
"Back! We can still hold them!" Back they went side by side, slashing with knife and claws, a dozen slow steps or so, into the little amphitheater. There stood two of his Heroes, aided by two more doubled-up wounded, surrounded but fighting still, another Hero badly wounded or dead, and three humans, also injured, but two of these still fighting with beam rifles and knives. Most of the beam rifles had yellow lights glowing on their stocks. He saw Platoon Officer's valuable deep-radar set lying smashed to pieces. No human would carry that off, anyway, he thought.
A single male human stood in the largest gap in the palisade of stalagmites and columns, fighting too many morlocks, its movements painfully slow to the kzin. An exhausted beam rifle lay beside it. Its ratchet knife still howled, but the human needed both arms to hold it: Even for a human it was doing badly. Its arms, even by human standards, looked skinny. Its hair was pale, either yellow or white with age. Sergeant leaped into the breach beside it, rampant and slashing. The morlocks fell back from the kzin's berserker assault, and there was a pause.
"We underestimated them," this human said in Wunderlander when it had ceased respiring violently. "They are more numerous and intelligent than we thought. Also," he added, "they are well-motivated." Its hair was yellow, he saw, not the white of a really old monkey. But it was not strong. Sergeant was sizing it up as the Morlocks came again.
They came in waves, inflicted a little more damage on the defenders each time, caused more ammunition to be expended, and then drew back. There was a bombardment of missiles from the roof. One badly injured Hero lost control and hobbled, shrieking and howling, out of the perimeter into the darkness after them. He did not return. A little later another followed. Falling rocks accounted for the other two and also for one of the injured humans. The female human ran from place to place, firing one of the rifles. Perhaps from a distance it would create the illusion of a greater number of defenders, but he doubted it. Sergeant left the male human to hold the breach in one lull while he dragged and lifted some larger stone fragments onto the tops of broken stalagmite stumps in an effort to make a sheltering roof. It did not last long. Occasionally his ears picked up sounds of other fighting far away. He lost track of time, and was amazed when his timepiece told him a day and a night had passed. The dead humans provided monkey meat, though he tried to eat it out of the other humans' sight in the interests of holding together the fragile alliance that seemed to have evolved. Once after this, knowing he must conserve his strength, he even slept. If the humans took advantage of this to kill him, so be it.
He was again amazed to find how long a time had passed when he awoke. The Morlocks had not attacked, and the humans, he noticed, had not killed him. In other times of lull the humans slept.
At times they tried the lamps at high strength, but they seemed of little use: the Morlocks did not like they light but they simply dodged away in the stalagmite forest or were lost in the shifting shadows.
The bombardment of stone waxed and waned, but for long periods it was unceasing. The morlocks were throwing chunks of rock and throwing them accurately, but the dense calcite crystals from the roof were doing the most damage. A well-aimed rock could injure, but those heavy falling spear points could kill, and there was nowhere to hide from them.
"Female fights well," said Sergeant in the slaves' patois, with the idea of encouraging the male human who seemed to be the troop's leader to emulate its companion. It was sitting, knees drawn up to its chin, covering its head in its hands. The bombardment had stopped for a time.
"I tell female go," said the human in the same broken tongue. "Not honor make female fight. Question Hero let female go?"
"Female help Hero," said Sergeant. He could hardly eat the female now, and though it was useful with their scanty numbers, he did not like it fighting beside him and most certainly he did not want to be placed under any further debt to it. "Female go."
The morlocks were still holding back, but the rocks were still falling. It was the head-injuries that were killing. Even a massively-muscled kzin could withstand such blows only so long. Kzinti themselves were forceful and dextrous stone-throwers, and they tried returning the bombardment, but it was pointless when there was no target to see. Two more humans were down, sprawled at the base of a couple of large stalagmites, and all his Heroes were down now. He checked them all, but with gross head injuries they were obviously dead. At least they had died in battle, as kzinti should. The thick smells of human and kzin blood—and not a little morlock—made thinking difficult. Assess your ration-strength. The human male, the female, and Sergeant. That was all that were left.
"Female go now," he said.
"Get out, Leonie!" the male human shouted. "Make for tunnel 14-K!"
"No," the female shouted, "I'll not desert you!"
"This is a military order! Go! Report! Go before they attack again!"
"Come with me, then. We can get out together!"
"No. I must delay them. Me and this tabby here. Now go!"
There was a pause. It was hard to tell how long it lasted. Then Sergeant heard a sound he recognized now as the rustle of morlock feet. The female had left the inadequate shelter of the amphitheater and was moving along a path that led through the stalagmite forest. Too slowly.
"Run, Leonie!" shouted the male human. Sergeant thought of the trench she had dug to set him free before the Morlocks came. "Rrrun, Leonniee!" he roared in his best attempt at human speech.
A dozen morlocks were after her, two clinging to her shoulders, fighting for the throat bite. She fell and went down the flowstone into the river. He remembered to dial the beam down before pointing it: She would be damaged further if it boiled the water. He saw her drifting in the green-lit water, morlocks still clinging, then going over a rushing fall. She seemed to be unconscious. More morlocks followed: They seemed adapted to the water, and he guessed that such creatures could move in every part of the cave with equal ease.
There was little point in remaining in the amphitheater now. The two remaining sapients were not enough to hold it. Still, it was honor and military common sense not to simply abandon the remaining monkey with no word.
"I get her!" He rushed the flow-stone, leaping across the stream to smoother ground on the other side. Snarling at the mud that splashed about his legs, he raced and leaped over the fall, scattering the morlocks with a few swipes of his claws and w'tsai . When they were clear of her he used the beam rifle.
She lay facedown in a pool. Sergeant remembered nurse-slave again. In that position she would, like a kzin, die very quickly through inhaling water if she was not already dead. Alive she might be a fighter in their need. And she had helped and trusted him. That made a debt, even to a female. Sheathing his claws, he dragged her from the water and pushed her into a sitting position. She began to cough and struggle, but he held her.
He felt an odd, uncomfortable empathy for the male human in its attempts to preserve the female. He thought of the kzinrret he himself particularly desired to be the mother of his line, Veena, daughter of old Kiirg-Greater-Sergeant. She was, like practically all females of the slightest desirability, forever beyond the reach of a Nameless one, as was the possibility of a line, but had Veena been here, he thought, he would have tried to save her. Even Murrur, who was older and less attractive, but . . .
Trying not to damage the fragile creature further, he worked its chest in and out, hoping human and kzin lungs were similar.
"Truce! Truce!" The female gasped. Sergeant was irritated. He, a Hero, did not need to be reminded of such things. Then he saw the male human beside him.
"I do that," said the male human. "Heroes better at fighting."
The female's torn costume was stained with spreading blood. She had some deep lacerations. The male tore it open and sprayed her with something that stopped the bleeding, though it seemed nearly exhausted. Sergeant thought the male would have done at least as well to use it on itself.
"Can you walk?" it asked the female.
"Yes, I think so."
"Go. 14-K. The third north tunnel. You'll come to a marker. Tell them to use plan Marigold. Go. Hurry. I will delay them."
"No. You have no chance. If the morlocks don't get you, the kzin will."
"Go, Leonie. Those are my orders."
The female put her arms around the male for a moment, made a peculiar sound, and staggered away in the characteristic shuffling run of an injured thing that screamed to every one of Sergeant's hunting instincts for a pouncing strike. He fought them down. He heard her for a minute in the tunnel, and then the rustle of morlocks among the complications of the roof again, as well as a chinking noise which he now recognized as meaning they were carrying the heavy calcite crystal missiles. There was no more fighting at the amphitheater, only the morlock rustling, and no lights but their own. Well, it had simply been a place to die in, not much better or worse than any other in these caves. He could just make out the human.
"Can you see me?" he asked.
"A little," said the human. "A thing in the dark. I see your eyes. A little while ago I would have feared the sight of kzin eyes in the dark more than all fears. Now . . ."
"Others dead." said Sergeant.
"Does kitten still live?"
"If morlocks not kill it, kitten alive."
"Now it is just us," said the human. "If the truce between us holds, I intend to buy time."
"Time? For what?"
"For Leonie to escape. There is another thing. When we found the kzinrret kitten—I will not lie to you—I would have killed it. Leonie stopped me."
"Partly she hates all killing, though she is a good fighter. Yes, she hates killing even kzin. Partly, she had seen young kzin and human ferals sharing a cave. She hoped . . . well, she hoped for something I think impossible. But for her sake I will say that I fight to defend the kitten as well. And if you live, Kzin, tell your kind that monkeys have Honor too."
"You tell them." Try to keep the creature's spirit up, he thought. "Live for your Leonie Manrret."
"I am wounded. Getting old if my treatments stop. Weak now. Lucky to have lived so long. Lucky not to have died in these caves long ago. Lucky to have a few geriatric drugs. Lucky see many sunrises. Lucky Leonie may live. Many friends dead. Not ask for too much."
A cloud of morlocks struck them, burying them under a heap of bodies, biting jaws, striking stones. Sergeant ripped and slashed his way out of the heap, turned, and dragged the human free. He turned and swam into the morlocks with a scream, and scattered them. There was his beam rifle, its stock-lights glowing yellow, but still with some heat left in it. He fired it at point-blank range, heedless of the exploding stone. They fought together till the human collapsed and the bodies were piled high.
Sergeant leaped to the top of the heap of bodies. His beam rifle was exhausted now, but he had his w'tsai and his teeth and claws. At his feet the blood-soaked human had partially revived and was still using its knife.
The morlocks were gathering again, and there was movement among the formations of the cave roof above. For the moment they were holding back, but plainly their numbers were gathering. The situation, he realized, was hopeless. He would go to the Fanged God this day. Well, thanks to the Leonie human it was a far better death than it might have been pinned under the rock. No Hero should ask for more than to die in battle. He began to chant Lord Chmee's Last Battle Hymn as he slashed. The morlocks drew back a moment, and the human spoke.
"So we die together, cat and monkey."
True, and no point in raising false hopes of life now. "Have you a human 'name'?" One should know who or what one died with.
"Rykerman. Nils Rykermann. A 'Professor' went in front of it once. And you?"
"Sergeant. I see. So that is how important we are? They sent a Sergeant to flush us out."
"Platoon Officer died on the wire. Many Heroes dead. Many monkeys will pay. Urrr."
"But you saved Leonie?"
"The female? She spared young one. Helped me. Is debt, even to female. I do not know if she lives but she has chance. Urrr."
"I will remember that."
"You will not have long life to remember, I think. But maybe you go to your monkey-god."
The human staggered to its feet. It leaned heavily on a stalagmite column. It was deeply bitten and lacerated, bone showing near both its shoulders. Cloth bound some of its wounds but not all. It could have little blood left.
"I was going to end truce and kill us both with this," said the human, producing a nitrate bomb. "But I will spend it to buy her more time. She may get away." It armed and threw the bomb in a single movement.
Sergeant went down in his explosion reflex. The human went down more slowly. Sergeant had a moment to screw his ears tightly shut before the pressure waves in that confined space burst them. He thought for a moment that the blast would bring down the whole cave roof. Even with his ears closed, he was deafened, and he thought the deafness was permanent until he strained his ears and one by one he heard sounds return: the stream, the human's panting breath, distant feet far up tunnels, rustling and slithering. It was right for a kzin at the point of death to reflect upon his life. His had been short and nameless, but, he hoped, not shameful. The human's head was sinking down onto its chest. It was still bleeding copiously from its many wounds. Perhaps as soon as it died he should eat it to give himself strength for his last stand, though it would have little blood left. Fumes clearing. He knew exhaustion had nearly finished him. No sound of the enemy for a time, only the breathing of the two of them.
A rustling, repeated like an echo.
"Morlocks return," he said.
The human raised its head.
"Come then. Let us show them what cat and monkey can do."
They came again against the two screaming, blood-soaked sapients. The human fought until it went down and Sergeant glimpsed morlocks ripping at its flesh again. Then they were upon him. His w'tsai was gone. His claws were so clogged with morlock flesh and tissue now that his swipes at them were almost ineffectual. Blows on the head and shoulders, heavy blows of rocks. He leaped forward but his knees gave way at last and he fell. They smothered him, biting, tearing, hammering.
Modern lamps blazed out. Sergeant closed his eyes in time not to lose his night vision. He contracted his pupils to slits and when he opened them again saw morlocks blundering about, burning and falling, as half a Company of kzin infantry, Hroarh-Officer at their head, fired into them with short, professional bursts of dialed-down plasma guns, backed up with beam rifles. There were no morlocks left to attack them from above. The multitude of kzinti's lights flooded the cave.
He leaped forward to join the battle, but stumbled again and fell in a pool of blood. It was, he could tell, kzin blood, mingled with human and much morlock. Further, he could tell that the kzin component was his own. His circulatory system was banging emptily. His wounds must have nearly bled him out. He tried to rise and could not. He groped for the Caller on his belt which would alert any medical personnel, perhaps before he died.
"Most of the morlocks died here," said Hroarh-Officer. "Your Heroes accounted for many eights-squared. You held the biggest morlock force. And I see you accounted for many personally. Urrr." He pulled some of the clotted tissue from Sergeant's claws. For an officer to do that was a compliment worth having.
He was in considerable pain, including the monstrous headache of a telepath's probing. He knew the reason for that: as the sole survivor of his platoon there must be no possibility that he had been cowardly in battle. He had evidently passed the test. Had cowardice been found in him he would be either dead or in much worse pain: It was one of the things that destroyed even the most decorous kzin's inhibitions against torture.
"Humans too, Honored Hroarh-Officer," said Sergeant. He meant both that the humans had accounted for morlocks and that his Heroes had accounted for many humans. Hroarh-Officer surveyed the carnage with some satisfaction. He sprayed a little urine over Sergeant in a gesture of pleasure and approval.
"You have some human ears to collect for your trophy belt," Hroarh-Officer said. "And there will be heads for the NCOs' Mess. You have behaved with guile, but Telepath reports that you were by no means backward in the fighting. In using humans and morlocks against each other, you displayed a knowledge of human behavior and the ability to turn it to our advantage. Chuut-Riit will be pleased. It will vindicate him on the value of Thinking Soldiers. And of humans, for that matter. Some day we may use humans to do more fighting for us. . . . Kfrashaka-Admiral and his pride may . . ." He bit off his words. Even in post-battle relaxation, there was only so much fit to say before a Sergeant.
"At least that will be something for Chuut-Riit to be pleased about," he went on. "There is not much else. Not many others have done well. We lost a lot to their stinking wires, and those dung-bombs and other things, screaming and charging straight into traps. Nor did the Staff expect morlocks to be so feral and numerous. Urrr, they have paid for that mistake! Morlocks got to Battalion Forward Headquarters after humans lured the guards away! Then humans used dung bombs on the lot of them. There will be many promotions. Urrr."
Despite his words, Hroarh-Officer did not seem enraged. Rather, the emotions Sergeant detected were those of a kzintosh assessing a new and by no means disagreeable situation. After any serious fight there tended to be vacancies for promotions, and this one had evidently been more serious than anticipated. Sergeant realized he himself had seen only a little of it. Hroarh-Officer appeared to have acceded to battalion command. No doubt that and the satisfaction of wading into recent slaughter contributed to his benign mood. He too had new ears on his belt. "When we return here we will be better prepared," said Hroarh-Officer.
Chuut-Riit will approve of that, thought Sergeant. He will approve of Hroarh-Officer, too.
"It will take a long campaign to clear out these caves thoroughly," said Hroarh-Officer, lashing his tail. "Beyond the pictures of our radar we have found new tunnels and galleries we did not know of. The morlocks have taken a fierce and praiseworthy slashing here, but they breed fast, and we have not got all the humans by any means. It will be good training for the new Troopers, and it would be good if there were Heroes whose valor and blood-lust we could point to especially. . . . There has been hard fighting here."
"Yes, Honored Hroarh-Officer."
"Hard fighting . . . Urrr . . . a campaign like this needs special Heroes. Exemplars . . . You have done well. You may dry the new ears for your belt at the battalion Kzirzarrgh," he added solemnly.
Hroarh-Officer turned to the dying human. There was another important formality to be settled, which the scattered swaths of dead had raised. Hroarh-Officer asked Sergeant: "Is this monkey entitled to Fighter's Privileges?"
"Yes, Dominant One." Hroarh-Officer must have known this from Telepath's report, since the human was still uneaten and possessed its ears, but Sergeant's voluntary confirmation was necessary. Fighter's Privileges entitled a worthy enemy not only to dignified consumption or other disposal or display of his remains after death, but, in the case of a dying enemy, the granting of any reasonable last request. Hroarh-Officer bent over the human, putting this to him in his own mixture of Wunderlander vocabulary and Heroes' grammar.
Sergeant watched him, wondering vaguely what request a human in such circumstances might make that a kzin officer could satisfy. He could not move closer, being held in a medical web. A box on his chest stimulated his muscles as military circulatory fluid was pumped into him. He had been wounded before and knew better than to attempt great movement. Indeed, at that moment he could hardly turn his head. The bone-baring wounds on his neck and shoulders had been sewn up and salved and would make admirable scars.
When the human replied its voice was too weak for Sergeant to catch what it said. But Hroarh-Officer seemed to understand. His tail stiffened as if in anger for a moment, and he raised a claw as if for a slash. Then he relaxed. " Iss bekomess rreasssonibble.Urrr," he grated out, as much as he could not in the slaves' patois but the difficult human tongue. Then he waved to Medical Orderly, who had finished attending to the kzinrret and the other wounded and injured, to come forward. Perhaps the human would respond to kzin medical treatment, and if in the circumstances it lived it would be spared this time. So be it. Lying in the bracing smell of Hroarh-Officer's urine Sergeant was almost content. He would mourn his comrades later. But they had died acceptably.
Hroarh-Officer squatted beside Sergeant as the human was carried away. "It is suitable that he asked for treatment," Sergeant said. "That one should not die before his time. Not at the hands of morlocks. I will have his head for the Mess one day."
"It did not ask for treatment. That is an ordinary part of Fighter's Privileges," said Hroarh-Officer. "It asked for another thing.
"It is a little irregular and will need to come officially from me, but seeing what has transpired here I believe it will be considered fitting to grant it, Raargh-Sergeant."
"I do not know whether you are my friend or my foe, but I should count it my honour to have you as either. Has not one of the poets said that a noble friend is the best gift and a noble enemy the next best?"
—C. S. Lewis
"A promise made under duress doesn't count, that's the law."
"But this is East and South of Suez, where there is no law."
—The Katzenjammer Kids
"Is it not joyful to have friends come from a far land?"