The journey back the way Raargh had come, with lights and a marked trail, was much quicker. With lights and company, too, even if the company was only human, he did not suffer from the delusions of sensory deprivation. Any surviving morlocks kept out of their way—and the Rykermanns had lights whose radiations morlocks were meant to find especially painful. Raargh again went in the lead, again hoping his prosthetic arm would catch any Sinclair wire before it sliced into living flesh and bone. Arthur Guthlac kept close behind him.
The Rykermann party had automatic compasses, GPS indicators, microminiaturised deep radar and other directional aids, and there was little risk this time of getting lost. Leonie made a selection of emergency medical equipment developed in years of guerrilla war, and Dimity, the most lightly armed of the party, carried it. They went fast, but, to Raargh's impatience, at less than maximum speed. They had only their feet and were hung with gear, and Arthur Guthlac insisted on no more than a walking pace with rest stops. At his insistence they were kitted up in skin-coveralls and each third of the party took it in turns to wear gas masks and helmets. They passed the bone-heap and entered the lined tunnels. Ahead was a dim glow. There seemed little point in dousing their own lights.
"Should we spread out?" asked Jocelyn.
"I don't think there's much point in spreading far. If they've got deep radar or motion detectors they'll see us coming. If they have plasma guns or nerve gas it isn't spreading out that will save us. But it might be a good idea if they try to take us on hand-to-hand."
"Fighting kzin hand-to-hand isn't a good idea. Anyway, the point isn't to fight. It's to stop them getting away, with or without their prisoners."
"How do you know this is the only way out?" asked Dimity.
"I don't," said Guthlac after a moment. "I suppose I took it for granted. In fact, knowing how paranoid the kzin can be when they put their minds to it, it's unlikely they'd have restricted themselves to a single—"
"There!" Raargh stabbed with a massive finger at Guthlac's motion detector. "Movement ahead of us and on our right flank."
"How many?" asked Leonie.
"They are not many yet. An eight, two eights. But we are not many also."
The lights showed nothing. Only the single tunnel ahead of them, and what they knew were a complication of dark holes behind.
"These caves have never been fully mapped," said Leonie. "We've been finding new ones all the time."
An explosion shattered the panel above them. Raargh, faster than any human could have moved, spun, firing the heavy kzin weapon. Guthlac's two troopers also fired back with quick, short professional bursts.
"Behind us as well, now!" Raargh snarled.
One of the students was down, hit by a chunk of flying metal behind the left ear. Arthur Guthlac saw instantly he was dead. Keeping low, he gathered the strakkaker and spare charges, as well as the food pack the boy had been carrying.
"Did you see anything?"
"No, too quick. Too dark."
"No point in staying here, then," said Arthur Guthlac. "Plans are changed. We move on. And we stay together. We're too few to split. Forward!"
A blue glow lit the tunnel ahead of them. Hemispherical, it blocked the way. Raargh recognized it as something to be avoided. Dimity recognized it as a Sinclair field, and Arthur Guthlac knew it from old ARM texts. It was possible to live in the time-compressed zone inside it, given adequate supplies of food, water and air, but only if one was in place before it was generated: The process of entering the zone once it was activated would probably be fatal.
A beam, or the projectiles of a strakkaker, fired through the field would receive enormous acceleration. What would happen to such a beam on leaving the field on the other side no one was sure, but as a rule attempts to get around the Special Theory of Relativity in the Einsteinian universe had either no results or cataclysmic ones. Strakkaker needles, or other projectiles emerging from the field with a kinetic energy giving them far more destructive power than artillery shells, would also not be a good thing in this confined space.
"We'll have to go over it," Dimity said.
She pointed. The roof above them was a complex of machinery—pipes, ducting, ladders, and gangways.
"It's too obvious. They will have booby trapped it."
Dimity turned to Rarrgh.
"This field was not on when you came this way?" she asked, speaking carefully in Wunderlander.
"I think it's been set up here in a hurry. They may not have had time to do more. If it's enough to delay us, from their point of view that's better than nothing."
"All right. How do we get over it?"
"We have ropes in the caving gear," said Leonie. "If that would help."
"It might. If we could get up there and attach them."
"Can the kzin do it?" asked Dimity.
"Can you, Raargh?"
"Raargh can try," he answered. "But Raargh cannot jump like kitten. Raargh is old and has wounds in legs."
"You are still quick," said Leonie. "Still have strength of Hero."
He screamed and leaped, straight upwards, claws scrabbling. The claws of his natural hand cut grooves in the paneling, deep but not deep enough to hold him. The claws of his prosthetic hand smashed through it, found a hold. His hind claws dug in. He pulled himself vertically upright, seized at the overhead ducting and struggled onto it.
"Useful to have a kzin along," said Leonie.
The glowing domes of the Sinclair fields below them reminded Cumpston a little of giant jellyfish stranded on an Earth beach. But they would, he knew, be considerably more deadly to touch than the worst jellyfish. They were crawling along a high gantry, and he felt hopelessly exposed to any hunter with modern tracking or sensory devices.
The red dot of a laser-site appeared on his chest. Fight or flight, he knew, would be useless. He raised his hands in surrender, signaling to Vaemar to do the same. A group of the armed humans from the fortress appeared at the end of the gantry, McGlue in their lead.
"You had better come out quietly," said McGlue. There were six of them, with strakkakers and nerve disrupters. Vaemar and Cumpston obeyed.
"Put your hands on top of your heads. Do not make any sudden moves. Dead, neither of you are any use. But we will shoot if we have to. You cannot beat six of us. But I do not want to treat you as prisoners. We are on the same side."
"And whose pride are you?" asked Cumpston. "The mad one or the even madder one?"
"Ostensibly, we side with Emma," said the man. "Actually, we have our own agenda. One which you, Colonel, are obliged to support."
"I suppose you'll explain?"
"I need to. We seem to be alone at present. All other kzinti and humans are off wiping out your little rescue party in the caves. Does this mean anything to you?" He held up a small plastic cube, projecting a holo.
"An ARM ident."
"Genuine, as you well know. Specifically coded to my DNA and impossible to counterfeit. We have the same employer, Colonel. Or ultimately the same employer."
"Your job has been to watch this young kzin. To adjust him to living on a human world. To become his friend."
"I am his friend! And I have never concealed my ARM status from him."
"I congratulate you. You have carried out your instructions cleverly. But it has been my part to play a more covert role. ARM is, as you have perhaps guessed, the instrument of a higher power."
"So even Chuut-Riit guessed. Not a very effective secret if it can be worked out by an alien being four and a half light-years from Earth."
"Suppose Emma's plans—though I will be frank with you and say our plans, for you know the way we must operate—for a revolt of the Wunderland kzin go ahead. As any practical military man such as yourself understands, it will almost certainly fail. The kzin are relatively few, disorganized and disarmed. On the other hand, given the heavy weapons stockpiled here, and kzin courage and fighting ability, and given a few lucky breaks, an uprising could do great damage and cause considerable loss of human life. As you have eloquently put it, the kzin on Wunderland and Tiamat would then probably be wiped out to the last kzinrret and the last kitten—if events followed an undirected course."
"But they will not follow an undirected course, and in any case you are wrong is thinking that the kzin of the Patriarchy would care particularly in a moral sense. We would be doing no more than they expect of monkeys. Kzin culture does not have much of the human concept of hostages. The kzinti of the Alpha Centauri system have surrendered. They are disgraced anyway. Their lives mean nothing. That they tried to fight back when the situation was hopeless meant they did no more than Heroes are expected to do. Perhaps it would make their dishonor a little less. Certainly, it will mean other kzin worlds and other individual kzinti will be even less willing to surrender when all their hope is gone than they are now. Certainly, the war will be prolonged, not forever, but enough to give us time ."
"I still don't understand," said Cumpston. "At the very least, a lot more humans will die, directly and indirectly. And we know the kzinti have other slave races. Some would say, even setting everything else aside, we have a moral duty to help them. Prolonging the war will not do that. A peace has been possible here so far. It may be possible with whole planets."
"I suggest you look at the long view," McGlue replied. "The hyperdrive is the greatest threat to the stability of the human species—indeed to all species. Given the absence of war and easy interstellar travel, sooner or later our control is gone. Not this year, not this decade, perhaps not this century. But eventually.
"In the three centuries between the first settlement of Wunderland, followed by the other interstellar colonies, and the development of the hyperdrive we—ARM—lost a great deal of control.
"That was inevitable. Interstellar travel was rare and one-way, with many years spent in hibernation. Even message communication was restricted to the speed of light. Now the hyperdrive threatens chaos for the human race in the long term. Why do you think ARM discouraged research into FTL for so long? But FTL is a two-edged sword, and one edge fights for us: for it also gives us the chance to reassert order and communication throughout the human worlds if we act quickly, and reestablish a controlling presence throughout the human species before the inevitable human diaspora. Prolonging the war with the Kzin will give us time for that, both for the colonies in general and for Wunderland in particular. It will unite the human worlds under ordinary military discipline and organization long enough for us to establish ourselves once again in place on every one of them.
"Can you, an ARM officer of your rank, seriously doubt the worth of our cause? You, a war veteran who has seen so much chaos and destruction? Before the war ARM was a technological police. That is what it remains. Those who fretted under the stability we imposed could not imagine the consequences of destability, or the immeasurably worse consequences we face if we falter now! Would you see wars between human worlds? Perhaps at last a whole galaxy filled with wars? You are more humane than that, Colonel!
"As for the kzin of Wunderland, certain selected individuals will be saved. You, I think, hope for the Kzin to be civilized in the course of time. That is among our goals also.
"We helped that old kzin to escape—or rather turned a blind eye to it—expecting him to die in the caves. Alive here, he was a constant potential nuisance to our plans and a reminder to Vaemar and perhaps some of the other kzin and humans of a false complexity of loyalties. We wanted him permanently out of the way without risking the wrath of Henrietta, Emma, and indeed Vaemar by killing him. We underestimated him—or perhaps kzin military prostheses are better than we thought. Anyway, we did not know there was a human expedition within reach. Well, Vaemar, if he survives this battle we will see he is safe for you now. You will not lose your friend. There are kzinti on Wunderland we shall need. You, Vaemar, will have the highest of places among them, the place to which your royal blood entitles you.
"Vaemar, what we do is for the Heroic race as well. You know chaos would be at least as destructive for your kind as for ours. Sooner or later your kind will have the hyperdrive too. Your role may be to help hold chaos at bay. You are correct, Colonel, that Chuut-Riit's blood may be especially important.
"Already before the Liberation our people here—the trained heirs of those who came with the original colonists—had made contact with certain kzin—kzin who we made sure as well as we could survived the Liberation. We will contact the slave races, in good time. Already we seek among the kzin for a jotok-trainer. Our ultimate masters—and I say 'our' because they are yours as well as mine—do not think in the short term or on a small scale. We do what we do for the longest-term good of all. And I mean all, kzinti included."
"All right," said Cumpston. "I accept who you are. What do you want me to do?"
"For the moment, nothing. Things are developing satisfactorily. The best thing we can do now is keep out of the way and not intervene unless we need to."
Colonel Cumpston nodded, raising his hand to pinch his lower lip thoughtfully. The narrow gangway meant they were standing in a line. The laser in his ring had a single charge only, but given their position it was enough.
"Now," he said to Vaemar as they stepped over the bodies, "we should move cautiously to find our friends."
"What about these?"
"I would not suggest you eat them. The meat of such would be distasteful. Drop them into the Sinclair field and it will take care of them in good time. It is useful to have weapons again."
As they pushed the bodies off the catwalk into the field glowing below, Cumpston took from one of his pockets a small black emblem in the shape of a swan and dropped it after them. They heard, along the passages ahead, explosions and the screech of a strakkaker. Human shouts and kzin snarls and screams. Mechanical voices shouting orders.
"Where now?" asked Vaemar.
"To the sound of the guns, my young Hero!"
The young Kzin's snarl of joy shook the air. Laden with weapons, they ran.
A bolt from Raargh's heavy weapon smashed into the gallery. A human and two kzin fell. Another kzin, leaping down, was hit by the needles of a strakkaker and disintegrated.
But Guthlac's party was taking casualties too: two more of the students and one of the troopers were down, and they were outnumbered, with no obvious way either forward or back, with the enemy in possession of the high ground. I've blundered, thought Guthlac. Terminally, maybe. Should have remembered Sun Tzu. I made the mistake of attacking without knowing the enemy or the terrain. Let them get up a plasma gun and we're done. Had he let Jocelyn—where was she?—distract his fighting brain? Nonsense! He looked at his watch. They had bought some time, anyway. But above them was the labyrinth of ladders, ducting, and machinery which the enemy knew and he did not. Raargh spun and fired, too quickly for him to follow, hitting someone or something—the explosion was fierce enough to leave the species in doubt—that had been crawling on top of some piping behind them. We'd be dead already but for that ratcat, he thought. Still, we've put up a good fight so far. Rykermann also seemed to have rediscovered fighter's reflexes and was getting off fast and accurate snapshots. Leonie too. Well, those three are an old team. Jocelyn was good too, very good, and Professor Carmody, if not so quick, had evidently used a gun before.
Moving shapes above some distance away, hard to make out. He gestured to Raargh, whose artificial eye was proving as useful as his enormous strength. The old kzin fired twice. The explosion brought down a massive overhead gantry and attached ducting in roiling fire. The way ahead seemed clear, at least, since their suits could withstand the heat of ordinary flame.
"Forward!" he shouted, then to Raargh, remembering kzinti combat psychology, "Lead, Hero!"
They sprang up. More shots from behind! The frontal attack, he realized, had been a diversion. The oldest trick in the book, and I fell for it! Well done, Brigadier! The remaining trooper was down, the rest of them bunched together.
Falling wreckage hit Guthlac. He had had broken bones before and now he felt knee and shin snap. Something in his chest, too. The pain was monstrous, but he knew, or hoped, that if he lived he could be quickly repaired. Not like the Resistance fighters who fought here without docs, he thought. Everything went black for a moment, and then he struggled back to consciousness.
Jocelyn spun and fired, holding her laser low. Leonie was right behind her. The laser sliced through her suit and into her lower body. Dimity kicked, knocking the laser out of Jocelyn's hands before it could finish bisecting Leonie.
Raargh saw. With a roar he leaped back at Jocelyn, claws flashing.
Firing as they came, at least twenty kzin and humans charged up the tunnel. Dimity, feet braced apart and steadied against the tunnel wall, fired a laser with one hand and a strakkaker with the other, hitting several, stopping the mass of them for a moment.
Two more shapes, one kzin, one human, leaped down from a gantry into the attackers. At the sound of Vaemar's battle-scream, Raargh abandoned Jocelyn and charged into the fight, firing the heavy kzin weapon even as he leaped. Rykermann was just behind the kzin.
Guthlac tried to follow and fell. Instinct overriding reason, he tried to spring back to his feet, and his right leg collapsed in an agony that seemed to turn the passage white about him. His right knee appeared to have reversed its joint. Splintered bone visible. Gritting his teeth and trying not to scream, he dragged himself toward the others. If a broken rib pierced his lung . . . well, war was war. Dimity was crouched over Leonie, apparently applying some sort of makeshift tourniquet or bandage. The last of Rykermann's students, who he had forgotten, was giving them some covering fire, advancing in short rushes toward their position, firing quick, accurate bursts. You're either a natural or you've done this before, Guthlac thought. I guess a lot of Wunderlanders have. I should have used you better. Then the student was hit, by three converging lasers fired by the kzinti above, and went down in a gruesome welter. The detail that suddenly sickened Guthlac was that he was another one dead whose name he had never known. And once I was fascinated by bits of stories that mentioned war! I didn't know the half of it!
Command your troops, Brigadier! Remember Ceres! Remember Europa! Remember Hssin!His first concern must be with the battle. Agonizingly, he pulled himself up and half over a heavy section of fallen ducting. Who was friend and who foe in the battle of humans and kzinti? More damage killed the remaining lights, leaving the scene lit only by flames from burning wreckage and the lurid glare of lasers through smoke.
You'll do no good here,he told himself. Get closer. Distance the pain. You're trained to do it. You can get another leg.
He inched onward, keeping to the side of the tunnel. The firing seemed to be more scattered.
Once or twice he heard Vaemar's voice, distinguishable from the other kzin screams by its juvenile note, and a deep roar he thought was Raargh. Flame blazed up brightly at his back as it reached a container of some combustible liquid. He was, he realized, silhouetted by it, and rolled into shadow. He heard another human scream as he rolled and recognized it as his own. Then, concealed from unaided human eyes at least, he lay still.
He tried after a few moments to crawl forward, but collapsed. For the moment the best he could do was hold his gun. He tried to tell himself that Leonie needed any available medical attention more than he did, though his nervous system screamed otherwise.