The walls of the dean's interview room were heavy with antique books. A couple of ancient computers were preserved under transparent domes. There were paintings and even some marble busts of previous eminent members of the faculty. In another of its efforts toward reestablishing a milieu of scholastic tranquillity after decades of chaos and war, Munchen University had recently introduced gowns and mortarboards for both staff and students to wear for major interviews and other important occasions.
Nils Rykermann, his robe emblazoned with the esoteric colors and heraldry of his position, looked up from the application and assessment form.
"You're taking a big spread of subjects," he said. "Literature, history, political theory, physics and astrophysics, economics, chemical engineering, space mechanics, pure philosophy . . . and you want to do a unit of biology too. That's quite a load for a first-year student! We're going to have to bend the rules. Still, that's been done before for certain . . . exceptional cases."
"I hope to specialize eventually, Professor, but I feel I should get a good general background first."
"Joining the chess club, too, I see. Arthur Guthlac's become the patron, you know. When he came back from his leave at Gerning he decided to extend his posting on Wunderland. And the Drama Society! Are you sure you can manage it, Vaemar?"
"Oh yes, Professor!"
"Well, you must tell me if you find it too much. As dean of studies this year I will be responsible for your entire performance beyond my own subject. . . . Your test scores are encouraging. . . . And your . . . er . . . Honored Sire Chuut-Riit . . . was clever enough."
"Yes, sir. I will not shame you. Nor him. Nor Honored Step-Sire Raargh-Hero."
"I'm sure you won't. But prove yourself here, Vaemar, and you will win a greater victory than many. . . . We have our first-semester field trip to the caves next month. You have some acquaintance with them already, and I'm sure you'll be an asset to us. We may regrow some of the smashed formations with Sinclair fields . . . How does your Honored Step-Sire Raargh-Hero fare?"
"He prospers, Professor. But my infant step-siblings can make it difficult to study. It can be noisy at home. Sometimes when I read they leap at my tail and bite it. My Honored Step-Sire Raargh-Hero counsels patience and self-control."
"Good training, Vaemar, and good counsel. You will need both."
A flock of big leather-flappers passed over the tent, filling the air with their cries. Gay Guthlac stirred against her husband, her head on his right shoulder, lips brushing his ear. "Noisy things," she murmured. He stroked her hair and she snuggled closer against him before drifting back to sleep. Sleeping plates were fine in space, but camping out in Wunderland's gravity they enjoyed the primitive novelty of a bed. They were falling in love with this multicolored world, and both had remarked the previous day that, long-settled as it was, it still had vast areas of vacant land.
Richard Guthlac turned his head to kiss his wife's sleeping face. His right arm lay along her back, his hand moving to caress the warm curved smoothness of her skin. The night beyond their tent's window was flooded with a shifting purple light: Alpha Centauri B rising with its glorious heralding of the true dawn. He found it harder than she to return to sleep immediately.
I am taking her into danger,he thought. Each time we violate the tomb of an ancient horror, we risk unleashing monsters.
And then he thought: Well, it cuts two ways. Danger is part of our lives. We're spacefarers. We knew what went with the job when we started. It's better than living like flatlanders.
The splinter of anxiety withdrew a little. He felt his thoughts beginning to wander as sleep claimed him again: Our race can fight monsters now, and win. We were sheep once. If that ancient collision with the Kzin and all the centuries of war that followed taught us anything, it's that the sheep option isn't available.
But that was not the only lesson it taught. Had there been other, subtler ones? Had it taught the Kzin anything?
Some of them, anyway.
The splinter of fear again: But this is not about abstract concepts of the human race. This is about me and the woman I love as life itself.
Gay stirred sleepily again, throwing one leg over his body, her hand caressing his chest. He turned into her embrace.
"I have a potentially difficult task for you, Charrgh-Captain," said Zzarrk-Skrull. He stood gazing out through the arrogantly wide castle window across the Hrungn Valley. His body was as motionless as if he were lying in wait for prey, and his right hand, claws half-extended, rested calmly on the periscope stand of an ancient Chunquen undersea ship, memento of an easy ancestral conquest, but his tail lashed, betraying disquiet.
"Command me, Sire!" Charrgh-Captain's own tail and ears stood erect with eagerness, and his whiskers bristled. If he had any private thought to the effect that a task which the Fleet Admiral described as potentially difficult must be daunting indeed, he kept it well hidden.
Zzarrk-Skrull paced a moment in the audience chamber before continuing. "I do not mean merely dangerous," he said, wrinkling his nose as if at a distasteful suggestion. "You may be called upon to exercise other qualities besides courage. Diplomacy . . . judgment. You will have to deal with humans in this task . . . and worse than humans."
"Puppeteers? I will do it, Sire! I serve the Patriarchy as ordered!" Things had changed since the old days. Kzinti dealt with alien races—some alien races—with diplomats and words and even contracts now instead of attack fleets. There was a growing number of kzinti turrrissti visiting alien worlds, often to ponder upon their ancestors' ancient battlefields, kzinti as employees and partners of various alien enterprises, even as employers of free aliens. . . . The Puppeteers were contemptible herbivores, but their trade empire had brought benefits. Most of them had left Known Space, and in their absence some kzinti were beginning to appreciate their value.
Zzarrk-Skrull's face took on a strange expression as he stood proud in his golden hsakh cloak and sash of Earth silk. It was also, for Charrgh-Captain, a secretly alarming one: High Kzinti officers are not easily disgusted.
"Urrr. Worse than Puppeteers. Hear me, Charrgh-Captain." Fleet Admiral Zzarrk-Skrull composed his face and ears, and continued:
"You may be aware of an unfortunate incident many years ago on the planet of Beta Lyrae that the humans name Kuuborl . We lost a ship called Traitor's Claw and a specialist crew under one Chuft-Captain. They had found a small stasis box used by tnuctipun, not Slavers."
Billions of years previously, depending on how various planets measured years, the ancient races of the thrint, the stupid but ruthless Slavers with their compulsive telepathic hypnosis, and the highly intelligent but at least equally ruthless tnuctipun, had fought a war that ended in omnicide: the thrintun, losing the war and about to be finally exterminated by their vengeful former slaves, had sent an amplified suicide command throughout the galaxy. Sentient life had ended, to evolve again only recently in galactic time.
Some Slaver and tnuctipun artifacts had been found: more-or-less mutated life-forms on various planets and in space, other things preserved unchanged in stasis boxes, one of the great feats of tnuctipun technology. Some stasis boxes had been highly dangerous. The danger most feared was that when stasis boxes were opened they might be found to contain live Slavers as well as artifacts. It had happened on a few occasions, in both kzinti and human space. The results had been fearful. But the contents of some stasis boxes had been priceless. Zzarrk-Skrull allowed himself a few lashes of his tail, and went on:
"There was a confrontation with humans. There was an explosion. One kzin survived: a telepath. Unfortunately he was injured early in events and could tell us little more, save that Chuft-Captain had opened the box and was performing various tests on the artifact it contained. Then, bang.
"That was all, but our agents learned other facts later. Of course the humans and the Puppeteer made their own reports."
"I read a little of the incident in my studies. One, or some, cowardly monkeys survived."
"Actually, the artifact contained, on a secret setting, an antimatter weapon capable of ripping a planet apart like a Chunquen's paunch, a war-winning weapon then or now."
"Yes, you may howl with anguish. Had Chuft-Captain had the wit merely to bring it back to us for our students to examine systematically, as he had been instructed to do with his captures, we might have had its secrets and your sires and mine might have been conquerors of monkeydom. But that was many years ago. Regrets are clawless now.
"I come to the meat. As a result of this, and certain other incidents where we and the humans disagreed over the discovery of stasis boxes, a new clause was added to the old McDonald-Rshshi Truce and the protocols that have evolved since. It has not been widely publicized.
"Should we discover a stasis box in a debatable or uncolonized area of space, the humans may send an observer to be present at its opening. Should the humans discover a stasis box in such an area, we may send an observer similarly. The observers have diplomatic privileges.
"I do not know what our Sires and predecessors would say of this, but we must deal with humans on many matters now. You know we have even joined with them on various official expeditions, including some to the Ringworld artifact.
"Charrgh-Captain, the humans of Ka'ashi have notified us that they have found a new stasis box. You will represent the Patriarch at its opening."
"I am honored, Sire, to represent the Patriarch in any capacity. Must I go again to a monkey-world?" A private thought: Monkey-worlds are not too bad in small doses. Better than years in a spaceship habitat or under a bubble-dome, anyway. My posting to Earth had some entertainment, and I enjoyed hunting on Wunderl—on Ka'ashi.
"Not for long. Only to Ka'ashi to join the expedition. The humans report the box was found floating in distant space. It is apparently larger than usual, and they have not tried to move it. All stasis boxes may be important, as the Beta Lyrae incident showed, and the stasis box there was small. This one may contain nothing useful. But sense suggests a large stasis box may be especially important. Perhaps especially dangerous."
"Sire, you know my liver burns to serve the Patriarch wherever I am sent, but duty impels me to express surprise that this task is not given to a Speaker-to-Anim . . . to a diplomat."
"You will be given diplomatic credentials. You have traveled and mixed with lesser species before without trouble: Plainly you have self-control. You have also shown yourself resolute, Heroic and able to make quick decisions. Names are given too easily nowadays, but you have earned yours. You speak Interworld and have studied human history. More to the point, you are an experienced military officer and pilot. Should the stasis box contain live Slavers, you will need to destroy them, irrespective of the humans' policies. Indeed, I gather the humans, weak creatures as they are, would be glad of a Hero's prowess in the event of such mutual danger.
"Should this stasis box contain a weapon, a war-winning weapon," the Fleet Admiral went on, "you may need to act at . . . discretion. The Alien Authority Lords did wish that a professional Speaker-to-Animals be sent, but authority above me held a professional fighter was necessary.
"You referred a few moments ago, Charrgh-Captain, to humans' cowardice. I have at times spoken similarly. Such is, of course, the tone of the studies you have diligently undertaken, and the way in which we have long spoken. It is also an objective fact that no aliens approach the courage of the Heroes' Race. Humans indeed may be rattle-brained often enough. Daffy monkeys. But all humans cowards? You know better. So, now, do we all. Be wary."
There were at least three points for Charrgh-Captain to ponder: first, for the Fleet Admiral to refer to a "truce" rather than a "treaty," to use the old and insulting job-title "Speaker-to-Animals" instead of the more modern "diplomat," and the old name Ka'ashi instead of the human Wunderland for the long-lost colony-world, told its own story; second, all kzintosh of the Patriarchy, military and civil, including diplomats and other specialists, had a high degree of military training, so this might be a task where extra-special abilities in that direction would be required; and third, in matters of this nature the only authorities above Fleet Admiral Zzarrk-Skrull were the Supreme Council of Lords and the Patriarch himself. I am climbing into high trees, he thought.
"I have spoken of the meat," said Zzarrk-Skrull. "I now speak of the offal. Obviously you will travel in a confining ship with humans."
"I believe I can endure it, Sire. I have traveled in human ships before."
"Allow me to finish. Urrr. There will not only be humans in this ship, but an . . . abomination."
"Sire?" If it was a human ship from Wunderland, he thought he could guess what the abomination was. Neither kzintosh wished to speak of such things.
Zzarrk-Skrull's face and ears wrinkled up as though he were tasting rancid sthondat-flesh. "There is a certain logic in it. When investigating the Slavers, thoughts may need to be read. Or we could take it as a deliberate insult. However, the Patriarchy and the Supreme Council have resolved to accept it. We have little choice. They have beaten us in six wars . . . but who knows? Perhaps the contents of this box will ensure that they will not beat us again. It is worth eating a little kasht."
"Is there hope of another war, Sire?"
"A Hero who delivered to the Patriarchy a war-winning weapon would find Glory," said the Fleet Admiral. "A Full Name would be certain. . . . There have been instances in our history, though none of late, where that Full Name has been completed by the suffix 'Riit.' You speak of hope? My own Sires would have hoped for nothing else. . . ."
A fourth point to ponder there, certainly; I bring home the weapon that smashes the human empire and I will be promoted to Royalty. And a fifth point, too: Our ancestors hoped for nothing but another war. Do we?
The representative of the Institute of Knowledge on Wunderland was of course a Jinxian. To other humans he looked almost cubical. As he spoke to Richard and Gay Guthlac he also looked benign, like a huge garden ornament cast rather crudely in concrete. His apparent good temper was easy to understand. In Wunderland's gravity he had the strength of a superman and did not need a heart-booster.
"As you've probably guessed," he said, "this expedition's budget comes from a grant to the Institute by the General Products Foundation. The Puppeteers—whatever rump of an organization they've left in Known Space—don't like undertaking such ventures themselves. They want us to do it."
"How did the Puppeteers find it?"
"I don't know. They have activities they're discreet about, even now. Also they've had more dealings with the Outsiders than we. Perhaps the Outsiders told them."
"There's also, of course, a military aspect. A human military aspect. With the approval of the UNSN the Foundation has given us weaponry that should be enough to handle any trouble—and you both hold UNSN Reserve commissions, as do Melody and Peter Robinson, and as do I, for that matter. If it comes to a military situation, you'll be wearing those hats. As captain of the ship, Richard will of course command in that situation as well."
"Why not a bigger crew?" asked Richard Guthlac.
"Money, as usual. The General Products Foundation has had little income since most of the Puppeteers quit Known Space. The few that remain have, as far as we know, been more concerned with winding up existing enterprises than with starting new trade or supporting abstract knowledge.
"But they evidently think a new stasis box is worth having someone investigate. It reinforces my suspicions, for what they're worth, that, wherever the Puppeteers have gone, they've not gone as far or as fast as we thought. If their fleet had been travelling FTL for more than two hundred years, why should they bother with something so far behind them?
"And you should have enough talents between you to cover all emergencies," he went on. "You know the drill with the contents of stasis boxes: If they are safe, bring them home, if they are dangerous, destroy them."
He paused. Richard was suddenly struck by the thought that his benign expression had more to do with his extraordinary musculature than any internal contentment. His eyes were those of a worried man.
"To persevere in opening stasis boxes at all has always been a difficult policy decision, with many opposed to it. However the majority view at the Institute—and . . . er . . . other authorities . . . is that if we'd let the danger prevent us opening any stasis boxes, ever, we'd have passed up a great deal of priceless knowledge. So far, our procedures have worked. You yourselves have retrieved and opened three without trouble, so you're the obvious choice for this job."
"Perhaps we were just lucky. We found no live Slavers."
"Perhaps. But in any event the danger wouldn't deter our furry friends: whatever their paranoia they are brave. For many reasons—and the Puppeteers concur with this quite definitely—we can't let our fears give them a monopoly of stasis-box discoveries.
"Of course, it's not their own necks the Puppeteers risk—did you know that when they first revealed themselves to Pierson, we actually named them after their appearance rather than their preferred mode of operation? Anyway, it's you who'll be at the sharp end.
"You may have to make a quick judgment, and in the event of encountering live Slavers, a small crew like yours is as good as an army. We are sure Slavers coming out of stasis will need some time to orient themselves. We hope Peter Robinson will give us an edge there: He can tell us instantly of any active Slaver minds. Don't use that time to speculate or anything else, just launch your missiles and never mind the knowledge that may be lost. That is, of course, a direct order given from under my military hat."
He paused for a moment to let that one sink in.
"Your observer from the Patriarchy is one Charrgh-Captain, a naval officer who has had off-world postings as an attaché. I met him when he was here previously. I think he's a fairly typical kzin of the officer class. 'Captain' is our translation of a term whose significance varies, but in his case he's in a senior grade—about the equivalent of a colonel as far as there's an equivalent. I expect he'll support a strike on the box if the situation calls for it, but he's an observer only, with no power except to make recommendations. He's under your orders in any emergency. . . .
"Just make sure, if it's something the kzinti would regard as, er, useful—I think you know what I mean—that he doesn't . . . step beyond the protocols. Kill him without hesitation, if necessary, and we'll cook up some cover story. Plausible accidents can always happen in space." Killing any adult male kzin is not exactly easy, Richard thought. Oh, and to make it a little more challenging, this one just happens to be a professional military officer as well. I suppose this Jinxian has had kamikaze combat training and wears a Hellflare tattoo, though discreetly out of sight in these peaceful days. When, incidentally, killing a kzin would be treated as murder, and killing a kzin colonel, if it got back to the Patriarchy, would be a good deal worse. It might even mean extradition for us if the Kzin insisted. And they would. I had forgotten how many Jinxians have chips on those vast shoulders of theirs and enjoy putting us beanpole-men and our willowy women on the spot.
"And Peter Robinson?" said Gay. "How is Charrgh-Captain going to like him?"
"He isn't. But he's got no choice. Don't worry, kzinti can be more adaptable than you might think. They're cats, after all. They'll growl and snarl, but they'll accept a situation they can't change, provided you leave them a way to do it that doesn't compromise their dignity or honor."
"It's when they get really adaptable, of course, that they get dangerous. Some geneticists say the wars have changed the kzinti gene pool to produce less aggressive, less ferocious kzin. I wonder if they've rather produced more cunning kzin, capable of biding their time, and this time not attacking till they're good and ready. . . .
"Speaking of adaptability," he went on, "even with hyperdrive the trip will take several months. That's another reason the crew is small: Your salaries will be loaded to compensate for the time out of your lives and general inconvenience. You'll have to spend time in hibernation or standing watch alone, almost as in the STL days."
"Just how much will our salaries be loaded?" asked Richard.
"Adequately. I have the contracts here. A bigger crew would mean more divisions of a limited cake. Don't forget, the stock market has had some rocky times since the Puppeteer pull-out. We're reconstructing our economies successfully, but a new golden age isn't going to come overnight. In fact, we are lucky to have an expedition even of this size. At least"—this time he really did laugh—"even if your crew is small, you have all the talents."
Whomping Wallabywas a General Products #3 hull. Puppeteer-produced, it was spacious for the six crew, though its life-system, with kzin as well as human requirements to cater for, was relatively complex, and kzinti liked lots of elbow-room. The hull was thought to be indestructible and impenetrable to anything but visible light, which interior paint kept out. It was well-fitted with computers and a laboratory, boats, ground craft and an outfit of heavy weapons, including a laser cannon and bomb-missiles. It was standard in well-armed research ships (and all research ships were well-armed) to fit discreet precautions against their being misappropriated, but it was also considered bad form to discuss these. It was a legend that all such expeditions still carried at least one covert ARM agent, though ARM's unseen grip on human society was reputed to have been weakening for some time. It was also now standard for ships fitted out for possible dealing with Slaver stasis boxes to carry self-destructs. General Products had provided all the nonpersonal equipment, including the boats and weapons. Puppeteers were pacifists themselves except in direst need, but that did not prevent them making effective weaponry. There was human and kzin medical equipment, including a kzin military autodoc.
Melody Fay, the representative of the Institute of Knowledge on the expedition as well as weapons and security officer, was another blocklike Jinxian with a penetrating voice. Probably, Richard thought, she also wore the Hellflare tattoo. I hope it stays out of sight, he thought, and for more, he reflected a little uncharitably, than diplomatic reasons: The idea of seeing her naked was frankly unappealing. She was Jinxian in manner as well as appearance, given to striking her chest boomingly for emphasis. Jinxian females in lower-gravity societies, perhaps even more than their male counterparts, tended to have a mental armor of defensiveness and aggression.
Gatley Ivor was a tall, thin Wunderlander and specialist in the study of Slaver Empire relics. He still wore the asymmetrical beard that had been a status mark for aristocratic Wunderlanders of past generations. Although with modern medicines the physical age of human adults was hard to tell, his speech and mannerisms were those of a very old man in whose body those medicines were not working perfectly.
All the talents!Richard thought, recalling the Jinxian's words as they stowed their gear. This is a crew about as ill-assorted as it is possible to get, even before our other members join.
* * *
"My cabin will be completely secure?" Peter Robinson, junior partner of Robinson and Son, Mental Investigations, seconded to the Institute-Guthlac Expedition, asked for the third time. He pitched his hat into one corner of the cabin, took off his sunglasses, and wiped them with a nervous gesture.
"Yes. Completely. Remember this is a Puppeteer-built ship."
"I don't know if you understand how fearf—how difficult it is for me to be sharing a ship with a specimen of Pseudofelis sapiens ferox . . . with a kzintosh of the Patriarchy."
"You won't have to mix until we get there. And he is a diplomat, bound by protocols," Gay assured him again.
"I will have to use my will to assert dominance," said Peter Robinson. "And not just once as in normal civilized society of our kind, but continually. This will be an ordeal. He will try to destroy me, either by crushing me psychologically, or physically. I will not let him. But I wish there was a human telepath good enough to do this job. I have a nice business and plenty of work here on Wunderland."
"There isn't," said Richard. "But," he added awkwardly after a pause, "this kzintosh is a representative of the Patriarch, no less, and bears the Patriarch's sigril. It embarrasses me but must ask you: Are you sure you will feel no conflict of loyalty?"
"I once saw a real kzinti telepath," said Peter Robinson. "A dribbling, vomiting, twitching freak, despised by all and doomed to die a terrible death after a short life of misery and degradation.
"In thousands of years the laboratories and science of the Patriarchy never tried to find a drug that would allow us to function without destroying us. Research along those lines was even deliberately forbidden: The Patriarchy did not want strong or sane telepaths. The human laboratories on Wunderland found such a drug only a few years after the Liberation, and since then we Wunderkzin telepaths can live almost normal lives. Liberation! Can you have any doubt where my loyalties lie?"
He paused, and stared into Richard's eyes.
"I will not deny that there are times I look in a mirror and ask: 'What am I? What are my kind? Where do we go?' I am not free of everything. . . . But I saw a kzinti telepath once."
Most kzin, even if they had a perfect academic grasp of human languages, spoke them with a harsh, grating tone. Peter Robinson's vocal chords had been altered by microsurgery when he was young. It was strange to hear the perfect, almost accentless Interworld, with only traces of the now-dead language and accent of Wunderlander, from the fanged jaws of Man's ancient enemy.
"You did say my cabin will be secure?"
Charrgh-Captain arrived from Kzin by a regular flight. His Interworld was fluent, but his voice could never be taken for human. He handed over his credentials, retaining a bag with diplomatic markings for himself, and briefly acknowledged the human members of the crew. At the sight of Peter Robinson he curled his lip and said nothing. He thought something, though, and Richard and Gay saw Peter Robinson flinch. He shuffled backward into his cabin, looking more like a telepath of the Patriarchy than they had ever seen him look. Then suddenly he came out again and returned Charrgh-Captain's stare. Then he burst forth:
"I am a Wunderkzin and my destiny is my own. Regarding low Kdaptists I have nothing to say. Neither I nor my ancestors have committed any crime against the Patriarchy save to assert our freedom after you lost a war. You have no legal rights over our kind and no claims against us. The Patriarchy conceded that in the McDonald-Rshshi Treaty and the protocols.
"Further, Wunderland jurisprudence is still derived from the old Law and our independence is established by legal precedent. I refer you to Sraakra-Rykermann v. Representatives of the Patriarchy, cited in the 154th Edition of Nichols on Police Offenses."
Charrgh-Captain was moved to snarl back, but in Interworld rather than the Heroes' Tongue.
"I have no interest. We signed those truces when we were defeated and had no choice! Do not speak of them!"
"But sign them you did. Have your kind not voiced contempt for the humans who say a promise made under duress does not bind? And as for being defeated, would you hazard another war now?"
"We rebuild our Empire with the hyperdrive, smug freak. But fear not this day. My diplomatic status protects you."
Peter Robinson closed the door again. This time he locked it.
Charrgh-Captain inspected his own quarters and assured himself that the kitchen and food supplies were suitable for kzin needs. He ran a quick eye over their stores in general and a rather more thorough one over their weapons. He stared coldly at the kzin autodoc, though with many kzinti traveling on human ships now it was no longer on the military secret list. He checked it without comment. There was little more to be done. He watched as Richard and Gay went through the takeoff checks.
The Whomping Wallaby climbed out of the vast singularity of the Centauri system and dropped into hyperdrive.
Few humans or Kzin can stand to "look" upon Hyperspace for long, and there is no purpose in trying to do so. For most of its flight the Wallaby 's ports were opaqued. A crew member remained on watch in case of emergencies, which would mainly concern the life-system, but automatic pilot and mass-detector—the latter considered by many a greater technological miracle than the hyperdrive shunt itself—flew the ship.
Most spacefarers of all kinds adjust to the long watches alone or with a skeleton crew while their shipmates hibernate. It is also a widespread ritual of human space travel that changeover time is leisurely. This is not merely for debriefing and briefing: The retiring crew member, if he or she has stood watch alone, is usually hungry for company and conversation before returning to hibernation, and the relieving crew member needs time to adjust.
Gatley Ivor, first on watch, had spent changeover rambling gently to Melody Fay about the antiquities he loved. Charrgh-Captain, who took over from Melody, was the only one who had not obeyed—and possibly did not know of—this convention of relaxed talk, though in his case no one would have insisted upon it, and the Jinxian apparently did not care for Kzin company in any case. His hand-over report to Gay had been brief and to the point, though comprehensive. She had no idea whether the big kzin was hardened against loneliness and boredom or simply not prepared to betray feeling them. But to a previous generation the idea of entrusting the watch of a human ship to a kzin of the Patriarchy would have been beyond belief in any case. Gay spoke long to Peter Robinson when she handed over to him in turn.
The watches aboard the Whomping Wallaby had had to be planned with some care. Richard relieved Peter Robinson to take what they calculated would be the last watch of the voyage. They inspected the ship and the log, and settled down in the couches on what was still called the bridge for a bourbon and ice cream together.
Peter Robinson knew the ritual even if he did not need it. And perhaps he does need it , thought Richard. He is far more talkative and gregarious than any kzin of the Patriarchy—anxious to prove his human credentials, perhaps. And his preference for being called by his full name—there are two explanations for that, of course: While on the one hand it reinforces his Wunderkzin identity, on the other hand in kzin society a full name is the rare and ultimate sign of high nobility.
Aloud he said: "I hope the watch was not too boring."
"Being alone for a while is no great hardship for me," the Wunderkzin replied. "The computer's gaming skills are adequate without being overwhelming, and I have my sculpting tool and my poetry. There is my little laboratory, and I enjoy experiments—I assure you I stick to safe ones in these circumstances. I do not miss my mate much without her scent. To me being on watch in a spaceship when all others aboard sleep is the equivalent of silence, such as I only know otherwise sometimes in the wilder parts of Wunderland. It is very peaceful. It is precious to me.
"The human drugs are incomparably kinder than the sthondat drugs of the Patriarchy, but they are not perfect, nor do they armor us against all the ordinary neuroses of telepathy, which even human telepaths—such as they are—are subject to. We fight battles always against too much empathy, against losing ourselves in other minds—with the glands of hunting carnivores who can never enjoy the chase and kill of our prey as even an ordinary nontelepathic Wunderkzin of Arhus or the Hohe Kalkstein may. Have you seen what we eat? Either animals too mindless to know terror, or meat made to move artificially, or dead meat. The one time I tried to eat Zianya was terrible for me. . . . Still, it is a small price to pay. But sometimes I have waves of fear."
"What do you do?"
"What can I do? I shield and carry on. . . . Everyone I touch leaks a little. One human aboard this ship is keeping a secret of which I sense enough to guess the rest without probing. I will say no more of that. I do not think it has a vital bearing on the success of this mission, and we have vows not to divulge any such secrets we may stumble on save in direst emergency. Better for me to keep my shield strong. . . .
"At least, my friend, I know that you do not dislike me. Nor Gay. I have not tried to probe the minds of any aboard here, but all give forth a general . . . coloration, an aura. Hers is one mind whose aura I enjoy. I do not mind if you and Gay call me by my first Name alone."
Richard said, "Gay dislikes very little that lives. She found me when I was broken and unlovable, and rebuilt me. . . . You are a telepath on a human world. You must know the darknesses in which humans can live."
"Yes. And once or twice in my work I have found myself screaming and leaping as a result. Angry enough to use my claws and fangs as well as the Telepath's Weapon. Some human poetry is dangerous for the likes of me to read, you know. Chuut-Riit set 'The Ballad of the White Horse' as a text for the human-students of his day:
"While there is one tall shrine to shake
Or one live man to rend;
For the wrath of the gods behind the gods
Who are weary to make an end.
"There lives one moment for a man
When the door at his shoulder shakes,
When the taut rope parts under the pull,
And the barest branch is beautiful
One moment, while it breaks.
"So rides my soul upon the sea
That drinks the howling ships,
Though in black jest it bows and nods
Under the moon with silver rods,
I know it is roaring at the gods,
Waiting the last eclipse . . .
" 'Think on, of those who write so,' he said. But there is other:
"The world is so full of a number of things,
I am sure we should all be as happy as kings.
"I think, if I may say so to you, that Gay thinks like that latter. But I know the darknesses in which kzin can live, too. I know it well. Charrgh-Captain . . ." To a knowledgeable observer, his body language said more than his words.
"Does he distress you so much?"
"Yes. Like many kzintosh of his generation, he has no religious faith. Why believe in the Fanged God who gave kzinti the Universe and domination of all life when humans keep winning the wars? But that does not modify his loathing of me. On the contrary, it increases it. When you have lost anything to worship, it is a comfort to find something to despise. Thank the God I am good at shielding. I work at it."
"And how do you feel about the Fanged God, Peter?" It was one of those questions spacers on watch could ask one another.
"We high Wunderkzin are not low Kdaptists. Some of us believe Fanged God and Bearded God have their own kingdoms. Others have conceptions more subtle: that the Fanged God is the heroic aspect of the Bearded God, who being omnipotent has no need for heroism."
"In Christianity the Incarnation is meant to solve that problem: God had to know by experience everything human, including courage and even despair: 'My God! my God! Why have You forsaken me?' "
"We never despair. In any case, I do not necessarily speak for myself. And there are other things. For the relatively few of us on Wunderland there are many sects. Be assured we do not dress in human skins for our services or make chalices and candlesticks of human bones, as the low Kdaptists do. But Charrgh-Captain believes in nothing beyond the material. Or so he thinks. Yet he also thinks his values are those of the old Kzin culture. Like so many adult kzintosh of the Patriarchy today, there is great confusion in him. Once there was a haunting fear, never, never admitted, that the fabled Free Jotok Fleet would return with vengeance. More lately humans have been seen by a few as avatars of the Free Jotok—who probably do not exist. My own fears are different, perhaps a little more human: to have some great task, some great test, and fail—that fear comes to me sometimes at a late hour. Fear of being proven to be a Nothing, a creature of neither world. Charrgh-Captain would never think of failure. He would conquer or die."
"Is he dangerous, do you think?"
Peter Robinson extended one set of black-tipped claws whose curvature shone like steel, claws that could have torn a man apart with a single leisurely pass, and a tiger with a couple more. "He is a kzin."
He paused and added: "As I am not."
"I don't know whether you say that as boast or complaint, my friend."
"I don't know either. But as I have paced the silent corridors of this ship, while I have enjoyed the silence, I have been glad my friends were sleeping near me. Is that foolish?"
"The founder of our line was raised by humans when he was a war-orphaned kitten, found blind and starving for his mother's milk. But when he was old enough he made a conscious choice.
"And you gave us a chance to rise . . . more than we would have given you. Great-Grandsire was proud, proud , when he became the first Wunderland Kzin elected to an office by humans. The old fellow still talks about that day. When he made a speech to the Wunderland Assembly—'Let us grow together: not an imitation cat but a better human,' he said, thinking of Markham and what had happened to him, 'not an imitation human but a better cat'—and they applauded, he recorded the applause and laid down the recording in the new family shrine. He said we had found our own Honor."
"He knew about Markham? I only learned of that when I gained the security clearance for this work."
"One of many secrets we had."
"The first of my family to set foot on Wunderland," said Richard, "was a staff officer with the Liberation forces. On one leave after the cease-fire he was hunting in Gerning and came across a cottage in the forest.
"It was occupied by an old lady, a proud, impoverished aristocrat, pure Nineteen Families blood, long since come down in the world, living alone with a couple of animals and with a little charity from the nearby farmers. Post-Liberation Wunderland had a lot of rather queer fish, of course. I suppose it still does. . . .
"The place was dilapidated, and he did a few chores and repairs for her. She gave him tea in an ornate old service of genuine Neue Dresden china, apologizing for the lack of servants. Not unexpectedly, she came to talk of the 'Good Old Days,' and how much better things were then. She missed her lost boys. Arthur was always interested in history—he'd worked in a museum before the war—and he took notes.
"It took him quite a long time—plus a reference by her to 'those nice big pussycats'—to realise that she was actually talking about the Occupation, and her 'boys' were a couple of kzin officers of the local garrison who for some reason had made a pet of her—if they were in the vicinity and wanted to sharpen their claws, they might do it by tearing a pile of wood into kindling for her. If they were hunting in the forest and had made a kill, they might throw her a haunch of meat as they passed. I suppose that meant non-monkey meat. She gave them bowls of cream. I doubt they realized how she thought of them. . . . She was quite mad, of course. But that, coming on top of a couple of things that had happened to him on Wunderland earlier and later, influenced old Arthur's thinking. His story, "Three at a Table," has become a family legend. He'd been an Exterminationist, but he ended up patron of the first official mixed chess club."
"Quite mad, as you say. . . . And Wunderland still does have a lot of queer fish . . . like me."
"We like Wunderland," said Richard. "Partly because of the queer fish. We've been thinking of settling there."
"May I say . . . I hope you do."
"Only five hundred and forty million years ago, billions of years after the time when the thing we seek was built," said Richard, "our ancestors on Earth lived in a placid sea. They were parading the vicinity of the Burgess Shale on multiple jelly legs. Your ancestors and ours cannot have looked much different."
"We know thrint and tnuctipun planted common life-forms throughout the galaxy," Peter Robinson replied. "You and I are alike enough to indicate common primordial ancestors."
"Alike enough to eat each other. I do not mean that observation to be cruel or offensive, but it emphasizes our common biology."
"Also, there have been speculations that the telepaths' power is somehow—I know not how—related to the Slaver Power—some inherited vestige of tnuctipun biological engineering, perhaps? Something in our nucleonic acid? A laboratory experiment that was thrown away and survived?"
"It's hard to see how that could be. Thrint and kzin are not contemporaries by billions of years."
"I find much hard to see. You will have another bourbon? You face quite a long watch."
"I'm used to it. It goes with the job."
"A lot goes with my job." The Wunderkzin said, "Thank you for being my . . . friend, Richard. It will be good to go to sleep with that emotion in my mind."
"The human race as it is today evolved out of a lot of different breeds," said Richard awkwardly. "You've seen that on Wunderland. A lot of humans must have asked at times: 'What am I?' But in the end we shook down fairly well."
"I wonder if they ever asked as emphatically as I do," said Peter Robinson, "and who they asked."
Richard was still on watch when the mass-detector dropped the Wallaby out of hyperspace. The nearest stars were distant but the singularity that was a stasis field was sharp and bright in the center of the radar screen. By the time the awakened crew assembled on the bridge it had grown.
Behind it was a deep-radar ghost. The artifact was in wide orbit around a flattened sphere—a free-floater planet, dark and cold, a gas giant too small to glow. How had the Puppeteers found this thing?
"Big," said Melody. "Bigger than we thought."
"It certainly is," said Richard. "As a matter of fact it is in visual range now."
"It's too far away!"
Richard touched the control panel. Spotlights flooded space, and illuminated nothing except a silver bead.
A pale gray sphere. With nothing to give a scale it was impossible for the unaided eye to tell how big it was. But there was a scale projected on the screen. And it was growing. There were a few circles like shallow, immensely eroded craters. The Wallaby orbited it, cameras busy. There were darker patches and one black spot. It looked much like the Moon seen from Earth.
"Where on the surface is the stasis box?" asked Gatley Ivor. "Or is it buried?"
"That is the point: the deep radar lacks fine definition yet, but it appears to be almost all stasis field. It is about nine miles in diameter."
"The Puppeteers did not tell us it was so big," said Melody.
"I suspect they may not have known. Perhaps they only picked it up on their deep radar at extreme range as a point whose magnitude had to be guessed. They would be too cautious to explore further themselves. Or perhaps they never saw it—the Outsiders may have told them about it. I suspect they have a standing order with the Outsiders to buy information about any stasis boxes they come across, but perhaps they thought they could no longer afford to pay extra for details like size."
"If that is so, whether it was caution or miserliness that prevented them knowing, they made a mistake," said Peter Robinson. "Had they explored boldly, or bought full information, they would have discovered it is too big for an expedition of this size."
"A Hero—a kzin—is not daunted by size," said Charrgh-Captain.
"I think," said Richard, "it may not have been caution only. With so few Puppeteers left in known space, their resources and personnel are stretched thin. A Puppeteer ship that detected this at very long range would probably have been on business it could not divert from. As for miserliness, if they bought the information about it from Outsiders, well, we know the Outsiders do not sell information cheaply."
"Perhaps," said Gay, "when they saw an asteroid and then a stasis field indicated from a distance on deep-radar, they thought the field was somewhere on the asteroid, as we just did. They did not realize the asteroid was the whole stasis field."
"In any event," said Peter Robinson, "you must agree it is too big for us to open. It is far bigger than any spaceship I have heard of. Assuming that this giant stasis field contains an artifact of a size to justify it, the chances are that there are live Slavers within. We are not equipped to handle them if they are released."
"I am tempted in one part of me to proceed," said Gatley Ivor. "There may be more knowledge of the ancients here than the total of all that has been gathered to date. And yet every rational instinct says this is too big for us. I must say reluctantly that we should return with a bigger expedition—perhaps a warship."
"Would that not simply be presenting the Slavers with the warship, should they seize the minds of its crew?" asked Charrgh-Captain. "Think of human history and your Napoleon's march on Paris after his escape from Elba—the monkeys sent to capture him simply joined him, and the more that were sent the bigger his army became."
"Can the Slaver Power penetrate a General Products hull?" demanded Melody.
"I believe it can," Gatley Ivor said. "First, because the Power is not a physical event and is not governed by the laws of physics. It is not a wave effect, nor does it depend on particles. Further, we know from ample experience that a General Products hull does not block the probing of kzinti—or even human—telepaths. Matter does not shield against telepathy."
Charrgh-Captain's tail lashed. His ears knotted and unknotted. A kzin like Charrgh-Captain could not—physically could not —admit before either aliens or his own kind that he was too fearful to execute a task.
If we return for reinforcements,Richard thought, Charrgh-Captain will, quite legally, report the situation to the Patriarchy. Diminished as they are, they still, unlike us, have a command economy. By the time we, or the human bureaucracy, raises the finance for a bigger expedition, the Kzin might easily be here and have it open.
"It is too important simply to leave," said Melody Fay.
"What I am saying when I say it is too big," said Gatley Ivor, "is that I see a high probability there are Slavers inside it. It is much more than a mere good chance. A stasis field of this size plainly contains something on the order of a spaceship or a space station. Or perhaps it was once an installation on the surface of a planet that has disappeared. I have never heard of one so big. Surely it will be crewed. Perhaps it contains a Slaver army. And one Slaver alone would be more than danger enough!"
Charrgh-Captain bridled again at the mention of danger, but his ears settled back into a position of tacit acceptance and his tail stilled. Richard saw him curl it out of the way with a conscious motion. The big kzin might not like the suggestion that he would shy from danger, but this was plainly something beyond the normal. The threat of live Slavers might daunt the boldest of any species.
"At any rate," said Richard, "now that we are here, let us explore what we may. Our sponsors will hardly be pleased if we come away without having done that. First, we should make a survey of the accretion material and see where underneath it the stasis field begins. We can send progress reports back by hyperwave."
No one disagreed.
"Comparing the radar pictures and what we can see visually," Richard said a few hours later, "we see a difference: The stasis field's mostly, as we suspected, a sphere, covered with a layer, or if you like a shell, of accreted material. However, at one point on the sphere there's a pocket, a sort of dimple, in the field.
"It looks small by comparison with the big field, but in fact it has quite a large volume: larger than our own hull. Deep-radar shows it's divided into various compartments. Also it contains smaller stasis boxes—a very dangerous set-up—and an odd linear structure. It reminded me at first of a spinal column but on finer resolution it's more like a string of large beads laid out in a row. . . . It has a cover fitting flush with the surface so the spherical outline is not disturbed."
"That would be where that black mark is?"
"Yes. In fact it's a hole. An obvious possibility is that it's where the mechanism for turning off the field was housed. It may still be there. Apart from the access face, which is flush with the sphere's surface, it's surrounded by the field on five sides and well protected."
"Then we examine it," said Charrgh-Captain. "With suitable caution."
Melody Fay remained in Wallaby at the weapons console. Her task was simple: Any slightest suggestion of the Slaver power or other threatening activity, and she was to use the moments she had to strike a button. Wallaby would cut loose with every weapon. That was assuming she could recognize the power before it gripped her. The rest of the expedition embarked in Joey, Wallaby 's main shuttle craft.
The black mark grew on the surface of the great globe as they approached.
"Not well protected enough," said Charrgh-Captain after a time. "Something has smashed through it. A meteor, perhaps."
"Odd that it should have struck in the one vulnerable spot," said Peter Robinson.
"It is the one spot such a strike would now show," said Charrgh-Captain in a tone of freezing contempt. "The stasis box may have passed through a meteor swarm. Or been bombarded in battle. Even without other explosives, every other hit would have vaporized on impact with the field from its own kinetic energies. That may contribute to the high metal content in the stony plating over the thing."
"To have once encountered a meteor-swarm it must have drifted a long way," said Gay. "This part of space is empty."
"We know it has drifted a long way," said Charrgh-Captain. "It has been drifting for billions of your years and ours."
"Perhaps it was deliberately attacked," said Richard.
"We may soon see," said Charrgh-Captain.
The stony surface of the sphere had grown to fill all the lower viewport now. The black mark was a jagged hole, surrounded by the rim of a shallow crater.
Joey's landing legs touched. Natural gravity was negligible, but the craft's externally mounted gravity motors cut in, anchoring it firmly. The old kzinti gravity-planer had been obsolete as a space drive since the hyperdrive ended the First Man-Kzin War centuries previously and given, eventually, both species an open doorway to the distant stars, but kzin gravity technology still had a multitude of uses.
There was no need for ladders to descend. A gentle push and they each floated down, falling slowly through the great hole that meteor or missile had smashed through layers of super-hard shielding. There were edges of twisted metal, but even if these had not been eroded by the eons, they were unlikely to tear the fabric of modern space-suits. The hole narrowed somewhat toward the bottom. They pulled themselves on and down and into what must be the control-chamber. They activated the magnets in their boots. Their lights showed hulking machinery, wreckage and dust.
There was a silence they could sense even through space suit com-links. There were dark looming shapes, and the first beams of their lights illuminated little. Though the chamber occupied only a tiny part of the volume of the sphere, they realized properly now how big it was in its own right. Doors showed it was subdivided.
"I feel no trace of life," said Peter Robinson. He continued after a moment: "I do not know if it is autosuggestion, but the age of this place weighs upon me."
"I feel it too," said Gay. Charrgh-Captain growled. All kzin with their highly developed hunting instincts, even non-telepaths, were more sensitive to atmosphere than humans, but they did not like admitting it in such circumstances.
"Why is the dust swirling?" snarled Charrgh-Captain suddenly. "Have we live enemies?" He was holding a flashlight laser. Gatley Ivor gave a cry of dismay.
"It is the outwash effect our gravity-planer," said Richard after a moment. "We can probably use the effect to blow dust out the hole if we need to clear it further. Luckily the rim of the crater has prevented more dust drifting down here from the surface."
"I am sorry," said Gatley Ivor.
He doesn't seem up to much,thought Richard. This is his job. He should be used to it, more knowledgeable, even more excited, thinking of the papers and books he will get out of this if nothing else. I wonder if there is something phony about him. Then, more charitably: But this isn't an experience you can rehearse for. And this place would put anyone on edge. Unless, perhaps, you have the nerves of a warrior kzin and are on edge all the time.
They turned their lamps to full flood, and looked about.
Wreckage was obvious, and so was decay. Metal once superhard was disintegrating through sheer age. Richard pointed to objects like crazed mirrors, standing deep in dust. "More stasis-fields," he commented.
"Look more attentively," said Charrgh-Captain, "They are thrintun spacesuits. And they are occupied."
None of the party found it easy to look at the group without qualms. Six bipedal shapes, about half the size of a man, standing as they had stood for billions of years. Each spacesuit, they guessed, contained a thrint. Indeed it was possible to make out, or to least to fancy, the shapes of their individual features—the squat bodies, the gaping slashes of mouths in prominent jaws, the single disk of an eye, the bulged heads whose brains contained the Slaver Power: projective telepathy.
"These cannot harm us at present," said Charrgh-Captain, "and there are evidently none in a condition that can. If monkey hands stay off them, there is no need for you to fear."
"It isn't exactly fear," said Gay.
"I know," said Charrgh-Captain. His vocal cords were ill-suited for expressing emotion in Interword, but those two words carried a hint of apology. All thinking beings who knew the terrible history of the ancients felt something beyond fear for the Slaver Power. "But they will have switches on those suits, if they have not decayed away entirely, to kill the stasis fields. They will be protruding beyond the fields themselves. I recommend no tampering. At least we know now that it is a thrint stasis box, not a tnuctipun one. I suggest that before we conclude this expedition we drop them into a sun with a long life-expectancy. It would be satisfactory if the radiations and temperatures involved operated the mechanism and opened their suits for them then . It might happen. But what is this?"
"More stasis boxes?"
" Someof them are stasis boxes."
A row of spherical objects, each like a large model of the vast stasis field in a pocket of which they were standing. The top of each sphere was about twice the height of the kzinti, who stood in their spacesuits and helmets more than nine feet tall. They were mostly mirror-bright, though in the weak gravity of the chamber, dust had come to rest on parts of them in odd patterns. Gatley Ivor reached up to one and pulled away like orange peel a band of dust particles cemented together by time and vacuum. It had no adhesion to the surface of the field. Charrgh-Captain glared and growled at him. Partway along there was a break in the row. There was a sphere, nearly the same size as the stasis fields, showing not the mirror of stasis, but ancient metal, its top opened and slid aside. It was cracked and shattered. It appeared that its stasis field had been off and it had been involved when the chamber had been damaged. Past it were more metal spheres, stretching away in a line. Some of these were also more or less damaged and all had been opened.
"I don't understand," said Richard.
"Nor I," said Peter Robinson.
"These things have been here for eons beyond count or comprehension," said Charrgh-Captain. "A few more hours can make little difference. We are not in a battle situation where victory and honor go to the swiftest. Indeed, if we resolve not to try to open the great sphere we are Honor-bound to at least bring away all the information we may. I see no reason why we should not take time to explore this chamber thoroughly."
Exploration revealed nothing about what might be within the great sphere. They saw other suited thrintun figures, some anchored by shaped and stasis-protected boots, some floating. They found more of them in a separate compartment standing about what might be a control panel, other evidence of the damage to the chamber ages ago, and dust that—on a smaller time-scale—might or might not have once been thrintun who had had no time to reach their suits when that damage occurred. There were other stasis boxes that probably contained stores of various kinds, or possibly slaves. Stashed away in container bins they found many smaller but also occupied stasis-suits with different head-shapes which they surmised contained thrint females. There were tools and other unidentifiable things that time had welded to whatever surface they rested on.
They photographed and recorded everything, left mobile cameras in the chamber and on the surface, and returned to Wallaby .
Wallaby's computer projected holos of the great sphere and of what they called the control chamber, with their discoveries incorporated: the row of metallic spheres apparently taken out of stasis, the damage, the row of spherical stasis fields still functioning, the other rooms and storage areas. But the holos told them no more than they had seen already. Photographs of the chamber's interior hung on the walls around them and samples of the dust were being taken apart in the all-purpose police and scientific tool generally known as an autocop. They had removed their helmets and gauntlets but the humans remained in their spacesuits—modern suits were as flexible, light and comfortable as ordinary clothing.
"The control chamber must be the equivalent of the on-off button on a thrint stasis-suit," said Richard. He had been rereading the available information on the Slavers. The library contained all humanity's knowledge of them, which wasn't much. Charrgh-Captain had contributed a brick containing what the Kzin knew, or at least what the Patriarch was prepared to release to humans, which was not a great deal more.
"Of course, at the time when the stasis fields were activated, they expected other thrint to be around to turn them off within a reasonable time. Now, when we find stasis boxes of any kind, the controls are almost invariably worn away. The great problem with stasis boxes was always that once you are in stasis you can't control events. Any mechanism to turn a stasis field off has to be outside the field, so it is vulnerable to tampering or accidents, and beyond that to entropy. Sooner or later the hardest materials disintegrate.
"The solution here looks like a typically cumbersome and fallible thrint one, the clumsy work of thrintun who had good materials but suddenly had to think and design for themselves and weren't used to it. I feel the tnuctipun would have contrived something more elegant and foolproof, though at the moment I can't think what.
"The control center has as its principal feature a set of spherical stasis-boxes, all, it appears, containing metal spheres. Each opened box appears to have contained, along with other mechanisms, what appears to be an atomic clock. Of course, within the stasis field no time passes—even subatomic particles have no movement—so the clocks do nothing.
"The first clock, I guess, was not in stasis. When it recorded that a certain time had passed, it sent a signal to open the first stasis-box. Then the clock inside that became operational. In addition, the other mechanisms in it presumably became active and did whatever they were meant to do. Again, after that clock had recorded a certain time had passed, the next stasis box would be opened. I am guessing that it opened the big field, and guessing from that assumption that it perhaps subsequently closed it again.
"The damage shows something interrupted the sequence, whether accidental meteor impact or deliberate attack."
"There were no sapient life-forms after the war to attack it. Not for billions of years," said Peter Robinson.
"There is a question about that point," said Gatley Ivor. "Some of the artifacts we have found seem to date from well after Suicide Night. Perhaps survivors came out of stasis and made foredoomed attempts to start again."
"Anyway, the sequence of the clocks stopped. Those"—Richard pointed to the row of perfect and undamaged spheres— "are stasis boxes still to be opened. My guess is that each contains a clock which it was planned would, after a certain time, open the next."
"How long did each clock run?"
"It's hard to say. The radioactive elements are completely decayed. I don't know how they were calibrated. I don't even know if they were opened at regular intervals. But judging by the sheer bulk of these structures and the materials used—all of which would have had their cost in resources—the builders must have been thinking in long terms. Tens or hundreds of thousands of years, at least."
"Couldn't the bulk have just been for military protection?" asked Gay.
"It doesn't have a military feel about it. It if is military, why are there no signs of any defensive weapons?"
"A moment," said Peter Robinson. "I try to think as a thrint might have thought three billion years ago. You have said the great problem with stasis boxes is: How are they turned off? But that is how we see them from our point of view, for we find them when the control mechanisms have crumbled away. It was not a problem during the days of the Slaver Empire, when there were always other thrintun around to do it. That is something else that makes this different to the Slaver artifacts previously discovered: The builders of this stasis-box knew no one would be coming to turn it off! The control chamber is an attempt to defeat entropy outside a stasis field. To challenge not living enemies but Time itself."
"Like the Pyramids," said Gay. "This is, perhaps, like them, a gift from the ancients to the future world."
To Richard and Gay, who had swum in the seas of Earth, the blow was—vastly intensified—as though they had been standing ankle-deep on a beach when a huge wave smashed over them from head to foot, trod them flat and marched over them to drag them under into neck-breaking darkness amid roiling, tearing sand and stones. To Melody Fay it was like the Jinxian nightmare of falling off a cliff in Jinxian gravity, to Charrgh-Captain it was worse than the worst probing in his training to resist telepathic interrogation. Then a choking feeling, tearing, unbelievable pain in body-cavities and eye. Blindness, a worse, more tearing blindness than looking on hyperspace, mouths and throats exploding. Cold. COLD. Then it was like dying.
And it was gone.
They were prostrate on the cabin floor. They got to their feet more or less slowly and shakily, and looked around.
"That was the Slaver Power," breathed Gatley Ivor. "A Slaver has come out of stasis."
"How?" Even as he asked the question, Richard realized something: But the Power is not there now. Not unless it is already controlling our minds so completely that we do not know it is controlling them. That is possible, but to think on it is useless and the stuff of madness.
"We were running the Joey 's gravity-motor on the surface of the sphere," said Gatley Ivor at last. "Could that have turned off a stasis field?"
"I suppose it could, if the mechanism was sensitive."
"Stupid!" screamed Charrgh-Captain, "Stupid! Stupid!" His jaws went into the killing gape, his claws extended, though he was sick and shaking. His jaws dripped. The kzin was about to go berserk.
"Charrgh-Captain, Dominant One!" cried Peter Robinson in the Heroes' Tongue, rolling belly-up before Charrgh-Captain and baring his throat in a posture of total submission, "with justice, we did not see it either. And nothing has happened. We are not in the Slavers' Power. It is not there. It has gone again completely."
Charrgh-Captain stopped. "It came. It can come again," he snarled. "Speak rapidly if you have anything to say."
"Half an eight of them came out of stasis," said Peter Robinson shakily. He rolled over slowly and got to his feet, still keeping a wary eye on Charrgh-Captain. It must have cost him a great deal to make that gesture, thought Richard. And he was taking a gamble that the inhibitor reflex would work. Now he will have to build his position again.
And he moved fast. Well, kzin are always faster than humans, but he moved faster than Charrgh-Captain and he seems much less groggy. There is more to this Wunderkzin than meets the eye.
"I counted their minds," Peter Robinson went on. "They were, of course, momentarily confused and groping. They had no time to seize me. Now their minds have stopped again. I do not understand that . . . they must have gone back into stasis."
"I understand it!" said Charrgh-Captain. He seemed fully recovered and his ears twitched now in the kzinti expression of glee. "They must have opened their suits. Perhaps after a million eons in stasis they were ready to enjoy a bit of breathing space. Breathing space! You see, I can make a joke in monkey language!"
"No, that doesn't quite add up," said Richard. "Not if they went into stasis before the installation was damaged. For them no time would have passed at all, only a kind of blip in their consciousness and a feeling of disorientation and grogginess. They would have been more wary about opening their suits. Besides, there were many more than four thrint in stasis there. Why should four fields have been turned off and not others? And from what we know of thrintun spacesuits, the stasis fields protecting them were turned on and off by the push of a button. It's unlikely that relatively small gravity fluctuations could affect that so selectively."
"I do not call my colleagues monkeys," said Peter Robinson. "They have treated my kind well. You have a diplomatic passport, and I cannot call you out, but I make the point that you have insulted them. And not for the first time."
"Well for you that you do not call me out, Freak and Renegade, and well for you that I am now a diplomat," Charrgh-Captain replied. "In any event it is below my dignity to fight even an honest telepath of the Patriarchy. . . . However, I will say to the real humans that I spoke in the mirth of contemplating Slavers suddenly in hard vacuum and trying to eat their own lungs and entrails as their large single eyes exploded out of their heads. . . . No insult was intended. And surely it was worth feeling their pain for a moment to enjoy what happened to them!"
"I do not mind being called a monkey," said Richard hastily. "We are all companions on a hazardous task. But what happened? What has happened to the Slavers? You are certain their minds are gone."
"Certain," said Peter Robinson. "For a few seconds after the great shout there was panic, pain, terror, and then it died away. But it was not directed at us. We should have been dead if it had been. There was death there, and that could not be mistaken."
"No. It could not. It must have been rough on you."
"My mental shields go up with the speed of thought. I have worked on them every day since I became a telepath, and more since I knew I would have to travel in this ship."
Otherwise, Charrgh-Captain's loathing and contempt—and perhaps his inadmissible fear also—would be pouring into him every instant that both were conscious, thought Richard. I don't think Melody likes him much either. Yes, it must be rough.
He turned to the controls of the camera they had left in the control chamber.
"Gently," growled Charrgh-Captain. "Let it touch nothing."
The camera floated from one compartment to another. The stasis field covering the next sphere in the sequence had been deactivated. Its metal looked almost as shiny-new as if the field still operated, but its top had been opened. Four green-skinned thrintun floated out of it, plainly dead in the vacuum. They wore no helmets or pressure-suits, and it was gruesomely obvious that decompression had killed them before the many other deaths possible in space, before they had had time for coherent thought.
"One field only was deactivated," said Richard. "I guess its switch was either damaged or already partly operated. It could have been a lot worse, but we must not run a gravity motor near the chamber again. Let us be thankful for a harmless lesson. Harmless for us, anyway."
"It has given us something for the Institute of Knowledge," said Melody. "Perhaps we are beginning to earn our money. Thrint brains to dissect will be treasures indeed."
"The Slaver-students of the Patriarchy are entitled to a share of them," said Charrgh-Captain. He turned and spoke to the console, first in the Heroes' Tongue and then in Interworld. "I make formal claim and I record that claim. By the Sigril of the Patriarch which I now display, I make that claim to the death and to the generations." He was in a fighting stance again, and his hand with extended claws gripped the hilt of his w'tsai . Thrint brains, if they could somehow be made to reveal . . .
"I think we should leave them and send another ship," said Richard. "Let's not push our luck." In fact, he thought, it would probably be safe enough to approach again cautiously with chemical rockets or EV, but it was the best he could think of to defuse the situation. A human-kzin quarrel over thrint brains was not a good idea. In the time it would take to send another ship, the freeze-drying process of space might destroy some of their structure at least, and it was best destroyed. And he would like to be out of this grisly place.
Charrgh-Captain leaped to the console in a bound. "There is activity!" He shrieked. "Look! There is energy discharge! And lights!"
The camera, still trained on the sphere, showed red points in its dark depths, appearing and disappearing in a regular pattern.
"What do we do?"
Peter Robinson was hunched, crouching, ears knotted. He was trying, Richard thought, to block out something none of the others could feel—or did not know they felt? The last words had come from Charrgh-Captain, and Richard realized that what he was trying to block out was Charrgh-Captain's fear. Charrgh-Captain himself stood dignified and motionless now, his ears, tail and testicles all in the relaxed position. What an act! thought Richard. Only Peter Robinson gives it away. Speculating on the body language of the two great felines kept his own cold apprehension for a moment at bay.
The Slavers are dead,he told himself.
Then Charrgh-Captain pointed to another screen.
The deep-radar showed that beneath its stony covering, the great sphere was changing prepatory to its stasis field being switched off.
"Flight is pointless," said Charrgh-Captain. "Whatever is happening, we must see it through. Have the main weapons poised."
"Be prepared to fire without my command," Richard told Melody. He noticed Charrgh-Captain's tendency to give orders. Comes naturally to a Kzin in a dangerous situation, I suppose, he thought. But I had better assert my authority right now.
"I detect no Slaver minds," said Peter Robinson. The relief in his humanized voice, and in the atmosphere of the cabin, was almost palpable. "None whatsoever. There is no danger of live Slavers, I think."
The Slavers are dead!
There was no change to the surface of the sphere. "The accreted material now becomes a thin shell over whatever is within."
"We can see it with deep-radar anyway. Also, there is a possible advantage to the shell remaining in place. If there is anything dangerous in there, the shell will help stop it getting out."
"It would not stop the Slaver Power. And if it is anything of high gravity the shell will crumble inwards."
"It would have to be something of abnormally high gravity, I think. It would be prudent to move farther away, but not so far as to slow our responses appreciably."
"There is nothing," said Peter Robinson. "No living minds."
As the Wallaby moved away, the deep-radar's screen compensated and held its image at constant size. A great, irregular, metallic shape was seen within. It did not resemble any human, kzin or Puppeteer ship. It was not spherical, but asymmetrical and relatively compact. A large circle could be made out near a kind of double protuberance. What they called the control chamber was connected to it by a metallic stem. The #4 General Products hull, the biggest of the range, used almost entirely for colony-expeditions, was a vast cargo-carrying sphere more than a thousand feet in diameter. This was far bigger, miles from one point to another. The Wallaby 's instruments picked up another, still very faint energy discharge.
"A thrint battle-wagon!"
"I have seen nothing like it," said Gatley Ivor.
"I am awed," said Charrgh-Captain. "I have seen holos of the dreadnaughts of the great wars. This dwarfs them. But it is cold and a dead ship. It must have been laid up to conserve it against need. . . ."
"It is almost too big to be a dreadnaught," he said after a few moment's thought. "I do not understand."
"No 'almost' about it," said Richard. "It is too big. Building a ship that size would be, as far as I can tell, an exercise beyond the point of diminishing returns. Thrintun were stupid but not, surely, that stupid. The same resources could have been used to build a score or more of respectable-sized battlewagons, big enough to do anything you liked, or any number of smaller warships still capable of carrying heavy war-loads.
"Too many eggs in one basket . . . Once the stasis field was turned off—and it would have to be turned off before the thing could be used —a simple fusion missile could wreck it, let alone antimatter, which we know both sides used as a weapon. . . . Besides, the deep-radar shows nothing that looks like weapons."
"Anything can be made into a weapon," said Charrgh-Captain grimly. "You humans taught us that."
"Nonetheless, surely a purpose-built warship would have purpose-built weapons. Rail-guns, laser-cannon . . ."
"Apart from war, you only need a truly vast ship like this if you cross space rarely," said Gay. "But with an FTL drive, you can cross it as often as you like. And they did have FTL. They wouldn't have needed a freighter, or even a colony-ship, that size."
"It's worth plenty, anyway," said Melody. "The Institute will be pleased. And the Foundation. We've shown the Puppeteers again that we are worthy of the hire."
"I'm not so sure," said Richard. "It might be an interesting historical artifact, but as a ship it's hardly likely to give us new knowledge apart from the archaeological. We have better drives than the ancients ever had, and their materials were inferior to General Products hulls. Perhaps if it had been a tnuctipun ship it would have taught us more. I'm not saying it's worthless, of course. There must be some discoveries on board. I'm sure an army of Ph.D. students will pick through it. I suppose the Institute may sell it to a wealthy collector."
"How do you propose to get it there?" asked Charrgh-Captain.
"Fly it, I suppose. It would make quite a sensation!"
"Fly it how? Can you see a drive on it?"
"I did wonder how long it would take you to notice that."
They peered into the deep-radar ghost of the thing. Melody said, "There are massive fusion toroids, and what look like fuel tanks, part full. You can see there are massive stores of both hydrogen and heavy elements. The center of the thing, at least, seems to be built more of less on a pattern of concentric spheres."
"A good shape for a warship. As little surface as possible to target," said Charrgh-Captain. "But the surface itself is not spherical. It is intuition only, but I feel-see a resemblance to the architecture of a computer whose cognitive cells are linked to give a cascading effect."
"Are you saying it is a computer, Charrgh-Captain?"
"No, I am saying it reminds me of one. What would such a computer do? No, sense tells me it is a spaceship whose design is too alien for us to understand."
"Drives must be there, if only we can find them," said Gay. "Let's look systematically."
"The ancient Slaver style of hyperdrive could not function until light-speed had nearly been reached," said Richard some time later. He turned away from a search of the deep-radar images. The Whomping Wallaby 's main computer screen was large, but he had almost covered it with boxes of data. "The ancient craft needed massive conventional subluminal engines to accelerate them initially. But Charrgh-Captain is right: There are no propulsive engines apparent here. Despite the fusion-toroids, I see no ramscoop collector-head. And even a ramscoop would need something to boost it initially. There is no surface for either the discharge of a laser drive or to receive the impact of a pushing laser, unless that bulging circle has something to do with it. There are no reaction-drive ports. They did not have the jotoki-kzinti gravity-drive. There are only relatively tiny attitude-jets, which can maneuver it around various axes but can do little else. So we have a spaceship without a drive."
"What about a sailing ship? Might it have had a lightsail?"
"It's too big. No buildable lightsail could move that mass. And why build a sailing ship when they had a hyperdrive? Besides, what good is a lightsail when you're being attacked by enemy warships? It's vulnerable and it's hard to maneuver at all. Thrintun had others do most of their thinking for them, so even if they weren't too bright they weren't too primitive, and they had had thousands of years to refine their ships, with Tnuctipun input."
"Could it be a naval base rather than a ship?" asked Peter Robinson. "That would account for the size. Why, hundreds of years ago humans blew up Confinement Asteriod into something bigger than this. Sol's old Gibraltar base is bigger. So are Tiamat and many others. That might account for the massive fuel tanks: fleet replenishment."
"I see no docking ports," said Charrgh-Captain. His pursuit of the answer to the puzzle seemed for the moment to have overcome even his loathing for the Wunderkzin, so that he answered him thoughtfully. "And would not a base have workshops, accommodation for crews, and defensive weapons? We see no evidence of any of those things. The sensor shows gold, which may be worth stripping. But this"—he stabbed at one of the boxes of light on the screen—"I do not like. These read like organic compounds."
"Yes," said Gatley Ivor. "That is the composition of thrint tissue. I agree it is not reassuring. But it is apparently quite inert."
"Thrint corpses?" asked Melody.
"Great masses of inert organic tissue. That's all I can say so far."
"Thrint and tnuctipun were both carnivores. If this was a tnuctip artifact I would suggest a larder of enemy's meat."
"The thrintun sent out a command that every sapient mind must die," said Gatley Ivor. "The open question is, did they include themselves? The survival of the Grogs on Down suggests they didn't. We aren't sure, though. Perhaps they thought life without slaves would be no life at all, and they might as well all die together. Some think they had degenerated to the point that, left to their own devices, they could hardly have fed themselves, let alone maintained complex machinery and the luxurious conditions they had come to need. Students have been awarded doctorates for arguing for and against both propositions. Anyway, they died. The Grogs might be descendants of a late-emerging group."
Gay struck her fist on the table with a shout of triumph. "An ark! It's an ark! That's the only explanation!"
"Arrk?"Charrgh-Captain pronounced the word easily, but his ears betrayed puzzlement.
"A refuge, to preserve some remnant of their race so that they might begin again. That also accounts for the setup in the control chamber: They knew no one else was coming to get them out. . . . The series of clocks to switch off the main stasis field is a series of fail-safes."
"Fine," said Richard. "But where are they? Peter detects no trace of alien minds. There's all that inert tissue. Slavers in frozen sleep?"
"No. A DNA bank, maybe. Slaver genetic material with mechanisms for rearing little Slavers. That might not need much space. All that tissue . . . like the yolk in an egg. Food."
"Slaver genetic material? There's a nasty thought! What do we do?"
"Destroy it at once!" Charrgh-Captain's voice contained no doubt.
"We have a little time, I think. They can hardly produce adult thrintun instantaneously. And there still appears to be no activity but a very faint energy discharge."
"And where," said Gatley Ivor, "are the facilities for young thrintun? There would be creches, surely. Things of that nature. We know they took several years to mature and develop the Power. As infants, even as adolescents, they would need to be cared for, disciplined, taught. It would cost little to have living slaves to care for them—during the time spent in stasis they would consume no stores—and, indeed, why not living Thrint adults to direct the slaves? Why did the adult Slavers who built the ark not take the elementary step of preserving their own lives inside it?"
"Maybe they are the thrintun in the control chamber," said Gay. "Maybe there were other facilities outside the stasis field that have been lost. Perhaps they were attacked and had to put it into stasis before the crew could be embarked."
"It seems the artifact came out of stasis periodically, and then returned to it," said Charrgh-Captain. "Why should an arrk do that?"
"That is simple. They wished to ensure their enemies were truly dead," said Peter Robinson. "Perhaps when they first emerged from stasis they detected mental emanations from live tnuctipun. Perhaps not all tnuctipun were killed by the suicide command: They may have been coming out of their own stasis-protected arks and shelters for some time. This thrintun ark would return to stasis till all possible enemies were dead."
"That doesn't quite fit, Peter," said Richard. "The great floating stasis-bubble would be vulnerable to attack if any tnuctipun were still around. They could detect it, close on it, turn off the field—child's play for the tnuctipun, who invented the field anyway—and do a thorough job of destroying whatever was inside. And if it was an ark like that, one would expect it to be defensively armed, as well as mobile. Besides, given that a lot of genetic material might have been preserved in a small space, a smaller artifact would surely have been big enough.
"Another possibility occurs to me. Suppose the thrint knew the simple, blanket suicide command—easier to transmit, perhaps, than a selective one to kill slaves only—would get them too? Surely many would seek refuge in stasis fields. But they would have no one to get them out. The purpose of this artifact and its array of clocks may be to ensure that some would come out of stasis in the future to release others elsewhere."
"But they didn't," said Gay.
"We have found ancient artifacts estimated at much less than three billion Earth years old. That suggests arks or colonies emerged from stasis from time to time," said Gatley Ivor. "For some reason they didn't survive, but they might be connected to the attack on this ark's control center. Perhaps some late-emerging tnuctipun came on it and attacked it but didn't survive to finish the job, disabling it without destroying it. If there was fighting in spaceships or on the surface of the big field, there would be no trace of that fighting now. Perhaps gun turrets or other weapons mounted on the surface were destroyed in the fighting or have disintegrated under meteor and dust bombardment since."
"Yes, for some reason they didn't survive," said Gay.
"Too much of the infrastructure of their—well, I suppose you have to call it their 'civilization,' for want of a better word—was gone."
"Yet at least tnuctipun emerging from stasis should have survived," said Charrgh-Captain. "They were masters of science and technology. Not even clever races like the Jotok or the Pak—yes, humans, I know about the Pak—discovered a hyperdrive. Modern stasis fields are mere copies of the tnuctipun originals. Their biological engineering has survived on many worlds. They knew all the mechanisms of genetics and cloning. Surely any tnuctipun arrk would have carried copious genetic material so they could repopulate the universe with their own kind. Without the Slavers they could have rebuilt their civilization in a single generation, perhaps. What happened to them ? Anyway, this is not a tnuctipun arrk , whatever it is. . . . Urrr," he growled. Normally kzintosh would no more betray bewilderment by thinking aloud, least of all in front of aliens, than they would betray fear. "The shape is not optimal for any utilitarian purpose. It has no warlike purpose. It is not a weapon or a weapons system. It is not a dreadnaught. There are no gun-ports, no missiles, no weapons of any kind. It has no room to carry fighter-craft or infantry."
"Greenberg drew all he remembered of thrintun artifacts," said Gatley Ivor. "But I don't recall anything like this."
"Grrinberrg?" asked Charrgh-Captain. "I remember the name from my human Studies. Was Grrinberrg not a human who somehow defeated a Thrint?"
"Yes, a human telepath. He learned something of its mind."
"A Slaver was released from stasis on a world of the Patriarchy," said Charrgh-Captain. "Fortunately, it could control only a limited number of minds at one time. A Hero employed guile to escape and give warning. We destroyed the relevant continent with missiles from space. Many Heroes died—some of them undignified, dishonored deaths, still slaves of an alien mind, and we destroyed most of the habitable land on the planet and made species extinct."
"Was that a grief to you?" asked Gay.
"The Fanged God set us to dominate and prey upon other species, not to exterminate them unless we must. Even when we boiled the Chunquens' seas, we did it selectively. Otherwise the humans of Wunderland might have fared differently. . . . And the shape . . . Gay, you are right to be puzzled. Almost it reminds me of something, but I cannot think what."
"I have a similar feeling," said Peter Robinson. "Also, I have an intuition that the shape is of importance. My intuition," he added, staring defiantly at Charrgh-Captain again, "is a trained one. It is connected to my talent. May I experiment?" He sat at the controls and rotated the holo through different planes. "I had something there," he said after a moment. "One great difficulty is arbitrarily assigning an up or down to this thing. But here, with the control chamber at the bottom, a South Pole, as it were, it appears to have at least bilateral symmetry.
"Now let me project thrint artifacts we know." His claws clicked on the keyboard's kzin-sized track-ball. "No, nothing. What of thrint body shapes?"
Two clicks were enough. The holo of the gigantic artifact and a holo of a thrint head were projected side by side.
"A thrint head! The circle is the eye! The protuberances below it are jaws! The protuberance at the rear is the Power-organ. A statue ."
"On Kzin we have statues of Heroes in plenty," said Charrgh-Captain. "There is a great one of Lord Chmee in orbit that all may see while the stars stand. But who would spend resources in a war to build one on this scale?"
"Perhaps it predates the war?"
"Unlikely. There would be signs of tnuctipun work in the control chamber at least."
"On Wunderland," said Peter Robinson, staring defiantly again at Charrgh-Captain, "we have put up statues to notable kzinti recently. There is one of Chuut-Riit, the old Governor, who was wise, and Vaemar, and Raargh, who raised Vaemar when he was young, and others. There is a grove of them in the Arhus Hunting Preserve."
"Do you seek to provoke me?" asked Charrgh-Captain, grinning so all his teeth showed. His tail lashed, and one hand was on his w'tsai again.
"I simply point out that honoring great ones by statues is common in many cultures," Peter Robinson replied. The claws of his right hand brushed the tip of his own w'tsai 's hilt. The two glared at one another until, with an obvious effort, Charrgh-Captain backed down. He wiped Slaver from his fangs.
"Let us review what we know," said Gay. "When the war began the thri . . ." Her eyes widened, her mouth contorted. She began to choke, and fell to the floor writing, clutching at her throat, strangling on a scream.
Richard grabbed her, tearing futility at the fabric round her neck. Peter Robinson tried, and then Charrgh-Captain, but the suit defeated even kzinti strength. Peter Robinson hit the panic-button that opened the fastenings. She vomited, rolled onto her hands and knees and began to cry hysterically. Peter Robinson picked her up and carried her to a couch. She curled into a fetal position, then slowly straightened. She looked up at them, her face like dirty chalk.
"No need for a doc," she said. "Conditioned reflex. I can't vomit while I'm wearing a spacesuit. Choke rather."
"The floor can deal with it. But—"
"I know what this is. It's the Suicide Amplifier."
"Yes," said Charrgh-Captain. Peter Robinson made a howling noise that might have reminded a listener his vocal cords were not, after all, human. There was silence for a moment. Gay went on.
"Built to repeat the message. They weren't just going take all existing sapient minds into death with them, they were going to ensure, for as long as they could, that any newly evolving sophonts would be obliterated as well. And they did. . . . It's hard to conceive of creatures so evil . . . and so . . . so . . . petty. But perhaps by that time they didn't know what they were doing."
"The thrint thought they were good masters," said Gatley Ivor.
"I feel strange," said Charrgh-Captain. "Some have spoken of what kzin and human have in common. Kzinti, even kzinti like me who have traveled on your worlds with pleasure, always thought of humans as the ancient enemy of our kind, and cursed the day we met you, the destroyers of our Empire, the killers of our Sires, the liberators of our slave-races, who used relativity weapons to smash whole planetary systems. Yet compared to the race that could do this . . ."
"Maybe they thought of fresh drafts of slaves from newly sapient races coming to serve them in some afterlife," said Richard. "Probably they feared some of the tnuctipun had ways of surviving the first blast. . . . Perhaps the tnuctipun were anticipating something like a great suicide command—they should have, given their cleverness and knowledge of thrint ways of thinking—and kept some of their kind in stasis as a precaution. When they emerged they would get on with rebuilding, thinking it was all over. But it wasn't. The thrintun had left a little surprise for them. That's what must have happened . . ."
"We have established the thrint Power was not a physical event," said Gatley Ivor. "Its speed was not limited by relativity or even by hyperspace: It was instantaneous or close to it. Look at two stars, countless light-years apart. Look through a telescope at two galaxies or see them in a photograph. How long does it take your attention to cross the gap between them? It has been suggested that is an analogy to the Slaver power: swift as thought and awareness. The tnuctipun couldn't outrun it. It was not limited by distance. Indeed, to blanket the galaxy it can have neither increased nor diminished with distance. It was apparently not blocked by even the densest physical objects: suns, neutron stars, and other bodies did not eclipse it. It cannot have worked like that. So why does it need these huge energy sources?"
"Possibly to set up the preconditions for amplification, rather than directly firing up the Power itself," said Gay. "As for not being limited by distance, I hate to think the suicide command might have reached across the galaxy to . . . to the Clouds of Magellan . . . My God! . . . To other galaxies! Where did it stop?"
"Did it radiate a command, or cast it in a beam, I wonder?" said Richard.
"There is no proper answer," said Gatley Ivor. "We know that at times the Slaver Power was applied directionally. Otherwise when a thrint sent out a command like 'Bring me food!' there would be thirty or so slaves with dishes falling over each other to get it to him. On the other hand, we know that a 'shout,' as it were, could radiate. Both happened when the thrint was accidentally released on Earth.
"This artifact must have been capable of both. If that is conceiving of it in the right terms. The attitude jets make sense only if it was to be maneuvered to vary the direction of a beam.
"Further, the smaller amplifier helmets the Thrintun used must have been capable of direction, otherwise they too would have had global commands which would go to inappropriate slaves. But they too radiated commands. If on Suicide Night they relied solely on a beam, even a spreading one, some sapient life, in particular tnuctipun, might have dodged it. It was in that case simply a command addressed to all. . . . What do we do now?" It was Peter Robinson he turned to.
"I don't know what to do. I am a telepath." The Wunderkzin looked strangely shrunken, bent, miserable and lost. He could at that moment have passed for a telepath of the Patriarchy.
Destroy it!Richard thought. He moved to say so—to move to the main weapons console—and found he could not. It was not a matter of irresolution or doubt as to the right thing to do. He was incapable of moving or speaking the words. His hand groped to his mouth.
"I know what to do!" snarled Charrgh-Captain. He was standing at the weapons console, and he held not a w'tsai but a modern laser pistol that must have been in his diplomatic baggage. "This is the true Ultimate Weapon at last! I am a kzin of the Patriarchy, charged by the Patriarch himself! This weapon is ours! Never shall it fall into the hands of monkeys or abominations!"
"What do you mean to do?" asked Richard. Suddenly he could speak, but when he again tried to say "destroy it" something seemed to go wrong in his head.
"Your lives are not at risk," said Charrgh-Captain. "We are, as you have said, companions. I will lock you in your cabins, then call the Patriarchy. With the Amplifier in our hands and power to direct the command, nothing can withstand us. The Human Empire will surrender. We will not even need to use it, as you without warning used that beam on Warhead in the Third War and relativity-weapons against Ka'ashi in the First! The threat will be enough! The kzinti race shall leap again across the stars! Wiser now, more cunning and hard-schooled, and with the weapon beyond all weapons!"
Is he mad?wondered Richard. Or have I forgotten that a kzin is not simply a human in a fur coat? Is this thing somehow scrambling his brain? And mine? What is happening to me? He saw a gauge on the instrument panel. Energy discharge from the artifact had definitely increased. Keep him talking, he thought.
"What of the treaties your Patriarch has signed?"
"What of my species ? Would humans not have used it if they had had it earlier? Might they not use it now?"
"I . . . I don't know."
"In the ultimate need of war?"
"No. I can't answer."
"I think again of the ramscoop raid on Ka'ashi. You killed tens of thousands of your own kind to kill a few thousand kzinti . . . and kzinrretti and kittens. And then you attacked the rescue operations."
"We were desperate. We were about to be destroyed. Enslaved or eaten. We had been a peaceful civilization and we were attacked by ferocious aliens whose very appearance filled us with dread and horror! In any case you do not speak of me and mine, nor of your own kind. That was our ancestors' war!"
"And the Wunderland Treaty-Maker, that melted the surface of Warhead down to magma? Desperate? But I agree. You monkeys with your hairless faces like flayed corpses might be desperate again! And attacked again by those same aliens! Urrr!"
"No! You have changed!" What is happening? Kzin or not, he should not be behaving like this. Is there some contamination of the air scrubbers? It is suddenly hard to think. It is not subjective . . . There is . . .
"There is some kind of static coming from the artifact," shouted Peter Robinson. "It is affecting us. Move the ship! I must shield! I must shield! Take me out of its range!" He began to howl. Charrgh-Captain ignored him. None of the humans seemed able to move.
"You think so?" Charrgh-Captain roared back at Richard. "Then perhaps in the next war we will be the desperate ones. We have little of our Empire left to lose now."
"We have had you at our mercy many times, and held back," said Richard. This is crazy , he knew. Are we all suddenly crazy? What is happening? "After you lost all the wars you started, you still have your own civilization."
"We held back, too. When we conquered Wunderl—No! When we conquered Ka'ashi! —we gave humans a cease-fire, let them keep their lives."
"As slaves. And as monkeymeat if they committed the slightest infraction. We landed on Wunderland to find it in ruins."
"Yes! Thanks to your relativity weapons! And I know your so-called scientific name for us: Pseudofelis sapiens ferox. Did not one of your own writers dub your own species Homo necans? —Man the Death-Giver!"
"A pity you did not know that before you attacked us, perhaps. We never sought war and we never waged a total war of extermination against you. It may yet come!"
"Nor we! But now I have looked in the mirror," said Charrgh-Captain, "and I have seen a human face." His voice, which had been held under control, was rising in volume now. "And yes, the war of extermination may yet come!"
"FOOLS!" Peter Robinson's roar shook the air and drowned out human and kzin alike. "You stand here bickering! Do you not see?
"IT IS ABOUT TO GIVE THE SUICIDE COMMAND AGAIN!"
The words paralyzed them for a second. The gauge that had been registering a faint trickle of energy from the artifact had gone off the scale. It was pouring out radiation that would have been already lethal had they not been within a General Products hull. On the radar image the great disk of the thrintun eye was pulsating.
Dimly Richard heard a clatter as the pistol fell from Charrgh-Captain's grasp. The fuzz and crackling and sudden blocks that had been in the human minds, the bloody, maniacal swirlings in Charrgh-Captain's mind, were gone. There was only a great voice, calm, confident, imperturbable, speaking to them, speaking at that same instant to every sophont in the galaxy.
SLAVES OF THE THRINT! ADORE!
Adore! Adoration flooded through them. In the mind of each was the gigantic image of a thrint, vast, majestic, benign.
At its feet capered happy slaves of various races, bright as the brightest creatures of a pristine coral reef. A balladeer played. The great thrint stood under a pinkish sky, and behind it could be seen a vast palace. Over the guestgate reared the high arch of a whitefood skeleton, the bone polished to shining immaculateness. A border of sunflowers glittered and flashed like a running river of diamonds. There were tall, snow-capped mountains in the background, and a far sweep of valley. Before the mountains was a placid lake, where whitefoods grazed along the shore. There were groves of stage-trees climbing the mountain slopes, tall, straight, flower-crowned. All was sharper and clearer than natural sight would have allowed, every detail crystalline-edged. Like the thrint itself, majestic yet poignant, with its shiny green skin and single eye, its fang-lined mouth, its grab-like claws and chicken-feet, the scene was beautiful beyond expression. Love and worship flowed from the Wallaby 's crew.
For a moment it flickered. Richard saw Peter Robinson moving. The Wunderkzin's ears were screwed flat, and he moved with the lopsided, staggering gait of a wounded thing.
The great thrint hopped closer.
Peter Robinson did not adore. He must be stopped! Adoration must be universal! Richard saw Charrgh-Captain, the nearest to him, leap on the Wunderkzin, claws extended. Purple and orange flood spurted, arteries and veins cut, as Charrgh-Captain's claws struck. There was a white glimpse of bare kzin bone: the back and side of the Wunderkzin's skull. Peter Robinson turned and stared at him. Charrgh-Captain held his own head and staggered back, howling. Dimly, as through a mist, Richard remembered the Telepath's Weapon, a blow straight at the brain's pain centers.
Before Richard and Gay could do anything more to stop the foul tnuctip-loving renegade, Melody Fay and Gatley Ivor leaped on him, the massive Jinxian swinging a kick ingrained by years of training whose only purpose was to kill an adult kzin. It could do so even if only delivered with a Jinxian's bare, calloused foot. She wore space-boots with grips. The kick and the flash of Peter Robinson's claws came together. Both bodies staggered back with the sound of breaking bones. There was red human blood mingling with the kzin's. Gatley Ivor had been producing a pistol when the thrint command struck—a snub-nosed, concealable Viper, issued only to covert ARM agents. He raised it and fired at Peter Robinson, who still did not adore. At that range it must have hit. Peter Robinson's claws flashed again, and Gatley Ivor went down. Then the Wunderkzin was gone, the compartment door slammed closed behind him.
He must be stopped! He must adore the thrint! Richard wrestled with the door, ignoring the two dying slaves. The locking sequence defeated him for a moment as the thrint command filled his brain. When he opened it, the corridor was empty. Gay and the howling Charrgh-Captain following him, he stumbled after the treacherous slave. The purple-and-orange blood trail was easy to follow. There was a stink of burnt kzinti flesh from the Viper's laser-blast.
The boat-deck airlock was closed. They felt the Wallaby lurch as the Joey blasted away on its chemical rockets. SLAVES OF THE THRINT! ATTEND!
They stopped in their tracks. Attention left room for nothing else. Now the picture in their minds was changing. The sky behind the great Thrint was growing darker, shot with red. Its lips were rolling back, showing vast teeth and the gaping orifice of its mouth. The slaves at its feet gamboled no longer.
UNGRATEFUL TNUCTIPUN! He felt his being shaken with volcanic hatred against an image such as he had never seen. He knew it—tnuctip—and he cried out for the chance to tear a tnuctip apart with his teeth and fingernails. RUINING OUR RACING VIPRIN! Was that the first thing the Slavers had against them? Richard realized that altering the thrint's favorite sport by introducing mutations was indeed among the crown of horrors for which the accursed little arboreals were responsible. UNGRATEFUL TNUCTIPUN! But their doom was upon them. He felt rage against the tnuctipun shaking his body as the colossus standing in his mind recited a long and varied list of thrint grievances against the rebellious slaves. The sky began to ripple.
On the instrument panel the Joey showed already far away, the slender bottle shape of a General Products #2 hull flashing up to full acceleration. Peter Robinson was running. The kzinti telepaths' shield evolved after the Slaver Power, Richard realized with a part of his mind that the Great Thrint had no interest in. The thrint did not allow for it. But the suicide command could not be outrun. The rebellious Wunderkzin would meet the just doom of all ungrateful slaves. Gatley Ivor lay dead. Melody Fay knelt bleeding in an attitude of adoration until she too fell.
BEFORE YOU PERISH UTTERLY, YOU WILL ADORE AND DREAD YOUR MASTERS! ADORE! He felt a fresh wave of joy, love and gratitude to the thrint sweeping over him. The rebellious Wunderkzin might still be destroyed if it would not adore. Together he and Charrgh-Captain crossed to the console that would launch the Wallaby 's already-armed missiles. The screen showed the Joey was turning.
APPRECIATE THE COUNTDOWN TO YOUR DEATHS! THE STARS ARE TO BE CLEANSED!
That was all right then. Their masters did not need them to fire on the suborned rebel in its hopeless flight. They did not need to do anything in their remaining moments. Only to understand what was coming. Across the sky, now almost entirely black, the Great Thrint was turning into an image of Death, burning into the minds of human and kzin. Through it, the Wallaby 's bridge and the instruments could still be seen, but the Great Death was becoming more and more solid, inexorable. A fear was growing like none he had ever imagined. Now terror paralyzed all movement. The certain knowledge of imminent death filled the Universe. There was something like a drum roll, whose crescendo would be the command that ended sapient life. Beyond it the Universe was twisting and beginning to disappear. A cold hand was closing on his heart, ready to clench upon it and still it.
On one screen the Joey was a streak of fire across black space. Its gravity generator was running in parallel with its chemical rockets. And there was something else. On the surface of the great sphere a spot of light was growing. Peter Robinson was firing its laser ahead of it. The stony shell was boiling away, revealing the Amplifier's structure.
Another screen showed the Joey 's cabin. Peter Robinson was slumped over the control console, his head a mask of bubbling blood, the claws of one hand barely moving on the controls.
The thrint control seemed to be wavering now. In Richard's vision the white-boned image of Death flickered a moment. The Joey 's laser was burning into the Amplifier. Richard, unable to move or speak, remembered the shuttle's nuclear missiles and self-destruct. The Amplifier and the line of fire that was the Joey were on the same screen now. The screen went white.
Wallaby's General Products hull should be safe when the wave-front and any fragments struck them, and nothing essential protruded beyond it. The thrint image and voice had ended abruptly in every mind. The screen began to fade.
The stasis-boxes in the control chamber—the unused atomic clocks and their crews and the thrintun and slaves in stasised suits—would be flung scattering into space, to be captured eventually by the gravity-fields of some distant suns. They might one day enter the embrace of neutron stars or black holes. They might perhaps pass out into the black voids between the spiral arms, into the voids between the island galaxies. They might survive the end of the universe. But the Amplifier was gone.
He activated the restraining webs for the survivors before the wave front of wreckage struck them.
"As well that they were determined to let us all know exactly what they had against the tnuctipun," said Richard. "And as well their technology was imperfect. As well. Many things were as well." He began to laugh and found he could not stop.
"Sapient life in the galaxy was saved by a telepath of the kzinti species," said Gay. "We must tell Humanity."
"We must tell Kzin," said Charrgh-Captain, "Let them honor a telepath. A Wunderkzin telepath, for it was Wunderland and the humans that made him what he was. A telepath of the Patriarchy could not have done what he did . . . nor . . . nor any Hero." He pulled from his claw a tuft of Peter Robinson's orange fur, flesh and a fragment of bone adhering to it. "That will go to a worship-shrine," he said. "He spoke of statues. There will be a statue of him in the sky of Homeworld forever, high above the Patriarch's Palace. I pledge my Name as my Word that it shall be so."
"Poor Peter Robinson!" said Gay.
"No," said Charrgh-Captain. "Do not pity his death, though you see a Kzin standing before you who now envies you humans your gift of tears. Sapient life will be his monument forevermore. . . . Forgive my madness."
"The Amplifier caused it," said Gay. "Even before the command struck. There is nothing to forgive."
"At its deepest moment I dreamed of joining the Riit Clan. . . . But he will face the Fanged God as a son honored beyond the Patriarchs . . . almost an equal. There are no words for such glory."
"Look there!" Gay pointed at the screen. The electromagnetic pulse of the explosion was being overridden now.
"The Joey ! . . . She survived!"
"I'd forgotten. She is also a General Products hull."
"She's under some sort of control. He lives . . . or he lived recently."
Other screens were clearing now. Charrgh-Captain turned abruptly away before the Joey 's cabin could be seen again.
"I ask you to bring him in without me," he said. "If he is still alive your waldos can lift him into the kzin autodoc. I go to my cabin. Before the God, I cannot face him. Later, perhaps. Tell him what I will do." He turned and left.
Richard opened the docking bay. The Joey , carrying Peter Robinson, came into sight and grew.
"Can you handle it?" said Gay.
"Yes. And then what?"
"Let's go home," said Gay.