Book: Man-Kzin Wars X : The Wunder War (Man-Kzin Wars)

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Chapter 4

"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all

its powers of acting and reasoning as fear." 

—Edmund Burke.

I found Dimity Carmody at the Lindenbaum Kafe, sitting at her usual table between the chess players and coffee addicts. With her better-than-fashion-model looks and quietly correct if obviously Tommie clothes among the eternally scruffy students, she was always easy to find, even, or especially, hiding behind those sunglasses she generally wore. I hoped I could talk to her now.

I hadn't always been able to. We had almost been lovers once, and would have been if it had not been for the difference in our intelligences. It was not a good idea to have a gap of more than 40 IQ points between oneself and one's partner. A few halting conversations between us had made that difference painfully clear. She enjoyed coming on field trips with me occasionally, but interaction in the deeper aspects of life was a different matter. I was a professor of biology with some chemistry and physics, and she was .  .  . what she was. Well, to use an old phrase, she wasn't exactly a rocket scientist.

Born with an abnormal brainwave, thought to be something in the Asperger's syndrome family, she had now learned to adopt a protective social coloration. It hadn't always been that way. Her father told me she had hardly spoken till she was seven years old. He was an outstanding mathematician and physicist—late in life he had worked on Carmody's Transform—and to have such a child had hurt him badly then, though things improved eventually. Now she could just about cope with normal people. Among her more normal socialization activities, she loved music boxes and had a little collection of them.

She was sitting drinking coffee, something she did a lot of. She didn't play chess, though, and I remembered the embarrassment when the president of the University club, an Aspirant Master, misled by her appearance of normality, had offered her a game here. He thought someone had set him up. She was doodling on some paper, one of her music boxes tinkling quietly on the table beside her. She signed for me to sit down, and stretched absentmindedly, staring at what she was doing. There was an ordinary notebook in front of her on the table, with many Brahmabytes of capacity available and connection to a really big brain if needed, but she was using pen and paper.

As she stretched I was reminded again that, despite the tricks Wunderland's gravity can play on the bones and tissue of the lazy and careless, she was near the epitome of human standards of beauty. Her body was a living version of the marble Venus of Cyrene, loveliest of all the statues of antiquity, who makes the Venus de Milo look heavy and clumsy by comparison, but as she stretched her attention remained fixed on the paper. Behind the sunglasses her face looked vacant. "Big tits and little wits/Do often go together" a rude old poet had once written. But it was not as simple as that. She had a pink hibiscus flower in her hair which, I thought, really made me understand what was meant by that term overkill . It seemed to attract the flutterbys, and there was a small cloud of them round the table, their delicate multicolored wings brushing the gold bell of her hair with its pink headband.

I broke an awkward silence. "What's this?"

Dimity had an almost squeaky voice. A Dimity voice, I called it privately.

"Sums. Difficult sums."

I was sorry I had asked. Her idea and mine of difficult sums reflected our respective intelligences: embarrassingly different. She went on, with that inevitable tone of patience:

"You know the theories that have been explored here and in Sol System about the ancient stasis fields? That they are somehow uncoupled from the entropy gradient of the Universe?"

"They haven't got anywhere, have they? It's all still just speculation."

"No. Not unless there's been anything new done in Sol System. But it gave me a notion. It's .  .  . difficult to explain .  .  . but it's to do with gravity as a function of time.  .  .  ."

" N-space?" I hesitated.

"No. But as you know they learned to open a stasis field long ago on Earth with relatively primitive time-retarding technology."

"Yes. But the result was a disaster. I'm told there were a lot of casualties. And apparently it was nearly worse."

"That wasn't the fault of the technology. It was because there was something dangerous inside the field that got out. If we can make time precess at a different rates .  .  . well, my theory is that within a gravity field we can't, or not at the scale I'm talking about. But outside a gravity field—I mean a gravity field like the singularity associated with a star .  .  . The singularity acts as a massive governor.  .  .  . Look, does this explain what I mean?"

I recognized some conventional mathematical symbols on her paper along with others that appeared to be her creation. Her father had told me once of how, one day at the end of a childhood that had been near-silent near-inactivity, he had found her playing with the keyboard of his computer, and of his flash of hope that she might grow into a normal child after all ("Who's a clever little girl, then?") which had died as he raised his eyes to the screen. They had published her first paper jointly. After that she had been on her own. His work on Carmody's Transform had brought him praise and when she was given her own department he had helped set it up but he had been little more than her assistant.

"What's that?" I asked, stabbing at random at one esoteric symbol to cover my embarrassment.

"It stands for the occurrence of Miss Bright's Paradox."

"Miss Bright?"

"Yes. You know:

 

There was a young lady named Bright

Whose speed was much faster than light.

She went out one day

In just such a way

And arrived the previous night.   

 

"But you see"—she pointed again—"I've eliminated it. Or rather I depend upon it: upon the fact that the universe will not permit such a paradox to occur.

"I have always thought that, doing what the tnuctipun did, time could be made to precess at different rates over a much larger scale," she went on. "You need an engine to generate your second field, of course, which is a problem. Caught between those fields you would be squeezed away from them, like a wet orange seed squeezed between two fingers. I calculate one of the results would be negative mass."

Stanley the waiter brought us two coffees. The Lindenbaum had de luxe human service in this section and put its prices up accordingly. Gazing at Dimity, he tripped over a neighboring table as he backed away. She went on:

"Within a gravitational singularity, that would be the end of you. You might become something like your own wormhole, millions of miles long, the length depending on how much mass you originally had, and less than the width of a subatomic particle. But beyond the singularity, and if you had a certain velocity, you'd move. Without an increase in mass . If what happens then can be described in terms of physical structure it might be called creating your own big wormhole. A sort of shunt rather than a drive .  .  ." She saw she was not getting through and made another attempt. "A matter of getting away from a greater impossibility by being pushed into a lesser one if you like."

"I don't understand." But I believed her.

She gestured at the symbols again, as if it was all obvious. She had, as I had thought that sad day when I realized our brains couldn't match, given that phrase "not exactly a rocket scientist" a whole new dimension of meaning.

"If you were moving at sufficient speed already .  .  . I think you'd be projected out of the Einsteinian universe.  .  .  . Greenberg was able to tell us a bit of what happened with the ancient drive, the preconditions, but of course he didn't know how it worked, except that the speed had to be sufficient to affect the average mass of the universe. I think the two major achievements of the ancient technologies were connected. The stasis field was a byproduct of their drive technology, or their drive was a byproduct of the stasis-field technology .  .  ."

"Does that mean .  .  . ?" I couldn't say it, somehow.

She paused, and then there was something new that was hard and defiant in her voice, a challenge: "We know the tnuctipun could do it! There would be a bending effect of space and .  .  ."

"How fast?"

"How fast do you want?"

"Where do you get the energy?"

"From the Big Bang. Space is still full of it .  .  . Look at the rest of the universe as the norm, and the singularities as the exception. In terms of getting from one singularity to another, I calculate—it's on the computer at home—a light-year in about .  .  ." She paused. I think she felt herself shy of what she was about to say " .  .  . about three days .  .  . It doesn't break the light barrier, it shatters it, because once you move into that .  .  . dimension or aspect of space you can keep accelerating!"

There had been theories before. The first major modifications to the Special Theory of Relativity were more than four hundred years old. Things happened, or were thought to happen, at the edges of black holes. Nothing practical so far .  .  . but it has been done before, once before, by a race within an empire which, it was thought, had controlled most of the Spiral Arm at least and which had vanished before life emerged from the seas of Earth.

"And .  .  . that's what you've got here?" My own voice sounded somehow very small. The thing I had sought her out for suddenly seemed almost unimportant—until I put two sets of implications together and then it suddenly seemed more important than ever. I heard another tinkling sound besides that of the music box and found my hands were shaking as I held my coffee cup.

"Not yet. Not for years, I think. Maybe never. We know that with the tnuctipun drive they had to be moving close to lightspeed anyway. Greenberg told us it was the average mass of the universe that was the critical factor. But I'm getting somewhere. So far, the computers support my theorizing. Of course, I had to instruct the computers, but if there's a fault in my instructions I can only believe it's a very subtle one.

"This is the wrong place to do it. A double star means the combined singularity is huge. And the engineering is huge enough anyway. The tools are beyond our technology."

"Could you build such an engine .  .  . eventually?"

"Eventually is a long time. I think I could .  .  . recognize one. That's not very helpful, is it?"

I wrenched my mind away from the vision that opened up. I felt I needed her brain's connective powers for something else at the moment. "Could you come with me for a couple of hours?" I asked her. "I want to show you something."

 

The markings in and around the grove hadn't changed. "There it is," I said. "What do you make of it?" I had told her on my abortive expedition of the previous day, though not of the meeting that followed it.

She put away the calculations she had been scribbling at. "An aircraft landed there and took off again," she said. "That's the most probable thing. A fairly small one, but a good deal bigger than this. Not an ordinary private car. It landed and took off vertically but without chemical rockets—there's no sign of burning—and without jets or sufficient downdraft to damage the vegetation. But it hasn't left a ground-effect trail. That is very strange. In fact impossible."

"Yes. I thought you might say that. I wanted someone else to confirm it."

"Maybe it took your specimen."

"Yes. What I'm worried about is the possibility that my specimen was flying it."

Anyone else would have been brought up short by that. She took it in instantly.

"In that case it would hardly have made just one landing. Have you looked for other sites?"

"Not yet. There's too big an area to search."

"Perhaps we can narrow it down. Why did it land here? What's special about this place."

"The monastery."

"Yes. Let's say your specimen landed near the monastery because it was curious. Maybe it's landed near other human dwellings. What about the marshmen's shacks? And perhaps the marshmen have seen something."

I would have asked the marshmen the previous day, except that they tended to be highly unapproachable. On Wunderland, with plenty of good farmland for those who wanted it and good communications, hermits were hermits from choice. We were proud that here, unlike Earth, we respected individuals' privacy. But things had been different the previous day.

I pulled the car's nose up and we headed across the swamp. There was a bit more wildlife to be seen below us today, but it still seemed unusually shy and skittish.

There was old Harry's cabin on Hook Island. Or rather, there had been. There were a few pieces of walls and roof now, scattered about. There was a disturbed area about the same size as that in the grove.

The island had no trees, no cover anything could be hiding in, I thought. I did a couple of cautious passes and we landed.

The monastery garden had been silent but for the insects. This was a silence that was not perfect but of an utterly different quality.

There were the prints, obvious in soft ground. Very big, clawed prints, made by something very heavy. Water oozed into some, and one already had red froggolinas swimming in it. There was a kermitoid with markings I had not seen before.  .  .  . Most of the small creatures around seemed ordinary enough, even if I couldn't name them all. Grossgeister teamed with life in a huge variety of kinds and sizes, including creatures on the larger islands who occupied the ecological niches held on Earth by bear, swamp deer, or cougar. At any other time my professional interest in them would have been more intense. I must get on with my great project of classifying all this , one part of my mind remarked. My work in the caves was a preparation for the greater biological treasures of Grossgeister. .  .  . I jerked my mind back to what was in front of me.

Tigers in the muddy Sundaband Islands. Swimming tigers. We were standing on a permanent island made by channels less than fifty meters wide. On the other sides of those channels were tall reed beds and other islands with higher vegetation that might hide anything. Part of the wonder of Wunderland was the variety of its animals, descendants of survivors of successive catastrophes caused by major meteor impacts. And the fauna boasted its full share of opportunistic predators.

Could something charge out of that vegetation and across the channel before we could get back to the car? I get the feeling we are babes in the wood here , I thought. I hadn't even a gun. The headland where the monastery stood was only a few kilometers away, but here in the channels of Grossgeister the vegetation hid any other horizon.

The swamp was silent, but, as it were, not quiet when one listened: water rippling and bubbling, the grunts of mudfish, the queer singing of the froggolinas and insectoids. But were these ignorable, day-to-day swamp sounds covering up any others? The sounds of something approaching? Cats stalked silently.

There were peculiar smells in the air, some of them natural odors of swamp vegetation, living and dead. Others that I didn't know.

There were the eyes and nostrils of a couple of small crocodilians in the still water, looking like pairs of floating Bob's Berries or drifting bubbles. In a way the sight was reassuring: the presence of adolescent crocodilians meant the probable absence of big ones. A twin-tailed serpiform thing sailed by with head held high like a periscope. Something very large and white and curved floating just under the surface brought me up short, heart jumping, until I realized it was the marshman's boat. Or part of it.

There has been violence and disaster here, I thought. I had occasionally had dangerous moments on field trips, but that had been different. My assistants and I had always been equipped and prepared. Here I felt prepared for nothing. What am I doing bringing Dimity into a place like this? The unknown is always dangerous. Get her out now! And not just because I love her!  

"Nils! Look at this."

Something metal glittering in churned-up mud, almost buried. A heavy automatic gun, the sort the marshmen used to kill the big crocodilians whose back armor might deflect even the needles of a strakkaker. Useless for specimen collecting, it would leave little of any specimen.

It was smashed. Twisted into junk.

It had been loaded with high-explosive bullets and set for automatic fire at 300 rounds a minute. Three rounds only had been fired. There were the casings on the ground. And there were stains on the recoil compensator and pistol grip that looked like blood. A predator?

"Nothing that powerful fits the ecology."

"I know."

"And this is the longest-settled part of the planet. If there was a predator like this here before we'd have known it. You would have seen it in all the other animals. Things would be faster, more powerful, better defended."

She was confirming what I had thought. But I had needed her to confirm it. I didn't want to damage the evidence before any investigation, but now that I had handled the gun already I thought I had better take it back. It would be easy enough to separate my DNA from anything else that might be on it.

I saw the honker, an electronic fence device to keep crocs and other possible intruders away, including humans if necessary. Honkers were a good deal more potent than their name might suggest, and like most modern electronics they worked perfectly when they were in one piece. This one was in many pieces, strewn in the mud.

Then Dimity pointed again. There was something different in her walk and stance, as though she had changed into something like a hunting predator herself. The café coffee-drinker was not there. Her ears were laid flat back. I had forgotten she had that much Families blood in her. There was a dark pool of what I was now sure was blood, surrounded by froggolinas and covered with small insectoids, scraps of cloth, and, gleaming pinkish-white among them, what I recognized at once as a human femur, cracked open at the lower end, part of the pelvic socket still attached at the upper.

I dropped the broken gun as we ran to the car. I saw another bone fragment in the mud as we passed: it looked like part of the zygomatic arch of a human skull, but I didn't stop to examine it. There were other scattered fragments too, I now saw. I wanted to get back to the city fast, but was still unable to recognize the voice of my own survival instincts. We gained a reasonable height and turned a little farther into the swamp.

 

"The monastery looks like a fort," Dimity said as we approached it. "High walls round the courtyard, no windows, the tower, the edifacium like a castle keep. It looks quite defensible. You've even got that." She pointed to a tall, smooth-lined metal spire that rose out of a small wooden chapel some distance away. "It looks like a rocket or missile ready for launching. And the marshmen's shacks?"

"Nothing like that. You saw what was left of them. Just thin walls and the honkers."

"That may be the point: it looked defensible."

The abbot might be a friend and glad to see me on the occasional evening when there was a bottle to be shared. But the monastery was a working organization, and my arrival unannounced in the middle of the working day, and with a woman, might well have been thought inconsiderate. All he said was: "What's wrong?"

"Is it that obvious?"

"You look terrible."

"There's trouble. We've been to six of the marshmen's cabins. They're dead. We've found .  .  . evidence. The cabins destroyed. We're on our way to the police. But first I need to ask the Brothers something. About that thing they saw."

I showed them a small copy of one of the holos I had been shown the night before. "This is a dead specimen, and not a very good picture now. But is that the same species?"

"Yes." Three yeses. Three nods.

"Without a doubt?"

"Without a doubt."

"And it ran from you. I wonder why."

"It didn't want to alert the 'fortress,' " said Dimity.

"We had no weapons when we saw it, no guns."

"It's not scared of guns. And it had already eaten. It didn't want to be discovered, and it probably thought there were too many of you in a building of this size.  .  .  ."

"It thought .  .  . ?"

"I can only tell you what you have probably guessed for yourself," I said. "These creatures are—obviously—highly dangerous, fearless of humans, and, we have reason to believe, intelligent."

"How intelligent?"

"Highly."

"Where do they come from?"

"We don't know." That was only too true.

I guessed the abbot must be a clever administrator to maintain an institution like the monastery in the modern world. I had not noticed before how penetrating his eyes could be.

"Let me put it this way," he said. "Are they going to come horizontally or vertically?" The other monks were hanging on the question. Dimity looked as if she already knew. I didn't see the need for secrecy, but it was still a condition I was bound by.

"I'm not at liberty to say what I think," I told them. "I'm sure if there is a continuing problem you'll be put in the picture."

"Thank you. I think that answers my question.  .  .  .

"Before our Order left Earth," he went on, "the Vatican gave us instructions on what to do if we met aliens. What the theological position was. Did they have souls? It's a very old question, predating space travel by centuries. Saint Paul was quite definite: The Resurrection applied to 'everything in the Heavens and everything on Earth.' The early church writers said we need not worry until we actually knew if they existed or not. To insist that 'God could not have made other worlds' was declared a heresy in the thirteenth century—and that covers alternate or parallel universes as well! Good aliens may have already experienced 'baptism by desire.' Still, it's an area of imprecision."

"But if aliens do exist, good or bad, you do have precise instructions?"

"We got some pretty comprehensive manuals when we set out. As far as that precise situation goes, I've never had cause to look, though no doubt it exercised our Founding Father when we first landed, along with a lot of other concerns. I'll have to get Brother Librarian to find them. But we have to be orthodox. We're too far from the Holy Father to risk departing from his instructions. Perhaps he'll send us a laser message."

If Earth's lasers aren't all busy with another thing, I thought.

"Don't go out at night," said Dimity. "Keep your lights on and your doors locked. Don't go out unarmed even in daylight. Don't go out alone."

 

"Now there's something odd," said Dimity as we flew toward Munchen.

Although ground-effect air cars were common, there was still plenty of wheeled traffic, particularly for heavy hauling. The road we were passing over turned south and led to the industrial districts of Glenrothes and Gelsenkirchen, then on to Dresden (still sometimes Neue Dresden), which had been created deliberately to recapitulate the history of its famous namesake town on Old Earth, and was famous for its experiments in low-gravity baroque architecture and artistic china.

Glenrothes and Gelsenkirchen shared a small landing field well out of the way of the main port's traffic and had some industries based on recycling redundant or obsolescent space material, the equivalent of old-time ship-breaking. Old, material-fatigued or overly damaged spacecraft were disassembled there and their component parts generally taken to Munchen for resale. A spacecraft life system, for example, had all sorts of uses for someone needing a habitat when establishing a new farm, whether on land or sea, and their complex computer hardware and powerful engines always found plenty of uses in things like industrial process control and mining. Sometimes, of course, old ships were cannibalized for new ones.

There were plenty of spaceships getting hard wear in our cluttered and dusty system, filled as it was with minable asteroids, and ship-breaking was quite a busy industry. It reminded me a little, and unpleasantly, of the way criminals had been dissembled for organ banks until modern medicine made such customs unnecessary, which was silly and irrational of me. But possibly others felt the same, because, apart from the fact that it was often a noisy business, it was kept well away from the city.

We were passing over a column of transports carrying parts of spacecraft, the bulk of main engines, including toroid sections of what looked like a ramscoop collector-head, being the most obvious. But on this road it was an everyday sight.

"What's odd about that?" I asked.

"The direction they're traveling," said Dimity. "They're taking those engines to Glenrothes Field, not from it."

 

"I heard there had been a special meeting called last night," said Dimity. "Would it have been about what I think it was about?"

"I can't say." Again, that was all the answer needed.

"I told you about the Sea Statue."

"Oh, yes." We had talked for a long time after returning from the monastery. She had told me more about the near-catastrophic attempt to open the ancient stasis field discovered on Earth many years ago. I had had a vague idea: What had been learned as a result of "opening" the Sea Statue was knowledge similar to the knowledge in the Dark Ages that the Earth was spherical: A lot of educated people knew about it but didn't talk about it much. "What's the connection?"

"It appears likely that the ancients seeded this part of the galaxy at least with common life-forms."

"Yes." We had both studied what was known about the two-billion-year-departed ancient races and their omnicidal war, which wasn't much.

"That's probably why our plants and animals can grow on Wunderland, and why we can eat a lot of Wunderland plants and animals."

"Yes." I was beginning to see where she was leading, and didn't like it.

"Tigripards eat our sheep. Beam's beast bites poison us. Advokats eat our garbage. Zeitungers eat our garbage and affect our moods as well.  .  .  . Something that the old SETI people could never have foreseen, but we should: Beings from at least two different star systems have biochemistry alike enough for them to be able to eat each other."

"So it seems."

"It puts some of my .  .  . mathematical speculations .  .  . in a rather different light, doesn't it?"

I had thought that before. But the full implications of what she was saying took a moment to hit me. Then it was like a physical blow. "We've got to get you out!"

"That may not be so easy. Where am I going to go?"

"We've got to get you back to Earth."

"How?"

There seemed no answer to that. I was beyond regretting that I had basically confirmed to her what the previous night's meeting had been about.

 

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