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

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Chapter 8

"Can you destroy your work?" I asked Dimity. I could imagine how any other scientist might have reacted to that question. She took it calmly, a little sadly. She understood the implications before I finished asking it.

"I haven't published yet. I can burn the papers. I can clear the computers' memories. I can't forget it. But it's far from finished. Years. And what I've got is only part of it."

"And we are more years from building such engines?"

"Oh, yes. If we diverted every scientist and engineer we have away from the defense effort, still years before the first proper experiments. And we would need deep-space ships."

"That's what I thought. We'll never get the resources now."

"I know."

"And now I think I know the best thing I can do for Wunderland. We've got to hide you. The caves will do for the time being."

"I'd like to play my part. Do something more active."

"I think we'll be active in good time. Right now, you are frankly too dangerous. I think it's time to go. And there's no one we're directly responsible for."

Dimity was an orphan, thanks to the misprogramming of an air-car's memory for altitude a couple of years previously, and an only child. I was in a similar situation and for the first time in my life I was grateful for it.

We got up. Many shops were shuttered, and one or two burned, the detritus of the previous two nights' riots. There were few people on the streets, apart from the new armored and heavily armed police.

Dimity and I had been the only customers at the Lindenbaum. Stanley, the human waiter who had given it its cachet, waited no more. He and Otto, the proprietor, were doing something that I had also seen at the monastery: filling bags of fabric with sand to build a kind of extra wall. There was something obsessive or mechanical in their movements, and they hardly turned their heads as we left. I thought of the first time Dimity and I had sat here, and the last time, with the flower and the flutterbys. I won't see our café again , I thought suddenly. I'll not see Munchen again. Even tomorrow it will be gone. It gave me the feeling of a sad dream. Somerthing small and dark flashed along a gutter and out of sight down a drain: one of the native animals turned scavenger which we had previously kept out of the city. I had the car loaded with extra supplies and tools, slung in nets all over it. I had also loaded several extra lift-belts. I had kept it at the university, hidden. Some of those supplies would not have remained there long otherwise.

 

Munchen already looked different from the air. I saw gardens neglected and dying, uncollected garbage. The rioting had been more serious than we had been told. There were more burned-out buildings. The lawns and trees of the Englischergarten looked dry and dying, and its fountains were gone. Near my own house, water still reflected in the system of ornamental pools, but there too the fountains no longer played. On the streets I saw new, heavy vehicles with the word police on them. But the rioting was not the only thing that had changed the city. For all the infighting, some other things had been done.

Haze drifted from factories thrown up in the last few weeks and put into operation without environmental impact statements or pollution controls. Smoke from heavy, crude rocket boosters hung in clouds. Some lakes and streams were bare brown mud, and I saw garden swimming pools that had been covered over. The householders who had covered their pools tended to have piles of stores in their yards or heaps of raw earth indicating hastily dug shelters.

Once I saw a line of hellish green glare slanting into the sky as a smoke plume drifted across the path of a test-firing laser—at least, I supposed it was test-firing. Heavy power-cables snaked across open ground, some of them superconductors running from hot, crude, hastily built lasers to a Donau that steamed and boiled around them, and there were radio-wave towers whose archaic shapes hinted at the hand and mind of Tesla. On roofs I saw the snouts of the new super-Bofors guns.

Once the city was behind us I flew low to avoid being seen, and not in a straight line.

 

Eastward there was empty country still fairly close to the city. We flew past the Pergolas Caves, well-known and visited by tourists, past the checkerboard of farms and orchards. The air was clear here, and below us little irrigation ponds and dams, and the fused glass of surface roads, glittered in the sunlight.

There was a brief second of darkness as something passed between our car and the sun. I looked up with a start, but it was only one of the big leather-flappers. There came into my mind another line from H. G. Wells: "Only a rook," he said. "One gets to know that birds have shadows these days." Which of the classics had that come from? Of course! The War of the Worlds!

That set my mind running on the old master's work, and its end, so cleverly foreshadowed with subtle clues, in which the invading Martians die of disease germs against which they have developed no immunity. For a moment I wondered if it had not been prophecy, and whether a similar inevitable fate awaited the invaders of our own world. But no. We were invaders here ourselves, and we had flourished and bred and grown. For the universe had been stranger than even the old genius had realized. We knew little of the ancient races that had exterminated one another in space during Earth's pre-Cambrian period, but we knew they had seeded many planets with common microbes and other life from which the more complex forms had eventually arisen. Modern docs could handle any odd exotic bacteria we had encountered.

Wunderland food, both vegetable and animal, was not ideal for us, but we could eat it. So we knew from at least this sample that the life-forms of different planets could eat each other. That brought my thoughts back full circle. "One gets to know that birds have shadows these days." I had swotted up the old classics for my university entrance, had learned passages by heart. As undergraduates we had dramatized The War of the Worlds as a play. I had been the artilleryman. What had he said, whose lines had been written before men flew at Kitty Hawk, of the humans faced with interplanetary invasion by technologically superior Aliens?

 

"That's what we are now—just ants. Only——"

"Yes," I said.

"We're eatable ants."

We sat looking at one another.

"And what will they do with us?" I said.

 

The first men to reach Earth's moon had gone there unarmed. Even the Slaver-Tnuctipun War, when we discovered traces of it, had not shaken the assumption that space-faring races would be by definition peaceful: It had been too long in the Galactic past to bear any relationship to the universe we knew. But what if Wells had got it right, not that these creatures were savage or barbaric, but that they were so advanced that they simply brushed us aside? I would have laughed at the idea, or rather not given it consideration, a little while ago.

If only Wells had not had such a mind for detail, like the passing reference to the multitude of crows hopping and fighting over the skeletons of the humans the Martians had consumed and left in the abandoned pit!

We passed over the long sprawling lines that marked Manstein's Folly, the remnant walls of a fortress and outworks some of the Families had begun in the early days of settlement as a defense post against alien enemies that did not exist on Wunderland. Recently the Defense Council had voted to complete the works with "hardened" defenses and weapons and install a "garrison" there, but it had not been high on an ever-growing list of competing priorities. Now I saw there were some people there, with machines and vehicles.

The sight was not very reassuring. We flew on to the Drachenholen, the great cave system in the Hohe Kalkstein four hundred kilometers farther east.

I had begun exploring the caves with students years before, one of a number of long-term projects, and the university had kept their location unadvertised. But if I had begun exploring them, the emphasis was on the word "begun." They were not high priority and if they were full of interest for a biologist (one student party claimed to have found footprints of a tripedal creature in one well-concealed cave), so was the rest of the planet.

Thanks to Wunderland's gravity, they dwarfed the Carlsbad Caverns on Earth. And thanks to the many Wunderland life-forms that flew and brought protein into them, they had far richer ecosystems. In a society without modern chemistry, their vast guano deposits would have made rich mines. As it was, they were mainly mined with deep-radar beams, X-rays and collecting-spoons for fossils and theses.

Cave ecosystems on Earth were among the oldest and, if Man left them alone, the most stable on the planet: caves in Australia and the Caribbean islands had similar insectile life-forms, apparently unchanged since both had been part of the ancient supercontinent.

The Wunderland cave ecosystems were old too, I knew, and variegated, but the knowledge gleaned from my small scratchings was tiny. There were largish carnivores in there, including the biggest, which we called morlocks, quasi-humanoid in shape. As far as I knew they did not venture onto the surface or far into the twilit zones near the cave mouths, though they had eyes, large, unpleasant eyes. Still, the university expeditions had been careful. In the twilit zone of the Grossdrache we had established a secure accommodation module along with what should be tamperproof stores of food and other supplies.

We had an outfit of guns in the air-car, personal strakkakers clamped to the doors and a couple of heavier ones mounted on the body. Other things, too: experimental sonics, a bullet projector that was a more powerful version of the monastery's collecting guns, a couple of ratchet knives. All products of the new factories.

The mouth of Grossdrache was partly hidden at the end of a long winding canyon but big enough for us to fly into. I had once thought of putting a gate on it, but decided that it would attract too much attention. Within, it opened into a grand ballroom before dividing and running off into various darknesses. The module, deep in this ballroom twilight, was camouflaged, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly to hide it from any rather stupid hiker or camper who might penetrate this far. I had the doors' combinations but had removed them from the University's computers. A key seemed safer.

The annex module, also camouflaged as a group of large boulders, was big enough to hold the car. I was glad to see a colony of crepuscular-nocturnal batlike creatures (some classicist had called them "mynocks" in tribute to the old Star Wars films) had established a colony on the roof of the storage module and among the columns of artificial stalactites that hid some of its fittings. Unlike their fictional namesakes they could do no harm to us or the installation. They rose in a squawking cloud as we landed, but soon they settled again. They were messy creatures but excellent protein suppliers for the cave food-chain and had stained the roof and sides of the module with their droppings in the most natural manner. There was no reason for an inquisitive human not to think the whole complex a scattering of rocks. Already a drift of guano and dead Mynocks had built up on the ground beside the module, and segmented vermiform things, red and white-banded in our light, were industriously moving this material a link up the chain.

Apart from the chattering mynocks and rustling worms, the cave was still and silent but we kept our weapons ready as we crossed to the accommodation module. The trenches we had dug when collecting fossils were undisturbed.

Everything inside seemed to be in good order. The module had originally been built for space—an asteroid mining project that never went through—with space-standard backup and recycling systems that would have been unnecessary except that they cut out pollution in this delicate ecosystem. When I turned on the main desk I found the kitchen, storage bins, computers, lab tables, bunks, bathroom, and laundry all checked out. It was the best base and hideout I could think of.

"How long do we stay here?" Dimity asked.

"I don't know yet. You stay here until the situation stabilizes."

"I understand. But alone? I'm not sure that I'd like that."

"Not alone yet. But I can't think of a safer place for the moment. There are hundreds of feet of rock on five and a half sides of us, and these walls were designed to be proof against meteors and vacuum. I don't mean we have to live inside here long. This is just the retreat."

"Retreat?"

"An idea I got from the abbot. Somewhere to go when it's a good idea to get away from the world for a while."

We dialed some food.

"What's going on at Munchen?"

We dialed the news channel. Someone was denying there had been further rioting. She looked drawn and nervous, and twice people crossed in front of the studio camera. Then the transmission failed briefly.

"What's going on in space?"

There was nothing coming from Tiamat, the Serpent Swarm, or any of the satellites in low orbit. The other ground-based channels had a recorded chess tournament, a junior-school model of continental drift theory, a singer, a head talking on dolphin legal concepts, an ancient documentary on Beam's first zoological expedition to Castledare, an exhibition of Neue Dresden China, a Rotary-Masonic luncheon. This wasn't ordinary television.

"It looks as if things really are starting to break up," Dimity said. The screen flashed with a lightning logo and an audio alarm blared. We knew what that was. An emergency override announcement, usually for the evacuation of some area threatened by a meteor strike.

Karl van Roberts had been arrested. Police were searching for Gretchen Kleinvogel. Emergency powers were being extended.

I keyed into one of the university's own low-orbit satellites, used mainly for ground surveying. (Its deep radar had helped discover the shallower part of this cave-system.) Munchen was easy to find, and with higher resolution I could see fires burning. So it was on again. This looked worse than before.

I had done the right thing getting Dimity away, I told myself. Then I saw other things. The brilliant, flaring green of lasers firing through a clouded atmosphere. I punched the keyboard frantically, trying to get better focus. The satellite's cameras had unlimited focal length. As the picture shimmered I caught the flash of explosions somewhere off-camera. The transmission stopped, and the screen went utterly blank. It was as if the satellite wasn't there any more.

A local fault? I didn't think so. I fiddled with the keyboard for some time, without result. Then a local alert on the desk flashed and beeped.

I clicked to the modules' own security camera, mounted in the cave roof directly above us, which gave us a view of the whole ballroom.

A cloud of mynocks. A red telltale flashed. Something large moved quickly out of the picture into the darkness of the tunnels. I tracked it with nitesite but it was gone. Replaying the film showed nothing distinct.

"I don't know what it was," I told Dimity. "Something attracted by our movements, I guess. One of the bigger cave animals."

"A predator." A statement, not a question. Cave food-chains have little vegetable matter in them apart from fungus, and few vegetarians, and in any case it is predators that are attracted to movement.

The darkness and walls of rock about us had felt like safety, but I remembered with a creepy feeling in my spine the words of an ancient Earth tale, Rogue Male , again by the underground master Household, that I had studied in the Classic Literature course: "Darkness is safety only on condition that all one's enemies are human."

"Whatever it is, it can't get in here. You did lock the doors, didn't you?"

"Oh yes."

"If necessary, the car can fly out and shoot it under control from here. I'd rather not have any shooting here, though."

"Nils, what exactly are your plans?"

"Fluid."

"Does that mean nonexistent?"

"Not at all. I suggest we wait hereabouts till the disorders in Munchen are settled. There's nothing useful you or I can do there. Nothing more useful, that is, than keeping you out of danger."

"What about your students?"

"They are all adults. They know as much about the situation as I do. They're younger than me and I guess on average a lot fitter. My job is to teach them biology, not lead them in rioting."

"You think they'll all be safe?" She didn't include any name in particular, and such is the human mind that even there for a second or two I dwelt on the implications of that.

"It's out of my hands."

"Nils, how bad do you think the rioting is? Cameras can lie .  .  . give false impressions."

"Bad enough for us to sit it out here. You might be a prize for either side—Herrenmanner or Prolevolk."

"And here I'm a prize for you, perhaps?" But she smiled as she said it.

"I'm afraid I'm a little too keyed up to think in those terms." The desk-screen was flicking from one channel to another, the sound muted. There were the Munchen studios, the blank screen where the satellite had been, and the module security camera.

"Rioting isn't all that's going on," Dimity said. "There's something happening in space."

"Our satellite's gone."

"There's been something happening long before that. I've been watching. A lot more ships have taken off over the last few weeks than have landed again. And some of the ships that have landed have been damaged. When did we last hear anything from the Serpent Swarm?"

"I've not heard much at all lately."

"I have. You may have been on the Defense Council but I'm a better hacker than you—or a more unscrupulous one. The messages are in code, but I could work out that we and the Swarm have been losing ships. Lots of ships."

I remembered the fragments of military science and history I had sweated over so uselessly in the preceding months.

"It doesn't make sense. If you mean losing ships to aliens, why put the messages in code? Aliens aren't going to read our language, surely."

"I don't think it's to stop aliens reading them. It's to stop us reading them. Nils, why do you think you were put on the Defense Council?"

"Why not?"

"What was the point? It was all set up in a hurry, sure, and people were given seats on various committees partly to keep everyone who mattered quiet, but you're a biologist! What were your qualifications? Not anything to do with biological warfare; you can't even start that until you know what the enemy is like, and for all we know these aliens, if they exist, use nerve gas for underarm deodorant.

"You were there because you're Mr. Nice Guy. How many news features have there been, over the last ten years, on your expeditions?"

"Lots."

"Exactly. You are a celebrity. More than that, a celebrity who is also a scientist. And you've been given statements to make to the media over the past few weeks."

"Because I'd been on TV often enough before, yes."

"Because you are reassuring. Those statements were handed to you, weren't they?"

"Yes. I know what you're going to say next, Dimity."

"You haven't the least idea of the real situation. You were a handsome talking head, who was not identified with any political faction."

"That's why I've no qualms of conscience about quitting without much notice now. I realized I wasn't doing anything real. Look around you. That's why I'm here. Why you're here."

"Our culture hasn't much experience of this sort of thing, has it?"

"But we've got plenty of experience of politics, it seems. I thought of us as a young, innocent world."

Suddenly, I found myself crying. Dimity took me in her arms and I clung to her until the fit of sobbing and shaking had passed. I did not tell her I was crying a little for my own uselessness and a great deal more for fear for her.

Suddenly there were tiny chimes of music in the air. Dimity had brought a little music box from her collection. Heaven knows how she had thought of it, but those single notes, falling one by one, calmed me.

"You need some sleep," she said. "And you know we're safe. Nothing can reach us here."

I hadn't cried since I was a child. It seemed (or so I hoped) to release stress of whose intensity I had had no idea. I needed her arms round me to get to the bunk. I must have been asleep before she finished undressing me. "Nothing can reach us here" were her last words in my ear.

 

 

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