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

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Chapter 10

"Do you know how many entrances these caves have? This whole system, I mean?"

"Lots. A dozen within a few kilometers. But why haven't they just come barreling in? Why did they hole up in these caves at all?" We were splashing through the stream now, back to whatever temporary safety the modules offered.

"I can think of several reasons, she said. "Watch a kitten with a ball of wool. Cats enjoy stalking until they are ready to leap. They may have found the caves with radar. Maybe their radar is better than ours. Also, they want to spy out the land. Remember the monastery. They don't give themselves away until they're ready. If they are like terrestrial felines, won't silent stalking until the pouncing strike be instinctual? They enjoy lurking, stalking, pouncing. Also, we don't know what's been happening in space. Maybe they are barreling in up there."

 

We were back at the modules, fed and rested. We had slept for the better part of two days, and done nothing for a few days more. But their walls now gave little feeling of security. We would have to flee farther, I thought. But where? Just how do you flee from an alien invasion of your world?

Perhaps one of the city political factions had succeeded in making contact with the aliens. The first-aid foam on my chest had now been hardened for a long time, but I guessed further treatment was needed. I placed my hands in the autodoc and it began to click and blink. Probably, I realised, too late to release my hands, it was putting a sedative into my system. It left me feeling as a sedative would: better but lethargic. I sat down heavily and watched Dimity at the desk as some time passed.

"This is no good," I told her. "I thought this was a refuge. It isn't."

She was flicking across the channels on the desk. Nothing from space at all now, nothing from Munchen but a brief flicker of a talking head mouthing without sound.

"Our lasers could burn through this wall. So could theirs."

"I know."

We had, in a curious way, been happy here in the last few days following our escape from the rockfall: perhaps what the abbot had called a retreat. Irresponsibly or not, I had kept the desk and the television turned off.

"Time to go."

I turned around in the chair. Dimity set the music box—such a tiny, delicate thing!—on the desk, and its crystal little chimes floated into the air. She was standing in front of me. We reached out to each other and came into each other's arms without a word. She nestled into me and I found myself kissing her hair, her throat, her lips.

On the security screen the mynocks rose in a shrieking cloud.

"I think we have company," Dimity said.

"We'll get to the car and fly it straight out."

"Can you manage now?"

"My legs feel a little weak. I can force them."

"Let's go."

I found my hands were shaking.

"You take the keys, for the annex and the car. I might drop them."

"No. Tie them around your neck. I'll need to hold the gun. .  .  ." She turned the light on the beacon up to flood. There seemed nothing more to do. We opened the door and ran.

I don't recommend running with a system full of medical sedative and an anesthetized chest. I was stumbling like a drunk and thought I would fall at every step. Dimity, holding a strakkaker at the ready and laden with other gear, couldn't help me.

No movement yet but the flying creatures. A horrible fumbling at the annex door, and we were in the car.

We were in the air when we saw it. It came staggering out of the tunnel, bent over one side, one arm and shoulder maimed and shredded. It must have climbed the fall.

It leaped at the car as I pulled the nose up. The claws of its undamaged forelimb scrabbled at the metal, dragging us down, tipping the car. We had not had time or the thought to fasten our seat belts. The car flew lopsidedly for a moment with the creature clinging to it as I wrestled with the controls. Then Dimity fell out.

It had nearly dragged us down by then. We were only two meters above the ground. Freed of Dimity's weight the car rolled up, gyros howling, throwing the creature off. There seemed no sedative in my system now. I wrenched the car around in a tight circle.

Dimity was getting up. She seemed unhurt. The creature was standing on its hind legs. Between Dimity and the circling car it seemed undecided what to do. I dropped the nose of the car and fired the two heavy strakkakers I had mounted on it.

We weren't used to fighting, and certainly not to killing. Whatever this being was, I didn't want it dismantled like the other. I fired into the cave floor in front of it. Then I brought the strakkakers back to bear on its head.

It couldn't have misunderstood. I knew it was fast, but I was also sure that, injured as it was, I would be faster when pulling a trigger was all I had to do. It was "at my mercy" as some old book put it. It took a step backward.

I brought the car toward Dimity, keeping the strakkakers trained on it. She jumped aboard and I gave thanks for Wunderland gravity. The creature seemed to have lost its weapons and equipment. I took the car up to near the cave roof, higher, I was sure, than it could jump in its present condition. It stood staring up at us, with those huge intelligent eyes, and suddenly I realised what I had done.

We had killed—yes, and even eaten—one intelligent alien and maimed another. They had, it was true, snarled and leaped at us in the cave, but .  .  . that might have been self-defense. It might even have been an attempt to communicate. Many a peaceful, herbivorous gorilla had died on Earth because its chest-beating display warnings to "leave me and my family and our territory alone" had been taken by humans as a signal of attack, and they had shot. As I had.

The dead morlock? But morlocks were aggressive predators. Who had attacked first? But there was something else there too. I thought again of H.G. Wells's Morlocks, the originals, and the fact, intentional or otherwise, that there was no real evidence in his story that they were really hostile. I thought of ancient science-fiction films like It Came from Outer Space , in which it had turned out that grotesque and horrifying aliens had only wanted to make repairs and depart, and had attacked only in self-defense. We had shot without trying to negotiate or make peace. This creature, or some creature like it, had not attacked the monks when it came upon them in the night.

Perhaps they now viewed the human race with as much terror as we viewed them, and with better reason. Perhaps these were peaceful creatures that had found themselves on a planet of horror. If so, no wonder they had not shown themselves! What would we have done in their position? It was armed. Well, so were we, and we had used our arms first and lethally. All this went through my head far quicker than I can tell it.

They looked carnivorous. Well, I had once had a cat, a gentle old female who moved in with me and whose main desires had been to be petted, to curl up on my lap, and to share my bed, and had who brought me gifts of food filched from neighbors' barbecues as offerings of affection. She had had pointed teeth, too, and claws and, until age overtook her, had been a terror to balls of wool. I am a scientist and I don't anthropomorphize animals or their emotions, but I remembered how, purring and kneading me in bed, that tiny-brained creature had gone against her own instincts and kept her claws sheathed. She sometimes bit my fingers in play, but took care never to break the skin or draw blood. Carnivores, even such perfect carnivores as cats, need not be cruel. Humans' front teeth were for meat-eating, but we were not .  .  .

The warnings from Sol? They might mean anything. What had happened light-years away in space might have been an exact parallel to this situation: panicky humans attacking first. We weren't sure what Sol humans were like now. And this creature was in a terrible way, injured and starving—I saw the bones starting through its wasted frame.

It all went through my mind in a few seconds as I circled in the cave, guns trained on the creature. I began to wonder miserably how many laws I might have broken, beginning with the one against murder.

I can't kill it,I thought. I don't know that it even meant us any harm.  

It would be right, I thought, to land and try to negotiate with the creature, treat its terrible injuries, make amends. But that was impossible. Too much damage had been done.

Whatever its original intentions, it saw me as an enemy now. I had maimed it and killed its companion, or, for all I knew, its mate. It was much darker than the other creature, almost black, though with a white pattern like an old scar on one side, where its stripes did not match, and some part of my professional mind wondered if this was a sexual differentiation. My clothes were still spattered with its companion's blood. And there might be others coming up the cave system.

There was one thing I could do. Round my neck was the belt I had taken from the dead Pseudofelis , the "kzin." I had learned little from examining it, but it looked sufficiently like our own equipment for me to guess that it contained utility supplies, including, if there was any parallelism is our species' thinking, medical supplies. I held the belt out and dropped it at the creature's feet.

I had no idea whether or not it could eat our food, but I dropped a package of explorers' rations as well. I raised my hand in a confused gesture of salute, and we headed out of the cave. I felt a deathly misery and guilt as the car shot into the sunlight, like a stake of ice at my heart. "Are you all right? That was a bit of a fall."

"No permanent damage. I know how to fall. But it was no fun being on the ground with violet-eyes."

"What else could I have done?" I burst out.

"We're alive," said Dimity. "We might very easily not be. Those claws were sharp."

Perhaps I had read too much. I thought of the Ancient Mariner and the albatross, and suddenly knew what he meant by "a woeful agony." He had confessed his crime to a holy man and begged forgiveness. In the abbot I had an official holy man for a friend. I was not a Catholic, but would it help me to make confession?

Not far away to the north a vast cloud of black smoke was rising into the sky, an intense red flame at its core. Smaller fires were burning around it. Once before I had seen something similar. It looked as if something had smashed into the mountain range from space. That, I guessed, was what had caused the shock and the rockslide that had freed us from the cave.

I gave thanks as the ground flashed away below us and the scarp of the Hohe Kalkstein, looking ominous and threatening now rather than wild and fascinatingly myserious, dwindled behind.

Briefly I gave thanks. A red warning light blinked on the dashboard fuel gauge. Behind us in the sky was a white cloud. Pierce a liquid hydrogen system and it vaporises fast. I wouldn't be able to keep the car in the air for long.

 

 

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Next: Chapter 11