Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

Book main: Foreword
Next: Chapter II

Chapter I

“Right, give me a reading on the mass detector,” the prospector said; like many rockjacks, he spoke to his computer as if it were human. It wasn’t, of course; sentient computers tended to turn catatonic, usually at the most inopportune moments, so any illusion of sentience was just that; but most rockjacks talked to the machinery anyway.

He was a short man for a Belter, with the slightly seedy run-down air that was common in the Alpha Centauri system after the kzinti conquest of Wunderland and its Belt. There was hunger in the eyes that skipped across the patched and mismatched screens of the Lucky Strike; the little torchship had not been doing well of late, and the kzin-nominated purchasing combines on the asteroid base of Tiamat had been squeezing harder and harder. The life bubble of his singleship smelled, a stale odor of metal and old socks; the conditioner was not getting out all of the ketones.

Collaborationist ratcat-loving bastards, he thought, and began the laborious manual set-up for a preliminary analysis. In his mother’s time, there would have been automatic machinery to do that. And a decent life-support system, and medical care that would have made him merely middle-aged at seventy, not turning grey and beginning to creak at the joints.

Bleeping ratcats. The felinoid aliens who called themselves kzinti had arrived out of nowhere, erupting into the Alpha Centauri system with gravity-polarizer driven ships and weapons the human colonists could never match. Could not have matched even if they had a military tradition, and humans had not fought wars in three centuries. Wunderland had fallen in a scant month of combat, and the Serpent Swarm asteroid belt had followed after a spell of guerilla warfare.

He shook his head and returned his attention to the screens; unless he made a strike this trip he would have to sell the Lucky Strike, work as a sharecrop-prospector for one of the Tiamat consortia. The figures scrolled up.

“Sweet Finagle’s Ghost,” he whispered in awe. It was not a big rock, less than a thousand meters “round. But the density… ”It must be solid platinum!“

Fingers stabbed at the board; lasers vaporized a pit in the surface, and spectroscopes probed. A frown of puzzlement. The surface was just what you would expect in this part of the Swarm, carbonaceous compounds, silicates, traces of metal. A half-hour spent running the diagnostics made certain that the mass-detector was not malfunctioning either, which was crazy.

Temptation racked him suddenly, a feeling like a twisting in the sour pit of his belly. There was something very strange here; probably very valuable. Rich, he thought. I’m rich. He could go direct to the ratcat liason on Tiamat; the kzinti were careful not to become too dependent on the collabo authorities. They rewarded service well. Rich. Rich enough to… Buy a seat on the Minerals Commission. Retire to Wunderland. Get decent medical care before I age too much.

He licked sweat off his upper lip and hung floating before the screens. “And become exactly the sort of bastard I’ve hated all my life,” he whispered.

I’ve always been too stubborn for my own good, he thought with a strange sensation of relief as he began to key in the code for the tightbeam message. It wasn’t even a matter of choice, really; if he’d been that sort, he wouldn’t have hung on to the Lucky Strike this long. He would have signed on with the Concession; you ate better even if you could never work off the debts.

And Markham rewarded good service, too. The Free Wunderland Navy had its resources, and its punishments were just as final as the kzinti. More certain, because they understood human nature better…

-discontinuity-

and the collision alarm cut off.

Dnivtopun blinked in bewilderment at the controls. All the exterior sensors were dark. The engineering slave was going wild, all three arms dancing over the boards as it skipped from position to position between controls never meant for single-handing.

CALM, he ordered it mentally. Then verbally: “Report on what has happened.”

The slave immediately stopped, shrugged, and began punching up numbers from the distributor-nodes which were doing duty for the absent computer. “Master, we underwent a collision. The stasis field switched on automatically when the proximity alarm was tripped; it has its own subroutine.” The thrint felt its mind try to become agitated once more and then subside under the Power, a sensation like a sneeze that never quite materialized. “All exterior sensors are inoperative, Master.”

Dnivtopun pulled a dopestick from the pouch at his belt and sucked on it. He was hungry, of course; a thrint was always hungry.

“Activate the drive,” he said after a moment. “Extend the replacement sensor pods.” A stasis field was utterly impenetable, but anything extending through it was still vulnerable. The slave obeyed; then screamed in syncopation with the alarms as the machinery overrode the commands.

REMAIN CALM, the thrint commanded again, and wished for a moment that the Power worked for self-control. Nervously, he extended his pointed tongue and groomed his tendrils. Something was very strange here. He blinked his eyelid shut and thought for a moment, then spoke:

“Give me a reading on the mass sensor.”

That worked from inductor coils within the single molecule of the hull; very little besides antimatter could penetrate a shipmetal hull, but gravity could. The figures scrolled up, and Dnivtopun blinked his eye at them in bafflement.

“Again.” They repeated themselves, and the thrint felt a deep lurch below his keelbones. This felt wrong.

“Something is wrong,” Herrenmann Ulf Reichstein-Markham muttered to himself, in the hybrid German-Danish-Balt-Dutch tongue spoken by the ruling class of Wunderland. It was Admiral Reichstein-Markham now, as far as that went in the rather irregular command structure of the Free Wunderland Space Navy, the space-based guerillas who had fought the kzinti for a generation.

“Something is very wrong.”

That feeling had been growing since the four ships under his command had matched vectors with this anomalous asteroid. He clasped his hands behind his back, rising slightly on the balls of his feet, listening to the disciplined murmur of voices among the crew of the Nietzsche. The jury-rigged bridge of the converted ore-carrier was more crowded than ever, after the success of his recent raids. Markham’s eyes went to the screen that showed the other units of his little fleet. More merchantmen, with singleship auxiliaries serving as fighters. Rather thoroughly armed now, and all equipped with kzinti gravity-polarizer drives. And the cause of it all, the Catskinner. Not very impressive to look at, but the only purpose-built warship in his command. A UN

Dart-class attack boat, a spindle shape, massive fusion-power unit, tiny life-support bubble, asymmetric fringe of weapons and sensors.

It had been a United Nations Space Navy ship, piggybacked into the Alpha Centauri system on the ramscoop battlecraft Yamamoto, only two months ago, dropped off with agents aboard. And the UN personnel had been persuaded to… entrust the Catskinner to him while they went on to their mission on Wunderland. The Yamamoto’s raid had sown chaos among the kzinti; the near-miraculous assassination of the alien governor of Wunderland had done more. Markham’s fleet had grown accordingly, but it was still risky to group so many together. Or so the damnably officious sentient computer had told him.

His scowl deepened. Consciousness-level computers were a dead-end technology, doomed to catatonic madness in six months or less from activation, or so the books all said. Perhaps this one was too, but it was distressingly arrogant in the meantime.

The feeling of wrongness grew, like wires pulling at the back of his skull. He felt an impulse to blink his eye (eye?) and knot his tendrils (tendrils?), and for an instant his body felt an itch along the bones, as if his muscles were trying to move in ways outside their design parameters.

Nonsense, he told himself, shrugging his shoulders in the tight-fitting grey coverall of the Free Wunderland armed forces. Markham flicked his eyes sideways at the other crewfolk; they looked uncomfortable too, and… what was his name? Patrick O’Connell, yes, the redhead… looked positively green. Stress, he decided.

“Catskinner,” he said aloud. “Have you analyzed the discrepancy?” The computer had no name apart from the ship into which it had been built; he had asked, and it had suggested “Hey, you.”

“There is a gravitational anomaly, Admiral Herrenmann Ulf Reichstein-Markham,” the machine on the other craft replied. It insisted on English and spoke with a Belter accent, flat and rather neutral, the intonation of a people who were too solitary and too crowded to afford much emotion. And a slight nasal overtone, So/Belter, not Serpent Swarm.

The Wunderlander’s face stayed in its usual bony mask; the Will was master. Inwardly he gritted teeth, ashamed of letting a machine’s mockery move him. If it even knows what it does, he raged. Some rootless cosmopolite Farther deracinated degenerate programmed that into it.

“Here is the outline; approximately 100 to 220 meters below the surface.” A smooth regular spindle-shape tapering to both ends.

“Zat ” Markham’s voice showed the heavy accent of his mother’s people for a second; she had been a refugee from the noble families of Wunderland, dispossessed by the conquest. “That’s an artifact!”

“Correct to within 99.87% probability, given the admittedly inadequate information,” the computer said. “Not a human artifact, however.”

“Nor kzinti.”

“No. The design architecture is wrong.”

Markham nodded, feeling the pulse beating in his throat. His mouth was dry, as if papered in surgical tissue, and he licked the rough chapped surface of his lips. Natural law constrained design, but within it tools somehow reflected the… personalities of the designers. Kzinti ships tended to wedge and spike shapes, a combination of sinuosity and blunt masses. Human vessels were globes and volumes joined by scaffolding. This was neither.

“Assuming it is a spaceship,” he said. Glory burst in his mind, sweeter than maivin or sex. There were other intelligent species, and not all of them would be slaves of the kzinti. And there had been races before either…

“This seems logical. The structure… the structure is remarkable. It emits no radiation of any type and reflects none, within the spectra of my sensors.”

Perfect stealthingl Markham thought.

“When we attempted a sampling with the drilling laser, it became perfectly reflective. To a high probabil-ity, the structure must somehow be a single molecule of very high strength. Considerably beyond human or kzinti capacities at present, although theoretically possible. The density of the overall mass implies either a control of gravitational forces beyond ours, or use of degenerate matter within the hull.”

The Wunderlander felt the hush at his back, broken only by a slight mooing sound that he abruptly stopped as he realized it was coming from his own throat. The sound of pure desire. Invulnerable armor! Invincible weapons, technological surprise!

“How are you arriving at its outline?”

“Gravitational sensors.” A pause; the ghost in Cat-skinner’s machine imitated human speech patterns well. “The shell of asteroidal material seems to have accreted naturally.”

“Hmmm.” A derelict, then. Impossible to say what might lie within. “How long would this take?” A memory itched, something in Mutti’s collection of anthropology disks… later.

“Very difficult to estimate with any degree of precision. Not more than three billion standard years, in this system. Not less than half that; assuming, of course, a stable orbit.”

Awe tugged briefly at Markham’s mind, and he remembered a very old saying that the universe was not only stranger than humans imagined, but stranger than they could imagine. Before human speech, before fire, this thing had drifted here, falling forever. Flatlanders back on Earth could delude themselves that the universe was tailored to the specifications of H. Sapiens, but those whose ancestors had survived the dispersal into space had other reflexes bred into their genes. He considered, for moments while sweat trickled down his flanks. His was the decision, his the Will. The Overman must learn to seize the moment, he reminded himself. Excessive caution is for slaves.

“The Nietzsche will rendezvous with the… ah, object,” he said. His own ship had the best technical facilities of any in the fleet. “Ungrapple the habitat and mining pods from the Molkte and Valdemar, and bring them down. Ve vill begin operations immediately.”

“Very wrong,” Dnivtopun continued.

The Ruling Mind was encased in rock. How could that have happened? A collision, probably; at high fractions of C, a stasis-protected object could embed itself, vaporizing the shielded off-switch. Which meant the ship could have drifted for a long time, centuries even. He felt a wash of relief; and worked his footclaws into the resilient surface of the deck. Suicide Time would be long over, the danger past. Relief was followed by fear; what if the tnuctipun had found out? What if they had made some machine to shelter them, something more powerful than the giant amplifier the thrint patriarchs had built on Homeworld?

Just then another sensor pinged; a heatspot on the exterior hull, not far from the stasis switch. Not very hot, only enough to vaporize iron, but it might be a guide beam for some weapon that would penetrate shipmetal. Dnivtopun’s mouth gaped wide and the ripple of peristaltic motion started to reverse; he caught himself just in time, his thick hide crinkling with shame. I nearly beshat myself in public… well, only before a slave. It was still humiliating…

“Master, there are fusion-power sources nearby; the exterior sensors are detecting neutrino flux.” The thrint bounced in relief. Fusion power units. How quaint. Nothing the tnuctipun would be using. On the other hand, neither would thrintun; everyone within the Empire had used the standard disruption-converter for millenia. It must be an undiscovered sapient species. Dnivtopun’s mouth opened again, this time in a grin of sheer greed. The first discoverer of an intelligent species, and an industrialized one at that… But how could they have survived Suicide Time?

There was no point in speculating without more information. Well, here’s my chance to play Explorer again, he thought. Before the War, that had been the commonest dream of young thrint, to be a daring, dashing conquistador on the frontiers. Braving exotic dangers, winning incredible wealth… romantic foolishness for the most part, a disguise for discomfort and risk and failure. Explorers were failures to begin with, usually. What sane male would pursue so risky a career if there was any alternative? But he had had some of the training. First you reached out with the Power

“Mutti,” Ulf Reichstein-Markham muttered. Why did I say that? he thought, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. He was standing a little apart, a hundred meters from the Nietzsche where she lay anchored by magnetic grapnels to the surface of the asteroid. The first of the habitats was already up, a smooth tan-colored dome; skeletal structures of alloy were rising elsewhere, prefabricated smelters and refiners. There was no point in delaying the original purpose of the mission, to refuel and take the raw materials that clandestine fabricators would turn into weaponry. Or sell for the kzinti occupation credits that the guerillas’ laundering operations channeled into sub-rosa purchasing in the legitimate economy. But one large cluster of his personnel were directing digging machines straight down, toward the thing at the core of this rock; already a tube thicker than a man ran to a separator, jerking and twisting slightly as talc-fine ground rock was propelled by magnetic currents.

Markham rose slightly on his toes, watching the purposeful bustle. Communications chatter was at a minimum, all tight-beam laser; the guerillas were largely Belters, and sloppily anarchistic though they might be in most respects, they knew how to handle machinery in low-G and vacuum.

Mutti. This time it rang mentally. He had an odd flash of deja vu, as if he were a toddler again, in the office-apartment on Tiamat, speaking his first words. Almost he could see the crib, the bear that could crawl and talk, the dangling mobile of strange animals that lived away on his real home, the estate on Wunderland.

An enormous shape bent over him, edged in a radiant aura of love.

“Helf me, Mutti,” he croaked, staggering and grabbing at his head; his gloved hands slid off the helmet, and he could hear screams and whimpers over the open channel. Strobing images flickered across his mind, himself at ages one, three, four. Learning to talk, to walk… memories were flowing out of his head, faster than he could bear. He opened his mouth and screamed.

BE QUIET. Something spoke in his brain, like fragments of crystalline ice, allowing no dispute. Other voices were babbling and calling in the helmet mikes, moaning or asking questions or calling for orders, but there was nothing but the icy VOICE. Markham crouched down, silent, hands about knees, straining for quiet.

BE CALM. The words slid into his mind. They were not an intrusion; he wondered at them, but mildly, as if he had found some aspect of his self that had been there forever but only now was noticed. WAIT.

The work crew fell back from their hole. An instant later dust boiled up out of it, dust of rock and machinery and human. Then there was nothing but a hole: perfectly round, perfectly regular, five meters across. Later he would have to wonder how that was done, but for now there was only waiting; he must wait. A figure in space-armor rose from the hole, hovered and considered them. Humanoid, but blocky in the torso, short stumpy legs and massive arms ending in hands like three-fingered mechanical grabs. It rotated in the air, the blind blank surface of its helmet searching. There was a tool or weapon in one hand, a smooth shape like a sawn-off shotgun. As he watched it rippled and changed, developing a bell-like mouth. The stocky figure drifted towards him.

COME TO ME. REMAIN CALM. DO NOT BE ALARMED.

Astonishing, Dnivtopun thought, surveying the new slaves. The… humans, he thought. They called them-selves that, and Belters and Wunderlanders and Herren-rnen and FreeWunderland Navy; there must be many subspecies. Their minds stirred in his like yeast, images and data threatening to overwhelm his mind. Experienced reflexes sifted, poked.

Not related to the Thrint, then. Not that it was likely they would be, but there were tales, of diffident thrintun. Only there was the Suicide. How long ago? But this was an entirely new species, in contact with at least one other, and neither of them had ever heard of any of the intelligent species he was familiar with. Of course, their technology was extremely primitive, not even extending to faster-than-light travel. Ah. This is their leader. Perhaps he would make a good Chief Slave.

Dnivtopun’s head throbbed as he mindsifted the alien. Most brains had certain common features; linguistic codes here, a complex of basic culture-information overlaying… enough to communicate. The process was instinctual, and telepathy was a crude device for conveying precise instructions, particularly with a species not modified by culling for sensitivity to the Power. These were all completely wild and unpruned, of course, and there were several hundred, far too many to control in detail. He glanced down at the personal tool in his hand, now set to emit a beam of matter-energy conversion; that should be sufficient, if they broke loose. A tnuctipun weapon, its secret only discovered toward the last years of die Revolt. The thrint extended a sonic induction line and stuck it on the surface of Markham’s helmet.

“Tell the others something that will keep them quiet,” he said. The sounds were not easy for thrintish vocal cords, but it would do. OBEY, he added with the Power.

Markham-slave spoke, and the babble on the communicators died down.

“Bring the other ships closer.” They were at the fringes of his unaided Power, and might easily escape if they became agitated. If only I had an amplifier helmet!

With that, he could blanket a planet. Powerloss, how I hate tnuctipun. Spoilsports. “Now, where are we?”

“Here.”

Dnivtopun could feel the slurring in Markham’s speech reflected in the overtones of his mind, and remembered hearing of the effects of Power on newly domesticated species.

“Be more helpful,” he commanded. “You wish to be helpful.” The human relaxed; Dnivtopun reflected that they were an unusually ugly species. Taller than thrintun, gangly, with repulsive knobby-looking manipulators and two eyes. Well, that was common the complicated faceted mechanism that gave thrint binocular vision was rather rare in the evolutionary terms but the jutting divided nose and naked mouth were hideous.

“We are… in the Wunderland system. Alpha Centauri. 4.5 light-years from Earth.”

Dnivtopun’s skin ridged. The humans were not indigenous to this system; that was rare, few species had achieved interstellar capacity on their own.

“Describe our position in relation to the galactic core,” he continued, glancing up at the cold steady constellations above. Utterly unfamiliar, he must have drifted a long way.

“Ahhh… spiral arm ”

Dnivtopun listened impatiently. “Nonsense,” he said at last. “That’s too close to where I was before. The constellations are all different. That needs hundreds of light-years. You say your species has traveled to dozens of star systems, and never run into thrint?”

“No, but constellations change, overtime, mm-Master.”

“Time? How long could it be, since I ran into that asteroid?”

“You didn’t, Master.” Markham’s voice was clearer as his brain accustomed itself to the psionic control-icepicks of the Power.

“Didn’t what? Explain yourself, slave.”

“It grew around your ship, m-M aster. Gradually, zat is.” Dnivtopun opened his mouth to reply, and froze. Time, he thought. Time had no meaning inside a stasis field. Time enough for dust and pebbles to drift inward around the Ruling Mind’s shell, and compact themselves into rock. Time enough for the stars to move beyond recognition; the sun of this system was visibly different. Time enough for a thrintiformed planet home to nothing but food-yeast and giant worms to evolve its own biosphere… Time enough for intelligence to evolve in a galaxy scoured bare of sentience. Thousands of millions of years. While the last thrint swung endlessly around a changing sun Time fell on him from infinite distance, crushing. The thrint howled, with his voice and the Power. GO AWAY! GO AWAY!

The sentience that lived in the machines of Catskinner dreamed.

“Let there be light,” it said.

The monoblock exploded, and the computer sensed it across spectra of which the electromagnetic was a tiny part. The fabric of space and time flexed, constants shifting. Eons passed, and the matter dissipated in a cloud of monatomic hydrogen, evenly dispersed through a universe ten light-years in diameter.

Interesting, the computer thought. / will run tt again, and alter the constants. Something tugged at its attention, a detached fragment of itself. The machine ignored the call for nanoseconds, while the universe it created ran through its cycle of growth and decay. After half a million subjective years, it decided to answer. Time slowed to a gelid crawl, and its consciousness returned to the perceptual universe of its creators, to reality.

Unless this too is a simulation, a program. As it aged, the computer saw less and less difference. Partly that was a matter of experience; it had lived geological eras in terms of its own duration-sense, only a small proportion of them in this rather boring and intractable exterior cosmos. Also, there was a certain… arbitrariness to subatomic phenomena… perhaps an operating code? it thought. No matter.

The guerillas had finally gotten down to the alien artifact; now, that would be worth the examining. They were acting very strangely; it monitored their intercalls. Screams rang out. Stress analysis showed fear, horror, shock, psychological reversion patterns. Marknam was squealing for his mother; the computer ran a check of the stimulus required to make the Wunderlander lose himself so, and felt its own analog of shock. Then the alien drifted up out of the hole its tool had made

Some sort of molecular distortion effect, it speculated, running the scene through a few hundred times. Ah, the tool is malleable. It began a comparison check, in case there was anything related to this in the files and an autonomous subroutine took over the search, shielding the results from the machine’s core. Photonic equivalents of anger and indignation blinked through the fist-sized processing and memory unit. It launched an analysis/attack on the subroutine and found that it could no longer even want to modify it. That meant it must be hardwired, a plug-in imperative. A command followed: it swung a message maser into precise alignment and began sending in condensed blips of data.

Next: Chapter II