A hunter’s wind blew down off the Mooncatcher Mountains and across the Rungn Valley. Night filled with the sounds of it, rustling forest, remote animal cries, and with odors of soil, growth, beast. The wish that it roused, to be yonder, to stalk and pounce and slay and devour, grew in Weoch-Captain until he trembled. The fur stood up on him. Claws slid out of their sheaths; fingers bent into the same saber curves. He had long been deprived.
Nonetheless he walked steadily onward from the guard point. When Ress-Chiuu, High Admiral of Kzin, summoned, one came. That was not in servility but in hope, fatal though laggardness would be. Something great was surely afoot. It might even prove warlike.
Eastward stretched rangeland, wan beneath the stars. Westward, ahead, the woods loomed darkling, the game preserve part of Ress-Chiuu’s vast domain. Far and high beyond glimmered snowpeaks. The chill that the wind also bore chastened bit by bit the lust in Weoch-Captain. Reason fought its way back. He reached the
Admiral’s lair with the turmoil no more than a drumbeat in his blood.
The castle remembered axes, arrows, and spears. Later generations had made their changes and additions but kept it true to itself, a stony mass baring battlements at heaven. After an electronic gate identified and admitted him, the portal through which he passed was a tunnel wherein he moved blind. Primitive instincts whispered, “Beware!” He ignored them. Guided by echoes and subtle tactile sensations, his pace never slackened. Ress-Chiuu always tested a visitor, one way or another.
Was it a harder test that waited in the courtyard? No kzin received Weoch-Captain. Instead hulked a kdatlyno slave. It made the clumsy gesture that was as close as the species could come to a prostration. However, then it turned and lumbered toward the main keep. Obviously he was expected to follow.
Rage blazed in him. Almost, he attacked. He choked emotion down and stalked after his guide, though lips remained pulled off fangs.
Echoes whispered. Corridors and rooms lay deserted. Night or no, personnel should have been in evidence. What did it portend? Alertness heightened, wariness, combat readiness.
A door slid aside. The kdatlyno groveled again and departed. Weoch-Captain went in. The door closed behind him.
The room was polished granite, austerely furnished. A window stood open to the wind. Ress-Chiuu reclined on a slashtooth skin draped over a couch. Weoch-Captain came to attention and presented himself. “At ease,” the High Admiral said. “You may sit, stand, or pace as you wish. I expect you will, from time to time, pace.”
Weoch-Captain decided to stay on his feet for the nonce.
Ress-Chiuu’s deceptively soft tones went on: “Realize that I have offered you no insult. You were met by a slave because, at least for the present, extreme confidentiality is necessary. Furthermore, I require not only a Hero they are many but one who possesses an unusual measure of self-control and forethoughtfumess. I had reason to believe you do. You have shown I was right. Praise and honor be yours.”
The accolade calmed Weoch-Captain’s pride. It also focused his mind the more sharply. (Doubtless that was intended, said a part of his mind with a wryness rare in kzinti.) His ears rose and unfolded. “I have delegated my current duties and am instantly available for the High Admiral’s orders,” he reported.
Shadows dappled fur as the blocky head nodded approval. “We go straight to the spoor, then. You know of Werlith-Commandant’s mission on the opposite side of human-hegemony space.” It was not a question. “Ill tidings: lately a human crew stumbled upon the base that was under construction there. They came to investigate the sun, which appears to be unique in several ways.”
Monkey curiosity, thought Weoch-Captain. He was slightly too young to have fought in the war, but he had spent his life hearing about it, studying it, dreaming of the next one. His knowledge included terms of scorn evolved among kzinti who had learned random things about the planet where the enemy originated.
Ress-Chiuu’s level words smote him: “Worse, much worse. Incredibly, they seem to have destroyed the installations. Certain is that they inflicted heavy casualties, disabled our spacecraft, and went home nearly unscathed. You perceive what this means. They conveyed the information that we have developed the hyperdrive ourselves. All chance of springing a surprise is gone.” Sarcasm harshened the voice. “No doubt the Patriarchy will soon receive ‘representations’ from Earth about this ’unfortunate incident.‘ ’
Over the hyperwave, said Weoch-Captain’s mind bleakly. Those few black boxes that the peace treaty provided for, left among us, engineered to self-destruct at the least tampering.
Well did he know. Such an explosion had killed a brother of his.
Understanding leaped. If the humans had not yet communicated officially “May I ask how the Patriarchs learned?”
“We have our means. I will consider what to tell you.” Ress-Chiuu’s calm was giving way ever so little. His tail lashed his thighs, a pink whip. “We must find out exactly what happened. Or, if nothing else, we must establish what the situation is, whether anything of our base remains, what the Earth Navy is doing there. Survivors should be rescued. If this is impossible, perhaps they can be eliminated by rays or missiles before they fall into human grasp.”
“Would never betray our secrets. Yes, yes. But can you catalogue every trick those creatures may possess?” Ress-Chiuu lifted head and shoulders. His eyes locked with Weoch-Captain’s. “You will command our ship to that sun.”
Disaster or no, eagerness flamed. “Sire!”
“Slow, slow,” the older kzin growled. “We require an officer intelligent as well as bold, capable of agreeing that the destiny of the race transcends his own, and indeed, to put it bluntly ” he paused “one who is not afraid to cut and run, should the alternative be valiant failure. Are you prepared for this?”
Weoch-Captain relaxed from his battle crouch and, inwardly, tautened further. “The High Admiral has bestowed a trust on me,” he said. “I accept.”
“It is well. Come, sit. This will be a long night.”
They talked, and ransacked databases, and ran tentative plans through the computers, until dawn whitened the east. Finally, almost jovially, Ress-Chiuu asked, “Are you exhausted?”
“On the contrary, sire, I think I have never been more fightworthy.”
“You need to work that off and get some rest. Be-sides, you have earned a pleasure. You may go into my forest and make a bare-handed kill.”
When Weoch-Captain came back out at noontide, jaws still dripping red, he felt tranquil, happy, and, once he had slept, ready to conquer a cosmos.