The air was rank with kzin smell. The whole compound was, but in this room Yiao-Captain’s excitement made it overwhelming, practically to choke on. He half leaned across his desk, claws out, as if it were an animal he had slain and was about to rip asunder. Sunlight through a window gleamed off eyes and wet fangs. Orange fur and naked tail stiffened erect. The sight terrified those human instincts that remembered the tiger and the sabertooth. Although Peter Nordbo had met it before and knew that no attack impended probably he must summon his courage. He was big and muscular, Yiao-Captain was short and slender, yet the kzin topped the man by fifteen centimeters, with a third again the bulk and twice the weight.
Words hissed, spat, snarled. “Action! Adventure! Getting away from this wretched outpost. Achievement, honor, a full name. Power gained, maybe, to end this dragged-on war at last. And afterward afterward ” The words faded off in an exultant growl.
When he thought he saw a measure of calm, Nordbo dared say, in Wunderlander, “I don’t quite understand, sir. A very interesting astronomical phenomenon, which should be studied intensively. I came to request your help in getting me authorization to But that is all. Isn’t it, sir?” While he knew the Hero’s Tongue, he was not allowed to defile it by use, especially since his vocal organs inevitably gave it a grotesque accent. When he must communicate with a kzin ignorant of his language, he used a translator or, absent that, wrote his replies.
Yiao-Captain sat down again and indicated that Nordbo could do likewise. “No, humans are slow to perceive such possibilities,” he said. With characteristic rapid mood shift, he went patronizing. “I supposed you might. You are bold for a monkey. Well, think as best you can. A mysterious source of tremendous energy. Study of the stars deepened knowledge of the atom, and thus became a key to the development of nuclear weapons. What now have you come upon?”
Nordbo shook his head. His mouth bent upward ruefully in the bushy brown beard that was starting to grizzle, below the hook nose. “Scarcely an unknown law of nature in operation, sir. What it may be I’d rather not try to guess before we have much more data. It does suggest No, how could it have appeared so suddenly, if it were what has crossed my mind? In any case, not every scientific discovery finds military applications. Most don’t. I can’t imagine how this one could, five light-years off.”
“You cannot. We shall see.”
“Well, sir, if I get the kind of support I need for further research ” Nordbo stopped. Appalled, he stared at the possibility that his eagerness had camouflaged from him. Might this really mean a weapon to turn on his folk? No. It must not. Please, God, make it impossible.
“You will have better than that,” Yiao-Captain purred. “We shall go there.”
Have I misheard? Nordbo thought. Even for a kzin, it is crazy. “What?”
“Yes.” Yiao-Captain rose again. His tail switched, his bat’s-wing ears folded and lay back. He gazed out the window into the sky. “If nothing else, maybe that energy source can be transported. Maybe we can fling it at the enemy. They may have noticed too. If they have, they are bound to send an expedition sometime. Their peering, prying curiosity But Alpha Centauri is closer to it than Sol by… three light-years, is that a good guess? We shall forestall. I can readily persuade the governor, given the information you have brought. And / will be in command.”
Nordbo had risen too, less out of deference, for he realized that at present the kzin wouldn’t notice or care, than because he couldn’t endure being towered over by those devils. It struck him, not for the first time, that the reason few households on Wunderland kept cats any longer was that their faces were too much like a kzin’s. Well, that was far from being the only happy thing the conquest had ruined.
“I, I wish you would reconsider, sir,” he said.
“Never.” The bass voice grew muted. “Our ancestors tamed their planet and went to the stars because they had learned that knowledge brings might. Shall we dishonor their ghosts?”
Nordbo moistened his lips. “I mean you personally, sir. We will… miss you.”
It twisted in him: The damnable part is that that is true. Yiao-Captain has never been gratuitously cruel, nor let others be when he had any control over them. By his lights, he is kindly. He has helped us directly or intervened on our behalf when I showed him the need was dire and there would be no loss to his side. He has received me as hospitably as a Hero can receive a monkey, and, yes, we have had some fascinating talks, where he listened to what I said and thought about it and gave answers that approached being fair. Why, he got me to teach him chess, and if he loses he doesn’t fly into a murderous rage, only curses and goes outside to work it off in hand-to-hand combat practice. He likes me, after his fashion, and, confess it, I like him in a crooked sort of way, and what will happen to us in Gerning if he leaves us?
Yiao-Captain turned his head. Something akin to mirth rasped through his words. “Lament not. You are coming along.”
Nordbo took a step backward. The horror was too vast for him to grasp immediately. He felt as if he were in a cold maelstrom, whirling down and down. His hands lifted. “No,” he implored. “Oh, no, no.”
Yiao-Captain refrained from slashing him for presuming to contradict a kzin. “Assuredly. You will keep total silence about this, of course.” Lest a rival, rather than an enemy spy, learn, and move to get the coveted task himself. “Hr-r, you may return home, tell your household that you are going on a lengthy voyage, and pack what you need for your personal use. Then report back here for sequestration until we leave. I want your scientific skills.” Laughter was a human thing, but a gruff noise vibrated. “And how can I do without my chess partner?”
Nordbo sagged against the wall. He seldom wept, never like this.
“What, you are reluctant?” Yiao-Captain teased. “You care nothing for struggle, glory, or your very curiosity? Take heart. Your time away shall be minimal. I am sure all arrangements can be completed within days.”
A kzin’s way of challenge is to scream and leap.