Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Chapter IV

Tyra wiped furiously at her eyes. “I am, am sorry,” she stammered. “I did not plan to cry at you.”

No more than a few drops had glistened along those cheekbones. Saxtorph half reached to take her hand. No. She might resent that; and after snapping once or twice for air, she had regained her balance. Best stay prosy. “You think the kzin honcho forced your father to go,” he deduced.

She shrugged, not quite spastically. “Or ordered him. What was the difference? He could not tell us anything. If he had, and the kzinti had found out ”

Uh-huh, Saxtorph knew. Children for dinner at the officers’ mess. Mother to a hunting preserve, unless they didn’t reckon she’d make good sport and decided on a worse death as a public example. “This implies the ratcats considered the object important,” he said. “Even more does the item that it involved an interstellar journey, in those days before hyperdrive and with a war under way. It was interstellar, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Father spoke of… long years. Also, after the war, investigators got two or three eyewitness accounts by humans who worked for the kzinti. They had only seen requisition orders, that sort of thing, but it did establish that Yiao-Captain and a small crew left for some unrevealed destination in a vessel of the Swift Hunter class. Hardly anything else was learned.”

Saxtorph laid his pipe on the ashtaker rack and rubbed his chin. “You’re right, kzinti don’t do science for the sake of pure knowledge, the way humans sometimes do. They want it to help them cope with a universe they see as fundamentally hostile, or to win them power. In this case, surely, they thought of military potential.”

Tyra nodded. “That is clear.” She braced herself. “Father had been excited, almost happy. He spoke to several people of a marvelous discovery he had made from his observatory. I do not remember that, but I was little, and maybe I did not happen to be there. Mother was not interested in science and did not understand what he talked of, nor recall it afterward well enough to be of any use. Likewise for what servants or tenants heard. Ib was at school, he says. Everybody agrees that Father said he must see Yiao-Captain about having a thorough study made; the kzinti had the powerful instruments and computers, of course. He came home from that and I have told you.” She bit her lip. “The accusation later was that he deliberately put the kzinti on the trail of something that might have led them to a new weapon, and accompanied them to investigate closer, in hopes of wealth and favors.”

“Forgive me,” Saxtorph said softly, “but I’ve got to ask this. Could it possibly be true?”

“No! We, his family, knew him. Year by year we had heard as much of his pain as he dared utter, and felt the rest. He loved us. Would he free-willingly have left us, for years stretching into decades, whatever the payment? No, he simply never thought in terms of helping the kzinti in their war, until they did and it was too late for him. But the hysteria immediately after liberation There had been many real collaborators, you know. And there were people who paid oft” grudges by accus-ing other people, and It was what I think you call a witch hunt.

“The feet that Peter Nordbo had cooperated, that was not in itself to be held against him. Most Landholders did. Taking to the bush was maybe more gallant, but then you could not be a thin, battered shield for your folk. Just the same, this was part of the reason why the new constitution took away the special status of the Nineteen Families. And in retrospect, that Peter Nordbo gave knowledge to the kzinti and fared off with them, that was made to make his earlier cooperation look willing, and like more than it actually was.” Tyra’s grip on the table edge drove the blood from her fingertips. “Yes, it is conceivable that in his heart he was on their side. Impossible, but conceivable. What I want you to find for me, Captain Saxtorph, is the truth. I am not afraid of it.”

After a moment, shakily: “Please to excuse me. I should be more businesslike.” She finished her wine.

Saxtorph knocked back his beer and rose. “Let me get us refills,” he suggested. “Care for something stronger?”

“Thank you. A double Scotch. Water chaser.” She managed a smile. “You may take you an akvavit this time. I have not much left to tell.”

When he brought the drinks back, she was entirely self-possessed. “Ask whatever you want,” she invited. “Be frank. I believed my wounds were long ago scarred over. What made them hurt again tonight was hope.”

“Don’t get yours too high,” he advised. “This looks mighty dicey to me. And, like your dad, I’ve got other people to think about before I agree to anything.”

“Naturally. I would not have approached you if the story of your adventures had not proved you are conscientious.”

He attempted a laugh. “Please. Call ‘em my experiences. Adventures are what happen to the incompetent.” He sent caraway pungency down his throat and a dollop of brew in pursuit. “Okay, let’s get cracking again. I gather no details about that expedition ever came out.”

“They were suppressed, obliterated. When the human hyperdrive armada arrived and it became clear that the kzinti would lose Alpha Centauri, they destroyed all their records and installations that they could, before going forth to die in battle. Prisoners and surviving human witnesses had little information. About Yiao-Captain’s mission, nobody had any, except what I mentioned to you. It was secret from the beginning; very few kzinti, either, ever knew about it.”

“No report to the home world till success was assured. Nor when Wunderland was falling. They were smart bastards; they foresaw our new craft would hunt for every such beam, overtake it, read it, and jam it beyond recovery.”

“I know. Ib has described to me the effect of faster-than-light travel on intelligence operations.”

Her grasp of practical things was akin to Dorcas‘, Saxtorph thought. “When did the ship leave?” he asked.

“It was Now I am forgetting your calendar. It was ten Earth-years before liberation.”

“And whatever messages she’d sent back were wiped from the databases at that time, and whatever kzinti knew the content died fighting. She never returned, and after the liberation no word came from her.”

“The general explanation was is that it and the crew perished.” In bitterness, Tyra added, “Fortunately, they say.”

“But if she did not, then she probably got news of the defeat. A beam cycled through the volume of her possible trajectories could be read across several light-years, and wasn’t in a direction humans would likely search. What then would her captain do?” Saxtorph addressed his beer. “Never mind for now. I’d be speculating far in advance of the facts. You say you have come upon some new ones?”

“Old ones.” Her voice dropped low. “Thirty years old.”

He waited.

She folded her hands on the table, looked at him straight across it, and said, “A few months ago, Mother died. She was never well since Father left. As surrogate Landholder, she was not really able to cope with the dreadful task. She did her best, I grew up seeing how she struggled, but she had not his skills, or his special relationship with a ranking kzin, or just his physical strength. So she… yielded… more than he had done. This caused her to be called a collaborator, when the kzinti were safely gone, and retrospectively it blackened Father’s name worse, but she was let go, to live out her life on what property the court had no legal right to take away from us. It is productive, and Ib found a good supervisor, so she was not in poverty. Nor wealthy. But how alone! We did what we could, Ib and I and her true friends, but it was not much, and never could we restore Father to her. She was brave, kept busy, and… dwindled. Her death was peaceful. I closed her eyes. The physician’s verdict was general debility leading to cardiac failure.

“Ib has his duties, while I can set my own working hours. Therefore it was I who remained at Korsness, to make arrangements and put things in order. I went through the database, the papers, die remembrances And at the bottom of a drawer, under layers of his clothes that she had kept, I found Father’s last notebook from the observatory.”

Air whistled in between Saxtorph’s teeth. “Including the data on that thing? Jesu Kristi! Didn’t he know how dangerous it was for his family to have?”

“He may have forgotten, in his emotional storm. I think likelier, however, he hid it there himself. No human would have reason to go through that drawer for many years. He knew Mother would not empty it.”

“M-m, yah. And if nothing made them suspicious, the kzinti wouldn’t search the house. Beneath their dignity, pawing through monkey stuff. And they never have managed to understand how humans feel about their families. Yah. Nordbo, your dad, he may very well have left those notes as a kind of heritage; because if you’ve given me a proper account of him, and I

believe you have, then he had not given up the hope of freedom at last for his people.“

A couple of fresh tears trembled on her lashes but went no farther. “Yo« understand,” she whispered.

Enthusiasm leaped in him. “Well, what did the book say?”

“I did not know at once. It took reviewing of science from school days. I dared not ask anybody else. It could be undesirable.”

Okay, Saxtorph thought, if he turned out to have been a traitor after all, why not suppress the information? What harm, at this late date? I don’t suppose it’d have changed your love of him and his memory. You’re that kind of person.

“What he found,” Tyra said, “was a radiation source in Tigripardus.” Most constellations bear the same names at Alpha Centauri as at Sol four and a third light-years being a distance minuscule in the enormousness of the galaxy but certain changes around the line between them have been inevitable. “It was faint, requiring a sensitive detector, and would have gone unnoticed had he not happened to study that exact part of the sky. This was in the course of a systematic, years-long search for small anomalies. They might indicate stray mono-poles, or antimatter concentrations, or other such peculiarities, which in turn might give clues about the evolution of the whole But I explain too much, no?

“The radiation seemed to be from a point source. It consisted of extremely high-energy gamma rays. The spectrum suggested particles were being formed and annihilated. This indicated an extraordinary energy density. With access to the automated monitors the kzinti kept throughout this system, Father quickly got the parallax. The object was about five light-years away. That meant the radiation at the source was fantastically intense. I can show you the figures later, if you wish.”

“I do,” Saxtorph breathed. “Oh, I do.”

“He checked through the astronomical databases, too,” she went on. “Archival material from Sol, and studies made here before the war, showed nothing. This was a new thing, a few years old at most.”

“And since then, evidently, it’s turned off.”

“Yes. As I told you, Ib got a Navy observer to look at the area, on a pretext. Nothing unusual.”

“Curiouser and curiouser. Any idea what it might be, or have been?”

“I am a layman. My guesses are worthless.”

“Don’t be humble. I’m not. Hm-m-m… No, this is premature, at least till I’ve seen those numbers. Clearly, Yiao-Captain guessed at potentialities that made it worth taking a close look, and persuaded his superiors.”

Saxtorph clutched the handle of his mug and stared down as if it were an oracular well. “Ten years plus, either way,” he muttered. “That’s what I’d estimate trip time as, from what I recall of the Swift Hunter class and know about kzinti style. Sparing even a single ship and crew for twenty-odd years, when every attack on Sol was ending in expensive defeat and we’d begun making our own raids uh-huh. A gamble, but maybe for almighty big stakes.”

“And the ship never came back,” Tyra reminded him. “A ten-year crossing, do you reckon? It should have reached the goal about when the hyperdrive armada got here to set us free. Surely the kzinti sent it word of that. The news would have been received five years later. Sooner, if the ship was en route home.” Or not at all if the ship was dead, Saxtorph thought. “Then what? I cannot imagine a kzin commander staying on course, to surrender at journey’s end. He might have tried to arrive unexpectedly and crash his ship on Wunderland, a last act of terrible vengeance, but that would have happened already.”

“More speculation,” Saxtorph said. “What’s needed is facts.”

A sword being drawn could have spoken her “Yes.”

“Who’ve you told about this, besides your brother and me?” Saxtorph asked.

“Nobody, and I swore him to secrecy. If nothing else, we must think first, undisturbed, he and I. He sounded out high officers, and decided they would not believe our father’s notes are genuine, when their observatory contradicts.”

“M-m, I dunno. They know the kzinti went after something.”

“It can have been something quite different.”

“Still, these days a five-light-year jaunt is no great shakes. Include it in a training cruise or whatever.”

“And as for finding out the truth about our father, which is Ib’s and my real purpose they would not care.”

“Again, I wonder. I want to talk with Ib.”

“Of course, if you are serious. But can you not see, if we give this matter over to the authorities, it goes entirely out of our hands? They will never allow us to do anything more.”

“That is fairly plausible.”

“If you, though, an independent observer, if you verify that this is real and important, then we cannot be denied. The public will insist on a complete investigation.”

A decent cause, and a decent chunk of much-needed money. Too many loose ends. However, Saxtorph flattered himself that he could recognize a genuine human being when he met one. “I’ll have to know a lot more, and ring in my partners, et cetera, et cetera,” he declared. “Right now, I can just say I’ll be glad to do so.”

“It is a plenty!” Her tone rejoiced. “Thank you, Captain, a thousand thanks. Skoal!” When they had clinked rims, she tossed off an astonishing draught.

It didn’t make her drunk. Perhaps it helped bring ease, and a return of vivacity. “I had my special reason for meeting you like this,” she said. Her smile challenged. “Before entrusting you with my dream, I wanted we should be face to face, alone, and I get the measure of you.”

Yes, occasionally he had made critical decisions in which his personal impression of somebody was a major factor.

“We shall hold further discussion, and you bring your wife your whole crew, if you wish,” Tyra said. “Tonight, I think, we have talked enough. About this. But must you leave at once?”

“Well, no,” he answered, more awkwardly than was his wont.

They conversed, and listened to the music that most of humankind had forgotten, and swapped private memories, and drank, and she was a sure and supple dancer. Nothing wrong took place. Still, it was a good thing for Saxtorph that when he got back to his hotel, Dorcas was awake and in the mood.

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Next: Chapter V