Swordbeak emerged from hyperspace and accelerated toward the Father Sun. A warcraft of the Raptor class, lately modified to accommodate a superluminal drive, it moved faster than most, agilely responsive to the thrust of its gravity polarizers. Watchers in space saw laser turrets and missile launchers silhouetted against the Milky Way, sleek as the plumage of its namesake, overwhelmingly deadlier than the talons. It identified itself to their satisfaction and passed onward. Messages flew to and fro. When the vessel reached Kzin, a priority orbit around the planet was preassigned it. Weoch-Captain took a boat straight down to Defiant Warrior Base. Thence he proceeded immediately to the lair of Ress-Chiuu. A proper escort waited there.
The High Admiral received him in the same room as before. Now, however, a table had been set with silver goblets of drink and golden braziers of sweet, mildly psychotropic incense. In the blood trough at the middle a live zianya lay bound. Its muzzle had been taped shut to keep it from squealing, but the smell of its fear stimulated more than did the smoke.
“You enter in honor,” Ress-Chiuu greeted.
From his rank, that was a pridemaking compliment. Nevertheless Weoch-Captain felt he should demur. “You are generous, sire. In truth I accomplished little.”
“You slew no foes and saved no friends. We never, realistically, expected you would. To judge by your preliminary report as you returned, you did well against considerable odds. But you shall tell me about it in person, at leisure. Afterward Intelligence will examine what is in your ship’s database. Recline ” in this presence, another great distinction “and take refreshment.” an extraordinary one.
As he talked, interrupted only by shrewd questions, memories more than drink or drug restored to Weoch-Captain his full self-confidence. If he had not prevailed, neither had he lost, and his mission was basically successful.
The story unfolded at length: Voyage to the old red dwarf. Cautious, probing approach to the planet on which Werlith-Commandant’s forces had been at work. Detection and challenge by humans. Dialogue, carefully steered to make them think that the kzinti had no foreknowledge of anything and this was a routine visit. Refusal to let the kzinti proceed farther, orders for Swordbeak to depart. (“So they show that much spirit, do they?” Ress-Chiuu mused. “The official communications have been as jelly-mild as I predicted. Well, maybe it was just this individual commander.”) Sword-beak’s forward plunge. An attack warded off, except for a ray that did no significant damage before the ship was out of range. Three more human vessels summoned and straining to intercept. Weoch-Captain’s trajectory by the planet, wild, too close in for the pursuit to dare, instruments and cameras recording that the kzinti installation had been annihilated, the kzinti warcraft that had been on guard orbited as a mass of cold wreckage, the likelihood of any survivors was essentially nil. Running a gauntlet of enemy fire on the way out. Another bra-vado maneuver, this around the larger gas giant, that could have thrown Swordbeak aflame into the atmosphere but left its nearest, more heavily armed chaser hopelessly behind. Swatting missiles on the way out to hyperspacing distance. A jeering message beamed aft, and escape from 3-space.
“It is well, it is well.” Ress-Chiuu rolled the words over his tongue as if they were the fine drink in his goblet.
Weoch-Captain gauged that he had asserted himself as much as was advisable. He had his future to think of, the career that should bring him at last a full name and the right to breed. “If the High Admiral is pleased, that suffices. But it was mere information we captured, which the monkeys may in time have given us freely.”
“Vouchsafed us,” Ress-Chiuu snarled. “Condescended to throw to us.”
“True, sire.” It had indeed been in the minds of Weoch-Captain and his crew, a strong motivation to do what they did.
“Nor could we be certain they would not lie.”
“True, sire. Nonetheless ” The utterance was distasteful but necessary, if Weoch-Captain was to maintain the High Admiral’s opinion of him as an officer not only valiant but wise. “They will resent what happened. We have barely begun to modernize and re-expand the fleet. Theirs is much stronger. How may they react? I admit to fretting about that on the way home.”
“The Patriarchs considered it beforehand,” Ress-Chiuu assured him. “The humans will bleat. Perhaps they will even huff and puff. We shall point out that they have registered no territorial claim on yonder sun and its planets, therefore they had no right to forbid entry to a peaceful visitor, and you did nothing but save yourselves after they opened fire. Arh, your restraint was masterly, Weoch-Captain. We will demand reparation, they will make a little more noise, and that will be the end of the matter. Meanwhile you have learned a great deal for us, about their capabilities and about what to expect, what to prepare for, when we start pushing at them in earnest. You deserve well of us, Weoch-Captain.”
He leaned forward. His voice became music and distant thunder. “You deserve the opportunity to win more glory. You may earn the ultimate reward.”
Energy thrilled along nerves and into blood. “Sire! I stand ready!”
“I knew you would.” Ress-Chiuu sipped, rather than lapped, from his cup. His gaze went afar, his tone deceptively meditative. “We have our sources of information among the humans. They are limited in what they can convey but on occasion they have proven useful. For the present, you need know no more than that. Let me simply say that not everything the hyperwave brings us is known to the human government.” Perforce he attempted to pronounce the English word. Weoch-Captain recognized, if not exactly understood it.
“For relevant example,” Ress-Chiuu continued, “we got early news of the disaster at the red sun, well before they contacted us officially about it. This you recall, of course. What you do not recall, because it happened while you were gone, is that we have received fresh intelligence, conceivably of the first importance. ”
Stoic, as became a Hero, Weoch-Captain waited. His ribs ached with tension. His heart slugged.
“Briefly put we will go into details later,” he heard, “a Wunderland resident has come upon a lost record from the time of the war. It appears that, some years before the enemy got the hyperdrive, an astronomer observed a cosmic phenomenon, about five light-years from Alpha Centauri. It was inexplicable, but involved enormous energies. The possibility of military uses caused the high command of the occupation to dispatch a ship to investigate. If the ship sent any messages back, those were expunged when the human armada appeared, and all kzinti who had knowledge of the mission died. Any beams that arrived afterward were never received, the tuned and programmed apparatus being destroyed; they are dissipated, lost. The ship has not been heard of again. Recent search has failed to detect anything remarkable in that part of the Wunderland sky.
“Regardless, for reasons not quite clear to me, humans are trying to organize an expedition to that region. Humans, I say, individuals, not the humans. Their patriarchs are, as yet, unaware of it.
“We have obtained the astronomical data. They are sufficient basis for an investigation. Perhaps nothing is there, or nothing of interest. Yet it is imaginable that those kzinti were justified who decided, three decades ago, that this was worth sending a high-velocity vessel.
“We must know. If it is anything of value, we must win it ourselves. The way is considerably longer from here than from there. Are you and your crew prepared to leave again quite soon?”
“Sire,” blazed Weoch-Captain, “you need not ask!”
“And I say, to your honor, that I am unsurprised.” Ress-Chiuu showed fangs. “I give you an added incentive. If the humans do mount their expedition, it will apparently consist of a single ship, unarmed, commanded by one… S-s-saxtor-r-rph, the designation is. The ship, commander, and crew that wrought the havoc you beheld.”
They spoke together, ran computations and simulations, speculated, envisioned, dreamed their fierce dreams, until past sundown. Much remained to do when they stopped for a feast of celebration. The first flesh ripped from the zianya, before it died, was especially savory.