Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Next: Chapter VIII

Chapter VII

Waves move more slowly on Wunderland than on Earth and strike less hard, but the seas that beat against the cliffs of Korsness were heavy enough. The noise of them reached the old house on the headland as a muted throb, drums beneath the wind-skirl. Gray, green, and white-maned, they heaved out to a horizon vague with scud. The clouds flew low, like smoke. The room overlooking the view seemed full of their twilight, despite its fluoros. That glow lost itself in swartwood furniture, murky carpet, leatherbound codices and ancestral portraits. Above the stone mantel hung a crossed pair of oars, dried and cracked. The first Nordbo who settled here had used them after the motor in his boat failed, to fetch a son wrecked on Horn Reef.

Saxtorph liked this place. It spoke to something in his blood. “You’ve got roots,” he remarked. “Not many folks do these days.”

Seated on his left, Tyra nodded. Her hair was the sole real brightness. “The honor of the house,” she said, then grimaced. “No, forgive me, I do not mean to be pretentious.”

“Hut you shouldn’t be afraid of speaking about what truly matters,” said Dorcas on her far side.

“I am not. Your husband knows. But ” The com that they confronted chimed and blinked. Tyra stiffened. “Accept,” she snapped.

The full-size image of a man appeared, and part of the desk behind which he sat, and through the window at his back a glimpse of the Drachenturm in Munchen. “Good day,” he greeted. Half rising to make a stiff little bow: “Frau Saxtorph, at last I get the pleasure of your acquaintance.” He must have worked to flatten out of his English the accent his sister retained.

Dorcas inclined her head. The mahogany-hued crest and tail of her Belter hairstyle rippled. “How do you do, Herr,” she answered as formally. The smile on the Athene visage was less warm than usual. “Someday I may have the pleasure of shaking your hand.”

Ib Nordbo took the implied reproof impassively. He was in his mid-forties, tall and low-gee slim, smooth-chinned, bearing much of Tyra’s blond handsomeness but none of her verve and frequent merriment. At least, during his previous two short encounters with Saxtorph he had been curt and somber. Insignia on the blue uniform proclaimed him a lieutenant commander of naval intelligence.

“Why would you not come in person today?” burst from Tyra. “I tell you, this is the one spot on Wunderland where we can be sure we are private.”

“Come, now,” her brother replied. “My office was and is perfectly secure, there is no reason to imagine your town apartment or the Saxtorphs’ hotel room were ever under surveillance, and I assure you, this circuit is well sealed.”

Anxious to avoid a breach, for the earlier scenes had gotten a bit tense, Saxtorph said, “You’d know, in your job. Actually, my wife and I were glad of Tyra’s invitation because we were curious to see the homestead.”

“We hoped to get some feel for your father, some insight or intuition,” Dorcas added.

“What value can that have, on a search through space?”

Nordbo’s question would have been a challenge or a gibe if it had been uttered less flatly.

“Perhaps none. You never can tell. If nothing else, this was an interesting visit; and to hold his actual notebook in our hands was… an experience.”

“I fear nobody else would agree, Frau.” Nordbo’s attention went to his sister. “Tyra, I hesitate to say you have become paranoiac on this subject, but you have exaggerated it in your mind out of all proportion. What cause does anyone have to spy on you? How often must I repeat, the Navy no part of oificialdom will concern itself?”

Saxtorph stirred. “And I repeat, if you please, that I have trouble believing that,” he said. “Okay, one kzinti ship was lost thirty years ago, among hundreds. There was an avalanche of matters to handle in the years right after liberation. This business was forgotten. Sure. But if we did show them your father’s notes and reminded them that the kzinti reckoned it worthwhile dispatching a ship ”

“Nothing special is now in that part of the sky,” Nordbo retorted. “What he detected must have been a transient thing at best, an accident leaving no trace, perhaps the collision of a matter and an antimatter body.”

“That’d have been plenty weird. Who’s ever found so much loose antimatter? But we’ve still got that infrared anomaly.” Saxtorph had insisted on Nordbo’s retrieving the entire record of the naval observation.

“Meaningless. Its intensity against the cosmic background falls within probable error.” The officer stirred where he sat. “We need scarcely go over this ground again for your lady wife’s benefit. We have trodden it bare, and you must have relayed the arguments to her. But to complete the repetition, Frau Saxtorph, I have pointed out that the kzinti may well have had some entirely different destination, and took my father along merely because his noticing this phenomenon put them in mind of him as an excellent observer. They quite commonly employed human technicians, you know. Our species has more patience for detail work than theirs.”

He paused before finishing: “This is how they will think in the Navy if we tell them. I have sounded out various high-ranking persons, at Tyra’s request. Besides, I am Navy myself; I ought to know, ought I not? It might be decided to go take a look, on the odd chance that my father did stumble on something special. But they would not care about him or his fate. Nor would they want civilians underfoot. You, Captain Saxtorph, would be specifically forbidden to enter that region.”

“I understand that,” Tyra said. “At least, it is possible. Therefore Rover must go first, before anything has been revealed. What information it brings back can jumpstart some real action.”

“Frau Saxtorph, I appeal to you,” Nordbo said. “My sister has involved me ”

“It was your right to know,” Tyra interjected, “and I thought you would help.”

“She wants me, if nothing else, to withhold from my service word about this ill-advised space mission of yours. Can you not see what a difficult position that creates for me?”

“I agree your position is delicate,” Dorcas murmured.

Did Nordbo wince or flinch? If so, he clamped control back down too fast for Robert Saxtorph to be sure. Either way, the captain felt momentarily sorry for what had happened of late.

Not that the Rover crew were at fault. They’d had no way of foreseeing. They simply carried back to Alpha Centauri the news that Commissioner Markham had been a spy for the kzinti. It provoked a hunt for others. And soon after liberation, when Ib Nordbo was a young engineer working in the asteroids, Ulf Reichstein-Markham, still out there settling assorted affairs, had befriended him. They returned to Wunderland together, Nordbo enlisting, Markham going unsuccessfully into politics and later rather brilliantly into astronautics administration. Markham’s prestige, the occasional overt recommendation or conversational suggestion, helped Nordbo rise. They met fairly often.

Well, but suspicion found no grounds. “It must die away altogether,” Tyra had pleaded to Saxtorph. “Must it not? Ib fought for freedom not like Markham, only in one uprising, that crazy try of young men to take back the Ritterhaus, but he did suffer injuries. And Markham was in fact a hero of the Resistance, maybe its greatest. He did not change till long afterward. How could Ib tell? Yes, they did things together, dining, hunting, talking. What does that mean? They were both lonely. They have they had not sociable personalities. Ib was always of dark spirit. He has never married. I think he still carries the torment of our father inside him. Remember, he is seven Earth-years older than me. He lived through more of it, and then through the years alone with our mother, at that impressionable age. Now he is fine in his work. He would have risen higher if he had a wife who knew all the unspoken social rules, or if he could just be smooth. But he is too honest. He does not share those filthy dictatorial ideas you told me Markham held. I am his sister, I would know if he did. We are not close, he is not close to anyone, but we are the children of Peter Nordbo.”

Dorcas, who was tactful when she cared to be, went directly on: “However, nothing illegal or unethical is involved. We plan a scientific mission. Amateurs, yes, but if we get in trouble, nobody will be harmed except us. That land of personal risk is not prohibited by any statute or regulation I know of ”

Thus far, Saxtorph thought.

“ nor do the terms of our insurance and mortgage require more than ‘informed prudence,’ the interpretation of which clause is a matter for the civil courts. You are merely assisting an undertaking that may prove beneficial to your nation.”

Nordbo shook his head. “I am not,” he answered. “I have given it the serious thought I promised. Today I tell you that I will have no further part of it.”

“Ib!” Tyra cried. Her hand went to her mouth.

“It is lunatic,” he stated. “If we turned those notes over to my service, at least any investigation would be competently handled. My apologies, Captain and Mate Saxtorph. I am sure you command your ship well. You have been persuaded to enter a field outside your competence. Please reconsider.”

Tyra said something unsteadily in her childhood dialect. He replied likewise. In English: “Yes, I will keep my promise, my silence about this, unless circumstances force me. But I will not make any contribution to your effort, nor lend any more aid or counsel, except my earnest advice that you abandon it. That is final.”

His tone softened. “Tyra, you sit in what we have left of our inheritance, our father’s and mother’s and ancestors’ heritage. Will you really throw it away?”

“No,” she whispered. Her shoulders straightened. “But I will do what is my right.”

Korsness was no Landholding, only a freehold, shared by the heirs. She had arranged to hypothecate her half of the equity, to pay for the charter. The agreement lay awaiting her print. In the odds-on event that Rover found nothing of monetary value, her income from the property ought to pay off the debt, though not before she was well along in years. It would have helped if Ib had joined in.

Saxtorph didn’t feel abashed. He had a living to make. If Tyra wanted his capabilities this badly, why, her profession supported her. For his part, and Dorcas‘, Kam’s, Carita’s, they’d be putting their necks on the line. Still, he admired her spirit.

“Then best I say farewell,” Nordbo sighed. “Before we quarrel. I will see you in a few days, Tyra, and we will speak of happier things.”

“I am not sure where I will be,” she replied. “I cannot sit idle while It will be research for a new piece of writing. But of course I will get in touch when I can.” Her words wavered. “We shall always be friends, broder min.”

“Yes,” he said gravely. “Fare you ever well.” His image vanished.

The surf and the wind resounded through silence. After a while Dorcas said low, “I think that was why he chose to call, instead of coming in person as you asked. So he could leave at once.”

They barely heard Tyra: “Dealings like this are hard for him. He knows not well how to cope with humans.”

She sprang to her feet. “But I am not crushed.” Her stance, her voice avowed it. “I had small hope for better, after our talks before. Poor soul, he took more wounds than I did, and fears they might come open. I gave him his chance.” Louder yet: “We can proceed. Robert, you have told me very little of what you intend.”

Dorcas cast a glance at her man and also raised her lean length from the chair.

“Uh, yah, I’s‘pose we are on first-name terms by now,” he said fast, fumbling after pipe and tobacco. They had in fact been for a while, when by themselves. “I’ve had my thoughts, and discussed them with Dorcas, but we figured we’d best wait with you till the contract was definite. It is, isn’t it?”

“Yes, in all except our prints,” Tyra told him. “You have seen it, have you not, Frau m-m, Dorcas?”

Rover’s mate smiled and nodded. “I rewrote two of the clauses,” she said. “Evidently, next time you met Bob, you agreed.”

“But what do you propose to do?” Tyra demanded.

Saxtorph busied his hands. “A lot will depend on what we find.” He had explained earlier, but sketchily. “What Dorcas and I have drawn up is not a plan but a set of contingency plans, subject to change without notice. However, it makes sense to start by trying for that whatever-it-is that your father spotted. Presumably the kzinti ship got there, and what the crew found became a factor in determining what they did afterward.”

“Have you any idea about it?”

“None, really,” Dorcas admitted. “Your brother may well be right, it was a freak of no special significance.”

“Except, we believe, Yiao-Captain thought otherwise,” Saxtorph pointed out. “And he got his superiors to agree it was worth a shot. Of course, from a human viewpoint, kzinti are natural-born wild gamblers.” He thumbed tobacco down into bowl. “Well, this is a sec-ondary mystery. What you’ve engaged us for is to learn, if we can, what happened to your father. Yonder objective is a starting point.”

Tyra went to a window and gazed out across sea and wrack. A burst of rain spattered on the glasyl. “You have mentioned intercepting radio waves in space,” she said slowly. “Could you get any from that ship?”

“We’ll try. I’m not optimistic. Space is almighty big, and if a beam wasn’t very tightly collimated to start with, I doubt we could pick it out of the background noise after this many years, supposing we could locate it at all. Shipboard transmitters aren’t really powerful. But I do have some notions as to what the kzinti may have done.”

“Ja?” she exclaimed, and swung around to stare at him.

He got his pipe going. “What do you know about the Swift Hunter class?”

“Almost nothing. I see now that I should have looked it up, but ”

“No blame. You had a lot else to keep track of, including the earning of your daily bread and peanut butter. I remembered things from the war, and retrieved more from the naval histories in the Wunderland library system.”

Saxtorph blew a smoke ring. “I don’t know if the kzinti still use Swift Hunters. Who knows for sure what goes on in their empire? Any that remain in service will certainly be phased out as hyperdrive comes in, because it makes them as obsolete as windjammers. In their time, though, they were wicked.

“Good-sized, but skimpy payload, most of what they carried being mass for conversion. Generally they took special weapons, or sometimes special troops, on ultra-quick missions followed by getaways faster than any missile could pursue. Total delta v of about two and a half c, Newtonian regime. Customarily, during the war, they’d boost to one-half c and go ballistic till time to decelerate. Anything higher would’ve been too inefficient, as relativity effects began getting large. This means that they’d strike and return, with the extra half light-speed available for high-powered maneuvers in between. The gravity polarizer made it all possible. Jets would never have managed anything comparable. At that, the Swift Hunters were so energy-hungry that the kzinti saved them for special jobs, as I said. Obviously they figured this was one such.”

“Nevertheless, ten years to their goal,” Dorcas murmured.

“But in stasis, apart from standing watch,” Saxtorph reminded her. “Or, rather, the kzinti version of time-suspension technics, in those days. You can be pretty patient if you get to lie unconscious and unaging during most of the voyage.”

It had been in Tyra’s awareness, of course, but she tautened and breathed, “My father ” Seen from indoors, she was a shapely shadow against the silver-gray in the window, save for the light on her hair.

Saxtorph nodded. “Uh-huh,” he said around puffs. “Do not, repeat, do not get your hopes up. But it just could be. Bound back here with word of something tremendous or without, for that matter the kzinti captain catches a beam that tells him Wunderland is falling to humans who’ve acquired a faster-than-light drive. What’s he going to do? He’s got a half c of delta v left to kill his forward vector, and another half c to boost him to the kzinti home sun.”

“But when he got there, he could not stop,” she said, as if against her will.

“He might wager they could do something about that at the other end,” Saxtorph answered. “Or he might travel at one-fourth c and take about 120 years, instead of about sixty, to arrive. In stasis he wouldn’t notice the difference. But I doubt that, especially if he was carrying important information which he couldn’t reliably transmit by radio. And kzinti always do go balls-out. If he could not be recovered at his new destination, at least he’d die a hero.

“Anyway, this is a possibility that we’ll investigate as best we can, within the bounds of due caution.”

Once again, as on that evening in the tavern, Tyra stared beyond him and the room and this world. “To find my father,” shuddered from her. “To waken him back to life.”

Dorcas gave her a hard look. The same unease touched Saxtorph. He rose. “Uh, wait a minute,” he said, “you’re not supposing you ”

Tyra returned to them. Total calm was upon her. “Oh, yes,” she stated. “I am going with you.”

“Hey, there!”

He saw her grin. “Nothing is in the contract to deny me.” Grimly: “If you refuse, I do not give it my print and you have no charter. Then I must see what if anything the Navy will do.”

“But ”

Dorcas laid a hand over his. “She is determined,” she said. “I don’t imagine it can do any harm, if we write in a waiver of liability.”

“You may have that, but you won’t need it,” Tyra promised. “I take responsibility for myself. Did you imagine I would stay behind while you hunted for my father? Well, Ib does, so I suppose it is natural for you. Let him. If he knew, he might feel he must release the truth and get the authorities to stop us. As for me ” sudden laughter belled “after all, I am a travel writer. What a story!”

Saxtorph chuckled and dismissed his objections. She could well prove an asset, and would indisputably be an ornament.

Dorcas stood pensive. When she spoke, it was so quietly that he knew she was thinking aloud. “In relativity physics, travel faster than light is equivalent to time travel. We use quantum rules. And yet what are we trying on this voyage but to probe the past and learn what happened long ago?”

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Next: Chapter VIII