Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Next: Chapter IX

Chapter VIII

When the kzinti drew Peter Nordbo into time, his first clear thought was: Hulda, Tyra, Ib. Oh, unmerciful God, it’s been ten years now.

“Up, monkey,” growled the technician and cuffed him, lightly, claws sheathed, but with force to rock his head. “The commander wants you.”

Nordbo crept from his box. He shivered with the cold inside him. Weight dragged at his bones, an interior field set higher than Earth’s. Around him, huge forms were likewise stirring, crew revived. Their snarls and spits ripped at the gloom. He stumbled from them, down a remembered passageway. His second clear thought was: What would I give for a cup of coffee!

Noticing, he barked a laugh at himself. Full awareness seeped back into him, and warmth as he moved and unstiffened. Even in this his exile, eagerness kindled. Snapping Sherrek had arrived. What had it reached?

Yiao-Captain waited in the observation turret. It was illuminated only by the images of the stars, he a shadow blotting out that constellation in which Alpha Centauri and Sol must lie. The light of their legions gleamed off an eyeball when he glanced about. “Arh, Speaker for Humans,” he greeted, brusque but not hostile, as in days that were suddenly old. “I know you are still somewhat numb. However, behold.”

He turned a dial. A section of the view seemed to rush toward them. Magnification stabilized. Nordbo stood an instant dumbfounded, then a low whistle passed his lips. “What is that thing?”

Against frosty star-clouds floated a sphere. Shapes encrusted it here and there, a dome in the form of half a dodecahedron, three concentric helices bent into a semicircle, several curving dendritic masts or antennae, objects less recognizable. The hue was dull gray, spotted with shadows filling countless pocks and scratches. Erosion by spatial dust, Nordbo thought dazedly, by near-vanishingly rare interstellar meteoroids, and, yes, by cosmic rays. How long has this derelict drifted?

“Diameter about sixteen kilometers,” he heard Yiao-Captain say, using kzinti units. “We have taken a parallel trajectory at a goodly distance.”

“Where is… the energy I detected… at home?” At home.

“On the other side. We who were on watch in the terminal stages of approach saw it from far. It was what decided us to stay well away until we know more. Now we commence the real investigation. The first observer capsule leaves in a few minutes.”

Already, before most of the crew were properly roused. Kzin style.

Yiao-Captain’s fingers crooked, his tail flicked. “I envy that Hero,” he said. “The first, the first. But I must stay in command until … I am the first to set foot there.”

In spite of everything, Nordbo was curiously touched, that the other should, consciously or not, reveal that much to a human. Well, doubtless Nordbo was the sole such human in existence.

A question came to him. “Have you measured the infrared emission?”

“Not yet. Why?”

“Maybe whatever is inside that thing sends its out put through a single spot. If not, if it emits in all directions, then the remaining energy has to go somewhere. Presumably the shell reradiates it in the infrared. But given the size of the shell, that must be at a low temperature, so it’s not readily distinguished from the galactic background.”

“And the integrated emission over the entire surface will give us the total power. Good. Our scientists would have thought of it, but perhaps not at once. Yes-s-s, you will be useful.”

“If the shell rotates ”

“It does, on three axes. Tumbles. Quite slowly, but it does. We established that upon arrival.”

“Then the bright spot would only point at Alpha Centauri, or any given star, for a short span of time, a few years at most. No wonder it wasn’t noticed before. Sheer chance that I did.” And condemned myself.

A thump shivered through metal and Nordbo’s anguish. “The capsule is on its way,” Yiao-Captain said with glee.

Nordbo understood. He had heard about the arrangement before the expedition departed. The intensity of the hard radiation here was such that nothing else would serve for a close passage. The screen fields that had protected the ship from collision with interstellar gas at half the speed of light were insufficient; near this fire, enough stray particles and gamma ray photons would get through to wreck her electronics and give the crew a lethal dose. Her two boats were laughably more vulnerable.

Room and mass were at a premium in a Swift Hunter, but Sherrek carried a pair of thickly armored spheroids which contained generators for ultra-strong fields. Wunderlanders before the war had used them in flyby studies of their suns. The kzinti had quickly modified them to accommodate a single crew member; when dealing with the unknown, a live brain overseeing the instruments might well prove best. Besides an air and water recycler, life support included a gravity polarizer. It was necessarily small, its action confined to the interior, but at such close quarters it could counteract possible accelerations that would kill even a kzin, up to fifty or sixty Terran gravities.

The capsule whipped through the magnified part of the turret view. Its metal gleamed hazy-bright, a nucleus cocooned in shimmering forces. Nordbo imagined the rider voicing an exuberant screech. It vanished from his sight.

More sounds followed, quieter and longer-drawn. A boat was not thrown out by a machine; it launched itself. The lean form glided by on its way to a rendezvous point at the far side of the mystery. There it would seize the capsule in a grapnel field, haul it inboard, and bring it back.

Yiao-Captain stared yonder. “What might the thing be?” he mumbled.

“Artificial, obviously,” Nordbo answered, just as low.

“Yes, but for what? Who built it?”

“And when? It’s extremely old, I’m sure. Just look at it.”

Yiao-Captain’s fur bristled. “Billions of years?”

“Not a bad guess.”

“The Slavers ”

“The tnuctipun. They were engineers to the Slavers, the thrintun, you know, till they revolted.” And the war that followed exterminated both races, back while the ancestors of man and kzin were microbes in primordial seas.

Yiao-Captain’s ears lay flat. He shivered. “Haunted weapons. We have tales about things ancient and accursed ” Resolution surged. “Aowrrgh!” he shouted. “Whatever this be, we’ll master it! It’s ours now!”

Time crept. Nordbo realized he was hungry. Was that right? Why hadn’t grief filled him to the brim? He had lost his loves, twenty-odd years of their lives at least, and he felt hungry and ragingly curious.

Well, but they wouldn’t expect him to wallow in self-pity, would they? Despicable emotion. Let him take whatever anodyne that work offered. He could do nothing else about his situation.

Yet.

It was actually no long spell until the boat, at a safe distance, snared the capsule. Although its screen fields had degraded incoming data, a shipboard computer could restore much. Transmission commenced at once. In minutes numbers and images were appearing on screens.

Blue-white hell-flame streamed from a ragged hole in the shell, meters wide. The color was nothing but ghost-flicker, quanta given off by excited atoms. The real glow was the gamma light of annihilation, matter and antimatter created, meeting, perishing in cascade after curious cascade until the photons flew free in search of revenge.

“Yes,” Nordbo whispered, “I think the source does emit in all directions. The output fantastic. On the order of terawatts, no, I suspect magnitudes higher than that. The material enclosing it, though, that is what’s truly incredible. It stops those hard rays, it’s totally opaque to them, damps them down to infrared before it lets them go… But after billions of years, even it has worn thin and fragile. Something, a large meteoroid or something, finally punched through at one point, and there the radiation escapes unchecked. Elsewhere ”

“Can we make contact?” Yiao-Captain screamed. “Can we land and take possession?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to study, probe, set up models and run them through the computer. My guess at the moment is that probably we can, if we choose the place well and are careful. No promises, understand, and not soon.”

“Get to work on it! Immediately! Go!”

Nordbo obeyed, before Yiao-Captain should lose his temper and give him the claws.

He’d been granted a comparatively free hand to carry on research, with access to a laboratory and the production shop, assistance if necessary, provided of course that he remained properly servile. On a ship like this, those facilities were improvised, tucked into odd corners, so cramped that as a rule only one individual at a time could use them. That suited Nordbo fine.

First he required nourishment. He made for the food synthesizer. What it dispensed was as loathsome to the kzinti as to him, albeit for different reasons. Irritable at the lack of fresh meat, a spacehand kicked the man aside. Nordbo crashed against a bulkhead. The bruises lasted for days. “Keep your place, monkey! You’ll swill after the wakened Heroes have fed.”

“Yes, my master. I am sorry, my master.” Nordbo withdrew on hands and knees, as became an animal.

A thought that he had borne along from Wunderland crystallized. He’d be modifying apparatus, or making it from scratch, as occasion arose. Contemptuous, the kzinti, including the scientists, would pay scant heed. Yiao-Captain might be the exception, but he’d have plenty of other demands on his attention. With caution, patience, piecemeal labor, it should be possible to fashion some kind of weapon a knife, if nothing else and keep it concealed under a jumble of stuff in a cabinet or box.

Chances were he’d never use it. What could he win? But the simple knowledge of its existence would help him get through the next months. If he could at last endure no longer, if nothing whatsoever remained to lose, maybe he could wreak a little harm, and die like a man.

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Next: Chapter IX