Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Next: Chapter IV

Chapter III

This section of the Jotun range had been a Montferrat-Palme preserve since the settlement of Wonderland, more than three centuries before; when a few thousand immigrants have an entire planet to share out, there is no sense in being niggardly. The first of that line had built the high eyrie for his own; later population and wealth moved elsewhere, and in the end it became a hunting lodge. At the time of the kzin conquest it had been the only landed possession left to the Montferrat-Palme line, which had shown an unfortunate liking for risky speculative investments and even riskier horses.

“Old Claude does himself proud,” Harold Yarthkin-Schotmann said, as he and Lieutenant Ingrid Raines walked out onto the verandah that ran along the outer side of the house.

The building behind them was old weathered granite, sparkling slightly with flecks of mica; two stories, and another of half-timbering, under a strake roof. A big rambling structure, set into an artificial terrace on the steep side of the mountain; below the slope turn-bled down to a thread-thin stream in the valley below, then rose in gashed clifls and dark-green forest ten kilometers away. The gardens were extensive and cunningly landscaped, an improvement of nature rather than an imposition on it. Native featherleaf, trembling iridescent lavender shapes ten meters tall, gumblossom and sheenbark and lapisvine. Oaks and pines and fran-gipani from Earth, they had grown into these hills as well… The air was warm and fragrant-dusty with summer flowers.

“It’s certainly been spruced up since we… since I saw it last,” she said, with a catch in her voice.

Harold looked aside at her and shivered slightly. Ingrid Raines had been born two years before him, but he was a greying fifty-odd, while she… she was exactly as he remembered her. Belter-tall and fair-skinned, slimly muscular and green-eyed, with black hair worn in spaceborn fashion that shaved all the scalp save for a strip from forehead to neck.

She had spent most of the intervening decades in coldsleep, at a high fraction of lightspeed; he had lived every minute of them here on Wunderland, lived hard and without the best anti-senescent treatments. While she went to Sol with the last shipload of refugees, joined the UN forces that fought off the kzinti Fourth Fleet. Came back with a smooth-mannered systems engineer and trained killer named Jonah Matthieson and knocked off the Big Tabby, Chief Ratcat Chuut-Rüt himself, with the nastiest piece of combined software sabotage and kzinti psychology he could imagine.

Matthieson. Now there was a case. Genius class programmer. Humorless, like a Swarmer, but not like a Swarmer. A Belter. Earth’s asteroid civilization was like Wunderland’s, but different. Matthieson was about thirty, biological. Chronological would be older, of course, given he’d come across four light-years. Anyway, not old enough for anti-senescence to make much difference. Smoothly handsome, in an angular Belter way; also tough and smart. A calm angry man, the dangerous type. Dreadfully attractive while you were no prize

even as a young man, he told himself. Ears like jugs, eyes like a basset hound and a build like a brick outhouse. Nearly middle-aged at only sixty, for Finagles sake. Spent five years as an unsuccessful guerilla and the rest as a glorified barkeep.

A little more than that. Harold’s Terran Bar was well known in its way. Had been well known. Had been his…

“A lot more populous, too,” she was saying. “Why on earth would anyone want to farm here? You’d have to modify the machinery.”

There had always been a small settlement in the narrow sliver of valley floor, but it had been expanded. Terraces of vines and fruit trees wound up the slopes, and they could hear the distant tinkle of bells from the sheep and goats that grazed the rocky hills. A waterfall tumbled a thousand meters down the head of the valley, its distant toning humming through rock and air. Men and men’s doings were small in that landscape of tumbled rock and crag. A church-bell rang far below, somewhere a dog was barking, and faint and far came the hiss-scream of a downdropper, surprising this close to human habitation. The air was cool and thin, though not uncomfortably so to someone born on Wunderland; .61 gravity meant that the drop-off in air pressure was much less steep than it would have been on Earth.

“Machinery?” Harold moved up beside her. She leaned into him with slow care. He winced at the thought of kzin claws raking down her side… maybe I’ve been a bit uncharitable about Jonah, he thought. The two of them came through the kzinti hunt alive, until Claude and I could pull her… them out. That took some doing. “They’re not using machinery, Ingi. Bare hands and hand-tools.”

Her mouth made a small gesture of distaste. “Slave labor? Not what I’d have thought of Claude, however he’s gone downhill.”

Harold laughed. “Flighters, sweetheart. Refugees. Kzinti’ve been taking up more and more land; they’re settling in, not just a garrison anymore. It was this or the labor camps; those are slave labor, literally. And

Claude grubstaked these people, as well as he could. It’s where a lot of that graft he’s been getting as Police Chief of Munchen went.“ And the head of the capital city’s human security force was in a very good position to rake it in. ”/ was surprised too. Claude’s been giving a pretty good impression of having Helium II for blood, these past few years.“

A step behind them. “Slandering me in my absence, old friend?”

The servants set out brandy and fruits and withdrew. They were all middle-aged and singularly close-mouthed. Ingrid thought she had seen four parallel scars under the vest of one dark slant-eyed man who looked like he came from the Sulinesian Islands.

“There are Some Things We Were Not Meant to Know,” she said. Claude Montferrat-Palme was leaning forward to light a cheroot at a candle. He glanced up at her words and caught her slight grimace of distaste, and laid down the cheroot. He had been here a week, off and on, but that was scarcely time to drop a habit he must have been cultivating half his life.

“Correct on all accounts, my dear,” he said.

Claude always was perceptive.

“It’s been wonderful talking over old times,” she said. With sincerity, and a slight malice aforethought. They were considerably older times for the two men than for her. “And it’s… extremely nattering that you two are still so fond of me.” But a bit troubling, now that I think about it. Even if you can expect to live two centuries, carrying the torch for four decades is a bit much.

Claude smiled again. He had classic Herrenmann features, long and bony; in his case, combined with dark hair and eyes and an indefinable air of elegance, even in the lounging outfit he had thrown on when he shed the Munchen Polizei uniform.

“Youth,” he said. And continued at her enquiring sound, “My dear, you were our youth. Hari and I were best friends; you were the… girl… young woman for which we conceived the first grand passion and bittersweet rivalry.” He shrugged. “Ordinarily, a man either marries her a ghastly fete involving children and facing each other over the morning papaya or loses her. In any case, life goes on.” His brooding gaze went to the high mullioned windows, out onto a world that had spent two generations under kzinti rule.

“You…” he said softly. “You vanished, and took the good times with you. Doesn’t every man remember his twenties as the golden age? In our case, that was literally true. Since then, we’ve spent four decades fighting a rear-guard action and losing, watching everything we cared for slowly decay… including each other.”

“Why Claude, I didn’t know you cared,” Harold said mockingly. Ingrid saw their eyes meet. Surpassing the love of women, she thought dryly. And there was a certain glow about them both, now that they were committed to action again. Few humans enjoy living a life that makes them feel defeated, and these were proud men. “Don’t tell me we wasted forty years of what might have been a beautiful friendship.”

“Chronicles of Wasted Time is a title I’ve often considered for my autobiography, if I ever write it,” Claude said. “Egotism wars with sloth.”

Harold snorted. “Claude, if you were only a little less intelligent, you’d make a great neo-romantic Byronic Hero.”

“Childe Claude? At this rate she’ll have nothing to do with either of us, Hari.”

The other man turned to Ingrid. “I’m a little surprised you didn’t take Jonah,” he said.

Ingrid looked over to Claude, who stood by the huge rustic fireplace with a brandy snifter in his hand. The Herrenmann raised a brow and a slight, well-bred smile curved his asymmetric beard.

“Why?” she said. “Because he’s younger, healthier, better educated? Because he’s a war hero? Because he’s intelligent, dashing and good looking?”

Harold blinked, and she felt a rush of affection.

“Something like that,” he said.

Claude laughed. “Women are a lot more sensible than men, aid kamerat. Also they mature faster. Correct?”

“Some of us do,” Ingrid said. “On the other hand, a lot of us actually prefer a man with a little of the boyish romantic in him. You know, the type of idealism that looks like it has turned into cynicism, but whose owner cherishes it secretly?” Claude’s face fell. “On the other hand, your genuinely mature male is a different kettle offish. Far too likely to be completely without illusions, and then how do you control him?”

She grinned and patted him on the cheek as she passed on the way to pour herself a glass of verguuz. “Don’t worry, Claude, you aren’t that way yourself, you just act like it.” She sipped, and continued: “Actually, it’s ethnic.”

Harold made an enquiring grunt, and Claude pursed his lips.

“He’s a Belter. Sol-Belter at that.”

“My dear… you are a Belter,” Claude said, genuine surprise overriding his habitual air of bored know-ingness.

Harold lit a cigarette, ignoring her glare. “Let me guess… he’s too prissy?”

Ingrid sipped again at the minty liqueur. “Nooo, not really. I’m a Belter, but I’m… a bit of a throwback.” The other two nodded. Ingrid could have passed for a pure Caucasoid. “Look, what happens to somebody in space who’s not ultra-careful about everything? Someone who isn’t a detail man, someone who doesn’t think checking the gear the seventh time is more important than the big picture? Someone who isn’t a low-affect in-control type every day of his life?”

“They die,” Harold said flatly. Claude nodded agreement.

“What happens when you put a group through four hundreds years of that type of selection? Plus the more adventurous types have been leaving the Sol-Belt for other systems, whenever they could, so Serpent Swarm Belters are more like the past of Sol-Belters.”

“Oh.” Claude nodded in time with Harold’s grunt. “What about flatlanders?”

Ingrid shuddered and tossed back the rest of her drink. “Oh, they’re like… like… they just have no sense of survival at att. Barely human. Wunderlanders strike a happy medium ” she glanced at them roguishly out of the corners of her eyes “ after which it comes down to individual merits.”

“So.” She shook herself, and felt the Lieutenant’s persona settling down over her like a spacesuit, the tight skin-hugging permeable-membrane kind. “This has been a very pleasant holiday, but what do we do now?”

Claude poked at the burning logs with a fire-iron and chuckled. For a moment the smile on his face made her distinctly uneasy, and she remembered that he had survived and climbed to high office in the vicious politics of the collaborationist government. For his own purposes, not all of which were unworthy, but the means…

“Well,” he said smoothly, turning back towards them. “As you can imagine, the raid and Chuut-Rüt’s… elegant demise put the… pigeon among the cats with a vengence. The factionalism among the kzinti has come to the surface again. One group wants to do minimal repairs and launch the Fifth Fleet against Earth immediately ”

“Insane,” Ingrid said, shaking her head. It was the threat of a delay in the attack, until the kzinti were truly ready, which had prompted the UN into the desperation measure of the Yamamoto raid.

“No, just ratcat,” Harold said, pouring himself another brandy. Ingrid frowned, and he halted the bottle in mid-pour.

“Exactly,” Claude nodded happily. “The other is loyal to Chuut-Rüt’s memory; more complicated than that, there are cross-splits. Local-born kzinti against the immigrants who came with the late lamented kitty gover-nor, generational conflicts, eine gros teufeleshrek. For example, my esteemed former superior ”

He spoke a phrase in the Hero’s Tongue, and Ingrid translated mentally: Ktür-Supervisor-of-Animals. A minor noble with a partial name. From what she had picked up on Wunderland, the name itself was significant as well; Ktür was common on the frontier planet of the Kzinti Empire that had launched the conquest fleets against Wunderland. Archaic on the inner planets near the kzinti homeworld.

“ was very vocal about it at a staff meeting. Incidentally, they completely swallowed our little white lie about Axelrod-Bauergartner being responsible for In-grid’s escape.”

“That must have been something to see,” Harold said.

Claude sighed, remembering. “Well,”hebegan, “since it was in our offices I managed to take a holo ”

Co-Ordinating Staff Officer was a tall kzin, well over two meters, and thin by the felinoid race’s standards. Or so Claude Montferrat-Palme thought; it was difficult to say, when you were flat on your stomach on the floor, watching the furred feet pace. Ridiculous, he thought. Humans were not meant for this posture. Kzinti were; they could run on four feet as easily as two, and their skulls were on a flexible joint. This was giving him a crick in the neck… but it was obligatory for the human supervisors just below the kzinti level to attend. The consequences of disobeying the kzinti were all too plain, in the transparent block of plastic which encased the head of Munchen’s former assistant chief of police, resting on the mantelpiece.

Claude’s own superior was speaking, Ktür-Supervisor-of-Animals.

“This monkey ” he jerked a claw at the head “ was responsible for allowing the two Sol-agent humans to escape the hunt.” He was in the half-crouched posture Claude recognized as proper for reporting to one higher in rank but lower in social status, although the set of ears and tail was insufficiently respectful. //1 can read kzinti body language that well.

This was Security H.Q., the old Herrenhaus where the Nineteen Families had met before the kzinti came. It was broad and gracious, floored in tile, walled in lacy white stone fretwork and roofed in Wunderland ebony that was veined with natural silver. Outside fountains were splashing in the gardens, and he could smell the oleanders that blossomed there. The gingery scent of kzinti anger was louder, as Staff Officer stopped and prodded at his flank. The foot was encased in a sort of openwork leather-and-metal boot, with slits for the claws. Those were out slightly, probably unconcious reflex, and he could feel the razor tips prickle slightly through the sweat-wet fabric of his uniform.

“Dominant one, this slave ” he began.

“Dispense with the formalities, human,” the kzin said. It spoke Wunderlander and was politer than most; Claude’s own superior habitually referred to humans as kz’eerkt, monkey. That was a quasi-primate on the kzinti homeworld. A tree-dwelling mammal-analog, as much like a monkey as a kzin was like a tiger, which was not much. “Tell me what occurred.”

“Dominant one… Co-Ordinating Staff Officer,” Claude continued, craning his neck. Don’t make eye contact, he reminded himself. A kzinti stare was a dominance-gesture or a preparation to attack. “Honored Ktür-Supervisor-of-Animals decided that…” don’t use her name “the former assistant chief of Munchen Polizei was more zealous than I in the tracking-down of the two UN agents, and should therefore be in charge of disposing of them in the hunt.”

Staff Officer stopped pacing and gazed directly at Ktür-Supervisor; Claude could see the pink tip of the slimmer kzin’s tail twitching before him, naked save for a few briskly orange hairs.

“So not only did your interrogators fail to determine that the humans had successfully sabotaged Chuut-Rüt’s palace-defense computers, you appointed a traitor to arrange for their disposal. The feral humans laugh at us!

Our leader is killed and the assassins go free from under our very claws!“

Ktür-Supervisor rose from his couch. He pointed at another kzin who huddled in one corner; a telepath, with the characteristic hangdog air and unkempt fur.

“Your tame sthondat there didn’t detect it either,” he snarled.

Literally snarled, Claude reflected. It was educational; after seeing a kzin you never referred to a human expression by that term again.

Staff Officer wuffled, snorting open his wet black nostrils and working his whiskers. It should have been a comical expression, but on four hundred pounds of alien carnivore it was not in the least funny. “You hide behind the failures of others,” he said, hissing. “Traat-Admiral directes me to inform you that your request for reassignment to the Swarm flotillas has been denied. Neither unit will accept you.”

“Traat-Admiral!” Ktür-Supervisor rasped. “He is like a kit who has climbed a tree and can’t get down, mewling for its dam. This talk of a ‘secret menace’ among the asteroids is a scentless trail to divert attention from his refusal to launch the Fifth Fleet.”

“Such was the strategy of the great Chuut-Rüt, murdered through your incompetence or worse.”

Ktür-Supervisor bristled, the orange-red fur standing out and turning his body into a cartoon caricature of a cat, bottle-shaped.

“You nameless licker-of-scentless-piss from that jumped-up creche-product Admiral, what do you accuse me ofT

“Treason, or stupidity amounting to it,” the other kzin sneered. Ostentatiously, he flared his batlike ears into a vulnerable rest position and let his tail droop.

Ktür-Supervisor screamed. “You inner-worlds palace fop, you and Traat-Admiral alike! I urinate on the shrines of your ancestors from a height; crawl away and call for your monkeys to groom you with blowdriers!”

Staff Officer’s hands extended outward, the night-black claws glinting as they slid from their sheaths. His tail was rigid now; hairdressers were a luxury the late governor had introduced, and wildly popular among the younger nobility.

“Ksfart-hunter,” he growled. “You are not fit to roll in Chuut-Rüt’s shit! You lay word-claws to the blood of the Rüt.” The Rüt were the family of the Patriarch of Kzin.

“Chuut-Rüt made ch’rowl with monkeys!” A gross insult, as well as anatomically impossible… or at least fatal for the monkey.

There was a feeling of hush, as the two males locked eyes. Then the heavy u#sat-knives came out and the two orange shapes seemed to flow together, meeting at the arch of their leaps, howling. Claude rolled back against the wall as the half-ton of weight slammed down again, sending splinters of furniture out like shrapnel. For a moment the kzinti were locked and motionless, hand to knife-wrist; their legs locked in thigh-holds as well, to keep the back legs from coming up for a disemboweling strike. Mouths gaped toward each other’s throats, inch-long fangs exposed in the seventy-degree killing gape. Then there was a blur of movement; they sprang apart, together, went over in a caterwauling blur of orange fur and flashing metal, a whirl far too fast for human eyesight to follow.

He caught glimpses: distended eyes, scrabbling claws, knives sinking home into flesh, amid a clamor loud enough to drive needles of pain into his ears. Bits of bloody fur hit all around him, and there was a human scream as the fighters rolled over a secretary. Then Staff Officer rose, slashed and glaring.

Ktür-Supervisor lay sprawled, legs twitching galvani-cally with the hilt of Staff Officer’s wtsai jerking next to his lower spine. The slender kzin panted for a moment and then leaped forward to grab his opponent by the neck-ruff. He jerked him up toward the waiting jaws, clamped them down on his throat. Ktür-Supervisor struggled feebly, then slumped. Blood-bubbles swelled and burst on his nose. A final wrench and Staff Officer was backing off, shaking his head and spitting, licking at the matted far of his muzzle; he groomed for half a minute before wrenching the knife free and beginning to spread the dead kzin’s ears for a clean trophy-cut.

“Erruch,” Ingrid said as the recording finished. “You’ve got more… you’ve got a lot of guts, Claude, dealing with them at first hand like that.”

“Oh, some of them aren’t so bad. For ratcats. Staff Officer there expressed ‘every confidence’ in me.” He made an expressive gesture with his hands. “Although he also reminded me there was a continuous demand for fresh monkeymeat.”

Ingrid paled slightly and laid a hand on his arm. That was not a figure of speech to her, not after the chase through the kzinti hunting preserve. She remembered the sound of the hunting scream behind her, and the thudding crackle of the alien’s pads on the leaves as it made its four-footed rush. Rising as it screamed and leaped from the ravine lip above her; the long sharpened pole in her hands, and the soft heavy feel as its own weight drove it onto her weapon…

Claude laid his hands on hers. Harold cleared his throat.

“Well,” he said. “Your position looks solider than we thought.”

The other man gave Ingrid’s hand a squeeze and released it. “Yes,” he said. A hunter’s look came into his eyes, emphasized the foxy sharpness of his features. “In fact, they’re outfitting some sort of expedition; that’s why they can’t spare personnel for administrative duties.”

Ingrid and Harold both leaned forward instinctively. Harold crushed out his cigarette with swift ferocity.

“Another Fleet?” Ingrid asked. I’ll be stuck here, and Earth…

Claude shook his head. “No. That raid did a lot of damage; it’d be a year or more just to get back to the state of readiness they had when the Yamamoto arrived. Military readiness.” Both the others winced; over a million humans had died in the attack. “But they’re definitely mobilizing for something inside the system. Two flotillas. Something out in the Swarm.”

“Markham?” Ingrid ventured. It seemed a little extreme; granted he had the Catskinner, but

“I doubt it. They’re bringing the big guns up to full personnel, the battlewagons. Conquest Fang class.”

They exchanged glances. Those were interstellar-capable warships, carriers for lesser craft and equipped with weapons that could crack planets, defenses to match. Almost self-sufficient, with facilities for manufacturing their own fuel, parts and weapons requirements from asteroidal material. They were normally kept on standby as they came out of the yards, only a few at full readiness for training purposes.

“All of them?” Harold said.

“No, but about three-quarters. Ratcats will be thin on the ground for a while. And ” he hesitated, forced himself to continue “ I’ll be able to do the most good staying here. For a year or so at least, I can be invaluable to the underground without risking much.”

The others remained silent while he looked away, granting him time to compose himself.

“I’ve got the false ID and transit papers, with disguises,” he said. “Ingrid… you aren’t safe anywhere on Wunderland. In the Swarm, with that ship you came in, maybe the two of you can do some good.”

“Claude ” she began.

He shook his head. When he spoke, the old lightness was back in his tone.

“I wonder,” he said, “I truly wonder what Markham is doing. I’d like to think he’s causing so much trouble that they’re mobilizing the Fleet, but…”

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Next: Chapter IV