Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

Previous: Chapter X
Next: Chapter XII

Chapter XI

When the kzinti again drew Peter Nordbo into time, his first clear thought was: Hulda, Tyra, Ib. More than twenty years now. Do you live? I almost wish not, I who come home after helping our masters arm themselves for the enslavement of all humanity. Forgive me, my darlings. I had no choice.

“Up,” growled the one that hulked above him. “The commander wants you. Why, I don’t know.”

Nordbo blinked, bewildered. Through the gloom in the chamber he recognized the kzin. It wasn’t the technician in charge of such tasks, it was one of the fire-control ratings. Their designation translated roughly as “Gunner.” What had gone on? A fight, a killing? The crew were disciplined and the discoveries at the black hole had kept them enthusiastic; nevertheless, after months in close quarters, tempers grew foul and quarrels flared.

Well he knew. He bore several scars from the claws of individuals who took anger out on him. They were punished, though no disabling injury was inflicted. Nor had torture left him crippled, being carefully adminis-tered. He was too useful to damage without cause.

“Move!” Gunner hauled him from the box and flung him to the deck. There was mercy in the wave of physical pain that swept from the impact. For a moment it drowned every other awareness.

It faded, Nordbo remembered anew, he crept to his feet and hobbled off.

The corridor stretched empty and silent. How utterly silent. The rustle of ventilators sounded loud. Dread sharpened in him and cut the last dullness away. A-shiver, he reached the observation turret and entered. Only the heavens illuminated it.

No suns of Alpha Centauri shone before him, no constellations whatsoever. Around a pit of lightlessness, blue stars clustered thinly. As he stared aft he saw more, whose colors changed through yellow to red; but behind the ship yawned another darkness rimmed with embers.

Aberration and Doppler effect, he recognized. We haven’t slowed down yet, we’re flying ballistic at half the speed of light. Why have they revived me early? They didn’t expect to. I’d served my purpose. No, their purpose. I could merely pray that when their scientists on Wunderland finished interrogating me, I’d be released to take up any rags of my life that were left. Unless it makes more sense to pray for death.

Yiao-Captain poised athwart the stranger sky. Its radiances gleamed icy on eyeballs and fangs. His ears stood unfolded but his tail switched. “You are not where you think you are,” he rumbled. “Twenty-two years have passed,” Nordbo’s mind automatically rendered the timespan into human units “and we are bound for our Father Sun.”

The shock was too great. It could not register at once. Nordbo heard himself say, “May I ask for an explanation?”

Did Yiao-Captain’s curtness mask pain of his own? “We were about three years en route back to Alpha Centauri.” After half a year at the black hole. “A mes-sage came. It told of a fleet from Sol, invading the system and shattering our forces. Somehow the humans have gained a capability of traveling faster than light. No ship without it can win against the least of theirs. We must inevitably lose these planets. It must already have happened when Snapping Sherrek received the beam.

“When I was roused and informed, naturally I did not propose to continue there, bringing my great news to the enemy. I ordered our forward velocity quenched and the last of our delta v applied to send us home.”

At one-half c, a trip of nearly six decades. Nordbo’s thought trickled vague and slow. Can’t stop at the far end. Hurtle on till the last reserve mass has been converted, the screen fields go out, and the wind of our passage through the medium begins to crumble us. Unless first another ship matches speed and takes us off. I daresay they’ll try, once they have an idea of what this crew can tell.

It jolted: Faster than light? We had no means, nothing but some mathematical hints in quantum theory and the knowledge that the thrintun could do it, billions of years ago knowledge that led this expedition to conclude that the artifact is indeed a gigantic hyperdrive spacecraft powered by the black hole it surrounds. But how did the means come so suddenly to my race?

A thunderbolt: Wunderland is free! My folk have been free for eighteen years!

Nightfall: While I am captive on the Flying Dutchman among the demons that sail it.

Yiao-Captain’s voice rolled on: “If the humans do not find what we did, and if we can inform the Patriarchy of it, victory may yet be ours. Not from the alien vessel alone, irresistible though it be, but from what our engineers will learn.”

Was he boasting, or trying to reassure himself? Certainly the words were unnecessary. Even without Nordbo’s intellectual cooperation, the kzin known as Chief Physicist and his team had traced circuits, com-puted probable effects, inferred that the most plausible purpose was to achieve the relationship of wave functions which theory said might throw matter into a hypothetical hyperspace. They had actually identified an installation that appeared to be an activator of the entire system. Yiao-Captain had had to exert authority to keep three young members of the group from throwing what they thought was the main switch. Much more study was called for, a complete plan of the whole, before any such action was justifiable. Else they could well lose the whole treasure, construct and knowledge alike.

“We are continuously transmitting over and over, the entire set of data we did acquire, together with our ideas about it, on a beam directed forward,” the commander proceeded.

The merest fraction of what is there to discover, commented the remote part of Nordbo, yet an enormous load of information, words, numbers, equations, diagrams, pictures, everything we got at a cost of seven kzinti lives and the price I paid. But perhaps the beam, dopplered though its waves are, will register on someone’s communicator.

“The likelihood of its being noticed, even when it reaches Kzin, is very small, of course,” Yiao-Captain said. “We send it because it does go faster than we, and may perchance convey our word, should we perish along the way. Otherwise, we shall surely be detected as we near the home planets, and receivers will be adjusted to hear what we then broadcast. Meanwhile we stand three-month watches in pairs. More would be intolerable, would lead to hatred and deadly clashes, over so long a voyage. It is again my turn. Gunner is poor company. That is best; we need not see each other much, as I would have to do where he of a rank entitled to courtesy. But the time grows wearisome. Finally I have had you wakened. Maybe we can talk. Certainly we can play chess.”

Realization was draining downward from Nordbo’s forebrain, along the nerves, into blood and marrow.

He barely swallowed his vomit. It burned gullet and belly.

Almost, he screamed aloud: Yes, whistle your pet monkey to you. Get what amusement you can out of the sorry creature. In the end, after he begins to bore you, disembowel him with a swipe of claws and eat the fresh, dripping meat. Enjoy.

Did you enjoy watching me under the torture? Your eyes shone, ears lay back, tongue ran over lips. No, it was not for pleasure in itself. It was to make me recant my refusal to work any more for you, after it became clear that what we were investigating was a monstrous weapon. You may have regretted it a little. But naturally the spectacle spoke to your instincts.

I cheated them, Yiao-Captain. I yielded within minutes. As for your contempt, inwardly I laughed. It was not the pain that changed my mind, nor the threat of mutilation and death. It was the hope of returning home, to stand once more between you and my Hulda, my children, my folk. Yes, also the crazy hope that somehow I might smuggle a warning off to Sol.

Afterward, yes, I worked for you again, but I told you of no more inspirations, insights, ideas worth trying. I did nothing, really, that a robot could not. What else can you expect from a slave, Yiao-Captain? Love?

The kzin’s tone softened. “I know this is a stormwind upon you. You will need a while to regain balance. Go. Rest, think. Come back to me when you feel ready.”

Nordbo stumbled from him.

Grief welled up: I have lost you for always, my beloved.

Bleak joy: You are free. We can outpace light. Surely our fleets went on to defeat the kzinti everywhere and ram peace down their throats.

Despair: But no secret has ever stayed long under lock and key. Someday, somehow, they too will gain the knowledge. This ship bears news that may well help them to it. We did conclude that the machine englobing the black hole is tnuctipun and is meant to pass it through hyperspace. We think we identified the activator. We could not puzzle out more than the likeliest-looking procedure for starting it up, and we have no idea how to set a course or stop a destination. But a later expedition, better equipped, with up-to-date physicists, ought to learn much more than we did.

Wrath: “We!” As if this were my band!

Shame: For a while it came near being so. I was captivated. In the work, I could forget my loss for hours at a time. But then I began to see what the thing must be

Horror: A part of the arsenal that destroyed intelligent life throughout this galactic sector, those billions of years ago. Shall it fall into kzinti hands?

Logic: Oh, by itself it might not prove decisive, come (God take pity on us) the next war. But it would kill many. Worse, it would lead the kzinti to the hyperdrive; or, if they have that by now, it could well suggest improvements that make their ships irresistibly superior to ours. And who can be certain that that would be all it did?

Agony: And I am helpless, helpless.

Revelation: NO!

Through a time beyond time, Nordbo stood amidst lightnings. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse

Apocalypse opened itself to metal, silence, and unseen stars; but the hand of the Lord was upon him. Somewhere a voice quavered that he had better take nourishment, sleep, recover his full strength, while watching for the best chance. He scorned it into extinction. He would never be stronger than now. Surprise, and a will that had given doubt no days or weeks to corrode it, were his only allies.

With long strides he made his way to the workshop. Every sense thrilled preternaturally keen. A bulkhead bore furrows where a kzin in a rage had scratched the facing. Air from the ventilators blew warm, a tinge of ozone cleansing a ratcat taint become slight. His feet thudded on the deck, the impacts went up through his bones. His mouth was no longer dry, but hunter-wet.

He had bitten his tongue and tasted the salt blood, His heart beat steady, powerful. His fingers flexed, making ready.

Though the shop was dark, cramful of stored equipment, he had no trouble finding his toolbox. Things clattered as he went after the knife he had made and left buried at the bottom. The kzinti had never suspected; else he would have become meat. He drew it forth. Heavy in his grasp, blade about thirty centimeters by two, it was crude, a piece of scrap surreptitiously sawed, hammered, and filed, a haft of plastic riveted to the tang; but patience had given it a microtome edge. He discarded the improvised sheath and held the steel behind his back when he went out. Barehanded, a kzin could take a man apart, and speed as well as strength was why. Nordbo didn’t plan to waste time drawing.

Nor had he any qualms of conscience. The odds against him were huge enough without the beasts he hunted being prepared for him.

He found Gunner slumped sullen in the den that corresponded to a human ship’s saloon. The kzin watched a drama which Nordbo recognized as classic. Maybe he’d seen the popular repertory too often and was desperate for entertainment. In the screen, Chrung was attacking an enemy stronghold, wielding an ax on its parapet. Gunner was moderately interested. He did not notice the man who glided forward until Nordbo reached his shoulder.

The massive head turned. Lips pulled from fangs, irritation that might flash into murder frenzy, did the intruder not grovel and plead. Nordbo’s hand came around, machine precise. He drove his knife through the right eye, upward into the brain.

Gunner bellowed. Nordbo cast himself against the great body. His left hand clung to the fur while his right twisted the knife. An arm scythed past him, reflex that would have laid him open were he in its path. He worked his blade to and fro. Abruptly he clutched limpness. The kzin sagged to the deck. Death-stench rose fetid.

Nordbo withdrew the knife and stepped aside. Not much blood ran from the socket at his feet. He had hoped for a silent kill. Well, that he had killed at all was remarkable. Next he must repeat it or die trying. He felt no fear, nor gladness or even anger. His mind was the control center of the mechanism that was himself.

He wouldn’t get a second opportunity like this. A spear, a crossbow a daydream. He glanced about. Their food being synthetic, these travelers had adopted the Wunderlander fashion of tablecloths. The gory play continued in the screen. It stirred memory of things watched or read at home, historical sociology and fiction. The trick he recalled must require long practice to be done right, but a man who had pitched tents and hoisted sails shouldn’t be too inept. Heavy feet sped along the passageway outside. Nordbo took a corner of the napery in his left hand. He snapped the fabric, to gain some feeling for its behavior.

Yiao-Captain burst into the den. “What’s wrong?” he roared while he slammed to a halt. His look blazed across the corpse and the man who stood beyond it, knife reddened. Insolent past belief, the man shook a rag at him and grinned.

For a whole second, sheer stupefaction held Yiao-Captain immobile. Then fury exploded. He screamed and leaped.

Nordbo swayed aside. The giant orange body arced across the space where the cloth rippled. It slipped aside. As the kzin passed, Nordbo hewed.

Yiao-Captain hit the bulkhead. It groaned and buckled. The kzin bounded off the deck and rushed. Nordbo was drifting toward the door. Again his capework saved him, though a leg brushed his and made him stagger. Yet he had gotten a stab into the neck.

He reached the corridor. “Blunderfoot!” he shouted in the kzinti language. “Eater of sthondat dung! Come get me if you dare!” His trick would soon fail him unless he kept his antagonist amok.

Yiao-Captain charged. Blood marked his trail, pumped out of the rents beneath ribs and jaws. Nordbo cut him.

Leaping by, he closed teeth on fabric. Nordbo nearly lost it. He slashed it across and saved half.

Scarlet spouted. My God, I got a major vein, Nordbo realized. Yiao-Captain turned. He lurched and mewled, but he attacked. Nordbo retreated. Flick cape over eyeballs, once, twice, thrice. Blindly, Yiao-Captain went past. Nordbo sliced his tail off.

Yiao-Captain came back around. He crumpled to his knees, to all fours. Snarling, he crawled at the man. Nordbo backed up, easily keeping ahead of him.

Yiao-Captain stopped. He stared. The raw whisper held a sudden gentleness. Or puzzlement? “Speaker for Humans, I… I liked you. I thought… you liked… me…” He collapsed. His death struggle took several minutes.

The ship is mine, said the computer in Nordbo’s head. Not that I can do anything with it. Except, of course, shut off the beamcast. And wait. Recycling is operative; plenty of food and water. Including kzin steaks, if I want. I can break into the small arms locker and shoot them where they lie. But probably that’s too ugly an act. I am not a kzin, I am a man.

Otherwise I wait. Forty or more years till I reach their sun. I will occupy myself, handicrafts, study of what’s in the database, love letters to Hulda. Meditation, maybe. For something may yet happen to set me free. The one sure way to lose all hope is to give up all hope.

Rationality fell apart. He retched and began to shake, miserably cold. Reaction. Let him go sleep and sleep and sleep. Afterward he would eat something, and clean up this mess, and settle down into solitude.

Previous: Chapter X
Next: Chapter XII