Weoch-Captain was a thoughtful and self-controlled kzin. Much though he lusted to streak directly to his goal, first he pondered the implications of what he knew about it. Ideas came to him which he communicated to Ress-Chiuu. The High Admiral agreed that his flight plan should be changed.
Therefore Swordbeak cruised about, in and out of hyperspace, day after tedious day. It chewed on nerves. The crew grew restless. Quarrels exploded. A couple of times they led to fights. Weoch-Captain disciplined the offenders severely; they were long in sickbay and would bear the marks for the rest of their lives.
He had given his officers an explanation. The Swift Hunter that went to the unknown body had not been heard of again. If it found the thing, as was probable, this would have happened just about when the human armada entered the Alpha Centaurian System. That news would have taken five years to reach the ship, except that it was likely bound back. What then was its best course? Other kzin-held worlds might fall to the enemy before it could get to any of them. Wisest was to head directly for the Father Sun, especially if the expedition had made worthwhile discoveries. Assuming the crew still lived, they were now about a third of the way home. Swordbeak ought to search them out and learn what they could tell, before proceeding. Furthermore, such Heroes deserved to know as soon as possible that they were not forgotten.
Every basis for calculation was a matter of guessing. That included, especially, the location of the mystery object. The data that Ress-Chiuu’s informant had been able to pass on were fragmentary, maddeningly vague. Thus the Swift Hunter’s cone of location was immense. But the High Admiral had ordered Weoch-Captain’s vessel outfitted with the best radio spectrum detectors and analyzers that its hull could accommodate.
So at length his technicians identified a tunnel of passage and placed it approximately in space. Prudence dictated that Swordbeak not attempt immediate rendezvous. The precise trajectory and momentary position of the other craft remained unclear; and mass moving at half light-speed is dangerous. Weoch-Captain made for a point about two light-years behind. Inside the trail, the technicians could map it exactly and pinpoint his target.
There they picked up a message.
Weoch-Captain was not totally surprised. In a like situation, he did not think he would send a radio beam ahead. The slimy humans might come upon it, read it, and jam it. However, the idea of superluminal travel would have been unfamiliar to the expedition members. They would scarcely have thought of everything that it meant. If the possibility did occur to them, they might well have discounted it, since the probability of interception was slight, while the transmission increased by a little the likelihood that the Patriarch would eventually get the news they bore. At any rate, Weoch-Captain had provided for the contingency. When he reached the tunnel, receivers were open on a wide enough band that they would register anything, Doppler-diminished though the waves be.
They buzzed. A computer got busy. A part of the message unrolled on a screen before him.
He narrowed his eyes. What was this? “ material unknown. Eroded but, except where pierced, impervious to radiation ” His finger stabbed at the intercom. The image of Executive Officer appeared. “We have evidently come in in the middle of a sending,” Weoch-Captain said. “Doubtless the Swift Hunter plays a recorded beamcast continuously. I want the entirety of it. Have an acquisition program prepared.”
“Mock me not,” purred the commander. “You know full well that we shall have to leap about, snatching pieces here and there, while reception will often be poor; and the whole must be fitted together in proper sequence, ungarbled where needful, until it is complete and coherent; and the highly technical content will make this a process difficult and slow. Do you suggest I am ignorant of communications principles?”
Executive Officer was a Hero, but he remembered the punishments. “Never, sire! I misspoke me. I abase myself before you.”
“Correct.” Weoch-Captain switched off. He had not actually taken offense. Because he was a cautious leader, he must snatch every opportunity to assert dominance.
Alone, he rose and prowled the control cabin. Its narrowness caged him. The real mockery came from the stars in the viewport, multitudes and majesty, a hunting ground unbounded. He bared fangs at them. We shall range among you yet, he vowed; we shall do with you what we will.
First the humans
Excitement waxed. Clearly the expedition had caught something important, something of power. He would persist until he knew everything the message told. Then he would seek out the old ship, hear whatever might remain to hear, give whatever praise and reassurance were due. And then, informed and prepared, he would be off to the goal of all this voyaging.
His ears lay back. The hair stood up on his body. Let any monkeys that he might encounter beware. The kzinti had much to avenge.