Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Next: Chapter XV

Chapter XIV

Once more Rover came out of hyperspace, and there the fugitive was. A computer recognized the inputs to instruments; a chime sounded; an image leaped into a screen. “That’s it,” said Saxtorph quietly in the command cabin. The intercom brought him a gasp from Tyra at the mass detector. Everybody else was at a duty station too. “Got to be.”

He increased magnification, and the spark crawling across the constellations waxed. Tyra saw the same, on the viewer where she was. Optics set limits to what could be reconstructed at a distance of some eighty million kilometers, but he made out a blurry lancehead shape amidst a comma of bluish light, which trailed aft like a tail, the visible part of photons from excited atoms and plasma around the screen fields and aft of them. The invisible part was greater, and deadly.

“The right class of vessel, and just about where she ought to be,” Saxtorph added. “Uh, what’s her name? I forget.”

“Khrach-Sherrek,” Dorcas supplied. It was in the bit of record and recollection that had survived. “A cursorial carnivore on their home planet.” She didn’t normally waste breath on trivia. Anticipated though it was, this culmination must have shaken her too.

“Well, well,” came Ryan’s voice, overly genial. “That was fun. Now what shall we play?”

“Dada-mann,” Tyra whispered. Saxtorph guessed it was unconscious, her pet name for her father when she was small. He imagined tears running down her cheeks, and wanted to go hold her hand and speak comfort. Her words strengthened, not yet quite steady. “Y-yes, that is the proper question. Isn’t it? How shall we get him out? Have you had any more ideas, Robert?”

They had discussed it, of course, over and over, as watch after watch dragged by. Yonder vessel couldn’t decelerate if the kzinti aboard wanted to, and Rover hadn’t a decent fraction of the delta’t; necessary to match velocities. In the era of hyperdrive such capabilities were very nearly as obsolete as flint axes. If somebody took off in a boat, he’d still have that forward speed, and be unable to kill enough of it to help before his energy reserve was gone. Not that there’d be any point in trying. A boat’s screens were totally inadequate against the level of radiation involved. He’d be doomed in a second, dead in an hour or two. The craft would become an instant derelict, electronics burned out.

The UN Navy kept a few high-boosters. They had marginal utility for certain kinds of research. “Besides,” Saxtorph had observed, “all government agencies hoard stuff to a degree a squirrel or jaybird would envy. They’ve also got quite a lot else in common with squirrels and jaybirds.”

Rigged with a hyperdrive, such as a craft could theoretically come out here, spend months building up her vector, at last draw close, mesh fields, and extend a gang tube if the kzinti cooperated. If they didn’t, an operation already perilous would become insanely so, forcing an entry under those conditions in order to meet armed resistance. Either way, the expense would be staggering. Next year’s budget might even have to cut back on a boondoggle or two. Would the top brass consider it, to rescue one man, a man convicted of treason? Saxtorph’s bet was that they wouldn’t. If they did anything, it would most likely be to order the ship destroyed simple and safe; leave an undeflectably large mass ahead of her before she brought home intelligence of the black hole.

He’d not had the heart to express his opinion as more than a possibility, nor did he now. After all, in the course of time Tyra might conceivably manage to rouse public sentiment and turn it into political pressure. She was a skilled writer, and beautiful. Never had he pointed out that her success must entail mortal hazard to a number of other lives. Once he’d thought Dorcas was about to say it, and had given her their private “steer clear” sign. “She’s got grief aplenty as is,” he explained later.

“We start by peering, don’t we?” Carita put in. Good girl, Saxtorph thought. You can always count on her for nuts-and-bolts common sense.

“Right,” he said. “Not that I expect we’ll learn a lot. However, let’s secure every loose end we can before we decide on any further moves.”

“We shall c-call them,” Tyra stammered. “Shall we not?”

“Well, I suppose we should, but I want to gang mighty warily. Twon’t be easy, you know.”

Indeed not. Aberration and Doppler effect complicated the task abundantly. The speed that caused them made matters worse yet. If Rover sent a message, by the time a response could arrive, Sherrek would have passed the point where Rover lay. Saxtorph meant to stay always well clear. It would be nice if he could fake matched velocity by popping in and out of hyperspace. Too bad that transition between relativistic and quantum modes required time to get the wave functions of atoms into the proper phase relationships. Late in the war the kzinti had figured this out and discovered what the neutrino emission pattern was when a drive prepared itself. Warned of impending attack from an un-predictable new direction, they’d actually won a couple of engagements.

Modern vessels changed state in minutes. The engineers talked about future models that would only take seconds. Rover’s antiquated engine needed almost half an hour. Ordinarily that made no difference. You’d be doing something else meanwhile anyway, such as completing your climb sufficiently high out of a gravity well. But here she’d better come no closer than a quarter billion klicks ahead of Sherrek. Preferably much more.

“Bloody hell!” cried Ryan. “Why are we glooming and dooming like this? We’ve found her! Let’s throw a proper luau.”

A sob caught in Tyra’s throat. “Thank you, Kam. Yes. Let us.”

When she’s seen the ship and doesn’t know whether her father is alive or dead or worse, thought Saxtorph. That’s one gallant lass. “Okay,” he said. “The computers can handle the observations. We’ll put other functions on auto and relax. Aside from you, Kam. We expect something special for dinner this evenwatch.”

“I will help,” Tyra said. “I… need to.”

“No, you don’t,” Saxtorph told her. “At least, not right off. Report to the saloon. What I need help with is downing two or three large schooners.”

She smiled forlornly as he entered, but she did smile. Quickly, before the rest arrived, he took both her hands in his. Their eyes met and lingered. Hearing footfalls, they let go. He felt a little breathless and giddy.

Either Tyra put tension aside and cheered up in the course of the next eight hours, or she did a damn good job of acting. The party wasn’t riotous, but it became warm, affectionate, finally sentimental. After they started singing, she gave them several ballads from her homeland. She had a lovely voice.

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Next: Chapter XV