Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Next: Chapter XVI

Chapter XV

Effort upon effort succeeded ultimately in getting through. The first partial, distorted reply croaked forth. Dorcas heard and yelled. She, who had the most knowledge of kzin xenology, was prepared to speak through a translator for her band. What she would say, she could not foresee; she must grope forward. Could she bargain, could she threaten? To her husband she admitted that her hopes were low. He agreed, more grimly than the situation seemed to warrant as far as they two were concerned.

She was not prepared for human words.

“Sind Sie wirklich Menschen?” And what must be Tyra’s own dialect: “Gud Jesu, endelig! Hvor langt, hvor langt ” Interference ripped the cry asunder. Static hissed and snarled like a kzin.

“Hang in there,” Saxtorph said. “I’ll be back.” He scrambled from his seat and out of the cabin. Dorcas’ gaze followed him.

Nobody else had been listening. To endure repeated failures is mere masochism, if you yourself can do noth-ing about them. Saxtorph pounded on Tyra’s door. “Wake up!” he bellowed. “We’ve contacted your father! He lives, he lives!”

The door flew open and she stumbled into his arms. She slept unclothed. He held her rightly until she stopped weeping and shivered only a little. She was warm and firm and silken. “We don’t know more than that,” he mouthed. Did desire shout louder in his blood than compassion? “It’s going to take time. What’ll come of it, we can’t tell. But we’re working on it, Tyra. We are.”

She drew herself free and stood before him. Briefly, fists clenched at her sides. Then she remembered the situation, crossed arms over the fairness above and below, caught a ragged breath and blinked the tears away. “Yes, you will,” she answered before she fled, “because you are what you are. I can abide.”

She did, calmly, even blithely, while three daycycles passed and the story arrived in shreds and snatches. When at last the whole crew met, bodily, for they needed to draw strength from each other, she sat half smiling.

Saxtorph looked around the saloon table. “Okay,” he said with far more steadiness than he felt, “Peter Nordbo is alive, well, and alone. Two years alone, but better that than the company he was keeping, and apparently he’s stayed sane. The problem is how to debark him. I can be honest now and tell you that I don’t expect any navy will do the job, nor anybody else that may have the capability.”

“Why not?” Carita asked. “He’s got important information, hasn’t he, about the black hole? That expedition checked it over as thoroughly as they could.”

The captain began filling his pipe. “Yah, but you see, their information’s in the radio beam the ship was transmitting till he took over. A hell of a lot quicker, easier, and safer to recover than by matching velocity and boarding. Oh, I daresay what he’s gone through and what he’s done will stir up a wave of public sympathy, but unless it becomes a tsunami, that probably won’t be enough.”

“Among the considerations,” Dorcas added in an impersonal tone, “Sherrek is approaching kzin-controlled space. Kzinti hyperships are bound to be sniffing about. A few of their kind did have valid reasons, from their viewpoint, to flee Alpha Centauri twenty years ago, rather than die fighting or get taken prisoner. The kzinti will search for any, as well as exploring on general principles. I agree the chance of their spotting Sherrek’s trail by accident is small, but it is finite, and every month that passes makes it larger. I can well imagine political objections to risking an unwanted incident, on top of every other argument.”

“We can go home, report this, and agitate for help,” Saxtorph said. “It’s the sensible, obvious course. I won’t veto it, if that’s what you want.”

Tyra gave him a sea-blue regard. “You have a different possibility,” she said low.

His grin twisted. “You’ve gotten to know me, huh?”

She nodded. Light sheened across her hair.

“It’s a dicey thing,” he said. “Some danger to us, a lot to your father. But if it works, you’ll have him back in days.”

“Else years,” she replied as softly as before, “or never.” Only her fingernails, white where she gripped the tabletop, revealed more. “What think you on?”

“We’ve, uh, discussed it, him and Dorcas and me. In the jaggedy fashion you’ve observed. We didn’t want to announce this earlier, because we had to do some figuring and would’ve hated to… disappoint you.” Saxtorph put fire to pipe. “Yon ship carries a pair of flyby capsules, unpowered but made to withstand extremely heavy radiation. As much as you’d get at one-half c. He can get inside one and have its launcher toss him out.” He puffed forth a cloud.

“You believe you can recover him,” she said, and began to tremble ever so slightly.

“Yes. Our new grapnel field installation. If we get the configuration and timing just right if not, you realize, he’s gone beyond any catching if we do, we can lock on. Rover has more mass by several orders of magnitude. We estimate that the combined momentum will mean a velocity of about 200 klicks per second, well within our delta v reserve.”

“Down from… that speed? I should think ” she must struggle to utter it “the acceleration overcomes your polarizers and tears your grappler out through the hull.”

“Smart girl.” How ludicrously inadequate that was for his admiration. “It would also reduce him to thin jelly. We can do up to fifty g. The capsules have interior polarizers with power to counteract a bit more, but we want a safety factor. Our systems can handle it too. Do you know about deep-sea fishing? Your dolphins may have told stories of marlin and tarpon.”

She nodded again. “I saw a documentary once. And in the Frisian Sea on Wunderland I have myself taken a dinotriton.” Ardor flamed up. “I see! You let the capsule run, but never far enough to get away, and you play it, you pull it in a little at a time ”

“Right. The math says we can do it in three and a half daycycles, through a distance of 225 billion kilometers. In practice it’ll doubtless be harder.” He had to have a moment’s relief. “Anderson’s Law, remember: ‘Everything takes longer and costs more.

Awe struck her. She sagged back in her chair. “The skill ”

“The danger,” Dorcas said. “At any point we can fail. Rover may then suffer damage, although if we stand ready I don’t expect it’ll cripple us. But your father will be a dead man.”

“What thinks he?”

“He’s for it,” Saxtorph replied. “Of course a buck like that would be. But he leaves the decision to us. With… his blessing. And we, Dorcas and I, we leave it to you. I imagine Kam and Carita will go along with whatever you choose.”

Abruptly Tyra’s voice wavered. “Kam,” she said, “you have taught me a word of yours, a very good, brave word. I use it now.” She leaped to her feet. “Go for broke!” she shouted.

The Hawaiian and the Jinxian cheered.

Thereafter it was toil, savage demands on brain and body, nerves aquiver and pulled close to breaking, heedless overuse of stimulants, tranquilizers, whatever might keep the organism awake and alert.

No humans could have done the task. The forces involved were immensely too great, changeable, complex. Nor could they be felt at the fingertips; over spatial reaches, the lightspeed that carried them became a laggard, and the fisher must judge what was happening when it would not manifest itself for minutes. The computer program that Dorcas wrote with the aid of the computer that was to use it, this held the rod and reeled the line.

Yet humans must be in the loop, constantly monitoring, gauging, making judgments. Theirs was the intuition, the instinct and creative insight, that no one has engineered into any machine. The Saxtorphs were the two best qualified. Carita could handle the less violent hours. The main burden fell on Dorcas. Ryan and Tyra kept them fed, coffeed, medicated. Often she rubbed a back, kneaded shoulders, ran a wet washcloth over a face, crooned a lullaby at a catnap. Mostly she did it for the captain.

From dead Sherrek, the cannonball that held the living shot free. Unseeable amidst the light of lethal radiation, a force-beam reached to lay hold. Almost, the grip failed. Needles spun on dials and Dorcas cast her man a look of terror. Things stabilized. The hook was in.

Gently, now, gently. Itself a comet trailing luminance, the capsule fled. The grapnel field stretched, tugging, dragging Rover along, but how slowly slowing it. As distance grew, precision diminished. The capsule plunged about. The Saxtorphs ordered compensating boosts. Ideally, they could maintain contact across the width of a planetary system. In feet, the chance of losing it was large.

They played their fish.

Hour by hour, day by day, the haste diminished, the gap closed. Worst was a moment near the end, when the capsule was visible in a magnifying screen, and suddenly rolled free. Somehow Dorcas clapped the grapnel back onto it. Then: “Take over for a while, Bob,” she choked, put head in hands, and wept. He couldn’t recall, at that point, when he had last seen her shed tears.

Ship and sphere drew nigh. A cargo port opened. The catch went in. The port shut and air roared into the bay. Some time yet must pass; at first that metal was too cold for flesh to approach. When at length its own hatch cracked, the warmth and stench of life long confined billowed out.

A man crept after. He rose unsteadily, tall, hooknosed, bushy-bearded, going gray, though still hard and lithe. He climbed a ladder. A door swung wide for him. Beyond waited his daughter.

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Next: Chapter XVI