Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Chapter XVI

The song of her working systems throbbed through Rover, too softly for ears to hear anything save rustles and murmurs, yet somehow pervading bones, flesh, and spirit. In Ryan’s cabin Carita asked, “But why are we headed back to the black hole? Add a week’s travel time at least, plus whatever we spend there. I’ve seen the damn thing. Why not straight to Wunderland?”

She had been asleep, exhausted, when her shipmates made the decision, and had only lately awakened, to eat ravenously and join her friend. The rest had spent their remnant strength laying plans and getting on hyperspatial course. Ryan took the first mass detector watch. Tyra had it now, drowsily; when relieved, she would doubtless seek her bunk again.

“We thought you’d agree, and in any case wouldn’t appreciate being hauled out to cast a vote when the count could just go one way,” Ryan answered. “Wherever we picked, it was foolish to linger. Nothing else to gain, and a small possibility that a ratcat moku might suddenly pop up and shout, ‘Boo!’ Care for a drink?”

“You know me. In several different meanings of the word.” Carita propped a pillow between her and the bulkhead and lounged back, her legs twin pillars of darkness on the gaudy bedspread. Ryan stepped across to a cabinet above a minifridge. He’d crowded a great deal of sybaritism into his quarters. In the screen, a barely clad songstress sat under a palm tree near a beach, plucked a ukulele, and looked seductive as she crooned. He did esoteric things with rum and fruit juices.

Meanwhile he explained: “Partly it’s a matter of recuperation. Nordbo’s served a hitch in Hell, and we visited the forecourts of Purgatory, eh? When we return, the sensation and the official flapdoodle are going to make what happened after the red sun business seem like a session of the garden committee of the Philosophical Society. We’d better be well rested and have a lot of beforehand thinking done.”

“M-m, yes, that makes sense. But I can tell you pleasanter places to let our brains simmer down in than that black hole. You know what the name means in Russian?”

Ryan laughed. “Uh-huh. So they call it a ‘frozen star.’ Pretty turn of phrase. Except that this one never really was a star, and is anything but frozen.”

“It’s turned into a kind of star, then.” For a moment they were silent. The same vision stood before them, a radiance more terrible century by century, at last day by day, until its final nova-like self-immolation. For the most part spacefarers speak casually, prosaically about their work, because the reality of the universe is as daunting as the reality of death.

“Well, but we’ve got a reason,” Ryan continued. “Nailing down a claim of discovery. The kzinti examined the artifact as thoroughly as they could, much more than our quick once-over. Especially, of course, with an eye to the military potentials. Nordbo was there. He knows fairly well what they learned. But as you’d expect, he needs to refresh his memory. He told us the kzinti ship beamcast a full description till he got control and shut it off. But we aren’t equipped to retrieve it. Think how much trouble we had communicating with him. We could waste weeks, and not be sure of recording more than snatches. Let Nordbo revisit the actual thing, repeat a few measurements and such, and he can write that description himself, or enough of it to establish the claim.”

Carita raised her brows. “What claim? The government’s bound to swarm there, take charge, and stamp everything Incredibly Secret.”

Ryan nodded. “Does a shark eat fish? They’ll be plenty peeved at us for telling the hoi polloi that it exists at all. We’ve got to do that, if only as part of Nordbo’s vindication, but I’ll concede that it’s probably best to keep quiet about the technical details. However, he’ll have priority of discovery. For legal purposes, the kzinti and their beamcast can be ignored. They shanghaied him, among numerous other unlawful acts; they’ve forfeited any rights, not to mention that there is no court with jurisdiction. He’ll be entitled to a discoverer’s award. In view of the importance of the find, and the fact that public disputes would be very awkward for the government, that award will be plenty big and we’ll share it with him.”

“Ah-ha!” Carita exulted. “I see. You were right, there was no need to roll me out of the sheets to vote.”

“Same thing should apply to the kzinti ship, if the Navy elects to go recover it for intelligence purposes,” Ryan said. “Not likely, though. My guess is they’ll simply read the message and then jam it. The black hole is our real jackpot.” He finished mixing the drinks and gave her one. “Pomaika’i.”

“Into orbit.” Rims clinked. He sat down on the edge of the bunk.

Carita turned thoughtful. “That poor man. He will be, uh, vindicated, won’t he?”

“Oh, yes. If necessary, he can take truth tests, but the story by itself, with the corroboration we can give, should do the trick. His name will be cleared, his family will be reinstated in its clan, and he’ll get back the property that was confiscated, or compensation for it if reversion isn’t practical. He won’t need any award money. I suspect he’s forcing himself, for our sake.”

Carita stared before her. “How’s he taking all this?”

Ryan shrugged. “Too early to tell. Excitement; exhaustion; the last scrap of endurance that stimulants could give, spent on making plans. But surely he’ll be okay. He’s a tough cookie if ever I bit into one.”

Compassion gentled her voice. “He met his little girl-child, and she was a not-quite-young woman. She told him his wife has died.”

“I think I saw grief, though he was fairly stoic throughout. However, it can’t have been a huge surprise. And he wouldn’t be human if, down underneath, he didn’t feel a slight relief.”

“Yes. She’d have been old. I bet he’d have stuck loyally by her till the end, but Well, sheer pride in his daughter ought to help him a lot, emotionally.”

“A rare specimen, her.” Ryan let out an elaborate sigh. “And sexy as Pele, under that brisk, sprightly, competent surface. I’d give a lot to be in the path of the next eruption. No such luck, though. In a perfectly pleasant fashion, she’s made that clear. It’s the single fault I find in her.”

Carita drank deep, frowned, and drank again. “Her eyes are on the skipper. And his on her. They can’t hide it any longer, no matter how hard they try.”

“I know, I know. I’m resigned. If anybody rates that fling more than me, that is Bob does.”

“Dorcas.”

“Aw, she shouldn’t mind too much. She’s as realistic a soul as our species has got.”

Carita’s lips tightened. “I’m afraid this wouldn’t be just a fling.”

“Huh? Come on, now.”

“You’ve been giving Tyra your whole attention. I’ve paid some to him.”

“You really think ?” Flustered, Ryan took a long drink of his own. “Well, none of our business.” He relaxed, smiled, leaned over, laid an arm across her waist. “How about we attend to what does concern us, firepants? It’s been a while.”

For a little span yet Carita sat troubled, then she put her tumbler aside, smiled back, and turned to him. The ship sailed on through lightlessness.

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Next: Chapter XVII