“No, I must speak the truth,” said Chief Communications Officer. “We will continue trying if the commander orders, but I respectfully warn it will be a total waste of time and effort. The commander knows we have beamed every kind of signal on every band available to us. Not so much as an automaton has responded. That vessel is dead.”
Or sleeping beyond any power of ours to disturb, thought Weoch-Captain. He stared into the screen before him as if into a forest midnight. At its distance, the runaway was a thin flame, crawling across the stars. Imagination failed to feel the immensity of its haste and of the energy borne thereby.
“I concur,” he said after a minute. “Deactivate your apparatus and stand by for further orders.” Rage flared. “Go, you sthondat-‘tic’taer’t Go!”
The image blinked off. Weoch-Captain mastered his temper. Chief Communications Officer did not deserve that, he thought. This past time, locked in futility, has made me as irascible as the lowliest crew member.
What, do I regret taking it out on him? I am thinking like a monkey also by looking inward and gibing at myself. No other Hero must ever know. Yes, we are badly overdue for some action.
Weoch-Captain cast introspection from him and concentrated on the future. Not that he had a large choice. He could not overhaul Sherrek, board, and learn its fate. He had repeatedly suppressed an impulse to have it destroyed, that object which mocked him with silence. The Patriarchs would decide what to do about it. He could return directly to them and report. A human shipmaster would do so as a matter of course, given the circumstances.
The High Admiral has granted me broad discretion. If I come back with my basic mission half-completed, someone else may take it from me and go capture the glory. Also, I do not think like a monkey.
He summoned Astronomer’s image. “Does analysis suggest anything new about the perturbation you noticed?” he inquired without expectations.
“No, or I would have informed the commander immediately. The data are too sparse. Something roiled the interstellar medium besides Sherreh, a few light-days aft of where we found it, but the effect was barely noticeable. The commander recalls my idea that a stray rock encountered the screen fields, too small to penetrate but large enough to leave a trail as it was flung aside in fragments. Further number-crunching has merely reinforced my opinion that a search would be useless.”
Yes, thought Weoch-Captain. The overwhelming size of space. And if we did retrieve a meteoroidal shard or two, what of it? An improbable encounter, but not impossible, and altogether meaningless. Whatever happened to Sherrek happened a light-year farther back, two years in the past, which is when we established that it ceased communicating.
And yet I have a hunter’s intuition
A cold thrill passed through him. He dismissed Astronomer and called Executive Officer. “Prepare for hyperspace,” he said. “We shall proceed to our primary goal.”
“At once, sir!” the kzin rejoiced.
“En route, you will conduct combat drill with full simulations. The crew have grown edgy and ill-coordinated. You will make them again into an efficient fighting machine. Despite what we have learned from the beamcast, there is no foreseeing what we will find at the far end.”
Humans? thought Weoch-Captain. Maybe, maybe. According to our information, the black hole was not their principal objective; but monkey curiosity, if nothing else, may hold them at it still. Or I know not, I simply have a feeling that they are involved in Sherrek’s misfortune. They, the same who destroyed Werlith-Commandant and his great enterprise.
Be there, Saxtorph, that I may take the glory of killing you.