Stars crowded the encompassing night, wintry brilliant. Alpha Centauri was only one among them, and Sol shone small. The Milky Way glimmered around the circle of sight, like a river flowing back into its well-spring. Rifts in it were dustclouds such as veil the unknown heart of the galaxy. Big in vision, a worldlet hilled and begrown with strangeness, loomed the black hole artifact.
Rover held station fifty kilometers off the hemisphere opposite the radiation-spouting gap. “Below” her, Peter Nordbo, with Carita Fenger to help, examined a structure that he believed could throw the entire mass into hyperspace. Elsewhere squatted the robot prospector, patiently tracing a circuit embedded in the shell substance.
Aboard ship was leisure. Dorcas kept the bridge, mostly on general principles. If the robot signaled that it had finished, she would confer with Nordbo and order it to a different site. Ryan watched a show in his cabin; some people would have been surprised to know it was King Lear. Saxtorph and Tyra sat over coffee in the saloon. When Carita relieved him on the surface and he flitted back up, he had meant to sleep, but the Wunderlander met him and they fell to talking.
“Your dad shouldn’t work so hard,” he said. “Three watches out of four, daycycle after daycycle. He ought to take it easier. We’ve got as much time as we care to spend.”
“He is impatient to finish and go home,” Tyra said. “You can understand.”
“Yes. Home to sadness, though.”
“But more to hope.”
Saxtorph nodded. “Uh-huh. He’s that sort of man. Not that I have any close acquaintance, but a great guy. I see now why you laid everything on the line to buy a chance of having him again.” He paused before adding in a rush: “And with you once more in his life, he’s bound to become happy.”
She looked away. “You should not Oh, Robert, you are too kind, always too kind to me. I shall miss you so much.”
He reached across the table and took her hand. “Hey, there, little lady, don’t borrow trouble. You know I’ll be detained on Wunderland for a goodly spell, like it or not.” He grinned. “Want to help me like it?”
Her eyes sought back to his. The blood mounted in her face. “Yes, we must see what we can ”
Dorcas’ voice tore across hers. “Emergency stations! Kzinti ship!” Coming from every annunciator, it seemed to roll and echo down the corridors.
“Judas priest! To the boat, Tyra!” Saxtorph shouted. He was already on his way. His feet slapped out a devil’s tattoo on the deck. As he ran, the enormity of the tidings crashed into him.
At the control cabin, he burst through its open door and flung himself into the seat by Dorcas‘. In the forward viewport, the shell occulted the suns of their desire. Starboard, port, aft gleamed grandeur indifferent to them. The communicator, automatically switched on when it detected an incoming signal, gave forth the flat English of a translator: “ not attempt to escape. If we observe the neutrino signature of a hyperspatial drive starting up, we will fire.”
Sweat shone on the woman’s scalp, around her Belter crest. Saxtorph caught an acrid whiff of it, or was that his own, running down his ribs? Her fingers moved firm over a keyboard. “Ha, I’ve got him,” she whispered. A speck appeared in the scanner screen. She magnified.
Toylike still, the other vessel appeared. Saxtorph followed current naval literature. He identified the lean length, the guns and missile tubes and ray projectors, of a Raptor-class warcraft. The meters told him she was about half a million klicks off, closing fast.
“Acknowledge!” the radio snapped.
“Message received,” he said around an acid lump in his gorge. “What do you want? We’re here legitimately. Our races are at peace.” Yah, sure, sure.
“Oh, God, Bob,” Dorcas choked while the beam winged yonder. “The call was the first sign I had. She may have emerged a long distance away. If we’d spotted her approaching ”
He squeezed her arm. “We didn’t keep an alert, sweetheart. We didn’t. The bunch of us. What reason had we to fear anything like this?”
“Weoch-Captain of Hero vessel Swordbeak, speaking for the Patriarchy.” Now, behind the synthetic human tones, were audible the growls and spits of kzinti. “You trespass on our property, you violate our secrets, and I believe that in the past you have been guilty of worse. Identify yourself.”
Saxtorph stalled. “Why do you ask that? According to you, no human has a real name.”
Can we cut and run for it? he wondered. No. The question shows how kicked in the gut I am. She can outboost us by a factor of five, at least. Not that she’d need to. Even at this remove, her lasers can probably cripple us. A missile can cross the gap in a few minutes, and we’ve nothing to fend it off. (Grab it with our grapnel, no, too slow, and anyway, there’d be a second or a third missile, or a multiple warhead, or ) She herself, at her acceleration, she’ll be here in half an hour. But how can I think about flight? Carita and Pete are down at the black hole.
It had flashed through him in the short seconds of transmission lag. “Do as you are told, monkey! Give me your designation.”
No sense in provoking the kzin further by a refusal. He’d soon be able to read the name, jaunty across these bows. “Freighter Rover of Leyport, Luna. I repeat, our intentions are entirely honest and we can’t imagine what we may have done that you could call wrong.”
Silence crackled. Dorcas sat stiff, fists clenched.
“Rover. Harrgh! Saxtorph-Captain, is it? Give me video.”
Huh? The man sat numbed. The woman did the obedience.
Weoch-Captain evidently chose to make it mutual. His tiger head slanted forward in the screen, as if he peered out of his den at prey. “So that is what you look like,” he rumbled. Eyes narrowed, tongue ran over fangs. “How I hoped that mine would be this pleasure.”
“What do you mean?” Dorcas cried.
Silence. The heart drubbed in Saxtorph’s breast.
“You know full well,” said Weoch-Captain. “You killed the Heroes and destroyed their works at the red sun.”
So the story had reached Kzin. Not too surprising, as spectacular as it was. Saxtorph had been assured that the Alpha Centaurian and Solar governments had avoided being very specific in their official communications thus far. They wanted to test ratcat reactions an item at a time. But spacefarers, especially nonhuman spacefarers with less of a grudge or none, traveling from Wunderland to neutral planets, might well have passed details on to their kzin counterparts in the course of meetings.
“Through my whole long voyage, I hoped I would find you,” Weoch-Captain purred. His flattened ears lifted and spread. “A formidable opponent, a worthy one. If you behave yourselves and do as you are told, I promise you deaths quick and painless… No, not quite that for you, Saxtorph. I think you and I shall have single combat. Afterward I will take your body for my exclusive eating, fit nourishment for a Hero, and give your head a place among my trophies.”
Saxtorph braced himself. “You do us great honor, Weoch-Captain,” he croaked. “We thank you. We praise your large spirit.” What else could I say? Keep them happy. Kzinti don’t normally torture for fun, but if this one got vengeful enough he might take it out on Tyra, Dorcas, Kam, Carita, Peter. At the least, he might bring them, us, back with him. Unless we kill ourselves first.
In the magnifying viewport the Raptor had perceptibly gained size, eclipsing more and more stars.
Weoch-Captain flexed claws out, in, out again. “Good,” he said. “But I still will not talk at length to a monkey. Stand by. You will receive your final instructions when I arrive.”
The screen blanked.
“Bob, darling, darling.” Dorcas twisted about in her seat to cast her arms around him.
He hugged her. As always in crisis, confronting the worst, he had grown cool, watchful but half detached, a survival machine. Not that he saw any prospect of living onward, but “We should bring the others up,” he reminded her. “We can have a short time together.” Before the kzinti arrive.
“Yes.” He felt how she quelled her shuddering. Steady as he, she turned to the communicator and directed a broad beam at the sphere. “Carita, Peter, get straight back to the ship,” she said crisply.
“Was ist what is bad?” sounded Nordbo’s hoarse bass.
“Never mind now. Move, I tell you!”
“Jawohl.” And: “Aye, aye, ma’am, we’re off,” from Carita.
Dorcas cut transmission. “I want to spare them while they flit,” she explained. “They’ll worry, but if they don’t happen to make the enemy out in the sky, they won’t be in shock.”
“Until we meet again,” Saxtorph agreed. “What about… Tyra and Kam? Shall we keep them waiting too?”
“We may as well, or better.”
“No. Maybe you weren’t being kind after all. I think Tyra would want to know right away, so she can, well, she can ” kiss me goodbye? “prepare herself, and meet the end with her eyes wide open. She’s like that.”
Dorcas bit her lip. “I can’t stop you if you insist.” Her words quivered a little. “But I thought you and I, these fifteen minutes or so we have left before we must tell them ”
He grinned, doubtless rather horribly. “ ‘Fraid I couldn’t manage a quickie.”
She achieved a laugh. “Down, boy.” Soberly: “Not to get maudlin either. But let me say I love you, and thank you for everything.”
“Aw, now, the thanks are all due you, my lady.” He rose. She did. They embraced. He damned himself for wishing she were Tyra.
She kissed him long and hard. “That’s for what we’ve had.” The tears wouldn’t quite stay put. “And for, for everything we were going to have the kids and ”
Yah, he thought, our stored gametes. We never made provision for exogenesis, in case something clobbered us. They’ll stay in the freeze, those tiny ghosts of might-have-been, year after year after year, I suppose, forgotten and forsaken, like our robot yonder.
Saxtorph lurched where he stood. “Fanden i helvede!” he roared.
Dorcas stepped back. She saw his face, and the breath whistled in between her teeth. “What?”
The Danish of his childhood, “The Devil in Hell,” his father’s favorite oath, yes, truly, for a devil did squat just outside the hell star awaiting his command. His revelation spilled from him.
Fierceness kindled in her, she shouted, but then she must ask, “What if we fail?”
“Why, we open our airlocks and drink space,” he answered. He had dismissed the idea earlier because he knew she wouldn’t want suicide while any chance of being cleanly killed remained. “Though most likely the kzinti will be so enraged they’ll missile us on the spot. Come on, we haven’t got time to gab, let’s get going.”
They returned to their seats and controls. An order went out. On the tnuctipun structure, the robot prospector stirred. Cautiously, at minimum boost, it lifted. When it was well clear, the humans accelerated it harder. They must work fast, to have the machine positioned before the enemy came so near that watchers at instruments might notice it and wonder. They must likewise work precisely, mathematically, solving a problem of vectors and coordinates in three-dimensional space. “ line integral of velocity divergence dS ” Dorcas muttered aloud to the computer while her fingers did the real speaking. There passed through the back of Saxtorph’s awareness: If the scheme flops, this’ll be how we spent our last moments together. Appropriate.
A telltale blinked. Nordbo and Carita had arrived. “Kam, our friends are back,” the captain said through the intercom. “Cycle ‘em through and have them sit tight. Tyra, I think we can cope with our visitors.”
Except for Ryan’s “Aye,” neither of them responded. The quartermaster knew better than to distract the pair on the bridge. The woman must have understood the same on her own account. She isn’t whimpering or hysterical or anything, Saxtorph thought not her. Maybe, not being a spacehand, she won’t obey my order and stay at the boat. It’s useless anyway. But the most mutinous thing she might do is walk quietly, firmly through my ship to meet her dad.
“On station,” Dorcas sighed. She leaned back, hands still on the keys, ga/e on the displays. “It’ll take three or four mini-nudges to maintain, but I doubt the kzinti will detect them.”
The Raptor was big in the screen. Twin laser guns in the nose caught starlight and gleamed like eyes.
“Good.” Saxtorph’s attention skewered Rovers control board. He’d calculated how he wanted to move, at full thrust, when things started happening. Though his present location was presumably safe, he’d rather be as far off as possible. Clear to Wonderland would be ideal, a sunny patio, a beer stein in his fist, and at his side
“Go!” Dorcas yelled. She hit the switch that closed her last circuit. “Ki-yai!”
Afloat among stars, the robot prospector received the signal for which the program that she sent it had waited. It took off. At a hundred gravities of acceleration, it crossed a hundred kilometers of space in less than five seconds, to strike the shell around the black hole with the force of a boulder falling from heaven.
It crashed through. White light was in the radiation that torrented from the hole it left and smote the kzinti ship.