“Put me through again to the human commander,” said Weoch-Captain.
“Yes, sire,” replied Communications Officer.
Human, thought Weoch-Captain. Not monkey, whatever my position may require me to call him in public. A brave and resourceful enemy. I well-nigh wish we were more equally matched when I fight him. But no one must know that.
His optics showed Rover, an ungainly shape, battered and wayworn. Should he claim it too for a trophy? No, let Saxtorph’s head suffice; and it would not have much meaning either, when he returned in his glory to take a full name, a seat among the Patriarchs, the right to found a house of his own. Still, his descendants might cherish the withered thing as a sign of what their ancestor did. Weoch-Captain’s glance shifted to the great artifact. Power laired there, power perhaps to make the universe tremble. “Arrrh,” he breathed.
The screens blanked. The lights went out. He tumbled through an endless dark.
“Ye-a-a-ach, what’s this? What the venom’s going on?” Screams tore at air that had ceased to blow from ventilators. Weoch-Captain recognized his state. He was weightless.
“Stations, report!” No answer except the chaos in the corridors. Everything was dead. The crew were ghosts flapping blindly around in a tomb. Nausea snatched at Weoch-Captain,
He fought it down. If down existed any more, adrift among stars he no longer saw. He shouldn’t get spacesick. He never had in the past when he orbited free. He must act, take charge, uncover what was wrong, rip it asunder and set things right. He groped his way by feel, from object to suddenly unfamiliar object. “Quiet!” he bawled. “Hold fast! To me, officers, to me, your commander!”
The sickness swelled inside him.
He reached the door and the passage beyond. A body blundered into his. Both caromed, flailing air, rebounding from bulkheads, all grip on dignity lost. “My eyes, arh, my eyes,” moaned the other kzin. “Did the light burn them out? I am blind. Help me, help me.”
An idea took Weoch-Captain by the throat. He bared teeth at it, but it gave him a direction, a quarry. Remembrance was a guide. He pushed along corridors where noise diminished as personnel mastered panic. Good males, he thought amidst the hammerblows of blood in ears and temples. Valiant males. Heroes.
His goal was the nearest observation turret. It had transparent ports for direct viewing, backup in case of electronic failures, which he kept unshuttered during any action. He fumbled through the entry. A blue-white beam, too dazzling to look near, stabbed across the space beyond. It disappeared as Swordbeak floated past. Weoch-Captain reached a pane and squinted. Stars clustered knife-sharp. Carefully, fingers hooked on frames, he moved to the next.
A gray curve, a jutting tower, yes, the relic of the ancient lords, the end of his quest. Swordbeak slipped farther along. Weoch-Captain shrieked, clapped palms to face, bobbed helpless in midair.
Slowly the after-images faded. The glare hadn’t blinded him. By what light now came in, he discerned metal and meters. He understood what had happened.
Somehow the humans had opened a new hole in the shell. Radiation tore the life from his ship.
Sickness overwhelmed him. He vomited. Foul gobbets and globules swarmed around his head and up his nostrils. He fled before they strangled him.
Yes, death is in my bones, he knew. How long can I fight it off, and why? You have conquered, human.
No! He shoved feet against bulkhead and arrowed forward. The plan took shape while he flew. “Meet at Station Three!” he shouted against night. “All hands to Station Three for orders! Pass the word on! Your commander calls you to battle!”
One by one, clumsily, many shivering and retching, they joined him. Officers identified themselves, crew rallied round them. Some had found flashlights. Fangs and claws sheened in the shadows.
He told them they would soon die. He told them how they should. They snarled their wrath and resolution.
Spacesuits were lockered throughout the ship. Kzinti sought those assigned them. In gloom and free fall, racked by waxing illness, a number of them never made it.
Air hung thick, increasingly chill. Recyclers, thrust-ers, radios in the spacesuits were inoperative. Well, but the pumps still had capacitor power, and you wouldn’t have use for more air than your reserve tank held. You had your legs to leap with. You knew where you were bound, and could curse death by yourself.
Weoch-Captain helped at the wheel of his airlock, opening it manually. Atmosphere howled out, momentarily mist-white, dissipated, revealed the stars afresh. He followed it. Rover wasn’t in sight. It must have scampered away. Maybe Swordbeak’s hull blocked it off. The artifact was a jaggedness straight ahead. He gauged distance, direction, and velocities as well as he was able, bunched his muscles, and leaped, a hunter at his quarry.
“Hee-yaa!” he screamed. The noise rattled feebly in his helmet. Blood came with it, droplets and smears.
Headed across the void, he could look around. Except for his breathing, the rattle of fluid in his lungs, he had fallen into a silence, an enormous peace. Here and there, glints moved athwart constellations, the space-suits of his fellows. We too are star-stuff, he thought. Sun-stuff. Fire.
Hardly any of them would accomplish the passage, he knew. Most would go by, misaimed, and perish somewhere beyond. A lucky few might chance to pass in front of the furnace mouth and receive instant oblivion. Those who succeeded would not know where to go. There had been no way for Weoch-Captain to describe what he had learned from long days of study. A few might spy him, recognize him, seek him, but it was unlikely in the extreme.
No matter. Because of him they would die as warriors, on the attack.
Swordbeak receded. It had still had a significant component of velocity toward the sphere when the flame struck, though it was not on a collision course. It left him that heritage for his flight.
Rover hove into view. Saxtorph was coming back to examine the havoc he had wrought, was he? Well, he’d take a while to assess what his screens and instruments told him, and realize what it meant and then what could he do? Unlimber his grapnel and collect dying kzinti?
He can try raying us, Weoch-Captain thought. He must have an industrial laser. I would certainly do it in his place. But as a weapon it’s slow, unwieldy, and I am almost at my mark.
The shell filled half of heaven. Its curve now hid the deadly light; only stars shone on spires, mazes, unknown engines. Weoch-Captain tensed.
A latticework seemed to spring at him. He grabbed a member. His strength ebbing, he nearly lost hold and shot on past. Somehow he kept the grip, and slammed to a halt. He clung while he got his wind back. Rags of darkness floated across his eyes.
Onward, though, lest he die unfulfilled. It was hard, and grew harder moment by moment as he clambered down. With nothing left him but the capacitor supplying the air pump and a little heat, he must by himself bend the joints at arms, legs, and fingers against interior pressure. With his mind going hazy, he must stay alert enough to find his way among things he knew merely from pictures, while taking care not to push so hard that he drifted away in space.
Nevertheless he moved.
A glance aloft. Yes, Rover was lumbering about. Maybe Saxtorph had guessed what was afoot. Weoch-Captain grinned. He hoped the human was frantic.
He’d aimed himself carefully, and luck had been with him. His impact was close to the activator. He reached it and went in among the structures and darknesses.
On a lanyard he carried a flashlight. By its glow he examined that which surrounded him. Yes, according to Yiao-Captain’s report, this object like a lever and that object like a pedal ought to close a connection when pushed. The tnuctipun had scarcely intended any such procedure. Somewhere must be an automaton, a program, and shelter for whatever crew the black hole ship bore on its warfaring. But the tnuctipun too installed backup systems. Across billions of years, Weoch-Captain hailed them, his brother warriors.
This may not work, he cautioned himself. I can but try to reave the power from the humans.
I do not know where it will go, or if it will ever come back into our space. Nor will I know. I shall be dead. Proudly, gloriously.
A spasm shook him, but he had spewed out everything in his stomach before he left Swordbeak. Parched and vile-tasting mouth, dizziness, ringing ears, blood coughed forth and smeared over faceplate, wheezing breath, shaky hands, weakness, weakness, yes, it was good to die. He got himself well braced against metal to be inside this framework was like being inside a cane-brake at home, he thought vaguely, waiting for prey and pushed with the whole force that remained to him. Aboard Rover, shortly afterward, they saw their prize disappear.