Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

Previous: Chapter III
Next: Chapter V

Chapter IV

Tiamat was crowded, Captain Jonah Matthieson decided. Even for the de facto capital of Wunderland’s Belt. It had been bad enough the last time Jonah was here. He shouldered through the line into the zero-G waiting area at the docks, a huge pie-shaped disk; those were at the ends of the sixty-by-twenty kilometer spinning cylinder that served the Serpent Swarm as its main base. There had been dozens of ships in the magnetic grapples: rockjack singleships, transports, freighters… refugee ships as well; the asteroid industrial bases had been heavily damaged during the Yamamoto’s raid.

Not quite as many as you would expect, though. The UN ramscoop ship’s weapon had been quarter-ton iron eggs traveling at velocities just less than a photon’s. When something traveling at that speed hit, the result resembled an antimatter bomb.

A line of lifebubbles went by, shepherded by medics. Casualties, injuries beyond the capacities of outstation autodocs. Some of them were quite small; he looked in the transparent surface of one, and then away quickly, swallowing. Shut up, he told his mind. Collateral damage can’t be helped. And there had been a trio of kzinti battlewagons in dock too, huge tapering daggers with tau-cross bows and magnetic launchers like openwork gunbarrels; S/as/ier-class fighters clung to the flanks, swarms of metallic lice. Repair and installation crews swarmed around them; Tiamat’s factories were pouring out warheads and sensor-effector systems.

The mass of humanity jammed solid in front of the exits. Jonah waited like a floating particle of cork, watching the others passed through the scanners one by one. Last time, with Ingrid forget that, he thought there had been a cursory retina scan, and four goldskin cops floating like a daisy around each exit. Now they were doing blood samples as well, presumably for DNA analysis; besides the human police, he could see waldo-guns, floating ovoids with clusters of barrels and lenses and antennae. A kzin to control them, bulking even huger in fibroid armour and helmet.

And all for little old me, he thought, kicking himself forward and letting the goldskin stick his hand into the tester. There was a sharp prickle on his thumb, and he waited for the verdict. Either the false indent holds, or it doesn’t. The four police with stunners and riot-armor, the kzin in full jjifantry rig, six waldos with 10-megawatt lasers… if it came to a fight, the odds were not good. Since all I have is a charming smile and a rejiggered light-pen.

“Pass through, pass through,” the goldskin said, in a tone that combined nervousness and boredom.

Jonah decided he couldn’t blame her; the kzinti security apparatus must have gone winging paranoid-crazy when Chuut-Rüt was assassinated, and then the killers escaped with human-police connivance. On second thoughts, these klongs all volunteered to work for the pussies. Bleep them.

He passed through the mechanical airlock and into one of the main transverse corridors. It was ten meters by twenty, and sixty kilometers long; three sides were small businesses and shops; on the fourth, spinward, was a slideway. There was a ring of transfer booths around the airlock exits, permanantly disabled; only kzinti and humans under their direct supervision were allowed the convenience of lightspeed pseudo-telepor-tation. The last time he had been here, a month ago, there had been murals on the walls of the concourse area. Prewar, faded and stained, but still gracious and marked with the springlike optimism of the settlement of the Alpha Centauri system. Outdoor scenes from Wunderland in its pristine condition, before the settlers had modified the ecology to suit the immigrants from Earth. Scenes of slowships, half-disassembled after their decades-long flight from the Solar System.

The murals had been replaced by holograms. Atrocity holograms, of survivors and near-survivors of the UN raid. Mostly from dirtside, since with an atmosphere to transmit blast and shock effects you had a greater transition between dead and safe. Humans crushed, burned, flayed by glass-fragments, mutilated; heavy emphasis on children. There was a babble of voices with the holos, weeping and screaming and moaning with pain, and a strobing title: Sol-System Killers! Their liberation is death! And an idealized kzin standing in front of a group of cowering mothers and infants, raising a shield to ward off the attack of a repulsive flatlander-demon.

Interesting, Jonah thought. Whoever had designed that had managed to play on about every prejudice a human resident of the Alpha Centauri system could have. It had to be a human psychist doing the selection; kzinti didn’t understand homo sapiens well enough. A display of killing power like this would make a kzin respectful. Human propagandists needed to whip their populations into a war-frenzy, and anger was a good tool. Make a kzin angry? You didn’t need to make them angry. An enemy would try to make a kzin angry, because that reduced their efficiency. Let this remind you that a collaborationist is not necessarily an incompetent. A traitor, a Murphy’s-asshole inconvenience, but not necessarily an idiot. Nor even amoral; he supposed it was possible to convince yourself that you were serving the greater good by giving in. Smoothing over the inevitable, since it did look like the kzinti were winning.

Jonah shook himself out of the trance and flipped himself over. I’ve got to watch this tendency to depression, he thought sourly. Finagle, I ought to be bouncing for

j°y

Instead, he felt a grey lethargy. His feet drifted into contact with the edge of the slideway, and he began moving slowly forward; more rapidly as he edged toward the center. The air became more quiet. There was always a subliminal rumble near the ends of Tiamat’s cylinder, powered metals and chemicals pumping into the fabricators. Now he would have to contact the Nipponese underworlder who had smuggled them from Tiamat to Wunderland in the first place, what had been his name? Shigehero Hirose, that was it. An oyabun, whatever that meant. There was the data they had downloaded from Chuut-Rüt’s computers, priceless stuff. He would need a message-maser to send it to Catskinner; the ship had been modified with an interstellar-capacity sender. And

“Hello, Captain.”

Jonah turned his head, very slowly. A man had touched his elbow. Stocky, even by flatlander standards, with a considerable paunch. Coal-black, with tightly curled wiry hair; pure Afroid, not uncommon in some ethnic enclaves on Wunderland but very rare on Earth, where gene-flow had been nearly random for going on four hundred years. General Buford Early, UN Space navy, late ARM. Jonah gasped and sagged sideways, a grey before his eyes like high-G blackout. There was another Flatlander but Jonah barely noticed. Early slipped a hand under his arm and bore him up with thick-boned strength. Archaic, like the man; he was… at least two centuries old. Impossible to tell, these days. The only limiting factor on how old you might be was when you were born, after medicine started progressing fast enough to compensate for advancing age…

‘Take it easy,“ Early said.

Eyes warred with mind. Early was here; Early was sitting in his office on Gibraltar Base back in the Solar System.

Jonah struggled for breath, then fell into the rhythm taught by the Zen adepts who had trained him for war. Calm flowed back. Much knowledge of war had fallen out of human culture in three hundred years of peace, before the kzinti came, but the monks had preserved a great deal. What UN bureaucrat would suspect an old man sitting quietly beneath a tree practicing and preserving dangerous technique? Jonah spoke to himself: Reality is change. Shock and fear result from imposing concepts on reality. Abandon concepts. Being is time, and time is Being. Birth and death is the life of the Buddha. Then: Thank you, roshi.

The men at either elbow guided him to the slower edge-strip of the slideway and onto the sidewalk. Jonah looked “ahead,” performed the mental trick that turned the cylinder into a hollow tower above his head, then back to horizontal. He freed his arms with a quiet flick and sank down on the chipped and stained poured-rock bench. That was notional in this gravity, but it gave you a place to hitch your feet.

“Well?” he said, looking at the second man.

This one was different. Younger, Jonah would say; eyes do not age or hold expression, but the small muscles around them do. Oriental eyes, more common. Both of them were in Swarm-Belter clothing, gaudy and somehow sleazy at the same time, with various mysterious pieces of equipment at their belts. Perfect cover, if you were pretending to be a modestly prosperous enterpreneur of the Serpent Swarm. The kzinti allowed a good deal of freedom to the Belters in this system; it was more efficient and required less supervision than running everything themselves. That would change as their numbers built up, of course.

“Well?” he said again.

Early grinned, showing strong and slightly yellowed teeth, and pulled a cheroot from a pocket. Actually less uncommon here than in the Solar System, Jonah thought, gagging slightly. “You didn’t seriously think that we’d let an opportunity like the Yamomoto raid go by and only put one arrow on the string, did you, Captain? By the way, this is my… associate, Watsuji Hajime.” The man smiled and bowed. “A member of the team I brought in.”

“Another stasis field?” Jonah said.

“We did have one ready,” Early said. “We like to have a little extra tucked away.”

“Trust the ARM,” Jonah said sourly.

The UN’s technological police had been operating almost as long as humans had been in space. Their primary function was to suppress technologies which had dangerous consequences… which turned out to be most technologies. For a long time they had managed to make Solar humanity forget that there had even been such things as war or weapons or murder. That was looked back upon as a Golden Age, now, after two generations of war with the kzinti; privately, Matthieson thought of it as the years of Stagnation. The ARM had not wanted to believe in the kzinti, not even when the crew of the Angel’s Pencil had reported their own first near-fatal contact with the felinoids. And when the war started, the ARM had still dealt out its hoarded secrets with the grudging reluctance of a miser.

“It’s for the greater good,” Early replied.

“Sure.” That you slowed down research and so when the kzinti hit us they had technological superiority? For that matter, why had it taken a century and a half to develop regeneration techniques? And millions of petty criminals jaywalkers and the like had been sliced, diced and sent to the organ banks before then. Ancient history, he told himself. The Belters had always hated the ARM…

“Certainly for the greater good that you’ve got backup, now,” Early continued. “We came in with a slug aimed at a weapons fabrication asteroid. The impact was quite genuine… God’s my witness ” he continued.

He’s old all right.

“ the intelligence we’ve gathered and beamed back is already worth the entire cost of the Yamamoto. And you and Lieutenant Raines succeeded beyond our hopes.”

Meaning you had no hope we’d survive, Jonah added to himself. Early caught his eye and nodded with an ironic turn of his full lips. The younger man felt a slight chill; how good at reading body language would you get, with two centuries of practice? How human would you remain?

“Speaking of which,” the general continued, “where is Lieutenant Raines, Matthieson?”

Jonah shrugged, looking away slightly and probing at his own feelings. “She… decided to stay. To come out later, actually, with Yarthkin-Schotmann and Montferrat-Palme. I’ve got all the data.”

Early’s eyebrows rose. “Not entirely unexpected.” His eyes narrowed again. “No personal animosities, here, I trust? We won’t be heading out for some time ” if ever, went unspoken “ and we may need to work with them again.”

The young Sol-Belter looked out at the passing crowd on the slideway, at thousands swarming over the handnets in front of the shopfronts on the other three sides of the cylinder.

“My ego’s a little bruised,” he said finally. “But… no.”

Early nodded. “Didn’t have the leisure to become all that attached, I suppose,” he said. “Good professional attitude.”

Jonah began to laugh softly, shoulders shaking. “Finagle, General, you are a long time from being a young man, aren’t you? No offense.”

“None taken,” the Intelligence officer said dryly.

“Actually, we just weren’t compatible.” What was that phrase in the history tape? Miscegenation abyss? Birth cohort gap? No… “Generation gap,” he said.

“She was only a few years younger than you,” Early said suspiciously.

“Biologically, sir. But she was born before the War. During the Long Peace. Wunderland wasn’t sown nearly as tight as Earth, or even the Solar Belt… but they still didn’t have a single deadly weapon in the whole system, saving hunting tools. I’ve been in the Navy or training for it since I was six! We just didn’t have anything in common except software, sex and the mission.” He shrugged again, and felt the lingering depression leave him. “It was like being involved with a younger version of my mother.”

Early shook his head, chuckling himself, a deep rich sound. “Temporal displacement. Doesn’t need relativity, boy; wait ‘til you’re my age. And now,” he continued, “we are going to have a little talk.”

“What’ve we been doing?”

“Oh, not a debriefing. That first. But then…” He grinned brilliantly. “A… job interview, of sorts.”

“Well. So.” The oyabun nodded and folded his hands.

Jonah looked around. They were in the three-twelve shell of Tiamat, where spin gave an equivalent of .72 G weight. Expensive, even now when gravity polarizers were beginning to spread beyond kzinti and military-manufacturing use. Microgravity is marvelous for most industrial use; there are other things that need weight, bearing children to term among them. This room was equally expensive; most of the furnishings were wood. The low tables at which they all sat, knees crossed. The black-lacquered carved screens with rampant tigers as well, and he strongly suspected that those were even older than General Buford Early. A set of Japanese swords rested in a niche, long katana and the short “sword of apology” on their ebony stand.

Sandalwood incense was burning somewhere, and the floor was covered in neat mats of plaited straw. Against all this the plain good clothes of the man who called himself Shigehero Hirose were something of a shock. The thin ancient porcelain of his sake cup gleamed as he set it down on the table, and spoke to the Oriental who had come with the general. Jonah kept his face elaborately blank; it was unlikely that either of them suspected his knowledge of Japanese… enough to understand most of a conversation, if not to speak it. Nippon’s tongue had never been as popular as her goods, being too difficult for outsiders to learn easily.

“It is… an unexpected honor to entertain one of the Tokyo branch of the clan, Shigehero was saying. ”And how do events proceed in the land of the Sun Goddess?“

Watsuji Hajime shrugged. “No better than can be expected, Uncle,” he replied, and sucked breath between his teeth. “This war presents opportunities, but also imposes responsibilities. Neutrality is impossible.”

“Regrettably, this is so,” Shigehero said. His face grew stern. “Nevertheless, you have revealed the Association’s codewords to outsiders.” They both glanced sidelong at Early and Matthieson. “Perhaps you are what you claim. Perhaps not. This must be demonstrated. Honor must be established.”

Whatever that meant, the Earther did not like it. His face stayed as expressionless as a mask carved from light-brown wood, but sweat started up along his brow. A door slid open, and one of the guards who had brought them here entered noiselessly. Jonah recognized the walk; training in the Art, one of the budo styles. Highly illegal on Earth until the War, and for the most part in the Alpha Centauri system as well. Otherwise he was a stocky nondescript man in loose black, although the Belter thought there might be soft armor beneath it. Moving with studied grace, he knelt and laid a featureless rectangle of blond wood by Watsuji’s left hand.

The Earther bowed his head, a lock of black hair falling over his forehead. Then he raised his eyes and slid the box in front of him, opening it with delicate care. Within were a white linen handkerchief, a folded cloth, a block of maple and a short curved guardless knife in a black leather sheath. Watsuji’s movements took on the slow precision of a religious ritual as he laid the maple block on the table atop the cloth and began binding the little finger of his left hand with the handkerchief, painfully tight. He laid the hand on the block and drew the knife. It slid free without sound, a fluid curve. The two men’s eyes were locked as he raised the knife.

Jonah grunted as if he had been kicked in the belly. The older man was missing a joint on the little finger of his left hand, too. The Sol-Belter had thought that was simply the bad medical care available in the Swarm, but anyone who could afford this room…

The knife flashed down, and there was a small spurt of blood, a rather grisly crunching sound like celery being sliced. Watsuji made no sound, but his face went pale around the lips. Shigehero bowed more deeply. The servant-guard walked forward on his knees and gathered up the paraphernalia, folding the cloth about it with the same ritual care. There was complete silence, save for the sigh of ventilators and Watsuji’s deep breathing, harsh but controlled.

The two Nipponjin poured themselves more of the heated rice wine and sipped. When Shigehero spoke again, it was in English.

“It is good to see that the old customs have not been entirely forgotten in the Solar System,” he said. “Perhaps my branch of the Association was… shall we say a trifle precipitate, when they decided emigration was the only way to preserve their, ah, purity.” He raised his glass slightly to the general. “When your young warriors passed through last month, I was surprised that so much effort had been required to insert so slender a needle. I see that we underestimated you.”

He picked up a folder of printout on the table before him. “It is correct that the… ah, assets you and your confederates represent would be a considerable addition to my forces,” he went on. “However, please remember that my Association is more in the nature of a family business than a political organization. We are involved in the underground struggle against the kzinti because we are human, little more.”

Early raised his cup of sake in turn; the big spatulate hands handled the porcelain with surprising delicacy. “You… and your, shall we say, black-clad predecessors have been involved in others’ quarrels before this. To be blunt, when it paid. The valuata we brought are significant, surely?”

Jonah blinked in astonishment. This is the cigar-chomping, kick-ass general I came to know and loathe? he thought. Live and learn. Learn so that you can go on living… Then again, before the kzinti attack Bu-ford Early had been a professor of military history at the ARM academy. You had to be out of the ordinary for that; it involved knowledge that would send an ordinary man to the psychists for memory-wipe.

Shigehero made a minimalist gesture. “Indeed. Yet this would also involve integrating your group in my command structure. An indigestible lump, a weakness in the chain of command, since you do not owe personal alliegence to me. And, to be frank, non-Nipponese generally do not rise to the decision-making levels in this organization. No offense.”

“None taken,” Early replied tightly. “If you would prefer a less formal link?”

Shigehero sighed, then brought up a remote “board from below the table, and signed to the guards. They quickly folded the priceless antique screens, to reveal a standard screen-wall.

“That might be my own inclination, esteemed General,” he said. “Except that certain information has come to my attention. Concerning Admiral Ulf Reichs-tein-Markham of the Free Wunderland Navy… I see your young subordinate has told you of this person? And the so-valuable ship he left in the Herrenmann’s care, and a… puzzling discovery they have made together.”

A scratching at the door interrupted him. He frowned, then nodded. It opened, revealing a guard and another figure who looked to Early for confirmation. The general accepted a datatab, slipped it into his belt unit and held the palm-sized computer to one ear.

Ah, thought Jonah. I’m not the only one to get a nasty shock today. The black man’s skin had turned greyish, and his hands shook for a second as he pushed the “wipe” control. Jonah chanced a glance at his eyes; it was difficult to be sure, they were dark and the lighting was low, but he could have sworn the pupils had expanded to swallow the iris.

“He ” Early cleared his throat. “This information… would it be about an, er, artifact found in an asteroid? Certain behavioral peculiarities?”

Shigehero nodded and touched the controls. A blurred holo sprang up on the wall; from a helmet-cam, Jonah decided. Asteroidal mining equipment on the surface of a medium-sized rock, one kilometer by two. A docked ship in the background, he recognized Markham’s Nietzsche, and others distant enough to be drifting lights, and suited figures putting up bubble-habitats. Then panic, and a hole appeared where the laser-driller had been a moment before. Milling confusion, and an… yes, it must be an alien, came floating up out of the hole.

The young Sol-Belter felt the pulse hammer in his ears. He was watching the first living non-Kzin alien discovered in all the centuries of human spaceflight. It couldn’t be a kzin, the proportions were all wrong. About 1.5 meters, judging by the background shots of humans. Difficult to say in vacuum armor, but it looked almost as thick as it was wide, with an enormous round head and stubby limbs, hands like three-fingered mechanical grabs. There was a weapon or tool gripped in one fist; as they watched the other hand came over to touch it and it changed shape, writhing. Jonah opened his mouth to question and

“Stop!” The general’s bull bellow wrenched their attention around. “Stop that display immediately, that’s an order!”

Shigehero touched the control panel and the holo froze. “You are not in a position to give orders here, gaijin,” he said. The two guards along the wall put hands inside their lapover jackets and glided closer, soundless as kzinti.

Early wrenched open his collar and waved a hand. “Please, oyabun, if we could speak alone? Completely alone, just for a moment. More is at stake here than you realize!”

Silence stretched. At last, fractionally, Shigehero nodded. The others stood and filed out into the outer room, almost as graciously appointed as the inner. The other members of Early’s team awaited them there; half a dozen of assorted ages and skills. There were no guards, on this side of the wall at least, and the oyabun’s men had provided refreshments and courteously ignored the quick, thorough sweep for listening devices. Watsuji headed for the sideboard, poured himself a double vodka and knocked it back.

“Tanj it,” he wheezed, under his breath. Jonah keyed himself coffee and a handmeal; it had been a rough day.

“Problems?” the Belter asked.

“I can’t even get to an autodoc until we’re out of the Finagle-forsaken bughouse,” the Earther replied. “I knew they were conservative here, but this bleeping farce!” He made a gesture with his mutilated hand. “Nobody at home’s done that for a hundred years! I felt like I was in a holoplay Namida Amitsu, we’re legal, these days. Well, somewhat. Gotten out of the organ trade, at least. This i”

Jonah nodded in impersonal sympathy. For a flat-lander, the man had dealt with the pain extremely well; Earthsiders were seldom far from automated medical attention. Even before the War, Belters had had to move self-sufficient.

“What really bothers me,” he said quietly, settling into a chair, “is what’s going on in there.” He nodded to the door. “Just like the ARM, to go all around Murphy’s Hall to keep us in the dark.”

“Exactly,” Watsuji said gloomily, nursing his hand. “Those crazy bastards think they run the world.”

“Run the world,” Jonah echoed. “Well, they do, don’t they? The ARMs ”

“Naw, not the UN. This is older than that.”

Jonah shrugged.

“A lot older. Bunch of mumbo jumbo. At least ”

;]Eh?“

“I think it’s just mumbo jumbo. God, this thing hurts.”

Jonah settled down, motionless. He would not be bored; Belters got a good deal of practice in sitting still and doing nothing without losing alertness, and his training had increased it. The curiosity was the itch he could not scratch.

Could be worse, he thought, taking another bite of the fishy-tasting handmeal. The consistency was rather odd, but it was tasty. The flatlander could have told me to cut my finger off.

“Explain yourself,” Shigehero said.

Instead, Early moved closer and dipped his finger in his rice wine. With that, he drew a figure on the table before the oyabun. A stylized rose, overlain by a cross; he omitted the pryamid. The fragment of the Order which had accompanied the migrations to Alpha Centauri had not included anyone past the Third Inner Circle, after all…

Shigehero’s eyes went wide. He picked up a cloth and quickly wiped the figure away, but his gaze stayed locked on the blank surface of the table for a moment. Then he swallowed and touched the control panel again.

“We are entirely private,” he said,- then continued formally: “You bring Light.”

“Illumination is the key, to open the Way,” Early replied.

“The Eastern Path?”

Early shook his head. “East and West are one, to the servants of the Hidden Temple.”

Shigehero started, impressed still more, then made a deep bow, smiling. “Your authority is undisputed, Master. Although not that of the ARM!”

Early relaxed, joining in the chuckle. “Well, the ARM is no more than a finger of the Hidden Way and the Rule That Is To Come, eh? As is your Association,

oyabun. And many another.“ Including many you know nothing of. ”As above, so below; power and knowledge, wheel within wheel. Until Holy Blood “

“ fills Holy Grail.”

Early nodded, and his face became stark. “Now, let me tell you what has been hidden in the vaults of the ARM. The Brotherhood saw to it that the knowledge was surpressed, back three centuries ago, along with much else. The ARM has been invaluable for that… Long ago, there was a species that called themselves the Thrint ”

Jonah looked up as Early left the oyabun’s sanctum.

“How did it go?” he murmured.

“Well enough. We’ve got an alliance of sorts. And a very serious problem, not just with the kzinti. Staff conference, gentlemen.”

The Belter fell into line with the others as they left the Association’s headquarters. I wonder, he thought, looking up at the rock above. I wonder what really is going on out there. And whether it might get him Catskinner back.

Previous: Chapter III
Next: Chapter V