Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

Previous: Chapter XXI
Book main: Foreword

Chapter XXII

Both suns were down and Munchen gone starry with its own lights. Downtown traffic swarmed and throbbed around the old buildings, the smart modern shops. Matthiesonstrasse was residential, though, quiet at this hour. Apartment houses lined it like ramparts, more windows dark than aglow, so that when Saxtorph looked straight up he could make out a few real stars. A breeze flowed chilly, the first breath of oncoming fall.

He found the number he wanted and glanced aloft again, less high. Luminance on the fifth floor told him somebody was awake there. He hesitated. That might be a different location from the one he was after.

Squaring shoulders, setting jaws: Come on, boy, move along. Rouse him if need be. Get this goddamn thing over with.

In the foyer he passed by the fahrstuhl and took the emergency stairs. They were steep. He felt glad of it. The climb worked out a little of the tension in him. Nonetheless, having reached the door numbered 52, he pushed the button violently.

After a minute the speaker gave him an uneven “Ja, was wollen Sie von mir?” He turned his face straight toward the scanner, and heard a gasp. “Sie!” Seconds later “Captain Saxtorph?” sounded like a prayer that it not be true.

“Let me in,” the Earthman said.

“No. This is, is the middle of the night.”

Correct, Saxtorph thought.

“You had not even the courtesy to call ahead. Go away.”

“Better me than the patrol,” Saxtorph answered.

He heard something akin to a strangled sob. The door opened. He stepped through. It shut behind him.

The apartment was ascetically furnished and had been neat, but disorder was creeping in. The air system foiled to remove the entire haze and stench of cigarette smoke. Ib Nordbo stood in a civilian jumpsuit. His hair was unkempt, his eyelids darkly smudged. Yes, thought Saxtorph, he was awake, all right. I daresay he doesn’t sleep much any more.

“W-welcome back,” Nordbo mumbled.

“Your father and sister were disappointed that you weren’t there to greet them personally,” Saxtorph said.

“They got my message. My regrets. They did? I must go offplanet, unfortunately, at that exact time. A personal difficulty. I asked for compassionate leave.”

“Except you holed up here. I figured you would. No point going anywhere else in this system. You’d be too easily found. No interstellar passenger ship is leaving before next week, and you’d need to fix up identity documents and such.” Saxtorph gestured. “Sit down. I don’t enjoy this either. Let’s make it as short as possible.”

Nordbo retreated, lowered himself to the edge of a chair, clutched its arms. His entire body begged. Saxtorph followed but remained standing above him.

“How long have you been in kzinti pay?” Saxtorph asked.

Nordbo swallowed dryness. “I am not. I was not. Never.”

“Listen, fellow. Listen good. I don’t care to play games. Cooperate, or I’ll walk right out and turn this business over to the authorities. I would have already, if it weren’t for your sister and your father. You damn near got them killed, you know.”

“Tyra No, I did not know!” the other screamed. “She lied to me. If I knew she was going with you, I would have gotten your stupid expedition stopped. And my father, any reasonable person believed him long dead. I did not know! How could I?”

“Bad luck, yah, but richly deserved,” Saxtorph said. “I might not have guessed, except that a clue fell my way. At that, the meaning didn’t dawn on me till a couple days later.”

He drew breath before driving his point home. “You’ll have followed the news, as much of our story as has been released. Before then, being who you are and in the position you are, you’ll have been apprised of what we told the Navy officer we requested come aboard as we approached. A kzinti warship caught us at the black hole, later than you expected it might, but still something you knew was quite likely.”

“I no, you misjudge me ”

“Pipe down till I give you leave to speak. The encounter could have been by chance. The kzinti might have happened on the beamcast from the earlier ship and dispatched this one at the precise wrong moment for us. Her captain knew who I was and what vessel I command. He could have heard that on the starvine or through his intelligence corps. Rover’s name wouldn’t matter to that mentality and would scarcely have been in any briefing he got, but conceivably he’d heard it somehow, lately, and it was fresh in his mind. Yah. The improbable can happen. What blew the whistle, once I realized what it meant, was that he told me he’d hoped to find me. He believed it was entirely possible we’d be there, we of all humans, Rover of all ships.

“We’d never disclosed where we were bound for or why. Nobody else knew, besides you. Nobody but you could have sent word about us to Kzin.

“I imagine you informed them as soon as Tyra discov-ered your father’s notes and showed you. The matter would be of interest to them, and might be important. When she got serious about mounting a search, you did everything you could to discourage her, short of telling your superiors. You dared not do that because then they might well order an official look-see, which could open a trail to you and your treason. They aren’t as stodgy about such things as you claimed. The disclosure about Markham had cast suspicion your way, and you must be feeling sort of desperate. When we made clear that we’d embark in spite of your objections, you got on whatever hyperphone you have secret access to and alerted the kzinti. If they scragged us, you’d be safe.

“Okay, Nordbo. How long have you been in their pay?”

“Tyra,” the seated man groaned. He slumped back. “I did not know, I swear I did not know she was with you.”

“Just the same,” Saxtorph said, “betraying us to probable death was not exactly a friendly act. For her sake and your father’s, I just might be persuaded to… set it aside. No promises yet, understand, and whatever mercy you get, you’ve got to earn.”

For their sakes, grieved a deep part of him. Yes, Peter has suffered, has lost, quite enough. He’s so happy that Dorcas and I will take him on as a partner. Christ, how I’d hate to dash the cup from his lips.

He wouldn’t be ruined. His vindication, the reparation to him, the family’s restoration to the clan, those will stand, because he was and is the Landholder, not this creature sniveling at me tonight. I think he has the strength to outlive it if he and the world learn the truth about his son, his only son, and to get on with his work. But if I can spare him if I can spare him!

Nordbo looked up. He was ghastly haggard. The words jerked forth: “I never did it for money. I got some, yes, but I did not want it, I always gave it to the Veterans’ Home. Markham was like a, a father to me, the father I had worshipped before he Well, what could I believe except that my real father turned collab-orator and died in the kzinti service? I thought Tyra was a wishful thinker. I could not make myself say that openly to her, but I thought my duty was to restore the family fortune and honor by my efforts. Markham was faithful in those first years after the trial, when many scorned. He helped me, counseled me, was like a new father, he, the war hero, then the brilliant administrator. When at last he asked me to do something a, a little irregular for him, I was glad. It was nothing harmful. He explained that if the kzinti knew better how our intelligence operations work, they would see we are defensive, not aggressive, and there would be a better chance for lasting peace. What should I trust, his keen and experienced judgment or a stupid, handcuffing regulation? That first information I gave him to pass on to the kzinti, it was not classified. They could have collected it for themselves with some time and trouble. But then there was more, and then more, and it grew into real secrets ” Again he covered his eyes and huddled.

Saxtorph nodded. “You’d become subject to blackmail. Every step you took brought you further down a one-way road. Yah. That’s how a lot of spies get recruited.”

“I love my nation. I would never harm it.” Nordbo dropped fists to knees and added in a voice less shrill, “Even though it did my father and my family a terrible injustice.”

“You got around to agreeing with Tyra about that, eh? And what you were doing couldn’t possibly cause any serious damage. Such-like notions are also usual among spies.”

Nordbo raised his head. “Do not insult me. I have my human dignity.”

“That’s a matter of opinion. Now, I told you to listen and I told you I want to make this short so I can get the hell out of here and go have a hot shower and a change of clothes. Snap to it, and perhaps, I’ll see if I can do anything for you. Otherwise I report straight to your superiors. For openers, how many more are in your ring?”

“N-no one else.”

“I’d slap you around if I had a pair of gloves I could burn afterward. As is goodnight.”

“No! Please!” Nordbo reeled to his feet. He held his arms out. “I tell you, nobody. Nobody I know of. One in my unit at headquarters, but she died two years ago. An accident. And Markham is dead. Nobody more!”

Saxtorph deemed he was telling the truth as far as possible. “You’ll name her,” he said. “That, and what else you tell, should give leads to any others.” If they existed. Maybe they didn’t. Markham had been a lone wolf type. Well, investigation was a job for professionals. “You will write down what you know. Every last bit. The whole story, all you did, all you delivered personally and all you heard about or suspected, the works. You savvy? I’ll give you two-three days. Don’t leave this apartment meanwhile.”

Nordbo’s hands fell to his sides. He straightened. A sudden, eerie calm was upon him. “What then?” he asked tonelessly. ,

“If I judge you’ve made an honest statement, my wife and I will try to bargain with the authorities, privately, when we bring it to them. We can’t dictate what they do with you. But we are their darlings, and the darlings of the public and the media more than ever. Our recommendations should carry weight. The Markham affair has shaken and embarrassed a lot of the brass pretty badly. They’d like some peace and quiet while they put their house in order. A sensation involving the son of hero-martyr Peter Nordbo is no way to get that. Maybe we can talk them into accepting your resignation and burying the truth in the top secret file. Maybe. We’ll try. That’s all I can promise. And it’s conditional on your writing a full and accurate account.”

“I see. You are kind.”

“Because of your father and your sister. Nothing else.” Saxtorph turned to go.

“Wait,” said Nordbo.

“Why?” Saxtorph growled.

“My memory is not perfect. But I need not write for you. I kept a journal of my, my participation. Everything that happened, recorded immediately afterward. I thought I might want it someday, somehow, if Mark-ham or the kzinti should Ach, let me fetch it.”

Saxtorph’s heart banged. “Okay.” He hadn’t hoped for this much. He wasn’t sure what he’d hoped for.

Nordbo went into an adjacent room. He strode resolutely and erect. Saxtorph tautened. “If you’re going for a gun instead, don’t,” he called. “My wife knows where I am.”

“Of course,” the soft voice drifted back. “No, you have convinced me. I shall do my best to set tilings right.”

He returned carrying a small security box, which he placed at the computer terminal. He laid his palm on the lid and it opened. Had anyone else tried to force it, the contents would have been destroyed. Saxtorph moved closer. He saw a number of minidiscs. “Encoded,” Nordbo said. “Please make a note of the decoding command. A wrong one will cause the program to wipe the data. You want to inspect a sample, no?”

He stooped, inserted a disc, and keyed the board. A date three years past sprang onto the screen, followed by words. They were Wunderlander, but Saxtorph’s reading knowledge sufficed to show that the entry did indeed relate an act of espionage. Copies of photographs came after.

“You are satisfied?” Nordbo asked. “Want you more?”

“No,” Saxtorph said. “This will do.”

Nordbo returned the disc to the box, which he relocked and proffered. “I am afraid you must touch this,” he said matter-of-factly.

Sudden pity welled forth. “That’s okay.” In several ways he resembled his sister: eyes, cheekbones, flaxen hair, something about the way he now stood and faced his visitor. “We’ll do whatever we can for you, Ib.”

“Thank you.”

Saxtorph took the box and left. “Gute nacht,” Nordbo said behind him.

The door closed. Saxtorph went the short distance along the hall to the stairwell and started down. Whatever I can for you, Tyra, he thought.

His mind went on, like himself speaking to her, explaining, though they were not things she would ever hear.

I’m not mad at you, dear. Nor at Kam, as far as that goes. You weren’t deliberately playing games with me. You honestly believed you were serious confusing horn-iness with love, which God knows is a common mistake till the impulse itself overwhelmed you.

Or so he supposed. Nothing had been uttered, except in the silent language. They simply understood that everything was over. Apart from friendship. Already he hurt less than at first. He knew that before long he’d stop altogether and be able to meet her, be with her, in comradely fashion. Dorcas would see to it.

I do wish you’ll find a man you can settle down with. I’d like you to have what we have. But if not, well, it’s your life, and any style of living it that you choose will be brave.

Saxtorph had reached the third-floor landing when he heard the single pistol shot.

Previous: Chapter XXI
Book main: Foreword