“STOP THAT,” Dnivtopun said angrily, alerted by the smell of blood and a wet ripping sound.
His son looked up guiltily and tried to resist. The thrint willed obedience, feeling the adolescent’s half-formed shield resisting his Power like thick mud around a foot. Then it gave way, and the child released the human’s arm. That was chewed to the bone; the young thrint had blood all down its front, and bits of matter and gristle stuck between its needle teeth. The slave swayed, smiling dreamily.
“How many times do I have to tell you: Do not eat the servants!” Dnivtopun shrieked, and used the Power again: SHAME. GUILT. PAIN. ANGUISH. REMORSE. SHOOTING PAINS. BURNING FEET. UNIVERSAL SCRATCHLESS ITCH. GUILT.
The slave was going into shock. “Go and get medical treatment,” he said. And: FEEL NO PAIN. DO NOT BLEED. This one had been on the Ruling Mind for some time; he had picked it for sensitivity to Power, and its mind fit his mental grip like a glove. The venous spurting from its forelimb slowed, then sank to a trickle as the muscles clamped down on the blood vessels with hysterical strength.
Dnivtopun turned back to his offspring. The young thrint was rolling on the soft blue synthetic of the cabin floor; he had beshat himself and vomited up the human flesh thrint used the same mouth-orifice for both and his eating tendrils were writhing into his mouth, trying to clean it and pick the teeth free of foreign matter. The filth was sinking rapidly into the floor, absorbed by the ship’s recycling system, and the stink was fading as well. The vents replaced it with nostalgic odors of hot wet jungle, spicy and rank, the smell of thrintun. Dnivtopun shut his mind to the youngster’s suffering for a full minute; his eldest son was eight, well into puberty. At that age, controls imposed by the Power did not sink in well. An infant could be permanently conditioned, that was the way baby thrint were toilet trained, but by this stage they were growing rebellious.
CEASE HURTING, he said at last. Then: “Why did you attack the servant?”
“It was boring me,” his son said, still with a trace of sulkiness. “All that stuff you said I had to learn. Why can’t we go home, father? Or to Uncle Tzinlpun’s?”
With an intense effort, Dnivtopun controlled himself. “This is home! We are the last thrintun left alive.” Powerless take persuasion, he decided. BELIEVE.
The fingers of mind could feel the child-intellect accepting the order. Barriers of denial crumbled, and his son’s eye squeezed shut while all six fingers squeezed painfully into palms. The young thrint threw back his head and howled desolately, a sound like glass and sheet metal inside a tumbling crusher.
QUIET. Silence fell; Dnivtopun could hear the uncomprehending whimper of a female in the next room, beyond the lightscreen door. One of his wives; they had all been nervous and edgy, female thrintun had enough psionic sensitivity to be very vulnerable to upset.
“You will have to get used to the idea,” Dnivtopun said. Powergiver knows it took me long enough. He moved closer and threw an arm around his son’s almost-neck, biting him affectionately on the top of the head. “Think of the good side. There are no tnuctipun here!” He could feel that bring a small wave of relief; the Rebels had been bogeymen to the children since their birth. “And you will have a planet of your own, some day. There is a whole galaxy of slaves here, ready for our taking!”
“Truly, father?” There was awakening greed at that. Dnivtopun had only been Overseer of one miserable food-planet, a sterile globe with a reducing atmosphere, seeded with algae and bandersnatchi. There would have been little for his sons, even without the disruption of the War.
“Truly, my son.” He keyed one of the controls, and a wall blanked to show an exterior starscape. “One day, all this will be yours. We are not the last thrintun we are the beginning of a new Empire!” And I am the first Emperor, if I can survive the next few months. “So we must take good care of these slaves.”
“But these smell so good, father!”
Dnivtopun sighed. “I know, son.” Thrintun had an acute sense of smell when it came to edibility; competition for food among their presapient ancestors had been very intense. “It’s because ” no, that’s just a guess. Few alien biologies in the old days had been as compatible as these humans… Dnivtopun had a suspicion he knew the reason; food algae. The Thrint had seeded hundreds of planets with it, and given billions of years… That would account for the compatibility of the other species as well, the Kzin; they could eat humans, too. “Well, you’ll just have to learn to ignore it.” Thrintun were always ravenous. “Now, listen you’ve upset your mother. Go and comfort her.”
Ulf Reichstein-Markham faced the Master and fought not to vomit. The carrion breath, the writhing tentacles beside the obscene gash of mouth, the staring faceted eye… It was so
beautiful, he thought, as shards of crystalline Truth slid home in his mind. The pleasure was like the drifting relaxation after orgasm, like a hot sauna, like winning a fight.
“What progress has been made on the amplifier helmet?” his owner asked.
“Very little, Mast eeeeeeeeee!” He staggered back, shaking his head against the blinding-white pressure that threatened to burst it. Whimpering, he pressed his hands against the sides of his head. “Please, Master! We’re trying!”
The pressure relaxed; on some very distant level, he could feel the alien’s recognition of his sincerity.
“What is the problem?” Dnivtopun asked.
“Master ” Markham stopped for a moment to organize his thoughts, looking around.
They were on the control deck of the Ruling Mind, and it was huge. Few human spaceships had ever been so large; this was nearly the size of a colony slowship. The chamber was a flattened oval dome twenty meters long and ten wide, lined with chairs of many different types. That was logical, to accommodate the wild variety of slave-species the Thrint used. But they were chairs, not acceleration couches. The Thrint had had very good gravity control, for a very long time. A central chair designed for thrint fronted the blackened wreck of what had been the main computer. The decor was lavish and garish, swirling curlicues of precious metals and enamel, drifting motes of multicolored lights. Beneath their feet was a porous matrix that seemed at least half-alive, that absorbed anything organic and dead and moved rubbish to collector outlets with a disturbing peristaltic motion. The air was full of the smells of vegetation and rank growth.
Curious, he thought, as the majority of his consciousness wondered how to answer the Master. The controls were odd, separate crystal-display dials and manual levers and switches, primitive in the extreme. But the machinery behind the switches was… there were no doors; something happened, and the material went…
vague, and you could walk through it, like walking through soft taffy. The only mechanical airlock was a safety-backup.
There was no central power source for the ship. Dotted around were units that apparently converted matter into energy; the equivalent of flashlight batteries could start it. The basic drive was to the kzinti gravity polarizer as a fusion bomb was to grenade; it could accelerate at thousands of gravities, and then pull space right around the ship and travel faster than light.
Faster than light
“Stop daydreaming,” the Voice said. “And tell me why.”
“Master, we don’t know how.”
The thrint opened its mouth and then closed it again, the tendrils stroking caressingly at its almost nonexistent lips. “Why not?” he said. “It isn’t very complicated. You can buy them anywhere for twenty znorgits.”
“Master, do you know the principles?”
“Of course not, slave! That’s slavework. For engineers.”
“But Master, the slave-engineers you’ve got… we can only talk to them a little, and they don’t know anything beyond what buttons to push. The machinery ” he waved helplessly at the walls “ doesn’t make any sense to us, Master! It’s just blocks of matter. We… our instruments can barely detect that something’s going on.”
The thrint stood looking at him, radiating incomprehension. “Well,” he said after a moment. “It’s true I didn’t have the best quality of engineering slave. No need for them, on a routine posting. Still, I’m sure you’ll figure something out, Chief Slave. How are we doing at getting the Ruling Mind freed from the dirt?”
“Much better, Master! That is well within our capacities… Master?”
“Have I your permission to send a party to Tiamat? It can be done without much danger of detection, beyond what the deserters already present; we need more per-sonnel and spare parts. For a research project on… well, on your nervous system.”
The alien’s single unwinking eye stared at him. “What are nerves?” he said slowly. Dnivtopun took a dopestick from his pouch and sucked on it. Then: “What’s research?”
The kzinrret rolled and twisted across the wicker matting of the room, yowling softly with her eyes closed. Traat-Admiral glanced at her with post-coitial satisfaction as he finished grooming his pelt and laid the currycomb aside; he might be de facto leader of the Modernists, but he was not one of those who could not maintain a decent appearance without a dozen servants and machinery. At the last he cleaned the damp portion of his fur with talc, remembering once watching a holo of humans bathing themselves by jumping into water. Into cold water.
“Hrrrr,” he shivered.
The female turned over on all fours and stuck her rump in the air.
“Ch’rowl?” she chirrupped. Involuntarily his ears extended and the muscles of his massive neck and shoulders twitched. “Ch’rowl?” With a saucy twitch of her tail, but he could smell that she was not serious. Besides, there was work to do.
“No,” he said firmly. The kzinrret padded over to a corner, collapsed onto a pile of cushions and went to sleep with limp finality.
A kzinrret of the Patriarch’s line, Traat-Admiral thought with pride; one of Chuut-Rüt’s beauteous daughters. His blood to be mingled with the Rüt, he whose sire had been only a Third Gunner, lucky to get a single mate even when the heavy casualties of the First Fleet left so many maleless. He stretched, reaching for the domed ceiling, picked up the weapons belt from the door and padded off down the corridor. This was the governor’s harem quarters, done up as closely as might be to a noble’s Kzinrret House on Kzin itself. Domed wickerwork structures, the tops waterproof with synthetic in a concession to modernity; there were even gravity polarizers to bring it up to Homeworld weight, nearly twice that of Wunderland.
“Good for the health of the kzinrret and kits,” he mused to himself, and his ears moved in the kzinti equivalent of a grin. It was easy to get used to such luxury, he decided, ducking through the shamboo curtain over the entrance and pacing down the exit corridor; that was open at the sides, roofed in flowering orange vines.
Each dome was set in a broad space of open vegetation, and woe betide the kzinrret who strayed across the low wooden boundaries into her neighbor’s claws; female kzinti might be too stupid to talk, but they had a keenly developed sense of territory. There were open spaces, planted in a pleasant mixture of vegetation; orange kzinti, reddish Wunderlander, green from Earth. Traat-Admiral could hear the sounds of young kits at play in the common area, see them running and tumbling and chasing while their mothers lay basking in the weak sunlight or groomed each other. Few of them had noticed the change of males over much, but integrating his own modest harem had been difficult, much fur flying dominance-tussles.
He sighed as he neared the exit-gate. Chuut-Rüt’s harem was not only of excellent quality, but so well trained that it needed less maintenance than his own had. The females would even let human servants in to keep up the feeding stations, a vast help, since male kzinti who could be trusted in another’s harem were not common. They were all well housebroken, and most did not even have to be physically restrained when pregnant, which simplified things immensely; k/inrret had an irresistible urge to dig a birthing tunnel about then, and it created endless problems and damage to the gardens. Through the outer gate, functional warding-fields and robot guns, and a squad of Chuut-Rüt’s household troopers. They saluted with enthusiasm. Being hereditary servants of the Rüt, he had been under no obligation to let them swear to him… although it would have been foolish to discard so useful a cadre.
Would I have thought of this before Chuut-Rüt trained me? he thought. Then: He is dead: I live. Enough.
Beyond the gates began the palace proper. The military and administrative sections were largely underground, ship-style; from here you could see only the living quarters, openwork pavilions for the most part, once bases of massive cut stone. Between and around them stretched gardens, stones of pleasing shape, trees whose smooth bark made claws itch. There was a half-acre of zheeretki too, the tantalizing scent calling the passer-by to come roll in its intoxicating blossoms.
Traat-Admiral wiggled his ears in amusement as he settled onto the cushions in the reception pavilion. All this luxury, and no time to enjoy it, he thought. It was well enough, one did not become a Conquest Hero by lolling about on cushions sipping blood.
His eldest son was coming along one of the paths. In a hurry, and running four-foot with the sinous gait that reminded humans of weasles as much as cats; he wore a sash of office, his first ranking. Ten meters from the pavilion he rose, licked his wrists and smoothed back his cheek fur with them, settled the sash.
“Honored Sire Traat-Admiral, Staff Officer requests audience at your summons,” he said. “And… the Accursed Ones. They await final judgment. And ”
“Enough, Aide-de-Camp,” Traat-Admiral rumbled.
The young male stood proudly and made an unconscious gesture of adjusting the sash; that garment was a ceremonial survival of a sword-baldric, from the days when Aides were bodyguards as well, entitled to take a duel-challenge on themselves to spare their masters. Looking into the great round eyes of his son, Traat-Admiral realized that that too would be done gladly if it were needed. Unable to restrain himself, he gave the youth’s ears a few grooming licks.
“Path Honored Sire! Please!”
“Hrrrr,” Staff Officer rumbled. “He was as strong as a terrenki and fester.” Traat-Admiral looked down to see the fresh ears of Ktür-Supervisor-of-Animals dangling at the other’s belt.
“Not quite fast enough,” Traat-Admiral said with genuine admiration. Most kzinti became slightly less quarrelsome past their first youth, but the late Ktür’s notorious temper had gotten worse, if anything. It probably came from having to deal with humans all the time, and high-level collaborators at that. Ktür should have remembered that reflexes slowed and had to be replaced with cunning and skill born of experience.
“Yes,” he continued, “I am well pleased.” He paused for three breaths, waiting while Staff Officer’s muzzle dipped into the saucer. “Hroth-Staff-Officer.”
The other kzin gasped, inhaled milk and rolled over, coughing and slapping at his nose, sneezed frantically, and sat back with his eyes watering. Traat-Admiral felt his ears twitch with genial amusement.
“Do not be angry, noble Hroth-Staff-Officer,” he said. “There is little of humor these days.” It was a system governor’s perogative, to confer a Name. Any field-grade officer could, for certain well-established feats of honor, but a governor could do so at discretion.
“I will strive kercheee to be worthy of the honor,” the newly-promoted kzin said. “Little though I have done to deserve it.”
“Nonsense,” Traat-Admiral said. For one thing, you are very diplomatic. Only a kzin with iron self-control could be humble, even under these circumstances. “For another, you have won… what, six duels in the past month? And a dozen back when Chuut-Rüt first came from Homeworld to this system. This will satisfy those who think galactic conquest can be accomplished with teeth and claws. Also, you have been invaluable in keeping the Modernist faction aligned behind me. Many thought Chuut-Rüt’s heir should be from among his immediate entourage.”
Hroth-Staff-Officer twitched his tail and rippled sections of his pelt. “None such could enjoy sufficient confidence among the locally-born,” he said. “If we trusted Chuut-Rüt’s judgment before he was killed, should we not after he is dead?”
Traat-Admiral sighed, looking out over the exquisite restraint of the gardens. “I agree. Better a… less worthy successor than infighting beneath one more technically qualified.” His ears spread in irony. “More infighting than we have had. Chuut-Rüt said…” he hesitated, then looked over at the faces of his son and the newly-ennobled Hroth-Staff-Officer, remembered conversations with his mentor. “… he said that humans were either the greatest danger or greatest opportunity kzinti had ever faced. And that he did not know if they came just in time, or just too late.”
His son showed curiosity in the rippling of his pelt, an almost imperceptible movement of his fingertips. Curiosity was a childhood characteristic among kzinti, but one the murdered governor had said should be encouraged.
“We have not faced a challenge to really test our mettle for… a long time,” he said. “We make easy conquests; empty worlds to colonize, or others where the inhabitants are savages with spears, barbarians with nothing better than chemical-energy weapons. We grow slothful; our energy is spent in quarreling among ourselves, and more and more the work of even maintaining our civilization we turn over to our slaves.”
“Wrrrr,” Hroth-Staff-Officer said. “But what did the Dominant One mean, that the humans might be too late?”
Traat-Admiral’s voice sank slightly. “I meant that lack of challenge has weakened us. By making us inflexible, brittle. There are other forms of rot than softness; fossil-ization is another: steel and bone turning to stiff breakable rock. Chuut-Rüt saw that as we expand we must eventually meet terrible threats. If the kzinti are to be strong enough to conquer them, first we must be re-forged in the blaze of war.”
“I still don’t smell the point, Traat-Admiral,” Hroth-Staff-Officer said. The admiral could see his son hud-died on the cushions, entranced at being able to listen in on such august conversation. Listen well, my son, he thought. You will find it an uncomfortable privilege.
“Are the humans then a challenge which will call forth our strength… or the mad raaairtwo that will shatter us?”
“Wrrrr!” Hroth-Staff-Officer shivered slightly, his fur lying flat. Aide-de-Camp’s was plastered to his skin, and his ears had disappeared into their pouches of skin. “That has the authentic flavor and scent of his… disquieting lectures. I suffered through enough of them.” A pause. “Still, the raaairtwo may be head-high at the shoulder and weigh fifty times a kzintosh’s mass and have a spiked armor ball for a tail, but our ancestors killed them.”
“But not by butting heads with them, Hroth-Staff-Officer.” He turned his head. “Aide-de-Camp, go to the Accursed Ones, and bring them here. Not immediately; in an hour or so.”
He leaned forward once the youth had leaped up and four-footed away. “Hroth-Staff-Officer, has it occurred to you why we are sending such an armada to this system’s asteroids?”
Big lambent-yellow eyes blinked at him. “There has been much activity among the feral humans,” he said. “I did scent that you might be using this as an excuse for field-exercises with live ammunition, in order to quiet dissention.” Kzinti obeyed when under arms, even if they hated it.
“The interstellar warships as well? That would be like cleaning vermin out of your pelt with a beam-rifle.” He leaned closer. “This is a Patriarch’s Secret,” he continued. “Listen.”
When he finished a half-hour later, Hroth-Staff-Offlcer’s belt was half laid-flat, with patches bristling in horror. Traat-Admiral could smell his anger, underlain with fear, a sickly scent.
“You are right to fear,” he said, conscious of his own glands. No kzin could hide true terror, of course, not with a functioning nose in the area.
“Death is nothing,” the other nodded. He grinned, the expression humans sometimes mistook for friendliness. “But this!” He hissed, and Traat-Admiral watched and smelled him fight down blind rage.
“Chuut-Rüt feared something like this,” he said. At the other’s startlement: “Oh, no, not these beings particularly. It is a joke of the God that we find this thing in the middle of a difficult war. But something terrible was bound to jump out of the long grass sooner or later. The universe is so large, and we keep pressing our noses into new caves ” He shrugged. “Enough. Now ”
Chuut-Rüt’s sons laid stomach to earth on the path before the dais of judgment and covered their noses. Traat-Admiral looked down on their still-gaunt forms and felt himself recoil. Not with fear, at least not the fear of an adult kzin. Vague memories moved in the shadow-corners of his mind; brutal hands tearing him away from Mother, giant shapes of absolute power… rage and desire and fear, the bitter acrid smell of loneliness. Wipe them out, he thought uneasily, as his lips curled up and the hair bulked erect on neck and spine. Wipe them out, and this will not be.
“You have committed the gravest of all crimes,” he said slowly, fighting the wordless snarling that struggled to use his throat. There was an ancient epic… Warlord Chmee at the Pillars. He had seen a holo of it once, and had groveled and howled like all the audience and come back washed free of grief, at the last view of the blind and scentless Hero. And these did not sin in ignorance, nor did they claw out their own eyes and breathe acid in remorse and horror. “To overthrow one’s Sire is… primitive, but such is custom. To slay him honourably, even… but to fall upon him in a pack and devour him! And each other!”
The guilty ones seemed to sink further to the raked gravel of the path before him; he stood like a towering wall of orange fur at the edge of the pavilion, the molten-copper glow of his pelt streaked with scar-white. Like an image of dominance to a young kzin, hated and feared and adored. Not that the armored troopers behind him with their beam-guns hurt, he reflected. Control, he thought. Self-control is the heart of honor.
“Is there any reason you should not be killed?” he said. “Or blinded, castrated and driven out?”
Silence then, for a long time. Finally, the spotted one who had spent longest in the regeneration tank spoke.
“No, Dominant One.”
Traat-Admiral relaxed slightly. “Good. But Chuut-Rüt’s last message to us spoke of mercy. Even so, if you had not acknowledged your crime and your worthless-ness, there would have been no forgiveness. Hear your sentence. The fleets of the Patriarchy in this system are journeying forth against… an enemy. You have all received elementary space-combat training.” Attacks on defended asteroids often involved boarding, by marines in one-kzin suits of stealthed, powered vacuum armor. “You will be formed into a special unit for the coming action. This is your last chance to achieve honor!” An honorable death, of course. “Do not waste it. Go!”
He turned to Hroth-Staff-Officer. “Get me the readiness reports,” he said, and spoke the phrase that opened the communication line to the household staff. “Bring two saucers of tuna ice cream with stolichnaya vodka,” he continued. “I have a bad taste to get out of my mouth.”