Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

Previous: Chapter V
Next: Chapter VII

Chapter VI

“How did he manage it?” Jonah Matthieson muttered.

The hauler the party from the Sol System had been assigned was an unfamiliar model, a long stalk with a life-bubble at one end and a gravity-polarizer drive as well as fusion thrusters. Introduced by the kzinti, no doubt; they had had the polarizer for long enough to be using it for civilian purposes. With half a dozen the bubble was very crowded, despite the size of the ship, and they had set the internal gravity to zero to make best use of the space. The air smelled right to his Belter’s nose, a pure neutral smell with nothing but a slight trace of ozone and pine; something you could not count on in the Alpha Centauri system these days. Certainly less nerve-wracking than the surface of Wunderland, with its wild smells and completely uncontrolled random-process life-support system.

A good ship, he thought. It must be highly automated, doing the rounds of the refineries and hauling back metals and polymer sacks of powders and liquids. What clung to the carrying fields now looked very much like a cargo of singleships, being delivered to rockjacks at some other base asteroid; he had been respectfully surprised at the assortment of commandeered weapons and jury-rigged but roughly effective control systems. A

General Early looked up from his display plaque. “Not surprising, considering the state things are in,” he said. “Organized crime does well in a disorganized social setting. Like any conspiracy, unless the conspiracy is the social setting.”

“It’s a Finagle-damned fleet, though,” Jonah said. “Don’t the pussies care?”

“Not much, I imagine,” Early said. Jonah could see the schematics for the rest of their flotilla coming up on the board. “So long as it doesn’t impact on their military concerns. They’d clamp down soon enough if much went directly to the resistance, of course. Or their human goons would, for fear of losing their positions. The pussies may be great fighters, but as administrators they’re worse than Russians.”

What’re russians? Jonah thought. Then, oh. Them. “Surprising the pussies tolerate so much corruption.”

Early shrugged. “What can they do? And from what we’ve learned, they expect tame monkeys to be corrupt, except for the household servants. If we weren’t goddam cowards and lickspittles, we’d all have died fighting.” He smiled his wide white grin and stuck a stogie in the midst of it unlit, Jonah saw thankfully. The schematics continued to roll across the screen. “Ahhh, thought so.”

“Thought what?”

“Our friend Shigehero is playing both ends against the middle,” Early said. “He’s bringing along a lot of exploratory stuff as well as weaponry. A big computer, by local standards. Wait a second. Yes, linguistic-analysis hardware too. The son of a bitch!”

Silence fell.

Jonah looked at the others, studied the hard set of their faces. “Wait a second,” he said. “There’s an ancient alien artifact, and you don’t think it should be studied?”

Early looked up, and Jonah realized with a sudden shock that he was being weighed. For trustworthiness, and possibly for expendability.

“Of course not,” the general said. “The risk is too great. Remember the Sea Sculpture?”

Jonah concentrated. “Oh, the thingie in the Smithsonian? The Slaver?”

“Why do you think they were called that, Captain?” Early spent visible effort controlling impatience.

“I…” Suddenly, Jonah realized that he knew very little of the famous exhibit, beyond the fact that it was an alien in a spacesuit protected by a stasis field. “You’d better do some explaining, sir.”

Several of the others stirred uneasily, and Early waved them back to silence. “He’s right,” he said regretfully, and began.

“Murphy,” Jonah muttered when the older man had finished. “That thing is a menace.”

Early nodded jerkily. “More than you realize. That artifact is a ship. There may be more than one of the bastards on it,” he said, using another of his archaic turns of phrase. “Besides which, the technology. We’ve had three centuries of trying, and we’ve been able to make exactly three copies of their stasis field; as far as we can tell, the only way that thing could work is by decoupling the interior from the entropy gradient of the universe as a whole…”

Jonah leaned back, his toes hooked comfortably under a line, and considered the flatlander. Then the others, his head cocked to one side consideringly.

“It isn’t just you, is it?” he said. “The whole lot of you are ARM types. Most of you older than you look.”

Early blinked, and took the stogie from between his teeth. “Now why,” he said softly, “would you think that, Captain?”

“Body language,” Jonah said, linking his hands behind his back and staring “up”. The human face is a delicate communications instrument, and he suspected that Early had experience enough to read entirely too much from it. “And attitudes. Something new comes along, grab it quick. Hide it away and study it in private. Pretty typical. Sir.”

“Captain,” Early said, “you Belters are all anarchists, but you’re supposed to be rationalists too. Humanity had centuries of stability before the Kzinti arrived, the first long interval of peace since… God, ever. You think that was an accident? The way humankind was headed in the early atomic era, if something like the ARM hadn’t intervened there wouldn’t be a human race now. Nothing we’d recognize as human. There are things in the ARM archives… that just can’t be let out.”

“Oh?” Jonah said coldly.

Early smiled grimly. “Like an irresistible aphrodisiac?” he said. “Conditioning pills that make you completely loyal forever to the first person you see after taking them? Things that would have made it impossible not to legalize murder and cannibalism? Damned right we sit on things. Even if there weren’t aliens on that ship, it would have to be destroyed; there’s neither time nor opportunity to take it apart and keep the results under wraps. If the pussies get it, we’re royally screwed.” Jonah remained silent. “Don’t look so apprehensive, Captain. You’re no menace, no matter what you learn.”

“I’m not?” Jonah said, narrowing his eyes. He had suspected…

“Of course not. What use would a system of secrecy be, if one individual leak could imperil it? How do you think we wrote the Sea Statue out of the history books as anything but a curiosity? Slowly, and from many directions and oh, so imperceptibly. Bit by bit, and anyone who suspected ” he grinned, and several of the others joined him “ autodocs exist to correct diseases like paranoia, don’t they? In the meantime, I suggest you remember you are under military discipline.”

“Uncle, that established the limits of control,” the technician said to Shigehero Hirose.

Silent, the oyabun nodded, watching the multiple displays on the Murasaki’s bridge screens. There were dozens of them; the Murasaki was theoretically a passenger hauler, out of Tiamat to the major Swarm habitats and occasionally to Wunderland and its satellites. In actuality, it was the Association’s fallback headquarters, and forty years of patient theft had given it weapons and handling characteristics equivalent to a kzinti Vengeful Slasher-class light cruiser. He reflected on how much else of the Association’s strength was here, and felt a gripping pain in the stomach. Still water, he thought, controlling his breathing. There were times when opportunity must be seized, despite all risk.

“Attempt communication on the hailing frequencies,” he said, as that latest singleship stopped in its elliptical path around the asteroid and coasted in to assume station among the others under Markham’s control. Or the alien’s, Hirose reminded himself. “But this time, we must demonstrate the consequences of noncompli-ance. Execute East Wind, Rain.”

The points of light on the screens began to move in a complicated dance, circling the asteroid and its half-freed alien ship.

“Ah,” the Tactics officer said. “Uncle, see, Markham is deploying his units without regard to protecting the artifact.”

Pale fusion flame bloomed against the stars, a singleship power core deliberately destabilized; it would be recorded as an accident, at Traffic Control Central on Tiamat. If that had been a human or kzinti craft, everyone aboard would have been lethally irradiated.

“But,” the oyabun observed, “notice that none of his vessels moves beyond a certain distance from the asteroid. This is interesting.”

“Uncle… those dispositions are an invitation to close in, given the intercept capacities we have observed.”

“Do so, but be cautious. Be very cautious.”

“Accelerating,” Jonah Matthieson said. “Twenty thou-sand klicks and closing at 300 kps relative.” The asteroid was a lumpy potato in the screen ahead; acceleration pressed him back into the control couch. Almost an unfamiliar sensation; this refitted singleship had no compensators. But it did have a nicely efficient fusion drive, and he was on intercept with one of Mark-ham’s boats, ready to flip over and decelerate toward it behind the sword of thermonuclear fire.

“Hold it, you cow,” he muttered to the clumsy ship. His sweat stank in his nostrils. Show your stuff, Matthieson, he told himself. Singleships no better than this had cut the kzinti First Fleet to ribbons, when the initial attack on the Solar System had been launched. “Ready for attack,” he said. “Five seconds and ”

Matching velocities, he realized. It would be tricky, without damaging Markham’s ship. That would be very bad. His hands moved across the control screens and flicked in the lightfield sensors. The communicator squawked at him, meaningless noises interrupting the essential task of safely killing velocity relative to the asteroid. He switched it off.

“HURRY,” Dnivtopun grated. The human andfssstup slaves redoubled their efforts on the components strung out across the floor of the Ruling Mind’s control chamber.

Markham looked up from the battle-control screens. “Zey are approaching the estimated control radius, Master,” he said coolly. “I am prepared to activate plans A or B, according to ze results.”

The thrint felt for the surface of the Chief Slave’s mind; it was… machine-like, he decided. Complete concentration, without even much sense of self. Familiar, he decided. Artist-slaves felt like that when fulfilling their functions. Almost absentmindedly, he reached out and took control of a single small vessel that had strayed close enough; the mind controlling it was locked tight on its purpose, easy to redirect.

“Secure that small spacecraft,” he said, then fixed his eye on the helmet. “Will it work?” he asked, extending his tendrils towards the bell-shape of the amplifier helmet in an unconscious gesture of hungry longing. It was a cobbled-together mess of equipment ripped out of the human vessels and spare parts from the Ruling Mind. Square angular black boxes were joined with the half-melted looking units salvaged from the thrintun control components.

“We do not know, Master,” Markham said. “The opportunity will not last long; this formation is tactically inefficient. If they were pressing home their attacks, or if they dared use weapons with signatures visible to kzinti monitors, ve vould have been overwhelmed already.” A sigh. “If only ze Ruling Mind were fully operational!”

Dnivtopun clenched all six fingers in fury, and felt his control of the command-slaves of the space vessels falter; they were at the limits of his ability, it was like grasping soap bubbles in the dark. Nothing complicated, simply: OBEY. Markham had thought of the coded self-destruct boxes fixed to their power cores, to keep the crews from mutiny. Markham was turning out to be a most valuable Chief Slave. Dnivtopun reached for another dopestick, then forced his hand away. Their weapons cannot harm this ship, he told himself. Probably.

“Ready, Master,” one of the fssstup squeaked, making a last adjustment with a three-handed micromanipu-lator.

“Thanks to the Powergiver!” Dnivtopun mumbled, reaching for it. The primitive metal-alloy shape felt awkward on his head, the leads inside prickled. “Activate!” Ah, he thought, closing his eyes. There was a half-audible whine, and then the surface of his mind seemed to expand.

“First augment.”

Another expansion, and suddenly it was no longer a strain to control the vessels around the asteroid that encompassed his ship. Their commanders sank deeper into his grip, and he clamped down on the crews. He could feel their consciousness writhing in his grip, then quieting to docility as ice-shards of Power slipped easily into the centers of volition, memory, pleasure-pain.

LOYALTY, he thought. SELFLESS ENTHUSIASM. DEDICATION TO THE THRINT.

“This is better than the original model!” he exulted. But then, the original was designed by tnuctipun. “Second augment.”

Now his own being seemed to thin and expand, and the center of perception shifted outside the ship. The wild slave-minds were like lights glowing in a mist of darkness, dozens… no, hundreds of them. He knew this species now, and he ripped through to the volition centers with careless violence. AWAIT INSTRUCTION. Now, to find their herdbull; quickest to control through him. Oyabun. The name slipped into his memory. Ah, yes.

“How interesting,” he mumbled. Beautifully organized and disciplined; it even struggled for a moment in his grasp. There. Paralyze the upper levels, the threshold-censor mechanism that was awareness. Ah! It had almost slipped away! “Amazing,” he said to himself. “The slave is accustomed to nonintrospection.” It was very rare to find a sentient that could operate without contemplating its own operation, without interior discourse. Deeper… the pleasurable feeling of a mind settling down under control. Now he could add this flotilla to his; they would free the Ruling Mind more quickly, and go on to seize the planet.

There was a frying sound, and suddenly the sphere of awareness was expanding once more, thinning out his sense of self.

“No more augmentation,” he said. But it continued; he could hear shouts, cries. His eye opened, and there was a stabbing pain in his head as visual perception overlaid on mental, a fssstup flying across the bridge with its belly-pelt on fire. His hands were moving slowly up towards his head, so slowly, and he could sense more and more, he was spinning out thinner than interstellar gas, and he was

SwarmbelterARMkzinwunderlandernothingnothing

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-” The thrint

shrieked, with his voice and the Power. PAINPAINPAIN PAINPAINPAINPAIN Blackness.

Ulf Reichstein-Markham raised his head from the console before him, tried to inhale and choked on the clotted blood that blocked his throbbing and broken nose.

Where am I, he thought, looking around with crusted eyes. The drilling rig had suddenly disappeared, and then the alien had come floating up and

“Hrrrg,” he said, staggering erect. “Hrrrgg.”

Blood leaked through scabs on his tongue and pain lanced through his mouth. Bite, he realized. I bit myself. Cold wetness in the seat and legs of his flightsuit; he realized that he must have lost bowel and bladder control. Somehow that was not shameful; it was a fact, just as the distant crystal clarity of the alien bridge was a fact, like things seen through the wrong end of Mutti’s antique optical telescope. He could taste the brass smell of it.

Nobody else was stirring. Some of the humans looked dead, very dead, slumped in their chairs with tongues lolling and blood leaking from their noses and ears. Some of the aliens, too.

“Master!” he cried blurrily, spirting out blood.

The squat greenish form was slumped in its chair, the helmet half-off the bullet dome of its head. He tried to walk forward, and fell himself. The skin of his face and thighs tingled as the blue pseudolife of the floor cleansed them. He waited while the kaleidoscope shards of reality fell into place around him again; the inside of his head felt more raw than his tongue. Once in a skirmish he had been trapped in a wrecked singleship, with his arm caught between two collapsed struts. When the rescuers cut him free, the pain of blood pouring into the dry flesh had been worse than the first shock of the wound itself. He could feel thought running through sections of his consciousness that had been shut down for weeks, and he wept tears of pain as he had never wept in action.

Certainty, he thought. Never have I known certainty before. “Mutti,” he whispered. Mother, in the tongue of truth and love. English was common, Belter. Father spoke English, and Mutti had married him when the kzinti chased her away from the home he had never seen. Mother was certainty, but he, he could never be certain. Never do enough. Love might be withheld. Markham screamed with the terror of it, colder than space. Worse than death.

“I will be strong, Mutti,” he whispered, through blood and tears and mucus that the floor drank. “Stronger than Father.” Rage bit him, as he remembered tall slim beautiful Mutti stiffening at the touch of hated grubby commoner hands. You must be all mine, myn sohn, the voice whispered in a child’s ear. Prove yourself worthy of the blood. The tears flowed faster. / am not worthy. My blood is corrupt, weak. I fear in battle. No matter how much I purge weakness, treason, their faces come back to me, I wake in the night and see them bleeding as we put them out the airlocks, Mutti, hilfe me.

His eyes opened again, and he saw his hand. The shock broke reality apart again; it was a skeleton’s hand, starved yellow claw-hand. He touched himself, feeling the hoop of ribs and then hunger struck his belly, doubling him over.

“Master,” he whispered. Master would make it right. With Master there was no weakness, no doubt, no uncertainty. With Master he was strong. A keening escaped him as he remembered the crystalline absoluteness of the Power in his mind. “Don’t leave me, Master!”

Markham crawled, digging his fingers into the yielding surface until his hand touched the cable of the amplifier helmet. He jerked, and it tumbled down; he drew himself erect by the command chair, put a hand to the thrint’s face to check. The bunched tendrils by the mouth shot out and gripped his hand, like twenty wire worms, and he jerked it back before they could draw it into the round expanding maw and the wet needles of the teeth.

“Survival,” he muttered. The Master’s race vrasfit to survive and dominate. Overman … is demigod, he remembered. No more struggle, the Power proved whose Will must conquer.

Now he could stand. Some of the others were stirring. With slow care he walked back to his seat, watching the screens. Analysis flowed effortlessly through his head; the enemy vessels had made parking trajectories… and Catskinner was accelerating away… Brief rage flickered and died; there was nothing that could be done about that now. He sat, and called up the self-destruct sequences.

“Tightbeam to all Free Wunderland Space Navy units, task force Zarathustra,” he wheezed; his throat hurt, as if he had screamed it raw. “Maintain… present positions. Any… shift will be treated as mutiny. Admiral… Ulf Reichstein-Markham… out.”

He keyed it to repeat, then tapped the channel to the von Seekt, his fast courier. Adelman was a reliable type, and a good disciplinarian. The communicator screen blanked, then came alive with the holo image of the other man; a gaunt skull-like face, staring at him with dull-eyed lack of interest. A thread of saliva dangled from one lip.

“Hauptmann Adelman!” Markham barked, swallowing blood from his tongue. I must get to an autodoc, he reminded himself. Then, with a trace of puzzlement: Why has none been transferred to the Ruling Mind? No matter, later. “Adelman!”

The dull blue eyes blinked, and expression returned to the muscles of the face. Jerkily, as if by fits and starts, like a ‘cast message with too much noise in the signal.

“Gottdamn,” Adelman whispered. “Ulf, what’s been…” he looked around, at the areas of the courier’s life-bubble beyond the pickup’s range. “Myn Gott, Ulf! Smythe is dead! Where what ” He looked up at Markham, and blanched.

“Adelman,” Markham said firmly. “Listen to me.” A degree of alertness.

“Zum befhel, Admiral!”

“Good man,” Markham replied firmly. “Adelman, you will find sealed orders in your security file under code Ubermensch. You understand?”

“Jahwol.”

“Adelman, you have had a great shock. But everything is now under control. Remember that, under control. We now have access to technology which will make it an easy matter to sweep aside the kzinti, but we must have those parts listed in the file. You must make a minimum-time transit to Tiamat, and return here. Let nothing delay you. You… you will probably note symptoms of psychological disorientation, delusions, false memories. Ignore them. Concentrate on your mission.”

The other man wiped his chin with the back of his hand. “Understood, Admiral,” he said.

Markham blanked the screen, putting a hand to his head. Now he must decide what to do next. Pain lanced behind his eyes; decision was harder than analysis. Scrabbling, he pulled the portable input board from his waistbelt. He would have to program a deadman switch to the self-destruct circuits. Control must be maintained until the Master awoke; he could feel the others would be difficult. Only I truly understand, he realized. It was a lonely and terrible burden, but he had the strength for it. The Master had filled him with strength. At all costs, the Master must be guarded until he recovered.

Freeing the Ruling Mind is taking too long, he decided. Why had the Master ordered a complete uncovering of the hull? Inefficient… We must free some of the weapons systems first, he thought. Transfer some others to the human-built ships. Establish a proper defensive perimeter.

He looked over at the Master where he lay leaking brown from his mouth onto the chair. The single eye was still covered by the vertical slit of a closed lid.

Suddenly Markham felt the weight of his sidearm in his hand, pointing at the thrint. With a scream of horror, he thrust it back into the holster and slammed the offending hand into the unyielding surface of the screen, again and again. The pain was sweet as justice. My weakness, he told himself. My father’s weak sub-man blood. I must be on my guard.

Work. Work was the cure. He looked up to establish the trajectory of the renegade Catskinner, saw that it was heading in-system towards Wunderland.

Treachery, he mused. “But do not be concerned, Master,” he muttered. His own reflection looked back at him from the inactive sections of the board; the gleam of purpose in his eyes straightened his back with pride. “Ulf Reichstein-Markham will never betray you.”

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Next: Chapter VII