Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

Previous: Chapter VI
Next: Chapter VIII

Chapter VII

‘’Here’s looking at you, kid,“ Harold Yarthkin-Schotmann said, raising the drinking bulb.

Home free, he thought, taking a suck on the maivin; the wine filled his mouth with the scent of flowers, an odor of violets. Ingrid was across the little cubicle in the cleanser unit, half visible through the fogged glass as the sprays played over her body. Absurd luxury, this private stateroom on the liner to Tiamat, but Claude’s fake identities had included plenty of valuata. Not to mention the considerable fortune in low-mass goods in the hold, bought with the proceeds of selling Harold’s Terran Bar.

He felt a brief pang at the thought. Thirty years. It had been more than a livelihood; it was a mood, a home, a way of life, a family. A bubble of human space in Munchen… A pseudo-archaic flytrap with rigged roulette, he reminded himself ironically. What really hurts is setting it to that fat toad Suuomalisen, he realized, and grinned.

“What’s so funny?” Ingrid said, stepping out of the cleanser. Her skin was dry, the smooth cream-white he remembered; it rippled with the long muscles of a zero-G physique kept in shape by exercise. The breasts were high and dark-nippled, and the tail of her Belter crest poured half-way down her back.

God, she looks good, he thought, and took another sip of the maivin.

“Thinking of Suuomalisen,” he said.

She made a slight face and touched the wall-control, switching the bed to .25 G, the compromise they had agreed on. Harold rose into the air slightly as the mattress flexed, readjusting to his reduced weight. In-grid swung onto the bed and began kneading his feet with slim strong fingers.

“I thought you hated him,” she said, rotating the ankles.

“No, despised,” Harold said. The probing traveled up to his calves.

She frowned. “I… you know, Hari, I can’t say I like the thought of leaving Sam and the others at his mercy.”

He nodded and sipped; tax and vagrancy laws on Wunderland had never been kind to the commonfolk. After two generations of kzinti overlordship and collaborationist government, things were much worse. Tenants on the surviving herrenmann estates were not too bad, but urban workers were debt-peons more often than not.

“I know something that Suuomalisen doesn’t,” Harold said, waiting for her look of enquiry before continuing. “Careful on that knee, sweetheart, the repair job’s never really taken… Oh, the pension fund. Usually it’s a scam, get the proles more deeply in debt, you know? Well, the way I’ve got it jiggered the employee nonvoting stock that’s usually another scam, interest-free loans from the help controls the pension fund. The regular employees all owe their debts to the pension fund… to themselves. In fact, the holding company turns out to be controlled by the fund, if you trace it through.”

Ingrid’s hands stopped stroking his thighs as she snorted laughter. “You sold him a minority interest?” she choked. “You teufell” Her hand moved up, kneading. “Devil,” she repeated, in a different tone.

“Open up!” A fist hammered at the door.

“Go away!” they said in chorus, and collapsed laughing.

A red light flashed on the surface of the door. “Open up! There’s a ratcat warship matching trajectories, and it wants you two by name!”

“Two hundred and fifty thousand crowns!” Suuomalisen said, looking mourtifully about.

He was a vague figure in bulky white against the backdrop of Harold’s Terran Bar, looking mournfully down at his luncheon platter of wurst, egg-and-potato salad, breads, shrimp on rye, gulyas soup… His hands continued to shovel the food methodically into his mouth, dropping bits onto the flowing handkerchief tucked into his collar; the rest of his clothing was immaculate white natural linen and silk, the only color jet links at his cuffs. It was rumored that he had his shirts handmade, and never wore one for more than a day. Claude Montferrat-Palme watched the light from the mirror behind the long bar gleaming on the fat man’s bald head and reflected that he could believe it.

Only natural for a man who wolfs down fastmetabol and still weighs that much. It was easy to control appetite, a simple visit to the autodoc, but Suuomalisen refused; he enjoyed being a pig. Wunderland’s .61 G made it fairly easy to carry extra weight, but the sight was still not pleasant.

“Not a bad price for a thriving business,” he said politely, leaning back at his ease and letting smoke trickle out his nostrils. He was in the high-collared blue dress uniform of the Munchen Polezi; the remains of a single croissant lay on the table before him, with a cup of espresso. Their table was the only one in use. The bar was a nightspot and rarely opened before sundown. Just now none of the staff were in the main area, a raised L-shape of tables and booths around the lower dance floor and bar; he could hear mechanical noises from the back room, where the roulette wheels and baccarat tables were. There was a sad, empty smell to the nightclub, the curious daytime melancholy of a place meant to be seen by darkness.

“A part interest only,” Suuomalisen continued. “I trusted Hari!” He shook his head mournfully. “We should not steal from each other… quickly he needed the cash, and did I quibble? Did I spend good money on having lawyers follow his data trail?”

“Did you pay anything like the going-rate price for this place?” Claude continued smoothly. “Did you pay three thousand to my late unlamented second-in-command Axelrod-Bauergartner to have the health inspectors close the place down so that Hari would be forced to sell?”

“That is different, simply business,” the fat man said in a hurt tone. “But to sell me a business actually controlled by employees… ‘t” His jowls wobbled, and he sighed heavily. “A pity about Herrenfra Axelrod-Bauergartner.” He made a tsk sound. “Treason and corruption.”

“Speaking of which,” Claude hinted. Suuomalisen smiled and slid a credit voucher across the table; Claude palmed it smoothly and dropped it into his pocket. So much more tidy than direct transfers, he thought. “Now, my dear Suuomalisen, I’m sure you won’t lose money on the deal. After all, a nightclub is only as good as the staff, and they know that as well as you; with Sam Ogun on the musicomp and Aunti Scheirwize in the kitchen, you can’t go wrong.” He uncrossed his ankles and leaned forward. “To business.”

The fat man’s eyes narrowed and the slit of his mouth pulled tight; for a moment, you remembered that he had survived and prospered on the fringes of the law in occupied Munchen for forty years.

“That worthless musician Ogun is off on holiday, and if you think I’m going to increase the payoff, when I’m getting less than half the profits ”

“No, no, no,” Claude said soothingly. “My dear fellow, I am going to give you more funds. Information is your stock in trade, is it not? Incidentally, Ogun is doing a little errand for me, and should be back in a day or two.”

The petulance left Suuomalisen’s face. “Yes,” he said softly. “But what information could I have worth the while of such as you, Herrenmann?” A pause. “Are you proposing a partnership, indeed?”

“I need documentary evidence on certain of my colleagues,” Claude continued. “I have my own files… but data from those could be, shall we say, embarrassing in its plenitude if revealed to my ratca noble kzinti superiors. Though they are thin on the ground just at this moment. Then, once I have usable evidence usable without possibility of being traced to me, and hence usable as a non-desperation measure a certain… expansion of operations…”

“Ah.” Pearly white teeth showed in the doughy pink face. Suuomalisen pulled his handkerchief free and wiped the dome of his head; there was a whiff of expensive cologne and sweat. “I always said you were far too conservative about making the most of your position, my friend.”

Acquaintance, if necessary. Not friend. Claude smiled, dazzling and charming. “Recent events have presented opportunities,” he said. “With the information you get for me, my position will become unassailable. Then,” he shrugged, “rest assured that I intend to put it to good use.”

“This had better work,” the guerilla captain said. She was a high-cheeked Croat, one of the tenants turned off when the kzinti took over the local herrenmann’s estate, roughly dressed, a well-worn strakkaker over one shoulder. “We need the stuff on that convoy, or we’ll have to pack it in.”

“It will,” Samuel Ogun replied tranquilly. He was a short thick-set black man, with a boxed musicom over his shoulder and a jazzer held by the grips, its stubby barrel pointed up. It better, or I’ll know Mister Claude has fooled this Krio one more time, he thought. “My source has access to the best.”

They were all lying along the ridgeline, looking down on the valley that opened out onto the plains of the upper Donau valley. Two thousand kilometers north of Munchen, and the weather was unseasonably cold this summer; too much cloud from the dust and water-vapor kicked into the stratosphere. The long hillslope down to the abandoned village was covered in head-high wild rosebushes, a jungle of twisted thigh-thick stems, finger-long thorns and flowers like a mist of pink and yellow. Scent lay about them in the warm thick air, heavy, syrup-sweet. Ogun could see native squidgrass struggling to grow beneath the Earth vegetation, thin shoots of reddish olive-brown amid the bright green.

Behind them the deep forest of the Jotun range reared, up to the rock and the glaciers. The roofless cottages of the village were grouped around a lake; around them were thickets of orchard, pomegranate and fig and apricot, and beyond that you could see where grainfields had been, beneath the pasture grasses. Herds were dotted about, six-legged native gagrumphers, Earth cattle and beefaloes and bison; the odd solitary kzinti raaairtwo, its orange pelt standing out against the green of the mutant alfalfa. The kzinti convoy was forging straight across the grasslands, a hexagonal pattern of dark beetle-shaped armored cars and open-topped troop carriers, moving with the soundless speed of distortion batteries and gravity-polarizer lift.

“Twenty of them,” the guerilla said, the liquid accent of her Wunderlander growing more noticeable. “I hope the data you gave us are correct, Krio.”

“It is, Fra Mihaelovic. For the next ten hours, the surveillance net is down. They haven’t replaced the gaps yet.”

She nodded, turning her eyes to the kzinti vehicles and bringing up her viewers. Ogun raised his own, a heavy kzinti model. The vehicles leaped clear, jiggling slightly with hand motion, but close enough for him to see one kzinti trooper flip up the goggles of his helmet and sniff the air, drooling slightly at the scent of meat animals. He spoke to the alien on his right; seconds later, the vehicles slowed and settled. Dots and commas unreeled in the upper left corner of Ogun’s viewers, their idiot-savant brain telling him range and wind-bearings.

“Oh, God is great, God is with us, God is our strength,” the guerilla said with soft fervor. “They aren’t heading straight up the valley to the fort at Bodgansford, they’re going to stop for a feed. Ratcats hate those infantry rations.” Teeth showed strong and yellow against a face stained with sweat-held dust, in an expression a kzin might have read quite accurately. “I don’t blame them, I’ve tasted them.” She touched the throat-mike at the collar of her threadbare hunter’s jacket. “Kopcha.”

Pinpoints of light flared around the village, lines of light heading up into the sky. Automatic weapons stabbed up from the kzinti armored cars; some of the lines ended with orange puffballs of explosion, but they were too many and too close. Ogun grinned himself as the flat pancakes of smoke and light blossomed over the alien war-vehicles; shaped charges, driving self-forging bolts of molten titanium straight down into the upper armor of the convoy’s protection. Thunder rolled back from the mountain walls; huge ringing changgg sounds as the hypervelocity projectiles smashed armor and components and furred alien flesh. Then a soundless explosion that sent the compensators of the viewer black as a ball of white fire replaced an armored car. The ground rose and fell beneath him, and then a huge warm pillow of air smacked him across the face.

Molecular distortion batteries will not burn. But if badly damaged they will discharge all their energy at once, and the density of that energy is very high.

The kzinti infantry were flinging themselves out of the carriers; most of those were undamaged, the antiarmor mines had been reserved for the fighting vehicles. Fire stabbed out at them, from the ruined village, from the rose-thickets of the hillside. Some fell, flopped, were still; Ogun could hear their screams of rage across a kilometer’s distance. The viewer showed him one team struggling to set up a heavy weapon, a tripod-mounted beamer. Two were down, and then a finger of sun slashed across the hillside beneath him. Flame roared up, a secondary explosion as someone’s ammunition was hit, then the last kzin gunner staggered back with a dozen holes through his chest-armor, snorted out a spray of blood, died. The beamer locked and went on cycling bolts into the hillside, then toppled and was still.

A score of armored kzinti made it to the edge of the thicket; it was incredible how fast they moved under their burdens of armor and weaponry. Explosions and more screams as they tripped the waiting directional mines. Ogun grew conscious of the guerilla commander’s fist striking him on the shoulder.

“The jamming worked, the jamming worked! We can ride those carriers right into the fort gates, with satchel charges aboard! You will make us a song of this, guslarl”

They were whooping with laughter as the charging kzin broke cover ten yards downslope. The guerilla had time for one quick burst of glass needles from her strakkaker before it struck; an armored shoulder sent her spinning into the thicket. It wheeled on Ogun with blurring speed, then halted its first rush when it saw what he held in his hand. That was a ratchet knife, a meterlong outline of wire on a battery handle; the thin keening of its vibration sounded under the far-off racket of battle, like the sound of a large and infinitely angry bee. An arm-thick branch of rosevine toppled soundlessly away from it as he turned the tip in a precise circle, cut through without slowing the blade.

Ogun grinned, deliberately wide; he made no move toward the jazzer slung over his shoulder, the kzin was only three meters away and barely out of claw-reach, far too close for him to bring the nerve-disruptor to bear. The warrior held a heavy beam-rifle in one hand, but the amber light on its powerpack was blinking discharge; the kzin’s other arm hung in bleeding tatters, one ear was missing, its helmet had been torn away somewhere, and it limped. Yet there was no fear in the huge round violet eyes as it bent to lay the rifle on the ground and drew the steel-bladed wtsai from its belt.

This was like old times in the hills, right after the kzin landed, he reflected. Old times with Mr. Harold… I wonder where he is now, and Fra Raines?

“Name?” the kzin grated, in harsh Wunderlander, and grinned back at him in a rictus that laid its lower jaw almost on its breast. The tongue lolled over the ripping fangs; it was an old male, with a string of dried ears at its belt, human and kzinti. It made a gesture toward itself with the hilt. “Chmee-Sergeant.” Toward the human. “Name?”

Ogun brought the ratchet knife up before him in a smooth, precise move that was almost a salute. “Ogun,” he said. “Deathgod.”

“Look,” Harold said, as the crewmen frogmarched them toward the airlock, “there’s something… well, it never seemed to be the right time to say it…”

Ingrid turned her head toward him, eyes wide. “You really were going to give up smoking?” she cooed. “Oh, thank you, Hari.”

Behind them, the grimly unhappy faces of the liner crewmen showed uncertainty; they looked back at the officer trailing them with the stunner. He tapped it to his head significantly and rolled his eyes.

This isn’t the time for laughing in the face of death, Harold thought angrily. “Ingrid, we don’t have time to fuck around ··”

“Not anymore,” she interrupted mournfully.

The officer prodded her with the muzzle of the stunner. “Shut up,” he said in a grating tone. “Save the humor for the ratcats.”

More crewmen were shoving crates through the airlock, into the short flexible docking tube between the liner Marlene and the kzinti warcraft. They scraped across the deck plates and then coasted through the tube, where the ship’s gravity cut off at the line of the hull and zero-G took over; there was a dull clank as they tumbled into the warship’s airlock. Numbly, he realized that it was their cabin baggage, packed into a pair of fiberboard canyons. For an insane instant he felt an impulse to tell them to be careful; he had half a crate of best Donaublitz verguuz in there… He glanced aside at Ingrid, seeing a dancing tension under the surface of cheerful calm. Gottdamn, he thought. // / didn’t know better

“Right, cross and dog the airlock from the other side, you two.” Sweat gleamed on the officer’s face; he was a Swarm-Belter, tall and stick-thin. He hesitated, then ran a hand down his short-cropped crest and spoke softly. “I’ve got a family and children on Tiamat,” he said in an almost-whisper. “Murphy’s unsanctified rectum, half the crew on the Marlene are my relatives… if it were just me, you understand?”

Ingrid laid a hand on his sleeve, her voice suddenly gentle. “You’ve got hostages to fortune,” she said. “I do understand. We all do what we have to.”

“Yeah,” Harold heard himself say. Looking at the liner officer, he found himself wondering whether the woman’s words had been compassion or a beautifully subtle piece of vengence. Easier if you called him a ratcat-lover or begged, he decided. Then he would be able to use anger to kill guilt, or know he was condemning only a coward to death. Now he can spend the next couple of years having nightmares about the brave, kind-hearted lady being ripped to shreds.

Unexpected, fear gripped him; a loose hot sensation below the stomach, and the humiliating discomfort of his testicles trying to retract from his scrotum. Ripped to shreds was exactly and literally true. He remembered lying in the dark outside the kzinti outpost, back in the guerilla days right after the war. They had caught Dagmar the day before, but it was a small patrol, without storage facilities. So they had taken her limbs one at a time, cauterizing; he had been close enough to hear them quarrelling over the liver, that night. He had taken the amnesty, not long after that…

“Here’s looking at you, sweetheart,” he said, as they cycled the lock closed. It was not cramped; facilities built for kzin rarely were, for humans. A Sios/ier-class three-crew scout, he decided. Motors whined as the docking ring retracted into the annular cavity around the airlock. Weight within was Kzin-standard; he sagged under it, and felt his spirit sag as well. “Tanjit.‘ A shrug. ”Oh, well, the honeymoon was great, even if we had to wait fifty years and the relationship looks like it’ll be short.“

“Hari, you’re… sweet,” Ingrid said, smiling and stroking his cheek. Then she turned to the inner door.

“Hell, they’re not going to leave that unlocked,” Harold said in surprise. An airlock made a fairly good improvised holding facility, once you disconnected the controls via the main computer. The Wunderlander stiffened as the inner door sighed open, then gagged as the smell reached him. He recognized it instantly, the smell of rotting meat in a confined dry place. Lots of rotting meat… oily and thick, like some invisible protoplasmic butter smeared inside his nose and mouth.

He ducked through. His guess had been right, a Slasher. The control deck was delta-shaped, two crash-couches at the rear corners for the sensor and weapons operators, and the pilot-commander in the front. There were kzinti corpses in the two rear seats, still strapped in and in space armor with the helmets off. Their heads lay tilted back, mouths hanging open, tongues and eyeballs dry and leathery; the flesh had started to sag and the fur to fall away from their faces. Behind him he heard Ingrid retch, and swallowed himself. This was not precisely what she had expected…

And she’s got a universe of guts, but all her fighting’s been done in space, he reminded himself. Gentlefolk’s combat, all at a safe distance and then death or victory in a few instants. Nothing gruesome, unless you were on a salvage squad… even then, bodies do not rot in vacuum. Not like ground warfare at all. He reached over, careful not to touch, and flipped the hinged helmets down; the corpses were long past rigor mortis. A week or so, he decided. Hard to tell in this environment.

A sound brought his head up, a distinctive ftttp-ftttp. The kzin in the commander’s position was not dead. That noise was the sound of thin wet black lips fluttering on half-inch fangs, the ratcat equivalent of a snore.

“Sorry,” the screen in front of the kzin said. “I forgot they’d smell.”

Ingrid came up beside him. The screen showed a study, book-lined around a crackling hearth. A small girl in antique dress slept in an armchair before a mirror; a white-haired figure with a pipe and smoking jacket was seated beside her, only the figure was an anthropomorphic rabbit… Ingrid took a shaky breath.

“Harold Yarthkin-Schotmann,” she said. “Meet… the computer of Catskinner.” Her voice was a little hoarse from the stomach-acids that had filled her mouth. “I was expecting something… like this. Computer, meet Harold.” She rubbed a hand across her face. “How did you do it?”

The rabbit beamed and waved its pipe. “Oh, simply slipped a pseudopod of myself into its control computer while it attempted to engage me,” he said airily, puffing a cloud of smoke. “Not difficult, when its design architecture was so simple.”

Harold spoke through numb lips. “You designed a specific tapeworm that could crack a kzinti warship’s failsafes in… how long?”

“Oh, about two point seven seconds, objective. Of course, to me, that could be any amount of time I

chose, you see. Then I took control of the medical support system, and injected suitable substances into the crew. Speaking of time…“ The rabbit touched the young girl on the shoulder; she stretched, yawned, and stepped through a large and ornately framed mirror on the study wall, vanishing without trace.

“Ah,” Harold said. Sentient computer. Murphy’s phosphorescent balls, I’m glad they don’t last.

Ingrid began speaking, a list of code-words and letter-number combinations.

“Yes, yes,” the rabbit said, with a slight testiness in its voice. The scene on the viewscreen disappeared, to be replaced with a view of another spaceship bridge, smaller than this, and without the angular massiveness of kzinti design. He saw two crashcouches, and vague shapes in the background that might be life-support equipment. “Yes, I’m still functional, Lieutenant Raines. We do have a bit of a problem, though.”

“What?” she said. There was a look of strain on her face, lines grooving down beside the straight nose.

“The next Identification Friend or Foe code is due in a week,” the computer said. “It isn’t in the computer; only the pilot knows it. I’ve had no luck at all convincing him to tell me; there are no interrogation-drugs in his suit’s autodoc and he seems to have a quite remarkable pain tolerance, even for a kzin. I could take you off to Catskinner, of course, but this ship would make splendid cover; you see, there’s been a… startling occurrence in the Swarm, and the kzinti are gathering. I’ll have to brief you.”

Harold felt the tiny hairs along his neck and spine struggle to erect themselves beneath the snug surface of his Belter coverall, as he listened to the cheerful voice drone on in upper-class Wunderlander. Trapped in here, smelling his crew rot, screaming at the watts, he thought with a shudder. There were a number of extremely nasty things you could do even with standard autodoc drugs, provided you could override the safety parameters. It was something even a kzin didn’t de-serve… then he brought up memories of his own. Or maybe they do. Still, he didn’t talk. You had to admit it; ratcats were almost as tough as they thought they were.

“I know how to make him talk,” he said abruptly, cutting off an illustrated discourse on the Sea Statue; some ancient flatlander named Greenberg stopped in the middle of a disquisition on thrintun ethics. “I need some time to assimilate all this stuff,” he went on. “We’re humans, we can’t adjust our worldviews the minute we get new data. But I can make the ratcat cry uncle.”

Ingrid looked at him, then glanced away sharply. She had a handkerchief pressed to her nose, but he saw her grimace of distaste.

Don’t worry, kinder. Hot irons are a waste of time; ratcats are hardcases every one. “All 111 need is some wax, some soft cloth and some spotglue to hold his suit to that chair.”

It’s time, Harold decided.

The kzin whose suit clamped him to the forward chair had stopped trying to jerk his head loose from the padded clamps a day or so ago. Now his massive head simply quivered, and the fur seemed to have fallen in on the heavy bones somehow. Thick disks of felt and plastic made an effective blindfold, wax sealed ears and nose from all sight and scent, the improvised muzzle allowed him to breathe through clenched teeth but little else. Inside the suit was soft immobile padding and the catheters that carried away waste, fed and watered and tended and would not let the brain go catatonic.

A sentient brain needs input; it is not designed to be cut off from the exterior world. Deprived of data, the first thing that fails is the temporal sense; minutes become subjective hours, hours stretch into days. Hallucinations follow, and the personality itself begins to disintegrate… and kzinti are still more sensitive to sensory deprivation than humans. Compared to kzinti, humans are nearly deaf, almost completely unable to smell.

For which I am devoutly thankful, Harold decided, looking back to where Ingrid hung loose-curled in midair. They had set the interior field to zero-G; that helped with the interrogation, and she found it easier to sleep. The two dead crewkzinti were long gone, and they had cycled and flushed the cabin to the danger point, but the oily stink of death seemed to have seeped into the surfaces. Never really present, but always there at the back of your throat… she had lost weight, and there were bruise-like circles beneath her eyes.

“Wake up, sweetheart,” he said gently. She started, thrashed and then came to his side, stretching. “I need you to translate.” His own command of the Hero’s Tongue was fairly basic.

He reached into the batlike ear and pulled out one plug. “Ready to talk, ratcat?”

The quivering died, and the kzin’s head was completely immobile for an instant. Then it jerked against the restraints as the alien tried frantically to nod. Harold pulled at the slipknot that released the muzzle; he could always have the computer administer a sedative if he needed to re-strap it.

The kzin shrieked, an endless desolate sound. That turned into babbling:

“nono grey in the dark grey monkeys grey TOO BIG noscent noscent nome no ME no me DON’T EAT ME MOTHER NO ”

“Shut the tanjit up or you go back,” Harold shouted into its ear, feeling a slight twist in his own empty stomach.

“No!” This time the kzin seemed to be speaking rationally, at least a little. “Please! Let me hear, let me smell, please, please.” Its teeth snapped, spraying saliva as it tried to lunge, trying to sink its fangs into reality. “I must smell, I must smell!”

Harold turned his eyes aside slightly. 1 always wanted to hear a ratcat beg, he thought. You have to be careful what you wish for; sometimes you get it.

“Just the code, Commander. Just the code.”

It spoke, a long sentence in the snarling hiss-spit of the Hero’s Tongue, then lay panting. “It is not lying, to a probability of 98%, plus or minus two points,” the computer said. “Shall I terminate it?”

“No!” Harold snapped. To the kzin: “Hold still.”

A few swift motions removed the noseplugs and blindfold; the alien gaped its mouth and inhaled in racking gasps, hauling air across its nasal cavities. The huge eyes flickered, manic-fast, and the umbrella ears were stretched out to maximum. After a moment it slumped and closed its mouth, the pink washcloth tongue coming out to scrub across the dry granular surface of its nose.

“Real,” it muttered. “I am real.” The haunted eyes turned on him. “You burn,” it choked. “Fire in the air around you. You burn with terror!” Panting breath. “I saw the God, human. Saw Him sowing stars. It was forever. Forever! Foreverl” It howled again, then caught itself, shuddering.

Harold felt his cheeks flush. Something, he thought. I have to say something, gottdamn it.

“Name?” he said, his mouth shaping itself clumsily to the Hero’s Tongue.

“Kdapt-Captain,” it gasped. “Kdapt-Captain. I am Kdapt-Captain.” The sound of its rank-name seemed to recall the alien to something closer to sanity. The next words nearly a whisper. “What have I done?”

Kdapt-Captain shut his eyes again, squeezing. Thin mewling sounds forced their way past the carnivore teeth, a sobbing miaow-miaow, incongruous from the massive form.

“Schiesse,” Harold muttered. I never heard a kzin cry before, either. “Sedate him, now.” The sounds faded as the kzin lost consciousness.

“War sucks,” Ingrid said, coming closer to lay a hand on his shoulder. “And there ain’t no justice.”

Harold nodded raggedly, his hands itching for a cigarette. “You said it, sweetheart,” he said. “I’m going to break out another bottle of that verguuz. I could use it.”

Ingrid’s hand pressed him back towards the deck. “No you’re not,” she said sharply. He looked up in surprise.

“I spaced it,” she said flatly.

“You what?” he shouted.

“I spaced it!” she yelled back. The kzin whimpered in his sleep, and she lowered her voice. “Hari, you’re the bravest man I’ve ever met, and one of the toughest. But you don’t take waiting well, and when you hate yourself verguuz is how you punish yourself. That, and letting yourself go.” He was suddenly conscious of his own smell. “Not while you’re with me, thank you very much.”

Harold stared at her for a moment, then slumped back against the bulkhead, shaking his head in wonder. You can’t fight in a singleship, he reminded himself. Motion caught the corner of his eye; several of the screens were set to reflective. Well… he thought. The pouches under his eyes were a little too prominent. Nothing wrong with a bender now and then… but now and then had been growing more frequent. Habits grow on you, even when you’ve lost the reasons for them, he mused. One of the drawbacks of modern geriatrics. You get set in your ways. Getting close enough to someone to listen to their opinions of him, now that was a habit he was going to have to learn.

“Gottdamn, what a honeymoon,” he muttered.

Ingrid mustered a smile. “Haven’t even had the nuptials, yet. We could set up a contract ” she winced and made a gesture of apology.

“Forget it,” he answered roughly. That was what his herrenmann father had done, rather than marry a Belter and a Commoner into the sacred Schotmann family line. Time to change the subject, he thought. “Tell me… thinking back, I got the idea you knew the kzinti weren’t running this ship. The computer got some private line?”

“Oh.” She blinked, then smiled slightly. “Well, I thought I recognized the programming, I was part of the team that designed the software, you know? Not many sentient computers ever built. When I heard the name of the ‘kzinti’ ship, well, it was obvious.”

“Sounded pretty authentic to me,” Harold said dubiously, straining his memory.

Ingrid smiled more broadly. “I forgot. It’d sound perfectly reasonable to a kzin, or to someone who grew up speaking Wunderlander, or Belter English. I’ve been associating with flatlanders, though.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Only an English-speaking flatlander would know what’s wrong with kchee’uRüt maarai as a ship-name.” At his raised eyebrows, she translated: Gigantic Patriarchal Tool.

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