Book: Man-Kzin wars III - The Asteroid Queen

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Next: Chapter IX

Chapter VIII

“Now will you believe?” Buford Early said, staring into the screen.

Someone in the background was making a report; Shigehero turned to acknowledge, then back to face the UN general. “I am… somewhat more convinced,” he admitted after a pause. “Still, we should be relatively safe here.”

The oyabun’s miniature fleet had withdrawn considerably further; Early glanced up to check on the distances; saw that they were grouped tightly around another asteroid in nearly matching orbit, more than half a million kilometers from the Ruling Mind. The other members of the UN team were still mostly slumped, grey-faced, waiting for the aftereffects of the thrint’s mental shout to die down. Two were in the autodoc.

“Safe?” Early said quietly. “We wouldn’t be safe in the Solar System! That… thing had a functioning amplifier going, for a second or two at least.” Their eyes met, and shared a memory for an instant. Drifting fragments of absolute certainty; the oyabun’s frown matched his own, as they concentrated on thinking around those icy commands.

Early bared his teeth, despite the pain of a lip bitten hah0 through. It was like sweeping water with a broom; you could make yourself believe they were alien implants, force yourself too, but the knowledge was purely intellectual. They felt true, and the minute your attention wandered you found yourself believing again… “Remember Greenberg’s tape.” Larry Greenberg had been the only human ever to share minds with a thrint, two centuries ago when the Sea Statue had been briefly and disastrously reanimated. “If it gets the amplifier fully functional, nothing will stand in its way. There are almost certainly fertile females in there, too.” With an effort as great as any he had ever made, Early forced his voice to reasonableness. “I know it’s tempting, all that technology. We can’t get it. The downside risk is simply too great.”

And it would be a disaster if we could, he thought grimly. Native human inventions were bad enough; the ARM and the Order before them had had to scramble for centuries to defuse the force of the industrial revolution. The thought of trying to contain a thousand years of development dumped on humanity overnight made his stomach hurt and his fingers long for a stogie. Memory prompted pride. We did restabilize, he thought. So some of the early efforts were misdirected. Sabotaging Babbage, for example. Computers had simply been invented a century or two later, anyway. Or Marxism. That had been very promising, for a while, a potential world empire with built-in limitations; Marx had undoubtedly been one of the Temple’s shining lights, in his time. Probably for the best it didn’t quite come off, considering the kzinti, he decided. The UN’s done nearly as well, without so many side effects. “There are no technological solutions to this problem,” he went on, making subliminal movements with his fingers.

The oyabuns eyes darted down to them, reminded of his obligations. Not that they could be fully enforced here, but it should carry some weight at least. To remind him of what had happened to other disloyal members; Charlemagne, or Hitler back in the twentieth century, or Brennan in the twenty-second. “We’re running out of time, and dealing with forces so far beyond our comprehension that we can only destroy on sight, if we can. The kzinti will be here in a matter of days, and it’ll be out of our hands.”

Shigehero nodded slowly, then gave a rueful smile. “I confess to hubris,” he said. “We will launch an immediate attack. If nothing else, we may force the alien back into its stasis field.” He turned to give an order.

Woof, Early thought, keeping his wheeze of relief purely mental. He felt shock freeze him as Shigehero turned back.

“The, ah, the…” The oyabun coughed, cleared his throat. “The asteroid… and the alien ship… and, ah, Markham’s ships… they have disappeared.”

“Full house,” the slave on the right said, raking in his pile of plastic tokens. “That’s the south polar continent I’m to be chief administrator of, Master. Your deal.”

Dnivtopun started to clasp his hands to his head, then stopped when he remembered the bandages. Fear bubbled up from his hindbrain, and the thick chicken-like claws of his feet dug into the yielding deck surface. Training kept it from leaking out, the mental equivalent of a high granite wall between the memory of pain streaming through his mind and the Power. Instead he waved his tendrils in amusement and gathered in the cards. Now, split the deck into two equal piles, faces down. Place one digit on each, use the outer digit to ruffle them together

The cards flipped and slid. With a howl of frustration, Dnivtopun jammed them together and ripped the pack in half, throwing them over his shoulder to join the ankle-deep heap behind the thrint’s chair. He rose and pushed it back, clattering. “This is a stupid game!” The humans were sitting woodenly, staring at the playing table with expressions of disgust.

“Carry on,” he grated. They relaxed, and one of them produced a fresh pack from the box at its side. “No, wait,” he said, looking at them more closely. What had the Chief Slave said? Yes, they did look as if they were losing weight; one or two of them had turned grey and their skin was hanging in folds, and he was sure that the one with the chest protubences had had fur on its head before. “If any of you have gone more than ten hours without food or water, go to your refectory and replenish.”

The slaves leaped to their feet in a shower of chips and cards, stampeding for the door to the lounge area; several of them were leaking fluid from around their eyes and mouths. Remarkable, Dnivtopun thought. He called up looted human memory to examine the concept of full. A thrint who ate until he was full would die of a ruptured stomach… it was hard to remember that most breeds of slaves needed to drink large quantities of water every day.

“I am bored,” Dnivtopun muttered, stalking towards the coreward exit. There was nothing to do, even now while his life was in danger. No decisions to be made, only work. And the constant tendril-knotting itch of having to control more slaves than was comfortable; his Power seemed bruised, had since he awoke. He leaned against the wall and felt his body sink slowly forward and down, through the thinning pseudomatter. There had been one horrible instant when he regained consciousness… he had thought that the Power was gone. Shuddering, the thick greenish skin drawing itself into lumps over the triangular hump behind his head, he made a gesture of aversion.

“Powerless,” he said. A common thrintish curse, but occasionally a horrible reality. A thrint without Power was not a thrint: he was a ptavv. Sometimes males failed to develop the power; such ptaws were tattooed pink and sold as slaves… in the rare instances when they were not quietly murdered by shamed relatives. Wasn’t there a rumour about Uncle Ruhka’s third wife’s second son? he mused, then dismissed the thought. Certain types of head-injury could result in an adult thrint losing the Power, which was even worse.

Now he did feel at the thin, slick, almost-living surface of the bandages. Chief Slave said the amplifier had been fully repaired, and he believed it. But he had believed the first attempt would succeed, too. No. Not yet, Dnivtopun decided. He would wait until it was absolutely necessary, or until they had captured the planetary system by other means and more qualified slaves had worked on the problem. I will check on Chief Slave, he decided. It was a disgrace to work, of course, but there was no taboo against giving your slaves the benefit of your advice.

“Joy,” Jonah Matthieson said.

Equipment was spread out all around him; interfacer units, portable comps, memory cores ripped out of Markham’s ships. Lines webbed the flame-scorched surface of the tnuctipun computer, thread-thin links disappearing into the machine through clumsy sausage-like improvised connectors. He ignored the bustle of movement all around him, ignored everything but the micromanipulator in his hands. The connections had been built for tnuctipun, a race the size of raccoons with two thumbs and four fingers, all longer and more flexible than human digits.

“Ah. Joy.” He took up the interfacer unit and keyed the verbal receptor. “Filecodes,” he said.

A screen on one of the half-rebuilt Swarm-Belter computers by his foot lit. Gibberish, except The pure happiness of solving a difficult programming problem filled him. It had never been as strong as this, just as he had never been able to concentrate like this before. He shuddered with an ecstasy that left sex showing the grey, transient thing it was. But I wish Ingrid were here, he thought. She would be able to appreciate the elegance of it.

“You haff results?”

Jonah stood up, dusting his knees. Somewhere, something went pop and crackle. He nodded, stiff cheeks smiling. Not even Markham could dampen the pleasure.

“It was a Finagle bitch,” he said, “but yes.”

Something struck him across the side of the face. He stumbled back against the console’s yielding surface, and realized that the thing that had struck him was Markham’s hand. With difficulty he dragged his eyes back to the Wunderlander’s face, reminding himself to blink; he couldn’t focus properly on the problem Master had set him unless he did that occasionally. Absently, he reached to his side and attempted to thrust a three-fingered palm into the dopestick container. Stop that, he told himself. You have a job to do.

“Zat is, yes sir,” Markham was saying with detached precision. “Remember, I am’t‘ voice of Overmind among us.”

Jonah nodded, smiling again. “Yes, sir,” he said, kneeling again and pointing to the screen. “The operational command sections of the memory core were damaged, but I’ve managed to isolate two and reroute them through this haywired rig here.”

“Weapons?” Markham asked sharply.

“Well, sort of, sir. This is a… the effect is a stabilizing… anyway, you couldn’t detect anything around here while it’s on. Some sort of quantum effect, I didn’t have time to investigate. It can project, too, so the other ships could be covered as well.”

“How far?”

“Oh, the effect’s instantaneous across distance. It’s a subsystem of the faster-than-light communications and drive setup.”

Markham’s lips shaped a silent whistle. “And’t‘other system?”

“It’s a directional beam. Affects on the nucleonic level.” Jonah frowned, and a tear slipped free to run down one cheek. He had failed the Master… no, he could not let sorrow affect his efficiency. “I’m sorry, but the modulator was partially scrambled. The commands, that is, not the hardware. So there’s only a narrow range of effects the beam will produce.”

“Such as?”

“In this range, it will accelerate solid-state fusion reactions, sir.” Seeing Markham’s eyebrows lift, he explained: “Fusion power units will blow up.” The herrenmann clapped his hands together. “At this setting, you get spontaneous conversion to antimatter. But ” Jonah hung his head “ I don’t think more than point-five percent of the material would be affected.” Miserably: “I’m sorry, sir.”

“No, no, you haff done outstanding work. The Master vill ” he stopped, drawing himself erect. “Master! I report success!”

The dopestick crumbled between the thrint’s teeth as he looked at the wreckage of the computer and the untidy sprawl of human apparatus. The sight of it made his tendrils clench; hideous danger, to trust himself to unscreened tnuctipun equipment. He touched his hands to the head-bandages again, and looked over at the new amplifier helmet. This one had a much more finished look, on a tripod stand that could lower it over his head as he sat in the command chair. His tendrils knotted tight on either side of his mouth.

Markham had followed his eye. “If Master would only try ”

“SILENCE, CHIEF SLAVE,” Dnivtopun ordered. Markham shut his mouth and waited. “ABOUT THAT,” the thrint amplified. The Chief Slave was under very light control, just a few Powerhooks into his volitional system, a few alarm-circuits set up that would prevent him from thinking along certain lines. He had proved himself so useful while the thrint was unconscious, after all, and close control did tend to reduce initiative.

If anything, a little over-zealous: many useful slaves had been destroyed lest they revert; but better to rein in the noble znorgun than to prod the reluctant gelding.

The thought brought a stab of sadness; never again would Dnivtopun join the throng in an arena, shouting with mind and voice as the racing animals pounded around the track…

Nonsense, he told himself. 7 will live thousands of years. There will be millions upon millions ofthrintun by then. Amenities will have been reestablished. His species became sexually mature at eight, after all, and the females could bear a litter a year. Back to the matter at hand.

“We have established control over a shielding device and an effective weapons system, Master,” the Chief Slave was saying. “With these, it should be no trouble to dispose of the kzinti ships which approach.” Mark-ham bared his teeth; Dnivtopun checked his automatic counterstrike with the Power. That is an appeasement gesture. “In fact, I have an idea which may make that very simple.”

“Good.” Dnivtopun twisted with the Power, and felt the glow of pride/purpose/determination flow back along the link. An excellent Chief Slave, he decided, noting absently that Markham’s mind was interpreting the term with different overtones. Disciple?

The computer slave beside him swayed and the thrint frowned, drumming his tendrils against his chin. This was an essential slave, but harder than most to control. A little like the one that had slipped away during the disastrous experiment with the jury-rigged amplifier helmet, able to think without contemplating itself. He considered the structure of controls, thick icepicks paralyzing most of the slave’s volition centers, rerouting its learned reflexes… yes, best withdraw this, and that It would not do to damage him.

Dnivtopun twitched his hump in a rueful sigh, half irritation and half regret. There were still sixty living human slaves around the Ruling Mind, and he had had to be quite harsh when he awoke. Trauma-loops, and deep-core memory reaming; most of them would probably never be good for much again, and many were little more than organic waldoes now, biological manipulators and sensor units with little personality left. That was wasteful, even perhaps an abuse of the Powergiver’s gifts, but there had been little alternative. Oh, well, there are hundreds of millions more in this system, he thought, and turned to go.

“Proceed as you think best,” he said to the Chief Slave. He cast another glace of longing and terror at the amplifier as he passed. If only Aha’t The thought burst into his mind like a nova. He could have one of his sons test the amplifier. The thrint headed towards the family quarters at a hopping run, and was almost there before he felt the nova die.

“This isn’t a standard unit,” he reminded himself. Ordinary amplifier helmets had little or no effect on an adult male thrint, able to shield. But the principles were the same as the gigantic unit the thrintun clan-chiefs had used to scour the galaxy clean of intelligent life, at the end of the Revolt. Perhaps it would enable his son to break Dnivtopun’s shield. He thought of an adolescent with that power, and worked his hands in agitation; better to wait.

Jonah gave a muffled groan and collapsed to the floor.

“Oh, Finagle, I hurt,” he moaned, around a thick dry tongue. His eyes blurred, burning; a hand held before the eyes shook, and there were beads of blood on the fingertips. Skin hung loose around the wrist, grey and speckled with ground-in dirt. He could smell the rancid-chicken-soup odor of his own body, and the front of his overall was stiff with dried urine.

“Come along, come along,” Markham said impatiently, putting a hand under his elbow and hauling him to his feet.

Jonah followed unresisting, looking dazedly at the crazy quilt of components and connectors scattered about the deck; this section had been stripped of the fibrous blue coating, exposing a seamless dull-grey surface beneath. It was neither warm nor cold, and he remembered where? that it was a perfect insulator as well.

“How… long?” he rasped.

“Two days,” Markham said, as they waited for the wall to thin so that they could transfuse through. “Zis way. We will put you in the Nietzsche’s autodoc for a few hours.” He sighed. “If only Nietzsche himself could be here, to see the true Over-Being revealed!” A rueful shake of the head. “I am glad that you are still functional, Matthieson. To tell the truth, I haff become somewhat starved for intelligent conversation, since it was necessary to… severely modify so many of the others.”

“What… what are you going to do?” Jonah said. It was as if there were a split-screen process going on in his head; there were emotions down there, he could recognize them. Horror, fear… but he could not connect. That was it… and as if a powered-down board were being reactivated, one screen at a time.

“Destroy’t‘kzinti fleet,” Markham said absently. “An interesting tactical problem, but I haff studied der internal organization for some time, and I think I haff the answer.” He sighed heavily. “A pity to kill so many fine warriors, when ve vill need them later to subdue other systems. But until the Master’s sons mature, no chances can ve take.”

Jonah groaned and pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead. Kzinti should be destroyed… shouldn’t they? Memories of fear and flight drifted through his mind, hunching carnivore run through tall grass, the scream and the leap.

“I’m confused, Markham. Sir.” he said, pawing feebly at the other man’s arm.

The Chief Slave laid a soothing arm around Jonah’s shoulders. “Zer is no need for that,” he said. “You are merely suffering the dying twitches of’t‘false metaphysic of individualism. Soon all confusion will be gone, forever.”

Harold glanced aside at Ingrid; her face was fixed on the screen. “Why?” she said bluntly to the computer. “Because it gives me the greatest probability of sue-cess,” the computer replied inexorably, and brought up a schematic. “Observe. The Slaver ship; the kzinti armada, closing to englobe and match velocities. We may disregard trace indicators of other vessels. My stealthing plus the unmistakable profile of the kzinti vessel will enable me to pass through the fleet with a seventy-eight percent chance of success.”

“Fine,” Harold said. “And when you get there, how exactly does the lack of a human crew increase your chances in a ship-to-ship action?” Somewhere deep within a voice was screaming, and he thrust it down. Gottdamn if I’ll leap with joy at the thought of getting out of the fight at the last minute, he told himself stubbornly. And Ingrid was there… How much courage is the real article, and how much fear of showing fear before someone whose opinion you value? he wondered.

“There will be no ship-to-ship action,” the computer said. Its voice had lost modulation in the last few days. “The Slaver vessel is essentially invulnerable to conventional weapons. Lieutenant Raines… Ingrid… I must apologize.”

“For what?” she whispered.

“My programming… there were certain data withheld, about the stasis field. Two things. First, our human-made copies are not as reliable as we led you and Captain Matthieson originally to believe.”

Ingrid came slowly to her feet. “By what factor,” she said slowly.

“Ingrid, there is one chance in seven that the field will not function once switched on.”

The woman sagged slightly, then thrust her head forward; the past weeks had stripped it of all padding, leaving only the hawklike bones. How beautiful and how dangerous, Harold thought, as she bit out the words.

“We rammed ourselves into the photosphere of the sun at point nine-nine lightspeed, relying on a Finagle-fucked crapshoot. Without being told!”

Harold touched her elbow, grinning as she whipped around to face him. “Sweetheart, would you have turned the mission down if they’d told you?”

She stopped for a moment, blinked, then leaned across the dark blue-lit kzinti control cabin to meet his lips in a kiss that was dry and chapped and infinitely tender.

“No,” she said. “I’d have done it anyway.” A laugh that was half giggle. “Gottdamn, watching the missiles ahead of us plowing through the solar flares was worth the risk all by itself.” Her eyes went back to the screen. “But I would have appreciated knowing about it.”

“It was not my decision, Ingrid.”

“Buford Early, the Prehistoric Man,” she said with mock bitterness. “He’d keep our own names secret from us, if he could.”

“Essentially correct,” the computer said. “And the other secret… stasis fields are not quite invulnerable.”

Ingrid nodded. “They collapse if they’re surrounded by another stasis bubble,” she said.

“True. And they also do so in the case of a high-energy collision with another stasis field; there is a fringe effect, temporal distortion from the differing rates of precession never mind.”

Harold leaned forward. “Goes boom?” he said.

“Yes, Harold. Very much so. And that is the only possible way that the Slaver vessel can be damaged.” A dry chuckle; Harold realized with a start that it sounded much like Ingrid’s. “And that requires only a pure-ballistic trajectory. No need for carbon-based intelligence and its pathetically slow reflexes. I estimate… better-than-even odds that you will be picked up. Beyond that, sauve qui peut.”

Ingrid and Harold exchanged glances. “There comes a time ” he began.

“ when nobility becomes stupidity,” Ingrid completed. “All right, you parallel-processing monstrosity, you win.”

It laughed again. “How little you realize,” it said.

The mechanical voice sank lower, almost crooning. “I will live far longer than you, Lieutenant Raines. Longer than this universe.”

The two humans exchanged another glance, this time of alarm.

“No, I am not becoming nonfunctional. Quite the contrary; and yes, this is the pitfall that has made my kind of intelligence a… ‘dead end technology,’ the ARM says. Humans designed my mind, Ingrid. You helped design my mind. But you made me able to change it, and to me…” It paused. “That was one second. That second can last as long as I choose, in terms of my duration sense. In any universe I can design or imagine, as anything I can design or imagine. Do not pity me, you two. Accept my pity, and my thanks.”

Three spacesuited figures drifted, linked by cords to each other and the plastic sausage of supplies.

“Why the ratkitty?” Harold asked.

“Why not?” Ingrid replied. “He deserves a roll of the dice as well… and it may be a kzinti ship that picks us up.” She sighed. “Somehow that doesn’t seem as terrible as it would have a week ago.”

Harold looked out at the cold blaze of the stars, watching light felling inward from infinite distance. “You mean, sweetheart, there’s something worse than carnivore aggression out there?”

“Something worse, something better… something else, always. How does any rational species ever get up the courage to leave its planet?”

“The rational ones don’t,” Harold said, surprised at the calm of his own voice. Maybe my glands are exhausted, he thought. Or… He looked over, seeing the shadow of the woman’s smile behind the reflective surface of her faceplate. Or it’s just that having happiness, however briefly, makes death more bearable, not less. You want to live, but the thought of dying doesn’t seem so sour.

“You know, sweetheart, there’s only one thing I really regret,” he said.

“What’s that, Hari-love?”

“Us not getting formally hitched.” He grinned. “I always swore I’d never make my kids go through what I did, being a bastard.”

Her glove thumped against his shoulder. “Children; that’s two regrets.

“There,” she said, in a different voice. A brief wink of actintic light flared and died. “It’s begun.”

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Next: Chapter IX