Traat-Admiral scowled, and the human flinched.
Control, he reminded himself, covering his fangs and extending his ears with an effort. The Conservor of the Ancestral Past laid a cautionary hand on his arm.
“Let me question this monkey once more,” he said.
He turned away, pacing. The bridge of the Throat Ripper was spacious, even by kzinti standards, but he could not shake off a feeling of confinement. Spoiled by the governor’s quarters, he told himself in an attempt at humor, but his tail still lashed. Probably it was the faintly absurd ceremonial clothing he had to don as governor-commanding aboard a fleet of this size. Derived from the layered padding once worn under battle armor, in the dim past, it was tight and confining to a pelt used to breathing free… although objectively, he had to admit, no more so than space armor such as the rest of the bridge crew wore.
Behind him was a holo-schematic of the fleet, outline figures of the giant Ripper class dreadnoughts; this flagship was the first of the series. All instruments of his command …ifl can avoid disastrous loss of prestige, he thought uneasily. Traat-Admiral turned and crossed his arms. The miserable human was standing with bowed head before the Conservor who looks almost as uncomfortable in his ceremonial clothing as I do in mine, he japed to himself. The Conservor was leaning forward, one elbow braced on the surface of a slanting display screen. He had drawn the nerve disrupter from its chest-holster and was tapping it on the metal rim of the screen; Traat-Admiral could see the human flinch at each tiny clink.
Traat-Admiral frowned again, rumbling deep in his throat. That clinking was a sign of how much stress Conservor too was feeling; normally he had no nervous habits. The kzinti commander licked his nose and sniffed deeply. He could smell his own throttled-back frustration, Conservor’s tautly-held fear and anger… flat scents from the rest of the bridge crew. Disappointment, surly relaxation after tension, despite the wild odors of blood and ozone the life-support system pumped out at this stage of combat readiness. It was the stink of disillusionment, the most dangerous smell in the universe. Only Aide-de-Camp had the clean gingery odor of excitement and belief, and Traat-Admiral was uneasily conscious of those worshipful eyes on his back.
The human was a puny specimen, bloated and puffy as many of the Wunderland subspecies were, dark of pelt and skin, given to waving its hands in a manner that invited a snap. Tiamat security had picked it up, babbling of fearsome aliens discovered by the notorious feral-human leader Markham. And it claimed to have been a navigator, with accurate data on location.
Conservor spoke in the human tongue. “The coordinates were accurate, monkey?”
“Oh, please, Dominant Ones,” the human said, wringing its hands. “I am sure, yes, indeed.” Conservor shifted his gaze to Telepath.
The ship’s mind-reader was sitting braced against a chair, with his legs splayed out and his forelimbs slumped between them, an expression of acute agony on his face. Ripples went along the tufted, ungroomed pelt. The claws slid uncontrollably in and out on the hand that reached for the drug-injectors at his belt, the extract of sthondat-lymph that was a telepath’s source of power and ultimate shame. Telepath looked up at Conservor and laid his facial fur flat, snapping at air, spraying saliva in droplets and strings that spattered the floor.
“No! No! Not again, pfft, pfft, not more rice and lentils! Mango chutney, akk, akk! It was telling the truth, it was telling the truth. Leek soup! Ngggggg!”
Conservor glanced back over his shoulder at Traat-Admiral and shrugged with ears and tail. “The monkey is a member of a religious cult that confines itself to vegetable food,” he said.
The commander felt himself jerk back in disgust at the perversion. They could not help being omnivores; they were born so, but this…
“It stands self-condemned,” he said. “Guard Trooper, take it to the live-meat locker.” Capital ships came equipped with such luxuries.
“That does not solve our problem,” Conservor said quietly.
“They have vanished).” Traat-Admiral snarled.
“Which shows their power,” Conservor replied. “We had trace enough on this track ”
“For me! I believed you before we left parking orbit, Conservor. Not enough for the Traditionalists! I feel the shadow of God’s claws on this mission ”
An alarm whistled. “Traat-Admiral,” the Communicator said. “Priority message, realtime, from Ktrodni-Stkaa on board Blood Drinker.”
Traat-Admiral felt himself wince. Scion of a great noble house, distinguished combat record in the pacification of the Chuunquen, noted duelist, noted critic of Chuut-Rüt. Chuut-Rüt he had tolerated, as a prince of the blood, sired by an uncle to the Patriarch. Traat-Admiral, son of Third Gunner, was merely an enraging obstacle. Grimly, he strode to the display screen; at least he would be looking down on the leader of the
Traditionalists. Tradition itself would force him to crane his neck upward at the pickup, and height itself was far from being a negligible factor in any confrontation between kzinti.
“Yes?” he said forbiddingly.
Another kzintosh of high rank appeared in the screen, but dressed in plain space-armor. The helmet was thrown back to reveal a face from which half the fur was missing, burn-scars that were writhing masses of keloid.
“Traat-Admiral,” he began.
Barely acceptable. He should add “Dominant One”, at the least. The commander remained silent. “Have you seen the latest reports from Wunderland?”
Traat-Admiral flipped tufted eyebrows and ribbed ears: yes. Unconsciously, his nostrils flared in an attempt to draw in the pheromonal truth below his enemy’s stance. Anger, he thought. Great anger. Yes, see how his pupils expanded, watch the tail-tip.
“Feral human activity has increased,” Traat-Admiral said. “This is only to be expected, given the absence of the fleet and the mobilization. Priority ”
Ktrodni-Stkaa shrieked and thrust his muzzle toward the pickup; Traat-Admiral felt his own claws glide out.
“Yes, the fleet is absent. Always it is absent from where there is fighting to be done. We chase ghosts, Traat-Admiral. This ‘activity’ meant an attack on my estate, Dominant One. A successful attack, when I and my household were absent; my harem slaughtered, my kits destroyed. My generations are cut off!”
Shaken, Traat-Admiral recoiled. A Hero expected to die in battle, but this was another matter altogether.
“Hrrrr,” he said. For a moment his thoughts dwelt on raking claws across the nose of Hroth-Staff-Officer; did he not think that piece of information worth his commander’s attention? Then: “My condolences, honored Ktrodni-Stkaa. Rest assured that compensation and reprisal will be made.”
“Can land and monkeymeat bring back my blood?” Ktrodni-Stkaa screamed. He was in late middle age; by the time a new brood of kits reached adulthood they would be without a father-patron, dependent on the dubious support of their older half-siblings. And to be sure, Traat-Admiral thought, I would rage and grieve as well, if the kittens who had chewed on my tail were slaughtered by omnivores. But this is a combat situation.
“Control yourself, honored Ktrodni-Stkaa,” he said. “I myself will see to your young. I say it before the Conservor. And recall, we are under war regulations. Victory is the best revenge.”
“Victory! Victory over what, over vacuum, over kittenish bogeymen, you… YOU will guard my young? YOU? You Third Gunner!” There was a collective gasp from the bridges of both ships; Traat-Admiral could smell rage kindling among his subordinates at the gross-ness of the insult; that dampened his own, reminded him of duty. Conservor leaned forward to put himself in the pickup’s field of view.
“You forget the Law,” he said, single eye blazing.
“You have forgotten it, Subvertor of the Ancestral Past. First you worked tail-entwined with Chuut-Rüt if Rüt he truly was now with this.” He turned to Traat-Admiral with a venomous hiss. “Licking its scarless ear, whispering grasseater words that always leave us where the danger is not. If true kzintosh of noble liver were in command of this system, the Fleet would have left to subdue the monkeys of Earth a year ago.”
Traat-Admiral crossed his arms, waggled brows. “Then the fleet would be four light-years away,” he said patiently. “Would this have helped your estate? Is this your warrior logic?”
“A true Hero scratches grass upon steaming logic. A true kzintosh knows only the logic of attack] Your ancestors are nameless, son of Jammed Litterdrop Repairer; your nose rubs the dirt at my slave’s feet! Coward.”
This time there was no hush; a chorus of battlescreams filled the air, until the speakers squealed with feedback. Traat-Admiral was opening his mouth to give a command he knew he would regret when the alarm rang.
“Attack. Hostile action. Corvette Brush Lurker does not report.” The screen divided before him with a holo of fleet dispositions covering half of Ktrodni-Stkaa’s face; a light was winking in the Traditionalist flotilla, and even as he watched it went from flashing blue to amber.
“Brush Lurker destroyed. Weapon unknown. Standing by.” The machine’s voice was cool and impersonal, and Treat-Admiral’s almost as much so.
“Maximum alert,” he said. Attendants came running with space armor for him and the Conservor, stripping away the ceremonial outfits. “Ktrodni-Stkaa, shall we put aside personalities while we hunt this thing that dares to kill kzinti?”
“Ah,” Markham said, as the kzinti corvette winked out of existence, its fusion pile destablized. “It begins.” Begins in a cloud of expanding plasma, stripped nuclei that once were metal and plastic and meat. “Wait for my command.”
The others on the bridge of the Nietzsche stared expressionlessly at their screens, moving and speaking with the same flat lack of expression. There was none of the feeling of controlled tension he remembered from previous actions, not even at the sight of a kzinti warship crushed so easily.
“This is better,” he muttered to himself. “More disciplined.” There were times when he missed even backtalk, though “No. This is better.”
“It isn’t,” Jonah said. His face was a little less like a skull, now, but he was wandering in circles, touching things at random. “I… are the kzinti… rescue…” His faced writhed, and he groaned again. “It doesn’t connect, it doesn’t connect.”
“Jonah,” Markham said soothingly. “The kzinti are our enemies, isn’t that so?”
“I… think so. Yes. They wanted me to loll a kzin, and I did.”
“Then sit quietly, Jonah, and we will kill many kzinti.” To one of the dead-faced ones. “Bring up those three fugitives we hauled in. No, on second thought, just the humans. Keep the kzin under sedation.”
He waited impatiently, listening to the monitored kzinti broadcasts. It was important to keep them waiting, past the point where the instinctive closing of ranks wore thin. And important to have an audience for my triumph, he admitted to himself. No, not my triumph. The Master’s triumph. I am but the chosen instrument.
“I don’t like the look of this,” Ingrid said, as the blank-faced guard pushed them toward the bridge of the warship. “Markham always kept a taut ship, but this why won’t they talk to us?”
“I think I know why,” Harold whispered back. The bridge was as eerily quiet as the rest of the ship had been, except for
“Jonah!” Ingrid cried. “Jonah, what the hell’s going
“Ingrid?” he said, looking up.
Harold grunted as he met those eyes, remembering. They did not have the flat deadness of the others, or the fanatical gleam of Markham’s. A twisted grimace of… despair? puzzlement? framed them, as deeply as if it had become a permanent part of the face.
“Ingrid? Is that you?” He smiled, a wet-lipped grimace. “We’re fighting the kzinti.” A hand waved vaguely at the computers. “I rigged it up. Put it through here. Better than trying to shift the hardware over from the Ruling Mind. You’ll ” his voice faltered, and tears gleamed in his eyes “ you’ll understand once you’ve met the Master.”
Harold gave her hand a warning squeeze. Time, he thought. We have to play for time.
“Admiral Reichstein-Markham?” he said politely, with precisely the correct inclination of head and shoulders. Dear Father may not have let me in the doors of the schloss, but I know how to play that game. “Harold Yarthkin-Schotmann, at your service. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”
“Ah. Yes.” Markham’s well-bred nose went up, and he looked down it with an expression that was parsecs from the strange rigidity of a moment before. Harold swallowed past the dry lumpiness of his throat, and put on his best poor-relation grin.
“Yes, I haff heard of you as well, Fro Yarthkin,” the herrenmann said glacially.
Well, that puts me in my place, Harold mused. Aloud: “I wonder if you could do the lady and me a small favor?”
“Perhaps,” Markham said, with a slight return of graciousness.
“Well, we’ve been traveling together for some time now, and… well, we’d like to regularize it.” Ingrid started, and he squeezed her hand again. “It’d mean a great deal to the young lady, to have it done by a hero of the Resistance.”
Markham smiled. “We haff gone beyond Resistance,” he said. “But as hereditary landholder and ship’s Captain, I am also qualified.” He turned to one of the slumped figures. “Take out Number Two. Remember, from the same flotilla.” The smile clicked back on as he faced Harold and Ingrid. “Step in front of me, please. Conrad, two steps behind them and keep the stunner aimed.”
“Attack.” There was a long hiss from the bridge of the Throat Ripper. “Dreadnought Blood Drinker does not report. Blood Drinker destroyed. Analysis follows.” A pause that stretched. One of their sister ships in the Traditionalist flotilla, and a substantial part of its fighting strength. Three thousand Heroes gone to the claws of the God. “Fusion pile destabilization. Correlating.” Another instant. “Corvette Brush Lurker now reclassi-fied; fusion pile destabilization.”
“Computer!” Ktrodni-Stkaa’s voice came through the open channel. “Probability of spontaneous failures!”
Faintly, they could hear the reply. “Oh point oh seven percent, plus or minus.” The rest faded, as Ktrodni-Stkaa’s face filled the screen.
“Now, traitor,” he said. “Now I know which to be-lieve in, grass-eaters in kzinti fur or invisible bogeymen with access to our repair yards. Did you think it was clever, to gather all loyalty in one spot, a single throat for the fangs of treachery to rip? You will learn better. Briefly.”
“Ktrodni-Stkaa, no, I swear by the fangs of God ” the image cut off. Voices babbled in his ears:
“Gut Tearer launching fighters ”
“Hit, we have been hit!” Damage control klaxons howled. “Taking hits from Crusher of Ribs ”
“Traat-Admiral, following units request fire-control release as they are under attack ”
Traat-Admiral felt his gorge rise and his tail sink as he spoke. “Launch fighters. All units, neutralize the traitors. Fire control to Battle Central.” A rolling snarl broke across the bridge, and then the huge weight of Throat Ripper shuddered. A bank of screens on the Damage Control panel went from green to amber to blood-red. “Communications, broadcast to system: all loyal kzintosh, rally to the Hand of the Patriarch ”
Ktrodni-Stkaa’s voice was sounding on another viewer, the all-system hailing frequency: “True kzintosh in the Alpha Centauri system, the lickurine traitor Traat-Admiral-that-was has sunk the first coward’s fang in our back. Rally to me!”
Aide-de-Camp sprang to Treat-Admiral’s side. “We are at war, Honored Sire; the God will give us victory.”
The older kzin looked at him with a kind of wonder, as the bridge settled down to an ordered chaos of command and response. “Whatever happens here today, we are already in defeat,” he said slowly. “Defeated by ourselves.”
“… so long as you both do desire to cohabit, by the authority vested in me by the Landsraat and Herrenhaus of the Republic of Wunderland,” Markham said. “You may kiss your spouse.”
He turned, smiling, to the board. “Analysis?” he said.
“Kzinti casualties in excess of twenty-five percent of units engaged,” the flat voice said.
Markham nodded, tapping his knuckles together and rising on the balls of his feet. “Densely packed, relatively speaking, and all at zero velocity to each other. Be careful to record everything; such a fleet engagement is probably unique.” He frowned. “Any anomalies?”
“Ship on collision course with Ruling Mind. Acceleration in excess of 400 gravities. Impact in 121 seconds, mark.”
Harold laughed aloud and tightened his grip around the new-made Fru Raines-Schotmann. “Together all the way, sweetheart,” he shouted. She raised a whoop, ignoring the guard behind them with a stunner.
Markham leaped for the board. “You said nothing could detect her!” he screamed at Jonah, throwing an inert crewman aside and punching for the communications channel.
“It’s… psionic,” Jonah said. “Nothing conscious should ” His face contorted, and both arms clamped down on Markham’s. There was a brief moment of struggle; none of the other crewfolk of the Nietzsche interferred; they had no orders. Markham snapped a blow to the groin, to the side of the head, cracked an arm; the Sol-Belter was in no condition for combat, but he clung leech-like until the Wunderlander’s desperate strength sent him crashing halfway across the control deck.
“Impact in sixty seconds, mark.”
“Master, oh, Master, use the amplifer, you’re under attack, use it, use it now ”
“Impact in forty seconds, mark.”
Dnivtopun looked up from the solitaire deck. The words would have been enough, but the link to Mark-ham was deep and strong; urgency sent him crashing towards the control chair, his hands reaching for the bell-shape of the helmet even before his body stopped moving.
This is how it will begin again, the being that had been Catskinner thought, watching the monoblock re-contract. This time the cycle had been perfect, the symmetry complete. It would be so easy to reaccelerate his perception, to alter the outcome. No, it thought. There must be free will. They too must have their cycle of creation.
“Impact in ten seconds, mark.”
The connections settled onto Dnivtopun’s head, and suddenly his consciousness stretched system-wide, perfect and isolate. The amplifier was better than any he had used before. His mind groped for the hostile intent, so close. Three hundred million sentients quivered in the grip of his Power.
“Emperor Dnivtopun,” he laughed, tendrils thrown wide. “Dnivtopun, God. You, with the funny thoughts, coming towards me. STOP. ALTER COURSE. IMMEDIATELY.”
Markham relaxed into a smile. “We are saved by faith,” he whispered.
“Two seconds to impact, mark.”
NO, DNIVTOPUN. YOUR TIME IS ENDED, AS IS MINE. COME TO ME.
“One second to impact, mark.”
The thrint screamed, antiphonally with the Ruling Minds collision alarm. The automatic failsafe switched on, and
Catskinner’s mind engaged the circuit, and -discontinuity-
a layer of quantum uncertainty merged, along the meeting edges of the stasis fields. Virtual particles showered out, draining energy without leaving the fields. Time attempted to precess at different rates, in an area of finite width and conceptual depth. The fields collapsed, and energy propagated, in a symmetrical five-dimensional shape.