Claude M ontferrat-Palme laughed from the marble floor of his office; his face was bleeding, and the shattered glass of the windows lay in glittering swathes across desk and carpet. The air smelled of ozone, of burning, of the dust of wrecked buildings.
CRACK. Another set of hypersonic booms across the sky, and the cloud off in the direction of the kzinti Government House was definitely assuming a mushroom shape. That was forty kilometers downwind, but there was no use wasting time. He crawled carefully to the desk, calling answers to the yammering voices that pleaded for orders.
“No, I don’t know what happened to the moon, except that something bright went through it and it blew up. Nothing but ratcats on it, anyway, these days. Yes, I said ratcats. Begin evacuation immediately, Plan Dienzt; yes, civilians too, you fool. No, we can’t ask the kzinti for orders; they’re killing each other, hadn’t you noticed? I’ll be down there in thirty seconds. Out.”
A shockwave rocked the building, and for an instant blue-white light flooded through his tight-squeezed eyelids. When the hot wind passed he rose and sprinted for the locked closet, the one with the impact armor and the weapons. As he stripped and dressed, he turned his face to the sky, squinting.
“I love you,” he said. “Both. However you bloody well managed it.”
“He was a good son,” Traat-Admiral said.
Conservor and he had anchored themselves in an intact corner of the Throat Ripper’s control room. None of the systems was in operation; that was to be expected, since most of the ship aft of this point had been sheared away by something. Stars shone vacuum-bleak through the rents; other lights flared and died in perfect spheres of light. Traat-Admiral found himself mildly amazed that there were still enough left to fight; more so that they had the energy, after whatever it was had happened.
Such is our nature, he thought. This was the time for resignation; he and the Conservor were both bleeding from nose, ears, mouth, all the body openings. And within, he could feel it. Traat-Admiral looked down at the head of his son where it rested in his lap; the girder had driven straight through the youth’s midsection, and his face was still fixed in eager alertness, frozen hard now.
“Yes,” Conservor said. “The shadow of the God lies on us, all three. We will go to Him together, the hunt will give Him honor.”
“Such honor as there is in defeat,” he sighed.
A quiver of ears behind the faceplate showed him the sage’s laughter. “Defeat? That thing which we came to this place to fight, that has been defeated, even if we will never know how. And kzinti have defeated kzinti. Such is the only defeat here.”
Traat-Admiral tried to raise his ears and join the laughter, but found himself coughing a gout of red stickiness into the faceplate of his helmet; it rebounded.
“If I must drown,” he managed to say, “not in my own blood.” Vacuum was dry, at least. He raised fumbling hands to the catches of his helmet-ring. A single fierce regret siezed him. I hope the kits witt be protected.
“We have hunted well together on the trail of Truth,” the sage said, copying his action. “Let us feast and lie in the shade by the waterhole together, forever.”
“What do you mean, it never happened?”
Jonah’s voice was sharp again; a week in the autodoc of the oyabttn’s flagship had repaired most of his physical injuries. The tremor in his hands showed that those were not all; he glanced behind him at Ingrid and Harold, where they sat with linked hands.
“Just what I said,” General Buford Early said. He glanced aside as well, at Shigehero’s slight hard smile.
“So much for the rewards of heroism,” Jonah said, letting himself fall into the lounger with a bitter laugh. He lit a cigarette; the air was rank with them, and the smell of the general’s stogies. That it did not bother a Sol-Belter born was itself a sign of wounds that did not show.
The general leaned forward, his square pug face like a clenched fist. “These are the rewards of heroism, Captain,” he said. “Markham’s crew are vegetables. Markham may recover incidentally, he’ll be a hero too.”
“Hero? He was a flipping traitor! He liked the damned Thrint!”
“What do you know about mind control?” Early asked. “Remember what it felt like? Were you a traitor?”
“Maybe you’re right…”
“It doesn’t matter. When he comes back from the psychist, the version he remembers will match the one / give. If you three weren’t all fucking heroes, you’d be at the psychist’s too.” Another glance at the oyabun. “Or otherwise kept safely silent.”
Harold spoke. “And all the kzinti who might know something are dead, the Slaver ship and the Catskinner are quantum bubbles… and three vulnerable individ-uals are not in a position to upset heavy-duty organizational applecarts.”
“Exactly,” Early said. “It never happened, as I said.” He spread his hands. “No point in tantalizing people with technical miracles that no longer exist, either.” Although knowing you can do it is half the effort. “We’ve still got a long war to fight, you know,” he added. “Unless you expect Santa to arrive.”
“Who’s Santa?” Jonah said.
The commander of the hyperdrive warship Outsider’s Gift sat back and relaxed for the first time in weeks as his craft broke through into normal space. He was of the large albino minority on We Made It, and like most Crashlanders had more than a touch of agoraphobia. The wrenching not-there of hyperspace reminded him unpleasantly of dreams he had had, of being trapped on the surface during storms.
“Well. Two weeks, faster than light,” he said.
The executive officer nodded, her eyes on the displays. “More breakthroughs,” she said. “Seven… twelve… looks like the whole fleet made it.” She laughed. “Wunderland, prepare to welcome your liberators.”
“Careful now,” the captain said. “This is a reconnaissance in force. We can chop up anything we meet in interstellar space, but this close to a star we’re strictly Einsteinian, just like the pussies.”
The executive officer was frowning over her board. “Well, I’ll be damned,” she said. “Sir, something very strange is going on in there. If I didn’t know better… that looks like a fleet action already going on.”
The captain straightened. “Secure from hyperdrive stations,” he said. “General Quarters. Battle stations.” A deep breath. “Let’s go find out.”
Copyright © 1990 by Poul Anderson