by Poul Anderson
The kzin screamed and leaped.
In any true gravity field, Robert Saxtorph would have been dead half a minute later. The body has its wisdom, and his had been schooled through hard years. Before he really knew what a thunderbolt was coming at him, he had sprung aside—against the asteroid spin. As his weight dropped, he thrust a foot once more to drive himself off the deck, strike a wallfront, recover control over his mass, and bounce to a crouch.
The kzin was clearly not trained for such tricks. He had pounced straight out of a crosslane, parallel to Tiamat’s rotation axis. Coriolis force was too slight to matter. But instead of his prey, he hit the opposite side of Ranzau Passage. Pastel plastic cracked under the impact; the metal behind it boomed. He recovered with the swiftness of his kind, whirled about, and snarled.
For an instant, neither being moved. Ten meters from him, the kzin stood knife-sharp in Saxtorph’s awareness. It was as if he could count every red orange hair of the pelt. Round yellow eyes glared at him out of the catlike face, above the mouthful of fangs. Bat-wing ears were folded out of sight into the fur, for combat. The naked tail was angled past a columnar thigh, stiffly held. The claws were out, jet-black, on all four digits of either hand. Except for a phone on his left wrist, the kzin was unclad. That seemed to make even greater his 250 centimeters of height, his barrel thickness.
Before and behind the two, Ranzau Passage curved away. Windows in the wallfronts were empty, doors closed, signs turned off; workers had gone home for the nightwatch. They were always few, anyway. This industrial district had been devoted largely to the production of spaceship equipment which the hyperdrive was making as obsolete as fission power. There was no time to be afraid. “Hey, wait a minute, friend,” Saxtorph heard himself exclaim automatically, “I never saw you before, never did you any harm, didn’t even jostle you—”
Of course that was useless, whether or not the kzin knew English. Saxtorph hadn’t adopted the stance which indicated peacefulness. It would have put him off balance. The kzin bounded at him.
Saxtorph released the tension in his right knee and swayed aside. Coming upspin, his speed suddenly lessening his weight, the kzin—definitely not a veteran of space—went by too fast to change direction at once. As he passed, almost brushing the man, the gingery smell of his excitement filling the air, Saxtorph thrust fingers at an eye. That was just about the only vulnerable point when a human was unarmed. The kzin yowled; echoes rang.
Saxtorph was shouting too, “Help, murder, help!”
Somebody should be in earshot of that. The kzin skidded to a halt and whipped about. It would have been astounding how quick and agile his bulk was, if Saxtorph hadn’t seen action on the ground during the war.
Again saving his breath, the man backed downspin, but slantwise, so that he added little to his weight. Charging full-out, the kzin handicapped himself much more. The extra drag on his mass meant nothing to his muscles, but confused his reflexes. Dodging about, Saxtorph concentrated first on avoiding the sweeps of those claws, second on keeping the velocity parameters unpredictably variable. From time to time he yelled. One slash connected. It ripped his tunic from collar to belt, and the undershirt beneath. Blood welled along shallow gashes. As he jumped clear, Saxtorph cracked the blade of his hand onto the flat nose before him. It did no real harm, but hurt. The kzin’s eyes widened. The pupil of the undamaged one grew narrower yet. He had seen the scars across his opponent’s chest. This human had encountered at least one kzin before, face to face.
But Saxtorph was 15 years younger then, and equipped with a Gurkha knife. Now the wind was gusting out of him. His gullet was afire. Sluggishness crept into his motions. “Ya-a-ah, police, help! Ki-yai!”
A whistle skirled. The kzin halted. He stared past Saxtorph. The man dared not turn his head, but he heard cries and footfalls. The kzin turned and sped in the opposite direction, upspin. He whirled into the first crosslane he came to and disappeared.
And that wasn’t like his breed, either. Saxtorph sagged back against a wallfront and sobbed breath into his lungs. Sweat was cold and acrid on him. He felt the beginnings of the shakes and started calling calm down on himself, as the Zen master who helped train him for war had taught.
One cop waved off a score or so of people whom the commotion had drawn after him and his companion. The other approached Saxtorph. He was stocky, clean-shaven, unremarkable except for the way he cocked his ears forward—neither aristocrat nor Belter, just a commoner from Wunderland. “Was ist hier los?” he demanded somewhat wildly.
Saxtorph could have recalled the Danish of his childhood, before the family moved to America, and brushed the rust off what German he’d once studied, and made a stab at this language. The hell with it. “Y-y-you speak English?” he panted.
“Ja, some,” the policeman answered. “Vat is t’is? Don’t you know not to push a kzin around?”
“I sure do know, and did nothing of the sort.” Steadiness was returning. “He bushwhacked me, completely unprovoked. And, yes, this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen with kzinti, and I can’t make any more sense of it than you. Aren’t you going to chase him?”
“He’s gone,” said the policeman glumly. “He vill be back in Tigertown and t’e trail lost before ve can bring a sniffer to follow him. How you going tell vun of t’ose Teufel from anot’er? You come along to t’e station, sir. Ve vill give you first aid and take your statement.”
Saxtorph drew a long breath, grinned lopsidedly, and replied, “Okay. I’ll want to make a couple of phone calls. My wife, and—it’d be smart to ask Commissioner Markham if I can put off my appointment with him.”
Tiamat is much less known outside its system than it deserves to be. Once hyperdrive transport has become readily available and cheap, it may well be receiving tourists from all of human space: for it is a curious object, with considerable historical significance as well.
Circling Alpha Centauri A near the middle of those asteroids called the Serpent Swarm, it was originally a chondritic body with a sideritic component giving it more structural strength than is usual for that kind. A rough cylinder, about 50 kilometers in length and 20 in diameter, it rotated on its long axis in a bit over ten hours; and at the epoch when humans arrived, that axis happened to be almost normal to the orbital plane. Those who settled on Wunderland paid it no attention; they had a habitable planet. The Belters who came later, from the asteroids of the Solar System, realized what a treasure was theirs. Little work was needed to make the cylinder smooth, control precession, and give it a centrifugal acceleration of one g at the circumference. With its axial orientation, the velocity changes for spacecraft to dock were minimal, and magnetic anchors easily held them fast until they were ready to depart. The excavation of rooms and passages in the yielding material went rapidly. Thereafter, spaces just under the surface provided Earth-weight for such activities as required it, including the bringing of babies to term; farther inward were the levels of successively lower weight, where Belters felt comfortable and where other undertakings were possible.
Everywhere around orbited members of the Swarm, their mineral wealth held in negligible gravity wells. Tiamat boomed. It became an industrial center, devoted especially to the production of things associated with spacefaring.
When the kzinti invaded, they were quick to realize its importance. Their introduction of the gravity polarizer changed many of the manufacturing programs, but scarcely affected Tiamat itself; one seldom had any reason to adjust the field in a given section, since one could have whatever weight was desired simply by going to the appropriate level. Out of the years that followed have come countless stories of heroism, cowardice, resistance, collaboration, sabotage, salvage, ingenuity, intrigue, atrocity, mercy. Some are true. Certainly, when the human hyperdrive armada entered the Centaurian System, Tiamat might well have been destroyed, had not the Belter freedom fighters taken it over from within.
So ended its heroic age. The rest is anticlimax. More and more, new technologies and new horizons are making it a relic.
However, it is still populous and interesting. Not least of its attractions, though a mixed blessing, are the kzinti. Of those who stayed behind at this sun, or actually sought there, after the war—disgraced combatants, individuals who had formed ties too strong to break, Kdaptist refugees, eccentrics, and others less understandable—a goodly proportion have their colony within Tiamat. Tigertown is well worth visiting, in a properly briefed tour group with an experienced guide.
Tiamat also contains the headquarters of the Interworld Space Commission, which likewise is not as much in the awareness of the general public as it ought to be. Now that the hyperdrive has abruptly opened a way to far more undertakings than there are ships and personnel to carry out, rivalry for those resources often gets bitter. It can become political, planet versus planet at a time when faster-than-light travel has made peace between them as necessary as peace between nations on Earth had become when humankind was starting its outward venture. Until we have created enough capability to satisfy everyone, we must allocate. Alpha Centauri—Wunderland, parts of the Serpent Swarm—alone among human dwelling places, suffered kzin occupation, almost half a century of it. Alpha Centaurian men and women endured, or waged guerrilla warfare from remote and desolate bases, until the liberation. Who would question their dedication to our species as a whole?
At least, it was an obvious symbolism to make them the host folk of the Commission; and Tiamat, not yet into its postwar decline, was a natural choice for the seat.
“Good evening,” replied Dorcas Glengarry Saxtorph. The headwaiter had immediately identified her as being from the Solar System and greeted her in English. “I was to meet Professor Tregennis. The reservation may be in the name of Laurinda Brozik.” You didn’t just walk into the Star Well; it was small and expensive.
Very briefly, his smoothness failed him and he let his gaze linger. Ten years after the end of the war, when outworlders had become a substantial fraction of the patronage, she was nonetheless a striking sight. A Belter, 185 centimeters in height, slender to the point of leanness, she was not in that respect different from those who had inhabited the Swarm for generations. However, you seldom met features so severely classic, fair-skinned, with large green eyes under arching brows. The molding of her head was emphasized by the Sol-Belter style, scalp depilated except for a crest of mahogany hair that in her case swept halfway down her back. A shimmery gray gown folded and refolded itself around carriage and gestures which, even for a person of spacer ancestry, were extraordinarily precise.
The headwaiter regained professionalism. “Ah, yes, of course, madame.” Dorcas didn’t show her forty Earthyears much, but nobody would take her for a girl. “This way, please.”
The tables were arranged around a sunken transparency, ten meters across, which gave on the surface of Tiamat and thus the sky beyond. Nonreflecting, in the dim interior light it seemed indeed a well of night which the stars crowded, slowly streaming. The table Dorcas reached was on the bottom tier, with a view directly down into infinity. A glowlamp on it cast softness over cloth, silver, ceramic, and the two people already seated. Arthur Tregennis rose, courtly as ever. A Plateaunian of Crew descent, the astrophysicist stood as tall as she did and still more slim, practically skeletal. He had the flared hook nose and high cheekbones of his kindred; the long nail on his left little finger proclaimed him an aristocrat of his planet, never subject to manual labor. Dorcas sometimes wondered why he kept that affectation, when he admitted to having sympathized with the democrats and their revolution, 33 years ago. Habit, perhaps. Otherwise he was an unassuming old fellow.
“Welcome, my lady,” he said. His English was rather flat. Since the advent of hyperdrive and hyperwave, he’d been to so many scientific conferences, or in voice-to-voice contact with colleagues, that native accent seemed to have worn off—except, maybe, when he was with his own folk on top of Mount Lookitthat. “Ah, is Robert detained?”
“I’m afraid so,” Dorcas let the waiter seat her. She’d reacquired a little sophistication since the war. “He had a nasty encounter, and the aftermath is still retro on him. He told me to come alone, give you his regrets, and bring back whatever word you have for us.”
“Oh, dear,” Laurinda Brozik whispered. “He’s all right, isn’t he?” The English of Tregennis’ graduate student was harder for Dorcas to follow than his. It was from We Made It.
The young woman was not a typical Crashlander—is there any such thing as a typical anything?—but she could not have been mistaken for a person from anywhere else. Likewise tall and finely sculptured, she seemed attenuated, arachnodactylic, somehow both awkward and eerily graceful, as if about to go into a contortion such as her race was capable of. She belonged to the large albino minority on the planet, with snowy skin, big red eyes, white hair combed straight down to the shoulders. In contrast to Tregennis’ quiet tunic and trousers, she wore a gown of golden-hued fabric—an expert would have identified it as Terrestrial silk—and an arrowhead pendant of topaz; but somehow she wore them shyly. “Well, he survived, not too upset.” Glancing at the waiter, Dorcas ordered a dry martini, “—and I mean dry.” She turned to the others. “He was on his way to talk with Markham,” she explained. “Late hour, but the commissioner said he was too busy to receive him earlier. In fact, the meeting was to be at an auxiliary office. The equipment at the regular place is all tied up with—I’m not sure what. Well, Bob was passing through a deserted section when a kzin came out of nowhere and attacked him. He kept himself alive, without any serious damage, till the noise drew the police. The kzin fled.”
“Oh, dear!” Laurinda repeated. She looked appalled.
Tregennis had a way of attacking problems from unexpected angles. “Why was Robert on foot?” he asked.
“What?” said Dorcas, surprised. She considered. “The tubeway wasn’t convenient for his destination, and it’s not much of a walk. What of it?”
“There have been ample incidents, I hear. Kzinti with their hair-trigger tempers; and many humans bear an unreasoning hatred of them. I should think Robert would take care.” Tregennis chuckled. “He’s too seasoned a warrior to want any trouble.”
“He had no reason to expect any, I tell you.” Dorcas curbed her irritation. “Never mind. It was doubtless just one of those things. He has a ruined tunic and four superficial cuts, but he gave as good as he got. The point is, the police are in an uproar. They were nervous enough, now they’re afraid of more fights. They’ve kept him at the station, questioning him over and over, showing him stereograms of this or that kzin—you can imagine. When last he called, he didn’t expect to be free for another couple of hours, and then, on top of having nearly gotten killed, he’ll be wrung out. So he told me to meet you on behalf of us both.”
“Horrible,” Laurinda said. “But at least he is safe.”
“We regret his absence, naturally,” Tregennis added, “and twice so when we had invited you two to dinner here in celebration of good news.” Dorcas smiled. “Well, I’ll be your courier. What is the message?”
“It is for you to tell, Laurinda,” the astrophysicist said gently. The girl swallowed, leaned forward, and blurted, “This mornwatch I got the word I’d hoped for. On the hyperwave. My father, he, he’d been away, and afterward I suppose he needed to think about it, because that is a lot of money, but—but if necessary, he’ll give us a grant. We won’t have to depend on the Commission. We can take off on our own!”
“Wow!!”, Dorcas breathed.
Though it made no sense, for a tumbling few seconds her mind was on Stefan Brozik, whom she had never met. He had been among those on We Made It quickest to seize the chance when the Outsiders came by with their offer to sell the hyperdrive technology. For a while he was an officer in one of the fleets that drove the kzin sublight ships back and back into defeat. Returning, he made his fortune in the production of hyperdrives for both government and private use, and Laurinda was his adored only daughter—
“It will take a time,” came Tregennis’ parched voice. “First the draft must clear the banks, then we must order what we need and wait for delivery. The demand exceeds the supply, after all. However, in due course we will be able to go.”
His white head lifted. Dorcas remembered what he had said to Markham, when the commissioner declared: “Professor, this star of yours does appear to be an interesting object. I do not doubt an expedition to it would have scientific value. But space is full of urgent work to do, human work to do. Your project can wait another ten or fifteen years.”
Iron had been in Tregennis’ answer: “I cannot.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Dorcas. Her jubilation was moderate merely because she had expected this outcome. The only question had been how long it would take. Stefan Brozik wouldn’t likely deny his little girl a chance to go visit the foreign sun which she, peering from orbit around Plateau, had discovered, and which could make her reputation in her chosen field.
Nonetheless, Dorcas’ gaze left the table and went off down the well of stars. Alpha Centauri B, dazzling bright, had drifted from it. She had a clear view toward the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. In yonder direction lay Beta Hydri, and around it swung Silvereyes, the most remote colony that humankind had yet planted. Beyond Silvereyes-But glory filled vision. Laurinda’s sun was a dim red dwarf, invisible to her. Strange thought, that such a thing might be a key to mysteries.
Anger awoke. “Maybe we won’t need your father’s money,” Dorcas said. “Maybe the prospect will make that slime-bugger see reason.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Tregennis, shocked.
“Markham.” Dorcas grinned. “Sorry. You haven’t been toe-to-toe with him, over and over, the way Bob and I have. Never mind. Don’t let him or a quantum-beaded kzin spoil our evening. Let’s enjoy. We’re going!”
The office of Ulf Reichstein Markham was as austere as the man himself. Apart from a couple of chairs, a reference shelf, and a desk with little upon it except the usual electronics, its largeness held mostly empty space. Personal items amounted to a pair of framed documents and a pair of pictures. On the left hung his certificate of appointment to the Interworld Space Commission and a photograph of his wife with their eight-year-old son. On the right were his citation for extraordinary heroism during the war and a portrait painting of his mother. Both women showed the pure bloodlines of Wunderland aristocracy, the older one also in her expression; the younger looked subdued.
Markham strove to maintain the same physical appearance. His father had been a Belter of means, whom his mother married after the family got in trouble with the kzinti during the occupation and fled to the Swarm. At age 50 he stood a slender, swordblade-straight 195 centimeters. Stiff gray-blond hair grew over a narrow skull, above pale eyes, long nose, outthrust chin that sported the asymmetric beard, a point on the right side. Gray and closefitting, his garb suggested a military uniform. “I trust you have recovered from your experience, Captain Saxtorph,” he said in his clipped manner.
“Yah, I’m okay, aside from puzzlement.” The spaceman settled back in his chair, crossed shank over thigh. “Mind if I smoke?” He didn’t wait for an answer before reaching after pipe and tobacco pouch.
Markham’s lips twitched the least bit in disdain of the uncouthness, but he replied merely, “We will doubtless never know what caused the incident. You should not allow it to prey on your mind. The resident kzinti are under enormous psychological stress, still more so than humans would be in comparable circumstances. Besides uprootedness and culture shock, they must daily live with the fact of defeat. Acceptance runs counter to an instinct as powerful in them as sexuality is in humans. This individual, whoever he is, must have lashed out blindly. Let us hope he doesn’t repeat. Perhaps his friends can prevail on him.”
Saxtorph scowled. “I thought that way, too, at first. Afterward I got to wondering. I hadn’t been near any kzinti my whole time here, this trip. They don’t mingle with humans unless business requires, and then they handle it by phone if at all possible. This fellow was way off the reservation. He lurked till I arrived, in that empty place. He was wearing a phone. Somebody else, shadowing me, could have called to tell him I was coming and the coast was clear.”
“Frankly, you are being paranoid. Why in creation should he, or anyone, wish you harm? You specifically, I mean. Furthermore, conspiracy like that is not kzin behavior. It would violate the sense of honor that the meanest among them cherishes. No, this poor creature went wandering about, trying to walk off his anger and despair. When you chanced by, like a game animal on the ancestral planet passing a hunter’s blind, it triggered a reflex that he lost control of.”
“How can you be sure? How much do we really know about that breed?”
“I know more than most humans.”
“Yah,” drawled Saxtorph, “I reckon you do.”
Markham stiffened. His glance across the desk was like a leveled gun. For a moment there was silence.
Saxtorph got his pipe lit, blew a cloud of smoke, and through it peered back in more relaxed wise. He could afford to; somatic presence does make a difference. Barely shorter than the Wunderlander, he was hugely broader of shoulders and thicker of chest. His face was wide, craggy-nosed, shaggy-browed, with downward-slanted blue eyes and reddish hair that, at age 45, was getting thin. Whatever clothes he put on, they soon looked rumpled, but this gave the impression less of carelessness than of activity.
“What are you implying, Captain?” Markham asked low.
Saxtorph shrugged. “Nothing in particular, Commissioner. It’s common knowledge that you have quite a lot to do with’em.”
“Yes. Certain among the rabble have called me ’kzin-lover.’ I did not believe you shared their sewer mentality.”
“Whoa, there.” Saxtorph lifted a palm. “Easy, please. Of course you’d take a special interest. After all, the kzin empire, if that’s what we should call it, it’s still out yonder, and we still know precious little about it. Besides handling matters related to kzin comings and goings, you have to think about the future in space. Getting a better handle on their psychology is a real service.”
Markham eased a bit. “Learning some compassion does no harm either,” he said unexpectedly.
“Hm? Pardon me, but I should think that’d be extra hard for you.” Markham’s history flitted through Saxtorph’s mind. His mother had apparently married his commoner father out of necessity. Her husband died early, and she raised their son in the strictest aristocratic and martial tradition possible. By age 18 Markham was in the resistance forces. As captain of a commando ship, he led any number of raids and gained a reputation for kzin-like ruthlessness. He was 30 when the hyperdrive armada from Sol liberated Alpha Centauri. Thereafter he was active in restoring order and building up a Wunderland navy. Finally leaving the service, he settled on the planet, on a restored Reichstein estate granted him, and attempted a political career; but he lacked the needful affability and willingness to compromise. It was rumored that his appointment to the Space Commission had been a way of buying him off—he had been an often annoying gadfly—but he was in fact well qualified and worked conscientiously.
The trouble was, he had his own views on policy.
With his prestige and connections, he had managed in case after case to win agreement from a voting majority of his colleagues.
Saxtorph smiled and added, “Well, Christian charity is all the more valuable for being so rare.”
Markham pricked up his ears. The pale countenance flushed. “Christian!” he snapped. “A religion for slaves. No, I learned to respect the kzinti while I fought them. They were valiant, loyal, disciplined and in spite of the propaganda and horror stories, their rule was by no means the worst thing that ever happened to Wunderland.”
He calmed, even returned the smile. “But we have drifted rather far off course, haven’t we? I invited you here for still another talk about your plans. Have I no hope of persuading you the mission is wasteful folly?”
“You’ve said the same about damn near every proposal to do any real exploring,” Saxtorph growled.
“You exaggerate, Captain. Must we go over the old, trampled ground again? I am simply a realist. Ships, equipment, trained crews are in the shortest supply. We need them closer to home, to build up interstellar commerce and industry. Once we have that base, that productivity, yes, then of course we go forward. But we will go cautiously, if I have anything to say about it. Was not the kzin invasion a deadly enough surprise? Who knows what dangers, mortal dangers, a reckless would-be galaxy trotter may stir up?”
Saxtorph sighed. “You’re right, this has gotten to be boringly familiar territory. I’ll spare you my argument about how dangerous ignorance can be. The point is, I never put in for anything much. For a voyage as long as we intend, we need adequate supplies, and our insurance carrier insists we carry double spares of vital gear. The money Professor Tregennis wangled out of his university for the charter won’t stretch to it. So we all rendezvoused here to apply for a government donation of stuff sitting in the warehouses.
“It just might buy you a scientific revolution.”
He had rehashed this with malice, to repay Markham for the latter’s own repetition. It failed to get the man’s goat. Instead, the answer was, mildly, “I saw it as my duty to persuade the Commission to deny your request. Please believe there was no personal motive. I wish you well.”
Saxtorph grinned, blew a smoke ring, and said, “Thanks. Want to come wave goodbye? Because we are going.”
Markham took him off guard with a nod. “I know. Stefan Brozik has offered you a grant.”
“Huh?” Saxtorph grabbed his pipe just before it landed in his lap. He recovered his wits. “Did you have the hyperwave monitored for messages to members of our party?” His voice roughened. “Sir, I resent that.”
“It was not illegal. I was… more concerned than you think.” Markham leaned forward. “Listen. A man does not necessarily like doing what duty commands. Did you imagine I don’t regret choking off great adventures, that I do not myself long for the age of discovery that must come? In my heart I feel a certain gratitude toward Brozik. He has released me.
“Now, since you are inevitably going, it would be pointless to continue refusing you what you want. That can only delay, not stop you. Better to cooperate, win back your goodwill, and in return have some influence on your actions. I will contact my colleagues. There should be no difficulty in getting a reversal of our decision.”
Saxtorph sagged back in his chair. “Judas… priest.”
“There are conditions,” Markham told him. “If you are to be spared a long time idle here, prudent men must be spared nightmares about what grief you might bring, on us all by some blunder. Excuse my blunt language. You are amateurs.”
“Every explorer is an amateur. By definition.”
“You are undermanned.”
“I wouldn’t say so. Captain; computerman; two pilots, who’re also experienced rockjacks and planetsiders; quartermaster. Everybody competent in a slew of other specialties. And, this trip, two scientists, the prof and his student. What would anybody else do?”
“For one thing,” Markham said crisply, “he would counsel proper caution and point out where this was not being exercised. He would keep official policy in your minds. The condition of your obtaining what you need immediately is this. You shall take along a man who will have officer status—”
“Hey, wait a minute. I’m the skipper, my wife’s the mate as well as the computerman, and the rest have shaken down into a damn good team. I don’t aim to shake it back up again.”
“You needn’t,” Markham assured him. “This man will be basically an observer and advisor. He should prove useful in several additional capacities. In the event of… disaster to the regular officers, he can take command, bring the ship back, and be an impartial witness at the inquiry.”
“M-m-m.” Saxtorph frowned, rubbed his chin, pondered. “Maybe. It’ll be a long voyage, you know, about ninety days cooped up together, with God knows what at the end. Not that we expect anything more than interesting astronomical objects. Still, you’re right, it is unpredictable. We’re a close-knit crew, and the scientists seem to fit in well, but what about this stranger?”
“I refer you to my record,” Markham replied. When Saxtorph drew a sharp breath, the Wunderlander added, “Yes, I am doubtless being selfish. However, my abilities in space are proven, and in spite of everything, I share the dream.”
In her youth, before she became a tramp, Rover was a naval transport, UNS Ghost Dance. She took men and materiel from their sources to bases around the Solar System, and brought some back for furlough or repair. A few times she went into combat mode. They were only a few. The kzinti hurled a sublight fleet out of Alpha Centauri at variable intervals, but years apart, since one way or another they always lost heavily in the sanguinary campaigns that followed. Ghost Dance would release her twin fighters to escort her on her rounds. Once they came under attack, and were the survivors.
Rover might now be less respectable, maybe even a bit shabby, but was by no means a slattern. The Saxtorphs had obtained her in a postwar sale of surplus and outfitted her as well as their finances permitted. On the outside she remained a hundred-meter spheroid, its smoothness broken by airlocks, hatches, boat bays, instrument housings, communications boom, grapples, and micrometeoroid pocks that had given the metal a matte finish. Inboard, much more had changed. Automated as she was, she never needed more than a handful to man her; on a routine interplanetary flight she was quite capable of being her own crew. Most personnel space had therefore been converted for cargo stowage. Those people who did travel in her had more room and comfort than formerly. Instead of warcraft she carried two Prospector class boats, primarily meant for asteroids and the like but well able to maneuver in atmosphere and set down on a fair-sized planet. Other machinery was equally for peaceful, if occasionally rough use.
“But how did the Saxtorphs ever acquire a hyperdrive?” asked Laurinda Brozik. “I thought licensing was strict in the Solar System, too, and they don’t seem to be terribly influential.”
“They didn’t tell you?” replied Kamehameha Ryan. “Bob loves to guffaw over that caper.”
Her lashes fluttered downward. A tinge of pink crossed the alabaster skin. “ I don’t like to… pry—ask personal questions.”
He patted her hand. “You’re too sweet and considerate, Laurinda. Uh, okay to call you that? We are in for a long haul. I’m Kam.”
The quartermaster was showing her around while Rover moved up the Alpha Centaurian gravity well until it would be safe to slip free of Einsteinian space. Her holds being vacant, the acceleration was several g, but the interior polarizer maintained weight at the half Earth normal to which healthy humans from every world can soon adapt. “You want the grand tour, not a hasty look-around like you got before, and who’d be a better guide than me?” Ryan had said. “I’m the guy who takes care of inboard operations, everything from dusting and polishing, through mass trim and equipment service, on to cooking, which is the real art.” He was a stocky man of medium height, starting to go plump, round-faced, dark-complexioned, his blue-black hair streaked with the earliest frost. A gaudy sleeveless shirt bulged above canary-yellow slacks and thong sandals.
“Well, I—well, thank you, Kam,” Laurinda whispered.
“Thank you, my dear. Now this door I’d better not open for you. Behind it we keep chemical explosives for mining-type jobs. But you were asking about our hyperdrive, weren’t you?
“Well, after the war Bob and Dorcas—they met and got married during it, when he was in the navy and she was helping beef up the defenses at Ixa, with a sideline in translation—they worked for Solar Minerals, scouting the asteroids, and did well enough, commissions and bonuses and such, that at last they could make the down payment on this ship. She was going pretty cheap because nobody else wanted her. Who’d be so crazy as to compete with the big Belter companies? But you see, meanwhile they’d found the real treasure, a derelict hyperdrive craft. She wasn’t UN property or anything, she was an experimental job a manufacturer had been testing. Unmanned; a monopole meteoroid passed close by and fouled up the electronics; she looped off on an eccentric orbit and was lost; the company went out of business. She’d become a legend of sorts, every search had failed, on which basis Dorcas figured out where she most likely was, and she and Bob went looking on their own time. As soon as they were ready they announced their discovery, claimed salvage rights, and installed the drive in this hull. Nobody had foreseen anything like that, and besides, they’d hired a smart lawyer. The rules have since been changed, of course, but we come under a grandfather clause. So here we’ve got the only completely independent starship in known space.”
“It is very venturesome of you.”
“Yeah, things often get precarious. Interstellar commerce hasn’t yet developed regular trade routes, except what government-owned lines monopolize. We have to take what we can get, and not all of it has been simple hauling of stuff from here to there. The last job turned out to be a lemon, and frankly, this charter is a godsend. Uh, don’t quote me. I talk too much. Bob bears with me, but a tongue-lashing from Dorcas can take the skin off your soul.”
“You and he are old friends, aren’t you?”
“Since our teens. He came knocking his way around Earth to Hawaii, proved to be a good guy for a hole, I sort of introduced him to people and things, we had some grand times. Then he enlisted, had a real yeager of a war career, but you must know something about that. He looked me up afterward, when he and Dorcas were taking a second honeymoon, and later they offered me this berth.”
“You had experience?”
“Yes, I’d gone spaceward, too. Civilian. Interesting work, great pay, glamour to draw the girls, because not many flatlanders wanted to leave Earth when the next kzin attack might happen anytime.”
“It seems so romantic,” Laurinda murmured. “Superficially, at least, and to me.”
“What do you mean, please?” Ryan asked, in the interest of drawing her out. Human females like men who will listen to them.
“Oh, that is—What have I done except study? And, well, research. I was born the year the Outsiders arrived at We Made It, but of course they were gone again long before I could meet them. In fact, I never saw a nonhuman in the flesh till I came to Centauri and visited Tigertown. You and your friends have been out, active, in the universe.”
“I don’t want to sound self-pitying,” Ryan said, unable to quite avoid sounding smug, “but it’s been mostly sitting inboard, then working our fingers off, frantic scrambles, shortages of everything, and moments of stark terror. A wise man once called adventure ’somebody else having a hell of a tough time ten light-years away’.”
She looked at him from her slightly greater elevation and touched his arm. “Lonely too. You must miss your family.”
“I’m a bachelor type,” Ryan answered, forbearing to mention the ex-wives. “Not that I don’t appreciate you ladies, understand—”
At that instant, luck brought them upon Carita Fenger. She emerged from a cold locker with a hundred-liter keg of beer, intended for the saloon, on her back, held by a strap that her left hand gripped. High-tech tasks were apportioned among all five of Rover’s people, housekeeping chores among the three crewmen. This boat pilot was a jinxian. Her width came close to matching her short height, with limbs in proportion and bosom more so. Ancestry under Sirius had made her skin almost ebony, though the bobbed hair was no longer sun-bleached white but straw color. Broad nose, close-set brown eyes, big mouth somehow added up to an attractive face, perhaps because it generally looked cheerful. “Well, hi,” she hailed. “What’s going on here?”
Ryan and Laurinda halted. “I am showing our passenger around the ship,” he said stiffly.
Carita cocked her head. “Are you, now? That isn’t all you’d like to show her, I can see. Better get back to the galley, lad. You did promise us a first-meal feast.” To the Crashlander: “He’s a master chef when he puts his mind to it. Good in bed, too.”
Laurinda dropped her gaze and colored, Ryan flushed likewise. “I’m sorry,” he gobbled. “Pilot Fenger’s okay, but she does sometimes forget her manners.”
Carita’s laugh rang. “I’ve not forgotten this nightwatch is your turn, Kam. I’ll be waiting. Or shall I seduce Commissioner Markham—or Professor Tregennis?” To Laurinda: “Sorry, dear, I shouldn’t have said that. Being coarse goes with the kind of life I’ve led. I’ll try to do better. Don’t be afraid of Kam. He’s harmless as long as you don’t encourage him.”
She trudged off with her burden. To somebody born to Jinx gravity, the weight was trifling. Ryan struggled to find words. All at once Laurinda trilled laughter of her own, then said fast, “I apologize. Your arrangements are your own business. Shall we continue for as long as you can spare the time?”
The database in Rover contained books as well as musical and video performances. Both the Saxtorphs spent a considerable amount of their leisure reading, she more than he. Their tastes differed enough that they had separate terminals in their cabin. He wanted his literature, like his food, plain and hearty; Dorcas ranged wider. Ever since hyperwave made transmission easy, she had been putting hundreds of writings by extrasolar dwellers into the discs, with the quixotic idea of eventually getting to know most of them.
The ship was a few days into hyperspace when she entered the saloon and found Tregennis. A couple of hours workout in the gym, followed by a shower and change of coverall, left her aglow. The Plateaunian sat talking with Markham. That was unusual; the commissioner had kept rather to himself.
“Indeed the spectroscope, interferometer, the entire panoply of instruments reveals much,” Tregennis was saying. “How else did Miss Brozik discover her star and learn of its uniqueness? But there is no substitute for a close look, and who would put a hyperdrive in an unmanned probe?”
“I know,” Markham replied. “I was simply inquiring what data you already possess. That was never made clear to me. For example, does the star have planets?”
“It’s too small and faint for us to establish that, at the distance from which we observed. Ah, I am surprised, sir. Were you so little interested that you didn’t ask questions?”
“Why should he, when he was vetoing our mission?” Dorcas interjected. It brought her to their notice. Tregennis started to rise. “No, please stay seated.” He looked so fragile. “No offense intended, Landholder Markham. I’m afraid I expressed myself tactlessly, but it seemed obvious. After all, you were are a busy man with countless claims on your attention.”
“I understand, Mme. Saxtorph,” the Wunderlander said stiffly. “You are correct. Feeling as I did, I took care to suppress my curiosity.” Tregennis shook his head in a bemused fashion. He doubtless wasn’t very familiar with the twists and turns the human mind can take. Dorcas recalled that he had never been married, except to his science though he did seem to regard Laurinda as a surrogate daughter. The computerman sat down. “In fact,” she said conciliatingly, “I still wonder why you felt you could be spared from your post for as long as we may be gone. You could have sent somebody else.”
“Trustworthy persons are hard to find,” Markham stated, “especially in the younger generation.”
“I’ve gathered you don’t approve of postwar developments on your planet.” Dorcas glanced at Tregennis.
“That’s apropos the reason I hoped you would be here, Professor. I’m reading The House on Crowsnest—”
“What do you mean?” Markham interrupted. “Crowsnest is an area on top of Mount Lookitthat.”
Dorcas curbed exasperation. Maybe he couldn’t help being arrogant. “I understand it’s considered the greatest novel ever written on Plateau,” she said.
Tregennis nodded. “Many think so. I confess the language in it gets too strong for my taste.”
“Well, the author is a Colonist, telling how things were before and during the revolution,” Dorcas said in Markham’s direction. “Oppression does not make people nice. The wonder is that Crew rule was overthrown almost bloodlessly.”
“If you please,” Tregennis responded, “we of the Crew families were not monsters. Many of us realized reform was overdue and worked for it. I sympathized myself, you know, although I did not take an active role. I do believe Nairn exaggerates the degree and extent of brutality under the old order.”
“That’s one thing I wanted to ask you about. His book’s full of people, places, events, practices that must be familiar to you but that nobody on any other planet ever heard of, Laurinda herself couldn’t tell me what some passages refer to.”
Tregennis smiled. “She has only been on Plateau as a student, and was born into a democracy. Why should she concern herself about old, unhappy, far off things? Not that she is narrow, she comes from a cultured home, but she is young and has a whole universe opening before her.”
Dorcas nodded. “A lucky generation, hers.”
“Yes, indeed. Landholder Markham, I must disagree with views you have expressed. Taken as a whole, on every world the young are rising marvelously well to their opportunities—better, I fear, than their elders would have done.”
“It makes a huge difference, being free,” Dorcas said.
Markham sat bolt upright. “Free to do what?” he snapped. “To be vulgar, slovenly, ignorant, self-centered, materialistic, conman? I have seen the degradation go on, year by year. You have stayed safe in your ivory tower, Professor. You, Mme. Saxtorph, operate in situations where a measure of discipline, sometimes old-fashioned self-sacrifice, is a condition of survival. But I have gotten out into the muck and tried to stem the tide of it.”
“I heard you’d run for your new parliament, and I know you don’t care for the popular modern styles,” Dorcas answered dryly. She shrugged. “I often don’t myself. But why should people not have what they want, if they can come by it honestly? Nobody forces you to join them. It seems you’d force them to do what pleases you. Well, that might not be what pleases me!”
Markham swallowed. His ears lay back. “I suspect our likes are not extremely dissimilar. You are a person of quality, a natural leader.” Abruptly his voice quivered. He must be waging battle to keep his feelings under control. “In a healthy society, the superior person is recognized for what he or she is, and lesser ones are happy to be guided, because they realize that not only they but generations to come will benefit. The leader is not interested in power or glory for their own sake. At most, they are means to an end, the end to which he gives his life, the organic evolution of the society toward its destiny, the full flowering of its soul. But we are replacing living Gemeinschaft with mechanical Gesellschaft. The cyborg civilization! It goes as crazy as a cyborg individual. The leading classes also lose their sense of responsibility. Those members who do not become openly corrupt turn into reckless megalomaniacs.”
Dorcas paled, which was her body’s way of showing anger. “I’ve seen that kind of thinking described in history books,” she said. “I thought better of you, sir. For your information, my grandfather was a cyborg after an accident. Belters always believed it was as criminal to send convicts into the organ banks as any crime of theirs could be. He was the sanest man I’ve known. Nor have I noticed leaders of free folk doing much that is half as stupid or evil as what the master classes used to order. I’ll make my own mistakes, thank you.”
“You certainly will. You already have. I must speak plainly. Your husband’s insistence on this expedition, against every dictate of sound judgment, merely because it suits him to go, is a perfect example of a leader who has ceased to be a shepherd. Or perhaps you yourself are, since you have aided and abetted him. You could have remembered how full of terrible unknowns space is. Belters are born to that understanding. He is a flatlander.”
Dorcas whitened entirely. Her crest bristled. She stood up, fists on hips, to loom over Markham and say word by word: “That will do. We have endured your presence, that you pushed on us, in hopes you would prove to be housebroken. We have now listened to your ridiculous ranting’s because we believe in free speech where you do not, and in hopes you would soon finish. Instead, you have delivered an intolerable racist insult. You will go to your cabin and remain there for twenty-four hours. Bread and water will be brought to you.”
Markham gaped. “What? Are you mad?”
“Furious, yes. As for sanity, I refrain from expressing an opinion about who may lack it.” Dorcas consulted her watch. “You can walk to your cabin in about five minutes. Therefore, do not be seen outside it, except for visits to the head, until 1737 hours tomorrow. Go.”
He half rose himself, sank back down, and exclaimed, “This is impossible! Professor Tregennis, I call you to witness.”
“Yes,” Dorcas said. “Please witness that he has received a direct order from me, who am second in command of the ship. Shall we call Captain Saxtorph to confirm it? You can be led off in irons, Markham. Better you obey. Go.”
The commissioner clambered to his feet. He breathed hard. The others could smell his sweat. “Very well,” he said tonelessly. “of course I will file a complaint when we return. Meanwhile we shall minimize further conversation. Good day.” He jerked a bow and marched off.
After a time in which only the multitudinous low murmurings of the vessel had utterance, Tregennis breathed, “Dear me. Was that not a… slightly excessive reaction?”
Dorcas sat down again. Her iciness was dissolving in calm. “Maybe. Bob would think so, though naturally he’d have backed me up. He’s more good-natured than I am. I do not tolerate such language about him. This hasn’t been the only incident.”
“There is a certain prejudice against the Earthborn among the space-born. I understand it is quite widespread.”
“It is, and it’s not altogether without foundation—in a number of cases.” Dorcas laughed. “I shared it, at the time Bob and I met. It caused some monumental quarrels the first couple of years, years when we could already have been married. I finally got rid of it and took to judging individuals on their merits.”
“Forgive me, but are you not a little intolerant of those who have not had your enlightening experience?”
“Doubtless. However, between you and me, I welcomed the chance to show Markham who’s boss here. I worried that if we have an emergency he could get insubordinate. That would be an invitation to disaster.”
“He is a strange man,” Tregennis mused. “His behavior, his talk, his past career, everything seems such a welter of contradictions. Or am I being naive?”
“Not really, unless I am, too. Oh, people aren’t self-consistent like the laws of mechanics—even quantum mechanics. But I do think we lack some key fact about Landholder Markham, and will never understand him till we have it.” Dorcas made a gesture of dismissal. “Enough. Now may I do what I originally intended and quiz you about Plateau?”
While Rover was in hyperspace, all five of her gang stood mass detector watch, six hours a day for four days, fifth day off. It was unpopular duty, but they would have enjoyed still less letting the ship fly blind, risking an entry into a gravity well deep enough to throw her to whatever fate awaited vessels which did not steer clear. The daydream was becoming commonplace among their kind, that someday somebody would gain sufficient understanding of the psionics involved that the whole operation could be automated.
It wasn’t torture, of course, once you had schooled yourself never to look into the Less Than Void which filled the single port necessarily left unshuttered. You learned how to keep an eye on the indicator globe while you exercised, read, watched a show, practiced a handicraft. On the infrequent occasions when it registered something, matters did get interesting.
“And I’ve decided I don’t mind it in the least,” said Juan Yoshii after Kamehameha Ryan had relieved him.
“Really?” asked Laurinda Brozik. She had met him below the flight deck by agreement.
He offered her his arm, a studied, awkward gesture not used in his native society. She smiled and took it. He was a young Sol-Belter. Unlike Dorcas Saxtorph, or most folk of his nation, he eschewed spectacular garb. Small, slim, with olive-skinned, almost girlish features, he did wear his hair in the crest, but it was cut short.
“I have just heard complaints about the monotony,” Laurinda said.
“Monotony, or peacefulness?” he countered in his diffident fashion. “I chafed, too. Then gradually I realized what an opportunity this is to be alone and think. Or compose.”
“You don’t sound like a rockjack,” she said needlessly. It was what had originally attracted her to him.
He chuckled. “How are rockjacks supposed to sound? We have the rough, tough image, yes. Pilot the boat, find the ore, wrench it out, bring it home, and damn the meteoroids. Or the sun-flare or the fusion generator failure or anything else. But we are simply persons making a living. Quite a few of us look forward to a day when we can use different talents.”
“What else would you like to do?”
His smile was stiff. He stared before him, “Prepare yourself to laugh.”
“Oh, no.” Her tone made naught of the eight centimeters by which she topped him. “How could I laugh at a man who handles the forces that I only measure?”
He flushed and had no answer. They walked on. The ship hummed around them. Bulkheads were brightly painted, pictures were hung on them and often changed, here and there were pots whose flowers Carita Fenger maintained, but nonetheless this was a barren environment. The two had a date in his cabin, where he would provide tea while they screened d’Auvergne’s Fifth Chromophony. An appreciation of her work was one thing among others that they discovered they had in common.
“What is your hope?” Laurinda asked at last, low.
He gulped. “To be a poet.”
“Why, how… how remarkable.”
“Not that there’s a living in it,” he said hastily. “I’ll need a groundside position. But I will anyway when I get too old for this berth—and am still fairly young by most standards.” He drew breath. “In the centuries of spaceflight, how much true poetry has been written? Plenty of verse, but how much that makes your hair rise and you think yes, this is the real truth? It’s as if we’ve been too busy to find the words for what we’ve been busy with. I want to try. I am trying, but know quite well I won’t have a chance of succeeding with a single line till I’ve worked at it for another ten years or more.”
“You’re too modest, Juan. Genius flowers early oftener than not. I would like to see what you have’ done.”
“No, I don’t think it’s that good. Maybe my efforts never will be. Not even equal to—well, actually minor stuff, but it does have the spirit—”
“Such as what?”
“Oh, ancient pieces, mostly, pre-space. ’To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.’” Yoshii cackled a laugh. “I’m really getting bookish, am I not? An easy trap to fall into. Spacemen have a lot of free time in between crises.”
“You’ve put yours to good use,” she said earnestly. “Is that poem you quoted from in the ship’s database? I’d like to read it.”
“I don’t know, but I can recite it verbatim.”
“That would be much better. Romantic—” Laurinda broke off. She turned her glance away.
He sensed her confusion and blurted in his own, “Please don’t misunderstand me. I know—your customs, your mores—I mean to respect them. Completely.”
She achieved a smile, though she could not yet look back his way. “Why, I’m not afraid of you.” Unspoken: You’re not unbearably frustrated. It’s obvious that Carita is your mistress as well as Kam’s. “You are a gentleman.” And what we have coming to life between us is still small and frail, but already very sweet.
Rover re-entered normal space ten astronomical units from the destination star. That was unnecessarily distant for a mass less than a fourth of Sol’s, but the Saxtorphs were more cautious than Markham admitted. Besides, the scientists wanted to begin with a long sweep as baseline for their preliminary observations, and it was their party now. As soon as precise velocity figures were available, Dorcas computed the vectors. The star was hurtling at well over a thousand kilometers per second with respect to galactic center. That meant the ship needed considerable delta v to get down to interplanetary speeds and into the equatorial plane where any attendant bodies were likeliest to be. That boost phase must also serve those initial requirements of the astronomers. Course and thrust could be adjusted as data came in and plans for the future were developed.
The star’s motion meant, too, that it was escaping the galaxy, bound for the gulfs beyond. Presumably an encounter with one or more larger bodies had cast it from the region where it formed. A question the expedition hoped to get answered, however incompletely, was where that might have happened—and when.
Except for Dorcas, who worked with Tregennis to process the data that Laurinda mostly gathered, the crew had little to do but housekeeping. Occasionally someone was asked to lend a hand with some task of the research.
Going off watch, Carita Fenger stopped by the saloon. A large viewscreen there kept the image of the sun at the cross-haired center. Else nobody could have identified it. It was waxing as the ship drove inward but thus far remained a dim dull-red point, outshone by stars light-years away. The undertone of power through the ship was like a whisper of that which surged within, around, among them, nuclear fires, rage of radiation, millennial turmoil of matter, births and funeral pyres and ashes and rebirths, the universe forever in travail. Like most spacefarers, Carita could lose herself, hour upon hour, in the contemplation of it.
She halted. Markham sat alone, looking. His face was haggard. “Well, hi,” she said tentatively.
Markham gave her a glance. “How do you do, Pilot Fenger.” The words came flat.
She plumped herself down in the chair beside him. “Quite a sight, eh?” He nodded, his gaze back on the screen.
“A trite thing to say,” she persisted. “But I suspect Juan’s wrong. He hopes to find words grand enough. I suspect it can’t be done.”
“I was not aware Pilot Yoshii had such interests,” said Markham without unbending.
“Nah, you wouldn’t be. You’ve been about as outgoing as a black hole. What’s between you and Dorcas? You seem to be off speaking terms with her.”
“If you please, I am not in the mood for gossip.” Markham started to rise, to leave.
Carita took hold of his arm. It was a gentle grip, but he could easier have broken free of a salvage grapple. “Wait a minute,” she said. “I’ve been halfway on the alert for a chance to talk with you. Who does any more, except ’Pass the salt’ at mess, that sort of thing? How lonesome you must be.”
He refrained from ineffectual resistance, continued to stare before him, and clipped, “Thank you for your concern, but I manage. Kindly let go.”
“Look,” she said, “we’re supposed to be shipmates. It’s a hell of an exciting adventure—Christ, we’re the first, the very first, in all this weird wonder but it’s cold out, too, and doesn’t care an atom’s worth about human beings. I keep thinking how awful it must be, cut off from any friendship the way you are. Not that you’ve exactly encouraged us, but we could try harder.”
Now he did regard her. “Are you inviting me to your bed?” he asked in the same tone as before.
Slightly taken aback, she recovered, smiled, and replied, “No, I wasn’t, but if it’ll make you feel better we can have a go at it.”
“Or make you feel better? I am not too isolated to have noticed that lately Pilot Yoshii has ceased visiting your cabin. Is Quartermaster Ryan insufficient?”
Carita’s face went sulfur black. She dragged her fingers from him. “My mistake,” she said. “The rest were right about you. Okay, you can take off.”
“With pleasure.” He stalked out.
She mumbled an oath, drew forth a cigar, lit and blew fumes that ran the ventilators and air renewers up to capacity. Calm returned after a while.
She laughed ruefully. Ryan had told her more than once that she was too soft-hearted; and he was a man prone to fits of improvident generosity.
She was about to go when Saxtorph’s voice boomed from the intercom: “Attention, please. Got an announcement here that I’m sure will interest everybody.
“We’ll hold a conference in a few days, when more information is in. Then you can ask whatever questions you want. Meanwhile, I repeat my order, do not pester the science team. They’re working around the clock and don’t need distractions.
“However, Arthur Tregennis has given me a quick rundown on what’s been learned so far, to pass on to you. Here it is, in my layman’s language. Don’t blame him for any garbling.
“They have a full analysis of the sun’s composition, along with other characteristics. That wasn’t too easy. For one thing, it’s so cool that its peak emission frequency is in the radio band. Because the absorption and re-emission of the interstellar medium in between isn’t properly known, we had to come here to get decent readings.
“They bear out what the prof and Laurinda thought. This sun isn’t just metal-poor, it’s metal-impoverished. No trace of any element heavier than iron, and little of that. Yes, you’ve all heard as how it must be very old, and has only stayed on the main sequence this long because it’s such a feeble dwarf. But now they have a better idea of just how long ’this’ has been.
“Estimated age, fifteen billion years. Our star is damn near as old as the universe.
“It probably got slung out of its parent galaxy early on. In that many years you can cover a lot of kilometers. We’re lucky that we—meaning the human species—are alive while it’s in our neighborhood.
“And… in the teeth of expectations, it’s got planets. Already the instruments are finding signs of oddities in them, no two alike, nothing we could have foreseen. Well, we’ll be taking a close look. Stand by.
Carita sprang to her feet and cheered.
Once when they were young bucks, chance-met, beachcombing together in the Islands, Kam Ryan and Bob Saxtorph acquired a beat-up rowboat, catrigged it after a fashion, stowed some food and plenty of beer aboard, and set forth on a shakedown cruise across Kaulakahi Channel. Short runs off Waimea had gone reasonably well, but they wanted to be sure of the seaworthiness before making it a lure for girls. They figured they could reach Niihau in 12 or 15 hours, land if possible, rest up in any case, and come back. They didn’t have the price of an outboard, but in a pinch they could row.
To avoid coping with well-intentioned busybodies, they started after dark. By that time sufficient beer had gone down that they forgot about tuning in a weather report before leaving their tent—at the verge of kona season. It was a beautiful night, half a moon aloft and so many stars they could imagine they were in space. Wind lulled, seas whooshed, rigging creaked, the boat rocked forward and presently a couple of dolphins appeared, playing alongside for hours, a marvel that made even Kam sit silent in wonder. Then toward dawn, the goal a vague darkness ahead, clouds boiled out of the west, wind sharpened and shrilled, suddenly rain slanted like a flight of spears and through murk the mariners heard waves rumble against rocks.
It wasn’t much of a storm, really, but ample to deal with Wahine. Seams opened, letting in water to join that which dashed over the gunwales. Sail first reefed, soon struck, stays nonetheless gave way and the mast went. It would have capsized the hull had Bob not managed to heave it free. Thereafter he had the oars, keeping bow on to the waves, while Kam bailed. A couple of years older, and no weakling, the Hawaiian couldn’t have rowed that long at a stretch. Eventually he did his share and a bit at the rudder, when somehow he worked the craft through a gap between two reefs which roared murder at them. They hit coral a while later, but close enough to shore that they could swim, never sure who saved the life of who in the surf. Collapsing behind a bush, they slept the weather out.
Afterward they limped off till they found a road and hitched a ride. They’d been blown back to Kauai.
Side by side, they stood on the carpet before a Coast Guard officer and endured what they must.
Next day in their tent, Kam said, unwontedly solemn—the vast solemnity of youth—“Bob, listen. You’ve been my hoa since we met, you became my hoalohal but what we’ve been through, what you did, makes you a hoapili.”
“Aw, wasn’t more’n I had to, and you did just as much,” mumbled the other, embarrassed. “If you mean what I suppose you do, okay, I’ll call you kamnwrat, and let’s get on with whatever we’re going to do.”
“How about this? I’ve got folks on the Big Island. A tiny little settlement tucked away where nobody ever comes. Beautiful country, mountains and woods. People still live in the old kanaka style. How’d you like that?”
“Um-m, how old a style?”
Kam was relieved at being enabled to laugh. “You won’t eat long pig! Everybody knows English, though they use Hawaiian for choice, and never fear, you can watch the Chimp Show. But it’s a great, relaxed, cheerful life—you’ve got to experience the girls to believe—the families don’t talk about it much when they go outside, or invite haolena in, because tourists would ruin it—but you’ll be welcome, I guarantee you. How about it?”
The month that followed lived up to his promises, and then some. Recollections of it flew unbidden across the years as Ryan worked in the galley. Everybody else was in the gym, where chairs and projection equipment had been brought, for the briefing the astronomers would give. Rover boosted on automatic; her instruments showed nothing ahead that she couldn’t handle by herself for the next million kilometers. The quarter master could have joined the group, but he wanted to make a victory feast ready. Before long, they’d be too busy to appreciate his art.
He did have a screen above the counter, monitoring the assembly. Tregennis and Laurinda stood facing their audience. The Plateaunian said, with joy alive beneath the dry words: “It is a matter of semantics whether we call this a first- or a second-generation system. Hydrogen and helium are overwhelmingly abundant, in proportions consistent with condensation shortly after the Big Bang—about which, not so incidentally, we may learn something more than hitherto. However, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, silicon, and neon are present in significant quantities; magnesium and iron are not insignificant; other elements early in the periodic table are detectable. There has naturally been a concentration of heavier atoms in the planets, especially the inner ones, as gases selectively escaped. They are not mere balls of water ice.
“It seems clear, therefore, that this system formed out of a cloud which had been enriched by mass loss from older stars in their red giant phase. A few supernovae may have contributed, too, but any elements heavier than iron which they may have supplied are so scant that we will only find them by mass spectrography of samples from the solid bodies. They may well be nonexistent. Those older stars must have come into being as soon after the Beginning as was physically possible, in a proto-galaxy not too far then from the matter which was to become ours, but now surely quite distant from us.”
“As we dared hope,” said the Crashlander. Tears glimmered in her eyes like dew on rose petals.
“Oh, good for you!” called Yoshii.
“A relic-hell, finding God’s fingerprints,” Carita said, and clapped a hand to her mouth. Ryan grinned, nobody else noticed.
“How many planets?” asked Saxtorph.
“Five,” Tregennis replied.
“Hm. Isn’t that kind of few, even for a dwarf? Are you sure?”
“Yes. We would have found anything of a size much less than what you would call a planet’s.”
“Especially since the Bode function is small, as you’d expect,” Dorcas added. Having worked with the astronomers, she scarcely needed this session. “The planets huddle close in. We haven’t found an Oort cloud either. No comets at all, we think.”
“Outer bodies may well have been lost in the collision that sent this star into exile,” Laurinda said. “And in fifteen billion years, any comets that were left got… used up.”
“There probably was a sixth planet until some unknown date in the past,” Tregennis stated. “We have indications of asteroids extremely close to the sun. Gravitational radiation—no, it must chiefly have been friction with the interstellar medium that caused a parent body to spiral in until it passed the Roche limit and was disrupted.”
“Hey, wait,” Saxtorph said. “Dorcas talks of a Bode function. That implies the surviving planets are about where theory says they ought to be. How’d they avoid orbital decay?”
Tregennis smiled. “That’s a good question.”
Saxtorph laughed. “Shucks, you sound like I was back in the Academy.”
“Well, at this stage any answers are hypothetical, but consider. In the course of its long journey, quite probably through more galaxies than ours, the system must sometimes have crossed nebular regions where matter was comparatively dense. Gravitation would draw the gas and dust in, make it thickest close to the sun, until the sun swallowed it altogether. As a matter of fact, the planetary orbits have very small eccentricities—friction has a circularizing effect and their distances from the primary conform only roughly to the theoretical distribution.” Tregennis paused. “A further anomaly we cannot explain, though it may be related. We have found—marginally; we think we have found—molecules of water and OH radicals among the asteroids, almost like a ring around the sun.” He spread his hands. “Well, I won’t live to see every riddle we may come upon solved.”
He had fought to get here, Ryan remembered.
“Let’s hear about those planets,” Carita said impatiently. Her job would include any landings. “Uh, have you got names for them? One, Two, Three might cause mixups when we’re in a hurry.”
“I’ve suggested using Latin ordinals,” Laurinda answered. She sounded almost apologetic.
“Prima, Secunda, Tertia, Quarta, Quinta,” Dorcas supplied. “Top-flight idea. I hope it becomes the standard for explorers.” Laurinda flushed.
“I have agreed,” Tregennis said. “The philologists can bestow official names later, or whoever is to be in charge of such things. Let us give you a precis of what we have learned to date.”
He consulted a notator in his hand. “Prima,” he recited. “Mean orbital radius, approximately 0.4 A.U. Diameter, approximately 16,000 kilometers. Since it has no satellite, the mass is still uncertain, but irradiation is such that it cannot be icy. We presume the material is largely silicate, which, allowing for self compression, gives a mass on the order of Earth’s. No signs of air.
“Secunda, orbiting at 0.7 A.U., resembles Prima, but is slightly larger and does have a thin atmosphere, comparable to Mars. It has a moon as well. Remarkably, the moon has a higher albedo than expected, a yellowish hue. The period tells us the mass, of course, which reinforces our guess about Prima.
“Tertia is almost exactly one A.U. out. It is a superterrestrial, mass of five Earths, as confirmed by four moons, also yellowish. A somewhat denser atmosphere than Secunda’s; we have confirmed the presence of nitrogen and traces of oxygen.”
“What?” broke from Saxtorph. “You mean it might have life?”
Laurinda shivered a bit. “The water is forever frozen,” she told him. “Carbon dioxide must often freeze. We don’t know how there can be any measurable amount of free oxygen. But there is.”
Tregennis cleared his throat. “Quarta,” he said. “A gas giant at 1.5 A.U., mass 230 Earths, as established by ten moons detected thus far. Surprisingly, no rings. Hydrogen and helium, presumably surrounding a vast ice shell which covers a silicate core with some iron. It seems to radiate weakly in the radio frequencies, indicating a magnetic field, though the radio background of the sun is such that at this distance we can’t be sure. We plan a flyby on our way in. Quarta will be basic to understanding the dynamics of the system. It is its equivalent of Jupiter.”
“Otherwise we have only detected radio from Secunda,” Laurinda related, “but it is unmistakable, cannot be of stellar origin. It is really curious intermittent, seemingly modulated, unless that is an artifact of our skimpy data.” She smiled. “How lovely if intelligent beings are transmitting.”
Markham stirred. He had put his chair behind the row of the rest. “Are you serious?” he nearly shouted.
Surprised looks went his way. “Oh, no,” Laurinda said. “Just a daydream. We’ll find out what is actually causing it when we get there.”
“Well, Quinta remains,” Tregennis continued, “in several respects, the most amazing object of all. Mass 103 Earths—seven moons found—at 2.8 A.U. It does have a well-developed ring system. Hydrogen helium atmosphere, but with clear spectra of methane, ammonia, and… water vapor. Water in huge quantities. Turbulence, and a measured temperature far above expectations. Something peculiar has happened.
“Are there any immediate questions? If not, Laurinda and Dorcas have prepared graphics—charts, diagrams, tables, pictures—which we would like to show. Please feel free to inquire, or to propose ideas. Don’t be bashful. You are all intelligent people with a good understanding of basic science. Any of you may get an insight which we specialists have missed.”
Markham rose. “Excuse me,” he said.
“Huh?” asked Saxtorph, amiably enough. “You want to go now when this is really getting interesting?”
“I do not expect I can make a contribution.” Markham hesitated. “I am a little indisposed. Best I lie down for a while. Do not worry. I will soon be well. Carry on.” He sketched a bow and departed.
“What do you know, he is human,” Carita said.
“We ought to be kinder to him than we have been, poor man,” Laurinda murmured.
“He hasn’t given us much of a chance, has he?” replied Yoshii.
“Stow that,” Saxtorph ordered. “No backbiting.”
“Yes,” added Dorcas, “let’s proceed with the libretto.”
Eagerness made Tregennis tremble as he obliged.
In his galley, Ryan frowned. Something didn’t feel quite right. While be followed the session he continued slicing the mahi mahi he had brought frozen from Earth, but his mind was no longer entirely on either.
Time passed. It became clear that the Quarta approach was going to be an intellectual orgy, the more so because Quinta happened to be near inferior conjunction and thus a lot of information about that planet would be arriving, too. Ryan wiped hands on apron, left his preparations, and stumped up toward the flight deck.
He met Markham coming back. They halted and regarded each other. The companionway thrummed around them. “Hello, there,” the quartermaster said slowly. “I thought you were in your cabin.”
Markham stiffened. “I am on my way, if it is any of your business.”
“Long way ’round.”
“It… occurred to me to check certain stations. This is an old ship, refitted. Frankly, Captain Saxtorph relies too much on his machinery.”
“What sort of thing did you want to check on?”
“Who are you to ask?” Markham flung. “You are the quartermaster.”
“And you are the passenger.” Ryan’s bulk blocked the stairs. “I wouldn’t be in this crew if I didn’t have a pretty fair idea of how all the equipment works. I’m responsible for maintaining a lot of it.”
“I have commanded spacecraft.”
“Then you know each system keeps its own record.” Ryan’s smile approximated a leer, or a snarl. “Save the skipper a bunch of data retrievals. Where were you and what were you doing?”
Markham stood silent while the ship drove onward. At length: “I should, I shall report directly to the captain. But to avoid rumors, I tell you first. Listen well and do not distort what I say if you are able not to. I beamed a radio signal on a standard band at Secunda. It is against the possibility—the very remote possibility, Mme. Brozik assured us that sentient beings are present. Natives, Outsiders, who knows? In the interest of peaceful contact, we must provide evidence that we did not try to sneak in on them. Not that it is likely they exist, but—this is the sort of contingency I am here for. Saxtorph and I can dispute it later if he wishes. I have presented him with a fait accompli. Now let me by.” Ryan stood aside. Markham passed downward. Ryan stared after him till he was gone from sight, then went back to his galley.
Quarta fell astern as Rover moved on sunward. In the boat called Fido, Juan Yoshii swung around the giant planet and accelerated to overtake his ship. Vectors programmed, he could relax, look out the ports, seek to sort the jumbled marvels in his mind. Most had gone directly from instruments to the astronomers; he was carrying back certain observations taken farside. A couple of times there had been opportunity for Laurinda Brozik to tell him briefly about the latest interpretation, but he had been too busy on his flit to think much beyond the piloting.
Stars thronged, the Milky Way torrented, a sky little different from the skies he remembered. Less than 30 light-years’ travel—a mite’s leap in the galaxy. Clearly alien was the sun ahead. Tiny but perceptible, its ember of a disc was slow to dazzle his eyes, yet already cast sufficient light for him to see things by.
An outer moon drifted across vision. This was his last close passage, and instruments worked greedily. Clicks and whirrs awoke beneath the susurrus of air through the hull. Yoshii pointed his personal camera; photography was an enthusiasm of his. The globe glimmered wan red under its sun. It was mainly ice, and smooth; any cracks and craters had slumped in the course of gigayears. The surface was lighter than it might have been and mottled with yellow spots. Ore deposits? The same material that tinted most airless bodies here? Tregennis was puzzled. You got dark spots in Solar-type systems. They were due to photolysis of frozen methane. Of course, this sun was so feeble…
It nonetheless illuminated the planet aft. Quarta’s hue was pale rose, overlaid with silvery streaks that were ice clouds: crystals of carbon dioxide, ammonia, in the upper levels methane. No twists, no vortices, no sign of any jovian storminess marred the serenity. Though the disc was visibly flattened, it rotated slowly, taking more than 40 hours. Tidal forces through eons had worn down even the spin of this huge mass. They had likewise dispersed whatever rings it once had, and surely drawn away moons. The core possessed a magnetic field, slight, noticeable only because it extended so far into space that it snatched radio waves out of incoming cosmic radiation-remnant magnetism, locked into iron as that core froze. For gravitational energy release had long since reached its end point; and long, long before then, K-40 and whatever other few radionuclei were once on hand had guttered away beyond measurement. The ice sheath went upward in tranquil allotropic layers to a virtually featureless surface and an enormous, quietly circulating atmosphere of starlike composition. Quarta had reached Nirvana.
It fell ever farther behind. Fido closed in on Rover.
The ship swelled until she might have been a planet herself. Instructions swept back and forth, electronic, occasionally verbal. A boat bay opened its canopy. Yoshii maneuvered through and docked. The canopy closed, shutting off heaven. Air hissed back in from the recovery tanks. A bulb flashed green. Yoshii unharnessed, operated the lock, crawled forth, and walked under the steady weight granted him by the ship’s polarizer, into her starboard reception room.
Yoshii stopped. She was alone. White hair tumbled past delicate features to brush the dress, new to him, that hugged her slenderness. She reached out. Her eyes glowed. “W-welcome back, Juan,” she whispered.
“Why, uh, thanks, thank you. You’re the… committee?”
She smiled, dropped her glance, became briefly the color of the world he had rounded. “Kam met Carita. As for you, Dorcas—Mate Saxtorph suggested—”
He took her hands. They felt reed-thin and silksoft. “How nice of her. And the rest. I’ve data discs for you.”
“They’ll keep. We have more work than we can handle. Observations of Quinta were, have been incredibly fruitful.” Ardor pulsed in her voice. The outermost planet was a safe subject. “We think we can guess its nature, but of course there’s no end of details we don’t understand, and we could be entirely wrong—”
“Good for you,” he said, delighted by her delight. “I missed out on that, of course.” Transmissions to him, including hers, had dealt with the Quartan system exclusively; any bit of information about it might perhaps save his life. “Tell me.”
“Oh, it’s violent, multi-colored, with spots like Jupiter’s—one bigger than the Red—and the surface is liquid water. It’s Arctic-like; we imagine continent-sized ice floes clashing together.”
“But warmer than Quarta! Why?”
“We suppose a large satellite crashed, a fraction of a million years ago. Debris formed the rings. The main mass released enough heat to melt the upper part of the planetary shell, and, and we’ll need years, science will, to learn what else has happened.”
He stood for an instant in awe, less of the event than of the time-scale. That moon must have been close to start with, but still it had taken the casual orbital erosion of… almost a universe’s lifespan so far—how many passages through nebulae, galaxies, the near-ultimate vacuum of intergalactic space?—to bring it down. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? What is man, that he should waste the little span which is his?
“That’s wonderful,” he said, “but we—” Impulsively, he embraced her. Astoundingly, she responded.
Between laughter and tears she said in his ear, “Come, let’s go, Kam’s spread a feast for the two of us in my cabin.”
Set beside that, the cosmos was trivial.
Saxtorph’s voice crackled from the intercom: “Now hear this. Now hear this. We’ve just received a message from what claims to be a kzin warship. They’re demanding we make rendezvous with them. Keep calm but think hard. We’ll meet in the gym in an hour, 1530, and consider this together.”
Standing with back to bulkhead, the captain let silence stretch, beneath the pulsebeat and whispers of the ship, while he scanned the faces of those seated before him. Dorcas, her Athene countenance frozen into expressionlessness; Kam Ryan’s full lips quirked a bit upward, defiantly cheery; Carita Fenger a-scowl; Juan Yoshii and Laurinda Brozik unable to keep from glancing at each other, hand gripping hand; Arthur Tregennis, who seemed almost as concerned about the girl; Ulf Markham, well apart from the rest, masked in haughtiness—Ulf Reichstein Markham, if you please… The air renewal cycle was at its daily point of ozone injection. That tang smelled like fear.
Which must not be let out of its cage. Saxtorph cleared his throat. “Okay, let’s get straight to business,” he said. “You must’ve noticed a quiver in the interior g-field and change in engine sound. You’re right, we altered acceleration. Rover will meet the foreign vessel, with velocities matched, in about 35 hours. It could be sooner, but Dorcas told them we weren’t sure our hull could take that much stress. What we wanted, naturally, was as much time beforehand as possible.”
“Why don’t we cut and run?” Carita asked.
Saxtorph shrugged. “Whether or not we can outrun them, we for sure can’t escape the stuff they can throw, now that they’ve locked onto us. If they really are kzinti navy, they’ll never let us get out where we can go hyperspatial. They may be lying, but Dorcas and I don’t propose to take the chance.”
“I presume evasion tactics are unfeasible,” said Tregennis in his most academic voice.
“Correct. We could stop the engine, switch off the generator, and orbit free, with batteries supplying the life support systems, but they’d have no trouble computing our path. As soon as they came halfway close, they’d catch us with a radar sweep.
“From what data we have on them, I believe they were searching for some time before they acquired us, probably with amplified optics. That’s assuming they were in orbit around Secunda when they first learned of our arrival. The assumption is consistent with what would be a reasonable search curve for them and with the fact that there are modulated radio bursts out of that planet-transmissions to and from their base.”
Nobody before had seen Yoshii snarl. “And how did they learn about us?” he demanded.
Looks went to Markham. He gave them back. “Yes, undoubtedly through me,” he said. Strength rang in the words. “You all know I took it upon myself to beam a signal at Secunda—in my capacity as this expedition’s officer of the government. The result has surprised me, too, but I acknowledge no need to apologize. If we, approaching a kzin base unbeknownst, had suddenly become manifest to their detectors, they would most likely have blown us out of existence.”
Ryan nodded. “Without stopping to ask questions,” he supplied. “Yeah, that’d be kzin style. If they are. How’re you so sure?”
“I think we can take it for granted,” Dorcas said. “Who else would have reason to call themselves kzinti?”
“Who else would want to?” Carita growled.
“Save the cuss words for later,” Saxtorph counseled. “We’re in too much of a pickle for luxuries. I might add that although the vocal transmission was through a translator, the phrasing, the responses to us, everything was pure kzin. They are here—on the far side of human space from their own. You realize what this means, don’t you, folks? The kzinti have gotten the hyperdrive.”
That conclusion had indeed become clear to everyone, but Laurinda asked, “How could they?” as if in pain.
Yoshii grimaced. “Once you know something can be done, you’re halfway to doing it yourself,” he told her.
“I know,” she answered. “But I had the, the impression they aren’t quite as clever at engineering as humans, even if they did invent the gravity polarizer. And, and wouldn’t we have known?”
“Collecting intelligence in kzin space isn’t exactly easy,” Saxtorph explained. “Anyhow, they may have done the R and D on some planet we aren’t aware of. I’ll grant you, I’m surprised myself that they’ve been this quick.
“Well, they were.” His grin was lopsided. “Once I heard about an epitaph on an old New England tombstone. ’I expected this, but not so soon.’”
“Why have they established themselves here?” Tregennis wondered. “As you observed, it is a long journey for them, especially if they went around human space in order to avoid any chance that their possession of the hyperdrive would be discovered. True, this system is uniquely interesting, but I didn’t think kzin civilization gave scientific research as high a value as ours does.”
“That’s a good question,” Saxtorph said.
His gallows humor drew a chuckle from none but Ryan. Dorcas uttered the thought in every mind: “They won’t let us go home to tell about them if they can help it.”
“Which is why we are being nice and meeting them as they request,” Saxtorph added. “It gives them an alternative to putting a nuke on our track.”
Markham folded his arms and stated, “I hope you people have the wit to be glad, at last, that I came along. They will understand that I am authorized to negotiate with them. They will likewise understand that my disappearance would in due course cause a second expedition to come, with armed escort, as the loss of an entirely private group might not.”
“Could be,” Saxtorph said. “However, I can think of several ways to fake a natural disaster for us.”
“Well, for instance, giving us a lethal dose of radiation, then sending the corpses back with the ship gimmicked to seem this was an accident. The kzin pilot could return on an accompanying vessel after ours left hyperspace.”
“What would the log show?”
“What the ’last survivor’ was tortured into entering.”
“Nonsense. You have been watching too many spy dramas.”
“I disagree. Besides, that was just one of the notions that occurred to Dorcas and me. The kzinti might be more inventive yet.”
“We have decided not to rely exclusively on their sweet nature,” the mate declared. “Listen carefully.
“We can launch the boats without them detecting it, if we act soon. They’ll float free while Rover proceeds to rendezvous. When she’s a suitable distance off, nobody looking for any action in this volume of space, they’ll scramble.”
Carita smacked fist in palm. “Hey, terrific!” she cried.
Markham sounded appalled: “Have you gone crazy? How will you survive, let alone return, in two little interplanetary flitters?”
“They’re more than that,” Saxtorph reminded. “They’re rugged and maneuverable and full to the scuppers with delta v. In either of them I’d undertake to outrace or dodge a tracking missile, and make it tough or impossible to hold a laser beam on her long enough to do much damage. Air and water recycler are in full working order and rations for one man year are stowed aboard.”
“I ate some,” Yoshii stammered. “Carita must have, too.”
“I’ve already replaced it,” Ryan informed them.
“Good thinking!” Saxtorph exclaimed. “Did you expect this tactic?”
“Oh, general principles. Take care of your belly and your belly will take care of you.”
“Stop that schoolboy chatter,” Markham snapped. “What in the cosmos can you hope to do but antagonize the kzinti?”
“How do you tell an antagonized kzin from an un-antagonized one?” Saxtorph retorted. “I am dead serious. Nobody has to follow me who doesn’t want to.”
“I certainly do not. Someone has to stay and… try to repair the harm your lunacy will have done.”
“I figured you would. But I supposed you, of all people, would have a better hold on kzin psychology than you’re showing. You ought to know they don’t resent an opponent giving them a proper fight. Fighting’s their nature. Whoever surrenders becomes no more than a captured animal in their eyes. Dorcas and I aim to put some high cards in your hand before you sit down at their poker table. A spacecraft on the loose is a weapon. The drive, or the sheer kinetic energy, can wreck things quite as thoroughly as the average nuke. Come worst to worst, we might smash a boat into their base at several thousand kph. The other boat might take out their ship and leave them stranded; I’ve a hunch they’ve kept just a single hyperdrive vessel, as scarce as those must still be among them. Yah, going out like that would be a sight better than going into the stewpot. Kzinti like long pig.”
Yoshii brightened. He and Laurinda exchanged a wonder-smitten look. Carita whooped. Tregennis smiled faintly. Ryan went oddly, abruptly thoughtful.
Markham gnawed his lip a moment, then straightened in his chair and rapped, “Very well. I do not approve, and I ask the crew to refrain from this foolishness of yours, but I cannot stop you. Therefore I must factor your action into my calculations. What terms shall I try to get for us?”
“Freedom to leave, of course,” Dorcas responded. “Let Rover retreat to hyperspacing distance and wait, while the kzinti withdraw too far to intercept our boats. We can verify that on instruments before we come near. We’ll convey any message they want, or even a delegate.”
“There could be a delegation on board, waiting,” Ryan warned.
Tregennis stirred. “I will remain behind,” he said.
Tears sprang into Laurinda’s eyes. “Oh, no!” she pleaded.
He smiled again, at her. “I am too old to go blatting around space like that. I would merely be a burden, and quite likely die on your hands. Not only will I be more comfortable here, I will be an extra witness to the bona fides of the kzinti. Landholder Markham alone could not keep track of everything they might stealthily do.”
“It will show them there are two reasonable human beings in this outfit,” the Wunderlander said.
“That might be marginally helpful to me. Anyone else?”
“Speaking,” Ryan answered.
“Huh?” broke from Saxtorph. “Hey, Kam, no. Whatever for?”
“For this,” the quartermaster said calmly. “Haven’t you thought of it yourself? The boats will be on the move, or holed up someplace unknown to the kzinti. They can only be reached by broadcast. Planar broadcast, maybe, but still the signal’s bound to be down in the milliwatts or microwatts when it reaches your receivers—with the sun’s radio background to buck. Nothing but voice transmission will carry worth diddly. Given a little time to record how the humans talk who were left behind, the kzinti can write a computer program to fake it. ’Sure, come on back, fellows, all is forgiven and they’ve left a case of champagne for us to celebrate with.’ How’re you going to know that’s for real?”
Dorcas frowned. “We did consider it,” she told him. “We’ll use a secret password.”
“Which a telepath of theirs can fish right out of a human skull, maybe given a spot of torture to unsettle the brain first. Nope, I know a trick worth two of that. How well do you remember your Hawaiian, Bob? You picked up a fair amount while we were in the village.” Ryan laughed. “That worked on the girls like butter on a toboggan slope.”
Saxtorph was a long while silent before he answered: “I think, if I practiced for a few days, I think… enough of it… would come back to me.”
Ryan nodded. “The kzinti have programs for the important human languages in their translators, but I doubt Hawaiian is included. Or Danish.”
Yoshii swallowed. “You’d certify everything is kosher?” he mumbled. “But what if—well—”
“If the kzinti aren’t stupid, they won’t try threatening or torturing me into feeding you a lie,” Ryan responded. “How’d they savvy what I was saying? I assure you, it wouldn’t be complimentary to them.”
“A telepath would know.”
Ryan shrugged. “He’d know I was not going to be their Judas goat, no matter what they did. Therefore they won’t do it.”
Saxtorph’s right hand half reached out. “Kam, old son—” he croaked. The hand dropped.
Dorcas rose and confronted the rest, side by side with her husband. “I’m sorry, but time is rationed for us and you must decide at once,” she said. “If you think you’d better stay, then do. We won’t consider you a coward or anything. You may be right. We can’t be sure at this stage. All we are certain of is that we don’t have time for debate. Who’s going?”
Hands went up, Carita’s, Yoshii’s, and after an instant Laurinda’s.
“Okay,” Dorcas continued. “Now we’re not about to put our bets on a single number. The boats will go separate ways. Which ways, we’ll decide by tight beam once we’re alone in space. You understand, Kam, Arthur, Landholder Markham. What you don’t know, a telepath or a torturer can’t get out of you. Bob and I have already considered the distribution.
“Carita and Juan will take Fido. We thought Kam would ride with them, but evidently not. Laurinda, you’ll be with Bob and me in Shep.”
“Wait a minute!” Yoshii protested. The girl brought fingertips to open mouth.
“Sorry, my dears,” Dorcas said. “It’s a matter of practicality, as nearly as we could estimate on short notice. Not that we imagine you two would play Romeo and Juliet to the neglect of your duties. However, Juan and Carita are our professional pilots, rockjacks, planetside prospectors. Together they make our strongest possible team. They can pull stunts Bob and I never could. We need that potential, don’t we? Bob and I are no slouches, but we do our best work in tandem. To supply some of what we lack as compared to Juan and Carita, Laurinda has knowledge, including knowledge of how to use instruments we plan to pack along, Don’t forget, more is involved than us. The whole human race needs to know what the kzinti are up to. We must maximize our chances of getting the news home. Agreed?”
Yoshii clenched his free hand into a fist, stared at it, raised his head, and answered, “Aye. And you can take better care of her.”
The Crashlander flushed. “I’m no piece of porcelain!” immediately contrite, she stroked the Belter’s cheek while she asked unevenly, “How soon do we leave?”
Dorcas smiled and made a gesture of blessing. “Let’s say an hour. We’ll need that much to stow gear. You two can have most of it to yourselves.”
The kzin warship was comparatively small, Prowling Hunter class, but not the less terrifying a sight. Weapon pods, boat bays, sensor booms, control domes studded a spheroid whose red hue, in the light of this sun, became like that of clotted blood. Out of it and across the kilometers between darted small fierce gleams that swelled into space-combat armor enclosing creatures larger than men. They numbered a dozen, and each bore at least two firearms.
Obedient to orders, Ryan operated the main personnel airlock and cycled four of them through. The first grabbed him and slammed him against the bulkhead so hard that it rang. Stunned, he would have slumped to the deck were it not for the bruising grip on his shoulders. The next two crouched with weapons ready. The last one took over the controls and admitted the remaining eight.
At once, ten went off in pairs to ransack the ship. It was incredible how fast they carried the mass of metal upon them. Their footfalls cast booming echoes down the passageways.
Markham and Tregennis, waiting in the saloon, were frisked and put under guard. Presently Ryan was brought to them. “My maiden aunt has better manners than they do,” he muttered, and lurched toward the bar. The kzin used his rifle butt to push him into a chair and gestured for silence. Time passed.
Within an hour, which felt longer to the humans, the boarding party was satisfied that there were no traps. Somebody radioed a report from the airlock; the rest shed their armor and stood at ease outside the saloon. Its air grew full of their wild odor.
A new huge and ruddy-gold form entered. The guard saluted, sweeping claws before his face. Markham jumped up. “For God’s sake, stand,” he whispered. “That’s the captain.”
Tregennis and, painfully, Ryan rose. The kzin’s gaze flickered over them and came back to dwell on Markham, recognizing leadership. The Wunderlander opened his mouth. Noises as of a tiger fight poured forth. Did the captain register surprise that a man knew his language? He heard it out and spat a reply. Markham tried to continue. The captain interrupted, and Markham went mute. The captain told him something.
Markham turned to his companions. “He forbids me to mangle the Hero’s Tongue anymore,” he related wryly. “He grants my request for a private talk—in the communications shack, where our translator is, since I explained that we do have one and it includes the right program. Meanwhile you may talk with each other and move freely about this cabin. If you must relieve yourselves, you may use the sink behind the bar.”
“How gracious of him,” Ryan snorted.
Markham raised brows. “Consider yourselves fortunate. He is being indulgent. Don’t risk provoking him. High-ranking kzinti are even more sensitive about their honor than the average, and he has earned a partial name, Hraou-Captain.”
“We will be careful,” Tregennis promised. “I am sure you will do your best for us.”
The commander went majestically out. Markham trailed. Ryan gusted a sigh, sought the bar, tapped a liter of beer, and drained it in a few gulps. The guard watched enviously but then also left. Discipline had prevented him from shoving the human aside and helping himself. He and a couple of his fellows remained in the passage. They conversed a bit, rumbling and hissing.
“We’ll be here a while,” Ryan sighed. “Care for a round of gin?”
“It would be unwise of us to drink,” Tregennis cautioned. “Best you be content with that mug full you had.”
“I mean gin rummy.”
“What is that, if not a, ah, cocktail?”
“A card game. They don’t play it on Plateau? I can teach you.”
“No, thank you. Perhaps I am too narrow in my interests, but cards bore me.” Tregennis brightened. “However, do you play chess?”
Ryan threw up his hands. “You expect me to concentrate on woodpushing now? Hell, let’s screen a show. Something light and trashy, with plenty of girls in it. Or would you rather seize the chance to at last read War and Peace?”
Tregennis smiled. “Believe it or not, Kamehameha, I have my memories. By all means, girls.”
The comedy was not quite finished when a kzin appeared and jerked an unmistakable gesture. The men followed him. He didn’t bother with a companion or with ever glancing rearward. At the flight deck he proceeded to Saxtorph’s operations cabin, waved them through, and closed the door on them.
Markham sat behind the desk. He was very pale and reeked of the sweat that stained his tunic, but his visage was set in hard lines. Hraou-Captain loomed beside him, too big to use a human’s chair, doubtless tired of being cramped in the comshack and maybe choosing to increase his dominance by sheer height. Another kzin squatted in a far corner of the room, a wretched-looking specimen, fur dull and unkempt, shoulders slumped, eyes turned downward.
“Attention,” rasped Markham. “I wish I did not have to tell you this—I hoped to avoid it—but the commander says I must. He… feels deception is pointless and… besmirches his honor. His superior on Secunda agrees; we have been in radio contact.”
The newcomers braced themselves.
Nonetheless it was staggering to hear: “For the past five years I have been an agent of the kzinti. Later I will justify myself to you, if your minds are not totally closed. It is not hatred for my species that drove me to this, but love and concern for it, hatred for the decadence that is destroying us. Later, I say. We dare not waste Hraou-Captain’s time with arguments.”
Regarding the faces before him, Markham made his tone dry. “The kzinti never trusted me with specific information, but after I began sending them information about hyperdrive technology, they gave me a general directive. I was to use my position as commissioner to forestall, whenever possible, any exploration beyond the space containing the human occupied worlds. That naturally gave me an inkling of the reason—to prevent disclosure of their activities and it became clear to me that some of the most important must be in regions distant from kzin space. When hope was lost of keeping you from this expedition, I decided my duty was to join it and stand by in case of need. Not that I anticipated the need, understand. The star looked so useless. But when you did get those radio indications, I knew better than you what they could mean, and was glad I had provided against the contingency, and beamed a notice of our arrival.”
“Your parents were brothers,” Ryan said.
Markham laid back his ears. “Spare the abuse. Remember, by forewarning the kzinti I saved your lives. If you had simply blundered into detector range.”
“They may be impulsive,” Tregennis said, “but they are not idiotic. I do not accept your assertion that they would reflexively have annihilated us.”
Markham trembled. “Silence. Bear in mind that I am all that stands between you and—It has been a long time since the kzinti in this project tasted fresh meat.”
“What are they doing?” Ryan asked.
“Constructing a naval base. They chose the system precisely because it seemed insignificant—the dimmest star in the whole region, devoid of heavy elements and impoverished in the light—though it does happen to have a ready source of iron and certain other crucial materials, together with a strategic location. They never expected humans to seek it out. They underestimated the curiosity of our species. They are… cats, not monkeys.”
“Uh-huh. Not noisy, sloppy, free-swinging monkeys like you despise. Kzinti respect rank. Once they’ve overrun us, they’ll put the niggers back in their proper place. From here they can grab off Beta Hydri, drive a salient way into our space—How many more prongs will there be to the attack? When is the next war scheduled for?”
“Silence!” Markham shouted. “Hold your mouth! One word from me, and—”
“And what? You need us, Art and me, you need us, else we wouldn’t be having this interview. Kill us, and your boss just gets a few meals.”
“Killing can be in due course. I imagine he would enjoy your testicles for tomorrow’s breakfast.”
Ryan rocked on his feet. Tregennis’ lips squeezed together till they were white.
Markham’s voice softened. “I am warning, not threatening,” he said in a rush. “I’ll save you if I can, unharmed, but if you don’t help me I can promise nothing.”
He leaned forward. “Listen, will you? Obviously you can’t be released to spread the news, not yet but some years of detention are better than death.” He could not quite hold back the sneer. “In your minds, I suppose. You’re lucky, lucky that I was aboard. Once my status has been verified, the high commandant can let me bring home a convincing tale of disaster. Else he would probably have had to kill us and make our bodies stage props, as Saxtorph suggested. I think he will spare you if I ask; it will cost him little, and kzinti reward faithful service. They also keep their promises. But you must earn your lives.”
“The boats,” Tregennis whispered.
Ryan nodded. “You’ve got a telepath on hand, I see,” he said flat-voiced. “He could make sure that my call in Hawaiian tells how everything is hearts and flowers. Except if he reads my mind, he’ll see that I ain’t gonna do it, no matter what. Or, okay, maybe they can break me, but Bob will hear that in his old pal’s voice.”
“I’ve explained this to Hraou-Captain,” Markham said, cooler now. “It is necessary to neutralize those boats, but they don’t pose any urgent threat, so we will start with methods less time-consuming than… interrogation and persuasion. Later, though, when we are on Secunda—that’s where we are going—later your cooperation in working up a plausible disaster for me to return with, that is what will buy you your lives. If you refuse, you’ll die for nothing, because we can always devise some deception which will keep humans away from here. You’ll die for nothing.”
“What the hell can we do about the boats? We don’t know where they’ve gone.”
Markham’s manner became entirely impersonal. “I have explained this to Hraou-Captain. I went on to explain that their actions will not be random. What Captain Saxtorph decides—has decided to do is a multivariable function of the logic of the situation and of his personality. You and he are good friends, Ryan. You can make shrewd guesses as to his behavior. They won’t be certain, of course, but they will eliminate some possibilities and assign rough probabilities to others. Your input may have some value, too, Professor. And even mine—in the course of establishing that I have been telling the truth.”
“Sit down on the deck. This will not be pleasant, you know.” Hraou-Captain, who had stood like a pillar, turned his enormous body and growled a command. The telepath raised his head. Eyes glazed by the drug that called forth his total abilities came to a focus.
In their different ways, the three humans readied for what was about to happen. They’d have sundering headaches for hours afterward, too.
Small though it was, at its distance from Prima the sun showed more than half again the disc which Sol presents to Earth. Blotches of darkness pocked its sullen red. Corona shimmered around the limb, not quite drowned out of naked-eye vision.
Yoshii ignored it. His attention was on the planet which Fido circled in high orbit. Radar, spectroscope, optical amplifier, and a compact array of other instruments fed data to a computer which spun forth interpretations on screen and printout. Click and whirr passed low through the rustling ventilation, the sometimes uneven human breath within the control cabin. Body warmth and a hint of sweat tinged the air. Yoshii’s gaze kept drifting from the equipment, out a port of the globe itself. “Unbelievable,” he murmured.
Airless, it stood sharp-edged athwart the stars, but the illuminated side was nearly a blank, even at first and last quarter when shadows were long. Then a few traces of hill and dale might appear, like timeworn Chinese brush strokes. Otherwise there was yellowish-white smoothness, with ill-defined areas of faint gray, brown, or blue. The whole world could almost have been a latex ball, crudely made for a child of the giants.
“What now?” Carita asked. She floated, harnessed in her seat, her back to him. They had turned off the gravity polarizer and were weightless, to eliminate that source of detectability. Her attention was clamped to the long-range radar with which she swept the sky, to and fro as the boat swung around.
“Oh, everything,” said the Belter.
“Any ideas? You’ve had more chance to think, these past hours, than I have.”
“Well, a few things look obvious, but I wouldn’t make book on their being what they seem.”
“Why don’t you give me a rundown?” proposed the Jinxian. “Never mind if you repeat what I’ve already heard. We should try putting things in context.”
Yoshii plunged into talk. It was an escape of sorts from their troubles, from not knowing what the fate of Shep and those aboard her might be.
“The planet’s about the mass of Earth but only about half as dense. Must be largely silicate, some aluminum, not enough iron to form a core. Whatever atmosphere and hydrosphere it once outgassed, it lost—weak gravity, and temperatures around 400 K at the hottest part of the day. That day equals 131 of Earth’s; two-thirds rotational lock, like Mercury. No more gas comes out, because vulcanism, tectonics, all geology ended long ago. Unless you want to count meteoroid erosion wearing down the surface; and I’d guess hardly any objects are left that might fall on these planets.
“Then what is that stuff mantling the surface? The computer can’t figure it out. Shadows of what relief there is indicate it’s thin, a few centimeters deep, with local variations. Reflection spectra suggest carbon compounds but that’s not certain. It just lies there, you see, doesn’t do anything. Try analyzing a lump of some solid plastic across a distance. Is that what we have here, a natural polymer? I wish I knew more organic chemistry.”
“Can’t help you, Juan,” Carita said. “All I remember from my class in it, aside from the stinks in the lab, is that the human sex hormones are much the same, except that the female is ketonic and the male is alcoholic.”
“We’ll have time to look and think further, of course.” Yoshii sighed. “Time and time and time. I never stopped to imagine how what fugitives mostly do is sit. Hiding, huddling, while—” He broke off and struggled for self-command.
“And we don’t dare let down our guard long enough to take a little recreation,” Carita grumbled.
Yoshii reddened. “Uh, if we could, I—well—”
She chuckled and said ruefully, “I know. The fair Laurinda. Don’t worry, your virtue will be safe with me till you realize it can’t make any possible diff—Hold!” she roared.
He tensed where he floated. “What?”
“Quiet. No, secure things and get harnessed.”
For humming minutes she studied the screen and meters before her. Yoshii readied himself. Seated at her side he could see the grimness grow. Pale hair waved around sable skin when at last she nodded. “Yes,” she said, “somebody’s bound this way. From the direction of the sun. About ten million klicks off. He barely registered at first, but it’s getting stronger by the minute. He’s boosting fast, we’d tear our hull apart if we tried to match him, supposing we had that kind of power. Definitely making for Prima.”
“What… is it?”
“What but a kzin ship with a monster engine? I’m afraid they’ve caught on to our strategy.” Carita’s tone grew wintry. “I’d rather not hear just how they did.”
“G-guesswork?” Yoshii faltered.
“Maybe. I don’t know kzin psych. How close to us can they make themselves think?” She turned her head to clamp her vision on him. “Well, maybe the skipper’s plan failed and it’s actually drawn the bandits to us. Or maybe it’s the one thing that can save us.
(Saxtorph’s words drawled through memory:) “We don’t know how much search capability the kzin have, but a naval vessel means auxiliaries, plus whatever civilian craft they can press into service. A boat out in the middle of the far yonder, drifting free, would be near-as-damn impossible to find. But as soon as she accelerates back toward where her crew might do something real, she screams the announcement to any alert, properly organized watchers optical track, neutrino emission, the whole works till she’s in effective radar range. After that she’s sold to the licorice man, as they say in Denmark. On the other hand, if she can get down onto a planetary surface, she can probably make herself almost as invisible as out in the deep. A world full of topography, which the kzinti cannot have had time or personnel to map in anything but the sketchiest way. So how about one of ours goes to Prima, the other to Tertia, and lies low in orbit? Immediately when we get wind of trouble, we drop down into the best hidey-hole the planet has got, and wait things out.”
(It had been the most reasonable idea that was broached.) “You’ve been doing our latest studies,” Carita went on. “Found any prospective burrows? The kzinti may or may not have acquired us by now. Maybe not. That vessel may not be as well equipped to scan as this prospector, and she’s probably a good deal bigger. But they’re closing in fast, I tell you.”
Yoshii made a shushing gesture, swiveled his seat, and evoked pictures, profiles, data tabulations. Shortly he nodded. “I think we have a pretty respectable chance.” Pointing: “See here. Prima isn’t all an unbroken plain. This range, its small valleys—and on the night side, too.”
Carita whistled. “Hey, boy, we live right!”
“Set up for a detailed scan and drop into low orbit to make it. We should find some cleft we can back straight down into. The kzinti would have to arc immediately above and be on the lookout for that exact spot to see us.” Yoshii said nothing about what a feat of piloting he had in mind. He was a Belter. She had almost comparable experience, together with jinxian reflexes.
“Yah, I do think our best bet is to land and snuggle in.” Saxtorph’s look ranged through the port and across the planet, following an onward sweep of daylight as Shep orbited around to the side of the sun.
That disc was less than half the size of Sol’s at Earth, its coal-glow light little more than one one-hundredth. Nevertheless Tertia shone so brightly as to dazzle surrounding stars out of sight. Edges softened by atmosphere, it was bestrewn with glaciers, long streaks and broad plains and frozen seas bluishly a glimmer from pole to pole. Bared rock reached darkling on mountainsides or reared in tablelands. Five Terrestrial masses had been convulsed enough as they settled toward equilibrium that the last of the heights they thrust upward had not worn away entirely during the post-tectonic eons.
The glaciers were water, with some frozen carbon dioxide overlying them in the antarctic zone where winter now reigned. The air, about twice as dense as Earth’s, was almost entirely nitrogen, the oxygen in it insufficient to sustain fire or life. It was utterly clear save where slow winds raised swirls of glitter, dust storms whose dust was fine ice.
A small moon, in most of four, hove in view. It sheened reddish-yellow, like amber. The largest, Luna-size, was visible, too, patched with the same hue, ashen where highlands were uncovered. It had no craters,—spalling and cosmic sand had long since done away with them.
“But, but on the surface we’ll see only half the sky at best,” Laurinda ventured. “And atmospherics will hinder the seeing.”
Saxtorph nodded. “True. Ordinarily I’d opt for staying in space in hopes of early warning. That does have its own drawbacks, though. A kzin search vessel could likelier than not detect us the moment we commenced boost. Since we might not be able to skedaddle flat-out from them, we’d probably drop planetside. That’s the whole idea of being where we are, remember? If we did it right, the ratcats wouldn’t know where we’d squatted, but they’d know we were someplace yonder for sure, and that would be a bigger help to them than they deserve.”
“Treacherous terrain for landing,” Dorcas warned.
Saxtorph nodded again. “Indeed. Which means we’ll be smart to take our time while we’ve still got it, come down cautiously and settle in thoroughly. As for knowing when a spacecraft is in the neighborhood, at a minimum there’s our neutrino detector.
“It’s not what you’d call precise, but it will pick up an operating fusion generator within a couple million klicks, clear through the body of the planet.”
He paused before adding, “I realize this isn’t quite what we intended when we said goodbye. But we didn’t know what Tertia is like. Doctrine exists to be modified as circumstances dictate. I’d guess the sensible thing for Juan and Carita to do is quite different.”
Laurinda’s fingers twisted together. She turned her face from the other two.
“I vote with you,” Dorcas declared. They had been considering tactics for hours, while they gained knowledge of the world they had reached. “What are the specs of a landing site? Safe ground; concealment from anything except an unlikely observation from directly overhead, unless we can avoid that too; but we don’t want to be in a radio shadow, because we hope for—we expect—a broadcast message in the fairly near future.”
“Don’t forget defensibility,” Saxtorph reminded.
“What?” asked Laurinda, startled. “How can we possibly—”
The man grinned. “I didn’t tell you, honey, because it’s not a thing to blab about, but Dorcas and I always travel with a few weapons. I took them along packed among my personal effects. Managed to slip Carita a rifle and some ammo when nobody else was looking. That leaves us with another rifle, a Pournelle rapid-fire automatic, choice of solid or explosive shells; a. 38-caliber machine pistol with detachable stock; and a 9-mm. mulekiller.”
“Plus a certain amount of blasting sticks,” Dorcas informed him.
Saxtorph goggled. “Huh?” He guffawed. “That’s my nice little wifey. The standard mining equipment aboard includes knives, geologists’ hammers, crow bars, and such, useful for mayhem.” He sobered. “Not that we want a fight. God, no! But if we’re able to give a good account of ourselves—it might make a difference.”
“A single small warhead will make a much bigger difference, unless we have dispersal and concealment capability,” Dorcas observed. “All right, let’s take a close look at what topographical data we’ve collected.” The choice was wide, but decision was quick. Shep dropped out of orbit and made for a point about 30 degrees north latitude. It was at mid-afternoon, which was a factor. Lengthening shadows would bring out details, while daylight would remain—in a rotation period of 40 hours, 37-plus minutes—for preliminary exploration of the vicinity. A mesa loomed stark, thinly powdered with ice crystals, above a glacier that had flowed under its own weight, down from the heights, until a jumble of hills beneath had brought it to a halt. As it descended, the glacier had gouged a deep, almost sheer walled coulee through slopes and steeps. The bottom was talus, under a dusting of sand, but solid; with gravity a third higher than on Earth, and epochs of time, shards and particles had settled into gridlock.
Or so the humans reasoned. The last few minutes of maneuver were very intent, very quiet except for an occasional low word of business. Saxtorph, manning the console, was prepared to cram on emergency boost at the first quiver of awareness. But Dorcas talked him down and Shep grounded firmly. For a while, nobody spoke or moved. Then husband and wife unharnessed and kissed. After a moment, Laurinda made it a three-way embrace.
Saxtorph peered out. The canyon walls laid gloom over stone. “You ladies unlimber this and stow that while I go take a gander,” he said. “Yes, dear, I won’t be gone long and I will be careful.”
His added weight dragged at him, but not too badly. It wasn’t more than physiology could take, even a Belter’s or a Crashlander’s, and distributed over the whole body. The women would get used to it, sort of, and in fact it ought to be valuable, continuous exercise in the cramped quarters of the boat. The spacesuit did feel pretty heavy.
He cycled through and stood for a few minutes learning to see the landscape. Every cue was alien, subtly or utterly, light, shadow, shapes.
The cobbles underfoot were smooth as those on a beach. They and the rubble along the sides and the cliffs above were tawny-gray, sparked with bits of what might be mica but was likelier something strange—diamond dust? Several crags survived, eroded to laciness. The lower end of the gorge, not far off, was blocked by a wall of glacier. Above reached purple sky. An ice devil whirled on the heights. Wind withered.
Saxtorph decided his party had better plant an antenna and relay inconspicuously up there. Any messages ought to be on a number of simultaneous bands, at least one of which could blanket a Tertian hemisphere, but the signal would be tenuous and these depths might screen it out altogether. He walked carefully from the arrowhead of the boat to the right-hand side and started downslope, looking for safe routes to the top. Lateral ravines appeared to offer them.
Abruptly he halted. What the flapping hellfire? He stooped and stared. Could it be? No, some freak of nature. He wasn’t qualified to identify a fossil.
He went on. By the time he had tentatively found the path he wanted, he was so near the glacier that he continued. It lifted high, not grimy like its counterparts on terrestroid planets but clear, polished glassy-smooth, a cold and mysterious blue. Whatever mineral grains once lay on it had sunken to the bottom, and Saxtorph stood moveless. The time was long before he breathed, “Oh. My. God.”
From within the ice, the top half of a skull stared at him. It could only be that, unhuman though it was. And other bones were scattered behind, and shaped stones, and pieces of what was most surely earthenware. Chill possessed him from within. How old were those remnants? Big Tertia must in its youth have had a still denser atmosphere than now, greenhouse effect, heat from a contracting interior, and… those molecules that are the kernel from which life grows, perhaps evolved not here but in interstellar space, organics which the wan sun did not destroy as they drifted inward… Life arose. It liberated oxygen. It gave birth to beings that made tools and dreams. But meanwhile the planetary core congealed and chilled, the oceans began to freeze, plants died, nothing replaced the oxygen that surface rocks bound fast… Without copper, tin, gold, iron, any metal they could know for what it was, the dwellers had never gone beyond their late stone age, never had a chance to develop the science that might have saved them or at least have let them understand what was happening…
Saxtorph shuddered. He turned and hastened back to the boat.
Unsure what kind of surface awaited them, Carita and Yoshii descended on the polarizer and made a feather-soft landing. They were poised to spring instantly back upward. All they felt was a slight resilience, more on their instruments than in their bones. It damped out and Fido rested quiet.
“Elastic?” Yoshii wondered. “Or viscous, or what?”
“Never mind, we’ll investigate later, right now we’re down safe,” Carita replied. She wiped her brow. “Hoo, but I need a stiff drink and a hot shower!”
Yoshii let-red at her. “In the opposite order, please.” She cuffed him lightly. The horseplay turned into mutual unharnessing and a hug. “Hey-y,” she purred, “you really do want to celebrate, don’t you? Later, we’ll share that shower.”
His arms dropped. She released him in her turn and he made a stumbling backward step. “I’m sorry, I didn’t intend—Well, we should take a good look outside, shouldn’t we?”
The jinxian was briefly silent before she smiled wryly and shrugged. “Okay. I’ll forgive you this time if you’ll fix dinner. Your yakitori tacos are always consoling. You’re right, anyway.”
They turned off the fluoros and peered forth. As their eyes adapted, they saw well enough through airlessness, by the thronging stars and the cold rush of the Milky Way. Bowl-shaped, the dell in which they were parked curved some 50 meters wide to heights twice as far above the bottom. Fido sat close to one side; direct sunlight would only touch her for a small part of the day, weeks hence. Every edge and lump was rounded off by the covering of the planet. In this illumination it appeared pale gray.
“What is the stuff?” Carita muttered.
“I’ve hit on an idea,” Yoshii said. “I do not warrant that it is right. It may not even make sense.”
Her teeth flashed white in the darkness. “The universe is not under obligation to make sense. Speak your piece.” She switched cabin illumination back on. Radiance made the ports blank.
“I think it must be organic-carbon-based,” Yoshii said. “It doesn’t remotely match any mineral I’ve ever seen or heard of or imagined, whereas it does resemble any number of plastics.”
“Hm, yeah, I had the same thought, but discarded it. Where would the chemistry come from? Life can’t have started in the short time Prima hung onto its atmosphere, can it? Whatever carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen are left must be locked up in solid-state materials. At most we might find hydrates or something.”
“This could have come from space.”
“What?” She gaped at him. “If that’s a joke, it’s too deep for me.”
“There is matter in space, in the nebulae and even in the emptiest stretches between. It includes organic compounds, some of them fairly complex.”
“Not quite concentrated enough for soup.”
“Sure, the densest nebula is still a pretty hard vacuum by Terrestrial standards. However, this system has had time to pass through many. Between them, too—yes, between galaxies—gravity has found atoms and molecules to draw in. During any single year, hardly a measurable amount. But it’s been fifteen billion years, Carita.”
“Um’h,” she uttered, almost as if punched in the stomach.
“The sun doesn’t give off any ultraviolet to speak of,” Yoshii pursued. “Its wind is puny. Carbon-based molecules land intact. The sun does maintain a day time temperature at which they can react with each other. I daresay cosmic radiation energizes the chemistry, too. Fine grains of sand and dust—crumbled off rocks, together with meteoroid powder—provide colloidal surfaces where the stuff can cluster till there’s a fairly high concentration and complicated exchanges become possible. Unsaturated bonds grab the free atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, anything included in the down drift except noble gases, and incorporate them. Maybe, here and there, some such growing patch ’learns’ how to take stuff from surface rocks. It’s a slow, slow process—or set of processes—but it’s had time. Eventually patches meet as they expand. What happens then depends on just what their compositions happen to be. I’d expect some weird interactions while they join. Those could be going on yet. That would explain why we saw differently colored areas. But it’s only the terminal reactions.”
Yoshii’s words had come faster and faster. He was developing his idea as he described it. Excitement turned into awe and he whispered, “A polymer. A single multiplex molecule, the size of this planet.”
Carita was mute for a whole minute before she murmured, “Whew! But why isn’t the same stuff on every airless body?… No wait. Stupid of me to ask. This is the only one where conditions have been right.”
Yoshii nodded. “I suspect that what yellows the rest is a carbon compound, too, but something formed in space. You get some fairly complicated ones there, you know. If that particular one can’t react with the organics I was talking about—too cold—then they are a minor part of the down drift compared to it. We haven’t noticed the same thing in other planetary systems because they are all too young, and maybe because none of them have made repeated passages through nebulae.”
“You missed your calling,” Carita said tenderly. “Should’ve been a scientist. Is it too late? We can go out, take samples, put’em through our analyzers. When we get home, you can write a paper that’ll have scholarships piled around you up to your bellybutton. Though I hope you’ll keep on with the poetry. I like what you—”
A quiver went through the boat. “What the Finagle!” she exclaimed.
“A quake?” Yoshii asked.
“The prof’s told us these planets are as far beyond quakes as a mummy is beyond hopscotch,” Carita snapped.
Another tremor made slight noises throughout the hull. Yoshii reached for the searchlight switch. Carita caught his arm. “Hold that,” she said. “The kzinti—”
“No, unless they beef up that already wild boost they are under, they won’t arrive for a couple more hours.” Nevertheless he refrained.
The pair studied their instrument panel. “We’ve been tilted a bit,” Yoshii pointed out. “Should we reset the landing jacks?”
“Let’s wait and see,” Carita said. “I’d guess the rock beneath has settled under our weight, or one layer has slid over another, or something like that. If it’s reached a new equilibrium, we don’t want to upset it by shifting mass around. No sense in moving yet, when we can’t tell what the ground is like anywhere else.”
“Right. I’m afraid, though, we can’t relax as we had hoped.”
“How much relaxing could we do anyway, with kzinti sniffing after us?”
“And Laurinda—” Yoshii whispered. Harshly: “Do you want to take the controls, stand by to jump out of here, in case? I’ll snug things down and, yes, throw a meal together.”
Lightfoot under the low gravity, he descended aft to the engine compartment. Delicate work needed doing. The idling fusion generator must be shut down entirely, lest its neutrino smoke betray the boat—not that the kzinti could home in on it, but they would know with certainty the humans were on Prima, and in which quadrant. Batteries, isotopic and crystalline as well as chemical, held energy for weeks of life support and ordinary operations. Yet it had to be possible to restart the generator instantly, full power within a second, should there be a sudden need to scramble. That meant disconnecting the safety interlocks. Yoshii fetched tools and got busy. The task was demanding, but not too much for his spirit to wing elsewhere in space, else when in time—the Belt, Plateau, We Made It, Rover’s folk on triumphal progress after their return…
Carita’s voice came over the intercom. “This is dull duty. I think I will turn on the searchlight while it’s still safe to do so. Might get a clue to what caused those jolts.”
“Good idea,” he agreed absent-mindedly, and continued his task. The metal around him throbbed. Small objects rattled on the deck.
“Juan!” Carita shouted. “The, the material—it’s rippling, crawling—” The hull rocked. “I’m getting us out of here!”
“Yes, do,” he called back, and grabbed for the nearest handhold. Within its radiation shield, the generator hummed. Needles sprang across dials, displays onto screens. Yoshii felt the upward thrust of the deck against his feet. It was light. Carita was a careful pilot, applying barely sufficient boost to rise off the ground before she committed to a leap.
The boat screamed. Things tilted. Yoshii clung. Loose things hailed around him. A couple of them drew blood. The boat canted over, toppled, struck lengthwise, tolled so that he was half deafened.
Stillness crashed down, except for a shrill whistle that he knew too well. Air was escaping from one or more rents nearby. He hauled himself erect and out of his daze. The emergency valve had already shut, sealing off this section. He had to get through the lock built into it before the pressure differential made operation fatally slow.
Somehow he passed forth, and on along the companionway that was now a corridor, toward the control cabin. Lights were still shining, ventilators still whirring, and few articles lay strewn around. This was a good, sturdy craft, kept shipshape. How had she failed? Carita met him in the entrance. “Hey, you sure got battered, didn’t you? I was secured. Here, let me help you.” She practically carried him to his chair, which she had adjusted for the new orientation. Meanwhile she talked on: “The trouble’s with the landing gear, I think. Is that damn stuff a glue? No, how could it be? Take over. I’m going to suit up and go out for a look.”
“Don’t,” he protested. “You might get stuck there, too.”
“I’ll be careful. Keep watch. If I don’t make it back—” She stooped, brushed lips across his, and hurried aft.
His ears rang and pained him, his head ached, he was becoming conscious of bruises, but his eyes worked. The searchlight made clear the motion in the mantle. It was slight in amplitude, as thin as the layer was, and slow, but intricate, like wave patterns spreading from countless centers to form an ever changing moire. Those nodes were darker than the ripple-shadows and seemed to pass the darkness’s on from one to the next, so that a shifting stipple went outward from the boat, across the dell floor and, as he watched, up the side. The hull rocked a little, off and on, in irregular wise.
“Do you read me?” he heard after a while. “I’m in the Number Two lock, outer valve open, looking over the lip.”
“I read you,” he answered unevenly. At least the radio system remained intact. “What do you see?”
“The same turbulence in the… stuff. Nothing clear aft, where the main damage is. The search beam doesn’t diffuse, and—I’m off to inspect.”
“Better not. If you lost your footing and fell down into—”
She barked scorn. “If you think I could, then I’m for sure the right person for this job.” He clenched his fists but must needs admit that induction boots gave plenty of grip on the metal for a rockjack-a-rockjill, she often called herself. “I’m crawling out… Standing… On my way.” The hull pitched. “Hey! That damn near threw me.” Starkly: “I think Fido just settled more at the after end.”
“But into what?” he cried. “Solid rock?”
“No, I guess not. I do know what we are deep down into… Okay, proceeding. Landing gear in sight now, straddled against the sky. It’s dark, I can’t see much except stars. Let me unlimber my flashlight… A-a-ah!” she nearly screamed.
He half rose in his seat. “What happened? Carita, dear, are you there?”
“Yes. A nasty shock, that sight. Listen, the Number Three leg is off the ground. The bottom end sticks up—ragged, holes in it—like a badly corroded thing that got so weak it tore apart when it came under stress… But Juan, this is melded steel and titanium alloy. What could’ve eaten it?”
“We can guess,” Yoshii said between his teeth. “Come back.”
“No, I need to see the rest. Don’t worry, I’ll creep down the curve like a cat burglar… I’m at the socket of Number Two. I’m shining my light along it. Yes. Nothing left of the foot. Seems to be sort of absorbed into the ground. Number One—more yet is missing, and, yes, that’s the unit which pulled partly loose from its mounting and made the hole in the engine compartment. I can see the skin ripped and buckled—”
The boat swayed. Her nose twisted about and lifted a few degrees as her tail sank. Groans went through the hull.
“I’m okay, mate. Well anchored. But holy Finagle! The stuff is going wild underneath. Has it come to a boil?”
Yoshii could not see that where he was, but he did spy the quickening and thickening of the wave fronts farther off. Understanding blasted him. “Douse your flash!” he yelled. “Get back inside!” He grabbed for the searchlight switch as for the throat of a foeman.
“Hey, what is this?” Carita called.
“Douse your flash, I said. Can’t you see, bright light is what causes the trouble? Find your way by the stars.” He clutched his shoulders and shivered in the dark. The boat shivered with him, diminuendo.
“I read you,” Carita said faintly.
Yoshii darkened the cabin as well. “Let’s meet in my stateroom,” he proposed. The sarcastically named cubbyhole did not give on the outside. He groped till he found it. When again he dared grant himself vision, he bent above the locker where a bottle was, shook his head, straightened, and stood looking at a photograph of Laurinda on the bulkhead.
Carita entered. Her coverall was wet and pungent. Sweat glistened on the dark face. “Haven’t you poured me a drink?” she asked hoarsely.
“I decided that would be unwise.”
“Maybe for you, sonny boy. Not for me.” The Jinxian helped herself, tossed off two mouthfuls, and sighed. “That’s better. Thank you very much.”
Yoshii gestured at his bunk. It was roughly horizontal, that being how the polarizer field was ordinarily set in flight. They sat down on it, side by side. Her bravado dwindled. “So you know what’s happened to us?” she murmured.
“I have a guess,” Yoshii replied with care. “It depends on my idea of the supermolecule being correct.”
“Well, you see, it grew. Or rather, I think, different ones grew till they met and linked up. There must have been all possible combinations, permutations of radicals and bases and every kind of chemical unit. Cosmic radiation drives that kind of change. So does quantum mechanics, random effects; that was probably dominant in intergalactic space. So the chemistry… mutated. Whatever structure was better at assimilating fresh material would be favored. It would grow at the expense of the rest.”
Carita whistled. “Natural selection, evolution? You mean the stuffs alive?”
“No, not like you and me or bacteria or even viruses. But it would develop components which could grab onto new atoms, and other components that are catalytic, and—and I think ways of passing an atom on from ring to ring until it’s gone as far as there are receptors for it. That would leave room for taking up more at the near end. Because I think finally the molecule evolved beyond the point of depending on whatever fell its way from the skies. I think it began extracting matter from the planet, whenever it spread to where there was a suitable substance. Breaking down carbonates and silicates and—and incorporating metallic atoms too. Clathrate formation would promote growth, as well as chemical combination. But of course metal is ultra-scarce here, so the molecule became highly efficient at stealing it.”
“At eating things.” Carita stared before her. “That’s close enough to life for me.”
“The normal environment is low-energy,” Yoshii said. “Things must go faster during the day. Not that there is much action then, either; nothing much to act on, any more. But we set down on our metal landing gear, and pumped out light-frequency quanta.”
“And it… woke.”
Yoshii grimaced but stayed clear of semantic argument. “It must be strongly bound to the underlying rock. It was quick to knit the feet of our landing jacks into that structure.”
“And gnaw its way upward, till I—”
He caught her hand. “You couldn’t have known. I didn’t.”
The deck swayed underfoot. The liquor sloshed in Carita’s glass. “But we’re blacked out now,” she protested, as if to the devourer.
“We’re radiating infrared,” Yoshii answered. “The boat’s warmer on the outside than her surroundings. Energy supply. The chemistry goes on, though slower. We can’t stop it, not unless we want to freeze to death.”
“How long have we got?” she whispered.
He bit his lip. “I don’t know. If we last till sunrise we’ll dissolve entirely soon after, like spooks in an ancient folk tale.”
“That’s more than a month away.”
“I’d estimate that well before then, the hull will be eaten open. No more air.”
“Our suits recycle. We can jury-rig other things to keep us alive.”
“But the hull will weaken and collapse. Do you want to be tossed down into… that?” Yoshii sat straight. Resolution stiffened his tone. “I’m afraid we have no choice except to throw ourselves on the mercy of the kzinti. They must have arrived.”
Carita ripped forth a string of oaths and obscenities, knocked back her drink, and rose. “Shep is still on the loose,” she said.
Yoshii winced. “Man the control cabin. I’m going to suit up and get back into the engine compartment.”
“Isn’t it obvious? The energy boxes are stored there.”
“Oh. Yes. You’re thinking we’ll have to take orbit under our own power and let the kzinti pick us up? I’m not keen on that.”
“No! But I don’t imagine they’ll be keen on landing here.” He rejoined her an hour later. By starlight she saw how he trembled. “I was too late,” dragged from him. “Maybe if I hadn’t had to operate the airlock hydraulics manually. What I found was a seething mass of—of—The entire locker where the boxes were is gone.”
“That fast?” she wondered, stunned, though they had been in communication until he passed through into the after section. And then, slowly: “Well, the capacitors in those boxes are—were fully charged. Energy concentrated like the stuff’s never known before. Too bad so much didn’t poison it. Instead, it got a kick in the chemistry making it able to eat everything in three gulps. We’re lucky the life-support batteries weren’t there, too.”
“Let’s hope the kzinti want us enough to come down for us.”
Shielding a flashlight with a clipboard, they activated the radio, standard-band broadcast. Yoshii spoke. “SOS. SOS. Two humans aboard a boat, marooned,” he said dully. “We are sinking into a—solvent—the macromolecule—You doubtless know about it. Rescue requested.
“We can’t lift by ourselves. The drive units in our spacesuits have only partial charge, insufficient to reach orbital speed in this field. We can’t recharge. That equipment is gone. So are all the reserve energy boxes. We can flit a goodly distance around the planet or rise to a goodly height, but we can’t escape.
“Please take us off. Please inform. We will keep our receiver open on this band, and continue transmission so you can locate us.”
Having recorded his words, he set them to repeat directly on the carrier wave and leaned back. “Not the most eloquent speech ever made,” he admitted. “But they won’t care.”
She took his hand. Heaven stood gleamful above them. Time passed.
Occasionally the vessel moved a bit.
A spaceship flew low, from horizon to horizon. They had only the barest glimpse. Perhaps cameras took note of theirs.
Carita choked. “Alien.”
“Kzin,” Yoshii said. “Got to be.”
“But I never heard of anything like—”
“Nor I. What did you see?”
“Big. Sphere with fins or flanges or—whatever they are—all around. Mirror-bright. Doesn’t look like she’s intended for planetfall.”
Yoshii nodded. “Me too. I wanted to make sure of my impression, as fast as she went by. Just the same, I think we have a while to wait.” He stood up. “Suppose I go fix us some sandwiches and also bring that bottle. We may as well take it easy. We’ve played our hand out.”
“But won’t they—Oh, yes, I see. That’s no patrol craft. She was called off her regular service to come check Prima. We being found, she’ll call Secunda for further orders, and relay our message to a translator there.”
“About a five-minute transmission lag either way, at the present positions. A longer chain-of-command lag, I’ll bet. Leave the intercom on for me, please, but just for the sake of my curiosity. You can talk to them as well as I can.”
“There isn’t a lot to say,” Carita agreed.
Yoshii was in the galley when he heard the computer-generated voice: “Werlith-Commandant addressing you directly. Identify yourselves.”
“Carita Fenger, Juan Yoshii, of the ship Rover, stuck on Prima—on Planet One. Your crew has seen us. I suppose they realize our plight. We’re being… swallowed. Please take us off. If your vessel here can’t do it, please dispatch one that can. Over.”
Silence hummed and rustled. Yoshii kept busy.
He was returning when the voice struck again: “We lost two boats with a total of eight heroes aboard before we established the nature of the peril. I will not waste time explaining it to you. Most certainly I will not hazard another craft and more lives. On the basis of observations made by the crew of Sun Defter, if you keep energy output minimal you have approximately five hundred hours left to spend as you see fit.”
A click signaled the cutoff.
Werlith-Commandant had been quite kindly by his lights, Yoshii acknowledged.
He entered the control cabin. “I’m sorry, Carita,” he said.
She rose and went to meet him. Starlight guided her through shadows and glinted off her hair and a few tears. “I’m sorry too, Juan,” she gulped.
“Now let’s both of us stop apologizing. The thing has happened, that’s all. Look, we can try a broadcast that maybe they’ll pick up in Shep, so they’ll know. They won’t dare reply, I suppose, but it’s nice to think they might know. First let’s eat, though, and have a couple of drinks, and talk, and, and go to bed. The same bed.”
He lowered his tray to the chart shelf “I’m exhausted,” he mumbled.
She threw her arms around him and drew his head down to her opulent bosom. “So’m I, chum. And if you want to spend the rest of what time we’ve got being faithful, okay. But let’s stay together. It’s cold out there. Even in a narrow bunk, let’s be together while we can.”
The sun in the screen showed about half the Soldisc at Earth. Its light equaled more than 10,000 full Luna’s, red rather than off-white but still ample to make Secunda shine. The planetary crescent was mostly yellowish-brown, little softened by a tenuous atmosphere of methane with traces of carbon dioxide and ammonia. A polar cap brightened its sintered northern hemisphere, a shrunken one the southern. The latter was all water ice, the former enlarged by carbon dioxide and ammonia that had frozen out. These two gases did it everywhere at night, most times, evaporating again by day in summer and the tropics, so that sunrises and sunsets were apt to be violent. Along the terminator glittered a storm of fine silicate dust mingled with ice crystals.
The surface bore scant relief, but the slow rotation, 57 hours, was bringing into view a gigantic crater and a number of lesser neighbors. Probably a moon had crashed within the past billion years; the scars remained, though any orbiting fragments had dissipated. A sister moon survived, three-fourths Lunar diameter, dark yellowish like so many bodies in this system.
Thus did Tregennis interpret what he and Ryan saw as they sat in Rover’s saloon watching the approach. Data taken from afar, before the capture, helped him fill in details. Talking about them was an anodyne for both men. Markham entered. Silence rushed through like a wind.
“I have an announcement,” he said after a moment.
Neither prisoner stirred.
“We are debarking in half an hour,” he went on. “I have arranged for your clothing and hygienic equipment to be brought along. Including your medication, Professor.”
“Thank you,” Tregennis said flatly.
“Why shouldn’t he?” Ryan sneered. “Keep the animals alive till the master race can think of a need for them. I wonder if he’ll share in the feast.”
Markham’s stiffness became rigidity. “Have a care,” he warned. “I have been very patient with you.”
During the 50-odd hours of 3-g flight—during which Hraou-Captain allowed the polarizer to lighten weight—he had received no word from either, nor eye contact. To be sure, he had been cultivating the acquaintance of such kzinti among the prize crew as deigned to talk with him. “Don’t provoke me.”
“All right,” Ryan answered. Unable to resist: “Not but what I couldn’t put up with a lot of provocation myself, if I were getting paid what they must be paying you.”
Markham’s cheekbones reddened. “For your information, I have never had one mark of recompense, nor ever been promised any. Not one.” Tregennis regarded him in mild amazement. “Then why have you turned traitor?” he asked.
“I have not. On the contrary—” Markham stood for several seconds before he plunged. “See here, if you will listen, if you will treat me like a human being, you can learn some things you will be well advised to know.” Ryan scowled at his beer glass, shrugged, nodded, and grumbled, “Might as well.”
“Can you talk freely?” Tregennis inquired.
Markham sat down. “I have not been forbidden to. Of course, what I have been told so far is quite limited. However, certain kzinti, including Hraou-Captain, have been reasonably forthcoming. They have been bored by their uneventful duty, are intrigued by me, and see no immediate threat to security.”
“I can understand that,” said Tregennis dryly.
Markham leaned forward. His assurance had shrunk enough to notice. He tugged his half-beard. His tone became earnest: “Remember, for a dozen Earth-years I fought the kzinti. I was raised to it. They had driven my mother into exile. The motto of the House of Reichstein was ’Ehre-’ well, in English, ’Honor Through Service.’ She changed it to ’No Surrender.’ Most people had long since given up, you know. They accepted the kzin order of things. Many had been born into it, or had only dim childhood memories of anything before. Revolt would have brought massacre. Aristocrats who stayed on Wunderland—the majority—saw no alternative to cooperating with the occupation forces, at least to the extent of preserving order among humans and keeping industries in operation. They were, apt to look on us who fought as dangerous extremists. It was a seductive belief. As the years wore on, with no end in sight, more and more members of the resistance despaired. Through the aristocrats at home they negotiated terms permitting them to come back and pick up the pieces of their lives. My mother was among those who had the greatness of spirit to refuse the temptation. ’No Surrender.’”
Ryan still glowered, but Tregennis said with a dawn of sympathy, “Then the hyperdrive armada arrived and she was vindicated. Were you not glad?”
“Of course,” Markham said. “We jubilated, my comrades and I, after we were through weeping for the joy and glory of it. That was a short-lived happiness. We had work to do. At first it was clean. The fighting had caused destruction. The navy from Sol could spare few units; it must go on to subdue the kzinti elsewhere. On the men of the resistance fell the tasks of rescue and relief.
“Then as we returned to our homes on Wunderland and many others for the first time in our lives—we found that the world for whose liberation we had fought, the world of our vision and hope, was gone, long gone. Everywhere was turmoil. Mobs stormed manor after manor of the ’collaborationist’ aristocrats, lynched, raped, looted, burned—as if those same paroles had not groveled before the kzinti and kept war production going for them! Lunatic political factions rioted against each other or did actual armed combat.
Chaos brought breakdown, want, misery, death.
“My mother took a lead in calling for a restoration of law. We did it, we soldiers from space. What we did was often harsh, but necessary. A caretaker government was established. We thought that we could finally get on with our private lives—though I, for one, busied myself in the effort to build up Centaurian defense forces, so that never again could my people be overrun.
“In the years that my back was turned, they, my people, were betrayed.” Markham choked on his bitterness.
“Do you mean the new constitution, the democratic movement in general?” Tregennis prompted.
Markham recovered and nodded. “No one denied that reform, reorganization was desirable. I will concede, if only because our time to talk now is limited, most of the reformers meant well. They did not foresee the consequences of what they enacted. I admit I did not myself. But I was busy, often away for long periods of time. My mother, on our estates, saw what was happening, and piece by piece made it clear to me.”
“Your estates. You kept them, then. I gather most noble families kept a substantial part of their former holdings; and Wunderland’s House of Patricians is the upper chamber of its parliament. Surely you don’t think you have come under a… mobocracy.”
“But I do! At least, that is the way it is tending. That is the way it will go, to completion, to destruction, if it is not stopped. A political Gresham’s Law prevails; the bad drives out the good. Look at me, for example. I have one vote, by hereditary right, in the Patricians, and it is limited to federal matters. To take a meaningful role in restoring a proper society through enactment of proper laws—a role which it is my hereditary duty to take—I must begin by being elected a consul of my state, Braefell. That would give me a voice in choosing who goes to the House of Delegates—No matter details. I went into politics.”
“Holding your well-bred nose,” Ryan murmured.
Markham flushed again. “I am for the people. The honest, decent, hard-working, sensible common people, who know in their hearts that society is tradition and order and reverence, not a series of cheap bargains between selfish interests. One still finds them in the countryside. It is in the cities that the maggots are, the mobs, the criminals, the parasites, the… politicians.”
For the first time, Ryan smiled a little. “Can’t say I admire the political process either. But I will say the cure is not to domesticate the lower class. How about letting everybody see to his own business, with a few cops and courts to keep things from getting too hairy?”
“I heard that argument often enough. It is stupid. It assumes the obvious falsehood that an individual can function in isolation like an atom. Oh, I did my share of toadying. I shook the clammy hands and said the clammy words, but it was hypocritical ritual, a sugar coating over the cynicism and corruption—”
“In short, you lost.”
“I learned better than to try.”
Ryan started to respond but checked himself. Markham smiled like a death’s head. “Thereupon I decided to call back the kzinti, is that what you wish to say?” he gibed. Seriously: “No, it was not that simple at all. I had had dealings with them throughout my war career, negotiations, exchanges, interrogation and care of prisoners, the sort of relationships one always has with an opponent. They came to fascinate me and I learned everything about them that I could. The more I knew, the more effective a freedom fighter I would be, not so?
“After the… liberation, my knowledge and my reputation caused me to have still more to do with them. There were mutual repatriations to arrange. There were kzinti who had good cause to stay behind. Some had been born in the Centaurian System; the second and later fleets carried females. Others came to join such kinfolk, or on their own, as fugitives, because their society too was in upheaval and many of them actually admired us, now that we had fought successfully. Remember, most of those newcomers arrived on human hyperdrive ships. This was official policy, in the hope of earning goodwill, of learning more about kzinti in general, and of frankly having possible hostages. Even so, they were often subject to cruel discrimination or outright persecution. What could I do but intervene in their behalf? They, or their brothers, had been brave and honorable enemies. It was time to become friends.”
“That was certainly a worthy feeling,” Tregennis admitted.
Markham made a chopping gesture. “Meanwhile I not only grew more and more aware of the rot in Wunderland, I discovered how much I had been lied to. The kzinti were never monsters, as propaganda had claimed. They were relentless at first and strict afterward, yes. They imposed their will. But it was a dynamic will serving a splendid vision. They were not wantonly cruel, nor extortionate, nor even pettily thievish. Humans who obeyed kzin law enjoyed its protection, its order, and its justice. Their lives went on peacefully, industriously, with old folkways respected by the commoners and the kzinti. Most hardly ever saw a kzin. The Great Houses of Wunderland were the intermediaries, and woe betide the human lord who abused the people in his care. Oh, no matter his rank, he must defer to the lowliest kzin. But he received due honor for what he was, and could look forward to his sons rising higher, his grandsons to actual partnership.”
“In the conquest of the galaxy,” Ryan said.
“Well, the kzinti have their faults, but they are not like the Slavers that archeologists have found traces of, from a billion years ago or however long it was. Men who fought the kzinti and men who served them were more fully known than ever before or since. My mother first said this to me, years afterward, my mother whose word had been ’No Surrender.’ ” Markham glanced at his watch. “We must leave soon,” he reminded. “I didn’t mean to go on at such length. I don’t expect you to agree with me. I do urge you to think, think hard, and meanwhile cooperate.”
Regardless, Tregennis asked in his disarming fashion, “Did you actually decide to work for a kzin restoration? Isn’t that the sort of radicalism you oppose?”
“My decision did not come overnight either,” Markham replied, “nor do I want kzin rule again over my people. It would be better than what they have now, but manliness of their own is better still. Earth is the real enemy, rich fat Earth, its bankers and hucksters and political panderers, its vulgarity and whorishness that poison our young everywhere—on your world, too, Professor. A strong planet Kzin will challenge humans to strengthen themselves. Those who do not purge out the corruption will die. The rest, clean, will make a new peace, a brotherhood, and go on to take possession of the universe.”
“Together with the kzinti,” Ryan said.
Markham nodded. “And perhaps other worthy races. We shall see.”
“I don’t imagine anybody ever promised you this.”
“Not in so many words. You are shrewd, Quartermaster. But shrewdness is not enough. There is such a thing as intuition, the sense of destiny.” Markham waved a hand. “Not that I had a religious experience. I began by entrusting harmless, perfectly sincere messages to kzinti going home, messages for their authorities. ’Please suggest how our two species can reach mutual understanding. What can I do to help bring a detente?’ Things like that. A few kzinti do still travel in and out, you know, on human ships, by prearrangement. They generally come to consult or debate about what matters of mutual concern our species have these days, diplomatic, commercial, safety-related. Some do other things, clandestinely. We haven’t cut off the traffic on that account. It is slight—and, after all, the exchange helps us plant our spies in their space.
“The responses I got were encouraging. They led to personal meetings, even occasionally to coded hyperwave communications; we have a few relays in kzin space, you know, by agreement. The first requests I got were legitimate by anyone’s measure. The kzinti asked for specific information, no state secrets, merely data they could not readily obtain. I felt that by aiding them toward a better knowledge of us I was doing my race a valuable service. But of course I could not reveal it.”
“No, you had your own little foreign policy,” Ryan scoffed. “And one thing led to another, also inside your head, till you were sending stuff on the theory and practice of hyperdrive which gave them a ten- or twenty-year leg up on their R and D.” Markham’s tone was patient. “They would inevitably have gotten it. Only by taking part in events can we hope to exercise any influence.” Again he consulted his watch. “We had better go,” he said. “They will bring us to their base. You will be meeting the commandant. Perhaps what I have told will be of help to you.”
“How about Rover?” Ryan inquired. “I hope you’ve explained to them she isn’t meant for planetfall.”
“That was not necessary,” Markham said, irritated. “They know space architecture as well as we do possibly better than you do, Quartermaster. We will go down in a boat from the warship. They will put our ship on the moon.”
“What? Why not just in parking orbit?”
“I’ll explain later. We must report now for debarkation. Have no fears. The kzinti won’t willingly damage Rover. If they can—if we think of some way to prevent future human expeditions here that does not involve returning her—we’ll keep her. The hyperdrive makes her precious. Otherwise Kzarr-Siu Vengeful Slasher, the warship—is the only vessel currently in this system which has been so outfitted. They’ll put Rover on the moon for safety’s sake. Secunda orbits have become too crowded. The moon’s gravity is low enough that it won’t harm a freight-ship like this. Now come.” Markham rose and strode forth. Ryan and Tregennis followed. The Hawaiian nudged the Plateaunian and made little circling motions with his forefinger near his temple. Unwontedly bleak of countenance, the astronomer nodded, then whispered, “Be careful. I have read history. All too often, his kind is successful.”
Kzinti did not use their gravity polarizers to maintain a constant, comfortable weight within spacecraft unless accelerations got too high even for them to tolerate. The boat left with a roar of power. Humans sagged in their seats. Tregennis whitened. The thin flesh seemed to pull back over the bones of his face, the beaky nose stood out like a crag and blood trickled from it. “Hey, easy, boy,” Ryan gasped. “Do you want to lose this man… already?”
Markham spoke to Hraou-Captain, who made a contemptuous noise but then yowled at the pilot. Weightlessness came as an abrupt benediction. For a minute silence prevailed, except for the heavy breathing of the Wunderlander and the Hawaiian, the rattling in and out of the old Plateaunian’s.
Harnessed beside Tregennis, Ryan examined him as well as he could before muttering, “I guess he’ll be all right in a while, if that snotbrain will take a little care.” Raising his eyes, he looked past the other, out the port. “What’s that?”
Close by, a kilometer or two, a small spacecraft the size and lines indicated a ground-to-orbit shuttle was docked at a framework which had been assembled around a curiously spheroidal dark mass, a couple of hundred meters in diameter. The framework secured and supported machinery which was carrying out operations under the direction of suited kzinti who flitted about with drive units on their backs. Stars peered through the lattice. In the distance passed a glimpse of Rover, moon-bound, and the warship. The boat glided by. A new approach curve computed, the pilot applied thrust, this time about a single g’s worth. Hraou-Captain registered impatience at the added waiting aboard. Markham did not venture to address him again. It must have taken courage to do so at all, when he wasn’t supposed to defile the language with his mouth.
Instead the Wunderlander said to Ryan, on a note of awe, “That is doubtless one of their iron sources. Recently arrived, I would guess, and cooled down enough for work to commence on it. From what I have heard, a body that size will quickly be reduced.”
Ryan stared at him, forgetting hostility in surprise. “Iron? I thought there was hardly any in this system. What it has ought to be at the center of the planets. Don’t the kzinti import their metals for construction?”
Markham shook his head. “No, that would be quite impractical. They have few hyperdrive ships as yet—I told you Vengeful Slasher alone is so outfitted here, at present. Once the transports had brought personnel and the basic equipment, they went back for duty closer to home. Currently a warship calls about twice a year to bring fresh workers and needful items. It relieves the one on guard, which carries back kzinti being rotated. A reason for choosing this sun was precisely that humans won’t suspect anything important can ever be done at it.” He hesitated. “Except pure science. The kzinti did overlook that.”
“Well, where do they get their metals? Oh, the lightest ones, aluminum, uh, beryllium, magnesium,… manganese?—I suppose those exist in ordinary ores. But I don’t imagine those ores are anything but scarce and low-grade. And iron—”
“The asteroid belt. The planet that came too close to the sun. Disruption exposed its core. The metal content is low compared to what it would be in a later-generation world, but when you have a whole planet, you get an abundance. They have had to bring in certain elements from outside, nickel, cobalt, copper, etcetera, but mostly to make alloys. Small quantities suffice.”
Tregennis had evidently not fainted. His eyelids fluttered open. “Hold,” he whispered. “Those asteroids… orbit within… less than half a million kilometers… of the sun surface.” He panted feebly before adding, “It may be a… very late type M… but nevertheless, the effective temperature—” His voice trailed off.
The awe returned to Markham’s. “They have built a special tug.”
“What sort?” Ryan asked.
“In principle, like the kind we know. Having found a desirable body, it lays hold with a grapnel field. I think this vessel uses a gravity polarizer system rather than electromagnetics. The kzinti originated that technology, remember. The tug draws the object into the desired orbit and releases it to go to its destination. The tug is immensely powerful. It can handle not simply large rocks like what you saw, but whole asteroids of reasonable size. As they near Secunda tangential paths, of course—it works them into planetary orbit. That’s why local space is too crowded for the kzinti to leave Rover in it unmanned. Besides ferrous masses on hand, two or three new ones are usually en route, and not all the tailings of worked out old ones get swept away.”
“But the heat near the sun,” Ryan objected. “The crew would roast alive. I don’t see how they can trust robotics alone. If nothing else, let the circuits get too hot and—”
“The tug has a live crew,” Markham said. “It’s built double-hulled and mirror-bright, with plenty of radiating surfaces. But mainly it’s ship size, not boat size, because it loads up with water ice before each mission. There is plenty of that around the big planets, you know, chilled well below minus a hundred degrees. Heated, melted, evaporated, vented, it maintains an endurable interior until it has been spent.”
“I thought we… found traces of water and OH… in a ring around the sun,” Tregennis breathed. “Could it actually be—”
“I don’t know how much ice the project has consumed to date,” Markham said, “but you must agree it is grandly conceived. That is a crew of heroes. They suffer, they dare death each time, but their will prevails.”
Ryan rubbed his chin. “I suppose otherwise the only spacecraft are shuttles. And the warcraft and her boats.”
“They are building more.” Markham sounded proud. “And weapons and support machinery. This will be an industrial as well as a naval base.”
“For the next war—” Tregennis seemed close to tears. Ryan patted his hand. Silence took over.
The boat entered atmosphere, which whined as she decelerated around the globe. A dawn storm, grit and ice, obscured the base, but the humans made out that it was in the great crater, presumably because the moonfall had brought down valuable ores and caused more to spurt up from beneath. Interconnected buildings made a web across several kilometers, with a black central spider. Doubtless much lay underground. An enterprise like this was large-scale or it was worthless. True, it had to start small, precariously—the first camp, the assembling of life support systems and food production facilities and a hospital for victims of disasters such as were inevitable when you drove hard ahead with your work on a strange world—but demonic energy had joined the exponential-increase powers of automated machines to bring forth this city of warriors.
No, Ryan thought, a city of workers in the service of future warriors. Thus far few professional fighters would be present except the crew of Vengeful Slasher. They weren’t needed… yet. The warship was on hand against unlikely contingencies. Well, in this case kzin paranoia had paid off. The pilot made an instrument landing into a cradle. Ryan spied more such units, three of them holding shuttles. The field on which they stood, though paved, must often be treacherous because of drifted dust. Secunda had no unfrozen water to cleanse its air; and the air was a chill wisp. Most of the universe is barren. Hawaii seemed infinitely far away. A gang tube snaked from a ziggurat-like terminal building. Airlocks linked. An armed kzin entered and saluted. Hraou-Captain gestured at the humans and snarled an imperative before he went out.
Markham unharnessed. “I am to follow him,” he said. “You go with this guard. Quarters are prepared. Behave yourselves and… I will do my best for you.”
Ryan rose. Two-thirds Earth weight felt good. He collected his and Tregennis’ bags in his right hand and gave the astronomer his left arm for support. Kzinti throughout a cavernous main room stared as the captives appeared. They didn’t goggle like humans, they watched like cats. Several naked tails switched to and fro. An effort had been made to brighten the surroundings, a huge mural of some hero in hand-to-hand combat with a monster; the blood jetted glaring bright.
The guard led his charges down corridors which pulsed with the sounds of construction. At last he opened a door, waved them through, and closed it behind them. They heard a lock click shut.
The room held a bed and a disposal unit, meant for kzinti but usable by humans; the bed was ample for two, and by dint of balancing and clinging you could take care of sanitation. “I better help you till you feel better, Prof,” Ryan offered. “Meanwhile, why don’t you lie down? I’ll unpack.” The bags and floor must furnish storage space. Kzinti seldom went in for clothes or for carrying personal possessions around.
They did hate sensory deprivation, still more than humans do. There was no screen, but a port showed the spacefield. The terminator storm was dying out as the sun rose higher, and the view cleared fast. Under a pale red sky, the naval complex came to an end some distance off. Tawny sand reached onward, strewn with boulders. In places, wind had swept clear the fused crater floor. It wasn’t like lava, more like dark glass. Huge though the bowl was, Secunda much less dense than Earth, but significantly larger had a wide enough horizon that the nearer wall jutted above it in the west, a murky palisade. Tregennis took Ryan’s advice and stretched himself out. The quartermaster smiled and came to remove his shoes for him. “Might as well be comfortable,” Ryan said, “or as nearly as we can without beer.”
“And without knowledge of our fates,” the Plateaunian said low. “Worse, the fates of our friends.”
“At least they are out of Markham’s filthy hands.”
“Kamehameha, please. Watch yourself. We shall have to deal with him. And he—I think he too is feeling shocked and lonely. He didn’t expect this either. His orders were merely to hamper exploration beyond the limits of human space. He wants to spare us. Give him the chance.”
“Ha! I’d rather give a shark that kind of chance. It’s less murderous.”
“Oh, now, really.”
Ryan thumped fist on wall. “Who do you suppose put that kzin up to attacking Bob Saxtorph back in Tiamat? It has to have been Markham, when his earlier efforts failed. Nothing else makes sense. And this, mind you, this was when he had no particular reason to believe our expedition mattered as far as the kzinti were concerned. They hadn’t trusted him with any real information. But he went ahead anyway and tried to get a man killed to stop us. That shows you what value he puts on human life.”
“Well, maybe… maybe he is deranged,” Tregennis sighed. “Would you bring me a tablet, please? I see a water tap and bowl over there.”
“Sure. Heart, huh? Take it easy. You shouldn’t’ve come along, you know.” Tregennis smiled. “Medical science has kept me functional far longer than I deserve.
‘But fill me with the old familiar Juice,
‘Methinks I might recover by-and-by!’ ”
Ryan lifted the white head and brought the bowl, from which a kzin would have lapped, carefully close to the lips. “You’ve got more heart than a lot of young bucks I could name,” he said.
Time crept past.
The door opened. “Hey, food?” Ryan asked.
Markham confronted them, an armed kzin at his back. He was again pallid and stiff of countenance. “Come,” he said harshly.
Rested, Tregennis walked steady-footed beside Ryan. They went through a maze of featureless passages with shut doors, coldly lighted, throbbing or buzzing. When they encountered other kzinti they felt the carnivore stares follow them.
After a long while they stopped at a larger door. This part of the warren looked like officer country, though Ryan couldn’t be sure when practically everything he saw was altogether foreign to him. The guard let them in and followed.
The chamber beyond was windowless, its sole ornamentation a screen on which a computer projected colored patterns. Kzin-type seats, desk, and electronics suggested an office, but big and mostly empty. In one corner a plastic tub had been placed, about three meters square. Within stood some apparatus, and a warrior beside, and the drug-dazed telepath huddled at his feet.
The prisoners’ attention went to Hraou-Captain and another—lean and grizzled by comparison—seated at the desk. “Show respect,” Markham directed. “You meet Werlith-Commandant.”
Tregennis bowed, Ryan slopped a soft salute.
The head honcho spat and rumbled. Markham turned to the men. “Listen,” he said. “I have been in… conference, and am instructed to tell you. Fido has been found.”
Tregennis made a tiny noise of pain. Ryan hunched his shoulders and said, “That’s what they told you.”
“It is true,” Markham insisted. “The boat went to Prima. The interrogation aboard Rover led to a suspicion that the escapers might try that maneuver. Ya-Nar-Ksshinn—call it Sun Defter, the asteroid tug, was prospecting. The commandant ordered it to Prima, since it could get there very fast. By then Fido was trapped on the surface. Fenger and Yoshii broadcast a call for help, so Sun Defter located them. Just lately, Fido has made a new broadcast which the kzinti picked up. You will listen to the recording.”
Werlith-Commandant condescended to touch a control. From the desk communicator, wavery through a seething of radio interference, Juan Yoshii’s voice came forth.
“Hello, Bob, Dorcas, Laurinda—Kam, Arthur,… If, if you hear—hello from Carita and me. We’ll set this to repeat on different bands, hoping you’ll happen to tune it in somewhere along the line. It’s likely goodbye.”
“No,” said Carita’s voice, “it’s ’good luck.’ To you. Godspeed.”
“Right,” Yoshii agreed. “Before we let you know what the situation is, we want to beg you, don’t ever blame yourselves. There was absolutely no way to foresee it. And the universe is full of much worse farms we could have bought.
“However—” Unemotionally, now and then aided by his companion, he described things as they were. “We’ll hang on till the end, of course,” he finished. “Soon we’ll see what we can rig to keep us alive. After the hull collapses altogether, we’ll flit off in search of bare rock to sit on, if any exists. Do not, repeat do not risk yourselves in some crazy rescue attempt. Maybe you could figure out a safe way to do it if you had the time and no kzinti on your necks. Or maybe you could talk them into doing it. But neither one is in the cards, eh? You concentrate on getting the word home.”
“We mean that,” Carita said.
“Laurinda, I love you,” Yoshii said fast. “Farewell, fare always well, darling. What really hurts is knowing you may not make it back. But if you do, you have your life before you. Be happy.”
“We aren’t glum.” Carita barked a laugh. “I might wish Juan weren’t quite so noble, Laurinda, dear. But it’s no big thing either way, is it? Not any more. Good luck to all of you.”
The recording ended. Tregennis gazed beyond the room—at this new miracle of nature? Ryan stood swallowing tears, his fists knotted.
“You see what Saxtorph’s recklessness has caused,” Markham said. “No!” Ryan shouted. “The kzinti could lift them off! But they—tell his Excellency yonder they’re afraid to!”
“I will not. You must be out of your mind. Besides, Sun Defter cannot land on a planet, and carries no auxiliary.”
“A shuttle—No. But a boat from the warship.”
“Why? What have Yoshii and Fenger done to merit saving, at hazard to the kzinti for whom they only want to make trouble? Let them be an object lesson, gentlemen. If you have any care whatsoever for the rest of your party, help us retrieve them before it is too late.”
“I don’t know where they are. Not on P-prima, for sure.”
“They must be found.”
“Well, send that damned tug.”
Markham shook his head. “It has better uses. It was about ready to return anyway. It will take Secunda orbit and wait for an asteroid that is due in shortly.” He spoke like a man using irrelevancies to stave off the moment when he must utter his real meaning.
“Okay, the warship.”
“It too has other duties. I’ve told them about Saxtorph’s babbling of kamikaze tactics. Hraou-Captain must keep his vessel prepared to blow that boat out of the sky if it comes near—until Saxtorph’s gang is under arrest, or dead. He will detach his auxiliaries to search.”
“Let him,” Ryan jeered. “Bob’s got this whole system to skulk around in.”
“Tertia is the first place to try.”
“Go ahead. That old fox is good at finding burrows.”
Werlith-Commandant growled. Markham grew paler yet, bowed, turned on Ryan and said in a rush: “Don’t waste more time. The master wants to resolve this business as soon as possible. He wants Saxtorph and company preferably alive, dead will do, but disposed of, so we can get on with the business of explaining away at Wunderland what happened to Rover. You will cooperate.”
Sweat studded Ryan’s face. “I will?”
“Yes. You shall accompany the search party. Broadcast your message in Hawaiian. Persuade them to give themselves up.”
Ryan relieved himself of several obscenities.
“Be reasonable,” Markham almost pleaded. “Think what has happened with Fido. The rest can only die in worse ways, unless you bring them to their senses.”
Ryan shifted his feet wide apart, thrust his head forward, and spat, “No surrender.”
Markham took a backward step. “What?”
“Your mother’s motto, ratcat-lover. Have you forgotten? How proud of you she’s going to be when she hears.”
Markham closed his eyes. His lips moved. He looked forth again and said in a string of whiperacks: “You will obey. Werlith-Commandant orders it. Look yonder. Do you see what is in the comer? He expected stubbornness.”
Ryan and Tregennis peered. They recognized fiume and straps, pincers and electrodes; certain items were less identifiable. The telepath slumped at the feet of the torturer.
“Hastily improvised,” Markham said, “but the database has a full account of human physiology, and I made some suggestions as well. The subject will not die under interrogation as often happened in the past.”
Ryan’s chest heaved. “If that thing can read my mind, he knows—”
Markham sighed. “We had better get to work.” He glanced at the kzin officers. They both made a gesture. The guard sprang to seize Ryan from behind. The Hawaiian yelled and struggled, but that grip was unbreakable by a human.
The torturer advanced. He laid hands on Tregennis.
“Watch, Ryan,” Markham said raggedly. “Let us know when you have had enough.”
The torturer half dragged, half marched Tregennis across the room, held him against the wall, and, claws out on the free hand, ripped the clothes from his scrawniness.
“That’s your idea, Markham!” Ryan bellowed. “You unspeakable—”
“Hold fast, Kamehameha,” Tregennis called in his thin voice. “Don’t yield.”
“Art, oh, Art—”
The kzin secured the man to the frame. He picked up the electrodes and applied them. Tregennis screamed. Yet he modulated it: “Pain has a saturation point, Kamehameha. Hold fast!”
The business proceeded.
“You win, you Judas, okay, you win,” Ryan wept.
Tregennis could no longer make words, merely noises.
Markham inquired of the officers before he told Ryan, “This will continue a few minutes more, to drive the lesson home. Given proper care and precautions, he should still be alive to accompany the search party.” Markham breathed hard. “To make sure of your cooperation, do you hear? This is your fault!” he shrieked.
“No,” Saxtorph had said. “I think we’d better stay put for the time being.” Dorcas had looked at him across the shoulder of Laurinda, whom she held close, Laurinda who had just heard her man say farewell. The cramped command section was full of the girl’s struggles not to cry. “If they thought to check Prima immediately, they will be at Tertia before long,” the captain’s wife had stated.
Saxtorph had nodded. “Yah, sure. But they’ll have a lot more trouble finding us where we are than if we were in space, even free-falling with a cold generator. We could only boost a short ways, you see, else they’d acquire our drive-spoor if they’ve gotten anywhere near. They’d have a fairly small volume for their radars to sweep.”
“But to sit passive! What use?”
“I didn’t mean that. Thought you knew me better. Got an idea I suspect you can improve on.”
Laurinda had lifted her head and sobbed, “Couldn’t we… m-make terms? If we surrender to them… they rescue Juan and, and Carita?”
“Afraid not, honey,” Saxtorph had rumbled. Anguish plowed furrows down his face. “Once we call‘em, they’ll have a fix on us, and what’s left to dicker with? Either we give in real nice or they lob a shell. They’d doubtless like to have us for purposes of faking a story, but we aren’t essential—they hold three as is—and they’ve written Fido’s people off. I’m sorry.”
Laurinda had freed herself from the mate’s embrace, stood straight, swallowed hard. “You must be right,” she had said in a voice taking on an edge.
“What can we do? Thank you, Dorcas, dear, but, I’m ready now… for whatever you need.”
“Good lass.” The older woman had squeezed her hand before asking the captain: “If we don’t want to be found, shouldn’t we fetch back the relay from above?”
Saxtorph had considered. The same sensitivity which had received, reconstructed, and given to the boat a radio whisper from across more than two hundred million kilometers, could betray his folk. After a moment: “No, leave it. A small object, after all, which we’ve camouflaged pretty well, and its emission blends into the sun’s radio background. If the kzinti get close enough to detect it, they’ll be onto us anyway.”
“You don’t imagine we can hide here forever.”
“Certainly not. They can locate us in two, three weeks at most if they work hard. However, meanwhile they won’t know for sure we are on Tertia. They’ll spread themselves thin looking elsewhere, too, or they’ll worry. Never give the enemy a free ride.”
“But you say you have something better in mind than simply distracting them for a while.”
“Well, I have a sort of a notion. It’s loony as it stands, but maybe you can help me refine it. At best, we’ll probably get ourselves killed, but plain to see, Markham’s effort to cut a deal has not worked out, and—we can hope for some revenge.”
Laurinda’s albino eyes had flared.
– “Aloha, hoapilina.—”
Crouched over the communicator, Saxtorph heard the Hawaiian through. English followed, the dragging tone of a broken man: “Well, that was to show you this is honest, Bob, if you’re listening. The kzinti don’t have a telepath along, because they know they don’t need the poor creature. They do require me to go on in a language their translator can handle. Anyway, I don’t suppose you remember much Polynesian.
“We’re orbiting Tertia in a boat from the Prowling Hunter warship. ’We’ are her crew, plus a couple of marines, plus Arthur Tregennis and myself. Markham stayed on Secunda. He’s a kzin agent. Maybe you’ve gotten the message from Fido. I’m afraid the game’s played out, Bob. I tried to resist, but they tortured not me—poor Art. I soon couldn’t take it. He’s alive, sort of. They give you three hours to call them. That’s in case you’ve scrammed to the far ends of the system and may not be tuned in right now. You’ll’ve noticed this is a powerful planar ’cast. They think they’re being generous. If they haven’t heard in three hours, they’ll torture Art some more. Please don’t let that happen!” Ryan howled through the wail that Laurinda tried to stifle. “Please call back!” Saxtorph waited a while, but there was nothing further, only the hiss of the red sun. He took his finger from the transmission key, which he had not pressed, and twisted about to look at his companions. Light streaming wanly through the westside port found Dorcas’ features frozen. Laurinda’s writhed; her mouth was stretched out of shape.
“So,” he said. “Three hours. Dark by then, as it happens.”
“They hurt him,” Laurinda gasped. “That good old man, they took him and hurt him.”
Dorcas peeled lips back from teeth. “Shrewd,” she said. “Markham in kzin pay? I’m not totally surprised. I don’t know how it was arranged, but I’m not too surprised. He suggested this, I think. The kzinti probably don’t understand us that well.”
“We can’t let them go on… with the professor,” Laurinda shrilled. “We can’t, no matter what.”
“He’s been like a second father to you, hasn’t he?” Dorcas asked almost absently. Unspoken: But your young man is down on Prima, and the enemy will let him die there.
“No argument,” Saxtorph said. “We won’t. We’ve got a few choices, though. Kzinti aren’t sadistic. Merciless, but not sadistic the way too many humans are. They don’t torture for fun, or even spite. They won’t if we surrender. Or if we die. No point in it then.”
Dorcas grinned in a rather horrible fashion. “The chances are we’ll die if we do surrender,” she responded. “Not immediately, I suppose. Not till they need our corpses, or till they see no reason to keep us alive. Again, quite impersonal.”
“I don’t feel impersonal,” Saxtorph grunted.
Laurinda lifted her hands—The fingers were crooked like talons. “We made other preparations against them. Let’s do what we planned.”
Dorcas nodded. “Aye.”
“That makes it unanimous,” Saxtorph said. “Go for broke. Now, look at the sun. Within three hours, nightfall. The kzinti could land in the dark, but if I were their captain I’d wait for morning. He won’t be in such a hurry he’ll care to take the extra risk. Meanwhile we sit cooped for 20-odd hours losing our nerve. Let’s not. Let’s begin right away.”
Willingness blazed from the women.
Saxtorph hauled his bulk from the chair. “Okay, we are on a war footing and I am in command,” he said. “First Dorcas and I suit up.”
“Are you sure I can’t join you?” Laurinda well nigh beseeched. Saxtorph shook his head. “Sorry. You aren’t trained for that kind of thing. And the gravity weighs you down still worse than it does Dorcas, even if she is a Better. Besides, we want you to free us from having to think about communications. You stay inboard and handle the hardest part.” He chucked her under the chin. “If we fail, which we well may, you’ll get your chance to die like a soldier.” He stooped, kissed her hand, and went out.
Returning equipped, he said into the transmitter: “Shep here. Spaceboat Shep calling kzin vessel. Hello, Kam. Don’t blame yourself. They’ve got us. We’ll leave this message replaying in case you’re on the far side, and so you can zero in on us. Because you will have to. Listen, Kam. Tell that gonococcus of a captain that we can’t lift. We came down on talus that slid beneath us and damaged a landing jack. We’d hit the side of the canyon where we are—it’s narrow—if we tried to take off before the hydraulics have been repaired; and Dorcas and I can’t finish that job for another several Earth-days, the two of us with what tools we’ve got aboard. The ground immediately downslope of us is safe. Or, if your captain is worried about his fat ass, he can wait till we’re ready to come meet him. Please inform us. Give Art our love; and take it yourself, Kam.”
The kzin skipper would want a direct machine translation of those words. They were calculated not to lash him into fury—he couldn’t be such a fool but to pique his honor. Moreover, the top brass back on Secunda must be almighty impatient. Kzinti weren’t much good at biding their time. Before they closed their faceplates at the airlock, Saxtorph kissed his wife on the lips.
Shadows welled in the coulee and its ravines as the sun sank toward rim rock. Interplay of light and dark was shifty behind the boat, where rubble now decked the floor. The humans had arranged that by radio detonation of two of the blasting sticks Dorcas smuggled along. It looked like more debris than it was, made the story of the accident plausible, and guaranteed that the kzinti would land in the short stretch between Shep and glacier. Man and woman regarded each other. Their spacesuits were behung with armament. She had the rifle and snub-nosed automatic, he the machine pistol; both carried potentially lethal prospector’s gear. Wind skirled. The heights glowed under a sky deepening from royal purple to black, where early stars quivered forth.
“Well,” he said inanely into his throat mike, “we know our stations. Good hunting, kid.”
“And to you, hotpants,” she answered. “See you on the far side of the monobloc.”
“Love you right back.” She whirled and hastened off. Under the conditions expected, drive units would have been a bad mistake, and she was hampered by a weight she was never bred to. Nonetheless she moved with a hint of her wonted gracefulness. Both their suits were first-chop, never mind what the cost had added to the mortgage under which Saxtorph Ventures labored. Full air and water recycle, telescopic option, power joints even in the gloves, selfseal throughout… She rated no less, he believed, and she’d tossed the same remark at him. Thus they had a broad range of capabilities. He climbed to his chosen niche, on the side of the canyon opposite hers, and settled in. It was up a boulderfields gulch, plenty of cover, with a clear view downward. The ice cliff glimmered. He hoped that what was going to happen wouldn’t cause damage yonder. That would be a scientific atrocity.
But those beings had had their day. This was humankind’s, unless it turned out to be kzinkind’s. Or somebody else’s? Who knew how many creatures of what sorts were prowling around the galaxy? Saxtorph hunkered into a different position. He missed his pipe. His heart slugged harder than it ought and he could smell himself in spite of the purifier. Better do a bit of meditation. Nervousness would worsen his chances.
His watch told him an hour had passed when the kzin boat arrived. The boat! Good. They might have kept her safe aloft and dispatched a squad on drive. But that would have been slow and tricky; as they descended, the members could have been picked off, assuming the humans had firearms—which a kzin would assume; they’d have had no backup. The sun had trudged farther down, but Shep’s nose still sheened above the blue dusk in the canyon, and the oncoming craft flared metallic red. He knew her type from his war years. Kam, stout kanaka, had passed on more information than the kzinti probably realized. A boat belonging to a Prowling Hunter normally carried six—captain, pilot, engineer, computerman, two fire-control officers; they shared various other duties, and could swap the main ones in an emergency. They weren’t trained for groundside combat, but of course any kzin was pretty fair at that. Kam had mentioned two marines who did have the training. Then there were the humans. No wonder the complement did not include a telepath. He’d have been considered superfluous anyway, worth much more at the base. This mission was simply to collar three fugitives.
Sonic thunders rolled, gave way to whirring, and the lean shape neared. It put down with a care that Saxtorph admired, came to rest, instantly swiveled a gun at the human boat 50 meters up the canyon. Saxtorph’s pulse leaped. The enemy had landed exactly where he hoped. Not that he’d counted on that, or on anything else. His earphones received bland translator English; he could imagine the snarl behind. “Are you prepared to yield?”
How steady Laurinda’s response was. “We yield on condition that our comrades are alive, safe. Bring them to us.” Quite a girl, Saxtorph thought. The kzinti wouldn’t wonder about her; their females not being sapient, any active intelligence was, in their minds, male.
“Do you dare this insolence? Your landing gear does not seem damaged as you claimed. Lift, and we fire.”
“We have no intention of lifting, supposing we could. Bring us our comrades, or come pry us out.”
Saxtorph tautened. No telling how the kzin commander would react. Except that he’d not willingly blast Shep on the ground. Concussion, in this thick atmosphere, and radiation would endanger his own craft. He might decide to produce Art and Kam—Hope died. Battle plans never quite work. The main airlock opened; a downramp extruded; two kzinti in armor and three in regular spacesuits, equipped with rifles and cutting torches, came firth. The smooth computer voice said, “You will admit this party. If you resist, you die.” Laurinda kept silence. The kzinti started toward her.
Saxtorph thumbed his detonator.
In a well-chosen set of places under a bluff above a slope on his side, the remaining sticks blew. Dust and flinders heaved aloft. An instant later he heard the grumble of explosion and breaking. Under one-point-three-five Earth gravities, rocks hurtled, slid, tumbled to the bottom and across it. He couldn’t foresee what would happen next, but had been sure it would be fancy. The kzinti were farther along than be preferred. They dodged leaping masses, escaped the landslide. But it crashed around their boat. She swayed, toppled, fell onto the pile of stone, which grew until it half buried her. The gun pointed helplessly at heaven. Dust swirled about before it settled.
Dorcas was already shooting. She was a crack marksman. A kzin threw up his arms and flopped, another, another. The rest scattered. They hadn’t thought to bring drive units. If they had, she could have bagged them all as they rose. Saxtorph bounded out and downslope, over the boulders. His machine pistol had less range than her rifle. It chattered in his hands. He zigzagged, bent low, squandering ammo, while she kept the opposition prone.
Out of nowhere, a marine grabbed him by the ankle. He fell, rolled over, had the kzin on top of him. Fingers clamped on the wrist of the arm holding his weapon. The kzin fumbled after a pistol of his own. Saxtorph’s free hand pulled a crowbar from its sling. He got it behind the kzin’s back, under the aircycler tank, and pried. Vapor gushed forth. His foe choked, went bug-eyed, scrabbled, and slumped. Saxtorph crawled from beneath.
Dorcas covered his back, disposed of the last bandit, as he pounded toward the boat. The outer valve of the airlock gaped wide. Piece of luck, that, though he and she could have gotten through both with a certain amount of effort. He wedged a rock in place to make sure the survivors wouldn’t shut it.
She made her way to him. He helped her scramble across the slide and over the curve of hull above, to the chamber. She spent her explosive rifle shells breaking down the inner valve. As it sagged, she let him by.
He stormed in. They had agreed to that, as part of what they had hammered out during hour after hour after hour of waiting. He had the more mass and muscle; and spraying bullets around in a confined space would likely kill their friends.
An emergency airseal curtain brushed him and closed again. Breathable atmosphere leaked past it, a white smoke, but slowly. The last kzinti attacked. They didn’t want ricochets either. Two had claws out, one set dripped red—and the third carried a power drill, whirling to pierce his suit and the flesh behind.
Saxtorph went for him first. His geologist’s hammer knocked the drill aside. From the left, his knife stabbed into the throat, and slashed. Clad as he was, what followed became butchery. He split a skull and opened a belly. Blood, brains, guts were everywhere. Two kzinti struggled and ululated in agony. Dorcas came into the tumult. Safely point-blank, her pistol administered mercy shots.
Saxtorph leaned against a bulkhead. He began to shake.
Dimly, he was aware of Kam Ryan stumbling forth. He opened his faceplate—oxygen inboard would stay adequate for maybe half an hour, though God, the stink of death!—and heard: “I don’t believe, I can’t believe, but you did it, you’re here, you’ve won, only first a ratcat, must’ve lost his temper, he ripped Art, Art’s dead, well, he was hurting so, a release, I scuttled aft, but Art’s dead, don’t let Laurinda see, clean up first, please, I’ll do it, we can take time to bury him, can’t we, this is where his dreams were—” The man knelt, embraced Dorcas’ legs regardless of the chill on them, and wept.
They left Tregennis at the foot of the glacier, making a cairn for him where the ancients were entombed. “That seems very right,” Laurinda whispered. “I hope the scientists who come in the future will give him a proper grave—but leave him here.”
Saxtorph made no remark about the odds against any such expedition. It would scarcely happen unless his people got home to tell the tale. The funeral was hasty. When they hadn’t heard from their boat for a while, which would be a rather short while, the kzinti would send another, if not two or three. Humans had better be well out of the neighborhood before then.
Saxtorph boosted Shep inward from Tertia. “We can get some screening in the vicinity of the sun, especially if we’ve got it between us and Secunda,” he explained. “Radiation out of that clinker is no particular hazard, except heat; we’ll steer safely wide and not linger too long.” Shedding unwanted heat was always a problem in space. The best array of thermistors gave only limited help.
“Also—” he began to add. “No, never mind. A vague notion. Something you mentioned, Kam. But let it wait till we’ve quizzed you dry.”
That in turn waited upon simple, dazed sitting, followed by sleep, followed by gradual regaining of strength and alertness. You don’t bounce straight back from tension, terror, rage, and grief.
The sun swelled in view. Its flares were small and dim compared to Sol’s, but their flame-flickers became visible to the naked eye, around the roiled ember disc. After he heard what Ryan knew about the asteroid tug, Saxtorph whistled. “Christ!” he murmured. “Imagine swinging that close. Damn near half the sky a boiling red glow, and you hear the steam roar in its conduits and you fly in a haze of it, and nevertheless I’ll bet the cabin is a furnace you can barely endure, and if the least thing goes wrong—Yah, kzinti have courage, you must give them that. Markham’s right—what you quoted, Kam—they’d make great partners for humans. Though he doesn’t understand that we’ll have to civilize them first.”
Excitement grew in him as he learned more and his thoughts developed. But it was with a grim countenance that he presided over the meeting he called. “Two men, two women, an unarmed interplanetary boat, and the nearest help light-years off,” he said. “After what we’ve done, the enemy must be scouring the system for us. I daresay the warship’s staying on guard at Secunda, but if I know kzin psychology, all her auxiliaries are now out on the hunt, and won’t quit till we’re either captured or dead.” Dorcas nodded. “We dealt them what was worse than a hurt, a humiliation,” she confirmed. “Honor calls for vengeance.”
Laurinda clenched her fists. “It does,” she hissed. Ryan glanced at her in surprise; he hadn’t expected that from her.
“Well, they do have losses to mourn, like us,” Dorcas said. “As fiery as they are by nature, they’ll press the chase in hopes of dealing with us personally. However, they know our foodstocks are limited.” Little had been taken from the naval lockers. It was unpalatable, and stowage space was almost filled already. “If we’re still missing after some months, they can reckon us dead. Contrary to Bob, I suppose they’ll return to base before then.”
“Not necessarily,” Ryan replied. “It gives them something to do. That’s the question every military command has to answer, how to keep the troops busy between combat operations,” For the first time since that hour on Secunda, he grinned. “The traditional human solutions have been either (a) a lot of drill or (b) a lot of paperwork; but you can’t force much of either on kzinti.”
“Back to business,” Saxtorph snapped. “I’ve been trying to reason like, uh, Werlith-Commandant. What does he expect? I think he sees us choosing one of three courses. First, we might stay on the run, hoping against hope that there will be a human follow-up expedition and we can warn it in time. But he’s got Markham to help him prevent that. Second, we might turn ourselves in, hoping against hope our lives will be spared. Third, we might attempt a suicide dash, hoping against hope we’ll die doing him a little harm. The warship will be on the lookout for that, and in spite of certain brave words earlier, I honestly don’t give us a tax collector’s chance at Paradise of getting through the kind of barrage she can throw.
“Can anybody think of any more possibilities?”
“No,” sighed Dorcas. “of course, they aren’t mutually exclusive. Forget surrender. But we can stay on the run till we’re close to starvation and then try to strike a blow.”
Laurinda’s eyes closed. Juan, her lips formed.
“We can try a lot sooner,” Saxtorph declared.
Breaths went sibilant in between teeth.
“What Kam’s told us has given me an idea that I’ll bet has not occurred to any kzin,” the captain went on. “I’ll grant you it’s hairy-brained. It may very well get us killed. But it gives us the single possibility I see of getting killed while accomplishing something real. And we might, we just barely might do better than that. You see, it involves a way to sneak close to Secunda, undetected, unsuspected. After that, we’ll decide what, if anything, we can do. I have a notion there as well, but first we need hard information. If things look impossible, we can probably flit off for outer space, the kzinti never the wiser.” A certain vibrancy came into his voice. “But time crammed inside this hull is scarcely lifetime, is it? I’d rather go out fighting. A short life but a merry one.”
His tone dropped. “Granted, the whole scheme depends on parameters being right. But if we’re careful, we shouldn’t lose much by investigating. At worst, we’ll be disappointed.”
“You do like to lay a long-winded foundation, Bob,” Ryan said.
“And you like to mix metaphors, Kam,” Dorcas responded.
Saxtorph laughed. Laurinda looked from face to face, bemused. “Okay,” Saxtorph said. “Our basic objective is to recapture Rover, agreed? Without her, we’re nothing but a bunch of morons, and the most we can do is take a few kzinti along when we die. With her—ah, no need to spell it out.
“She’s on Secunda’s moon, Kam heard. The kzinti know full well we’d like to get her back. I doubt they keep a live guard aboard against the remote contingency. They’ve trouble enough as is with personnel growing bored and quarrelsome. But they’ve planted detectors, which will sound a radio alarm if anybody comes near. Then the warship can land an armed party or, if necessary, throw a nuke. The warship also has the duty of protecting the planetside base. If I were in charge—and I’m pretty sure What’s-his screech-Captain thinks the same—I’d keep her in orbit about halfway between planet and moon. Wide field for radars, optics, every kind of gadget; quick access to either body. Kam heard as how that space is cluttered with industrial stuff and junk, but she’ll follow a reasonably clear path and keep ready to dodge or deflect whatever may be on a collision course.
“Now. The kzinti mine the asteroid belt for metals, mainly iron. They do that by shifting the bodies into eccentric orbits osculating Secunda’s, then wangling them into planetary orbit at the far end. Kam heard as how an asteroid is about due in, and the tug was taking station to meet it and nudge it into place. To my mind, ’asteroid’ implies a fair-sized object, not just a rock.
“But the tug was prospecting, Kam heard, when she was ordered to Prima. Afterward she didn’t go back to prospecting, because the time before she’d be needed at Secunda had gotten too short to make that worthwhile. However, since she was in fact called from the sun, my guess is that the asteroid’s not in need of attention right away. In other words, the tug’s waiting.
“Again, if I were in charge, I wouldn’t keep a crew idle aboard. I’d just leave her in Secunda orbit till Al ’s wanted. That needs to be a safe orbit, though, one and inner space isn’t for an empty vessel. So the tug’s circling wide around the planet, or maybe the moon. Unless she sits on the moon, too.”
“She isn’t able to land anywhere,” Ryan reminded. “Those cooling fins, if nothing else. I suppose the kzinti put Rover down, on the planet-facing side, the easier to keep an eye on her. She’s a lure for us, after all.”
Saxtorph nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “Given that the asteroid was diverted from close-in solar orbit, and is approaching Secunda, we can make a pretty good estimate of where it is and what the vectors are. How ’bout it, Laurinda?”
“The Kzinti are expecting the asteroid. Their instruments will register it. They’ll say, ’Ah, yes,’ and go on about their business, which includes hunting for us and never suppose that we’ve glided to it and are trailing along behind.”
Dorcas let out a war-whoop.
The thing was still molten. That much mass would remain so for a long while in space, unless the kzinti had ways to speed its cooling. Doubtless they did. Instead of venting enormous quantities of water to maintain herself near the sun, the tug could spray them forth. “What a show!” Saxtorph had said. “Pity we’ll miss it.”
The asteroid glowed white, streaked with slag, like a lesser sun trundling between planets. Its diameter was ample to conceal Shep. Secunda gleamed ahead, a perceptible tawny disc. From time to time the humans had ventured to slip their boat past her shield for a quick instrumental peek. They knew approximately the rounds which Vengeful Slasher and Sun Defter paced. Soon the tug must come to make rendezvous and steer the iron into its destination path. Gigantic though her strength was, she could shift millions of tonnes, moving at kilometers per second, only slowly. Before this began, the raiders must raid. Saxtorph made a final despairing effort: “Damn it to chaos, darling, I can’t let you go. I can’t.”
“Hush,” Dorcas said low, and laid her hand across his mouth. They floated weightless in semi-darkness, the bunk which they shared curtained off. Their shipmates had, unspokenly, gone forward from the cubbyhole where everyone slept by turns, to leave them alone.
“One of us has to go, one stay,” she whispered redundantly, but into his ear. “Nobody else would have a prayer of conning the tug, and Kam and Laurinda could scarcely bring Rover home, which is the object of the game. So you and I have to divide the labor, and for this part I’m better qualified.”
“Brains, not brawn, huh?” he growled half resentfully.
“Well, I did work on translation during the war. I can read kzin a little, which is what’s going to count. Put down your machismo.” She drew him close and fluttered eyelids against his. “As for brawn, fellow, you do have qualifications I lack, and this may be our last chance… for a spell.”
“Oh, love—you, you—”
Thus their dispute was resolved. They had been through it more than once. Afterward there wasn’t time to continue it. Dorcas had to prepare herself.
Spacesuited, loaded like a Christmas tree with equipment, she couldn’t properly embrace her husband at the airlock. She settled for an awkward kiss and a wave at the others, then closed her faceplate and cycled through.
Outside, she streaked off, around the asteroid. Its warmth beat briefly at her. She left the lump behind and deployed her diriscope, got a fix on the planet ahead, compared the reading with the computed coordinates that gleamed on a databoard, worked the calculator strapped to her left wrist, made certain of what the displays on her drive unit meters said right forearm—and set the thrust controls for maximum. Acceleration tugged. She was on her way.
It would be a long haul. You couldn’t eat distance in a spacesuit at anything like the rate you could in a boat. Its motor lacked the capacity—not to speak of the protections and cushionings possible within a hull. In fact, a large part of her load was energy boxes. To accomplish her mission in time, she must drain them beyond rechargeability, discard and replace them. That hurt; they could have been ferried down to Prima for the saving of Carita and Juan. Now too few would be left, back aboard Shep. But under present conditions rescue would be meaningless anyway.
She settled down for the hours. Her insignificant size and radiation meant she would scarcely show on kzin detectors. Occasionally she sipped from the water tube or pushed a foodbar through the chowlock. Her suit took care of additional needs. As for comfort, she had the stars, Milky Way, nebulae, sister galaxies, glory upon glory.
Often she rechecked her bearings and adjusted her vectors. Eventually, decelerating, she activated a miniature radar such as asteroid miners employ and got a lock on her objective. By then Secunda had swollen larger in her eyes than Luna over Earth. From her angle of view it was a scarred dun crescent against a circle of darkness faintly rimmed with light diffused through dusty air. The moon, where Rover lay, was not visible to her.
Saxtorph’s guess had been right. Well, it was an informed guess. The warship orbited the planet at about 100,000 klicks. The supertug circled beyond the moon, twice as far out. She registered dark and cool on what instruments Dorcas carried; nobody aboard. Terminating deceleration, the woman approached.
What a sight! A vast, brilliant spheroid with flanges like convulsed meridians; drive units projecting within a shielding sheath—no ports, but receptors from which visuals were transmitted inboard; recesses for instruments; circular hatches which must cover steam vents; larger doors to receive crushed ice—How did you get in? Dorcas flitted in search. She could do it almost as smoothly as if she were flying a manwing through atmosphere.
There—an unmistakable airlock. She was prepared to cut her way in, but when she had identified the controls, the valves opened and shut for her. Who worries about burglars in space? To the kzinti, Rover was the bait that might draw humans.
The interior was dark. Diffusion of her flashbeam, as well as a gauge on her left knee, showed full pressure was maintained. Hers wasn’t quite identical; she equalized before shoving back her faceplate. The air was cold and smelled musty. Pumps muttered.
Afloat in weightlessness, she began her exploration. She’d never been in a kzin ship before. But she had studied descriptions; and the laws of nature are the same everywhere, and man and kzin aren’t terribly unlike—they can actually eat each other; and she could decipher most labels; so she could piecemeal trace things out, figure how they worked, even in a vessel as unusual as this.
She denied herself haste. If the crew arrived before she was done, she’d try ambushing them. There was no point in this job unless it was done right. As need arose she ate, rested, napped, adrift amidst machinery, Once she began to get a solid idea of the layout, she stripped it. Supplies, motors, black boxes, whatever she didn’t think she would require, she unpacked, unbolted, torched loose, and carried outside. There the grapnel field, the same force that hauled on cosmic stones, low-power now, clasped them behind the hull.
Alone though she was, the ransacking didn’t actually take long. She was efficient. A hundred hours sufficed for everything. “Very well,” she said at last; and she took a pill and accepted ten hours of REM sleep, dreams which had been deferred. Awake again, refreshed, she nourished herself sparingly, exercised, scribbled a cross in the air and murmured, “Into Your hands—” for unlike her husband, she believed the universe was more than an accident.
Next came the really tricky part. Of course Bob had wanted to handle it himself. Poor dear, he must be in absolute torment, knowing everything that could go wrong. She was luckier, Dorcas thought: too busy to be afraid. Shep’s flickering radar peeks had gotten fair-to-middling readings on an object that must be the kzin warship. Its orbit was only approximately known, and subject both to perturbation and deliberate change. Dorcas needed exact knowledge. She must operate indicators and computers of nonhuman workmanship so delicately that Hraou-Captain had no idea he was under surveillance. Thereafter she must guess what her best tactics might be, calculate the maneuvers, and follow through.
When the results were in: “Here goes,” she said into the hollowness around. “For you, Arthur—” and thought briefly that if the astronomer could have roused in his grave on Tertia, he would have reproved her, in his gentle fashion, for being melodramatic.
Sun Defter plunged.
Unburdened by tonnes of water, she made nothing of ten 9’s, 20, 30, you name it. Her kzin crew must often have used the polarizer to keep from being crushed, as Dorcas did. “Hai-ai-ai!” she screamed, and rode her comet past the moon, amidst the stars, to battle.
She never knew whether the beings aboard the warship saw her coming. Things happened so fast. If the kzinti did become aware of what was bearing down on them, they had scant time to react. Their computers surely told them that Sun Defter was no threat, would pass close by but not collide. Some malfunction? The kzinti would not gladly annihilate their iron gatherer. When the pre-calculated instant flashed onto a screen before her, Dorcas punched for a sidewise thrust as great as the hull could survive. It shuddered and groaned around her. An instant later, the program that she had written cut off the grapnel field.
Those masses she had painstakingly lugged outside—they now had interception vectors, and at a distance too small for evasion. Sun Defter passed within 50 kilometers while objects sleeted through Vengeful Slasher. The warship burst. Armor peeled back, white-hot, from holes punched by monstrous velocity. Missiles floated out of shattered bays. Briefly, a frost-cloud betokened air rushing forth into vacuum. The wreck tumbled among fragments of itself. Starlight glinted off the ruins. Doubtless crew remained alive in this or that sealed compartment; but Vengeful Slasher wasn’t going anywhere out of orbit, ever again.
Sun Defter swooped past Secunda. Dorcas commenced braking operations, for eventual rendezvous with her fellow humans.
The moon was a waste of rock, low hills, boulderfields, empty plains, here and there a crater not quite eroded away. Darkling in this light, under Sol it would have been brighter than Luna, powdered with yellow which at the bottoms of slopes had collected to form streaks or blotches. The sun threw long shadows from the west.
Against them, Rover shone like a beacon. Saxtorph cheered. As expected, the kzinti had left her on the hemisphere that always faced Secunda. The location was, however, not central but close to the north pole and the western edge. He wondered why. He’d spotted many locations that looked as good or better, when you had to bring down undamaged a vessel not really meant to land on anything this size.
He couldn’t afford the time to worry about it. By now the warboats had surely learned of the disaster to their mother ship and were headed back at top boost. Kzinti might or might not suspect what the cause had been of their supertug running amok, but they would know when Rover took off—in fact, would probably know when he reached the ship. Their shuttles, designed for strictly orbital work, were no threat. Their gunboats were. If Rover didn’t get to hyperspacing distance before those overtook her, she and her crew would be ganz kaput.
Saxtorph passed low overhead, ascended, and played back the pictures his scanners had taken in passing. As large as she was, the ship had no landing jacks. She lay sidelong on her lateral docking grapples. That stressed her, but not too badly in a gravity less than Luna’s. To compound the trickiness of descent, she had been placed just under a particularly high and steep hill. He could only set down on the opposite side. Beyond the narrow strip of flat ground on which she lay, a blotch extended several meters across the valley floor. Otherwise that floor was strewn with rocks and somewhat downward sloping toward the hill. Maybe the kzinti had chosen this site precisely because it was a bitch for him to settle on.
“I can do it, though,” Saxtorph decided. He pointed at the screen. “See, a reasonably clear area about 500 meters off.”
Laurinda nodded. With the boat falling free again, the white hair rippled around her delicate features, Saxtorph applied retrothrust. For thrumming minutes he backed toward his goal. Sweat studded his face and darkened his tunic under the arms. Smell like a billy goat, I do, he thought fleetingly. When we come home, I’m going to spend a week in a Japanese hot bath. Dorcas can bring me sushi. She prefers showers, cold—He gave himself entirely back to his work. Contact shivered. The deck tilted. Saxtorph adjusted the jacks to level Shep. When he cut the engine, silence fell like a thunderclap. He drew a long breath, unharnessed, and rose. “I can suit up faster if you help me,” he told the Crashlander.
“Of course,” she replied. “Not that I have much experience.” Never mind modesty. It had been impossible to maintain without occasional failures, by four people crammed inside this little hull. Laurinda had blushed all over, charmingly, when she happened to emerge from the shower cubicle as Saxtorph and Ryan came by. The quartermaster had only a pair of shorts on, which didn’t hide the gallant reflex. Yet nobody ever did or said anything improper, and the girl overcame her shyness. Now a part of Saxtorph enjoyed the touch of her spidery fingers, but most of him stayed focused on the business at hand.
“Forgive me for repeating what you’ve heard a dozen times,” he said. “You are new to this kind of IRON situation, and could forget the necessity of abiding by orders. Your job is to bring this boat back to Dorcas and Kam. That’s it. Nothing else whatsoever. When I tell you to, you throw the main switch, and the program we’ve put in the autopilot will take over. I’d’ve automated that bit also, except rigging it would’ve taken time we can ill afford, and anyway, we do want some flexibility, some judgment in the control loop.” Sternly: “If anything goes wrong for me, or you think anything has, whether or not I’ve called in, you go. The three of you must have Shep. The tug is fast but clumsy, impossible to make planetfall with, and only barely provisioned. Your duty is to Shep. Understood?”
“Yes,” she said mutedly, her gaze on the task she was doing. “Besides, we have to have the boat to rescue Juan and Carita.”
A sigh wrenched from Saxtorph. “I told you—” After Dorcas’ flight, too few energy boxes remained to lift either of them into orbit. Shep could hover on her drive at low altitude while they flitted up, but she wasn’t built for planetary rescue work, the thrusters weren’t heavily enough shielded externally, at such a boost their radiation would be lethal. Neither meek nor defiant, Laurinda replied, “I know. But after we’ve taken Rover to the right distance, why can’t she wait, ready to flee, till the boat comes back from Prima?”
“Because the boat never would.”
“The kzinti can land safely.”
“More or less safely. They don’t like to, remember. Sure, I can tell you how they do it. Obvious. They put detachable footpads on their jacks. The stickum may or may not be able to grab hold of, say, fluorosilicone, but if it does, it’ll take a while to cut its way through. When the boat’s ready to leave, she sheds those footpads.”
“Of course. I’ve been racking my brain to comprehend why we can’t do the same for Shep.”
The pain in her voice and in himself brought anger into his. “God damn it, we’re spacers, not sorcerers! Groundsiders think a spacecraft is a hunk of metal you can cobble anything onto, like a car. She isn’t. She’s about as complex and interconnected as your body is. A few milligrams of blood clot or of the wrong chemical will bring your body to a permanent halt. A spacecraft’s equally vulnerable. I am not going to tinker with ours, light-years from any proper workshop. I am not. That’s final!” Her face bent downward from his. He beard her breath quiver. “I’m sorry, dear,” he added, softly once more. “I’m sorrier than you believe, maybe sorrier than you can imagine. Those are my crewfolk down and doomed. Oh, if we had time to plan and experiment and carefully test, sure, I’d try it. What should the footpads be made of? What size? How closely machined? How—detached-explosive bolts, maybe? We’d have to wire those and—Laurinda, we won’t have the time. If I lift Rover off within the next hour or two, we can pick up Dorcas and Kam, boost, and fly dark. If we’re lucky, the kzin warboats won’t detect us. But our margin is razor thin. We don’t have the days or weeks your idea needs. Fido’s people don’t either; their own time has gotten short. I’m sorry, dear.”
She looked up. He saw tears in the ruby eyes, down the snowy cheeks. But she spoke still more quietly than he, with the briefest of little smiles. “No harm in asking, was there? I understand. You’ve told me what I was trying to deny I knew. You are a good man, Robert.”
“Aw,” he mumbled, and reached to rumple her hair.
The suiting completed, he took her hands between his gloves for a moment, secured a toolpack between his shoulders where the drive unit usually was, and cycled out.
The land gloomed silent around him. Nearing the horizon, the red sun looked bigger than it was. So did the planet, low to the southeast, waxing close to half phase. He could make out a dust storm as a deeper-brown blot on the fulvous crescent. Away from either luminous body, stars were visible-and yonder brilliancy must be Quarta. How joyously they had sailed past it.
Saxtorph started for his ship, in long low-gravity bounds. He didn’t want to fly. The kzinti might have planted a boobytrap, such as an automatic gun that would lock on, track, and fire if you didn’t radio the password. Afoot, he was less of a target.
The ground lightened as he advanced, for the yellow dust lay thicker. No, he saw, it was not actually dust in the sense of small solid particles, but more like spatters or films of liquid. Evidently it didn’t cling to things, like that horrible stuff on Prima. A ghostly rain from space, it would slip from higher to lower places; in the course of gigayears, even cosmic rays would give some slight stirring to help it along downhill. It might be fairly deep near the ship, where its surface was like a blot. He’d better approach with care. Maybe it would prove necessary to fetch a drive unit and flit across.
Saxtorph’s feet went out from under him. He fell slowly, landed on his butt. With an oath he started to get up. His soles wouldn’t grip, his hands skidded on slickness. He sprawled over onto his back. And he was gliding down the slope of the valley floor, gliding down toward the amber-colored blot.
He flailed, kicked up dust, but couldn’t stop. The damned ground had no friction, none. He passed a boulder and managed to throw an arm around. For an instant he was checked, then it rolled and began to descend with him.
“Laurinda! I have a problem,” he managed to say into his radio. “Sit tight. Watch close. If this turns out to be serious, obey your orders.” He reached the blot. It gave way. He sank into its depths.
He had hoped it was a layer of just a few centimeters, but it closed over his head and still he sank. A pit where the stuff had collected from the heights maybe the kzinti, taking due care, had dumped some extra in, gathered across a wide area—yes, this was very likely their boobytrap, and if they had ghosts, Hraou-Captain’s must be yowling laughter. Odd how that name came back to him as he tumbled.
Bottom. He lay in blindness, fighting to curb his breath and heartbeat. How far down? Three meters, four? Enough to bury him for the next several billion years, unless—“Hello, Shep. Laurinda, do you read me? Do you read me?”
His earphones hummed. The wavelength he was using should have expanded its front from the top of the pit, but the material around him must be screening it. Silence outside his suit was as thick as the blackness. Let’s see if he could climb out. The side wasn’t vertical. The stuff resisted his movements less than water would. He felt arms and legs scrabble to no avail. He could feel irregularities in the stone but he could not get a purchase on any. Well, could he swim? He tried. No. He couldn’t rise off the bottom. Too high a mean density compared to the medium; and it didn’t allow him even as much traction as water, it yielded to every motion, he might as well have tried to swim in air.
If he’d brought his drive unit, maybe it could have lifted him out. He wasn’t sure. It was for use in space. This fluid might clog it or ooze into circuitry that there had never been any reason to seal tight. Irrelevant anyway, when he’d left it behind.
“My boy,” he said, “it looks like you’ve had the course.”
That was a mistake. The sound seemed to flap around in the cage of his helmet. If he was trapped, he shouldn’t dwell on it. That way lay screaming panic.
He forced himself to lie quiet and think. How long till Laurinda took off. By rights, she should have already. If he did escape the pit, he’d be alone on the moon. Naturally, he’d try to get at Rover in some different fashion, such as coming around on the hillside. But meanwhile Dorcas would return in Shep, doubtless with the other two. She was incapable of cutting and running, off into futility. Chances were, though, that by the time she got here a kzin auxiliary or two would have arrived. The odds against her would be long indeed.
So if Saxtorph found a way to return topside and repossess Rover—soon—he wouldn’t likely find his wife at the asteroid. And he couldn’t very well turn back and try to make contact, because of those warboats and because of his overriding obligation to carry the warning home. He’d have to conn the ship all by himself, leaving Dorcas behind for the kzinti. The thought was strangling. Tears stung. That was a relief, in the nullity everywhere around. Something he could feel, and taste the salt of on his lips. Was the tomb blackness thickening? No, couldn’t be. How long had he lain buried? He brought his timepiece to his faceplate, but the hell-stuff blocked off luminosity. The blood in his ears hammered against a wall of stillness. Had a whine begun to modulate the rasping of his breath? Was he going crazy? Sensory deprivation did bring on illusions, weirdness’s, but he wouldn’t have expected it this soon.
He made himself remember—sunlight, stars, Dorcas, a sail above blue water, fellowship among men, Dorcas, the tang of a cold beer, Dorcas, their plans for children—they’d banked gametes against the day they’d be ready for domesticity but maybe a little too old and battered in the DNA for direct begetting to be advisable—
Contact ripped him out of his dreams. He reached wildly and felt his gloves close on a solid object. They slid along it, along humanlike lineaments, a spacesuit, no, couldn’t be! Laurinda slithered across him till she brought faceplate to faceplate. Through the black he recognized the voice that conduction carried: “Robert, thank God, I’d begun to be afraid I’d never find you, are you all right?”
“What the, the devil are you doing here?” he gasped.
Laughter crackled. “Fetching you. Yes, mutiny. Court-martial me later.” Soberness followed: “I have a cable around my waist, with the end free for you. Feel around till you find it. There’s a lump at the end, a knot I made beforehand and covered with solder so the buckyballs can’t get in and make it work loose. You can use that to make a hitch that will hold for yourself, can’t you? Then I’ll need your help. I have two geologist’s hammers with me. Secured them by cords so they can’t be lost. Wrapped tape around the handles in thick bands, to give a grip in spite of no friction. Used the pick ends to chip notches in the rock, and hauled myself along. But I’m exhausted now, and it’s an uphill pull, even though gravity is weak. Take the hammers. Drag me along behind you. You have the strength.”
“The strength—oh, my God, you talk about my strength?” he cried.
The cable was actually heavy—gauge wire from the electrical parts locker, lengths of it spliced together till they reached. The far end was fastened around a great boulder beyond the treacherous part of the slope. Slipperiness had helped as well as hindered the ascent, but when he reached safety, Saxtorph allowed himself to collapse for a short spell. He returned to Laurinda’s earnest tones: “I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I should have guessed. But it didn’t occur to me—such quantities gathered together like this—I simply thought ’nebular dust,’ without stopping to estimate what substance would become dominant over many billions of years—”
He sat straight to look at her. In the level red light, her face was palely rosy, her eyes afire. “Why, how could you have foreseen, lass?” he answered. “I’d hate to tell you how often something in space has taken me by surprise, and that was in familiar parts. You did realize what the problem was, and figured out a solution. We needn’t worry about your breaking orders. If you’d failed, you’d have been insubordinate; but you succeeded, so by definition you showed initiative.”
“Thank you.” Eagerness blazed. “And listen, I’ve had another idea—”
He lifted a palm. “Whoa! Look, in a couple of minutes we’d better hike back to Shep, you take your station again, I get a drive unit and fly across to Rover. But first will you please, please tell me what the mess was that I got myself into?”
“Buckyballs,” she said. “Or, formally, Buckminster fullerene. I didn’t think the pitful of it that you’d slid down into could be very deep or the bottom very large. Its walls would surely slope inward. It’s really just a… pothole, though surely the formation process was different, possibly it’s a small astroblem—” She giggled. “My, the academic in me is really taking over, isn’t it? Well, essentially, the material is frictionless. It will puddle in any hole, no matter how tiny, and it has just enough cohesion that a number of such puddles close together will form a film over the entire surface. But that film is only a few molecules thick, and you can’t walk on it or anything. In this slight gravity, though—and the metal poor rock is friable—I could strike the sharp end of a hammerhead in with a single blow to act as a kind of… piton, is that the word?”
“Okay. Splendid. Dorcas had better look to her standing as the most formidable woman in known space. Now tell me what the—the hell buckyballs are.”
“They’re produced in the vicinity of supernovae. Carbon atoms link together and form a faceted spherical molecule around a single metal atom. Sixty carbons around one lanthanum is common, galactically speaking, but there are other forms, too. And with the molecule closed in on itself the way it is, it acts in the aggregate like a fluid. In fact, it’s virtually a perfect lubricant, and if we didn’t have things easier to use you’d see synthetic buckyballs on sale everywhere.” A vision rose in those ruby eyes. “It’s thought they may have a basic role in the origin of life on planets—”
“Damn near did the opposite number today,” Saxtorph said. “But you saved my ass, and the rest of me as well. I don’t suppose I can ever repay you.”
She got to her knees before him and seized his hands. “You can, Robert. You can fetch me back my man.”
Ponderously, Rover closed velocities with the iron asteroid. She couldn’t quite match, because it was under boost, but thus far the acceleration was low.
Ominously aglow, the molten mass dwarfed the spacecraft that toiled meters ahead of it; yet Sun Defter, harnessed by her own forcefield, was a plowhorse dragging it bit by bit from its former path; and the dwarf sun was at work, and Secunda’s gravity was beginning to have a real effect…
Arrived a little before the ship, the boat drifted at some distance, a needle in a haystack of stars. Laurinda was still aboard. The tug had no place to receive Shep, nor had the girl the skill to cross safely by herself in a spacesuit even though relative speeds were small. The autopilot kept her accompanying the others.
In Rovers command center, Saxtorph asked the image of Dorcas, more shakily than he had expected to, “How are you? How’s everything?” She was haggard with weariness, but triumph rang: “Kam’s got our gear packed to transfer over to you, and I– I’ve worked the bugs out of the program. Compatibility with kzin hardware was a stumbling block, but—well, it’s been operating smoothly for the past several hours, and I’ve no reason to doubt it will continue doing what it’s supposed to.”
He whistled. “Hey, quite a feat, lady! I really didn’t think it would be possible, at least in the time available, when I put you up to trying it. What’re you going to do next—square the circle, invent the perpetual motion machine, reform the tax laws, or what?”
Her voice grew steely. “I was motivated.” She regarded his face in her own screen. “How are you? Laurinda said something about your running into danger on the moon. Were you hurt?”
“Only in my pride. She can tell you all about it later. Right now we’re in a hurry.” Saxtorph became intent. “Listen, there’s been a change of plan. You and Kam both flit over to Shep. But don’t you bring her in; lay her alongside. Kam can help Laurinda aboard Rover before he moves your stuff. I’d like you to join me in a job around Shep. Simple thing and shouldn’t take but a couple hours, given the two of us working together. Though I’ll bet even money you’ll have a useful suggestion or three. Then you can line out for deep space.”
She sat a moment silent, her expression bleakened, before she said, “You’re taking the boat to Prima while the rest of us ferry Rover away.”
“You catch on quick, sweetheart.”
“To rescue Juan and Carita.”
“What else? Laurinda’s hatched a scheme I think could do the trick. Naturally, we’ll agree in advance where you’ll wait, and Shep will come join you there. If we don’t dawdle, the odds are pretty good that the kzinti won’t locate you first and force you to go hyperspatial.”
“What about them locating you?”
“Why should they expect anybody to go to Prima? They’ll buzz around Secunda like angry hornets. They may well be engaged for a while in evacuating survivors from the warship; I suspect the shuttles aren’t terribly efficient at that sort of thing. Afterward they’ll have to work out a search doctrine, when Rover can have skitted in any old direction. And sometime along about then, they should have their minds taken off us. The kzinti will notice a nice big surprise bound their way, about which it is then too late to do anything whatsoever.”
“But you—How plausible is this idea of yours?”
“Plausible enough. Look, don’t sit like that. Get cracking. I’ll explain when we meet.”
“I can take Shep. I’m as good a pilot as you are.”
Saxtorph shook his head. “Sorry, no. One of us has to be in charge of Rover, of course. I hereby pull rank and appoint you. I am the captain.”
The asteroid concealed the ship’s initial boost from any possible observers around Secunda. She applied her mightiest vector to give southward motion, out of the ecliptic plane; but the thrust had an extra component, randomly chosen, to baffle hunter analysts who would fain reduce the volume of space wherein she might reasonably be sought. That volume would grow fast, become literally astronomical, as she flew free, generator cold, batteries maintaining life support on a minimum energy level. Having thus cometed for a time, she could with fair safety apply power again to bring herself to her destination.
Saxtorph let her make ample distance before he accelerated Shep, also using the iron to conceal his start. However, he ran at top drive the whole way. It wasn’t likely that a detector would pick his little craft up. As he told Dorcas, the kzinti wouldn’t suppose a human would make for Prima. It hurt them less, losing friends, provided the friends died bravely; and few of them had mastered the art of putting oneself in the head of an enemy.
Mainly, though, Carita and Juan didn’t have much time left them. Ever circling, the planets had changed configuration since Rover arrived. The navigation system allowed for that, but could do nothing to shorten a run of 30-odd hours. Saxtorph tried to compose his soul in peace. He played a lot of solitaire after he found he was losing most of the computer games, and smoked a lot of pipes. Books and shows were poor distraction, but music helped him relax and enjoy his memories. Whatever happened next, he’d have had a better life than 90 percent of his species—99 percent if you counted in everybody who lived and died before humankind went spacefaring.
Prima swelled in his view, sallow and faceless. The recorded broadcast came through clear from the night side, over and over. Saxtorph got his fix. Fido wasn’t too far from the lethal dawn. He established a three hour orbit and put a curt message of his own on the player. It ended with “Acknowledge.”
Time passed. Heaviness grew within him. Were they dead? He rounded dayside and came back across darkness.
The voice leaped at him: “Bob, is that you? Juan here. We’d abandoned hope, we were asleep. Standing by now. Bob, is that you? Juan here!” Joy surged.
“Who else but me?” Saxtorph said. “How’re you doing, you two?”
“Hanging on. Living in our spacesuits this past—I don’t know how long. The boat’s a rotted, crumbling shell. But we’re hanging on.”
“Good. Your drive units in working order?”
“Yes. But we haven’t the lift to get onto a trajectory which you can match long enough for us to come aboard.” Unspoken: It would be easy in atmosphere, or in free space, given a pilot like you. But what a vessel can do above an airless planet, at suborbital speed, without coming to grief, is sharply limited.
“That’s all right,” Saxtorph said, “as long as you can go outside, sit in a lock chamber or on top of the wreck, and keep watch, without danger of slipping off into the muck. You can?… Okay, prepare yourselves. I’ll land in view of you and open the main personnel lock.”
“Hadn’t we better all find an area free of the material?”
“I’m not sure any exists big enough and flat enough for me. Anyhow, looking for one would take more time than we can afford. No, I’m coming straight down.”
Carita cut in. She sounded wrung out, Saxtorph suspected her physical strength was what had preserved both. He imagined her manhandling pieces of metal and plastic, often wrenched from the weakened structure, to improvise braces, platforms, whatever would give some added hours of refuge. “Bob, is this wise?” she asked. “Do you know what you’re getting into? The molecule might bind you fast immediately, even if you avoid shining light on it. The decay here is going quicker all the while. I think the molecule is… learning. Don’t risk your life.”
“Don’t you give your captain orders,” Saxtorph replied. “I’ll be down in, m-m, about an hour. Then get to me as fast as you prudently can. Every minute we spend on the surface does add to the danger. But I’ve put bandits on the jacks.”
“Footpads,” he laughed childishly. “Okay, no more conversation till we’re back in space. I’ve got my reconnoitering to do.”
Starlight was brilliant but didn’t illuminate an unknown terrain very well. His landing field would be minute and hemmed in. For help he had optical amplifiers, radar, data-analysis programs which projected visuals as well as numbers. He had his skill. Fear shunted from his mind, he became one with the boat.
Location identification… positioning; you don’t float around in airlessness the way you can in atmosphere… site picked, much closer to Fido than he liked but he could manage… coordinates established… down, down, nurse her down to touchdown…
It was as soft a landing as he had ever achieved. It needed to be. For a pulsebeat he stared across the hollow at the other boat. She was a ghastly sight indeed, a half hull pocked, ragged, riddled, the pale devourer well up the side of what was left. Good thing he was insured; though multi-billionaire Stefan Brozik would be grateful, and presumably human governments—Saxtorph grinned at his own inanity and hastened to go operate the airlock. Or was it stupid to think about money at an hour like this? To hell with heroics. He and Dorcas had their living to make.
Descent with the outer valve already open would have given him an imbalance: slight, but he had plenty else to contend with. He cracked it now without stopping to evacuate the chamber. Time was more precious than a few cubic meters of air. A light flashed green. His crewfolk were in. He closed the valve at once. A measure of pressure equalization was required before he admitted them into the hull proper. He did so the instant it was possible. A wind gusted by. His ears popped. Juan and Carita stumbled through. Frost formed on their spacesuits.
He hand-signaled: Grab hold. We’re boosting right away.
He could be gentle about that, as well as quick.
Or need he have hastened? Afterward he inspected things at length and found Laurinda’s idea had worked as well as could have been hoped, or maybe a little better.
Buckyballs scooped from that sink on the moon. (An open container at the end of a line; he could throw it far in the low gravity.) Bags fashioned out of thick plastic, heat-sealed together, filled with buckyballs, placed around the bottom of each landing jack, superglued fast at the necks. That was all.
The molecule had only eaten through one of them while Shep stood on Prima. Perhaps the other jacks rested on sections where most of the chemical bonds were saturated, less readily catalyzed. It didn’t matter, except scientifically, because after the single bag gave way, the wonderful stuff had done its job. A layer of it was beneath the metal, a heap of it around. The devourer could not quickly incorporate atoms so strongly interlinked. As it did, more flowed in to fill the gaps. Shep could have stayed for hours.
But she had no call to. Lifting, the tension abruptly off him, Saxtorph exploded into tuneless song. It wasn’t a hymn or anthem, though it was traditional: “The Bastard King of England.” Somehow it felt right.
Rover drove though hyperspace, homeward bound. Man and wife sat together in their cabin, easing off. They were flesh, they would need days to get back the strength they had spent. The ship throbbed and whispered. A screen gave views of Hawaii, heights, greennesses, incredible colors on the sea. Beethoven’s Fifth lilted in the background. He had a mug of beer, she a glass of white wine.
“Honeymoon cruise,” she said with a wry smile. “Laurinda and Juan. Carita and Kam.”
“You and me, for that matter,” he replied drowsily.
“But when will we get any proper work done? The interior is a mess.”
“Oh, we’ve time aplenty before we reach port. And if we aren’t quite holystoned—perfect, who’s going to care?”
“Yes, we’ll be the sensation of the day.” She grew somber. “How many will remember Arthur Tregennis?”
Saxtorph roused. “Our kind of people will. He was… a Moses. He brought us to a scientific Promised Land, and… I think there’ll be more explorations into the far deeps from now on.”
“Yes. Markham’s out of the way.” Dorcas sighed. “His poor family.” The tug, rushing off too fast for recovery after it released the asteroid to hurtle toward Secunda—if all went as planned, straight at the base Horror, a scramble to flee, desperate courage, and then the apparition in heaven, the flaming trail, Thor’s hammer smites, the cloud of destruction engulfs everything and rises on high and spreads to darken the planet, nothing remains but a doubled crater plated with iron. It was unlikely that any kzinti who escaped would still be alive when their next starship came.
At the end, did Markham cry for his mother?
“And of course humans will be alerted to the situation,” Saxtorph observed superfluously.
It was, in fact, unlikely that there would be more kzin ships to the red sun. Nothing was left for them, and they would get no chance to rebuild. Earth would have sent an armed fleet for a look-around. Maybe it would come soon enough to save what beings were left.
Dorcas frowned. “What will they do about it?”
“Why, uh, rebuild our navies. Defense has been grossly neglected.”
“Well, we can hope for that much. We’re certainly doing a service, bringing in the news that the kzinti have the hyperdrive.” Dorcas shook her head. “But everybody knew they would, sooner or later. And this whole episode, it’s no casus belli. No law forbade them to establish themselves in an unclaimed system. We should be legally safe, ourselves—self-defense—but the peace groups will say the kzinti were only being defensive, after Earth’s planet grab following the war, and in fact this crew provoked them into overreacting. There may be talk of reparations due the pathetic put-upon kzinti.”
“Yah, you’re probably right. I share your faith in the infinite capacity of our species for wishful thinking.” Saxtorph shrugged. “But we also have a capacity for muddling through. And you and I, sweetheart, have some mighty good years ahead of us. Let’s talk about what to do with them.”
Her mood eased. She snuggled close. The ship fared onward.