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Hal Colebatch and Jessica Q. Fox

“Remember the Chunquen?”

“Both sexes were sentient. They fought constantly.”

“And that funny religion on Altair One. They thought they could travel in time.”

“Yes, Sir, when we landed the infantry they were all gone.”

“They must have all committed suicide with disintegrators. But why? They knew we only wanted slaves. And I’m still trying to figure out how they got rid of the disintegrators afterwards.”

“Some beings,” said A-T Officer, “will do anything to keep their beliefs.”

—From The Warriors (recording salvaged

from the wreckage of kzin scout ship

Far-Ranging Prowler’s bridge recorder

by the crew of The Angel’s Pencil.)

The star known to human beings as Altair has a number of planets. Planets are, of course, as common as dirt, so no big surprises there. There are some rings of asteroids close to the star, and then a single planet in what human beings call the goldilocks zone. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. The planet was eventually called Altair One by human beings, and something meaning pretty much the same by the kzinti. It is a planet similar to both Earth and Kzin in atmosphere, climate and gravity, so would be habitable to both species. It has, however, never been colonized. There are reasons for this.

One of them is the existence of an intelligent species, the Dilillipsans. They are, it has to be said, different.

If you asked any one Dilillipsan to choose a number between one and ten you’d get at least a thousand answers, and π would probably be one of them. Dilillipsans call their own world something which might be rendered, loosely, as Glot, a tiny fraction of a sound-name which is completely unpronounceable, and which translates, roughly, as the place we know a bit about and are usually standing on or sometimes moving around on when young and foolish.

The acoustic part of the Dilillipsan language sounds something like the station announcements at the beginning of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday played backwards, or perhaps sideways, and at double speed. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, incidentally, had been quite a favorite with the Dilillies once they began picking up Earth television transmissions, its tragic grandeur never failing to move them.

Unlike human beings, who believe many things, or kzinti who also believe many things—except when they are of the very high nobility and have become cynical—the Dilillies believe everything, but by different amounts.

Some things they hardly believe at all, and some things they are almost certain about, but certainty is regarded as a mental health issue on Glot. They communicate with each other in five or six languages simultaneously, one involving generating three dimensional pictures on their stomachs, one involving chemicals that can smell bad, and two, or maybe three, involving making noises. It makes translating conversations just a little difficult. Note the delicate understatement in this remark.

Not many human spaceships or probes have passed near them, but some have been near enough for the Dilillies to eavesdrop on their communications, as they have on radio and television transmissions from Earth which is a mere fifteen light-years away. They have done this from curiosity, and without malevolent intent. Their knowledge of human culture is both broad and deep but their insights are fragmentary. The understatement in that remark is very far from delicate.

The hell with it. Language reflects culture and a way of perceiving the world, and the Dilillies are so different there’s no way of translating anything with any precision. So let’s just mangle everything shamelessly. Take it as a parable. Do what the Dilillies would do: believe everything, but not very much.

* * *

“You have to face it, those human beings are just so incredibly creative. I mean, what kind of wild mind would you need to have in order to be able to invent the hat?”

“Or a tie.”

“Or shoes.”

“No, shoes make sense. They have to walk around a lot and they have to walk on hard stuff like pavements and grass and they have very soft feet. So either they wear their feet out or they have some sort of protective cover for them. What I don’t understand is why it’s called footwear. It should be called anti-footwear.”

“Or foot anti-wear.”

“Yes, they are not very logical. But I still rate the moustache without the beard as the most brilliant joke. I mean, first you go for hundreds of thousands of years growing hair on your face. Then you find a way to get rid of it. Then you get rid of all of it except for a little bit right under the nose. That’s absolutely brilliant. You couldn’t make this up, none of us could ever get close! But those human beings did it. They’re amazing!”

The three and a bit Dilillies brooded on this for a few seconds. They had been vastly entertained by moustaches for centuries now. It had started a topiary cult twice.

“I still think that there’s a reason for these things. One that we can’t easily grasp, but one that makes sense to them.”

“What possible reason can there be for a necktie?”

“Perhaps the top button is obscene. Perhaps the buttons are more and more disgusting as you go up, and the top one is so obscene it has to be covered by something.”

“They can’t be obscene in themselves. It’s only when they are put through the buttonholes. Of course! It must be a symbol for sexual activity! Unbuttoned top shirt buttons must be merely vulgar. And I think moustaches are worn to tell other human beings that the owner isn’t really a child or a female. Their young don’t have hairy faces, nor do the females usually. I think they mostly want to be mistaken for children, but some don’t. Either that or the males feel that the females will feel inadequate for not having hairy faces and they want to cheer them up. So they get rid of most of it, but the insecure ones leave a small bit to prove they are adults.”

“Hmm. You think the females suffer from Hairy-Face Envy. I suppose it’s possible. But then why don’t they all wear false moustaches like the leader of the Marxists?”

“I don’t think Groucho was the leader of the Marxists, just the most famous of them.”

The bit, which was very young, and bobbed around in a very distracting manner, asked, “Why do they all spend so much time running around? They even invented cars and aeroplanes to do it faster.”

“Oh that’s easy. If one of them wants to communicate with another, they have to move very close together. Or they had to until they invented mobile phones.”

They thought about this. It made sense. Sort of.

* * *

Coco was explaining his recent hobby activities to his friend John Wayne. There had been a fashion for human nicknames in their early years. These are not even remotely like their real names, each of which would run to several pages of text, a dozen cartoons, the sound of a waterfall crunching its gears and the contents of a Spanish Farmacia. The term his is also not exactly accurate, and friend refers to a relationship which on a scale from zero (meaning total loathing) to ten (meaning someone you have a psychotic fixation on and spend all your time stalking) would score approximately the square root of a matrix of imaginary numbers.

“A spaceship? Full of animals that look like tigers? Can I see them too?” John Wayne was thrilled. “Really see them directly, not just on your stomachs?” Ever since The Greatest Show on Earth, one of his favorite films, when the tigers escaped during the great train wreck, not to mention The Jungle Book, whose name had thrillingly romantic connotations for the Dilillies, John Wayne had wanted to meet a tiger. Since seeing The Lord of the Rings, he had wanted to meet a Balrog, but had accepted, reluctantly, that they would probably not make congenial passengers in a spaceship.

“Sure, it’s easy. The hielterober can take us there. They won’t see us, of course, although I’m working on that. I’m planning a new avatar, just for them.”

“Can I have one too? I’d love to have an argument with a tiger. But will it be possible? I’ve wanted to have arguments with humans, but they’re too far away. It would be difficult for them to remember the last move when it was a third of a century ago. The poor things don’t live very long.”

The Dilillies had been picking up Earth television signals for several centuries. They had discovered its entertainment possibilities with Adolph Hitler opening the 1936 Olympic Games and had never looked back. Whenever some Dilillies felt depression gathering, they’d look at one of the old war newsreels and laugh themselves out of it. Far funnier than Chaplin, and even sillier than Star Trek reruns.

“It should be possible, the tigers’ spaceships are fairly close. They’ll be here in a few weeks. It would be prudent to find out more about what they intend to do when they get here.”

“Bring on the hielterober; this I’ve got to see!”

Coco started the hielterober. It was something between a virtual reality body-suit and a huge wardrobe full of invisible fur-coats. After some cursing as he found the current location of the spaceships, Coco and then John Wayne stood, somewhat changed in size, on the bridge of the kzin warship Far-Ranging Prowler. The captain, his weapons officer and the alien technology officer were in conference before a very pretty view of space in general and Altair in particular. Coco felt intense pleasure as he looked at the oval outline of his sun. From Glot it could be almost any color, purple to crimson by way of bright pink, but from space it was brilliant white. And that green star next to it, that was Glot. A thing of beauty. He pointed this out to John Wayne, who was studying the kzinti with fascination. John Wayne was more of a people person.

“They don’t have much to say to each other, do they?” John Wayne whispered. “And it’s so slow.”

“Bandwidth limitations in the communication channels. Poor things. Very like human beings, I suspect, but with fur and bigger teeth. They only talk three languages at a time. But each language is handled by a different part of their nervous system and so what they wind up telling each other is anybody’s guess. Most of the time, the captain is telling everyone to be afraid of him. It’s not very interesting. And the others are telling him they are afraid of him, but it doesn’t seem to stop him. Perhaps he’s worried they might change their minds.”

“I’m glad you’ve got the translations fixed,” John Wayne commented. “There’s more going in on the making-growling-noises-at-each-other channel. I missed it at first, but the big one with the orange stripes is asking the medium-sized one with the spots whether they are close enough to detect any radio or television signals. They will be ever so disappointed! Can we go back and make some for them to detect? We could pass on the human World War II newsreels. They look as if they could do with a good laugh. Or we could send them my last poem.”

“I don’t know if they quite deserve that. The tiger people will arrive at Glot long before the end of the first canto, John Wayne. Still, if that’s their preferred form of communication, yes, let’s try it. And we should welcome them and show them something of our culture, although I foresee problems. I think my new avatar should be ready by now, and we can use that on the television.”

“I can use one of my old avatars, I expect. Might have to scale it up a bit so it looks like something they would recognize though. Some fur, and teeth perhaps. I rather fancy my Jabba the Hutt, the pink one, what do you think?”

“Why not? But teeth might be a problem for the captain. I mean, you have to be horribly insecure to tell everyone to be afraid of you all the time. Something friendly like a moustache might be better.”

“Good thinking. Suppose I start with fur and take it off later, to show that we aren’t the least bit threatening. That might calm him down a bit.”

* * *

“We have a signal from the planet, sir.” Technology Officer saluted respectfully, claws-across-the-face. “It seems to be a 3-D video and we are translating it now. And a sound channel as well.”

“Call the telepath and get him here immediately! Oh, and the strategist, it will be something for him to think about.” The captain snorted with contempt. He was not kindly disposed to thinking as an activity, considering it some kind of perversion, and he also despised telepaths, as did all right-thinking kzinti. “Bring the image up there, where we can all see it!” he decreed.

The big screen cycled through blue, green, yellow and purple, formed two images overlayed and then separated into a stereo image. It was somewhat surprising that it made any sense at all; some intelligent species had only three-color sensitivity, and their artificial images were incomprehensible.

“Strategist, what are we seeing?”

“Clearly two aliens, sir, and very different in appearance, to be sure. Perhaps different species, possibly merely different sexes. Since the signals originate from the middle continent, and since there are four distinct large land masses, it is conceivable that different species have attained intelligence on different continents. Their technology levels would seem to be at least what ours were some centuries ago. Since they are beaming the signal we may infer that they have detected our presence, which suggests somewhat more advanced technology.”

Before them with what might or might not be a toothless smile, a bright pink face with a huge slit mouth looked out of the screen at them. It had grey fur and wore a straw hat on its head which, although the kzinti didn’t know it, was decorated with bananas, apples and a lobster. It wasn’t, of course, a real lobster, but it was quite convincing. Next to the pink animal with the big mouth was a skeletal creature with a big green head wearing a morning suit complete with grey top hat. It had two arms with clawless hands on the end encased in grey gloves. The captain found it difficult to tell what parts were artificial and which parts were of its integument. It had its hands clasped on a black cane with a gold knob on the end. It looked into the eyes of the captain and spoke.

“Welcome to Altair One.” It spoke in the Heroes’ Tongue. It spoke as well as the captain. In fact it spoke in the captain’s voice.

The captain’s response was not fully articulate, being something between a howl and a roar, but a definite note of interrogation could be detected in it. Coco wondered if he had been misheard.

“Yes, welcome. We are very pleased to greet you and we anticipate with pleasure your arrival from the stars. We are sure you have lots of interesting things to tell us,” the big fat pink one spoke. It also spoke the Heroes’ Tongue and also sounded exactly like the captain.

Captain looked at them. They appeared to be waiting for a response.

“Is it possible that they can hear us, Strategist?”

“Since they speak the Heroes’ Tongue, they have plainly heard Kzin before, and since they speak in your voice, my captain, then they must have somehow heard you previously. It would be prudent, therefore, to assume that they can hear us.”

“Kill the link!” ordered Captain. “And Technology Officer, ensure that no transmissions from this ship are permitted.” It was elementary that the enemy aliens should not hear their Council of War. None of the kzinti were aware that this made no difference to Coco and John Wayne.

“Ha,” growled the captain in the mocking tense. “They may not be so pleased to see us when we arrive. I don’t know what they taste like, but they look as if they could be made into competent slaves.” A new, populated planet! That would mean wealth for him, and a Name! A pity there were not really enough marines aboard to leave a garrison, but that could wait until their return. However, he wondered at the big mouth on the fat one. He had not seen teeth, but there was something unsettling about the implied swallowing power.

Telepath had slumped into a semi-sitting position, hind-legs sprawled out before him. The captain thought of bringing him to his feet and to attention very forcibly indeed, but he knew from past alien contacts that he must be suffering from information overload. Some alien species, like the Chunquen with their nasty undersea boats, were like enough to kzinti in their thought processes to make it relatively easy to get a handle on them. Species on different planets followed broadly similar evolutionary paths, possibly because they had common microbe ancestors, possibly because those were the best way to go. Assuming these were mammalian, the number of teats would indicate the size of their litters. But the sexual dimorphism was more extreme than anything he had ever heard of. He found it hard to imagine either of them being sexually attractive even to each other. Perhaps they were different species. But could different species share a planet? The screen came on again, though no one had laid a claw on the control console.

“Taste like?” the pink one spoke in bewilderment.

Captain’s comfortable ideas were turned upside-down. If these enemies had superior technology, and they’d just demonstrated that they had, then not only was Prowler in trouble, so was the whole kzin species.

Captain shot a look full of death at Technology Officer. “They can hear us? They control our communications links! How is that possible?”

“I cannot imagine, sir. They must have some advanced technology indeed.”

Alien Technologies remembered, fortunately for him, that stating the obvious to Captain was never a good idea at the best of times, and this was decidedly not one of them. He tried to shift the blame:

“We know, sir, that they have been listening to us, as Strategist pointed out.”

Strategist broke in. “And if they deduced our language on only one sample, they are extremely advanced in linguistics. And if they have had other samples, how far-ranging are their probes? . . . or ships?”

That was also not a pleasant thought. If other kzinti had met them, why had they not reported the fact and staked their claim? A reason occurred to the captain and he did not like it. It fitted uncomfortably with the pink one’s big mouth.

The pink Jabba avatar spoke breezily. “Never actually met a space-faring species before, Captain, not to speak to. But my friend, Coco, here has been visiting you by the hielterober for some dozens of days now.” Coco lifted his tophat respectfully and put it back. His head appeared fleshless bone, not unlike the skull of a kz’eerkt. “So naturally he picked up your languages. But let’s get back to this tasting business. What exactly did you have in mind?”

“I have it in mind to find you on your planet, hunt you down, and then rip off your head and gorge myself on the flesh of your body,” the captain explained.

“Good Lord, are you serious?” John Wayne asked in astonishment.

Captain snarled, showing a lot of teeth, most of them very pointy. Still, addressing him as “Good Lord” showed the creature had some elementary grasp of decorum. Perhaps, thought Captain, making what was for him an unusual effort at empathy, it was attempting to pay him a compliment—or was it an insult? None of his slaves on Kzin had ever addressed him as “Good,” though they certainly addressed him as “Lord.”

The big pink creature studied the teeth thoughtfully. “Yes, I see what you mean,” he told the captain. “Well, I’m very sorry, but I don’t feel that it’s a good idea. I can see that opinions may honestly differ on this point, but on balance I’m against it. How about you, Coco?”

Coco, or the avatar that looked like death in a formal costume, considered the matter. Then he shrugged. “It seems a frightful waste to me. But you want—and let me be quite clear about this—you want that you should eat us?”

“Yes!” snarled the captain, who wasn’t used to arguments from food.

“Not that we should eat you?”

Captain was lost for words. Telepath, who had been struggling to his feet, was knocked down again by the full psychic blast of Captain’s outrage, made no less devastating by the fact, which even the other officers sensed, that it also contained more than a hint of fear.

Coco looked out at them from the screen, turning to look at each of the kzinti in turn, another cause for worry. “I’m not wildly keen on that idea either, frankly, but I just want to be sure.” Coco was trying to be polite on the off-chance there was a misunderstanding here.

There wasn’t. The captain made it very clear that he was expecting to greatly enjoy tearing them limb from limb and feasting on the remains.

“But the plain fact is that we would taste absolutely terrible. Think sawdust laced with lots of small pebbles and nails, with a dollop of jam,” John Wayne told him reasonably. “Particularly nasty jam. Made from sour fruit that was stolen from the trees by plague-stricken sthondats. We’re talking serious indigestion here. And that’s the best bit. Coco’s body here has got hardly any meat on him by any standards.” John Wayne had wanted to say avatar, but there didn’t seem to be a word for it and had chosen body as the next best thing.

If the captain did not understand the meaning of the word “jam,” Telepath did. Vegetable reproductive structures crushed to a pulp, fermented with sucrose, and . . . and eaten! Generally when spread upon a paste of crushed and baked vegetable seeds! He began vomiting convulsively, with barely time to turn away from Captain. Fortunately, the bridge, as in every ship which might encounter aliens and carried a Telepath, was fitted with a disposal unit for just such emergencies.

“Then he and his kind will make slaves.” The captain was not in a good mood, but he saw that what the enemy said was probably true enough. It was plain from Telepath’s behavior that here was a horribly perverted race . . . or races. Further, he had to admit to himself, neither of them looked particularly appetizing. One more-than-vaguely resembled a long-dead and sun-dried kz’errkt, the other a very large version of something that lived under a rock.

“Slaves. You mean fetching and carrying and dying in the arena, that sort of thing?” John Wayne asked.

“That sort of thing,” Captain agreed. “I see you’ve got the idea.” It was interesting that they were showing some sense. Two questions rose at the back of his mind. Where did they get the idea? And who had told them about the arena? True, dying in the arena was a criminal punishment by which disgraced kzin nobility might regain some honor, far beyond a slave’s aspirations, but the fact that these aliens were aware of it suggested that they had the rudiments of culture. They did, of course, but in this case it came from watching old broadcast versions of Gladiator and Spartacus.

“Well, I suppose it could be interesting,” John Wayne said reflectively. “What do you think, Coco?”

“Only for a week or so,” Coco told him. “After that, I should think, it could get rather tedious. And those who got to die in the arena might very well object. It would be a terrible waste, some of those bodies have been around for decades. I think they’d quite possibly refuse, frankly. Not really much of an improvement over being eaten, when you come right down to it.”

“You will obey in all things, vermin,” Captain told them with emphasis, the kzinti words for “alien,” “enemy,” “slave” and “vermin” all being much the same, though the Heroes’ Tongue was remarkably rich in suggestive insults otherwise. The idea of a slave, or a meal, refusing a command was too alien to be digested easily. It had happened, from time to time in the past, but to say the consequences had been drastic would be putting the matter altogether too mildly.

Then Captain asked: “Can you keep records? Do you have good record-keeping devices?” He had not had a good record-keeper since he lost his temper with his Chunquen slave for spilling the ship’s ceremonial jar of the Patriarch’s urine during a sudden maneuver.

“Well, with all due modesty, I think I have a good memory,” John Wayne told him. “And so does my colleague here. Weather now, and rainfall . . . I think I can recall the weather-patterns for most of my lifetime so far. Or do you mean by ‘record’ those round things humans previously placed on turn-tables to make sounds? Coco thought-skibbed it was to make music, but I fropgrivened to him that that was not possible—not once you heard it.”

“Do not presume to trade on your usefulness!” Captain snarled. “Trade” in the Heroes’ Tongue was in most contexts one of those many deadly insults. Still, good record-keepers would be useful, he admitted to himself. He was in no mood to track down the meaning of the various strange words the creature used.

“I skrieg that you are using the speaking-to-slaves tense already. But I think you’re wrong about that,” John Wayne told him soberly, using the tense of equals, a breach of etiquette which would certainly cost any slave his tongue and shortly thereafter his life if he was within reach of Captain’s claws. “I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but we’re not very good at obedience. And frankly, we don’t often even try.”

For the unfortunate Telepath, it was as if the control-room turned white as Captain’s rage washed over him. At least it blotted out the alien thoughts, even of the . . . jam . . . for a time.

“Some might manage to learn it,” John Wayne went on, “but only if they want to. And I doubt if anyone would. There’s always the odd nutty eccentric of course, but not many that odd. Or that nutty. Still, we do hope you’ll come soon and talk it over with us. Or perhaps we shall come to see you, in person, so to speak. Yes, we’ll visit tomorrow sometime, if that’s alright with you, Coco?”

Coco nodded, looking slightly bored, though equipped with very little by way of facial expression to manage it with.

“Nutty” . . . that seemed to have multiple meanings. Captain knew what nuts were—seed-pods of certain vegetable matter. He did not know he was being offered a fleeting clue to many things that would bewilder him.

“There you are then, we’ll drop in tomorrow.” John Wayne waved nonchalantly at the kzinti. “Bye-bye for now.” And the picture vanished.

* * *

“What do they mean drop in?” the captain asked Alien Technologies and the rest of the Bridge Team.

“I interpret it as meaning that they will appear on Prowler some time within an eight of hours. Some sort of teleporting by the sound of it. They said ‘tomorrow,’ and that would seem to mean a day away. Their planet, like their sun, rotates very quickly.”

“Then we must be ready for them. They clearly have some advanced technology, but they may not be expecting an attack. I, of course, shall lead my Heroes. Follow me with whatever weapons we can use without damage to the ship. Technology, Weapons, you will prepare every weapon we have that might be useful in conquering them. Oh, and make sure Telepath is awake. It might get us useful information from their minds.”

Strategist was not consulted. He was used to that. He had long ago concluded that his captain, although undoubtedly brave and aggressive, was not very bright. Telepath might, of course, detect that thought; but Telepath was intelligent enough to work out that Strategist would know that he might. Simply doing nothing made a certain kind of alliance there. Alliances were something which had occasioned Strategist a good deal of thought. They did not come naturally to the kzinti, for whom the largest natural group was the pride, and packing hundreds of them into a spaceship caused stress. Clans were, of course, much larger than prides, but essentially an alliance of prides. Alliances of individuals was a radical idea. Exploring new and radical ideas was a part of how Strategist saw his job description.

* * *

Far-Ranging Prowler was heading for Altair One under the full thrust of its gravity-motor. Coco and John Wayne appeared on the bridge as promised the following day. They were not images on a screen, but three-dimensional and apparently solid, and they glanced around with keen interest, looking fearlessly into the eyes of the captain and each of the bridge team. It would have been considered the most appalling insolence in any species, including the kzin. Captain held his instinctive reaction in check.

“Captain,” John Wayne said, “I understand you mean to land on our world. We call it Glot, by the way. At least, that’s as close as we can get in your spoken language.”

“You understand correctly,” Captain told him grimly. With remarkable self-control, not to mention an unadmitted hint of caution, he had decided that he would not scream and leap at them just yet.

“Well, we’ve given the matter a certain amount of thought, and this is really rather embarrassing, but, frankly, we don’t feel a meeting would be a good idea. We had hoped for an exchange of ideas, but you don’t seem to have many. Of all the possible relationships we might establish in principle, you don’t seem to get beyond eating us or enslaving us. Neither of which, after extended reflection, look to be a whole lot of fun. And if you tried your ideas, you might damage us. Or, much more likely, we might have to damage you. So we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the best thing for you to do is to copulate off.”

Captain, not for the first time when dealing with the Dilillipsan, was rendered speechless. Telepath, unable to stop himself, howled in terror.

“We shall land, whatever the results of your thinking,” the captain told them contemptuously. “And then I shall hunt you down and rip your entrails out with my bare claws.”

Coco and John Wayne looked at each other.

“Oh, you won’t find us, you know,” John Wayne told him brightly. “We shall simply move to a different time. Our religious studies require us to do a certain amount of time-travelling, so we shall just all move somewhen else. A few thousand years in the past should do it. That will avoid unpleasant complications all round.”

Coco gave him an odd look but didn’t speak.

“You . . . travel . . . in . . . time?” Captain ground out the words with difficulty.

“Yes, just like Rod Taylor. Don’t you? I thought everybody did it. Even the humans do it.”

Had Captain thought to pursue what the Dilillipsan meant by humans, subsequent history might have been very different. He was, however, too preoccupied with this matter of insolent slaves, an idea comparable to his earlier thoughts on insolent food.

“How?” He demanded.

“Well, that would be rather difficult to explain,” replied John Wayne, cheerfully. “In any event, I don’t think your primitive physics has the terminology to express it.”

Many things in the Heroes’ Tongue are insults, but “primitive” is generally regarded as a compliment. It implies connection with the sthondat-defeating progenitors of Old Kzin.

“You will reveal it under torture,” Captain told him, a little calmed by the compliment.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” John Wayne told him. “You see, we won’t be around.”

They disappeared. The captain’s scream and leap ended in empty air and he landed on the deck in a somewhat less than dignified manner. He surveyed his officers, hoping one of them would laugh. None did, and they turned to preparations for the landing.

* * *

Down on Altair One, Coco and John Wayne were discussing their first contact. “You don’t think they are semi-autonomous avatars of something with genuine intelligence do you? Sort of avatars made of meat?” Coco asked. John Wayne thought about it.

“We made that mistake with the human beings for a long time. No, I think they are more like wasps. There is a sort of hive-mind which is extremely stupid, and the individuals are a bit brighter. Brighter than the hive-mind that is. Brighter even than wasps. The hive-mind directs them to go out in spaceships and make slaves of other species and also to make their young. Using sex I expect, just like the human beings.”

They both laughed boisterously at the thought. There’s nothing quite as funny as a pornographic movie made by a totally different species. Coco and John Wayne had watched dozens of human porno-flicks, or what they thought were porno-flicks, before the joke had begun to pall. Still, they liked straight comedy best. Dunkirk had been particularly hilarious. (The moment when the Stukas dived on the artillery battery was positively convulsive. They watched it again and again.)

“No, seriously, if their hive-mind wants them to run around to different planets and eat whatever they can find palatable and enslave everything intelligent, I can’t believe that they have much to offer us.” Coco was thoughtful. “And I am sure you were right in thinking that they assumed our avatars were like them. Sort of autonomous and intelligent on their own.”

“Yes, it’s a considerable disappointment,” John Wayne admitted. “But perhaps we should have given them a chance. They might be prepared to trade. Human beings do it quite a lot, with each other.”

“I don’t remember Shere Khan trading in The Jungle Book,” Coco said. “Maybe tigers don’t. These certainly didn’t give any sign of it.”

“These tiger folk can’t have met human beings yet,” John Wayne said reflectively. “But it won’t be long before they detect their television signals. I wonder what will happen then.”

“I suspect the human beings won’t much want to be eaten either. And probably they won’t want to be enslaved. It will be interesting to find out, there could be some really complicated arguments for both sides,” Coco said, recalling Spartacus. “Possibly involving those gun and bomb things the human beings used with each other. I never thought that showed much feeling for logic, you know.”

“Their hive-mind is too stupid for logic. So is that of the tiger people, I am afraid. Not the one on the spaceship, anyway. At least there are some signs the human one has developed a bit recently. But there’s a good chance that the tiger folk will be the same as the human beings used to be. And if one side uses logic and reason and the other side uses guns and bombs, it’s not altogether clear that the logic will win. Which makes being illogical quite logical really.”

“I don’t expect it will work out that way,” John Wayne objected. “If the tiger folk look like winning with guns and bombs, the human beings might use them back. They were pretty good at killing each other before they saw sense. The tiger folk may need a bit of guns and bombs argument before they see that logic is a lot cheaper. I don’t recall Shere Khan ever used a gun . . . These might be different, of course.”

“I don’t think the human beings have come to logic for logical reasons. They seem to have got there by telling each other lies. They’ve rewritten their history so as to make people think that they can’t use guns and bombs without being intensely bad mannered. It’s not much of an argument. Better than guns and bombs perhaps, but not really convincing.”

“True,” John Wayne admitted. “You know these lies are fascinating. It’s all a matter of bandwidth. The lower the bandwidth, the easier it is. You’d think evolution would make it harder to get away with it.”

“I expect it does. Give them time. Just a few of our lifetimes and they’ll have evolved enough to see the awful waste involved.”

“In the meanwhile, I must say I could get to really enjoy it . . .”

When, like the Dilillipsans you have no natural enemies on your planet, and when there are certain problems with movement once you have matured, communication becomes very important. So does fun. They worked overnight preparing a city for the kzinti.

A new star shone in the sky that night: Far-Ranging Prowler descending on chemical rockets. Before long the details of the city became visible from the kzin ship, but they were puzzling. Rocking with laughter, the Dilillipsans reabsorbed most of their avatars. All of them, planet wide. Unlike human beings and the kzinti, they didn’t have to be close to each other, or rely on mobile phones to pass the word around. They warned their children not to move for the next few days, explaining that it was a matter of life or death.

The children wanted to know the details of course, and took some convincing, but the arguments were flawless and backed up by comprehensive records. The children would watch carefully and see for themselves. They weren’t big on trust, but the hypotheses had high a priori credibility.

* * *

Captain led his Heroes in the landing, of course. They descended on a number of well-armed gravity-sleds, and spread out on foot, weapons at the ready. They had discovered only one city on the entire planet, which seemed strange, particularly as it was not a very big one. The captain had landed close to the city, which was where the action might be expected, others had landed further afield to find out if there were outposts of single homes scattered about hidden by the trees, of which there were a lot.

Captain recalled the conquest of Chunquen. Rich industrial cities, bordered by wide blue seas. The locals had been feeling proud of themselves because, despite the fighting between the sexes, they had just sent a rocket to the nearest of their moons. Telepath had translated their excited and boastful broadcasts to one another. Far-Ranging Prowler had been scout for a squadron of dreadnaughts then.

Gutting Claw and the sibling dreadnaughts, Spine-Cruncher, Sthondat’s Leg-Bone Crusher Leaving it Crippled and Careless Blood-Spiller had landed infantry and put a stop to their boasting.

They had been passing over the seas to the next continent when the Chunquen missiles rose from their undersea ships Spine-Cruncher, Crusher and Careless Blood-Spiller had closed to destroy the primitive devices. Another missile was detected heading toward the main encampment which the kzinti had established on the first continent. The kzinti, having only encountered peaceful space-faring races in the Eternal Hunt up the Spiral Arm, had had little experience of war.

Captain had been at a conference aboard Gutting Claw at the time, dealing with the agreeable subjects of dividing up land, loot, and slaves, and the recommendations for the award of Names to appropriate Heroes, and he remembered Feared Greiff-Admiral’s puzzlement that the enemy had fired only one missile rather than a volley at each of the ships and at the kzin ground installation.

The reason had occurred to Greiff-Admiral and to Captain simultaneously. Captain remembered leaping to the com-link, screaming to his ship to boost out of orbit. Gutting Claw did the same. It was too late for the other ships and the ground-troops. When the electromagnetic pulses from the thermonuclear explosions cleared, three kzinti dreadnaughts and several thousand Heroes had been converted to unstable isotopes, their very atoms dying. Greiff-Admiral himself had gone to the arena over that blunder, when the Supreme Council of Lords heard about it, and Feared Zrarr-Admiral had taken his place. Captain had sometimes thought that had he been in Feared Greiff-Admiral’s fur he would have gathered together what remained of his fleet and headed beyond the frontiers of the Patriarchy; but presumably, when one was an Admiral, honor prohibited such a course.

It was, the episode had taught him, unwise to assume anything about a new world, or to take even an apparently easy Conquest for granted.

Then he wondered if these new aliens could overhear his unspoken thoughts. Perhaps they were telepathic. The Ancients had had telepathy, as they, apparently, had used faster-than-light travel. Some students had speculated on a possible connection between the Slaver power and the Telepathic ability which kzinti possessed to a greater or lesser degree, even though the two species were not contemporaries by billions of years.

What if this new species had FTL technology? To discover such a secret would give him more than a Full Name, let alone a mere partial Name (why, even particularly distinguished NCOs might hope for partial Names). It would mean adoption into the Riit Clan itself!

* * *

Strategist looked around. The sled he commanded had come to rest in a long valley, the far end of which twisted out of sight. The sky above was a darker, purpler shade than he was used to, with long stringy clouds streaky and fast moving. There were groves of trees in the valley and long grass blowing in the stiff wind. In fact it was almost a storm by kzin standards. That would be the rapid spin of the planet, of course, transmitting unusually high levels of energy to the air masses.

The trees tinkled. Their leaves seemed almost metallic, and moved constantly, as did the branches. Each grove seemed to consist of three or four large mature trees and a greater number of smaller bushes. Higher up on the slopes of the hills, the trees were much denser. There was no sign of animal life, except for insects, some of them flying. Creatures like wasps, as big as his head, flew around and made an irritating deep drone. Some of the trees had fruit on them, which the insects seemed to be feeding on. Strategist’s nose quivered with disgust. Clearly very low grade life forms.

“I want infrared detectors for picking up animal traces,” he instructed his sergeant. “There must be some. All this vegetation must be food for the very primitive animal species, and they in turn food for the less primitive. And we know there are some advanced life forms on this world. The less advanced ones must therefore exist. Find them. I want to know of anything bigger than a strovart. And I want a fence of wires around our position, able to stun or kill anything that attacks us.”

His reasoning was essentially sound, but there were, unfortunately for him, some false assumptions buried in there.

Strategist sniffed the air. High in oxygen. Much too high for convenience, one could get intoxicated on it at this level. And it was strange that there was so much. Forest fires usually turned it back into carbon dioxide at levels lower than this. Continent-wide forest fires had happened in the remote past on his own world. And wind rates like this should make thunderstorms and lightning strikes happen a lot. So he had a problem here which merited some thought. Oxygen, of course, was a waste product of plant life. And a source of energy for animal life; outputs joined to inputs to produce an ecology. His forehead wrinkled. He would need to consult Technologist to see if some plausible ecological modelling could be done as they started to get results on animal types. They would, of course, slot into roughly the usual collection of ecological niches, but they might be physically different from anything known to the Heroic Race, and there might be some strange niches never seen before. Modelling would make nasty surprises less likely. Strategist didn’t like nasty surprises.

He sneezed. A good deal of organic particulate matter in the air; they might have to take shots against allergy reactions. Some of these things could be mistaken by the immune system for a virus.

* * *

The captain and his troops approached the city with what was unusual caution for kzin warriors. The superior technology of the Dilillies had the effect of making the captain take precautions, so the troops advanced in small groups, others covering them, until an ambush seemed unlikely. There was nothing like the collection of tall buildings they had expected.

The city, when they entered it, was weird even to those kzinti who had seen alien architecture on different worlds. It seemed to consist of little more than ribbons of metal, with Mobius strips a frequently occurring feature, with vegetation growing through it, and a few tall trees, planted in scenic locations. A plinth with a most peculiar statue on it occupied their attention for some minutes. Then they found the rails. They were a pair of some sort of metal, possibly aluminium, less than an arm span apart, and disappearing behind the strips of metal and the trees in both directions. Some sort of road?

“We follow them, that way.” The captain ordered. They had gone only a few hundred paces when they heard a whistling sound and a curious regular pounding. Coming around the bend was some sort of monster with eyes and a face wearing an imbecile smile. It bore no resemblance to the creatures they had seen, and it puzzled the kzinti, who were of course unacquainted with Thomas the Tank Engine. Possibly, they thought, it was a local god, something like a moving idol. It ran towards them on wheels connected by rods, mouth agape, and screaming with apparent excitement. They opened up with massive firepower, and it exploded, leaving almost nothing behind.

The captain pondered the ineffectual attack, and inspected the remains of the monster. The absence of blood worried him. The absence of almost anything worried him. Even a war machine should have left more than this, a quantity of what a human being would have thought looked rather like the result of scraping the burnt bits from overdone toast. And which, moreover, was being rapidly dissipated by the ever present wind. They went back to following the rails in the direction from which the thing had come, to find the track terminated in a large but empty shed.

Exploring from the shed in different directions led to more inconsequential discoveries. There were lakes and canals, one of which contained a small replica of what an informed human being or Dililly would have recognized as the Bismarck, though the armament in its turrets, which the kzinti had taken at first to be rail-guns, turned out to be dummies. When the metal of these various artifacts was analyzed, they turned out to be common alloys, with a large amount of the aluminium which was found in ordinary clays on many worlds. There was nothing the automated mining and factory facilities of the big carrier could not easily synthesize. Sitting forlorn and solitary in another shed they found a copy of the British State Coach. This yielded some small amount of gold, which the kzinti valued as ornaments and a source of coinage, but of course their physics had enabled them to synthesize it for generations. The coach was too small for adult kzinti, but Captain could, he supposed, present it to Feared Zrarr-Admiral as a plaything for his kittens. Working out what were the seats and doors enabled him to make an estimate of the occupants’ size. Unfortunately, this had no relevance to the Dilillipsans—a fact he could hardly be expected to guess. There were no rare earths in worthwhile quantities.

Captain was more than a little disappointed. One totally pointless attack didn’t appear to be much ground for glory, he hadn’t lost a single kzin. Losses in battle were taken to be a mark of success, so he could hardly claim one. He doubted any kzinti would want to settle on the planet, even if game were imported: it was too far away from anything. Population pressure was not a problem on Kzin worlds, given the kzinti’s predilection for death-duels. Its alien industrialization, such as it was, seemed useless. The search continued but no trace of the natives or their advanced technology was found. They had gone . . . somewhere.

Captain concluded heavily that there was little worth bothering with. There were the insects, probably existing in some symbiotic relationship with the vegetation, and some small animals, according to Strategist, but nothing to make a worthwhile hunt. They seemed to feed on dead and decaying vegetable matter, and there were not many of them. They had a peculiar metabolism that led them to excrete what was, for their size, very large amounts of carbon dioxide. Without that, Captain thought, the oxygen levels on the planet would be even higher than they were. Telepath reported they were not sentient. Alien Technologies Officer dissected a couple with the aid of an electron microscope, and reported that he felt—he could not give precise reasons—that their cell structures had been artificially altered to give them this peculiar metabolism. This was also disquieting in a vague, undefinable sort of way—another indication of a science beyond Kzin’s own. Why would the natives—if it was indeed their handiwork—want animals whose only use seemed to be to produce carbon dioxide? It hinted at unpleasant potentials for bio-weapons, but no facts into which one could sink a claw. There was still no trace of either of the life-forms which they had seen previously. No footprints, no factories, no houses, no nursery areas, no cemeteries or crematoria for their dead. Only the one, strangely ineffective god or war-machine.

There were considerably more animals living in the sea and rivers. These were also not sentient, and their dead bodies washing ashore (they floated with the aid of bladders, also filled with carbon dioxide which they apparently extracted from sea-water), seemed to provide much of what proteins the ecosystem contained. The people, it seemed, would be the only profitable product of the planet. Kzinti tended to have a fairly high turnover of slaves, and there was always a demand for them on kzin worlds.

But the people were nowhere to be found.

Kzinti on a hunt are nothing it not thorough. Had any sentient animals been lurking in hiding, they would have been found. Had they burrowed underground, kzinti tracking devices would have detected disturbed soil or rock. There were a few caves, but they were empty. There was one curious detail about the caves in limestone areas: the stalactites and other calcium-carbonate formations seemed to have been removed. Contemplating this, the alien’s boast that they could travel in time came back to Captain. Was there . . . could there be . . . some connection? He dismissed the thought.

They searched the ground with high-resolution cameras from space, and visually from the highest parts of the strange buildings. They set off small bombs such as a human geologist might have recognized to detect any hidden subterranean chambers. Using technology developed to deal with the Chunquen, they explored the contours of the seabed. They flew to the tops of hills to survey the country around, and they explored canyons and valleys.

Finally, Alien Technology Officer reported to Captain, “They’ve gone.”

Captain thought hard. He did not want to end up in the arena, and the more spectacular, prolonged and expensive his failure here, the greater the chances of that became. At present, things had not gone too far: he had landed on a planet which turned out to be uninhabited. He had not wasted too many resources yet, or cost the Patriarchy any assets. No one could blame him for making a mere reconnaissance-in-force of the planet, particularly if the bridge-recordings of the alien conversations were quietly destroyed.

The locals must have disintegrated themselves. The disintegrators would be valuable weapons, but where were they? The idea they had really travelled in time returned, and again he dismissed it. There were too many paradoxes involved. Or he almost dismissed it. Better not to dwell on such things . . . for a race that really had time-travel would be a threat indeed . . . It was impossible. But the Ancients had had FTL, and that was impossible, too. And the inhabitants of this planet, whether one race or more, were without doubt very clever. He remembered the strange, leering smile on the face of what he did not know was Thomas the Tank Engine. It seemed to mock his perplexity.

He had done his duty in ensuring there was neither threat nor treasure on this world. His report would presumably be filed and forgotten in the Imperial bureaucracy (the kzin were terrible as bureaucrats, which was the main reason why they were always looking for slaves with record-keeping skills). He urinated formally on the ground to claim it for the Patriarch, and gave orders to return to the ship.

* * *

“There is a problem, Captain,” Strategist informed the bridge team as they gathered in the control room. “The ecology makes no sense. The only animal life is either insectoid or things that scuttle around in the detritus of the forest, nothing bigger than a paw. There are larger things in the sea, but on land, absolutely no carnivores.”

“And the aliens who came here. There was something strange about their minds, they were not in the right place,” Telepath said shrilly.

“Why is that a problem, Strategist?” Captain asked dangerously, ignoring Telepath.

“Because evolution works in predictable ways. If there is a huge supply of food, then creatures evolve to devour it. If there is a huge supply of vegetation, as on this world, then there are inevitably lots of herbivores. And when there are many herbivores, there are carnivores. But there are few if any herbivores, and no carnivores. It is absolutely impossible. Further, there is the single city with no real signs of housing and certainly none outside. We are missing something. I recommend a closer study until we find it.”

This settled things for the captain. Anything this intellectual idiot wanted to do was obviously a stupid idea.

“Overruled, Strategist. We have higher priorities than solving academic problems of no interest or importance to the Patriarchy. We leave immediately.” He hoped for some kind of argument which would have justified his taking Strategist’s throat out, but there was none.

“Delete those absurd so-called communications records, Technology Officer. They were obviously some sort of malfunction of the computing machines. I’ve never trusted them, and I was right. Prepare for take-off. We shall log our experiences on the planet and pass the reports back, but we have no reason for delay. That is all.”

Strategist watched him stalk from the bridge and shrugged internally. Not all captains of small warships were fools, for some reason he had been cursed with one of the more foolish. Quick reactions, yes; courage, enormous. Brains and capacity for thinking, zero. The usual story, high birth beat brains. One could only hope he never got promoted. He’d be a menace were he to command a proper fleet. Telepath caught his eye and nodded almost imperceptibly but said nothing.

* * *

Back on Glot, the children were allowed to move again. They’d been good except for the one that had started Thomas, and who had lost his toy in appropriate punishment. Everyone started extruding avatars for various reasons, including keeping the numbers of animals down.

“I do feel a bit sad about it all,” John Wayne told Coco. “A whole culture, with all its splendor and wonder, all gone. Look how much we’ve been enriched by exposure to the human beings, even when we’ve only seen them on their old movies. And another species, it could have had so many insights for us, so many puzzles, so many interesting things to think about.”

“We wouldn’t have had much from this lot,” Coco argued. “They’d want to eat our avatars, and enslave them. Face it, they just wouldn’t have been fun. And something that’s been puzzling me, how on earth did you say what you did?”

“What did I say?”

“That stuff about travelling in time. I think he took you seriously.”

“Yes,” John Wayne sounded very pleased with himself. “It was a lie. I’ve always wanted to tell a lie and of course we can’t do it in the ordinary way. I mean you need a barely intelligent alien to tell it to; one of those low bandwidth ones, if you can call them intelligent at all. So there he was, and there I was, and I thought, this is my big chance, and I might not get another anytime soon. So I did it. I lied like a human.” He gave the Dililly equivalent of a beam of pride. “It’s not even particularly difficult. But I hope we meet up with some more aliens soon, because I think I could get to quite enjoy telling lies. We’ll have to make one of those spaceship things so we can go looking for them.”

Coco thought about it. “That’s an interesting idea. It will take a few hundred years, of course. No time at all by our standards, but the human beings and tiger folk will have done new things by then. And it will have to be quite big. Lots bigger than the ones which just left.”

“Oh, there’s no hurry. It will be an interesting problem. We couldn’t extrude a whole spaceship, but we could do it in bits. The lifting and carrying and sticking things together will have to be done by avatars. But if the kzinti and human beings can figure it out, it can’t be too hard.”

The wind blew, and the wind blew, and the wind blew, as it always did. And the bushes and the trees with their crystalline leaves moved in the wind and tinkled like a billion tiny bells. The leaves flashed and glittered. Just for a moment, one of the bigger trees had some of the leaves flash what looked remarkably like a picture of a spaceship balanced on a tower of flame. And the tinkling sound was a little bit like laughter.

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