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Man-Kzin Wars XI
By Hal Colbatch Matthew Harrington Larry Niven
Baen BooksCopyright © 2005 Larry Niven
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThree At Table
To the memory of W. W. Jacobs
Arthur Guthlac, Wunderland, 2427 a.d.
I've been stupid, I thought. Being stupid on a strange planet is very often an effeXctive way to be dead. Even a planet as friendly to Man as Wunderland.
Stupid to go through fifty-three years of desperate war to die on Wunderland seven years after Liberation in a bad storm, on a leave I've spent a long time looking forward to.
But maybe I won't die, I told myself then as the mud fell and slid about me. Maybe I'll look back on all this one day and laugh. I've been in far worse places and survived. Keep climbing, disregard my ankle and get above the flood-mark. Then climb higher. I didn't know then what I was climbing into.
* * *
I had set out from Gerning in an air-car for a day's lone hunting in the wilder country to the east. I hadn't brought much in the way of food or clothes or even weapons. What's the point of a hunt with modern gear that gives the game animals no chance? You might as well zap them by laser with the aid of a satellite camera. I had an antique .22 rifle and a box of bullets and a handy little device copied from the Kzin trophy-drier for anything I wanted to freeze-dry and bring home.
There was agood autodoc, in the air-car, of course, and a modern communication system. My headquarters could get in touch with me, and I with them, at any time. I hoped they wouldn't.
A long, long time ago, I had been a museum guard on Earth. I had worn a quaint uniform and collected banned scraps of militaria and had also dreamed of exploring distant worlds-had hoped more realistically that with some saving and luck I might one day get a budget package holiday to the Moon to remember for the rest of my life like some of my lucky fellows on the museum general staff. There had been notions of glory and heroism, too remote, too impossible even to be called dreams, barely possible to hint at even to my sister, the one human with whom I had in those days confided. Now, if I wore uniform, it was different and had a star on the collar. But, more importantly for me at that moment, I had humanity's first interstellar colony to make free with as a conqueror-well, as a Liberator, certainly-and I didn't want to waste the experience.
A pity nobody at Gerning had told me about the weather. Apparently-that is the most charitable explanation-it had never occurred to them that even a holidaying flatlander would be so ignorant or stupid as not to know what those black-and-silver clouds building up in the west meant. The ramscoop raid from Sol by the UNSN seven or eight years ago, shortly before the Liberation, had, it was said, as well as causing terrible damage, upset the patterns of the weather. Storms in the storm-belt came earlier and stronger. Something to do with the cooling and droplet-suspension effects of dust in the air. It was expected that things would return to normal eventually. As I had been preparing to depart my hosts had been more interested in laughing at a funny little thing called a Protean that had turned up in the meeting-hall, a quaint and harmless Wunderland animal which had evolved limited powers of psi projection and mimicry. That there were less harmless ones with psi powers I was to find out shortly.
Anyway, the clouds built slowly, and, like a cunning enemy, they gathered out of the west, behind me. I took off near noon and three- quarters of the sky was clear. I flew low, not at even near full speed, over the farmlands and woods, fascinated as always by what I saw below. Much of the time I left the car on auto-pilot, and enjoyed being a rubber-necking tourist. With the Kzin-derived gravity-motor, so much more efficient than our old ground-effect lifts, I could vary the speed and height with the touch of a finger on the controls. The car gave me a meal, and the day turned into afternoon.
I passed over human farms and little scattered villages and hamlets. The simple dwellings of people living simple lives, far away from much government and from much of the twenty-fifth century. I knew many of these people had originally settled here with the simple life in mind, but then the war and Kzin occupation had knocked their technology way back into the past anyway. Some of these settlements were again prosperous, pleasant-looking places from the air, but there were some desolate ruins, relics of the war and the occupation that had halved the human population of this planet. I passed over the scattered wreckage of destroyed war-machines and the Kzin base, and the great tracts that the kzinti had had go back to wilderness as hunting preserves. Humans had often enough been the victims set running hopelessly in those hunts ... Many more had died under the kzinti in other ways.
But ghastliness was relative. The Gerning district had largely survived. After the first hideous butcheries the local humans had learnt Kzin ways, and their survival-rate had increased. They humbly avoided contact with their overlords, abased themselves when they encountered them, and sweated on diminishing land with deteriorating equipment to raise the various taxes that were the price of life. The local kzinti, many attached to the big military base, had, apparently, not been quite like the creatures of the dreadful Lord Ktrodni-Stkaa, and the local Herrenmann had been able to intercede with their commanding officer occasionally. I had gathered that there were a few kzinti still living in remote bits of the black-blocks around the area now, as well as solitude- seeking, eccentric or misfit humans. Wunderland was sparsely enough populated that anyone who wished to be left alone could be.
There were herds of cows and sheep passing below. On Earth I'd never seen them free-ranging like this. Wunderland creatures, too. There were a herd of gagrumphers, the big, six-legged things that occupied an ecological niche similar to that of bison or elephants on Earth, moving in and out of the marvellous multicolored foliage, red and orange and green. Then the human settlements thinned out, and I was passing over forest again, and uneven ground with a pattern of gullies and water-courses below me, small rivers low at the end of summer like silver ribbons. The roads were few and narrow.
This was what I had once dreamed of: the landscape below me could never be taken for Earth. Every color and contour was different, some things slightly and subtly off, some grossly strange. And ahead of me as I flew, on the eastern horizon, were the tall spires and pinnacles of great mountains, low-gravity-planet mountains sharper and higher than anything Earth had to show, pale and almost surreal against the blue and pink tints of the eastern sky.
I should have noticed how quickly it was getting dark. But there, below me, was something else: a tigripard, the biggest felinoid-the biggest native felinoid-predator in this part of Wunderland. Their numbers had built up during the Kzin occupation, partly because of the general chaos and desolation, and also because the kzinti found their fellow-felinoids rather good sport in the hunt and encouraged them, and they remained a nuisance for these backwoods farmers with their still relatively primitive appliances and equipment. What modern machinery the kzinti had not smashed or confiscated during the war had largely become inoperative through lack of maintenance and the farmers were in many cases beginning again from Square One. I saw some ancient farming robots sprawled broken like the corpses of living things or, on one long-abandoned farmstead, jerking and grubbing uselessly through degraded programmes that no longer made sense. The further one got from Gerning the fewer the little farms and cottages were and the more backward they looked. Nothing like Earth farms.
The tigripard was a big one, worth a hunter's attention. But there was no sport or achievement in shooting it from above. I followed it for a time, not approaching close enough to alarm it. That was difficult. I guessed that in the last few decades all Wunderland creatures had become only too alert to terror and destruction from the air. The tigripard was running down a long slope to lower-lying, river-dissected, territory. A moving map on the instrument-panel gave me a general picture. I saw it leap a river-a big leap, but the river was low. The human settlements were much sparser in this area but there were still a few and there was still quite good grazing for animals. The locals should thank me for ridding them of a dangerous piece of vermin, I thought. There was very little legal hunting on Earth-even a UNSN general would find it hard to get a permit there-and I was a completely inexperienced hunter. At least of things like this.
We were approaching a more deeply gullied, poorly vegetated area like a small badlands. The tigripard turned into a gully and tracking it became more difficult. After a time I landed and, hefting my little rifle, followed on foot.
That was the first first stupid thing: I was so used to military sidearms that could bring down a Kzin or a building, that sought their own targets, and could be used like hoses against Kzin infantry if necessary, that I took it for granted the .22 was all I needed. Another stupid thing: I was so used to thinking of my alien enemies as eight-to-ten-feet-tall bipedal felines or blips on a radar screen that I found it hard to think of a feline the size of a tigripard-even a big tigripard-as dangerous to me personally. It was quite a long descent to the watercourse at the bottom. There was a small game-track at first but that petered out. The gully's walls gradually rose above me, reducing my view of the sky.
I scrambled down to the bed of the watercourse, jumping easily further and further down in the low gravity, looking for tracks in the damp sand and mud beside the stream. There were none. I pressed on, into the next gully, almost like a small canyon. It wound and twisted and still the mud yielded nothing. I was practicing my tracking skills when two things happened: the tigripard leapt up onto a rock in front of me, snarling, and the sky turned black.
I've had plenty of infantry training, even if quite a while ago. I brought the gun up fast and fired. In that space its report was ridiculously small, swallowed up by the air around. The tigripard was faster. If it had gone for me I should probably have died under its claws then and there. But evidently it was experienced enough to be wary of Man, or at least of Man plus weapons. It leapt sideways and disappeared behind the gully slope. Whether I hit it or not I had no idea. And at that second I had other things on my mind.
I had never seen a daytime sky turn midnight black before, and the light die in an instant. Who has? Wunderlanders who live in the storm- belt have, I discovered.
Then the rain and lightning came, the rain in solid sheets, the lightning hardly less unbroken. Thunder filled and shook the sky. I had seen the sky of Wunderland purple in the light of Alpha Centauri B, one of the great sights of Human Space. This flaring, vivid purple light was a different thing. In an instant I was soaked with freezing rain, my head was ringing and I was almost blinded. That's when I heard the tigripad again.
The tigripard knew Wunderland better than I. But it made the mistake of snarling its challenge before it leapt. I dropped flat as I fired again and its leap carried it over me. It was a very near thing, though: a hind-claw shredded the light shirt I was wearing. Below me the ground gave way, and I rolled down a steep incline. I fetched up bruised and dazed at the bottom. Had it not been for Wunderland's light gravity I would have been a lot worse off. And the tigripard and the fall had saved my life. As I got groggily to my feet again a bolt of lightning struck the place I been standing a few moments before. I saw rocks and earth hurled into the air, and then for a while I might have been blinded.
I could only hope the tigripard was at least temporarily blinded too, but I heard it snarling somewhere not far away. The skyline had become near and narrow and lightning was trickling all around it. There were the lashing hailstones, too. Any bigger and they would do real damage. Flicking my rifle back and forth, trying to cover all directions at once, I ran, still part blind, running straight into cliff faces, stumbling and falling to a ground that the cloudburst had already churned to mud, boiling up like soup. Live soup, too. I saw creatures like the froggolinias and kermitoids, I supposed long encased in it, springing to life and away. Three times I thought I saw movement that might have been the tigripard and fired at it. The fourth time I heard a snarling, very close, and knew there could be no mistake. But my rifle was so slick with water and mud, and my hands so cold in the sudden rain and hail, that the selector must have moved to automatic setting. I fired off all the rest of the magazine in an instant.
I groped for the box of cartridges. Had I brought it with me or left it in the car? I couldn't remember, but a frantic search showed I didn't have it now. If it had been in my pocket I had lost it in the fall.
I've studied many disasters. I know the worst of them usually don't have a single cause. They are an accumulation of small things, too small to guard against: a weather or meteor report misfiled by a tired duty officer, an alarm system not checked one day as it has been every day for years, a faucet blocked by paint, a decimal point shifted one place in a computer's instructions, a fleck of dust working its way into an old keyboard ... I had got where I was in those gullies by an accumulation of small things, and, I realized quite suddenly, my life was in danger.
So far I had been excited, keyed-up, furious. Suddenly I felt cold and frightened: not the fear of battle, but another kind of dread. Not only from the tigripard, which seemed to have gone, perhaps hit, though I doubted that, perhaps to stalk me from cover, but from this rain. Great chunks of earth turned suddenly to mud were falling from the gully banks and I realized I could end up underneath one. But there was a more inevitable peril. One thing I know something about is the theory of terrain, and recalling what I had seen from the air, I knew these canyons must flash-flood in rain like this. I realized that I had seen high-water-marks in them, all well above where I was now. In fact, I thought, that was probably why the tigripard was gone. It was climbing, and if I was to remain alive I had better do the same fast.
I slung the rifle over my shoulder and started up the slope. It was hard to make much out in the ceaselessly-rolling thunder and the constant beating of the hailstones but I thought I could feel the ground as well as the air shaking. I was so covered in the mud I squirmed through, and in ice from the hailstones, that perhaps even the superb sensory equipment of the tigripard was confused and could not find me.
There was another thing I remembered: tigripards, though among the most obvious, were by no means the only Wunderland animals I had to fear. Among other things, very relevant at this moment, there was the mud-sucker, a thing vaguely like a giant leech, which, I had been told on the orientation course I was now remembering, could lie dormant in mud, like this, for a long time and then come to life in rain, like this rain. Apparently its prey included large animals, perhaps up to human size. "No one knows how big they can grow," the instructor had said. "But don't be the one to find out." Rykermann had also told me that, like much other Wunderland fauna, little was known about them. They gave cryptic hints of some kind of dim psi ability, and he too was definite that it was best to keep out of their way.
Another nasty thought: some of the wrecked war-craft which I had flown over on my way here had had nuclear engines. Could spilled radioactives have worked their way into this mud over the last seven years? Of course the car had instruments that could have told me at once.
Excerpted from Man-Kzin Wars XI by Hal Colbatch Matthew Harrington Larry Niven Copyright ©2005 by Larry Niven. Excerpted by permission.
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