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The Two That It Took by John Brunner

THEY MET AS total strangers. The meeting brought one fame, the other infamy. The outcome was the loss of countless lives.

This is the tale of how it started.

The Change was working in him. Him? No doubt of it: this individual was never destined to bear young. Apart from that, though, his identity was as yet somewhat uncertain. He did not exactly have a name. He was accustomed to utter a noise between a hiss and a screeching whistle, sounding like “Tschweeit,” that served to identify him as a member of his species, with overtones of incipient maleness. Also, of course, he knew inflections that he could employ when it was necessary to establish his clan and his caste within the clan. But these related rather to his family than to him, and he seldom had occasion to use them. Among his kind, the Khalia, recognition was primarily conveyed by odour, and at his age he was not regarded as having enough of a personality for adults to be much concerned about.

However, for the past two seasons, he had begun to shun the company of his coevals; he showed signs of impatience at the presence even of his closest relatives; he no longer responded to casual challenges in the manner of a youngling, by a rough-and-tumble fight more play than purpose, but either dismissed them with expressions of ‘Contempt or, if provoked past bearing, went for what might more than once have been a kill, had others not intervened.

Accordingly, on a day appointed, they took him to a wilderness on the far side of the planet, where he must survive by his wits until they came again. If he were found alive, he would be accepted as an adult. They gave him a baldric from which hung two containers, one for solids and one for liquids, holding rations for about three days. Otherwise he must provide for himself. But there was little water here” and less prey. Besides, there were always hundreds like him undergoing the same trial by ordeal. It was the Khalian way. There was no penalty attached to taking another’s kill—or even another’s life, if that was imperative to save one’s own—though it was best to avoid doing either, for it would entail lasting enmity from every member of the victim’s clan, and certain clans were very powerful.

All this passed through his mind as the flier that had brought him boomed away into the sunset. Nonetheless he felt wonderful. The bones of his predecessors who had failed the test were scattered around the spot where he had been dropped. Not even they could diminish his sheer joy at finding himself so alone. He had been told, but until now had not appreciated, how much the Change would make him crave the vastness of wild and open landscape, after the crowded conditions of the multifamily village where he had grown up.

As darkness fell he stared skyward. The welkin was clear, sown with brilliant specks as sharp as claw-points. He ached to the inmost fibre of his being with longing that he should one day be allowed to roam the greatest wilderness of all, the void beyond the air. All his life it had been his ambition to join the star-rovers, to prey on lesser species, not for food but use, to bring home riches that would make his descendants respected, famous, maybe even the root-stem of a new clan ...

He roused himself from dreaming. In order that his ambition should become reality, he must survive this test. But even as he selected a safe place to wait for dawn, his thoughts were with the rovers, with the ravagers.

So too were those of Yuriko Petrovna, though for a very different reason.

And, indeed, she was not as yet aware of the fact. She—the pronoun was correct, though she had never borne children nor did she have any intention of so doing—was among the not quite lowliest of the Fleet. Her title was grander than her actual status. She was officially a pilot, and had command of an FTL starship. In fact, she was scarcely more than a passenger, aboard a single-person scout of a class so numerous its members were not even granted names ... though privately she had accorded one to hers: the Nag. Her study of history had taught her that that had once meant a broken-down horse. It also, and still, meant someone given to continual complaints and reprimands. Her ship had been refitted so often it was hard to be sure whether anything except a few struts and girders were original, but some of those were past the century mark, while every time she attempted to give a command the computer disapproved of warning lights flashed and its vocal circuits filled the air with harsh objections. So the nickname was befitting on both counts.

As part of her training she, and fifty others like her in similar ships, had been assigned to one of the Fleet’s routine tasks: searching—very probably in vain—for a missing merchant vessel, overdue on a trip back to Fleet-controlled space from one of the outlying colony planets.

But to her, if not her colleagues or those who had ordered out the search party, this was a special case. The lost ship was called Chrysanthemum, named by her captain for the national flower of his mother’s homeland back on Earth.

His mother ... and Yuriko’s also, though they had been born some twenty years apart.

Did they realise, back at Fleet Command, how grave a burden they were laying on her mind when they included her in the search party? Well, what a stupid question! Yes, of course! All such data must be instantly available from their enormous memory banks. Therefore she was being put to a test, to see whether emotional commitment would disturb her judgment during a long period alone in space. In a sense that was flattering, for it meant they had their eyes on her with a view to further promotion. Only the coolest-headed, only those who proved most resilient in the face of stress, could make it to the highest echelons of Fleet Command.

But my own brother ... !

Sighing, she turned her attention back to immediate tasks.

Of the fates that might have overtaken Chrysanthemum, the likeliest was an accident when dropping out of FTL drive. Not even the fastest computers could reconcile all the differences between ordinary space and that weird zone beyond the speed of light. Now and then, even in the volume where the Fleet held sway, something went wrong: the mass of a miniature black hole, left over from the beginning of time, might distort the readings that indicated where to bring the ship back into the normal universe, or a fragment of undetectable antimatter might turn out to be adrift at the arrival point, which reacted with the hull or some other part of the ship and saturated its circuitry with wild particles and sleeting radiation ...

But of late there had been rumours of another kind of threat, and most often in just that zone Chrysanthemum had traded through. (She was growing used to thinking of the ship in past tense—and her brother.) It was suspected that some unknown predatory species might be on the move, attacking human ships and even the most distant human planetary settlements. So far there were only the rumours to go by, or hints and clues at best, but a few seemed solid enough for the computers that ceaselessly ran simulations of all events throughout the volume of known space to signal low-grade warnings: fifteen, eighteen, maybe twenty percent credibility. Recently, though, the incremental rate had slowed to zero.

Four chances in five, therefore, that this was just another foolish bout of panic, triggered by a handful of accidents that happened to occur in the same region. When there were hundreds of them every year, most of them more nuisance than disaster, and primarily attributable to poor maintenance or radiation damage in computer circuits, what were the chances for even fifty ships, darting hither and yon through such immensity, of tracing the lost vessel, its distress beacon radiating at the dilatory speed of light? There had been no news of her courier projectiles! Every craft aspace carried a stock of miniature FTL message-bearers designed to home in automatically on the nearest Fleet command post, or the ship’s base. But if any of Chrysanthemum’s had shown up, the searchers had not been told.

Thinking of CPs—

Too late. The Nag’s harsh tones were assailing her ears, reminding her that it was past time for her to dispatch another of her own courier projectiles, the last but two, in order to report her status and position. She was strictly enjoined not to continue the search past the expenditure of the last but one, the last being reserved for ultimate emergencies. And indeed by now she was growing weary and resigned. She was looking forward to returning to Port—horrible though it might be objectively. At least she was assured of human company back there, amid the crackling of the energy weapons that defended its perimeter. One day they might even cure the stink that always leaked, molecule by molecule, through its protective screens …

So …

She authorised the ship to copy her accumulated data into the missile and send it on its way. Then she resumed her habitual but most likely futile review of the known facts about the region of space Chrysanthemum had plied. The computer was so much smarter than any human mind at solving the equations that governed its physical attributes, calculating the most probable course deviations imposed by gravitational anomalies or the movement of mass and energy due, for instance, to the outburst of a nova ... of which there had been one in the vicinity not long ago. When the core of a sun exploded it had effects in the FTL universe as well as—

She snapped herself back from despair to optimism. There was one thing humans were better at than any computer. That was using unverbalised knowledge to turn a guess into a deduction! In view of the difference of age between them, she had never been very close to her brother. But she did remember him, though he had been a distant figure during most of her childhood; she had had a kind of crush on him when she was in her teens and he was already a seasoned space-farer. Sometimes a look had come over his face as though he were gazing past the here-and-now into uncharted regions of’ the galaxy …

That had been why he opted to work for a small, unprofitable space-line, trading as often as not beyond the boundaries of Fleet-controlled space. That had been why she had tried to emulate him, and wound up here—wherever here might be. So few stars had habitable planets; so few compared to the illimitable span of universe space and time!

But it didn’t matter where she herself was, as of this instant. What counted was to figure out—and this was her last chance—a high-probability location for Chrysanthemum. She could not have flown a galactodesic course for home; there was too much interstellar clutter in the way, intruding mass into her tachyonic line. Back-tracking a ship whose path lay partly through the otherness of FTL had much in common with subatomic physics; the number of influences that could disguise the ultimate location was at the power limit of even the most advanced computers.

Suppose, though, she had been her brother, which of the routes open to him would she have chosen, given that all the likeliest had now been eliminated? (There were only a few thousand others! She had grounds to hope!)

Abruptly her patience ran dry. She stabbed a handful of co-ordinates into the board before her. The computer began to voice its inescapable objections. With an override command she aborted them, and retreated to her bunk.

When she awoke, the viewscreen in her cabin showed wreckage drifting all around the Nag.

Shouting for more information, she rushed back to the control room without even rubbing the sleep from her eyes. The answer, of course, was prompt. But there was a difference. For the first time she discerned a conciliatory—almost respectful—note in the Nag’s automatic voice.

“At the last destination you specified, it became possible to detect a light-speed distress signal then arriving in the vicinity. This damaged ship appears to be its source.”

“Identity?” she cried. “Chrysanthemum?”

The cold of space invaded her very heart. “Prepare my suit!” she forced out.

“First,” the Nag said firmly, “you will relieve yourself, then cleanse your body and eat.”


“There is no sign of survivors.”

The machine, as ever, was right. Sighing, Yuriko added one more question before she quit the console.

“Does what happened look like an accident?”

“No,” said the Nag, after a pause to analyse the implications. “It looks more like the result of an attack.”

But how? How?

The mystery plagued Yuriko every second as she complied with her instructions, knowing in her head that they were justified, yet feeling in her guts that if she were only to see with her own eyes rather than through a screen, she could find and take revenge on whoever—whatever!—had callously carved her brother’s ship apart.

How? It implied the enemy could track their prey in FTL drive! There couldn’t possibly be a way of setting an ambush otherwise!

That, though, was for Fleet Command to prove or disprove, with the resources of the computers at Port. Her task was now to gather data, nothing more. She drove herself to fulfill it.

And very soon grew sick of what she found. The independent merchant ship, unarmed, had been slashed open as by a laser scalpel. In the axial corridors floated corpses, desiccated in the vacuum. They did not include her brother’s. Gone. As was the cargo, and much of the ship’s machinery. Not destroyed. Removed.

And there was no other clue as to the nature or identity of the attackers—save one.

Sealed compartments, slammed shut automatically when the hull was breached, where she might have hoped to find survivors, had been efficiently forced open. And exactly as many spacesuits were unaccounted for as there should have been additional crew members: five, including her brother. It looked as though they had been taken—well—prisoner.

Yuriko’s mood grew ever grimmer as she pondered the implications.

When at last she decided she had learned everything she could, she began to think about the message she was obliged to send back with her last-but-one courier projectile. At random, not seriously expecting an answer, she said inside the helmet of her spacesuit, “Nag, did they have time to fire off a CP?”

The response took her by surprise.

“Chrysanthemum’s computer records are garbled by radiation, probably associated with the weapon used, but decipherable data indicate she carried three, of which two were launched.”

“Two were ... you mean there’s one left? Or was it stolen by the raiders?”

“It has been retrieved and brought aboard.”

She would have clenched her fists so hard her nails dug into her palms, but the suit gloves were far too thick and stiff.

“Is it functional?”


“Then ...”

An inspiration came to her. But she knew perfectly well what would happen were she to voice it aloud. She contented herself with saying, “That means the attackers may not have understood what CPs are for. I’m coming back.”

Mouth dry, heart pounding, hoping the Nag would never guess what she had decided to attempt—transgressing the spirit of her orders, admittedly, but not the letter—she did so.

The next stage was fully automatic. It involved dumping data into the last-but-one of her issue CPs and dispatching it, along with a verbal commentary concerning her own observations. As she was recording it, her voice trembled a little—not enough, she hoped, to register a disturbed condition on the medical monitors.

The next stage, if not automatic, should have been reflexive. She should have instructed the Nag to head for Port, her mission being at an end. Instead, when the CP was safely on its way, she drew a deep breath.

“Integrate possible interception courses for the ship that attacked Chrysanthemum and give me those which trace back to the stars in this volume most likely to possess habitable planets.”

“Your orders are to—”

“Return to base after the expenditure of the last-but-one CP on board! I quote! Are there, or are there not, two functional CPs inside this ship?”

There could only be one answer. Thanks to a careless turn of phrase on the part of whoever had drafted the brief for the searchers ...

Out here she was at the very fringe of human-explored space. But if the enemy were truly alien—from a gas-giant, say—why, after attacking a human ship, would they want to take living captives? The absence of precisely as many spacesuits as there were missing crew members might imply mere scientific curiosity ... or something else, something infinitely worse.

In any case, if there were a race out here that treated humans as no better than laboratory specimens—!

My brother among them!

She shuddered, and went on waiting for the Nag to perform her duty.

What passed inside her mind during the next hour was unclear even to herself, let alone the computers at Port that tried to reconstruct it afterward. The most baffling mystery of all was this: what made her overlook the possibility that Chrysanthemum’s CPs, even though they had indeed been launched, might have been destroyed before they had the, chance to achieve FTL? After all, had either of them reached its destination, it should in principle have arrived before the search party was organised.

One obvious possibility was an overweening desire for glory, to be the one who identified the home world of the unknown enemy and led the warships of the Fleet to it. However, this did not match her previous record. She was young, with a promising career before her, and uncountable options open whether or not she decided to continue in the service—was she the sort of person to gamble everything on a thousand-to-one, maybe a million-to-one, chance? People like that weren’t recruited!

No, it didn’t fit.

Many of the simulations they ran at Port wound up in futile recurrent loops hinting at incestuous attachment, her brother acting as a mental father-substitute ... but all this was abstract and artificial, testifying rather to the ingenuity of the psychologists who had compiled the Fleet’s personality profile programs than to what had really transpired in Yuriko’s not unattractive head.

Closest, perhaps, came one who said, “I think she simply wanted vengeance.”

But he was shouted down by colleagues and Fleet officers who cried, “Against her brother’s killers whom she served so well? Or us, because she thought we’d failed in our duty to protect him and his ship?” (That, though, was when the war was fully under way.)

And nobody—not at the time, nor for a long while after—hit on the explanation that could be summed up in one single word: Grief.

The Nag complied, though as it were suspiciously. The extra CP tipped the balance. And, miraculously (or was it? Surely if one met a new race among the stars one would expect to do so close to their home world, where humans still were all things considered!) after allowance had been made for every factor—the course Chrysanthemum had been embarked on, the detours she had been obliged to make due to the recent nova, the impact of the onslaught she had suffered that had hurled her across a light-month of real space, the effect of all the stellar masses in the neighbourhood, the drag of interstellar gas—there was one, and only one, unexplored system within the scoutship’s range from which the enemy might reasonably be thought to hail, unless of course they dwelt between the stars: one, and only one, that hinted at an oxygen-high planet.

“Make for it!” Yuriko directed.

“If the system is inhabited by hostile entities,” said the Nag, and her tone was incontestably less abrasive than in the past, “the risk of being destroyed is incalculable.” Pause. “Owing to lack of data.”

“We have two CPs,” Yuriko answered stonily. “If it turns out that that is the home system of the enemy, our arrival”—she had never grown used to saying “I” when the ship seemed to have such a personality of her own—“will trigger their defences. They omitted to remove the CP that you retrieved from the wreckage. That indicates they may not have understood its function. Program it with all data concerning our destination including the likelihood of its being the enemy’s lair. Prime it to launch itself if they attack us, using maximum acceleration until it enters FTL. Set the other, the issue one, to do the same if it appears likely that without overt attack we’re being lured into a trap. Program yourself to go to FTL and make for the nearest Fleet base as soon as both have been launched, whether or not I am conscious at the time.”

“Analysing,” said the Nag, which indicated that Yuriko’s commands so far were questionable but not a priori unacceptable in the light of her built-in principles.

But abruptly the pilot grew impatient. She recalled something she had heard mentioned in bull sessions during her training, yet never been able to confirm.

“Nag! There’s supposed to be a command ‘Grand Fleet Emergency’! Does it exist?”

“Yes,” the computer acknowledged after much too long a delay. That, if nothing else, ought to have warned her.

But it didn’t.

“And it overrides general orders?”

Her hands were clenched; her breathing was a gasp. “Under certain conditions.”

“Is an encounter with a previously unknown but demonstrably hostile alien race one of the conditions?”

This time the pause was longer yet. When it ended:


“Then I invoke Grand Fleet Emergency!” cried Yuriko, and after that she was, as she’d been told, in absolute control.

This much, at least, was reconstructable—because there was no other way she could have made her ship obey so foolhardy an order.

As the days of his ordeal passed, Tschweeit lost his original brash confidence. His elation at being alone faded as he discovered how many rivals were already slinking among the exiguous cover, beating him to all the game worth eating, ahead of him at springs and streams with improvised weapons—branches, rocks—ready for use if anyone disturbed them. He had managed to refill his drink container, but he had used up his solid food and found little to replace it. On the one occasion he did manage to kill a fair-sized quarry with a well-timed pounce, he had scarcely had time to snatch a mouthful before he was sent reeling by a charge from someone bigger and faster, who seized his prize and vanished with it.

Badly weakened by the attack, which left him bruised and aching, as darkness fell on the ninth day, he reviewed his situation and concluded it was parlous. For the first time the possibility crossed his mind that he might be one of those who did not come back ...

From the relative security of a high tree-crotch he surveyed the dark landscape. By now he Dad traversed almost the entire area, and knew how hostile and treacherous it was. Only at the very edge of the permitted range might there be a chance—

Overhead, something bloomed in the sky: a flash, a streak of light. A meteor, quite big enough to reach the ground. Perhaps it was an omen. Although he habitually scoffed at such, his family believed in signs and portents. Whether they were right or wrong, what else now did he have for guidance? He marked the spot where it most probably had landed and resolved to head that way tomorrow.

It was a slow, exhausting journey. He was still limping, thanks to the unknown who had assaulted him, as well as hunger-weak. Sustaining himself on foul-tasting insectoids and chewing plant stems despite the bitterness of their juice in order to conserve his precious water, starting at every noise and darting pointlessly into hiding, he did not reach the impact point until day’s end.

And then, crawling warily over a flat-topped rock, he saw what had actually tumbled from on high.

A hammer-blow shook the scoutship stem to stern just as she emerged into normal space. The view-screens blanked and emergency lights reported massive damage to all systems. Yuriko cursed her hotheadedness. Of course! If the aliens possessed the means of ambushing a ship in FTL, it followed that they could detect an approaching intruder!

But this wasn’t an attack from outside. The explosion had occurred within the hull ...

“The CP!” she exclaimed in horrified realisation. What a damnably ingenious booby trap! Why had the Nag not—?

She had no time to wonder. The Nag was dead, and she was probably as good as, though the automatic seal on the control room had trapped enough air for a few minutes. As though in a trance she rehearsed motions drilled into her during training: donned her emergency suit with its puny shields, its rudimentary computer, its limited reserves of food and oxygen ...

Maybe someone would be able to work out, from the last CP she had dispatched, where she had most likely made for after sending it. Maybe there would be convertible vegetation on a nearby planet. Maybe she could survive there until someone came to rescue her.

Maybe its inhabitants would treat her as they had the crew of Chrysanthemum ...

The lights on the control boards were winking out as the circuitry failed.

Now or never!

Suit secure, she hit the switch that transformed the Nag’s control room into a re-entry capsule, programmed to land at the most promising destination within range—and should also have launched her final CP—only that, of course, had been ruined by the explosion. The shock of separation from the rest of the hull almost blacked her out. When she recovered, to see the bluish-green half-disc of an Earthlike world above her, seeming to fall towards her, threatening to crush her, she had to fight primordial terror before she could register the information she was hearing. Temperature range tolerable; atmosphere breathable; adequate free water; presence of CHON life-forms—carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-nitrogen ...

“I found it!” she whispered. This could, this must, be the home of the attackers. And she couldn’t let anybody know! She couldn’t warn the Fleet! Whereas her arrival would serve as a warning to the aliens!

Fool! Fool!

She was on the verge of pressing the detonator button, to convert herself and everything around her into plasma, when the impersonal mechanism of her suit forestalled her. Being obliged to maximise its occupant’s chances of survival, it had automatically compounded an all-purpose vaccine against infection by foreign micro-organisms, which it now injected into her leg. Her vision swam. Nauseated, she shut her eyes. They remained closed; and she unconscious, until the frail craft made its planetfall.

When she awoke, she found herself amid a rocky landscape dotted with trees that were not trees and bushes that were not bushes, under a grey sky smeared with high, thin cloud. At least, she thought dully, she hadn’t landed in a deathtrap zone like that around Port, where huge predators vied with carnivorous plants ...

But if she was right in identifying this as the home world of those who had wrecked Chrysanthemum, there must be at least one large predator here. And a terribly dangerous one, at that.

Having eaten and drunk sparingly, having conducted a cautious remote survey of the area, she ventured forth in search of anything her equipment might convert into digestible food. She returned at sundown with a bagful of samples. Her path led past a flat-topped rock.


The Change having progressed sufficiently far within his body, Tschweeit responded with the ingrained reflexes of his kind, fundamentally those invoked by any rival’s intrusion on a Khalian male’s range, but multiplied by the fact that this stranger was trespassing on the root planet of his species. So when the creature—not unlike a Khalian in shape, albeit with absurdly long limbs, and as he noted with dismay, much bigger than himself but to all appearances off guard—passed unsuspectingly below his vantage point, he pounced.

It was as though he had attacked the rock he sprang from.

Except that rocks don’t spin around and deal you such a blow you go soaring through the air for twice your body length and land ridiculously sprawling in the dirt.

Yuriko stared anxiously about her. Was this creature alone?

Was it a wild beast, or was it a member of the dominant race? Certainly it must be cunning, if not intelligent, for none of her suit’s instruments had detected its presence until the last moment, when its leap had triggered defences honed for generations at Port.

She looked at it again, and this time noticed that it wore a sort of braided baldric from which hung a pair of containers—one had split, and was leaking what looked like water—and a crude club. No mere animal, therefore. And by the same token, far more frightening.

But how to reconcile a beast like this, save in respect of savagery, with the ones that had ambushed Chrysanthemum?

It was no use guessing. Setting down her sample bag, she approached the creature warily. It struggled to rise, uttering noises that she took to be menacing, but fell back, betrayed by one of its hind limbs that appeared to be dislocated or maybe broken. After that, it slumped as though abandoning all hope of resistance.

Should she kill it? After all, according to preliminary readings the constituents of organic material here were close enough to those on Earth to be transformed into nourishment by the food converter in what she must now think of not as a control room or a re-entry vehicle, but as her survival capsule. And if Chrysanthemum had been attacked by members of the same species ...

She sighed wearily. She didn’t know. And, bad though matters were already, she would certainly make them worse if her first act here were to eat a rational being.

The creature was clearly in too much pain to offer any more trouble for a while at least. She ventured to remove the burst container, prepared at any moment to dodge a slashing blow, and analyse the few drops that remained in it. The contents proved indeed to be water. Well, she had plenty of that, thanks to a condenser that pulled it by litres out of the air. She returned to the capsule and came back with as much as the damaged container could hold.

Having set it down beside the alien, she retreated a metre or two, and waited.

For long moments the alien hesitated. Its attitude, naturally, conveyed nothing more to her than uncertainty, though doubtless—like any large species—it must possess some kind of body language. What was more, apparently it employed odour-signals, for something acrid was eluding the filters on her suit, as the stench of burning defeated the screens around Port.

Abruptly it seized the container and drained it.

Whether its subsequent posture indicated thanks, Yuriko had no idea, but she hazarded that it might rather express puzzlement. If it was given to making unprovoked attacks it was unlikely to be used to receiving a gift in exchange. It might be a good idea to rub the point in. She refilled the container—which she had already begun to think of as a canteen, despite its peculiar shape—and this time offered it together with the plants she had gathered, in case the alien regarded them as edible. She had food to keep her going for a day or two, and could collect more samples in the morning. Then once again she waited.

The creature’s injuries, she realised, were worse than she had imagined. Even since she first offered the water, the weak hind limb had swollen visibly, and the whole overlong, sinuous torso was curved to the side where her counterblow had landed. But there was no help for that. The general outline of the creature might seem more or less familiar; as to its internal organs, though, its bones—if there were bones ...


She was shaken with astonishment. How short a time had passed since she was thinking only of revenge on those who had smashed her brother’s ship!

But there were Earthfolk who did that kind of thing! What were they called—prats? No, pirates. And corsairs and buccaneers and such. And they did it to their own kind. Maybe, just maybe, her brother’s kidnappers had been curious, or snapping at all intruder they thought had no right to be ill their volume or space, or …

No: she was too weary, and still too logy from the all-purpose vaccine, to pursue the idea any further. The best she could manage was to comfort herself with the reflection that at least she was creating a better impression than if she had killed and eaten her new acquaintance.

On the subject of eating: did any of what she had collected appeal? Apparently not much. The beast had discarded most of the samples—which she now retrieved—but retained one thick, sappy stem and gnawed it, though without visible enthusiasm.

I think, Yuriko said to herself, I may have arrived in a backward area. When humans first landed on the Moon, were there not still Stone Age tribes in New Guinea?

Looking around at the near-desert, she nodded with satisfaction at her own insight.

But—the thought-train rolled on—if a spacecraft had been spotted landing in such a backward area, it would still not have been very long, even in those days, before the Great Powers showed up. So I suppose I’m accidentally an ambassador, aren’t I?

There was, she concluded, nothing more she could do before she had slept. There was no way she could provide shelter for the injured stranger. She dared not carry it into the capsule, where it would be exposed to alien micro-organisms; besides, her food converter was too basic to be adapted, like more advanced models, to cope with the needs of nonhumans ...

In passing, she wondered whether the chemical mix her suit had injected contained a euphoric. It did, but it also included a substance designed to prevent knowledge of the fact from affecting the recipient’s judgment. Accordingly, after a quick check of the vicinity to make sure the alien was still there—and wondering whether it would be in the morning—Yuriko switched her suit to bunk mode and shortly was fast asleep.

Tschweeit had never been so humiliated! To have been effortlessly tossed hind-over-fore by a non-Khalian, that thereupon compounded the insult by not according him an honourable end of the kind demanded by his helplessness in defeat, but instead brought drink and what presumably it took to be food—as though dealing with a miserable plant-eater, as though he were some kind of cattlish or shweep being fattened for a future meal! It was unbearable! And, worst of all, he had been too feeble to refuse!

The air around him reeking with the stink of shame, he strove to crawl away in search of a private place to die. He could not move. Too many of his muscles had been torn by that incredible blow, and he suspected some internal organ had been ruptured as badly as his drink container. If he had had a weapon he could direct against himself …

But there was nothing within reach: nothing sharp, nothing sufficiently poisonous. Would that a tscherpent might chance by and crush him to a pulp and gobble up his body!

No such luck. As the night wore away, his misery gave place to fury. Why should there be, anywhere in the universe, aliens that did not understand concepts of decency and honour? Manifestly there were, and because of that they deserved nothing better than enslavement, conversion into bio-circuitry, or processing for food!

A light drizzle started to fall. That made his anger fiercer, even as his mind drifted into blankness spawned of exhaustion. By dawn, when the rain had passed, the shame-reek had been washed away, and only the traces of his rage remained.

“He must have put up a tremendous fight!” was the verdict of the Khalian officer who approached the alien craft just after sunrise.”He’s obviously badly hurt, but—well, just check that odour! I’d never have believed that a youngling like him could be so angry!”

“And,” added one of his companions in an admiring tone, “instead of making off in search of help he stayed to guard the alien and stop it from escaping.”

“That’s right. We don’t even have to trap it. It’s trapped itself. Of course, there may be active weaponry inside the ship, but its design matches the style of that bigger one we took without the slightest trouble because it was totally unarmed, and certainly no major weapons were used against this—what’s his name? No, cancel that. If he already had an adult name, he wouldn’t be here, would he? What’s his designation?”

From the flyer overhead, whence the operation was being co-ordinated, a message shrilled back: “Correct. He is not yet named save by sex, clan and caste.”

“Which clan?”

The Over-commander uttered: “Tschweeit!” with the requisite additional inflections.

“Really!” The officer wished he could groom himself to show appropriate pride, but he was wearing armour, just in case. “That’s my clan, you know.”

“I do,” said the Over-commander dryly. “Congratulations to your kin. This junior has earned an adult name, that’s definite. Send a snatch-group to retrieve him.”

“And if the alien emerges—?”

“Snatch it too, of course! The ones we captured off the unarmed ship were in too bad a state to endure more than a superficial physical examination. We need a specimen in good shape so we can analyse their weaknesses.”

As though pre-empting all objection, the Over-commander added brusquely, “Yes, I know you don’t approve of that kind of thing! But, like it or not, you have to accept that our prey here at home evolved on the same planet as we did, so we learned their vulnerable points in the course of nature. Now, though, we’re up against unnatural opposition, so what our forebears did by trial and error we must do by trial without the error. Granted?”

“Granted, Over-commander,” said the officer, and issued the necessary orders.

Among the greatest skills of the Khalia was that of stalking.

What little they had learned from the wreckage of Chrysanthemum sufficed for them to be able to steal up on Yuriko’s capsule without triggering any of its alarms until they were within a few metres. When that happened the suit jolted her awake and she opened her eyes to see on the outside view-screens—

Nothing. Except the same bare ground, and the same bushes that were not bushes and the same trees that were not trees. The injured alien was gone.

So what had set off the alarm?

After a long wait she decided optimistically that it must have been a wild animal. Certainly there was nothing to suggest a threat discernible out there now. But it was light, and she had much work to do if she hoped to survive. After the usual obligatory necessities she checked her food converter and discovered that it was indeed capable of turning at least some of the local growths into palatable victuals. She made a list of the most suitable, and set off in search of further supplies.

However ...

As she rounded the flat-topped rock she found herself encircled, this time not by savages with no more equipment than a baldric and a couple of field canteens, but bearing what were very obviously weapons. Appalled, she raised her arms. Reflex made her think of that gesture as a sign of unwillingness to fight.

Reflex betrayed her, just as it had Tschweeit. For to a Khalian it betokened grappling to the death.

But, of course, since they were extremely well trained, and moreover the challenger was the wrong shape, they were able to overrule their instinctual response to her posture. Instead of hurling themselves at her, they merely snared her in a tough and sticky web, and left her to fight in vain against its grip until the powerpack of her suit ran out. After that, they sprayed its air filter with an anaesthetic vapour—based on their study of the captives from Chrysanthemum—and bore her away to their main centre for the analysis of alien weakness. It went without saying that, to them, any alien must be weak. For only the Khalia were strong.

Only the Khalia were allowed to be strong.

When Tschweeit recovered his senses, it was to hear a paean of praise for his achievement. He was told his new—adult!—name; he was informed that henceforth he might exercise the mating privilege, or at least as soon as his bodily development caught up sufficiently with his mental, so that he could exude the proper odour of authority. There were means to accelerate the Change in that regard, which would be applied to his body if he so desired. Most important of all, he learned that no fewer than nine ship’s captains had requested he be assigned to them on their next voyage. His dream of faring forth among the stars was to be fulfilled.

Even as he fended off wave after wave of fawning compliments, however, even as he stammeringly expressed his gratitude, a little voice at the back of his mind was saying, “But it wasn’t like that at all! Not really! That’s not the way it actually happened!”

Later, though, with the passage of the years, he was able to silence the reproachful voice, and ultimately he too came to believe he had in truth performed a heroic act, an inspiration to his kind, a legend for the coming generations. His reputation spread to every Khalian world, and not only direct members of his clan but distant relatives as well groomed themselves in the light of his reflected glory every time they heard a mention of his name.

As for the name of Yuriko Petrovna …

Since there had been a second bomb aboard Chrysanthemum, so well disguised that like the one concealed in the salvaged courier projectile the Nag had failed to detect it, the Fleet ships which tracked Yuriko’ s last message back to its point of origin found nothing save a scattering of dust, somewhat anomalous in composition, but not sufficiently to prove beyond dispute that it represented what remained of a starship.

The doubts began.

At first excuses were offered for her, especially by those who had authorised that she be assigned to the search for her brother. Then, though, Khalian raids not only on shipping but also on isolated human colonies grew more frequent, and more captives were taken. (What did Khalians do with human beings? Eat them? Enslave them? Turn them into living computers? Give them to their younglings to play with? The suggestions were innumerable, but there was no evidence to indicate a choice between them).

And time and again the enemy spotted a weakness, a lack of logic or skill, some vulnerable flaw in the tactics of those who were sent to oppose them.

Like a fungus spreading its mycelia, misguided conviction took root and grew. It was said, “There’s only one key to this riddle. And it has to be called Yuriko Petrovna. She let herself be trapped in their volume. She must have given up without a fight. Or else she can’t have had the guts to hit her detonator when she should have realised it was hopeless to go on. So what they know of us, they must have learned from her.”

In mess halls, in bars, in bunk cabins, there were nods of sour agreement, for by this time it was clear there was a war—a running fight, scattered over cubic parsecs, but involving commitment by each side to hit the other hard at every meeting.

And whenever the Khalia pulled a smarter trick than humans were prepared for, there was one individual on whom all blame was laid: not the squadron commander who had been defeated, not the staff officers who had computer-planned the operation, but someone who must by now be dead.

A scapegoat. A scape-human.

Only occasionally did the question cross some person’s mind:

“I wonder if it really was that way. I wonder if that’s how it actually happened.”

For a while a few people argued doggedly about her final message, claiming it implied that she might have located Chrysanthemum within striking distance of the Khalian home world. However, thanks to the reputation that had by then accrued around the name of Yuriko Petrovna, when Target was discovered all reference to such a possibility was eliminated from the Fleet’s strategic planning. The war’s nature changed, and from that moment on—

But that’s another story. Or rather, many other stories.

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