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Three At Table

Hal Colebatch

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 a good 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.

Then the real floods came. Out of the west, and concentrating my mind. The rain must have been falling there and filling these water-courses long before the storm reached me. A real roaring and shaking of the ground and white-foam-fronted black water below me advancing like a wall. Hydraulic damming—I remembered the phrase from somewhere as I scrabbled upwards for my life in the slipping mud. I slipped and rolled again, ending up caught in a clump of sharp black rocks just above the rising water. I had damaged my leg some months before in the caves, but it had been healed. Now I felt it was gone again, in a different place, near the ankle. Maybe (I prayed) not broken this time. One small mercy: crawling, almost swimming vertically, up the mud-slope in the hail, an ankle was perhaps less crucial than when walking or running. Another mercy was the low gravity. But progressing up was very different from my carefree jumping downwards. Anyway, I got to a ridge. I tried to stand then, and found I couldn't. The .22 made a sort of crutch, not very handy for it was the wrong length and either barrel or stock sank into the mud when I leaned on it. I more-or-less hopped a few yards.

I had to get back to the car. And then I realized I had not the faintest idea in which direction the car was.

I sat down in the mud and hail then, cursing feebly that I hadn't had the sense even to slip a modern cover-all into one of my pockets. It would have weighed next to nothing, taken up no space and would, if I had needed it, kept me as dry and warm as toast. It would even have been strong enough to protect me in a fight. I had put on locally made clothes for the sake of fresh air and ventilation on a warm morning, as well as because it was one of the things tourists do.

There were a lot of other things, which, if not misled by the benign appearance of the morning and my own excitement and inexperience of this world, I might also have brought: a gyro-compass, a locator, a beacon, even an ordinary mobile telephone, not to mention real weapons. I had plenty of navigation instruments and communications equipment, as I had a good autodoc and almost everything else I might need, but they were all in the car. I had an implant by which I could be traced if necessary, but there was no reason for anyone to think I was in great distress. If anyone was interested and they assumed I had enough sense to remain with the car and its equipment, then even a storm like this should have been no problem: a matter of touching a button and closing the canopy.

It took me a long time to make progress, and it horrified me how quickly what little daylight there was failed.

And the river was still rising. Chunks of mud were sliding and dropping into it from the sides of my ridge. And the ridge itself was shrinking. Soon it would be an island, and soon after that if would be covered completely. I would have to climb again. It was then that I fully realized how much my life was in real danger.

I was alone, lost, injured. And this was not my world. I knew something of its weather and its wild-life in theory, but I knew that in some ways, simply not having grown up here made me blind and vulnerable to dangers that others instinctively avoided, blind as a village yokel of the fifteenth century on Earth suddenly time-transported into a modern city or a modern transport complex. Where was the tigripard? I hardly dared move now, lest it sense from the pattern of my foot-falls that I was injured and come circling back. Indeed I feared I was already projecting psi waves to tell it I had changed from hunter to prey. Before I had made much more progress it was full night, or at least the storm's equivalent of it. I had not appreciated what night was like in the unpeopled country where there was no artificial source of lighting. The clouds obscured everything in the Wunderland sky above, though far away in the West was a dim glow that might have been the lights of Gerning reflected against them. Far to the East it was lighter for a while, but then the clouds covered that as well. The almost incessant lightning was a danger, but soon it seemed to be my major source of light. It was not full night yet, and when I climbed higher I saw a distant ribbon of paler sky far to the east still, but full night was coming.

* * *

I climbed again. Glancing back once I saw the black rushing water tear away the last of the ridge where I had rested. The hailstones tore at its surface and lumped together into chunks of ice.

I knew that I was on what was technically a big island between two rivers, low and narrow when I had seen them from the air, now both grossly swollen and rising all the time. I recalled seeing houses not far away. I toiled further up the next sliding muddy slope, again using my weapon as a sort of crutch. It took me a long time, and my skin crawled as I waited for the impact of the tigripard on my back, and thought of the irony of dying under the claws of a feline after all. Then at some point the sliding mud became more stable and solid. My ankle was badly swollen but massaging it seemed to help, and out of the mud I could walk, slowly and cautiously. The rifle was some more use as a prop here, but I wished it had been a couple of feet longer. Again I was thankful for Wunderland's light gravity.

Below me, something writhed through the mud up the track I had left. For a moment I thought it was the tigripard. But as it came closer I saw it was a shapeless thing with a trumpet-like suctorial disk, the orifice ringed with small fangs and tentacles—a mud-sucker, a big one. I was feeling too battered and numbed to react for a few seconds, then fear and revulsion set me moving a good deal faster than I would have thought possible. It didn't like the firmer ground though, and after waving its trumpet in my direction for a time turned back, vacuuming up some of the newly active froggolinas as it went. I hoped it would find the tigripard—or did I? The tigripard was a brother compared to this thing, and deserved a cleaner fate.

You can imagine my delight when, as I gained some even higher ground, a burst of lightning showed me a road at my feet. More importantly, after I had followed this for a while, another burst showed the unmistakable straight lines of man-made walls and structures some way off. Another two or three flashes and I made out that there was a small village, a hamlet, I suppose it should be called. A single street and a few one-story houses. Shelter, warmth, food, help, safety. I hobbled on as fast as I could.

Realization didn't all come at once. First I noticed there were no lights burning. Then in the lightning flashes I saw roofless skies through gaping holes where windows had been. The hamlet was a deserted ruin.

If I was bitterly disappointed, I saw that it was still shelter of a sort. I know now why you should keep out of deserted ruins in this part of Wunderland if you're alone and can't see well, and if you're effectively unarmed. At that time what I wanted was to get out of the cold driving rain and hailstones at least. And I wanted a door to keep the tigripard out should it return, or even the sucker-thing whose hunting-patterns I knew nothing of. I found one building, the only two-story one, that not only had a door but also still had a bit of roof on it, and hunkered down in the driest corner I could find. I took off my clothes and shook as much water from them as I could, badly missing modern tough and water-repellant fabrics, dressed again, though the warmth they gave was largely imaginary, then curled myself into a ball in an effort to keep as much of that warmth as possible, and waited for the night and storm to pass. If the flash floods came quickly they should fall equally quickly. I was still worried that the tigripard was tracking me, but could see no sign of it.

In fact I fell asleep almost at once, without meaning to, but when I awoke nothing had changed. Certainly it was now full dark night even without the piled-up storm-clouds. But getting to sleep a second time was impossible.

One good thing had happened—like all UNSN troops I have had my night-vision enhanced by nanosurgery and now my eyes had grown accustomed to the dark. It wasn't perfect but I made the most of what light there was and in all but the darkest patches of night I was no longer completely blind and helpless.

I've had my skin toughened a bit too, but despite that it was still very cold and miserably uncomfortable. The sites of the injuries I had had in the battle with the mad ones in the caves a few months before were aching in concert with the pain in my ankle despite all the miracles of modern medicine, and something, I didn't then know what, was making me both more anxious and unhappy than I should have been.

I got up and set out to explore a little. Black as the night was, the almost continual lightning showed me the empty rooms, long ago stripped of furnishings, miniature waterfalls from the gaps in the remnants of roof and ceiling, and a broken staircase leading down into a cellar or shelter which I had no inclination to enter. I could hear water down there splashing into mud, and I had no desire to get involved with more mud or what might live there. In other rooms some small creatures that I could not make out clearly scuttled away as I entered. I remembered the poison-fanged Beam's Beasts and gave them as wide a berth as they gave me. As I expected, I found nothing useful. The house had been thoroughly stripped long before.

Was that a light I could see out the window? The hail slackened for a while. With that bit of clearing I could see further, and suddenly my spirits rose again. For there was, I saw between the lightning flashes, indeed a dim orange square of light some way off.

The tigripard must be far away. Surely if it was nearby I would know by now. Perhaps it recognized the .22 as a weapon. Perhaps like so many larger wild creatures it avoided even the ruins of Man. I didn't know then that it had another good reason for keeping away from the house.

I wrenched down a splintered door-lintel. A piece of it made a better crutch than my empty gun. Leaning heavily on it, I set off up what had been that hamlet's only street. A black silhouette grew around that orange square as I drew nearer: a bigger house standing by itself on a rise of ground. The light was an upper window.

There was a path leading to the door, but as I approached it more closely I realized things: the house was too big, the upper windows too high and small, while the ground-floor windows, where they occurred at all, were mere slits, and dark. The door was too high and wide. And, as I said, the light in that window was orange. There were other things about the architecture. This was not a human house but a Kzin one. I looked back and saw how on its rise of ground it dominated the hamlet and gave a view of all the surrounding lands. This had been the mansion of the local Kzin overseer of human slaves.

Plainly it had been slighted during the Liberation. I could make out, now that I looked, where the high walls and towers that must have surrounded it in the old Kzin architectural style would have stood. Their rubble filled what must once have been a moat or ditch. I saw stumps of concrete and metal where defense and security installations must have been torn down. Behind the house were some large storage tanks, though I could not see whether or not they were intact. On the roof silhouetted against the sky in the lightning there was no sign of the dishes or antennas of modern communications equipment.

But that light burning now was ruddy orange. Not white or yellow. Only kzinti liked that orange light. Were there kzinti here still? It was quite possible. I knew that some of them still lived in the depopulated districts, shunning humans for obvious reasons, and this place, purpose-built and to their size, still relatively defensible, would be far more suitable for them than many others around. As I stood looking up at it I saw the silhouette of someone or something cross the lighted window.

Well, I would ask no shelter or favors from kzinti. Both pride and prudence said that. I was a soldier and I could stand an uncomfortable night in the ruins if necessary.

Trying to distance myself from the pain in my ankle, I hobbled back through the mud to the ghost-hamlet. For no particular reason I knew, save that it seemed the best-roofed and I had left the .22 there, I returned to the first house I had entered and curled up in my former place.

Then the zeitungers came.

I didn't know then that's what it was. I had heard of the zeitungers, originally called the zeitung-schreibers, of course, but I had never encountered them. And what I had heard of them had given me no true idea of them or of what encountering a pack of them when alone at night and physically spent was like.

Humans and kzinti alike on Wunderland loathed them and would stop at nothing to exterminate them. Like the Advokats and the Beam's Beasts, however, they liked the ample food which they associated with human activity. No one had told me they were often to be found in the ruins of human buildings here, presumably because nobody thought I would be spending a night in such ruins. They were carrion-eating vermin like the disgusting Advokats but with, in addition, an ability to project psychic damage and distress which they used as a weapon, an especially potent one when they were packing. They didn't limit themselves to carrion. The zeitungers' mental emanations could make a small-brained animal—an Earth rabbit or dog, say—lie down and scream, waiting for them to mob it and tear it to pieces alive.

On a big-brained animal and especially on a sophont the effect was more complex. Cognitive dissonance, a combination of pathological anxiety, hallucination, hypertension and, above and beneath and overarching all, black, disabling, even killing, clinical depression—if "depression" is an adaquate word. Wunderland creatures had evolved a certain resistance to the zeitunger power. Earth animals, and humans, had not. The creatures could apparently do nothing else mentally. They might be able to communicate among themselves—every member of a shoal of fish or flock of birds on Earth can turn in the same direction in an instant—but they were not telepaths. The only power their dim minds had was destruction.

All the meanings of darkness. There are two kinds of memories which, if you let your mind dwell on them too intensely in the wrong circumstances, can destroy your reason and you. We all have a store of them and they are in a sense opposites. Normally we can erect a kind of cordon sanitaire around them most of the time: one kind is of horror, trauma, tragedy present again and unbearable; the other is of joy, happiness, innocence, destroyed, violated and lost forever. They can combine. The zeitungers give you both, with a quantum jump in emotional intensity and immediacy. That happened.

It began like a dream. Word-salads. A brain beginning to race, like a vehicle going out of control. And a high, thin monotonous threnody wailing in my brain to the strings of a harp:

Till a man shall read what is written,
So plain in clouds and clods;
Till a man shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods . . . 


Then very early memories of gardens—lost gardens. Myself a baby with toys in a nursery, laughing on my mother's knee—never had memory been so sharp and clear. Then reliving the death of my parents, that blow that came too soon and that I now knew had maimed me. Then like a bad, silly dream, I was reliving with a feeling of black regret my last day at school, the school I had hated, the realization that—all my own fault—I was leaving unqualified for anything but a life in a menial, dead-end job if I was very lucky, a lifetime on the dole more likely: there were far more people than jobs in the peaceful, prosperous, Golden-Age world I grew up in, long before ARM took notice of certain desperate messages coming in from lonely ships in space. I relived walking up the stairs to the assembly-hall and the class-rooms one last time that day, rooms and halls and passageways almost empty as the last of the others were leaving, wishing I'd worked harder, and thinking "It's too late now." As I say, silly memories to cast one into a black depression. But the zeitungers were just getting down to business. All the bad memories of adolescence and my young manhood . . . it went on.

Then it became waves of futile anger at everything: at myself, at the storm and at the people at Gerning who had not warned me of it. Then memories of every sad thing that had ever happened to me: my futile, dead-end, prewar job at the museum, my timidity and failures with women—all those latter came back in detail, from teenage onwards, until the time I finally retreated into an emotional shell with my sister Selina and some dreams as my only friends—my farewell to Selina before she went into space and the kzinti took her, my pathetic, childishly caressed, dreams of glory and success, the terror when my forbidden military studies were discovered by the museum authorities. More recently the loss of Jocelyn van der Straat. My one sibling dead, like my parents but infinitely more horribly, my one brief lover lost, disappeared.

As far as I felt anything beyond pain and pity for myself, and that falling, falling, it was a kind of huge, sick disgust for the human race, its murderousness, its greed, ingratitude, disloyalty and viciousness. Its self-importance and delusions of spirituality. The kzinti gave us the true measure of the universe: pure carnivores, with no concept of altruism or mercy. How could any of us, even me in moments of weakness, have thought differently? I found my mind running back to images of what must have happened to Selina when they got the Happy Gatherer. I thought of what had happened here on Wunderland when the kzinti invaded, and for a time my mind filled with lines from the "Dirge of Neue Dresden":

Oxygen supports combustion.
Big fires need draughts to last.
Hot air rises. Heated enough
It rises very fast.

There would be vacuum at the fire,
except then, from every side
the atmosphere implodes to fill it,
and the draught is thus supplied.

The heat increases, the wind increases,
carries its fuel like a tide,
travels at hundreds of miles an hour
and topples walls in its stride . . . 


There were other things I thought about. The decades of war had given my mind all manner of horrors to settle on. How stupid, I now saw, were the hopes that some humans caressed of some kind of eventual reconciliation between Man and Kzin! Even I, thanks to my association with the kzinti called Raargh and Vaemar, and Cumpston and some of the other humans I had worked with, had been wavering in that direction. It was all foredoomed wishful thinking.

Some humans talked of, praised, the kzinti's courage and honor, but that courage and honor, if those were not mere names we humans had projected onto the minds of aliens we could never understand, only made them more dangerous. I had seen in their military what looked like their devotion to duty, and their strength and resolution, more than I needed to: those qualities were as terrifying as anything else about them. Honor? What did that mean? There was nothing ahead but war to the knife, pain, bloody, terrifying death, till all were dead. Like the Slaver War of the ancient past. That was how life and the Universe were made.

Then it got worse. If you have experienced bad clinical depression you may know what I mean. Different in each person's case, and yet the same. A black dog ravaging. Black sea-weed in the brain. Poisoned ice. Something wrong at heart and lungs. It did not stabilize on one beach of desolation. It was like falling from ledge to ledge, each lower and narrower than the next, and a knowledge that quite inevitably a ledge was coming that would be the last and narrowest, and that after that there would be nothing but a pit below. No safey-net, no survival. And with physical nausea thrown in: they didn't miss that trick. There was plenty on my conscience, and I got it all. Those who had died because I gave the wrong orders, those who had died because I gave the right orders, those who had died . . . I have never actually heard myself moaning in mental anguish before.

Then three beings entered the room: two of them were kzinti I knew—Raargh, the tough old ex-sergeant, and young Vaemar. They must have come from the big house, I guessed. I had no idea they were in the Gerning district. But then, between them, was Jocelyn.

"Get up, silly monkey," said Raargh. "Come with us."

"There is no need for alarm," said Vaemar, in his precise, almost pedantic, English. "The situation is under control."

"Arthur," said Jocelyn. She stepped towards me, arms wide to embrace me. She was naked, and for a moment I thought she must be cold. Then I felt myself standing (or was I?) moving forward into her embrace, while the knowledge of the miracle of her existance and return to me began to flood into my mind. I cried out in wonder and joy. Then the two kzinti leapt at her, teeth flashing, ripping at her flesh. Jocelyn became Selina, dying when the kzinti took the Happy Gatherer.

They all turned into white skeletons and fell in clattering heaps of bone to the floor. They disappeared.

Then I lost all rational thought. There was only darkness and fear. The pit. A sense of suffocation. Darkness visible, despair physical, a dagger of poisoned ice in my chest.

I was sitting with my head buried in my hands, shaking, thinking of suicide—the idea had a tangible shape, something that entered my mind on spider-legs and squatted there—when I heard the distant snarl of the tigripard again. I raised my head from my hands.

The zeitungers were round me in a ring on the damp, dusty floor, eyes bright. They looked like very large Earth rats. There was the .22 where I had abandoned it. I reached out, and the feel of the weapon in my hands, even though I knew it was useless, gave my mind a moment's revival. The zeitungers seemed to sense it, and retreated a couple of paces. Then the uselessness of it overcame me and I dropped the thing. They came forward again, and I saw their mouths opening in snarls that revealed their little fangs. In a moment, I knew, they would spring. There was nothing I could do about it. My brain was in such a state I would have welcomed them, as I was meant to.

The door flew open. A human figure leapt into the room. A red siting spot appeared on one of the creatures' heads, and an instant later a laser cooked its brain. I don't know if the scream from it and the others was a physical or mental event or both. The horror they had filled my brain with was jerked about. Some of them sprang at the human, and the beam rifle cut them to pieces in mid-air. The others made for the cellar, and a good number died on the way. Then the survivors wheeled in a mass and made for the main door and the street. Few reached either. The human leapt after them. In the dim light from the doorway I recognized the contours of a Kzin infantry beam rifle. It fired again, this time on another setting. A thin, incandescent jet of plasma-gas followed them.

I leapt back, bad ankle or not, from the blast of heat on my face, and came down on that bad ankle heavily, screaming and cursing. Good honest physical pain, good honest screaming and cursing. This was real. There were flames flickering now where the beam had hit inflammable material, and thick steam and smoke, but in that light I saw that my deliverer was a woman.

She dialed another setting on the rifle, and a jet of foam from it smothered the flames—the kzinti who had made it had learnt about house-to-house fighting. She came to me and put out her hand. I took it, and for a moment could only cling to it, babbling incoherently. Her hand was real, firm and solid. Then my brain seemed to clear. I apologized. The feelings of the last—how long had it been?—suddenly seemed largely unreal, as the nausea of sea-sickness suddenly seems unreal to a passenger ashore on dry land, or as a spacer leaving hyperspace forgets the blind spot. She lit a lamp, and shone it round the corners of the room. In its light I saw her properly for the first time. I vomited, and got to my feet. Like the recently sea-sick passenger, I was very unsteady.

She was tall like nearly all Wunderlanders, and handsome, or more than handsome, in a hard sort of way. The way she handled the heavy weapon—heavy for a human even in this gravity— told me she was strong. Her clothes were plain, and in the city would have been called drab, the everyday garb of the women I had seen on the farms of Gerning. They evidently repelled the rain, though, unlike mine.

"My name is Arthur Guthlac," I told her. "I'm from Earth. I've hurt my leg and I'm lost." Her face in repose looked strangely sad. Well, perhaps not strangely. On a large part of the population of Wunderland the tragic past lay heavily.

"My name is Gale. Do not be afraid. Or ashamed." She spoke a dialect of rural Wunderland, with some slightly old-fashioned constructions. "There were many zeitung-schreibers. I know what they can do. Now you had better come with me."

"Must I walk far?" I remembered my manners and made some sort of speech of thanks, still finding my voice hard to control.

"You're not free of it yet," she said. "It takes a while. I live at the big house. Not far."

The house with the orange light. That was the only big house and the only habitable-looking one. Well, if this woman lived there my previous thoughts about it being inhabited by kzinti were apparently groundless. Now that she had identified the zeitungers, and I realized the nature of the attack that had been made on me, I wondered if my previous fears of the place had simply been a product of their first mind-probes when they began gathering around me.

"The sooner you are warm and dry the better," she said.

That was certainly true. We stepped out of the ruin into the spectral street. Gale swept the rifle-barrel, firing once at an errant zeitunger I did not see and blowing it apart. Then she "broke" the butt open to replace the charge, extracting the old charge-pack.

The tigripard leapt out of the night as the lightning dribbled about us. Thunder drowned its snarl. Gale leapt sideways, a hand to her belt, something flashing in her hand. I had not seen a human move so fast. The tigripard's charge carried past her, past the spot where she had been an instant before. She struck as she leapt. It gave a scream of pain and rounded back on us, creeping towards us, belly close to the ground. Then she had the beam rifle together, one-handed, somehow, up and firing. The tigripard died in mid-spring. I saw that in her other hand she held an oversized knife, and as she wiped the tigripard's blood from it and returned it to her belt I saw it was a monomolecular-edged Kzin w'tsai. I thought that I would not like her for an enemy, and I have been in some hand-to-hand combat.

She passed me the lamp and dialed the laser setting on the rifle down to provide an additional flashlight. The rain and hail were back in full force again, the visibility closing in.

I leant on her a little as I hobbled up the path to the house again. It had been, I guessed now, her silhouette I had seen crossing the window. But why that Kzin-ish, murky orange light?

"How did you know I was out here?" I asked.

"I did not know that you particularly were here, but I sensed the zeitungers packing. A kind of psychic backwash reaches all minds around when that happens. Then the only thing is to go out and kill them all. Follow your thoughts, as it were, and they are easy enough to find."

This lady was mentally as well as physically tough, I thought. I did not know if I could have done that. She opened the door with a large electronic key. It looked too modern and hi-tech for this place. It also looked as if it had been made for larger hands than hers. Kzin claws. I followed her in.

"Are you alone?" I asked. A stupid, perhaps lethally tactless, thing to say at a time and in a place like that, but I was not thinking clearly.

"I am a widow," she said. That was not remarkable. After fifty-three years of war and Kzin occupation there were plenty of widows—and widowers and orphans too—on Wunderland. "But I am not alone," she went on. "There is a Kzin in the house."

I was sure she was not bluffing about that as I stepped across the door. Not just the light, the smells. On Earth and in space I had been used to dwelling-spaces that cleaned themselves. On liberated Wunderland I had become used to more primitive standards. But this place smelt strange and disturbing. Not dirty, but not right. Partly it was the smell of poverty, which, once you have smelt it, you cannot mistake and cannot forget. There was also a smell like a field-hospital, a very primitive one, that did not have pleasant associations for me. But it also smelt of Kzin. And that smell you cannot mistake or forget either. Perhaps, I had a wayward thought, she manufactured that smell artificially to keep human and animal intruders away more effectively than any pack of ban-dogs. But if I had had designs on her or on the house, and even if she had not been carrying the Kzin weapons, absence of kzinti was not the way I would have been inclined to bet. But at that moment the absence of wind, rain and hail made up for a lot.

The entrance hall, when she operated a switch, was lit by the same ruddy orange light. The light of Kzinhome, perhaps, but dimmer. This Kzin evidently did not like the lights bright. I sat down on an uncomfortable wooden seat. When the kzinti walked Wunderland as conquerers, I knew, their dwellings had been decorated with preserved bodies or parts of humans or other kzinti they had killed. There was none of that here, though there were some slightly discolored or unfaded patches on the high walls where such trophies might once have been mounted. The place was furnished with old Wunderland farmhouse furniture, too little for the room's more-than-human size, and with one of the Kzin-sized couches they called fooches. There were a couple of pictures, old Wunderland rural scenes mainly, not unlike those I had seen for sale at Gerning, or in the tourist shops at Munchen. One, however, was turned to the wall.

"Wait here," she said, and went up the stairs.

I waited. Despite the almost euphoric feeling of relative physical comfort and of relief from the zeitunger attack, my mental state was still pretty wretched—bruised, as it were—and I was fearful of being alone. I was also fearful of the unknown Kzin. There were no distractions. To give myself something to do, I went to the picture turned to the wall and examined it. Then I wished I hadn't. For it was not a picture but a mirror. I did not know why a mirror should be turned like that, but it did not seem reassuring. I began to think of ghouls and vampires. Did this woman wish to hide the fact that she had no reflection? A stupid, irrational thought for a modern man, a space-traveller come to that, but in my circumstances it got a toe-hold in my mind. Or could she not bear to look at herself?

Then she returned. She looked ordinarily human. Real, solid, and, I saw now, beautiful. I already knew that for a Wunderlander she was muscular. Her body was what I would once have called splendidly put together, though that seemed a suddenly crude and insulting way to express what I felt. She had changed into something less peasant-like: a multicolored robe of modern, or at least prewar, fabric. And though there was a hardness and strength in her face, there was also, I saw now, another quality, a tenderness, that I had never seen in Jocelyn's.

"You can stay," she said. "I would not turn you out tonight for the zeitungers anyway. You have already got a mind full of their poison, though it has not worked its way in too deeply yet. And there may be more of them out there. I have seen what happens before when they come in a pack across lone travellers, especially at night. And there may be other things. Come."

Cautiously, I followed her into a ground-floor pantry-like place. I made myself not think about the nonhuman size of the rooms and many of the other things, like the pantry's great meat-hooks. She gave me some food from a fairly modern automatic unit and we talked about a few inconsequential things. I suppose I babbled a bit, laughed at some things that were not really funny. I noticed some things about her of the sort that snag in the mind at such times. I may have paid her some silly, clumsy compliments. After a little such she laughed too.

Then there was a bathroom, where she left me for a while, with an adequate range of both human and Kzin-sized fittings, and a wonderful hot shower and soap, neither of which were things kzinti used, along with a modern dryer and human-sized basin and toilet. No mirrors, again, though, and that absence seemed odder here and uncomfortable once more. While I was cleaning myself up she must have been preparing a bed for me in one of the adjoining rooms. It was primitive enough—in space and even on Earth I was used to sleeping-plates—but when she led me to it the fabrics looked warm and clean and inexpressibly inviting. She massaged my ankle and put some dark ointment on it that felt hot but relieved the pain and a tight bandage that relieved it further. Not like modern medicine but it all moved me to another small speech of thanks.

"Rest now," she said. "I have things to do." She spread a cover over me and turned down the light. She closed the door firmly as she left.

I should have been alert to possible danger. But I simply lay there, savoring the warmth and dryness and comfort, watching through the high window-slits the rain, hail and lightning that could no longer reach me. I had no temptation to go exploring on my own at night in a Kzin-inhabited house.

It would have been nice, I thought, in the sort of sexual fantasy perhaps to be expected of a man in my condition, suddenly brought from the worst mental anguish imaginable, from great physical discomfort, pain and danger, to comfort and warmth, and a deeply lonely man in any case, if my hostess would open the door, enter wearing nothing but the robe I had last seen her in, shed it, and climb into the bed beside me.

It was different to most sexual fantasies however, because a few minutes later she did precisely that. She climbed into the bed beside me, and wrapped her limbs about me, naked, warm and willing. I had known nothing like her since . . . since Jocelyn. I did not believe she was real till I felt her full, heavy breasts against my face, the smooth, warm skin, the roughness and strength of her thighs, her lips moving over mine and whispering in my ear. She was a strong, beautiful, lover. And I turned to her not only with lust and passion but a desperate need. Whatever it was, she understood. She was erotically inventive as well as tender and sweet to me then. Save for her sounds of passion, and a command once, at the beginning:—"Lie still! Let me do it!"—she said little at first. At last, as I lay with my head on her chest, savoring the warmth and fullness of her breasts about my face, she spoke again.

"You'll not be good for much tomorrow," she told me.

"You are so energetic, then?" I had no intention of finishing our night at that point. She sat up in the bed, and I saw her in the dim light, a naked shape that was inexpressibly beautiful to me at that moment, surrendered to me, yet I saw the strength in every line of her body. I raised my hands to caress her.

"Whether I am or not, I speak of the zeitunger attack," she said when we paused. "I have seen the effects before. Believe me, this is therapy for you, though believe me also, that is not all it is. It has been a long time for me."

Her estimates of our demands for energy were not misplaced. Later we talked a little more, about the usual things in such circumstances, very quietly and gently, a lot of it not quite vocal, throat and lip noises. At last sometime during the night I fell asleep, holding her warmth, her softness, her loveliness and comfort, to me. But when I awoke she was gone.

When the next day came, black and stormy as the previous evening, I hardly noticed it. The aftermath of a zeitunger mind-attack, if you shake off the depression and don't let it drag you down into a sort of catatonia, is, after a delay which can vary from minutes to a day, an extremity of weakness and lethargy. I was grateful that for me the time-lag before it struck had been considerable

Gale's therapy, if that was what if was, had saved me from the worst of it, I think: at least a lot of the zeitunger poison she had purged away. I was simply drained of everything. But if she had saved me from the worst after-effects of the zeitungers, she had been right about what would be left for me, once the delayed effect of what they had done hit home.

If the bed I was lying in had somehow caught fire I might have been able to roll myself away from it by a supreme effort but again I'd not necessarily bet that way. I lay there as though drugged through the brief dark day, dozing, listening numbly to the thunder and the rain pounding outside, the water gushing from the eaves in thick torrents. I heard Gale's voice beyond the door, talking to the Kzin, I supposed, though I heard no Kzin voice in reply: those harsh hiss-spit nonhuman tones are unmistakable. In those hours I felt too mentally as well as physically weak to care about this whole bizarre set-up. If she wanted to act as housekeeper or whatever it was to a ratcat, it was altogether too odd for me to care or worry about then. She looked in on me at times, saw there was a blanket covering me and did the other usual things. She seemed to have done such things before, and be used to lifting. Well, many people on Wunderland had become experienced nurses. She held me for a while, but even while feeling her warm against me I was too weak to move.

By evening, though, I felt livelier. In fact I was feeling hungry. And I wanted her again. The sick, killing depression and feeling of mental anguish seemed largely gone even as a memory. But zeitunger influence on my central nervous system or not, I quite rationally didn't want to go venturing about the house alone. The resident Kzin might not take kindly to meeting a strange monkey wandering loose in its own lair without a proper introduction, and I was certainly in no shape for a dispute. I found Gale had repaired my torn shirt and trousers with sealant and added a local man's blouse which, if not modern fabric, at least did a little to keep the cold out. If it was inadaquate it was more than I expected, and a far more generous gift than it might appear: I had been briefed on the fact that after the decades of war and desperate shortages these rural Wunderlanders had powerful cultural and psychological inhibitions against giving away any possessions. I dressed and padded cautiously about the room. There was a picture on the wall of a man, bordered in black, and another picture of the same man with Gale and two small children. I remembered she said she was a widow.

Anxiety beginning to surface again. And questions without answers. Too many of them, I now thought. I had learnt again the previous day the old lesson that ignorance could be fatal. Anything to do with kzinti was dangerous. But there seemed to be no answers in this dimly-lit room. My thoughts started to run as if in a squirrel-cage.

There was a large cupboard standing by one wall—Wunderland rural, made from the local wood. Such a thing would have been worth a fortune on Earth, and it occurred to me that once the hyperdrive became economical and used for more than military purposes there would be new intersteller trades set up. Perhaps I could board that rocket while it was still on its launching-pad. That was a happy enough thought, but I had plenty of other thoughts not far beneath the surface still. After a few moments contemplation I discovered that the cupboard looked somehow sinister. That old phrase "skeleton in the cupboard." Whoever first coined it had a poetic talent of a sort, packing a story with a lot of very unpleasant, immediate and persistent imagery into four words. I opened the cupboard.

No skeleton. But other things. I knew these backwoods places often did not have autodocs, but this stuff seemed very strange. Bandages, like the bandage Gale had put on my ankle (bandages that could be used as restraints, perhaps?). Rolls of that old substance cotton-wool, which, like other things I had seen in this part of Wunderland, recalled my days at the museum and displays there of houses of the past.

There were a few old-fashioned medicines and applicators, including sprayers and tubes of fungicide. I didn't like that, but at least when I looked at them more closely they proved to be old Kzin miltary medical supplies—Kzin-specific, not human. They bore the dots-and-commas Kzin script which I could read somewhat and the winged-claw sign of the equipment of Chuut-Riit's regular armed forces. The sort of thing kzinti used in campaigning when there was no doc handy. Presumably they had been there since before the Liberation. There was a relatively modern garbage-disposal unit on the cupboard floor. It was a small, free-standing device and I guessed Gale had tidied it in there when she cleared the room for me. Its power had been turned off.

You can learn a lot about people from their garbage. But not this time. When I opened it, I saw a number of stained cotton-wool swabs. They appeared to be stained with blood. Of what type I couldn't tell in that light. Had I seen the same sort of things in the pantry? There were a few other odds and ends in the cupboard, which I thought had been made originally to hold clothes. The cupboard door had a black panel on its inside, which faced me when I opened it. It wasn't wood like the rest, and there seemed to be something odd about it. When I looked closely I found it was another mirror, painted over.

So much for the cupboard. I found it vaguely unsettling, and with no answers. No skeleton, anyway. I lay down again and waited till Gale reappeared. She was dressed in another colorful gown, a semi-formal one of clearly prewar style, a little more revealing than the last. Beautiful Gale.

"You're better, I know," she said after we had kissed. "But wait till later. We'll be dining shortly."

"I'm more than ready," I told her. And then, again rather clumsily, "And I thank you once more. If there is any way I can repay you for what you have done for me . . ." I was trying to convey several things and probably didn't do any of them properly. I raised my hands and caressed her. She responded, but there was something abstracted in her response. I asked her about the resident Kzin.

"He wants to see you," she said. I did not want to see him. I wanted to leave the first moment I could, preferably perhaps the next morning after another night warmed by her without having anything to do with any kzinti, to find my car or otherwise call for help—I supposed even this place had some sort of communications—get back to Gerning and have my ankle seen to, and get on with my life.

Thinking about another night with her though, and the previous night, made me wonder if this should be the end of the affair. I very definitely did not want it to be the end. Perhaps she would come too?

But one thing I had learned about backwoods Wunderlanders. They were sticklers for their own codes of hospitality. If this Kzin wanted to see me, as courtesy, and more, to Gale, I could not refuse. Indeed to have refused could have caused more than offence to her. I thought it might well have been enough to provoke the creature's hair-trigger anger, and perhaps against her as well as me. Did he still consider her his slave? And was he resentful about my handling of his property?

Anyway, I consented to his desire to see me. There seemed no alternative.

"Does he speak English or Wunderlander?" I asked. "I know something of the slaves' patois, and the script, but I cannot manage the Heroes' Tongue." In any case, I knew, it was an insult for a monkey to use the Heroes' Tongue to a kzintosh. During the Occupation it was a fatal insult.

"Conversation will not be required," she said. "He is not meeting you to converse." A few moments before, with the touch of her on my hands, and her lips on mine, I had felt positive and happy enough. Suddenly, things seemed abnormal and disturbing again. There was, I realized, strain in every line of her face and stance now, in every tone of her voice. This Kzin—or something—was making her do something against her will. No, I didn't like any of this at all.

"We will dine together," she said.

I didn't like that either. Not one bit. It was abnormal. Kzinti did not eat with humans. Monkey eating-habits disgusted them as theirs disgusted us. They tore and gulped at raw meat, often enough live meat. Those fangs could sheer the biggest bones.

A sudden hideous chill in my spine: kzinti did eat with humans, of course, when humans were the meal. Was that what this was all about? A trap to supply the Kzin with monkey-meat? Was I to be a course rather than a guest at the dinner? Was Gale some sort of bait for unwary travellers? Kzinti had sometimes—often—taken hostages to force humans to act against their wills. Those children?

I told myself I was being stupid, but a doubt remained. The main point with which I reassured myself was that if this Kzin was determined to eat me it could have done so the previous night, or at any time during the day just finished when I was virtually helpless. Or did they like their meat conscious and terrorized? They did when they ate a zianya, I knew. The glandular secretions of its terror and pain added flavor to the meat, and it was said they considered that flesh ripped from a zianya's body before it died to be especially delicious. Did they consider attacking a human recovering from a zeitunger pack-attack unsporting, as I had considered it unsporting to beam or shoot the tigripard from the air?

Should I run now? Bad ankle and all? Stupid. A human even with two sound legs could not hope to outrun a Kzin—many had tried. And to attempt to flee is guaranteed to provoke the attack reaction in them. Even Cumpston, who knew some individual kzinti far better than I did, had warned me that never, even in games with those he knew, would he make a feint of running from them. And Gale had the beam rifle. I could not outrun that.

Yet I could not believe anything so hideous.

Or could I? What good explanation for any of this could there be? And why, why was this woman living so, serving a Kzin as if humans were still their slaves on Wunderland? What hold did it have on her? I hadn't cared a little time before, but suddenly, as my mind came back towards normal, that question did matter. I remembered a horrible old story about the aftermath of an ancient human war and a surviving death-camp victim found protecting and serving his old torturer, hiding him from the vengeance of the liberators: "He promised to treat me better next time." Was there something like that here?

Or was there some explanation even worse? That Gale was acting as a willing bait in a trap? Acting from some perverted hatred of her own kind like Emma, or getting a share of the meat and a kick out of cannibalism? I had encountered crazy humans on Wunderland before—not very long before. Indeed it was they who had, I now realized, killed my love, my Jocelyn. Humans steeped in more tragedy than their minds could cope with, humans raised as privileged Kzin collaborators, humans twistedly pro-kzinti or simply wicked for wickedness' sake. That there were human cannibals on Wunderland I knew. There was not a sick perversion but some human would indulge in it. After decades of war and occupation madness was abroad on this planet. There was a rigid control about Gale, something damming and stopping her emotions, something desperately abnormal. She seemed to wish not to speak, to betray nothing, and yet was clearly under some terrible pressure.

Then Gale said something else. Defensively, as if she expected protest:

"His eyes are not . . . he does not like strong light. We will be dining in the dark."

I would be insane to agree to that. I had my suspicions about this Kzin and his meat-appetites already.

And yet . . . My sister Selina was said to have had latent telepathic abilities. I had never been tested but I had at least something—an erratic and occasional intuition about others—which, when I had felt it in the past, had stood me in good stead. I felt it now and it told me Gale was not lying about that half-stated fact of the creature's eyes, at least. Not exactly. But I was equally sure that she was keeping something back.

And I felt her care for me, her tenderness, was genuine. Or had she used sex to, among other things, deliberately confuse my perceptions?

I would be at every sort of disadvantage. Kzinti were happy to be night-hunters. Further, darkness enhanced the rudimentary sense they possessed which, in a few individuals, was developed into the power of the telepaths. If they were physically close to one in the dark, I had been told—and when I was told it, by a human under a bright sky, the idea of being physically close to one in the dark had made me shudder inwardly—even the nontelepaths could read something of one's state of mind. It was an ability evolved to help them to hunt out game that attempted to hide at night and in caves and other darknesses. Not that they often deigned to read monkeys' states of mind when they strode Wunderland as conquerors . . .

I should have refused absolutely. But something prevented me. Was it the fear and sadness in Gale's eyes? Was it some dawning feeling of love for her, that great destroyer of survival-instincts? The tenderness in her that I felt? Was it that the zeitunger attack had simply left me in no mental state to put up any resistance? Perhaps the desire not to appear a coward to her? And besides, if the Kzin wanted me dead, then I, alone, unarmed, and unable to run, was dead anyway. I allowed Gale to lead me towards whatever lay at the top of the stairs.

The dim orange light was still burning, and I quickly memorized the details and layout of the place as well as I could, noting thankfully that the dark would not be quite total and the Kzin would not, it seemed, be too close to me. There was a fire behind a screen near the place where I would evidently sit. That warmth was out of consideration for my too-light clothes, I supposed, and so I could see the food and cutlery in front of me at least. It was a very tiny fire, shielded by the screen, and looking at it I remembered something Rykermann had told me, one of those wayward thoughts which a mind seeking distraction from what is before it flees to: Rykermann believed that, possibly because of their flammable fur, kzinti without armor, in battle and house-to-house fighting, in the rare event that they were afraid of anything, were afraid to be with out-of-control fire in confined spaces. Hence the foam attachment on Gale's rifle. Sometimes, occasionally, that fact could be used.

There was one big central table, with another human-sized chair, plainly for Gale, about two-thirds of the way up, and a Kzin-sided chair—not one of their usual fooch recliners, I noticed—at the other end. I thought, with more unease that contained a great deal of real fear, that it would be easier for the Kzin to spring at me across the table from a sitting than a reclining position.

In my military studies of the kzinti I had come across a little about their dining habits. "But if you go into a Kzin dining-room you're in a lot of trouble anyway. If they've left you a weapon or you can improvise one, try to take as many of them with you as you can. Go for the eyes and tendons," had been one manual's advice on the correct etiquette for the situation. The table was standard enough, from what I had read, with its central notched runnel and ditch for blood, although I also noticed that runnel had no bloodstains, or at least no fresh ones. But the smell of blood was thick enough now. Kzinti loved the smell of blood. And there was no Kzin food here. Or not on the table.

Gale turned down the lights, leaving only the dimmest glow of the screened fire. True, there were still occasional lightning flashes outside the window, and a near one might light up the room, but I said nothing about that, or of my enhanced night-vision. But thanks to that little glow of the fire behind me, I would be looking from dim light into darkness, so my night-vision would be effectively nullified. Had she planned it that way? There is something horrible here! But it was too late to flee. I knew I would not make it even down the stairs.

She brought some bowls, placing one before me, and one before her own place. Then she brought another for the Kzin's place. I smelt blood even more strongly then. I think she may have seen how pale in the dim light my face was, or heard my hard breathing. She kissed me quickly on the cheek.

"Wait," she said.

She left me alone for a moment. I heard something heavy advancing. The Kzin was only a blot of darkness as it entered the room. I saw/sensed it moving into the great chair. Its progress seemed to take a long time. But kzinti are much faster than humans on their feet. Its footfalls were strange. It said nothing. Why did it say nothing? There was no explanation for any of this. I strained every bit of the poor mental faculty I had to sense something beyond sight. Gale was sitting towards the other end of the table, closer in the darkness to the Kzin than to me, but I sensed she was quivering with tension. Why a bowl? Kzinti tore meat. They did not eat out of bowls. Come to that, why had the Kzin not come out with Gale to hunt the zeitungers? Their night-vision was better than any human's, their reflexes faster, they hated zeitungers, and they loved hunting for its own sake.

"Eat," she said, and her voice was cracked with strain. Somehow I got a piece of food to my mouth. And then, "Let us be thankful for what has been provided."

Or was it a Kzin at all? There was the Kzin's gingery smell, unmistakable (or was it—that idea that had first crossed my mind when I entered this place!— a counterfeit of Kzin smell? I remembered that I had heard no Kzin voice in this house). The thing was big like a Kzin, bigger than a man. I could sense that unmistakably.

But its breathing was a shrill whistle, nothing like that of a Kzin, with a bubbling like nothing I knew, and the strange sucking noise it also made was not the noise of a Kzin eating. No Kzin sucked its food!

The lightning flared.

The head I saw in dim, momentary silhouette was not like a Kzin's head. Was that a trumpet-shaped protuberance? The lightning flared again, longer and brighter.

The thing I saw was not a Kzin.

I gave a roar of panic and terror from the bottom of my diaphragm, worse, more tearing, than a scream. Not a very courageous reaction from a decorated brigadier, but I tell myself now that my brain still had some zeitunger-poison in it. I leapt backwards in horror, knocking over the fire-screen, hitting the wall. The firelight flared brighter and the hideous thing seemed to leap at me. The walls were thick, as in any Kzin-built structure, and the small window deeply recessed. I jumped onto the window-sill, gibbering like a monkey. Then Gale turned on the light.

The ghoul, the thing, the obscenity, stared back at me.

I saw I was wrong. It was a Kzin. Or it had started out as one.

Both ears were completely gone—not merely ears but hair and skin and flesh. Much of the head was naked bone, veins led across it by some makeshift, ghastly amateur medical procedure. One eye was an empty, bony socket, the other partly occluded by a projecting keloid-scar. The nose and muzzle were gone, leaving only a red cavity. So too was the whole lower jaw gone, and the fangs of the upper jaw. There was only a wobbling fragment of tongue dripping blood and slaver and the hole of a gullet. I saw it had been feeding by sucking bloody liquid through a tube. There were stained lumps of cotton-wool lying near.

The Kzin raised its paws as if to hide its mutilated head. Paws, I saw, not hands. The fingers and claws were gone as well, and its fore-limbs were asymmetrical, the right one withered and twisted. Burns. Attached to the left one was a metal rod. I guessed it communicated by using this on a keyboard.

I had been aware of Gale's muscles when I saw her handle the rifle and then when we held each other in the night. Wunderlander or not, she had lived a strenuous life. She went to the Kzin now and helped it stand. I saw that for a Kzin it was a small one, the smallest male I had seen except for a telepath. It gazed at me from between its mutilated paws with its single half-eye. She said something to it I could not follow, then led it away. Again it took a long time, for it shuffled very slowly. There was something wrong with its legs and feet as well, and it was hunched and bent as if its spine was damaged.

I was left alone on the window ledge. I climbed down and returned to the table, breathing hard and trying to control myself and to retain my food. I was still sitting there when she returned

"He was in the ramscoop raid," she said. "He had run into a burning building and it collapsed while he was inside it. Now I keep him alive. He is ashamed to be seen. But after last night he wished to see you."

"You seek to torture him?" I understood very well how many on Wunderland hated the kzinti. Well, who could understand that better than I? But still I disliked torture for its own sake. And the state of this creature could inspire horror and revulsion but not, in a sane being, hatred.

"No, no!" There were tears on her cheeks. "But he wanted to feel if you were . . . if you were . . ." More tears, almost uncontrollable, like a dam breaking. After a time she calmed down.

"Then, if you wish to be kind, is it kind to let him live?" I asked. "I would have thought most kzinti would prefer to die and go their God rather than drag out life so reduced."

"He fears death because he is no Hero," she replied. "He believes that if he meets the Fanged God he will meet him as a coward and the God will regurgitate his soul into nothingness. For he did not get his wounds in battle. He was not a warrior kzintosh, you see. He never saw battle. His rank-title was Groom/Assistant-To-Healers. A medical orderly, a corpsman, a stretcher-bearer. Despised by other kzinti always. A humble, lowly semi-civilian. No Fighter's Privileges. If he had died in that burning building, or died of his injuries afterwards, he would not have died acceptably, in battle, on the attack. He had his injuries in a shameful manner. He fears to die now. I help him live."

"And for the same reason, I suppose, he hides away?" I asked.

"Yes. And so he did not want me to tell you. He wanted you to think he was a fearsome warrior . . . a Hero. It left him a little . . . pride. A little less shame. He is . . . often confused. I tried to tell him . . . that . . . that even as his own kind count such things, he would be . . ." She made a sound of helplessness.

I made some gesture, some sound, of non-understanding. "I have not heard of a Kzin who was ashamed of scars before," I said. "Quite the reverse."

She gave a peculiar, tearful smile. "No Hero," she said. "But there was more to it than that. After the building collapsed he was under the burning, smoldering, wreckage for a long time. There were other priorities in damage-control and rescue. While he was there the zeitungers got to him. They had been in the cellarage there, too, like your rats. Whether they could reach him physically to tear what was left of his flesh I don't know. But they tore his mind, for days. You can imagine that, now."

I could. Not the cruellest human being, I thought, who had experienced the zeitungers could but feel a throb of pity for this creature of a pitiless species. This wreck of a Kzin and I had something in common, I thought.

"The effect, as far as I can tell, on human and Kzin minds is parallel," Gale said. "What do kzinti fear? Many things, secretly. But to fail as Heroes perhaps most of all."

Even, perhaps, those far-off dreams of glory were something this lowly Kzin and Arthur Guthlac the museum guard had shared.

"They lodged their poison deep in his mind," she went on. "He was there with them too long. And you see the state he was already in." Kzinti, even nontelepaths, had that rudimentary telepathic sense more acute than that of nearly all humans. More receptive. I had no difficulty understanding that a prolonged zeitunger attack, setting up patterns and paths in the brain, would be a different matter to the brief one I had endured. And the zeitungers themselves would presumably then have been filled with animal fear and panic. I tried briefly to imagine an unremitting zeitunger attack if one was already desperately injured and mutilated, blind, trapped, alone, helpless, in agony, hour after hour as fire crept closer. After a very short time I stopped doing that. Again, as I stopped shaking, the wan ghost of a smile crossed her strained face. This Wunderland woman was at least as tall as me, and our eyes were level. "Unlike your case," she said, "there was no treatment." Our faces moved together and I found myself kissing her again, gently, tenderly.

"Yet that," she went on after a moment, "may be another reason he struggles to live. To die of such shame and despair would be a victory for the zeitungers."

"Why has he had no modern treatment since?" I asked. "For anything? Body or mind?"

"Treatment? How?"

I did not understand everything yet, but I wanted to be gentle with her. At least some of my ghastlier and more grotesque fears and suspicions about her and this Kzin seemed wrong. I put my arms around her and stroked her hair and after a moment she rested her head on my shoulder, hiding her face against me.

"I know an old kzintosh warrior, Raargh, who has many wounds from the war," I told her. "One arm and one eye are not his own, and his knees are metal. His scars are honored and honorable among the kzinti. There are kzintoshi with sons"—was I babbling a little now?—"who point them to the likes of Raargh as Heroes to emulate. But he had his wounds in battle."

"Then he is fortunate among the kzinti. This one they would despise. Or so he believes."

"But your Kzin could have a better life," I told her. "Far better. There is good surgery. Transplants, prostheses, quick nerve, bone and tissue-growth are available now. For kzinti as well as humans. His mind, too, perhaps. There are facilities . . .

"Raargh lives well enough, even as kzinti count such things," I went on. "In hunts he pulls down game with his prosthetic arm and his artificial eye allows him to see in the dark." When I thought of Raargh I knew again that I felt rather more warmly to him than to most of the creatures. I remembered certain things that had happened in the caves. "He has adopted a youngster who is his pride and joy and I think he is getting more sons of his own."

"In the city hospitals, perhaps, and for the Herrenmanner and their clients, there is such treatment," she replied, raising her eyes. "What money do we have for that?" I remembered what a backwoods part of Wunderland this was.

"And who would help a Kzin?" she added after a moment, with genuine puzzlement in her voice. "The kzinti have no power. On this planet they are destroyed. And I was no collaborator. I did my part to destroy them."

"It costs nothing," I said. "Part of the terms we offered the kzinti on this planet when we made peace was that their wounded would be treated."

I saw her face change.

"I did not know that!" Her face lit so that she looked a different person. Then it fell again. "But how would we get there?"

Explaining the new political situation in the cities would have taken a long time. I owed this deformed Kzin little enough, thinking of what the kzinti had done to me and mine. But I owed Gale. If she had done nothing but save me from the zeitungers, I would have owed her. Anyway, she was a beautiful and desirable woman and, it seemed, an innocent one. And if I felt dawning love for her, along with desire, I suppose I also wanted to impress her. I took the identity-disk from my neck and passed it to her, my fingers twining round hers as I did so—a strange situation for lovers to be courting!

"You see my rank? I am a brigadier general attached to the UNSN general staff. At present on leave. But I can arrange transport for him . . . and you."

I had become embarassed by my earlier behavior. Now I was embarrassed by her reaction to my words. She went down on her knees and clasped my own. She kissed my hands, where the previous night she had kissed my lips. Her face was like a light of joy. I raised her to her feet and, holding her, walked with her to the window. Together we looked out. The lightning flashes were definitely further away now, the rain was thinning and, I guessed, the floods would subside quickly. I accepted all that she said, but one question remained.

"I still don't understand," I told her. "A Kzin. An enemy. An invader of this planet who would have enslaved and destroyed us all. Yes, his burns and injuries are terrible. But why do you care for him so?"

There were sounds behind us. The mutilated Kzin shuffled slowly into the room again. Evidently it had decided to face me, with courage of a kind that I hoped I would never need, though it still held its paws as if to try to hide what was left of its head from my sight. But it looked less horrible now. It made some gestures to Gale that she plainly understood.

She went to a dresser and took a bottle that I recognized: bourbon, something both species drank. She took two glasses for us and another bowl that she put in front of the Kzin, pouring a little into each.

"I will explain to him," she said. "Things must be explained to him carefully."

"But first," she said, "we usually drink a toast each night." And then, raising her glass, "To my children."

Following her example, I drank. The Kzin, manipulating its trumpet with difficulty between its paws, dipped it into its bowl and sucked.

Without words I understood, and I saw that she knew I understood.

"Yes," she said. "He held up the building while they escaped."



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