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Echoes of Distant Guns

Matthew Joseph Harrington

I: Silent Partners

Quartermaster noticed the Named were getting upset again, and quietly set his subordinates and their slaves to checking fabrication procedures and inventory. A few days later, his guess proved right, but far beyond his expectations: Commandant's Voice announced that a Hthnarrit would soon be arriving on Fuzz, bringing a fleet to be supplied.

This was exciting. Quartermaster had never seen a Patriarch's Companion, nor met anyone who had. He signed out a disintegrator to keep the landing field clear, it being seeding time again, but otherwise stayed out of the way and let his staff do their jobs. Clearing the field was the only entertaining part anyway—the tufty airborne seeds that everything threw out burned spectacularly when their molecules started breaking up.

When Gnyr-Hoth's own ship had set down, and all formal courtesies had been exchanged, the Companion's first question was, "Who arranged the fireworks display while we landed?"

"Oh, that was only Quartermaster clearing debris off the field," replied Hur-Commandant. "The local plant life produces large amounts of fuzzy seeds on a regular basis. He ignites them with a disintegrator."

"Clever. Take us to him." Gnyr-Hoth turned to pick out a couple of kzintoshi from his entourage, waved the rest onward, and turned back to say, "Which way?"

Hur-Commandant hadn't earned his partial Name by being slow to adapt. "That building, Gnyr-Hoth." He was extremely startled when the Hthnarrit immediately began sprinting toward it, but promptly followed suit.

Quartermaster saw the group approaching, had no idea why, and told his staff, "Disperse throughout the warehouse. Fabrication Chief, if I'm in trouble, you're in charge. Wait in the office."

"Yes, sir.—They don't seem hostile, sir."

"Thanks," said Quartermaster, who had no ziirgrah sense at all. "Go anyway." He turned to face the door as his deputy left. When the Hthnarrit entered, Quartermaster came to attention and saluted, then waited to be addressed.

Gnyr-Hoth didn't particularly look like one of the 2,048 deadliest kzinti alive. He was a little smaller than average, not very heavy, and had no interesting scars . . . though that last fact suggested that most of the scars from his duels had been left on other, larger, kzintoshi. He set his feet very lightly, as if concerned about damaging the concrete floor, and his movements were almost decorative. "You're Quartermaster?" he said, having noted Quartermaster's inspection.

"Sir, I am."

"Tell me what you're thinking. Be informal."

"I . . . was wondering if you'd ever danced in a play, sir."

Hur-Commandant's ears folded about halfway shut. (But nobody else seemed disturbed.)

Gnyr-Hoth didn't object to the implication that he might have been employed, and as an entertainer at that. "No. One of my combat instructors sent me to a school for dancers. I was walking too loudly. Innovative teacher, won the Name Kchula."

Quartermaster's ears opened wide with surprise for a moment, then he went back to rigid attention.

"Remain informal, Quartermaster. You knew him?"

"Possibly, sir. The exec of our division on Chunquen-aga was Named Kchula. He had very dark stripes, and a little hole just near the bottom of the fan of his left ear, sir."

"I'm flattered he never had it fixed. It was as close as I ever got—lost my temper with him one day. Worst beating I ever had. You were Second Battle Specialist of the 4416th Infantry?"

"Why, yes, sir. Were you there?"

"No, in those days I was in the Grand Admiral's Guard. But that's a distinctive scar, and everyone in the sector heard about the Hero who fought on with the hole in his head. Tough opponents there, constantly practicing."

"That was you?" Hur-Commandant asked in astonishment.

"Yes, sir," Quartermaster replied, the scar between his right eye and ear suddenly itching horribly.

"Why don't you have a Name?" Hur-Commandant wondered.

"After I got out of regeneration I had no urge to fight, sir," Quartermaster said. "Some kind of brain damage."

One of the Hthnarrit's entourage spoke: "He needs to scratch."

"Go ahead," Gnyr-Hoth said.

Quartermaster scratched the scar gratefully and thoroughly, and took the opportunity to inspect the new speaker surreptitiously.

This one was built the way Quartermaster had expected a Patriarch's Companion to be: heavily muscled, one of the biggest kzintoshi he'd ever seen—except that his eyes were faintly bloodshot with purple capillaries. A telepath.

A remarkably healthy telepath, and not a timid one, either.

Gnyr-Hoth said, "Do you still hunt, at least?"

Both local kzinti acquired identical disgruntled tail droops. "The biggest prey here is smaller than my head," Quartermaster said.

"Unless you count God's Hairballs," Hur-Commandant joked.

"Count what?" exclaimed Gnyr-Hoth.

"A local animal that settles in one spot at maturity," said Quartermaster. "They seem to have a lure scent for food, or something. Basically a big pile of hair, about this high, like God's been grooming without brushes and hasn't been getting any fat in his diet. Horrkkk."

Amused, Gnyr-Hoth said, "Edible?"

Telepath suddenly whirled about, and looked all around frantically. Gnyr-Hoth whipped out sidearm and wtsai, ready to kill the detected foe, but after a few moments Telepath straightened up and said, "I'm sorry, sir. I don't know what made me do that."

"Better wrong than surprised," Gnyr-Hoth said. "So, are they good meat?" he resumed as he put away his weapons.

"I've never had any, but I understand the flavor is disgusting," Quartermaster said.

"I seem to recall reports that the initial settlement had some food-poisoning cases, too," Hur-Commandant tossed in.

"Urr, well, we should be bringing you some better prey in a few years. Scouts have discovered new aliens. When this fleet is refitted it'll be taking one of their worlds. Shouldn't be hard, they keep trying to talk rather than fight," Gnyr-Hoth said. "They're some kind of primate, so they should taste pretty good."

"Will we be getting them as slaves?" Quartermaster said hopefully. "Primates have good hands."

"What was that?" Telepath screamed, making everyone but Gnyr-Hoth leap a considerable distance into the air. Telepath began lashing out wildly, as if blind.

Gnyr-Hoth swept a foot under Telepath's legs, knocked him down, rolled him over, tore open Telepath's medical kit, selected a pressure hypo, and administered it. Telepath stopped thrashing almost at once, and Gnyr-Hoth rose and said sadly, "He was really good, too. Very sensitive. . . . Perhaps that's why he broke so young."

Quartermaster gestured for his staff, and a Kdatlyno came up with a cart and loaded Telepath onto it. "Medical, now," said Quartermaster, and the slave departed at full speed.


What did you do that for? one Grog asked the one who'd acted.

He kept noticing whenever we had to make adjustments. Besides, those new aliens may be worth getting to know, the latter Grog told her. They seem to like to talk to new people, and we could certainly use some good hands.

What does that have to do with—began the first, then stopped as her neighbor revealed her plan. Oh, I get it.

Yes, he'd have noticed the little altered spots in everyone else's memories, no matter how often we made him forget.

I'd better pass this on, the first commented. Someone may land with one of those mind readers at one of the bases we can't reach from here.

Good thinking.


Quartermaster's top crew went through the biggest vessel, sure to be designated the flagship, with exacting care, bringing everything up to specifications. The ships had been collected from all over the Empire, and each had been whatever could be spared from a given station. Most needed considerable attention.

He went through the ship continuously, inspecting the work himself. He carried a gamma-ray annealing beamer, to restore temper to spot welds.

Down in the auxiliary power room, which had required commendably little work, he checked what his Jotoki had done, squirming between monocrystal support struts to get a look at the fusion waste disposal manifold. It was fine. He got back out and looked over the struts, which were naturally in perfect shape—they couldn't be repaired onsite, only replaced, and the old ones recast. They had to be all one piece.

Quartermaster took his annealer and directed it about a third of the way up one of the main struts, causing the monocrystal to separate into trillions of microscopic domains, like ordinary metal. In a space battle, the struts had to be utterly rigid. Now, though, the proper shear stress would tear the strut, rip the manifold, spray plasma through the power room, and with any luck blow the bottom third of the ship clean off.

It could be years before it happened, but there were other things that could be done to other spaceships. Things that would increase casualties. Things that would give the primate-type aliens a chance. They couldn't be all the same, or somebody would notice the pattern. Somebody out of range.

Out of range of what? Quartermaster suddenly wondered. Then he remembered the manifold was fine, and he had many more inspections to make.

There was a war on, and everyone had his part to do.

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