All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and
rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should
act towards one another in a spirit of fellowship.
-- Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of
The UNSN battleship Crusader dropped
out of hyperspace and drifted. Captain Ayla Cherenkova looked
out into the star dusted night, watching as the scene slowly
rotated in the transpax. She was hoping to pick up 61 Ursa
Majoris, Kzinhome's star. From this distance it would be a
brilliant flare, powerful enough to cast shadows, easy to
find. If she was on the command bridge she would have known
whether Crusader's rotation would bring it into view,
because she would have known Crusader's orientation.
But she was not on the command bridge, she was in the targeting
control blister, observing over the shoulder of the gunnery
officer as a passenger. Crusader's weapons systems
were powered up, but if she was seriously expecting a fight
Cherenkova would have been required to be in the crash position
in her stateroom. It wasn't an arrangement she was comfortable
with and it rankled, not for the first time on the voyage.
Trying to find their destination star was just a distraction
to quell her desire to be on the bridge. Crusader already
had a captain. She didn't need two.
After half an hour of searching she gave up. If Kzinhome's
star was in her field of view, she couldn't pick it out. She
was just about to turn away from the window when a kzinti
battleship appeared out of nowhere and halted, decelerating
from who knew what velocity to zero relative in an eyeblink.
The gunnery officer was strapped into his combat couch but
Cherenkova jumped backwards reflexively, although if the maneuver
had turned into a collision the reaction wouldn't have saved
her from two million metric tons of warship coming through
the transpax windows at some hundreds of metres per second.
She picked herself up off the floor and looked at the alien
warcraft. She was not two hundred metres away, bristling with
weapons and absolutely stationary, velocity vector completely
killed with respect to Crusader. The kzinti captain
had tremendous faith in his navigation computer.
Cherenkova allowed herself a wry smile. It may be the
ratcat has tremendous faith in his pilot. It wasn't beyond
the kzinti to shoot a precision approach on manual. They might
even see it as a point of honor.
"It's huge." Major Quacy Tskombe had come up behind
her, tall, broad shouldered, dark complexioned in an age were
social mobility had blenderized most racial markers. He was
intelligent and articulate as well, a refined surface that
made him well suited for a diplomatic mission, though his
eyes hinted at dangerous depths to his character. She was
used to military men, but war in space was not ground combat,
and the difference showed in the way he moved, as lithe and
powerful as a kzin, a lethal force restrained by will. He
undeniably attractive, more than that, he was intriguing,
but Cherenkova carefully avoided showing even the slightest
hint of interest. A liaison would be a pleasant diversion
for the duration of their mission, but the mission itself
was too important to muddy the interpersonal waters with sex.
She nodded, pointing. "See the paired launch tubes?
That's a Hunt class battlewagon." She paused to figure
out the dots-and-commas script on the warship's prow. "Fanged
Victory. She's got terawatt gamma ray laser turrets and
a spinal mount meson cannon as primary weapons. She carries
four wings of dual role fighters, eight heavy assault landers
and a brigade of shock troops."
"All kzin are shock troops." Tskombe wore the
valor Cross for the defence of the Kirlinkon base on Vega
IV. He would know. "Could we stand up to it in a fight?"
"Crusader could. You and I might not survive
He paused to examine the other ship more closely. The kzin
warcraft had the beauty of raw power. She was watching his
eyes, saw them widen. He pointed. "Could we stand up
to two of them?"
She followed his finger. A second battleship had appeared,
this one not quite so close. She shook her head. "We'd
make them know they'd been in a fight though."
He nodded silently, his finger unconsciously tracing the
long scar that ran across his cheek from ear to chin where
a kzin he'd thought was dead had come within inches of decapitating
him. Crusader was here in kzinti space by invitation,
safe passage guaranteed. Nevertheless the display of firepower
could not help but be intimidating, a physical reminder of
the magnitude of the task they were undertaking.
Tskombe turned. "We should go. The ambassador is ready
in the docking bay."
"If we must." Cherenkova was a line officer, command
experienced, combat blooded, with more than enough success
on her record to warrant command of a ship like Crusader.
Her mistake had been learning to speak the Hero's tongue,
or rather in allowing that fact to be put on her personnel
file. Now instead of a line command she was here as the naval
attaché to the Special Mission to Kzinhome. It was,
she had been told, a great honor to be among the first group
ever formally invited to be in the Patriarch's presence under
flag of truce. She would rather have been offered the battleship,
her form of diplomacy worked better with seeker missiles.
So far as she was concerned, it was the only kind that worked
with kzinti at all.
The shuttle was waiting for them, and Lars Detringer was
there to see them off.
"Good luck Captain." He offered his hand.
"Thank you Captain." Ayla shook it. Might as
well be professional.
He didn't let her hand go, met her eyes. "I mean it
Ayla. Be careful down there."
"I will." She gave him a warmer smile than she'd
intended to, squeezed his hand with feeling. She and Lars
had walked the thin edge between friendship and rivalry since
the Academy. His assignment to Crusader had stung,
and the way he'd landed it hadn't made her happy. But that's
the way the game is played, and he just recognized that earlier
than I did.
She moved on as he gave more formal best wishes to Tskombe.
They were the last ones into the passenger compartment. Kefan
Brasseur was studiously reading last minute reports on the
diplomatic situation on W'kkai. He was the ambassador, an
academic from Plateau of aristocratic Crew descent and the
nominal leader of their group. His bearing bordered on arrogant
but there was no disputing his tremendous knowledge he had
accumulated in a lifetime of studying kzin culture. Across
from him, large enough to make Tskombe look small, was Yiao-Rrit,
the Patriarch's Voice, his fur the characteristic tiger striped
dark orange of the Patriarch's line. He was clearly cramped
in the confines of the shuttle but seemed relaxed enough.
He was wound far less tightly than she had expected him to
be, being almost offhand with his offering and receipt of
honorifics. She was not entirely comfortable dealing with
kzinti on friendly terms, and she had consistently avoided
being drawn into the poetry games he and Brasseur played to
pass the time in hyperspace.
They waited in silence while the ramp was sealed and the
pilots did their cross check. Then the bay doors slid open
and the shuttle lifted and slid out into space. Cherenkova's
stomach tightened. They had crossed the point of no return.
She was walking straight into the stronghold of her enemies.
"I smell your anger, Cherenkova-Captain." Yiao-Rrit's
voice was a purring rumble.
She looked up sharply. "A great many lives have been
" She stopped before she said what she wanted
to say. Her anger was more personal than that. "A great
many more hang in the balance here." I have learned
to speak like a diplomat.
"I have no doubt you will perform as a warrior should."
She nodded. "Perhaps too many of us have been performing
too well as warriors." Where did that come from?
She wondered a little at her own thought processes. She had
trained half her life for starship command, dreamed of it
since she was a little girl. She had worked hard, very hard,
to get where she was and she took tremendous pride in herself
as a combat commander.
But the job of a warrior was to destroy the enemy. In
the end all I am is a hired killer for the state. She
was by now world wise enough to know that the UN government
was not as pure as it made itself out to be. The higher she
rose the more duplicity and corruption came into play. At
the rank of senior captain politics played as much role in
assignment and promotion as ability, which was why Lars Detringer
was standing on Crusader's command bridge instead of
her. At the rank of admiral considerations of status and power
began to take priority. At the level of the General Assembly
She didn't want to think about that. The holocasters uncovered
scandal after scandal, nepotism, patronage, influence peddling,
bribery, blackmail, theft in the millions, fraud in the trillions
and not infrequently murder to cover it all up, but nothing
ever changed. Before the kzinti came the UN had used liberal
applications of psychodrugs and extensive and intrusive surveillance
to keep its citizens in line. After the kzinti a continuous
alternation between war and the threat of war had been sufficient
excuse to keep the rights of the populace from interfering
with the prerogatives of power. The armed forces served to
protect humanity from the kzinti, but they also served to
protect the government from humanity, and Cherenkova was all
too aware that frequently the second role was more important
than the first.
Perhaps that's why I'm so uncomfortable around Yiao-Rrit.
He was the Patriarch's brother, a major force in the rule
of the Patriarchy and he had pledged his honor to her safety
as her escort. Yiao-Rrit lived by his honor code and she was
quite sure he would die by it if that became necessary, which
was more than she could say of any politician and most of
her command structure. She owed her loyalty to her race and
her anger at kzinti aggression ran deep, but where did it
leave the honor of her service when her enemy was more worthy
of her respect than her own chain of command?
It took under a minute for the shuttle to cover the short
distance between the two craft, another couple for the kzinti
hanger to be sealed and pressurized. Yiao-Rrit took the opportunity
to rummage in his travelbag. He handed them ornate crimson
sashes with a heavy metal badge on front and back.
"You must wear these at all times."
"What are they?"
"This symbol is the sigil of the Patriarch, demonstrating
that you are under his protection. Without these you may be
killed as game."
Tskombe didn't look pleased, but said nothing. He too was
accustoming himself to speak as a diplomat. Brasseur had been
chosen because of his knowledge of kzinti culture, and Cherenkova
was sure he was an intelligent choice for the role. She and
Tskombe had been picked because it was felt the kzin would
respect their considerable combat experience. The wisdom of
that decision remained to be seen.
The ramp hissed and slid open, and Cherenkova looked out
into a sea of predatory faces. I have nothing to be afraid
of. Her hands were slick with sweat as she put the sigil
over her head.
Yiao-Rrit sniffed the air and looked at her. "You are
in no danger Cherenkova-Captain. You are under the protection
of the Patriarch."
He was right of course. That didn't stop the danger signals
leaping from her hindbrain to her adrenal glands. The lead
kzin came aboard and performed a ritual cringe before Yiao-Rrit.
"I abase myself, sire. I am Chmee-Captain. I trust
your journey was successful."
Yiao-Rrit returned the salute with a relaxed paw wave. "It
"We have quarters prepared for your guests, and entertainments
for the in-fall."
"Excellent." Supple-armed Jotok slaves took the
human's baggage and led them into the depths of the ship.
Cherenkova found their quarters spacious. In fact everything
aboard the alien warcraft was spacious by human standards,
but the gravity was set too high and the lighting made everything
orange. The kzinti had expected her to share accommodations
with Tskombe. Brasseur had been given his own stateroom as
leader of the mission. She felt a little thrill at that news,
and the conflict in her heart between desire and duty rose
a notch, but Brasseur chivalrously volunteered to trade on
his own. She hadn't expected that of him, but he was Plateau
Crew. It was probably noblesse oblige. She couldn't
protest, and though the move spared her from temptation she
couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.
Sleeping arrangements were a couch as big as a king sized
bed, covered in pillows and blankets. The washroom was a high
technology sandbox in an alcove paneled in scented wood, she'd
figure that out when she had to. Food was waiting for her,
thick slices of alien meat piled high on a platter, elabourately
prepared and seasoned and absolutely raw, with a thin bladed
knife as the sole eating utensil. They'd given her a hydrogen
torch to cook it with.
She considered it at some length. It can't be more alien
than squid. She wasn't that hungry yet.
The door slid open and a kzin stood there, all fangs and
claws, pupils contracted to narrow slits. What were kzin protocols
about knocking and privacy? Brasseur had lectured them endlessly
on kzin history and society, but it was the small details
that mattered. She realized she had much to learn if she was
going to do her job properly, and she was going to have to
learn it in a hurry.
"You are the kz'eerkti Cherenkova-Captain?"
Its words were slurred but intelligible. Kz'eerkti was the
common semi-slang term for humans in the Hero's Tongue, the
name of a tree dwelling vaguely monkeylike species on Kzinhome.
It could be used as an insult, or simply descriptively.
"Yes." She nodded, reflexively, not sure if the
kzin would understand the gesture. Would Brasseur be as lost
as she was? Academic knowledge was not practical experience,
but he had lived twelve years on W'kkai.
"I am Second Officer. At the invitation of Chmee-Captain,
there is a dance display in honor of Yiao-Rrit's return."
A dance display? She tried to imagine the huge carnivore
before her dancing and nearly laughed at the image. That would
be bad. Laughing showed teeth and showing teeth meant challenge,
she knew that much at least. She considered, looked again
at the bloody slabs of meat on the platter, looked at her
beltcomp. It was more than twenty hours until planetfall on
Kzinhome. Watching the display would give her something to
do, and might give her some new understanding of kzin culture.
And it certainly would be an experience she'd never have
again in her life. That decided her.
"Yes, I'll go."
Second Officer gave her a claw rake salute and left, and
Cherenkova decided that he had meant kz'eerkti in its purely
descriptive sense. He was probably as uncomfortable with interspecies
protocols as she was. We call them ratcats anyway, because
they look like naked tailed tigers, and that's both descriptive
The display was held in a large room with wide tiers going
down to a circular stage area in the centre. The tiers were
padded for reclining, too large to be easy steps for a human.
She clambered down to where Brasseur and Tskombe were already
waiting and exchanged greetings. A tier below them Chmee-Captain
and Yiao-Rrit snarled amicably back and forth, their voices
quasi-musical in the room's excellent acoustics. She had the
déjà vu experience of a night out at the opera,
waiting for the show to begin while the orchestra tuned up.
She made herself comfortable, sitting back against the next
tier. The padding material was resilient and warm and as she
settled the lights suddenly went down and a rhythmic beat
For several minutes that was all there was. The music built
in tempo and volume, and then a spotlight came on and a kzin
leapt onto the stage, pelt a uniform tawny gold and small,
at least by kzin standards, with a distinctive dark tail-tuft.
The dancer looked left, then right, pounced forward and then
crawled, head low to the ground, tail twitching from side
to side. Perhaps the dance simulated hunting.
Brasseur pointed excitedly. "I've heard of this, I've
never seen it. This is a stylized version of the offering
display where a female is gifted from pride to pride."
Female? Cherenkova looked, saw for the first time
the prominent teats. All of a sudden she saw the dancer's
movements in a whole new light.
"Aren't the females non-sentient?"
Brasseur nodded. "In relative terms they are, but they're
smarter than chimpanzees, just to put them in human perspective.
They have language and tool use. These dances take months
of training, and skilled trainers command considerable strakh."
"Reputation or status, more or less. Kzinti have no
currency, they trade based on strahk. If you have high strakh
you will be offered fine goods by the best craftsman, invitations
to high profile hunts, even fealty by other kzin. By accepting
you enhance the strakh of the giver as well as your
own. Only the finest crafters have their work accepted by
the nobility. If you have lower strakh you wouldn't
be made the offer in the first place."
"How do they keep track of it?"
"How do you keep track of who owes you a favor? It's
their culture, they just do." He pointed at the stage.
"Shh, it's the next sequence."
Another kzinrette had joined the first and the dance became
an intricate pairing of symbolisms, mother and kitten, hunter
and prey, male and female in mating. Some of the meanings
were unclear, but there was a sensuous, powerful beauty to
the way the lithe females swayed and stretched in syncopy
with the rhythm. A third leapt in and the movements became
more complex, the three circling nose to tail, reversing,
leaping outwards. Again the movements clearly symbolized roles,
maybe entire stories, but they were now too abstracted for
Cherenkova to tell what they meant.
One of the dancers leapt upwards and yowled, a long, earsplitting
wail. Cherenkova clapped her hands over her ears. Brasseur's
fascinated absorption with the display didn't waver, but beside
him Tskombe grimaced. The intricately unfolding dance was
beautiful, the steady percussion rhythm compelling. The wail
cut across the experience like a rusty band saw. The kzinrette
sounded like nothing more than a wildcat in desperate heat.
The next dancer in the circle leapt upwards and yowled, if
anything louder and longer than her sister.
Cherenkova looked at Yiao-Rrit and Chmee-Captain in front
of her, leaning forward, tails twitching with ill concealed
eagerness and realization dawned. The kzinrette were wildcats
in desperate heat. She was watching an alien strip show. The
third dancer leapt and wailed. She looked at her beltcomp.
They were still more than twenty hours from Kzinhome.