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 Human Rights.

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 it."

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 lost…" 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 was, Chmee-Captain."

"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 and derogatory.

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 began.

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."

"What's 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.

The War Starts in -3510 Days

Cover Story:
Stephen Hickman

On the Wars:
Toni Weisskopf

     Chapter 1  
     Chapter 2  
     Chapter 3  
     Chapter 4  
     Chapter 5  


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