Dr. Marybeth Bonet swore softly to herself as she tried to get two different sets of computer codes disentangled from each other. If Lt. Thomas Dalkey hadn’t been so handsome she would have killed him. He was navigator of the Cormorant, a heavily armed packet ship patrolling the edges of the solar system against the enemy. He’d earned a number of medals for courage and heroism defending human space against the sudden invaders. Unfortunately, he had also had the brilliant idea of tying the autochef into the main computer so it could be programmed from the bridge in emergencies. Why didn’t people read the manual?
She was used to this kind of thing. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to fix these little problems, especially since she’d designed a lot of the food programs in the first place. Admittedly, Dalkey hadn’t complained about the eternal diet of waffles the autochef now seemed to favor. He’d asked for help only when the roast beef and gravy sequence had showed up in the star charts. As a civilian expert, she was more used to hearing grumbling about the food.
Marybeth had three main options. One was to exercise her global search and destroy option and restore both computers to their original configuration through manual recovery procedures. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible in the middle of this mission, or she would never have been sent out here from Terra in the first place. The giant felines that called themselves the kzinti were an ever-present threat. As she thought about them, she bit her lip with anger. The human race had finally learned how to live with itself until they came. They had disrupted everything in less than a generation. She glanced down at the knife she wore in its sheath on her thigh. Even that was a sign how far the kzinti had driven the humans out of their new Garden of Eden. Anything she could do to make the aliens pay was worth it. Granted, humans now had decent gravity systems on ship since adapting stolen kzinti ones—but it was a poor trade.
Her second option was to make Tom’s plan work without disrupting either system. There wasn’t enough time, though. She copied off his preliminary attempts, in case she could do something with them once she was back. The idea itself wasn’t so bad, but the execution needed work. Marybeth proceeded as swiftly as she could on her third option, which was to delete any extraneous material from both systems. She had already designed an override sequence to allow the autochef to accept new menu items now, while Dalkey had nearly cleaned out the nav computer. Unfortunately, the override sequence was rather unwieldy. If there was enough memory left, she could boil it down into a macro or even install it to the normal add menu, then dump it once it was no longer needed.
Marybeth closed down, sighed, then stripped in the small changing room next to the even tinier shower. If she was going to get sweaty, she’d rather do it with Tom Dalkey, and not slaving over a hot autochef! All the crew members had shown interest in her when she’d transferred to the Cormorant. Being recognizably female helped, though she sometimes wondered if that was an absolute requirement on a ship starved for new faces. Still, as a pale office blob she rarely got such attention except on temporary duty jaunts and she enjoyed it.
The only one she felt anything for, surprisingly enough, was Tom Dalkey, the handsome, dark-skinned navigator who’d caused the problem in the first place. It’d started as pure pheromones, but she wondered if it could be something more eventually. She’d liked the way he smiled at her when he ducked his head to get into the galley, and had learned to like everything else about him, too. She grinned to herself as she hung up the knife in its sheath by her clothes. She’d had to ‘accidentally’ forget it three times before Tom got brave enough to proposition her.
Her smile faded. Another social change chalked up to the kzinti. Leaving the Golden Age had put a lot of women right back where they’d started. Warrior instinct expressed itself at home as well as out in space. A compromise made in the region once known as the Pacific Northwest was to allow only women to have knives sharp enough to cut durasteel, easily spotted by the blue-green tinge of the metal on their edges, as if the rattlesnake sheath wasn’t enough. Fortunately the gossip shows adored focusing on the custom, while Detective Darla Dagger was the most popular character on Cascade Cop. It certainly saved time explaining things.
Marybeth snickered when she remembered the combination hygiene and knife-fighting class her and her friends had taken as young adolescents, known as “The Miracle of Life and How to Avoid It”. The Alderson boy had been lucky to lose only two fingers when he’d picked on the class wimpette after her first lesson… All the girls had thrown Jenny Hooks a party, once her and the boy had gone through the inquiry process. Jenny could have lost her right to carry the knife for up to three years if she’d done it maliciously. Marybeth remembered hearing about a woman who’d lost it for life after killing someone in a robbery.
She gently patted the knife’s hilt and draped her clothes over it. The one time she’d had to use it to defend herself, she’d thrown up afterwards. It still beat knowing she was at the mercy of anyone stronger than she was. Besides, the court had cleared her completely.
And it made wanting someone all that much more fun when she knew it was her idea!
She smiled to herself as she squeezed into the shower tube and turned on the water. If she positioned herself just right, the jets hit exactly where she meant them to. A pity these things weren’t big enough for two! Marybeth fantasized what she and Tom were going to do when the computers were all tucked in their beds. The hot, soapy water rushed over her body…
She heard an enormous bang. The shower’s emergency seal whirred shut. Marybeth hit her head on a sprayer as a jolt sent her into the wall. Some of the water turned pink as it ran into the recycler. The small compartment tilted all the way to the side, then righted itself. Just as well it was so small. The walls helped support her. She felt sick and dizzy as the gravity wobbled.
The door opened. A furred, clawed nightmare glared at her. She shrieked and hysterically cowered in the little room she had. An enormous, tufted paw reached in. She attacked it with her teeth and fingernails as she felt herself being pulled out. She got in one good bite, mostly a mouthful of fur, then was flung towards the bulkhead. She barely covered her head with her arms before she hit.
Marybeth collapsed as soon as she slid to the floor. Something warm and wet trickled down her shoulders. Perhaps if she played dead… She laid down with her face against the bulkhead. She heard screams and blaster fire. She just laid there for a while. The noise moved away. She moved her head carefully and cautiously looked around. Nobody was there. She stood up slowly. The walls kept blurring in front of her. She felt better when she closed her eyes and felt her way along. The galley was close. She knew her way around it well.
Marybeth opened her eyes when she turned the corner. An enormous furry horror with a rat-like tail squatted on the floor and gnawed on something. Something red and white. A few cloth scraps were by its feet. They were blue. The kzin picked up a watch, sniffed it, and tossed it on the floor. It was gold, like the one Tom Dalkey was so proud of. He’d gotten from his father when he’d graduated.
Part of her understood what had happened. She ducked into an empty storage locker and moaned softly to herself. Then she curled up into a ball and fled into unconsciousness.
* * *
Ship-Captain of the Claw conferred with his officers, as impatient as ever. Syet, the ship’s telepath, still had a headache from helping the others track down stray humans on the captured ship. Mental contact with ordinary humans was bad enough, but the human-rett in heat had been disgusting. He’d heard rumors that the alien females were always that way, but hadn’t believed them till now. No wonder their enemies were outbreeding the Hero’s Race.
Of course, the others of his own kind despised him no matter how he suffered in order to help them. Part of it was jealousy. Telepaths were allowed more access to fertile females compared to ordinary kzinti, in hopes they’d sire more who would survive the mind-killing drug that created mental abilities. Fewer demands and more allowances were made in training.
It was only right, though, that even without prowess in combat he was allowed to think of himself with a name rather than just a title. That was necessary when several minds met. He was rather proud of his. Syet was the position of a cocked ear of a hunter listening for his prey, and there was no one better at that than him. Oh, he took full advantage of his position—he’d be a fool not to. In return, though, he pushed his abilities to the breaking point when needed. Few of his fellow telepaths bore the touch of alien minds as well as he did. Those he knew spent most of their waking time in the bottle or taking dreamdust.
Syet began listening to the conference with all his ears again. The captain was ranting as usual about their glorious conquest. As if twenty humans could stand up to a squad of the Hero’s Race! Still, the Cormorant was a valuable prize. Much knowledge would be gathered about human capabilities once the ship was returned to be examined. The captain might get half a Name once he returned. That was sufficient reason to be proud.
The captain then ordered Argton-Weaponsmaster to command the prize crew to return the captured vessel to the main fleet. Ship-captain also ordered Syet to go along, ostensibly to take what remaining mental impressions he could from the ship. The real reason was much simpler. The weaponsmaster was ambitious and from a noble line, and might take the ship on a foolish suicide mission. Syet knew he was supposed to prevent it somehow. He could have told the captain it was hopeless. Argton despised all telepaths, and any suggestion from one was as good as a command to do the opposite. Unfortunately, that didn’t remove the responsibility. The weaponsmaster was unpleasant, even compared to most of his highly-placed kinsmen. He didn’t blame the captain for wanting to get rid of him for a short time. In a serious emergency, the telepath could make contact with one of his mind-fellows on a picket ship just outside the human solar system. It’d cost him a day’s blinding headache—or his life, if Argton caught on. Yet his duty to the Hero’s Race was more important.
Ship-Captain added, “Keep an eye on the rett Argton-Weaponsmaster found. She might be useful.”
Syet thought it was a mistake leaving her alive, but said nothing. He was supposed to advise the captain, even when it was unwelcome, but he was no fool, either.
The captain narrowed his eyes as if he knew what Syet thought anyway. “You yourself told me what impressions you got from her,” he said. “She’s certainly not a threat. Prize vessel duty is usually dull. The crew should be amused by her, and she might be trainable enough for some of the easier maintenance duties. If we get her to the main fleet alive, we could use her to get some of the prisoners to cooperate. If it doesn’t work out, her meat should be tender enough, but you’d better have good reasons before you or anyone else disposes of her.”
The telepath sighed. “Yes, captain,” he said. It’d been a long time since he’d been allowed any live meat. Only those who’d actually fought had feasted this time. Still, it’d be nice to have someone lower in status than him around for a change.
* * *
Marybeth gradually awoke. Her head pounded, her bladder was full, and every joint was cramped from being in the storage locker. She peered out the tiny vents. No one was there. She silently crawled out, though it hurt even more to move. She almost fled back in when she heard growls and curses from the galley. Then she slid forward a bit to see what was going on. She couldn’t hide forever on a ship this size anyway.
She crept into the galley from the back way she normally used, and ignored the mess on the floor. One of the aliens was hitting the panel, obviously frustrated. Maybe this was a chance to make herself useful. She had no illusions about striking back. Right now she just wanted to survive.
Everything went gray for a moment, then cleared. A slight concussion? she wondered. She’d better use what brains she had left now, before she ended up as dinner. Marybeth tiptoed forward, carefully bowed in a submissive position. The kzin growled at her. His nose wrinkled. Marybeth cringed back while pointing at the panel. “This my job!” she said, over and over. Would the alien understand her? The giant feline swept out a paw, though with claws pulled back, and pushed her at the panel. She tasted blood as her mouth struck the edge, and squealed. Let them think her as frail as possible! Without another word she picked up the odd-looking disk on the counter and put it in the reader. Amazing it fit, or that the reader got anything out of it at all. Either both types of computer systems showed convergent development, or everybody was borrowing from everybody as the war went on.
The notation system was completely alien, even after the computer did its best. There was no way she was going to be able to replicate this. She took out the disk, then selected what she thought they wanted. She was rather proud of her Kobe beef analog. She already knew they liked their meat raw.
The galley synthesis machinery powered up. The alien growled again. Marybeth made pleading gestures, and showed her bare throat. The orange, fluffy fur on the alien settled back down. Soon the first meat began coming through the output slot. The automatic cutter refused to work, though. A dent showed where the alien had struck it, too. Marybeth wearily set the indicator to manual, pulled out the blade by its handle, and began slicing the meat into large chunks as it came down the processing counter near the serving area.
She almost threw up at the sight and smell of the red beef streaked with white fat. It reminded of her of Dalkey—or what was left of him on the floor behind her. She barely controlled the impulse to slice up the alien, though she knew the penalty for any threatening move.
The alien sniffed one large chunk, then inhaled it. He purred, obviously pleased with the result. He lightly patted her. At least he probably meant it to be light, though he left bruises. He went off while Marybeth was still at work, ducking carefully under the overhang over the back entrance. Pity he didn’t smack his head on it. A dent in that would probably disable most of the electrical conduit for the engine room. She would have designed it so it was out of the way, but it probably made things easier for the maintenance people. At her height, she rarely noticed the thing.
She put chunks of meat on platters and set them on the two small tables outside the preparation area. The serving counter was hinged to be open or latched closed. Then she checked the drinks dispenser. All she got out of one was diesel-grade coffee, which she gratefully gulped down. She could retire if she learned how to synthesize something decent. She looked back into the galley, and shook with anger. There had to be a way to do something. Marybeth filled up another platter with meat, and cautiously left her sanctuary. It was a long shot, but worth checking out.
Unfortunately, the weapons lockers were already guarded. She should have expected it. Better to find out now, though, than depend on anything later. Marybeth approached the guards with the meat, bowed, set it down a fair distance from them, then fled. Her terror was not an act.
She made a quick run for the sanitary facilities. She shuddered when she looked at the shower cubicle, and washed herself in the sink. Her clothes were in a pile on the floor. She reached for them, then hesitated. As uncomfortable as it was, she’d be safer naked. Despite feminist pride, it was better to stay alive. If that meant letting them think she was little more than a beast, she’d just have to put up with it. It might make the aliens feel superior. Those who did so often made useful mistakes. Being a visible threat meant getting eaten. She was glad she’d had her shots, though. She couldn’t begin to imagine the fun she’d have coping with a period in this situation.
She bundled the clothes up to throw them into the disposal to remove temptation. The sheathed knife fell on the floor. Marybeth dropped the clothes and clutched it to her. Then she paused. What good would it do her? She still couldn’t bring herself to get rid of it. She had to get it to the galley somehow. She watched the hall for traffic, then spotted a couple of blankets in a doorless storage locker. Marybeth oozed over to it and put the knife in with the blankets. Then she took the whole bundle to the galley. Maybe she could establish the place as her territory. Even a beast deserved some kind of bedding.
She nearly panicked when she saw other aliens near the galley devouring the meat. There was a difference between pretending to be a coward and actually being one, though. Instead of vomiting on the floor, her first choice, she gulped and hastened back behind the counter. She put the blankets on a corner counter and began cleaning things up. Every stain, every bone fragment reminded her of Dalkey and how he’d died. She knew the rest of the crew was dead, too. Perhaps with the floor clean she might be able to sleep.
As she scrubbed, she ignored the slobbering noises outside. When she found Dalkey’s gold watch underneath the bottom edge of a cupboard, she put it up to her face and cried a little. Then she went back to work. With her head out of sight, she opened each cupboard and made inventory. You never knew what could be useful. Her eyes ran over the usual cleaning supplies. If the aliens had a keen sense of smell, they wouldn’t like the detergent. She’d better keep that tightly capped. The big jug might make a good club, though. She hefted it experimentally, then put it back. It’d probably work better if she just threw it. Marybeth paid more attention to the broom. A knife attached to it with a length of cord would make a pretty decent spear. But she wouldn’t be able to fix it up ahead of time without risking one of the aliens seeing it. She searched the closet for a tube of Sticktite but didn’t find one. She could leave a sticky strip on the broom that’d stay that way until she placed something on it—a knife’s handle, for instance. Sticktite would hold almost anything forever till the proper solvent was applied. There had to be some on this ship, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere in this galley. A pity she didn’t have access to her own lab kitchen at home. Some of the attachments to her food processor could be seriously dangerous in the right hands.
She found knives in one of the drawers. Marybeth crawled over to her blankets, slid the sheathed knife across the floor, and put it into the drawer unsheathed like the rest. There the blade looked little different from the rest. She’d have to dispose of the sheath. For now, she stuffed it in a junk drawer just below.
The noises outside the galley stopped. Marybeth peeked out. The kzinti were all looking at another one that just came in. She couldn’t believe this one was the captain! This alien was skinny, scraggly, and more like a half-drowned rat. One of the others made sniffling sounds, only to have someone next to him stick a claw in his arm. It was almost like they wanted to laugh at him, but were too frightened.
Then she felt a funny tickle in her head. The kzinti had telepaths, too, just like humans. She began humming a popular commercial jingle just under her breath. That might annoy him. Then she picked up Dalkey’s watch. That drove anything else out of her head. Red blood, white bones, the gold watch on the floor… The scruffy kzin shook his head, as if someone had splashed water on him. Yes. She had to watch out for him.
Syet held his head. It pounded in agony, but he had to eat. Then he could return to his room and silence the hideous voices inside his head with the bottles of whiskey he’d found in a small locker. He paused for a moment as the delightful aroma of proper meat filled his nostrils. Maybe the human-rett should live after all. He wished she’d shut up, though. Her mental singing was worse than Argton-Weaponsmaster’s. Besides, he had absolutely no interest in what passed for thought in the little bitch. As long as she kept this food coming, he didn’t care.
The Weaponsmaster summoned him as soon as he’d finished eating. Argton made up for his lack of height in utter ruthlessness. “A pity the captain doesn’t see the opportunity now placed in our hands,” the weaponsmaster began.
Syet knew the rest already, but listened politely. He had respect for his superior’s claws, if not his brains.
“Though much of the navigational data for this system is in code,” the weaponsmaster continued, “I’m certain our techs will be able to decipher it. We still have enough to avoid most of their defenses. I do not understand why the captain wants us to flee like cowards.”
“I believe the captain has his reasons,” Syet said. He hated seeing disaster come his way without being able to avoid it. He might as well agree with everything Argton-Weaponsmaster proposed, though, no matter how idiotic. It was safer that way.
“Possibly.” The weaponsmaster flexed and unflexed his claws. “One who wished to keep all the honor to himself might also act this way. Too bad. There might be enough of it here for even someone like you to acquire a true Name. All you would have to do is keep quiet. Yet that might show enough courage to report your valor when we return in triumph.”
The telepath could easily see themselves being blown into floating debris instead. Syet was tempted, though. Telepaths had informal designations on their mental searches, but they were not true Names at all. “One wishes to know the extent of the plans,” he said, “to advise and assist as is the duty of all the Hero’s Race.”
Argton closed his eyes briefly, a clear sign of approval which Syet got mentally as well. “As far as the techs can tell, we’re on a course to rendezvous with another human ship in 30 of their days. If the human-rett is still alive, we can use her to lure them in. We should record her voice soon just in case. Once we have two ships…”
Syet filled in the rest. One ship could return, as per the captain’s orders, while the other rampaged through the human system—a rampage that might open the way to an outright invasion by the rest of the fleet. As long as Shipcaptain got a human ship to examine, the telepath saw nothing wrong with the plan—just as long as he was on the ship that returned. “Glory,” he whispered.
* * *
Marybeth fell into a mind-dulling routine in the next few days. She awoke, sneaked in and out of the refresher, cowered when one of the aliens came near, and hid in the galley. Her arms didn’t hurt as much from cutting meat as they did at first. One ‘morning’ she laid out more Kobe beef. That was still the aliens’ favorite, though she occasionally varied it with fish. She gave most of the kzinti nicknames, though she’d learned a few of their words. Furball was the tech who’d first tried to use the autochef. She took care to cringe in fear whenever he cuffed her around, though he didn’t hit very hard. It was worth it, though. One of the others had tried to claw her up for no reason, and Furball had cuffed him. After that she made sure Furball got the first serving each meal time. He’d earned it. She gave names to others, too. Snaggletooth was the telepath, or so Marybeth thought. She kept Dalkey’s watch close to her when he was around. He didn’t spend much time in the galley, though. The only one she was really afraid of was a magnificently tiger-striped kzinti with a gloriously fluffy coat. Evidently both humans and kzinti made up for lack of height with attitude sometimes. Everyone else was scared of him, too. She nicknamed him Hobbes—nasty, brutish and short. She disappeared into her nest of blankets whenever he showed up.
One night she began to analyze the kzinti rations while preparing a meal for herself. Since she had become a sudden convert to a vegetarian lifestyle, she thought it was unlikely she’d be interrupted. It was like waking from a terrible dream to start using her mind again. It took several hours to crack their notation system. Fortunately, their style of structural charting was similar to human standard. Once she’d spotted a familiar-looking lipid she was home free. Once she and the computer knew where the carbons were, the rest was easy interpolation. No wonder the kzinti enjoyed beef and fish—as well as fresh human. Their metabolism was like that of other Earth carnivores. The autochef food was clearly superior to the kzinti rations, as far as she could tell from the small amount she synthesized. The stuff was probably well-balanced and so forth, but it was clearly mulch, ready to eject in texture and flavor. The aliens’ nutritional experts probably had the same slogan as at home—“Food will win the war—but how can we get the enemy to eat it?”
She concentrated on fat ratios. Lipid metabolism was a great deal simpler than protein, and seemed to work the same way for the aliens as it did for humans, judging by the rations. She wasn’t surprised to find most of the fats were polyunsaturated. Kzinti probably got less exercise in space than they did on the ground. That was the standard for human food synthesis as well. She examined the carbons in the kzinti ration fats again. There was something odd about their number, but she couldn’t figure it out. Marybeth hastily ate her soysteak and fake broccoli. Since the kzinti were using up the protein and fat reservoirs, she had free run of the carbohydrates. And after seeing Dalkey’s remains she couldn’t eat meat. It might even make her smell less threatening.
Was there anything she could do to the kzinti food? With their metabolism so close to human, anything overt would be stopped by the autochef’s poison control program. Furball watched her too closely when she chopped the meat for her to add anything then. He also inspected the salt shakers. Could she reverse-engineer the kzinti rations and find something that’d be bad for them without getting the autochef to lock down?
There were a few things she could do now. Marybeth changed all the fats to saturated ones. That called up a nutrition flag, but went through. Then she increased the sodium to just under the max allowable. Just for fun, she converted one of the drink dispensers to grain alcohol. If that didn’t increase their triglycerides, she’d like to know what would! A pity they were also hooked into the poison program, but such was life.
She poured herself a drink to celebrate still being alive so far, though it was only a combination of alcohol and a hideous orange drink substitute. She retired to her blankets with it, head blurry as she tried to piece together the molecular structure for a banana daiquiri in her head. When she was done with it, even the cold metal of Dalkey’s watch brought back only good memories. His kindness, his sense of humor… the warmth of his touch whenever their fingers met during repair work. Wonder what the rest of him would have felt like? she thought fuzzily. The blankets were firm and warm, but not the way he would have been. She slid into sleep still wanting him.
* * *
Syet sat straight up in his bunk and nearly retched. He didn’t know what to do. This was worse than the time three shipmates had killed each other in a mutual duel.
At first his head had been full of black and white thoughts. Maybe the techs were wrong, and there was an AI aboard. He didn’t care as long as nobody made him try to read it. Then he’d gotten really confused when the thoughts blurred into whirling, skeletal shapes, and then into the brain of that damned rett. He shuddered at the impact of her lustful impulses. How those flabby, hairless humans found each other attractive was beyond him. Where did those other thoughts come from? The rett’s impressions had been so clear. Was she really imagining her partner?
Maybe she wasn’t. Maybe there was a reason he’d gotten those computer-like thoughts at first.
One of the human crew was still alive! Mostly likely the rett had believed everyone was dead at first. Her grief still burned his soul. What if one of the others had survived in hiding, though? Of course the rett would help him—and naturally the little bitch would demand her reward. The human was undoubtedly plotting mischief.
Syet dug deep for courage and woke Argton-Weaponsmaster. The commander was angry at first, then concerned. A human on the loose was dangerous, and might keep them from fulfilling their mission. They both went down to the galley. Syet ducked beneath the low ceiling, while his superior barely had to nod. The rett emerged from her blankets with a squeal. Argton tore them away, in case she was hiding someone in them. They found only a glittering bracelet. The commander broke it in his rage. The rett began crying and gathered up the shining links. Syet didn’t get anything besides terror from her. He couldn’t find anybody with that wall of emotion she was projecting. Both kzinti tore open the storage bins and lockers in the galley. They found nothing worthy of report. The commander clawed the rett in annoyance, and she collapsed in a corner. Syet was embarrassed. He knew something was going on, but he’d never find out this way.
Weaponsmaster clawed him, too. “You’d better stop drinking so much! Or find yourself a different brand of dreamdust!” he shouted. “I’ll have the ship searched again, just in case. If they don’t find anything I’ll make you pay for this!” he shouted as he stormed out of the galley.
Syet considered reminding the weaponsmaster that they were still in range of one of his friends. He decided it’d push his superior too far.
There was more than one way to earn a Name. The next time he felt those thought patterns, he’d deal with it himself. A human pelt would convince anybody he was right!
Marybeth limped to the autodoc, whined and cringed till the kzin on guard let her use it, then slinked back to her lair. With luck she’d convinced Hobbes she wasn’t a menace. Snaggletooth might still be a problem, if she’d interpreted him correctly. Simply staying under cover wasn’t going to keep her safe. She could die at any moment from an alien’s whim.
She thought longingly about her fighting-knife. The odds were slim that she’d take out even one of the aliens, let alone more of them. She wanted them all dead. Marybeth had no idea what course they were on. For all she knew they were headed out of the solar system entirely. Suddenly she didn’t care.
How much time did she have? When the ship had been captured, they were about a month away from rendezvous with the Peregrine. She wasn’t sure how long it’d been since then. She had to assume they were still on course. If they weren’t, it didn’t matter as much. She might as well plan for a worst-case scenario.
She needed more information. She couldn’t sleep now. A grate that led into the air vent system yielded to a mixing spoon handle used as a pry bar. Marybeth quietly made her way through it. One part led to a grate near the weapons locker. It was still guarded, of course, though probably to keep the aliens from killing each other. judging by what she’d seen earlier. She backed away hastily when one of the sentries wrinkled his nose in disgust. Well, she didn’t like their smell either. She returned to the galley and rested. What was she going to do?
A few days later she cleaned up the spatters from a minor duel—no one died—between two of the kzinti. She took the soaked rag back to the galley and analyzed the blood. She wasn’t sure what was normal, but spotted a high ratio of triglycerides in the blood fats. There was a difference between the aliens and humans, though. There appeared to be more carbons—about one-third more. The computer wasn’t sure where they went. Of course it wasn’t. It was programmed to follow human metabolism as its default template. She went back into the system menu and reset it. The carbons resolved themselves into glorious triples, as did the fats in the kzinti rations.
Of course. Coenzyme A in humans made use of fats by cutting off two carbons at a time. The kzinti equivalent plainly used three. If she could design a receptor molecule to gather up the triglycerides in the kzinti bloodstreams into clumps that blocked circulation in vital areas, she might be able to get it past the autochef poison control program.
Just as she finished figuring that out, it was time to serve the first meal. Hobbes came into the galley and swaggered over to the drinks dispenser. Well, it’d certainly taken him long enough to figure it out why all his crew used the one in the corner. Even Snaggletooth had used it to fill his bottle.
Then Hobbes ripped it out of the wall and howled with rage. A stream of pure grain alcohol flowed onto the floor. She thought Furball was going to cry. Marybeth threw up her hands and looked as bewildered as she could manage, then shut off the outlet valve. The aliens stared at her as she mopped up the mess. Wonder what they’d offer for the first squeezing? Hobbes threatened her with his claws again. She kept from screaming at him only by imagining him as a rug. He’d make a pretty one, since his coat was longer and glossier than ever. She took care to limp on the leg he’d clawed before. Maybe he’d lose face by attacking someone so much weaker.
It worked. He turned from her and ripped a pawful of fluff from Furball instead. The poor fellow cringed nearly as hard as she did—though his eyes told another story. She wasn’t the only one acting a role for self-preservation. And maybe she wasn’t the only one who’d like Hobbes better as a floor throw. But it’d be stupid to count on any of the aliens as allies.
The next days and nights passed quickly. She spent all the time while fixing her own meals on molecule design. Whenever Snaggletooth came in, she gave him a full bottle as well as a platter of meat. Furball got the credit, but she didn’t care. Other bottles were also handed over, but only to aliens she and Furball approved of. Her head whirled sometimes with lack of sleep, but it didn’t matter. If she failed, she’d get all the rest she needed anyway. Fortunately, she could do some of the design work mentally. Marybeth had always had an internal 3-D screen, which had come in handy at school when the computer was down or unavailable. Snaggletooth looked at her oddly sometimes, but never caught her at the computer. She was getting rather tired of synthesized broccoli, but that vegetable seemed to be the most effective in keeping the kzinti away.
One ‘evening’ she thought she was bringing up the menu to work on the receptor molecule, and got the nav computer instead. Oh, Tom, she thought ruefully. I thought we’d gotten all of that fixed by now. It helped sometimes to speak to him mentally, even though he was dead.
If the screen was right, though, a ship was approaching and would get here in less than 24 hours. She’d wasted enough time tinkering with the stupid thing. It was time to take her chances with it. Having aliens control the Cormorant was bad enough. What could they do with two ships?
She finally bailed out and got the right program up. She ordered synthesis and input. There, Tom. It’s the best I can do. Just wish it could be nastier… she thought to herself.
A tufted paw lifted her out of the chair and into the wall. She slid down it, stunned. “Where is he?” Snaggletooth growled. Marybeth just let her jaw hang open. Then she leaped for the drawer. She had to get the knife.
Snaggletooth struck her again. “Where is he?” he repeated.
Oh shit. She landed near the cleaning supplies. Without hope she reached in and grabbed the detergent jug, stood, and threw it at him. He clawed it away from him. Cleaning fluid splashed on him as he inadvertently sliced it open. He gave out a thin howl and shook his claws to get the smell away from him.
Marybeth used that momentary distraction to go for the drawer with the knife. Without thinking, she leaped forward with the hilt in her hand and attacked Snaggletooth’s claws before he could use them against her. She was astounded at how easily the knife cut through them. His blood spurted out on her. She whirled quickly and went for the other side as the kzin swung at her. The knife worked just as well the second time. She stabbed for the throat, but Snaggletooth swept at her with his arms and the blade went high. He howled as the point scraped by his eyes.
Suddenly she went flying as a blow from his clawless arm batted her away. Somehow she managed to hang onto the knife. Then Snaggletooth starting coming at her again, and raised one hind leg to kick. He must be smelling her. Marybeth panicked. She couldn’t see! Her eyes and hands hurt as if she’d been cut. Then she saw him approach nearer as her vision slowly returned. If she attacked again, he could easily switch legs and get her with the other one. She turned and fled out the back, and never noticed the overhang two inches above her head. Perhaps if she got to the air vent…
* * *
Snaggletooth approached the galley. He couldn’t believe it. The rett was actually talking in her mind, not just indulging in emotions better suited to a cub not yet weaned. This time he’d catch her with the male she’d been hiding all this time. He imagined himself presenting the pelt to Argton-Weaponsmaster, and being praised in front of the rest of the crew for his diligence in protecting the Hero’s Race. He was startled to see the rett by herself again, but not very much. No doubt any human who’d lasted this long had good reflexes. Where was he this time?
Then he caught the true taste and smell of the rett’s mind. He hissed in astonishment. How stupid he’d been! Just because females of the Hero’s Race were properly docile, he’d assumed those of the enemy were that way as well. The depth of her duplicity awed him. She’d even used his weakness for liquor against him.
It took only a moment to realize this and act. She planned something evil for the food they ate, he was sure of it. The crew and commander must be warned—but not until he’d destroyed the enemy and removed her menace forever. She might all too easily convince the rest that she was just a silly rett, while he was only imagining things. He had been drinking more than usual lately and he knew what the weaponsmaster thought.
He snarled and batted her against the wall. He might as well get some decent amusement out of it. Then she flung a jug at him, clearly desperate. He clawed it away, only to gasp in horror at the acrid stuff that came out of it. Once he was halfway free of it, the human faced him with a knife in her hand. He almost laughed. No puny blade was a match for the ones the Hero’s Race were born with!
He roared in shock and horror as he watched his claws fall onto the floor. He instinctively struck with the other, only to lose them as well. The human came close enough to thrust at his face. He beat at her with his arms, only to feel the knife brush lightly at his face. Blood poured down and ruined his vision.
Syet had been in duels before. Not even telepaths could avoid them all the time. He jumped into Marybeth’s mind as he assumed a fighting stance that allowed him use of his hind claws. He had learned long ago to watch himself without losing track of where he was. It was odd looking out of the alien’s eyes and watching his own blood stream down onto the floor, but no odder than realizing her long, deadly plans to poison them all. He left just enough of himself in his body to make it hop towards the human. He had no idea he appeared so large and terrifying to the female. Then he squeezed her mind from the inside. As he hoped, she panicked and fled. One blow from a hind claw would rip her spine from her body. He had to act quickly, though, before she reached the vent system.
He was shocked back into his body as he ran into the overhang. Syet mewed with pain and astonishment. What a fool he’d been to forget how much smaller the alien was. As much as he hated to, he was going to call for help. The crew’s safety was more important than his own humiliation…
* * *
Marybeth turned around as her mind was suddenly free of the overpowering shadow of fear that had possessed her before. She hadn’t been thinking. If she hid in the vents, Snaggletooth would be free to warn the rest of the kzinti about her. As a telepath, he might warn them about the food, too.
Snaggletooth just stood there in back of the overhang. Then he began to move away. She couldn’t let him get away, even if it cost her life! At first she’d just wanted to live. Then she’d wanted revenge. Now she just wanted to kill. Even if she was caught, she had to silence the telepath before it was too late.
She swiftly ran back into the galley, her feet sticky with Snaggletooth’s blood. For a moment, he turned towards her and began to open his mouth. Marybeth thrust the knife into the alien’s throat and slid it as far in as possible. The blade scraped a little on the thick vertebrae in back and then kept going. Snaggletooth shuddered, then fell forward. She tried to get out of his way in time, but couldn’t, though she did get her knees up. She was nearly suffocated by his weight, the same way she’d been the one other time she’d had to use this blade…
He wasn’t moving. The smell of his blood nearly made her throw up, but at least it wasn’t hers. In fact, it was still slick enough underneath for her to wiggle to one side. Fortunately her knees kept her from being totally crushed. She turned so she was on her side. Snaggletooth’s body fell more, but the hilt of the knife caught on what was left of the telepath’s neck and propped him up as she braced it on the floor. It only left her six inches to maneuver in, but it was certainly better than being pinned down forever.
She finally dragged herself out from under Snaggletooth and took a big breath of air. Her ribs hurt some, but that appeared to be all. This was not a fun date, she said solemnly to herself.
Then she heard the hum of lights that signaled change of shift. She didn’t have much time till the others would start coming down for breakfast. If there was only some way she could get her knife out, but she didn’t see how. She decided to bluff her way out. First, she cleaned herself up. She had new bruises all over, but they blended in nicely with the ones she’d had before. After a moment’s thought, she smeared some blood on the drawer that held all the kitchen knives.
As soon as Furball showed up for his serving she went hysterical. She wasn’t acting. She mimed a big, nasty fight, showed him the dent in the overhang where Snaggletooth had hit his head, and tried to indicate that “the other one went thataway”. When Furball tried to question her, she sketched out a height not that much higher than her own. She didn’t think that kzinti could go pale, but Furball did his best as he apparently came to the conclusion she hoped he would. After all, Hobbes fit under the overhang. Furball picked up the body, but stared at the knife. Marybeth hastily pantomimed the drawer holding all the knives being pulled out and knocked onto the floor, then quickly huddled into one of her blankets to show that she was hiding during most of it anyway. She didn’t have to force herself to start crying.
With any luck, Furball would be too frightened to ask Hobbes anything till it was too late. They cleaned most of the mess up. Marybeth washed and put the deadly knife back in the drawer once Furball got it out of Snaggletooth’s body. Two other kzinti came down and carried the telepath’s remains off. She began slicing up the morning ration. Furball kept watching her. He probably had his suspicions, but not as much as if he’d caught her taking the body apart herself. Then he took one platter and set it in front of her. She gagged down a few mouthfuls so as not to make him suspicious. Fortunately the beef was salty enough for her to stand it. Um…did humans have any processes that involved triple carbon bonds? She didn’t think so, but hoped that her vegetarian diet would protect her from most of the receptor’s effects. Making sure they ate it was more important. She just hoped the DMSO-type delivery molecule would get the enzyme through kzinti mucous membranes as well as her own.
After the meal, she finished cleaning everything up. It would take hours for the molecule to take effect, if it ever did. She trembled as she picked up the platters. At least she could think what she wanted to about them now!
As soon as the place was clean, she went into the air ducts with her special knife. Perhaps she’d smell like a meat-eater from this morning. She was certainly sweating hard enough. Then she picked off a clump of fur from a screen in the vents and rubbed it all over herself. That might help. Marybeth listened for complaints. She was ecstatic when she heard gripes about headaches, chest pains, and numbness from the aliens. At least that was how she interpreted their gestures as she caught sight of them through the grates over the vent outlets.
Then someone roared in anger as a kzin fell to the floor. Given the anger in the voice she thought she’d just learned the kzinti word for poison. She heard lots of comments with rett this and rett that. A good thing she wasn’t in the galley! They probably thought a dangerous human was running around. How right they were.
The next few hours were a nightmare of roaming from air duct to air duct as the kzinti scoured the ship for her. She thought the engine sounded odd, but figured that was because she was closer to it than usual. A good thing the kzinti were too big for the vents! Lethal or sleepy gas would disable them, too, unless they blocked off just one section. She kept moving to make that harder. Once she screamed out a vent, “I killed him! And now you’re all going to die, too!” Then she laughed.
The ship rocked as something hit it. Of course! The Peregrine must have come, and the kzinti couldn’t answer the challenge correctly. Then she heard the sizzle and clang of weapons as men from the other ship boarded. She peered out of a vent. A dead alien lay by a weapons locker without a mark on him. She kicked the grate out, grabbed a disruptor for herself, and slid back in the duct. She headed towards the loudest noise, then peered out again. Hobbes was fighting two Marines, and was winning. Marybeth popped open the vent and blasted him right in the back. Two other kzinti were already on the floor, but she shot at them anyway, just for fun. Besides, they might be faking. The Marines gaped at her. She waved at them, then crawled back into the duct to look for another fight. The ship’s gravity cut loose again. She banged her head right on the old sore spot. She felt herself blacking out, but didn’t care. She’d won.
* * *
Lt. Aziz helped the unconscious woman into the autodoc. At first he’d thought she was dead. After the mopping up was done, two Marines had sworn they’d seen a naked female come out of an air vent and join the battle. Even though the commander had been skeptical, they’d gone looking anyway. Armed. The ducts were designed to fit humans, not the aliens, but one never knew.
Aziz had been very surprised to find her. The only woman assigned to the Cormorant had been a civilian specialist sent to fix the autochef. The skeletal figure who’d damned near bit off his ear when he’d tried to put her into the shower hardly resembled her picture at all. He sincerely regretted having to sedate her.
Dr. Bonet looked a little better once she’d been cared for. She’d have to undergo major surgery back on Earth for muscle repair and scar removal, as well as diagnostics for her head injury. How she’d managed to live so long as a prisoner of the kzinti was beyond him. Her internal status had stabilized once she’d received several pints of universal blood substitute.
The next day, she was able to sit up and ask for something to eat and drink. She laughed hysterically when he offered something from the autochef. He decided to humor her and fetch something from the other ship. For all he knew, the kzinti had gotten their rations programmed into it. He’d had a taste of them once, and didn’t blame her if she’d gotten tired of them. Especially if a bad batch had been responsible for killing the kzinti they’d found dead without any wounds on them.
She stared at him as she huddled in her blankets. “I’ve contacted Earth,” he said, trying to make her feel better. “I can offer you anything within reason, including the captain’s best whiskey. You’ve gone through a terrible ordeal. Once you’re back on Earth you can ask for anything, reasonable or not. They say the rehab program on Hawaii is very nice.” He wondered if she’d ever make it out of it, or join the permanent residents. It was too soon to tell.
Dr. Bonet smiled at him, though he thought she put a little too much teeth into it. “All I want,” she said, “is a decent cup of coffee, my clothes, a hot bath in a real bathtub…”
Lt. Aziz nodded briskly. “No problem. We’re heading towards a station with its own spin and a little more room. You can have the first two right off, though I recommend a slug of brandy to go with that coffee. Anything else?”
“Yes,” she said with another smile. Definitely too much teeth this time, Aziz thought. She leaned forward and whispered, “A fur coat.”