enemy n, pl. -mies. 1. One who evinces hostility or malice toward, or opposes the interest, desire, or purpose of, another; opponent; foe. 2. A hostile force or power, as a political unit, or an individual belonging to such a force or power. 3. Something destructive or injurious. [Middle English enemi, from Old French inimicus: in-, not + amicus, friend.]
—Webster-Wangchi Unabridged Dictionary of Standard English Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
Richard Aston opened his eyes and stared at the checkered oilcloth tablecloth an inch from the tip of his nose.
He grimaced and straightened, suppressing a groan as his spine unbent, then blinked in surprise as his brain roused. He'd fallen asleep with his forehead on his crossed forearms, which, unfortunately, hadn't been unusual since his "guest's" arrival. That much he'd grown accustomed to, but the cabin was full of daylight, and her incessant demands for food should have waked him hours ago.
They hadn't, and he turned his head quickly—only to freeze in shock.
She was awake. More than that, she was lying on her side, head propped up by the fist curled under her jaw, and watching him with bright, calm eyes.
He sat motionless, staring back at her, and the moment of silence stretched out between them. Somehow it had never occurred to him that she would wake while he was sleeping. He'd envisioned offering her a mouthful of food and watching awareness slowly filter into her eyes. Or perhaps it would have happened while he was tenderly wiping her forehead with a damp cloth. He felt he could have handled either of those with comparative aplomb after all this time.
He most emphatically had not expected her to awaken and just lie there, self-possessed as a cat, patiently waiting for him to wake, and he felt almost betrayed by her aplomb. It registered only slowly that it was because her calm watchfulness violated his mental image of her—which, he thought wryly, was based on the way she ate. Patience wasn't something he'd associated with her, and that understanding brought amusement in its wake.
She watched gravely as he grinned, and then, slowly, her generous mouth curved as she took in his weary, unshaven appearance. Her wry, apologetic smile woke a gleam in his own eyes, and their mutual amusement seemed to feed upon itself, aided, in his case, by a vast relief that she had survived to wake up despite his ignorance about how to care for her. He began to chuckle, and she chuckled in response.
Their chuckles became laughter; and that, he later realized, was the moment his last, lingering fear of what she might be vanished.
He never knew exactly how long they laughed, but he knew it was a release of intolerable tension for both of them, and he surrendered to it gratefully. There was probably an edge of hysteria in it, he decided later, but it was such a relief the thought didn't bother him at all. He leaned back in his chair, roaring like a fool, and her rich laughter—no giggles for this girl!—answered him.
But finally, slowly, he regained control, managing to push the laughter aside without relinquishing the bright bubble of amusement at its core. He shook his head at her, wiping his eyes, and sat up straight.
She seemed to catch his change of mood, for she sat up, too, perching tailor-fashion on the bunk, and he just managed to keep his eyebrows from rising as the sheet fell down about her waist and she made no move to recover it. Instead, she bent forward, eyes and fingertips examining the faint, raised scar of her wound unself-consciously. Well, he'd always thought his own culture's nudity taboo was one of its less sane aspects.
"Ah, hello," he said finally, speaking very slowly and carefully. He'd spent the few waking hours in which he wasn't shoveling food down her considering what to say at this moment. He'd scripted and discarded all manner of openings, unable to settle on a properly meaningful first greeting to an extraterrestrial. But when the moment came, none of his laborious compositions seemed in the least fitting after their shared laughter.
He bit his lip for a moment, watching her narrowly and wishing he were a trained linguist. Establishing communications was going to be rough, he thought. But then she opened her own mouth.
"Hello, yourself," she said in a velvet-edged contralto as clear and cool as spring water.
Those two words stunned him, for it had never occurred to him that she might speak English! He gawked at her, and she looked back as if surprised by his reaction, but then a gleam of renewed humor touched her eyes.
"Take me to your leader," she said with a perfectly straight face.
His gawking mouth snapped shut, and he frowned indignantly. He was trying to be serious, and she was making stupid—! But then he realized exactly what she'd said, and his eyes narrowed. Her people must have spent a long time studying his for her to know how that particular cliché would affect him.
"So," he said severely, "your people have a sense of humor, do they?"
"Well, yes," she admitted, "but mine's a bit lower than most."
He rubbed an eyebrow thoughtfully, savoring the unexpected loveliness of her voice . . . and her accent. He'd never heard one quite like it, and he would have bet he could identify the nationality of most English-speakers. But not hers. Her vowels came out with a peculiar, clipped emphasis, and she had a strange way of swallowing final consonants, like the "r" in "leader" and the "t" in "most." There was an odd rhythm to her speech, too, as if the adjectives and adverbs carried more weight than they did for the English-speakers with whom he was familiar. . . .
"Hello?" Her slightly plaintive voice startled him, and he blinked and snorted his way up out of his thoughts. She grinned at him, and he felt himself grinning back once more.
"Sorry. I'm not used to rescuing distressed spacewomen." He watched her carefully, but she only shrugged.
"You do it quite well for someone without experience," she said.
"Thanks," he said dryly. "My name's Aston, by the way. Richard Aston."
"Leonovna," she said, extending her right hand. "Ludmilla Leonovna—" he started to reach out, only to pause at the Russian name, but his surprise became astonishment as she continued "—Colonel, Terran Marines."
He gaped at her, and she sat patiently, hand extended. Colonel? This kid? Impossible! But then the rest of her introduction penetrated, and he cocked his head, an edge of suspicion creeping back into his thoughts.
"Did you say Terran Marines?" he asked slowly.
"I did." Her speech was even quicker and more clipped then he'd first noticed, he thought absently, concentrating on what she'd said.
"There isn't any such organization," he said flatly at last. "And if there were, I doubt they'd be enlisting Russians."
"I know there isn't—yet," she returned, equally flatly, still holding out her hand. "And I'm not a Russian. Or not in the way you're thinking, at any rate."
He shook his head doggedly, then blushed as he noticed the waiting hand. He reached out almost automatically, but instead of clasping his hand, she clasped his forearm and squeezed. He was a powerful man, but he had to hide a wince at the strength in her fingers. She was even stronger than he'd thought, but he managed to grip back with enough pressure to satisfy honor on both sides.
"Look," she said finally, releasing his arm, "I know this must sound confusing, but what year is this?"
"Year?" He blinked. "You've studied us thoroughly enough to learn our language, and you don't know what year it is?" She merely sat silently, waiting, and he shrugged. "Okay," he said, "I'll bite. It's 2007—why?"
"2007," she said thoughtfully, leaning back and absently tugging the sheet higher. "Prissy was right, then." She nodded to herself. "That makes sense of the wet-navy task force. . . ."
"Excuse me," he said firmly, "but could you possibly stop talking to yourself about things you already know and tell me just what the hell is going on here?" He'd thought he was exercising admirable control, but her expression told him differently.
"I apologize," she said contritely. "I'll try to explain, but first, could you tell me how I got here?" She waved around the small cabin.
"You fell out of the damned sky a hundred yards from my boat," he said bluntly, "and I fished you out." His face and voice softened. "I'm sorry there wasn't anything I could do for your friend."
"I guessed as much." She sighed sadly. "Poor Anwar. He came so far."
There was a moment of silence which he was loathe to break, but his curiosity was much too strong to be denied.
"Just how far did you come?" he asked. "Where are you from—and, please, don't hand me any more crap about the `Terran Marines'!"
"It's not `crap,' " she said. "Oh, I'm not from Terra myself. I'm from Midgard." She saw the mounting frustration in his eyes and explained kindly, "That's Sigma Draconis IV."
"Oh, great!" he snorted. "Parallel evolution's even better than the Terran Marines! Does everybody on Sigma Draconis look like you, or did they do plastic surgery before they dropped you on us?"
"`Plastic sur—?' Oh! Biosculpt!" She chuckled. "No, we're all like this, more or less . . . though some of us are men," she added innocently.
"Listen—!" he started wrathfully, but she raised a placating hand as if to apologize for her flippancy.
"Sorry," she said contritely. "I couldn't resist." She smiled, but it was a more serious smile, and she leaned slightly forward. "I know it sounds confusing," she repeated, "but my people are as human as you are."
"Oh, sure! Blow a hole clear through me and I'll heal up overnight, too!"
"I said we're human, and we are," she said, and he blinked at her suddenly chill tone. She shook her head, as if angry with herself, and pressed her lips firmly together for a moment. Then she sighed.
"Please," she said. "Give me a tick, and I'll try to explain. All right?"
He nodded, not quite trusting himself to speak.
"Thank you. First of all, I am from Midgard, but Midgard was colonized from Earth." He started to protest the absurdity of her statement, then shut his mouth. It was hard, but he managed to keep it shut.
"Midgard," she continued with careful precision, "will be settled by humans in 2184." She met his eyes levelly. "That was about three hundred years ago . . . for me."
He was trapped by her eyes. Her statement was patently insane, but so was what he'd seen the night he plucked her from the sea. So was her survival and the way she'd slept and eaten for the past four days. And her eyes were neither mad nor those of a liar, he thought slowly. Indeed, there was an edge of desperation under their calmness—and he sensed, somehow, that desperation was foreign to this girl.
"Are you telling me you're from the future?" he asked very carefully.
"Yes," she said simply.
"But . . ." He shook his head again, more confused than ever, yet feeling as if understanding lurked just half a thought beyond his grasp. He drew a deep breath and fastened on an inconsequential as if for diversion.
"How does it happen you speak twenty-first-century English, then?"
"I don't," she said, and grinned faintly at his expression. "Not normally, I mean. Oh, mass literacy, printing, and audio recordings pretty much iced the language after the twentieth century, but it's actually a bit diff for me to match into your dialect. I'm a histortech by hobby, and that helps, but historical holodrama helps more." She laughed softly. "Not that they got it nickety, but they came close."
"`Nickety'?" he asked blankly.
"Sorry. It means, um, exactly correct. I'll have to be careful about my idioms." She smiled disarmingly. "I couldn't resist twisting you with that `Take me to your leader' larkey, though. Some of the tainment dramas from your period are manic."
He felt suspicion sagging into acceptance. She was speaking English, all right, but the more she said, the more he realized that it wasn't quite his English. And as she relaxed, the differences became more pronounced. He was astonished to realize he actually believed her . . . sort of.
"All right," he said. "But why are you here? What the hell is going on? Those were nukes you were throwing around up there, honey!"
"Yes," she said softly, her face suddenly serious once more. "Yes, they were." Her fingers pleated the edge of her sheet unhappily. "You see, Ster Aston, I'm not here for pleasure. I came—" she drew a deep breath and met his eyes again "—to prevent the destruction of the human race . . . and I'm afraid I haven't quite done that yet."
Aston leaned back and closed his eyes, counting slowly to fifty behind his lowered lids. It was all preposterous of course, he thought almost distantly, and yet . . . and yet. . . .
His mind went back to that night of terrible explosions, and he felt his doubt crumble. Not his confusion—that became worse, if anything—but the memory of those searing flashes and their thunder could not be rejected. Yet it was another memory which suggested just how desperate she was to accomplish whatever task had brought her here. He'd rerun his mental records of that fight again and again, and one point had become glaringly clear; she'd been terribly outnumbered, but she'd been the attacker. And, he reminded himself, she'd gotten all but one of her enemies.
His face showed no sign of his thoughts, but he felt a surge of admiration for the naked youngster sitting on his bunk. He was no pilot, but he'd seen a great deal of combat in his time. He had a very clear notion of what it took to face that sort of odds—and of the skill needed to achieve what she had. He wasn't so foolish as to think courage and skill guaranteed honesty, but he felt oddly certain she wasn't lying to him.
He sighed and opened his eyes slowly, standing without a word, and rummaged in a locker for a black, silk-screened tee-shirt decorated with a dramatic head-on view of an old US Air Force A-10 attack plane. He tossed it to her, and she tugged it over her head. It covered her like a tent, he thought as he wiggled past her in the narrow confines of the cabin.
Amanda chose that specific moment to surprise him with an unexpected motion, and he lost his balance. He leaned away from the bunk, falling towards the table to avoid landing on his guest, but a hand flashed out, moving faster than any hand he'd ever seen. He was more than a foot taller than she, but she pulled him back up one-handed . . . and with very little apparent effort.
Aston stood very still, then continued to the stove and put his battered old coffee pot on to heat. He turned a chair around and straddled it, leaning his chest against its back and reaching for his pipe.
"Pretty well-muscled, aren't you?" he said, watching her run curious fingers over the raised, slightly pebbled texture of the shirt's silk-screening. She seemed fascinated by it.
"What?" She looked up with a furrowed brow, then smiled. "Oh. I suppose I am, but I came by it naturally, Ster Aston. I told you I'm from Midgard." He raised his eyebrows, and she explained. "Our gravity runs about twenty percent higher."
"I see." He filled his pipe slowly, then found his butane lighter and took his time lighting the tobacco. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of his smoke, but she seemed more curious about it than irritated by it.
"Okay," he said finally. "Tell me about this war."
"I'll try, but it's a long story."
"That's all right." He grinned around his pipe and reached for a cup and the coffee pot. "We've got plenty of time, I'm afraid. We're over a week out of Portsmouth, and your nukes fried my radio, or I'd've had proper medical people out here to take you off my hands long ago."
"I see," she said, watching him pour and licking her lips. "Excuse me, but is that Terran coffee?"
"It sure isn't Martian," he said dryly.
"Sorry. It's just that back home Terran coffee's as rare as . . . a hen's tooth?" she finished on a questioning note and raised an eyebrow.
"Scarce as hen's teeth," he corrected, and she nodded, filing it away. He had the very strong impression she wouldn't need the same correction twice. "Want some?"
"I'd kill for it," she admitted with a sigh.
"Well, drink up," he invited, pouring another cup and handing it over. She took it eagerly, and he watched curiously as she sipped delicately. Her conscious eating manners were far different from her unconscious ones, and she was savoring it as if it were a rare treat.
She looked back up and saw his eyes.
"Sorry," she said. "For some reason, coffee doesn't grow well off Terra. The fide thing's expensive."
"Not anymore," he said with a smile, enjoying her enjoyment. "But you were about to tell me—?"
"So I was," she agreed. She took another sip, then leaned back against the bulkhead, looking even more absurdly young in his over-sized tee-shirt. But he wasn't tempted to smile again, for there was a grimness in her eyes and a tightness to her lips.
"If this is 2007," she began, "then in about eighty years, the human race is going to meet the Shirmaksu. When we do, it will be the beginning of a war which will last for the next four hundred years."
"Four hundred years?" he asked softly.
"At least," she said grimly. "You see, the Kangas—that's what we call Shirmaksu—aren't very nice. They introduced themselves by trying to exterminate us."
Her level voice sent a chill down his spine.
"But why?" he asked.
"Because they're Kangas," she said simply. "The way they think, only one sentient race has any right to exist: theirs. It took us quite a while to believe that, I understand." She shrugged. "By the time I was born, we'd had lots of practice."
"But there had to be a reason," he protested.
"Oh, lots of them," she agreed, "and we weren't the first species they tried to cide. So far, we've identified twenty-seven sentient or presentient species they've wiped. Mankind would've been twenty-eight." She shrugged again. "Of course, a lot of what we `know' is guesswork and deduction, but what it comes down to is that the Kangas had an unhappy racial childhood." She flashed a tight, humorless smile.
"As nearly as we can piece it, there were two intelligent species on their home world, and they hated each other. We don't know why, but, then, enough human groups have hated each other for reasons no one else ever understood. At any rate, they probably started trying to wipe each other while they were still living in caves; by the time they got to pikes and muskets, the Kangas were the only thinking species left on the planet."
"I like to think humanity would've wanted to get the killing out of its system by then, but not the Kangas. They're a strange bunch. They're xenophobic, paranoid, and so cautious they're cowardly, by human standards, but if logic says to take a chance, they will. They'll cover their asses every way they can, but they'll do it. They're big on logic.
"Unfortunately, they've got their own weird streak of mysticism, too. We're pretty hazy on how it works—they haven't exactly talked it over with us, and they arranged things so there aren't any other species around, so we've never been able to study comparative alien psychology—but they put together a `religion' that makes the most intolerant human fanatic look ecumenical.
"The way they see it, God created one race in His image: theirs. The devil, on the other hand, assumes an endless series of different shapes and forms, and he's constantly trying to destroy God. Which makes the entire universe one huge battleground and means anybody who doesn't look like a Kanga is automatically on the devil's side. And so, of course, the only logical thing to do is to exterminate them."
Her words were almost light, but her tone was not.
"Anyway, their policy was set long before they ran into us. They tend to think in biological terms—not too surprising, I guess, given their history—and they're very good bio-engineers. They're less bright about other things, but their standard procedure whenever they encountered another intelligent species or anything that might turn into one was to grab a few specimens for research, then crank a bio weapon to wipe out only that species and dust its planet. It worked quite well until they ran into us."
Aston noticed her cup was empty and refilled it. She smiled briefly and sipped, then continued.
"By that time, they'd turned their entire civilization into a killing machine. They weren't just wiping anyone they happened to run into, they were out looking for other intelligences to cide. They were even sending out survey ships expressly to find new targets—which is what happened to us.
"One of their scouts got close enough to Sol to pick up some radio transmissions, and that scared hell out of them, because they'd never encountered another race more advanced than the early steam age, and their `priesthood' had more or less decided that was a divine dispensation. When their scout commander realized he'd found a bunch of devils more advanced than any of the others they'd met, he abandoned the rest of his mission and headed straight home at max.
"When he got there, the Kangas decided they had to forget their usual strategy. They hadn't come up with an FTL com system, though they had FTL travel—of a sort—but the best speed they could manage was about five times light-speed, and the closest system with a heavy Kanga population was over a hundred light-years away. Not only that, but their scout's crew was so scared by what they were picking up—remember, by their standards they'd just found a whole race of horribly powerful demons—that they never came closer to Sol than twenty light-years, so what they were seeing was already twenty years old. It took the scout almost twenty-five years to get home with the news, and it would take them another thirty-plus years to send out their sampling ships just to collect specimens, much less take them home, produce a bug for us, and send it back out. Even if they modified their strategy by sending an entire research ship to develop the bug on-site, we'd have had almost eighty years to develop between the time those signals originated and the time they could get back to Solarian space again.
"They were scared, but they were still logical. Rather than risk warning us with a sampling mission or by hanging around in orbit with a research vessel, they decided to forget nice, neat biological solutions this once and rely on brute force. It would only take them another ten years or so to muster a fleet of warships, and taking the time to make sure they were loaded for draken seemed logical to them.
"But—" she grinned, a sudden, tigerish expression that struck him with a chill "—they made a mistake. They polated our rate of progress based on their own, and humans are much better gadgeteers than they are. Not only that, we've always been a bloodthirsty bunch. They'd fought their last real war with pikes and black powder, and they didn't have the least idea how military competition pressurizes R&D.
"By the time they got back to Sol, there were colonies on Luna and Mars and large-scale mining operations in the asteroids. Political relations were still pretty shaky, too, and all the promises not to militarize space had collapsed once there was a thriving presence in space to protect—or prey upon. Nobody had a real `space navy,' but there were quite a few armed ships. Most of the colonies had some sort of rudimentary defensive systems, and Terra had some pretty advanced orbital defenses. Most of them were aimed at planetary threats, but the existence of armed spacecraft meant they'd been designed to shoot the other way, too."
She sipped more coffee, and he remembered what she'd said about being a `histortech.' He could believe it; she had the air of someone expounding on a special interest area.
"They had FTL, but they were still using reaction drives. Basically, they used what you'd call the Bussard ram principle to accelerate in normal-space before they translated." She paused at his puzzled expression, then shrugged. "I can explain that later—right now, just remember that they managed interstellar travel by first accelerating and then ducking into another dimension where the velocity attained in this one is effectively accelerated to a multiple of light-speed, then dropping back into normal-space and decelerating. That's one reason the trip would take them so long; they needed to accelerate in normal-space before they could kick in their FTL systems. Okay?"
"If you say so," he said dubiously.
"We manage things a lot better now," she assured him, "but all this was four or five hundred years ago, remember." She paused again, a brief stab of pain and loss showing in her eyes. "Anyway," she said softly, "four hundred years from when I got into this mess.
"At any rate, they put together a fleet and sent it off. Of course, a fleet of Bussard rams produces a hell of a lot of light when it decelerates, and they had to start decelerating well short of Sol. Terran astronomers spotted them while they were still over a year out and realized someone was coming—a lot of someones, in fact. We're a pretty nasty and suspicious lot ourselves, and it was possible our visitors weren't friendly, so prudence suggested sending somebody out to see.
"But if they were friendly, none of the Terran blocs wanted their rivals getting in first and making some kind of private deal with them. There was a lot of time pressure, but they got themselves organized in a hurry and sent out an `international' welcoming party made up of ships from all the major power blocs." She flashed that tigerish grin again. It really made her look much less like a teenager, he thought uneasily.
"The Kangas freaked. There they were, ready to smash a bunch of people they expected to find fooling around with atmospheric aircraft, and instead they were being intercepted by ships using a nuclear-powered torch drive! It never occurred to them that we might even consider the possibility of peaceful contact—their minds don't work that way. They were still six months out when our ships came into weapon range and they opened fire.
"They wiped us, of course, but we hadn't sent totally unarmed ships, and we got a couple of them, as well. That really upset them, because they were still decelerating, which committed them to entering our system—either that, or they had to duck back into alpha-space, bypass us, stop, get back up to speed on a home-bound vector, and come back in another seventy or eighty years. And who knew what we'd be capable of by then?
"So they decided to carry out their original plan, and it was our side's turn to freak. I've never seen a Bussard ship myself. They've been obsolete for centuries now, but they were big bastards, and they had a lot of them. Terra assumed the worst, and it's amazing how friendly enemies can get in those stances. By the time the Kangas were down to maneuvering speed and passing Neptune, the major power blocs had decided to bury their differences.
"The Kanga force was two or three times as strong as they'd expected to need—I said they were logical—but their estimate had been too low. Their ships were big, but their mass-to-drive ratio was poor, and the sides were a lot more even than they'd planned or we thought. They never did get any planet-busters into range of Terra, but they wiped every human in the asteroid belt and did the same for Mars. We lost every regular warship and most of the merchant conversions we had, but only a few of their light attack craft got close enough to hit Terra, and they didn't have anything much bigger than a couple of megatons."
Aston felt his remaining fringe of hair trying to stand on end at how casually she used the term "megatons."
"We stopped them, but they killed four and a half billion people, most of them civilians. Of course, from the Kanga viewpoint, there's no such thing as `civilians' or `noncombatants,' but we were pretty ired."
Her words were light again, but her eyes were not.
"We learned a lot from the Kangas' wreckage. Not as much as we would have liked, but more than they probably expected we could. Unfortunately, the Kangas are logical, and they'd left one ship out where we couldn't get at it. As soon as it saw how things were going, it headed home at max.
"The result back home when it got there was pandemonium—and it must have been even worse because they didn't have any samples of our technology. But they did have a head start, and they'd been working hard at R&D ever since they sent their first fleet out, just in case. They knew none of their FTL transports had been captured intact, so they figured we hadn't gotten any samples of their multi-dee—that's what makes FTL travel possible—but they were only half right. Their long-range missiles used a cruder form of the same principle, and we did get our hands on a couple of them.
"Anyway, they went to crash building rates to put together another fleet, and they had eighteen major planetary populations and an undamaged deep-space industrial capacity. They were scared, but they got over their panic when they started puting the odds. Besides, God was on their side.
"Meanwhile, we were doing the same thing. It was obvious we couldn't go after them—we didn't even know where they were—but it was equally obvious that power projection over interstellar distances was a difficult proposition. We didn't have to be able to match them one-for-one or even one-for-ten to defend ourselves.
"To make a long story short, we were ready when they came back. In fact, our weapons were actually more advanced than theirs—not by much, but by a little—and we blew hell out of them. We even got a few prisoners, though Kangas don't last long in finement. They can't handle being captured by `devils'; it does something to them, and they just stop living.
"But we got a little nav data—enough to realize some of what we were up against. We couldn't quite grasp that any sort of negotiations would be impossible, but we knew it was going to be tough. The one good point was that we seemed to be better scientists—which we are, up to a point. They hadn't realized how well we do in physics and the inorganic sciences; we didn't realize how well they do in the bio sciences.
"By the time we'd wiped their second attack force, we had better n-space drives and more efficient multi-dees than they did, and we sent out a task force of our own. It surprised the nearest Kanga outpost and captured the planet, but at that point technology allowed combat only in normal-space at sublight speeds, and they got away with a few prisoners of their own. We'd only been in possession for about twenty years when they came back with the first of their bio weapons."
She paused, and her face lost all expression for just a moment. She sat very still, then she gave herself a little shake.
"The planet was Midgard," she said in a quiet, washed-out voice. "In many respects, it wasn't all that nice a place—it's on the chilly and dry side by Earth standards—but it's quite capable of sustaining human life. We needed the living space, and even if we hadn't, it was the only Kanga outpost we knew about. We figured they'd want it back, and we needed something short of Sol that would hold their attention and keep them busy outside of any possible attack range of Earth. So we decided to colonize the place, and we had almost two million civilians and one hell of a military presence on it by the time they got around to the expected counterattack. We blew them apart, but not before they dusted the planet—" she looked straight into his eyes "—and killed over ninety-nine percent of its population."
She paused again, and he swallowed as he realized she was talking about her planet and, from the way she spoke, her own ancestors. He shivered at the thought and looked away. His pipe had gone out, and he busied himself relighting it to give her time.
"That shook us up," she continued after a moment, "but it made our options pretty clear. Our total casualties were far lower than from their first attack on Sol, but it seemed worse, somehow. Partly because it was the complete destruction of an entire population, but even more because the way it was done made it clear their intention was genocidal. After that, we began to understand—really understand—what we were up against. There wasn't any more talk about negotiating, and anybody who'd thought we were already on a total war footing found out better.
"I won't bore you with the details of four centuries of fighting. They never have caught up with us in physics, and we never have caught up with them in the organic sciences. They're a bit ahead of us in chemistry, too, but we've got a huge edge in weapons, computer science, FTL technology—all the hardware aspects of fighting a war in space—and we're better strategists. Their caution works against them, and we're a lot more tuitive. They can kill any planet they can range on, but so can we, and our advantages mean that they've been pushed onto the defensive. They have to get past the fleet to attack our planets, and we've shoved them further and further back with every generation. By now, they're penned up in just three star systems, and we've got them pretty much blockaded there."
She paused again, and he cocked his head to one side.
"Excuse me," he said, "but I don't quite understand. If you're so much better fighters, how have they lasted this long?"
"They aren't stupid, Ster Aston," she said grimly, "just xenophobic and fanatical. Somewhere fairly early in the fighting, they decided that some fundamental difference in the way our minds work gave us an inherent advantage. It must have galled them, but the fact was that we were better fighters, and they were losing. Not all the time, and not all the battles, but most of the big ones. So they decided to do something about it."
"But what could they do?"
"They used their own strengths. If we had some kind of inbred advantage, they had to acquire the same advantage for themselves. So they built a race of cyborgs."
"Cyborgs. Machines with organic brains."
"But if the problem was inbred—"
"I didn't say machines with Kanga brains, Ster Aston," she said harshly. "They had prisoners of their own, and they're fantastic biological engineers. They developed a method to build total obedience into an organic brain. Then they operated on their prisoners."
Aston stared at her, stomach heaving as the implications sank in.
"Yes, Ster Aston," she said coldly. "They decided, in your idiom, to set a thief to catch a thief. If humans could out-think and out-fight them, they needed humans of their own. Their cyborgs were never quite as good as having regular humans, and they've never trusted them entirely. Strategy and sensitive research are still in strictly Kanga hands, but tactics and actual combat are another matter. Their cyborgs are completely expendable, and obedience is engineered into them; they can't even argue about being expended, but they're very good at what they do. By now, the Kangas are actually `farming' to produce them." She looked ill, but her voice was level. "They clone human brains to produce the things that do their fighting against other humans."
"My God," he whispered, holding his cold pipe.
"God had very little to do with it," she said softly, "and the hell of it is that the cyborgs hate us even more than the Kangas do. We're the ones who keep killing them, but, in a sense, we're also related, and it horrifies and disgusts both of us. They're slaves to the Kangas; even if we wanted to, we could never forget that, and they know it. We didn't create them, and we're not the ones who enslaved them, but they know exactly how horrible we find them, and they feel—and share—our hate.
"When we first realized what they were, we tried to overcome our disgust," she said even more softly. "We really tried, but it didn't work. They're fighting machines—by our standards, their human brains are psychopathic, because the Kangas wanted totally obedient, highly skilled, utterly conscienceless killing machines. They got them, too. The first time we cornered some of them and tried to talk to them, they slaughtered our entire contact team—over a hundred people—even though they knew we had enough troops and firepower to exterminate them.
"In two hundred years, every single confrontation with them has ended in death—ours or theirs. They're poor, bastardized monsters, but they are monsters. We can never let ourselves forget that. I think that's why we never call them `cyborgs.' "
"What do you call them?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
"We call them Trolls, Ster Aston," she said quietly, "and one of them shot down my interceptor and killed my crew. That's what's loose on your planet—and somehow, we have to find it and kill it."