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Izrael Irizarry stepped through a bright-scarred airlock onto Kadath Station, lurching a little as he adjusted to station gravity. On his shoulder, Mongoose extended her neck, her barbels flaring, flicked her tongue out to taste the air, and colored a question. Another few steps, and he smelled what Mongoose smelled, the sharp stink of toves, ammoniac and bitter.
He touched the tentacle coiled around his throat with the quick double tap that meant soon. Mongoose colored displeasure, and Irizarry stroked the slick velvet wedge of her head in consolation and restraint. Her four compound and twelve simple eyes glittered and her color softened, but did not change, as she leaned into the caress. She was eager to hunt and he didn’t blame her. The boojum Manfred von Richthofen took care of its own vermin. Mongoose had had to make do with a share of Irizarry’s rations, and she hated eating dead things.
If Irizarry could smell toves, it was more than the “minor infestation” the message from the station master had led him to expect. Of course, that message had reached Irizarry third or fourth or fifteenth hand, and he had no idea how long it had taken. Perhaps when the station master had sent for him, it had been minor.
But he knew the ways of bureaucrats, and he wondered.
People did double-takes as he passed, even the heavily-modded Christian cultists with their telescoping limbs and biolin eyes. You found them on every station and steelships too, though mostly they wouldn’t work the boojums. Nobody liked Christians much, but they could work in situations that would kill an unmodded human or a even a gilly, so captains and station masters tolerated them.
There were a lot of gillies in Kadath’s hallways, and they all stopped to blink at Mongoose. One, an indenturee, stopped and made an elaborate hand-flapping bow. Irizarry felt one of Mongoose’s tendrils work itself through two of his earrings. Although she didn’t understand staring exactly—her compound eyes made the idea alien to her—she felt the attention and was made shy by it.
Unlike the boojum-ships they serviced, the stations—Providence, Kadath, Leng, Dunwich, and the others—were man-made. Their radial symmetry was predictable, and to find the station master, Irizarry only had to work his way inward from the Manfred von Richthofen’s dock to the hub. There he found one of the inevitable safety maps (you are here; in case of decompression, proceed in an orderly manner to the life vaults located here, here, or here) and leaned close to squint at the tiny lettering. Mongoose copied him, tilting her head first one way, then another, though flat representations meant nothing to her. He made out STATION MASTER’S OFFICE finally, on a oval bubble, the door of which was actually in sight.
“Here we go, girl,” he said to Mongoose (who, stone-deaf though she was, pressed against him in response to the vibration of his voice). He hated this part of the job, hated dealing with apparatchiks and functionaries, and of course the Station Master’s office was full of them, a receptionist, and then a secretary, and then someone who was maybe the other kind of secretary, and then finally—Mongoose by now halfway down the back of his shirt and entirely hidden by his hair and Irizarry himself half stifled by memories of someone he didn’t want to remember being—he was ushered into an inner room where Station Master Lee, her arms crossed and her round face set in a scowl, was waiting.
“Mr. Irizarry,” she said, unfolding her arms long enough to stick one hand out in a facsimile of a congenial greeting.
He held up a hand in response, relieved to see no sign of recognition in her face. It was Irizarry’s experience that dead lives were best left lie where they fell. “Sorry, Station Master,” he said. “I can’t.”
He thought of asking her about the reek of toves on the air, if she understood just how bad the situation had become. People could convince themselves of a lot of bullshit, given half a chance.
Instead, he decided to talk about his partner. “Mongoose hates it when I touch other people. She gets jealous, like a parrot.”
“The cheshire’s here?” She let her hand drop to her side, the expression on her face a mixture of respect and alarm. “Is it out of phase?”
Well, at least Station Master Lee knew a little more about cheshire-cats than most people. “No,” Irizarry said. “She’s down my shirt.”
Half a standard hour later, wading through the damp bowels of a ventilation pore, Irizarry tapped his rebreather to try to clear some of the tove-stench from his nostrils and mouth. It didn’t help much; he was getting close.
Here, Mongoose wasn’t shy at all. She slithered up on top of his head, barbels and graspers extended to full length, pulsing slowly in predatory greens and reds. Her tendrils slithered through his hair and coiled about his throat, fading in and out of phase. He placed his fingertips on her slick-resilient hide to restrain her. The last thing he needed was for Mongoose to go spectral and charge off down the corridor after the tove colony.
It wasn’t that she wouldn’t come back, because she would—but that was only if she didn’t get herself into more trouble than she could get out of without his help. “Steady,” he said, though of course she couldn’t hear him. A creature adapted to vacuum had no ears. But she could feel his voice vibrate in his throat, and a tendril brushed his lips, feeling the puff of air and the shape of the word. He tapped her tendril twice again—soon—and felt it contract. She flashed hungry orange in his peripheral vision. She was experimenting with jaguar rosettes—they had had long discussions of jaguars and tigers after their nightly reading of Pooh on the Manfred von Richthofen, as Mongoose had wanted to know what jagulars and tiggers were. Irizarry had already taught her about mongooses, and he’d read Alice in Wonderland so she would know what a Cheshire Cat was. Two days later—he still remembered it vividly—she had disappeared quite slowly, starting with the tips of the long coils of her tail and tendrils and ending with the needle-sharp crystalline array of her teeth. And then she’d phased back in, all excited aquamarine and pink, almost bouncing, and he’d praised her and stroked her and reminded himself not to think of her as a cat. Or a mongoose.
She had readily grasped the distinction between jaguars and jagulars, and had almost as quickly decided that she was a jagular; Irizarry had almost started to argue, but then thought better of it. She was, after all, a Very Good Dropper. And nobody ever saw her coming unless she wanted them to.
When the faint glow of the toves came into view at the bottom of the pore, he felt her shiver all over, luxuriantly, before she shimmered dark and folded herself tight against his scalp. Irizarry doused his own lights as well, flipping the passive infrared goggles down over his eyes. Toves were as blind as Mongoose was deaf, but an infestation this bad could mean the cracks were growing large enough for bigger things to wiggle through, and if there were raths, no sense in letting the monsters know he was coming.
He tapped the tendril curled around his throat three times, and whispered “Go.” She didn’t need him to tell her twice; really, he thought wryly, she didn’t need him to tell her at all. He barely felt her featherweight disengage before she was gone down the corridor as silently as a hunting owl. She was invisible to his goggles, her body at ambient temperature, but he knew from experience that her barbels and vanes would be spread wide, and he’d hear the shrieks when she came in among the toves.
The toves covered the corridor ceiling, arm-long carapaces adhered by a foul-smelling secretion that oozed from between the sections of their exoskeletons. The upper third of each tove’s body bent down like a dangling bough, bringing the glowing, sticky lure and flesh-ripping pincers into play. Irizarry had no idea what they fed on in their own phase, or dimension, or whatever.
Here, though, he knew what they ate. Anything they could get.
He kept his shock probe ready, splashing after, to assist her if it turned out necessary. That was sure a lot of toves, and even a cheshire-cat could get in trouble if she was outnumbered. Ahead of him, a tove warbled and went suddenly dark; Mongoose had made her first kill.
Within moments, the tove colony was in full warble, the harmonics making Irizarry’s head ache. He moved forward carefully, alert now for signs of raths. The largest tove colony he’d ever seen was on the derelict steelship Jenny Lind, which he and Mongoose had explored when they were working salvage on the boojum Harriet Tubman. The hulk had been covered inside and out with toves; the colony was so vast that, having eaten everything else, it had started cannibalizing itself, toves eating their neighbors and being eaten in turn. Mongoose had glutted herself before the Harriet Tubman ate the wreckage, and in the refuse she left behind, Irizarry had found the strange starlike bones of an adult rath, consumed by its own prey. The bandersnatch that had killed the humans on the Jenny Lind had died with her reactor core and her captain. A handful of passengers and crew had escaped to tell the tale.
He refocused. This colony wasn’t as large as those heaving masses on the Jenny Lind, but it was the largest he’d ever encountered not in a quarantine situation, and if there weren’t raths somewhere on Kadath Station, he’d eat his infrared goggles.
A dead tove landed at his feet, its eyeless head neatly separated from its segmented body, and a heartbeat later Mongoose phased in on his shoulder and made her deep clicking noise that meant, Irizarry! Pay attention!
He held his hand out, raised to shoulder level, and Mongoose flowed between the two, keeping her bulk on his shoulder, with tendrils resting against his lips and larynx, but her tentacles wrapping around his hand to communicate. He pushed his goggles up with his free hand and switched on his belt light so he could read her colors.
She was anxious, strobing yellow and green. Many, she shaped against his palm, and then emphatically, R.
“R” was bad—it meant rath—but it was better than “B.” If a bandersnatch had come through, all of them were walking dead, and Kadath Station was already as doomed as the Jenny Lind. “Do you smell it?” he asked under the warbling of the toves.
Taste, said Mongoose, and because Irizarry had been her partner for almost five Solar, he understood: the toves tasted of rath, meaning that they had recently been feeding on rath guano, and given the swiftness of toves’ digestive systems, that meant a rath was patrolling territory on the station.
Mongoose’s grip tightened on his shoulder. R, she said again. R. R. R.
Irizarry’s heart lurched and sank. More than one rath. The cracks were widening.
A bandersnatch was only a matter of time.
Station Master Lee didn’t want to hear it. It was all there in the way she stood, the way she pretended distraction to avoid eye-contact. He knew the rules of this game, probably better than she did. He stepped into her personal space. Mongoose shivered against the nape of his neck, her tendrils threading his hair. Even without being able to see her, he knew she was a deep, anxious emerald.
“A rath?” said Station Master Lee, with a toss of her head that might have looked flirtatious on a younger or less hostile woman, and moved away again. “Don’t be ridiculous. There hasn’t been a rath on Kadath Station since my grandfather’s time.”
“Doesn’t mean there isn’t an infestation now,” Irizarry said quietly. If she was going to be dramatic, that was his cue to stay still and calm. “And I said raths. Plural.”
“That’s even more ridiculous. Mr. Irizarry, if this is some ill-conceived attempt to drive up your price—”
“It isn’t.” He was careful to say it flatly, not indignantly. “Station Master, I understand that this isn’t what you want to hear, but you have to quarantine Kadath.”
“Can’t be done,” she said, her tone brisk and flat, as if he’d asked her to pilot Kadath through the rings of Saturn.
“Of course it can!” Irizarry said, and she finally turned to look at him, outraged that he dared to contradict her. Against his neck, Mongoose flexed one set of claws. She didn’t like it when he was angry.
Mostly, that wasn’t a problem. Mostly, Irizarry knew anger was a waste of time and energy. It didn’t solve anything. It didn’t fix anything. It couldn’t bring back anything that was lost. People, lives. The sorts of things that got washed away in the tides of time. Or were purged, whether you wanted them gone or not.
But this was . . . “You do know what a colony of adult raths can do, don’t you? With a contained population of prey? Tell me, Station Master, have you started noticing fewer indigents in the shelters?”
She turned away again, dismissing his existence from her cosmology. “The matter is not open for discussion, Mr. Irizarry. I hired you to deal with an alleged infestation. I expect you to do so. If you feel you can’t, you are of course welcome to leave the station with whatever ship takes your fancy. I believe the Arthur Gordon Pym is headed in-system, or perhaps you’d prefer the Jupiter run?”
He didn’t have to win this fight, he reminded himself. He could walk away, try to warn somebody else, get himself and Mongoose the hell off Kadath Station. “All right, Station Master. But remember that I warned you, when your secretaries start disappearing.”
He was at the door when she cried, “Irizarry!”
He stopped, but didn’t turn.
“I can’t,” she said, low and rushed, as if she was afraid of being overheard. “I can’t quarantine the station. Our numbers are already in the red this quarter, and the new political officer . . . it’s my head on the block, don’t you understand?”
He didn’t understand. Didn’t want to. It was one of the reasons he was a wayfarer, because he never wanted to let himself be like her again.
“If Sanderson finds out about the quarantine, she finds out about you. Will your papers stand up to a close inspection, Mr. Irizarry?”
He wheeled, mouth open to tell her what he thought of her and her clumsy attempts at blackmail, and she said, “I’ll double your fee.”
At the same time, Mongoose tugged on several strands of his hair, and he realized he could feel her heart beating, hard and rapid, against his spine. It was her distress he answered, not the Station Master’s bribe. “All right,” he said. “I’ll do the best I can.”
Toves and raths colonized like an epidemic, outward from a single originating point, Patient Zero in this case being the tear in spacetime that the first tove had wriggled through. More tears would develop as the toves multiplied, but it was that first one that would become large enough for a rath. While toves were simply lazy—energy efficient, the Arkhamers said primly—and never crawled farther than was necessary to find a useable anchoring point, raths were cautious. Their marauding was centered on the original tear because they kept their escape route open. And tore it wider and wider.
Toves weren’t the problem, although they were a nuisance, with their tendency to use up valuable oxygen, clog ductwork, eat pets, drip goo from ceilings, and crunch wetly when you stepped on them. Raths were worse; raths were vicious predators. Their natural prey might be toves, but they didn’t draw the line at disappearing weakened humans or small gillies, either.
But even they weren’t the danger that had made it hard for Irizarry to sleep the past two rest shifts. What toves tore and raths widened was an access for the apex predator of this alien food chain.
The bandersnatch: Pseudocanis tindalosi. The old records and the indigent Arkhamers called them hounds, but of course they weren’t, any more than Mongoose was a cat. Irizarry had seen archive video from derelict stations and ships, the bandersnatch’s flickering angular limbs appearing like spiked mantis arms from the corners of sealed rooms, the carnage that ensued. He’d never heard of anyone left alive on a station where a bandersnatch manifested, unless they made it to a panic pod damned fast. More importantly, even the Arkhamers in their archive-ships, breeders of Mongoose and all her kind, admitted they had no records of anyone surviving a bandersnatch rather than escaping it.
And what he had to do, loosely put, was find the core of the infestation before the bandersnatches did, so that he could eradicate the toves and raths and the stress they were putting on this little corner of the universe. Find the core—somewhere in the miles upon miles of Kadath’s infrastructure. Which was why he was in this little-used service corridor, letting Mongoose commune with every ventilation duct they found.
Anywhere near the access shafts infested by the colony, Kadath Station’s passages reeked of tove—ammoniac, sulfurous. The stench infiltrated the edges of Irizarry’s mask as he lifted his face to a ventilation duct. Wincing in anticipation, he broke the seal on the rebreather and pulled it away from his face on the stiff elastic straps, careful not to lose his grip. A broken nose would not improve his day.
A cultist engineer skittered past on sucker-tipped limbs, her four snake-arms coiled tight beside her for the narrow corridor. She had a pretty smile, for a Christian.
Mongoose was too intent on her prey to be shy. The size of the tove colony might make her nervous, but Mongoose loved the smell—like a good dinner heating, Irizarry imagined. She unfolded herself around his head like a tendriled hood, tentacles outreached, body flaring as she stretched towards the ventilation fan. He felt her lean, her barbels shivering, and turned to face the way her wedge-shaped head twisted.
He almost tipped backwards when he found himself face to face with someone he hadn’t even known was there. A woman, average height, average weight, brown hair drawn back in a smooth club; her skin was space-pale and faintly reddened across the cheeks, as if the IR filters on a suit hadn’t quite protected her. She wore a sleek space-black uniform with dull silver epaulets and four pewter-colored bands at each wrist. An insignia with a stylized sun and Earth-Moon dyad clung over her heart.
The political officer, who was obviously unconcerned by Mongoose’s ostentatious display of sensory equipment.
Mongoose absorbed her tendrils in like a startled anemone, pressing the warm underside of her head to Irizarry’s scalp where the hair was thinning. He was surprised she didn’t vanish down his shirt, because he felt her trembling against his neck.
The political officer didn’t extend her hand. “Mr. Irizarry? You’re a hard man to find. I’m Intelligence Colonel Sadhi Sanderson. I’d like to ask you a few quick questions, please.”
“I’m, uh, a little busy right now,” Irizarry said, and added uneasily, “Ma’am.” The last thing he wanted was to offend her.
Sanderson looked up at Mongoose. “Yes, you would appear to be hunting,” she said, her voice dry as scouring powder. “That’s one of the things I want to talk about.”
Oh shit. He had kept out of the political officer’s way for a day and a half, and really that was a pretty good run, given the obvious tensions between Lee and Sanderson, and the things he’d heard in the Transient Barracks: the gillies were all terrified of Sanderson, and nobody seemed to have a good word for Lee. Even the Christians, mouths thinned primly, could say of Lee only that she didn’t actively persecute them. Irizarry had been stuck on a steelship with a Christian congregation for nearly half a year once, and he knew their eagerness to speak well of everyone; he didn’t know whether that was actually part of their faith, or just a survival tactic, but when Elder Dawson said, “She does not trouble us,” he understood quite precisely what that meant.
Of Sanderson, they said even less, but Irizarry understood that, too. There was no love lost between the extremist cults and the government. But he’d heard plenty from the ice miners and dock workers and particularly from the crew of an impounded steelship who were profanely eloquent on the subject. Upshot: Colonel Sanderson was new in town, cleaning house, and profoundly not a woman you wanted to fuck with.
“I’d be happy to come to your office in an hour, maybe two?” he said. “It’s just that—”
Mongoose’s grip on his scalp tightened, sudden and sharp enough that he yelped; he realized that her head had moved back toward the duct while he fenced weakly with Colonel Sanderson, and now it was nearly in the duct, at the end of a foot and a half of iridescent neck.
He held a hand up, because really this wasn’t a good time, and yelped again when Mongoose reached down and grabbed it. He knew better than to forget how fluid her body was, that it was really no more than a compromise with the dimension he could sense her in, but sometimes it surprised him anyway.
And then Mongoose said, Nagina, and if Colonel Sanderson hadn’t been standing right there, her eyebrows indicating that he was already at the very end of the slack she was willing to cut, he would have cursed aloud. Short of a bandersnatch—and that could still be along any time now, don’t forget, Irizarry—a breeding rath was the worst news they could have.
“Your cheshire seems unsettled,” Sanderson said, not sounding in the least alarmed. “Is there a problem?”
“She’s eager to eat. And, er. She doesn’t like strangers.” It was as true as anything you could say about Mongoose, and the violent colors cycling down her tendrils gave him an idea what her chromatophores were doing behind his head.
“I can see that,” Sanderson said. “Cobalt and yellow, in that stippled pattern—and flickering in and out of phase—she’s acting aggressive, but that’s fear, isn’t it?”
Whatever Irizarry had been about to say, her observation stopped him short. He blinked at her—like a gilly, he thought uncharitably—and only realized he’d taken yet another step back when the warmth of the bulkhead pressed his coveralls to his spine.
“You know,” Sanderson said mock-confidentially, “this entire corridor reeks of toves. So let me guess: it’s not just toves anymore.”
Irizarry was still stuck at her being able to read Mongoose’s colors. “What do you know about cheshires?” he said.
She smiled at him as if at a slow student. “Rather a lot. I was on the Jenny Lind as an ensign—there was a cheshire on board, and I saw . . . It’s not the sort of thing you forget, Mr. Irizarry, having been there once.” Something complicated crossed her face—there for a flash and then gone. “The cheshire that died on the Jenny Lind was called Demon,” Irizarry said, carefully. “Her partner was Long Mike Spider. You knew them?”
“Spider John,” Sanderson said, looking down at the backs of her hands. She picked a cuticle with the opposite thumbnail. “He went by Spider John. You have the cheshire’s name right, though.”
When she looked back up, the arch of her carefully shaped brow told him he hadn’t been fooling anyone.
“Right,” Irizarry said. “Spider John.”
“They were friends of mine.” She shook her head. “I was just a pup. First billet, and I was assigned as Demon’s liaison. Spider John liked to say he and I had the same job. But I couldn’t make the captain believe him when he tried to tell her how bad it was.”
“How’d you make it off after the bandersnatch got through?” Irizarry asked. He wasn’t foolish enough to think that her confidences were anything other than a means of demonstrating to him why he could trust her, but the frustration and tired sadness sounded sincere.
“It went for Spider John first—it must have known he was a threat. And Demon—she threw herself at it, never mind it was five times her size. She bought us time to get to the panic pod and Captain Golovnina time to get to the core overrides. “ She paused. “I saw it, you know. Just a glimpse. Wriggling through this . . . this rip in the air, like a big gaunt hound ripping through a hole in a blanket with knotty paws. I spent years wondering if it got my scent. Once they scent prey, you know, they never stop. . . . ”
She trailed off, raising her gaze to meet his. He couldn’t decide if the furrow between her eyes was embarrassment at having revealed so much, or the calculated cataloguing of his response.
“So you recognize the smell, is what you’re saying.”
She had a way of answering questions with other questions. “Am I right about the raths?”
He nodded. “A breeder.”
He took a deep breath and stepped away from the bulkhead. “Colonel Sanderson—I have to get it now if I’m going to get it at all.”
She touched the microwave pulse pistol at her hip. “Want some company?”
He didn’t. Really, truly didn’t. And if he had, he wouldn’t have chosen Kadath Station’s political officer. But he couldn’t afford to offend her . . . and he wasn’t licensed to carry a weapon.
“All right,” he said and hoped he didn’t sound as grudging as he felt. “But don’t get in Mongoose’s way.”
Colonel Sanderson offered him a tight, feral smile. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
The only thing that stank more than a pile of live toves was a bunch of half-eaten ones.
“Going to have to vacuum-scrub the whole sector,” Sanderson said, her breath hissing through her filters.
If we live long enough to need to, Irizarry, thought, but had the sense to keep his mouth shut. You didn’t talk defeat around a politico. And if you were unfortunate enough to come to the attention of one, you certainly didn’t let her see you thinking it.
Mongoose forged on ahead, but Irizarry noticed she was careful to stay within the range of his lights, and at least one of her tendrils stayed focused back on him and Sanderson at all times. If this were a normal infestation, Mongoose would be scampering along the corridor ceilings, leaving scattered bits of half-consumed tove and streaks of bioluminescent ichor in her wake. But this time, she edged along, testing each surface before her with quivering barbels so that Irizarry was reminded of a tentative spider or an exploratory octopus.
He edged along behind her, watching her colors go dim and cautious. She paused at each intersection, testing the air in every direction, and waited for her escort to catch up.
The service tubes of Kadath Station were mostly large enough for Irizarry and Sanderson to walk single-file through, though sometimes they were obliged to crouch, and once or twice Irizarry found himself slithering on his stomach through tacky half-dried tove slime. He imagined—he hoped it was imagining—that he could sense the thinning and stretch of reality all around them, see it in the warp of the tunnels and the bend of deck plates. He imagined that he glimpsed faint shapes from the corners of his eyes, caught a whisper of sound, a hint of scent, as of something almost there.
Hypochondria, he told himself firmly, aware that that was the wrong word and not really caring. But as he dropped down onto his belly again, to squeeze through a tiny access point—this one clogged with the fresh corpses of newly-slaughtered toves—he needed all the comfort he could invent.
He almost ran into Mongoose when he’d cleared the hole. She scuttled back to him and huddled under his chest, tendrils writhing, so close to out of phase that she was barely a warm shadow. When he saw what was on the other side, he wished he’d invented a little more.
This must be one of Kadath Station’s recycling and reclamation centers, a bowl ten meters across sweeping down to a pile of rubbish in the middle. These were the sorts of places you always found minor tove infestations. Ships and stations might be supposed to be kept clear of vermin, but in practice, the dimensional stresses of sharing the spacelanes with boojums meant that just wasn’t possible. And in Kadath, somebody hadn’t been doing their job.
Sanderson touched his ankle, and Irizarry hastily drew himself aside so she could come through after. He was suddenly grateful for her company.
He really didn’t want to be here alone.
Irizarry had never seen a tove infestation like this, not even on the Jenny Lind. The entire roof of the chamber was thick with their sluglike bodies, long lure-tongues dangling as much as half a meter down. Small flitting things—young raths, near-transparent in their phase shift—filled the space before him. As Irizarry watched, one blundered into the lure of a tove, and the tove contracted with sudden convulsive force. The rath never stood a chance.
Nagina, Mongoose said. Nagina, Nagina, Nagina.
Indeed, down among the junk in the pit, something big was stirring. But that wasn’t all. That pressure Irizarry had sensed earlier, the feeling that many eyes were watching him, gaunt bodies stretching against whatever frail fabric held them back—here, it was redoubled, until he almost felt the brush of not-quite-in-phase whiskers along the nape of his neck.
Sanderson crawled up beside him, her pistol in one hand. Mongoose didn’t seem to mind her there.
“What’s down there?” she asked, her voice hissing on constrained breaths.
“The breeding pit,” Irizarry said. “You feel that? Kind of funny, stretchy feeling in the universe?”
Sanderson nodded behind her mask. “It’s not going to make you any happier, is it, if I tell you I’ve felt it before?”
Irizarry was wearily, grimly unsurprised. But then Sanderson said, “What do we do?”
He was taken aback and it must have shown, even behind the rebreather, because she said sharply, “You’re the expert. Which I assume is why you’re on Kadath Station to begin with and why Station Master Lee has been so anxious that I not know it. Though with an infestation of this size, I don’t know how she thought she was going to hide it much longer anyway.”
“Call it sabotage,” Irizarry said absently. “Blame the Christians. Or the gillies. Or disgruntled spacers, like the crew off the Caruso. It happens a lot, Colonel. Somebody like me and Mongoose comes in and cleans up the toves, the station authorities get to crack down on whoever’s being the worst pain in the ass, and life keeps on turning over. But she waited too long.”
Down in the pit, the breeder heaved again. Breeding raths were slow—much slower than the juveniles, or the sexually dormant adult rovers—but that was because they were armored like titanium armadillos. When threatened, one of two things happened. Babies flocked to mama, mama rolled herself in a ball, and it would take a tactical nuke to kill them. Or mama went on the warpath. Irizarry had seen a pissed off breeder take out a bulkhead on a steelship once; it was pure dumb luck that it hadn’t breached the hull.
And, of course, once they started spawning, as this one had, they could produce between ten and twenty babies a day for anywhere from a week to a month, depending on the food supply. And the more babies they produced, the weaker the walls of the world got, and the closer the bandersnatches would come.
“The first thing we have to do,” he said to Colonel Sanderson, “as in, right now, is kill the breeder. Then you quarantine the station and get parties of volunteers to hunt down the rovers, before they can bring another breeder through, or turn into breeders, or however the fuck it works, which frankly I don’t know. It’ll take fire to clear this nest of toves, but Mongoose and I can probably get the rest. And fire, Colonel Sanderson. Toves don’t give a shit about vacuum.”
She could have reproved him for his language; she didn’t. She just nodded and said, “How do we kill the breeder?”
“Yeah,” Irizarry said. “That’s the question.”
Mongoose clicked sharply, her Irizarry! noise.
“No,” Irizarry said. “Mongoose, don’t—”
But she wasn’t paying attention. She had only a limited amount of patience for his weird interactions with other members of his species and his insistence on waiting, and he’d clearly used it all up. She was Rikki Tikki Tavi, and the breeder was Nagina, and Mongoose knew what had to happen. She launched off Irizarry’s shoulders, shifting phase as she went, and without contact between them, there was nothing he could do to call her back. In less than a second, he didn’t even know where she was.
“You any good with that thing?” he said to Colonel Sanderson, pointing at her pistol.
“Yes,” she said, but her eyebrows were going up again. “But, forgive me, isn’t this what cheshires are for?”
“Against rovers, sure. But—Colonel, have you ever seen a breeder?”
Across the bowl, a tove warbled, the chorus immediately taken up by its neighbors. Mongoose had started.
“No,” Sanderson said, looking down at where the breeder humped and wallowed and finally stood up, shaking off ethereal babies and half-eaten toves. “Oh. Gods.”
You couldn’t describe a rath. You couldn’t even look at one for more than a few seconds before you started getting a migraine aura. Rovers were just blots of shadow. The breeder was massive, armored, and had no recognizable features, save for its hideous, drooling, ragged edged maw. Irizarry didn’t know if it had eyes, or even needed them.
“She can kill it,” he said, “but only if she can get at its underside. Otherwise, all it has to do is wait until it has a clear swing, and she’s . . . ” He shuddered. “I’ll be lucky to find enough of her for a funeral. So what we have to do now, Colonel, is piss it off enough to give her a chance. Or”—he had to be fair; this was not Colonel Sanderson’s job—”if you’ll lend me your pistol, you don’t have to stay.”
She looked at him, her dark eyes very bright, and then she turned to look at the breeder, which was swinging its shapeless head in slow arcs, trying, no doubt, to track Mongoose. “Fuck that, Mr. Irizarry,” she said crisply. “Tell me where to aim.”
“You won’t hurt it,” he’d warned her, and she’d nodded, but he was pretty sure she hadn’t really understood until she fired her first shot and the breeder didn’t even notice. But Sanderson hadn’t given up; her mouth had thinned, and she’d settled into her stance, and she’d fired again, at the breeder’s feet as Irizarry had told her. A breeding rath’s feet weren’t vulnerable as such, but they were sensitive, much more sensitive than the human-logical target of its head. Even so, it was concentrating hard on Mongoose, who was making toves scream at various random points around the circumference of the breeding pit, and it took another three shots aimed at that same near front foot before the breeder’s head swung in their direction.
It made a noise, a sort of “wooaaurgh” sound, and Irizarry and Sanderson were promptly swarmed by juvenile raths.
“Ah, fuck,” said Irizarry. “Try not to kill them.”
“I’m sorry, try not to kill them?”
“If we kill too many of them, it’ll decide we’re a threat rather than an annoyance. And then it rolls up in a ball, and we have no chance of killing it until it unrolls again. And by then, there will be a lot more raths here.”
“And quite possibly a bandersnatch,” Sanderson finished. “But—” She batted away a half-corporeal rath that was trying to wrap itself around the warmth of her pistol.
“If we stood perfectly still for long enough,” Irizarry said, “they could probably leech out enough of our body heat to send us into hypothermia. But they can’t bite when they’re this young. I knew a cheshire-man once who swore they ate by crawling down into the breeder’s stomach to lap up what it’d digested. I’m still hoping that’s not true. Just keep aiming at that foot.”
“You got it.”
Irizarry had to admit, Sanderson was steady as a rock. He shooed juvenile raths away from both of them, Mongoose continued her depredations out there in the dark, and Sanderson, having found her target, fired at it in a nice steady rhythm. She didn’t miss; she didn’t try to get fancy. Only, after a while, she said out of the corner of her mouth, “You know, my battery won’t last forever.”
“I know,” Irizarry said. “But this is good. It’s working.”
“How can you tell?”
“It’s getting mad.”
“How can you tell?”
“The vocalizing.” The rath had gone from its “wooaaurgh” sound to a series of guttural huffing noises, interspersed with high-pitched yips. “It’s warning us off. Keep firing.”
“All right,” Sanderson said. Irizarry cleared another couple of juveniles off her head. He was trying not to think about what it meant that no adult raths had come to the pit—just how much of Kadath Station had they claimed?
“Have there been any disappearances lately?” he asked Sanderson.
She didn’t look at him, but there was a long silence before she said, “None that seemed like disappearances. Our population is by necessity transient, and none too fond of authority. And, frankly, I’ve had so much trouble with the station master’s office that I’m not sure my information is reliable.”
It had to hurt for a political officer to admit that. Irizarry said, “We’re very likely to find human bones down there. And in their caches.”
Sanderson started to answer him, but the breeder decided it had had enough. It wheeled toward them, its maw gaping wider, and started through the mounds of garbage and corpses in their direction.
“What now?” said Sanderson.
“Keep firing,” said Irizarry. Mongoose, wherever you are, please be ready.
He’d been about seventy-five percent sure that the rath would stand up on its hind legs when it reached them. Raths weren’t sapient, not like cheshires, but they were smart. They knew that the quickest way to kill a human was to take its head off, and the second quickest was to disembowel it, neither of which they could do on all fours. And humans weren’t any threat to a breeder’s vulnerable abdomen; Sanderson’s pistol might give the breeder a hot foot, but there was no way it could penetrate the breeder’s skin.
It was a terrible plan—there was that whole twenty-five percent where he and Sanderson died screaming while the breeder ate them from the feet up—but it worked. The breeder heaved itself upright, massive, indistinct paw going back for a blow that would shear Sanderson’s head off her neck and probably bounce it off the nearest bulkhead, and with no warning of any kind, not for the humans, not for the rath, Mongoose phased viciously in, claws and teeth and sharp edged tentacles all less than two inches from the rath’s belly and moving fast.
The rath screamed and curled in on itself, but it was too late. Mongoose had already caught the lips of its—oh gods and fishes, Irizarry didn’t know the word. Vagina? Cloaca? Ovipositor? The place where little baby raths came into the world. The only vulnerability a breeder had. Into which Mongoose shoved the narrow wedge of her head, and her clawed front feet, and began to rip.
Before the rath could even reach for her, her malleable body was already entirely inside it, and it—screaming, scrabbling—was doomed.
Irizarry caught Sanderson’s elbow and said, “Now would be a good time, very slowly, to back away. Let the lady do her job.”
Irizarry almost made it off of Kadath clean.
He’d had no difficulty in getting a berth for himself and Mongoose—after a party or two of volunteers had seen her in action, after the stories started spreading about the breeder, he’d nearly come to the point of beating off the steelship captains with a stick. And in the end, he’d chosen the offer of the captain of the Erich Zann, a boojum; Captain Alvarez had a long-term salvage contract in the Kuiper belt—”cleaning up after the ice miners,” she’d said with a wry smile—and Irizarry felt like salvage was maybe where he wanted to be for a while. There’d be plenty for Mongoose to hunt, and nobody’s life in danger. Even a bandersnatch wasn’t much more than a case of indigestion for a boojum.
He’d got his money out of the station master’s office—hadn’t even had to talk to Station Master Lee, who maybe, from the things he was hearing, wasn’t going to be station master much longer. You could either be ineffectual or you could piss off your political officer. Not both at once. And her secretary so very obviously didn’t want to bother her that it was easy to say, “We had a contract,” and to plant his feet and smile. It wasn’t the doubled fee she’d promised him, but he didn’t even want that. Just the money he was owed.
So his business was taken care of. He’d brought Mongoose out to the Erich Zann, and insofar as he and Captain Alvarez could tell, the boojum and the cheshire liked each other. He’d bought himself new underwear and let Mongoose pick out a new pair of earrings for him. And he’d gone ahead and splurged, since he was, after all, on Kadath Station and might as well make the most of it, and bought a selection of books for his reader, including The Wind in the Willows. He was looking forward, in an odd, quiet way, to the long nights out beyond Neptune: reading to Mongoose, finding out what she thought about Rat and Mole and Toad and Badger.
Peace—or as close to it as Izrael Irizarry was ever likely to get.
He’d cleaned out his cubby in the Transient Barracks, slung his bag over one shoulder with Mongoose riding on the other, and was actually in sight of the Erich Zann’s dock when a voice behind him called his name.
He froze in the middle of a stride, torn between turning around to greet her and bolting like a rabbit, and then she’d caught up to him. “Mr. Irizarry,” she said. “I hoped I could buy you a drink before you go.”
He couldn’t help the deeply suspicious look he gave her. She spread her hands, showing them empty. “Truly. No threats, no tricks. Just a drink. To say thank you.” Her smile was lopsided; she knew how unlikely those words sounded in the mouth of a political officer.
And any other political officer, Irizarry wouldn’t have believed them. But he’d seen her stand her ground in front of a breeder rath, and he’d seen her turn and puke her guts out when she got a good look at what Mongoose did to it. If she wanted to thank him, he owed it to her to sit still for it.
“All right,” he said, and added awkwardly, “Thank you.”
They went to one of Kadath’s tourist bars: bright and quaint and cheerful and completely unlike the spacer bars Irizarry was used to. On the other hand, he could see why Sanderson picked this one. No one here, except maybe the bartender, had the least idea who she was, and the bartender’s wide-eyed double take meant that they got excellent service: prompt and very quiet.
Irizarry ordered a pink lady—he liked them, and Mongoose, in delight, turned the same color pink, with rosettes matched to the maraschino “cherry.” Sanderson ordered whisky, neat, which had very little resemblance to the whisky Irizarry remembered from planetside. She took a long swallow of it, then set the glass down and said, “I never got a chance to ask Spider John this: how did you get your cheshire?”
It was clever of her to invoke Spider John and Demon like that, but Irizarry still wasn’t sure she’d earned the story. After the silence had gone on a little too long, Sanderson picked her glass up, took another swallow, and said, “I know who you are.”
“I’m nobody,” Irizarry said. He didn’t let himself tense up, because Mongoose wouldn’t miss that cue, and she was touchy enough, what with all the steelship captains, that he wasn’t sure what she might think the proper response was. And he wasn’t sure, if she decided the proper response was to rip Sanderson’s face off, that he would be able to make himself disagree with her in time.
“I promised,” Sanderson said. “No threats. I’m not trying to trace you, I’m not asking any questions about the lady you used to work for. And, truly, I’m only asking how you met this lady. You don’t have to tell me.”
“No,” Irizarry said mildly. “I don’t.” But Mongoose, still pink, was coiling down his arm to investigate the glass—not its contents, since the interest of the egg-whites would be more than outweighed by the sharp sting to her nose of the alcohol, but the upside-down cone on a stem of a martini glass. She liked geometry. And this wasn’t a story that could hurt anyone.
He said, “I was working my way across Jupiter’s moons, oh, five years ago now. Ironically enough, I got trapped in a quarantine. Not for vermin, but for the black rot. It was a long time, and things got . . . ugly.”
He glanced at her and saw he didn’t need to elaborate.
“There were Arkhamers trapped there, too, in their huge old scow of a ship. And when the water rationing got tight, there were people that said the Arkhamers shouldn’t have any—said that if it was the other way ‘round, they wouldn’t give us any. And so when the Arkhamers sent one of their daughters for their share . . . ” He still remembered her scream, a grown woman’s terror in a child’s voice, and so he shrugged and said, “I did the only thing I could. After that, it was safer for me on their ship than it was on the station, so I spent some time with them. Their Professors let me stay.
“They’re not bad people,” he added, suddenly urgent. “I don’t say I understand what they believe, or why, but they were good to me, and they did share their water with the crew of the ship in the next berth. And of course, they had cheshires. Cheshires all over the place, cleanest steelship you’ve ever seen. There was a litter born right about the time the quarantine finally lifted. Jemima—the little girl I helped—she insisted they give me pick of the litter, and that was Mongoose.”
Mongoose, knowing the shape of her own name on Irizarry’s lips, began to purr, and rubbed her head gently against his fingers. He petted her, feeling his tension ease, and said, “And I wanted to be a biologist before things got complicated.”
“Huh,” said Sanderson. “Do you know what they are?”
“Sorry?” He was still mostly thinking about the Arkhamers, and braced himself for the usual round of superstitious nonsense: demons or necromancers or what-not.
But Sanderson said, “Cheshires. Do you know what they are?”
“What do you mean, ‘what they are’? They’re cheshires.”
“After Demon and Spider John . . . I did some reading and I found a Professor or two—Arkhamers, yes—to ask.” She smiled, very thinly. “I’ve found, in this job, that people are often remarkably willing to answer my questions. And I found out. They’re bandersnatches.”
“Colonel Sanderson, not to be disrespectful—”
“Sub-adult bandersnatches,” Sanderson said. “Trained and bred and intentionally stunted so that they never mature fully.”
Mongoose, he realized, had been watching, because she caught his hand and said emphatically, Not.
“Mongoose disagrees with you,” he said and found himself smiling. “And really, I think she would know.”
Sanderson’s eyebrows went up. “And what does Mongoose think she is?”
He asked, and Mongoose answered promptly, pink dissolving into champagne and gold: Jagular. But there was a thrill of uncertainty behind it, as if she wasn’t quite sure of what she stated so emphatically. And then, with a sharp toss of her head at Colonel Sanderson, like any teenage girl: Mongoose.
Sanderson was still watching him sharply. “Well?”
“She says she’s Mongoose.”
And Sanderson really wasn’t trying to threaten him, or playing some elaborate political game, because her face softened in a real smile, and she said, “Of course she is.”
Irizarry swished a sweet mouthful between his teeth. He thought of what Sanderson has said, of the bandersnatch on the Jenny Lind wriggling through stretched rips in reality like a spiny, deathly puppy tearing a blanket. “How would you domesticate a bandersnatch?”
She shrugged. “If I knew that, I’d be an Arkhamer, wouldn’t I?” Gently, she extended the back of her hand for Mongoose to sniff. Mongoose, surprising Irizarry, extended one tentative tendril and let it hover just over the back of Sanderson’s wrist.
Sanderson tipped her head, smiling affectionately, and didn’t move her hand. “But if I had to guess, I’d say you do it by making friends.”
Originally published in Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow.