Chapter VIII

Public Domain

Through half his reign, Var of Kloomiria had nursed his hatred of the humans into a holy mission. It was eighty years since his visit to Cathay, when the colonists’ children had run screaming from him, shouting that he was a monster, but time had only sharpened the memory. He had covered his too-human body under a multitude of robes and had gloried in the alienness of his head, with its fringe of breathing tentacles and the two lobster-like claws that concealed his tiny mouth. Year after long year, he had built and prayed for the war of vengeance that must come.

Almost, it had passed him by. With the threat of help from Earth for Cathay, he had been forced to delay while larger fleets were built. His reign had been drawing to a close and he had almost resigned himself to the law that would turn the rulership over to his eldest son. Then the boy had died in an explosion less than a week from the change of rule, and almost simultaneously Earth’s timidity had won again, and the protection had been denied her colony.

Now Var’s waiting was finished. He stood in the cabin of his flagship, heading back to Kloomiria after the opening raid of the war, savoring the sweetness of the damage he had done Cathay. Life was sweet.

Behind him, the door dilated softly and his aide came in, carrying a roll of paper. “A message from Cathay, magnificence,” he announced.

Var opened the message and studied it. Then he read it again, uncertainly. He was sure of his knowledge of English, but the note was senseless gibberish. Again he read it, this time aloud:

“Yours of the fourteenth ultimo received and contents noted. We are pleased to inform you that we are in a position to fill your entire order and that shipment is going out at once by special messenger. We trust that you will find our products superior in every way. We believe that you will find our terms completely reasonable.”

It made no more sense aloud.

The aide sighed apologetically. “Deliberately misapplied archaicism is sometimes regarded as humorous by Earthmen, magnificence. I suspect this is a warning that they are retaliating.”

“Bluff!” Var read the words again, but he could make no other meaning from them. Did the fools expect him to believe their flippancy spelled confidence, or were they deceiving themselves? And the hint of surrender terms was sheer stupidity. It must be an offer, though the wording seemed to indicate he should surrender!

He threw the message into a waste receptacle in disgust and went over to look at the screens where Kloomiria was showing. The humans of Cathay might try a return raid, but he was unworried. Cathay’s fleet was pitiful, and she had no heavy ships from which to launch planet bombs. Of course, there were spy reports of vast numbers of what seemed to be guided missiles, but they could never get through the confusion-signals that blanketed Kloomiria.

As he watched, a signal blinked. He opened the circuit and the face of his admiral looked out. “We’ve received indications of a swarm of small ships, magnificence,” the man reported. “High speed and piloted. It may be a suicide squadron.”

“Suicide!” Var spat the word out. “Whoever heard of the human cowards risking their necks?”

The aide touched his shoulder apologetically. “They are mentioned in Earth books, magnificence. And there was Djamboula.”

Var stared at the screen as the flight was relayed to him, snarling. Definitely, they were one-man ships, not guided missiles. His defenses had never been built to handle suicide squadrons.

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