The Game of Rat and Dragon
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"The Game of Rat and Dragon" is a short story written by Cordwainer Smith in 1954 and published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1955. It is set in the far future, though no date is given. It occurs in the same universe as other Cordwainer Smith novels, with a passing reference to the super-powerful regulatory 'Instrumentality'.
The 'dragons' are mysterious aliens which attack human starships and drive the inhabitants insane:
- "Something out there underneath space itself which was alive, capricious and malevolent...
- "The telepaths had sensed entities something like the Dragons of ancient human lore, beasts more clever than beasts, demons more tangible than demons, hungry vortices of aliveness and hate compounded by unknown means out of the thin tenuous matter between the stars."
Cats guided by telepaths are used to fight the 'dragons', because of their very quick reactions. They see the aliens as giant rats: hence the story title. Also the humans form very strong bonds with these cats, seeing them as almost human. Non-telepaths sometimes mock them for this.
The story has always been one of Cordwainer Smith's most popular works. (Most of which were disconnected short stories set at different eras in a single imagined future.)
Human travel in outer space is threatened by strange creatures known as the Dragons. Imperceptible to ordinary people, Dragons are experienced as nothing but a sudden death or insanity. Dragons can only be destroyed by very strong light, but they move too fast for conventional defense methods. Both human and telepathic cats (who perceive the dragons as rats) are able to sense the creatures within milliseconds. The humans and cats work together as teams to protect interstellar spaceships traveling via planoforming (a type of faster than light speed travel). The cats ride outside of the spaceships in their own tiny crafts, waiting for the order from their human partner to attack. Pin-sets (telepathic amplifiers) heighten a telepath’s senses and allow the humans to communicate with their partner cats. The cats then destroy the Dragons with "pinlights", miniature nuclear bombs whose blast gives off pure visible radiance that can destroy the dragons. Thanks to the combination of the human mind and the cats' quick reactions, the battle against the Dragons is not only possible, but usually ends in victory.
Underhill, Woodley, Father Moontree, and a girl named West are the group of current telepaths fighting the war. The cats fighting alongside them are Captain Wow, Lady May and others. Woodley draws an unremarkable cat, West teams up with Captain Wow, Underhill with Lady May, and Father Moontree gets stuck with an old, unnamed, greedy male cat, who has the best fighting record of them all. While the Father Moontree and Woodley are not particularly interested in their partner cats, West thinks Captain Wow is cuddly, and Underhill has a strong connection with Lady May and enjoys being telepathically connected with her.
The team travel to the depths of space, searching for their enemy. During an attack, Underhill is unable to follow Lady May’s thoughts fast enough and the Dragon touches his mind, sending excruciating pain throughout his body. The battle lasts less than the blink of an eye, and the ship lands safely. Underhill is hospitalized and a doctor tells him that he was within a tenth of a millisecond of going insane, but the only thing that concerns Underhill is his partner, Lady May, and her well-being. A secretly jealous and angry nurse walks in and Underhill compares her to Lady May. Logically, he understands that Lady May is only a cat, but his mind tells him that no woman will ever equal her.
- J.J. Pierce (ed.), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975), p. 67.
- Hartwell, David G., and Kathryn Cramer. The Space Opera Renaissance. New York: Orb Books, 2007.
- Cordwainer Smith official website