‘The Game Of Rat And Dragon’ by Cordwainer Smith
Interstellar travel is the defining trope of space opera. Sometimes (mostly) it is achieved instantaneously with the flick of a switch, sometimes the void must patiently be slept through. Sometimes, however, space is far stranger and more dangerous than simple emptiness:
In the fraction of a second between the telepaths’ awareness of a hostile something out in the black, hollow nothingness of space and the impact of a ferocious, ruinous psychic blow against all living things within the ship, the telepaths had sensed entities something like the Dragons of ancient human lore, beasts more clever than beasts, demons more tangible than demon, hungry vortices of aliveness and hate compounded by unknown means out of the thin, tenuous matter between the stars.
These hungry vortices of hate can be destroyed by light and the game of rat and dragon is therefore the escalating battle between them and the bomber-telepaths for the souls of the passengers of the “planoforming” ships. “Dragon” because that is how humans perceive them, “rat” because that is how humanities much swifter Partners perceive them. Yes, the Partners are cats. Hartwell and Cramer let the, er cat out of the bag in their introduction and the story is famous enough that you probably knew that anyway. Still, as an avowed hater of hater of cats and a double hater of cats in SF, I was impressed by Smith’s skill revealing and then depicting this alliance. This is particularly true of the central pseudo-sexual relationship between the protagonist and his Partner, the Lady May: “O warm, O generous, O gigantic man! O brave, O friendly, O tender and huge Partner. O wonderful with you, with you so good, good, good, warm, warm, now to fight, now to go, good with you…” Towards the end the emotional register becomes a little extreme and the point belaboured but it is sharp little story.
‘The Game Of Rat And Dragon’ is part of Smith’s Instrumentality of Man universe, collected in The Rediscovery Of Man. I failed to finish that collection last time I read it but perhaps I should try again.