Back | Next
With the first ginger streaks of dawn, hrinn, both on yirnback and on foot, filtered through the Meeting Ground into the green-carpeted hills and on toward the mountains. Heyoka could almost feel the disapproval of the ancient standing stones as they presided over what had to be a doomed exodus. The scents of the six Lines were so mingled at this point, he could not separate one from the other, and the wildness that engendered beat through his blood. He understood now why hrinn did not often assemble in large groups. Immersion in so many pheromones called the savage within each of them to the surface, made challenge and then senseless death almost inevitable, yet they had no chance at all unless they faced the flek as a unit.
He wished he believed in patterns so all of this would make sense, but he saw nothing ahead of them but almost certain failure and death. He tried one more time to calculate the chances of success and shuddered at the thought of arrows against lasers . . . spears against aircraft . . . teeth and claws against armor. If he dwelled on it, he knew he would lose his nerve. However slim their chances, they could not cower here and allow the flek to proceed unimpeded. They would all simply have to do their best.
The evening before, the assembled Line Mothers had dispatched small leathery messenger jits to every hold and house up and down the Mish River Valley. Now hrinn trickled in, answering his summons without any real concept of what they were up against, coming solely because he was the reputed Black/on/black, and in every face, in the multitude of ice-bright midnight eyes, he saw a reverence that made his skin crawl. He was not what they thought, most certainly not the one for whom they had been waiting. He was only a sham, and a very poor one at that.
The only person who understood even the smallest part of what facing the flek meant was Kei, with his scarred face and angry, arrogant manner. Unfortunately, he was consumed with the past, still far too concerned with the fate of Levv, and his every word reeked of challenge. Even if Kei had crossed the mountains years ago with this news, they would never have followed him. They rallied now only for the Black/on/black and would stay until he stumbled and proved the legend hollow after all.
Behind him, hrinnti footpads whispered against the inlaid stones; he caught Kei's scent, a broad masculine base note, underlaid with the specific pheromone that said "Levv." He flicked an ear back, acknowledging his relative.
"Something approaches from the south," Kei's deep voice said. "It stinks too much to be hrinnti."
Heyoka's heart jumped. "Human or flek?" he asked, praying it would prove to be humans from the station.
"It does not matter!" Kei's massive outline was dark against the fading night. He seemed larger than Heyoka remembered, more brutish. "Outsiders are all the same! We should kill all of them!"
"They are not the same." Exasperated, Heyoka shouldered his backpack and headed toward the edge of the bluff. His cuts and scrapes from last night's duel still ached and his temper was short. "And if you have any desire to live through the next few days, you had best learn the difference."
Khea's graceful gray-and-white form appeared out of the half-darkness, ghost-pale, except that, he reminded himself, hrinnti imaginations had never conceived of anything so fanciful as spirits. She cast her eyes down. "Black/on/black, Vexk asks your assistance."
If he lived here a thousand years, he thought irritably, he would not become accustomed to the way these creatures never looked you in the eye unless they intended to kill you. He touched her shoulder. "What does she need?"
The cubling shrank from his fingers without seeming to move. "Outsiders are approaching from the south. She hopes you will speak with them."
Absentmindedly, he nodded, then realized the gesture was meaningless. "Show me," he amended, then followed her slender yellow-robed form back through the rapidly growing light.
At the edge of the gentle bluff leading up to the Meeting Ground, Vexk waited beside the trail. "Outsiders," she said and wrinkled her nose in frustration. "I mean humans. I found them close to the river, but only one speaks our language and that very badly. I could not understand what it wanted."
Boots scraped against the rocky path that led up from the flood plain. Ten . . . perhaps fifteen, Heyoka estimated. A dark-haired head emerged from the trail's cleft and stopped.
Heyoka stepped closer. "Are you from the station?"
"Yes." The figure edged forward. "Sergeant Blackeagle?"
Then he caught her scent. "Dr. Alvarez! What are you doing up here?"
"I" She sagged against the rock, legs buckling. "I'm sorry." She rubbed at a scabbed cut on her forehead. "We've been walking all night." One by one, a line of weary, grime-encrusted figures appeared behind her and waited in dogged silence.
He studied her face. Lines of strain outlined her mouth and her eyes were bleak. "Did you contact the nearest base?"
"Thethe flek blasted the station again after you left." Her voice shook. "You were right. There isn't much time left. We" She glanced back at the exhausted men and women braced against the rocks. "We brought you what supplies and weapons we could salvage from our stores. I'm sorry it isn't more. We should have given you everything when you first came to us with the news about the flek. Anyway, whatever you have in mind, we've come to help."
A man stepped forward, his right arm a thick white bundle bandaged tightly against his body. "We never stocked explosives, but we did scrounge eleven undamaged laser rifles and some extra power clips."
"This is Security Chief Cuppertino." Alvarez pushed a lock of dark hair out of her face. "Scott, that is. And I'm Sanyha."
Heyoka looked over the tattered, but determined men and women, trying to evaluate them as recruits. They were soft, as well as untrained, and worn out, but he understood the measure of the human spirit much better than he did that of the Hrinn. Once humans got their teeth into something, they rarely let go, no matter what the cost. He held out his hand.
Scott Cuppertino stared at his fur-covered hand, then gripped it awkwardly with his undamaged left. "I just want a chance at those bastards, Blackeagle. Just give me a chance." His dark-shadowed eyes blinked convulsively.
Another few minutes on his feet and this one was going to collapse. Heyoka turned to Vexk. "Can you arrange for some foodcooked foodfor them?"
"Cooked?" Vexk blinked at him. "Are they ill?"
Heyoka felt amusement welling up in him again. "Just cook it. I will explain later." Dammit, he told himself, why did he feel most human when he was among hrinn? He pulled the doctor back onto her feet. "Go with Vexk. She'll see you get food and rest before we leave."
The doctor's fragile human fingers closed around his wrist. Then, nodding, she and the rest of the humans straggled after Vexk's pale form.
"You are not letting those creatures stay?" Kei glared at the small band.
Fur bristled along Heyoka's spine. He was too tired for this, he told himself. He should have gotten some sleep last night instead of trying to plan for the coming march. "Those humans have come to fight at our side, and they brought weapons, which may give us an edge."
"Lights-that-kill?" A fierce eagerness came into Kei's tone and his nostrils flared as he tilted his scarred nose up into the breeze. "I will take one then!"
"No, it's better that they keep the weapons." Heyoka watched Kei's eyes narrow. "They already know how to use them, and it's hard for hrinn to learn. Our hands are too different, and you do not have enough time to learn."
"You cannot trust those creatures at our backs! You can never know what they are thinking!"
"Them? I understand them perfectly!" Heyoka flattened his ears. "It's you that I never understand!"
The other male, taller and burlier than himself, snarled as he struggled for self-control, plainly burning for yet another fight. No more fighting, Heyoka thought wearily, not now when he was too tired to go on and too frightened to give up. Why did everything on this goddammed planet have to be settled by violence? Couldn't these creatures ever talk things out?
Bruised and aching, he stood his ground, staring into his mirror image's furious eyes. This is what he would have become, if he had not been stolen away by the flek, an unthinking brute who lusted for blood, no matter whose. He realized he would not trade places with Kei and forego the sequence of events, terrible as they had been, which had made him what he was today.
Kei's black gaze glittered in the dim early morning light. He seemed poised on the edge of a charge, then whirled and disappeared down the rocky trail. Heyoka stared after him, hands balled into fists. That was stupid! he told himself. What was wrong with him? He'd led men into battle before. He should have placated Kei, made him understand he was too valuable a fighter to be burdened with a weapon he didn't understand. He should have . . .
Numbly, he wondered how many more times he would say that before the end.
After her second rib-crunching fall, Sanyha abandoned her yirn. They were just too damn big and ornery, and she lacked the strength in her legs to hold on. She watched as her nasty-tempered mount tossed its horned head, then trotted off down the narrow track ahead of her. She didn't care if she had to crawl across these mountains on her hands and knees, she wasn't getting on one of those things again.
Ahead, to the west, the red sun hung low over the mountains. She brushed the dirt off her elbows, then followed the yirn's rump down the hillside. The procession of hrinn was strung out across the mountain trails and she had to keep checking over her shoulder to make sure no one ran over her.
She glanced up to see Sergeant Blackeagle speaking from a switchback higher up the hill. She dabbed at a bloody scratch on her hand. "It's not the first time."
"Stay there. I'll catch it for you." He leaned over his mount's shaggy neck.
"Don't" she began, but he'd already disappeared around the bend before she could finish. "bother."
A moment later, she flagged him down as he approached. "I really don't want to see that misbegotten beast again." She tried to smile up at him, but the expression wouldn't quite fit on her lips. "I might feel obliged to shoot it and that would be a waste of good ammunition."
He stared down at her, sharp-muzzled face and black eyes unfathomable, then reached down, grasping her arm with his five inhumanly strong fingers and two thumbs, and swung her effortlessly up behind him onto the beast's backbone.
"Thanks!" she gasped. The yirn fell into its rough gait before she could get her balance and she had to clutch Blackeagle's waist to keep from falling off. Each stride reverberated all the way up her aching spine. Yirn-riding reminded her of one of those purposefully jolting rides at amusement areaswithout the safety harness.
They rode in silence, the yirn setting its own wild pace up and down the hillsides as they traveled toward the flek base on the other side of the mountains. After a while, her eyes sagged closed and she found herself leaning against the warm, plush-furred back in front of her, the tied-up plume of his mane flowing down and tickling her face. Even through the overtunic, his fur smelled clean and musky, a little like an expensive purebred dog her father had once bought for her, imported all the way from Earth.
"Did you ever find her body?"
The question came from nowhere, startling her. Sanyha realized she must have been dozing.
"Body?" She loosened one arm and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.
She could feel his voice resonating in her fingers where she touched him. So strange to hear those deep rumbly undertones in Standard without an accent, and stranger still to be riding through the mountains in the company of the same primitive creatures whom she had been studying for years now as impersonally as if they'd been germs under a microscope.
"No, I'm sorry." She paused, trying to get her thoughts together. "We never found Allenby or Eldrich either."
"Eldrich!" The black-furred face looked back at her. "Could he be working for the flek?"
"I guess it's possible, but why would he?" The yirn bunched its muscles to climb a rough spot in the trail and she tightened her grip on Blackeagle. "I mean, how would they pay him? Flek don't deal in anything we recognize as valuable, except slaves, and humans don't believe in slavery."
His body swayed with the yirn, effortless and confident even in the short amount of time he'd had to learn. "Still, she might be alive, since you didn't find her body."
Sanyha didn't know what to say. The images of the bodies she had found floated again into her mind, all the friends and colleagues. Three quarters of the station personnel had died, some in the preliminary explosions, and then more later, in the secondary attacks. She thought of the wounded she had left to be cared for as best they could by the few who had stayed behind. She thought of the years of work to understand this unique species and culture that were now in ashes.
And of course, there was the loss of this entire quadrant of human-colonized space if the flek got their transport grid up and running. Hundreds of planets lay within striking distance of Anktan, once the flek had been allowed to remodel it to their tastes.
Against all of that, the life of one woman should seem almost insignificant, and yet as a doctor, she'd never been able to weigh lives in that way. She leaned her head against his furred back again and sighed. "Yes," she said, letting the words come out softly, "she may still be alive."
The ear-splitting squeal had almost a pleasant quality about it now, like a flek working song. Mitsu stood beside Eldrich, with the cool evening breeze on her face, looking down from one of the high corner towers into the multicolored center of the grid, seeing the indistinct outlines of a diamond-bright somethingshimmering there. For a second, it seemed the huge object would make it through and solidify, then the tech-drones lost the pattern. Once again, the atoms materialized in random sequences and a heap of smoking rubble scattered across the grid floor.
She beat her fingers together, playing an appropriate dirge to mourn the failure, knowing Eldrich watched her all the time for unflekish behavior. One slip and he would shut her up again for more conditioning, and then perhaps it would take completely, and she would have nothing of herself left.
At the present, she had managed to retain some portion of her humanity, though how much, even she was not really sure. For a few more minutes, she watched the tech-drones scurrying about below, cleaning up the mess so they could make their adjustments and try again; then Eldrich snagged her arm and pulled her inside through the slick wall.
She held her breath as they passed through the semipermeable wall, then emerged with a thankful pop on the opposite side. Eldrich steered her over to the screen wall and pushed her down on the floor before it.
"Begin again." His voice was pitched almost as high as flek chitter. "Estimate the troop strength of all enemy bases on this side of the quadrant."
The room darkened as the star map came to life in front of her, the human bases glowing with a smooth, even, blue light. Enemy bases . . . she hunched down on the floor, trying to remember those details from another time, a vaguely distasteful life she had lived among doughy-skinned creatures covered with unsanitary hair who had almost no talent for song. For a second, she saw a dark face in her mind, sharp-nosed, confident. A feeling came over her, she wanted to see that face again, wanted to talk to . . .
Then the feeling ebbed, replacing itself with a strong revulsion for all that hideous fur.
Almost unconsciously, she beat out a mournful rhythm with her forefingers, then fixed her eyes on the map. Although it was painful to remember, her duty lay to the hive. Beginning with the closest system, Bala Cithni, she began to recite her best estimates.
By the time they reached the peak overlooking the flek grid, Kei had still not reappeared. Heyoka had cursed himself repeatedly over that blunder. Not only would Kei have been a great help, since he surely knew the region by heart, but he and the rest of the Levv survivors deserved to fight at their side.
As he and Nisk climbed up to the high notch above the flek installation, he heard a scuffle in the bushes below as several young males sniffed out a long-legged kikinti and dashed after it. On the first night out, he'd tried to organize a foraging system to allow the main body to travel quickly while a few of the more skilled hunted for the rest. That arrangement had fallen to pieces with the first argument between hrinn of different Lines and Houses, as had every other provisioning scheme he'd since tried to implement.
Finally, he'd been forced to realize his fellow hrinn lacked the elemental cultural referents for a march like this that even the greenest human boot camp recruit would have comprehended. They simply could not be organized in the same way as humans. They understood single combat for advancement in rank, or defense of honor, but they were not capable of taking orders from anyone who hadn't demonstrated the ability to tear out their throats.
For the moment, they would do as he directed, because he was the so-called Black/on/black and had Rakshal's blood on his hands to prove it, but he could not be everywhere, supervising everything, so his "army" of hrinn trickled across the mountains, a process as frustrating as herding cats. No wonder they worshipped "patterns," he told himself. The ability to impose order on this world looked like a god-given gift to them.
Nisk motioned at the garishly lit grid. "It looks much the same."
Heyoka braced his back against the outcropping of gray, large-grained stone and studied the scene below. Long curving lines of electric pink and blue and green met at the center of the grid, and colored bubbles of light danced in and out. "After dark, I will go down there and look around."
He heard a muffled curse, then boots sliding in the loose chaff that covered the rock face leading up to their vantage point. Glancing back, he saw Sanyha Alvarez sprawled on her stomach at the bottom. She muttered, then began to work her way up to the top again, using the cracks and crevices for finger holds. When she was within reach, he pulled her the rest of the way.
Cradling skinned forearms, she balanced on the rocky crest between the two of them and stared down at the grid in the center of the broad russet-and-gold plain. "My god! It's so beautiful, like a fairy castle made out of light, and sobig! I had no idea." She hugged her arms to her chest. "How long do you think it's been down there? Could it have had anything to do with your disappearance?"
And then, it all clicked . . . the flek grid . . . the location of Levv just on the other side of this last mountain, the Line closest to the flek . . . his abduction and surfacing in a flek slave market . . . they all fit together in a nice neat package, perhaps even a pattern, as a hrinn would say.
The flek had required a secure area to build their grid, with no observers, or at least none that anyone would listen toand suddenly Levv had stood accused of terrible crimes never before committed by any Line. Someone had framed them and used the Council to do hisor herdirty work. But he was puzzledhow had the flek found a way to influence the Council, and even more mysterious, how could flek and hrinn ever have had enough in common to work toward a common goal?
He made a mental note to investigate the Council meeting that had condemned Levv. Who had brought the allegations to the Line Mothers and borne witness against Levv? Was it possible some of the same hrinn were working with the flek?
If so, then all the danger wasn't down there in front of them. Some of it could be hiding in their midst.
Back | Next