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The temperature down in the Stores section had been set cooler than the rest of the station to preserve both outgoing artifacts and incoming electronics. Bins and cabinets and shelves occupied every millimeter of space, floor to ceiling, and the air was redolent of sheets of plas packing protectors. Allenby, the manager, grudgingly allotted Heyoka a set of black hrinnti robes, originally acquired by station anthropologists to be shipped to off-world institutions for display and study. Under no circumstances, though, could Heyoka get the nervous middle-aged human to agree to a different color.
"You don't understand, Sergeant." He shoved the material across the stainless steel counter and turned back to straighten the pile of robes he'd sorted through. "Color is almighty important to these brutes." Then, looking up, he met Heyoka's hrinnti eyes and blushed a fiery red. "Begging your pardon, sir. I didn't mean anything."
Of course not, Heyoka thought. They never did, but it was the same everywhere he wentit wasn't their fault he looked like an animal. The long-suppressed nameless other snarled inside his head and he had to concentrate to quiet it. He was not a dangerous, unthinking savage, no matter what anyone thought.
He smoothed his overthumbs across the tightly woven cloth, noting both the fineness of weave and the silkiness of thread. The material still bore just the slightest tang of hrinn. He glanced sideways at Mitsu who had busied herself in the far corner, digging through robes cut in the female style.
Allenby shrugged. "I would rethink this, if I were you. You have no idea how violent they can be."
"Strange that they wear so many clothes here," Mitsu said. "It's so hot, what with their fur and all, I would have thought they'd wear very little, or nothing."
"They wear this style precisely because of the heat." Allenby slid a folded pile in the cupboard and closed the door. "Desert cultures favor long flowing robes that create cool air pockets and protect them from the sun."
"I'll take these." Mitsu held up a set of elegantly cut robes, dyed in a startling crimson which matched Anktan's fiercely red sun.
"No, no, no!" Allenby seized the material out of her hands. "That color is the sole property of one particular outfit. You go out dressed in that, meet up with the wrong bunch, and the first thing you know, we're shipping your remaining bits back to your next of kin!"
Mitsu's slanted blue eyes radiated a calculated iciness with which Heyoka had become very familiar on battlefields ranging across a dozen worlds. She slipped her thumbs through her belt and squared her shoulders, never taking her stony gaze off Allenby's face. He clutched the crimson robes to his chest and backed out of reach.
Heyoka headed for the door, trying not to favor his stiff leg. "We've already settled this. You weren't invited. I'm going to the males' house, and the last time I had any reason to check, you were not equipped as either a male or a hrinn."
"All-Father blast it!" Sinking back into her homeworld dialect, Mitsu turned back to Allenby. "Then give me some black ones too. They'll blend with the shadows better anyway."
Allenby surrendered the first set that came to hand, then retreated again, his uneasy eyes fixed on her face. Wadding the material under one arm, Mitsu followed Heyoka to the door.
"This is not a social occasion, Mitsu." Heyoka studied her set expression as they walked the long corridors, matching each other stride for stride. "You heard what Eldrich said. You could be mauled if they catch you prowling around where you don't belong. And even though you think you're good enough that they won't hear or see you, these are hrinn. They'll smell you."
Mitsu measured the length of the black outer robe against her body; it was much too long. "They didn't care much for the way you smelled either, if I recall."
Heyoka's ears flattened at the memory of the old female's insults. "Get some rest. This is supposed to be your vacation."
"And who's going to watch your back?" Mitsu shadowed him to the brink of the outside lock. "You don't know what those sodders are capable of."
Heyoka flashed his yellow pass at the security guard. Actually, he figured his fellow hrinn were capable of roughly the same amount of mayhem he could commit himself. The thought was not comforting.
The security guard cycled the airtight door open, managing to never quite meet Heyoka's gaze during the process. Heyoka stepped across the threshold and lifted his face into the rapidly cooling evening air. The red sun had dipped behind towering cliffs to the west. The wind was out of the east, sweeping down from the mountains, rich with promising scents after weeks of sterile, recycled air on the old merchanter. He had studied the map earlier, so all that remained now was to change clothes and be on his way, except for the "sandbath." Folding the black robes over his arm, he set out toward the cliffs.
His nightsight was far superior to that of a human, and the darkness rested pleasantly on his eyes. Mitsu was forced to use dark-filter lenses when they drew night patrol, like that last battle on Enjas Two. He recalled the acrid stench of drones from the flek warrior caste lying in wait just above the green beach, eager to burn the flesh from his bones, then transform the pristine green and white of Enjas Two into another flek hellworld. A gust of wind sifted grains of sand against his face and his inner nictitating membrane eyelids closed. Sand . . .
Blinking, he cast about, locating it as much by smell as by sight, ten or so feet to the left, the dry rockiness of a shallow layer of sand trapped on the windward side of a small rise. He angled toward it, letting the soft sounds of the night wash over him . . . the beat of small wings . . . tiny claws scrabbling across hard-baked desert soil . . . wind sighing against stone, all soothing, natural sounds, so different from the mind-numbing bedlam of battle.
At the edge of the sand patch, he stripped off the black duraweave Ranger uniform he had tailored to make him appear more human and realized that once he donned native robes, he would be indistinguishable from the native population, a prospect more daunting than he had expected.
Even in the darkness, he could make out the long ropy scar of the flek laser burn that snaked around from ankle to knee. The Meds had said the damaged nerves would never heal properly without a series of grafts; he would always have weakness and pain. As he was not human, though, grafts were not an option. Meds were not set up for hrinnti biology and no one was going to finance that kind of research for a singleton like himself.
Holding the leg out stiffly before him, he eased down onto the grittiness of still-warm sand. Nowwhat? Exactly how did one go about a sandbath? He sifted a handful of sand over the fur on his left arm. In the cool evening air, the sun-baked grains were pleasantly warm. He worked them into the finer dense fur of his undercoat, then brushed the sand out and sniffed. The scent was different somehow, cleaner . . . wilder.
Scooping up another handful, he began with his mane and worked downwards. As a primitive custom, this really wasn't too bad. He thought back to the first time he'd been forced into a water bath after the old trader, Ben Blackeagle, had bought him out of the flek slave pens. Sporting a long bloody scratch from his attempt to immerse the feral hrinn cubling in the soapy water, the old man had calmly donned the gloves from his emergency evacuation space suit. Then he returned and scrubbed Heyoka from "stem to stern," as Ben put it.
Of course, his name hadn't been Heyoka then. Slaves awaiting sale had no need of names. The tall, spindly flek, with their red eyes and punched-in faces, called for him with blows and kicks and neuronic whips . . . Heyoka scrubbed harder, frustrated he could remember the pens and their pervasive stink so clearly, but nothing before. He couldn't help feeling something inside him should recognize this red-orange, windswept place. Ben had been dead for over twelve years now and Heyoka longed for some sense of roots.
Finishing with his feet, he stood and shook himself in the cool evening wind. His body felt alive and glowing, as though he'd had a first-rate massage. He scooped up the discarded uniform and sniffed. Its scent was clearly different than his now. It smelled of humans and synthetic building materials, like plas and durallinium, and the beef stew simmering in the station's kitchen before he left.
It smelled of home.
As Chytt urged the reluctant yirn across the ford on the slow-flowing Mish River, she was glad the beast was exhausted. Otherwise it would have made its usual fuss, balking and squalling at the sight of so much water until she was forced to use her feetclaws to make it cross. Up above the river's high-water marks, the tiny lights of Qartt Hold glimmered through the night. Leaning over the yirn's hump, she snarled into its drooping ear, then clung to the riding harness with her claws as the weary beast quickened its rough pace.
By the time she reached the outside pens, she could see a delegation of daughters holding waxy gyb torches high to light the end of her long journey home. The beast stopped of its own accord before the wide gate and hung its weary head. Chytt gazed down at her progeny's faces, ranging in hue from pale amber to deepest red. Events were forming a pattern; it was up to her to interpret it correctly. She hesitated, trying to gauge its shape . . . the coming of the strange male . . . the involvement of Outsiders in hrinnti affairs and Qartt in theirs . . . it was something large, dank, ominous, fire/in/water perhaps, one of the most ancient, signifying bitterest deception.
Her daughters knew something of the smell of things already, what with the messenger jit she had released after the meeting this morning. Swinging down from the yirn's harness, her hip popped and she winced. Getting old, she thought, trying not to favor that side as she turned to face the waiting females. Someday soon, an elder daughter would present challenge and, after that, her successor could worry about all of this and welcome to it!
At any rate, the stranger was a male; they could thank the Voice for that much. If a female had come asking the same questions, there was no knowing where things would have ended out on the sand this morning under Ankt's unblinking red eye. A male, though, would never dare come sniffing around the Lines. No doubt one of the males' houses would take care of the matter in a fashion that honored everyone.
A hand slipped under her elbow and Chytt's ears flattened as she turned to see which daughter dared acknowledge her weariness: Fik's impudent pale-orange face returned her stare, breath for breath. Interesting, she thought. This one smelled of trouble. Her tongue flicked out across her lips. Very interesting. She looked around at the circle of waiting faces. "Children" She delivered that insult in an oh-so-casual voice as she watched to see whose ears twitched and whose did not. "A peculiar sort of trouble has descended upon us from the sky. If you know anything about it, now is the time to speak."
It was for this she had ridden her nerves to shreds, the need to see their expressions when she broached this matter. The glyph for fire/in/water burned behind her eyes. At some point, a lie had been told, and so, when the pattern was whole, someone would have to stand responsible. The circle of waiting Qartt faces shifted uneasily, pairs of black eyes glancing sideways at each other. After a few blinks, it was obvious the younger generations had little idea of what she was talking about, but some of the older ones, several of the breeders, by all that was holy, their eyes had gone suspiciously opaque and the acrid scent of worry permeated the air.
Shoving aside Fik's arm, Chytt turned toward the familiar whitestone hold, the names that went with those faces clawed into her mind with broad, deep strokes. Someone here at Qartt had nipped into this in the past, had actually interfered in the business of another Line.
Unfortunately, now they would all have to stand good for it.
Heyoka spotted a primitive one-legged ladder propped inside a hole, then recognized the sheer sandstone cliff rising just beyond the river, as described on the map. This must be the males' house then, not built above the ground like human habitations, as he had expected, but dug into the earth like the den of an animal, dark and secret. A circle of cleared earth marked its dimensions, and a hundred meters or so beyond, a wisp of pungent wood smoke curled up through a second hole.
He rolled his uniform into a ball, then stuffed it behind a scrubby treelike growth, keeping only the yellow security pass, which he secreted in a pocket of the new robes. He felt strangely undressed in the flowing shirtlike garment and loose trousers after so many years in the tight-fitting uniform of the Rangers.
His nose twitched at the strong concentration of hrinn-scent mingled with the smoke and he heard an almost musical chant from below, two distinct rhythms sliding across each other, then merging at odd intervals only to separate again.
The ladder was a single pole with alternating rungs on either side, an unstable arrangement. Grasping the pole with both hands, he began the long descent. His bad leg, weakened by the unaccustomed higher gravity, slipped halfway down and the ladder listed dangerously to the right as he hung by his handclaws, legs dangling. He bared his teeth in a silent curse until his groping feet found the rung again, then shifted his weight to steady the ladder.
He willed the damn leg to bear his weight, but the widely spaced rungs seemed to go on forever and the ladder rocked back and forth with each step. He could see a faint reddish glow of a low fire, burned down nearly to the coals, laid in a shallow pit in the center of a huge circular room. His breath was coming in hard pants as rows of chanting hrinn, all robed in green, watched his painful descent.
Finally his right foot touched the floor and the chant trailed away. He stood there, gripping the ladder until he was sure the leg would not give way. The floor of the subterranean chamber was earthen, but compressed over the years to a rocklike hardness. The walls had been constructed of a white, fine-grained stone that reflected the firelight. The smoke was much thicker inside, strangely aromatic and not at all unpleasant. The mingled scents threaded through his brain, like keys turning in unsuspected locks. He became conscious of a vast array of feelings and emotions of which he had never before been aware, urges without any human name.
"We invite you to join this night's pattern and see where it leads." A black figure with a white throat spoke to him through a blue haze. "I am Nisk, Leader of Mish River Males' House."
Heyoka followed the other toward the fire, managing not to limp, but his gait was stiff, unnatural. As he passed the concentric circles of seated figures, the murmuring stilled, but not the restless rustling of robes, the feel of eyes on his unprotected back. Gods, he told himself, but this room was stuffy and hot! How did they all stand it? The heat and the scent of so many hrinn crowded together made him feel like his nerves were crawling with fire. He felt on the edge of something immense and unknowable, a path that might lead anywhere but home.
The heady smoke swirled thickest above the smoldering coals, overriding the musk of so many hrinn. He had a sudden, intense flash of another place, dark like this and pungent with smoke, furry shapes that towered above him, speaking in guttural whispers. He hesitated, but it dissipated as quickly as it had arisen. Wary, he lowered himself to the hard-packed floor, wondering if the smoke were some sort of narcotic.
"You posed a question today." The white-throated male sat on the other side of the fire, resplendent in green, gazing over Heyoka's shoulder.
"Yes." Heyoka stared into the red coals until he could see them with his eyes closed. "I wish to know my Line. Is that an improper question?"
Snarls rumbled through the dark room behind him. The black-coated male stared down the assemblage of seated figures, then turned back to him with glittering onyx eyes. "Since you are only an ignorant Outsider, you do not know this, but Lineage is a female preoccupation. For males, Line is beneath notice, nothing more than a fading memory from cubhood."
"Look at his coloring." An old gray with heavy dark stripes across his face stood up in one of the back rows. "He is Black/on/blackhe has a right to know."
"He is not!" A shadowed gray-furred figure, dressed in gray rather than green, sprang up and prowled closer to Heyoka, his eyes reflecting the red glow of the fire.
"Black/on/black?" Heyoka turned to Nisk. "You called me that earlier. What does it mean?"
The gray male snarled from the shadows. "This creature is not part of any pattern, now, or in the past. It's not even a hrinn, much less the Black/on/black! No Line has ever reported losing a cubling to Outsiders, not even a male!"
Even through the smoke-induced mental fog, Heyoka felt the fur on his shoulders rise. His long-suppressed other surfaced again, frighteningly angry. Scent molecules danced through his brain, shunting off logical responses, feeding his anger. He jerked to his feet, ignoring the fierce jab in his leg. Dropping into a loose fighting stance, he circled the gray, keeping his sound leg forward. "So this is how you welcome your kin after he crosses the vastness of space to be with his own?" A white-hot rage burned along his nerves, fueled by disappointment. "Are you afraid I have come to take something from you, or is it your guilt speaking? What do you know about a child stolen thirty-six winters ago?"
"I know an imposter when I smell one!" The gray's bared teeth gleamed palely through the dimness.
The white-throated male, Nisk, interposed his body between the two. "If we are going to speak of smell, Rakshal, then you know what will have to be said."
Heyoka heard a murmur of assent echo through the vast chamber.
The other male's dark-gray ears flattened. "Say it then!" Rakshal whirled and shoved his way through the hrinn seated on the floor. "And may this creature have much joy of the knowledge!" He disappeared into a side tunnel.
"Tell me what?" Heyoka forced his tone to remain level.
"Very little." Nisk glanced around the restless circles of males. Their black eyes glinted with reflected light. He threw another branch, tiny blue leaves and all, onto the fire. The flames leapt up again, curling blackly along the edges of the leaves first and then thickening the haze of smoke.
The circular earthen room seemed to wander in and out of focus as he attempted to concentrate on Nisk's black-furred features.
"This is not a male matter." Nisk squatted before the fire, gazing into the flames which were already dying down. "It is inappropriate for males to concern themselves with such female nonsense as Lineage."
Shifting his weight onto his good leg, Heyoka tried to understand, but the sense of the other's words was growing more remote every second.
"Butif we had to guess your Linewhich you understand, we are not." Nisk stirred the fire with a long stick. "If we guessed, it would be Levv."
Blast his fur-bound hide! Mitsu confined her scathing comments to the inside of her head as she eased past the station's left wing and made her way silently across the sandy ground. In combat, one muffled curse could cost a whole unit its life. Of course, she told herself, this wasn't a combat situation, but then why the hell did it feel so much like one?
How could he just go off and leave her to twiddle her thumbs among noncoms? Reaching up, she jerked the dark, overlarge hood down lower over her face. They'd smell her, indeed! These were genuine hrinnti robes. If the sodding beasts smelled anything, it would only be another hrinn, of which there certainly seemed to be no shortage.
After operating as Blackeagle's partner for almost three years, she knew he had too much pride to ask for help. That oversized body of his was strong, as well as hypersensitive to sounds and odors beyond the human threshold of awareness, but he hadn't regained his full strength since the injury. His leg was still weak, and they both knew it. She had been born to a world where children were raised in common by trained professionals. The notion of "family," as other human societies understood it, did not exist. Heyoka was the only friend she'd had, since leaving her birthmates, and she wasn't about to lose him to a bunch of primitives.
Unfortunately, she'd had to hang behind far enough that he wouldn't sense her following, but she'd pried the same set of directions out of the database he'd used, and she intended to be at his back before there was any real action. Using heat-filter lenses, she tracked his thermal trail across the desert, stopping to study the heat signature in a shallow depression of sand where he'd lingered at one point. What had that been all about? Rot him, was he already going native on her? If he decided to stay here, she would lose the best partner in the unit, in fact, probably in the whole bloody corps.
She left the sand and struck out across the desert, heading for a series of cliffs that reared above the horizon like irregular towers, black against the star-filled night sky. Every so often, she dropped to a crouch, fingers spread across the warm ground, and strained to catch the sound of something beyond the soft whisper of the night breeze.
Finally, she caught the sonorous rumble of voices somewhere out of sight. She crept toward the sound. Where could the sodders be? How could this scrubby stretch of earth hide so many of them? Closer in, she caught a faint glow and the outline of something protruding out of the ground. Some sort of pole perhaps? Just as she reached out to touch it, a snarl split the darkness behind her.
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