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"Levv?" Heyoka blinked through the haze, trying to focus on Nisk's face. He felt dull-witted and inert, an effect of the smoke, no doubt, but he could still smell the secondary pungence of unease and disapproval permeating the subterranean chamber.
A sharp snarl filtered down from the surface and every head swiveled as one toward the ladder hole. Nisk spat a phrase that Heyoka could not make out as they all scrambled to their feet and sprinted either toward the ladder or several shadowy side passages. Heyoka stood too, his leg aching, and balanced awkwardly by the fire pit, bewildered. His head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton. Up on the surface, someone snarled again, and then he heard an angry human voice, female, cursing in Standard. Gods! That had to be Mitsu!
Flattening his ears, he bulled through the crowd. When a burly brown male snarled and raked his ribs with open claws, the angry other within him surfaced, striking back with a ferocity that made the brown flinch and give way. "Leave her alone!" he shouted up the ladder. "I know her!"
"Come any closer, you big sod" He could make out Mitsu's words clearly now. "and I'll cut those sorry ears off and stuff them down your flea-bitten thr"
With a curse of his own, Heyoka vaulted up the ladder, frantic with worry, the pole rocking back and forth and his weak leg slipping on every other rung. He should have known Mitsu had too little experience of alien cultures to really understand the risk she took by coming here like this. She was so young, she thought just because she was a skilled soldier, she owned the universe, and he knew that. He should have been paying more attention! He had a sudden intense memory of being small and helpless amidst a savage onslaught of teeth and claws, blood soaking the ground, the rocks, his fur.
His arms burned with the strain of Anktan's higher gravity as he climbed. Just when he thought his lungs would burst, his head surfaced. He pulled himself onto the still-warm ground, collapsing like a dying sea creature. The cool night air began to clear his head. Dark hrinnti shapes poured from a hole in the cliff behind him, spreading out to quarter the area. Heyoka forced himself onto his feet, then joined the search, limping. He could feel the blood seeping into his fur and robes, and the deeper slashes along his ribs burned. Mitsu's familiar scent was scattered about the barren circle of earth, as well as that of innumerable other hrinn. "Where is she?" he demanded of the nearest. "Where would they take her?"
The dark-brown male sampled the wind, then wrinkled his nose. "Bah! It was one of those Dead-smelling Outsiders, not even good eating." He shook himself, then, ears up, trotted off toward the dark, rolling river.
A murmur of surprise rose from several other nearby hrinn. "First it wants to know its Line, by the Voice," one said, "and now it is chasing after Outsiders! Name that pattern, if you can."
The pain of his numerous claw marks and slashes fueled his anger as he started the spiral of a standard search pattern, orienting on the ladder hole as his center. As he searched, the other males drifted away. His bad leg slowed him, making the spiral take much longer than it should have, and by the time his circle finally widened enough to take him back to the bank of the murmuring river, all he found were spots of dark blood soaking into the sandy bank and a few shreds of red cloth. Kneeling, he picked it up and sniffed at the stain.
The smell was of hrinnti blood mixed with human.
Eldrich studied the traffic monitor, noting the incoming green blip's perfect arc. The ship seemed to be on course for a change, as well as on time, although the landing would be visible from several males' houses, blast his luck. Earlier, Allenby had reported to him that both the hrinnti sergeant and his human partner had left the station this evening, although separately, a rather interesting development.
A smile seeped across his face. Those big hrinnti males were sensitive about their territory. If those two overstepped their bounds, the savages would eliminate this problem for him. Lacing fingers across his stomach, he leaned back in his chair and propped his shoes up on the desk.
And no one could say he hadn't warned them either.
Dark . . . laced with blinding flashes of light that pierced the depths of her brain. Pain . . . time seemed to . . . jump around as she struggled to think . . .
Worry . . . that thought came back to harry her . . . there was something . . . something to worry about . . . she must . . . do something . . .
Then a smooth, beguiling blackness drew her into a vast silence where there was neither pain nor worry nor time.
Aching from a dozen claw marks, Heyoka punched the yellow pass into the access slot, then braced his head against the station monitor and tried to think. Would anyone be on duty this late, or would the system be shunted over to automatics? And if he did manage to get access before dawn, would anyone help him search for Mitsu? They had both signed that damned release; the station was under no responsibility to provide aid.
The door slid aside, revealing a rumpled staff member. The man's face went blank with shock at the sight of him. He jerked back and keyed the door shut again.
Damnation! Heyoka remembered too late that he wore the face of a violent, unpredictable savage. Wearily he raised his arm to punch in the pass again and left a smear of red-orange blood across the sand-pitted building.
"Voice identification?" the monitor demanded.
Heyoka's lips wrinkled back from his teeth in a half-snarl, but he knew one furred hrinnti face must look much the same to the human staff as another. He told himself to be patient. "Sergeant Heyoka Blackeagle, Confederated Ranger Corps." Standing away from the door, he waited for it to open again, and as the minutes slipped by, a smoldering rage brewed behind his eyes. What in the name of all the gods who ever existed were they doing in there! Calling in the Rangers from twelve systems away?
At length, the heavy door slid open again. "How did your visit go, Sergeant?"
Heyoka stepped inside and stared down into the pasty features of Eldrich. Claws flexed, he bit back the angriest of his thoughts. "I need access to a medkit," he said, keeping his voice smoothly neutral, "and then I'll need more maps printed out, as well as information on the local native populations."
Eldrich's pale-gray eyes dropped pointedly to the white station floor where Heyoka's clawed arm was dripping red-orange blood on the smooth tile. He shook his head. "I did warn you, Sergeant. The natives are a rather . . . rough bunch."
Heyoka's anger increased another notch. One of his ears twitched. "The medkit?" he asked coldly.
"Ohyes." A look of distaste flitted across Eldrich's face. "Billings, escort the sergeant down to Sickbay." He straightened his collar. "And have this mess cleaned up. The staff would have a heart attack if they saw it in the morning."
"Yes, sir." Billings nodded at Heyoka. "If you'll just come with me, Sergeant."
Heyoka drew himself up straight, trying to ignore the slashes across his ribs and the shredded condition of his clothing. The security guard took him several halls down, keyed a door open and stood aside. "Sickbay, sir. If you'll step in here."
"I just need a medkit." Heyoka stepped inside, his nostrils closing at the strong medicinal smells. "I have a few scratches, nothing serious."
At the far end of the room, a sleepy-looking dark-haired woman in blue coveralls knotted a fall of dark hair at the nape of her neck. "I'm Dr. Alvarez. If you'll sit down, we'll have a look at those wounds."
The door slid shut. Heyoka whirled to stare at it, feeling terribly closed-in for some reason he couldn't explain. Picking up a medscanner, the woman walked toward him, a crease between her eyes adding to the lines in her middle-aged face. He heard the faint hum of the medscan as a wave of dizziness washed over him. When it receded, he found himself leaning against the Sickbay wall.
"Shock is nasty, isn't it?" She raised an eyebrow. "Now, would you like to sit on the examining table, or would you prefer to just fall over on the floor?"
Heyoka tried to focus on the tan oval of her face, but it seemed to be curiously fluid. Bracing a shoulder under his arm, she levered him up from the wall. "Not that Sickbay's floor isn't a perfectly respectable place, I'll have you understand. We clean it once a week, whether it needs it or not."
He settled heavily onto a low white-covered table in the middle of the room. "Just seal up these scratches with some liquid bandage." He ran weary fingers back through his matted mane. "I have to go back out."
"It looks to me as if you've had quite enough for one night." Her knotted hair fell over her shoulder as she bent to examine his wounds.
Heyoka's eyes focused on that length of hair; it reminded him of the style affected by the natives, except that Gods! He groaned and rubbed his eyes. He couldn't let his mind wander when he had so much to do.
"At any rate," Dr. Alvarez said, laying aside the scanner and selecting a silver tube from the medicine cabinet, "you seem to have tangled with the local equivalent of a bear."
"It was the hrinn." He swallowed, tension easing from his body as she applied a cool, soothing gel to his clawed back and sides. "They took my partner. I foundblood."
Working her way around to the deeper gashes along his ribs, her brown eyes glanced up at him. "Is she hrinnti too?"
"No." His eyelids sagged as the gel quieted the sting of his wounds. "Human."
"Well, you're not in any shape to go after her tonight. You couldn't defend yourself against a butterfly." Clicking the cap back onto the silver tube, she discarded it on the counter. "I suggest you rest here the remainder of the night, not that there's much left of it, then take a search party out after her tomorrow."
"No." Heyoka suddenly felt like a wet towel; now that his pain had eased, it seemed it had been all that held him together. "The station won't help. We signed a . . ." What had they signed?
Hands pushed him back against the table's yielding surface. "Oh, everybody has to sign those damn things when they're assigned here, but plenty of folks will be willing to help you searchtomorrow."
"No . . . tonight." Unexpectedly, he found his head resting on a pillow, undoubtedly the softest thing he had ever felt. Ben . . . his mind drifted . . . Ben Blackeagle hadn't believed in pillows.
"Oh, you won't be fit for anything before the morning." Her voice came from the door. "According to my records, the sedative in that gel should be effective even on a hrinnti metabolism. Sleep well, Sergeant."
Heyoka strained to open his eyelids, but they seemed to be weighed down with a million gees, a billion incredibly . . . heavy . . .
"You brought it hereto Vvok?"
Khea pressed her back to the wall outside the Line Mother's quarters, ears flattened, unable to shut out the angry words flooding from the next room.
"How could you endanger Vvok like this?" The wall thumped with the weight of something thrown against it. "This creature is worthless, random, outside all patterns. Nothing it does can affect us, so if it saw you, why not just slash its throat and heave the carcass into the sand? It would have made no difference to the long-term flow of things."
Khea peered at the pale-skinned, motionless heap on the red carpet just outside Seska's quarters. It had not moved since Fitila had dropped it there and hissed at her in passing to watch it. She shivered. Perhaps it was already dead and all this fuss was pointless. She crept to the open doorway and saw the light tan of Fitila's coat moving near the far wall. The scout was still alive, anyway. The Line Mother had not been angry enough to kill heryet.
The black-robed heap on the rug stirred. Hunching over it, Khea's nose wrinkled at the strange odor. So this was the "Dead" smell of which the older ones had spoken. She peeled aside a fold of the black servant's robes with the tip of one claw and then sat back on her heels to study the delicate-boned creature. By the Voice, its pinkish skin was nearly hairless; it had only a bit of black mane on its small head and nothing more in the way of fur that she could see, except for a brief tracing above each small eye. And its fingers were so strangeblunt-ended with no real claws and only one thumb on each hand! No wonder the creatures were forever outside all patterns.
She rubbed at the short fur on her forehead in amazement. How was it they were so clever then, making all sorts of wonders like ships that fell from the sky and then jumped back into it again and that strange white hold out in the hottest part of the drylands where the hunting was terrible?
The young hrinn's gray-and-white body stiffened. Her eyes turned toward the Line Mother's quarters. On the floor beside her, the Outsider moaned, its small head rolling weakly from side to side. Khea darted through the Line Mother's door to prostrate herself on the thick red mat.
Seska, present Line Mother to Vvok, was prowling restlessly around the confines of the large room, the numerous silver bracelets around her thin gray ankles jingling at every step. Fitila, a Vvok scout two generations ahead of Khea, waited with twitching ears at the far side of the room, well out of the old female's reach. A damp streak of blood marred her coat.
Waiting for the Line Mother to speak, Khea watched both females out of the corners of her eyes, uncertain what to expect. Several breaths passed while the Line Mother quartered the room. Fur bristled across her shoulders and Khea's ears flinched with remembered blows each time the old female passed. Finally, Seska stopped and stared at Fitila's tan face.
"We will have to salvage what we can from what thisnurselinghas done." She spat the words out as though they tasted bad, then whirled on Khea, black eyes enormous above her yellowed teeth. "Take the creature down into the servants' quarters and see to its hurts. If it dies, its value will be on your head. You are excused from further duties."
A tremor ran through Khea's body. She was not sure she'd heard the Line Mother correctly. Take charge of the thing lying out there like a heap of rags? Touch that disgusting pale skin?
Seska snarled and cuffed her against the wall. Stunned, Khea sprawled on the thick red mat. The Line Mother was speaking, but she couldn't make out the old matriarch's words through the ringing in her head. She staggered to her feet and hoped the Line Mother's words required no answer.
Outside Seska's quarters, Khea leaned against the cool stone wall and took a long shuddering breath. Mevva, Vvok's ancient, one-eared cub-trainer, still loved to freeze the hearts of newly emerged nurselings with the story of how Seska had killed two successive cublings in the same afternoon when they failed to respond appropriately to direct orders. Each time the Line Mother beat her, no matter how much she had deserved it, Khea feared that was where it would end, and fear was the worst disgrace of all. It meant she would not pass the next gleaning, or ever serve as a breeder, never do Vvok any sort of honor at all.
However, she would certainly die now if she neglected her new duty. Bending over the pile of pale alien limbs and black robes soaked with strange fiery-red blood, Khea closed her nostrils to the creature's smell and gathered it into her arms.
Standing before the wall of fine-grained whitestone that enclosed the meeting chamber, Nisk dipped an extended foreclaw into the small pot of indelible scent and retraced the ancient mountain/over/stars scent-glyph, used to signify wonder. When hrinn appeared from the sky, that was wonder indeed. What tales could this male tell, what incredible sights had he seen up there in the very presence of Ankt? It was almost enough to make one give credence to the words of priests.
Feet scuffled behind him and he recognized Bral's youthful scent as he began the next glyph, a complex series of perpendicular and oblique lines symbolizing undue/transformations.
"As you thought," Bral's voice spoke from over his shoulder, "the Outsider returned to the white hold."
"He is hrinnti, not Outsider, with his own part to play in the great patterns yet to emerge." Nisk finished the last difficult stroke, then leaned closer to sniff out the next portion of the ancient frieze.
"He may be dead," Bral continued. "His blood fed the land all the way back."
Nisk's nostrils flared, studying the faint uplifted curves of the next glyph, patience/in/illusion. "I think not. I sensed a great strength in that one."
"Strength for what?" Bral fidgeted behind him. "If he really is a person, then why does he not just apply to a males' house and take his rightful place? Why all this nonsense about Lines and patterns that were complete such a long time ago?"
"He was raised by Outsiders." Nisk dipped his foreclaw and traced the sinuous shape of death/in/longing. "Outsiders have no sense of the sacred. He has no idea yet of the forces that shape existence, or what it means to be hrinnti."
Bral sidled closer. "Then why did you tell him about Levv?"
"Why not?" Nisk's ear twitched. "It is the truth."
"When he learns of Levv's disgrace, he will not thank you."
Nisk whirled and struck the younger male to the floor. Claws flexed, he loomed over the buff-colored body. "Truth is for telling." His eyes bore down on Bral and the younger male looked away, unwilling to challenge. "Not for being thanked." Then, turning back to the frieze, he contemplated the subtle dotted pattern of balance/in/flow.
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