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Heyoka sprawled on the rocks, the air hammered out of his lungs and his bad leg wrenched back underneath his body. His nostrils flared: his assailant was both hrinnti and female! While he was still struggling for breath, she scrambled up and clawed his throat from behind. His combat reflexes took over and he leaned into the punishment instead of fighting. Thrown off balance, she stumbled, then squalled as Heyoka's full weight crashed back to pin her against a boulder.
Whirling, he faced a lean tawny-furred female, at least as tall as he was. She pinned her ears and bared double rows of white teeth at him, naked hatred written in the lines of her scarred face. In response, the savage other within him roared for release.
"Who are you?" The blood pounded in his ears as he grappled with her writhing body, which was as sinuous as a snake, and barely avoided the slashing claws. "What do you want?"
Instead of answering, she broke his grip and leaped again at his throat with both teeth and claws. He struggled to hold her off, his heart racing, and then theworldshiftedto bluejust as it had done that bizarre day on Enjas Two. Like a recording shunted into slow motion, her blue muzzle oozed toward him. He parried with a blue elbow to her blue eye, then with leisurely precision, rammed a fist into an unprotected nerve center at the base of her blue throat.
It took forever for her body to drift to the blue ground. Then she lay there, crumpled and unmoving, while his mind cried flek! Not here! he told himself, his breath coming hard and fast. He stood over his blue attacker, teeth involuntarily bared, fighting the overpowering urge to tear her limb from blue limb. The other would have, he was quite sure, but this fight was already decided and she was not his enemy in the same brutal sense the flek were; it was not necessary for her to die.
Gradually, his vision shifted from the ominous shades of blue back into the normal range of colors. He could perceive the tawniness of the unconscious hrinn's fur again, the red of her robes. Weariness swept over him with a suddenness that was sickening and he felt ravenously hungry. He sheathed his claws and knelt beside her, wincing when his bad leg took weight. She wore red, Vvok-red, he realized, the Line which had probably taken Mitsu.
Something splashed upstream; he peered around the boulder and saw the remaining two hrinn urge their yirn through the cold water and follow the others up the boulder-strewn hill. He thought one of them wore blue, but in the rapidly fading light, he wasn't sure. He dropped back and searched the unconscious female's robes. Her thick scent stirred an emotion within him, neither attraction, nor hatred, but something else wide and deep, ice-hot, frighteningly intense. His fingers grazed her luxuriant fur, and he trembled, realizing he had never before touched a female of his own species. Hardly ideal circumstances, he told himself, his ears flattening.
He found packets of dried meat, and then a sonic blade, of all things, and a com-unit. Sitting back on his haunches, he studied the blade. Mitsu's name was etched on the hilt. He put it aside to examine the black metallic com-unit. It was Confederation-made, tunable to a range of frequencies, scratched and dented as though used for a long time. Even the labels on the front were in Standard, but neither he nor Mitsu had brought such a unit along and he couldn't imagine the less-than-helpful station personnel issuing her one last night. This hrinn must have obtained it from Danzig Station, but how and what for? Who in the Thirty-eight Systems would she call on it?
Her arm scraped across the red-orange soil. Quickly, he ripped strips from her robes to bind her feet and hands, and then her muzzle, leaving the gag only loose enough for her to breathe. He needed time to lose himself before the others trailed him back down the hill.
He stowed the dried meat, the blade, and the com-unit in his pack, then slipped into the stream to hide his scent and waded downstream around the cliffs. His stomach demanded food and his body rest, but he had no time for either now.
The Director was lost in thought when Allenby signalled for admittance. The Stores manager had to buzz again before Eldrich looked up from his desk. "What?" He scowled. "Oh, it's youfinally."
Allenby's stomach tightened as he slid into a chair before the ostentatious desk. "I came as fast as I could."
Eldrich picked up a plas printout from his desk. "I see you filled the sergeant's supply list before he left."
He tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. "II know you said not to be too helpful, but" He dabbed at the sweat beading up on his forehead.
"Butwhat, Mr. Allenby? You are wasting my time!"
"But" Allenby's shoulders hunched, feeling the weight of the Director's displeasure. "But Blackeagle started digging through the shipping crates, the locked ones. He even opened one. I had to distract him."
Leaning back in his chair, Eldrich studied him with those awful gray eyes that made Allenby think of dirty snow. "Why didn't you just call Security?"
"You said not to make him suspicious." Allenby's fingers knotted. "He is a Ranger, after all, and trained to notice incongruities. I didn't want to make a fuss."
"Yes, the Rangers." The gray eyes, alligator-cold, blinked. "Little more than a pack of assassins and hotheads, by all repute." He crossed his arms. "For someone who has been on Anktan for little more than a day, Sergeant Blackeagle has certainly made himself felt." Rising from his chair, he thrust his hands into the pockets of his crisp blue station uniform and stared at the large map on the opposite wall. "Did you also violate my orders about issuing them modern weapons?"
"Oh, no, sir!" Allenby's eyes widened. "I even supervised when Security checked him at the door lock. He only took an ordinary steel knife."
Staring at the bands of orange, red, blue, and green on the map, Eldrich shook his head. "Still, with all that combat training and experience, he could pose a problem, even for our magnificently savage friends out there." He traced the band of blue with one finger. "I wonder what the sergeant is really after."
"After, sir?" Allenby couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. "I thought he just wanted to come home."
"Don't be an idiot." Eldrich turned back to him. "Who in their right mind would settle for a backwater dive like this when he had the run of civilized space?"
"He said he wanted to find his family."
Eldrich's lip curled. "Don't make me laugh. You know very well these brutes have no concept of real family." He picked up a plas printout and studied it. "No, my bet is the sergeant is after something else." A thin smile curved his lips. "Are you really so dense that it has not occurred to you the sergeant and his young friend are government spies?"
All-Father rot them all straight to hell! Mitsu thought crossly. She tried to sit up and failed again. Hot and dizzy, she sagged against the thin pile of cushions. She must be feeling a little better, or she wouldn't be letting the eternal lack of light in this sodding place bother her so much. She'd always hated the dark, even back on Miramem when she was just a creche-brat. Turning her head, she strained to see something, anything, but there was only the hole-black darkness, almost as bad as the night she'd been assigned to Blackeagle's outfit for her first action back on Beckman Two.
All-Father, she had been so scared when they'd landed, hadn't even seen a flek at that point, except on the vid, of course, which couldn't do justice to their stomach-churning faces or their sodding stink.
That night had been a soulless black, too, with low-hanging clouds so there were no stars, not that seeing them would have made her feel better; strange constellations only emphasized how really far from home she had come. Along with the rest of the replacements, she stumbled still red-eyed from deepsleep into camp, dumped out a scant ten minutes before by an automated shuttle and only two weeks' subjective time out of boot camp.
Trying to report to their commanding officer, they had taken plenty of ribbing, the usual sort of comments and whistles and other dumb-ass stuff that boots had to endureand then some wit had thought to send them to Sergeant Blackeagle.
Walking up from behind at the mess tent, with him all dressed out in that black Ranger uniform and helmet, she couldn't tell right away there was somethingdifferentabout him.
"Sergeant Blackeagle?" She waited, smelling the fresh-brewed coffee and thinking she would kill for a cup herself.
"Yes?" he said without turning around.
"Replacements, sir. We're here to report in."
He pulled off the black combat helmet and twisted around in his seat. "How many did we get?" a long-muzzled, large-eared face asked.
After a moment, Mitsu swallowed, unable to take her eyes off his seven-foot, black-furred form.
The creature flicked an ear at her. "Well, Private? They are still teaching boots to count?"
She could feel her fellow boots frozen in place behind her as a low chuckle rippled around the mess table. She flushed. No one, not even a bunch of sodding officers, was going to laugh at Mitsu Jensen! "Ten," she said stiffly, her face as hot as a goddamned torch.
Blackeagle nodded at her, then turned back to his dinner. "Half of what we requested, as usual. I guess it will have to do." And, of course, he'd known all along what the first sight of him did to people. He loved a joke as much as the next guy; it just never showed on that hairy face of his.
She swallowed suddenly. All-Father, but would he ever razz her for getting into such a bloody mess! She'd be hearing about this one for the next twenty years.
Hrinnti feet whispered in the dark passage outside the room. They made almost no noise, she thought, remembering how the hrinn had surprised her outside the males' house. Her hand crept to the empty sheath in her boot where she had hidden a sonic blade when she left Danzig Station . . . how long ago?
She caught the guttural murmur of voices, then a dim glow that grew steadily larger. They were coming back, no doubt to finish her off. Unable to move, she cursed her weakness. The light rounded the final corner and entered the small chamber where she lay, borne by the gray-and-white that had come before, as well as several unfamiliar, small dull-grays. Their arms were full of cloths and bottles as they squatted on the floor beside her, their black eyes unreadable.
"You are ." The gray-and-white hrinn blinked down at her, then passed Mitsu a shallow bowl. "That is since the Line Mother look ."
Mitsu lifted her head to sniff at the bowl. It was only water, as near as she could tell and, All-Father, she was thirsty! Tipping the bowl, she let a long tepid swallow roll down her throat. "Who LineMother?" she asked in Hrinnti, her tongue having a great deal of trouble twisting itself around the guttural syllables.
The two smaller hrinn shifted uneasily, glancing at each other with their dark eyes. One whined deep in its throat. The gray-and-white flattened its ears and then the other was silent.
"Since you our language, that matters ," the gray-and-white hrinn said. "I Khea, a Vvok. These nonbreeding servants no importance. You will not them."
"Keeuh." Mitsu made an attempt at the name. "Notservant?"
The two smaller hrinn shrank back, hiding their long-muzzled faces against the wall. The gray-and-white's ears flattened again. "I direct-daughter Line!" Her black eyes narrowed to slits.
Fuzzily, Mitsu tried to recall what she had learned of hrinnti society from the deepsleep tapes, but very little had been implicit in the basic structure of the language, and the effort of this conversation had already sapped what energy she had. Her arm and shoulder throbbed and her head felt as though it was stuffed with the mush served for breakfast at the creche, a million years ago on Miramem.
The long gray-and-white face studied her a moment longer, then the hrinn brushed a strand of mane back out of its eyes. "If you that Line Mother dead."
Mitsu closed her eyes. Too much of this conversation was eluding her. There was no telling what it was really saying, and even worse, it thought she understood. On the surface, these creatures resembled Blackeagle, but they were nothing like him, and the deep weariness seeping through her brain would not let her think what to do.
"You dead." The voice seemed to come from far away. "These servants wash and to come Line Mother."
When Mitsu managed to open her eyes again, she saw only the two servants pouring water into a low basin and laying out clean cloths, as well as black robes that matched their own.
The water's chill seeped into Heyoka's bones, making his bad leg ache as he waded downstream in the eel-gray dusk. He kept slipping on submerged rocks and his feet were scraped and bruised. While there was still enough light, he had used the map to plot an alternate route. Now, after passing the foot of the red-orange cliffs that marked the initial rise of the plateau above the river, he finally abandoned the stream. The cooling air carried the dry, pungent scent of low, scrubby brush that covered the ground, and he could smell the river just out of sight. On the western horizon, mountains glimmered fiery red in the setting sun, while behind him, sandstone cliffs stood like sentinels, dark against the night sky. And somewhere beyond those cliffs lay Vvok Hold and Mitsu.
He caught a thread of the same aromatic smoke he'd encountered at the males' house the night before, as well as the musk of other hrinn. The fur prickled along his shoulders and he drew upon his Ranger training to move silently. He hadn't planned to come this way, but had no option now.
He was at a loss as how to interpret last night's events in the circular underground room. What did all that rambling about Levv and Black/on/black mean? He'd searched for Levv on the map of local kin-groupings, but found nothing. Perhaps Levv was farther away, beyond the mountains even, a hostile tribe.
Thin gray smoke marked the hole in the cleared ground, just as it had the night before. He spotted the dark irregular openings of caves in the cliffs and remembered waves of hrinn pouring out in search of the intruder. This whole area must be honeycombed with underground chambers.
He became intensely conscious of the reek of the artificial materials in his pack and the brace on his leg. He'd been a fool to bring them. His own scent and that of his native robes might fade into the background, but off-world materials stood out like a torch at midnight. Guttural whispering drifted up from the underground chamber, the rough syllables louder one moment, then fading the next. He spotted the central pole of the ladder protruding from the hole.
A dark shape walked within twenty feet of him to the right and disappeared into one of the caves. His ear twitched, but he forced himself to continue at a nonchalant pace, hoping these hrinn were all too busy with their own concerns to notice him. He passed the smoke hole on the left and the voices faded. A few more feet, he told himself, and he would angle back to the cliffs and continue walking until either the sun rose or he found a place where a one-legged soldier could climb the plateau.
Then, for no reason he could discern, claws scrabbled as hrinn bounded out of the caves and surged up the ladder. He froze as dozens of natives surrounded him, black eyes glittering. Their mingled scents were heady, evocative. Half-shaped images formed in the shadowy recesses of his mind, as though he had stood here before, experienced the electric scent and feel and taste of this particular night. The savage other surged back into his awareness; his claws sprang free and his breathing deepened, ready for something, he knew not what.
Someone snarled in the back ranks, then hrinn gave way as a black-furred male with a white throat cuffed his way to the front. Heyoka's nostrils flared at the remembered scent. "Nisk."
Broad-shouldered and tall, Nisk stood with his head held high, staring back at Heyoka with black eyes that disappeared in the background of his black face. Heyoka suddenly knew he must look much the same to humans: dark, enigmatic, unreadable.
Nisk flicked an ear at him. "Black/on/black."
Heyoka glanced at the wall of hrinnti bodies surrounding him, almost every one of them taller and built more heavily than himself. "Why do you call me that?"
"It is an acknowledgment of the obvious." Nisk's black-furred arm gestured and Heyoka was gripped by the strange feeling that he was observing himself. "Return to the males' house and we will discuss its implications."
Curiosity warred with the need to find Mitsu, and there was the additional problem of what they would do if he refused. Would it be a deadly insult, or only of passing interest?
Before he could reply, another male pushed his way to the center of the circle, a stocky dark-gray robed in gray. "He cannot enter that sacred place again!" the newcomer said. "This matter must be settled between this creature of the Dead and me."
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