Read an Excerpt
THE CHANUR SAGA:
C. J. CHERRYH
DAW Titles by C.J. CHERRYH
THE FOREIGNER UNIVERSE
THE ALLIANCE-UNION UNIVERSE
THE DEEP BEYOND:
Serpent’s Reach | Cuckoo’s Egg
Merchanter’s Luck | 40,000 in Gehenna
AT THE EDGE OF SPACE:
Brothers of Earth | Hunter of Worlds
THE FADED SUN:
Kesrith | Shon’jir | Kutath
THE CHANUR NOVELS
THE CHANUR SAGA:
The Pride Of Chanur | Chanur’s Venture | The Kif Strike Back
Chanur’s Homecoming | Chanur’s Legacy
THE MORGAINE CYCLE
THE MORGAINE SAGA:
Gate of Ivrel | Well of Shiuan | Fires of Azeroth
THE DREAMING TREE Omnibus:
The Tree of Swords and Jewels | The Dreamstone
ALTERNATE REALITIES Omnibus:
Port Eternity | Wave Without a Shore | Voyager in Night
THE COLLECTED SHORT FICTION OF CJ CHERRYH
ANGEL WITH THE SWORD
Table of Contents
The encounter of old friends was common enough on Meetpoint Station, where half a dozen species came to trade; and one such old friend came walking Pyanfar Chanur’s way when she had no more than put The Pride in dock. She was hani, Pyanfar Chanur, maned and bearded in curling red-gold, sleek of pelt. Her left ear bore the gold rings of successful voyages along its rim, and the bottommost ring had a monstrous gaudy teardrop pearl. Her red blousing breeches were silk, with the faintest striping of orange; and wrapped about the waist was a belt whose dangling ties were finished in precious stones and gold and bronze. She was not quiet, this Pynafar. She exuded wealth and dignity, and drew eyes wherever she went.
And rounding a collection of canisters awaiting dockside pickup, she spied a dark-furred, all but naked shape: mahendo’sat—ordinary encounter anywhere on Meetpoint. But this one flung wide his arms. His eyes lit up, his broad mahen face broke into a charming grin that showed blunt primate fangs all capped in gold.
“Pyanfar!” he cried.
“You!” Pyanfar stopped dead in her tracks. “You!” She slapped aside the offered embrace and stalked past at a good clip, to make the mahendo’sat exert himself.
“Ha, hani captain,” the mahe called after her. “You want deal?”
She turned about again, planted hands on hips and let the mahe overtake her against all better judgment. A heavy hand descended on her shoulder and the mahe resumed his gilt-edged grin.
“Long time,” Goldtooth said.
“Gods rot you, don’t grin at me. You want a smile from me, you mahen bastard? How’d you get in port?”
“Just docked. Find my good friend here. Give surprise, a?” He laughed, slapped her on the back, seized her about the shoulders in one lank, coarse-pelted arm and propelled her toward the ship berths. “Got present, hani.”
“Present!” Pyanfar dug claws into the deckplates, resisting this camaraderie, aware of probable witnesses, of a whole row of grinning mahendo’sat lazing in front of a canister-surrounded loading area. A ship access gaped ahead. Mahijiru, doubtless. “You owe me, mahe, owe me for tools and two good welders, for fake repairs, for doublecross—”
“Good friend, Pyanfar Chanur.” A powerful arm shoved her rampward through the gathered mahendo’sat, and she spun about and cast an indignant look back before Goldtooth wrapped his arm into a tighter grip and hastened her up the ramp. “Good friend. Remember I save your neck, a?”
“Present,” she muttered, stalking along the accessway. “Present.” But she went, and stopped inside the lock, while some of the mahendo’sat who had trooped after them poured past into the interior corridors. Goldtooth turned sober for the moment, and she liked that less. Her ears were flat. “What kind of present, huh?”
The mahe winked, decidedly a wink, this trader who was no trader, who played what he was not, with Mahijiru which was not the slow-moving freighter it looked to be. “Good see you one piece, hani.”
“Huh.” Her mouth pursed in better humor, in deliberate good humor. She slapped the mahe on the arm, claws not quite pulled. “Same good see you, Ana Ismehanan-min. You still play merchant?”
“We trade sometime, keep us same honest.”
The mahe looked to his left where the towering black wall of mahe crew parted. Pyanfar looked—and her ears went up and her mouth fell open at the gangling stsho-cloaked apparition in the doorway to Mahijiru’s inmost corridors. A mostly hairless face with mane and beard like spun daylight; a face like nothing in civilized space.
“O gods,” she said, and whirled about, heading for the airlock, but the mahendo’sat had it packed.
“Pyanfar,” the human said.
She turned, ears flat. “Tully,” she said in despair, and lost the rest of her dignity as the human hastened to fling his arms about her. His clothes reeked of mahen incense.
“Pyanfar,” Tully said, and straightened up and towered over her, grinning like a mahe and trying to stop it, for he knew better. “Py-an-far.” In evident delight.
That was the limit of his conversation. That mouth was never made for hani speech. Goldtooth set his hand possessively on Tully’s shoulder and squeezed.
“Fine present, a, Pyanfar?”
“Where’d you find him?”
The mahen captain shrugged. “Come all the way mahen trader name Ijir, long time mahen ship, all time want you, Pyanfar Chanur, crazy mad human. Come find you, come find you, all he know.”
She looked up at Tully, who stood there with something brimming over in him, who had no possible business where he was, in mahendo’sat transport, light-years from human territory, in a zone where humankind was banned.
“No,” she said to Goldtooth. “No. Absolutely not. He’s your problem.”
“He want find you,” Goldtooth said. “Friend. Where your sentiment?”
“Gods rot you—gods rot you, Goldtooth. Why? For what? What’s he want?”
“Want talk you. Your friend, hani, good friend, a?”
“Friend. You earless, mangy bastard. I just got my papers clear—you know what it cost?”
“Trade.” Goldtooth came close and put his arm conspiratorially about her shoulders. She stood like rock, laid back her ears and grinned into his face in chill reception. “Trade, hani. You want make deal?”
“You want to lose that arm?”
Primate fangs gleamed gold. “Rich, hani. Rich—and powerful. You want this human trade? Got. Look this face—”
“Have I got a choice?”
A wider grin. “Loyal friend. Want you do a thing for me. Want you make this human happy, a? Want you take him to Personage. Want you take him to the han. Make all round happy. Got trade, hani. Profits.”
“Sure, profits.” She shoved back at arm’s length and stared up at that earnest mahen face. “Profits like last time, like bills up to the overhead, like hani barred six months from Meetpoint and The Pride out a gods-rotted year—”
“Like stsho got lot gratitude hani save their hides, a?”
“Same as the mahendo’sat. Same as the mahe who double-crossed me—”
Black palms lifted. “Not my fault, not my fault. Stsho close Meetpoint, what I do?”
“Snatch the trade, what else? What route you been running?”
“You take him, a?”
“You brought him here. Friend. It’s all yours. So’s the lawsuit. You explain it to the stsho!”
“Got trade, Pyanfar—”
“And get embargoed? Gods rot, you earless lunatic! You try to do for the rest of my business? The stsho—”
“Pyanfar.” He took her by both shoulders. “Pyanfar. I tell you, one paper this human got, he read for you this paper. They send him, this humanity. They got trade. Big business, maybe much big thing the Compact ever see. You got share.”
She drew a deep, long, mahe-flavored breath. “Favors, Goldtooth?”
“A,” he laughed, and hugged her shoulder with bone-crushing force. “Promise, hani. I make promise, keep. Got business. Got go. You take this human. Don’t I make promise you get share human trade? I keep. This human come to me, I find my old friend Pyanfar for him. You want share, you take. But you got do this thing.”
“Now we get to it. Why?”
“Got business. Got go fix.”
“Got business—how’d you get here? How’d you just happen to pull in on my tail?”
“Know you come, old friend. I lie off and wait.”
“How’d you know? I didn’t, till the papers cleared at Kura.”
“Got contacts. Know you got that stsho business clear. So you come here soon.”
“Gods rot your hide, mahe. That’s a lie.”
Dark eyes glittered, shifted. “Say then I follow you from Urtur.”
“With him? Out of mahen space? No way, egg-sucker. How’d you arrange it?”
The hand dropped from her shoulder. “You sharp dealer, hani.”
“What say instead the stsho kept Mahijiru off Meetpoint docking lists. Say you were here all along, blocked off the lists. Waiting for me.”
“You got lot suspicion.”
“I got gods-rotted plenty suspicion, you earless foundling bastard. Give me the truth.”
“Might say. Might say— The stsho know he’s here?”
“Then who are you hiding from?” And on a second thought: “O gods!”
“Got kif trouble.”
“Gods rot you, then you take him! You take this whole business and—”
“Good, brave friend. Kif spies already here. Han spies too. Got han deputy ship in port. Know we meet. After this they got plenty curiosity. So you got risk already, hani. Don’t want profit too? Besides, you hurt his feeling. Hurt mine.”
She stood still, a long, long time. Her claws flexed out. She drew them in, with a long slow breath. “Gods rot your—”
“Give you fair deal, Pyanfar. Number one fine deal. Know you got troubles. You got han trouble. You promise human trade, you don’t got. Lose face. You got mate troubles—”
“I keep promise, Pyanfar. You want share profit, you got share risk.”
“Share suicide. What do you think I am?”
“You get human trade, your enemies can’t touch you, a, hani captain? The han—don’t like you lose face. You get rich, keep your brother life, keep your mate. Keep The Pride.”
A narrow darkness closed in on her sight, hunter-vision set on Goldtooth. It was difficult to hear, so tight her ears were folded. She deliberately raised them, looked about her, at Tully’s distressed face.
“I take him,” she said to Goldtooth, a small, strangled breath. “If—”
“—if we get letter of credit at mahe facilities. Good anywhere. Unlimited.”
“God! You think I Personage?”
“I think you next best thing, you rag-eared conniving bastard! I think you got that power, I think you got any gods-rotted credit you want, like what you pulled on me at Kirdu, like—”
“You dream.” Goldtooth laid a blunt-clawed hand on his breast. “I captain. Got no credit like that.”
“Good-bye.” She faced about, bared teeth at the crowd blocking her retreat. “You going to move this lot? Or do I move them for you?”
“I write,” he said.
She faced him with ears flat. Held out her hand.
He held out his to one of the mahe at his side. “Tablet,” he said, and that one vanished hurriedly into the inner corridor with a spatter of bare mahen feet and non-retracting claws.
“Better,” said Pyanfar.
Goldtooth scowled, took the tablet the breathless mahe brought back to him, removed its stylus and wrote. He withdrew a Signature from the belt that crossed his chest and inserted it; the tablet spat out its seal-stamped document. He held it.
“I’ll translate that,” Pyanfar said, “first thing.”
“You one bastard, Pyanfar.” Goldtooth’s grin looked astonishingly hani in his dark mahen face. “One sure bastard. No—” He drew it back as she held out her hand; he turned and handed it instead to Tully, who looked at them both confusedly. “Let him hold. He bring. With other documents.”
“If that paper doesn’t say what it had better say—”
“You do what? Toss good friend Tully out airlock? You no do.”
“Oh, no. No such thing. I pay debts where they’re due, old friend.”
Goldtooth’s grin spread. He thrust the tablet into a crewman’s hands and clapped her on the arm. “You thank me someday.”
“You can bet I will. Everything I owe. I find a way. How you going to get him to The Pride? Tell me that! You walk him up to my lock, I fix your ears.”
“Got special canister.” Goldtooth held out his hand. “Customs papers,” he said, and a crewman held out another tablet and stylus. “You take cargo, a? Shishu fruit. Dried fish. Got four cans. One all rigged, number one good lifesupport. Pass him that way.”
She shook her head to clear it, stared at him afresh. “I’m going mad. That trick’s got white hairs. Why don’t you just roll him up in a carpet, for the gods’ sake, and dump him on my deck? Deliver him in a basket, why don’t you? Good gods, what am I doing here?”
“Still good trick. You want this honest citizen, you pay duty, ha?”
She drew her ears down tight, snatched the tablet and furiously appended her own signature, handwritten. She shoved it back at the mahe crewman who dared no expression at her at all.
“Fish,” she said in disgust.
“Cheapest duty. What you want, pay more? I tell you, got thing fixed.”
“I’ll bet you do.”
“Customs ask no question. Number one fixed.”
“I’ve got questions. I’ve got plenty of questions. You set me up, you egg-sucking bastard. So I take this deal. But by the gods you tell me everything you know. What kif trouble? Where are they working? Are they on your tail right now?”
“Always got kif at Meetpoint.”
“Then why come here, for the gods’ sakes? What are you doing here? The kif know what you’ve got?”
Goldtooth shrugged. “Maybe.”
“From how long? How long you been at this?”
A second shrug. “Packet. In packet got paper tell you. Tully bring in canister. You take, you read all. You run fast. Go Maing Tol, go Personage. Get plenty help from there.”
“They on your tail?”
A third shrug.
“Goldtooth, you bastard, how tight?”
“Got trouble,” Goldtooth said.
She weighed that. Mahijiru in trouble. A mahen hunter-ship with more kif troubles than it could handle. “So you got. Where you go now?”
“Best thing you don’t ask.”
“Maybe deep in stsho territory. Read packet. Read packet. Friend.”
“Rot you, too,” Goldtooth said soberly. His ears stayed up. There were fine wrinkles round his dark eyes. “God save us. Need you, Pyanfar. Need bad.”
“Huh.” She flicked her ears up with a light chiming of their rings. “I’m not a gods-blessed warship, mahe.”
“Sure. Sure.” She walked off a pace to get clear breath, looked at Tully, who understood—perhaps a little. Always more than he spoke.
Tully would not lie to her. That much she believed. His silence, his level, unflinching stare now, that vouched for his own honesty in this.
“When bring to you?” Goldtooth asked.
She turned back to him. “Got an appointment in station office. Got to make that. Got to advise my crew. Got to tell them—you give me lot of problems, hear? And you be careful.” She extruded a claw and poked Goldtooth hard in the chest, so she saw him wince. “You be careful this package. You be gods-rotted careful, hear?” She meant two things.
“Hear,” Goldtooth said, full soberly. He heard both things. She knew.
“Got three days this port,” she said. “Got stall three days with gods-rotted kif sniffing round. I pull The Pride out sooner, big trouble. Lot of attention. When you go?”
“Deliver package, wait a while, then go. Got no cargo but fake cans I give to you.”
“So.” She turned away, met Tully’s eyes, patted him very gently on his arm, recalling his fragile skin. “Safe, understand. You do what they say. No fear. These mahendo’sat bring you to me. Understand?”
“Yes,” Tully said, and looked at her in that way he had, his pale stare desperately intense.
Her ears twitched, her nostrils widened with the scent of something more than Meetpoint-sized amiss, more than a corrupt stsho and closed routes and xenophobe stsho councils back in Llyene, atwitter over humanity that wanted through stsho space. Mahen connivances. Kif greed. She looked back at Goldtooth. “Presents. One fine present. Ha!”
Goldtooth lifted his head, his brown eyes half-lidded. “Tell you this, old friend. Kif don’t forget. They hunt me. Soon hunt you. Not revenge. Kif-thought. Skikkik. Hunt me, hunt you. Tully come here—got one fine trouble this time. This business Tully bring us only—hurry things. Make timetable ours, not kif’s.”
“Huh,” she said. “So I take this gift. I don’t like things coming at my back. You watch yourself. You run far, mahe. You do good. Wish you luck.”
“You got,” Goldtooth said. “Wish you luck, hani.”
She flicked her ears, indecisive, turned and stalked out the airlock through the parting crowd of tall mahendo’sat.
Her mind was not in it as she walked on down the dock. It kept sorting troubles past and troubles future—dangerous, she thought, catching a whiff of some scent not mahendo’sat nor stsho, but something she could not, in this large, cold space. . . identify.
Cargo, maybe. Maybe something else. It set her nose to twitching and set an itch between her shoulderblades.
She did not look about, here on Meetpoint’s docks, padding along the cold deckplates, beside the gapings of ship accesses, out of which wafted more friendly scents. There were other hani ships at Meetpoint. She had read the list before she had put The Pride into dock: Marrar’s Golden Sun; Ayhar’s Prosperity; oh, yes, and Ehrran’s Vigilance. That ship. That one, that Goldtooth had mentioned, but not by name. . . that han’ s eyes, which were doubtless on other business at the moment, but which were capable of catching small furtive moves—like a Chanur captain paying calls on mahen ships.
There were a dozen other mahen vessels in port: Tigimiransi, Catimin-shai, Hamarandar were some she had known for years. And familiar stsho names, like Assustsi, E Mnestsist, Heshtmit and Tstaarsem Nai. Round the wheel of Meetpoint, beyond the great lock that separated oxygen- from methane-breathers, ships went by stranger titles: tc’a and knnn and chi names, if knnn had names at all. Tho’o’oo and T’T’Tmmmi were tc’a/chi ships she had seen on docking lists before.
And kif. Of course there were kif. She had made a particular point to know those names before she put The Pride in dock. . . names like Kekt and Harukk, Tikkukkar, Pakakkt, Maktikkh, Nankktsikkt, Ikhoikttr. Kif names, she memorized wherever she found them, a matter of policy—to recall their routes, their dockings, where they went and trading what.
The kif watched her routes with as much interest this last year. She was very sure of that.
She did not loiter on the docks, but she made no particular haste which might attract attention on its own. She stared at this and that with normal curiosity, and at the same general pace she strolled up to the nearest com booth along the row of dockside offices, keyed up Chanur credit and punched in the code for the station comlink to The Pride’s bridge. She waited. The com whistled and clicked through nine cycles unanswered.
There was a kif on the docks. She spied the tall, black-robed form standing over shipside in conversation with a stsho, whose pale arms waved emphatically. She stood with her back to the plastic wall and watched this exchange past the veil of other traffic, the passing of service vehicles, of pedestrians, mostly stsho, pale-robed and elegant; here and there mahendo’sat, dark and sleek. Something winged whipped past, small and upward bound for the heights of the tall, cold dock.
Gods only knew what that was.
Click. “Pride of Chanur,” the voice finally answered. “Deck officer speaking.”
“Haral, gods rot you, how long does it take?”
“I want that cargo inventoried. Hear? I want all of you on it, right now. No liberties. If anyone’s out, get her back. Right now.”
“Aye,” the voice came back, diffident. “Aye, captain.” There was question in the voice.
“Just do it!”
“ Na Khym’s out.”
“Gods and thunders!” Her heart fell through her feet. “Where’d he go?”
“Don’t know. To the free market, I think—there some kind of trouble?”
“I’m coming back. Get him, Haral. I want him found.”
She slammed the receiver down and headed back toward the ship in haste.
Khym, for the gods’ sake. Her mate, gone strolling out in fullest confidence that papers in order meant safety. . . on a stsho trading station, where weapons were banned, as he had gone out of ship at Urtur and Hoas among mahendo’sat; as he had gone wandering wherever he liked through the last two markets—male, and duty-less and bored.
Gods. O gods.
She remembered the kif then, looked back, one injudicious glance over her shoulder, breaking the rest of her precautions.
The kif was still there, looking her way beyond the gesticulating stsho, looking black and grim and interested.
She flung around again and moved as fast as a walk could carry her, past Mahijiru behind its darkened (malfunctioning?) registry board, past one berth and the other in the chill, stsho-made air.
She was panting in earnest when she came within sight of The Pride’s berth. Everything was stopped there. The machinery that ought to be offloading stood still with cans still on the ramp. Haral was outside waiting for her, red-gold figure in blue breeches; and spying her, came her way with scurrying haste.
“Captain—” Haral skidded up and braked, claws raking on the plates. “We’re looking.”
“Kif are out,” Pyanfar said. That was enough. Haral’s ears went flat and her eyes went wide. “With Ehrran clan in port. I want him back, Haral. Where’d he talk about going? Doing what?”
“Didn’t talk, captain. We were all busy. He was there by us at the ramp. When we looked round—gone.”
“Gods rot him!”
“Can’t have gotten far.”
“Sure he can’t.” She took the pocket com Haral offered her and clipped it to her belt to match what Haral had. “Who’s on bridge?”
“No one. I stayed. Alone.”
“Hilfy’s out there.”
“Lock up. Come with me.”
“Aye!” Haral snapped, spun on her heel and ran.
Pyanfar strode on.
Market, she reckoned. Meetpoint’s famed Free Market was far and away the likeliest place to look. Baubles and exotics. Things to see.
He might have tried the restaurants before the market.
Or the bars of the Rows.
Gods rot him. Gods rot her soft-headedness in ever taking him aboard. On Anuurn they called her mad. At times like this she believed it, all the way.
She was breathing in great side-aching gasps when Haral came pelting back to fall in at her side.
“He’s not here,” Hilfy said—youngest of The Pride: her left ear one-ringed, her beard only beginning, her breeches the tough blue cloth of hani crew, though she was ker Hilfy, Chanur’s someday heir. She met Tirun Araun between two aisles of the dock bazaar, among the stacks of cloth, foodstuffs, the fluttering of stsho merchants. Fluting cries of exotic nonsapients legal here for trade, the shouts of traders and passers-by, music from the bars of the Rows alongside the market—echoed off the lofty overhead in one commingled roar. Smells abounded, drowning other scents. Color rioted. “I’ve been down every aisle, Tirun—”
“Try the Rows,” said Tirun, older spacer. Her beard was full; her mane hung wild about her shoulders. Her left ear flicked, clashing half a dozen rings. “Come on. I take evens, you take odds. Hit every bar on the Rows. He might have, gods only know.”
Hilfy gulped air and went, not questioning the orders as Haral herself had not questioned what had happened, except that something had gone wrong. Very wrong. That had been a coded call to get off the docks. At once. Her ears kept lying back on their own; she pricked them up with spasmodic efforts, seeking a hani voice through the din, from out of the row of spacer bars that lined the marketplace.
No sign of any hani in the first bar on the row. It was all mahendo’sat inside, honking music and the raucous screech and stamp of drunken spacers.
She crossed Tirun’s path on the walk on the way out and they split again into the third and fourth bar.
Stsho, this den. But she spotted the red-gold of hani backs clustered about a bowl-table, dived through and slid to her knees on the rim. A senior hani spacer turned round and eyed her; other eyes turned her way, all round the table. She bobbed a hasty bow with hands gripping the rim.
“Hilfy Chanur par Faha, gods look on you—you seen a hani male?”
Ears laid back and pricked in non-sobriety all round the table, six pairs of ears heavy with rings. “Gods—what you been drinking, kid?”
“Sorry.” That was a mistake. She scrambled to her feet and started away; but the spacer swayed erect, waved wildly for balance as she clawed her unsteady way up the plastic bowlseat to catch her arm. “Hani male, hey? Need help, Chanur? Where you see this vision, hey?”
There were derisive laughs, curses—someone was trodden on. The rest of the hani came up on the seat and scrambled out of the pit. Hilfy tore loose and fled. “Hey,” she heard at her back, hani-cough, a drunken roar.
“Pay!” A shrill stsho warble from another side. “Pay, hani bastard—”
“Charge it to Ayhar’s Prosperity!”
“O gods!” Hilfy dived for the exit, just as a pair of kifish patrons loomed in the doorway. Black musty robes brushed her with a smell that sent the wind up her back. She did not look back or pause as she dived past them both. “Hani rabble!” she heard hissed behind her, the noise of drunken encounter mingled with kifish voices.
She darted through the outer doors into the light of the market, blinked, hesitating on one foot, hearing above the market noise the sound of hani in full chase behind her—no sight of Tirun. She leaned into a run and plunged into the next odd-numbered bar—stsho again, not a sight of hani. She pelted back out the doors, through the incoming mass of Ayhar clan, who began a turnabout in that doorway in merry disorder.
Still no Tirun. She dived into the next odd-number, another stsho den, saw a tall red shape, and heard the voices, a deeper hani voice than this port had ever heard, the chitter of stsho curses, the snarl of mahendo’sat.
“Na Khym,” she cried in profoundest relief. “Na Khym!” She eeled her way through the towering crowd at the bar and grabbed him by the arm. “Uncle—thank the gods. Pyanfar wants you. Now. Right now, na Khym.”
“Hilfy?” he said, far from focused. He swayed there, a head taller than she, twice her breadth of shoulder, his broad, scarred nose wrinkled in confusion. “Trying to explain to these fellows—”
“Uncle, for the gods’ sakes—”
“He is,” a hani voice cried from the door. “By the gods—what’s he doing here?”
Khym flinched, faced about with his back to the bar, starting with misgiving at the drunken Ayhar spacers.
“Hey!” A second hani voice, from among the Ayhar. “Chanur! You crazy, Chanur? What are you up to, huh, bringing him out here? You got no regard for him?”
“Come on,” Hilfy pleaded. “Na Khym—” She tugged at a massive arm, felt the tension in it. “For gods’ sake, na Khym—we’ve got an emergency.”
Maybe that got through. Khym shivered, one sharp tremor, like an earthquake through solid stone.
“Get, get, get!” a stsho shrilled in pidgin. “Get out he my bar!”
Hilfy pulled with all her might. Khym yielded and kept walking, through the hani crowd that drew aside wide-eyed and muttering, past the black wall of curious mahendo’sat and the glitter of their gold.
Another black wall formed athwart the brighter, outside light. Billowing robes blocked the path to the door, two tall, ungainly shapes.
“Chanur,” said a kif, a dry clicking voice. “Chanur brings its males out. It needs help.”
Hilfy stopped. Khym had, with a rumbling in his throat. “Don’t,” Hilfy said, “don’t do it—Khym, for gods’ sakes, just let’s get out of here. We don’t want a fight.”
“Run,” the kif hissed. “Run, Chanur. You run from kif before.”
“Come on.” Hilfy wrapped her arm tightly about Khym’s elbow. She guided him through the crowd toward the doorway, past the first brush of robes, trying to look noncombatant, trying to watch the whereabouts of dark kifish hands beneath the dusky cloth.
“Hilfy,” said Khym.
She looked up. The whole doorway had filled with kif.
“It’s got a knife!” A hani voice. “Look out, kid—”
Something flew, trailing beer and froth, and hit a kifish head. “Got!” A mahen voice crowed delight. Kif lunged, Khym lunged. Hilfy hit a kif with claws bared and bodies tangled in the doorway. Yiiii-yinnnnn! a stsho voice wailed above the din. “Yeeiei-yi! Police, police, police!”
“Yaooo!” (The mahendo’sat.)
Tirun’s voice, a roar from outside the tangled doorway, inbound. “Hilfy! Na Khym! Chanur!”
“Ayhar, ai Ayhar!”
Mugs and bottles sailed.
“He’s on the Rows! Hurry!” Haral’s voice came from the pocket com; and Pyanfar, delaying for a check of eat-shops outside the market, started to run for all she was worth, past startled mahendo’sat and stsho who leapt from her path, herself dodging round the confused course of a methane-breather vehicle that zigged away on another tack.
Sirens sounded. The three-story bulkhead doors of the market sector were blinking with red warning lights. She put on a final burst of speed and dived through asprawl as the valves began to move. The edges met with a boom and airshock that shook the deck, drowning the din of howls beyond, and she gathered herself up off the deck plates and ran without even a backward look.
The whole market was in turmoil. Merchants or looters snatched armfuls of whatever they could; aisles jammed. Animals screeched above the roar. A black thing darted past Pyanfar’s legs and yelped at being trodden on. She vaulted a counter, scrambled on a rolling scatter of trinkets, found a clear aisle and ran toward the Rows where a moment’s clear sight showed a heaving mass in the doorway. Stsho darted from that crowd, pale and gibbering; drunken mahendo’sat stayed to yell odds—a pair of hani arrived from the other direction: Chur and Geran headed full tilt toward the mass.
She jerked spectators this way and that, careless of her claws. Mahendo’sat howled outrage and moved. A kif-shape darted past her, moving faster than clear sight. She caught at it and got only robe as she broke through to the center of the mob. Plastic splintered. Glass broke, bodies rolled underfoot.
More kif ran from the scene, a scatter of black-robed streaks outward bound at speed.
“Khym!” Pyanfar yelled and flung herself in the path of his wild-eyed rush after the kif. Behind him Haral and Geran added themselves; Chur and Tirun followed. Hilfy jumped last, atop the heap on Khym’s shoulders as it all came down in front of her.
They stopped him. They held him down until the struggles ceased.
There was mahen laughter, quickly hushed. In prudence, mahe drew back to perimeters, while the noise of looting went on in the market, the crash of glass, the splintering of plastics, the polyglot wails of outrage and avarice.