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IN THE DEPTHS of the asteroid Quevi Ltir, all valued the shadows of tier and fallway. Jahnel Alain paused in the First Turning and looked behind her at the Faon emerging from the fallway leading downward to the City. Her companions seemed strange in gray vacuum suits instead of their usual black caped aals and pale bodysuits that mimicked the appearance of the alien Avelle who owned Quevi Ltir. In the light gravity of the asteroid, the human descendants of the French colony-ship Phalene moved with an Avelle grace in the asteroid's low gravity, with an Avelle liking for shadows. Instinctively, her companions moved to the deep shadows along the walls, flowing past her in a double stream on either side, rising toward the surface to battle at Avelle bidding. She floated in midcorridor, waiting for Sair Rostand, her senior husband and kin-leader today in their kin-group, the Louve. She did not like the choosing on this day, for all its necessity. She did not like it at all.
She puzzled over her uneasiness. It was not the imminent danger of attacking the miin's intruder ship now hiding in a crater near the surface ruins -- the Faon were brave enough and had fought in the City's tier wars when Lejja, the Principal of Songs, bid them. Nor could she deny the necessity: as cleverly as Koyil, the Principal of Laws, had managed his machines, the surface defenses had not driven away the miin from Quevi Ltir. This next attack required guile and flexibility, the workings of a truly living mind, not mechanical inflexibility. Nor could she deny the choosing of the Faon: her people owed a great debt to the Avelle and were better suited physically toattack and feint on the asteroid surface. Yet still she distrusted.
She grimaced at her reflections, uneasy about uneasy truths she had rarely questioned, a complexity typically Avelle in its convolutions. I value the safety of shadows, she thought, but shadows can also conceal dangers. What is Koyil's purpose in sending us? The Principal of Laws had opposed the rescue of Phalene eighty years before, had remained adamant in that opposition. As well as she knew the Avelle, she could not solve the puzzle today of the Principal's machinations -- or, rather, suspected the obvious. Could it be as simple as sending Faon to a slaughter? She thought about that, frowning.
The Avelle of Quevi Ltir had more reason than most to guard their hidden City. The Songs of the City's walls told of an aging world long since left behind, that first Home-Space of the first Brooding now faded even in long Avelle memory, where other shadows like these had birthed a proud and virile race with a strength that had carried them to the stars. There for millennia the Avelle had warred with each other in great Predator ships, an endless strike and counterstrike of craft and guile and naked force that expanded the racial Home-Space from star to star in Carina star-cluster, a territory held by all but disputed at every point. Among the Predators, the great starship Quevi'ali had won preeminent place in the wars for centuries -- but even the great could suffer chance misfortune, odd disaster, a tumbling from the heights. Mortally wounded, Quevi'ali had fled its four pursuers to the very edge of Carina cluster, losing them at last among a scattered spray of suns.
In Rhesaa star-system, a binding of twelve stars dominated by a great blue-white star, Quevi'ali's four kin-alliances, called iruta in Avelle speech, sought a refuge to repair their ship and to rebuild their breeding numbers, not only for Quevi'ali but for a daughter-ship; doubling their strength for the return to the Predator wars. On a large asteroid circling a lesser companion of the blue-white star, Quevi'ali had concealed itself beneath naked rock and begun a great building of a subterranean City. For decades, then centuries, the Avelle brooding grew steadily, the original four iruta fracturing into a dozen new bondings, each building its own great tier of two hundred levels, expanding outward and downward into the rocky depths, tempering their strength in tier wars for territory and influence. Yet the Avelle of Quevi Ltir did not rebuild their ship nor begin their daughter ship; instead, they lingered in their City past all accounting, until even the Avelle servant classes, conditioned by gene and rank never to question their superiors, wondered why the Song of Returning seemed forgotten.
For five centuries Quevi'ali had lain in its subterranean cavern, a dark hulk rarely visited. The Star Leader, hereditary captain of Quevi'ali and the Principal vested with the charge of its rebuilding, found other reason in the City for other affairs, without explanation. Among the six Principals who ruled Quevi Ltir, the Principals of Law and Song rose to new influence, supplanting the primacy of the Star Leader, and contested with each other, deftly building shifting alliances with Mind and Battle and Science, never trusting the other, growing crafty and wise as they subordinated lesser kin-alliances to their purposes. The tier wars grew dangerous and more frequent as the Principals contested, threatening extinguishment of whole tiers and the ending of brood-lines, but still the Avelle did not rebuild their ships.
Then, in the fifth generation of the new Brooding, a stranger human ship named Phalene had entered Rhesaa system, its fragile ship-world dying from radiation and meteor impact. For reasons only Lejja knew, the Principal of Songs had ordered the Avelle upward and had rescued Phalene's human survivors, taking the humans into her own tier and giving them two levels for their own, and defying the other Principals to challenge her choosing. The resulting tier war was ferocious but short-lived, and terrifying to the shocked humans under Lejja's protection; when Lejja prevailed by narrow victory, the thirty survivors of Phalene swore kin-bonding to Lejja and, at her bidding, adopted Avelle ways to keep their place among the kin-alliances of Quevi Ltir, forgetting the human that differed, becoming the Avelle that preserved life and brood, naming themselves the iruta Faon.
Only in the names they took for their kin-groups within their iruta, memories of Earth in rock and water, star and wolf and owl, did the first Faon keep a human heritage. As a new generation was born to the Faon and as Lejja's kindred grew accustomed to the humans in their midst, Lejja permitted certain liberties based on practicality. At her direction, Kiiri, the Science Leader, devised heavier gravity fields for the Faon levels to ease Faon bone damage from the asteroid's low gravity; adjustments were made in atmosphere and humidity and lighting to give the Faon a Home-Space more similar to their native world. When limited parts of Avelle speech proved physically impossible for human articulation, Lejja permitted the Faon to resume their own language and encouraged her Avelle to learn francais. As the third Faon generation was born, Lejja openly promised the Faon their own Song among the Avelle, and championed them against the continued malice of Koyil, and protected them and gave the Faon her own strength.
A fourth Faon generation had now begun, with new children in the Faon levels. Jahnel thought of her own daughter, Luelle, now three, and her infant son, Didier, and worried for them. Lejja was visibly aging and her strength had begun to wane: was this bidding today the first failing of her protection? How to tell in a society where even the Avelle could confuse themselves with their own subtleties?
Her father, Faon Leader Benoit Alain, had agreed to this, had agreed quickly. She distrusted that quick agreement, doubting her father's judgment. They had contested, she and Benoit, all her life, but never on essentials. She tightened her hands on her dis-rifle and shook her head slightly, as if to shake away the doubts. When you are old and white-haired and maybe Faon Leader in your own right, she chided herself, then nose-wrinkle and sniff and flip your wing-flaps: a nestling does not question his elder. But still she felt uneasy. She watched more Faon emerge from the fallway, wishing for Sair.
Jahnel nodded to friends of the Hiboux and Etoile as they passed, touched hands briefly with Eduard and Melinde, her co-husband and Sister-wife, then watched them follow the others around the Turning to the gathering-room beyond. Her vayalim, her marriage-group, risked four of its six adults today, an unlucky chance of the lot; only teenaged Evan and pregnant Solveya remained below in safety with the children. The Avelle practice of multiple marriage gave strength to the Faon in a dangerous City, though some Avelle of Lejja's tier still complained, even after eighty years, that all Faon adults entered vayalim as breeding adults, an oddness the Avelle found unnatural. Three-quarters of adult Avelle remained in servant class, nonbreeders ruled by vayalim kindred who repressed their inferiors' sexuality with chemical inhibition and conditioning, methods not readily available to the human Faon -- nor wanted, though the Faon did not voice that too proudly. But it was a difference easily concealed within the privacy of the Faon's home-levels, a tolerance Lejja could permit the Faon and had permitted. Jahnel had grown up with several parents and the company of a dozen siblings; it was a comfort to her that Luelle and Didier would not be wholly orphaned if she and Sair, and Eduard and Melinde, died today.
She quickly shied from the thought, not liking to think of her beloveds' deaths, not liking to think of her children deprived of anyone. Uncomfortable beneath the dim central light of the corridor ceiling, she moved upward to the shadow of the far corner of wall and ceiling, hovering there on the gentle push of her belt jet. She stretched gracefully to a horizontal position and cradled her dis-rifle across her arms, face downward, watching for Sair.
How to tell? she wondered. I am Avelle in mind and purpose, but even Avelle sometimes are confused by their own inverts. Certainly I confuse myself at times, all by myself. I am confused today. Sair would tease me if he knew; perhaps I will tell him so that he might enjoy the teasing. She smiled. You are late, my beloved; I will tease you about that if you delay much longer.
What was Koyil's purpose -- and why had Lejja agreed? Though generally truthful when flatly confronted, the Avelle Principals knew the value of partial truth and often warred with deceit and multiple purposes. Even Kiiri, the Science Leader who knew the Faon better than most, had his secrets and would not answer some questions put to him. Kiiri had sought out Jahnel since her childhood, attracted by something in her he would not say, or perhaps merely kin-bonding with Benoit's likely heir for its possible future advantage to himself. Kiiri never did anything without a reason and his reasons were always Avelle, turned on themselves, pointing in a half-dozen directions, maybe tangible or intangible, maybe deliberate or impulsive, sometimes bordering on no reason at all. In her private thoughts, Jahnel believed that not even Kiiri always knew which was what. Would Kiiri know what Koyil intended? And how could she provoke him into telling her what he knew? She considered ways to provoke Kiiri, smiling slightly.
The last of the Faon passed her, moving toward the Downlift and its access to the asteroid surface. Jahnel bit her lip, vaguely irritated at Sair and his lateness, then saw her husband rise into view, Rodolphe Tardieu of the Etoile beside him. Rodolphe had the overall leadership of the battle today with Sair as his second, supported by kin-leaders of the other three kin-groups. An older man with proven ability, Rodolphe had a calmness she trusted; she felt some of her tension relax. Sair saw her and waved, then murmured some words to Rodolphe. The older Faon moved past Jahnel, nodding to her politely, then vanished around the turn.
"You didn't have to wait," Sair said, Jahnel smiled and moved to kiss him, but Sair quickly shied away, "Niintua follows," he warned her.
Jahnel promptly increased the distance between them to several meters and turned to face the fallway exit. The Avelle did not understand the Faon's habit of easy embracing, and themselves touched closely only in combat and mating. Blundering into an Avelle's body-field invited instant punishment, including death if the rank difference was great. Faon children, like Avelle children, learned early about the dangers of slash-attack; only later, when they understood the subtle rankings among the Avelle adults and had gained the physical agility to extract themselves from bad mistakes, could they begin the play of deliberate insult that Avelle rank-peers sometimes enjoyed in such invasions. But Niintua as Principal and Battle Leader was beyond such friendly insult; even the other Principals took care to not tempt his ferocity.
Niintua rose gracefully into view, his black wing-flaps spread slightly as he ascended on the fallway's updraft, An Avelle's size belied his grace in low gravity: over three meters long from a squarish pallid-skinned head to the double flange tipping a segmented tail, Avelle rode the air currents of the fallways by sculling with their large and intricately muscled wing-flaps, deft in their maneuvers, capable of flashing speed. In the beginning, both races had had difficulty accepting the physical appearance of the other, the Faon alarmed by Avelle size and threat-displays, the Avelle struggling with attack instincts still partially linked to visual clues. Both had tried to adapt to the other. With two clawed hands, a small flexible lipped mouth, vestigial ears, and wideset dark eyes set centrally in the face for bifocal vision, the Avelle vaguely shared a few human physical arrangements; the Faon had adopted dress and certain postures in flight to mimic the Avelle. Later, in the tier wars, the Faon had devised infrared goggles to lessen their visual disadvantage in Avelle lighting, and had fought with studded poisoned gloves to match the poison of Avelle talons and tail-tip; both races took Kiiri's battle drugs to increase agility, reaction time, and resistance to pain. The common defense of tier and Home-Space had kin-bound the Faon and Lejja's Avelle in ways the more deliberate change had not -- but still the Faon would always be alien in ways irreducible, even to the Avelle of their own tier. How much more so to an Avelle of another tier and kin-alliance, who had chosen to bind himself to Koyil and shared that Principal's loathing of everything Faon?
Niintua's deep-set eyes flashed as he saw them, his reflective retinas gleaming redly in the dimness of the corridor lights. The Battle Leader hesitated in obvious distaste, his small mouth drawn downward and pinched, then glided forward, sculling with the flexible edges of his dark wing-flaps, two servant-guards following him at a respectful distance. He flicked his segmented tail, flashed an edge of his wing-flap, and hovered motionless in front of the two Faon, glaring at them. Jahnel and Sair returned the look impassively, waiting on the Battle Leader's intentions. After a few moments, Niintua drifted forward toward them, wing-flaps slightly spread, pressuring them. Jahnel promptly edged forward herself, pushing back at him, for all it was unwise. She lifted her chin defiantly.
"Lejja has asked and we are here, Battle Leader," she said. "Give your orders."
Niintua flicked his tail irritably, his aversion to the Faon visible in the tenseness of his body, his obvious temptation to slash-attack. Behind him, his servants hesitated, watching their master for direction, their tail-tips twitching nervously. For five decades, Niintua had held his rank as Battle Leader with unbridled ferocity, a cruelty unusual even among Avelle, and had long allied himself with the Principal of Laws, becoming Koyil's creature with little independent will. Jahnel idly wondered if Niintua enjoyed his subjection, relying on the Principal of Laws to control the violence in which Niintua reveled -- and wondered if Koyil found his ally an uncomfortable burden. When snaring a great-claws, Jahnel reminded herself, thinking of the food animal common to both Avelle and Faon food tanks, wear gloves and extra eyes.
Niintua gestured with a clawed hand. "The Faon sent too few," he said harshly in Avelle speech, omitting any courteous greeting.
"Ah, you counted," Sair retorted. Jahnel threw him a quieting glance. Sair detested Niintua, believing him careless of Faon lives in the tier wars -- or, like his master, bent upon Faon deaths.
"That has been discussed," she said calmly, "by all the Principals and all Faon. The Faon will risk not more than one-third of our breeding adults in this new attack on the miin lander, but that forty we will risk." She raised her dis-rifle before her chest, saluting Niintua without mockery. "Command us, Battle Leader."
Niintua flicked his tail and pointed a clawed hand at her. "You will inform us what the miin do. Have you swallowed the suval?" he asked, referring to Kiiri's new battle drug.
She scowled at him. "Not yet. When we leave for the surface, I will take it, as will the others who take suval today. Kiiri has tested it only twice and found it has a distance limitation -- and it wears off quickly, Battle Leader. Would you waste Kiiri's new psi-drug on stirring speeches in the Downlift?"
The Avelle chose to ignore her sarcasm. "Still, you will inform us of what they do." He moved forward with purpose, and Jahnel and Sair quickly moved to the sides of the wide corridor, granting him the passage he merited by his rank. As Niintua's servants followed, the Faon drifted inward again, decreasing the distance between them until they edged on the aliens' body-fields. The Avelle nearest Jahnel hissed at her and flared his wing-flaps in angry display.
"I am a breeding female," she told him sharply. "Mind your courtesy."
The servant-guard hesitated, then spat a word at her. She bared her teeth, confusing the Avelle badly, who lacked such gesture.
"Hardly," she mocked. "But you leave your master unguarded. Do you so easily forget your duty?"
The servant flipped his wing-flaps indignantly and soared onward, then flashed around the Turning after Niintua.
"Hmmm," she said, wondering if she would regret her provoking later. "Niintua's servants grow bold."
Sair took her elbow and drew her onward. "Niintua's kin-brood has always been bold, with few courtesies to us. It means nothing."
"You don't believe that, either," she commented.
Sair shrugged. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, one year older than herself, Sair had a lean strength she still found irresistible even after four years of marriage. Though she tried not to show partiality for courtesy to her other husbands' feelings, Jahnel could not deny the effects of Sair's glance, his smile, the way he moved. She wished suddenly that she and Sair were alone in safety, for talk and unhurried lovemaking through the idling hours, not abroad on this desperate idiocy -- a stupid thought, perhaps, but a thought she kept. Thinking of Sair's caresses always had value, she told herself; whatever the context.
He smiled at her, his dark eyes intent. "We are all alert, beloved." He moved off, heading for the Turning, and she followed him, struggling again with her uneasiness.
They turned the corner and joined the gathering in the large room beyond, the last chamber before the vertical Downlift leading to the surface. Jahnel took her place with Sair among the six Louve along one wall, and saw the other kin-groups gather in their own places: Ruisseau and Hiboux, Roche and Etoile, eight each. In room center, Niintua turned slowly to look over the Faon in the gathered semicircle.
"You are Faon," he declared in badly accented francais -- perhaps courtesy, probably insult to Faon comprehension of Avelle speech. Few of the Avelle outside Lejja's tier had bothered to learn francais, rarely used it even if they knew it. Niintua paused, flaring his wing-flaps in emphasis. "You are an iruta within the City. You owe the Avelle a debt for the rescue made of your ancestors. You owe kin-loyalty to the tier in which you reside. You owe a debt to me, Principal and Battle Leader."
"This is known," Rodolphe said calmly from his place among the Etoile.
"Good. Do not forget it." Niintua gestured more calmly. "The miin have landed another craft in a crater beyond the surface rains. They erect machines to counter my machines --"
"Our machines," Sair murmured, earning himself a vicious glance.
"You will destroy their machines and their ship. You will destroy the miin associated with the machines and ship. You will exterminate all the intruders as the Principals command."
"As they ask," Rodolphe amended, "and the Faon, as kin-alliance, offer." He smiled grimly. "Niintua, we are not servant Avelle at your beck and call. We are a kin-alliance with full rights within the City, however Law protests it -- but Song protects us and today we will do this thing for her sake."
"Lejja is senile," Niintua spat.
"Not yet. And she is Principal of Songs, superior to Law in influence and power. We go against, the miin for her, not for you."
Niintua swelled in rage but managed to control himself with an effort, violence flashing in his eyes. Several of the Faon nearest him edged prudently away.
"You will go," Niintua declared.
"We will go," Rodolphe agreed. He raised his chin and glanced from group to group. "Faon, we travel by kin-group through the routes discussed this morning. The alpha talents, those on suval, will coordinate our advance, and Jahnel of the Louve will provide what data she can about the miin. We attack simultaneously from shadow, first what miin we see, then their machines in general. Is that agreed, Battle Leader?"
Niintua flicked a wing-flap. "Agreed."
"Suit up." The Faon put on their helmets and checked their vacuum suits. Jahnel quickly swallowed the tablet of suval, Kiiri's strange new drug that brought an indistinct knowledge of other minds, and saw the other alpha talents make the same quick gesture. The other battle drugs, human-adapted substances from the tier wars that brought strength and stealth and speed, had been taken at breakfast by all. She turned to her husband Eduard, the Louve's other alpha talent that day.
"Remember, my love, what Kiiri said about the suval side-effects."
"I remember." He pointed a finger at her in mock sternness, drawing his eyebrows together. "You remember, too, Jahnel, this once. You forget dangers, a trait I wish Luelle hadn't inherited."
"What? Would you have her soberly sedate like you, Eduard?"
"I merely make my mischief in other ways, wife," Eduard replied with dignity. Short and stocky, blond like herself, and three years younger than her twenty-three, Eduard had a cheerfulness on all things that Jahnel sometimes envied; it was Eduard's strength to be so and perhaps a better kind of willfulness than her own. The combination in their daughter made safeguarding Luelle a busy task.
She heard Sair chuckle, and saw Melinde toss her head irritably, humorless as always. Jahnel's youngest sister had a sour side her siblings had endured since Melinde's infancy, and the trait had not improved with marriage. Jahnel spread her hands, looking at all the Louve. "Good faring, my own. Be careful: we would grieve to lose any of you. Be brave and ruthless, quick m your movements, daring in your speed." She gestured the Avelle blessing, then fastened her helmet, breathing in the cool dryness from the suit's air tank.
As she fastened down the last connection, she felt the first ripple of suval through her body, oddly different from Kiiri's other drugs, and clamped her jaws against her dread of it. The trials of the new battle drug had not been pleasant and had been based only on partial dosage; even Eduard and Jean-Luc of the Etoile, who tolerated battle drugs well, had reported physical problems with this new chemical. Kiiri had long experimented on Faon with the Avelle's battle drugs, coldly fascinated by the new combinations that resulted as the Avelle enzymes interacted with human biochemistry. For some years several Faon adults who fought frequently in the tier wars had reported strange mental sensations while under battle drugs, a blurring of mind that disoriented and had caused two deaths through the distraction. Intrigued, Kiiri had investigated, located those most sensitive to the effect, then had defined his tests and sought others less poisoned among the younger Faon.
Only recently had Kiiri isolated the human enzyme he named suval, a chemical byproduct of the human pituitary gland stressed by three of the minor battle-drugs. Faon bodies had built up residues from other battle-drugs, and these, too, played some role in the suval chemistry. Among those particularly sensitive to the pure drug, suval could create a telepathic link to certain other Faon, sometimes along kinship lines, sometimes not, and not always predictably -- but often enough to be useful.
Of all those tested, only Jahnel had sensed miin thoughts instead of Faon, a fact that disturbed Jahnel more than Kiiri suspected. She heard much less than the alpha talents who heard other Faon; she had to struggle more to listen and suffered worse afterward. To bind mentally to Faon was easier; to bind to miin hurt in ways Jahnel could not describe. Kiiri had professed himself unsurprised that Jahnel heard miin but wouldn't say why, however she provoked him. When do the games stop, Kiiri? she thought irritably, provoked herself by the memory. When all Songs end?
She waited as Sair checked their equipment by eye, carefully and one by one, then followed him with the others toward the Downlift.
One by one, the Faon cycled through the atmosphere lock to the airless fallway beyond. Above them stretched a dark emptiness lit with dim watchtale lights at each level; beneath them the darkness narrowed to a single dark point in the depths. The Downlift, the only surface entrance to the City, was two kilometers deep and paralleled the now-abandoned First Tier. As the Faon soared upward, the metal walls gleamed in the dim light of the watchtales flickering past, faintly marked with power leads, paneled squares, the worn covers of antique control panels. At intervals, the boxy shapes of defender robots stirred warningly, then stilled into immobility as the Faon's suit belts sent a recognition signal to their silent electronic challenge. Melinde turned her head nervously as a robot cannon tracked them overlong as they passed it; then it, too, abandoned the scan and returned to ready position, looking upward. A cross-tunnel loomed its inky blackness, concealing other defenders and traps.
As they passed through the lower reaches of the Downlift, the words of the Avelle Songs gleamed on the smooth walls, fitted between the later-added defenses, inscribed in their loops and graceful whorls into the metal, proclaiming the upper limits of the Home-Space, the place to be defended. The City the Avelle had built in the depths gave them warmth and air, deep shadow for safety, and life-warm space to rear their young and sing the Songs of life and star-home; gladly they had left behind the dangers of vacuum and starlight on Quevi's bleak surface -- and of other Predator ships that might rove too close to the star cluster's edge and discover Quevi'ali's hiding space. How long since a living being had passed upward through this dark and silent space? Until the Avelle rose to Phalene, perhaps centuries, and likely not since.
Jahnel saw signs of disrepair in some of the defender-modules they passed: robot-canisters that did not respond to their approach, a flickering arc-current of a short-circuit in a sensor-panel, scorch-marks from system failures decades old. In all the centuries since Quevi'ali had taken refuge in Quevi Ltir, no Avelle Predator ship had entered Rhesaa system; it appeared not even Phalene's more recent intrusion had reversed Avelle carelessness about the surface defenses. Pakal, the current Star Leader, was not the only Principal who had grown indifferent to traditional duties. Jahnel touched Sair's arm and pointed at another scorched panel.
"I see it," he muttered. "If the other Principals knew how badly Koyil maintained these "defenses..."
"No Avelle comes into the Downlift; not even we came this far in exploring the First Tier. If the Downlift is so poorly kept, what of the surface machines? How many mobile robots are still functional? Did an attack on the lander even occur, Sair?"
"Almost certainly. Lejja wouldn't let us go into this danger without demanding some kind of proof -- and Kiiri would see that Koyil's proof was proof, not fakery."
"You think," Jahnel said sourly.
Sair turned his head to look at her curiously, his dark eyes glinting through his faceplate. "Are you doubting everything, beloved? Even Kiiri?" She saw the gleam of his teeth.
"I hate suval," she muttered. "I hate the touch of miin. I'm feeling it now -- excuse my grumbles, love."
Melinde moved closer. "I'd like other grumbles excused sometimes, too, Jahnel."
Copyright © 1992 by Paula E. Downing