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Black on Black
By K. D. Wentworth
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-57788-3
Chapter OneHeyoka Blackeagle stepped out of the shuttle's conditioned air into a hot buffeting wind. Airborne sand ticked against the metal transport and Anktan's arid, red-orange landscape swept before him out into a series of low, green-carpeted mountains in the distance. In the foreground, a shallow, meandering river bordered the rudimentary landing pad which was all the Danzig Research Station needed. The river evidently changed course in times of flood and a nearby dry channel was choked with rust-colored sand. More sand extended back from the river's current banks, then trailed off into desert hardpan.
The dry air was thinner than humans liked, redolent of sun-baked rock and dust and sand. A faint road of sorts led from the landing pad to the station in the distance, both recent developments. Although Heyoka had viewed innumerable pictures and holos of this region without ever being able to recognize anything, he had hoped a smell, or perhaps some long-forgotten sound, such as the shrill of the wind, or the murmur of the river against its banks, would invoke a buried sense-memory and bring his lost past back to him.
But he had no sense that he had walked here before, as the wind ruffled his fur, only the same emptiness he had known all his life. His earliest memories were still the stink of flek slave pens and the throb of the neuronic whip burns across his emaciated ribs. Of the mother who had borne him, or the species to which he belonged, he remembered nothing.
His partner, Mitsu, emerged from the shuttle, blinking against the light, and touched his arm, the pink of her human fingers contrasting sharply with the silken black of his outer coat. "So-what do you think?" She studied the sand-dusted tarmac. "Anything look familiar?"
His nostrils flared as he drank in the hot dry breeze, rich with the scent of a thousand mysterious things he had never smelled before. "No." He shaped the human word without difficulty on his narrow hrinnti tongue, although the skill had cost him many hours of practice in his youth.
Releasing his arm, the wiry black-haired woman trudged heavily down the sloping walkway in the 1.12 Standard gravity, bowed under the weight of her duffel bag. "It doesn't make sense-why would a pilot risk his license just to steal a single juvenile from a Grade Seven Culture?"
Grade Seven-too primitive and aggressive for assimilation into Confederation culture. He brushed a strand of mane out of his face, then flexed his claws, studying the savage three-inch points that gave him a fierce edge in hand-to-hand combat. He had struggled his whole life against the wild, unnamed otherness within him, a being too violent to live among humans, who had only found expression on the battlefields of the Confederation's enemies. He had crossed the stars to understand these claws.
A group of mounted figures approached across the cracked hardpan. Mitsu dragged a sleeve across her damp forehead. "What do you suppose they want?"
"What I want." He watched as the riders drew close enough to be seen as six distinct figures, each clad in a different color. "To know who and what I am." He hooked his top thumbs in the loops of his empty weapons belt and stepped off the walkway. His right leg still moved stiffly, a lingering legacy of the wound he had taken in his last action back on Enjas Two. He breathed deeply of the unfamiliar air. Certainly this barren landscape held no sense of home. He had a sudden pang for the rich air of Earth and the Lakota hills of his youth.
Behind them, the walkway shimmered, then disappeared as its generating field terminated. The small automated shuttle that had ferried them down from the supply ship in orbit hummed into life and lifted on antigravs back into the hazy amber sky.
Mitsu grimaced. "Too late to change your mind now," she murmured, shading her eyes.
Heyoka shifted uneasily in the hot sun as the memory of Enjas Two swept back: the sandy green beach, the hot white dwarf star dominating a silver-blue sky, the brittle silence that seemed to go on forever after it was all over ...
He thrust the memory away. Even if he recovered fully from his injury, Bill Rajman, his captain and superior, would not allow him to return to duty until he could explain what had happened that day. Perhaps here on Anktan, he could find some answers.
"I still say you shouldn't have come," he said to Mitsu. He felt excitement overlaid with uneasiness as the six hrinn slowed their burly mounts to a ground-covering walk. Five of them had fur ranging from yellow to gray to dark red, but the one who held his gaze was black with a spectacular white throat.
"Hey, it's my leave." Mitsu slid a sonic blade out of the sheath in her boot and casually thumbed it on. "I can spend it anywhere I damn well please."
The natives were closing fast, riding their humpbacked steeds with apparent ease. Heyoka drew in the deep musk of hrinnti fur, subtly like and yet unlike his own, and blood began to pound in his ears. He felt flushed, as though all his capillaries had suddenly dilated, tasted cinnamon on the back of his tongue, the richness of melted butter in his throat. Pheromones, he told himself, resisting the urge to pant away the excess heat he was generating. He had never been exposed to scent molecules from his own species before.
The waves of heat beating down from the red sun made the colorfully robed bodies shimmer. Their beasts' feet crunched over the last few feet of sand-littered ground and the breath caught in his throat; they were all so tall. Something indigenous to this world, perhaps the greater gravity, or a nutrient in the soil or vegetation, had given them more height than he had and, no doubt, more strength as well. They carried their maned heads high, magnificent and proud, clearly savage.
Stopping a short distance away, the six sat their beasts for a long stretched-out moment as the breeze whipped their lengthy plumes of mane. The black-coated hrinn's mane was bound with green cord to match its loose overtunic and breeches, and swept nearly to its feet. Heyoka had never let his grow half so long.
The gray-coated hrinn drew its thin, large-boned body up proudly and threw a single sentence in guttural Hrinnti at him.
It was female, he realized suddenly, although he could not say how he knew. If anything, her voice had more resonance than his own. And, although he had studied under hours of deepsleep during the journey to this planet, he had difficulty with her accent. Then the fur on the back of his shoulders stood on end as he grasped her meaning: "Stand up." The inner nictitating membranes of his eyes spasmed shut for a second. This strange female had told him to stand up-in the superior-to-inferior mode of the native tongue.
His lips drew back over double rows of gleaming white teeth as he suppressed a deep rumbling growl. He felt the nameless other he had fought all his life stir, and shuddered. "I am standing!" he spat back at her in Hrinnti.
"If you are hrinnti"-the old female's nostrils widened as she urged her beast closer-"why were you riding in that Dead shell of the Outsiders?"
The tone of her voice was insulting. Heyoka's claws sprang free, then he sheathed them again. "I have lived among the Outsiders all of my life," he said, adopting her term for humans. "They raised me after I was stolen from my own people."
Her black eyes narrowed. "Then you can never have a place here. Everyone knows Outsiders have no purpose in life. Not one of them has ever been reported to fit into a pattern/in/progress of any kind."
The term had not occurred in any of the language lessons. "I have come to find my-" He paused, unable to find the comparable word for family among the vocabulary provided by the tapes. "-my people." The old female edged her shaggy beast closer. "I intend to learn how and why I was taken from this world."
"An Outsider who lives in the Dead place prophesied such a one was coming. We did not believe it." With jerky, painful movements which rattled the many metallic bracelets around her ankle, the old female slid down the side of her mount. The breeze ruffled her gray fur, revealing the white of her denser undercoat. She circled his black-uniformed body one time, then stopped before him, so close that her scent was overwhelming. "You smell like them." Her nose wrinkled back, exposing shards of broken yellow teeth. "No Line would claim such a dreadful scent, even if they wanted to. And no one would want a Dead thing like you anyway."
Heyoka's claws sprang free again. He felt his breath coming in short, hard pants.
"You have no males' house and certainly no Line." Her eyes glittered like black diamonds in her sunken old face. "Go back to the Dead where you belong."
"He has the Black/on/black coloring." The black-coated hrinn spoke suddenly, revealing himself to be male. "That cannot be denied."
The gray female aimed a vicious raking blow at him, but the white-throated male dodged his mount to one side.
"If you refuse to smell it, I will." He leaned forward, black nose quivering. "Underneath all that Dead stink, there is something familiar."
Mitsu edged toward him, the shimmering green sonic blade extended in her right hand. "I can't make all of this out," she whispered to Heyoka. "Are they discussing whether to eat us?"
"They're saying I smell bad." Suddenly the ridiculousness of that washed over him, and he felt a rare, almost human amusement simmering inside him.
"Well, I could have told you that, fuzzface." Mitsu straightened, still gripping the blade. "We didn't have to come all the way to this All-Father-forsaken place for that."
"He is not Black/on/black!" The female remounted, her ears flattening again. "It is well known the Outsiders can change their appearance, even the color of their fur. I have seen it myself. No doubt, tomorrow this creature of the Dead will be some other color, although it will still smell just as bad."
Heyoka shifted his weight as his weak right leg cramped in the extra gravity. "What Line do you represent?" he asked, trying hard to capture the native inflection of speaking to an equal.
The gray female snarled and clawed her beast into a loping run back in the direction from which she had come. The remaining hrinn flattened their ears, the backs of their necks bristling. The male coughed low in his throat. "This - represents the five Lines of this region, as well as all the males' houses."
"This-what?" Mitsu glanced over her shoulder at Heyoka, but he shook his head, unable to translate the term himself.
"How can I find my people, my-Line?" Heyoka addressed the male, who seemed the most receptive of the lot. "Where should I start?"
Four of the remaining hrinn hissed, claws bared, then whirled their shaggy mounts and followed the gray matriarch. The male rode a step closer, bone-white teeth bared. "I realize you have not been properly brought up, but you should try not to be insulting."
Heyoka held very still.
The male turned his head one way, then another, examining Heyoka with feral black eyes, as bottomless as the deepest space Heyoka had ever seen while journeying between the stars. "When Ankt rests below the horizon, come to the males' house by the river." His black nose twitched above his white throat. "It would be helpful if you would take a proper sandbath first. You cannot expect civilized people to deal with the Dead."
Then he too turned his beast and rode after the other five back across the tarmac, heading toward red sandstone cliffs that rose like a barrier in the distance.
Mitsu deactivated the sonic blade and eased it back into her boot. "What in the Thirty-eight Systems was all that about?"
"I'm not sure." Heyoka rubbed his aching knee.
"Do you really want to mess with this bunch?" Mitsu hoisted her duffle bag and shifted it to her shoulder, grunting a little with the extra weight this gravity imposed upon her. "They're so primitive. I don't see that you'll ever find much in common with them."
"We don't have to love each other." Heyoka hefted his own bag with the double-flash Ranger insignia on the side. "Besides, I don't have any choice. I have to understand what happened to me, or-" He shaded his eyes, studying the stubby white buildings of Danzig Research Station in the distance. "Or it could happen again."
Seska prowled her quarters, not caring how her extruded feetclaws shredded the Vvok-red mat Nintk had just finished. Underneath the stink, that creature had smelled of Levv! The scent-memory rose in the back of her mind, savagely sharp, bloodied torn bodies cooling in the chill dankness of a mountain night, the mingled scents of the five other Lines working in rare concert to stamp out a madness that, left unchecked, could have destroyed them all.
She shook herself. Leave it to that uppity male, Nisk, to give voice to the notion of Levv though. Why Jafft had sponsored a witless brute like that for ascendancy in the males' house still baffled her unless he had sniffed out one of the elusive sacred purposes/in/motion. Life was not random, so there was obviously some subtle interplay of opportunity and leverage here leading toward a goal she had missed. Her ears flattened as she cursed herself for being unable to divine it.
Or, she told herself, as she turned at the far end of the room and stalked back, it was possible no pattern was emerging and Jafft had just been trying to make her crazy. It would have been just like an earless, no-good male-
A scratch at the door broke her train of thought. She snarled. "Enter at your own risk!"
A gray-and-white form edged in, then prostrated herself on the red carpet. Seska's nose twitched at the scent of her direct-granddaughter, Khea. "A message from the Jhii, Line Mother," the prone figure whispered.
Seska flexed her handclaws. The subservience of this child almost provoked her into attacking. How her birth-daughter, Akea, had ever bred such a disappointing cubling was entirely beyond her. Young as she was, Khea's black eyes should glare up at her from the floor, scheming for the chance to send the old female through the Gates of Death. Instead, she was cowering like a frightened yirn, sure to be culled in the next gleaning.
"The stink of your fear defiles this house." Seska turned her back on the child. "Get out and send someone to attend me who can behave as befits Vvok."
"Jhii asks what you will do, Line Mother."
Seska whirled around to glare at the young face. One eye regarded her from a background of gray and the other from a field of white, a mischance of coloring which lent the child a perpetual half-surprised look.
Excerpted from Black on Black by K. D. Wentworth Excerpted by permission.
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