The first volume of the Chanur saga, set in the Alliance-Union universe, featuring the alien crew of spaceship The Pride of Chanur and the human Tully.
No one at Meetpoint Station had ever seen a creature like the Outsider. Naked-hided, blunt toothed and blunt-fingered, Tully was the sole surviving member of his company of humans―a communicative, spacefaring species hitherto unknown―and he was a prisoner of his discoverers and captors―the sadistic, treacherous kif―until his escape onto the hani ship, The Pride of Chanur.
Little did he know when he threw himself upon the mercy of The Pride and her crew that he put the entire hani species in jeopardy and imperiled the peace of the Compact itself...for the information this fugitive held could be the ruin or glory of any of the species at Meetpoint Station.
About the Author
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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
There had been something loose about the station dock all morning, skulking in amongst the gantries and the lines and the canisters which were waiting to be moved, lurking wherever shadows fell among the rampway accesses of the many ships at dock at Meetpoint. It was pale, naked, starved-looking in what fleeting glimpse anyone on The Pride of Chanur had had of it. Evidently no one had reported it to station authorities, nor did The Pride. Involving oneself in others’ concerns at Meetpoint Station, where several species came to trade and provision, was ill-advised—at least until one was personally bothered. Whatever it was, it was bipedal, brachiate, and quick at making itself unseen. It had surely gotten away from someone, and likeliest were the kif, who had a thieving finger in everything, and who were not above kidnapping. Or it might be some large, bizarre animal: the mahendo’sat were inclined to the keeping and trade of strange pets, and Station had been displeased with them in that respect on more than one occasion. So far it had done nothing. Stolen nothing. No one wanted to get involved in question and answer between original owners and station authorities; and so far no official statement had come down from those station authorities and no notice of its loss had been posted by any ship, which itself argued that a wise person should not ask questions. The crew reported it only to the captain and chased it, twice, from The Pride’s loading area. Then the crew got to work on necessary duties, having settled the annoyance to their satisfaction.
It was the last matter on the mind of the noble, the distinguished captain Pyanfar Chanur, who was setting out down her own rampway for the docks. She was hani, this captain, splendidly maned and bearded in red-gold, which reached in silken curls to the middle of her bare, sleek-pelted chest, and she was dressed as befitted a hani of captain’s rank, blousing scarlet breeches tucked up at her waist with a broad gold belt, with silk cords of every shade of red and orange wrapping that about, each knotted cord with a pendant jewel on its dangling end. Gold finished the breeches at her knees. Gold filigree was her armlet. And a row of fine gold rings and a large pendant pearl decorated the tufted sweep of her left ear. She strode down her own rampway in the security of ownership, still high-blooded from a quarrel with her niece—and yelled and bared claws as the intruder came bearing down on her.
She landed one raking, startled blow which would have held a hani in the encounter, but the hairless skin tore and it hurtled past her, taller than she was. It skidded round the bending of the curved ramp tube and bounded right into the ship, trailing blood all the way and leaving a bloody handprint on the rampway’s white plastic wall.
Pyanfar gaped in outrage and pelted after, claws scrabbling for traction on the flooring plates. “Hilfy!” she shouted ahead; her niece had been in the lower corridor. Pyanfar made it into the airlock, hit the bar of the com panel there and punched all-ship. “Alert! Hilfy! Call the crew in! Something’s gotten aboard. Seal yourself into the nearest compartment and call the crew.” She flung open the locker next to the com unit, grabbed a pistol and scrambled in pursuit of the intruder. No trouble at all tracking it, with the dotted red trail on the white decking. The track led left at the first cross-corridor, which was deserted—the intruder must have gone left again, starting to box the square round the lift shafts. Pyanfar ran, heard a shout from that intersecting corridor and scrambled for it: Hilfy! She rounded the corner at a slide and came up short on a tableau, the intruder’s hairless, red-running back and young Hilfy Chanur holding the corridor beyond with nothing but bared claws and adolescent bluster.
“Idiot!” Pyanfar spat at Hilfy, and the intruder turned on her of a sudden, much closer. It brought up short in a staggered crouch, seeing the gun aimed two-handed at itself. It might have sense not to rush a weapon; might. . . but that would turn it right back at Hilfy, who stood unarmed behind. Pyanfar braced to fire on the least movement.
It stood rigidly still in its crouch, panting from its running and its wound. “Get out of there,” Pyanfar said to Hilfy. “Get back.” The intruder knew about hani claws now; and guns; but it might do anything, and Hilfy, an indistinction in her vision which was tunnelled wholly on the intruder, stayed stubbornly still. “Move!” Pyanfar shouted.
The intruder shouted too, a snarl which almost got it shot; and drew itself upright and gestured to the center of its chest, twice, defiant. Go on and shoot, it seemed to invite her.
That intrigued Pyanfar. The intruder was not attractive. It had a bedraggled gold mane and beard, and its chest fur, almost invisible, narrowed in a line down its heaving belly to vanish into what was, legitimately, clothing, a rag almost nonexistent in its tatters and obscured by the dirt which matched the rest of its hairless hide. Its smell was rank. But a straight carriage and a wild-eyed invitation to its enemies. . . that deserved a second thought. It knew guns; it wore at least a token of clothing; it drew its line and meant to hold its territory. Male, maybe. It had that over-the-brink look in its eyes.
“Who are you?” Pyanfar asked slowly, in several languages one after the other, including kif. The intruder gave no sign of understanding any of them. “Who?” she repeated.
It crouched slowly, with a sullen scowl, all the way to the deck, and extended a blunt-nailed finger and wrote in its own blood which was liberally puddled about its bare feet. It made a precise row of symbols, ten of them, and a second row which began with the first symbol prefaced by the second, second with second, second with third. . . patiently, with increasing concentration despite the growing tremors of its hand, dipping its finger and writing, mad fixation on its task.
“What’s it doing?” asked Hilfy, who could not see from her side.
“A writing system, probably numerical notation. It’s no animal, niece.”
The intruder looked up at the exchange—stood up, an abrupt move which proved injudicious after its loss of blood. A glassy, desperate look came into its eyes, and it sprawled in the puddle and the writing, slipping in its own blood in trying to get up again.
“Call the crew,” Pyanfar said levelly, and this time Hilfy scurried off in great haste. Pyanfar stood where she was, pistol in hand, until Hilfy was out of sight down another corridor, then, assured that there was no one to see her lapse of dignity, she squatted down with the gun in both hands and loosely between her knees. The intruder still struggled, propped itself up with its bloody back against the wall, elbow pressed against that deeper starting-point of the scratches on its side, which was the source of most of the blood. Its pale blue eyes, for all their glassiness, seemed to have sense in them. It looked back at her warily, with seeming mad cynicism.
“You speak kif?” Pyanfar asked again. A flicker of those eyes, which might mean anything. Not a word from it. It started shivering, which was shock setting in. Sweat had broken out on its naked skin. It never ceased to look at her.
Running broke into the corridors. Pyanfar stood up quickly, not to be caught thus engaged with the creature. Hilfy came hurrying back from her direction, the crew arriving from the other, and Pyanfar stepped aside as they arrived and the intruder tried to scramble off in retreat. The crew laid hands on it and jerked it skidding along the bloody puddle. It cried out and tried to grapple with them, but they had it on its belly in the first rush and a blow dazed it. “Gently!” Pyanfar yelled at them, but they had it then, got its arms lashed at its back with one of their belts, tied its ankles together and got off it, their fur as bloody as the intruder, who continued a feeble movement.
“Do it no more damage,” Pyanfar said. “I’ll have it clean, thank you, watered, fed, and healthy, but keep it restrained. Prepare me explanations how it got face to face with me in the rampway, and if one of you bleats a word of this outside the ship I’ll sell you to the kif.”
“Captain,” they murmured, down-eared in deference. They were second and third cousins of hers, two sets of sisters, one set large and one small, and equally chagrined.
“Out,” she said. They snatched the intruder up by the binding of its arms and prepared to drag it. “Careful!” Pyanfar hissed, reminding them, and they were gentler in pulling it along.
“You,” Pyanfar said then to Hilfy, her brother’s daughter, who lowered her ears and turned her face aside—short-maned, with an adolescent’s beginning beard, Hilfy Chanur presently wore a air of martyrdom. “I’ll send you back shaved if you disobey another order. Understand me?”
Hilfy made a bow facing her, duly contrite. “Aunt,” she said, and straightened, contriving to make it all thoughtfully graceful; looked her straight in the eyes with offended worship.
“Huh,” Pyanfar said. Hilfy bowed a second time and padded past as softly as possible. In common blue breeches like the crew, was Hilfy, but the swagger was all Chanur, and not quite ludicrous on so young a woman. Pyanfar snorted, fingered the silk of her beard into order, looked down in sober thought at the wallowed smear where the Outsider had fallen, obliterating all the writing from the eyes of the crew.
So, so, so.
Pyanfar postponed her trip to station offices, walked back to the lower-deck operations center, sat down at the com board amid all the telltales of cargo status and lines and grapples and the routine operations The Pride carried on automatically. She keyed in the current messages, sorted through those and found nothing, then delved into The Pride’s recording of all messages received since docking, and all which had flowed through station communications aimed at others. She searched first for anything kif-sent, a rapid flicker of lines on the screen in front of her, all operational chatter in transcription—a very great deal of it. Then she queried for notice of anything lost, and after that, for anything escaped.
Mahendo’sat? she queried then, staying constantly to her own ship’s records of incoming messages, of the sort which flowed constantly in a busy station, and in no wise sending any inquiry into the station’s comp system. She recycled the whole record last of all, ran it past at eye-blurring speed, looking for any key word about escapes or warnings of alien presence at Meetpoint.
So indeed. No one was going to say a word on the topic. The owners still did not want to acknowledge publicly that they had lost this item. The Chanur were not lack-witted, to announce publicly that they had found it. Or to trust that the kif or whoever had lost it were not at this moment turning the station inside out with a surreptitious search.
Pyanfar turned off the machine, flicked her ears so that the rings on the left one jangled soothingly. She got up and paced the center, thrust her hands into her belt and thought about alternatives, and possible gains. It would be a dark day indeed when a Chanur went to the kif to hand back an acquisition. She could justifiably make a claim on it regarding legal liabilities and the invasion of a hani ship. Public hazard, it was called. But there were no outside witnesses to the intrusion, and the kif, almost certainly to blame, would not yield without a wrangle; which meant court, and prolonged proximity to kif, whose gray, wrinkle-hided persons she loathed; whose naturally dolorous faces she loathed; whose jeremiad of miseries and wrongs done them was constant and unendurable. A Chanur, in station court with a howling mob of kif. . . and it would go to that extreme if kif came claiming this intruder. The whole business was unpalatable, in all its ramifications.
Whatever it was and wherever it came from, the creature was educated. That hinted in turn at other things, at cogent reasons why the kif might indeed be upset at the loss of this item and why they wished so little publicity in the search.
She punched in intraship. “Hilfy.”
“Aunt?” Hilfy responded after a moment.
“Find out the intruder’s condition.”
“I’m watching them treat it now. Aunt, I think it’s he, if there’s any analogy of form and—”
“Never mind zoology. How badly is it hurt?”
“It’s in shock, but it seems stronger than it was a moment ago. It—he—got quiet when we managed to get an anesthetic on the scratches. I think he figured then we were trying to help, and he quit fighting. We thought the drug had got him. But he’s breathing better now.”
“It’s probably just waiting its chance. When you get it safely locked up, you take your turn at dockwork, since you were so eager to have a look outside. The others will show you what to do. Tell Haral to get herself to lowerdeck op. Now.”
“Yes, aunt.” Hilfy had no sulking in her tone. The last reprimand must not have worn off. Pyanfar shut down the contact and listened to station chatter in the interim, wishing in vain for something to clarify the matter.
Haral showed up on the run, soaking wet, blood-spattered and breathless. She bowed shortly in the doorway, straightened. She was oldest of the crew, was Haral, tall, with a dark scar across her broad nose and another across the belly, but those were from her rash youth.
“Clean up,” Pyanfar said. “Take cash and go marketing, cousin. Shop the second-hand markets as if you were on your own. The item I want may be difficult to locate, but not impossible, I think, in such a place as Meetpoint. Some books, if you will: a mahendo’sat lexicon; a mahendo’sat version of their holy writings. The philosopher Kohboranua or another of that ilk, I’m completely indifferent. And a mahendo’sat symbol translator, its modules and manuals, from elementary up, as many levels as you can find. . . above all that item. The rest is all cover. If questioned—a client’s taken a religious interest.”
Haral’s, eyes flickered, but she bowed in acceptance of the order and asked nothing. Pyanfar put her hand deep into her pocket and came up with a motley assortment of large-denomination coinage, a whole stack of it.
“And four gold rings,” Pyanfar added.
“To remind you all that The Pride minds its own business. Say so when you give them. It’ll salve your feelings, I hope, if we have to miss taking a liberty here, as well we may. But talk and rouse suspicion about those items, Haral Araun, and you won’t have an ear to wear it on.”
Haral grinned and bowed a third time.
“Go,” said Pyanfar, and Haral darted out in zealous application.
So. It was a risk, but a minor one. Pyanfar considered matters for a moment, finally walked outside the op room and down the corridor, took the lift up to central level, where her own quarters were, out of the stench and the reek of disinfectant which filled the lower deck.
She closed the door behind her with a sigh, went to the bath and washed her hands, seeing that there remained no shred of flesh in the undercurve of her claws—checked over her fine silk breeches to be sure no spatter of blood had gotten on them. She applied a dash of cologne to clear the memory from her nostrils.
Stupidity. She was getting dull as the stsho, to have missed a grip on the intruder in the first place: old was not a word she preferred to think about. Slow of mind, woolgathering, that she struck like a youngster on her first forage. Lazy. That was more like it. She patted her flat belly and decided that the year-old complacent outletting of her belt had to be taken in again. She was losing her edge. Her brother Kohan was still fit enough, planet-bound as he was and not gifted with the time-stretch of jump: he managed. Inter-male bickering and a couple of sons to throw out of the domicile kept his blood circulating, and there was usually a trio of mates in the house at any one time, with offspring to chastise. About time, she thought, that she put The Pride into home dock at Anuurn for a thorough refitting, and spend a layover with her own mate Khym, high in the Kahin hills, in the Mahn estates. Get the smell of the homeworld wind in her nostrils for a few months. Do a little hunting, run off that extra notch on the belt. Check on her daughter Tahy and see whether that son of hers was still roving about or whether someone had finally broken his neck for him. Surely the lad would have had the common courtesy to send a message through Khym or Kohan if he had settled somewhere; and above all to her daughter, who was, gods knew, grown and getting soft hanging about her father’s house, among a dozen other daughters, mostly brotherless. Son Kara should settle himself with some unpropertied wife and give his sister some gainful employment making him rich—above all, settle and take himself out of his father’s and his uncle’s way. Ambitious, that was Kara. Let the young rake try to move in on his uncle Kohan and that would be the last of him. Pyanfar flexed claws at the thought and recalled why all her shoreleaves were short ones.
But this now, this business with this bit of live contraband which had strayed aboard, which might be kif-owned. . . the honorable lord Kohan Chanur her brother was going to have a word to say about his ship’s carelessness in letting such an incident reach their deck. And there was going to be a major rearrangement in the household if Hilfy got hurt—brotherless Hilfy, who had gotten to be too much Chanur to go following after a brother if ever her mother gave her one. Hilfy Chanur par Faha, who wanted the stars more than she wanted anything; and who clung to her father as the one who could give them to her. It was Hilfy’s lifelong waited chance, this voyage, this apprenticeship on The Pride. It had torn Kohan’s doting soul to part from his favorite; that was clear in the letter which had come with Hilfy.
Pyanfar shook her head and fretted. Depriving those four rag-eared crew of hers of a shoreleave in the pursuit of this matter was one thing, but taking Hilfy home to Anuurn while she sorted out a major quarrel with the kif was another. It was expensive, curtailing their homeward routing. More, Hilfy’s pride would die a death, if she were the cause of that rerouting, if she were made to face her sisters in her sudden return to the household; and Pyanfar confessed herself attached to the imp, who wanted what she had wanted at such an age, who most likely would come to command a Chanur ship someday, perhaps even—gods postpone the hour—The Pride itself. Pyanfar thought of such a legacy. . . someday, someday that Kohan passed his prime and she did. Others in the house of Chanur were jealous of Hilfy, waiting for some chance to use their jealousy. But Hilfy was the best. The brightest and best, like herself and like Kohan, and no one so far could prove otherwise. Whatever young male one day won the Chanur holding from Kohan in his decline had best walk warily and please Hilfy, or Hilfy might take herself a mate who would tear the ears off the interloper. That was the kind Hilfy was, loyal to her father and to the house.
And ruining that spirit or risking her life over that draggled Outsider was not worth it. Maybe, Pyanfar thought, she should swallow the bitter mouthful and go dump the creature on the nearest kif ship. She seriously considered it. Choosing the wrong kif ship might afford some lively amusement: there would be riot among the kif and consternation on the station. But yielding was still, at bottom, distasteful.
Gods! so that was how she proposed teaching young Hilfy to handle difficulties. That was the example she set. . . yielding up what she had, because she thought it might be dangerous to hold it.
She was getting soft. She patted her belly again, decided against shoreleave at voyage’s end, another lying-up and another Mahn offspring to muddle things up. Decided against retreat. She drew in a great breath and put on a grim smile. Age came and the young grew old, but not too old, the gods grant. This voyage, young Hilfy Chanur was going to learn to justify that swagger she cut through the corridors of the ship; so, indeed she was.
There was no leaving the ship with matters aboard still in flux. Pyanfar went to the small central galley, up the starboard curve from her quarters and the bridge, stirred about to take a cup of gfi from the dispenser and sat down at the counter by the oven to enjoy it at leisure, waiting until her crew should have had ample time to have dealt with the Outsider. She gave them a bit more, finally tossed the empty cup in the sterilizer and got up and wandered belowdecks again, where the corridors stank strongly of antiseptic and Tirun was lounging about, leaning against the wall by the lowerdeck washroom door. “Well?” Pyanfar asked.
“We put it in there, captain. Easiest to clean, by your leave. Haral left. Chur and Geran and ker Hilfy are out doing the loading. Thought someone ought to stay awhile by the door and listen, to be sure the creature’s all right.”
Pyanfar laid her hand on the switch, looked back at Tirun—Haral’s sister and as broad and solid, with the scars of youth well-weathered, the gold of successful voyages winking from her left ear. The two of them together could handle the Outsider, she reckoned, in any condition. “Does it show any sign of coming out of its shock?”
“It’s quiet; shallow breathing, staring somewhere else—but aware what’s going on. Scared us a moment; we thought it’d gone into shock with the medicine, but I think it just quieted down when the pain stopped. We tried with the way we handled it, to make it understand we didn’t want to hurt it. Maybe it has that figured. We carried it in here and it settled down and lay still. . . moved when made to move, but not surly, more like it’s stopped thinking, like it’s stopped doing anything it doesn’t have to do. Worn out, I’d say.”
“Huh.” Pyanfar pressed the bar. The dark interior of the washroom smelled of antiseptic too, the strongest they had. The lights were dimmed. The air was stiflingly warm and carried an odd scent under the antiseptic reek. Her eyes missed the creature a moment, searched anxiously and located it in the corner, a heap of blankets between the shower stall and the laundry. . . asleep or awake she could not tell with its head tucked down in its forearms. A large container of water and a plastic dish with a few meat chips and crumbs left rested beside it on the tiles. Well, again. It was then carnivorous and not so delicate after all, to have an appetite left. So much for its collapse. “Is it restrained?”
“It has chain enough to get to the head if it understands what it’s for.”
Pyanfar stepped back outside and closed the door on it again. “Very likely it understands. Tirun, it is sapient or I’m blind. Don’t assume it can’t manipulate switches. No one is to go in there alone and no one’s to carry firearms near it. Pass that order to the others personally, Hilfy too. Especially Hilfy.”
“Yes, captain.” Tirun’s broad face was innocent of opinions. Gods knew what they were going to do with the creature if they kept it. Tirun did not ask. Pyanfar strolled off, meditating on the scene behind the washroom door, the heap of deceptive blankets, the food so healthily consumed, the avowed collapse. . . no lackwit, this creature who had twice tried her ship’s security and on the third attempt, succeeded in getting through. Why The Pride? she wondered. Why her ship, out of all the others at dock? Because they were last in the section, before the bulkhead of the dock seal might force the creature to have left cover somewhat, and it was the last available choice? Or was there some other reason?
She walked the corridor to the airlock and the rampway, and out its curving ribbed length into the chill air of the docks. She looked left as she came out, and there was Hilfy, canister-loading with Chur and Geran, rolling the big cargo containers off the stationside dolly and onto the moving belt which would take the goods into The Pride’s holds, paid freight on its way to Urtur and Kura and Touin and Anuurn itself, stsho cargo, commodities and textiles and medicines, ordinary stuff. Hilfy paused at the sight of her, panting with her efforts and already looking close to collapse—stood up straight with her hands at her sides and her ears back, belly heaving. It was hard work, shifting those cans about, especially for the unskilled and unaccustomed. Chur and Geran worked on, small of stature and wiry, knowing the points of balance to an exactitude. Pyanfar affected not to notice her niece and walked on with wide steps and nonchalant, smiling to herself the while. Hilfy had been mightily indignant, barred from rushing out to station market, to roam about unescorted, sightseeing on this her first call at Meetpoint, where species docked which never called at homeworld. . . sights she had missed at Urtur and Kura, likewise pent aboard ship or held close to The Pride’s berth. The imp had too much enthusiasm for her own good. So she got the look at Meetpoint’s famous docks she had argued to have—now, this very day—but not the sightseeing tour of her young imaginings.
Next station-call, Pyanfar thought, next station-call her niece might have learned enough to let loose unescorted, when the wild-eyed eagerness had worn off, when she had learned from this incident that there were hazards on dockside and that a little caution was in order when prowling the friendliest of ports.
Herself, she took the direct route, not without watching her surroundings.
A call on Meetpoint Station officials was usually a leisurely and pleasant affair. The stsho, placid and graceful, ran the station offices and bureaus on this side of the station, where oxygen breathers docked. Methodical to a fault, the stsho, tedious and full of endless subtle meanings in their pastel ornament and the tattooings on their pearly hides. They were another hairless species—stalk-thin, tri-sexed and hanilike only by the wildest stretch of the imagination, if eyes, nose, and mouth in biologically convenient order was similarity. Their manners were bizarre among themselves. But stsho had learned to suit their methodical plodding and their ceremoniousness to hani taste, which was to have a soft chair, a ready cup of herbal tea, a plate of exotic edibles and an individual as pleasant as possible about the forms and the statistics, who could make it all like a social chat.
This stsho was unfamiliar. Stsho changed officials more readily than they changed ornament—either a different individual had come into control of Meetpoint Station, Pyanfar reckoned, or a stsho she had once known had entered a New Phase—new doings? Pyanfar wondered, at the nudge of a small and prickly instinct—new doings? Loose Outsiders and stsho power shuffles? All changes were suspect when something was out of pocket. If it was the same as the previous stationmaster, it had changed the pattern of all the elaborate silver filigree and plumes—azure and lime now, not azure and mint; and if it were the case, it was not at all polite to recognize the refurbished person, even if a hani suspected identity.
The stsho proffered delicacies and tea, bowed, folded up gtst stalklike limbs—he, she, or even it, hardly applied with stsho—and seated gtst-self in gtst bowlchair, a cushioned indentation in the office floor. The necessary table rose on a pedestal before it. Pyanfar occupied the facing depression, lounged on an elbow to reach for the smoked fish the stsho’s lesser-status servant had placed on a similar table at her left. The servant, ornamentless and no one, sat against the wall, knees tucked higher than gtst head, arms about bony ankles, waiting usefulness. The stsho official likewise took a sample of the fish, poured tea, graceful gestures of stsho elegance and hospitality. Plumed and cosmetically augmented brows nodded delicately over moonstone eyes as gtst looked up—white brows shading to lilac and azure; azure tracings on the domed brow shaded to lime over the hairless skull. Another stsho, of course, might read the patterns with exactitude, the station in life, the chosen Mood for this Phase of gtst existence, the affiliations and modes and thereby, gtst approachability. Non-stsho were forgiven their trespasses; and stsho in Retiring mode were not likely filling public offices.
Pyanfar made one attempt on the Outsider topic, delicately: “Things have been quiet hereabouts?”
“Oh, assuredly.” The stsho beamed, smiled with narrow mouth and narrow eyes, a carnivore habit, though the stsho were not aggressive. “Assuredly.”
“Also on my world,” Pyanfar said, and sipped her tea, an aroma of spices which delighted all her sinuses. “Herbal. But what?”
The stsho smiled with still more breadth. “Ah. Imported from my world. We introduce it here, in our offices. Duty free. New cultivation techniques make it available for export. The first time, you understand. The very first shipment offered. Very rare, a taste of my very distant world.”
They discussed it. It was outrageous. But the stsho came down, predictably, particularly when tempted with a case of hani delicacies promised to be carted up from dockside to the offices. Pyanfar left the necessary interview in high spirits. Barter was as good to her as breathing.
She took the lift down to dock level, straight down, without going the several corridors over in lateral which she could have taken. She walked the long way back toward The Pride’s berth, strolled casually along the dockside which horizoned upward before and behind, unfurling as she moved, offices and businesses on the one hand and the tall mobile gantries on the other, towers which aimed their tops toward the distant axis of Meetpoint, so that the most distant appeared insanely atilt on the curving horizon. Display boards at periodic intervals gave information of arrivals, departures, and ships in dock, from what port and bearing what sort of cargo, and she scanned them as she walked.
A car shot past her on the dock, from behind: globular and sealed, it wove along avoiding canisters and passers-by and lines with greater speed than an automated vehicle would use. That was a methane-breather, more than likely, some official from beyond the dividing line which separated the incompatible realities of Meetpoint. Tc’a ran that side of the station, sinuous beings and leathery gold, utterly alien in their multipartite brains—they traded with the knnn and the chi, kept generally to themselves and had little to say or to do with hani or even with the stsho, with whom they shared the building and operation of Meetpoint. Tc’a had nothing in common with this side of the line, not even ambitions; and the knnn and the chi were stranger still, even less participant within the worlds and governments and territories of the Compact. Pyanfar watched the vehicle kite along, up the horizon of Meetpoint’s docks, and the section seal curtained it from view as it jittered along in zigzag haste which itself argued a tc’a mind at the controls. There was no trouble from them. . . no way that they could have dealt with the Outsider: their brains were as unlike as their breathing apparatus. She paused, stared up at the nearby registry boards with a wrinkling of her nose and a stroking of her beard, sorting through the improbable and untranslatable methane-breather names for more familiar registrations—for potential trouble, and for possible allies of use in a crisis. There was scant picking among the latter at this apogee of The Pride’s rambling course.
There was one other hani ship in dock, Handur’s Voyager. She knew a few of the Handur family, remotely. They were from Anuurn’s other hemisphere, neither rivals nor close allies, since they shared nothing on Anuurn’s surface. There were a lot of stsho ships, which was to be expected on this verge of stsho space. A lot of mahendo’sat, through whose territory The Pride had lately come.
And on the side of trouble, there were four kif, one of which she knew: Kut, captained by one Ikkkukkt, an aging scoundrel whose style was more to allow another ship’s canisters to edge up against and among his on dockside; and to bluff down any easily confused owners who might protest. He was only small trouble, alone. Kif in groups could be different, and she did not know about the others.
“Hai,” she called, passing a mahendo’sat docking area, at a ship called Mahijiru, where some of that tall, dark-furred kind were minding their own business, cursing and scratching their heads over some difficulty with a connection collar, a lock-ring disassembled in order all over the deck among their waiting canisters. “You fare well this trip, mahe?”
“Ah, captain.” The centermost scrambled up and others did the same as this one stepped toward her, treading carefully among the pieces of the collar. Any well-dressed hani was captain to a mahendo’sat, who had rather err by compliment than otherwise. But this one by his gilt teeth was likely the captain of his own freighter. “You trade?”
“Hai, mahe, what need?”
The mahendo’sat grinned, a brilliant golden flash, sharp-edged. No one of course began trade by admitting to necessity.
“Need a few less kif onstation.” Pyanfar answered her own question, and the mahendo’sat whistled laughter and bobbed agreement.
“True, true,” Goldtooth said somewhere between humor and outrage, as if he had a personal tale to tell. “Whining kif we wish you end of dock, good captain, honest captain. Kut no good. Hukan more no good; and Lukkur same. But Hinukku make new kind deal no good. Wait at station, wait no get same you course with Hinukku, good captain.”
“Like hani, maybe.” Goldtooth grinned when he said it, and Pyanfar laughed, pretended it a fine joke.
“When do hani ever have weapons?” she asked.
The mahe thought that a fine joke too.
“Trade you two hundredweight silk,” Pyanfar offered.
“Station duty take all my profit.”
“Ah. Too bad. Hard work, that.” She scuffed a foot toward the ailing collar. “I can lend you very good hani tools, fine steel, two very good hani welders, Faha House make.”
“I lend you good quality artwork.”
“Maybe someday great mahen artist, captain.”
“Then come to me; I’ll keep my silk.”
“Ah, ah, I make you favor with artwork, captain, but no, I ask you take no chance. I have instead small number very fine pearl like you wear.”
“Make you security for lend tools and welders. My man he come by you soon borrow tools. Show you pearl same time.”
“We see tools you see two pearls.”
“You bring four.”
“Fine. You pick best three.”
“All four if they’re not of the best, my good, my great mahe captain.”
“You see,” he vowed. “Absolute best. Three.”
“Good.” She grinned cheerfully, touched hand to hand with the thick-nailed mahe and strolled off, grinning still for all passersby to see; but the grin faded when she was past the ring of their canisters and crossing the next berth.
So. Kif trouble had docked. There were kif and kif, and in that hierarchy of thieves, there were a few ship captains who tended to serve as ringleaders for highstakes mischief; and some elect who were very great trouble indeed. Mahendo’sat translation always had its difficulties, but it sounded uncomfortably like one of the latter. Stay in dock, the mahendo’sat had advised; don’t chance putting out till it leaves. That was mahendo’sat strategy. It did not always work. She could keep The Pride at dock and run up a monstrous bill, and still have no guarantee of a safe course out; or she could pull out early and hope that the kif would not suspect what they had aboard—hope that the kif, at minimum, were waiting for something easier to chew than a mouthful of hani.
Hilfy. That worry rode her mind. Ten quiet voyages, ten voyages of aching, bone-weary tranquillity. . . and now this one.
The docks looked all quiet ahead, up where The Pride had docked, her people working out by the loading belt as they should be doing, taking aboard the mail and the freight. Haral was back, working among them; she was relieved to see that. That was Tirun outside now, and Hilfy must have gone in: the other two were Geran and Chur, slight figures next to Haral and Tirun. She found no cause to hurry. Hilfy had probably had enough by now, retreated inside to guard duty over the Outsider, gods grant that she stayed outside the door and refrained from meddling.
But the crew caught sight of her as she came, and of a sudden expressions took on desperate relief and ears pricked up, so that her heart clenched with foreknowledge of something direly wrong. “Hilfy,” she asked first, as Haral came walking out to meet her: the other three stayed at their loading, all too busy for those looks of anxiety, playing the part of workers thoroughly occupied.
“Ker Hilfy’s safe inside,” Haral said quickly. “Captain, I got the things you ordered, put them in lowerdeck op, all of it; but there were kif everywhere I went, captain, when I was off in the market. They were prowling about the aisles, staring at everyone, buying nothing. I finished my business and walked on back and they were still prowling about. So I ordered ker Hilfy to go on in and send Tirun out here. There are kif nosing about here of a sudden.”
“Look beyond my shoulder, captain.”
Pyanfar took a quick look, a shift of her eyes. “Nothing,” she said. But canisters were piled there at the section seal, twenty, thirty of them, each as tall as a hani and double-stacked, cover enough. She set her hand on Haral’s shoulder, walked her companionably back to the others. “Hark, there’s going to be a small stsho delivery and a mahendo’sat with a three-pearl deal; both are true. . . watch them both. But no others. There’s one other hani ship docked far around the rim, next to the methane docks. I’ve not spoken with them. It’s Handur’s Voyager.”
“And vulnerable. We’re going to take The Pride out, with all decent haste. I think it can only get worse here. Tirun: a small task; get to Voyager. I don’t want to discuss the situation with them over com. Warn them that there’s a ship in dock named Hinukku and the word is out among the mahendo’sat that this one is uncommonly bad trouble. And then get yourself back here fast—no, wait. A good tool kit and two good welders—drop them with the crew of the Mahijiru and take the pearls in a hurry if you can get them. Seventh berth down. They’ll deserve that and more if I’ve put the kif onto them by asking questions there. Go.”
“Yes, captain,” Tirun breathed, and scurried off, ears back, up the service ramp beside the cargo belt.
Pyanfar cast a second look at the double-stacked canisters in turning. No kif in sight. Haste, she wished Tirun, hurry it. It was a quick trip inside to pull the trade items from the automated delivery. Tirun came back with the boxes under one arm and set out directly in the kind of reasonable haste she might use on her captain’s order.
“Huh.” Pyanfar turned again and looked toward the shadow.
There. By the canisters after all. A kif stood there, tall and black-robed, with a long prominent snout and hunched stature. Pyanfar stared at it directly—waved to it with energetic and sarcastic camaraderie as she started toward it.
It stepped at once back into the shelter of the canisters and the shadows. Pyanfar drew a great breath, flexed her claws and kept walking, round the curve of the canister stacks and softly—face to face with the towering kif. The kif looked down on her with its red-rimmed dark eyes and longnosed face and its dusty black robes like the robes of all other kif, of one tone with the gray skin. . . a bit of shadow come to life. “Be off,” she told it. “I’ll have no canister-mixing. I’m onto your tricks.”
“Something of ours has been stolen.”
She laughed, helped by sheer surprise. “Something of yours stolen, master thief? That’s a wonder to tell at home.”
“Best it find its way back to us. Best it should, captain.”
She laid back her ears and grinned, which was not friendliness.
“Where is your crewwoman going with those boxes?” the kif asked.
She said nothing. Extruded claws.
“It would not be, Captain, that you’ve somehow found that lost item.”
“What, lost, now?”
“Lost and found again, I think.”
“What ship are you, kif?”
“If you were as clever as you imagine you are, captain, you would know.”
“I like to know who I’m talking to. Even among kif. I’ll reckon you know my name, skulking about out here. What’s yours?”
“Akukkakk is mine, Chanur captain. Pyanfar Chanur. Yes, we know you. Know you well, captain. We have become interested in you. . . thief.”
“Oh. Akukkakk of what ship?” Her vision sharpened on the kif, whose robes were marginally finer than usual, whose bearing had precious little kifish stoop in dealing with shorter species, that hunch of shoulders and thrusting forward of the head. This one looked at her the long way, from all its height. “I’d like to know you as well, kif.”
“You will, hani. No. A last chance. We will redeem this prize you’ve found. I will make you that offer.”
Her mustache-hairs drew down, as at some offensive aroma. “Interesting if I had this item. Is it round or flat, this strayed object? Or did one of your own crew rob you, kif captain?”
“You know its shape, since you have it. Give it up, and be paid. Or don’t—and be paid, hani, be paid then too.”
“Describe this item to me.”
“For its safe return—gold, ten bars of gold, fine. Contrive your own descriptions.”
“I shall bear it in mind, kif, should I find something unusual and kif-smelling. But so far nothing.”
“What ship, kif?”
“I’ll remember your offer. Indeed I will, master thief.”
The kif said nothing more. Towered erect and silent. She aimed a dry spitting toward its feet and walked off, slow swagger.
Hinukku, indeed. A whole new kind of trouble, the mahendo’sat had said, and this surly kif or another might have seen. . . or talked to those who had seen. Gold, they offered. Kif. . . offered ransom; and no common kif, either, not that one. She walked with a prickling between her shoulderblades and a multiplying apprehension for Tirun, who was now a small figure walking off along the upcurving docks. No hope that the station authorities would do anything to prevent a murder. . . not one between kif and hani. The stsho’s neutrality consisted in retreat, and their law in arbitrating after the fact.
Stsho ships were the most common victims of marauding kif, and still kif docked unchecked at Meetpoint. Madness. A bristling ran up her back and her ears flicked, jingling the rings. Hani might deal with the kif and teach them a lesson, but there was no profit in it, not until moments like this one. Divert every hani ship from profitable trade to kif-hunting? Madness too. . . until it was The Pride in question.
“Pack it up out here,” she told her remaining crew when she reached them. “Get those last cans on and shut it down. Get everything ready to break dock. I’m going to call Tirun back here. It’s worse than I thought.”
“I’ll go after her,” Haral said.
“Do as I say, cousin—and keep Hilfy out of it.”
Haral fell back. Pyanfar started off down the dock—old habit, not to run; a reserve of pride, of caution, of some instinct either good or ill. Still she did not run in front of witnesses. She widened her strides until some bystanders—stsho—did notice, and stared. She gained on Tirun. Almost, almost within convenient shouting distance of Tirun, and still a far, naked distance up the dock’s upcurving course to reach Handur’s Voyager. Hinukku sat at dock for Tirun to pass before she should come to the hani ship. But the mahendo’sat vessel Mahijiru was docked before that, if only Tirun handled that extraneous errand on the way, the logical thing to do with a heavy load under one arm. Surely it was the logical thing, even considering the urgency of the other message.
Ah. Tirun did stop at the mahendo’sat berth. Pyanfar breathed a gasp of relief, broke her own rule at the last moment and sprinted behind some canisters, strode right into the gathering which had begun to close about Tirun. She clapped a startled mahendo’sat spectator on the arm, pulled it about and thrust her way through to Tirun, grabbed her arm without ceremony. “Trouble. Let’s go, cousin.”
“Captain,” Goldtooth exclaimed from her right. “You come back make new bigger deal?”
“Never mind. The tools are a gift. Come on, Tirun.”
“Captain,” Tirun began, bewildered, being dragged back through the gathering of mahendo’sat. Mahendo’sat gave way before them, their captain still following them with confused chatter about welders and pearls.
Kif. A black-clad half ring of them appeared suddenly on the outskirts of the swirl of dark-furred mahendo’sat. Pyanfar had Tirun’s wrist and pulled her forward. “Look out!” Tirun cried suddenly: one of the kif had pulled a gun from beneath its robe. “Go!” Pyanfar yelled, and they dived back among cursing and screaming mahendo’sat, out again through a melee of kif who had circled behind the canisters. Fire popped after them. Pyanfar bowled over a kif in their path with a strike that should snap vertebrae and did not break stride to find out. Tirun ran beside her; they sprinted with fire popping smoke curls off the deck plates ahead of them.
Suddenly a shot came from the right hand. Tirun yelped and stumbled, limping wildly. More kif along the dockfront offices, one very tall and familiar. Akukkakk, with friends. “Earless bastard!” Pyanfar shouted, grabbed Tirun afresh and kept going, dragged her behind the canisters of another mahendo’sat ship in a hail of laser pops and the reek of burned plastic. Tirun sagged in shock—a curse and a jerk on the arm got her running again, desperately: the burn ruptured and bled. They darted into an open space, having no choice: shrill harooing rang out behind and on the right, kif on the hunt.
A second shout roared out from before them, another flash from guns, multicolor, at The Pride’s berth: The Pride’s crew was returning fire, high for their sakes but meaning business. Station alarms started going off, bass- tone whooping. Red lights flashed on the walls and up the curve till the ceiling vanished. Higher up the curve of the dock, station folk scrambled in panic, hunting shelter. If there were kif among them, they would come charging down from that direction too, at the crew’s backs.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love Ms. Cherryh's books but this is one of my all time favorite series of books. Making the human be the alien with the inability to communicate easily, is brilliant. Interactions between several species with their own genetic traits, strengths and weaknesses are believable. Relating to the human, Tully, is downright painful. His fears, frustrations and physical needs are expressed so well that I felt I was there with him.
C. J. Cherryh at her best---which is saying a lot since she is my favorite author and very well accomplished. I've read this book (and the rest of the series) so many times that I know all the text, forward and backward, and can picture every little nuance... and yet, I still cannot put it down; it keeps me reading hungrily through it, wanting more. great writing style... almost stream-of consciousness... you feel like you are the Hani and the human is the alien... must read!
This is a great book and series. I have read it many times. It has interesting characters and setting. It will hold your attention. A fun book.
This book grabbed me on the first page, and I couldn't put it down. It's a fast-paced adventure with funny, smart characters and memorable settings. I highly recommend it.