Authors: C. J. Cherryh
Tags: #Science Fiction; American, #Space Ships, #Fantastic Fiction; American, #High Tech, #General, #Science Fiction, #Life on Other Planets, #Fiction
by CJ Cherryh
(Chanur book #4)
In our last episode...
Two years previous, the aggressive kif, natives of Akkht, had a hakkikt, a leader so fearsome he united more than the usual number of kif behind him in a pirate band. This hakkikt, Akkukkak, had seized a ship of a hitherto unknown species, humanity; and acquired ambitions beyond the usual kifish banditry against other species. With a species to prey on which was without the protections of the Compact, he might grow powerful enough to gather the whole kifish species under his influence, sweeping down on the Compact in a wave of conquest unprecedented in history.
But his human prey escaped him. While the hakkikt was docked at Meetpoint starstation, the last surviving prisoner ran to shelter aboard The Pride of Chanur, a hani merchant ship captained by one Pyanfar Chanur, who in no wise solicited this refugee.
Still Pyanfar and her crew as a matter of policy refused to surrender the human to Akkukkak's demand. This was a two-fold calamity for the kif: first the loss of the human and all the information he held about his species; and then this defiance from a mere hani merchant-who continued to elude the great hakkikt in a multi-star chase. Akkukkak was suddenly fighting not only for his prey but for his life, for a kif who loses face rapidly loses followers, and becomes the target of other kif with ambitions. Akkukkak was compelled to seek vengeance on a scale sufficient to cover this humiliation; and this humiliation involved an ambition large enough to shake worlds.
He took the unprecedented step of moving on the hani homeworld, seeking first the humiliation and removal of Pyanfar Chanur and all her clan, in what may have been a kifish misapprehension of the importance of any single hani; he was thinking as a kif, and interpreted Pyanfar's moves as aggressive ambition. He also demanded the return of his property. In all these demands he seriously misjudged the hani, for no action he could have taken would have rallied the hani against him more than this intrusion on hani home territory and the demand to surrender a living being who had taken shelter within a hani clan. Hani resisted in a battle at Gaohn station, and they received mahen help in the persons of two hunter captains, known to Pyanfar (mahendo'sat names are not easy for outsiders) as Goldtooth and Jik. This firefight would have been serious enough; but the hostilities disturbed yet another species of the Compact, the methane-breathing knnn, aliens of direst reputation and the highest technology in known space. The knnn, intervening, took Akkukkak away to a fate unguessed. And that settled that. The human Tully went home to his people. Pyanfar Chanur looked forward to a new era of trade and prosperity in which not only Clan Chanur, but all hani-kind would profit from human contact.
She reckoned, unfortunately, without the stsho, whose station at Meetpoint was the hub of all trading routes of the Compact. Total xenophobes, the stsho withdrew Chanur's trading permit. More, Akkukkak had indeed caused a profound disturbance in hani affairs by the manner of his demise. Chanur was forced to defend itself against challenge by hani enemies who took advantage of popular fears of the knnn, and though Lord Kohan Chanur held on, Chanur lost valuable allies whose support in council Pyanfar and other women of the clan very greatly missed.
To add to the difficulties, no one kept their promises. The humans did not return and the mahendo'sat withdrew into isolation.
Two impoverished years later, Pyanfar Chanur was doing all she could to keep The Pride running, and she was not the only Chanur captain in deep trouble.
Then by some unforeseen miracle her papers cleared and she was invited back to Meetpoint to recover her trading license.
She pulled into Meetpoint with the last cargo she could afford to buy, and fell right into the welcoming arms of Goldtooth the mahendo'sat, who handed her a courier packet with the human Tully as a secret passenger and told her to run for her life: the kif were hunting him.
Now among Pyanfar's other troubles, she had defied hani custom. Hani males were traditionally a protected class within hani society, the few who made successful challenge becoming clan lords, ceremonial heads of clans, who in fact had no meaningful authority at all, the real legal and financial power resting with the clanswomen who conducted exterior business. The rest of the males lived and died in rural exile, excluded from all society but their own; and to this pool of males a defeated clan lord must retire, to a short and wretched life among younger, ambitious males practicing their combat skills. Pyanfar's husband Khym Mahn was defeated by their son Kara, and deposed; but he postponed his exile to help her in her fight against the kif, and became one of the few hani males ever to leave the planetary surface-by interstellar agreement, they were in fact barred from doing so, since they had a reputation for berserker rages dangerous to life and property.
But Pyanfar, faced with the prospect of sending Khym down world again to die, defied treaty and custom and took him aboard The Pride; more, she secured working papers for him by bribing a mahendo'sat official, and listed him as crew. Having traveled and worked with alien males, Pyanfar has begun to see in her own husband traits no hani has ever looked for in a male of her species; she conceived the idea in her heart of hearts that the berserker rages might be due more to upbringing than biology, and yet- and yet she is hani; and to doubt something out of all folk wisdom, something built into all language and custom and tradition, is very difficult, the more so that Khym himself doubts her theories; he is, after all, a product of his culture too, and all the complex of beliefs which encourage him to be a man also foster his aggressive impulses and his doubts about his faculties. It is not, in sum, a comfortable situation for The Pride's crew either, who still cannot figure out whether they ought to treat Khym as a man or try to ignore that handicap and treat him as one of themselves-in which case modesty and custom and language are in the way: female humor and traditional curses involve sons and males; pausing to dress in shipboard emergencies is not practical; ship facilities are not designed to accommodate a man's larger stature; and male thinking is traditionally given to be hasty and imprecise, not the sort of thing anyone wants to rely on in any use of hazardous machinery.
But Khym once-lord of Mann acquired the unprecedented (for a hani) designation of crewman aboard The Pride of Chanur.
The worst happened forthwith: Khym was involved in a riot that heavily damaged Meetpoint station. Pyanfar escaped a second loss of her license only by charging the entire bill to the mahendo'sat, who had given her a credit slip for quite different purposes-to aid her with the transport of the human, Tully.
Unfortunately this riot happened under the disapproving witness of one Rhif Ehrran, an agent of the hani government.
Now Rhif Ehrran had come to Meetpoint on quite different business. So many of the spacing clans of the hani had taken heavy damage at Gaohn that the groundling clans had seized control of the han, the hani senate. Meanwhile the xenophobic stsho, wealthiest species of the Compact, had bribed certain hani politicians, wanting to subvert hani politics from the inside for fear of two other species: first, humans, who had trespassed stsho borders and might do so again; second, the kif, because two of Akkukkak's erstwhile lieutenants, one Akkhtimakt and one Sikkukkut, had risen to declare themselves hakkikktun. These two kif were currently battling it out between themselves, but they had already polarized kifish society into a frighteningly few predatory bands. From a fragmented piratical species, kif had suddenly achieved unity to a degree Akkukkak himself never effected.
The burning issue, among kif as elsewhere, was humanity; and the persistent rumors held that humanity was the Compact right through methane-breather space, to unite with the mahendo'sat, which meant trouble for the kif. The rumors happened to be true. And the stsho, who, incapable of fighting, had long relied on mahen guards for protection, suddenly suspected they could no longer trust mahendo'sat. Hence the sudden coziness with the groundling hani clans and the flood of stsho money to certain hani pockets.
The han had heard rumors too; and heard rumors, moreover, of one hani actively cooperating with the kif-the hani pirate Dur Tahar of Tahar's Moon Rising. That was the ship Rhif Ehrran had gone out there to hunt. But Ehrran was also there on secret business: negotiating with the stsho on behalf of certain of her own political patrons. Certainly Ehrran was interested when Pyanfar Chanur involved herself in a major riot aboard Meetpoint, entangled with both mahen secret agents and a high-ranking kif. So when Pyanfar paid a huge bribe to the stsho stationmaster, Stle sties stlen, and made a hasty departure from Meetpoint with the human Tully aboard, Rhif Ehrran followed, smelling political blood and seeing in this move of Pyanfar's a threat to all she stood for.
Akkhtimakt headed Pyanfar off by occupying Kita Point, strategic gateway to mahen and hani space, forcing all traffic to detour into the Disputed Zones along the kifish/mahen border. With The Pride damaged enroute, Pyanfar had no choice but to go to Kshshti Station in the Zones, seeking repairs and help. Her intended destination was Maing Tol, the mahen regional capital; her aim, to deliver Tully and his message from humanity into the hands of Goldtooth's superiors. But on her arrival at Kshshti, she ran into Rhif Ehrran, the kif Sikkukkut, and the hani trader Ayhar's Prosperity, which had lost its cargo at Meetpoint thanks to her: its captain Banny Ayhar was not pleased.
Rhif Ehrran demanded Tully's surrender to her; and her attempt to take custody of Tully resulted in a dock fight which put Tully and Pyanfar's young niece Hilfy Chanur into the hands of their enemy Sikkukkut. Sikkukkut left, leaving Pyanfar the message that she could recover the hostages at Mkks, a station right on the kifish border. It was too obviously a trap.
In the midst of all this, Goldtooth's partner Jik (whose true mahen name is Keia Nomesteturjai) showed up at Kshshti with his powerful hunter-ship Aja Jin; and sent the hani captain Banny Ayhar on to Maing Tol with the message Pyanfar had brought this far. He supported Pyanfar in her decision to go to Mkks: he went along and somehow argued Rhif Ehrran into joining them.
At Mkks, Sikkukkut returned Hilfy and Tully in a negotiated settlement. He also gave Pyanfar a gift of kifish esteem-a slave named Skkukuk.
And all they had agreed to do in return was to cross into kifish territory and help Sikkukkut take Kefk station, the main kifish link to Meetpoint, in an act of outright piracy.
Jik agreed, to Pyanfar's consternation. Moreover, Rhif Ehrran did, after listening to Jik's persuasion.
They made the jump and they succeeded. Their ships occupied Kefk kifish-fashion, by superior bluff and with very little damage.
Goldtooth showed up then, furious with his partner Jik, for Goldtooth had been lying silent just off Kefk monitoring the situation. He had been off a time fighting Akkhtimakt, trying to open the way for a human fleet now enroute to Compact space, and now Jik had made a deal which would effectively bring Sikkukkut into alliance with the mahendo'sat against Akkhtimakt, emphatically not the situation Goldtooth was working toward. Humans were headed into Compact space in great number, and Goldtooth's whole plan for human-mahen alliance now was jeopardized by the taking of Kefk and its delivery to Sikkukkut, who consequently would bring the kif into unity under one hakkikt much faster then Goldtooth's plans called for.
Pyanfar meanwhile received a second gift of esteem from Sikkukkut, the person of her old enemy Dur Tahar the pirate, who had been a respectable hani merchant captain before she opposed Pyanfar at Gaohn and accidentally ended up in alliance with the kif, her reputation ruined. Now a prisoner of Sikkukkut, captured along with Akkhtimakt's partisans on the station, Tahar had reached the nadir of her fortunes and begged Pyanfar to intercede with the kif for the lives of her cousins still in Sikkukkut's hands.
Tahar. Pyanfar refused, having nothing but disgust for Ehrran's secret police methods and police state mentality. Tahar would go home to hani justice, but aboard The Pride of Chanur. It was a direct slap at Ehrran and a threat to her prestige; and a countermove against her patrons' ambitions. It served notice that Chanur, instead of bowing to political force, was going to exercise the ancient authority of a clan to take its own prisoners and administer its own justice before turning the offender over to the han. This effectively meant that Rhif Ehrran's superiors and political allies could not touch Tahar without dealing with Chanur as a head-of-cause in open council, and without bringing the whole* foreign policy issue into debate in the han with Chanur as the chief spokeswoman for the opposition, precisely the situation Chanur's enemies did not want.
Then, while Pyanfar went to negotiate with Sikkukkut, Goldtooth secretly met with Ehrran. And some unknown agency started a riot on the docks, which set Akkhtimakt's hitherto cowed partisans on the station to attacking Sikkukkut's forces. Pyanfar and the Tahar crew, whose freedom she had just negotiated from Sikkukkut, were caught in the middle of the firefight, as Goldtooth and Rhif Ehrran both took advantage of the confusion to break dock and run for Meetpoint- together.
The slave Skkukuk saved Pyanfar's life in the riot, to her profound distress at the debt.
But Jik, also attempting Pyanfar's rescue from the firefight, fell into the hands of Sikkukkut, who had some new and hard questions to ask of Jik regarding Goldtooth, mahen ambitions, and the whereabouts and course of human ships.
The Pride's small galley table was awash in data printout, paperfaxes ringed and splotched with brown gfi-stains, arrowed, circled, crossed out, and noted in red and green ink till they were beyond cryptic. The red pen made another notation and another snaking arrow; and the bronze-pelted hani fist that held it flexed claws out and in again in profoundest frustration. Pyanfar Chanur sat in this sanctuary gnawing her mustaches and drinking cup after cup of lukewarm gfi amid her scribbles on the nav and log records.