Brave and beautiful Aleytys has been gifted with mental abilities far beyond those of ordinary humans - thanks to her genetic heritage as a homo superior Vyrhh as well as the alien technology she wears called the Diadem, which, once donned, can never be removed. Her long, strange journey across the galaxy in search of her past now takes an unexpected turn as she accepts a position with Hunters Inc., and begins training as an interstellar mercenary.
Aleytys's first assignment comes before her schooling is even complete as she finds herself dispatched to Sunguralingu, a planet owned by the powerful Chwereva Company. The world and its endangered humanoid population are being ravaged by telepathic creatures spreading a plague of chaos, destruction, and madness, and the Vyrhh's intervention has been specifically requested.
There is more transpiring on Sunguralingu than meets the eye, and Aleytys and her ex-lover, Grey, set out to track the civilization-obliterating insanity to its source. But their perilous hunt leads Aleytys into an insidious web carefully woven by a psychopathic member of her superior species and, once ensnared, her only possible escape will be death.
Thrilling science fiction with strong elements of fantasy, author Jo Clayton's epic Diadem space opera saga stands with the best of its genre, from the novels of Andre Norton, C. J. Cherryh, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to the humanist sci-fi masterworks of Ursula K. Le Guin. In the enthralling fifth installment of this classic series, a courageous star-traveler's new life as an intergalactic soldier for hire begins - and nearly ends - on a distant planet in turmoil.
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By Jo Clayton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Jo Clayton
All rights reserved.
The faras stepped daintily through the scattered rocks and began walking along the edge of the escarpment. The Sawasawa valley floor far below stretched into the blue distance, dry and lifeless, the scattered patches of juapepo growing over it like tufts of hair on a mangy cat. Films of red dust rose, rode the wind in brief spurts, then dropped. "A long time away, Shindi." He leaned forward and scratched at the base of his mount's roached mane. The faras tossed his horned head and snorted with pleasure. Manoreh chuckled. "Run in the pastures and roll in the wet grass. We'll both be home soon." He slapped at the pouch slung over his shoulder and smiled at the rustle of the parchment inside. "With a good bit of new land mapped for the Director."
Jua Churukuu the sun was hanging low in the east. He squinted matte indigo eyes at the lime-green sun, passed a long-fingered hand over the wiry tangle of his indigo hair. In the strengthening light the faint scale markings on his silvery-green skin became a bit more prounounced. He shifted in the saddle. "Tomorrow night, Shindi," he murmured. "You'll be in your pasture and I...." He grimaced. "I'll be swallowing Kobe's insults and quarreling with Kitosime."
The faras's split hooves clacked rapidly over the stone, the tidy sound tick-tocking into the soft whispering of the wind. The memory of his last encounter with his wife was still vivid in his mind even though six months had drifted by since then. A long time, he thought. Too long? She wants me to take up my father's land and get away from Kobe. My father's land. ... Harsh, painful memories. A line of bodies stretching out, out Endlessly. His mouth tightened. No! Never! Let the land raise weeds and vermin. He glanced down at the Sawasawa, closer now as the escarpments flattened and lowered toward a ripple of foothills.
The dust clouds seemed thicker as they hovered in a crimson haze over the brush. Manoreh frowned. Something moved down there. He halted the faras, leaning forward, straining to penetrate the haze.
Flashes of white thickened to a ragged blanket that smothered the soil and brush. Hares. A hare march. "Meme Kalamah, mother protect us," he whispered. "So many of them. I've never seen so many ... sweeping clean this time ... everyone ... Ah!" He groaned. "So many ... so many ... so many. ..." His hands began to shake. He saw again the bodies of his people. The watuk blindrage ignited and began to take him. He raised his head and howled.
The faras danced about, jerking his head back and forth. For a moment Manoreh's body kept balance automatically while he sank deeper into the uncontrollable rage that shook him like a rag and slammed into the FEELINGcenters of the faras. Then, with a high ululating whine, the animal plunged and reared, throwing him off his back to crash onto the rock. Then the faras ran blindly forward, seeking the easiest way even in his panic, leaving Manoreh stretched out on the rock, blood running sluggishly from a short cut on his head.
When Manoreh woke, the sun was shining directly into his eyes. He sat up slowly, clutched at his throbbing head. Then he remembered the hare march and grunted onto his feet. For a moment he stood swaying, eyes shut, head throbbing, then he forced himself to look at the valley. The herd was still passing, there seemed to be no end of them. He rubbed his eyes. A force weighed heavily on him, stifling, oppressive, impersonal. Haribu, he thought. Driving them. He pressed his hand to his head. The Holders ... have to warn them ... Kitosime....
Manoreh stumbled away from the edge of the cliff and began walking along the faint trail. As he walked, the pounding of his boots against the stone sent flashes of light and pain stabbing into his brain. Grimly he kept on. Gradually his body settled into a comfortable long stride and the ache in his head eased to a dull throbbing that he could ignore. The feel of Haribu was oppressive but bearable since the demon's attention was focused on the hare herd. For a short while Manoreh tensed himself against a probe, but the blast of rage that had set him afoot must have been too brief to call Haribu's attention.
The barren stone gave way to sun-dried grass and red earth. Manoreh topped a gentle rise and stopped, startled. Several lines of hares were heading for the main herd on the valley floor. He stood, clouds of red dust blowing around him, perplexed by what he was seeing. Hares traveling naturally moved a few paces forward, stopped to graze, moved on, walked a few steps on their extra-long hind legs, dropped on fours again, grazed — continuing this irregular but patterned movement throughout the day. He saw these marching like mechanical soldiers down the hillside and a shiver rippled through his body. He closed his eyes. Hare walk ... the line of the dead ... no! Breathe in ... breathe out ... slow ... slow ... order straying thoughts into rhythmic patterns. The mountains call me, blue mountains eating the green sky, the plains call me, the great grass sea. ...
Manoreh swung into a smooth lope he could maintain for hours. As he ran, he kept the songs flowing in his mind and ignored the familiar disorientation thrown at him by the patches of juapepo as the hundreds of receptor nodes picked up his emotions and retransmitted them, mixing them with snatches of the plants' own irritations and fears, snatches of the hungers, terrors and satisfactions of every insect, reptile and rodent nesting among its roots.
Hares in the hills. None of the teaching songs spoke of hares outside the Sawasawa, even the songs of Angaleh the Wanderer, who'd mapped most of the Grass Plain in the far side of the mountains. Manoreh smiled. Angaleh the legend. Poet and singer. Explorer and mystic. Forgotten now except for his songs and the stories about him, sunk into the anonymity of the Directorship of the Tembeat. Manoreh smiled again. During the past half-year he'd added a small new triangle of territory to Angeleh's maps.
The land dipped and flattened. Manoreh slowed to a walk, the hare rumble closing in on him until he wove a precarious path through the lurching bodies of the hares ambling along at the edge of the monster herd. More than ever he regretted the loss of the faras. By nightfall he could have been. ... He dismissed could-have-beens and lengthened his stride, closing his mind to the hares.
But he couldn't shut out memory. Haribu Haremaster. Manpreh's feet thudded against the ground, moving faster and faster as the sight and smell of the hares triggered the watuk blindrage, and that rage disrupted the rhythm of his breathing and the coordination of his body. He stumbled, slowed, took in great gulps of dusty hot air ... lost in memories....
The hare walk ... the tide of white pouring over the land stripping it greedily....
The line of bodies stretching out and out ... the days following the line of the dead with Faiseh beside him, burying his kin, bonded and blood ... bodies ... father ... mother ... sister....
He sobbed. Tears cut through the mask of dust on his face.
His sister splashed out on the ground clutching her dead baby, arms and legs twitching, eyes blank, face empty, every touch of human burned out of her....
He tried to hold her, slapped her, tried to wake her out of that terrible blank animal state. There was nothing left in her. He knelt beside her, watched her for awhile. Faiseh found him there, offered to do what was necessary, but Manoreh shook his head. As the moonring became visible in the darkening sky, he pressed his fingers against her throat and waited until the artery was still under his fingers. He buried her, the baby on her breast, and went on with Faiseh until there were no more twitching bodies.
Hare walk. Driven to walk and walk. To walk without stopping. To walk until muscles no longer responded to will. To crawl. Finally to lie on the ground, hands and feet twitching while the last feeble glow of life dimmed and died.
He groaned as he thought of the hares ringing Kobe's Holding, focusing their malice on the Kisima clan ... on Kito-sime ... on his son Hodarzu ... until minds burned out and they began to walk.
Manoreh's foot caught under a juapepo root and he crashed heavily into the red dust. The pain jarred him out of his memories. He pushed onto his knees as the juapepo picked up and reinforced his pain. He sucked in a deep breath and began pulling together the Tembeat discipline, distancing himself from the troubling emotion, slowing the body, filling the mind. He got clumsily to his feet and looked up. Jua Churukuu was halfway down the western arc of his day path. He turned and faced along his backtrail. The grumble of the hares was a low murmur on the horizon. Around him scattered herds of kudu leaped and galloped to the northeast, frantic to get away from the creeping menace behind them. He checked the urge to race with them. If his spurt of blindrage had exhausted him, it had at least won him a long lead on the hare herd. Enough. No good burning himself out. The warning had to be given. He swung back into the lope, his body moving smoothly, the thick red dust stirring about his feet.
An hour later he stopped to rest a few moments at a water tree standing in the middle of a mud slick. He knelt by the multiple trunks and drank from the small cold stream, heard a rustling in the coarse grass growing rankly about the slick. A hare pushed out of the grass and sat daintily at the edge of the mud, bulging brown eyes staring blankly at him. Another rustle and a second hare crouched beside the first. The blindrage, he thought ruefully. This time Haribu noticed it. The hares rubbed the sides of their heads together, then rose onto their hind legs, eyes fixed on him, long ears pointing stiffly at him. He felt a dulling pressure. His sight blurred. There was a whining in his ears.
Working against a compulsion strong as tangleweb, he forced his hand to the darter on his belt.
The hares' noses twitched and the pressure on him increased. His hand inched down, unsnapped the holster flap, eased the pistol out. The hares shook and whined. The pressure built higher. He emptied the magazine into the hares, the darts phutting into the white fur or skimming past into the grass behind. He staggered as the pressure was suddenly cut off.
The grass stirred again. He wheeled to face the new danger, frightened and angry.
A wilding boy stood watching him. He was small and wiry, his green-silver skin stained and dirty. He watched to see what Manoreh would do, then projected a complex FEELING: QUESTION?/DESIRE.
Manoreh holstered the darter. "Who are you?" he asked, hoping for but not expecting an answer. Wildings never spoke.
The boy waited, still sending his silent message.
Manoreh sighed and projected: QUESTION?
The boy smiled, his dark blue eyes laughing. He pointed to the dead hares, QUESTION?
Manoreh nodded. Projected: ASSENT.
The wilding boy scooped up the hare bodies. Trailing a broad APPRECIATION, he trotted off and was lost in the haze of dust.
The sun dipped lower and the cloud cover spread a growing shadow over the Sawasawa. Manoreh ran steadily, his feet beating to the rhythm of the bush songs he repeated continuously to ward off the betraying memories.
He heard the hounds before he saw the Fa-men coming toward him. He stopped, mouth pressed into a grim line as the red-eyed dogs circled around him, growling and snapping at his boots, yellow teeth clicking together a hair away from the leather. Fa-men. There was a sickness in his stomach when he thought of them. Dangerous fanatics. Hating the wildings and everything to do with the Wild. Hating all products of technology which they called corrupting abominations. They wore animal furs, despising woven cloth. They carried assegais rather than darters or pellet rifles and were expert in their use. He was in some danger, he knew that. They tolerated the Tembeat but that toleration was easily strained. They cultivated the blindrage and gloried in the bloody results.
The Fa-men rode slowly toward him, their hatred reaching him, sickening him yet more until he was at the point of vomiting. There were four of them, assegais at ready. Ignoring the hounds, they spread out and stopped their mounts so that all were facing him, spear points less than a meter away.
"Wild Ranger." The Fa-kichwa stroked the scars on his right cheek then jabbed his assegai at Manoreh. "Trying out the wilding boys?"
The Sniffer giggled shrilly. "Sold four legs for a two-leg ride." Sniffer jabbed at him, the spear point drawing blood from his arm just below the shoulder. "What'd you do with your faras, little Ranger? Huh? Huh! HUH!" He was a little man, twisted and so ugly that the yellow river clay painted on his skin and the black-worked scars on his face disappeared before his monumental hideousness, a meager man, skin stretched taut over tiny bones. He continued to poke at Manoreh, working himself into a dangerous state of excitement.
"Mohj-sniff!" The kichwa's voice was indulgent but firm. "Back off. You — Wild Ranger." The sneer in the words was deliberately exaggerated. "Your clan? What are you doing here?"
"Clan Hazru, Mezee Fa-Kichwa. Took the harewalk three years ago. I affiliate with Kobe of Kisima, being wed to his daughter." His voice was low and uncertain. He knew they relished his weakness and this angered him. But the sudden caution that damped their hate when they heard his father-in-law's name gave him a small, bitter satisfaction. He sucked in a deep breath. "The hares march, Fa-Kichwa." He shrugged. "My faras went berserk and threw me. I run now to warn the Holdings." With an outward calm he pointed the way he'd come. "Little more than three hours behind me."
"Fa!" The Fa-Kichwa looped the assegai's thong over his shoulder and wheeled his mount. By the time Manoreh faced around again, the four were galloping with their hounds toward the mountains.
He started running again, smiling at the Fa-men's panic. "Scrambling for the Standing Stones," he murmured. "Going to crouch there shivering in their boots, praying that Fa will chase the hares away."
In the thickening twilight he came to the bridge his grandfather had built across the Chumquivir, a tributary of the Mungivir which was the great river running the length of the Sawasawa. This was the southern boundary of his father's land, his now. Though several planks of the bridge were broken or missing, the pilings seemed sturdy enough. He stepped cautiously onto it, keeping close to the shaky rail. The bridge trembled underfoot and groaned each time he put pressure on it, but held him while he crossed. He stepped reluctantly into the shadow of the ufagiosh trees and walked with increasing slowness toward the place where the ufagiosh merged with a ragged emwilea hedge. The sickness in his stomach returned. His emwilea. Rank now, and wild. Canes growing haphazardly out from the tight center, coiling like poison-tipped barbed wire across the rutted earth. The high roots were choked by the round, fuzzy leaves of hareweed. When he saw a bay, a small silver-green wiggler who preferred running with the farash to grubbing in the earth, he'd spent hour after tedious hour grooming the hedge along this section of path.
He hesitated, looked up. Through the sparse leaves of the ufagio he could see the clouds lowering, as the wind whipped up the dust and the dry storm came toward him. He cursed softly. Another plan rotted out. He scowled toward the south. Four hours lead on them. But the storm would slow them down some. He walked slowly along beside the emwilea hedge, shoulders hunched over, head drawn down. Anger: hot, ready to explode and spew the pieces of his soul across the land. Grief: like acid eating at him, an itch that had no anodyne. Fear: colder than the glacial ice he'd walked the faras over when he crossed the Jinolimas coming and going. Anger-grief-fear were pressing against his consciousness.
The uauawimbony tree outside the gate postponed his anguish and rattled a warning. No one left to warn. Manoreh ducked under the umbrella spread of the whippy branches and rested his palm against the brain node, a dark bulge like a head sitting on a spread of twenty-four legs, the cone- shaped circle of trunks that met in the middle forming a dark secret cavity where he used to sit giggling while the wimbony whipped about like a wild thing. The tight wood was cool and soothing under his hand, reminding him of a happier time. He stood a moment reluctant to think of the painful now, but sand was beginning to blow, skipping like fleas under the branch tips. He ducked back under the fringe and walked to the gate.
Excerpted from Star Hunters by Jo Clayton. Copyright © 1980 Jo Clayton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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