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Authors: C J Cherryh

Serpent's Reach

BOOK: Serpent's Reach
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Copyright

A Macdonald Book

First published in Great Britain in 1981 by
Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd
London & Sydney

Copyright © C. J. Cherryh 1980

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN 0 356 08515 5

Photoset in Wales by
Derek Doyle & Associates, Mold, Clwyd
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
REDWOOD BURN LIMITED
Trowbridge, Wiltshire

Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd
Holywell House
Worship Street
London EC2A 2EN

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

BOOK ONE

BOOK TWO

BOOK THREE

BOOK FOUR

BOOK FIVE

BOOK SIX

BOOK SEVEN

BOOK EIGHT

BOOK NINE

BOOK TEN

RULES FOR SEJ

PROLOGUE

“HYDRI REACH: QUARANTINED. Approach permitted only along approved lanes. SEE. Istra.”

—Nav. Man.

“HYDRI REACH: CLASSIFIED: Apply XenBureau for Information.”

—Encyclopaedia Xenologica

“HYDRI STARS: quarantined region. For applicable regulations, consult Cor. Jur. Hum. XXXVII 91.2. Native species of alpha Hydri III include at least one sapient species, majat, first contacted by probe Celia in 2223. Successful contact with majat was not made until Delia probe followed in 2229, and majat space was eventually opened to very limited contact under terms of the Hydri Treaty of 2235, with a single designated trade point at the station of beta Hydri II, locally called Istra.

“The entire region Is under internal regulation, assumed to be a majat-human co-operation, and It is thus excluded from Alliance law. Alliance citizens are cautioned that treaties do not extend to protection of Alliance citizens or property in violation of quarantined space, and that Alliance law prohibits the passage of any ship, or person, alien or human, from said zone of quarantine into Alliance space, with the exception of licensed commerce up to the permitted contact point at Istra, by carefully monitored lanes. The Alliance will use extreme force to prevent any such intrusion into or out of quarantine. For specific regulations of import and export, consult ATR 189.9 and supplements. The nature of the internal government is entirely a matter of speculation, but it is supposed on some evidence that the seat of government is alpha Hydri III, locally called Cerdin, and that this government has remained relatively stable during the several centuries of its establishment…

“Majat are reported to have rejected emphatically all human contact except the trading company initially introduced by Delia probe. The Kontrin company is currently assumed to he the government of the human inhabitants. Population of the mission was originally augmented by importation of human ova, and external observation indicates that colonization has been effected on several worlds other than Cerdin and Istra within the quarantine zone.

“Principal exports are: biocomp softwares, medical preparations, fibers, and the substance known as lifejewels, all of which are unique to the zone and of moat manufacture; principal imports are metals, luxury foodstuffs, construction machinery, electronics, art objects.”

—XenBureau Eph. Xen. 2301

“MAJAT: all information classified.”

—XenBureau Eph. Xen. 2301

“The fact is…we’ve become dependent. We can’t get the materials elsewhere. We can’t duplicate them.”

—report, EconBureau, classified.

“Advise you take whatever opportunities exist to establish onworld observation at Istra, even to clandestine operations. Accurate information is of utmost importance.”

—classified document, AlSec

BOOK ONE
i

If it was anywhere possible to be a child in the Family, it was possible at Kethiuy, on Cerdin. There were few visitors, no imminent hazards. The estate sat not so very far from the City and from Alpha’s old hall, but its hills and its unique occupation kept it isolated from most of Family politics. It had its lake and its fields, its garden of candletrees that rose like feathery spires among its fourteen domes; and round about its valley sat the hives, which sent their members to and from Kethiuy. All majat who would deal with Men dealt through Kethiuy, which fended one hive from another and kept peace, the peculiar talent of the Meth-marens, that sept and House of the Family which held the land. Fields extended in one direction, both human-owned and majat-owned; labs rambled off in the other; warehouses in yet a third, where azi, cloned men, gathered and tallied the wealth of hive trade and the products of the lab and the computers, which were the greatest part of that trade. Kethiuy was town as much as House; it was self-contained and tranquil, almost changeless in the terms of its owners, for Kontrin measured their lives in decades more than years, and the rare children licensed tore. place the dead had no doubt what they must be and what the order of the world was.

Raen amused herself, clipping leaves from the dayvine with short, neat shots; the wind blew and made it more difficult, and she gauged her fire meticulously, needle-beamed She was fifteen; she had carried the little gun clipped to her belt since she had turned twelve. Being Kontrin, and potentially immortal, she had still come into this world because a certain close kinsman had died of carelessness; she wished her own replacement to be long in coming. She was a skilled marksman; one of the amusements available to her was gambling, and she currently had a bet with a third cousin involving the target range.

Marksmanship, gambling, running the hedges into the field to watch the azi at work, or back again in Kethiuy, sunk it the oblivion of deepstudy or studying the lab comps until she could make the machines yield her up communication with the alien majat…such things filled her days, one very like the other. She did not play; there were years ahead for that, when the prospect of immortality began to pall and the years needed amusements to speed them past. Her present business was to learn, to gather skills that would protect that long life. The elaborate pleasures with which her elders amused themselves were not yet for her, although she looked on such with a stirring of interest. She sat on her hillside and picked an extraordinary succession of leaves off the waving vine with quick, fine shots, and reckoned that she would put in her required time at the comp board and be through by dinner, leaving the evening free for boating on Kethiuy’s lake…too hot during the day: the water cast back the white-hot sky with such glare one could not even look on it unvisored; but by night what lived in it came up from the bottom, and boats skimmed the black surface like firebugs, trolling for the fish that offered rare treat for Kethiuy’s tables. Other valleys had game, and even domestic herds, but no creature but man stayed in Kethiuy, between the hives. None could.

Raen a Sul hant Meth-maren. She was a long-boned and rangy fifteen, having likely all her height. Ilit blood mixed with Meth-maren had contributed that length of limb; and Meth-maren blood, her aquiline features. She bore a pattern on her right hand, chitinous and glittering, living in her flesh: her identity, her pledge to the hives, such as all Kontrin bore. This sign a majat could read, whose eyes could read nothing of human features. Betas went unmarked. Azi bore a tiny tattoo. The Kontrin brand was in living jewels, and she bore it for the distinction it was.

The tendril fell last, burned through. She clipped the gun to her belt and smoothly rose, pulled up the hood of her sunsuit and adjusted the visor to protect her eyes before leaving the shade. She took the long way, at the fringe of the woods, being in no particular haste: it was cooler and less steep, and nothing awaited her but studies.

A droning intruded on her attention. She looked about, and up. Aircraft passing were not unusual: Kethiuy lake was a convenient marker for anyone sight-navigating to the northern estates.

But these were low, two of them, and coming in.

Visitors. Her spirits soared. No comp this afternoon. She veered from the lab-ward course and strode off down the slope with its rocks and thread-bushes, tacking from one to the other point of the steep face with reckless abandon, reckoning of entertainments and a general cancellation of lessons.

Something skittered back in the hedge. She came to an instant halt and set her hand on her pistol: no fear of beasts, but of men, of anything that would skulk and hide.

Majat.

She picked out the shadowed form in the slatted leaves, perplexed to find it there. It was motionless in its guard-stance, half again as tall as she; faceted eyes flickered with the slightest of turns of its head. Almost she called to it, reckoning it some Worker strayed from the labs down below: sometimes their eyes betrayed them and, muddled with lab-chemicals, they lost their direction. But it should not have strayed this far.

The head turned farther, squaring to her: no Worker…she saw that clearly. The jaws were massive, the head armoured.

She could not see its emblems, to what hive it belonged, and human eyes could not see its colour. It hunched down, an assemblage of projecting points and leathery limbs, in the latticed play of sun and shade…a Warrior, and not to be approached. Sometimes Warriors came, to look down on Kethiuy for whatever their blind eyes could perceive, and then departed, keeping their own secrets. She wished she could see the badges: it might be any of the four hives, while it was only gentle blues and greens who dealt with Kethiuy—the trade of reds and golds channelled through greens. A red or gold was enormously dangerous.

Nor was it alone. Others rose up, slowly, slowly, three, four. Fear knotted in her belly—which was irrational, she insisted to herself: in all Kethiuy’s history, no majat had harmed any within the valley.

“You’re on Kethiuy land,” she said, lifting the hand that identified her to their eyes. “Go back. Go back.”

It stared a moment, then backed: badgeless, she saw in her amazement. It lowered its body in token of agreement; she hoped that was its intent. She stood her ground, alert for any shift, any diversion. Her heart was pounding. Never in the labs had she been alone with them, and the sight of this huge Warrior and its fellows moving to her order was incredible to her.

“Hive-master,” it hissed, and sidled off through the brush with sudden and blinding speed. Its companions joined it in retreat.

Hive-master
. The bitterness penetrated even majat voice.
Hive-friends
, the majat in the labs were always wont to say, touching with delicacy, bowing with seeming sincerity.

Down the hill a beating of engines announced a landing; Raen still waited, scanning the hedges all about before she started away.
Never turn your back on one;
she had heard it all her life, even from those who worked closest with the hives: majat moved too quickly, and a scratch even from a Worker was dangerous.

She edged backward, judged it finally safe to look away and to start to run…but she looked now and again over her shoulder.

And the aircraft were on the ground, the circular washes of air flattening the grasses near the gates, next the lakeshore.

A bell rang, advising all the House that strangers had come. Raen cast a last look back, funding the majat had fled entirely, and jogged along toward the landing spot.

The colours on the aircraft were red striped with green, which were the colours of the House of Then, friends of Sul-sept of the Meth-marens. Men and women were disembarking as the engines died down; the gates were open and Meth-marens were coming out to meet the visitors, most without sunsuits, so abrupt was this arrival and so welcome were any of Thon.

The cloaks on the foremost were Thon; and there was the white and yellow of Yalt among them, likewise welcome. But then from the aircraft came visitors in the red-circled black of Hald; and Meth-maren blue, with black border, not Sul-sept white.

BOOK: Serpent's Reach
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