HALFWAY THROUGH the second watch the ship put into Kartos Station—the largest thing ever seen in the zone, a gleaming silver agglomeration of vanes cradling an immense saucer body. It was an Orithain craft, with no markings of nationality or identification: the Orithain disdained such conventions.

It nestled in belly-on, larger than the station itself, positioned beside an amaut freighter off Isthe II that was completely dwarfed by its bulk. The umbilical of the tube, the conveyor-connection, went out to it, scarcely long enough to reach, although the Orithain’s grapples had drawn herself and the Station into relative proximity.

As soon as that connection was secure, five members of the crew disembarked, four men and a woman. They were kallia, like many of the Station personnel—a race that belonged to Qao V, a tall graceful folk, azure-skinned and silver-haired; but these had never seen the surface of Aus Qao: each bore on the right wrist the platinum bracelet that marked a nas kame, a servant of the Orithain.

The visitors moved at will through the market, where amaut and kalliran commerce linked the civilized worlds, the metrosi, with the Esliph stars. They spoke not at all to each other, but paused together and occasionally designated purchases—lots that depleted whole sections of the market, to be delivered immediately.

The moment the Orithain had entered the zone, the Station office had moved into frantic activity. Station security personnel, both kallia and amaut, were scattered among the regular dock crews in diverse uniforms—not to stop the starlords; that was impossible. They were instead to restrain the Station folk from any unintended offense against them, for the whole of Kartos Station was in jeopardy as long as that silver dread-naught was anywhere in the zone; an Orithain-lord minutely displeased was a bad enemy for a planet, let alone a man-made bubble like Kartos.

And the commanders of Kartos kept otherwise still, and sent no messages of alarm, either inside or outside the Station. There was a hush everywhere. Those that must move, moved quietly.

Ages ago the Orithain had first contacted the kallia, wrenching the folk of Aus Qao out of feudalism and abruptly into star-spanning civilization. Eight thousand years ago the Orithain had reached out to Kesuat, the home star of the amaut—podgy little gray-skinned farmers, broad-bellied and large-eyed, unlikely starfarers; but amaut were scattered now from Kesuat to the Esliph. The metrosi itself was an Orithain creation, modern technology an Orithain gift—but one that came at fearful price, a tyranny unimaginably cruel and irrational.

Then for five hundred years, as inexplicably as they did everything, the Orithain had vanished, even from their home star Kej. Ship-dwellers that they were, they began to voyage outward and elsewhere, and ceased to be seen in the range of kalliran ships or amaut. Some even dared to hope them dead—until seven years ago.

Suddenly Orithain were massing again near Kej. Ship by ship, they were reported coming in, gathering like great birds to the smell of death. The outmost worlds knew it, though the metrosi refused to admit it for fact. There was no defense possible: kallia knew this; no weapon would avail against Orithain ships, and the pride that the Orithain took in inventive cruelty was legendary. It was more comfortable not to acknowledge their existence.

But at Kartos, bordering the Esliph, the Orithain made their return to the metrosi clear beyond doubt.

At the end of the new-station docks the noi kame separated. Two, one carrying a small gray case, went up toward the Station office. The other three descended toward the old docks, that place notorious as the Blind Market, where berths and facilities were cheap and crowded, where goods were often traded unobserved by the overworked Station authorities: little freighters, small cargoes, often shoddy goods, damaged lots, pirated merchandise. Most of the ships docked here came from the Esliph, bearing raw materials and buying up necessities and a few civilized vices for the poorer, outermost worlds.

The security personnel who maintained their discreet watcn were alarmed when the noi kame unexpectedly entered that tangle of small berths, and they were perplexed when the noi kame immediately sought the Konut, an ancient freighter from the Esliph fringe. Fat little amaut ran about in its open hold in an agony of panic at their coming, and the captain came waddling up on his short legs, working his wide mouth in an expression of extreme unease.

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Categories: Cherryh, C.J