Freedom Flight Preview

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And now, an excerpt from the first Wing Commander novel, Freedom Flight (published by Baen Books in December, ’92, and available at your nearest bookstore or by mail through ORIGIN). Join Hunter, K’Kai, Ralgha nar Hhallas and his sworn aide Kirha, as they challenge the Emperor’s might, to free a world!

The interrogator's lip curled in a contemptuous snarl. "The traitor is silent. He cannot even speak in his own defense! This is not a highborn lord of Kilrah; this is a carrion-eater!"

Standing before the interrogator, Lord Ralgha nar Hhallas stared bleakly at his enemy. A green haze fogged Ralgha's eyes, the mist of rage. He fought to contain it, forcing his fur to lie flat, his ears to remain erect, his eyes to remain wide open and without visible guile. He won the battle with his instincts and emotions, as he had won the eight eights of similar battles during the past few hours. His vision came clear again, and the urge to tear out the throats of his enemies—any enemies—subsided. He knew from the posture of the burly guards watching him that he had not betrayed himself by so much as a tail-twitch.

He could not falter, could not show fear, even for an instant. In this test of loyalties, any sign of weakness would be instant proof of treason... a true Kilrathi would be upheld and strengthened by his Honor, impervious to pain or fear. No torture would break him, no threats would touch his spirit. If Ralgha showed no fear, if he remained calm and steadfast throughout this ordeal, then he could not be a traitor.

So does age and experience deceive youth and vigor.

Had he been in charge of this interrogation, he would have had his captive wired and monitored. Perhaps he should be glad that someone like him was not in charge. But blood would tell, and breeding; that was a truism. Breeding would carry him through this. He had to believe that.

A whisper of sound from the shadow-shrouded figure seated at the end of the room. "Can he be trusted, Kalrahr?"

Ralgha nar Hhallas stiffened to attention, the hair of his ruff and spine rising despite his efforts to make it lie flat, uncertain whether he was going to survive the next few moments. He had seen this shadowy room before, and had walked through the carved stone corridors of Imperial Intelligence Headquarters on Ghorah Khar many times, but always as Lord Ralgha nar Hhallas, commanding officer of the Ras Nik'hra, a Fralthi-class cruiser that had fought in many battles for the glory of the Emperor of Kilrah.

Now, for the first time, he saw these walls through other eyes... as a prisoner. An interesting experience—if he lived through it.

Ralgha had stood in the center of this room for over five hours now, answering every question placed to him, patiently managing to keep his temper despite the taunts of the interrogators. That was their job, after all; to make him lose his temper, to prove that he was a traitor by angry word or action. They dared not lay paw to him; he was too high of rank for lerkrath, interrogation by drugs, or halkrath, interrogation by torture. Only the Emperor himself could decree questioning a Thrak'hra lord by needle or knife. But they could deliberately try to provoke him, to invoke the killing-rage that lay close to the surface of every Kilrathi's mind—and if he lost control even for an instant, if he neglected to remain in the military-submissive posture, if he forgot that he was, temporarily, the lowest-ranked Kilrathi in the room, he would prove that he was a traitor. Even now, the two burly Imperial guards watched him carefully, in case he should try to make any kind of movement—either to escape or harm Jahkai, the Kalrahr of Imperial Security, or to make an attempt on the life of the other, even more important Kilrathi in this room, the one seated in the shadows.

Jahkai was watching him with eyes narrowed to slits with his concentration. As well he might. There was more to this than the questioning of a possible traitor; more than a conflict between two male Kilrathi. Ralgha had hated Jahkai since they had first met years ago.

The lowborn brute had pretended to noble airs at a troop review, bringing shame on the highborn present, that he had dared to imitate his betters. And there was no hiding the fact that Jahkai was lowborn; one merely had to look at him, and see the mottled, mingled colors of his coarse fur marking him as Kilra'hra, a commoner. So very unlike Ralgha's own sleek pelt, bright with the colors and sharply distinct patterns of one of the highest-born families in the Empire. Even the blunt shape of Jahkai's muzzle, the flatness of his head, and the blunted teeth of one who was not a hunter showed his lowborn breeding.

Ralgha had repaid that shame by shaming Jahkai in his turn, making a mockery of him, then laughing in his face, not realizing then that Jahkai was Kalrahr of Imperial Security for the entire planetary system of Ghorah Khar...

Now the situation was very different. A word from Jahkai could condemn Ralgha to death, lowborn or not. If the other Kilrathi in this room decided that the word was justified. It had all come down to this; the word of an enemy, the record of his achievements, and the judgment of a superior.

This was the most dangerous moment of his life. Nothing else had ever put him into such peril, not even during the battle against the humans for the Vega Sector.

He remembered that conflict with a small warmth of pride, pride he cherished against the anger that sought to consume him. He con-centrated on his memories of the hours of maneuvering against the Terran ship, waves of fighter assaults, culminating in the glorious explosion of the Waterloo-class ship, the blossoming fireball and drifting debris. The ship had been named the Leningrad, he had learned later, and over five hundred humans had died when it had been destroyed. Five hundred enemies. Five hundred gifts to Sivar, the War God.

He remembered one moment of fear in that battle, seeing a tiny Terran fighter diving toward his ship, knowing that half of their forward cannons were disabled and there was nothing he or his crew could do to stop it...

... then the wing of Imperial Jalthi fighters had banked in sharply and destroyed the human ship with a well-aimed volley.

Now Ralgha felt that same paralyzing fear, watching his fete being decided before him, and knowing that there was nothing he could do about it at all.

Again, the purring whisper. "I am waiting for your answer, Jahkai."

Kalrahr Jahkai turned and spoke to the shadowed figure seated in the corner of the room. "My lord, I cannot say. In five hours, we have neither seen nor heard a single hint of treason from Lord Ralgha. But..."

Ralgha stood silently, muscles locked in the rigidity of submissive fear, and wished with all his heart that he was back in the battle for the Vega Sector, commanding the crew of the Ras Nik'hra against the Terran fleet. At least then, he had an obvious opponent to fight. Not this shadow-war of loyalties and treason, where a single gesture could result in his immediate death. They would not even grant him the honor of death in combat... he could die in this room, shot like a coward or a prisoner of war, and no one would ever know...

"Enough." The tall Kilrathi rose from his chair in the corner of the room, striding forward to face Ralgha. Prince Thrakhath, Heir to the Throne of Kilrah, stared into his eyes, thoughtful and calculating. Gold rings glistened in Thrakhath's ears, bright against his red-brown fur and his red cloak. The spicy musk of one who dallied often with females wafted to Ralgha's nostrils, but Ralgha refused to be distracted by it. "Tell me, Ralgha... who do you serve?"

"The glory of the Emperor and the Empire of Kilrah," Ralgha said, stiffly. "I am yours to command, my Prince."

"Yes." The Prince spoke quietly, his voice low and resonant in the small room. "I believe you are, Ralgha. You will do well." The Prince turned to the intelligence officer. "Enough of this farce, Jahkai. I had suspected a personal animosity when you brought me your suspicions; now I am certain of it. We are finished here. I will return to K'Tithrak Mang tonight. You will give up this grudge of yours. And to ensure that there will be no repetition of this—scene—I require that you bring me concrete proof of deceit before you make any further accusations."

Jahkai flattened his ears and lowered his muzzle submissively; his tail dragged on the ground, completely limp. Though his eyes were still full of hate when he looked at Ralgha, the Thrak'hra lord was certain that he would not dare disobey the Prince's orders. He held his rank on sufferance alone, and many hated him. They would be glad to see him fall.

The Prince glared down at Jahkai. "The Lord Ralgha may return to his usual duties." The Prince glanced at Ralgha. "What are your standing orders, Lord Ralgha?"

Ralgha brought his head up, at full attention. "My ship leaves for the N'Tanya System tonight, my lord," Ralgha said. "We are to join the strike force departing for the Terran frontier."

The Prince nodded. "You will bring honor to your hrai, I am certain of it. Fight well, Ralgha."

"My lord." Ralgha bowed his head, his tail curled down in a gesture of respect and submission; careful not to spoil his show of appropriate behavior by displaying the shock the Prince's last statement had given him. He cannot know, Ralgha thought. All of my hrai, down to my littlest sibling... dead now, these last five years. I have no family now, no way to share the honors I have won in combat. No one, nothing worth living for...

My only joy has been fighting the humans. Killing as many of them as I can, for the glory of the Empire. Taunting them in battle, ignoring them as they call us "kitten" or "cat"... I wonder what a cat is?... and then rejoicing in my victory, hearing their death-screams. Winning honor for my hrai,for my family name.

Now that is meaningless. Without my hrai...

Prince Thrakhath nodded once to Jahkai, and left the room. Ralgha began to follow him, but was stopped by a guard's claws on shoulder.

"You may not leave yet, Ralgha," Jahkai hissed in a low voice.

Had the lowborn learned nothing? If Ralgha had been younger, more given to impulse, Jahkai would have been dead at that moment. The chemicals of anger and fear still sang in his blood, and made his ears ring. "I am not one of your hirelings, Jahkai, or a human slave. Do not presume to give me orders. I am a lord of the Empire. Hinder me, and..." Ralgha smiled, showing teeth. "And I will rip out your throat, Kilra'hra scum."

"Fine words from a suspected traitor," Jahkai spat.

"Dangerous words from a low-born Kilrathi. Now that the Prince has cleared me of suspicion, you might wish to remember that I outrank you, fool." He narrowed his eyes, and allowed his neck-ruff to rise. "You are too unworthy to challenge. Would you like to spend some time in your own stockade? It is not very comfortable, as I have learned in these last days."

Jahkai gestured sharply, and the guards stepped back. Ralgha smiled again, the full smile of the victor, all fangs exposed, and walked into the hallway. A few moments later, he was out in the street, breathing deeply of the clean air. He had been locked in a dark, damp cell for ten days, and in that time had not seen the warm sunlight on the leaves of the birha trees. They were blossoming now, large red flowers filling the air with a sweet scent. This street was lined with the trees, a sharp contrast to the stone buildings and grey-paved streets, the white-capped mountains overlooking the Old City. It reminded him of home, of his native planet of Hhallas, where he had lived his childhood, before spending his years in officer's training on Kilrah. Many Kilrathi said they admired the metallic splendor of Kilrah, the silver walls and tall towers of the Imperial planet. Not Ralgha... even after all these years he still yearned for the wild mountains and untamed wilderness of his home planet.

The sun was setting behind the icy peaks, bright against the snow. Ralgha began to walk quickly. There was not much time left, before he had to board his ship and order his crew for their departure.

He walked through the winding streets, stepping over an unconscious Kilra'hra that was thoroughly intoxicated on arakh leaves, walking past a group of slaves laboring in the street. At the next street, he turned into the open market, smelling the rich scents of fresh meat and fish displayed on carts and tables. The market was not too crowded at this hour, as the shopkeepers and carters had already sold most of their wares.

A young female human, with very short dark head-fur and dressed in a plain brown shift decorated with the sigil of Sivar, looked up at Ralgha for a long moment as he strode past. A slave of the Priestesses of the Warrior-God, he guessed. He glanced back at the next corner, to see her only a few feet behind him. Following him, yes. He walked down the street, pausing in a doorway to let the female catch up with him. "What do you want, girl?" he asked gruffly.

"Eight eights of pardons, my lord," the girl said in heavily-accented Kilrathi. "Lady Hassa would speak with you, my lord. If you would please to follow me, I will take you to her now."

He nodded and followed her down the shadowed street. She moved with surprising grace, for a human. Ralgha had not had much experience with humans, except for a few slaves and, of course, captured enemy pilots, and those only for a few moments before they were taken away by Imperial Intelligence. He had heard many strange things about humans. The oddest was that the Terrans actually chose their leaders, like one would choose a fine cut of meat in the market. Just the thought of a leader chosen by his followers made Ralgha's tail twitch. Though what he did now, that was perilously close to what the humans did... selecting a leader.

As he had expected, the girl was leading him to the local Temple of Sivar, an amphitheater set into the side of the mountain. He followed her down the stone steps, to where a tall Kilrathi woman, wearing the ceremonial cloak of a Priestess of Sivar, awaited him.

"Ralgha." Hassa moved toward him. In a gesture that he remembered from their childhood on Hhallas, she ran her claws through his mane, smoothing down the thick fur. "You are well?"

He twitched his shoulders, deprecatingly. "As well as can be expected. They questioned me for days, Hassa."

Hassa nodded and turned to the slavegirl. "Esther, go fetch drink and arakh leaves for Lord Ralgha. Go now, quickly."

The human girl bowed and ran up the steps.

"You may speak freely now, my lord." Hassa sat on a stone bench. "What happened in there?"

Ralgha sat beside her, looking down at the plain grey stone. Too like the plain gray stone of his cell. "It was difficult, but not as bad as I thought it might be. Questions, day and night. They often would not allow me to sleep, but otherwise did not harm me."

"I was very worried, when I heard that you had been arrested." Hassa's eyes were dark and unreadable, all pupil. "We were afraid that you would reveal what you know of the rebellion."

He bristled at the implication of weakness. "Never! Even if they had tortured me, I would have revealed nothing!"

"So they set you free." Hassa's claws extended and retracted nervously. "They set you free... why?"

In a way, that puzzled him too. "I assume, because they could not find anything, nor trick me into giving them information. Because they believe that I am loyal to the Emperor. Because I am Thrak'hra, and a decorated ship's captain. Prince Thrakhath himself attended my final interrogation, and ordered them to release me."

"I see." Hassa was silent for a long moment, and then spoke. "The Council met last night, Ralgha, while we were still uncertain as to your fate. They decided that if you survived the interrogation, they would have a task for you."

He flushed with the heat of excitement; his fur itched. After all this time—they had something they wanted him to do.

"We must gain help for this rebellion against the Emperor, if it is to succeed," she continued. "You will be our envoy, our ambassador... you will go to the humans and demand their assistance for us. We will be their allies, but they must send us troops, weapons, starships. You will surrender your ship, the Ras Nik'hra, to them as a gesture of good faith."

"Surrender... my ship?" Ralgha stared at her, so stunned with shock, he felt like a tiny merdha must, when the teeth of the hunter met in its neck. "Give it to the humans? My ship? How can you ask this of me?"

Hassa's face was fiercely adamant; he knew there would be no moving her. Though she cared for him as an old friend and beloved, the rebellion was something like an offspring to her. As a mother would abandon mate to fight for the life of a cub, she would give all to her cause. "You must! If you do not, Ralgha nar Hhallas, you are an oathbreaker. You swore an oath to the Council that you would aid us in overthrowing the Emperor... can you be forsworn now?"

He shook his head. "But the humans would destroy us on sight—"

She cut him off with a gesture. "We have communicated with the Terrans... there will be a ship waiting for you in the Firekka System, the Tiger's Claw. You will give the Ras Nik'hra to them, and tell them of our rebellion."

Silence hung between them for a long time, as Ralgha fought his emotions again, and considered what she had said in as dispassionate a light as he could manage under the circumstances. "I will do this," Ralgha said slowly. "I must. I will not be forsworn. But I know what it means... I will never be able to return. I will never see you, or my home of Hhallas again." He looked up at the mountain above them, the first stars beginning to appear in the night sky. "Sometimes I wonder if we should ever have left our planet, Hassa. We were so happy there as children, we could have stayed there... perhaps I should have claimed you as my mate and bearer of my children when I had the chance. Years ago, before politics and soldiering claimed my life, and the Lord Sivar claimed yours."

Hassa touched his face hesitantly. "Do you think we would have been happy, Ralgha? Living out our lives in the mountains of Hhallas? A life without honor, without a future? I think not. Better to burn brightly, if only for a short time, than never to have truly lived at all. I have no regrets." She glanced up at the entrance of the amphitheater. "Where is that human child? She only had to cross the street to the house, not run across the entire city!"

Hassa climbed the steps, looking out into the street. She turned back to Ralgha, too slowly to be casual, and walked down to where he waited.

"There are Imperial soldiers outside my house," she said quietly. "Ralgha, you must go. They will doubtless search here next, when they realize I am not in my home. Something must have gone wrong."

Fear for her, and anger, made his voice into a growl; his claws extended, and his neck-ruff rose. "But what of you, Hassa?"

She raised head and tail proudly. "I am a priestess of Sivar, sworn to his glory. I will not run away or hide, there is no honor or courage in that." She touched the ritual knife sheathed at her belt. "If they come for me, I will be ready."

He could say nothing; his instinct urged him to stay and fight at her side; his duty told him to go.

She gave him a long, searching look, as if trying to memorize his face. "Go now, and quickly. Deliver our message and your ship to the humans, Ralgha." She pointed to the other exit of the amphitheater, a small doorway that led into the twisting warren of the streets of the Old City. A moment more, as conflicting urges warred within him, then duty won. He turned to go.

The door opened on silent hinges, and Ralgha slipped through. Beyond the vine-covered alcove, the street was deserted. Ralgha strode away from the amphitheater as a squad of soldiers, dressed in uniforms with the black sigil of Imperial Security, marched past him toward the main entrance to the Temple of Sivar.

Ralgha walked quickly through the darkened streets, never once looking back.

Species didn't seem to matter; wherever there were fliers, there seemed to be a bar. This bar was certainly different from any he'd seen before, though. For one thing, it didn't have much of a floor, or chairs. Firekkans were perched every few feet on branches woven into the tower, extending up into the shadows a hundred feet above him. Only the bartenders were on the ground level, flying up to carry drinks to the customers. They had made some concessions for the human guests, though... there were several dozen hammock-like seats slung at various intervals up the tower, where humans were drinking and chatting with the Firekkans.

He craned his neck a little, wondering how he was going to recognize K'Kai; he'd never seen any more of her than rather blurry face-shots on the vid, and had heard her voice only via comlink. And at the moment, every Firekkan looked like every other Firekkan to him. With a sigh, he walked to the closest ladder—doubtless also installed for the convenience of the humans—and began climbing.

Though they'd never actually been physically present in the same place, he'd "met" the Captain on patrol; she was flying a freighter. That had been something of a surprise. He'd been assigned as her fighter escort, and over the course of the trip, he'd found out quite a bit about her and her "flock." And though they'd never met face-to-face... or face-to-beak, in this situation, they'd talked for hours over the comlink.

Firekkan social groups were fairly large as a rule, consisting of a matriarch and all her immediate relatives. But K'Kai was something of a maverick—which so far as Hunter was concerned, gave her a lot in common with him. She'd no sooner been introduced to the concept of spaceflight than she had broken away from her own family flock—much to their horror, he had no doubt—and presented herself at the spaceport, demanding to be trained.

She'd proven to be quite a pilot; she'd made that old freighter move in ways he'd never suspected it could—and in ways that would have had a human pilot looking for the air-sick bag. Hunter suspected that being a flyer by birth probably helped her there, since she'd been born with a natural aptitude for it. Before very long, she'd been joined by other misfit, oddball Firekkans, all of them looking for a way off-planet and out into space. Pretty soon she had her "flock"—and she was a matriarch of a freighter crew. She trained them herself, and Hunter knew for a fact that the other birds were just as good as she was, if a little on the strange side.

But that still wasn't going to help him pick her out of this crowd—

A piercing whistle made him grab his ears, and then grab again for the safety of the ladder—and a whirlwind of feathers and clattering beaks descended on him as he dropped his haversack.

Not that it mattered—one of the birds grabbed it before it hit the ground; the rest started pawing him—roughing him up—

No, he realized, after a moment of panic. No, it's okay. I remember now—He tried to relax under their questing claw-tips, running through his hair, poking into crevices in his clothing—

This was the Firekkan greeting of affection—like getting hugged by a bunch of friends, or so he'd been told. It was really ritualized grooming—a search for bugs and lice so that an honored friend would not be plagued by pests during a visit.

Oh yeah? What about the feathered pests? He tried not to wince as those sharp claws poked his scalp, and came awfully close to his eyes—

One of them was starting to groom his eyelashes when another sharp whistle, this one not nearly so loud, made them finally break it off. Another Firekkan pushed her way into the flock—she was clearly female, both by virtue of her drab coloring and her larger size. And he realized then that he could never have mistaken this bird for any other; by the grin-gape on her beak, and a certain rakish good humor in her eyes, this could only be K'Kai herself.

"G'day, K'Kai," Hunter said, holding onto the ladder with one hand and reaching out to ruffle her feathers in what he hoped was a similar greeting to what he'd just endured.

"Kep-tain Sain' Dzon! Hun-ter!" She leaned in very close to study his face from three inches away. Hunter fought the impulse to pull away, remembering that he was hanging off a ladder roughly twenty feet in the air, and fast movement was definitely not a good idea. I wouldn't wager that one of these bird-beasties could catch me if I took a nose-dive off this ladder...

"Come come, sit with me!" K'Kai pulled one of the hanging hammock-seats closer to the ladder for him. Hunter grabbed it and hauled himself into it. K'Kai let go of the chair and it swung out over the open floor, nearly slamming into a Firekkan carrying several drinks. The Firekkan shrieked something shrilly in their own language and neatly ducked out of the way, continuing to fly toward the top of the tower. K'Kai shrieked something right back, and the Firekkans nearest them bent over backwards, beaks clattering. At first, Hunter thought they had been hit with some kind of fit... then he realized they were laughing.

Hunter held onto the chair with both hands until it slowed to a stop, hanging out over the floor twenty feet below. He hoped that she couldn't see his whitened knuckles. Hell, she saw you take on four Jalthi single-handedly, he thought. Don't let her think that you're afraid of heights now!

It's not the heights I'm afraid of, or even falling. It's just that sudden stop at the bottom....

K'Kai opened her wings and soared to the closest perch, several other Firekkans following her a moment later, all taking perches slightly lower than hers. She canted her head, looking at him closely. "So, Hun-ter, you are very diff'rent than I expected. Not so tall."

No great surprise, that... every Firekkan in the bar was at least a foot taller than himself. Seven-foot parakeets, not six-foot like Shotglass had said. "You're not quite what I expected, either. But it's good to be here, to meet you. I was wondering if I'd ever see you again, after we left Vega."

"It is... it is..." K'Kai struggled for a word. "I do not know how to say it in your language. Something that was meant to happen?"

"Fate," Hunter said, searching his jacket pocket for a cigar. "Destiny, maybe. You believe in destiny?"

K'Kai ducked her head down between her shoulders in something that looked like embarrassment. "I should, but I am not very religious."

Hunter nodded. "Yeah, me either. The only thing I really believe in is my own flying skills, and my ship, and the fact that the Kilrathi will always try to shoot it out from under me. Speaking of combat flying... have you ever thought about training to be a combat pilot?" It was something he'd been thinking about since they'd met back in the Vega Sector, after he'd seen her fly that damned freighter in a series of tighter turns than he'd ever thought was possible, boxing in the Jalthi to force it directly in front of Hunter's guns. With a wingman like this lady, I could take on the entire Kilrathi fleet, he thought. "You ever think of going for Confed pilot training?"

K'Kai tilted her head, as if considering it for the first time. "I have never thought of it, no. But the idea is pleasing. Do you think I could be good at it, Hun-ter?"

He laughed, a short, sharp bark. "You'd be amazing at it, lady. I'd take you as my wingman any day of the week." He fished in his pocket for his lighter, and lit the cigar.

"What is that thing in your mouth?" K'Kai was staring at it with unfeigned curiosity. Some of the other Firekkans also leaned in close to look, as Hunter exhaled a large cloud of aromatic smoke.

"A cigar," he explained. "Uh... dried tobacco leaves. You burn it and inhale the smoke. It's relaxing, like drinking alcoholic beverages. It isn't good for you, though... I'd say that smoking will kill me eventually, but I'm sure the Kilrathi will get me first."

"Al-co-hol does not affect us," K'Kai said. "We drink kika'li. It is made from the kika seeds, mixed with al-co-hol to bring out the natural flavor of the seeds. Firekkans like to eat kika seeds, which are very tasty and draw away any stresses or pain from us. And the human diplomats like kika'li too, because of the al-co-hol in it. So now the Red Flower serves it to the humans. They call it Firekka's Finest. Would you like some?"

"Sure," Hunter said. Anything would be better than drinking water... considering what fish do in it.

K'Kai whistled again, sharp and loud. There was an answering whistle from below. She gave Hunter another curious look, and scratched herself on the back of her neck with an extended claw. "How long will you be on Firekka, Hun-ter?"

"I have leave for the next three days," he said. "Then I'm back on patrol duty."

"Good. So I can show you my home. This is the first time I have been home in several rotations. My crew and I..." She gestured at the hovering flock of wide-eyed Firekkans. "We have been too busy to travel home, too many important cargoes to deliver for the Confederation. But for the treaty-signing, I knew I had to be here. I saw the first Terran ship land on our planet many rotations ago, and now I will see our planet join the Confederation. It is a great moment for us, a good time to be alive."

"Your family is important in local politics, aren't they?" Hunter asked. "I remember you mentioning something about that back in Vega, and later I saw a newsvid about Firekka on the Tiger's Claw. They talked about you and your crew, and that your family are major local honchos."

K'Kai blinked. "Hon-chos?"

"VIPs. Politicos. Ah..." He searched for the right word. "Flock-leaders?"

K'Kai's beak opened wide, the same gesture that Hunter recognized from the customs officer. "Yes. My sister leads the largest flock on Firekka. She is the Teehyn Ree, the leader of flock-leaders. It is she, with the other flock-leaders, who agreed to the treaty with the Confederation diplomats. She will sign it tomorrow for all of Firekka."

"Your sister, eh? Does this mean that you'll inherit the family flock someday?" Hunter asked.

The Firekkan was silent for a moment before answering. "No, her daughter Rikik will claim the flock. I am too... too different for them to choose me as flock-leader. Better for me to pilot a freighter for the humans than try to lead a flock here."

There's more to this than she's willing to talk about, Hunter guessed. I'd wager that K'Kai's leavetaking of her home planet was a little more spectacular than what she's said so far. She was one of the first of her people to leave her planet, she and Larrhi... the newsvid people always talk about them as great heroes, as brave adventurers, but no one ever asks the question, "Why ? "

And something else occurred to him. How would a species whose entire culture was based on flock-behavior regard someone who left the flock? As a kind of trail-blazer—or a traitor?

Another Firekkan with a brightly-colored head-crest flew close to them, slowing enough that K'Kai could take the tall tubes from his hands. She handed one to Hunter, who looked at it curiously. The tube was made of a plant of some kind, hollowed out to hold liquid. Whatever was inside the tube smelled spicy, a little like jalapeno peppers.

K'Kai raised her "glass" in a silent toast to him, and drank.

He took a careful swallow, and gasped for breath as the fiery liquid burned a path down his throat and into his gut. It was hotter than hell, like drinking the juice of a cayenne pepper. A moment later, the alcohol hit his system like a brick.

"I can... I can see why humans like this stuff," Hunter said, trying to remember how to breathe. The stuff is at least a hundred proof And I think it just burned out my taste buds, he thought wryly. But good, damn good. He drained the last of the drink, feeling like he'd drunk several stiff shots of whiskey mixed with a gallon of Tabasco sauce.

K'Kai had already finished her drink, and was now chewing on the empty tube. Her beak was open in what he now knew had to be a Firekkan grin.

"Another round of drinks for K'Kai and her crew!" Hunter called down to the Firekkans below, following it with a shrill wolf whistle.

K'Kai's eyes widened. "That whistle-sound... do you know what it means in Firekkan?"

"Probably the same thing it means back on Earth. More drinks, mates! This round's on me!"