THE HUB WAS JUST beginning to awaken behind him as Caine stepped through the east gate at precisely six-twenty in the morning, and he was faintly surprised to find that the non-government section of Capstone was already up and running. Lunchbox-carrying men dressed in well-worn laborers’ coveralls strode briskly down the streets, their shadows stretching long in the sliver of sun poking above the mountains to the east. Other men and women prepared small shops for opening: washing windows, sweeping walkways, and adjusting awnings and window displays.
Fifty meters from the wall sat the only vehicle in sight: a battered box-shaped van with the partially obscured name of a butcher shop on sides and back. Leaning against the door on the driver’s side, his arms folded across his chest, was a small, wiry-looking man with dark skin and hair and a prominent nose. A bit hesitantly, Caine walked over to him.
The other got in the first word. “You Rienzi?” he asked gruffly, eyes boring into Caine’s face. When Caine nodded, he said, “I’m Mordecai; Skyler sent me. Get in.”
Caine obeyed, and was surprised to find the space behind the twin seats filled with blankets and hiking gear. “You seem well equipped,” he commented as Mordecai guided the vehicle down the street.
“The van belongs to all of us; we bought it from the shop where I work,” Mordecai said, his tone stiffly formal. “Most of the others are walking or cycling to the lodge, so I’m bringing all the gear.”
“The lodge itself doesn’t have much in the way of facilities?”
“Hasn’t for years.” He glanced over at Caine. “Look, Rienzi, I don’t know what Lathe thought he was doing inviting you along. We humor him, so I’ll try to be polite to you. But I don’t have to like you—and I don’t. So keep the chatter down, okay?”
Caine swallowed hard. The undertone of anger in that voice….Would most of the blackcollars feel that strongly about him? Stealing sideways glances, Caine studied the lined face that gazed stonily ahead. A thin scar he hadn’t noticed curved along the blackcollar’s right cheek. There were no humor or laugh lines anywhere that Caine could see; Mordecai’s grim expression had been a part of the man for a long time.
Sighing inwardly, Caine settled back and prepared himself for a long, awkward drive.
Hamner Lodge lay nestled in the western slopes of the Greenheart Mountain Range sixteen kilometers northeast of Capstone. Once a prestigious hunting lodge, it had been a favorite retreat of Plinry’s rich and influential, even having its own station on the underground tube that linked Capstone with the city of New Karachi on the far side of the mountains.
The war had changed all that. New Karachi was now a shallow depression in the blackened ground, the tube was out of use and in disrepair, and the lodge was abandoned…most of the time.
“We’ve been coming up here two to four times a year since about 2440,” a spry oldster named Frank Dodds explained to Caine as they walked through the wooded area surrounding the lodge. Dodds had taken over as tour guide for Caine shortly after the latter’s arrival with Mordecai and was filling him in on history as well as geography. Caine was grateful for the change in babysitters; while Dodds wasn’t welcoming Caine with open arms, he at least was marginally friendly.
“I’m surprised the owners didn’t repair the place after the war,” he commented to the blackcollar, shivering slightly in the chilly mountain air. “It’s not in bad shape.”
“As I recall, the owners lived in New Karachi,” Dodds said quietly.
“Oh.” Caine felt foolish.
Dodds looked at him. “Those clothes aren’t really suited for the temperature up here, are they?”
“Yeah. Well, Skyler brought some extra clothing for you in case you didn’t have anything proper. You ought to go and change.”
“That was very kind of him. I think I will.” A motion through the trees to his left caught Caine’s attention. “Who’s that over there?”
“Hunting party, probably,” Dodds said, craning his neck. “Let’s go see.”
They walked through the undergrowth and dead leaves for about twenty meters to a small clearing where three men were waiting for them. “Heard you coming,” one of them, a lanky man with pure white hair, commented. Under their jackets, Caine noted, all three wore the same black turtleneck shirt that he’d seen on Lathe at their first meeting; and each wore a dragonhead ring with slitted metal eyes. Brave enough to wear the hated rings, Caine thought cynically, as long as no one else was around.
Dodds made the introductions. “Alain Rienzi, this is Dawis Hawking; that’s Kelly O’Hara, and this is Charles Kwon.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Caine said. With their large arms and shoulders, O’Hara and Kwon both looked like former wrestlers, despite their age [. . .]
Hawking nodded with cool politeness. “Heard about you,” he said. “Writing a book about the war.”
“Maybe Rienzi would like to see how we hunt,” Dodds suggested.
Hawking shrugged. “Just keep him out of the way.” Reaching into a pouch attached to his belt, the blackcollar pulled out a larger silvery object. “Ever seen one of these, boy?” he asked.
Caine stepped forward, curious. It was an eight-pointed metal star about fifteen centimeters across. Though tarnished in places, the star’s points were still sharp.
“It’s called a throwing star, or shuriken,” Hawking explained. “It’s used like—well, like this. Watch that squirk over there.”
Caine glanced in the indicated direction in time to see a gray, flat-tailed creature the size of a small monkey hop up onto a dead log. Planting his feet carefully, Hawking gripped the star in its center and cocked his arm inward, toward his chest. For just a second he held the pose; then, leaning forward, he whipped his arm, sending the star spinning through the air. The squirk’s reflexes were fast, though, and the animal leaped for a nearby tree even as the star flew past it. With an outraged yip, the squirk scampered up the trunk and vanished from sight.
“Damn,” Hawking muttered. He retrieved the star and returned to the group. “Doesn’t always work,” he shrugged. “But I’ll nail one in a couple more tries, if you want to come along and watch.”
“Uh, no thanks.” Caine shivered again, and not entirely from the cold. Just playing soldier, all of them; reliving past glories that were long gone. “I’m going to need warmer clothes, I think.”
“Yeah, don’t want you catching pneumonia or something—the collies would probably take it out of our pensions,” O’Hara commented dryly.
“Come on, Rienzi, we’ll go see Skyler,” Dodds said. “You guys better hustle—we’ll need some meat by thirteen o’clock if we’re going to eat by noon.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hawking growled.
Unbidden, tears came to Caine’s eyes as he and Dodds headed back toward the lodge. He did not look back.
The three hunters remained silent until they heard the distant sound of the lodge door closing behind Dodds and Caine. Then Hawking returned the big silvery star to his belt pouch. “Seemed a bit dejected, didn’t he?” he remarked to the others.
Kwon nodded. “It could be an act, of course.”
“Pretty good acting, in my book,” O’Hara said.
Hawking shrugged. “Well, we’ll find out this afternoon. Let’s wrap this up while Dodds has him out of the way, shall we?”
All three men froze, listening. From the multitude of chirps, buzzes, and clicks coming from the leafy canopy overhead, Hawking picked out the faint noise of squirk claws on tree bark. Locating it by the sound, he was watching the proper spot when the creature cautiously moved into sight.
Hawking reached to his belt—but not to the pouch holding the silvery stars. His fingers dipped instead into a smaller pouch, hidden behind the first, and emerged with another throwing star. It, too, had eight points—but there the resemblance ended. This star was half the diameter of the other; heavier, sharper, and colored a jet black. A wolf, to the silvery star’s Saint Bernard. His eyes on the squirk, Hawking permitted himself a smile at Caine’s naïveté—imagine thinking blackcollars used demonstration shuriken for hunting!
The star flashed across the clearing, burying itself deeply into the squirk’s body before the animal could react. The squirk dropped like a stone; and its noisy passage through the branches triggered sudden activity above the clearing. In a single smooth motion O’Hara snatched a star from his own pouch and snapped it skyward. A second squirk, killed in mid-leap, slammed into its target tree and slid to the ground.
“Show-off,” Hawking muttered as he moved off to retrieve his star and squirk. O’Hara just grinned and went to get his own.
“I’ll take them in,” Kwon volunteered. “Better get at least four more; we’ve got a full house today.”
“No problem,” Hawking assured him. Gesturing to O’Hara, he set off deeper into the woods.
Considering the trouble Hawking and the others had been having, Caine was mildly surprised when dinner was indeed ready by noon. The food was good enough—roast squirk reminded him of very tough shrimp, somehow—but he paid only token attention to the meal. His real interest lay in the group of men gathered around the large wooden table. What he saw wasn’t encouraging.
There were thirty-one blackcollars present, all proudly wearing black turtlenecks and dragonhead rings. Only one other man had the red-eyed ring that signified a comsquare: Trevor Dhonau, the wizened old man at the head of the table. Lathe, sitting next to Caine, identified Dhonau as the doyen, or senior member, of the Plinry blackcollars. Whether the title held any real power Caine didn’t know; but it almost didn’t matter anymore. Looking at the faces around him and listening to the conversations, he knew there was no help here for him. The blackcollars hated the Ryqril and their domination; that much he was sure of. But equally clear was the fact that all of them had resigned themselves to it. In hindsight, Caine knew he should have expected nothing more—the Ryqril would hardly have allowed them to live had they been otherwise. But it was still a crushing disappointment.
Blackcollars, even old ones, were evidently not the kind to linger over their meals, and soon the plates were empty. At the head of the table Trevor Dhonau got awkwardly to his feet, favoring a game right leg. Tapping his knife on his plate until conversation ceased, he raised his glass. “Blackcollar commandos, once more we are met together,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “Let us dedicate our time here to those our comrades who have gone before us, and pledge that their sacrifice should not be in vain.”
The others picked up their glasses and drank. Caine, conscious of his role as a collie, left his untouched. Lathe nudged him. “It’s good stuff,” he said. “Tardy Spadafora makes it himself. Aren’t you going to try it?”
“Caine shook his head. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have come—I don’t belong here.” He looked across the table, where Mordecai was sitting. “I heard you mention you were going back to Capstone tonight. Could I possibly ride with you?”
Mordecai’s eyes burned into him. “I suppose so.”
Lathe plucked at Caine’s sleeve. “Hear, you can’t leave today. You’ll miss the shuriken and nunchaku contests and—”
“I’m sorry.” Caine got to his feet, abruptly sickened by the whole pathetic farce. “Excuse me, please.”
Back in the room Skyler had assigned him Caine began pulling together the clothes and other things he had brought. But he had barely started when a sudden dizziness swept over him, sending him to a sitting position on the floor. For several seconds he tried to fight it as strength flowed out of him like sweat. By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late to call out.
He was asleep before his head hit the floor.
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