Once, on a world called Kesrith, Sten Duncan had considered himself human. But that was just after th war with the regul... a war that had pitted mankind against a race of fierce, supremely skilled mercenaries who'd fought on the regul's behalf for 40 years: the mri.
Ironically, only two mri had survived the peace. The regul had betrayed their former henchmen in the end, and most of the humans on Kesrith had been relieved to see the last of their hated foes. Yet Duncan, moved by the mri's plight, had gotten permission to join the two – Niun, a warrior, and his sister Melein, she'pan, Mother of the People – on a voyage to their home world, Kutath. And along the way, slowly, painfully, he had stripped away human habits and thoughts, and become mri.
Kutath proved to be an arid, windswept wilderness, tolerable to Niun and Melein, torturous to Duncan. The native mri still lived by the ancient laws, and the strangers from Kesrith were able to win one tribe's loyalty – if not its affection. But their strength was sorely limited, and Melein knew they would need help to endure the days ahead.
For there were alien ships in the skies – human and regul – and the regul had attacked one of Kutath's surface cities without warning, killing not only warriors, but mri scholars and children. Other cities, equipped with sophisticated weaponry, could be used for defense – provided Melein won the support of additional tribes and could gain access to those weapons in time. But Duncan had persuaded her to wait... to allow him to talk with his old human friends and try to convince them to leave the mri in peace. And the she'pan had waited.
Unfortunately, the humans were divided on the mri question. A few were willing to trust Duncan, but some suspected treachery, and others simply felt that it would be foolish to jeopardize a profitable alliance with the wealthy regul for the mri's sake.
The regul wanted a massacre, not a parley; and they were well aware of the mri's fighting capabilities, and now had ample reason to fear reprisals. Nor were they entirely sure of their new allies. If the humans spared the mri, would both then turn on the regul?
As for the mri, it was a matter of suicide or survival. If Duncan failed, they would fight their last battle for the sake of honor, although there would be no honor in the dying of the children. And if Duncan succeeded, there would still be mri on Kutath – but would the last stronghold of the People truly belong to aliens?
C. J. Cherryh (born 1942) is the pen name of Carolyn Janice Cherry, a multiple-award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer. She currently resides in Spokane County, Washington.
Cherryh is pronounced ”Cherry”. The author appended a silent ”h” to her real name because her first editor felt that ”Cherry” sounded too much like a romance writer.
The asteroid 77185 Cherryh has been named in her honour.