The Compact is not a political organization, and has no government; it regulates only the open trade and accessibility of space stations to all civilizations, leaving them to resolve their conflicts and politics between themselves.Human space borders kif and knnn territory, the most aggressive and enigmatic species of the Compact respectively. First contact ensues when an ambitious kif hakkikt (prince) captures a human exploration ship. The last surviving crew member, Tully, escapes while the kif ship is docked at a station and winds up on The Pride of Chanur, a hani merchant vessel commanded by Pyanfar Chanur. This triggers the events of the first novel in the series and its three-part sequel. The books are written as unusually realistic space opera, with much less ship-to-ship shooting than coercion, manipulation, politics, pride contests, and clashing economic interests interspersed with species-to-species miscommunication and misunderstanding.The realistic handling of linguistic and psychological barriers is one of the stronger aspects of the books (especially compared to the genre as a whole). The character development is another, which is also closely connected to the inter-species relations. As the (usually involuntary) exposure of the characters to different cultures goes on, they are pushed to probe other ways of thinking—and together with constant pressure of both economical and immediate hazard that drives them to opening new levels of themselves. Even the "enemy" side is quickly brought from the level of incomprehensible faceless danger into viewing them as a formidable yet admirable opponent. The books are a metaphor of breaking mental barriers, finding oneself in adversity, and growing above petty interests towards global strategies and greatness.
The species forming the Compact
Hani are a feline-like species, maned, bearded, usually of red or tawny fur. Females are smaller than humans, males much larger (for much the same reason as Earth lions). They were discovered by the mahendo'sat and helped into space; most of their technology is therefore derived from mahen. They live in autonomous clans, each consisting of related females, children, and a single male, the clan lord. A male takes over a clan by defeating the previous lord in personal combat. Most males are not that lucky. Male offspring are thrown out of their clan when they become strong enough to pose a threat to the lord. They live in exile among others like themselves, honing their fighting skills and waiting for the opportunity to challenge for a clan. For this reason and because males are stereotyped as being emotionally unstable, only females go into space (until Pyanfar Chanur changes the rules). Females do all the work on clan lands and in space ventures, although Cherryh does describe some able and intelligent males who become involved in the world around them. Clans are united into amphictionies for control of scarce resources; the biggest one is their homeworld itself, governed by a mahen-inspired council of clans called the han. Hani politics are tradition-bound, based on such concepts as allegiance, honor, blood feud and parole. One of the hani languages became the basis for the Compact's pidgin, because it was grammatically and phonetically easy for other species (but not as easy for humans).
Mahendo'sat (singular mahe) are black or brown primate-like creatures, human-size or larger. They are very curious, innovative and politically oriented. The Mahendo'sat political system is based on the concept of Personage, a charismatic figure with a lot of social credit; a Personage's power is determined by the number of its followers, but a supporter can either weaken or strengthen its Personage, depending on whether its actions in its Personage's name prove to be beneficial or not. To an outsider, this can (and frequently does) look like a Personage's mahen agents are promoting mutually contradictory policies at the same time. Mahendo'sat are idiosyncratically bad at learning other species' languages—many of them can not even master the pidgin used by Compact spacers—although they are quite eloquent in their own numerous languages. Mahendo'sat are the "glue" of the Compact, always trying to maintain the balance of power so peace can be kept and no species dominates. They are in constant search of new powers, recently including humans. Homeworld: Iji.
Stsho are slight, slender, fragile, crested white beings (even their eyes are pearly white), xenophobic and non-aggressive. Stsho rely on wealth, trade, and alliances to keep their independence; they have devised the trade and legal procedures of the Compact. Although they are tame, stsho are great plotters and can cheat any other species. They hire other species for protection and order keeping in their stations, usually the mahendo'sat. They prefer delicate pleasures and pastel colors, their speech is exceedingly ceremonial and politically correct; they do not physically fight among themselves and their personalities are prone to change ("Phase") under stress, which has many legal implications. They have three genders, gtst, gtste and gtsto, which can change with Phasing. Only the gtst (indeterminate sex) deal with other species; the gtste and gtsto (equivalent of male and female) do not normally present themselves to foreigners. There is a fourth state of being, gtsta, which is also known as Holiness. This is a sexless state usually achieved by an aged, honorable Stsho. They permit no other oxygen-breathing species in their territory. Homeworld: Llyene.
Kif are bare-skinned, wrinkled, ash-grey, long-snouted bipedal hunters. They are the tallest species in the Compact, slender, fast and deadly. They are strictly predators, requiring live prey; they have twin sets of teeth (outer for biting and inner for chewing) and retractable claws. Their social and political [dis]organization revolves about a quality called sfik, which combines face, authority, and ferociousness. Sfik is gained through victory in combat, or possession of something of value, or just the respect of others: followers with strong sfik give more sfik to their leader. A kif that loses sfik is likely to have its followers either defect or kill it. As a result, the kif are prone to change sides at the first sign of weakness. They seem to have no other moral values; they are pirates and cannibals, and are generally deemed troublesome by the other species. Occasionally, a strong leader gains enough sfik to hold a base and/or command a whole fleet of ships; such a one is called a hakkikt (prince). These high status individuals are major annoyances to the mahendo'sat, who view hakkiktun as serious destabilizing factors. Very rarely, an ambitious and powerful hakkikt will aspire to become the mekt-hakkikt (supreme prince), the leader of all the kif, a status no kif has ever attained. However, by the time the Chanur cycle takes place, hakkitun have been adding more and more power each time, each summing his predecessors' allies to his own. This has worried other species greatly, especially their eternal enemies, the mahendo'sat. Kif are very linguistically adept and adaptable. They are also color blind and the color of their clothes and habitats are generally shades of black and grey. They use dot codes instead of color codes for their hardware. Homeworld: Akkht.
Tc'a and Chi
Tc'a are large methane-breathing yellow five-eyed wormlike beings, and the chi are yellow arthropod-like creatures. The two species are related in a way none of oxygen breathers understand, but are (presumably) symbiotic. They are very technologically advanced and powerful, although understanding them is tricky at best, since their brains are multi-part and their speech decodes as complex matrices of intertwined meanings. They run the methane side of most space stations.
Knnn, the third methane breathing species, multi-legged tangles of wiry black hair, are the most technologically advanced in the Compact. Unlike other known species, they can maneuver in hyperspace and carry other ships with them. Only tc'a can communicate with them (or claim they can); the knnn are incomprehensible and therefore deemed dangerous by the other species, not to be provoked. They trade by snatching whatever they want and leaving whatever they deem sufficient as payment behind; it is an improvement over their prior habit of just taking trader ships apart.
The technology of the Compact
There are three main kinds of space ships in Compact's employ: surface-to-orbit shuttles, miners, and jump ships. The first and the second use only reaction engines for propulsion; shuttles can land on planets while miners and jump ships need space stations to dock. Only the jump ships can cross interstellar distances by using jump drive. They are also the fastest in-system transports because they can move at sub-light speeds without entering a jump. Most of these are traders and freighters; some are heavily armed hunter-ships. The Compact ships do not enter hyperspace proper; they aim at a star and "glide" along the so-called interface between space and hyperspace until the mass at the other end of the jump goal makes them drop out. They exit at light speed and must dump velocity with help of the same jump engine; a ship failing to do so is doomed, and usually a high hazard. There is a limit on maximum jump distance, depending on the ship's drive power and mass; a ship overstretching a jump may "fade", never exiting it. A jump takes several weeks of objective time. Subjectively it can take hours or even several days; this tends to exhaust the body, and the crews need to take rest between jumps. Hani and mahendo'sat stay marginally conscious during jump, but unable to act; usually, they dream. Stsho must drug themselves unconscious to survive jump. Humans can survive it undrugged, but it is a terrible experience to them. No one knows what the other species feel during it, though it is hinted that Kif maintain more of their faculties than hani during jump. Ships and space stations communicate by radio, which poses time-lag difficulties. To alleviate them somewhat, heavily trafficked systems usually keep buoys near the jump exit points that serve incoming ships with system-wide scan and traffic information, and also mail. The space stations are universally built as huge doughnuts, the spin maintaining a sort of artificial gravity (the Compact has no other technology that can do it). This poses a difficulty when docking, as the ship must precisely coincide with the quickly rotating station wheel to grapple. When docked, two sets of grapples, its own and the station's, hold it in place and in mutual clinch: a ship can undock forcibly, but that is bound to damage the station and is a criminal offense. The tankers and miners dock at the central hub for materials transfer. Dockside transport is mostly electric carts and trucks of all sizes, but many people go into docks on foot. Different species build ships in different fashions; the methane-breather ships seem haphazardly constructed to the oxygen breathers. All jump ships have vanes, constructed of modular panels, which form the "hyperspace bubble" needed to cross the interface. For example, The Pride of Chanur begins with the dock grapples at the prow; then follows the habitat with the carousel which rotates during inertial flight to provide gravity. The bridge is also located there. Then come the pressurized and "cold" holds with beds for cargo canisters, loading machinery and a separate cargo access hatch; then the jump drive assembly with three vanes on support columns, with wire struts; and finally, the main-engine for ballistic flight. Hunter ships have less cargo space and more weaponry and crew accommodation, and often have detachable holds. Weapons include lasers, automatic cannons, and missile batteries for the ship; personal armaments include small beam weapons, pistols, and "AP guns" (which fire explosive shells, not unlike a small grenade launcher). Knives are also mentioned. Hani and kif, as predators, also have sharp retractile claws and sharp teeth. The mahendo'sat have tough, non-retractable claws, which are often used for utilitarian purposes, but using these in a fight is seen as a sign of madness in their culture.