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Chapter One

The wind skimming in from the Oleaakan sea bore the scent of brine as well as the crash of waves breaking on the black sand beach below. Heyoka Blackeagle stood on a crest of exposed volcanic rock and gazed out at the aquamarine expanse of water.

The sky of this backwater world was a deep shade of green-blue, the sun, a mellow amber. The afternoon sunlight played over the restless waves so that each, at its peak, seemed topped with diamonds. A strand of his mane escaped its tie and whipped around his muzzle.

His ears flattened. Though he was hrinnti, not human, his adoptive father had raised him far inland on Earth in the Restored Oglala Nation. He had rarely encountered seas until humanity's war with the flek had assigned him to the contested world of Enjas Two.

Now, even two years later, the salt smell of a sea, any sea, brought back that brutal day of fighting, how the gaunt chitinous flek warriors had advanced down the green sand and pinned his unit under impenetrable laser fire. He'd taken a near fatal wound that day and subsequently had to learn to walk all over again. His breath quickened. His claws sprang free and he had to force them to resheathe.

Mitsu looked up and he could see in his human partner's blue eyes that she remembered too. Short and black-haired, deceptively slight for a soldier, she blotted sweating hands on her tan Ranger uniform. It was still crisp and new, the latest cut. She was only three weeks out of Rehab and the shadows that haunted her for the last year still loomed in her eyes. She lowered her head and looked away. "You shouldn't have requested me."

"It's just a training run," Heyoka said. "You could do this in your sleep."

"Once, maybe." She sat on her heels, a small forlorn figure, and gazed upland into the rich silver-green of the tangled rain forest. "No one with half a brain would trust me at his back now."

Heyoka lifted his muzzle and let the wind ruffle his black fur. She kept returning to that and he couldn't convince her otherwise. At any rate, Oleaaka was not in the direct path of humanity's decades-long war with a notorious hive species, the flek. The enemy had landed here in the past, stayed long enough to damage the environment, as well as exterminate most of the native population of sentients, the timid laka, and leave flek ruins dotted about the planet's six major island continents. Five of the six were still poisoned with heavy metals and uninhabitable.

Then, for some reason never apparent to human scientists, forty-eight Standard years ago, they'd left again, never to return. Perhaps this world was too difficult to transform. Flek preferred their atmosphere thick and noxious, the surface temperature unbearably high. Something, or someone, in this deceptively lovely landscape had defeated them.

Up in the tangled maze of foliage, a delicate six-legged avian cried out and dove. A fleeing cloud of large scarlet insectoids blundered into Heyoka's fur. He swatted at them. Oleaaka was every bit as hot as his native world of Anktan, but flagrantly humid, where he had been dry. The air seemed thick enough to drink here and smelled so damned green, he could taste it. Not a problem for humans, of course, who were much less sensitive to odors, but overwhelming for a hrinn like himself.

The wall of leaves at the edge of the forest quivered, then suddenly, Kei and Bey, two of his hrinnti trainees, emerged. They presented a formidable picture, both well over seven feet tall, Kei actually closer to eight, heavily furred, armed with retractable claws, and double rows of teeth, not to mention the laser rifles slung over their shoulders which had been modified for their double-thumbed hands.

It was too soon for them to be back. A snarl rattled low in his throat. They must have used blueshift speed, showing off for the human members of the squad again.

In addition to the obvious external differences between humans and hrinn, hrinn possessed special receptor cells in their bodies to store excess energy which could be released for metabolic overdrive. Only last year, he had learned to control this ability himself so that he could move almost too fast to be seen, but then he'd burned himself out in a battle against the flek on his home planet, Anktan. His body couldn't sustain the effort anymore and he saw the contempt in Kei's eyes every time he looked at him. Hrinn respected only strength and physical perfection.

Accustomed to the loose-fitting robes of their home world, the two hrinn looked distinctly uncomfortable in their Ranger gear. The sleek uniforms with close-fitting sleeves and legs were only one of many trials hrinn faced trying to fit into human-based culture.

Bey, the shorter, had a mahogany outer layer of fur with a cream undercoat: brown/on/buff, a hrinn would have named it. Kei's fur was almost uniformly black, with only faint buff patches behind the ears, nearly black/on/black, as he himself was. Their manes had been cut shoulder-length, like his, and then bound with heavy cord.

The two were related in some fashion, both being born of the same Line, Levv, which later he had discovered was his heritage too. On Anktan, though, grown males found matrilineal heritage beneath their notice.

Heyoka checked his watch. Ten minutes. A record find under these conditions, even for his olfactory-gifted hrinnti recruits, but traveling in blueshift had been an extravagant waste of energy.

Kei sketched a sloppy approximation of a salute as he stopped. Heyoka gave him a crisp salute back. "Report," he said.

"Recon was right. We found flek ruins, three miles in." Kei's black eyes were fierce above the ropy laser scar across his muzzle, relic of a childhood encounter with flek on his home world.

"'Recon was right,' sir," Heyoka prompted wearily. He saw Bey glance at his fellow recruit out of the corner of his eye. This was an old skirmish between the two of them, endlessly replayed. Twice already, since the first hrinnti class's graduation from boot camp, Heyoka had been forced to stalk Kei and thrash him unmercifully in time-honored hrinnti fashion. Fortunately, though Kei was taller and carried more muscle, Heyoka had trained for years in hand-to-hand combat. For the moment, he still possessed a slight advantage.

Kei's massive body stiffened, but he remained silent.

Long simmering anger stood Heyoka's fur on end. He felt the savage other who lived within him, and all hrinn, awaken. Would there never be an end to this issue? Even though hrinnti culture maintained that obedience was only owed to those individuals who had proved their ability to tear your throat out, Kei should be able to think his way beyond that savage imperative.

"If you intend to become a Ranger," Heyoka said, "then you will follow protocol. You will address your superior officers as `sir'!"

Kei's lips wrinkled back from his gleaming white teeth. "Sir," he said, with apparent disdain.

Mitsu stood, then shouldered her rifle with careful deliberation, affecting, for his sake, not to have noticed Kei's tone.

Leaves rustled, then a third hrinn, yellow/on/white Visht, emerged from the forest, ears laid back, panting hard. Heyoka looked from him back to the forest's green wall. "Where's the rest of your patrol?" he asked Kei. "You have two more out."

"They couldn't keep up." Kei gazed boldly into Heyoka's eyes, giving him brazen challenge.

Heyoka felt a snarl threatening. "Perhaps because you used blueshift?"

"If they can't match our pace, they deserve to be left behind." Kei flexed his handclaws and studied them in the brilliant Oleaakan sunlight.

He would have washed the insubordinate wretch out, Heyoka thought, if he didn't have so damned much potential. As it was, his arrogance had set the tone for far too long now and the other hrinn looked to him for leadership.. He had to find a way to get through to him, just as wily old Nisk had finally opened his own eyes back on Anktan. This project was the Hrinn's chance to prove themselves more than the barbaric savages humans had long considered them to be. Much more was at stake here than the career of one recruit, or even six.

"Why didn't you check your rally point before returning?" Heyoka said through bared teeth.

"I saw no point in wasting time waiting for that pair of rag-ears to catch up," Kei said in Hrinnti. "And besides, Visht cannot blueshift for very long, so he could watch out for them."

"Go back to the rally point and regroup," Heyoka said.

Kei snorted and plunged back into the trees. Mitsu nodded to Bey and trotted after him, her face pale and set. Heyoka followed. Another showdown was imminent. He might as well get it over at the first opportunity. He was dismayed to find the prospect of a fight did not disturb him nearly as much as it ought.

When he'd first conceived this training program to allow hrinn to enter the Confederation military, he'd hoped to attract the cream of hrinnti society, the best and the brightest. Instead, he'd gotten late culls like young Naxk and outcasts like that rascal Skal, who'd been thrown out of at least three males' houses, misfits like Kei and Bey, who'd been raised in an outlawed Line and, despite their service against the flek, were regarded with suspicion.

One, a rangy pale-gray female named Kika, he'd actually saved from death at the hands of her Line Mother, though she'd always refused to explain the circumstances. And then there was enigmatic Visht, who had come from the farthest edge of hrinnti territory in that region and had almost nothing to say for himself.

At any rate, they had only four more days to smooth the edges before the official evaluators from Ranger HQ arrived to run their own training scenarios. And then it would be too late.

The shade swallowed him, blessedly cooler. The gravity here was closer to Earth Standard than that of Anktan, so his legs had more spring. The leaves of the dominant species in this area were a glossy dark green on top and silver beneath, so traveling the forest was like running through moonlight.

It reminded him of Earth and his boyhood, dark velvet nights spent out on the ridges camping with his friends under the watchful eye of Earth's impressive singleton moon, days of hunting in birch and oak forest, hiking, testing one's self against the elements. His adoptive father, Ben Blackeagle, a retired Oglala space trader, had sometimes gone with them.

He'd thought he'd known what he wanted in those days, who he was, what he would be. But he had known nothing, and understood even less. Sometimes now it seemed to him that his life had not truly begun until that day when he finally made his way back to his fierce home world and begun to unravel the mystery of just who and what he was.

Mitsu padded ahead of him, seemingly recovered, once again every inch the seasoned soldier, but her confidence waxed and waned these days. She had been captured by the flek last year on Anktan, then ruthlessly mind-conditioned to believe she was one of them. It had taken weeks after her release for her to begin speaking Standard again, then longer for her to understand what they had done to her.

The best therapists the division had to offer had treated her for months and now said she was as fit as she would ever be, though they recommended a medical discharge. He thought they were wrong. She had been a crack soldier once and would be again, as soon as she got her confidence back, but there were still too many moments when her veneer cracked and he glimpsed the wounded spirit beneath. In a very real sense, she was training here too, trying to find the will to go on and not allow the flek to ruin the rest of her life.

Kei set a stiff pace and Mitsu's shorter human legs struggled to keep up. "Take the rear," Heyoka said to her as he jogged past.

"Sod off!" she said hoarsely and spurted ahead again, the cords in her neck standing out from exertion.

"Am I going to have to thrash you into submission too?" he said.

"That'll be a cold day!" she snapped over her shoulder.

He surged past her again. "Take the rear!"

She dropped back, her face a white mask of strain.

They had served together now for almost four years, since that day she'd saved his hairy hide as a raw boot, only weeks out of camp. She had a knack for slipping through rough country unseen, climbing like a monkey, employing her small build as an asset, rather than a liability. From the first, she had been extraordinarily observant and quick to react.

At least, she had been, before the flek had gotten to her. The thought still made his own skin crawl. He'd been a prisoner of the flek too, as a toddler, kidnapped from Anktan and sold repeatedly in a flek slave market until Ben Blackeagle, his human adoptive father, had bought him. He knew how the flek treated their captives. He still bore the scars, both mental and physical, to prove it.

Kei slowed, then darted through the foliage to the massive trunk of a tree growing parallel to the damp ground. "Here," he said, then leaned against the mottled red bark.

Heyoka swiveled his ears. Something slipped through the undergrowth about thirty feet away to the north. Fifteen degrees east, tiny toenails scraped as several small green-furred climbers, alarmed by their intrusion, raced for the forest canopy a good hundred fifty feet above. Overhead, avians crooned an atonal song that set his teeth on edge. But, beyond Mitsu's labored breathing, as she struggled to catch up, there was no sign of the two human recruits he'd sent out with Kei, Bey, and Visht.

He'd known Kei and Bey back on Anktan, but the silent Visht remained a mystery. The big yellow male occasionally mentioned the sacred patterns/in/progress, which hrinn believed ruled all of life, and regarded Heyoka with a disturbing air of reverence. He'd grown inured to that back on Anktan. His fur's uniformly black over- and undercoats mirrored the physical appearance of an ancient hrinnti hero, the legendary "Black/on/black," a hrinn more powerful than ordinary hrinn sent by the Voice when the need was great. After the defeat of the flek on their world, the hrinn had woven his return to Anktan into legend.

It was all nonsense, of course, based on a tiny nugget of truth. His distinctive coloring did appear to be a genetic marker for the ability to store large amounts of power in his cells and blueshift with ease, but he'd burned himself out, so that no longer mattered.

He circled upwind and sampled the breeze. The acridness of human sweat was just faintly evident to the west. "Come on," he said, and jogged off in the proper direction.

Kei and Bey fell in behind without comment. Bey's ears were down, signalling his unease. Perhaps the seriousness of abandoning one's squadmates was dawning on him, Heyoka mused. There might be hope for that one after all.

They found Aliki Onopa and Jer Kline sitting on a fallen log at the outer edge of the flek ruins. Larger than six football fields, the installation had been studied by Confederation experts for decades, before releasing the site to the military for training maneuvers. Forty-eight Standard years had passed since the flek had been driven from this world, yet he still imagined he caught a whiff of their nose-burning stench.

The white wall was pitted with age and overgrown with vines, so that the massive shape was blurred. All the same, Heyoka suffered a flashback of the last time he'd been this close to a flek installation—the bizarre pink, green, purple, and blue lights that played over the tall irregular lattices that formed the walls, the ear-splitting screech as the transfer grid came up to full power, shower of sparks . . . 

He shuddered, then glanced aside at Mitsu, who was staring up at the structure with horrified fascination. Onopa and Kline scrambled to their feet and saluted.

"Why didn't you report to the rally point?" Heyoka said.

"Rally point, sir?" Onopa, a sturdy, bronze-skinned woman from Kalana Colony, clinched her fists. "Squad Leader Kei never designated a site. He and those other hrinn took off running and that's the last we saw of them."

Those other hrinn, Heyoka thought bleakly.

Kei waggled a dismissive ear. "I did speak of a rally point. If you had not lagged behind, you would have heard."

Onopa flushed.

"You're on report for not following procedure," Heyoka said, stepping between human and hrinn. "You and Bey will police the camp for the next two nights."

Kei's big body bristled nose to ankles. Fight pheromones sheeted off him in waves. "I am not a servant!"

"You're not going to be a Ranger either unless you stop playing games and use what you've been taught!"

Kei whirled upon him, ears flattened, hackles raised. "Why have you brought us to this empty world, wasting time when there are flek to be killed?" he demanded in guttural Hrinnti. "I did not abandon Levv so I could sneak around in the bushes like a cubling playing at being a warrior! We have weapons now. In the time since we left Anktan, we could have fought thousands of flek and brought much honor to our kind. Instead, we slip through the trees and pretend there are enemies where there are none, all the while holding back at every turn so these whimpering softskins you inflicted upon us as huntmates can keep up!"

"Speak Standard," Heyoka said. The savage other who always lurked within him longed to rip Kei's insolent throat out.

Mitsu, who spoke passable Hrinnti these days, gave him a quick glance, but said nothing.

Onopa and Kline, who had not understood more than one word in five, looked furious anyway. "Sergeant, he never even gave us a chance!" Onopa protested.

"That's enough!" Heyoka ordered and the human recruit was at least well trained enough to shut up. Kei snarled and slipped back into the brush. Bey's honest brown face gazed after him, but he did not follow.

"Do you want me to trail him?" Mitsu asked.

"No, he'll come back when he's ready," Heyoka said, his voice tight with frustration.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Mitsu said, shaking her head. She gestured to Onopa, Kline, Visht, and Bey. "Head `em out, boys and girls. It's time to go back to the playpen."

That might have been funny, Heyoka thought, if it hadn't been so bloody close to the truth.


The voices coming from the clearing around the tall white walls were loud. Third Gleaner paused in her gathering of sweet herbs and tubers. She quite disliked loud noises of any sort. The laka were a steady, quiet people, each committed to that which she did best, never overstepping boundaries or underdoing what must be done. Each tend to her own, as Burrow Matron always said. That was the old, proven way, set down when the world was still soft.

Her two first-hands hesitated above the spiral of a lovely ripe green shellfruit. She trembled as the voices grew ever more strident. Why did they not come to some sort of compromise? Did they actually mean to hurt one another? She crept forward, then peered through the leaves of a spikebush, trying to decide whether to hide or flee. As a gleaner, it was not her function to scout, though sometimes gleaners were required to venture far afield to find enough fresh provisions for the entire colony.

And, if there were danger in this area, then the others must be warned so they could avoid it. The strange two-handed ones came here from time to time, to this place of echoes, where the wind spoke its own language, telling tales of death and misery. They seemed drawn to it almost as much as the laka were repelled, though it was not of their making. The terrible ones, the warriors, had made it. That much was remembered.

Delicate first-hands clasped, she slipped closer and saw a flash of black as one stranger dashed into the forest. The others, who were of two distinct and separate kinds, stared after it.

She had not encountered this second kind before. They appeared to be covered with fur, of all things, one brown, the other black. The first kind was familiar, soft and tan, bearing only a modest amount of varicolored hair here and there. These sought out the laka occasionally and asked questions, but the laka had better things to do than listen. Sooner or later, they went away and left the colony in peace. The laka wanted nothing more.

The black-furred creature called out to its companions, not as loudly this time. It waved an arm and set off toward the shore. The other two followed, one tall and rangy, the other three smaller and more compact, a badly matched set.

Despite their differences, though, they behaved as though they had the same function. How odd, thought Third Gleaner. How inefficient. Either one kind or the other should be best at what was needed here. It was not possible for both forms to excel. She could not get the sight out of her mind as she hurried back to her sisters.


Without seeming to, Bey set his pace so that Mitsu could keep up. She found herself feeling grateful and that just made her madder. What was she doing here on this beguiling amber and green world? Sweat beaded up on her forehead, then stung her eyes. The new tan corporal's uniform, despite being of the latest and lightest weave, designed to wick moisture away from the skin, was stifling.

She was just out of shape, she told herself. It would be all right. She only had to hold on, keep going forward, one step after the other, and somewhere at the end, she would feel like herself again, the confident person she had been before the flek had flayed her mind open.

But that towering white wall! Despite the heat, she was chilled just thinking about it. To stand so close, smell it, remember how flek thoughts had skittered through her head like insects—she felt sick inside, contaminated. The meds had assured her that she was whole again, that there would be no lasting effects, but the truth was they didn't know. No one knew, because they had never been there, never sung the flek's songs or fought at their side.

And she had.

Bey swerved, ducked under a low-hanging branch, then stopped at the edge of a stretch of gleaming black sand. His ears twitched. Onopa and Kline were already there, staring out at the horizon, waiting. Mitsu grimaced. Bey really had held back on the pace.

Blue-green water lapped at the shore and the warm ocean breeze soughed against her face, surprisingly cool on her overheated cheeks. The scent of Oleaakan seaweed growing in the shallows filled the air, cinnamon laced with mint. For a second, she was tempted to shed her boots and plunge into the water, but—she ranked these three grunts and should set a good example. Besides, the way Onopa looked at her, she'd heard the rumors about her so-called "breakdown" last year. She didn't want to give the Kalanan cause to think she was even crazier than she really was.

Blackeagle emerged from the trees, his tan uniform contrasting with his fur. When he'd worn the traditional Ranger black, meant for cooler climes, the uniform had blended better with his fur. He'd recovered from his ordeal on Anktan more readily than she had, though he bore a fresh array of scars and had never quite regained all the weight he'd lost in that last battle. He looked fit, though.

She drew her knife and hefted it experimentally. Blackeagle cocked his head, a question gleaming in his black eyes. "How about some fishing?" she said.

He shook his head. "We have to make camp before sundown."

She looked back over her shoulder at the placid bay. "Why?"

"I don't want to chance Kei getting there first," he said.

"He'd never go into camp alone," she said. "There'd be too many questions."

"True." Blackeagle wrinkled his lips so that his double rows of teeth gleamed.

He was different from before, she realized, just as she was different. They'd both been through hell, but unlike previous actions, not together this time. Perhaps they couldn't function as the efficient combat unit they'd once been. Perhaps that was over too, like so much else.

Get a grip! she told herself angrily. You don't have the right to give up. Better soldiers than you have gone down fighting. That's the least you can do.

She sheathed the knife and turned away to conceal her face. Maybe she'd lost the knack of reading him, but she couldn't count on the opposite being true. "Fish would taste a lot better than those sodding field rations," she said noncommittally.

"What makes you think there's fish in that ocean," Blackeagle said, "or that we could digest them, if there were?"

"Mission briefing said we could eat some of the fruit," she said.

Brush rattled, then Kei stalked out of the trees. He halted a good fifty feet away, where he and Blackeagle sized one another up, as alike in coloration and build as twins, but for the slight mismatch in size.

"Well, Private, we'd about given up on you," Blackeagle said. "What's the matter? Can't keep up?"

Kei snarled and paced restlessly.

"Corporal Jensen, take the point," Blackeagle said. "Lead the squad back to camp."

"I am Squad Leader!" Kei threw out.

"You were." Blackeagle looked contemptuous. "But it takes self-control and wits to lead a command and you have yet to convince me that you have sufficient of either!"

Kei's black eyes blazed and he whirled upon Mitsu. "And yet you tolerate this traitor!"

Without thinking, she fell back and drew her knife. Her heart raced and the balmy air seemed suddenly chilly.

"I have told you a million times—she did not betray us!" Blackeagle's voice held the ring of cold steel as he stepped between them.

"I can fight my own battles, dammit!" she told him. "Get out of the way!"

"I was there! I smelled her!" Kei said. "She fought at their side, spoke their language and would speak no other! You should have let me tear her throat out!"

Mitsu dimly remembered that night, the desperate flek struggle to protect the crystalline heart of their transport grid, the terrible wave of hrinn cutting down the warrior drones, how she had fallen back and directed the battle herself when the flek had lost focus. Kei had nearly killed her that day. Only Blackeagle's quick thinking had saved her life, and his actions had cost him dearly.

"Stand down, Corporal!" Blackeagle said. "That's an order!"

The knife felt right in her hand. Kei was big, she thought, but she had speed and agility on her side. The gravity was lighter here too than on Anktan, which was bound to throw him off. And if he killed her instead, that might be even better.

Blackeagle seized her arm in his double-thumbed hand. "I said `stand down!' "

Kei snarled as she sheathed the knife, blood pounding in her ears.

"There will be no fighting in the ranks," Blackeagle said, his ears pinned back. "We fight flek, not each other!" He looked from Kei to Bey to the three humans. "Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir." Mitsu felt the blood rush to her face.

"Yes, sir, Master Sergeant," Kline and Onopa said.

Bey hesitated, then dropped his gaze, acknowledging submission hrinnti fashion. "Yes, sir."

Blackeagle looked directly at Kei, daring him to further defiance.

"The pattern here is water/over/trail," Kei said, "no matter what other name you choose to mask it."

"I thought you didn't believe in patterns/in/progress," Heyoka said.

"Since leaving Anktan, I begin to see their relevance," Kei said. "Don't you?"

A low snarl escaped Blackeagle. He turned his back on Kei. "Take the point, Corporal Jensen."

Mitsu slung her laser rifle over her shoulder and headed east. The rest followed, even Kei.


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