Read an Excerpt
Stars Over Stars
By K. D. Wentworth
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-31979-5
Chapter OneThe 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.
Excerpted from Stars Over Stars by K. D. Wentworth Excerpted by permission.
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