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At official request, Heyoka escorted the Confederation major down to the remains of the flek grid within hours of his arrival. It had taken weeks for the research station's communication lapse to be noted, and then more weeks to divert the nearest military ship in that quadrant to investigate what appeared to be a low priority communications anomaly. Once a ship had arrived and learned the true state of affairs, its commanding major had been sorely disappointed over the destruction of the facility. Heyoka had expected that, but for many days after the attack, he'd been too near death to stop the hrinn from carrying through their mission to obliterate the flek. The loss of a relatively intact installation to study was not inconsequential, but the only real alternative had been a functional flek grid, and no one was foolish enough to desire that.
The major opted to examine the grid alone initially. As he explained, his techs would be all over it soon enough, and then no one would be allowed to casually roam it for fear of contaminating the already minimal evidence. Together, the two of them hiked down the side of the mountain toward the blackened, twisted stubs on the plains, all that remained of the five towers. Crystalline shards scattered throughout the ruins ahead of them shone like droplets of fire in the afternoon sun.
Heyoka had not returned since the day of the attack, nor had Mitsu, and the somber scene was so altered from the arena of smoke and terror and desperation he remembered, he had trouble orienting himself. He stopped just outside the breached outer walls and studied the broken structure through narrowed eyes. There he had climbed the outer lattice and found Mitsu; there Eldrich had fallen to his death, and in the broad center of the transport pad, there, he had smashed the crystals with his own claws and brought the potential invasion to an end.
He breathed deeply, trying to detect the acrid flek stink that had to be lingering in this shattered, abandoned placeand failed. Roughly a hundred days had passed since the destruction of the grid and still his vision had a bluish cast to it, while everything tasted, as well as smelled, of ashes. Although he'd had a taste of blueshift burnout once before, traveling across the mountains with Nisk, it had been only the palest whisper of this. Vexk however predicted that continued soaks in the thermal pool would enable his cells to eventually replace all the energy he had lost and the symptoms would pass.
He trailed after the major through the broken latticework and thought of the newly proclaimed pattern, stars/over/stars, which not coincidentally bore the shape of his life, beginning with the arrival of the flek before his birth, encompassing his enslavement, education off-world, the wrongful downfall of Levv, and the final extermination of the flek on this planet. For a long time, he had discredited Nisk's preoccupation with the supposedly sacred patterns/in/progress, but now it seemed he could almost make out the shape of this one, immense convoluted whirls and loops that literally spanned worlds and had brought them all to this place and time, this altered condition.
During his convalescence, he'd had a great deal of time to think and had come to realize that humans recognized patterns too, though of a more generalized nature, naming them "commerce" and "religion," "education" and "war," but their patterns shaped lives just as surely as such perennial hrinnti favorites as balance/in/flow, wisdom/through/silence, and death/in/longing. It took skill to sniff out emerging patterns and he doubted he would ever be proficient, but he seemed to sense several unnamed ones now, just beyond the edges of perception, waiting to be discovered and give new form to hrinnti life.
Several feet away, the major nudged back his combat-gray hat, then leaned against the stubby remains of a half-melted flek wall. "Well, those hrinn of yours didn't leave much for us to study, Blackeagle." He hooked his thumbs through his belt. "Or have you taken a native name?"
Suddenly, Heyoka couldn't remember the man's name, another one of those frustrating glitches in his brain that plagued him these days. He covered by pretending to examine a flattened flek laser tube. "The hrinn call me `Black/on/black,' but that's not a personal name." The heavy gravity began to cramp his legs and he sat in the shade of one of the few still-standing slick white walls. "I prefer Heyoka Blackeagle."
"Black/on/black?" The man nodded. "Well, that suits you. It was a turn of luck you happened to come back here just at the right moment. Right man in the right place at the right time, I guess you could say."
Man . . . no human had ever called him that before. Heyoka tried to imagine how shocked the major would have been if he had seen him try to tear out the priest's throat with teeth and claws in a ritual fight to the death while the rest of the hrinn looked on in approval. His other, integrated now throughout his being, radiated grim amusement. No man could have done what he'd had to do.
The major swept his gaze around the shattered grid. "Now, are you going to explain to me how you managed this with almost no modern weapons, or do you and I have to dance another few rounds together?"
He'd left the Hrinn's ability to blueshift out of the story initially, but too many humans had seen the final battle. The secret was out, and once known, that genie could never be forced back into the bottle.
"Dr. Alvarez has some bizarre story about hrinn moving so fast that you can't even see them." The major settled in the shade beside Heyoka. "And, in a universe where a band of primitives can destroy an armed flek base, I suppose anything is possible."
If he shared the secret with these Outsiders, hrinn could be trained as formidable soldiers, especially if they were armed with modern weapons. Even without lasers and armor, their own natural advantages made them fearsome fighters, but did he want that role for his own people? He thought back to the numerous unnamed servants toiling in the deepest burrows of the five Lines, as well as the excess males living in males' houses. Many of them might like to have alternatives.
Also sobering was the thought that if he had never been kidnapped, and then later trained as a soldier, the flek would hold Anktan this very moment and the hrinn would be no more. Soldiering was not a dishonorable occupation, no matter how personally weary he was of fighting and killing.
"We want to learn from them and work alongside them." The major stared into the amber sky. "Just as we learned from you, son, and fought at your side now for years. And don't forget human and hrinn alike died here together to stop the flek. Your people can bring a great gift into the Confederation, and we can offer them much in return."
"They don't understand what's involved." Heyoka ground the heels of his hands against his aching eyes, trying to press his ever-present weariness away. "If you're going to expose them to your culture, it has to be done right. You can't just make them second-class citizens fit for the battlefield, but not for polite company. They are a proud people and deserve better."
"Well, son." The major gripped his shoulder. "I'm afraid that will be out of my hands. Doing right by these people is going to be entirely up to you."
"As a new Adjunct to the Confederation Office of Admissions, I expect you to see that these people are eased into Confederation culture at their own pace, and that only those who are ready leave Anktan for study and training."
"Since when am I an `Adjunct' to anything?"
"Since the moment I got here and sized everything up." The major eyed him critically. "Of course, I did confer with my superiors. They stipulate that you'll have to retain your Confederation commission and your citizenship, as well as travel off-world when necessary to oversee matters. You have any strong objections?"
All these years, Heyoka mused, he had wanted to find his own kind and be one of them, and now that he finally had, he knew he would never really be able to think their thoughts, or live as one of them. Perhaps, he thought with a twinge, in his deepest places, he had really only wanted to be human. Perhaps he had believed that if he came here, he would find hrinn to be the same as humans and then claim his own humanity, but they were not the same and it was not possible for him to ever be wholly human or hrinn; he would always be an amalgamation of both the human culture that had raised him and his hrinnti physiology.
And he had already had the unfortunate experience of overhearing some broken-toothed old Teller in a males' house spinning out the new legend of "H-oo-kka Lost-Male and the Flek" to eager-eyed cublings. He hated being reduced to a living shrine almost as much as he hated the thought of leaving Anktan's red-orange soil and never coming back.
"Well, son, don't say you're going to turn me down."
But maybe there was a way out, a middle path that took advantage of his dual nature. "No, sir." He pulled himself to his feet and, for the first time since Confederation forces had landed, saluted. "I think you might just have yourself a deal."