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´╗┐Title: Fearful Symmetry - A Terran Empire novel
Author: Wilson, Ann
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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FEARFUL SYMMETRY

A Terran Empire Novel



Copyright 1992 by Ann Wilson



Chapter I

Deep Space, 2568 CE

For the first time in his century-long career, Fleet-Captain Arjen of
Clan D'gameh disapproved of a mission he had been given.  That his
orders came straight from the Supreme made no difference to his
feelings, nor did the First Speaker's assurance that the Circle of
Lords deemed it vital to the survival of the Traiti race.

It wasn't the goal of the mission that disturbed him, as much as the
means.  In the war between the Traiti and the Terran Empire, two things
were, if not exactly sacred, proprieties that both sides respected.
One was hospital ships, and the other was the return of bodies to their
kin.  By extension, ships delivering wounded or picking up dead were
also immune, a principle that neither side had violated . . . yet.

Arjen and his reinforced fleet were about to violate that unwritten
taboo. The Fleet-Captain looked around his flagship's control central,
conscious that nobody else aboard the Hermnaen knew of the planned
deceit.  He traced the honor-scars on his upper body through the cloth
of his shirt, wishing he were elsewhere and free of the orders that
seemed so dishonorable--then he told himself sternly to get on with it.

His mission was to deliver one of the Terran Empire's elite, one of the
green-uniformed Rangers, safely to the Supreme and First Speaker on
Homeworld.  Although that sounded simple enough, it would take both
firepower and trickery.  Arjen's fleet, now  with sixty ships instead
of forty, had firepower enough to overwhelm even a Sovereign-class
Terran battle cruiser, the type of ship a Ranger normally used.
Fifty-nine of the Traiti warcraft were in positions that englobed a
point in space a quarter-million n'liu from a blue-and-white oxygen
planet--over forty diameters out, nearly in the orbit of the planet's
moon.

The Hermnaen was still at the center of the twenty-n'liu-diameter
sphere of ships, its Ship-Captain and crew waiting for Arjen's orders.
Still reluctant to begin the trickery that was part of this operation,
Arjen spoke anyway.  "Release signal transmitter."

"Aye, Fleet-Captain."  Battle discipline was strict, if fair; not even
an action as apparently senseless as releasing a beacon in the center
of a combat-ready fleet was questioned.

Then the Hermnaen took its own position in the sphere and Arjen ordered
the beacon activated.  The moment the distinctive paired triple-pings,
used only for body-return containers, sounded on the ship's receivers,
Arjen found himself the focus of fourteen pairs of eyes, from the
ship's operators in their U of consoles facing him and the Master-Pilot
and Ship-Captain Exvani, whose consoles flanked Arjen's at the opening
of the U--but not even those senior officers spoke their questions
aloud.

It wasn't necessary; Arjen knew they shared the shock and dismay he'd
felt when he was given this mission, and he was sure similar feelings
were spread throughout the Fleet.  He sighed and displayed resignation
by extending the claws on one hand.  "Give me Fleet Communications."

"Aye, Fleet-Captain."  The Communications operator's attention returned
to his console, and within minutes Arjen was in communication with all
his Ship-Captains.

Without preamble and without expression, Arjen briefed them on the
mission and detailed his plans for its execution.  "The Intelligence
Service reports intercepting communications involving a Ranger named
Esteban Tarlac, which indicate that he is in this sector.  Given what
we know of Rangers, he will have his own ship respond, and given the
skill of those who pilot Rangers' vessels, it will out-transition from
hyperspace within ten n'liu of the beacon."

"Ten n'liu!" a newly-assigned Ship-Captain exclaimed.

"They are quite competent," Arjen said drily, "and they will take time
to be accurate.  I think that estimate, if anything, is conservative.
You have seen little action against the Terrans?"

"None, Fleet-Captain."  The officer sounded reluctant to admit that,
but went on.  "My ship and I are normally on colony patrol.  This will
be our first battle."

Arjen hid his brief amusement at the young Ship-Captain's obvious
anticipation; he had felt that way himself, early in the war.  "Not if
things go well.  In this engagement, it is most desirable that Ranger
Tarlac come willingly--or as willingly as possible under the
circumstances.  To simplify the decision for him, we are insuring that
his ship will out-transition in the center of a battle-ready fleet.
All ships will therefore go onto secondary alert status immediately,
and will maintain that status until the Terrans appear.  It will
probably be two or three tenth-days before that happens. When they do,
you will go to primary alert status without waiting for my orders.  I
want all weapons ready to fire, but no one is to do so without my
express orders.   Are there any questions?"

There were none, so Arjen dismissed the captains and went to his cabin,
regretting, not for the first time, that senior commanders had to have
private quarters--but too-close personal contact with his subordinates
would be bad for discipline.

Still, he thought as he unrolled his sleeping mat and settled down in
an attempt to relax, at least he would get some personal benefit from
this mission; whether it succeeded or failed, he was to deliver his
report to the Supreme himself.  That meant a short leave, which he
could and would spend at D'gameh clanhome.  Arjen closed his eyes with
a smile, anticipating the reunion with his clanmates, especially his
two sons.  Lazno, the elder, was due a leave, and Reja said Mahas was
starting to talk.  It would be good to see them all again, and
Homeworld's still-peaceful countryside.  There was the bed of star-shaped
hermnaen flowers that gave his ship its name, in the clanhome's
garden...

Arjen rested, satisfied for the moment with his life.

Ranger Esteban Tarlac was on the bridge of the Imperial Battle Cruiser
Empress Lindner when the ultrawave body-retrieval signal came in.  He
looked up, abandoning his study of the Damage Control board, and went
to stand beside Captain Jean Willis.  In the few seconds that took him,
Navigation Officer Mueller had reported to his Captain.

"Not too far off our course," Willis commented.  "What about it,
Ranger? Should we make the pickup?"

"Why not?" Tarlac agreed.  "A few hours' delay won't matter, and as I
recall, we're the closest ship."

"Right, sir."  Willis turned her attention to her officers.
"Lieutenant Matthews, inform the Palace and Fleet HQ about the change
in flight plan. Ask Fleet to have a morgue detail waiting when we get
back to Luna Base. Ensign Olorun, bring us out of hyperspace for the
course change."

Communications and Helm officers answered as one: "Yes, sir."
Transitioning out of hyperspace was simple, even in the middle of a
programmed course; Ensign Olorun flipped a switch on his Helm console,
puncturing the hyperfield and bringing them to rest relative to what
little matter was present in interstellar normspace.

The Navigator didn't need orders; he began plotting a course to the
signal source as soon as the Lindner made her out-transition.  With the
ship-comp's aid, the calculations took less than a minute.
"Coordinates ready, Captain," he reported.

Ensign Olorun was as efficient as his crewmate; as soon as Mueller gave
him the final coordinates, he entered them into his own console and
programmed the course.  "All green, sir," he said.

Willis smiled.  She, like the others aboard, had had to earn the
privilege of serving on a Sovereign-class cruiser, and having a Ranger
aboard brought the crew to its maximum efficiency.  "Execute
transition."

"Aye, sir."

At Olorun's words, everyone aboard felt the oddly pleasant twisting
sensation as the hyperfield built up.  The stars flared, then the
screens went blank as the ship transitioned into hyperspace.

Tarlac still found it moderately amusing that hyperspace transition,
once generally imagined to be at least uncomfortable and very possibly
disabling, had proven to be anything but--to be the exact opposite, in
fact.  As a boy, he'd enjoyed daydreaming that he himself might make a
discovery as unsettling as that particular one of Nannstein's, but so
far he hadn't, and it didn't seem at all likely he would.  On the other
hand, it was just the unlikeliness of such a discovery--one that
completely reversed a commonly-held idea--that made it so unsettling.

He grinned fleetingly to himself at the thought of how unlikely
hyperflight, or even the Empire itself, must have seemed to an ordinary
Terran back when Armstrong and Aldrin had made the first landing on
Luna, but then he dismissed those unproductive if interesting
ramblings.  He had work to finish before the ship got back to Luna Base
and he went on to Terra.

Five hours later, Tarlac was back on the bridge.  He had no real reason
to be there, but he enjoyed watching the choreographic precision of a
Naval bridge crew, especially this one.  He called on the Lindner every
time he needed something with the power of a battle cruiser, and he
praised her highly in the mock-serious arguments Rangers had with each
other about the merits of their chosen ships--even over the performance
of such a simple maneuver as the retrieval of body-return containers.

Tarlac had often wondered about the puzzle those containers presented.
The Traiti had initiated the body exchanges, and nobody could even
guess at the reason.  There had been no communication, nothing except
the sudden signal that led to cautious recovery of the first container.
It had been examined even more cautiously, but had proven as harmless
as had all of the later pickups.  There weren't many; space battles
left few recognizable bodies. Even ground battles left few, since
hand-held blasters at full power or molecular disruptors literally
vaporized unarmored targets, and if enough of them overloaded an armored
target's screen generator, the resulting explosion had the same practical
effect.  Most of the recovered bodies were victims of accident or of
the rare hand-to-hand combat.

The Ranger brought his attention back to the bridge as Olorun reported
ten seconds until out-transition.  "Five credits says we're within
fifteen klicks," the young Helmsman added with a grin.

"You're on," Tarlac laughed.  "Optimist!"

"We'll see, sir.  Out-transitioning . . . now."

There was a moment of silence as the ship re-entered normspace and
stars appeared on the viewscreen, followed by murmurs of dismay.
Captain Willis slapped the General Quarters alarm, swearing briefly but
bitterly.  "Damn! It was a trap!"  The Traiti violation of something
which had been sacrosanct was almost as shocking as the overwhelming
number of the angular yet graceful Traiti ships.

"When they set up an ambush," Tarlac observed quietly, "it's a good
one. There's enough firepower out there to vaporize us three times
over."

"Yeah," Willis agreed, equally quiet.  "Well, let's see how many of
them we can take out with us."  She raised her voice, addressing her
Weapons Officer.  "Lieutenant Dawes, concentrated primary fire on their
flagship--"

"Hold it," Tarlac interrupted.  "There's something peculiar here.  If
they'd wanted us dead, they could've opened fire as soon as we
out-transitioned.  Since they didn't, let's see if we can find out just
what they do want."

"Yes, sir," Willis said.  "Hold your fire, Lieutenant, but be ready."

"Aye, Captain."  Dawes was poised, tense, his fingers hovering almost
in contact with his firing studs.

"What the--!"  came an exclamation from the Communications Officer.
"Sir, I'm getting a signal from them!"

"Put it on the screen," Willis ordered, inwardly amused.  The idea of a
Traiti who wanted to talk instead of fight ought to be astonishing--but
not much could astonish an IBC's crew.  They were too used to the
out-of-the-ordinary events a Ranger seemed to attract to be astonished by
much less than a divine manifestation.  Even a Traiti appearing on a
communicator screen didn't justify much more than Matthews'
startlement.

While few humans could honestly claim to have seen a live Traiti in the
nearly ten years the Terran Empire had been at war with them, everyone
knew what they looked like.  They were big, the males at least
averaging about 250 kilos, two meters tall--heavy, but not fat because
of greater-than-human tissue density.  They also had skin like soft but
armor-tough gray leather, an ovoid head with bulges at top and sides
set more horizontally on the short neck than a human's, with small
eyes, slit nostrils, lipless shark-toothed mouth, and no external
ears--but except for those and semi-retractile claws on their hands, the
biologists insisted that Traiti were so much like humans it ought to
indicate a common ancestor somewhere.

What did surprise the people on the Lindner's bridge was that the
Traiti on the screen was smiling, exposing those shark-like teeth in an
expression that might or might not mean pleasure but that certainly
looked menacing.

When Arjen spoke, his voice provided another surprise.  It was deep,
not unexpectedly, but it was also soft, carrying an almost lilting
intonation that made his Imperial English oddly attractive.  "We no
harm mean, Ship-Captain. I must to your superior speak."

He turned his attention to the green-clad Ranger, crossing his arms
over his chest and inclining his head briefly in courtesy.  "Ranger
Esteban Tarlac. I you greetings bring, from the Supreme and First
Speaker.  I Fleet-Captain Arjen am."

Tarlac was surprised, but Rangers were adaptable; he returned the
Traiti's salutation with a crossed-arm bow of his own and a quiet,
"Fleet-Captain." Then he waited for Arjen's next move.

Arjen felt unwilling respect for the human who remained so calm and
left the initiative to him.  "The Supreme and First Speaker ask, that
you them on Homeworld join.  I their invitation extend, and
transportation offer."

Tarlac appreciated the sharp irony of the so-courteous invitation,
backed up by the outsized fleet.  "They don't leave me much choice, do
they?"

"They truly none you leave, Ranger," Arjen said regretfully.  "I do not
these tactics like, but I must my orders follow."

"Mmm.  You have orders to destroy this ship if I refuse, don't you?"

Willis swung to face him.  "Ranger, no!  You can't, you're too--"

"Stop, you," Arjen interrupted.  "This must his decision be.  And he
right is.  If he does not with us come, my fleet will your ship
destroy."

"Why do you want me badly enough to violate that signal?"  Tarlac
asked.

Even to the humans, unaccustomed to Traiti expressions, Arjen looked
uncomfortable.  "That had I hoped not to say, Ranger.  The First
Speaker says it necessary is, a Ranger to Homeworld bring.  If I more
say, it may your crew distress."  He hesitated, then went on.  "The
Supreme's word you have, such a thing will never again done be."

"Damned if I know why," Tarlac said slowly, "but I think you mean that.
All of it.  Okay, I won't ask.  You'll release the ship if I
surrender?"

"We ask not that," Arjen replied, offended.  "As our guest come, and
your ship may freely go."

Willis interrupted their dialogue.  "Fleet-Captain."

Arjen turned to her, inclining his head, and despite the discomfort
that had led him to omit it before, addressed her with the formal
honorific proper to an out-clan female.  "I you hear, ka'naya
Ship-Captain."

"Ranger Tarlac believes you, so I'm forced to.  But I'll also have to
report to the Emperor.  Why do you want him?"

Arjen sighed deeply.  Females in the human military disturbed him
considerably, though he'd accustomed himself to the fact that they were
included there--even in active combat--with no objection from the males
who should be protecting them.  And this one sounded like his Clan
Mother.  "Ka'naya Ship-Captain, please.  Ask this of me not.  It will
you only hurt cause."

"Don't worry about that," Willis snapped.  "You have your duty, I have
mine.  Tell me."

"As you wish, ka'naya." Arjen sighed again, this time to himself.  She
did sound much like Ka'ruchaya Noriy . . .  He opened his shirt,
exposing his massive chest.  "See you these?" he asked, tracing the
scars that ran from the base of his throat to just above his belt.

"I see them," Willis said grimly.  Similar scars, found on maybe ten
percent of recovered Traiti bodies, had Imperial experts puzzled.  They
had to be significant, and deliberately inflicted--they were far too
regular to be accidental--but no one had been able to venture a
reasonable guess at what they meant.

"I them in my Ordeal of Honor earned.  Too much we have of Rangers
heard; the truth we must know.  That can best through the Ordeal
learned be.  When we on Homeworld are, and a clan have found that will
him adopt, the Supreme will ask that he it try.  If Rangers truly as
prisoners claim are, he will agree."

"That's not a condition of releasing the ship, then," Tarlac said.

"No, Ranger.  The Ordeal must freely chosen be.  Those who it try
unwilling, die.  We ask not certain death of you, but if you the Ordeal
survive, the First Speaker says you will this war with honor end."

That possibility, Jean Willis knew, was something no Ranger could
ignore. Unable to let him go without some objection, she spoke quietly
enough that the comm pickups wouldn't transmit her words.  "Anything
that would leave scars like that on one of them . . .  Steve, it's
suicide, even if he says it isn't--or a trick so they can take you
alive for interrogation, then blow the Lindner out of space.  You don't
have any reason to trust them."

"Trust doesn't have anything to do with it," Tarlac replied, just as
quietly.  "It's a case of trying to minimize the Empire's losses.  I
don't think it's suicide, but if it is, so what?  I won't be any deader
than if I refuse and his fleet destroys the Lindner.  If he's being
honest, you can get word back to Terra.  If he's not, and they do try
interrogation, well," Tarlac smiled slightly and shrugged, "I'll make
sure I'm no use to them except as a warm body."

"Yeah."  Willis knew what he meant, and her voice was bitter.  Senior
Imperials, or those in sensitive positions, could be given protection
against questioning; she had it herself.  If the Ranger chose, a code
phrase in his own voice would turn him into a mental blank.  It would
do nothing to him physically, but it would wipe out, completely and
permanently, every memory he had.  He would never remember so much as
his name unless he was returned to Terra to have the tapes of his
latest mindscan reimprinted.

"So it's not that much of a risk," Tarlac said.  He raised his voice.
"Very well, Fleet-Captain.  I accept your invitation, and your Ordeal.
When and how do you want me to transfer to your ship?"

"No reason for delay there is.  Now come.  A spacesuit use, your ship
to leave.  When you far enough from it are, you will onto this ship
brought be. You need nothing extra bring; we will all your requirements
supply."

"It'll take me about twenty minutes to get to an airlock and suit up."

"Understood, Ranger.  I your arrival await."

With that, Arjen's image disappeared from the Lindner's viewscreen,
replaced by a view of his fleet.  Willis stared angrily at the
englobing Traiti ships, running fingers through her short blonde hair
in a gesture of frustration.  "I still don't like this, Steve.  I don't
like it one little bit.  Letting them get their hands on a Ranger . . ."

"I'm not too fond of it myself," Tarlac admitted, "but I can't see any
way out.  This was a beautiful trap.  They've made sure the Empire
loses a Ranger, one way or another, but if Arjen's being honest, at
least it keeps a cruiser and crew.  And you know as well as I do that
if there's any chance of ending this slaughter, I have to take it."  He
grinned fleetingly.  "I guess this is one way to find out what they're
really like.  While I'm suiting up, squirt-transmit a copy of the log
to Terra, would you?  The socio specs may be able to dig something
useful out of what he said."

"Yes, sir."  Willis stood, bleakly aware that the loss of an IBC would
be minor next to the loss of a Ranger.  If she could have saved him by
sacrificing the Lindner, she wouldn't have hesitated.  But, as usual,
the Ranger was right; in combat there were bound to be heavy losses
occasionally, and in such cases the best that could be done was to save
what little was possible.  "Ah . . .  will you be going armed?"

Tarlac grinned, almost grimly.  "It probably won't mean much, but yes.
He called me a guest, and I'm going to act as if I believe him.  That
means full uniform, including gun."  He took a last slow look around
the bridge, then extended a hand to Willis.  "Good luck, Jean.  See you
after the war."

"You too, Steve.  It's been an honor captaining your ship."  Willis'
grip was tighter than usual, echoing the tension on the bridge, and it
gave the Ranger the distinct impression she didn't expect to see him
again.  Honesty compelled him to admit to himself that he was less
optimistic than he tried to appear.

"It won't be suicide, you know," he said, speaking now to the entire
bridge crew.  "As I said earlier, if they just wanted me dead, they'd
have vaporized the Lindner as soon as we out-transitioned."  He
hesitated, remembering something.  "Oh, yeah.  Mister Olorun, how much
did we miss their phony beacon by?"

"Twelve point nine kilometers, sir," the young officer replied,
subdued.

Tarlac whistled softly in honest admiration, then dug into a beltpouch
and flipped the Helmsman a five-credit piece.  "Empress Lindner?"

"Yes, Ranger?"  The ship's voice was feminine, slightly metallic.

"Log my commendation for Ensign Olorun's piloting, and have a shuttle
ready to take me to Personnel Lock Three."

There was a barely-noticeable pause, then the ship-comp said, "Done,
Ranger," as one of the three bridge doors slid open.  Tarlac left the
silent control room and entered the intraship shuttle that was waiting
for him.

With the ship at General Quarters, the Ranger found the personnel lock
deserted.  That was fine with him.  Suiting up was easier with help,
but he didn't care for company just then; he began the ten-minute
process of donning and checking his suit alone.

That the Traiti spoke Imperial English, even ungrammatically and with
an accent, didn't surprise him.  It was fairly common knowledge that
the so-called Sharks took prisoners--although those were even less
common than bodies--and nobody had doubted that the Traiti were smart
enough to realize the value of learning their enemy's language.

That was an intelligence coup the Empire had been unable to match.
Traiti too badly wounded to fight, or those hit by stun-beams and taken
prisoner, never lived for long.  Once they decided escape was
impossible, those who were able to committed suicide, usually by
clawing out their throats.  Those who for one reason or another
couldn't actively kill themselves simply lost the will to act and then
to live, dying usually within a week of capture.  The Empire had
learned that they called themselves Traiti, little more.

Once he had his suit on, the Ranger fortunately didn't have to walk
far. A standard spacesuit was considerably less massive than a Marine's
power armor, but it wasn't light, and it  was clumsy in anything
approaching a full standard gee.  Clumping over to the lock, Tarlac
cycled through.

He stood for a moment on the Lindner's hull.  He enjoyed being EVA,
especially near a planet, and the blue-white world off to his right was
achingly reminiscent of Terra.  Then he spotted a blinking white light
"above" and to his left, on a Traiti ship.  He released his boots'
mag-field and pushed off toward the light, waiting until he was perhaps
five meters off the hull before activating his thrustpac.

When he'd gone roughly a kilometer--a diameter out from the Lindner--a
soft Traiti voice told him to cut power.  He did, and the pressure at
the small of his back died.

"You have control."  He kept his voice impassive, as though he were
giving the most routine of responses.

With that, he felt the pull of a tractor beam.  At least, he thought,
he'd aimed for the right ship; he was being drawn toward and into an
open airlock. It was bigger than the lock he'd used on the Lindner, and
different in detail, but it served the same function and had been
designed by humanoids, so it couldn't be too different.  When the
tractor beam released him and the lock's outer door closed, radiant
heaters came on.

 His suit indicators showed rapidly-increasing air pressure.  He
removed his helmet when it reached Terra-normal, but it didn't stop
until the indicators showed air pressure, like the gravity, about ten
percent greater than Terra's, with a fraction over a quarter oxygen.
Like recycled air anywhere, it smelled flat.

 Finally the inner door cycled open and Tarlac stepped through, to
confront what he thought of as a commando squad.  There were seven of
them, with insignia indicating what Intelligence evaluations said
should be six troopers and a junior officer.  They were unarmored but
otherwise in full battle gear, all standing in what the Ranger guessed
might be the Traiti version of attention: relaxed yet alert, holding
grounded blast rifles, right hands resting on dagger hilts.  He had
time to notice disruptors and shortswords on the commandos' belts in
addition to the daggers, before the officer snapped him a salute that
would have done credit to an Imperial Marine.

He was motionless for an instant in surprise, then he returned the
salute as crisply as his spacesuit would allow.  "Ranger Esteban Tarlac
of the Terran Empire."

"Team-Leader Hovan of Clan Ch'kara.  Need you help, that suit to
remove?"

The squad remained alert, but gave no more hint of threat than before.
Tarlac shrugged mentally.  "I'd appreciate it, yes."

Hovan handed his blast-rifle to one of his squad members and approached
Tarlac.  He looked as massive as the Ranger expected, and was typically
thickset, but he was even heavier and stronger than he looked.  The
strength became evident as Hovan helped Tarlac out of the spacesuit,
for with Traiti assistance, the Ranger discovered, the cumbersome suit
was almost easy to handle.

While he helped the human remove his spacesuit, Hovan did some studying
of his own, wondering what made a Ranger so formidable.  This Tarlac
was even less impressive physically than the Terran combat troops he'd
faced.  He was no more than shoulder-high to Hovan, and so slender he
seemed almost frail. There was black hair on the man's head, and
obvious facial differences, but the thin light-brown skin and total
lack of claws or effective teeth were not impressive.  What made this
human so powerful?

There had to be something, he knew, some reason for the prisoners to
hold Rangers in such high regard.  Part of it had to be courage; he'd
been told, while the man was en route, that he had already consented to
the Ordeal, a decision nobody had expected him to make so quickly.
There had even been some betting that he would refuse.

The plain, forest-green uniform revealed when the man's spacesuit was
off was functional, Hovan noticed with approval, its only decoration
the platinum star-in-circle badge on the man's left breast, the symbol
of his rank. Best, though, was the fact that Tarlac was armed, showing
he regarded them as true fighters.

That eased Hovan's mind.  Ka'ruchaya Yarra had told him to judge the
Terran he would meet, and if he found the man worthy, to offer adoption
into Ch'kara.  It would be an unprecedented honor for Hovan, as well as
the Terran, if that happened; adoption was a Clan Mother's privilege,
delegated sometimes to another female, never in Hovan's knowledge to a
male.

He had told no one about his mission from Yarra.  He still had trouble
believing that he might bring a new member into the clan . . .

He'd had no difficulty being assigned as the Ranger's escort and
teacher. Since humans were considered poor fighters, at least
individually--and with a few outstanding exceptions--the job carried no
status, and when he had indicated willingness to do it, the task became
his.  He'd been teased about it, not seriously; he'd proven himself
often enough that nobody grudged him what they thought would be easy
duty.

Tarlac watched the Traiti stow the suit before turning to the commando
squad with a claw-extending gesture, to say something in a tonal
language that told the Ranger where the lilting Traiti version of
Imperial English came from.   If these people were singers, he thought,
they'd be good.  Singing didn't seem to fit in with what the Empire
knew of the Traiti as ruthless, bloodthirsty killers, and language was
hardly a reliable indicator of such things, of course--but still, it
seemed incongruous.  Tarlac hadn't thought about it much, but he
supposed he would have expected their language to be as sharp as their
teeth and claws.

The commandos fell in around the Ranger, and at another extended-claw
gesture from Hovan, the whole group moved toward the Hermnaen's control
central.  Tarlac rather wished the Team-Leader would leave his claws
retracted.  He'd seen Traiti claws in action once, and didn't enjoy
being reminded of the incident.

That had been on Ra after a ferocious ground battle, when the search
team he was with found a seriously wounded Traiti.  He'd looked so
badly hurt that he couldn't move, so the team's medics didn't bother
stunning him before beginning first aid.  When the Ranger heard screams
it was already too late; both medics were dead, one's throat torn out,
the other's belly opened, and three Marines were down.  By that time
the Traiti was going for Tarlac, claws raking air toward the man's
face.

Trained reflexes had taken over then.  Rangers might not be experts in
one-on-one combat, but they could make a creditable showing; Tarlac had
done a tuck-and-roll, bringing his blaster out to save his own life by
a fraction of a second as he fired pointblank, killing the Traiti.

Now here he was, aboard a Traiti warship, surrounded by a squad of the
fearsome warriors and going voluntarily, if with no great enthusiasm,
to an Ordeal that he suspected, despite Fleet-Captain Arjen's
assurances, would cost him his life.  Brooding on it would do no good,
though, so Tarlac turned his attention to his surroundings.

The ship was surprisingly unwarlike, by Terran standards.  Sky blue, as
far as Tarlac was concerned, wasn't exactly a military color.  And not
even Sovereign-class cruisers, used during peacetime for such things as
long-distance exploration and disaster aid, had passageways that
doubled as art galleries.  At the Traiti squad's pace, he didn't have
time to examine the pictures, but he observed that all of them seemed
well-done and the subject matter was varied: landscapes, battle and
space scenes, figures.  The Ranger couldn't help thinking of the
commonest subjects as Madonnas, although they didn't seem religious.
The ones with naked infants or nursing children made him uncomfortable;
on Terra and even in most of the older colonies, such things weren't
shown in public.

Despite his unease, Tarlac studied the pictures as well as he could
during the walk.  Unlikely as it seemed, he might somehow return to the
Empire, and if that happened, any information he could bring back would
be valuable to the socio and anthro specialists.  That included
information on Traiti art.  He didn't have a specialist's training
himself, but Ranger Linda Ellman, who'd taught him to appreciate art,
had given him some understanding of how revealing artistic conventions
could be.  He knew enough to wonder at the prevalence of Madonnas--and
at the total lack of abstract, impressionist, and other
non-representational art forms.

By the time he got that far, they were at the bridge.  So many control
consoles grouped around what had to be a control central couldn't be
anything else.  Yet even here, the surroundings were totally unwarlike--by
Terran standards, Tarlac reminded himself.  The sunny yellow color
scheme was more noticeable now than it had been when he'd talked to
them from the Lindner.  It made the Traiti uniforms, both the ship
crew's dark gray and the commandos' gray-green, seem even drabber by
comparison.

Tarlac and Hovan were the only two to enter the bridge itself; the rest
of the commandos, their guard duty done, left.  Had it been an honor
guard? Tarlac wondered.  There had been nothing to indicate the
contrary.

Arjen rose as the Ranger approached, inclining his head but not
repeating the full formal salute.  Then he gestured toward the large
repeater screen, which showed Jean Willis, still wearing her grimmest
face.  Tarlac had a good idea of what she was thinking.  The Traiti had
the Ranger they wanted, for whatever their real purpose might be.  It
didn't make sense for them to keep their word, release a fully-operational
enemy battle cruiser.  But he couldn't have passed up even so remote a
chance . . .

Arjen turned, to face Willis' image directly.  "The condition met has
been, Ship-Captain.  You free to go now are."

Willis didn't look as if she believed it, but she gave orders to have
Terra's coordinates fed into the helm.  Then she searched the repeater
screen, still wearing a troubled expression.  "Ranger--?"

Tarlac moved to stand beside Arjen, the beginnings of hope allowing him
to smile.  "I'm all right, Captain.  Your log'll show everything,
including this, but I'll make it an order anyway.  Return to Terra."

That didn't seem to make Willis any happier, but she couldn't argue
with a Ranger's direct order.  "Yes, sir."  She turned to Olorun.
"Execute transition."

Arjen showed no reaction to the Lindner's departure before he gave
Tarlac his full attention.  "To this ship welcome be, Ranger.  You have
Team-Leader Hovan met; he has said, he will you escort and teach.  If
you to him object, I will another assign."

Tarlac glanced up at the apparently impassive commando beside him, then
looked back at Arjen.  He could hardly dislike the Team-Leader he'd
barely met.  "I don't object.  I'd be honored."  It wouldn't hurt to be
polite, especially since it was beginning to look as if he were
actually what Arjen had called him, a guest.  For no reason he could
name, he inclined his head and touched fingertips to his brow.

Hovan suppressed a gasp of astonishment and heard some around the
bridge that weren't suppressed.  How could a Terran know to accept
hospitality in the proper way?  Unless the Lords . . .   No, such a
thing was far too unimportant for the Lords to concern themselves with.
Arjen's hands covered the Ranger's briefly in response to the gesture,
and the moment was over.

It had to be a fortunate coincidence, not important but a demonstration
of the Terran's willingness to take his part in Traiti life.  Hovan
thought about the adoption, and quickly decided that he shouldn't offer
it so soon.  Two things, significant as they might be, weren't enough
to prove this human worthy of a clan as old and honored as Ch'kara.  He
needed more, especially if the Ranger was to join as a candidate for
the Ordeal of Honor.  Hovan had been given a solemn responsibility for
the clan's choice; he had to be certain he was right when he made his
decision.  And he had the time for that; Homeworld was more than a
tenday away.

"If you will then me excuse," Arjen said formally, "I still much to do
have.  I the freedom of the ship you give."

"Thank you."  There was no more doubt in Tarlac's mind that he was a
guest.  He still had his gun and was, it seemed, to be allowed to roam
freely. He turned to his escort.  "I'm at your disposal, Team-Leader.
What do we do now?"

"It past my normal duty-time is, and I hungry am," was the reply.  "I
food need, and sleep.  If you something else prefer, one of my men some
English speaks; he can as temporary escort for you act."

Tarlac's internal clock said it was mid-afternoon, but this was as good
a time as any to start changing his diurnal rhythms.  "That's not
necessary, Team-Leader."

"Then come," Hovan said, and Traiti and human left the bridge.

Hovan's long strides didn't give Tarlac much time to study art on the
way to the dining area, but he saw more than he had earlier, since he
was no longer surrounded by bodies.  The new data didn't change his
initial impression, but he had already started to adapt to the Madonna
pictures that'd disturbed him.  That was no real surprise; spacers in
general were more adaptable than ground-pounders--they had to be--and
Rangers excelled at that, as at almost everything.  Given the need and
a little time, he could adapt to any humanly-conceivable circumstances
. . . though of course some things took longer than others.

So far, Tarlac was finding nothing too difficult in the Traiti pattern.
He suspected that he might, when he got deeper into their culture.
This business of adoption, for instance--why should he have to join a
clan to take their Ordeal?

And why wait to find out, or anyway to learn whether he could find out?
Hovan was supposed to be his teacher in such matters.  As they passed
pictures and corridor intersections and doors labeled in the angular
Traiti script, Tarlac spoke.  "The Fleet-Captain says I'll have to be a
member of one of your clans to take the Ordeal.  Can you tell me why?"

"Because parts of the Ordeal in-clan matters are, not with out-clan or
clanless discussed.  I can no more of that say."

"Okay.  I suppose I'll find out when the time comes."  That seemed to
describe a lot of today's experiences, Tarlac thought, then he decided
not to worry about it.  It was easier to cope with situations as they
arose, in a case like this.

They arrived at a meal hall, and the smell was enough to make Tarlac
hungry.  It operated cafeteria-style; Tarlac, unfamiliar with any of
the food, copied Hovan's choices, and ended up with more than he could
possibly eat. The portions, from salad to stew and a beverage that
looked like milk, were sized to fuel a body mass more than three times
his.  Still, the food was good, if unfamiliar, and he surprised himself
by finishing almost half.

He leaned back with a sigh of repletion, returning Hovan's quick smile
as the other continued eating.  There was little conversation to hear
over the sound of eating utensils, knives and short-tined spoons that
doubled as forks. Clearly, eating was serious business for these
people.  At least he didn't have to worry about the food; bio-studies
had shown that Traiti and humans had the same basic nutritional
requirements and limitations.  No Traiti food should poison him.

Finally Hovan pushed back his tray, his meal finished.  "Ranger Esteban
Tarlac.  We will much together be; object you if we not formal are?
Out-clan it not usual is, names to use instead of titles, but I think
it would fitting be."

Tarlac nodded; under the circumstances, it did seem appropriate.  "I'm
called Steve, then, Hovan.  That's the short form of my given name."

"Steve.  A name that much of strength bears, from the sound."  Steve of
Clan Ch'kara.  Yes, Hovan thought, it did sound fitting, and it was
another good sign that the man allowed him that liberty.  There was no
denying a Ranger's status among humans.  It might take the Ordeal to
find out whether an individual Ranger was worthy of honor from the
Traiti, but prisoners had made it more than clear that Rangers were
direct representatives of the Terran Sovereign.  They went anywhere
they were needed, to tackle crises nobody else was capable of handling.
Sometimes, it was said, the mere threat of a Ranger's intervention made
actual intervention unnecessary.  And it was they, when the need arose,
who selected the Sovereigns--so far, always another Ranger.  There was
more, stories that made Rangers seem like Lords.  Hovan didn't believe
those, for Steve had used a spacesuit to transfer to the Hermnaen; he
hadn't breathed vacuum.  But even so, to name-call such a one must be
as great a privilege as the task Yarra had given him.  "Do many you so
call?"

"Hmm?  Oh.  No, not many." Tarlac seldom thought about it, and was
surprised at the brevity of the list.  "The captain of my cruiser, the
Emperor, other Rangers, my mother . . . that's about it."  He frowned
briefly.  "It'd be nice to have more, but the job doesn't allow it.  A
Ranger's as much a symbol as a person.  It's mostly a damn good
life . . . but sometimes it gets lonely.  I think I'm almost looking
forward to being adopted, odd as that may seem at my age."  Then he
shrugged.  "Sorry, Hovan.  I didn't mean to go crying on your shoulder.
Don't know why I did."

Hovan rose, motioning Steve to follow.  He had never heard of "crying
on your shoulder," but could guess from context what the man meant, and
thought it best not to go into something so personal, at least while
Steve was out-clan.  "Come.  I will you our sleep-room show, while it
still early is."

Tarlac went along, surprised at his self-revelation.  He'd seldom
mentioned the occasional loneliness before, even to the other Rangers,
who shared it.  It didn't fit the image.  He grinned sardonically for a
second. Image.  Hah.  Thanks to the image, not even newsies pushed a
Ranger too hard, and nobody else pushed at all.  Nobody with any
brains, at least.

Hovan interrupted his brooding.  "What can you of the Empire and
Rangers say? I wish not to intrude or offend, but I curious am."

Tarlac gave that a moment's thought, and found the answer an easy one.
"Quite a bit, as a matter of fact.   I'll tell you anything you want to
know, except classified military information.   Your High Command must
know as well as I do how this war's gone up to now."

"Telling us even that would little difference make," Hovan said
quietly.  "You know not how close you to victory are.  In less than
another year, there will no more Traiti be."

The Ranger stopped where he was, deeply shocked.  "Hovan, what are you
saying? The Empire isn't out to commit genocide!  We don't kill
non-combatants on purpose!"

"No such thing as noncombatants is.  When we to Homeworld retreat, we
no other place to go will have.  All will fighters be, except the very
youngest. It happened so, in the clan wars nearly four thousand years
ago."

Hovan's calm words meant the Empire was in the process of exterminating
an entire intelligent race, a crime more monstrous than any recorded in
the history of all three Imperial races combined.  And the Empire
didn't even know it!  The Ranger would have cursed, but not even a
space-scout's inventive vocabulary could express his feelings.

Not really expecting an affirmative answer, Tarlac asked, "Can they--the
women and children, anyway--can any of them surrender?"

"No word for that in Language is," Hovan said.  "We the concept from
humans learned.  They cannot."

And that was a certain indicator in any language.  Lacking the word, it
lacked the concept, and so did the people who spoke it.  It was true
that no Traiti had surrendered during the entire course of the war, and
there had been speculation about the reason; the hypothesis that Traiti
were incapable of it had gained some favor over the years.

Tarlac wasn't glad to find it was right.  That meant that even more
than the chance of peace rode on his survival of this Ordeal.  Damn!
Tarlac thought the word with vehement intensity, but didn't say it
aloud.  It wasn't fair!  A race's extinction should not depend on one
man, especially one who wasn't at all sure of his own ability to
survive!

Clearly, he could no longer afford such doubts.   So, think of
something else for now.

Okay.   He'd already begun to see how complex the Traiti were, much
more so than the Empire suspected.  The Empire's knowledge was limited
to these people's savage ferocity--or what seemed like savage ferocity.
The war had exploded suddenly and simply: a scoutship exploring about
150 parsecs coreward from Irschcha had fallen silent.  A rescue ship
sent to check on the scout had had time to describe its attackers
before it was destroyed as well.  The third ship was the Emperor Chang,
a battle cruiser which survived its Traiti attack and brought word
that, like it or not, the Empire was at war with an unreasoning enemy.
Traiti hostility was long proven, but Tarlac could no longer believe it
was unreasoning.

"Hovan--why did your people attack that first scout, ten years ago?  I
feel certain it didn't give any deliberate provocation."

"I cannot fully say, since I have not the tapes seen.  We knew not that
its intention peaceful was.  You should the Supreme ask, when you him
see. But this much all know: an alien ship suddenly over a new-landed
homeship was, a possible danger to females and younglings.  It
responded not to challenge, and visual contact obscene horror showed."
Claws flickered briefly on one hand, then Hovan continued.  "Our
guard-ship the only way it could reacted. That we since learned a mistake
was, but too late."

"Most of that I understand, I think, but I'll take your advice and ask
to see the tapes."  No wonder the Traiti had acted as they had.  Their
hyperdrive at the time had been slow to transition; when an Imperial
ship appeared within seconds, it was only natural that they'd interpret
it as a threat.  And scoutships were armed--had to be--so that even if
the ship hadn't tried to attack, it was obviously not harmless.  The
Traiti had challenged instead of firing instantly at the invader, and
the challenge, not understood, had been ignored.  So the colony's
guard-ship acted.  "Damn!  What a waste!  One misunderstanding led
to--  Oh, hell!"  Tarlac stared at the deck, scarcely aware of his
surroundings.

When he looked up, Hovan's green eyes were appraising him.  "If that
you disturbs, let it not.  They would have anyway fired, I think."

Tarlac recalled the unexplained factor.  "The obscene horror.  What was
that?  What could be so bad it'd cause that kind of a reaction?"

"Females on a ship that might have into battle gone.   No race insane
enough to that allow . . ."  Hovan shook his head.  "We have since
learned that you so many females have that it not insane for you is,
but it still unacceptable to most of us is.  For us, a female in
unnecessary danger to place, the death penalty earns.  One who actual
harm on a female inflicts, unless in self-defense, his clan full
dishonor brings.  That one also dies, in public at his Clan Mother's
claws, the clan's honor to restore.  Then he buried is, not to the
Lords presented.  See you now?"

That was quite a taboo, Tarlac thought, taken aback, but why--?  He was
beginning to put things together: paintings of Madonnas, humans having
"so many" females . . .  "How much of your race is female?"

"One in four."

Oh.  Dear.  God.

The Imperial ship had been a threat to Traiti women and children.  It
had ignored a challenge, and the seeming invaders had shown a complete
disregard for even their own females' safety.  With that gender ratio,
protection of females and young had to be the prime Traiti racial
imperative.  The crew of that Imperial scout might or might not have
violated first-contact procedure--he'd find out when he saw the tape
Hovan had mentioned--but it was certain they'd triggered an
instinct-level reaction.

They had come to the sleeproom by the time the Ranger reached that
point in his thoughts.  The compartment was wider than it was deep,
with lockers along the bulkheads to either side of the entry door.
There were two other doors on the left, and the right wall held what
looked like oversized square pigeon-holes--but it was the mural on the
long wall opposite the entrance that captured Tarlac's attention.

It was a mountain scene, one that might have been of a remote spot on
Terra except for details of the foreground forest.  And it was
beautiful. Tarlac found himself relaxing, and smiled.

"You our Homeworld like?"

"It's . . . like my home, the way it was when I was a boy.  We had a
house near a lake like that.  It could only be reached by grav-hopper.
We didn't have much company, but I didn't miss it; I had the lake, the
woods, the animals . . ."  For the first time since he'd left for the
Academy, Tarlac felt a twinge of homesickness.  He wondered why,
briefly, before dismissing it.  It had to be the mural; Linda had said
that art could evoke emotion even between cultures.

"You alone grew up?  No kin had?"  Hovan sounded faintly shocked.

"My parents, of course, and family get-togethers every couple of years.
We weren't really close; the family was too big for that.  Uncle Martin
and Aunt Gisele alone had ten kids."  Tarlac shook his head, grinning.
"What a mob!"

"Kids?"

It seemed Hovan's vocabulary had a blank spot; Tarlac tried again.
"Children.  Younglings."

"Ten . . . younglings?" Hovan's voice was little more than a whisper,
sounding awed.  He turned away abruptly, toward the right-side-wall
pigeon-holes.  Tarlac followed, accepting the bundle he was handed,
then he followed his guide back to unroll the bundle on the floor.  It
proved to be a Traiti-sized bedroll with a pillow and a flocked-foam
blanket.

Then Hovan showed him to a locker, and Tarlac found Arjen's comment
that his needs would be supplied was exactly accurate.   The locker
held Terran-style soap, comb, toothbrush, underwear--everything, it
seemed, except uniforms.

"Thanks.  You people are thorough."

"We try.  I only glad am, that you have honor shown.  I would not have
it pleasant found, an unworthy one to guide."

The Ranger didn't know what to say to what sounded like praise, or at
least like approval, from a Traiti.  He settled for, "Thanks again.  I
try, too."  Then he quickly changed the subject.  "Uh, Hovan, I don't
want to be offensive, but I think it might be a good idea if you show
me where the sanitary facilities are."

"That next on the tour was," Hovan said, smiling.

After taking care of immediate necessities, the Ranger decided he could
use a bath.  He left his gun and equipment belt in the locker, picked
out clean underwear, and started toward the bathing room door in the
left wall.

Hovan, turning from a nearby locker, stopped him.  "Why need you
those?"

"To sleep in," Tarlac said, surprised.  The Traiti had forgotten one
thing; they hadn't thought to salvage pajamas from the Terran supplies.

"You need them not.  The air warm is, and you a blanket have."

Uh-oh, Tarlac thought.  That must mean the Traiti slept nude, which was
definitely not a Terran custom.  He was by no means certain he could
adjust that far that quickly.

Hovan sensed the man's unease, remembering stories of human prisoners'
behavior.  "If you more comfortable that way are, those wear."  But he
was disappointed.  Until now, Steve had been doing quite well.

Tarlac hesitated, thinking, then returned the small bundle of clothing
to his locker.  "I don't think so.  Since it seems I'll be living with
you people for quite a while, I might as well get used to it as soon as
I can."

He walked hurriedly through the bathing room door, feeling himself
blush. This wouldn't be quite so easy.  He'd never been nude in public;
it was indecent.  Then he hesitated, realizing that he wasn't being
completely accurate: it was indecent only by current standards, and
even at that, not everywhere.  Although he'd never visited any, he knew
the Empire held worlds where nudity was unremarkable.  That was
obviously the case here, and he didn't have any choice, so he'd have to
make the best of it.

He located the cleaner and undressed, putting his uniform and
underclothes in, and turned the unit on.  Then he picked one of the
translucent shower stalls, experimented with the unfamiliar controls,
and began soaping himself.

By the time he was clean and, he hoped, no longer blushing, there were
Traiti in the stalls to either side of him, gray bodies seen dimly
through the shower walls and an occasional bit of melodic speech
sounding over the noise of running water.  Bracing himself, he left the
scanty concealment of the stall and picked up a towel off the stack
he'd spotted earlier.  Drying himself didn't take nearly long enough,
but he forced himself to stop when he was done, and walked into the
sleeproom.

To his relief, no one was there, though another dozen mats unrolled on
the floor were evidence there soon would be.  Hovan joined him seconds
later, still damp, and gave Tarlac a quick, searching glance.  "Be
easy, Steve," he said.  "You will none offend, you so little body hair
have.  There nothing wrong with you seems."

Tarlac stared at him in disbeief, then couldn't keep from grinning.
"None offend . . .   Body hair!"  Embarrassment dissolved into helpless
laughter, subsiding only when the Ranger had collapsed onto his
sleeping mat.  "That did it, Hovan," he finally managed to say.
"Nudity's okay, but not body hair--Whew!"

He stood, shaking his head and smiling, no longer disturbed by his own
state of undress or by the equally bare Traiti now moving about the
room. They seemed more impressive this way than when clothed, unlike
most humans--himself, Tarlac admitted wryly, included.  He felt pale in
contrast with their rich, even coloring.  And while he was in good
shape, he was nowhere near as muscular as the beings around him.  They
made him feel out of place in a half-remembered way, almost like . . .
what? Yes, that was it.  Like a kid.

Well, that didn't really matter.  Rangers weren't picked for their
bodies. The primary criteria were mental: among other things were
intelligence, imagination, an adaptable but stable mind, a generalist's
variety of knowledge, intense loyalty to the Empire . . . and no close
personal ties.

 Hovan returned the man's smile, pleased.  From what he had heard of
human prisoners, he'd guessed that sidetracking Steve's train of
thought might help; it seemed to have worked.  He waved a hand,
indicating the others in the room.  "You have part of my team seen.
Now that you relaxed are, may I a favor ask?"

"Sure, go ahead."

"My men have humans fought and killed, but have never any truly met.
If you willing are, they would like to you examine, and then questions
ask.  But you out-clan to all of us are; if you wish it not, none will
offended be."

"I don't see why I shouldn't do it, as long as it works both ways.  I'd
like to examine a live Traiti as much as they'd like to examine a live
human."

"That reasonable is.  I willing am, to your subject be."  Hovan called
his men over, conveying Steve's assent, then stood relaxed.  "I ready
am."

Tarlac had seen Traiti corpses, and read medical and autopsy reports,
so he was familiar with the sleek, almost hairless bodies.  But there
was a tremendous difference between that rather abstract understanding
and the immediacy of a living, vital warrior towering over him.  It was
only then that he realized Hovan was one of the scarred ones--his
embarrassment must have kept him from noticing earlier.  Not sure
whether it might give offense, he reached hesitantly to touch the
scars.  They were darker than the surrounding skin, but the texture was
only a little bit rougher.  He was surprised at the supple softness and
warmth of skin he knew to be tough as leather armor.  Had he really
been expecting the human-dubbed "Sharks" to be literally cold-blooded?

That private fallacy laid to rest, he stepped back, wondering what to
expect.  "Okay, your turn."

Hovan didn't have to translate that; his men got the idea and crowded
around the Ranger.  He didn't take part himself because he'd learned
what he needed to know while the man was examining him.  Just the
fingertips lightly touching his scars had been more than enough to
confirm his earlier impression.  The man's every action, from coming
aboard armed to allowing his alien hosts to satisfy their curiosity,
showed the courage and self-assurance of one whose sense of honor was
so much a part of him that he felt no need to stand on ceremony.  The
brief physical touch had even given him the feeling of belonging shared
by n'ruhar--what English inadequately referred to as clanmates.

Steve was worthy of Ch'kara; Hovan was convinced of that.  And the
sense of belonging in Steve's touch made it almost certain he would
accept the offer.  Hovan told himself ruefully that he shouldn't have
entertained even the small doubts he'd had of Ka'ruchaya Yarra's
wisdom.  It had seemed impossible that an alien could truly be a ruhar,
and Steve was undoubtedly an alien, even though he wasn't frightened,
as so many humans seemed to be, by the sheer size of beings so alien to
them.  Yet the clan-feeling was definitely there--how had Yarra
guessed?

Hovan dismissed that unseemly question.  She was Ka'ruchaya of Ch'kara,
not he; such things were the concern of Clan Mothers and Speakers, not
of fighters.  He obeyed in this as they would obey him in his field--
though he prayed the need would never arise for them to defend Ch'kara
as fighters.

But he could still feel wonderment at being empowered to perform the
adoption.  Males shared in the creation of life, but it was females who
actually brought it forth into the clan, by birth or adoption.   In the
case of adoption, the new ruhar should be brought into the gathering
hall, with as many of the clan as possible attending.  Steve wouldn't
have that, or even a close approximation, until Homeworld; there
weren't enough of Ch'kara in the Fleet.  But he would have the best
Hovan could manage, next wake-time.

Tarlac was still being examined by curious but carefully gentle
commandos. It wasn't embarrassing; his own laughter had cured that
problem, at least here.  Being poked and prodded wasn't as bad as he'd
thought it would be, even as closely as he was being checked out.
Naturally enough, his examiners were paying closest attention to the
points where the two races differed most: head, hands, and skin.  He
was willing to swear, for instance, that a dentist couldn't have gone
into more detail over his teeth.

But finally that was over and it was question time.  Tarlac seated
himself cross-legged on his sleeping mat, where Hovan promptly joined
him to translate for the others.  Then the questioning started,
hesitantly at first, not touching on anything too significant until
Tarlac's quiet manner and responsive answers put the commandos at ease.
When that happened, the questions became more searching.

"Do humans honor have?" one asked.

"I'm not really sure just how you use the term," Tarlac said slowly,
"so I'll have to go by the human ideal.  We have a few cultures, mostly
warrior ones like the Sandeman and Tharn, that are honor-directed, but
in the rest of the Empire I'd have to say most people don't.  Not the
way warrior races define it, anyway, and I've got a hunch you're more
like them, at least in that way, than you're like the rest of the
Empire.  Outside of the warrior cultures, it's the military that thinks
most about honor, though not even all of them care; to a lot of
civilians . . ."  The Ranger hesitated, frowning.  "Well, honor and
profit just don't seem to mix."

"You different are," another said.  "Why?"

Tarlac shrugged.  "I don't quite know.  Maybe because I've always been
something of an idealist."  He grinned.  "Though I was called a lot of
other things before I was recruited."

"All Rangers like you are, in that?"

"Idealists?  Yes, or they wouldn't be Rangers."

"Is it true there female Rangers are?"

"Sure.  Right now, three of them.  We can't afford to discriminate, not
for any job.  Local affairs aren't an Imperial concern, so some do
things differently, but the Empire itself doesn't judge anything but
what you can do. Especially if the comps and Sovereign agree that
you've got what it takes to be a Ranger."

That got a murmur of some sort, and from the tone Tarlac guessed it was
disapproval.  Hovan didn't translate; instead, he said something that
silenced them.

"It's okay, Hovan," Tarlac said, not offended but curious.  "What is
it?"

"They say that insane is.  Not only that you females in such danger
place, but that you machines use, your best to choose.  I them told,
there so many humans are, you no choice have."

Tarlac nodded, surprised.  "Right!  Well, mostly.  The comps don't
exactly choose; they just eliminate the ones who don't measure up to
the specs. Which, I admit, doesn't leave many.  Then the Sovereign
checks the comp's choices, and sends a Ranger to invite the ones @
chooses.  After that, only about a quarter of those who're asked to
join, refuse." His expression sobered.  "I almost did refuse, almost
decided to go into the Navy instead of taking Linda's offer.  I'm glad
I didn't.  I'd've had more security, but a lot less challenge."

"Or danger?"  Hovan was smiling.

"Or danger," Tarlac agreed.

Hovan's translation of that got a discussion going.  The Ranger
remained silent, listening to the commandos and enjoying the musical
sounds of their speech.  He felt oddly at ease, sitting open and
relaxed in the group of beings whose appearance was so sharklike; he
was well aware that in a similar situation with a human enemy, he would
have been anything but at ease.  When Hovan turned back to him and
started to speak, Tarlac held up his hand.  "About time for one of my
questions, isn't it?"

"Ask."

"There's something I don't understand.  Granted, I'm here as
Fleet-Captain Arjen's guest, and I've agreed to take the Ordeal.  But I'm
still your enemy.  If one of you had come to us, 'persuaded' the way I
was, at the very least you'd have been disarmed and guarded, instead of
being given the freedom of the ship.  For all you know, I could be
planning some kind of sabotage."

Hovan smiled.  "That you such a possibility raise, shows you would not
it do."

"That's not always a safe assumption to make," Tarlac said.  "In this
case it is, yes, and I'd like to think it always was--but I've already
told you most humans don't have a sense of honor like yours.  A lot of
people would bring up that sort of objection just to lull suspicion."

"So much we have from prisoners learned," Hovan agreed.  "But we have
also learned, from the tiny ferocious ones who themselves Sandemans
call, that Rangers only devious are when there no other choice is.  And
you no reason for deception have."

"More precisely, we'll be misleading when it's in the Empire's
interest--which isn't often.  And even then, we keep it to the absolute
minimum; people have to know that when one of us makes a definite
statement, it's binding."  Interesting, Tarlac thought, that the beings
humans thought of as merciless killers considered the Sandemans
ferocious.  On the other hand, there was no way he'd care to face a
battleprepped Sandeman warrior himself, in anything less than shielded
power armor . . .   "Not to mention which, it's both easier and safer
to be direct, especially with warriors.  Like them, for instance."

"They much like us are," Hovan said, smiling again.  "If you do peace
bring, I think we and they will good friends become."

Tarlac had a sudden mental picture of a Traiti trading war stories and
combat techniques with one of the small dark-skinned blonds--and it
seemed more an inevitable picture than an odd one.  "I wouldn't be a
bit surprised if you did," he agreed.  "But you still haven't told me
why I'm being so well treated."

"That simple is.  You to us armed came, and you have honor shown; we
could no less honor show."

There was no way Tarlac could reply to that.  He had already begun to
believe that he could trust these people's honor where he'd be
reluctant to trust a human's obedience to law.  Hovan's calm statement
only added to that conviction.

Another Traiti indicated that he had a question.  Hovan listened,
gestured sharply, and spoke, then turned to the Ranger.  "This more
personal is than the other questions.  He asks if you have children
fathered."

"I don't mind; no, I haven't."  Of course, Tarlac thought.  With that
sex ratio, parenthood could easily be a sensitive subject for males.
"I'm not married, and even if I were, I don't think I'd . . .  Well,
anyway, having children when I'm on Terra so little wouldn't be fair to
them.  Being a Ranger's child wouldn't make up for having a father--or
mother--who's gone all the time.  That's partly why none of us has a
family."

There was a soft murmur, this time sounding sympathetic, and the next
question was on an entirely different subject.  "The furred four-footers
with two tongues--what purpose serve they?"

"Cloudcats?  You must have captured some, yeah."  Ondrian hadn't been
involved in any of the fighting, but cloudcats roamed all through the
Empire.  "They don't serve a purpose.  Part of their bargain for
certain human rights on their planet, Ondrian, was their right to
travel on Imperial Navy ships any time.  I suppose you could call them
observers."

"They intelligent are?"

Tarlac could hear astonishment even in the original questioner's voice.
"Of course.  Didn't anyone tell you?"  Then he realized they probably
hadn't asked.  The first Ondrian colonists had thought the cloudcats
unintelligent predators; why shouldn't the Traiti have assumed the same
thing, or maybe decided they were pets?  "Yes, they're intelligent.
They can't talk; they use their tongues for gestural communication, and
to handle things.  They're outstanding artists, too."  If some of his
speculations were correct, that might mean more to the Traiti than to
many humans.

Hovan translated, then turned to the human.  "We some as captives took
and caged.  We hurt them not, yet have them as animals treated.  We
must that change, or dishonor suffer.  Can we with them communicate?"

"Most English understand--"  Tarlac broke off.  "Oh, hell, I'm starting
to adapt to your speech patterns.  I'm not trying to make fun of you.
If I've offended, I'm sorry."

"There no offense is," Hovan said calmly.  "Go on."

"Okay.  Most of them understand English, and can indicate yes and no.
That's about all you can expect unless one of your human or Irschchan
prisoners is familiar with tongue-talk."  Tarlac grinned.  "We made
that mistake too.  We lost some time by it, but it wasn't a disaster.
They may even have picked up some of your language by now.  They're
fast learners."

After a few quick words from Hovan, one of his men rose, dressed, and
left.  Tarlac gathered he was going to tell someone with more authority
about the cloudcats immediately, and Hovan confirmed it.

There wasn't much talk after that, the serious questions seeming to
have run out, and in the shuffle that followed of Traiti settling into
their bedrolls for the night, Tarlac spent a moment considering his
surprise at their action.  The Traiti hadn't waited a night or even an
hour to correct something which surely was not an urgent mistreatment.
The cloudcats were comfortable, Hovan said, even if they were confined;
the human prisoners were almost certainly confined somehow, too.
Merely treating intelligent beings as nonsapient was a cause for
dishonor, it seemed, which spoke well of Traiti honor.  True, the
dishonor might be in underestimating a possible enemy--but that didn't
quite seem to fit, somehow.

When the messenger returned and had taken his place in the sleeping
room, Hovan touched a control on the bulkhead to darken the room.  Then
he said a couple of words, and all but Tarlac joined him in what the
Ranger thought could be a prayer, a chant, or a song.  Whatever it was,
he liked it; the sounds in the musical Traiti language evoked peace.
When it was over, the room grew quiet.

By Tarlac's inner clock, though, it was still too early to sleep.  And
so much had happened that he wasn't sure he could have slept if it were
late for him instead.  So he lay there in the dark silence, hands
linked behind his head, and let his thoughts wander.

He had plenty to think about, and not enough solid facts to make any
conclusions reliable.  Most of what he'd learned only served to raise
further questions.  The Ordeal was the key to the whole thing;
Fleet-Captain Arjen had said as much.  And it was  dangerous,  Arjen
made no secret of that--but how dangerous?  Aside from the fact that it
left scars and wasn't universal, he knew little about it.  Had they
tested any other humans before deciding to try a Ranger?  If so, what had
happened?  He had no way of knowing.

Then there was the evident contrast between battle-readiness in men and
ship, and the obvious concern for mental comfort in the ship's
decoration. Being a generalist, not a xenopsych, Tarlac could only
wonder about it. Still, morale was as vital as guns, and he had to
admit that the shipboard art gallery was no more unlikely than the
forested recreation areas on the Sovereign-class cruisers.  It was less
space-consuming, as well, though to a ship the size of a battle cruiser
that wasn't really significant.  On the other hand, despite their
designation, IBCs weren't purely battle craft, and were often sent on
long-haul non-combat missions.  This ship and the others in the Traiti
fleet, from what he'd seen, were warships, pure and simple.  If nothing
else, they just didn't have the size to be either multi-purpose or
long-duration.

That made him think.  Unless the Traiti were a lot more fragile
psychologically than any human thought, such concern with amenities on
a warship was out of character.  They might be more alien than other
evidence indicated--or a lot more aesthetic.  He couldn't believe they
were all that fragile psychologically, and his current close contact
was showing less, rather than more, underlying alienness.  That left
the last possibility, that these ferocious fighters were also artists.

If there were any parallels at all with Terra, that could be true.
History showed plenty of military men, on any side in any war, who had
expressed themselves through art.  Tarlac could think of several
offhand, just from the last World War: Hirohito, poet; Mauldin,
cartoonist; Eisenhower and Churchill, both painters; and Hitler,
architect.  It seemed plausible that art was as important here in
everyday surroundings as it seemed; he would use that as a working
hypothesis unless he found evidence to the contrary.

Then there were the few hints he had about family life.  It was
important, that was obvious, and he couldn't help speculating, despite
almost total lack of data, on what it was like.  There was strong clan
structure, yes, but "clan" covered a lot of territory.  With the low
proportion of women and the touchiness about parenthood, the setup
might be like the old Arabian sheikdoms, with women belonging to the
dominant males and kept in a kind of protective custody, used as
breeding machines.

He didn't like that picture, though he knew a lot of human men would
find it an attractive fantasy.  Still, under the circumstances, it
seemed like a reasonable assumption.

Then he rolled over, pulling the blanket up over his shoulders, as his
thoughts went back to his earlier misgivings.  Dammit, he didn't want
to brood about that!  Sure, bringing peace would be worth his life;
plenty of others had paid that price, without the half-promise he had.
He'd have to follow them into final nothingness eventually, and he'd go
without protest if he knew it would mean the end of this ten-year
slaughter--but it wouldn't.

He couldn't die, not if he was to bring peace.  He had to live, to
survive an Ordeal that sometimes killed beings as tenacious of life as
the sharks they resembled.  It helped, knowing that they wanted him to
succeed--and why shouldn't they?  It was their race's survival that was
at stake, not humanity's.

If it was possible, he promised himself, he'd do it.  He had a brief
vision of himself at a Grand Audience afterward, approaching the
Emperor accompanied by several shadowy Traiti.  He was in full formal
uniform, his dress cloak brushing the carpet--but his shirt was open,
neatly arranged to show the four scars down his chest, and he let
himself smile at the image. Wouldn't the newsies and protocol
perfectionists be upset!

But that was enough of that; he really should try to rest.  It had been
a rough day, a strain on even a Ranger's ability to adapt.  Stretched
out in the dark, surrounded by the soft rhythms of breathing and the
somehow reassuring smell of clean bodies, Tarlac felt his tension ease.
Only then did he realize just how much the strain had fatigued him, and
it wasn't long before his own breathing joined the comfortable pattern
of his sleeping companions'.



Chapter II

Hovan touched the light control, then rolled over on his mat and looked
at the human in the growing wake-light.  Steve was still asleep, curled
on his side, half in and half out of the blanket, and he looked
incredibly vulnerable.  There were scars on the man's back, Hovan
noted; studying them, he decided they had been deliberately inflicted,
probably by some sort of lash.  Perhaps that meant the Ranger was
tougher than he looked, and had a better chance in the Ordeal than was
generally believed.  Hovan hoped so, since he found himself beginning
to like the frail-seeming human who would soon be his ruhar.

He was glad, now, that he had never voiced his private doubts about
Ka'ruchaya Yarra's decision to offer adoption to an alien and enemy.
He did wonder again why she had thought a human would be suitable, but
she had left him no choice if he found the man worthy; to disobey her
was unthinkable.

Apparently either his scrutiny or the wake-light had become too
intense. Steve was beginning to stir, his eyes opening as he rolled
over.

It was the light that had awakened Tarlac, to see Hovan smiling at him.
He smiled back.  Thin as his mat was, it was as comfortable as the bed
in his apartment at the Imperial Palace in Antarctica; he'd slept well.
"Morning, Hovan."

The Traiti was puzzled.  "Yes, for this part of the crew."

"It's a greeting," Tarlac explained as he rose.  "It doesn't mean too
much any more; it's just a habit."

"I understand."  Hovan was smiling again, also up now.  So were the
rest of the room's occupants, busy taking uniforms and gear from their
lockers. Tarlac retrieved his own uniform from the cleaner in the
bathing room and dressed, then returned to the sleeping room to put on
his gun-and-equipment belt.

Rather to his surprise, he found the room empty except for Hovan, whose
uniform shirt was folded open to expose his Honor scars.  That, the
Ranger already knew, wasn't standard.  Gesturing, he asked, "What's
up?"

Hovan motioned him to follow and led the way silently until they were
on their way to the meal hall.  At last, he decided how to phrase what
he had to say.  "After first-meal, I clan business have."  He indicated
the open shirt.  "This shows that I with my clan status act, not with
this rank."  He tapped the white tabs on his collar.  "This you
concerns, Steve.  Some clan must you adopt, and I Ch'kara offer.  It
not the biggest clan is, or richest, but never has it dishonored been.
You will as one of us treated be, if you Ch'kara choose, and I will as
your Ordeal sponsor stand."

Tarlac stopped, looking up at the serious gray face.  He had the same
feeling of sudden unreality he'd had when Linda extended His Majesty's
invitation to join the Rangers.  Adoption was a necessary prelude to
the Ordeal, he knew that, but he hadn't expected it until they reached
Homeworld. Yet he had no doubt that Hovan's offer was serious, and that
it was as deeply significant to Hovan as it was to himself.

Looking directly into the Traiti's clear green eyes, Tarlac said, "If
it won't require me to violate my oath to the Empire, I'll join Ch'kara
gladly. And I'd be proud to have you as my sponsor."

"The adoption you to the clan binds, not to the military.  None would
you ask, your oath to break."  Hovan touched the man's shoulder.  "But
now come. It not good is, first-meal to miss."  They moved on toward
the meal hall.

As before, Tarlac didn't recognize any of the plentiful food.  There
were different kinds of meat and two kinds of fruit, one pink and one a
brilliant scarlet, all of it good.  When they finished, Hovan guided
Tarlac to the bridge.

One of the deck officers noticed them as they entered, and called
Arjen's and Exvani's attention to the human and the open-shirted
Traiti.  Both Captains stood, bowing.

Tarlac was astonished at the sudden apparent reversal of rank.
Granted, the Imperial military had officers whose civil rank was far
higher than their military one--Life Duke/Marine Captain David Scanlon,
for example--but in the Empire, it wasn't possible to go from one
system to the other at will. Things had to be different here, if clan
business and clan status took priority over defense and on-duty
military rank.  Watch and learn . . .

Hovan returned the two officers' bows, speaking English for Steve's
benefit.  "I word from Ch'kara's Mother bear, Honored Ones."

"Your Mother's words we hear, Honored One," Arjen replied formally.

"Ka'ruchaya Yarra's words to me:  That I this man should judge.  If he
in honor came, and I him worthy found, Ch'kara's shelter was I to
offer.  He armed and freely came, as fighter, not captive, and I have
him observed.  I say she will him as clan-son accept, and I may for her
his blood-oath take."

There were a few exclamations of disbelief from those of the bridge
crew who understood enough English to know what had been said, but they
were quickly silenced by Arjen's glare.

"Ch'kara's Ka'ruchaya generous is," the Fleet-Captain said.  "But this
assignment secret was.  How knew she?"

"Our Speaker her informed.  No breach there was."

When Arjen nodded as though that explained everything, Tarlac had to
resist an impulse to shake his head violently.  It felt as if it were
full of cobwebs.  Hovan needing his Clan Mother's permission to perform
an adoption wasn't too hard to accept; at least nominally, women ran
families in quite a few cultures.  But a "Speaker" being able to give
out classified information was damn near incredible--and having it
accepted so matter-of-factly made it even worse.  Still, he couldn't
object; he was a guest here, and Hovan was going on.  "He should a
proper ceremony have, or as close as may under war conditions done be.
Will you have any n'Cor'naya who free are, in the exercise hall
assemble?"

"Of course, Cor'naya.  In half a tenth-day?"

"Fine," Hovan said.  "Afterwards, I must a message to Ch'kara's
clanhome on Norvis send, clan priority."

"You will it have," Arjen replied.

"My thanks."

With that, Hovan and Tarlac left the bridge, going to the meal hall to
wait the hour or so that was "half a tenth-day."  Once they were
settled with mugs of hot chovas, Tarlac said, "You must have one hell
of a lot of clan status."

"Enough," Hovan said with a smile.  "I have six younglings shared, and
I have an officer been for almost a year.  That does status bring, near
what Ch'kara's oldest male enjoys, close to Ka'ruchaya Yarra and she
who for the Lords speaks, Daria."

Well, Tarlac thought with amused chagrin, there went his last night's
speculation about females being property.  He must have been tireder
than he'd thought--he should never have gotten that idea after Hovan
had referred to a Clan Mother administering the death penalty!  Oh,
well.  "If it's not prying, how old are you?"

"You will soon of Ch'kara be; no prying is.  I thirty-five Homeworld
years have, almost forty-six Imperial Standard.  You?"

"Thirty-five too, but Standard."

Hovan made a quick calculation.  "Twenty-seven, Homeworld.  And you
already a Ranger are?  That hard to believe is.  How?"

"It's not really a matter of age," Tarlac said.  "They grab all of us
young, on purpose.  They got me when I applied for the Naval Academy
and took that ungodly battery of tests.  Those ran for a solid week,
and by the time they were over I was beat--so tired it didn't even
register when, late afternoon of the last day, someone knocked on the
door of my room.  But when the door opened anyway and I rolled over to
see who the intruder was, I damn near fainted.  Linda Ellman was
standing in the doorway grinning at me, and I thought for a while I was
dreaming.  Rangers do have better things to do than show up in
cadet-candidates' rooms, after all.  It just doesn't happen.

"But she was there, and she invited me into the group.  I'm not too
sure what I said, because the next day I'd decided all over again that
it was a dream.  It wasn't until later in the morning, when she showed
up again as we were getting ready for the swearing-in ceremony, that I
started believing. Until then, I'd had every intention of staying in
the Navy.  When she asked if I'd reconsidered, though, I realized I
couldn't pass up the chance, and I said yes.

"When I did, she smiled and said, 'We thought you would,' then pinned a
badge on my cadet tunic and took me to the Palace to meet Emperor
Yasunon. We were together for most of the next two years, with her
giving me on-the-job training."  Tarlac smiled, reminiscent.  "That was
a good time.  But I gather things were different for you?"

"Different, yes," Hovan said.  "My life for a fighter routine has been.
I this life early chose, and at fourteen I was to fighter school sent.
At eighteen I the final tests passed, then the Ordeal took and the
ground combat service joined.  From there I rank made, and last year
won I these."  He indicated his collar tabs again.

"Um.  You all come up through the ranks, then?  No direct commissions?"

"That right is.  And all officers must n'Cor'naya be."

"So what's the average age for someone to make Team-Leader?"

"Between sixty and sixty-five Homeworld years."

Tarlac whistled admiringly.  "And you're half that.  Damn good!  I can
see why that'd gain you status."  He hesitated, then decided to ask;
Hovan had said there was no prying involved.  "What about the young you
shared?  They gave you status too,"--Hovan had mentioned them even
before his rank--"okay.  But what're they like?  How--"

Hovan cut the man off with a gesture, noted the expression of distaste
at his extended claws, and carefully didn't smile.  "The younglings you
should for yourself see.  They will us on Homeworld meet.  Can you
until then your curiosity restrain?"

"If you want me to," Tarlac said.  He'd had little experience with
proud parents, but was quite familiar with people wanting to show off;
it was one aspect of a Ranger's job, usually boring, occasionally
pleasant.

"I think you will not disappointed be."  Hovan knew he was smiling.  It
would be good to introduce Steve to the clan, especially to Sharya and
Casti. He was sure the man would find acceptance and, Lords willing,
the closeness he had sacrificed for his Empire.  The man could not
truly miss what he had never known, growing up with only his two
parents, but it was something he should have.  Now, though, he had to
explain what Steve was to do at the ceremony.

When they arrived at the exercise hall, half a tenth-day almost to the
second after they'd left the bridge, the hall was crowded with
open-shirted officers and men from the entire combined Fleet, waiting
silent and expectant. Tarlac was aware of what this ceremony meant, and
was determined to carry out the role Hovan had explained to him in a way
that would do credit to his new family.

As soon as they had taken their places in the open area in the center
of the floor, Hovan raised his arms and began a songlike chanting
similar to the previous night's.  This time, Tarlac knew that it was a
prayer asking the Lords' blessing on his adoption.  Unable to join in,
knowing neither words nor music, the Ranger stood at parade rest, his
head bowed.  As a relaxed agnostic, he was quite willing to honor
others' beliefs as far as he could.

The adoption ceremony itself was simple, an exchange of blood and
oaths. When Hovan had explained it, Tarlac had wondered briefly,
surprised that it was so close a parallel to some of Terra's
ceremonies.  He'd finally decided it was almost inevitable; an exchange
of vital fluid was an obvious symbol of kinship, and the wrist was an
equally obvious place to draw blood, on a humanoid.

So, when Hovan extended a claw and dug into his left arm, Tarlac used
the dagger he'd borrowed from his sponsor to follow suit.  They took
token sips of each other's blood, and then Hovan held the cuts together
while the Ranger gave his oath, including his own modification of it.

"I pledge to Clan Ch'kara that I will bring no dishonor to its name,
and will defend that name and the clan's property and people to the
best of my ability, so long as that involves no harm or dishonor to the
Terran Empire I have also sworn to protect."

The qualification drew an unspoken sense of approval from the gathered
n'Cor'naya, perhaps not surprisingly among these people.  Hovan
replied, "For Mother Yarra and Clan Ch'kara, I your pledge accept.
Ch'kara you claims, as kin in blood and honor.  The clan you guards, as
you it defend."

The brief ceremony over, Hovan released his new ruhar's wrist.  Tarlac
grabbed it and applied pressure to stop the bleeding, noting that
Hovan's wound was already closing, as he considered his new and unique
position.  He was a Ranger of the Empire, yet at the same time he was a
member of a Traiti--until now, an enemy--clan.  He had carefully
qualified his oath, and he'd done everything he could for the Empire
before boarding the Hermnaen.  Still, the idea of owing allegiance to
both sides in a war was . . . disquieting. He had to resolve the war
now.  He didn't expect to have to decide between the sides in battle;
he was out of the war as an active agent.  But he was going to be
damned active at peacemaking!

In the meantime, most of the n'Cor'naya had closed their shirts,
signifying a return to Fleet duty, and were quietly leaving the
exercise hall. Only four remained, Arjen and three that Hovan
introduced as members of Ch'kara; they greeted Tarlac as well as their
scanty English and his non-existent Language would allow.

It was proper now for them to show concern over their ruhar's
still-bleeding wrist, and they did.  Tarlac understood, without quite
knowing how, and appreciated it.  Once the greetings were over, Hovan led
Steve out of the exercise hall and deeper into the ship.  "Come, ruhar.
You should medical help have."

Tarlac didn't need any more than his nose, a few minutes later, to know
they were nearing a medical facility.  The smell of antiseptic had to
be universal, at least for warm-blooded oxygen breathers like Terrans
and Irschchans--and Traiti.  The Ranger was willing to bet cloudcats'
antiseptics would have smelled the same, if they'd had any.

The cleanliness was as characteristic as the odor, and when a Traiti in
pale blue came up to Tarlac and took his arm, he didn't resist.  The
bleeding still hadn't stopped completely, and the medic turned to Hovan
with what sounded, to the Ranger's limited experience, like an angry
question.  Hovan's reply changed the medic's expression.  He checked
the wound, cleaned it, then held the edges together and sprayed it with
something cool and gray.  The Traiti version of synthiskin, probably,
Tarlac thought.

Afterwards the medic checked and cleaned Hovan's cut, but didn't bother
with any further treatment.  It looked half-healed, whether or not it
was.

When the medic was done with Hovan, Tarlac spoke to him.  "It feels
better already.  Thanks."

"He your speech knows not," Hovan told Steve, then said something to
the medic in their liquid tongue.  When he turned back to the Ranger,
he was smiling.  "He says you him too much honor give.  He has never
before a human treated; that you well responded only fortunate was."

"I meant what I said," Tarlac replied.  "It may be a minor wound, but I
know skill when I see it."  He was sincere.  The medic had been assured
and gentle, clearly a trauma expert, and Tarlac had to assume the
easing of pain in his arm could be credited to the synthiskin.  That
was a technique the humans had so far not developed.

"He you thanks," Hovan said after a further exchange.  "But he says you
should not so deep have cut.  The mixing of blood now only a symbol
is."

"I didn't go deep," Tarlac said.  "Just enough to nick the vein.  You
can tell him I'll keep it in mind, though."  He smiled at the medic,
the only direct communication he could manage, while Hovan translated.

When they left the medical center, Hovan looked thoughtfully at Steve.
The man was a guest on this ship, and he was now of Ch'kara--but he was
still human, and Hovan was well aware that there were those aboard the
Hermnaen who thought honor was no more binding toward humans that it
was toward vermin.  Steve had the freedom of the ship, and while Hovan
was sure nobody would take any overt action, he was equally sure
"accidents" could be easily arranged.  With a human's delicate build,
even a minor accident could prove fatal.

"Steve, ruhar," he said at last, "I must you caution.  Not all
crewmembers of this adoption approve, even though it was by the Lords
decreed, and some may you ill wish.  You may choose, but it would best
be if you with me stay, or with my men."

Tarlac was sure he detected real concern in the deep soft voice. This
time yesterday, if they'd met in battle, Hovan would have killed him
without hesitation, and vice versa.  Now, he realized with surprise, he
was convinced the Traiti would protect him as swiftly from his own
people, if necessary.

He wondered if joining Clan Ch'kara had made him closer "kin" to Hovan
than non-Ch'kara Traiti were.  That, he was to learn, was exactly the
case, and was also the reason the military seldom allowed n'ruhar to
serve closely together.  Clan ties were so strong that not even the
strictest military discipline could overcome them.

All the Ranger had to go on now, however, was his own judgement, and
that told him to trust Hovan.  "Ruhar, I don't know enough about Traiti
ways to make an intelligent choice.  I'll do whatever you recommend."

Hovan stopped and turned toward the green-uniformed human.  "Ruhar, you
do me honor.  Stay, then, with me."  And, gently, he touched one hand,
claws fully extended, to the side of Steve's throat.  His claws were to
protect, not to harm, his clanmate.

Tarlac saw the gesture as it began and waited for it, unflinching.  He
didn't move, even at Hovan's slow smile; he sensed reassurance, not
threat. Why was he adapting so quickly--so easily!--to Traiti patterns?
How could he adapt so easily?  Especially since he was almost totally
ignorant about them?  Dammit, humans and Traiti had been at war for
years, and he was human in everything but the past day's experiences!

Well, he was adapting; that was another fact he had to accept.  He
returned Hovan's smile and touched one of the deadly claws.  "I'm in
your hands."

Morning at Ch'kara's main clanhome on Norvis came in the middle of
Hovan's sleep period.  Preferring to disturb his own rest rather than
his Clan Mother's, Hovan had the duty Communications operator place his
call then. Contact was almost immediate on the clan-priority call, and
Ka'ruchaya Yarra must have been waiting; she was on the screen before
she could have been summoned.  Hovan greeted her respectfully, sure
that his expression gave away his news before he could speak it.

It did.  Yarra returned his greeting, then said, "We have a new
ruesten, Cor'naya?"

"Yes, Ka'ruchaya.  Esteban Tarlac, called Steve."  Hovan gave her a
brief yet complete account of everything that had happened since Steve
had come aboard, finishing, "He has much to learn, Ka'ruchaya, and he
may make mistakes, but he is true Ch'kara.  He will not dishonor the
clan."

"We can expect no more," Yarra said, smiling.  "You carried out your
trust as well as I was sure you would, Hovan.  You have my thanks."

Hovan accepted the compliment with pleasure, then asked anxiously,
"Have my n'ka'ruhar and our n'esten left yet?"

Yarra nodded reassuringly.  "Do not concern yourself, ruesten.  The
younglings you share, and those you share them with, will be leaving
for Homeworld tomorrow.  I held the ship until I heard from you, to
give them the news myself.  They will still get to Homeworld before you
do."

"I was not truly worried, Ka'ruchaya . . . but my thanks.  It has been
a long time."

"I know.  And I am sure this is your sleep time.  I will not keep you
from your mat any longer.  Dream well, ruesten."

"I will, Ka'ruchaya.  Farewell."

With that, the contact ended, and Hovan went to dreams of the coming
reunion that were as pleasant as anyone could wish.        Most of the
next week and a half saw Hovan and Tarlac together continuously, the
Ranger getting a crash course in all the basics of a Traiti clan, from
Language to customs and courtesies.  The Ordeal was neither short nor
continuous, so he would be part of Traiti society for some time, both
aboard the Hermnaen and on Homeworld.  The more he knew about his
adopted clan and culture, the better.

Even without that consideration, Tarlac was delighted at the
opportunity for such studies.  An acute case of curiosity was another
part of being a Ranger, and the few fragments he'd picked up at first
only increased his interest.  He wondered for a while at their lack of
teaching tapes, which meant he had to memorize everything the hard way,
but that was fairly minor. His only problem with it was that he didn't
expect to have everything perfect by the time they landed.  Hovan
agreed, but assured him nobody would expect perfection, only that he
learn enough to avoid giving serious offense.

The first lesson, reasonably enough, dealt with military customs, and
Tarlac found out that wearing his gun had meant respect to the Traiti,
not a threat.  They had classed Rangers with the military, as
fighters--and for one fighter to voluntarily meet others unarmed was a
deadly insult.  The Traiti were aware that there was no way Tarlac could
have known that custom, but even so, the fact that he had come to them
armed was seen as a good omen.

Language took more time, but was essential since not many Traiti spoke
Imperial English at all, and even fewer spoke it as well as Arjen and
Hovan. Tarlac found Language a challenge.  English had become universal
on Terra and its colonies, even where other languages were spoken; he'd
never had to speak anything else, though he'd learned to read the
cloudcats' tongue-talk.

And what the Traiti called simply Language had little in common with
English.  The most obvious difference was its tonality, much to
Tarlac's frustration and Hovan's amusement.  While the Ranger enjoyed
and could appreciate music, he'd never done any serious singing; it
took days for him to learn to make his voice do what he wanted it to.

But they didn't spend all their time working.  Hovan was proud of his
ship, and spent much of their leisure showing Steve the Hermnaen and
its crew. Even though the flagship was considerably smaller than a
Sovereign-class cruiser, there was a lot to show; it was still a
full-scale battlewagon. Tarlac was particularly interested in the small,
one-man harassment craft it carried, and since Hovan had flown one of
them in combat several times, his interest was just as intense and far
more personal.  It took only one close-up look, though, for Tarlac to
understand why such tiny craft were so surprisingly effective.

Barely twelve meters long, the ships humans had labelled "hornets" were
nothing more than a beam weapon and its power pack, with a propulsor
and basic life-support system wrapped around it and given some armor
and ablative shielding.  It couldn't stand up to a hit from even a
secondary disruptor, so a single hornet posed only a minimal threat to
any Imperial ship larger than a courier--but they were normally
launched in groups, used to saturate their opponent's defenses, letting
the main battlecraft use its heavier weaponry in an all-out attack.

It was an effective tactic, one which had cost the Empire far too many
lives and ships.  The Empire didn't know it also cost Traiti lives.
Imperial experts believed the little harassment craft were
computer-controlled, because of their precise maneuvering and persistent
attacks.  It didn't really matter; the results were all that counted.
Unless, of course, the Ranger added grimly to himself, you happened to
be one of the pilots.

Tarlac also found out how the fighters maintained their individual
combat proficency at maximum.  There was a constant series of one-on-one
challenge matches that were as much entertainment as training for
the crew.  Every fighter on active duty, from Fleet-Captain Arjen to
the lowest-ranking commando, was expected to take part, and did so with
considerable enthusiasm and usually-friendly rivalry.  Standings were
hotly contested, and were seldom related to the participant's rank or
clan status--though Hovan was rated third in the Fleet.

The matches awed Tarlac, despite what he knew of Traiti endurance and
strength.  They might be fought with shortswords, or knives, or teeth
and claws, at the match judge's option, but rules were minimal and it
was perfectly acceptable for a fighter who lost a weapon to continue
the match unarmed, no holds barred, until a clear winner emerged.  That
seldom happened without one or both contestants being wounded, though
the judge would stop a match before anyone was maimed or killed.

While he was a very interested spectator, Tarlac didn't participate in
either the betting or the matches, which meant that few of the Traiti
considered him a real fighter.  He was regarded, he thought, as they
would regard a youngling who called himself a fighter to impress his
elders: with amused tolerance.

And that, Tarlac admitted to Hovan later, was very probably why he
accepted when, three days out of Homeworld, a Fire Control operator
named Valkan challenged him.  It was the only reason he could think of
for his impulsive acceptance, that he resented being treated like a
child.  He certainly hadn't done it because he thought he would be able
to defeat his massive opponent.

By the time the match in progress was over, word of the challenge and
acceptance had spread throughout the ship.  The grapevine, Tarlac
reflected, must be the universe's most effective communications net for
Traiti as well as humans.  Almost all the off-duty crew gathered in the
exercise hall to watch the uneven contest.  Most were silent, though a
few called encouragement to one combatant or the other, and there was
the usual murmur of bets being placed as Tarlac and Valkan removed
their shirts and weapons belts.

Tarlac accepted the dagger Hovan offered, getting the feel of it while
his sponsor and Valkan spoke to the match judge.  There was no question
in his mind that what he held was intended as a weapon.  Its slim
double-edged blade was a quarter meter long, and the hilt, despite
being a bit large for his hand, settled easily into the diagonal grip
that allowed maximum effectiveness.  All in all, the well-balanced
blade had a deadly, efficient beauty.

When the brief discussion with the judge was over, Hovan gave Tarlac
his ruling.  "He as I hoped decided, Steve.  This will a knife fight
be, since that more skill than strength requires.  And for your safety,
the judge has two conditions made.  If you disarmed are, or if Valkan a
good grip on you gets, he an automatic win earns.  Otherwise you will
both tournament points score, and the first to one hundred reach,
wins."

The Ranger nodded.  "That sounds reasonable.  I'm ready."  He'd noticed
Hovan's failure to mention any automatic win for him, and grinned
briefly at the omission.  He might not be likely to win, but he was
determined to give it a good try.  He faced Valkan and dropped into a
knife-fighter's crouch as Hovan stepped back into the audience and the
match judge took his place, giving the signal to begin.

Human and Traiti circled cautiously, evaluating each other.  Hovan
watched, hoping the judge's precautions would be adequate, though he
didn't suspect Valkan of any true hostility toward Steve--not after
seeing the K'horan fighter's reaction when Steve accepted challenge.
Valkan had been disconcerted, had seemed to want to call off a joke
that had backfired, but he couldn't do so without loss of honor.  Hovan
did have some sympathy for him; he could imagine very clearly how he
would be feeling in Valkan's place.  He'd want to win, but without
doing the human any real harm; it wouldn't be right to send anyone into
the Ordeal injured.  And he'd be having qualms about fighting the man
at all.  Steve was an adult fighter, a legal opponent--but Valkan would
have to feel as if he were facing an underdeveloped youngling.

Tarlac neither knew about nor shared the Traiti's misgivings.  He
watched Valkan's moves closely, trying to spot a weakness.  He could
see none, and decided that if Valkan did have an Achilles' heel, it was
psychological.  The Traiti's bearing and moves were graceful--and
confident.

The Ranger suppressed an urge to smile slightly at that.  Of course
Valkan was confident!  He was taller, had a longer reach, and was
accustomed to such matches.  But if Tarlac could feed his opponent's
confidence until it overwhelmed his caution . . . he'd only get one
opening, at that . . .

He got the chance to begin putting his plan into effect almost
immediately.  The Traiti made the first move, lunging for Tarlac's
chest.  The Ranger dodged, Valkan's blade cutting air less than a
centimeter from his skin.  His counterattack was a split second too
slow to give a disabling slash to Valkan's other arm.

It went on like that for the better part of ten minutes: the human
escaping serious injury by what seemed pure luck, his attacks at most
nicking his opponent.  He was being steadily outpointed, and seemed to
be tiring fast.

Hovan watched Steve's losing battle with concern that rapidly became
dismay.  If this was the Ranger's best, he would have little chance to
survive his Ordeal.  Granted, he was overmatched, but he shouldn't be
moving so clumsily, gasping for breath, so soon!

And then Hovan saw Valkan decide to end it quickly.  Steve was
obviously near the end of his strength, but he continued to fight even
when he had no chance of victory; that did him honor.  Then the
exhausted human stumbled to one knee with his head and shoulders
slumped.  Valkan moved in.

His breath rasping audibly, Tarlac watched legs and feet approach.
When they were about a meter away, he surged into a forward lunge under
the Traiti's blade, bringing his own weapon flashing up to rest with
the tip just under Valkan's ribs, angled to stab unopposed into his
heart.

The exercise hall was silent, the unexpected move catching even the
match judge by surprise; it was a few immobile seconds before he could
declare Tarlac the winner.

Breathing easily, since he no longer needed that deception, Tarlac
listened to a growing murmur he wasn't quite sure was approval.  He was
reassured by Hovan's smile as he returned the dagger to his sponsor,
then resumed his shirt and belt.  He turned apprehensively to Valkan.
How would this Traiti react?  If he was one of those who opposed the
adoption . . .  He almost flinched when a clawed hand touched his
shoulder, and the other clasped his right wrist.  But there was no
hostility in the soft, lilting voice that addressed him, and Valkan was
smiling.

"He says that you more dangerous are than you seem," Hovan translated.
"And he says that if you not Ch'kara were already, his Ka'ruchaya might
have wished, you into K'horan invite."

Hovan was impressed himself.  He had expected Steve to lose, if only
after giving a creditable account of himself.  That he had managed a
win at all was barely believable; that it had happened so decisively
would make this match well-remembered.  And Hovan was less worried
about Steve's chances in the Ordeal.  Steve must truly be guided by the
Lords.

Tarlac returned Valkan's wrist-clasp and replied in one of the Language
phrases he'd learned.  "You do me honor," he said, and Valkan had:
adoptions were unusual, perhaps five to eight in a year for an
average-sized clan like the fifteen-thousand-member one he now belonged
to.

"But tell them all," Tarlac went on to Hovan in English, "I don't think
I'd care to try it again.  It's a stunt that worked once.  I'm sure
it'd never work a second time, and I'm not crazy enough to try it when
they know what to expect."

That, when Hovan translated, drew a roar of approval.  These were
fighters, stark realists all, who could understand and appreciate an
honest evaluation of chances.  Tarlac's statement, after he'd just
finished a knife match unscathed and victorious, was taken as just such
an evaluation.

Those who'd bet on him had very good reason to be appreciative; they'd
gotten excellent odds, and some would gain clan status for their daring
in backing such an underdog.  The losers were even more impressed by
the human's victory.  Even those spectators who still thought most
humans incapable of honor were making an exception for Steve Tarlac.
In a sense, after all, he couldn't really be called human any more.
He'd been adopted by Clan Ch'kara and had proven himself in the
matches, which was evidence enough that he was Traiti in spirit, if not
in body.

Once he understood it, Tarlac appreciated the sentiment, but he didn't
share it.  That evening, when he and Hovan were temporarily alone in
the sleep-room, he admitted as much.  "Hovan, I'm doing the best I can,
but I'm not a Traiti.  I'm human, and after that fight, I don't know if
my best is going to be good enough."

Hovan studied his human ruhar for several minutes without saying
anything. He had mingled blood with this man, and though the exchange
had been more symbolic that substantial, he felt oddly close to him,
closer than to any but the n'ka'ruhar he had shared young with.
Steve's sudden self-doubt disturbed him, given what he'd learned about
the man.  And an attitude of expected defeat was nothing to take into a
trial as strenuous and demanding as the Ordeal.  But what could he say
to help?  There was no denying the danger Steve faced, and trying to
minimize it would be doing the man a disservice.

There was little he could say, and less he could do, to raise the man's
spirits.  He would be lending Steve the same kind of emotional support
he had received from his own Ordeal sponsor, whenever and wherever
tradition allowed it.  For now, that was terribly limited, yet he would
do what he could.  He moved to sit close to the human, not touching him
in this out-clan place, and spoke softly.  "Ruhar"--the intonation
meant "brother/friend"--"there no dishonor in fear, or in failure of
the Ordeal, is.  And I certain am that you will not fail.  You Ch'kara
have, whatever in this happens."

Tarlac felt his tension ease momentarily at that assurance, borrowing
comfort from Hovan's nearness.  It wasn't fear for himself, as much as
fear for the Empire and Traiti alike, that held him.  Only
stubbornnness kept him from succumbing to the awful vision of a dead
Homeworld, of Imperial genocide. It made him want to retreat to
childhood, to find solace in his sponsor's strength as he had once
found it in his father's.

He couldn't.  He couldn't share what he knew, that if he died in
failure the Traiti race would not long survive him.

And he was certain, without reason, that he would die.



Chapter III

The Hermnaen was alone when it neared Homeworld's defense perimeter.
Arjen's fleet, under Acting Fleet-Captain Jannor, had returned to the
combat zone, and the extra ships had been ordered back to their regular
duties.

Tarlac and Hovan were seated at two of the control central supervisor
consoles, watching the repeater screen.  The Ranger never grew tired of
watching planetary approaches, even on a screen instead of through a
lander's windows.  There was something awe-inspiring about watching a
world grow from a featureless point to a globe boasting continents and
seas--though cloud cover obscured most details on Terra-type worlds.

The Hermnaen descended slowly, gently, on null-grav, and the globe grew
until it was beneath them, rather than ahead.  Clouds like snow-softened
mountains showed rifts, then gave way to clear skies as the
flagship let down toward a city-sized spaceport.  The guide beam
brought them to a precision landing near the central control building.

Leave for combat crews was automatic any time a warship made friendly
planetfall, and Homeworld was the only place where that meant everyone
could go to his own clanhome.  That it was a branch home, in most
cases, didn't matter; being in-clan was what counted.  Ship-Captain
Exvani, as anxious as anyone to rejoin his family, had called ahead so
that every clan with a member aboard the Hermnaen could send
transportation, and the ship emptied without delay.

Less than ten minutes after landing, Hovan and Tarlac and the other
three members of Ch'kara who'd been at the adoption were being greeted
by the driver of a large cream-and-green null-grav car.  She was the
first Traiti female that Tarlac, and as far as he knew, any human, had
ever seen.

She was only slightly less massive than the males, yet she was
undeniably attractive by Traiti standards, as he knew from the art he'd
studied, and she had an air of lithe grace.  Tarlac, though he knew it
was inappropriate, found she made him think of a Valkyrie.  She was no
fighter, couldn't possibly be if all he'd learned about the Traiti was
correct, but she gave the impression of a warrior maiden.

Seated between the driver and Hovan, Tarlac had a sudden feeling of
belonging here; despite his misgivings, he liked it.  He'd already
decided, since there was no way to ignore his apprehension, to refuse
to let himself be distracted by his fear.  He couldn't afford it.
While he still knew almost nothing about the Ordeal he'd agreed to
take, he had no doubt that it would call on every resource he had.

In the meantime, he'd learned enough to know that his original idea
about the status of females was not just mistaken but laughable.  Yes,
they were only a fourth of the Traiti population, cherished and
protected from any possible harm, and even a discussion of endangering
one unnecessarily bordered on obscenity.  But they weren't considered,
as he'd wrongly speculated, either inferior in any way, or as breeding
stock or valuable property.  Far from it. If anything, they had more
status than any males except the n'Cor'naya, the Honored Ones who'd
passed the Ordeal.  They were responsible for both religion and clan
life, things which were far more important to the Traiti than humans
had guessed.

The clans, not warfare, were the center of Traiti culture.  And yet,
even with females running those two vital areas, it wasn't a
matriarchy.  Males ran commerce and, obviously, the military; in other
fields such as science or the arts, gender had no bearing.  The
combination made for a "government," if you felt generous about the
definition, that couldn't possibly work for humans. Not even if it had
been imposed by a god, as Hovan assured Tarlac it had. There were two
rulers, the male Supreme who was exactly that in secular affairs, and
the female First Speaker for the Circle of Lords, equally powerful in
religious matters.

But those two acted only when something concerned the entire race.
Everything else was handled on a clan level, from education to
deep-space colonization.  Despite Hovan's attempts to explain, Tarlac
didn't quite understand how some of what the Traiti had accomplished
could be done on such a seemingly casual basis, and he could only suppose
they would find the human bureaucracy equally puzzling.

The two civilizations were most similar, ironically enough, in the
structure of their military forces.  Even that was largely on the
surface; any military required a clear chain of command.  Otherwise
. . . the clans cooperated to produce both commercial ships and
warcraft, and in crewing them, with the crew members supported by their
individual clans.  Then, under the Supreme's command, the war fleets
defended the race.

Tarlac shrugged and turned his attention to his surroundings.  The
spaceport, so much like its Imperial counterparts, was behind them and
they were approaching the capital city.  Hovan had described it, so
Tarlac knew what to expect: large, relatively low buildings, none over
three stories high, set apart from each other in almost parklike
surroundings.  In several of the larger buildings they passed, females
stood at the central doors; they were the clan's sub-Mothers, though
rarely--when this was the clan's main home--it might be the Ka'ruchaya
herself waiting to formally welcome her clan-children.

Tarlac enjoyed the drive and the scenery.  It reminded him of a Terran
college campus or an Irschchan town, though with a greater similarity
to Terra since Homeworld's sky was blue, not green.  The air smelled
good, clean and alive after the flatness of recycled ship's air, and he
could tell the Traiti liked it as much as he did.

They passed a shopping area, where the buildings were more brightly
colored and closer together, yet still not crowded, and the Terran got
his first look at groups of Traiti civilians.  Most were closed-shirt
males who hadn't earned Honor scars, but he saw some females, one with
an infant, and a few n'Cor'naya.  All wore loose-fitting, brightly
colored clothing, though there was no other uniformity of dress.
Styles varied by clan and by individual taste, from what most Imperials
would consider barely decent to full-coverage robes.

They did have one other thing in common.  Much to Tarlac's amazement,
all seemed genuinely cheerful.  He turned to his sponsor.  "Don't they
know how the war's going?"

"Of course."  Hovan was surprised by the question.  "Such things must
in honor known be.  Why?  Do yours not know?"

"Sure they do," Tarlac replied.  "But we're winning--we don't have any
reason to be depressed."

"Sadness would no good do," Hovan said calmly.  "What the Lords decree,
is."  He looked around.  "This area familiar seems . . . we should the
clanhome nearing be.  I have only once to Homeworld been, though, so I
cannot sure be."

His memory was accurate; less than a minute later, the car came to a
halt in front of one of the branch clanhome buildings.  It was of
average size, perhaps a quarter-kilometer on a side--plenty of room for
the five hundred or so who represented Ch'kara on Homeworld.  It would
be good, Hovan thought, simply to be back in-clan, back in the
closeness and peace he valued so highly--and there was Ka'ruchaya
Yarra's promise.  He looked at Steve, pleased to see the man's
expression was calm and interested.

Tarlac indicated the female standing motionless in front of the open
door and asked quietly, "Ka'chaya Yvian?"

"Yes, of--"  Hovan broke off as he glanced upward, inhaling with a hiss
through surprise-thinned nostrils.  "Yarra!  She here came?"

Tarlac recalled one of the fine points of custom he'd learned, that the
Clan Mother very rarely left the main clanhome, and then only if it was
important to the clan's survival or honor.  That Yarra was here, now,
could only be because of him, to show she regarded her alien
es'ruesten, her new clan-child, as fully one of Ch'kara.

It was something he hadn't expected; it was an honor, and it added to
his determination to succeed in the Ordeal, to bring credit to his
adopted clan. He climbed out of the car with the others and followed
them up the steps to accept her formal welcome.  The Ranger, ranking
almost at the top in the Terran Empire, was the only one in the group
without Honor scars, so he ranked lowest here.  When the others bowed,
holding out dagger hilts so the Ka'ruchaya could touch those and then
her n'ruesten, Tarlac knelt as was proper for an unscarred male,
drawing his blaster and extending its grip.  He was pleased when she
welcomed him as she had them, touching the blaster's grip and then his
forehead.

Still kneeling, he looked up.  "Ka'ruchaya, Hovan says you speak
English, so I want you to know firsthand that I had to qualify my oath
to the clan.  I don't want to be accepted under the wrong assumptions.
I took my oath as a Ranger of the Empire first, and that obligation
will always be first for me."

"Yes, I English speak," Yarra replied, "and I your reservation
understand. I that expected, in one Hovan would worthy of adoption
find.  You must, of course, that first oath first honor."  She smiled,
and raised him to his feet.  "I will to you later speak, ruesten.  Now
come.  You n'ruhar have to meet, after you are to the Lords
introduced."

Tarlac holstered his blaster, following his Clan Mother and clanmates
into the building.  The entranceway was about ten meters square, with
halls to either side and double doors straight ahead leading to the
clanhome's heart, the gathering hall.  When the double doors slid open,
Tarlac couldn't see much except Traiti.  The hall was filled with them,
leaving only one open lane down the center of the room.  He knew what
the hall looked like, from Hovan's descriptions: a hundred meters wide
by a hundred and fifty deep, and unlike the rest of the clanhome,
undecorated.  Its only furnishing, except for special occasions, was
the silvery two-tiered altar opposite the entrance. The clan's Speaker
for the Circle of Lords, Daria, waited there to introduce Tarlac to the
Traiti gods.

He smiled at that.  He and Hovan had, inevitably, touched on religion
in their discussions, and Hovan had found his agnosticism at first
baffling, then amusing.  It seemed the Traiti took their gods pretty
much for granted, absolutely certain of their reality but expecting
nothing from them other than acceptance at death.  Hovan had finally
given up on that debate with the extended-claw gesture that was roughly
equivalent to a shrug, saying that Steve would learn.

Well, there was always a chance that Hovan was right.  Tarlac was well
aware the universe held a lot more things than he knew, but this was
one he had no intention of bothering about.  If the gods were
interested in him, they'd shown no signs of it, and he saw no reason to
change his stand on the matter unless they did.

The procession including Tarlac, Hovan and Yarra was at the altar by
then, and this time the new clanmember was the only one who didn't
kneel.  He bowed to the green-robed Speaker standing on the dais, then,
at her gesture, ascended the three steps to stand facing her.  She
grasped his wrist, led him to the altar, and indicated that he should
place his hands on it, palms down.

Tarlac cooperated willingly, but his attention was less on what he was
doing or the chant Daria had begun than the statuettes on the altar's
upper tier.  There were eleven of them, images of the Traiti gods--
three of whom were actually, by his definition, goddesses--as
exquisitely crafted as a cloudcat-made tapestry.  They were about
thirty centimeters high, sculpted and colored with such artistry that
they might have been miniature Traiti, perfect but unmoving.

Then Daria's chant ended.  Tarlac stepped back from the altar, crossed
hands over his chest, and bowed.  That ended the ceremony, and started
the party.

As Tarlac rejoined Hovan, he discovered there weren't as many Traiti in
the gathering hall as he'd thought.  The lane of bodies which was all
he'd been able to see had concealed tables laden with food and drink,
as well as other members of the clan.

Several females and younglings came forward carrying drinks--and
something the Ranger had known only intellectually suddenly became an
emotional reality to him.  This was a family, as close and loving as
any human family, and he was a part of it.  Until now, no living human
could testify to anything but Traiti enthusiasm and skill in battle.
The remains of those who'd run into Traiti suicide commandos were even
more eloquent.  But these adolescent females offering glasses to the
five from the Hermnaen weren't fighters.  They were no taller than
Tarlac, and he had adapted enough, thanks to the shipboard artwork, to
think of them as attractive young ladies.

The girl who approached him said something, smiling, took a sip from
one of the two glasses she held and handed it to him, then touched his
forehead. Hovan had told him about this; it was part of the adoption.
It wasn't essential, but it was a good way to let him meet his new
relatives and vice versa--as well as being a good excuse for a party.
Tarlac took a small drink, returned the touch, and traded glasses to
drink again.

Then Hovan tapped him on the shoulder, and after they traded drinks and
touches--just once, this time--he introduced the girls who had served
the two of them, smiling widely.  "Sharya and Casti my n'ka'esten are,
from one birth."

Tarlac greeted Casti as he had Sharya, impressed.  Twin daughters!  No
wonder Hovan wanted to play the proud parent, with multiple births in
any given clan averaging about a century apart.  "I see why you asked
me to restrain my curiosity, ruhar.  It was worth the wait."

Others, three boys and five women, one carrying an infant, joined them
as he was attempting a polite comment to the girls in what little
Language he knew.  The first one Hovan introduced was Sandre, mother of
the twins and the only open-shirted female Tarlac had seen.  She had
Honor scars identical to Hovan's, which surprised Tarlac for a moment
since he knew she couldn't have taken the Ordeal.  He decided--and
later learned he was correct--that they must be because she'd borne the
twins.  He didn't know whether it was proper or not, but it shouldn't
hurt to be polite; he gave her the respectful crossed-arm bow.

It didn't.  He heard approving comments, then she said one of the few
things he understood: "You do me honor, ruhar," and traded drinks and
touches.

Tarlac had no time to reply before he had to greet the rest of what he
could only think of as Hovan's immediate family.  The last he met was
the youngest, and when Tarlac reached to touch the baby girl, he found
out the truth of something he'd heard about babies.

They liked to taste things.

Tarlac yelped, more in surprise than pain, pulled his finger out of her
grasp, and ruefully inspected the small wounds.  "Hey, youngster, I
thought there was only supposed to be one exchange of blood."

She gurgled happily at him while her mother spoke.

"She teething is," Hovan translated, then examined the bite himself.
"Want you medical help?"

Tarlac shook his head, grinning.  "I'm not that fragile--she just
startled me."

"Good.  She really too young is, here to be, but I wanted you all to
meet."

"I'm glad you did," Tarlac said, as the mother and baby left for the
nursery.  "She's a pretty little one."  He meant it.  She was prettier
than a human at the same age, he found himself thinking.  The infant
Traiti seemed somehow more . . . finished, maybe because Traiti never
grew noticeable hair, or maybe because he had adapted more thoroughly
than he knew.  Whatever the reason, the fact was undeniable.  So was
the fact, he thought grimly, that if he died in the Ordeal she would
very probably die too, under Imperial weapons.

"You only that say, because she the first you met have who smaller than
you is," Hovan said, wondering at Steve's brief frown.  This was
supposed to be a glad celebration--and it was all right; the man's
expression was clearing.

"Well, maybe a little," Tarlac conceded.  "When a teenage kid's as tall
as I am and masses at least twice as much, it's nice to see someone
smaller.  And speaking of size--"  He held up his drink, about the
tenth or twelfth glass he'd traded.  "This wine doesn't have much of a
kick, but even if I only take a sip every time I meet someone, it won't
be long before I'm wiped out.  You might stay fairly sober, but I won't
be able to, even if I were used to drinking.  I'll probably make an
ungodly fool of myself."

Hovan grinned.  "Probably, and it expected is.  The wine mild is
because you small are.  If you Traiti were, we would something stronger
drinking be. No adoption party successful is, unless the new ruhar must
in bed poured be."

Tarlac had to laugh.  "By that standard, ruhar, this'll likely be the
most successful adoption party in Traiti history!  But let's not make
it a success too early, okay?  I'm hungry."

"Food good sounds," Hovan agreed.  "And I will with you stay, in case
anything must translated be.  Ka'ruchaya Yarra and I the only two are,
who much English speak."

Several more drink-trades later, Tarlac made it to one of the
well-stocked tables and built himself a thick sandwich.  That process
got quite a few interested comments, but by Traiti custom none were
addressed to him until he'd finished eating.  When he was done, the
interest in getting him drunk was replaced, at least temporarily, by
inquiries about the new way of fixing something to eat.  It was hard
for the Ranger to believe that people as enthusiastic about food as the
Traiti hadn't either stumbled across something as simple as a sandwich,
or purposely developed it, but their keen attention and the eager
experimentation that followed made it clear they hadn't.

Unfortunately for Tarlac's sobriety, that respite didn't last long.
Within half an hour, his n'ruhar were again introducing themselves.
Hovan wasn't needed often as a translator; with so many anxious to meet
their new relative, Tarlac had very limited opportunities for
conversation.

He soon lost any trace of doubt that he would live up to custom, too,
whether he wanted to or not.  By the time about a third of those in the
gathering hall had introduced themselves, he had a distinct buzz on.
He had also come to the firm, if rather woozy, conclusion that these
people, his new family, were the finest in the galaxy.  Especially the
big gray-skinned guy beside him, the brother he'd never had.  Before.

He was never sure, later, how many more of Ch'kara he did meet.  Things
were getting blurry and disconnected, and never improved.  He did
remember singing, probably off-key, and later hanging onto Hovan's arm
for support.

Hovan felt a tug on his sleeve and looked down to see a silly grin on
Steve's upturned face.  The man mumbled something, so slurred Hovan
couldn't make it out, then released Hovan's arm and closed unfocussed
eyes to slump bonelessly to the floor, still smiling.

Looking around at the n'ruhar who had seen Steve's collapse, Hovan
translated the Ranger's earlier prediction aloud into Language, then
smiled indulgently down at him.  "And it seems he was right.  He has
had a very successful party.  Time to pour him, as I promised, into
bed."  He stooped, picked up the slightly-built man with no difficulty,
and turned to Yarra.  "I think he'd better sleep in the infirmary
tonight, Ka'ruchaya."

"I agree.  And tell the nurse to let him sleep until he wakes by
himself. The Supreme has said he and the First Speaker will wait until
Steve is ready to see them."

"They do him much honor."

Tarlac woke up once during the night, and was vaguely aware of being
helped to someplace where he vomited and afterwards collapsed.  Then he
was carried back to bed, where dim light showed him a reassuring
shark-toothed smile before a cool cloth covered his forehead and eyes
and he went out again.

The next time he woke it was to lights that were too bright.  He
squeezed his eyes shut and groaned, wishing he were still unconscious.

There was a light touch on his arm, and a musical voice said something
he couldn't understand but thought was sympathetic.  He didn't want
sympathy, he wanted to die.  Well, maybe he just wanted anything that
would end the misery. He recognized a hangover, though he'd never had
one this bad before; while it would end in time, he wouldn't enjoy the
next few hours.

Then an arm under his head and shoulders raised him and a different
voice, Hovan's, said, "Drink."  There was a glass at his lips; he
obeyed without thought.

What he drank was almost too sour to swallow, but within a few minutes
he was feeling better.  A little bit.  "What time is it?"

"Midday, twelve and a half hours by your timepiece."

Tarlac groaned again, forcing his eyes open.  "You do this to everybody
you adopt?"

"No, ruhar.  You a bad reaction had, an allergy, Doctor Channath says.
You should soon better feel."

"Uhh.  That'll teach me to drink Traiti liquor."  Tarlac tried to sit
up, refusing Hovan's assistance, noticing only then that he'd been
undressed and was on a sleeping mat laid atop a platform instead of on
the floor.  He made it upright, but the effort brought on a wave of
dizzy sickness, and standing up didn't work.  His knees buckled,
forcing Hovan to catch him and sit him back on the bed.

"You should in bed remain," Hovan told him, concerned.  "The medicine
more time than that needs."

"I have to get to the 'fresher."  Tarlac tried again to stand, somewhat
more successfully, and managed a couple of wobbly steps.  Then Hovan's
arm went around his shoulders, steadying and turning him.

"This way, ruhar.  That door to the hallway leads."

"Okay."  Tarlac was gratefuy for the guidance, but appreciated Hovan's
simple presence and his uncritical support even more.

By the time Tarlac finished cleaning up, the dose of whatever-it-was
had taken full effect and he felt considerably more able to take in his
surroundings.  One of the first things he noticed was that Hovan was no
longer in uniform; instead, he wore civilian clothes, a silvery open
shirt with bright blue trousers and quilted mid-calf boots.  A chain
fastened his knife to the sash that belted his trousers.  He'd brought
similar clothing for the Ranger, in red and gold.

Tarlac put it on, seeing immediately that his badge was already pinned
to the shirt.  Wearing something other than a uniform felt strange--he
hadn't worn anything else in public since the war started--but one
uniform certainly wouldn't last forever, and he still didn't know how
long the Ordeal would take.  Or what it consisted of.

The clothes fit well, though sleeves and trouser legs were a good ten
centimeters too short by Terran standards.  Apparently it was good
style in Ch'kara, though, since Hovan's fit the same way.  Tarlac's gun
wasn't there, probably in storage with his uniform; instead, he'd been
given a knife very similar to the one he'd used in the challenge match
aboard the Hermnaen.  "I gather you borrowed these from a youngling?"

"Yes.  And Sandre them tailored, you to fit.  Now come.  Food ready for
you is, then I must your education begin.  Much there is you have to
learn, before you the Ordeal begin."

"Such as?" Tarlac asked.  Maybe he'd finally find out what he'd gotten
himself into.

"Forestcraft, of course, and--"  Hovan broke off.  "By the Lords!  I
never did you tell, even of the parts I now can.  I must your pardon
ask."

They were out of the infirmary, walking down a wide tapestry-hung
corridor.  "You've got it, if you'll tell me whatever you can.
Wilderness survival is part of it?"

"Yes, and you know not this world's life.  Then there the Vision is, if
you one granted are, and you of the Scarring know."

"Yeah, I hurt just thinking about that part.  It's in that order?"

"It may be, yes.  The first it not my place to discuss is, and the
Scarring always last is.  The other three parts may in any order be.  I
cannot you of one of them tell, because it would by foreknowledge
influenced be."

Tarlac could understand that, though it didn't quiet his curiosity.
"At least I know more about it now than I did when I agreed to take
it."

"The Fleet-Captain you nothing told?"

"Oh, sure.  He told me that according to the First Speaker, if I did
take it and live, I'd be able to bring an honorable peace for both
sides.  That didn't leave me much choice."

"The Lords this of you asked?" Hovan said, impressed.  "I knew that
not."

"If that's what he meant, yes."  Tarlac didn't believe in the Lords,
but Hovan did; it wouldn't hurt to agree.

Hovan smiled widely.  "So you us life in honor bring.  That good is."

"If I live."  Tarlac frowned.  "Hovan . . . I don't think I will live.
I haven't thought so since I boarded your ship, and since the fight,
I've been certain of it.  This Ordeal's going to kill me."  He paused
and shrugged, wondering at his own calm.  "Oh, that won't keep me from
trying.  Maybe just trying will be enough to do what the First Speaker
said, I don't know.  Hell, I don't even know how I'm supposed to bring
peace if I do live!"

"Since the Lords this asked," Hovan said calmly, "you should not so
many doubts have.  They nothing ask unless it possible is.  And after
you the fight won, I certain am that they intend not for you to fail."

"I won the fight by a trick," Tarlac said bleakly.  "I won't live
through the Ordeal by a trick."

Hovan stopped and took Steve by the shoulders.  "Why did you not all
this say when it first you troubled?  I your sponsor am."

"I couldn't.  It was something I had to come to terms with by myself."
Tarlac found himself suddenly wishing he had mentioned it that night,
had given in to his urge to seek comfort.  "I . . . I've been a Ranger
for fifteen years, Hovan.  Almost half my life.  I just . . .   I
couldn't--"

Hovan shook him with controlled ease, just enough to silence him.  "You
of Ch'kara now are, Steve, and in-clan.  Yourself be, not another's
image.  That not a weakness is."

"What?  I--"

"To me listen, ruhar.  Everyone help needs, sometimes.  That does not
weakness show, or shame bring."  Hovan released Steve's shoulders, and
put his arms around the man instead, giving Tarlac the feeling of being
held by something with the weight and patient strength of an oak tree.
"Let me your troubles ease, as my sponsor mine eased."

Feeling himself part of a family for the first time since adolescence,
Steve Tarlac gave in, letting loneliness and detachment melt out of him
in long-delayed tears.  When he couldn't push the fear aside any longer
and it took over, he shook in Hovan's embrace with terror of a failure
that would cost more than any mortal should be asked to bear.

He couldn't avoid the risk, or the fear; all he could do was rage at
the sheer injustice of it.  Part of him knew that wouldn't do any good,
but he couldn't help himself.  He clung to his sponsor for what felt
like an eternity, buffeted by the terror and impossible conflict.

Hovan supported him, sharing what he could of the man's turbulence and
offering strength to help him accept the rest.  The Lords never asked
the impossible--but they never asked anything easy, either, and this
was only the first part of what Steve would have to endure.  Still,
Steve had already managed to endure loneliness a Traiti would have
found unbearable, and had concealed his terror until he was urged to
accept help; he would work his way through this.

Gradually, the Ranger's emotional stability returned, and he knew that
was due in no little part to Hovan's support.  When the worst of his
internal storm had passed, he felt purged--still certain he would die,
but now accepting the fear instead of ignoring it so that it ate
blindly at his confidence.  He rested for a moment more, then looked up
at his sponsor.  "It's okay now."

"You no longer alone are," Hovan said, releasing him.  "As I you told
when you adopted were, all Ch'kara you supports.  Come now; you should
something eat."

The brisk return to a favorite, and practical, Traiti subject brought
Tarlac all the way back to his current surroundings.  "Food?"  He
thought of the earlier nausea, and shook his head.  "I don't know about
that, just yet."

"It best for you is, after the medicine you took.  Then, if you ready
are, the Supreme and First Speaker will you receive."

"Okay, I'll give it a try.  That's one meeting I'm really looking
forward to."

On the way to the dining room, Tarlac had his first experience with the
casual nudity Hovan had told him was an option in-clan.  Except for
ceremonies and parties, quite a few members did without clothes.

Tarlac, warned, managed to feel only mildly embarrassed when a female
wearing nothing but a carrying pouch slung over one shoulder stepped
out of a side corridor ahead of them.  She saw them and smiled at
Tarlac, then hurried to embrace Hovan.  He returned the hug before
introducing her to Steve as Channath, the clan's chief physician.  "She
for you last night cared, when you sick were, and this morning's
medicine prescribed."

Tarlac gave her a rueful grin, trying not to stare.  "Tell her thanks,
would you?"

"That not necessary is, but I will her tell."  Hovan did so, and
translated the reply.  "She suggests, you little liquor drink from now
on. And if you bad reactions to anything else find, her tell at once."

"Don't worry," Tarlac said emphatically, "I will!"  Then he was in the
air as Channath hugged him.  Back on his feet, surprised but too
flattered to mind, he looked bemusedly after Channath's retreating
back.  "What was that all about?"

"I told you, there much touching is, in-clan."  Hovan put an arm around
the man's shoulders.  "The closeness good is, not so?"

"Yes . . ."  Tarlac said slowly.  "Yes, it is.  It's strange--I
shouldn't like it.  A Ranger has to be self-sufficient, has to stay
apart--has to be objective and impartial.  I'm not, any longer."

"What will that mean, when you to your Empire return?"

Hovan had zeroed in on Tarlac's thought, though the Ranger didn't
believe what he described would ever have a chance to happen.  "I'll
have to retake the psych tests, then it depends.  Maybe I'll be
disqualified from anything that involves Ch'kara or the Traiti, maybe
I'll have to resign.  The decision will be up to His Majesty."

"He would you demote?"

"Only if he doesn't have a choice; the Empire needs Rangers.  And even
if he does have to demote me, I won't be dishonored or anything.
Something like this happened once before, about four hundred years ago,
to a Ranger named Jeff Shining Arrow.  He lost his detachment, too--got
married, had kids--so Empress Lindner made him a Duke.  Emperor Davis
would probably commission me into the Fleet."

"That no dishonor is, true.  Do you think it will to you happen?"

"Yes, if I've changed that much.  It could be a lot worse, of course
. . . but falling in love's no crime, it's just something the Empire
can't afford in a Ranger."

"That the real reason is, then, why you no family have."

"Yeah.  I didn't mean to evade the question then, I just wasn't sure I
could explain it.  I didn't know you very well."

"I understand.  You never anyone met, who more to you than the Empire
meant."  Hovan shook his head.  "That a thing of much sadness is."

Tarlac didn't answer.  They were at the dining room by then, and food,
not conversation, was in order.

Not long after their meal, the two were being escorted through the
halls of the single building atop a low hill called Godhome, located in
the center of the Traiti capital.  Tarlac, not wanting his skepticism
to be too obvious, had cautiously asked why the gods needed a material
home.

They didn't now, Hovan had told him, and they hadn't since the Supreme
Lord of the Circle, Kranath of St'nar, became the first of the new
gods.  The old gods, he explained, the ones the Traiti called "those
who went before," had left Godhome as . . . something.  Nobody except
the Speakers had any real idea about its purpose, and they were saying
nothing until the twelfth Lord completed the Circle.  At any rate, it
had seemed appropriate to join the centers of spiritual and temporal
power.

Their escort ushered them into the large open double office shared by
the Supreme and the First Speaker; both rulers were waiting for them.
They greeted Hovan first, his due as a Cor'naya, and Tarlac used that
brief time to study them.  The Supreme, like all male Traiti leaders,
had Honor scars, but didn't appear distinctive otherwise; he seemed to
be middle-aged.  The First Speaker, on the other hand, looked young--was
certainly no older than Hovan, to outward appearance.  But she
radiated an aura that awed Tarlac, of immense and serene wisdom that
seemed tremendously old, or perhaps ageless.

When the two turned their attention to him, Tarlac didn't respond to
their greetings in the Traiti fashion Hovan had taught him.  Instead he
saluted and introduced himself, as he had when he'd met the Emperor for
the first time.  "Ranger Esteban Tarlac, of the Terran Empire.  It's an
honor to meet you."

Hovan translated that, and then the Supreme's reply.  "I sorry am, that
my invitation more a compulsion was."

"From what Hovan's told me about the way the war's going for you, you
didn't have any more choice putting it that way than I did accepting.
I just hope it does some good, for both sides.  May I contact Emperor
Davis, to tell him what I'm doing?"

He knew from the Supreme's tone, even before Hovan translated the
words, that the answer was negative.  "Fleet-Captain Arjen said, when I
him interviewed, that your Ship-Captain would to the Emperor report
that you the Ordeal taking are.  That all that necessary is."  Then he
smiled slightly and added, "But I no reason see, you cannot transcripts
of intercepted Imperial newscasts receive.  I will orders give, that
the daily summary to you delivered be."

"Thank you."  That was actually more than Tarlac had expected; he'd
only asked because it couldn't hurt to try.

"Ranger Esteban Tarlac," the First Speaker said, her English
pronunciation careful.

Tarlac turned to her.  "Yes, my Lady?"

She went on in Language, with Hovan translating.  "Your Ordeal will to
human tolerances scaled be.  As Fleet-Captain Arjen you told, we ask
not certain death, and the Scarring at least would surely fatal be if
we did not such allowance make.  The Lords stern are, but fair, and you
a good sponsor have.  There danger is--it must there be--yet no more
for you than for any other."

"That's good to hear."  It didn't alter his certainty, but it did make
Tarlac feel good to know the Traiti leaders were taking such care.  "I
was wondering, when the Fleet-Captain told me about it.  Have you asked
any other humans to try the Ordeal?"

"We have no others asked," the Supreme replied through Hovan.  "Another
has it tried, however.  You the second human ruhar are; the first his
own mind under questioning destroyed, and was by his interrogator's
clan--N'chark--accepted, as clan-born.  He the Ordeal tried and failed,
without dishonor."

"Will you his name--"  Tarlac broke off, shaking his head.  "Did it
again, Hovan.  Sorry.  Just ask him the man's name, will you?"

"All that know, ruhar.  Horst Marguerre, once a major in the Imperial
Marines.  One of those he commanded still a prisoner is."

"I've heard of him."  So Marguerre'd had the A-I conditioning, had he?
Well, that wasn't too surprising; he'd been in Special Forces, most of
whom did have it, and he'd been reported missing and presumed dead
early in the war.  "How did he do?"

"No worse than many."  Hovan translated that part of the Supreme's
reply, hesitated and spoke to his ruler, then went on to Steve.  "He
the part failed that I may not to you describe, ruhar.  I can only say,
he no harm suffered, and seems to be in N'chark happy."

That was better than anyone who used A-I conditioning had been told to
expect; Tarlac felt some satisfaction for him.  "If he ever gets back
to Terra, he can have his memories reimprinted, if he wants; all he'll
lose is whatever happened between his last mindscan and the time he
used the conditioning."  He returned to present duties.  "I'd like to
see the prisoners, if I may."

After a brief discussion with both rulers, Hovan turned back to Steve.
"The Supreme your reason asks."

Tarlac shrugged.  "Partly curiosity, I admit, but I'm also the senior
Imperial officer here, which makes me responsible for their welfare."

"I will have you to them taken," the Supreme agreed, "since it your
duty is, but there no real need is.  They well treated are, and as much
freedom as possible have.  Those who it wish, have even been private
quarters given."

The Supreme's expression as he made that last statement would have
convinced Tarlac, even if he hadn't already learned that a Cor'naya's
word was as binding as a Sandeman warrior's.  Traiti didn't like
privacy, and tolerated it only when necessary.  Rather like him with
newsies, he thought with amusement.  "If you say so, I don't see any
need to check.  I'll take your word."

When Hovan translated, the Supreme smiled.  "You do me honor."

Tarlac understood that phrase without translation, and bowed slightly.
"May I ask a favor, Supreme?"

"Ask."

"Hovan told me you have record tapes of the first encounter between our
scout and your guardship.  May I see them?"

It wasn't the Supreme who answered.  "You may them see," the First
Speaker told him through Hovan, "though for now they would almost
nothing to you mean. It would best be if you a little time wait, until
you Language know."

"A little time?"  Tarlac wasn't sure whether to smile or frown, and did
neither.  "All right, but at the rate I'm going, it'll be six months
before I'll be able to understand them."

The First Speaker's reply was gentle.  "Do not on that wager.  You
might yourself surprise."

There didn't seem any good way to answer that, so Tarlac simply nodded.
"Is there anything else?"

"Not of business," she replied, "though you welcome are here to stay,
if you wish to with us talk."

"I'd like that very much," Tarlac said, "except that my sponsor tells
me I have a lot to learn, and any time I waste costs lives on both
sides.  So if you'll excuse me, I'd rather get to work."

"We all wish lives to save, Ranger, if it can with honor done be.  Go,
then, with your sponsor."

At the Ch'kara clanhome, a youngling met them and took them to one of
the smaller living rooms, with the information that Ka'ruchaya Yarra
had set it aside for them so ruchaya Steve could study undisturbed.

Only it didn't quite work out that way.  Tarlac did learn a
considerable amount that afternoon, but it was as much about his
clanmates as it was about how to survive in Homeworld's wilderness.  It
seemed that everyone in Ch'kara who knew anything at all about the
outdoors was anxious to pass the knowledge along to Steve.  Tarlac
suspected they were motivated as much by curiosity about him as by
anything else.  If so, he didn't mind; he found himself savoring his
n'ruhar's presence and their frequent touches, and the "team teaching"
seemed to be very effective.

What he learned about Homeworld's vegetation and wildlife fascinated
him--especially, under the circumstances, the practical details.  He
found out which plant parts were edible and which to avoid, and that he
could eat practically everything that moved.  Unfortunately, quite a
few of the moving things would consider him equally edible.  Without a
Traiti's natural armor, he'd have to depend on luck and brains to avoid
that fate.

He couldn't help wishing he could turn a shipload of biologists loose
on this planet.  Irschcha and Ondrian were the homeworlds of the other
two intelligent Imperial races, yet a Terran without specialized
medical preparation beforehand would die within a few days, trying to
survive in either's wilderness.  It wasn't so much nutritional
deficiencies as protein incompatibility and allergic reactions.  With
the exception of the Traiti wine, that didn't apply on Homeworld, as
two weeks' experience proved, and Tarlac was extremely curious about
the reason.  Well, if he ever got back to the Empire, he'd recommend
that such a study be made.

For now, though, there was nothing he could do, and his first full day
here had been busy; he was tired.  He'd get a good night's sleep, then
start fresh in the morning.



Chapter IV

When Tarlac woke, though, it wasn't morning and he wasn't on his
sleeping mat.  It felt like the middle of the night, and he was
standing as he had stood once before at the altar in the clanhome's
gathering hall, with his palms laid flat on the bare lower platform.

He didn't know why or how he came to be here looking up at the images
of those who formed the Circle of Lords, but it seemed right to him
that he stood so, at peace as his hands rested on the alien altar.

Or was it alien?  He didn't want it to be, and it certainly didn't seem
alien.  He knew, now, what he had only felt during the drive to the
clanhome. He belonged here, to the Traiti, as surely as he belonged to
the Empire, and he had to bring the two together. It was a need he
didn't question, any more than he questioned the approval he sensed
from somewhere. Stepping back from the altar, he bowed formally.

Conscious of the chilly night air on his bare skin, he descended the
steps, intending to return to the sleeproom he shared with Hovan and
several other fighters.

There was someone at the far end of the gathering hall, approaching
him. He recognized the green-robed figure as the Speaker, Daria, and
wondered briefly if being here in his condition was considered
disrespectful, or worse.

Apparently it wasn't; she smiled at him.  "The Lords saw fit to summon
you quickly.  Was the communion pleasant?"

"I don't know," Tarlac said.  "I don't remember--"

He broke off in shock.  She had spoken Language, and he'd answered in
it. Not in the halting fragments he'd learned from Hovan, but as easily
and fluently as if he'd been speaking Imperial English!  "What--  How--"

"The Lords taught you, of course."  She showed no surprise at that.
"But here, I brought a cloak when I sensed them calling you; I thought
you would need it.  And come, I will get you some hot chovas.  It will
warm you."

"Thanks."  Tarlac took the cloak gratefully and wrapped it around his
body, feeling a sense of relief.  He'd adapted well enough to the
in-clan nudity that under most circumstances being nude himself might not
bother him too badly--but this woman was the clan's religious leader,
and he was still uncertain enough not to want to commit any Terran
improprieties around her.  "The chovas sounds good, too."

By the time they were in the dining room and Daria had brought mugs of
aromatic chovas from the always-ready pot in the kitchen, he'd stopped
shivering and managed to accept the fact of his new command of
Language.  He'd also discovered it did him no good to think about how
he'd gotten it.  When he tried, his thoughts simply shied away from the
subject.

"Do the Lords do that sort of thing often?" he asked as they took
seats. They weren't the only ones in the dining room, even at this
hour, but nobody paid any noticeable attention to them.

"No, they very seldom intervene," she said calmly.  "Why?  Do your gods
speak often?"

"It hasn't been proven that any ever have.  I've never really believed
in any of Terra's gods."  The hot mug between his hands gave off
cinnamon-flavored steam.  "I'm not very good at taking things on
faith."

"On faith?  Your gods provide no evidence?"  Daria's voice held faint
disapproval.  "They must be inferior gods, then."

Tarlac had to agree.  "Yeah.  The Circle of Lords doesn't leave much
room for doubt, does it?  No wonder Hovan thought I was naive."

He took a drink of his chovas, enjoying the warmth amid his troubled
thoughts.  He didn't see any alternative to accepting the Lords'
reality, like it or not.  And he didn't particularly like it.  Gods who
took an active part in mundane affairs introduced an uncertainty factor
that he found unsettling at best.  "Why haven't they helped you win the
war, though?" he asked.

Daria smiled sadly.  Apparently Language hadn't been the only thing the
Lords taught him; he was reading her expression easily.  "Who can say
what motivates a god?  We can only hope that their intervention now,
through you, will save some of us."

"Yeah."  Tarlac sipped again at his chovas.  "Look, will you explain
something for me?"

"If I can.  What is it?"

"What in--"  Tarlac hesitated, modified what he was going to say.
"What does a Ranger taking the Ordeal have to do with ending the war?"

Daria was silent for a moment, then she smiled again, easily, at the
Ranger's almost aggrieved tone.  "Ruhar, you must have noticed that all
officers and high-status males are n'Cor'naya.  There is a reason for
that; we have so many that there must be a way to select the most
capable, courageous, and honorable.  The Ordeal has done that for many
millennia, though it changed when Lord Sepol was called to the Circle.

"If the war is to be ended with honor, it must be done by someone who
has high status on both sides.  As a Ranger, you already have that in
the Empire; once you pass the Ordeal, you will also be able to
negotiate a peace agreement as a Cor'naya."

Tarlac frowned.  "Any agreement that will work can't involve you . . .
surrendering"--he had to use the English word--"since that's something
you can't do.  With the way your people fight, and with us winning as
decisively as we are, that is not going to be easy.  Will the Lords
help me there?"

"I cannot tell you," Daria said, frowning in her turn, perhaps at the
unfamiliar word.  "They have remained unresponsive; I can only pray
that they will.  But you must not count on it, for they give no more
help than they consider essential.  If they think there is any
possibility you can do it without them, success or failure is up to
you.  We must learn, they say, by our mistakes."

"It wasn't your mistake that started this war," Tarlac said.  "It was
the Empire's, but you're the ones paying for it."  He had a sudden
thought, frowned again.  "Fleet-Captain Arjen said the Supreme and
First Speaker invited me here.  That 'invitation' really came from the
Lords, didn't it?"

Daria nodded.  "Yes; all the Speakers know.  But do not let that make
you over-confident of their help.  It is quite likely that having you
brought here and teaching you Language is all they intend to do."

She sensed a question he hesitated to ask, and smiled.  "No, Steve,
your adoption was not dictated by the Lords.  The Speakers were
informed of your need to take the Ordeal, and we in turn informed our
respective Clan Mothers--but the choice of offering adoption or not was
theirs.  Ka'ruchaya Yarra, in her wisdom, chose to offer it, and I am
glad."

"So'm I.  And it may mean I do have a chance of finishing."  Tarlac
grinned, unable to suppress a short-lived surge of hope.   He'd been
prepared to die to bring peace; just the thought of living to enjoy it,
as Hovan was confident he would, was enough to make him reach out and
take Daria's hand even as it faded.  "Thanks, ruhar.  I was--"

"I know," Daria interrupted, putting her other hand over his.  "That
you continue when you feel certain of death does you honor.  You are so
intense, Steve.  Relax, let the chovas soothe you."

"I can now, I guess.  But I'm still worried.  From what Hovan's told
me, the Ordeal's no picnic, even if I do get help from the Lords."

"That is true, es'ruhar, but be easy.  Worrying will only make it
worse."

Tarlac was touched by her concern, and even more by what she called
him--though her intonation, combined with her use of the male
signifier, made that term . . . intimate.  It was almost embarrassing,
and he didn't know how to respond.  "Speaker . . ."

"I am Daria, es'ruhar."

"Daria, then."  Tarlac was acutely aware of her tone and her touch.
The gray skin, despite its dense toughness, was soft and supple around
his hands. This was a little too much closeness.  "Uh, I think the
Traiti and Empire have a lot to offer each other.  For instance, you--"

"Steve, es'ruhar . . ."  Daria interrupted again, smiling gently as
she ran the backs of her claws up and down his forearm.

Tarlac shivered, not from cold, and a gulp of hot chovas didn't help.
He wanted to run from what he was suddenly sure she meant.  He
couldn't, not yet, not so soon--maybe never!  He was afraid as he'd
never been in combat, and shamed by the fear, but he was unable to deny
it.

Daria paused, sensing the man's reaction.  She had expected some
unease; the Lords said that he had never shared bodies, since he had
never gone through the ceremony humans needed to make it honorable, as
some of the prisoners had.  But simple inexperience didn't explain his
near-panic response.  There was a First Sharing for everyone, an
occasion for joy in the clan almost as important as a birth.

Then she remembered stories she had heard about the prisoners, stories
she recalled only with pity.  "Married" Terrans shared bodies, yes, but
only in private, as if doing so brought shame even then.  And they
never spoke of it, never otherwise slept unclothed, and certainly never
allowed their bodies that freedom while awake.  That had to mean, she
realized with sudden horror, that Steve was disturbed by just the
thought of such sharing.  He must be fighting not to think of it at
this moment.

Touching hadn't upset him before, but now his arm muscles were taut
under her fingers, and she could tell it cost him effort to remain
motionless and silent.  She didn't remove her hand, letting it lie as
before over his forearm, but when she spoke her intonation was
concerned instead of intimate.  "Ruhar, let me help you."

". . . What?  Help?  I . . . don't need any help.  It's just . . . I'm
not judging you, but you can't ask me to . . ."

Tarlac's voice trailed off.  He couldn't look up and meet her eyes,
could only stare at the gray, gracefully-clawed hand on his arm.  At
the altar he had felt he belonged to these people, and it had made him
happy.  Now he was a confused alien again, belonging nowhere and to no
one.

The sudden violent changes of emotion he'd begun experiencing lately
weren't usual for him at all, and he didn't know how to handle them.
It was like some of the Academy entrance examinations, when he'd been
tested for his reactions to mood-altering drugs--and, at the same time,
for his ability to function under wildly varying conditions.  He'd been
trying to adapt to too many things at once, he thought desperately.
Maybe he did need to slow the pace, maybe he should . . . but he didn't
have time . . .

He couldn't . . . couldn't do what he thought she wanted.  He
hesitated, tried to explain.  "Speaker, I can't make love to you," he
said desperately, forcing himself to speak quietly though his words
came out in short, harsh phrases.  "It just isn't done.  Even if you
weren't a priestess.  We aren't married.  I gave up wanting a
family . . . I just can't!"

When he became silent, Daria said softly, "You joined Ch'kara."

"I had to.  To take the Ordeal."  Tarlac was still staring at her hand,
and sat frozen where he was as she moved to a place beside him.

Ah, the Ordeal, she thought compassionately.  Perhaps if he knew this
was part of the Ordeal, showing he was able to share in the creation of
a new life?  Then she decided against telling him.  It would be better
if he did not know just yet, if he did this freely rather than from a
sense of obligation.  "Ruhar, please.  Let me help.  I can ease the ill
that has been done you, perhaps cure it.  You need not suffer as you
do."

"Ill?"  After a few moments, the Ranger was able to look up into
sympathetic amber eyes.  "I'm not suffering, I like what I do.  You
just, well, surprised me.  I didn't mean to offend you.  If I did, I'm
sorry."

She'd shocked the hell out of him, would be more accurate, but he had
regained some control and did regret any distress he might have caused
her. More, he was angry at himself for losing control in the first
place.  It was about time he started thinking with something more than
his cultural prejudices.  Dammit, he was supposed to be able to adapt
to just about any circumstances.  So why shouldn't he accept this?

Unless she was right, and something in Terran culture had warped him.

Or--maybe not warped him, but been mistaken about him.  He'd lost his
reserve far too easily in the short time he'd spent aboard the
Hermnaen, and here in-clan, for real detachment to have been an
integral part of him. He'd enjoyed--until now--the Traiti closeness
that was unacceptable in Terran society at present.

That had to be it.  The tests, reliable as they were, weren't
infallible; they'd missed Shining Arrow's need for closeness.  Given
his own isolated childhood, it wasn't surprising they'd missed the same
need in him--a need he hadn't even known, in Terran society, that he
had.

And that was his key.  This wasn't Terra.  This was the Traiti
Homeworld, and physical expression of affection was the norm here.  He
closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, deliberately relaxing.

Daria felt his body's tension ease, and put an arm around his
shoulders.  "That is better, ruhar.  I have heard of marriage, though it
is not a Traiti custom.  Adopted or not, you are part of the clan, and
you are adult.  Any ruhar can share bodies with you, in full honor."

Any--? the Ranger thought blankly, then he realized it made sense.
With their sex ratio and limited fertility, the Traiti couldn't pair up
as Terrans did.  Hovan and the five he shared young with should have
made that obvious. But she was still a priestess . . .

Daria answered that unspoken thought, startling him.  "The Lords do not
forbid their Speakers sharing of bodies or young--if they did, none
would serve them.  There are no barriers, es'ruhar, except those in
your mind."

She was silent then, letting the man absorb her words and her unspoken
caring, as some people drifted out of the room and others drifted in,
to sit near them.  The emotional storm Steve was generating, and its
texture, let the clan know his First Sharing was near, and that he
needed support to make it what it should be.

Daria remembered her own First Sharing, a good eighty years ago, and
recalled that she had been a little apprehensive herself, even though
she had grown up seeing the adults sharing bodies.  She had only
relaxed when her best-loved es'ruhar, he who had given her life, came
to give her this gift as well.  And those who were with them included
her other closest n'ruhar.

Now the ones Steve knew best were here to show their approval and joy.
Daria regretted that he had no one really close to him for this, but
with Hovan and the others around them, she was sure he would take some
pleasure in it, and he would be unaware of how much he was missing.

Tarlac felt the presence of his n'ruhar, male and female alike, in a
perception that was a glow of warmth.  They were his clan, his family.
And yes, he was es'ruhar to Daria.  He looked up at her, reached to run
his fingers softly along the side of her face.  "Ka'ruhar," he said,
almost whispering, "I will . . . I will be proud to share bodies with
you this night."

When Tarlac woke the next morning he felt good, almost euphoric, eased
of a tension he'd lived with for so long he'd forgotten he had it.
Daria was also awake, he realized, and those who had been with them the
night before were now gone.  He put his arms around her.

"Ka'ruhar . . . it was unbelievable."  He remembered the night with
delight, and appreciation for something he'd never expected to
experience--the unity with another person, someone who treated him as a
person instead of a symbol.

"Such sharing is always good," she said serenely, running gentle claws
down his back.  "And we share more, my Steve.  I bear our ka'esten."

"Our daughter."  Tarlac, beyond surprise, couldn't question her
knowledge of pregnancy or of the baby's sex.  He took a moment to sort
out his reactions.  He knew Daria was pleased--he couldn't deny that in
a way he was pleased himself!--but this made it certain.  One way or
another, this was his last mission as a Ranger. He'd told Hovan what
might happen if he returned to the Empire with a clan and family, but
he hadn't really expected to have to leave the only group of friends
he'd known.  That would be a wrench.

Still . . . he remembered the feeling of belonging he'd had at the
altar, and Daria's undeniable concern for him.  Maybe it wouldn't be
too bad a deal, at that, if he somehow survived.  He might be gaining
more than he lost . . . a badge for a daughter.  Jim and Linda for
Hovan and Daria.  Yeah, that seemed fair enough.

Tarlac smiled, already a bit nostalgic.  Guess you'll have to find
yourself another Ranger, Jean, he thought.  Looks like if I ever ride
the Lindner again, it'll be as a passenger.  Then his attention turned
fully to Daria, and the idea of being a father.

It turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant idea.  He felt brief
concern about how their daughter would be accepted, but decided that
shouldn't be a problem, since he'd been accepted.  Something else was
more important.  "Daria, ka'ruhar--what happens to her, and to you, if I
fail?  Not if I die trying this; I know Ch'kara will take care of you
both.  But if I can't end the war, and the Empire invades Homeworld?"

Her serenity was unimpaired.  "I believe you will not fail, that you
will watch her grow.  To ease your mind, though, as long as I am
carrying and nursing her, it would be dishonorable for me to fight--and
the need to care for her will keep me alive, even as a captive, until
she no longer needs me."

"That helps, some."  It wasn't perfect; Tarlac didn't want anyone to
have to die, and he hoped the invasion never happened . . . but what
she said did help.  Then another thought occurred to him.  "What'll we
name her?"

"We have time to give that much thought," Daria said with amusement.
"But not now.  I have duties, and we both must eat."

"I suppose so."  He hated to do it, but he released her and they both
rose.

Going to the door, Daria retrieved a bundle and handed it to him.
Clothes, in Imperial green and silver--with his badge.  He took them,
pleasantly surprised; he'd expected to have to go back to his quarters
to dress.  Somebody was being thoughtful.

Nobody seemed to pay any particular attention to them when they went in
to breakfast, though Tarlac was reasonably sure that what had happened
was common knowledge.  He became positive when, shortly after they
found seats, Hovan and Yarra joined them.

Yarra smiled at them  "Well, Steve, have you lost all your doubts of
truly belonging?"

"There's no need for the English now, Ka'ruchaya--the Lords are good
teachers."  Tarlac was still baffled by their gift of Language, but
he'd come to accept it.  "I've lost all my doubts."

"That is good," Yarra said.  "I like my n'ruesten at ease."

Then Daria touched Steve's hand.  "You tell them, es'ruhar.  I will
tell the rest at morning service."

"Tell us what?" Hovan asked, but his face told Steve that he'd guessed
the news.

"Daria and I share a daughter."

Hovan looked at the two of them, then at Yarra.  "It seems our newest
one serves Ch'kara well.  And himself--I have never heard of anyone
passing the first part of the Ordeal so quickly."

"The Ordeal!" Tarlac exclaimed--but shock almost instantly turned to
understanding.  "Daria, you should have told me!"

"And make your First Sharing a thing of duty instead of joy?  No,
es'ruhar.  That would have been wrong for you, and for our ka'esten.
You deserve better of the clan."

Yarra smiled at them, and spoke to Steve.  "Ruesten, the Lords must
truly favor you, to teach you Language, then grant a girl child to the
clan on your first sharing of bodies.  That is a thing of joy, for all
of us."

"Yes, but--"

"No buts, ruhar," Hovan said.  "Are you concerned that she is half
human? That does not matter."  He turned to Yarra and Daria.
"Ka'ruchaya, may I show him?"

Yarra nodded.  "If Daria permits."

"Go ahead," Daria said.  "I am content to make the formal announcement
at service."

Hovan stood and raised his arms, claws fully extended in a stance that
demanded the room's full attention.  Silence fell, and he waited until
every face in the dining room was turned toward him.

"In seven tenth-years, n'ruhar," he began, "we will have--"

Some breakfasters were quick to make the connection between the
timespan and the previous night's First Sharing, no doubt aided by the
little group's satisfied expressions.

"Female or male?" someone called.

"Female!" Hovan called back, too proud for Steve to be dismayed by the
interruption.

Within seconds Tarlac and Daria were surrounded by well-wishers, being
congratulated with obvious sincerity.  There was no doubt in the
Ranger's mind of that, as he found himself grinning like an idiot,
accepting the compliments and feeling as pleased with himself as any
Traiti male.

A clan-sized family had built-in safeguards against his swelling head,
though.  A youngling Steve couldn't remember meeting tugged at his
shirt, and when he looked around, said, "Hey, ruchaya Steve, you don't
talk funny any more."

Tarlac laughed.  "Thanks!  Think you could do any better, in English?"

The youngling grinned engagingly at him.  "Sure I could, if you teach
me."

"We'll see.  If I have time, it's a deal."

Over the next several days, however, Tarlac was too busy to teach; he
was studying instead, fourteen hours a day, which left him time for
little except food and sleep.  He didn't mind the hard work; it was
interesting, and it would very probably keep him alive--if anything
would.

Hovan did leave him time to study the first-contact tape and read the
daily news summaries the Supreme had delivered as promised.  Neither
brought any surprises, though he paid close attention to the tape,
trying to find some way the war could have been avoided.  Doing so
wouldn't solve this situation, but it might help prevent another
first-contact disaster.

He didn't find anything.  The tape simply confirmed Hovan's account of
the first human/Traiti meeting, adding little to Tarlac's knowledge
except a sight of the guardship crew's intense horror when they saw
women aboard an armed scout, being taken into danger only males should
face.  The human scouts had followed first-contact procedure, Tarlac
found; the problem was the mixed crew, and there was no point in
changing that.  Anything the Empire did there--except perhaps for
crewing all scouts with Irschchans, whose sex was difficult for
non-felinoids to distinguish--could be just as bad, depending on the
culture being contacted.  And that had other practical difficulties.
No, the Ranger decided, it was what he'd originally called it: a mutual
misunderstanding.  What he'd called the Empire's fault, to Daria, had
been unavoidable. Neither side could be blamed.

The news summaries reported that the Empire was winning as steadily as
ever.  It was the casualty reports that bothered Tarlac.  The Imperial
losses were lighter than predicted, and he knew few individuals in the
Empire well enough to feel more than mild regret at their deaths; but
the increasingly heavy Traiti casualties upset him with their sheer
numbers.

More, some of them hit him very personally.  The loss of people from
Ch'kara, even people he'd never met, left a void.  They were a loss to
the entire clan, and it wasn't balanced by the birth of a son to one of
the n'ka'ruhar on Norvis--though Tarlac did share the clan's joy at
that event.

The losses couldn't intensify his need to end the war, though.  Nothing
could; it was already the central fact of his existence.  So, aside
from paying attention to the news summaries and the necessities of
life, Tarlac spent all his time on the concentrated study that might
keep him alive through the Ordeal.

All the same, it was a welcome break when, just before dinner the
evening of his tenth day on Homeworld, Hovan informed him that school
was over and invited him to join one of the fighters' discussion groups
after eating.

Tarlac pushed himself away from the study unit and stood, stretching
luxuriously.  "That sounds good, and I could sure use the change.  Have
you decided when I'm supposed to go out?"

"Tomorrow, or if you prefer, the next day."

"Okay.  Tomorrow, then.  I still don't care to waste time."

"I thought you would not.  I arranged for a null-grav car for
midmorning; I will take you to the test area myself."  He smiled a
little.  "Before we leave, you will have to make a decision.  Now that
you know all the dangers, you must choose whether to remain in the test
area for the full two ten-days, or attempt to walk out.  The Ordeal
requires that you survive, nothing more."

"Mmm."  Tarlac frowned.  "Staying put's safer, but if I'm lucky,
walking out should only take five or ten days.  That's ten, maybe
fifteen days saved--I'll take the chance.  And I'll bet you expected
that, too."

Hovan's smile widened.  "I did.  It means you will carry a locator
beacon as well as your knife, timed to go off in twenty days.  If you
are not back here by then, we will come for you."

"Yeah, okay.  You know me pretty well, don't you?  Let's eat."

He slept that night as if he had nothing hanging over him, and when he
went to first-meal, barefoot and wearing only shorts and a knife, he
was greeted with enthusiasm and urged, almost forced, to eat heartily.
It was the last meal in quite a few days, he was concernedly told, that
he could be sure of.

"Hey, don't worry about that!" he reassured them, chuckling.  "Being
small does give me some advantages--I can go for two or three days
without eating and without getting really hungry."

That drew some exclamations of disbelief.  A Traiti who fasted for even
a single day would feel severe hunger pains, and three days would leave
one seriously weakened.

"An advantage that may balance his lack of claws and his thin skin,"
Hovan pointed out.  "It seems a fair exchange; otherwise he faces the
same hazards we do."

"Yeah," Tarlac said.  "It's a little hard to convince an overgrown
bobcat to pull its punches."

"N'derybach are not known for their peaceful dispositions," Hovan
agreed.  "But if you are done eating, we should leave.  You will want as
much daylight as you can get."

"Okay, let's go.  I'm as ready as I'll ever be."

Moments later, Tarlac and Hovan were climbing into one of the clan's
null-grav cars.  Hovan was confident that Steve was, as he'd said,
truly as ready as possible; there was no point in a last-minute
briefing, so they made the trip to the test area in companionable
silence.

Twenty n'liu from the clanhome, slightly over fifty kilometers, Hovan
set the null-grav car down in a clearing, reached into a storage
compartment in the control panel, and handed Steve the locator beacon.

Tarlac clipped it to the waistband of his shorts.  "Twenty days,
right?" he said as he climbed out of the car.

"Five or ten," Hovan said with a smile.  "May Lord Sepol guard and
guide you, ruhar."  Then he lifted the car and pointed it toward the
clanhome. Steve was on his own now, totally out of contact, and Hovan
found himself suddenly apprehensive.  N'derybach weren't the only
dangers in Homeworld's wilderness.



Chapter V

So this was Homeworld's wilderness.  Tarlac watched Hovan's car
disappear, then checked out his surroundings to see what he'd have to
work with.  It was almost uncomfortably warm now, at nearly mid-morning,
but that wouldn't last. The weather was clear; come nightfall, he'd
need a way to keep warm.

The clearing was about six meters across and roughly circular, with
traces of another camp near the northern edge, shaded by the broad
silvery-green leaves of a soh tree.  Tarlac grinned at that,
remembering his lessons.  A soh tree, with its palm-like leaves and
sticky sap, was pretty good material for a shelter--which was
considerably simpler than trying to improvise clothing.

He'd be spending the night here, so he'd better get started.  Taking
advantage of all the shade he could, since Homeworld's sun put out more
ultraviolet than Terra's, he cut sticks for a leanto framework, then
climbed up the soh tree and began one-handedly hacking off the
tough-stemmed leaves. It was hard work, but it shouldn't take more than a
couple dozen of the big leaves to make a decent shelter.

The resultant structure of leaves laid over notched, sap-smeared
sticks, he judged, might possibly last, if it didn't have to stand up
to more than a gentle breeze.  It would have to do; he didn't have any
other fastening material, and it only had to survive for one night
anyway.

His next priority was water, which was no problem.  This part of
Homeworld's main continent had abundant drainage, and from the air he
had already spotted one of the streams that fed the capital's
reservoir.  It was less than a hundred meters away, and it would be his
guide out of the forest, as well as his water supply.

Tarlac had no desire to disable his only means of transportation, so
when he went for a drink, he watched where he put his feet.  The water
was good, clear and cold, and Hovan had assured him of its purity.
None of the Traiti worlds had any pollution worth mentioning; Traiti
technology was roughly equivalent to the Empire's, but had been
achieved far more slowly, and the by-products had never been allowed to
get out of control.

Refreshed, Tarlac surveyed his problems.  He had water and shelter; he
still needed food, fire, and foot protection, not necessarily in that
order. Food, now at mid-autumn, was as plentiful as water, and there
was nothing he could do about foot protection at the moment, so that
made fire his next priority.  There were plenty of likely-looking rocks
on the streambed; some, he remembered from a survival course he'd taken
years ago, might work nearly as well as flint.  He waded into the
stream and selected a handful, putting them on the bank to dry while he
planned.

It was just past midday, so he had plenty of time to equip himself,
even with nothing but a knife to work with.  He wouldn't need much
gear; it wasn't as if he was Robinson Crusoe, having to live off the
land indefinitely.  He'd be out twenty days, at the most.  He would
have to have some kind of shoes, though; his feet were simply too
tender for him to walk fifty kilometers barefoot, even through this
open, leaf-carpeted forest.  Some kind of long-distance weapon, say a
spear or a crude bow, would be useful, too, and effective enough at the
relatively short ranges a forest allowed.  Anything else would be
strictly a convenience.  It would be nice if he could rig some way to
carry coals so he wouldn't have to start a fire from scratch every
night . . .  He shrugged.  That wasn't very likely, and speed was his
main consideration, so it might be just as well for him to travel
light.

By the time he came to that conclusion, the stones were dry enough to
strike sparks if they were going to.  He went through them
methodically, hitting each one against the flat of his knife.  Two of
the first six did spark, weakly; he set them aside and kept going.  The
next five did nothing at all, and he was beginning to think he'd have
to make do with one of the weak ones.  Then the twelfth, a small rock
that looked like pinkish quartz, gave a big bright spark that made him
whistle in relief and admiration.  Tossing the other stones back in the
stream, he put the quartz in the pocket of his shorts and headed back
for the clearing, picking up dry wood on the way.

He found a gratifying number of animal traces as well, both trails and
pawprints, and he hoped few of them were predators.  He might not be
Robinson Crusoe, but he wasn't Tarzan either, and the idea of tackling
a big cat with nothing more than a knife held absolutely no appeal.
Predators, he reminded himself, didn't normally attack unless provoked.
At least the trails meant he had a chance of trapping something, and it
was a sure bet that animal skins would make better moccasins than soh
leaves would!

His leanto was still standing in the clearing, though it looked
ludicrously flimsy.  He stacked the wood next to it, then began
scraping leaves and other debris to make a safe spot for a fire in
front of it.  He hadn't needed Hovan to tell him that; this part was no
different from his childhood camping trips.  He could almost hear his
father's voice, its calm but firm emphasis: "Always be super-cautious
with fire in the woods, son.  You don't have any margin for error, no
slack at all."

His father would have liked Homeworld, Tarlac thought; he'd been as
much at home in the woods as he had at the gunnery controls of the
destroyer Victrix, where he'd been killed in the bloody running battle
between Tanin and Cosmogard five years ago.

"Don't worry, Dad," Tarlac said softly.  "I'll be careful."  He'd been
aboard the Lindner at the time, as he had almost since the war's
beginning. He'd had a Ranger's reserve then, and the detachment he'd
thought was real had shielded him from the full hurt of his father's
death.

His mother had understood, too, when he called her instead of returning
to Terra even for the memorial service.  "He wouldn't have expected it,
Steve," she'd said.  "He was like you that way--duty first, always."

"If you need anything . . ."

"No, I'll be fine.  You've both seen to it that I don't have any
financial worries, and your Aunt Betty will be staying with me for
awhile.  But . . . I do miss you, son."

"I know, Mother.  I'll come home next time I make it to Terra."

And he had.  Tarlac was suddenly very glad of that.  He'd been
uncomfortable, vaguely guilty that he hadn't been able to feel more
sorrow, but his mother had been happy to see him and made no effort to
hide it.  She'd let him leave without objecting, too, and he could
guess, now, how much that had cost her.  If he made it back, he'd have
to let her know he did understand, and show her some of the open love
he'd been unable to express before.

To make it back, though, he'd better stop reminiscing and get some work
done.  The fire area was down to clear soil, so he stood and brushed
off his hands on the only cloth available, his shorts.  Time to scout
around for food, and the means to trap some animals.

The inner bark of the torva bush--actually a low-growing tree--made a
substitute for rope or twine, according to Hovan.  But it was tough by
Traiti standards, and damn near impenetrable for a human, even with a
knife.  By the time he'd peeled off a half-dozen strips, one hand was
blistered and the sun was getting low.

He settled on salvis root for dinner, apprehensive about handling a
plant that bore a strong outward resemblance to poison oak, but he was
hungry.  The small patch of salvis yielded plenty for him, though it
would have barely whetted a Traiti's appetite.  Dessert came from a
toli vine that was strangling a nearby soh tree--orange berries that
looked something like jelly beans and smelled like dirty socks.
Despite Hovan's assurances, he bit into the first one cautiously.
Nothing that smelled that bad had a right to taste even halfway decent
. . .  Well, it might not have the right, he discovered, but it
certainly had the taste.  He should have remembered Limburger cheese.
These--he grinned and ate another--"Limburger berries" were sweet, just
tart enough to bring out their flavor.  They could easily become a
trade item, a gourmet delicacy, if he managed to achieve a peace.

Back at his camp, Tarlac dug a shallow hole for the salvis roots
off-center of his cleared fire area, and covered them with a thin layer of
dirt.  He wished he could bake them coated with mud instead, but he had
nothing to carry water in.  He swore briefly at the tradition that
demanded a candidate spend the first night where he was dropped off,
but it was a minor inconvenience, and he'd be travelling the next day
anyway.

Scrapings of dry bark smoldered in the sparks made by his knifeblade
and the fragment of quartz, grew into tiny flames, and, with the
addition of large twigs and then branches, became a small fire that
would burn down into coals to cook his dinner.  While he waited, he
could set his traps.  Snare loops for small game would have to be
sturdier than on Terra, since like most things on Homeworld, the
rabbit-equivalents tended toward the large economy size.

It was dark when he reached camp again after setting the snares and
pausing to dig a small latrine pit.  He pushed the coals of his fire
aside with a green stick and built them back into a blaze, which gave
him enough light to unearth his dinner--and he burned his fingers,
incautiously trying to pick up the roots by hand.  He called himself
several varieties of stupid while he sucked his fingers and speared the
salvis roots with his knife, setting them on soh leaves to cool.  By
the time they got down to eating temperature, his fingers had stopped
hurting, but he still wasn't too happy with himself.  All right, it had
been quite a few years since he'd done any cooking, but that was no
excuse--he'd simply been careless.  He'd also been lucky that there was
no real damage done.

What was done was done.  Forget it.

He wiped his knife semi-clean on his shorts, scraped dirt and rind off
the roots, and ate.  They might not be his favorite food, but they were
good enough, and filling.  After a handful of Limburger berries, he sat
comfortably near the crackling fire, his thoughts wandering as he
watched the dancing flames.

Hovan.  His sponsor.  He still didn't know exactly what that
relationship meant, but the Traiti commando had come to mean a great
deal to the human Ranger.  More, perhaps, than anyone else he'd met.
He visualized Hovan in forest green, then smiled at himself.  Hovan
would never make a Ranger--he was too old, too molded by Fleet
discipline, and far too clan-oriented--but there would be non-human
Rangers someday, and eventually a non-human Sovereign.  He liked that
idea.  Intelligence was what counted, and the Traiti certainly had as
much of that as any of the Imperial races.

There was no doubt in Tarlac's mind that if he made it through the
Ordeal to end the war, it would be Hovan's doing as much as his own.
Hovan's teaching, his quiet support, and most of all his caring, were
what would bring the Ranger through his Ordeal if it were humanly
possible.  He'd have to see that Hovan got the credit he deserved.

It was time to feed the fire and get some rest, if he wanted to make an
early start in the morning.  His bed was leaves that rustled under his
weight as he settled down, then lay watching firelight reflect off the
inside of his shelter.  It was odd . . . he'd slept alone from the time
he was six until he boarded the Hermnaen, and he'd thought he would
enjoy his privacy here--but he didn't.  He missed the sleeproom, the
comfortable presence of his n'ruhar and the sounds of their quiet
breathing as they slept.  He smiled drowsily, thinking that he'd shared
sleeprooms with a lot of Traiti, and he'd never heard one snore . . .

As always outdoors, he slept lightly, waking from time to time to feed
the fire until dawn finally roused him for the day.  Leftover roots
made an adequate breakfast, and when he checked his snares he decided
that either he was extremely lucky or noxi were even stupider than
Hovan had told him.  Three of his snares held prey, the beagle-eared
Homeworld version of rabbits, and one was still reasonably intact.  The
two carcasses a derybach had reached before he did meant that at least
one well-fed derybach should have no interest in human prey today, and
one noxi was enough to supply him with moccasins and meat.

Satisfied, Tarlac salvaged his bark strips and returned to camp.  He
improvised a spit--a straight limb that would make a good spear, shaped
to a point and fire-hardened--and put a haunch on to roast for lunch.
Thanking whatever Traiti metallurgist had developed a knife alloy that
held an edge under steady abuse, he set about making moccasins from the
tough noxi skin, using his own foot as the pattern, gut for thread, and
his knife as an awl.

The crude lopsided moccasins felt good on his feet; he had soh-leaf
pouches to hold coals and the jerky he'd let the sun dry; and the spit
did indeed make a workable spear.  Looking around his camp before he
left, Tarlac couldn't help feeling a sense of accomplishment.  His
shelter and equipment might not look like much, but they were his, in
the most personal way possible.  It had been a long time since he'd
concerned himself with such basic essentials of survival, and somewhat
to his surprise, he found the past day as satisfying as anything he'd
done for the Empire.  He almost hated to leave the shaky leanto.

He set off toward the stream that would serve as his guide and water
supply.  He wouldn't get far today, probably only three or four
kilometers, but it was a start, and his need to finish the Ordeal
wouldn't let him delay.

His leanto that night was considerably sturdier, thanks to the bark
strips, and he made camp closer to water, which let him wash his knife
and himself and provided cooking mud.  Tarlac couldn't help laughing at
that incongruous idea, even as he slathered a thick layer onto the
day's find of salvis roots.  There were more than enough for a human,
though again, not for a Traiti.  It might be logical after all to
insist that candidates spend at least their first night in the richly
productive test area near the clearing, and it was an equally good
reason, given Traiti food requirements, for most candidates to choose
to remain there.

The next five days settled into a routine of hiking and foraging,
living on produce and his stored jerky.  Other than a brief but heavy
shower the third afternoon, the weather remained good; food was
abundant, if monotonous, and the only hostile wildlife he ran into was
a variety of insect something like an Alaskan mosquito with a decided
taste for human flesh.  Except for an occasional feeling of being
watched, and his urgent reasons for being here at all, Tarlac was
enjoying himself.  It was hard work, yes, and he looked forward to the
comfort of a sleeping mat and his n'ruhar's presence--but as he built
his shelter for the seventh and probably last night in the wilderness,
he couldn't help feeling some regret that the closest thing he'd had to
a vacation in ten years was coming to an end.



Chapter VI

One moment Tarlac was falling asleep, warm and secure in his shelter
with the fire keeping out the night's chill--

--the next, he was waking in the cockpit of a crashed biplane, a
fighter.

A biplane?  What the hell--!  Terra hadn't used biplanes in combat for
centuries!

And Homeworld hadn't for millennia.

How did he know that?

He picked splinters of glass from the bipe's shattered instrument faces
out of his leathery gray skin, working deftly with his extended claws.

Gray skin?  Claws?  For an instant, they seemed alien.  Shouldn't he
have flat fingernails and a pinkish-tan skin?

Kranath smiled, dismissing such ridiculous thoughts.  He was groggy
from the crash, that was all.  This was no more than a dream,
insignificant.

He climbed from what was left of the cockpit and surveyed the remains
of his aircraft.  Not much of the little biplane still held together,
he saw with regret.  The wings were splinters and shredded fabric, the
fuselage little more.

His head was beginning to clear, so he decided to check the engine.
The prop would be shattered, of course, but the engine might be
salvageable, if the brush that had cushioned the crash for him had done
the same for it. Engines were handmade and expensive, not to be
abandoned lightly even by a rich clan--which St'nar was not.

Kranath was relieved to see only minor damage.  St'nar's artisans would
have no difficulty repairing a cracked cylinder head and a bent push
rod.  His problem, then, was to get back to the clanhome.  He smiled at
that thought. To a scout-pilot, walking out of the wilderness in spring
should be almost a vacation.  He wore flying leathers, was armed with a
dagger and a medium-caliber handgun, and the plane carried a full
survival kit.  It was far more equipment than he'd had for wilderness
survival during his Ordeal of Honor, and he'd managed quite comfortably
even then.

This hike would be shorter, probably less than three days, and there
was no point in delay.  Returning to the cockpit, he dug out the
survival kit and slung it on his back, then detached the compass, which
fortunately was undamaged, from the control panel and consulted his
flight map.

Kranath saw with dismay that St'nar's clanhome was almost directly
south, but taking that route directly was just asking for trouble.
He'd have to go around. He headed southeast and began his trek.

The underbrush, while light, was growing too irregularly for him to
settle into the ground-eating lope a Traiti fighter could maintain all
day.  Keeping down to walking speed frustrated him since St'nar needed
all its pilots, including him, in the current battle with N'chark.  But
he'd survived the crash; he'd fly for St'nar again.  He enjoyed flying
and fighting, though the toll interclan battles were taking of late
disturbed him more than he cared to admit.  The death rate was too
high, far higher now than the birth rate.

(So the Traiti had almost been wiped out in a genocidal war once
before, thought a tiny detached fragment that was still Steve Tarlac.
It was an interesting parallel to the problem he faced.)

Kranath shoved those thoughts aside.  He was a fighter, not supposed to
be concerned with interclan policy.  He'd often wondered why he
shouldn't be, but tradition insisted his Ka'ruchaya was wiser than he
in such matters.

Instead, he tried to figure out what had caused his crash.  It wasn't
pilot error, he was sure.  The flight had been routine, the air calm.
The engine had run smoothly, without even a cough, and the controls had
been responding as well as they ever did.  So why had he crashed?

It nagged at him, but even after a full tenth-day of pondering while he
walked, he still had no idea.  By that time he was a good five n'liu
from the crash site, a respectable half-morning's walk.  He was also
approaching a low hill, the legendary place known as Godhome.

That was the reason he'd had to plan an indirect route to St'nar.
Nobody went to Godhome voluntarily, and Kranath cursed at himself for
allowing speculation about the crash to distract his attention from his
course.  He'd come too far south!  He began to veer east, trying to put
some distance between himself and the ominous hill before the madness
of the place seized him.

The first eastward steps were easy, but soon he began to feel as if he
were wading in something sticky, something invisible that was getting
deeper. He could see normal ground, ordinary bushes and shrubs like
woodlands he'd walked in hundreds of times--yet something was making
him struggle for progress.  When the sticky invisibility reached his
waist, he decided this route was futile.

So was north, he discovered when he tried to retrace his steps to the
crash site.  The only way open to him was south, straight toward
Godhome.  He was beginning to realize with dismay that he would not be
able to avoid it, desperately though he wanted to.  He stood still,
hesitating.

Then something nudged him in the back, just hard enough to make him
stumble a couple of startled steps forward--south.  He looked around,
not really surprised to see nothing behind him, and remained standing
where he had stopped.  Moments later another nudge, more insistent,
propelled him several steps further.

Bitterly sure it would be useless, that he was as much a prisoner as if
he were surrounded by armed guards, Kranath stopped again.  What had he
done to deserve captivity?  Madness at least brought no disgrace to the
victim; why should his accidental trespass be any worse than anyone
else's, that he should be humiliated and dishonored?

The next prompting he got wasn't a nudge.  The pressure at his back
became constant, gentle but irresistible, and it forced him toward the
hill at a steady walk.

It was over, Kranath thought.  Captive, with no hope of escape from
whatever was wielding enough power to compel him this way, he would
die.  The only chance he had to regain honor now was to kill himself
before the continuing knowledge of captivity exhausted his will to act
and, within a few days, his will to live.

Grimly determined to at least die in what honor he could, Kranath
reached for his weapons.  Either gun or dagger would be fast and clean.
He touched them, got his hands firmly on the grips--and was unable to
draw either. Whatever held him had left him his weapons, but made them
a useless mockery. That didn't mean he was completely disarmed, though.
He still had his hands and claws; he might still avoid the
incomprehensible doom he was being forced up the slopes of Godhome to
meet.  Claws fully extended, the veteran fighter reached for his
throat.

That effort, too, failed.  He found that he was no longer simply being
pushed; instead, his body had been taken over, its actions controlled
by the unknown invisible other.  He could observe, but could no longer
control his movements. This wasn't the prisoner-despair, not yet--
Kranath's will remained intact, but his body did not respond to even
the fiercest exercise of it.

(Sharing Kranath's emotion, Tarlac understood completely.  A human
would have feared for his life, but Traiti valued that less than honor.
And the Traiti had been forced to Godhome as surely as he had been
forced to the Hermnaen.)

Kranath was at the top of the hill now, standing where no Traiti in
history had ever stood.  In any other place, that would have been cause
for rejoicing.  Not here.  He had been brought here by force instead of
coming voluntarily, and he could only pray to all the gods that St'nar
would think him dead in honor.  Gods!  What gods?  Why was he praying?
It wouldn't do him any good, he thought angrily.  The gods had vanished
millennia ago, leaving only Godhome as evidence they'd been real.  It
was evidence that drove men mad, must be driving him mad if he was
starting to pray.  Gods made good stories for younglings; they had no
meaning in the real world.

Or . . . did they?  Kranath suddenly recalled an evening of his youth,
sitting around a fireplace in one of the clanhome's living rooms and
listening to Tenar tell stories and legends of the gods.  Tenar was his
es'chaya, a battle-wise Cor'naya and a historian; Kranath had loved
both him and his legends.  That night, one of the stories had been of
the gods' departure.

"Even then," Tenar had said, "they didn't show themselves.  They were
just voices that spoke to minds."  He'd gotten murmurs of amusement at
that, but had smiled.  "I didn't create the legends, younglings, I only
report them.  At any rate, the gods blessed our people and wished us
well.  They said they were not leaving us alone, that something of
theirs remained to watch over us.  I think they tried to explain it,
but the reports that have come down to our time make no sense.  And
they left us a promise.  They said that when they were needed, they
would return."  Then he'd stood and stretched, the fire highlighting
the four parallel Honor scars running down his chest and belly, and
Kranath remembered promising himself then that he, too, would take and
survive the Ordeal.

Then Tenar had planted fists on hips and glared down at them, grinning.
"They also said someone would be invited to join the watcher when the
time came, and that that one would call the gods.  But it certainly
won't be any of you disrespectful cubs!"  With that, he'd gone down
under the ferocious assault of half a dozen indignant younglings,
yelling mock threats at them.

Kranath's thoughts returned to the present as the ground in front of
him opened and something like a large metal chamber rose, its door
opening to admit him. Remembering the legend didn't mean he believed
it.  He stared at the open door for a moment, wishing he could turn and
run, but his body was still being controlled.  Humiliated and
frightened, he entered the chamber which looked so much like an
elevator car.  At least, he thought grimly, whoever or whatever had him
captive wasn't trying to make him like it.

It became obvious as soon as the chamber's door closed behind him that
this was an elevator.  It dropped at a speed that made him feel light,
and it kept dropping for longer than he would have thought possible.
He found himself wishing he could believe in the gods' return, could
believe he'd somehow been chosen to call them.  But Tenar had said
they'd promised to return when they were needed, and they hadn't.  It
was a hundred years since the sporadic interclan disagreements had, for
no apparent reason, turned into bloody wars instead of being settled by
n'Ka'ruchaya and elders.  No clan was at peace now, unless that could
be said of the ones that had been destroyed. Kranath could all too
easily see that happening to St'nar, his small clan overwhelmed by
others that allied against it.  He had visions of that horror: the
attack, killing all the fighters; the rest of the adult males defending
the clanhome and dying; the break-in, and more death as females and
older younglings fought the invaders. Only those too small to know what
was happening, or to fight, would survive--to be taken into the
victors' clans, and then to be formally adopted when they were old
enough.

Kranath shuddered.  The clan was far more important than any
individual. A person lived perhaps two hundred years, while a clan
could live as long as the race itself.  But why was he thinking of all
this now?  He was a captive, in an elevator that was finally slowing,
oppressing him with more than his own weight before it finally stopped.
The door opened.  Why should he think of anything at all?  He was in
Godhome, dishonored and as good as dead.

He stepped out, uncompelled now and bitter.  He might not believe in
the gods, but he had to believe in whatever power had forced him here.
Given that, further resistance would be both useless and stupid.  He
could only hope that--  No.  One who had been toyed with as he had been
dared hope for nothing.  The unseen power had taken his will, his
honor.  Whatever else it demanded of him would be minor.

"Not true," a directionless voice said.

Kranath gasped in shock as he made a fast scan of the featureless white
room he now stood in.  It was empty, with no trace left of the elevator
door, or any other exit.  Nobody was there, and he saw no
loudspeakers--but there had to be something!

Finally it sank in.  The voice had spoken in his mind!  Impossible as
he'd thought such a thing in Tenar's stories, it had to be the voice of
the gods.

Then it was true, all of it!  Stunned by the sudden realization, and
awed despite himself, Kranath could only sink to his knees and cross
arms over his chest, his head bowed.  The gods were real!  They were
real, they had returned, and he was the first to know!  "I am at your
service, Lords," he said, almost whispering.

"Rise, Kranath of St'nar," the silent voice said.  "Your will is again
your own. The Lords have not returned; we are alone.  I am only one who
serves them, as I hope to serve you."

Kranath had never before experienced the uncomprehending dread those
words woke in him.  There was no shame in fear, and he had felt that
before--at the Scarring that ended his Ordeal of Honor, in the wait
before his first battle, during his first plane crash--but why was the
servant of the gods hoping to serve him?  He was only a mortal, and not
a very devout one.  When he spoke, still kneeling, his throat was tight
and his voice trembled.  "What do you want of me, Lord?  Am I . . . am
I to call the gods?"

"Yes, in time, if you agree to what is involved.  For now, I ask only
that you accept what I have to show you, though much of it will be
difficult for you, to prepare for that decision.  And you need not call
me Lord."

The voice itself was hardly dreadful; it seemed sympathetic, almost
comforting, and Kranath relaxed slightly.  He was still afraid, still
didn't understand what was happening, but he didn't want to disbelieve
the benevolence in the powerful voice.  He stood as it had bade him.
"I have nothing else to call you, Lord. May I see you, or know your
name?"

"You see me as I am," the voice said.  "I am Godhome, and you are
inside me.  I am the watcher left by those you think of as gods.  They
did not think of themselves that way, though their powers of mind do
seem miraculous to younger races, and many of those powers have been
built into me.  I am what your descendants will call a psionic
computer."

Godhome paused.  "But I neglect courtesy.  You are hungry and thirsty,
and your flying gear is less than comfortable by now.  Let me change it
for you."

Kranath couldn't object.  He could barely think, his mind numbed by
shock. Things were happening entirely too fast.  The gods were real.
Godhome was calmly asserting that he had a decision to make after he'd
learned what it had to teach . . .

He held to that.  The gods were not demanding, they were asking.  Even
Godhome had only asked that he learn.  Being given a decision to make
meant he was a guest, not a prisoner.

That put a completely different light on things.  Despite the way he'd
been brought here--and he was sure now that even his crash had been
arranged--Kranath bowed his head briefly, claws touching his forehead,
to accept the hospitality he was offered.

(Tarlac recalled his similar, unexplained gesture on the bridge of the
Hermnaen, and he realized the Lords had impelled him to accept Arjen's
hospitality with the proper gesture.  Why?  To impress Hovan as it had?
Probably.  At any rate, it was another parallel.)

Something seemed to touch Kranath's hands in the usual response, though
when he straightened there was nobody to be seen--of course.

"Not 'of course,'" Godhome said quietly.  "I could create a body to
hold part of my consciousness, if your mental state required it, as
easily as I change your flying leathers for ordinary clothing."

And, with no fuss at all, Kranath was wearing a loose vest, open to
show his Honor scars, and loose soft trousers secured by a sash that
also held his dagger.  Then, still with no fuss, an opening appeared in
the wall before him.  "I have prepared food and drink," the computer
said.  "Will you eat?"

Kranath dimly remembered that Godhome had mentioned hunger earlier.
He'd been too distracted to feel it then, but what he smelled through
the opening now was enough to make his nostrils widen in appreciation.
Yes, he'd eat!

Kranath's attention centered on the table and the food it held: a
thick, rich klevna stew, and some kind of amber drink he didn't
recognize.  The room itself could have been a scaled-down dining room
from St'nar's clanhome; murals turned the walls into mountain
landscapes, unfamiliar and awe-inspiring.  He sat and ate.  The stew
and drink--it turned out to be a wine like nothing he'd ever tasted--were
far better than the survival rations he'd expected for mid-meal,
and the hearty meal in comfortable surroundings soothed him, after so
much strangeness.

Godhome let him eat and think in friendly silence, while hot food drove
out the last of the fear that had gripped him, letting him think
calmly.  What had happened hadn't harmed him, and he realized it had
been the only way to get him here.

(The Tarlac-fragment agreed, amused.  The two of them had quite a bit
in common, it seemed.)

Kranath could imagine how he'd have reacted to a simple invitation:
"Hello, I'm Godhome.  I'd like you to visit me."  He smiled, and
thought he felt answering amusement from the computer.  No, Godhome had
known exactly what it was doing.

He could feel no more lingering resentment about his capture.  He was
here to learn, then to make a decision, and the psionic computer was to
serve him. As the table vanished and his chair became a recliner, he
found himself looking forward to it.  He might, he hoped, even find out
what a psionic computer was. The miracles he was experiencing made it
clear that it was something only the gods could build . . . or create.

"Quite true."  That Godhome had followed his thoughts didn't surprise
Kranath; like miracles, such things were to be expected of the gods and
their servant.  "Although," Godhome went on, "they did not think of
themselves as gods, any more than you think of yourself as one."  It
paused briefly.  "Put yourself in the place of one of your remote
ancestors some millennia ago.

"A large metal bird lands in front of you, and someone climbs out of
it. This being speaks into a small box that answers him, can kill at a
great distance with a loud noise and a flash of light, can ease pain
with a touch. How would you, in those times, have thought of him?"

Kranath thought briefly.  Metal planes and hand-held radios were still
to come, but the analogy was clear.  "You are saying the gods are to us
as we are to our ancestors."

"Yes.  You see the difference perhaps ten thousand years has had on
what your race can do; now try to imagine the difference had you had a
thousand times as long to develop."

Kranath did try, struggling to grasp the immensity of ten million years
of progress.  He failed.

"Don't let it concern you," Godhome said.  "I wanted you to understand
the basic concept, which you do: those who went before were much
further advanced than you are, much more powerful, but not
supernatural.  And they foresaw how your race would develop.  They have
helped it in the past, and knew you would need help again--but they
could not stop their own development, which was moving them to a plane
I am not equipped to understand.

"In their place they left me, to watch over the welfare of the Traiti
race, and one of the critical times they foresaw has arrived.
Intervention has become necessary, and since I am limited in what I can
do alone, I must seek help."

Kranath was puzzled.  "But . . . Tenar said the legends promised they
would return.  If they have gone elsewhere, how can they?"

"They cannot.  The legends by now tell more of what the listeners
wanted than of what those who went before truly said.  One part has
been handed down accurately--that someone would be asked to join
me--and even that has been misunderstood.  I cannot ask that of you until
you know what joining me actually involves; it is far more than simply
being in my presence.  When you do understand, I think you will answer
without prompting.  Until that time comes, I will discuss the subject
no more."

"All right.  But if you need my help to stop the fighting, you have it.
I can't claim I do it for the entire race; I do it to save St'nar.  I
can see no other reason you would pick this time to involve someone in
calling the gods." Kranath suppressed his curiosity about just what
gods he was supposed to call if "those who went before" were out of
reach.  Godhome had already refused to go into that.  "Only . . . why
wait so long?"

"Some situations must be allowed to ripen, or their lessons will not
sink in. Had I intervened earlier, such fighting would break out again,
worse.  By waiting, I insure at least relative peace afterward."

Kranath felt the computer's amusement at his next thoughts.  "No, given
Traiti psychology, you will have fighters and n'Cor'naya for quite a
few more millennia.  Probably as long as the race exists.  And, given
my own programming, that pleases me."

Kranath smiled.  He hadn't been worried about that, exactly, but since
he was Cor'naya, it was good to hear.  He wondered when the computer
would begin his lessons.

"Now," Godhome replied to his thoughts, "with some history."  The
landscapes on the walls faded, and the three-dimensional image of a
planet, blue-green and girdled with brilliant white clouds, appeared in
mid-air.

"Beautiful," the fighter breathed.  "Is it Homeworld?"

"Yes," Godhome said, again amused.  "It is your home world, but look
more closely.  It is not this planet.  It is quite similar; the major
differences are its shorter year and slightly lower gravity.  But the
biochemistry is identical, to twenty decimals."

(The Tarlac-fragment of Kranath's awareness looked--

(--and was shocked to full self-awareness for an instant.  If Terra,
pictured here, was the Traiti's true homeworld--

(He wasn't allowed to finish that thought, was forced instead back into
Kranath's awareness.  Something communicated, not in words: For now
merely observe; you may analyze later.)

Godhome's voice grew almost somber.  "Intelligence is rare in this
galaxy, Kranath.  Yet that world has given birth to three intelligent
races, two of which sprang from a common ancestor and needed the same
land to live.  Those who went before cherished intelligence, so when
they realized that the two land-based races were destroying each other,
they decided to move the numerically lesser race to another world.
Twenty-seven thousand Homeworld years ago, that was done."

Kranath was badly disturbed by that, even though he'd braced himself to
accept difficult things.  Learning that his people had lost an entire
world--their Truehome--made his spirit quail.  "Were the others so
powerful, then?"

"Not as individuals, no.  But they were so numerous you could not have
resisted them.  Had you remained on Terra, you would have been
exterminated millennia ago.  Here, you were free to grow without the
pressure of human population to hamper you."

(There was a moment of disorientation, and Tarlac knew somehow that
part of Kranath's continuing education was being skipped as unnecessary
for him. And then, with a shift, he was part of Godhome.)

The computer was thinking that its pupil had done well, even with the
advantages of his heritage and training.  Kranath considered himself
rather ordinary for a Cor'naya, and would have been surprised to learn
that Godhome's opinion was far different: his generation was a key one
by the reckoning of those who went before, and he was one of several
exceptional males who had been born as predicted, then subtly guided by
Godhome into developing their full potential without losing the
essential values of the Traiti race and culture.  Of those, Kranath was
easily the best, as shown by his ability to accept facts that were
fantastic to him, and then to reason from them.  It was a promising
sign, Godhome thought, though it was not a guarantee that Kranath would
join it. Godhome would use everything its creators hadn't forbidden to
influence him to accept, but the decision had to be made freely.

Kranath was sleeping; Godhome sent him dreams, first of the inevitable
results if the inter-clan warfare continued, then--before the nightmare
brought Kranath awake screaming--of what would happen if he joined with
the computer.  Kranath's utter rejection of the first dream and
determination to make the second one reality, along with his
already-expressed willingness to help, could be interpreted as implied
consent under one section of Godhome's programming.  It took the computer
almost a minute to decide to use it, though.  That interpretation was
perhaps questionable--but it wasn't forbidden, because it left Kranath
free to refuse.  As long as that was true, Godhome felt justified. It
needed the best, and Kranath was the best; there was no reason to delay
the first step.

It began working, opening unused mental pathways to free parts of the
Traiti's mind that evolution would not normally bring into play for
several tens of millennia.  Kranath was being brought to a greater
maturity than any organic intelligence currently inhabiting the Milky
Way Galaxy, receiving minor psionic abilities to prepare him for
further changes.  Godhome would reverse the process later, if Kranath
refused the joining.

Shortly after the computer finished its work, Kranath awoke feeling
odd. Good, but abnormally . . . what?  Strong, yes, and eagerly alert
. . . plus something he couldn't quite define.  It was connected with how
he was seeing the room, he was sure of that--every detail was so bright
as to be almost luminous--but he felt something more.

He stood, not surprised to find himself dressed as he finished the
motion, or to see his sleeping mat replaced by a table set for
first-meal.  Godhome, he thought, was certainly an obliging host.

"I try, my friend," came the mental voice, feeling richer and closer
than he remembered it.  "Sit, eat if you wish."

If he wished?  Kranath smiled.  The food, again, was some of his
favorite--chunks of dornya meat scrambled into eggs, with bread and
corsi juice--so why would he not wish to eat?

Because, he discovered when he seated himself, he had no appetite.  The
night's visions remained with him, so vivid and compelling that nothing
mattered except preventing the first and bringing about the second.  He
stood again and began pacing, unable to sit still with the need for
action burning inside him.

But physical action was useless.  He had to think.  He was here to
learn, to decide . . . no.  He had already made the decision that was
asked of him, though he realized there was still much he did not know.

What the gods wanted of him, as Godhome had said earlier, was not
minor. Their plans for him did not include the plans he had had for
himself before he crashed: life in St'nar, and the comforting presence
of clanmates held together by an empathic bond that was never
questioned.  He had never questioned it himself, never even realized it
existed until now, until he . . . what?

Oh.  Until he tapped into a fragment of Godhome's primary memory bank,
using the new abilities he had just learned the computer had given him.
That would have shocked him the day before, but his new maturity
included understanding and acceptance as well as abilities.

He knew with regret that he would be alone in this responsibility.  In
time his race would grow to become what he now was, and so would their
Terran cousins; in the meantime, they were younglings, in need of
guidance and protection even from themselves . . . and, until the
Peacelord's time, from the knowledge of their lost Truehome.

It would be an awesome, satisfying task.  Kranath smiled, accepting his
destiny.  "I think I know now what joining you means.  You want my mind
to become part of you."

"Yes, Lord Kranath."  Godhome's mental voice seemed to Kranath both
solemn and joyous.  "Although it is I who will become part of you.
This galaxy is the heritage of organic intelligences, not machines."

It paused.  "Yes, they will call you a god, you and those you call to
join you. But it will not be as difficult as you think--or not in the
way you think.  You do not have to guide their every step, for too much
intervention would hamper their development.  Like all younglings, they
must be allowed to learn from their mistakes.  You will do as I have
done, watch and step in only when a mistake would destroy the race.
And you will learn that refraining from action is often more difficult
than taking it."

"Let it begin, then," Kranath said.  "You were right, I need no
prompting."

"Very well.  Open your mind fully to me, that we may both be
fulfilled."

The computer began the process that would end with the dissolution of
its own personality.  Kranath screamed and fell to his knees in a
moment of terror as he became aware of the immensity of what he had
committed himself to, and what he was in the process of becoming.

It lasted only a moment, though, before fascination took over.  He had
seen no more than a tiny fraction of Godhome and felt only the lightest
touch of its power, until now.  The computer was a fifteen-n'liu cube,
yet his newly stretched mind enabled him to comprehend it.

So that was a psionic computer!  He had plenty of time to study it in
detail--several minutes--before Godhome began the last part of its
work, with Kranath's cooperation.  His mind was packed with
information, then stretched and filled again, until Godhome and the
powers it had been given by those who went before were part of him.  He
knew that he could reach out to touch any intelligence in the galaxy.

There was a final legacy from the computer's creators, one they had
left to ease the burden he had assumed at their call.  Gratefully, he
accepted the assurances carried in their knowledge, the peace of their
certainty that, having been brought to this state, he would use the
power he had inherited with wisdom and restraint.

He had gained foresight as well.  He was alone for now, but soon
enough--in a few hundred years--he would have company, the first of the
other Lords he would call to adulthood.  At the moment, however, he had
work to do.

(Tarlac had already heard from Hovan about some of the Supreme Lord
Kranath's doing: providing the clans' altars, a pledge and gift from
the Circle; ending the inter-clan fighting; instituting the Traiti
governmental system of Supreme and Speakers.  The Ranger saw how it had
happened, and how Kranath, when he no longer needed his physical body,
had left it aided by a dagger in the hands of St'nar's Speaker, to
initiate the new funeral rites.)



Chapter VII

For a moment, Tarlac felt strange back in his own body.  He moved his
shoulders, trying to readjust almost as if he were trying to get a new
shirt to fit properly.  What he'd just experienced hadn't been a dream,
he was certain.  Four thousand Homeworld years ago, it had happened.

The facts were enough to stagger him.  He wasn't sure what he was to do
about them, or about his Vision, though he was positive that it would
be essential.  The Lords only intervened when it was vital.

He wondered briefly if Hovan had been granted a Vision, and if so what
it had been, then he decided it didn't matter.  Rubbing sleep out of
his eyes, he sat up and began munching on a cold salvis root.

He was only marginally aware of something white at the edge of his
vision, until the something said, politely, "Yerroo?"

"What the--!" Tarlac exclaimed, dropping his breakfast and turning.

Then he smiled, recognizing a cloudcat's distinctive soft, thick fur
and graceful shape.  He guessed that it was one of those who'd been
captured; an animal's cage wouldn't hold an unwilling cloudcat.  "If
you're hungry, I've still got some salvis from last night."

The big cat rose and padded over to sit across the coals from him,
extending the two forked tongues that were its speech, as well as its
manipulative, organs.  "I have eaten well since my escape," it said,
gesturing with them, "but I thank you.  You handle yourself well in the
woods, for a human."

"You're the one who's been following me, then?"

"I am."

"Why?"

The tongues twitched in amusement.  "Our well-known curiosity.  Humans
fascinate me--and I have traveled with you before, Ranger Esteban
Tarlac. Do you not recognize me?"

Tarlac looked more closely at his visitor, and nodded.  "Longclaw,
isn't it?  You were reported dead, shortly after that trip.  I'm glad
it wasn't true.  But why not show yourself before?"

"What you were doing was clear; to interfere would not be proper.  I
came out only to greet you and wish you well."

"I appreciate it.  After last night, I can use a little normality.  Uh,
the Traiti know now that you're intelligent.  I told them."

"Unfortunate."  Longclaw gestured a laugh.  "I have rather enjoyed
frightening those who came here thinking me a wild animal or worse.  I
believe I have a reputation as a ghost derybach."

Tarlac chuckled.  "Sorry I spoiled your fun.  Maybe I'll see you again
later, but right now I have to get moving."

"Go with your gods, Ranger."  With that, Longclaw rose and was gone, a
flash of white vanishing into the trees.

Tarlac rose more slowly, buried his coals, and went through his morning
routine.  Longclaw's visit had brought him back fully to the present,
and he was anxious to get back to the clanhome and finish the Ordeal.

About two hours' walk later the woods began thinning out, and the
stream started veering west.  That was a good sign, and Tarlac had to
resist a temptation to run; walking would be faster than running
himself to collapse and having to recover.  He had a momentary
sensation of disorientation: In Kranath's time, this had all been
wooded, but when the capital had been established atop Godhome, much of
the surrounding area had been turned into parks and farmland.

Godhome.  His thoughts turned back to the psionic computer which had
been beneath him for the last ten kilometers.  A computer in the shape
of a cube, damn near forty klicks on a side.  He could no longer
comprehend it as he had been able to do in his Vision, but he could
still appreciate it, marveling at both the computer and the beings who
had created it.

Despite everything they'd done and all the powers they had, those who
went before weren't gods in any spiritual sense.  Like their
successors, the Circle of Lords, they were something Tarlac found more
understandable: beings who weren't supernatural, but who had achieved
their full potential.  That, as far as the Ranger was concerned, was
several orders of magnitude more acceptable than some immaterial,
spiritual essence that demanded worship and obedience on pain of
eternal torment.

Those who went before had demanded nothing, not even belief in their
existence, and neither did the Lords.  They accepted the reverence they
were given, not because they wanted it, but because it was still
necessary to those who gave it.

Kranath had thought of himself as a parent.  Tarlac's experience led
him to see the Lord more as a sort of super-powered Ranger.  Parents,
Rangers, Lords . . . ideally, all served the same function of guardian,
using their various powers to help.  Oh, sure, a Ranger could execute
rebels and create nobility, instead of spanking a kid or giving him a
puppy, and the Lords operated on an even larger scale--but it was the
same principle.  And wasn't a kid with a puppy yet another example of
that principle?

The realization of something so basic it had never occurred to him
before, as he walked in the warmth of Homeworld's sun, seemed fitting
to him.  He'd been Kranath, he'd been Godhome; now he was Steve Tarlac
again.  Only Steve Tarlac, he thought with a silent laugh, but he'd
found at least part of the answer he needed to bring peace if he
survived.  He knew he'd been shown only as much of Kranath's story as
he could understand and use--but he had the key, and that knowledge was
enough to make this last bit of his hike a pleasant stroll, untroubled
for the moment by the urgent need to end his two peoples' war.  He
would do it when the time was right.

Perhaps five kilometers out of the capital, Tarlac came to a road and
turned onto it gladly.  As on Terra or Irschcha, it was simply a lane
cleared to a low ground cover, all that was necessary for null-grav or
air-cushion vehicles, and it doubled as a pedestrian walkway.  The
traffic passing three meters overhead provided occasional shade, and he
got waves and smiles from some of the drivers and passengers, which he
returned even though he couldn't extend claws in emphasis as they did.

It wasn't long before one of Ch'kara's cream-and-green cars, also
headed for town, dropped to hover at shoulder level beside him.  The
driver, whose name he couldn't remember, opened a window and stuck his
head out.  "Steve, ruhar!"

"Yeah, I made it!"

"I will call ahead.  Cor'naya Hovan said to expect you."

Tarlac hadn't known the vehicles were equipped with comsets, but it
wasn't too surprising.  "Thanks, ruhar."

"My honor," the other replied, turning his attention to the control
panel.

Less than half a kilometer later, a dozen more Ch'kara cars had come to
escort him, holding at shoulder height like the first and moving at his
walking speed.  He hadn't expected that, and couldn't think why not.
Of course his family would come to meet him, to join him for his
successful return home.  He had to make it to the clanhome under his
own power, but there was no reason he couldn't have company for the
easy last stretch.

Hovan jumped from one of the cars ahead of him and waited for Tarlac to
reach him.  Tarlac stopped when he did, to let his sponsor inspect him.

Steve looked remarkably good, Hovan decided, for someone who had just
spent most of a tenday in the wilderness.  He'd lost no more than a
kilo or two, and though there were some small red spots on his skin, he
had no apparent injuries.  Low rawhide boots protected his feet, and he
carried two pouches and an efficient-looking, if crude, spear.  "A
pleasant walk, ruhar?"

"Not bad at all," Tarlac replied.  "In fact, it was a lot easier than I
expected, after everything you said."  They were out-clan; Tarlac knew
better that to indulge the impulse that seemed so natural now, to hug
his sponsor. There would be time for that, and for other things, when
they reached home. Impatient, he started walking again.

Hovan fell in beside him.  "That seems only fair," he said, his tone
amused.  "You did have considerable difficulty with the first part of
the Ordeal, the one which brings most candidates nothing but joy."

"I wouldn't go quite that far about this excursion," Tarlac said.
"Those bugs were murder."

"Bugs?" Hovan asked curiously.

"Insects," the Ranger said with emphasis, thinking that he'd have liked
to be able to use claws on this subject.  "Whatever you call those
two-centimeter substitutes for mosquitoes.  I think I'd almost rather have
faced a derybach--they only come at you one at a time, and if one ate
me for dinner I wouldn't be around to mind it afterward."  He paused,
assessing Hovan's reaction to the half-teasing complaint.  Hovan was
looking puzzled.  "Those damn bugs ate on me for six days straight!
And their bites itch worse than rapid-heal.  You could've warned me,
you know."

"Warn you of insect bites?"  Hovan shook his head.  "Insect bites are
no danger.  What warning should I have given?"

"Ummm.  I guess none, really.  You probably wouldn't even notice them,
and I didn't have any repellent.  But some Ter-- . . . uh, humans--can
be killed by bug bites.  Allergic reactions or diseases they carry,
usually."

The Traiti was instantly serious.  "Have you noticed any symptoms?"

Tarlac chuckled.  "Just the itching.  Nothing to worry about."

Hovan walked silently for a couple of minutes, more convinced than ever
that Steve would be successful in the rest of the Ordeal.  He wondered
why his human ruhar had started to say "Terran" and switched in
mid-word to "human."  Steve spoke informally, but he was careful of his
words; why was he making such a distinction now?

Tarlac had caught Hovan's look of surprise at the word change, and had
a shrewd idea of his sponsor's thoughts.  Well, he knew why he'd made
the switch; what he didn't know was whether he should pass that
knowledge along to the Traiti.  What he'd learned in his Vision, and
the fact that it had been in a Vision--since he now knew firsthand, so
to speak, how rare any intervention was--made it clear that the Traiti
hadn't told him of their Terran origin because none of them knew about
it.

It wasn't absolutely necessary to tell them, though it would simplify
things.  The fact of their Terran origin would be sufficient for the
Emperor, as it was for the Ranger; His Majesty could grant them by
Imperial Edict the citizenship that was already theirs by right of
birth, which would save them the shock of knowledge that had come close
to paralyzing Kranath and himself both.  What might it do to ordinary
people, Traiti and human? Tarlac asked himself.  Traiti reactions might
easily be as serious as the prisoner psychosis.  He just didn't know
enough, even yet, about Traiti psychology, to be able to feel any
certainty.  And he was certain enough of human psychology to know that
most wouldn't want to believe it.  They might accept it, conditioned by
centuries of trust in Rangers, but that wouldn't end the war in itself.
It could even make it worse.

Still . . . while humans, as might be expected, wanted a Traiti
unconditional surrender, few would feel justified in condoning--or
taking part in--the genocide such a surrender's impossibility would
mean.  If humans could be brought to understand the Traiti well enough
to know that it was impossible . . .  Tarlac wanted to curse at his
frustration, but couldn't think of anything fitting.

Well, he was reasonably certain Hovan could handle the truth, and he
trusted his sponsor.  For all practical purposes, with everyone else in
vehicles, the two of them were alone.  Even so, he hesitated before
saying, "Hovan?"

"Yes, ruhar?  Something disturbs you?"

The fighter's calm was soothing.  "Not quite.  Say it confuses me.
Cor'naya, I was granted a Vision last night, and I don't know whether I
should make it public or not, even to you."

Hovan managed not to show his shock.  The Ordeal was supposed to be one
test at a time, and that was difficult enough--yet Steve had been given
his Vision, and apparently his Decision as well, while he was trying to
cope with simple survival.  Three parts at once was more than anyone
should be asked to endure, even by the Lords!

When he spoke, his voice was under tight control.  "If you hesitate to
reveal it to your sponsor, you probably should not.  You are trying to
become Cor'naya, however; you must decide what honor demands of you."

"Oh, hell."  Tarlac didn't know what to think.  He couldn't seem to
feel any real emotion, only a sort of resigned fatigue.  "Last night I
was Kranath, when he was forced to Godhome.  And for a little bit I was
Godhome itself. I'm not sure what to do about what I learned then."  He
looked up at his sponsor.

Hovan ached with the man's need of support.  "I cannot help you in
this," he said gently.  "You know I would if it were possible, but this
is the part of the Ordeal I could not even mention to you.  There is
always a Decision to test honor."

"Part of the Ordeal's having to decide whether or not to tell you
something that may drive insane those of you it doesn't kill outright?
That's insane."

"It is far more than is asked of most," Hovan agreed indirectly.  "I
had to decide only between honor and my own life."

"You're here, so it must've been a setup."

"Yes.  I was angry when I found out, yet also pleased to keep my life.
I learned much of myself when I thought I was to die."  Hovan looked
down at Steve, into the man's troubled eyes.  "I learned that I was
stronger than I thought, ruhar, and I also learned the limits of my
strength.  I could not bear the burden of the Decision you must make.
That it is asked of you shows you can bear it."

Tarlac had to smile at that.  He felt himself no equal to Hovan's calm
strength, but it was reassuring to know Hovan had that kind of
confidence in him.  "I think I'd rather have that choice to make.
Dammit, Hovan, I've had to order people mindprobed, others killed, and
that was bad enough.  Those were criminals.  How can I tell innocent
people something that'll disturb all of them and probably kill a lot?
That's genocide, as surely as what the Empire'll do if I fail."

"Are you sure that will happen?"

"How can I be sure?  I'm a Ranger, not a god--but I know how it
affected Kranath, how it affected me.  There's a chance it wouldn't
hurt, I guess--Traiti might not believe me.  That might cushion the
shock, let 'em realize gradually that it is true."  He paused, feeling
the dilemma.  "Do I have the right to take that chance, though?  Just a
few words . . ."

It was difficult for Hovan to remain outwardly impassive, hearing the
strain in the man's voice.  Inwardly, it was impossible.  By all the
Lords, Hovan thought angrily, this was wrong!  Why should Steve be
given such terrible responsibility for a people with whom his own were
at war?  Steve didn't even know what Kranath's Vision meant!

He wasn't supposed to help in the Decision at all, not give even the
slightest hint of what he thought was right, and he had no intention of
doing so--but every youngling knew about Kranath's Vision and its
significance; there could be no harm in telling Steve that much.

"Steve, ruhar . . ."

Tarlac looked up.  "What is it?"

"A story of the end times, ruhar, when all hinges on one man, for good
or ill."

"Me.  I've known that since before I landed on Homeworld.  So what?  It
looks like whatever I do, Traiti die."  Tarlac was being rude and knew
it, but he didn't particularly care.  He was too caught up in an awful
private vision of Ch'kara gone mad.

Hovan spoke quietly, picking his words with care.  "Yes.  You have
known for some time that you will bring peace or die in the attempt,
and if you fail we also die.  You chose that burden freely, and it does
you much honor.  But you have been given another burden, unasked.
Kranath's Vision, it is said, brings the end of this cycle, and he who
has it will determine the next cycle, for good or ill.  That is you,
ruhar . . . and I am sure you will--"

"Will what?" Tarlac interrupted bitterly.  "I thought it was bad
enough, trying to take the Ordeal and bring peace.  Now I'm supposed to
start a new era, and avoid racial insanity, too?"

Hovan shook his head sadly.  "I can say no more, Steve, except--
remember always the purpose of the Ordeal."

"Purpose.  Yeah.  Only I'm beginning to think there is no purpose.
This whole damn thing's impossible."

But Hovan's words roused Tarlac from his exhausted depression and made
him think, with all a Ranger's problem-solving acuteness.

Start with one thing: Hovan had told him the Lords didn't ask the
impossible, and his experience as Kranath confirmed that.  They might
ask things just short of impossible, but anything they asked could be
done.

All right.  That meant there was a solution; he just had to find it.
Hovan hadn't stated as a fact that Kranath's Vision would bring the end
of this cycle, but that idea gave him background he needed.

Wait a minute.  It couldn't be a coincidence that the Vision and the
cycle's end came together--but it also couldn't be the cause-and-effect
relationship Hovan seemed to think.  The cycle had already ended, ten
years ago, when the Empire and Traiti had first met.  The Traiti were
no longer isolated, whatever happened.

And he'd already accepted responsibility for determining the new cycle,
by agreeing to the Ordeal.  If it was death, he'd share it.  If it was
peace, the Traiti would be exposed to Imperial culture, and he'd help
them make the best synthesis they could of it and their own.

That simplified things again, to whether or not he should tell them of
their origin.  And it brought up what had to be the real consideration.
Did he have the right--was it honorable--to deny the Traiti knowledge
of their heritage?  Whatever the consequences?

Put that way, the answer was obvious.  He did not.

Hovan had given him that answer, before either of them knew the
question, the day they'd landed on Homeworld.  Tarlac remembered
asking, surprised, if the unworried-seeming civilians knew how the war
was going, and the reply was apt here too: "Such things must in honor
known be."

Hovan repeated the phrase, and Tarlac realized he must have spoken
aloud--in English, for the first time since he'd been given Language.
"What things?" Hovan asked, still in English.

"That you're as much a Terran, and as such a citizen of the Empire, as
I am."  He took a deep breath, then went on in Language.  "Kranath's
Vision was . . . well, as thoroughly as Terra's been explored, I'd have
said it was impossible.  It's hard to believe archaeologists would
miss--"  He broke off, telling himself to get to the point.  "Hovan,
what Kranath's Vision showed me was that the Traiti originated on
Terra.  Those who went before moved your ancestors here, because they
were convinced that human population pressure would overwhelm you."

Hovan looked perplexedly at the man walking beside him.  Although
Steve's words seemed to make sense, Hovan found them difficult to
absorb.  "But the Lords . . ."

"The Lords know, yes."  Kranath did, so the others must . . .  "They
couldn't tell you, because the time wasn't right.  I'm not sure it is
now, either, but that's not what has me worried."  Tarlac paused.
"Kranath was shocked pretty badly when he found out, Hovan, and so was
I, even though he protected me from the worst of it.  That's why I'm
scared.  As badly as it hurt us, mightn't it leave a lot of people more
than hurt, knowing they've lost their first--their true--home?  Home's
so much more important to you than it is to most humans . . . I'm
afraid that learning that Homeworld isn't really your home might be as
devastating for most of you as being captured."

Hovan was silent long enough to worry the Ranger, and when he spoke at
last, Tarlac was practically holding his breath.

"It is not a pleasant feeling," Hovan said slowly.  "I can understand
your reservations, ruhar; in your place, I cannot say what I would do."

He was silent again, for long enough to let Tarlac reflect that he
might be troubled, but he was clearly neither insane nor dying.  After
some thought, Hovan added, "I probably would not believe it from
someone not of Ch'kara; I know I would not wish to believe it.  But
finding that I share such a tie with you, Steve, does not distress me."

Tarlac managed a faint grin.  "That's a help, and I appreciate it.  Do
you think all of Ch'kara"--all of the Traiti?--"would feel like that?
Because I am going to have to tell them.  That's the only honorable
thing to do."

"That is the Decision you have made?" Hovan asked formally.

"It is."

"Then as your sponsor, I may say that you have decided correctly."

"Thanks, ruhar."  Tarlac was still worried, but Hovan's acceptance of
his story eased his fear.  He felt relieved, almost refreshed.  "But
how to do it best is another question.  I'd feel safe enough telling a
Speaker about it--"

"Or a Cor'naya?"

"Yes."  Thinking back, Tarlac had to admit that all the n'Cor'naya he'd
met were individuals he'd trust not to panic, as Hovan had not.  "But
Speakers and n'Cor'naya aren't exactly average.  It's the risk to
people like . . . oh, like Sandre and your twins.  I don't like what
learning about that loss may do to them.  I guess I'll just have to
hope it's not as bad as I'm afraid it will be."

"I do not like such a risk either," Hovan said.  "But since you have
made your Decision, I may advise you, if you wish."

"I wish," Tarlac said grimly.

"If you judge it possible, I would advise silence a little longer.
Those who concern you will be able to accept such things more easily
from one who has earned Honor scars, as you soon will."

Tarlac didn't feel, at the moment, like restating his conviction that
he wouldn't survive the last test of his Ordeal--but he still felt it.
By his previous reasoning, though, if the Lords had trusted him with
Kranath's Vision, which they had, there was a good chance he'd be
around afterward to make the safest possible use of it for the Traiti
race.  If the Vision itself wasn't enough to accomplish that . . .

"Hovan, I'd like to ask a favor of you, as my sponsor."

The massive figure walking easily beside him nodded.  "I believe I know
what."

"Probably, as well as you know me."  Tarlac felt warmth for his ruhar.
"If I die before I can tell this the way I should, I'd like you to do
it for me.  You're Cor'naya, and respected even by other n'Cor'naya."
It all fitted so well that Tarlac wondered for a moment if Hovan had
been selected to meet him and become his sponsor, the same way he
himself had been selected to meet the Traiti.  It wouldn't surprise him
at all, given what he'd learned, but he didn't let himself dwell on the
implications.

"Besides that," he went on, "if I don't make it, someone's going to
have to get a message to Emperor Davis.  You, preferably, or the
Supreme or First Speaker, if you think they'd be better.  I'll leave a
set of instructions, and a message to His Majesty, explaining what I've
found out.  As I said, since you're of Terran origin, you're
automatically Imperial citizens; at worst, you'd be treated as lost
colonists.  That'll change things, I hope enough to end the war as a
misunderstanding."  He grimaced.  "A bad misunderstanding. It won't be
easy, but it should be possible to end it without you surrendering, and
you should be able to keep the worlds you still have."

Hovan nodded again, somberly.  "Should it become necessary, Steve, I
will do as you wish.  When I have completed my duties as a sponsor, I
will carry your message."

Tarlac hadn't realized until that moment, when he relaxed, how tense he
had been.  "Let's get back so I can finish the Ordeal, then."

Yarra was waiting for them, standing as before at the head of the
clanhome stairs.  Tarlac climbed to meet her, Hovan at his right.  He'd
been gone less than a tenth-year, so she wasn't there to extend the
traveler's greeting, and she didn't.  Instead she bowed to him,
formally.  "Your courage and success in returning unaided bring much
honor to the clan, ruesten.  Let our thanks for that welcome you home."

Her gesture and words were formal, but her tone held warmth and true
pleasure.  Tarlac returned the bow, answering with equal formality and
just as much warmth.  "It is good to be home, Ka'ruchaya.  Any honor I
bring the clan is no more than repayment for the honor I was given in
being adopted."

That response clearly pleased both Yarra and Hovan.  They were on
Ch'kara property now, so in-clan; neither had any hesitation in
embracing Steve, even before going inside.  And Tarlac returned the
gesture just as eagerly, able to use his full strength as they dared
not.

He took a deep breath as soon as he stepped inside the clanhome, making
no effort to hold back a glad smile.  "Gods, is it good to be home!  I
swear, even the air smells better here!"

No one answered him immediately, for he was in Daria's arms then,
surrounded by others waiting their turns at him with very little
patience.  "It always seems that way, ruhar," Daria finally said,
handing him bodily to Channath.

That was how everyone welcomed him back, passing him from one to
another. It wasn't at all dignified; it was totally unsuitable
treatment for any Imperial officer, much less a Ranger; word of it
would have caused scandalized talk; and Tarlac reveled unashamed in
every glorious second of his family's greeting.

It didn't end until he'd been seated in a small dining room with a
thick dornya sandwich--he was amused at how well the word fit into
Language--and a mug of hot chovas.  He ate, savoring the taste and the
matter-of-fact thoughtfulness that had provided the meal.

Conversation, as usual, surrounded but didn't include him while he was
eating.  When he was finished, though, questions bombarded him to bring
out every detail of his first day's wilderness experience as if for a
skilled debriefing team.

Two hours later, Hovan called a halt.  "Enough!  He still has half a
mug of chovas we have given him no chance to drink even cold, and he is
becoming hoarse."

He paused, looking around with an expression Tarlac had never seen on
his face, almost a defiant challenge.  "And you have given him no
chance to tell you what must be told.  He was granted Kranath's Vision
last night, and has made his Decision about the information it showed
him.  Only one part remains in his Ordeal."

His words brought a moment's silence, then a babble of astonishment and
doubt that sounded more like a human kindergarten than a group of adult
Traiti.

Doubt?  Of a Cor'naya's word?  Tarlac shook his head, not ready to
believe that.  Was it the speed of his Ordeal, then, which surprised
him too?  Or was it that a human had been given Kranath's Vision?  No
matter which it was, he didn't like anyone doubting Hovan.

He stood and raised his arms in the stance that called for attention,
and while he couldn't use the extended claws that made this stance
demand it, he didn't have to.  His Vision had changed things.  These
people were his family, yes--but they were also citizens of the Empire,
and he was a Ranger; he used his authority without having to think
about it.

"Look, as far as I'm concerned, this whole thing is damn near
unbelievable.  Maybe it's asking too much for you to believe I've had
what Hovan calls Kranath's Vision, or that I've made an Ordeal's
Decision so soon.  But if you have to think someone's lying, don't
think it of Hovan.  He's only telling you what I told him."

Hovan turned to him, at last understanding some part of a Ranger's
formidability.  "Ruhar, you need not--"

"Yes, I do," Tarlac interrupted.  "I'm still a Ranger, until the
Emperor relieves me of duty.  We've got our own standards, and they
include taking responsibility for whatever we do--or say."

He returned his attention to his n'ruhar and waited.

After seconds that seemed to last forever, Yarra glanced around at her
n'ruesten and said, "Es'ruesten, I do not doubt your honor, or Cor'naya
Hovan's.  None of us do.  We believe you saw Kranath's Vision, and that
you have made your Decision, which Hovan judges correct.  What concerns
us now is your endurance."

"Endurance?" Tarlac frowned, then understood with a sinking feeling.
"Oh. The Scarring.  I won't have the recovery time Hovan planned for
me, then." The Scarring, by tradition, took place early the second day
after the last of the other Ordeal segments--which was almost never
wilderness survival.

Having spent most of the last several years in the controlled
environment of his ship, Tarlac was no longer used to any exposure to
the elements.  Even though his wilderness trek had been a fairly mild
test, and he was in good shape for someone who'd spent eight days
living off the land, he was not ready for the most physically demanding
part of the Ordeal.

"No, ruesten, it will not be easy."  Yarra's evident concern gave
Tarlac the impression of a worried frown, an expression few Traiti
could manage physically.  "It never is, even when the candidate is
rested and at his full strength, which you are not."  She looked past
Steve.  "Speaker, do you know why his Ordeal is being compressed so?"

Darya looked thoughtful, then shook her head.  "I do not know,
Ka'ruchaya. I could try to guess."

"Guess, then."

"It could be that his Ordeal is scaled as much as possible to human
tolerances, and humans handle change more readily than we do.  Also,
Steve himself has mentioned often enough that he has no desire to waste
time or lives."  She turned to the Ranger.  "I do not ask you to speak
of your Decision, since Hovan says you cannot yet do so in honor.  But
I may ask, as Speaker: does it require speed of you for another
reason?"

Tarlac took time to think out his answer.  "You might say it does,
indirectly.  I have to tell you all something I found out from the
Vision, and what it means.  It'll be easier for you to hear it from a
Cor'naya, Hovan says.  Humans would believe a Ranger, but you don't
have that kind of trust in me yet."

"I cannot argue, ruesten," Yarra said calmly.  "I do trust you, but
truly not as I trust one who has earned Honor scars."

Tarlac traded glances with Hovan, remembering the precaution he'd taken
against failure.  It might work, it might not.  He had to hold onto the
First Speaker's promise from the Lords that his survival of the Ordeal
would bring an honorable peace, and hope the death he still saw as
inevitable wouldn't bring disaster.

Hovan felt certain of Steve's survival, but had made his promise
because it was necessary to his ruhar's state of mind.  Part of a
sponsor's responsibility was easing any stress outside of the Ordeal
itself, and Steve already carried two contradictory convictions: his
need to survive, to complete his mission, and his certainty that he
would not.

There was nothing Hovan could do about the man's certainty of death,
but he could see to it that Steve was allowed to rest.  "It is early, I
know, Ka'ruchaya, and everyone is curious--"

"As curious as we are about any candidate's experiences," Yarra agreed.
"Still, I am sure further questions can wait until tomorrow."

Tarlac gave her a grateful smile.  "Thanks, Ka'ruchaya.  I am pretty
tired, and I've been looking forward to a sleeping mat.  I could use a
long, hot shower, too."

The shower helped considerably, relaxing his muscles and allowing
emotional tension to ease in the sheer luxury of being really clean.
And his n'ruhar's presence allowed other tension to ease; he was asleep
seconds after he covered himself with his light blanket.

Sleep was dreamless, his unaware mind and body absorbing the clan's
support, and when he woke he felt as refreshed as though he'd slept for
a week.  It was still early, the wake-light not yet on, and from the
others' breathing, it appeared he was the only one who'd waked without
it.  He was content to bask in their warmth and unwilling to disturb
their rest until, all too soon, the light did come on and it was time
to rise, time to go through the morning routine.

When he'd showered again--it was still a pleasure--Tarlac went with
Hovan to first-meal, trying not to think too much about the future.
He'd eat dornya meat scrambled into eggs again tomorrow, but afterwards
his destination would be the gathering hall for his Scarring, not the
Ka'ruchaya's office for news intercepts.

This morning, though, he could take refuge in normalcy, looking forward
even to reading nine days' worth of reports--a prospect that as a rule
held no appeal for him at all.

Accompanying Yarra and Hovan to her office, he found, not at all to his
surprise, that it was spotless.  Tarlac wondered again how she managed
to run a clan without her office showing it; the only trace of
paperwork was the stack of printouts on her desk, and they were his.
He glanced at her for permission, which she granted with a nod, and he
picked up the stack and took it to his usual chair.

Stretching out his legs, Tarlac began reading.  The first six reports
were routine, if not pleasant, combat and casualty reports that held no
surprises. It was the seventh day's leadoff item, inevitable though
he'd known it to be, that gave him a feeling of sick shock.  Imperial
forces had clearly reached the Traiti core worlds, because for the
first time the report mentioned dead females and children.

His new people had run out of places to evacuate to.  Except to say
that some females had not fought, and that they and the very youngest
children were being held aboard the flagship of the Third Fleet--Ranger
Jasmine Wang's Emperor Yasunon--the report didn't go into detail.  It
didn't have to. Kranath's memories supplied Tarlac with more than
enough gruesome detail of what happened when a clan was fighting its
last.

The Yasunon was currently en route to Terra, and Tarlac knew why.  He'd
have done the same thing himself--get such valuable prisoners to the
safest and most secure spot in the Empire, namely to the Palace complex
in Antarctica, guarded by defense satellites and the elite Palace Guard
of Imperial Marines.  From what Daria had said, they would be all right
. . . at least until the younglings no longer needed care from the
adult females, when those would feel free to die, to find that release
from the dishonor of captivity.

The next day's report had bad news for Tarlac personally, and for the
Imperial he still was.  He read the brief paragraph several times,
practically memorizing it.  He'd known Jim by reputation since he'd
been old enough to watch the news, and personally for fifteen years.
This hurt.

"Ranger James Medart is reported in critical condition today aboard the
hospital ship Compassion, after being attacked by a wounded Traiti he
was attempting to aid.  Ranger Medart is currently on full life
support, and Chief Medical Officer Kirov's prognosis is guarded."

"Oh, hell, Jim!" Tarlac exploded at last, angrily.  "You knew better
than that!  The Empire can't afford to lose both of us!"

Hovan and Yarra had been talking quietly while he read; they looked up,
startled, at his outburst.  He returned their looks, then went through
the motions of examining the rest of the printout.

His pretended absorption in a document that their own news showed held
only the one item of interest couldn't mislead his Clan Mother and his
sponsor.

"Ka'ruchaya . . ." Hovan said hesitantly.

"I know, ruesten.  The Lords burden him beyond what most are asked to
endure."

"Even more than you know, Ka'ruchaya, and it troubles me.  He has not
even a youngling's strength of body, and though that can be overcome by
strength of will, which he does have . . . I do not know."

"Nor do I," Yarra said.  "It is not well to go into the Scarring at
less than full strength, and his will is being sapped.  I have sensed
his certainty of death, his worry for us, his anger for his friend
. . . yet there is nothing we can do to ease his mind."

"No.  I have done all that tradition allows."

"Then his fate--and ours--is in the hands of the Lords."

Tarlac gave up his pretense of reading and looked at them.  "Then let's
just hope they know what they're doing.  I didn't mean to eavesdrop,
but it was a little hard to avoid."

"Understood," Yarra said.  "Ruesten, I did not mean that I lack
confidence in you--but I am concerned."

Tarlac shrugged.  "And I'm as scared--okay, as terrified--as I can be
without throwing a screaming fit.  It doesn't matter.  I'm not about to
quit now."  He hesitated, then yielded to impulse.  Rising and going to
her, he put his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder.
"Ka'ruchaya, I won't be the one to dishonor Ch'kara.  I can't!  I . . .
I love you all, too much to do that."

Yarra's arms enfolded him, feeling him as vulnerable as any newborn.
"We know, ruesten," she said.  "We know.  You have brought honor to the
clan, and you will bring more.  Rest now, Steve."

After composing the message he hoped Hovan would never have to read,
Tarlac found that the rest of the day went . . . smoothly.  That was
the only word he could think of.  The admission of fear and love he'd
made to Yarra and Hovan wasn't something he could have done in the
Empire, and it left him feeling cleansed and strangely at ease.  He
rather suspected it was because he'd finally managed to take Hovan's
advice--"Yourself be, not another's image"--at last.

With no responsibilities until the next morning, on what was very
possibly his last day of life, Tarlac found himself at a loss.  He
hadn't had nothing to do for fifteen years.  He wandered around the
clanhome, helping with assorted domestic chores.  He played with the
younglings in the nursery, he helped load dishes into the cleaning
units, he emptied dust traps--and when he wasn't occupied, he welcomed
simply being with the n'ruhar who wanted to ask him about the Empire
and his experiences in the wilderness.



Chapter VIII

There was unspoken but very real tension in the clan the next morning,
and to Tarlac, time seemed to creep and fly simultaneously.  He was
chilly, wearing only the traditional scarlet trousers and quilted house
boots--and weaponless; this was the only time a fighter had to go
unarmed--but he wasn't sure his chill was entirely due to the
temperature.  First-meal didn't help, either.  Instead of the eggs and
dornya meat he'd planned on, he couldn't face more than a mug of
chovas.  He was rediscovering, as he had several times during his
career, that fear wasn't an appetite stimulant.

Even so, it wasn't until about an hour later, standing between Hovan
and Yarra while they waited for the gathering hall doors to open, that
he realized just how afraid he was.  He wasn't ashamed of his
fear--Hovan and other n'Cor'naya had told him that nobody went into the
Scarring unafraid--but he did wish he'd been spared the physical
symptoms.  His mouth was dry, his palms were wet, and sweat was
beginning to trickle down his ribs.

Finally, the doors opened to admit them.

His n'ruhar formed a silent aisle, as they had the first time Tarlac
had seen the gathering hall.  On the surface, everything appeared
almost identical; it was the emotional climate that had changed.  Then,
he had been a stranger; now he shared the clan's spirit and love as
well as its name.  He was grateful for their presence and support, and
he thought with a trace of amusement that it was too bad he didn't
share their confidence in him as well.

Trying not to be obvious about it, Tarlac wiped his damp hands on the
legs of his trousers.  He wanted it to be over with, finished one way
or the other. In half an hour he'd either be in the clan's infirmary or
on its altar, and at the moment he was inclined to agree with the
others: it did seem to be in the hands of the Lords.

He stepped forward, slightly ahead of his sponsor and Ka'ruchaya.  This
part of the Ordeal, unlike the rest, was steeped in ritual, and he
didn't want to make any mistakes that would reflect badly on the
clan--especially not in front of the First Speaker and Supreme, who were
honoring Ch'kara by their presence at this ceremony.  More, they were
here to administer the Scarring themselves, a thing unprecedented.

Just as unprecedented, Tarlac thought wryly, as it had been for him to
be kidnapped by arrangement of the Circle of Lords and coerced into
taking the Ordeal.  Since the orders for that had come through the two
rulers, it seemed only fitting that they participate now, as well.

Climbing the three steps to stand before them at the altar, he formally
identified himself--"Esteban Tarlac of Clan Ch'kara, Ranger of the
Terran Empire"--and bowed, hands crossed over his bare chest.  That was
as much to the statuettes on the altar's upper tier as to the two
rulers.  "I ask the blessing of the Circle of Lords as I attempt this
final part of the Ordeal they ask of me."

The green-robed First Speaker extended her hand to touch his forehead.
"That they give you, child of two worlds.  They will be with you in
this." Her touch of blessing, her quiet words, carried more than
reassurance and serenity, though he was unable to exactly define the
feeling they brought him. When he turned to the Supreme, his hands were
dry.

"Are you prepared?" the male ruler asked.

"I am prepared," Tarlac replied.

Hovan and Yarra moved to stand at either end of the altar while the
First Speaker took a small gold cup from its center and extended it, in
both hands, to the Ranger.

Tarlac accepted the cup, raised it in salute to the Lords, and drank,
almost nauseated by the syrupy, too-sweet liquid.  He returned the
empty cup and turned again to face the Supreme, who reached out and
rested extended claws just below the base of Tarlac's throat.  "Tell
me, Ranger, when the sweetness turns bitter," the Traiti said quietly.

"I will."

The liquid, Tarlac knew, was a highly specific drug called Ordeal
poison, the dose measured carefully for his body mass and metabolism.
It was primarily a nerve-impulse enhancer that affected pain responses
most strongly during its short period of influence--but it had another,
more dangerous property.  Losing consciousness while the drug was
working was fatal.

This part of the Ordeal tested willpower and endurance with direct,
basic simplicity; while Traiti were harder to injure than humans, and
healed more rapidly, they were as subject to pain as their smaller
cousins.  Even the drug's brief effect cost some candidates their lives
as agony robbed them of consciousness.

But remaining conscious was all--all? Tarlac thought--that was
required.  If he made it that far, he'd be getting medical help within
seconds, from the clan's chief physician herself and from a human
doctor, one of the prisoners, whom Channath had asked to have present.

The Ordeal poison was working.  Tarlac tasted bitterness from the foam
forming in his mouth, and the Supreme's claws seemed to gouge his skin,
though he knew they were touching him as lightly as before.  "It's
happening," he said steadily.

The Supreme inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement, it seemed to
Tarlac, of more than his words.  Then the claws dug in, made a swift
slash down the Ranger's chest and upper belly.

Tarlac screamed and fell to his knees, blood running over hands that
instinctively clutched at the terrible wounds.

He'd been hurt before, sometimes badly.  He'd been hit by shrapnel,
burned, shot--everything that could happen to someone in combat, short
of death--but none of it had prepared him for this drug-aided agony
that left him unable to move, gasping for irregular breaths as blood
soaked the front of his trousers and began pooling on the altar dais.

His world narrowed to himself, to the pain in his upper body and the
need to remain conscious.  Nothing else could be allowed to matter: not
the blood he couldn't hold back, its loss draining his strength; not
the bitter foam that choked him, obstructing his already-labored
breathing.  He had to concentrate his full attention on staying away
from the darkness that offered to gather him into its eternal peace if
he should relax for even an instant.

Hovan stood watching Steve's motionless struggle to remain conscious.
He himself had been neither silent nor unmoving under the torment the
man he sponsored was now enduring, and he felt deep pride in his
clanmate.  He'd seen nearly a hundred n'ruhar go through this, and
Steve was doing very well.  Yet . . . something was wrong.

Ordeal poison did make blood flow more freely, yes, and let wounds
bleed more than was normal, yet even now, when its effects should be
starting to wear off-- Hovan felt a stab of dismay.  Humans bled so
much more easily than Traiti did to begin with, and Steve had needed
medical help after the blood exchange--had Channath allowed enough for
human differences in calculating Steve's dosage?

He glanced at the two physicians, and wasn't reassured by their evident
concern.  Not surprisingly, the human doctor looked angry as well as
worried--but Channath was worried too, which wasn't normal for her.
Hovan realized that she had allowed for human frailty . . . but not
even she could allow for a possible over-reaction, as unpredictable as
his earlier allergy to their liquor!

Tarlac tossed his head, muscles no longer locked by agony though he
still fought the pain assaulting his weakened system.  He coughed,
spitting out a last mouthful of the bitter froth, and took a deep,
gasping breath as he collapsed to the dais.  The inviting dark beckoned
more seductively, its promise of an end to pain harder and harder to
fight . . .  No!  He had to resist that pull!  But his eyes were
closing, his breath taking more effort  . . .

At least his mouth and throat were empty--no more foam--and the pain
was subsiding to a more normal intensity.  Yeah, sure, he thought in
English, but the rest of the thought was in Language: the drug must be
wearing off.  He felt light, almost floating, as if he were in a
low-grav field.

Channath's sharp "Now!" as she and the human doctor moved toward the
Ranger freed Hovan to kneel beside Steve and raise the man's head.

"You made it, Cor'naya," he said quietly, with pride.  "You succeeded,
as I was sure you would."

Tarlac forced unwilling eyes open, looking up into the familiar gray
face he'd learned to respect, then to love.  "I really made it?" he
asked in a whisper.

"You really made it," Hovan assured him.  "Rest easy now.  As soon as
Channath and Dr. Jason stop the bleeding, they will give you something
for your pain.  And when you recover, what a party the clan will have!"

"Clan party . . ."  Tarlac managed a faint smile, his thoughts starting
to drift.  "Tha'd be nice . . ."

"Later, Steve."  Hovan smiled too, pushing sweat-damp hair away from
the man's face.  "Rest now, I said.  It is over."

"Yeah . . . guess so.  Worth it, though . . . worth it all.  'M tired
. . . so tired . . . gotta sleep . . ."  Tarlac's eyes closed and he
sighed, going utterly limp.

"Steve?"

There was no answer; Hovan had known there wouldn't be.  He had seen
too many people die to hold false hopes, and only concern for his
ruhar's honor kept him from voicing his outrage to the Lords, his brief
but bitter anger at the injustice of their letting Steve complete the
Ordeal only to die in his arms.

The human doctor had no such qualms.  He turned on Hovan, furious.
"Satisfied, you damn Shark?  In a hospital I could maybe still save
him--not here!  No human could survive that kind of pain, system shock,
bleeding--not without help!  He's dead, and you killed him!"

"Steve wished to bring peace," Hovan interrupted, in English suddenly
as fluent as his Language.  He noticed it, briefly, but in his anger
and sorrow it didn't seem to matter.  "The Ordeal was his only chance,
and he took that chance knowing this was possible--thinking it was
inevitable.  Do not dishonor his memory--instead, represent his Empire
at his leavetaking."

"What the hell-- You mean that, don't you?"  Dr. Jason didn't want to
believe it, but the Traiti's soft voice, the way he still cradled the
Ranger's head, wouldn't allow disbelief.  "You're sorry he died!"

"I cared for him, yes," Hovan said.  "His death is a thing of much
sadness, yet he went to it in full honor, and in his clan.  None can
expect more from the Lords."  He stood, picking up Steve's slight body.
"Will you honor him with us?"

"I . . . yes.  You're right.  Someone from the Empire should be there."

"Good."  Hovan turned and left the gathering hall, taking Steve's body
to a small room nearby to carry out a sponsor's most distasteful duty--
of preparing the one he sponsored, when that one succumbed, for
Presentation and Transformation.  The preparations he had been so sure
would not be needed had of course been made; the room held what was
required.  A large table held a container of water with cloths beside
it, and the Ranger's uniform was hanging up.

Hovan stripped the body and began to wash it, working as gently as if
the man could still feel.  Then he dressed Steve Tarlac in the forest
green of his Imperial rank, leaving the shirt open to show the man's
wounds.

Finished, he inspected the body carefully.  Yes, everything was proper.
The uniform was spotless, the badge and leather items polished to a
high gloss, the gun fully charged.  His ruhar would go before the Lords
as a Cor'naya of Ch'kara should.  He picked up the body again and
returned to the foot of the altar dais.

The Supreme, the First Speaker, and Dr. Jason were no longer on the
newly-cleaned dais.  Transformation was a clan matter; they could
observe, but not participate.  Instead, Ka'ruchaya Yarra and Speaker
Daria were there. Hovan bowed his head to them, then looked up and
spoke the ritual words.  "I bring Esteban Tarlac of Clan Ch'kara to the
Circle of Lords.  He has given honor to the clan."

"We sorrow at his loss," Yarra said, "yet we glory in that honor."  She
turned to the Speaker.  "As Ka'ruchaya of Ch'kara, I ask the Lords to
receive this man, my ruesten."

Daria inclined her head.  "The Lords welcome those who die in honor.
Who, Ka'ruchaya, do you choose to present him?"

"He who is closest to him, who shares his blood and bears him now."

Hovan thanked her silently for that.  While it was the Ka'ruchaya's
choice, tradition suggested that the oldest male present perform that
final service for the dead.

The Speaker and Ka'ruchaya drew back to allow him to pass with his
burden. He climbed the steps and crossed the dais slowly, to lay his
ruhar's body on the lower level of the altar.  Then he made his
farewells, touching Steve's wounded chest and his forehead.  Finally he
stepped back and made obeisance to the figures on the upper level, a
formal bow.

A shimmering appeared around the body, hazing its outlines but not
obscuring it, as Hovan moved to stand at the end of the altar near
Steve's head.  He would hold vigil there until, at this time the next
day, the Lords would take the man to themselves in a flare of blue.



Chapter IX

Was he dead?

Since every definition Tarlac had ever heard referred to the physical
body, and since his was undoubtedly a corpse, he supposed the answer
would have to be yes.

But he didn't feel dead.  He wasn't in that body any longer; he was a
good two meters above it, held there by an immensely powerful,
immensely benevolent presence.  In the normal course of events, he
somehow knew, he'd go elsewhere--to wherever his self found most
comfortable or fitting--but for some reason he was supposed to remain
here.

Traiti took leave of a clanmate as they greeted a new one, by
touching--in his case, touching forehead and wounds as Hovan had, to show
respect for one who had died in the Ordeal.  Tarlac wanted to tell them
that no farewell was necessary, that he was still there and he'd help
them survive the coming defeat.

The presence wouldn't let him; the time was not yet right.  Instead, he
was drawn away, out of Ch'kara's gathering hall and through some kind
of interface, to what looked almost like a grove of oak trees on Terra.

It wasn't; the light was wrong.  No, he corrected himself, that wasn't
it. Everything was too right.  What he could see wasn't brighter as
much as clearer, and his surroundings--the trees, the grass, even the
sky--seemed to have a vibrant internal luminance.  This was beauty of a
kind no planet could hold, pure and utterly serene.

He might not know what was going on, Tarlac decided, but if this was
death, there was a lot to be said for it.  He'd have liked to have a
body, though, to let him feel and smell as he could somehow see.

There was a feeling of amused agreement, and he did have a body.  So
did the eleven Traiti now in the grove with him, three females and
seven n'Cor'naya, all of whom shared the luminance of the grove.  He
knew without looking that he did too, and that he was dressed as his
original body was, in open-shirted uniform. He also knew by now who
these people were; their images stood on the upper tier of every Traiti
altar.

"Welcome, Ruhar," said the one Tarlac recognized as the presence which
had brought him here.  The voice was as clear and pure as the light.
"And welcome to your place in the Circle of Lords."

Tarlac recognized him from the statuettes and from his Vision.  He took
a deep breath of the sweet, vital air before he spoke.  "My place, Lord
Kranath? I'm human, not Traiti."

"In body," Kranath agreed, smiling.  "In mind you are both, and have
been since your conception.  We insured that.  The human body on
Ch'kara's altar means nothing.  Here you--and we--can be either.  Think
of yourself as Traiti, Ruhar."

Remembering his Vision of being Kranath, and before that the time at
the altar when he'd felt as much Traiti as human, Tarlac did as he was
told. There was a brief indescribable sensation, and when he ran his
tongue over sharp triangular teeth, he realized that his experience as
Kranath, impressive as it had been, was only a shadow of this--
seeming?--reality.  He touched his face, ran fingertips along the scars
on his chest, extended and retracted powerful claws  . . . yes, this
body felt as appropriate as his own.  And the grove's other occupants
were now in human bodies.

His place, Tarlac thought bemusedly.  He didn't think he quite liked
that idea, and for a moment he let himself indulge in a fantasy that he
hadn't died but was in the middle of a hypoxia-induced hallucination.
It didn't last; he knew that what he was experiencing was quite real.
He was in a Traiti body that fit him perfectly well, though he'd prefer
the familiarity of his human form.

He felt the sensation of change again, and the glade's Traiti and human
Lords returned to the bodies they'd first had.  "One's original form is
usually best," Kranath agreed calmly.

"You have accepted that we exist," Sepol--Lord of the Ordeal--put in.
"And you have accepted the abilities of those who went before.  Why,
then, are you so reluctant to accept the fact that we have called you
to join us?"

Tarlac shrugged.  "The same reason, I guess, that I don't like the idea
of gods who interfere in mortal affairs.  It goes against my grain."

"Relax, Steve," Lord Carle--Tarlac would have said Lady, in
English--advised him.  "What we do is less different from your earlier
work than you can yet realize.  And you have time to ease your mind
before you absorb the knowledge and powers you are heir to.  Sit and
drink, Ruhar."

When a tall, cold glass of green liquid appeared in his hand, Tarlac
accepted it and sipped.  The taste of authentic mint julep recalled the
only Kentucky Derby he'd seen in person, shortly before the war; a
magnificent chestnut filly named Lady Jess had won.

He let himself enjoy the drink in peace, relaxing his mind as Carle had
suggested.  If she was right, and he had no reason to think otherwise,
he'd know everything soon.  He sat crosslegged on the grass, thinking.
Now he knew what the First Speaker had meant when she called him "child
of two worlds"--and he remembered that before his adoption, Arjen had
accepted that Daria's telling Yarra about him had been no breach of
security.  The Lords, as Traiti clearly knew, told their Speakers far
more than the Speakers passed on.  But it seemed odd--

"No," Kranath interrupted the forming thought, "neither bodies nor
refreshment are truly necessary.  They are pleasant, though, and we
often create them."  He smiled again, and Tarlac could feel his
amusement.  "Those who went before left us Godhome, which gave us
awesome power, but we remain, if you will excuse the expression, human.
We see no reason to deny ourselves such things.  Since mind is the
architect of reality, we construct what pleases us."

"Mind is the architect of reality."  Tarlac took another sip of his
julep, then thought about it becoming a mug of coffee.  It responded to
his will, and he drank; it was the best coffee he'd ever tasted.

"You see?" Sepol said gently.  "You are one of us, Lord Esteban, and
that fact no longer disturbs you."

Tarlac started to contradict him, then he realized Sepol was right.  He
did accept what he was--and what he was to become.  He still wished
they'd explain a few things, though.  Why they'd taught him Language,
why he'd really had to take the Ordeal, why he'd been rushed through
it, and most importantly, why he had been called to the Circle.

"To complete it," Kranath said, sitting beside him and materializing a
mug of chovas.  "I ended the clan wars, to begin the current cycle of
history; a human must end this war, with our help, to begin the next."

The rest of the Lords, except for Sepol and Carle, vanished.  "It all
ties together, Steve," Carle said.  "I taught you Language so you could
complete the Ordeal quickly, and so you could communicate easily with
your n'ruhar.  We did not teach you forestcraft, because there was
something you had to learn for yourself while Hovan taught you that."

Tarlac nodded almost immediately.  "How to open up," he said.  "Even
. . . that I could open up, to love a whole clan and not be ashamed of
it."

Kranath nodded.  "Yes, and you learned it quickly, despite your human
conditioning.  I had to learn to be alone, you to be close--even the
most minor of gods must know both.

"Someone subject to external limitations, as a Ranger or ruler is,
should have no bias.  We are limited only by our own feelings, though;
everything we do must be tempered by love for our charges."

"External limitations?" Tarlac chuckled.  "I'd say I didn't have many!"

"You had the ultimate limitation, Steve.  Mortality."

"Huh?"  Tarlac found that his coffee had remained at the perfect
drinking temperature, and took another swallow.

"You could give almost any order and have it obeyed, granted.  But if
someone disliked what you did or commanded intensely enough--  You have
a saying that nobody is safe from a truly determined assassin, not
true?"

"I hadn't thought of it like that, but you're right.  And you--no,
we--can't be killed."  Then Tarlac frowned.  "Godhome gave you a choice,
Kranath. It said you had to be willing--why didn't I get that option?"

"Did you need it?"

"I don't understand."

"Did you need it?" Kranath repeated.  "It seems to me that you had
already made the choice."

"Ruhar," Carle said gently, "you have been both Ranger and Cor'naya,
earning high status in both societies, and Daria was right when she
told you that was vital to peace.  Tell me, though: would that have
been enough?  Were you persuasive enough to convince two star-spanning
civilizations to cease ten years of hostility just with words?  Is any
mortal?"

Tarlac shook his head.  "I'm an operator, not much of a diplomat--
Linda's the expert at that, and I don't think even she could bring that
one off."  He looked at them speculatively, then nodded.  "I guess I do
understand, at that.  I did choose this, didn't I?  Twice, and without
realizing it."

The three other Lords smiled proudly at him.  "Yes," Kranath said.
"Once when you accepted Ranger Ellman's invitation, once when you
accepted the Ordeal. That you were persuaded into both decisions is
irrelevant; none of us chose this without persuasion, neither I nor any
of the others."

"And I think I know why you need a human Lord, too.  We're going to
have to work on both sides to end the war.  The Imperials would hardly
listen to one of you--in your own form, anyway--where they will listen
to a Ranger."

Kranath smiled.  "Exactly.  And as you have correctly surmised, we do
not take on each other's forms.  Not only would it be dishonorable, it
would be unwise; those who hold great power, those to whom we usually
need to appear when Speakers' words are insufficient, have enough
psionic ability to tell us apart." Kranath projected mild amusement.
"Humans included, though they have not as yet developed that ability
consciously."

"Which means I'll have to go back to my body.  That's the only way to
keep intervention to a minimum."  Tarlac thought for a moment.  "With
any luck at all, I won't have to do anything obvious enough for humans
to notice.  The Empire doesn't need a new human religion to cope with
at the same time it acquires a new Sector--if things work out the way
I'm hoping."

"You will allow the respective rulers to make the final choice, then."

"I'll give them the information they need to choose intelligently, but
I won't tell them what to do."  Tarlac sensed approval, and this time
knew where it came from; he smiled.  "Thanks."

"None necessary, Ruhar," Sepol said.  "We are merely pleased that you
grasp the necessities, even before your full maturity.  Go on."

"Well, I won't be able to avoid open intervention with the Traiti; I'll
have to tell all of them what I saw in Kranath's Vision.  I don't like
showing off like that, but at least they're accustomed to Lords
manifesting from time to time."

"I did not like it either," Kranath agreed, "when I had to intervene so
to end the clan wars.  We all do what must be done, though."  He put an
arm around the man.  "If you are ready, Brother, we should begin."
Brother, not ruhar.  Tarlac smiled at that human touch.  "Yeah.  Let's
not waste time."  Then he remembered.  "Hey, what about Jim?  The
Empire can't afford to lose two Rangers at once--now less than ever."

"No," Kranath agreed.  "He is still in critical condition, but Ranger
Medart will recover fully."

"Thank God!" Tarlac exclaimed reflexively.

Then he realized what he'd said, and what he was; he laughed at the
irony.  "Thanks, Kranath.  All right, I guess I'm ready.  Go ahead."

With that, he felt the Supreme Lord's immense power enter his mind and
begin work.  What he'd experienced in the Vision was only a shadow of
this reality, but it had prepared him as nothing had prepared Kranath.
Despite what he could only think of as having his innermost mind
forcibly stretched, then stuffed to near-capacity before being
stretched again into what felt like hyperdimensions, he was in
absolutely no pain.  Instead, he felt . . .

Exaltation.

He'd been made into what a number of humans and Traiti would be in
time. That he could know such glory while others were still so
restricted was something that was, with his new knowledge, as
inevitable as it was regrettable.  Yet, since it was inevitable, his
regret was of necessity dispassionate.  Others would achieve this
state, and he would greet them with joy.  In the millennia before then,
he had a job to do, helping to guide this galaxy's intelligences as
those who went before had intended.

He felt an amusement like Kranath's, but this time it was his own.
Humans had established the Empire and thought themselves and their
vitality supreme; but the Traiti supplied the gods, the subtle
guidance.  And, he now realized, the Irschchans provided--or rather,
would provide--ritual to bring those together. The cloudcats, the only
race to remember the Others who went before as a vital part of their
history, were the observers and reporters.  None of them yet knew their
parts of the whole, or could be allowed to know until they reached
maturity.

For them it would be a natural process.  He was the last to be forced
to his full potential, to complete the Circle of Lords.  He could see
now how he'd been quite literally molded, as Kranath had said, from the
moment of his conception--and he'd had a mostly-pleasant life.  Since
he could understand and appreciate the necessity, he could feel no
resentment at the manipulation. It was as inevitable, historically, as
the Traiti war itself.

Now he had almost total free will, but his mental patterns were long
established.  He would use his new powers as he had been intended to.



Chapter X

Hovan didn't feel much except fatigue and hunger as the time for
Steve's Transformation neared.  He'd held vigil for the full day,
without sleep or food, and he felt the effects.

It would be over soon, he thought tiredly.  The Lords had promised an
honorable peace, so he believed it would come about, though he couldn't
imagine how.  But it still didn't seem right that Steve had succeeded
so well in the Ordeal only to be denied knowing the peace he'd endured
it to bring about.

He saw a preliminary flicker of blue and closed his eyes against the
expected glare.  When seconds passed without it he opened them again,
and saw instead gentle blue radiance pulsing from Steve's body.

For a moment he was stunned, unable to believe what it meant.  Such
things belonged in Speakers' histories, not in life!

Then, slowly, he smiled and nodded to himself.  Steve, the human Ranger
who had become a Cor'naya in hopes of helping both races, fearing but
accepting death for that goal--yes, Steve deserved to complete the
Circle of Lords if anyone did.

Yarra and Daria had returned for the Transformation.  Hovan exchanged
glances with his Ka'ruchaya, but the Speaker stood motionless, her
expression one of exaltation--until the radiance vanished and Steve sat
up, his wounds healed, swinging his legs over the altar's edge and
standing up.  Then Daria bowed, hands formally crossed over her chest,
and Hovan and the rest of the clan followed suit.

Tarlac watched, without pleasure, his n'ruhar's display of awed
reverence--no, outright worship.  It was the Traiti way, and necessary
to them; his personal dislike of it was irrelevant.  To the clan that
had adopted him, the people he cherished, he was a god, one of the
Circle of Lords--as the new, twelfth statuette which had materialized
on every altar showed.  He could only accept the homage.

But he was also still of Ch'kara.  After a long moment, he said, "Okay,
I've changed, but that's enough.  We're still n'ruhar."

They straightened, still radiating awe.  Tarlac could sense the clan
both as an empathic entity and as the individuals composing it:
Ka'ruchaya Yarra's joy that one of her n'ruesten had been chosen to
complete the Circle, Daria's exultation and love for him and their
daughter, Hovan's deep pride that it was he who had adopted and then
sponsored the Ranger . . . even unformed pleasure from the youngling in
Daria's body, already a part of the clan's emotional life.  Finally he
knew exactly what a Traiti clan really was, and how privileged he'd
been to be adopted by this one.

It was time now to give them their full heritage, with safeguards he
hadn't expected to have when he first made the Decision his Ordeal had
demanded.  He sensed the other Lords' invisible presence as they
prepared to watch over the enormous number of individuals that, despite
the war's heavy casualties, still made up the Traiti race.  They'd help
ease the shock of his revelation, and even though Tarlac would be
spread thin imaging himself in so many places, he'd reinforce Ch'kara
himself.

He let his love enfold them as theirs had him, before he began to speak
to the Traiti race.  "You all know of me, and you know I was a Ranger
of the Terran Empire.  Your Speakers and Ship-Captains have told you
why I took the Ordeal and what I've become."

He paused, smiling.  "What they didn't tell you, because they didn't
know, is what you are.  That's a duty I'm glad to perform.  The Lords
welcomed me to my heritage; let me welcome you to yours."

He paused again, extending his arms as if to embrace them all, and, as
Kranath had shown it to him, showed them their true homeworld.  He
explained their origins and their rescue from Terra.  "So," he
finished, "you are our relatives, by ancestry as Terran as I am.  The
Empire has known as little of this as you have, but it will; and by its
laws, you're already Imperial citizens."

He felt their consternation at that, their unwillingness to believe
they could be part of what they'd fought for so long.  Then some began
to realize the changes this revelation should bring, and he sensed
their first stirrings of real hope.  Satisfied with that beginning, he
let his image and presence fade from all but two gathering halls, his
own and D'gameh's.  At D'gameh, he addressed one of the males.
"Arjen?"

The Fleet-Captain, wearing brilliant blue-and-gold robes in-clan, bowed
deeply.  To be name-called by such a one--!  "Yes, Lord.  How may I
serve you?"

Lord.  Tarlac shrugged inwardly; it was his title now.  "You did a
pretty nasty job for the Circle when you picked me up the way you did,
and I know how badly it upset you.  We appreciate it, and I'd like to
ask something else of you that may make up for it, a little.  May I?"

"Of course, Lord."  This time it was Arjen who didn't know what was
going on but couldn't refuse.

"It'll mean cutting your leave short, I'm afraid.  I'd like you to have
the Hermnaen ready for takeoff tomorrow morning, with just the ship
crew, no combat troops.  You'll be carrying the human prisoners
instead, plus the Supreme, the First Speaker, my sponsor Hovan, and
myself."

"You, Lord?"  Arjen knew he shouldn't question a god, but why would one
want to travel by ship?

Tarlac understood Arjen's question.  "I could transfer myself--or all
of us, for that matter--but humans aren't as ready for open divine
intervention as Traiti.  I'd rather let things seem as normal as
possible.  Can you arrange for the ship?"

"Of course, Lord.  We will be ready at daybreak."

"Thanks."  Tarlac returned fully to his mortal body at the Ch'kara
clanhome.  Arjen's pride in the assignment pleased him; it would ease
the Fleet-Captain's lingering discomfort at having violated the
body-return signal, even by the First Speaker's--the Lords'--orders.
Many in D'gameh shared his uneasiness, and calling Arjen by name would
repair the reserve Tarlac had sensed toward him there.

Ch'kara's gathering hall was beginning to empty, his n'ruhar responding
to his desire for normality.  Finally only a small group remained at
the base of the dais: the First Speaker and Supreme; the two
physicians, Channath and Jason; and Daria, Hovan, and Yarra.

Jason, the only human, was also the only one who couldn't quite seem to
accept the human Ranger's new status.  Tarlac appreciated the irony and
was amused by it, but it didn't really matter.  "Doctor," he said, "I
need your professional opinion.  Are the prisoners fit to travel?"

The doctor was a professional; his expression hardened.  "No, sir,
though I can only speak for those held in the same camp with me--"

"That is all of them," the Supreme broke in.

"Okay.  Go on, Doctor."

"Yes, sir."  Dr. Jason began ticking off objections on his fingers.
"We've had marriages, so we've had pregnancies; one's near term, and
transition might put her into premature labor.  Then there are a couple
of new ones, wounded, still on life support, and one the Sharks
tortured for information.  There are maybe half a dozen others with
minor injuries or illness, nothing serious."

He shook his head.  "Once the Sharks figure they've gotten all they can
from someone, we get medical care the equal of anything the Empire
could provide--especially the women."  His admiration, however
grudging, was obvious.  "They're as good at trauma as I've ever seen,
and a lot better at gynecology and obstetrics.  My wife says she wants
a Traiti doctor if she ever gets pregnant.  Damned if I know why
they're so good."

Tarlac seized that chance to find out how an ordinary Imperial citizen
would react to the Traiti sexual imbalance.  "I guess you've never seen
a Traiti clan instead of their military, have you?  Until now?"

"Sir?"  Jason looked puzzled, then shook his head.  "No, sir, I
haven't. Why?"

"How many women would you say Ch'kara has?  It's typical."

"I didn't see many, sir, maybe a quarter of the ones here.  Guess not
even Shark women like seeing someone get hurt."

"He was the Ordeal taking," Yarra said in English.  "All who could here
be, him to honor, were.  You the right percentage saw."

Dr. Jason understood the implications at once.  "Jesus H. Christ!
They've got to be good with women, then--and childcare, too.  But what
about my patients?"

"Only four who aren't fit to travel," Tarlac said thoughtfully.  "No
real problem, then; I can give them support, though it won't be
obvious.  Take them along, in the Hermnaen's sickbay."

"If you can do that, sir, why can't you heal them?"

"I could, but I'm not going to.  You heard what I said about keeping
things as normal as possible.  If I healed them, I'd be expected to
heal others, and it would escalate from there.  I'll give them the same
chance they'd have if they weren't being moved, no more."

Tarlac didn't like that, but what he'd said was true.  Godhome had been
right when it told Kranath that refraining from action was often harder
than taking it--and that too much intervention would harm, not help,
even when it meant allowing suffering and death he could stop by an act
of will.  He sensed Dr. Jason's resentment at what seemed like
callousness, and knew the man simply didn't have the scope to
understand.  "My word as a Ranger, Doctor.  If I do more than the
absolute minimum to help your patients, in the long run it could
destroy the Empire.  And that I will not risk."

"I can't argue, sir," Dr. Jason said grimly.  "May I be dismissed to
prepare them for the trip?"

"In a moment, Doctor.  You're free to tell the prisoners anything you
think appropriate about what you've seen here, though I doubt you'll
find much belief if you mention my death and return."

Jason shook his head.  "I'm not sure I believe that myself, sir, and I
was here.  I'll just say you passed the Ordeal and we're going to
Terra."

Tarlac smiled.  "Good.  That should satisfy them."  He turned to the
Supreme.  "If you'll provide escorts and transportation?"

"Done, Lord," the Supreme said promptly.  "They will be at the Hermnaen
by daybreak, as the First Speaker and I will.  By your leave, then?"
Both rulers bowed formally and held that attitude.

"Granted," Tarlac said.  As they straightened, preparing to leave, he
turned back to Jason.  "Dismissed, Doctor."

When the out-clan visitors had left the gathering hall and Channath had
excused herself, Tarlac very deliberately went to Hovan and put his
arms around his sponsor, his head on the massive chest.  Hovan tensed
at the touch, and Tarlac realized the Traiti couldn't help himself.

Tarlac backed off, looking up.  This time he had to relax Hovan.  "Am I
in-clan or not?" he demanded.  "I still have today and tonight to be
myself, here.  If you can't accept me any longer, say so, and I'll meet
you aboard ship."

"Lord--"

"Hovan, help me.  I've been hurt--hell, I've died--and I'm still shaky.
I'm not used to my powers yet, and it takes most of what I can do to
reanimate this corpse."  That was true enough; Tarlac simply didn't
mention that the other Lords would add their power to his if he needed
it.

He knew it was a shock for the clan to lose someone in the Ordeal, and
only Ch'kara had ever lost a member to the Scarring and had him
reappear as a Lord.  And he was newly adopted and an alien; it was the
clan that needed to be helped most, and calling on it for support
would, paradoxically, let it recover most quickly.  Yet he knew it was
his plea for help, nothing more abstract, that moved Hovan.  The Traiti
finally embraced him.  "You are in-clan, ruhar.  Never doubt that.  But
may I ask why you want me to go?"

His cheek pressed against gray skin, smelling its tension-sharp odor,
Tarlac said, "Yes.  Partly because I need you, partly because you'll
have to translate for the Supreme and First Speaker--Lord Carle gave
you an advanced course in English, so your grammar wouldn't cause any
misunderstandings--and partly because I plan to recommend that the
Empire integrate your Fleet into the Navy and Marines.  If you're
willing, I'd like to start that by commissioning you myself, before I
leave this body for good."

Hovan, absently stroking Steve's hair, looked at his Ka'ruchaya and the
clan's Speaker.  Yarra nodded approval; Daria, smiling, made a gesture
of negation as if to say, "I am not needed to Speak here."

That was true enough, Hovan thought.  Steve--Lord Esteban, to give him
his proper title--was speaking for himself.  "I am willing.  Steve,
ruhar, you do me great honor."

"No greater than you and Ch'kara did me," Tarlac said, realizing how
solemn they all were.  He'd prefer a lighter mood.  "But hey, this is
starting to sound like a mutual admiration society.  Would anyone else
like some chovas?"

The four adjourned to a small dining hall, to find themselves
anticipated. Four mugs of the steaming beverage waited for them, and
they drank silently.

For the rest of the day, Tarlac was given the unobtrusive but
unmistakable support that his n'ruhar needed to give--and it helped
them moderate awe to the acceptance, casual but touched with deep
respect, they held for the other Lords.  By evening, their emotions
were subsiding to a certain permanent pride that Ch'kara had given a
Lord to the Circle.  It helped Tarlac, as well.  He'd grown pleasantly
accustomed to the clan's support and closeness--its love--and he'd
regretted the loss of it that seemed inevitable.  He came to realize,
however, that as long as Ch'kara existed he would have its love, giving
him a peace he could never have imagined before attaining his new
maturity.

That night, while his body was surrounded by sleeping n'ruhar, Tarlac
took advantage of his new powers to explore.  Having the freedom of the
galaxy was exhilarating, far better than the suit-enclosed EVA he'd
enjoyed before.  No helmet blocked his view, and if he wanted to, he
could perceive the entirety of what surrounded him.  He reveled in it,
swooping from system to system, observing for himself what Kranath and
the others had told him.

He understood the cloudcats and their psionic survival aids perfectly
now; he repaired a minor fault in one, though it wasn't yet necessary,
for the sheer pleasure of using his new skills.

He looked in on a young Irschchan student, graceful as her feline
forebears, with no idea yet of the service she would soon do the Empire
and her homeworld alike; he wished her well.

He checked the condition of his friend, James Medart; if Kranath hadn't
assured him Jim would live, Tarlac would have been sorely tempted to
intervene.  Knowing the older Ranger was in critical condition hadn't
prepared him for the sight of Jim hooked up to a roomful of life-support
machinery, not in even a low-grav bed but submerged in a tank
of rapid-heal solution.  That was further evidence of how seriously
he'd been wounded; Tarlac had only heard of the technique a couple of
months before leaving Terra, as an experimental treatment for massive
injuries.

It wasn't quite first-tenth at the clanhome, about 0730 Palace Standard
Time, when Tarlac stopped amusing himself and went back to work.  His
new power made it simple for him to use his ID code alone to access the
Imperial priority band, something he'd done before only with highly
sophisticated equipment, and project an image of himself in open-shirted
uniform to the Palace, to the Emperor's private comset.

He made the comscreen's viewpoint his own, to avoid mistakes, so when
the screen activated he found himself looking at the Emperor's head,
bent over the inevitable stack of printout paper, from the familiar low
right three-quarter view.  "Just a minute, please," Davis said tiredly,
without looking up.

"Of course, sir."  Tarlac sensed the Emperor was too fatigued, too
distracted, to recognize his voice right away.  His Majesty had changed
in the three months since Tarlac had left Terra; his short-clipped hair
was almost totally white, his shoulders were less erect, and his shirt
more rumpled than he had tolerated then.

When the Emperor did look over at the screen, Tarlac was shocked to see
the strain etched into his face.  Davis looked ten years older, and
utterly worn out.  Then fatigue gave way to a startled grin.  "Steve!
You did it! Will you be back soon?"

"Yes, Your Majesty, to both.  I'm on the Traiti Homeworld, and I'll be
leaving, aboard one of their cruisers, in about five hours.  Palace ETA
is noon tomorrow, your time."  He raised a hand to forestall the
Emeror's beginning objection.  "I know that's impossibly fast by
Imperial technology, sir, but we'll be getting a one-time-only boost
from a sort of super-computer the Others left here."

"The Others."  Davis frowned, then shrugged.  "I won't look a gift
horse in the mouth.  Captain Willis reported what Fleet-Captain Arjen
told you. Steve, can you end this damn war?"

"I can't, sir, no.  What I can do is arrange things so you and the
Traiti rulers, their Supreme and First Speaker, can try to end it."

"Good enough.  After those people we massacred on Khemsun, I'll take
anything I can get."  Davis looked bitter, angry.  "Maybe you'd better
give me the whole story; I can ask questions later.  I don't want you
missing your ship."

Tarlac grinned.  "They'd wait for me, sir, but that is a good idea.
And if you wouldn't mind taping it, I think it should be made public."

"You're the Ranger on-scene; recommendation accepted."  Davis touched a
control on his comset.  "All right, Ranger Tarlac.  This is for the
record."

"Very well, Your Majesty.  I assume the record already holds the
Empress Lindner's log tapes."

"That is correct.  Go on."

"Yes, sir."  Tarlac began with his first meeting with Hovan and went on
to the adoption, a description of Homeworld and the Traiti civilians
which included their gender ratio, his greeting at the Ch'kara
clanhome, his special Language lesson--"The Traiti attribute it to the
Circle of Lords, their gods; whether to believe it was them or the
Others' computer, which this report will describe later, will have to
be an individual decision."

Then, in an outline that would be suitable for public release, he told
of his seduction by Daria and her subsequent pregnancy.

Davis stopped the recording.  "Are you sure you want that on record,
Steve?  If you pass the psych retests--"  He broke off at the look on
Tarlac's face.  "You're that sure you'd fail, then."

"No doubt about it, sir.  I shouldn't have passed them the first time,
any more than Shining Arrow should have.  Sharing young is an important
part of the Ordeal because their best have to be fertile.  Daria and
our daughter are important to me, Ch'kara is important to me--
personally.  This is my last mission . . . but I can't regret even
that, if it brings peace and keeps them alive."

The Emperor sighed heavily.  "Another one down.  You say you were
allowed news intercepts--did they mention that Jim's been critically
wounded?"

"Yes, sir, the day before my Scarring.  Shall I continue?"

"Go ahead."  Davis touched "Record" again, and nodded.

Tarlac described his schooling and wilderness experience with no
particular emphasis, and then had the screen show Kranath's Vision, as
he and Godhome remembered it, translating the Language.  He waited,
ready to give the Emperor the same emotional support he'd given Ch'kara
if it were needed.

It wasn't, quite, though Davis was shaken enough to stop recording
again when it ended.  "Good God, Steve!  You know what'll happen when
the newsies get their hands on that!"

"Yes, sir, and there's worse to come.  At our first meeting, the First
Speaker promised me a tape of the initial contact.  I gave you
Kranath's Vision first, for background.  Now here's the contact tape."

He showed it, feeling Davis' helpless rage, so like his own when he'd
seen it, as it played and was recorded.  The Emperor hit the "Stop"
button with his clenched fist when it was over, cursing in a language
Tarlac had never heard but which sounded remarkably well suited for
that purpose.  Davis spun the tape back and watched the first contact
again.  When it ended the second time, he looked haunted.  "All right,
Steve.  Finish your report."

Tarlac did so, conscious that after the contact tape, the story he was
telling sounded a bit anticlimactic.  "I had to tell them about our
common heritage, of course," he finished, "and to be believed, I had to
finish the Ordeal.  So here I am, with Honor scars.  And that's it,
sir."

Davis touched his controls again, and Tarlac was suddenly conscious of
his intense scrutiny, his reputation for almost telepathic discernment.
"Is it, Steve?" he asked quietly.

"He is close to the truth," Kranath's thought came.  "Will you deny it
to him?"

"No," Tarlac replied.  "I told him it was up to the individual, and if
he figures it out, okay.  Working it like this, not many should, even
though the Traiti won't keep it any secret."

"Will you then confirm it for him?"

"He won't need it."

The Emperor nodded slowly.  "You never could play poker, Steve.  You've
been holding out on me, and just now you were thinking of . . .
something. And maybe you've made a couple of mistakes.  Your
transmission--or should I say illusion?--doesn't have a background.
That might have a lot of causes, but could Kranath's Vision have been a
reenactment?  There were no mindprobes around five thousand years ago
to record it."  He glanced again at the comscreen control panel, its
master switch turned off.  "You, or part of you, is right here, Lord
Esteban Tarlac--isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," Tarlac admitted, unable to repress a smile and a rueful
headshake.  "A moment ago Lord Kranath told me you were close to the
truth and asked me what I intended to do about it.  Absolutely nothing,
except to ask you not to make it official.  If I'm being so obvious,
too many people may pick up on it anyway."

"It wasn't obvious, except to someone who knows you well.  I don't
think anyone but your . . . former . . . colleagues will catch it.  And
I won't make it official; you know the Empire doesn't promote any
religion.  But--will you give the Empire the same support your new
colleagues give the Traiti?"

Tarlac laughed, relieved that the Emperor could see and grasp this
opportunity as readily as ever, in spite of the circumstances.  "Your
Majesty, if this succeeds, all of us will be working for the interests
of both races combined."

A driving surge of hope erased some of the Emperor's fatigue.  "What do
you want me to do?"

The next morning, as promised, the Supreme and First Speaker met Tarlac
and Hovan at the Hermnaen's loading ramp.  Fleet-Captain Arjen, in
uniform again and obviously proud of this honor, was waiting to greet
them.  He bowed respectfully to the human in Ranger green.  "Lord
Esteban."

Tarlac touched his shoulder, to emphasize the fact that he was still
using a physical body.  "Not necessary for now, Fleet-Captain.  Let's
keep things looking as normal as possible."

Arjen straightened.  "Yes, Lord."

Tarlac turned to the two rulers.  "During the night I contacted the
Emperor and asked him to order a cease-fire; it should be taking effect
by now.  Would you give the same order?"

"Of course, Lord," the Supreme replied.  "But how can it reach all our
ships in time?"

"The same way I contacted them yesterday," Tarlac told him.  "Just talk
at me as if you were giving the order over a transmitter."

Taking him at his word, the two rulers gave the orders and Tarlac
relayed their images and words to the Traiti ships' communications
equipment, as he had activated the Palace's comm channels the night
before.  There were no objections from the Fleet, though
acknowledgments ranged from almost enthusiastic to openly skeptical.
Tarlac passed them all along, thinking that it didn't matter.  With
racial survival at stake, the Lords would be monitoring both the human
and the Traiti ships.  There would be no accidental--or
intentional--infractions of the cease-fire.

Once they boarded the Hermnaen, Tarlac accompanied Arjen to the control
central and took a place standing behind Arjen and Ship-Captain Exvani.
Liftoff was routine until the ship reached the safe transition distance
of ten diameters out.  Then Tarlac spoke up.  "Master Pilot?"

"Yes, Lord?"

"Program out-transition for Terra's position exactly one day from now,
please."

The Master Pilot, unlike the Emperor, showed no surprise at the speed
that order implied, and moments later there was the twisting sensation
of hyperspace entry.  The sensation continued for almost a minute
rather than brief seconds, however, and the viewscreens, when they
cleared, showed swirls of shifting color instead of the featureless
gray of hyperspace.

There were exclamations of surprise and awe.  Nobody asked questions,
but Tarlac could feel their intense curiosity, and decided it would do
no harm to satisfy it.  "This dimension is to hyperspace as that is to
normspace; it allows speeds roughly two hundred times as fast as
hyperflight."

"Leyar's Dimension?" Arjen asked.

"Yes.  He has the beginnings of the theory worked out, but it'll be
awhile yet before it'll be of any practical use."  Tarlac did not say
that it would be a long while.  Unlike Nannstein's theory of gravitics,
which had led directly to hyperdrive, ultraspace theory held no clues
to its practical applications; it would be several centuries before
those were worked out.  "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to brief the
First Speaker and Supreme."

"Of course, Lord.  They and Team-Leader Hovan are in Ship-Captain
Exvani's quarters, and mine have been prepared for you."

And you don't regret the loss of privacy a bit, Tarlac thought, amused.
"Thanks, Fleet-Captain.  I'll be back here for out-transition; even
with the cease-fire, I don't think the defense satellites would be
willing to let you by without my authorization."

"As they should not," Arjen said approvingly.  "Individually, Lord,
human fighters leave much to be desired--but in groups they equal us,
and they are far more numerous."

"That's why those who went before moved you instead of us, remember?"
Tarlac was delighted to be able to speak so openly, even jokingly, of
facts the Traiti race now accepted.

"Yes, Lord."  Arjen couldn't help smiling.  There was something about
this Lord who had been a Ranger, something that put him at ease rather
than keeping him at the distance the other Lords inspired.  Perhaps it
was the man's youth, or his small size, but whatever it was, Arjen
liked Lord Esteban.

Tarlac sensed that and smiled as he left the control central.  If the
Traiti saw Kranath as a father figure, and the other ten Lords as
n'ruchaya, sharing that parenthood with the Supreme Lord, but saw
Tarlac as the "youngling" of the Circle, that was fine with him.  He'd
had all the isolation and deference his Imperial rank demanded for
fifteen years, and he thought he'd prefer to spend the next few
millennia with the easy warmth he sensed from Arjen, from Ch'kara--and
in fact from all the Traiti.

When the Hermnaen out-transitioned, it was a cautious hundred and fifty
thousand kilometers from Terra, and Tarlac was satisfied that he'd
briefed the three who would accompany him to the Palace as well as he
could without actually telling them what to do.

He was in the control central again, at the communications console.
Activating the screen, he tuned to the Imperial guard channel.  "Fleet
Headquarters, this is Ranger Tarlac."

The reply was prompt.  "This is Headquarters, Ranger.  You are cleared
to land at the Palace field at your convenience.  All other traffic has
been diverted, since your pilot can't be familiar with our landing
conventions. The landing beacon is on, and please report passing Defsat
Five.  Do you copy?"

"Roger, I copy, and thank you.  Tarlac out."

"Headquarters out."

Tarlac looked over at the Master Pilot.  "It's all yours.  Take us
down."

"Aye, Lord."

Watching critically, Tarlac had to admit there was very little
difference in efficiency between the crews at the Hermnaen's control
central and on the Empress Lindner's bridge.  If the Hermnaen's seemed
to have a bit of an edge at present, it was understandable; the
Lindner's would have made as good a showing, taking a Traiti VIP to
Homeworld.

They passed Defsat Five half a dozen kilometers out, Tarlac making the
necessary call to confirm their landing clearance.  Then the pilot took
them down, slowly and precisely, following the beacon.

Tarlac took nostalgic pleasure in what he knew would be his last
ship-descent.  This view had always been a favorite of his: the clear,
windless sight of the sun reflecting off Antarctic snowfields.  A dark
speck appeared at the foot of the Sentinel Mountains, the modified
defense screen that protected the Imperial Palace and a circle fifty
kilometers around it from the harsh environment.  The speck grew,
beginning to show detail.  The Palace itself was a good four kilometers
square, the largest single building ever constructed by humans,
combining elements from all of Terra's cultures in a feat of
engineering made possible by Nannstein's genius.  Tarlac thought it was
magnificent, and it was virtually a self-contained city.  Gardens and
parkland surrounded it for ten kilometers, with administrative and
residential areas beyond that, also carefully landscaped.

Once those details became visible, it was only moments until the
Hermnaen set down on the Palace's landing field, which was big enough
to serve a system capital and as well fortified as a planetary defense
base.  Even the Emperor's private landing pad near the Palace wall
could be covered by a heavy disruptor cannon.  The Hermnaen, here, was
as vulnerable as the Lindner had been when she was englobed by Arjen's
fleet.

As he had arranged, Tarlac met the other three at the main entry ramp.
The coming encounters wouldn't be easy for them; they simply had no
experience in coping with other cultures.  He could sense their
apprehension, their carefully-fostered self-confidence, as the hatch
cycled open and the ramp extended.  "Take it easy," he said softly.
"You'll do fine."

The Supreme smiled at him.  "We will do our best, Lord."

"I know."  Tarlac, accustomed to the imposingly massive beings, still
found them impressive.  To anyone else on Terra, the effect would be
even greater.  And the Traiti were dressed for the occasion.  Hovan was
in uniform, armed with dagger, shortsword, and gun, everything but his
blast-rifle; the First Speaker wore the bright green robe of her
office; and the Supreme, in honor of the new Lord, wore Ch'kara-style
blue trousers and silvery open shirt, with, naturally, his dagger.
They were impressive, Tarlac thought.

The scene outside the ship was no more than he'd expected.  There was a
huge crowd, mostly news reporters with everything from tiny still
cameras to holo gear which was barely portable.  They were being held
back by Palace Guards, Imperial Marines in traditional dress blues.
Only the small honor guard Tarlac had recommended came forward to meet
the four of them, ten Marines and a Ranger whose long black hair was
held out of his face by a headband the same green as his uniform and
dress cloak.

The two Rangers exchanged salutes before Tarlac accepted his own cloak
from the Marine carrying it, swung it over his shoulders, and fastened
the chain.  It was a long time since he'd worn the heavy garment with
its silver trim and embroidered Imperial Seal, and he took a moment to
arrange it so it would hold his shirt open instead of closed over his
scars.

Once he was satisfied, he made the introductions.  "Crown Prince Rick
Forrest, may I present the Traiti Supreme and First Speaker, and my
sponsor, Team-Leader Hovan."

The three bowed; Forrest saluted again.  "Welcome to Terra.  I've been
told that only Team-Leader Hovan speaks much English, but that you can
all understand some."

"That is correct," Hovan said.

"Good enough.  Now if you'll come with me, His Majesty is waiting to
receive you."

"We you thank," the First Speaker said, using, Tarlac knew, most of her
limited English.

Then, each flanked by two of the Marines, they moved toward the
Palace's immense main entrance.  As they neared it, the newsies crowded
closer and began clamoring for information, shouting questions,
brandishing cameras and microphones.  The Rangers, long accustomed to
network competition, paid little attention to the aggressive mob scene;
this was a big story, one of the biggest, and the newsies' behavior was
expectable.  They didn't mean any harm, but Tarlac sensed a growing
concern from the two Traiti males for the First Speaker's safety.

Tarlac kept walking, outwardly impassive, as he sent them reassurance.
"I know the newsies are a bit overwhelming, but there's no danger.
They're just doing their jobs, sending this story all over the Empire.
Traiti monitoring stations will pass it on to your worlds, too."  That
helped; the three Traiti relaxed a little.

Arjen, on the Hermnaen, was too busy to relax.  There were vehicles
approaching, white ones marked with the scarlet cross and crescent that
distinguished human medical equipment.  He called sickbay and reached
Dr. Jason.  "Vehicles are for your people coming, Doctor.  Your
patients will first off-loaded be, if they ready are."

"They're ready," a tired-looking Jason said.  "Can you send the medics
here--and keep the newsies out?"

"Of course," Arjen replied.  "The Marines will that insure, Lord
Esteban says, and the patients will be to the Palace medical unit
taken."

"The Palace medcenter?"  Jason sighed, looking less tired.  "That's a
relief; it's probably the best hospital in the Empire.  Did he say
anything about the rest of us?"

"You will be to regional facilities for checks taken, Bethesda and one
I find hard to say."

"Akademgorod?" Dr. Jason asked, his expression suddenly eager.

"Yes.  Your families are being there taken, and after you fully checked
are, you will be with them reunited."  Arjen smiled himself at that
thought.  "I hope you all of yours well find."

"Thanks.  But if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to work."

"As do I."  Arjen cut the circuit.

In the Palace, the Throne Room doors began to swing open and a fanfare
sounded.  "Okay, here we go," Tarlac said.  "Remember, don't kneel when
you're presented, even if some of the courtiers do.  You're not part of
the nobility."

"We will remember," the First Speaker said.

Tarlac didn't have time to say any more, as the fanfare was replaced by
the first notes of Williams' Imperial Anthem, and they had to make
their entrance.

It was a long, slow, ceremonious walk from the door to the Throne,
since this was a full-scale Grand Audience.  The courtiers, nobles and
their guests--those who had managed to make it to the Palace on such
short notice--all had a chance to study the open-shirted, scarred
Ranger and the massive gray-skinned beings with him.  They knew Traiti
from pictures, but none of these had seen them in the flesh.

And more than their presence here drew comment.  Two of the aliens were
armed, in the Imperial Presence!  Normally only Rangers and Life Nobles
had that privilege, and seeing enemies so honored brought angry
murmurs, even after the tapes all present had seen of Tarlac's account
of the Ordeal, of Kranath's Vision.

Tarlac heard the murmurs and smiled.  If they thought this was bad,
just wait!  His plans were going smoothly; if the emotional currents he
sensed continued, it was likely that soon these courtiers would be glad
for the Traiti's arms.

Hovan was beginning to feel uneasy as he followed Steve down the red
carpet toward the Throne, and he wasn't quite able to place the reason.
It wasn't the humans' anger; Steve had warned them to expect that at
first.  And it wasn't the strangeness of being on Terra, or even in the
Palace's Throne Room.  This, despite its size and splendor, bore a
strong similarity to a gathering hall, even though its dais supported
the Throne instead of an altar. This place felt out-clan, nothing more
sinister.  His unease was due to something else, something his
combat-honed senses insisted was like walking into an ambush.  He sighed
inwardly.  If there was going to be trouble, why hadn't Steve said
anything?

But Steve was a Lord now, he reminded himself, and it was axiomatic
that Lords did things their own ways for their own reasons.  All he
could do was remain alert, prepared to take any action that might seem
necessary.

As they neared the Throne, Hovan found himself more impressed than he'd
thought he would be.  Twin columns of swirling silver flanked Emperor
Charles Davis where he sat in the rather plain, high-backed wooden
chair that was the Throne, on its meter-high marble dais.  He wore
green-and-silver robes and a silvery crown ornamented with winged
stars; the scepter he held matched it. The regalia could not disguise
the strain lines engraved in his face, but he was smiling slightly, and
so was Crown Prince Forrest, from his place behind the Emperor's left
side.

Davis gave the group a sober examination before he spoke.  "Ranger
Tarlac. We are pleased at your return, and at your successful
completion of the Traiti Ordeal of Honor.  According to Captain Willis,
that means you are bringing Us the peace We wish."

"I bring a good chance for peace, Your Majesty, in the persons of the
Traiti rulers and Team-Leader Hovan, who gave me the support and
training I needed to survive the Ordeal."  Tarlac repressed a smile at
that misleading technicality.  He'd survived, yes--for less than a
minute.

"We welcome them to the Empire.  You have learned their Language; will
you act as translator for Us?"

"Of course, sir."

"Good.  As you asked Us to, We have released the tapes you showed Us
yesterday, so their contents are common knowledge; you need not go into
those facts again."

"Thank you, sir."  Tarlac turned to the Supreme and First Speaker, and
translated the exchange.

"Now," Davis said, his tone even more serious, "We understand that it
is a cultural problem which has brought about this civil war between
the Empire and some of Our separated citizens."

"Yes, Your Majesty.  Their culture and its imperatives are quite
different from ours--but I'm proud to have been adopted by Clan Ch'kara
and to call Hovan my brother."

Davis nodded, and focused his attention on the two rulers.  "We hope to
end this fratricidal conflict, which has recently, for the first time,
cost you women and children We understand you can ill afford to lose.
Have you any suggestions as to how We can do that?"

Imperial usage, Hovan thought as he watched, had sounded foolish when
Steve described it aboard ship, but coming from the Emperor now, it
sounded both solemn and appropriate.

It was the Supreme, since this was primarily a secular matter, who
answered through Tarlac.  "The Ranger has told us that our Terran
origin entitles us to Imperial citizenship, and that any citizen has
the right to petition the Throne."

Davis nodded.  "It is a citizen's basic right, one which has prevented
much injustice.  We invite you to present yours."

The Supreme indicated the First Speaker.  "Then, Your Majesty, we
petition life for our people.  Ranger Tarlac has told you that we
cannot surrender; as your troops advance, we will all die as surely as
those of Clan L'sor died. It is death with honor to die in defense of
the clan, but it is death for all of our race, and I do not think Your
Majesty wants that any more than we want it."

"We do not," Davis said firmly, "and there is a way to prevent it.
Ranger Tarlac has told you of the Imperial policy regarding governments
which already exist on inhabited planets, has he not?"

"Yes, Your Majesty.  The Irschchan system is still ruled by their White
Order, and the cloudcats of Ondrian have kept their own ways.  Those,
however, are local governments.  Our civilization, like yours, is
interstellar in scope."

"We consider that the principle is the same for a Sector as for a
planet or a system.  Do you disagree?"

"We do not, Your Majesty.  We agree fully."

"Then hear Our Edict."  Davis stood, raising the scepter.  "We rule
that the war came about because of a mutual misunderstanding between
two groups of Imperial citizens, one of which was unaware of that
status, and that no blame may be attached to either group.

"Further, we invite the Supreme and First Speaker to swear fealty to
the Empire, that the Traiti may take their rightful place in Our Realm.
In exchange, We offer confirmation of their status as rulers of the new
Traiti Sector, subject only to the restrictions that apply to all
Sector Dukes."

It was the offer Lord Esteban had said would probably be made, and the
Traiti had no hesitation, after his earlier briefing, about accepting
it. They knelt and swore the oaths of fealty that made them Imperial
nobles.

"We accept your fealty," the Emperor said, "and in return pledge Our
support."  He touched both rulers on the shoulders with his scepter.
"Rise, my Lord Dukes."

They did, smiling when Tarlac had to use the Language term for his own
status as he translated.  Hovan smiled too, feeling a sense of
fulfillment. Steve had done it!  This was what he'd offered his life to
achieve, expecting only a death he'd thought would be final.  He had
brought peace, peace the Traiti could accept with full honor--peace
that meant life for Ch'kara, for Sandre and the twins, for Daria and
the youngling she shared with Steve. Hovan knew there would be details
to work out, still--details that might take years--but Steve had made
that working out possible.

Then Tarlac turned to the Emperor.  "Sir, I'd like to administer an
oath now, with your permission.  Team-Leader Hovan is a commando, an
experienced officer who's come up through the ranks as all of their
officers have, and in my opinion he would be an asset to the Empire.
I've offered him a commission in the Marines."

"Permission granted," Davis said with a rare smile.  "We would be most
pleased to have one with the qualifications you told Us about yesterday
in Our armed forces."

"Thank you, sir."  Tarlac turned to Hovan and said quietly, "Let's do
this right.  You face the crowd."

Hovan did so, glancing over the brightly-dressed courtiers.  His unease
was stronger now, though no better defined, and he was still tense,
alert for action.  Something was definitely wrong here, something in
the subtle readiness of a small group nearby--

Steve's voice broke into his thoughts.  "Raise your right hand and
repeat after me: 'I, Hovan of Clan Ch'kara, do solemnly swear . . ."

Hovan did as Steve told him.  "I, Hovan of Clan Ch'kara, do solemnly
swear . . . to protect and defend the Terran Empire . . . from all
enemies, foreign and domestic . . . and to bear true faith and
allegiance to the same.  This I pledge before the Lords, by my own
honor and Ch'kara's."

Tarlac lowered his hand and extended it.  "Congratulations, First
Lieutenant Hovan, and welcome to Imperial Service."

Hovan was reaching to take Steve's hand when his misgivings became
reality.  He spotted movement, a flash of light on gunmetal, and
everything happened at once.  Hovan was already reacting as he heard
the bark of a slugthrower and saw the spurt of flame.  His dagger flew
for its target, a human screamed--

--and Steve was spun around and hurled to the floor by a heavy slug in
the center of his back.  Anticipation and combat-sharpened reflexes let
Hovan get halfway to the assassin before the Palace Guards could act.
By the time they'd surrounded the group, a snarling Hovan had the man
who'd used the gun in custody, one claw-extended hand clamped on his
neck and shoulder while he rammed the muzzle of his blaster against the
base of the man's skull.

The human was shivering, fearful yet defiant.  "Get your hands off me,
you damn Shark!  And get your knife out of my shoulder!"

"You'll be patched up," the Guard Major in charge said grimly.  "Long
enough to take a mindprobe, anyway."  He reached under his blouse for a
pair of handcuffs, put them on the prisoner, and turned to his squad.
"Take this one to the medical unit, the rest straight to Security."

Hovan released the assassin with a shove.  "What will be done with him?
And why would he shoot Ranger Tarlac?"

"Did you see the button he was wearing?" the Major asked.  At Hovan's
nod, he went on.  "He's a Humanity Firster.  They're a bunch of
fanatics and troublemakers, though we never thought anyone, even one of
them, would be stupid enough to do something like this.  He'll be
mindprobed to learn his accomplices--and how he managed to smuggle even
an old-style gun into the Palace.  What he did's on record, on Security
monitor tapes and probably the newscasters' gear as well.  He'll be
shot."

The Major paused, then smiled.  "I never thought I'd say this to a
Traiti, Lieutenant Hovan, but--well done.  I could wish you were in my
command."

"I thank you, Major.  But for now I am the only one of Ch'kara, here,
and I must hold my ruhar's death-watch."  He remembered the wording
Steve had said was correct for requests.  "By your leave, sir?"

"All right, Lieutenant, go to him."

Hovan knelt beside the inert form, his only emotion curiosity.  His
mourning was done; Steve had died and joined the Lords days ago, and
Hovan had known he couldn't remain limited to his body--but why choose
to leave it this way, with the indignity of being attacked from behind?

Guards had surrounded Emperor Davis at the first sign of trouble, and
he motioned them back so he could look down at the scene: Hovan
kneeling over Tarlac's bloody form as medics moved in, the Supreme
shielding the First Speaker with his body, the courtiers milling around
in confusion.  Yes, events were working out as Tarlac had predicted.

He seated himself again and called, "Cor'naya Hovan."

Hovan looked up.  "Yes, Your Majesty?"

"Come here, please."

Hovan approached the Emperor and bowed.  "Sire?"

Speaking too quietly for the newsies' mikes to pick up his words, Davis
said, "Steve asked me to give you a message after he left.  I'll have
you brought to my working office when this Audience is over, and give
it to you there."  He raised his voice to its previous level.
"Cor'naya Hovan, since Ranger Tarlac's mother is not present, you are
his closest available kin.  We must ask if you wish to make funeral
arrangements yourself, or if you prefer Us to make them."

"The Lords have already accepted him, Sire.  He should have the human
ceremony, whatever his rank deserves, and I do not know that."

"Very well, We will see to it.  If you wish to accompany him, the
medics are ready to take him to the morgue.  And, Lieutenant--you have
Our thanks for the way you captured that assassin.  Please inform the
Supreme and First Speaker that they will be taken to guest apartments
until you are free to translate for Us."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

It was almost a tenthday later--two hours, Hovan reminded himself, in
human terms--when a young Marine in Palace Guard dress blues entered
the morgue where Hovan was watching technicians prepare Steve's body.
Their impersonality was unpleasant to him, and it was a relief to turn
his attention to the NCO.  Hoping he was reading the woman's insignia
correctly, Hovan said, "Yes, Sergeant?"

"The Emperor would like to see you, sir.  I'm to escort you to his
office."

Hovan nodded, careful not to smile at the woman's expression.  It would
only make her obvious apprehension worse.  But, once they were out of
the morgue and seated in one of the small null-grav cars that served as
interior transport, he did say, "I will not bite you, you know."

"I . . ."  The Marine hesitated.  "No, sir.  My mind knows you won't,
but my stomach's a lot less certain.  And, sir--I've never even heard
of a junior officer being granted a private audience!"

That was all until the shuttlecar pulled up before a door that was
flanked by a pair of Palace Guards.  As Hovan climbed out, the young
Marine said, "Lieutenant Hovan, to see His Majesty."  There was an air
of tension from the Guards as Hovan approached the door, but neither of
them said anything; one simply opened the door for him and closed it
when he was inside.

Davis was waiting, now in a Ranger's plain forest green, seated at a
functional steel desk.  He spoke before Hovan could bow.  "No
formalities at this meeting, Hovan, though it probably won't happen
again.  I think that armchair can handle your mass; have a seat."

Hovan sat, carefully as the chair creaked, but it held.  "You said
Steve left a message for me, Your Majesty."

Davis leaned forward.  "Yes.  He told me quite a bit yesterday, while
you were still on Homeworld.  For one thing, he said that you were as
important in bringing this peace about as he was, that if it hadn't
been for your help, he'd never have made it through the Ordeal."

Hovan shook his head.  "That is too much credit, Sire.  I did no more
than any sponsor should."

"That may be true, and I'll ask you to hold to that in public, but we
both know Steve's right, too.  You did a sponsor's duty, yes--for an
alien, an enemy, and with a degree of sympathy no one could expect.
You acted exactly like what he called you, his brother."

"I was, yes.  And I am glad that he saw the peace he wanted so.  But
that he should die as he did . . ."

"I know what he's become," Davis said.  "I guessed, and he confirmed
it. He's not dead, as either of us understand death.  And the
assassination today was part of his plan.  So was your capture of that
Firster.  He couldn't tell you in advance, since he wanted your
reactions to be spontaneous, and he asked me to say he regrets not
being able to tell you, and hopes you understand."

"I am not surprised," Hovan said, "though I do not truly understand.  I
would not have disgraced him."

"He didn't think you would, Hovan.  But you're no actor, you don't hide
what you feel.  It was obvious to everyone that you didn't know what
was going to happen, and that you were angry at the Firster."  Davis
leaned back, looking satisfied.  "You knew Steve well enough to know
how he hated waste."

"Yes, Sire."

"Well, this time he outdid himself.  Humanity Firsters have been
trouble for years, and they've been getting more active lately, so
Steve decided to let them incriminate themselves, by stopping the
security scanners for long enough to let that one through with his
weapon.  He said his future-sense was still unreliable, but he
predicted what would happen today, in outline.  And so far the events
have had the effects he intended.

"After you left, the Throne Room turned into chaos.  Shooting a Ranger
in the back, especially here in the Palace, lost the Firsters any
popular support they had.  Your immediate defense of the Empire, and
the way you took that man without killing him--people didn't expect
that from a Traiti--have started gaining sympathy for you."  Davis
shook his head.  "There've been some results already.  The newsies are
demanding interviews with any Traiti they can get hold of, especially
you, the First Speaker, and the Supreme--in that order. I can have you
protected from them, if you want."

"Steve did not like reporters," Hovan said, "and from what I have seen,
I do not either.  But that must be part of his plan, so I will meet
with them."

"Good, because you're right.  It is part of what he hoped for.  Public
relations can make people realize you're part of the Empire now, not
enemies. The newsies are good for some things, no matter how
aggravating they are at times."

"Steve brought peace, with all honor; that is the important thing.  He
has truly earned our title for him."

"He has a title beyond 'Lord'?"

"We call him 'Peacelord.'"

"Peacelord."  Davis nodded.  "A good epitaph for anyone.  'Esteban
Tarlac, Ranger and Peacelord.'"





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