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"Of course we all agree that the visualsassuming they can be relied uponare horrifying. But at the same time, there must be some rational basis for their actions, some misunderstanding that could surely have been avoided if it hadn't been for the Military Establishment's vested interest in having an enemy to justify its own existence... ."

Hannah Avram smiled grimly as she listened to Bettina Wister's strident bleating from across the presidential reception room and watched the embarrassed maneuvers of people trying to get away from her. The evidence of what the Bugsthe term was rapidly achieving universal usedid to occupied planets' inhabitants had discredited Wister's viewpoint in all but the most hopelessly blinkered of eyes. But she was still a member of the Naval Oversight Committee, and it had been impossible to avoid inviting her to this reception for the newly arrived Orion representatives to the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The formal speechifying had ended earlier, and at least that had been done on a higher level than Wister'sor even Prime Minister Quilvio's. President DaCunha had spoken for the Federation, for his office still remained its visible embodiment. Despite all the unnatural acts that had been performed on the Constitution, it was only proper that mankind's highest elected official speak for humanity on such an occasion as the reactivation of the Grand Alliance that had crushed the Rigelians. The other parties had responded with every evidence of good grace. Privately, they might take a "better thee than me" attitude towards humanity's current troubles, but they'd learned from experience that such troubles were best squelched as early as possible.

Avram's grin widened as she watched Agamemnon Waldeck succeed in disengaging himself from Wister's diminishing audience. He might be a son-of-a-bitch, but he and his Corporate World fellows could be counted on to support the military, which kept the Federation's commerce safe from the Tangri, renegade Orions and other predatory types. It was a persistent fissure in their alliance with the Heart Worldswhich had been too rich and too safe for too longand their one patch of common ground with the despised Fringers.

She sipped her white winesomething stronger might have helped her get through this reception, but with advancing age she found alcohol did less and less for herand felt depression close in as it always did when she contemplated the political dislocations of the Federation that held her loyalty. The human race had expanded outward in three waves, punctuated by wars. First the Heart Worlds had received Federation-subsidized colonies, ethnically balanced to the nicety mandated by twenty-first-century notions. Then, in light of the expense of the wars with the Orions, expansion had shifted to the private sector under the auspices of megacorporations which farsightedly seized the "choke point" systems with multiple warp nexi, the gateways to the universe beyond. Then, after the Third Interstellar War had made Federation and Khanate allies and removed the Rigelian threat, the impetus for colonization had been provided by ethnic, national, cultural and other groups seeking to preserve identities they saw vanishing tracelessly into cosmopolitan sameness. The result was a vast number of newly settled worlds with smallalbeit fast-growingpopulations.

The Corporate World magnates were incapable of seeing the Federation as anything more than one of their own tame planetary governments writ largean engine for maximizing profit. Avram despised the game they played, but she couldn't deny the skill with which they played it. They'd amended the Constitution into a parliamentary cabinet system, reducing the Presidentstill elected by direct Federation-wide popular vote, ever more difficult even with modern communications and data processingto a figurehead. Besides, for all their power, the Corporate Worlds alone could deliver too little of the popular vote to control the election of the presidency. On the other hand, the Prime Minister who held the real power had to command the support of a majority of the Legislative Assembly, which the Corporate Worlds effectively controlled by virtue of their own single-mindedness and dense individual populations, the Heart Worlds' disunity and philosophical confusion, and the Reapportionment of 2340. The reapportionment plan had been bitterly resisted by the Fringe Worlds for a very simple reason: Corporate World populations averaged close to 1.75 billion, while the average Fringe World was fortunate to have a total population of thirty to forty million. The Constitution guaranteed every Federated World at least one representative in the Legislative Assembly, but the Reapportionment had pushed the qualifying population base for each additional representative up to ten million. A particularly populous Fringe World thus might boast five or six representatives, while a planet like Galloway's World was entitled to over two hundred. Given the centralized cooperation of the Corporate Worlds' Liberal-Progressive Party, that kind of concentrated Legislative bloc gave politicos like Agamemnon Waldeck enormous power... and they knew it.

They see themselves as the lords of creation, Avram thought, looking across the room at Waldeck, conversing with a knot of his cronies. The hell of it is, they're right. Morosely, she raised her left armthe prosthetic one, legacy of the Theban War (at times she found herself forgetting which was which)and took another sip of Chablis.

She became aware of motion beside her and turned with a smile of greeting. The senior Orion representative to the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff evidently didn't share her aversion to booze. Nor did most members of his species, which alcohol affected in much the same way it did homo sapiens. Indeed, the Khanate had become a major importer of bourbon. In that respect, Kthaara'zarthan was atypical; his glass held straight vodka, and Avram had observed him sprinkle a pinch of pepper into it, something she'd never seen on Old Terra west of Minsk or east of Vladivostok.

"Lord Talphon," she greeted him formally. "I hope you're enjoying yourself." Uncontrollably, a chuckle bubbled up. Kthaara raised one tufted ear, signifying inquiry. "Oh, I was just recalling the response a great playwright of ours, George Bernard Shaw, made to precisely that question, under similar circumstances: 'That, madam, is the only thing I am enjoying.' "

Kthaara emitted the deep purring cough of Orion laughter. Aside from rare individuals with extremely flexible vocal apparatus, the two species couldn't produce the sounds of each others' languages, but they could learn to understand them. That understanding represented a triumph over the gulf that yawned between completely alien evolutions. As always, Avram had to remind herself that the human characterization of Orions as "felinoid" was worse than simplistic. The resemblance was purely coincidental; a Terran lizard, or oak tree, was more closely related to Terran cats than was the urbane being who stood before her, unconsciously smoothing out his spectacular whiskers. His pelt was the midnight-black of the oldest Orion noble families, now acquiring a silvery frosting that indicated advancing age to those who knew what to look for. Well, she reflected, none of us are getting any younger. She'd met Kthaara late in the Theban War, when he'd been serving under Ivan Antonov in his quest for vengeance against his cousin's murderers. The Orions lacked humanity's antigerone treatments, and despite their century-and-a-half natural life spans...

"Ah, yes," Kthaara broke in on her thoughts. "I remember Zhaaaw. A classic example of the way literary brilliance can coexist with political imbecility." He gave a teeth-hidden carnivore's grin. "And speaking of the latter, how do you manage to put up with her sort?" He indicated Wister. "Or perhaps the question I am really asking is why you put up with them."

"Well, Lord Talphon, some humans tend to believe that the further removed a political philosophy is from reality, the more morally pure it must be."

"Why?" Kthaara's perplexity was manifest. "I know you better, Sky Marshal"the title he really used was "First Fang""than to think you yourself believe anything of the kind."

"You're quite right. But I'm trying to explain the biases of the civilization which initially gave form to the Federation. That civilization's dominant religionwhich I myself don't subscribe to, by the waywas heavily influenced in its formative years by a philosophy called Gnosticism, which held that the world as reported by the senses was inherently corrupt and deceptive. Given that assumption, the only reliable source of knowledge was correct doctrine, and the attitude lingers on in secularized form. Demonstrated unworkability in the real world merely proves a belief system's 'higher truth' in the eyes of its true believers."

Kthaara's ears twitched in the slow movement that conveyed incredulity as he listened to her explanation. "I shall never understand your species, First Fang." He sighed.

"Just as well, Lord Talphon." Avram grinned. "We'll never understand ourselves either!"

They sipped their respective drinks for a few moments in a silence which wasn't destined to last, for the Ophiuchi and Gorm representatives to the Joint Chiefs approached.

"Ah, Ssssky Marssshallll," Admiral Thaarzhaan said, "I sssee the ssseniorrr memmmbers of our ressspective partnerssshipsss are deep in dissscussion. Sssurely a good ommmen forrr the smmmooth fffunctioning of the Grrrannnd Alliannnce, is it nottt?"

Fleet Speaker Noraku, the Gorm representative, was the tallest person in the room (when he stood fully upright), but Thaarzhaan came in second by a safe margin. Terra's traditional Ophiuchi allies were no more "birds" than her old enemies and recent allies the Orions were "cats." The number of forms a viable tool-making animal could take, while numerous, were finite, however, and coincidences were bound to occur in a galaxy of four hundred billion suns... especially in the vanishingly rare cases where a species specialized in two different thingsin the case of the Ophiuchi, flying and tool using.

Still, Avram sometimes caught herself being surprised that Thaarzhaan didn't exhibit a certain... well, apprehension in Kthaara's presence. She shouldn't have, of course. Orions might be felinoid carnivores and Ophiuchi might be among the galaxy's more pacific racesnowbut Thaarzhaan and his people were hardly oversized canaries. They had evolved from raptors which, like the Orions themselves (or, for that matter, humans), had stood at the top of their planet's food chain, and the tall, down-covered, hollow-boned Ophiuchi retained the massive, crested heads and wickedly hooked beaks of their ancestors. And, she reflected, the fact that they're the only known race that make even better fighter pilots than the Tabbies doesn't hurt.

That predilection for fighter ops was also one of many reasons the Ophiuchi Association Defense Command was so prized by its Terran allies. The Association had been a Terran treaty partner ever since ISW-2, when they'd allied against the Khanate, and over the centuries the Ophiuchi had proven utterly reliable. Less militant even than humans, far less Orions, they were determined, gallant and pragmatic when military action became unavoidable. Perhaps especially pragmatic. The Association had exhausted its open warp points. Faced with an inescapable physical limit on interstellar expansion and physically uncomfortable with population densities humans or Tabbies found acceptable, the Ophiuchi had stabilized their planetary populations at relatively sparse levels which limited the size of the navy they could build or maintain, but their technology was among the galaxy's best and their units routinely exercised as integral parts of TFN formations. Any Terran admiral regarded their carrier strike-groups as pearls beyond price, yet the almost emaciated-looking Ophiuchi projected an undeniable appearance of frailty.

The Gorm, on the other hand, could hold their own physically with just about anyone, Avram thought as she watched Fleet Speaker Noraku advance with the almost prancing gait allowed by Terra's low gravity. His facial features were unsettlingly humanlike (aside from the triple eyelids and extremely broad nose), but there was no chance of confusing the Gorm with any Terran evolutionary branch. Descendants of hexapods, the grayish, armor-hided beings generally moved on their rearmost pair of limbs alone, as Noraku was doing now; but the middle limbs with their dual-purpose "handfeet" could be used as a second pair of legs if greater speed was desired. Or if the ceiling were lower. Heavy-grav life forms tended to be either very small or very large, and the Gorm inclined toward the latter. Noraku stood just under three meters in height when fully erect, and he was not a particularly tall member of his race.

That size was one reason the Gorm, unlike the Ophiuchi, made extremely poor fighter pilots. Squeezing that much body mass into a strikefighter was hard enough, and their hexapedal body form only made it worse. Gorm "chairs" were more like saddle-like couches, supporting their length to just above their mid-body shoulders, which left them poorly adapted to the g forces a fighter's "shallow" inertial sump couldn't fully damp. There were some Gorm fighter jocks, but by and large, they preferred to leave such duties to their Orion fellow-citizens.

She was relieved to note that the Fleet Speaker seemed to be breathing normally. Native to a 2.68 g planet whose partial pressures of the standard atmospheric gasses would have killed an unprotected human, and wishing to avoid the nuisance of the full helmets his race normally used to equalize pressures, Noraku had volunteered to help field test an experimental implanted respirator during his extended stay on Nova Terra, where the Joint Chiefs were expected to establish themselves.

Avram was never quite sure how to characterize the Gorm's relationship to the Orions. The Gorm were a subject race... sort of. But though they were subjects of the Khan, the Empire of Gormus was an autonomous, self-governing entity within the Khanate, whose dominance by the Orion race and culture was undeniable and undenied. There were several reasons for that. One was the way their outnumbered navy had come within a hair of kicking the Tabbies' butts in the Gorm-Khanate War of 2227-2229, which had earned them tremendous respect from the Orions. Another was their heavy-grav origins, for the Gorm had spread throughout the Khanate's vast sphere to colonize planets whose atmospheres would have been lethal to the Tabbies, and people who could turn worlds like that into revenue-generating propositions were far too valuable not to be granted special status.

They were also as unlike the Tabbies philosophically as they were physically, yet they got along remarkably well with the prickly Whisker-Twisters. They might make poor fighter pilots, but they were just as pragmatic as the Ophiuchi and even more stubborn than Terrans. They were almost too logical to make good analysts (as far as Avram knew, no Gorm in recorded history had ever played a hunch), and their lack of any formal system of permanent naval or military ranks sometimes confused their imperial partners... or, for that matter, anyone else. Noraku's own title of "Fleet Speaker" was as close as any Gorm would ever come to "Chief of Staff," yet it was only a temporary, acting rank. For purposes of getting along with other navies they assigned their personnel equivalent seniorities, but the fact of the matter was that not even the Tabbies truly understood how the consensual Gorm picked their military officers. No doubt minisorchi, the mysterious Gormish telempathic ability, played a part, but whatever the process, a Gorm who commanded a superdreadnought this week might have moved over to head the tactical section of a battle-cruiser next week. Such instability would have made a shambles of any human chain of command, yet it worked for the Gorm. Precisely how it worked was something Avram had never understood, but no one could doubt its efficacy. The Gorm Space Navy's tacticians were among the best in the business, and the high tactical speed of their starships made them especially valuable to the KON by providing it with the fastest battle-line in the galaxy.

Nevertheless, Avram often wondered how they had managedor been allowedto retain their distinctive character, free from any foredoomed attempt to culturally assimilate them. And she was intellectually honest enough to doubt that humans could have managed matters so sensibly in either race's position.

She shook free of her bleak thoughts and addressed herself to Thaarzhaan's question. "Of course, Admiral, even as it is encouraging that associates of the Federation and the Khanate such as yourself and Fleet Speaker Noraku work together in such obvious harmony." All three aliens gave their races' equivalent of sonorous nods. Avram hated being put in the position of arbiterit was inevitable, inasmuch as the Federation was the galaxy's acknowledged first power, but she was still uncomfortable with it. At least she wouldn't have to deal with it much longer. "Of course, my own connection with the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff will be indirect."

"Ah, yes," came Noraku's basso profundissimo. Unlike Thaarzhaan, whose beak gave his consonants an odd, drawn out sibilance, the fleet speaker's vocal apparatus could manage Standard English almost as well as a human's. Which, Avram reflected, was a vast relief, since it would obviate the need for yet another echelon of interpreters at their working meetings.

"We're still awaiting the arrival of our Human member," Noraku continued, and glanced at Kthaara. Everyone knew Lord Talphon's appointment to represent him on the new allied military command had been widely seen as an earnest of the Khan's commitment to fulfilling his treaty obligations. And it was an appointment that all but mandated who the Terran representative must be... .

Assuming, Avram reflected, that he accepts the job.

Aloud, she was all smooth assurance. "Even as we speak, Fleet Speaker, a liaison officer has been sent to brief him and arrange his journey to Nova Terra."

* * * | The Stars at War | * * *