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A Decision of State

The Honorable Francis Mulrooney, Terran Ambassador to the Khanate of Orion, leaned against one side of the deep window and watched the light of a sun very like Sol stream across an oddly blue lawn of "grass" whose like Terra had never imagined. The "trees" beyond the courtyard wall were feathery spires, caparisoned in the orange and yellow and fire-red blossoms of spring, and wispy creatures flapped lacy wings above them.

To Mulrooney, Valkha'zeeranda had always seemed a fairy wonderland. On the surface, it was hardly the proper capital world for a warrior race, yet there was a subtle undercurrent of rightness to it. He'd often wondered what "New Valkha's" first colonists had thought and felt as they left the ships which had borne them here from the world their Wars of Unification had reduced to ruin. How must they have felt to leave their breath masks and chemical detectors and radiation counters behind forever?

He stroked the deeply incised shield and crossed swords of the Khanate, graven a centimeter deep in the windowsill, then swept his gaze over the magnificent white spires and minarets of the imperial compound and knew he saw the answer. Mulrooney was one of the very few Terrans who had visited Old Valkha and seen the cyclopean fortresses which dominated pre-stellar Orion architecture like expressions of a warrior ethos in stone and mortar. New Valkha did not boast their like. As a fortress, the imperial compound equaled any planetary defense center in the Federation, yet it hid its teeth like an Orion smile. An almost tangible sense of peace hovered over its elfin beauty, perfected by the background of the Khanate's mailed fist.

And that, he told himself, was how the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee saw their imperial capital. It was flowers and cold steel, the jewel in the Khan's iron crown, an eye of tranquillity in a hurricane's heart.

He sighed and turned from the window, pacing slowly back and forth. The summons had come from the kholokhanzir, the grand vizier, himself, and it was unusual to be kept waiting so long. Mulrooney had many contacts in the Orion bureaucracy, and he knew some major crisis had blown up with absolutely no warning. He could uncover no clue as to what it was, but the whispers of rumored disaster made an ominous counterpoint to this unprecedented delay.

The sharp rap of wood on stone interrupted his thoughts, and he turned, reminding himself just in time to avoid any quick movement which might suggest impatience. The kholokhanzir's personal herald met his eyes, gripping the elaborately carved haft of his gemmed pike of office. There was more than a little white in the Orion's tawny felinoid pelt, but his spine was straight and he bowed with limber dignity. Then he straightened and beckoned politely for Mulrooney to follow.

The herald led him down a sunny hall fringed by balconies with balustrades entwined in nodding tendrils of ornamental vines. It wasn't a long walk, but Mulrooney's heart was beating fast when the herald knocked at the door at its end. Two statue-still guards flanked it, armed not with ornamental, palace-duty weapons but with businesslike needle rifles and side arms. Then the herald opened the door and bowed him through.

Mulrooney entered with a crisp stride, then stopped dead. He'd expected the kholokhanzir, but it seemed he'd been summoned to meet another.

He recovered and moved forward once more towards the ancient Orion seated on the cushion-strewn dais in the center of the room. He was bent with age, but his silvered pelt still showed the midnight black of the noblest Orion bloodlines.

Mulrooney stopped a precise three meters from the dais and pressed his clenched right hand to his chest as he performed his most graceful bow. Then he straightened and stood silently, giving no sign of his racing thoughts, as he met the old, knowing eyes of Liharnow'hirtalkin, Khan'a'khanaaeee of all the Orions.

"Greetings, Ambassador," the Khan said, and Mulrooney swallowed. Orions guarded their khan's person fanatically, yet he and Liharnow were alone. It was unheard of for any person not sworn to hirikolus or hirikrinzimuch less an aliento be allowed into the Khan's presence unguarded, and there was no protocol to guide him in modes of address, for the Khan never spoke directly to a foreign envoy.

"Greetings, Hia'khan." He hoped it was an appropriate response.

"I have asked you here to discuss a most urgent matter," Liharnow came to the point with typical Orion brevity. "It is vital that there be no misunderstanding, so I ask you to forego the courtesies of diplomacy. I shall speak my mind fully and frankly, and I wish you to do the same."

"Of course, Hia'khan," Mulrooney replied. He had no choice but to accept whatever ground rules the Khan chose to set.

"Thank you." Liharnow settled more comfortably into his cushions, combing his shoulder-wide whiskers, and his ears inclined forward as if to underscore his serious mood.

"Two weeks ago, the Tenth Destroyer Squadron, commanded by Lord Talphon and stationed in the Lorelei System, was treacherously attacked." Mulrooney stiffened. There could be only one Orion response to an attack they labeled "treacherous."

"The attackers apparently entered the system through its sixth warp point, the one which your astrographers call 'Chaaraahn's Ferry,' and enticed Lord Talphon into attack range with a false parley offer. The frequencies of their drive fields matched none in our Navy's data base, but they identified themselves"the Khan's eyes locked with the ambassador's"as Terrans."

Despite himself, Mulrooney gasped, and the Khan shifted his ears slowly, as if obscurely satisfied.

"Lord Talphon's courier drones bore our equivalent of your Code Omega. They were dispatched very early in the engagement, as it was obvious his ships could not survive. Their messages were transmitted to Valkha'zeeranda by the warp point relay net and reached here five days ago. During those five days, our intelligence service has analyzed Lord Talphon's report and reached certain conclusions.

"First, the attackers did employ Terran Federation Navy communication protocols, although they were of an obsolete nature. Second, the single ship name provided by the enemy was Kepahlar"Liharnow did much better with the Terran name than Khardanish had managed"and our xenologists have identified this as the name of an ancient Terran scientist. Third, all communications from the enemy were in Terran Standard English. From these findings, a board of inquiry has judged that the attackers were in fact a Terran survey force."

Mulrooney's face was white.

"There are, however, several points which puzzle me," the Khan went on levelly. "The odd drive frequencies are one such point, as also are the peculiar communications protocols employed. In addition, our intelligence arm has observed no re-deployment of additional Federation units, nor is the Lorelei System of great military value. Finally, I have reviewed Lord Talphon's last report, and I am at least partially inclined to accept his hypothesis as to his attackers' identity. I do not believe the Federation attacked the Tenth Squadron," Mulrooney's shoulders relaxed, only to tighten afresh as Liharnow finished, "but I suspect its attackers were Terrans."

"Hia'khan," the ambassador began, "I"

"A moment, if you please," the Khan said softly, and Mulrooney closed his mouth. "Lord Talphon concluded that these unknown 'Terrans' might be descended from survivors of the Terran colonization fleet attacked in Lorelei by the Eighty-First Flotilla in 2206, who fled down 'Chaaraahn's Ferry.' If this is indeed the case, the Federation Navy and Assembly cannot, of course, have ordered the attack, yet it was still the work of Terrans.

"I make this point," Liharnow said very carefully and distinctly, "because a majority of the Strategy Board have officially advised the Khan'a'khanaaeee that they reject Lord Talphon's hypothesis and that, even if he were correct, that fact could not in their judgment absolve Terra of responsibility. They recommend"he met Mulrooney's eyes once more"that the Treaty of Valkha be immediately repudiated as the first step in a renewed war with the Federation."

"Hia'khan," Mulrooney chose his words as carefully as the Khan, "this is the first I have heard of any of these events. My government will be as shocked by them as your own, but I implore you to proceed with restraint. If the Khanate attacks the Federation, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves, and the consequences for both our peoples will be terrible."

"That," Liharnow said quietly, "is why I have summoned you in this irregular fashion. I have over-ruled the Strategy Board"Mulrooney breathed in thankfully"so far, and First Fang Lokarnah has supported my decision, but our courses of action are limited."

"First, we may accede to the demands of the Strategy Board. Second, we may punish these Terrans ourselves, as honor demands. Third, we may require the Federation to punish them. Should we accept the Strategy Board's recommendations, the result will certainly be general war. Should we punish them ourselves, we embark upon an almost equally dangerous road, for I cannot believe the Assembly would permit the Federation Navy to stand idle while we kill Terrans, regardless of their origin, for attacking the ships of a navy with whom they may believe themselves to be still at war. But, Ambassador, should we adopt the third option, the Federation may still find itself in a most unenviable position.

"You know our honor code. My warriors' blood has been shed by shirnowmakaie, oath-breakers who have violated their own sworn offer to parley in peace. There must be khiinarma, scale-balancing. I could not deny that even if I wished to, and Ambassador"the Khan's eyes were cold"I do not wish to. There is one and only one way in which the Federation may intercede between the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee and those who have attacked us."

"And that way is, Hia'khan?" It was a question, but Mulrooney's tone said he already knew the answer.

"The Federation must become khimhok ia' Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee," the Khan said softly, and Mulrooney swallowed. The term had no precise Terran equivalent, but it translated roughly as "scale-bearer to the Orions." In effect, the Terran Federation must step into the Khanate's place, assuming the duty to punish those who had offended. Yet it was far more complex than that, and his brain raced as he tried to envision all the implications.

The Federation would have a free hand but no Orion assistance. From the moment Terra accepted the "scale-bearer" role, the Khanate would stand totally aloof, and the Alliance's mutual assistance clauses could not be invoked. Worse, in a way, the final resolution must be acceptable to the Khanate. The Federation might choose to be merciful or harsh, but if the Orions did not perceive the ultimate solution as one which satisfied their own honor, the Federation would assume the guilt which the Khan had now assigned solely to those beings who had attacked his ships, and the consequences of that did not bear thinking upon.

"Hia'khan," the ambassador said finally, "I will transmit your words to my government, yet I must tell you that I foresee grave difficulties. If, indeed, those who attacked you are Terrans, then the people of the Federation will find it most difficult to demand blood balance of them."

"I understand," Liharnow said gravely, "for we would find it difficult to demand vilknarma of Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee who had been lost for two of our centuries and attacked Terran warships in ignorance of the truth. Indeed, I understand too well, and that is one reason I would prefer to place the matter in Human hands. Honor demands punishment for treachery, yet if these Terrans truly believe we are still at war, then they did well to defend their own people, however dishonorable the manner in which they did so.

"Moreover," he continued even more seriously, "I have spent my life teaching my people the Galaxy can belong neither to he who is too cowardly to fight nor to he who is too stupid to know when not to fight. It has not been easy, and suspicion of other races remains strong, but I do not wish to see the Treaty of Valkha torn up and lost while our peoples destroy one another. And so I make this offer not just as Liharnow but as Khan'a'khanaaeee.

"We have no colonies between Lorelei and our own fortifications. Should the Federation become khimhok ia' Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee, the Khanate will cede the Lorelei System to the Federation and withdraw all units from its borders. We will regard the affair as an internal problem of the Federation, to be settled by the Federation, and we will renounce vilknarma and accept reparations and shirnowkashaik, acknowledgment of guilt by the offenders. My people will find this difficult to bear, for we do not equate reparations with restitution as yours do, but if I accept in their name I sacrifice only my own honor, and they will abide by my pledged oath. This I will give in the cause of peace."

Mulrooney drew a very deep breath. The Khan's offer was an enormous concession, and the ambassador allowed himself to feel cautiously hopeful for the first time since the interview had begun.

"I thank you, Hia'khan," he said with utmost sincerity, "and I will immediately transmit your generous offer to Old Terra."

"My heart is not generous," Liharnow said flatly. "It cries out for vilknarma from the chofaki who have done this thing. Were they not Terrans, I would crush them into dust, but I cannot heed my heart in this. It is a decision of state, and so I must decide it, so hear my oath, Ambassador. I do not hold your government responsible, and I swear upon the honor of my clan fathers and of Valkha, shield-bearer to Hiranow'khanark, that I will sheathe my claws. Whoever these chofaki and wherever they spring from, I declare that I will accept the Federation as khimhok, to act in my stead and the stead of all my people. I have spoken."

The aged Khan lowered his ears and raised one hand in dismissal, and Ambassador Francis Mulrooney turned silently to leave.

* * * | The Stars at War | CHAPTER THREE