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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: "I suppose we must approve. . . ."

"Well, Warmaster," Aileen Sommers said as they emerged from the conference room, "now you know what it's like to be an ambassador."

"Yes-an officially accredited one," Warmaster Robalii Rikka, now ambassador from the Star Union of Crucis to the Terran Federation, the Khanate of Orion and the Ophiuchi Association, shot back rather pointedly.

Sommers silently acknowledged the accuracy of the barb. But she couldn't help being struck by the irony of Rikka's appointment to a diplomatic position. "Diplomatic" was one of the last words she would have thought of applying to the warmaster, a fighting admiral with a reputation for being aggressive to a fault. He'd justified that reputation not long since, at the Second Battle of Skriischnagar, when he'd smashed open the road to Pajzomo-and, beyond it, the warp chain along which SF 19 had once fled, leading back to Anderson One and thence to Alpha Centauri. But his desire-no, his need-to slaughter as many Demons as possible had pushed his innate boldness almost over the edge into rashness. It was a need his family line came by honestly, and it was what gave him so keen an edge as the Star Union's sword. But it was also a two-edged weapon, and his losses had been so heavy that he'd only narrowly avoided the unthinkable calamity of the destruction of his entire force of two Grand Wings. Afterwards, he'd taken stock of himself and brought his lust for vengeance more firmly under the command of his training and discipline.

Still, there was something irresistibly amusing about the thought of Rikka as a diplomat.

He'd done rather well, though, with the help of the multispecies Star Union political staff that had accompanied First Grand Wing on its long offensive. That offensive had brought it, not without bitter fighting along the way, at last to Anderson One, whence SF 19 had departed so long ago . . . only to find it in Bug hands. Sommers and Hafezi had passed some of the worst moments of their lives as they'd contemplated the implications of that-and the size of the tidal wave of gunboats and kamikaze shuttles roaring down on them. But then exultation had banished their despair as Alliance forces had entered the system from the Alpha Centauri warp point and joined with First Grand Wing to grind the Bugs out of existence.

The victory hadn't come cheaply. First Grand Wing had lost four monitors, fourteen superdreadnoughts, five assault carriers, seven fleet carriers, eighteen battlecruisers and twelve heavy cruisers. Neither had Eighth Fleet escaped unscathed: six of its monitors, eight superdreadnoughts, three assault carriers, five fleet carriers and eleven battlecruisers were now cosmic detritus, while numerous other ships were damaged to varying degrees. But no living Bug remained in the Anderson One system. Which had been just as well on several levels. Sommers' lengthy explanations of just who her new friends were had left First Fang Ynaathar and his staff so thunderstruck that Sommers rather suspected their combat efficiency was well below maximum.

Once those explanations were completed, however, Ynaathar hadn't hesitated for a moment over what to do next. He'd sent them back to Alpha Centauri and this space station, where Ambassador Rikka and his political types had just finished a hectic round of preliminary talks with Alliance officials, by the fastest means possible.

"Are you coming down to the planet with us?" Rikka asked her, gesturing through a nearby transparency at the companion-planet Eden, rising over the cloud-swirling blue curve of Nova Terra.

All at once, Sommers' good spirits vanished like a pricked bubble.

"No, Warmaster. I've been ordered to report in person to Sky Marshal MacGregor, here on the station. My military superiors want an accounting of my actions over the last five and a half years."

"I can well imagine that they do," Rikka said judiciously. "Still, I understand the news media and the political leadership are anxious to have you on the planet without delay, for the purpose of public appearances."

Feridoun Hafezi joined them just in time to hear Rikka's remark. He grinned whitely in a beard that still held considerably more pepper than salt.

"That, Warmaster, is precisely the point. The word's gotten out, and the story's become a sensation down there. The Sky Marshal wants to debrief her before she goes groundside and the circus begins."

"I doubt if your governmental leaders are particularly happy with the delay," Rikka opined mildly.

"That's one way to put it. The politicos all want to get their pictures taken with her. Next election, they'll claim credit for the fact that we've suddenly got a new ally against the Bugs."

Sommers shot Hafezi a glare. Keep it in the family, Feridoun!

Rikka looked twenty centimeters up and met her eyes.

"I can't advise you on how to deal with the situation in which you find yourself, as it is completely foreign to my experience. I am not, however, unacquainted with the bureaucratic mind-set. If you should find yourself in difficulties over any arguably irregular actions you've taken over the last few years . . ."

He hesitated awkwardly, then shrugged his wings in a gesture which mingled the combination of apology and the decision.

"I realize that you're uncomfortable when my own people or our fellow citizens remind you that without the gifts of technology and the training in its use which you gave us, we would never have survived the coming of the Demons. We have no wish to embarrass you, but I am prepared to remind the responsible authorities-through channels, naturally!-of your unique and crucial role in forging the alliance with the Star Union. And to let it be known that my government would . . . take a negative view of any action against you."

A moment passed before Sommers could speak.

"Thank you, Warmaster," she said then. "But the Alliance is more important than my career. I must ask you not to do anything that would jeopardize it. And now . . ." She took a deep breath and drew herself up. "I have an appointment with Sky Marshal MacGregor."

Sky Marshal MacGregor. Sommers was still getting used to that, although early in the course of her hurried catching-up she'd learned what had happened to Ivan Antonov and Hannah Avram and so many others.

"Let me come with you," Hafezi said, and his voice held a number of things. Military propriety wasn't one of them.

"No, Feridoun. The order only mentioned me-it didn't say anything about bringing my chief of staff. Anyway, I was in command. The responsibility was mine." She glanced around. For the moment, no one else was around except Rikka. She took Hafezi's left hand in her right and gave it a quick, hard squeeze. Then she turned on her heel and strode off down the passageway.

The lump in her stomach seemed to grow heavier as she passed through the outer offices. It assumed the proportions of an ancient iron cannon ball as the door to the sky marshal's private office loomed ahead.

"Er, excuse me, Admiral," said the yeoman accompanying her. "This way, please."

"But isn't this . . . ?" Sommers gestured toward the door with MacGregor's name on it.

"Actually, Sir, they want to see you over here in the briefing room."

They? Sommers thought as she walked through the indicated door . . . and then stopped cold.

Sky Marshal MacGregor was there, all right, seated at a table along with four others of various species. Sommers' body, acting without orders from her forebrain, came to the most rigid position of attention she'd achieved since the Academy. Who the hell do I report to? she wondered frantically. She settled for focusing her eyes on a spot between MacGregor and the silvered-sable Orion at the head of the table and rapping out, "Rear Admiral Sommers reporting as ordered, Sir!"

"Please be seated, Ahhdmiraaaal Saahmerzz," purred Kthaara'zarthan. "You have, I believe, already met Sky Maaarshaaal MaaacGregggorr and First Fang Ynaathar'solmaak. Permit me to introduce Ahhdmiraaaal Thaarzhaan and Fleet Speaker Noraku, who represent, respectively, the Ophiuchi Association and the Empire of Gormus on the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff-which I have the honor to chair."

Sommers managed to mumble something as she lowered herself into a chair across the table from the awesome array of rank.

Kthaara seemed to read her mind.

"You probably were not aware that the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff were present here on this station. The fact has not been publicized. You see, you have become something of a celebrity, what with your miraculous return from the dead years after your flotilla was given up for lost." He gave a soft, rippling growl that Sommers-who hadn't seen an Orion in five and a half years and was still readjusting to the race-belatedly recognized as the equivalent of a human's nasty chuckle. "So if we had waited for you on the planet, it might have been too late. We wanted a chance to talk to you informally, before turning you over to the tender mercies of your politicians and news media."

MacGregor muttered something, which Kthaara ignored. He resumed with renewed seriousness.

"Let me emphasize the word 'informally.' This is not an official board of inquiry. Whether any such proceedings are indicated is a matter for your own Human service, not the Alliance. We merely wish to let you orally supplement the report you tendered to First Fang Ynaathar in Aahnnderrssson One."

Ellen MacGregor leaned forward, a movement unsettlingly reminiscent of the way a force beam projector's business end extruded itself from the hull for action.

"To put it another way, we kidnaped you so we could hear in your own words just what the hell you've been doing out there in the name of the Terran Federation and its allies."

"Before we proceed," came Noraku's soothing basso, "I for one would appreciate an update from Admiral Sommers on the more recent stages of the Crucians' war with the Bugs, as I fear that my briefing on the subject was cut short by my hurried departure for this station. I am familiar with Survey Flotilla 19's escape from the Bugs, its first contact with the Star Union, and the early stages of the war, including the Bugs' conquest and colonization of the Rabahl system and the check the Crucians-with your help-administered to them at the battle of Rey . . . Rey. . . ."

"Reymiirnagar, Fleet Speaker," supplied Sommers, grateful for the reprieve. "That was the First Battle of Reymiirnagar, where the Crucian fighters got their baptism of fire. The Bugs came back, of course, a few months later. But we held. By that time the Star Union had deployed a lot more fighters. Their pilots were green, but even a green Crucian pilot is . . . well, you have no idea!"

"Actually, I do," Ynaathar put in, "having observed them in action in Aaahnnderrssson One. So in my case, at least, you are-how does your Human expression go? Expounding religious doctrine to the temple singers?"

"Close enough," MacGregor allowed impatiently. "Go on, Sommers."

"After Second Reymiirnagar, the Star Union was able to go on the offensive. Our initial objective was to reestablish communication with the Zarkolyan Empire, which the Bugs' advance had cut." Sommers was unconscious of her own shift to the first person, but she became conscious of the bewildered looks on some of the faces across the table, especially Noraku's.

"Allow me," Kthaara said. Sommers' report had already been downloaded into the secure data section of the space station's computer net. Now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs gave an oral command in ripply-snarly Orion, and a holographic display of the Star Union's warp network appeared on the room's screen. Sommers studied that pattern, now so familiar to her, and picked up a light-pencil.

"The Zarkolyans' primary point of contact with the Star Union was through a closed warp point here, in the Giizwahn system," she began. "A secondary one, at the end of a long supply line, was over here, at Jzotayar-"

"What's the story on these Zarkolyans, anyway?" interrupted MacGregor. "Are they Star Union members or not?"

"They were in the process of amalgamation when Survey Flotilla 19 arrived. The disruption of their lines of communication didn't exactly help. But at the same time, they . . . proved themselves. You see, in addition to their physical oddity-" Sommers didn't elaborate; if they hadn't already seen holos of the trilaterally symmetrical, multitentacled egg-layers they soon would, and nothing short of that could truly convey their weirdness "-they're very different from the Crucians psychologically and socially. To put it unkindly, they're a bunch of stereotypical money-grubbing capitalists, with no military tradition. However, they're an industrial powerhouse, and if they weren't warlike to start with, they've certainly gotten warlike enough lately to hold up their end."

"Close acquaintance with the Bugs tends to have that effect on people," MacGregor remarked drily.

"Too true, Sir. The Telikans are an even better example."

A brief, uncomfortable silence fell. By now they all knew of that race's tragedy. Sommers, however, had had far longer than they had to become accustomed to it, and she didn't allow the silence to linger.

"The Telikans' original homeworld was almost uniquely pacifistic and nonviolent," she said. "But now . . . well, let's put it this way: if I were the Bugs and had to be at the mercy of somebody, I'd rather have it be anyone in this room than a Telikan!"

"Quite a transformation," Noraku observed.

"Indeed, Fleet Speaker. The tiny Telikan minority of the Star Union's total population now accounts for over eighty percent of their fleet's ground-assault troops. The racial Crucians are unsuited to that kind of thing." Sommers smiled reminiscently. "The Telikan social pattern is matriarchal-the females are at least half again as large and strong as the males-and any Telikan field commander is addressed as the talnikah, or 'battle mother.' But our xenologist who first translated the term was Ophiuchi, and in Standard English his translation got garbled into something our Marines-having seen them in action-decided was actually better: 'combat mama.' "

The nonhumans-even Kthaara-looked blank. But MacGregor had to choke back a guffaw.

"I'll bet your grunts even use that in official paperwork by now," she chortled. Then she remembered herself and forcibly banished her huge grin. "Ah, continue, Sommers."

"Uh, yes, Sir. After retaking the Menkasahr warp nexus and rolling up the Giizwahn System, we reestablished contact with the Zarkolyans and learned they hadn't just been hiding behind their closed warp points. They'd been raiding through Jzotayar, disrupting the Bugs' supply lines to their forward base at Rabahl-which, by then, had become what you might call the Bugs' Zephrain. Our next objective, in conjunction with the Zarkolyans, was the warp chain from Reymiirnagar to Pajzomo."

"The system where you had initially encountered the Crucians," Noraku put in.

"Yes, Fleet Speaker. At Skriischnagar, Warmaster Rikka opened the way to Pajzomo . . . at considerable cost." Sommers' eyes momentarily clouded over with dark memories, for she'd been at Skriischnagar and knew what lay behind those dry words considerable cost. "In fact, we had to slow the operational tempo down a bit afterwards due to the Star Union's losses. But a coordinated offensive by us from Skriischnagar and the Zarkolyans through Jzotayar finally took Pajzomo. That accomplished the first objective of our offensive: to cut Rabahl off from Bug space completely. It's still there, tremendously strong but now isolated. We'll take it eventually."

"And the other objective of the offensive?" Kthaara asked mildly, and Sommers swallowed, knowing she could procrastinate no longer.

"After Pajzomo was secured, Warmaster Rikka and First Grand Wing-accompanied by me and Captain Hafezi, my chief of staff, with the remainder of my people remaining behind to serve as cadres-advanced from that system, following Survey Flotilla 19's old route in reverse. The objective, of course, was to break through to Alpha Centauri so that we could . . . uh, formalize the Star Union's membership in the Grand Alliance."

"Ah, yes." Kthaara exuded an air of finally coming to the point. "The membership that you had already taken it upon yourself to offer them."

Sommers had always heard that the actual arrival of a moment one has dreaded for years is never truly as bad as one has feared. The hell it isn't, she thought as the leaden lump reappeared in the pit of her stomach.

"That's correct, Sir. In my capacity as commander of a Survey Flotilla temporarily out of communication with higher authority, I exercised the broad discretionary powers granted by Article Twenty-Seven, Section-"

"I'm aware of that regulation" MacGregor leaned forward again in the same alarming way. "I'm not aware of any regulation that empowers Survey commanders to call themselves 'ambassadors'-or to treat a newly contacted polity as an ally, with all that implies regarding security of classified information. Are you aware of one, Admiral?"

Sommers knew how unflattering the sheen of sweat on her face must be in the room's lighting. It really ought, she reflected, to be the least of her worries.

"Ah, no I'm not, Sir. But-well, the Star Union is a sovereign power, and they treated me as the Grand Alliance's representative for purposes of diplomatic protocol. It was a practical necessity if the alliance was to go forward."

"And," Kthaara said mildly, "you made the decision-on behalf of the Khan'a'khanaaeee, among others-that this alliance was worth whatever irregularities were necessary to bring it about?"

The force of absolute conviction stiffened Sommers' resolve and steadied her voice.

"Yes, Sir, I did. I was among beings who'd saved my life and the lives of my entire command-absolute strangers to them at the time. Beings who were fighting for their existence against the Bugs . . . and even then I had some inkling of what that meant, having heard rumors about what Admiral Antonov had found on Harnah."

Since returning, she'd learned those rumors had been true. It was a bit of knowledge she had not shared with Rikka. Still less had she shared it with Warmaster Garadden, Rikka's second in command. . . and a racial Telikan. They continued to believe that the Telikan homeworld's agony had at least been quick. She knew better now, and her voice wavered momentarily as she looked inward on the vistas of nightmare. Terrible as they were for her, she knew they would be infinitely worse for the beings she'd come to know as friends, not just allies in a war, and it was an agony she simply could not inflict upon them. But then she blinked those nightmares away and met the row of eyes across the table.

"Now we all know what the Bugs are. That's why we have a Grand Alliance. Not just to defend our own particular races from the Bugs but to destroy them before they eat the universe hollow of everything individual consciousness has brought into it. The capacity to love-and, yes, to hate, because some things ought to be hated. The capacity to recognize beauty and sometimes even create it. Most of all, the capacity to make moral choices-including the ultimate choice of sacrificing that very individual consciousness in the name of what all of us recognize, in one form or another, for what it is: honor. All of our races, however different, have those things in common. And so do the Crucians! They're part of what the Grand Alliance exists to keep alive in the universe. I did what I did because I couldn't do otherwise. What else would any of you have done?"

Abruptly, Sommers stopped. In the ringing silence, the realization of what she'd said caught up to her.

Well, she thought in the midst of a strangely relieved calm, I can always do something else for a living.

The rustling purr of an Orion sigh finally dispelled the silence, and Kthaara'zarthan flattened his ears in his race's gesture of resigned melancholy.

"Well, let me make certain I am clear on the facts as they seem to stand. On your own initiative, without any authority whatever, you released the Alliance's latest classified military technology to a hitherto unknown interstellar polity and committed the Alliance to support that polity against the Bahgs-"

"Yes, Sir," Sommers murmured.

"-all for no better reason than to save the lives of the personnel under your command, force the Bahgs to fight on a second front, split the enemy's attention and spread his resources thinner, and add another industrial base almost as large as the Khanate to the Alliance's support structure?"

"Yes, Sir. . . ." Huh?

Kthaara leaned back and sighed more deeply.

"Well, under the circumstances, I suppose we must approve your actions." His slit-pupiled eyes held a twinkle that transcended species. "Sky Maaarshaaal, do you concur?"

"Oh, I suppose so. Only . . ." MacGregor looked at Sommers, and sternness dissolved into a huge grin that made her face almost unrecognizable. "Don't let it happen again!"

"I'll try not to, Sky Marshal," Sommers said in a small voice.

* * * | Shiva Option | CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: The Last Roadblock