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The staffers and subordinate commanders crowding Hiarnow'kharnak's flag briefing room rose respectfully as Ynaathar'solmaak entered. The First Fang didn't notice. Instead he stared aghast at the screen, where the planet Harnah showed in all its blue loveliness.

What graaznaak-brained idiot left the outside view on? The sight of that planet is not what we need! And of course it would be out of the question for me to order it turned off now. All I can do is try to ignore it.

So he made the best of a bad situation and proceeded to his place at the table with a mumbled "Please be seated." They did so, led by the trio directly across from him: Warmaster Rikka, who'd asked for this conference; his Telikan second in command, Warmaster Kazwulla Garadden; and Aileen Sommers.

Even though Ynaathar considered himself-not without reason-a cosmopolite, it was never easy to read the body language of aliens, especially of aliens whose species one had only recently encountered. Despite that, he could tell that Rikka and Garadden were in the grip of some strong emotion, sternly controlled-an emotion rising, in Garadden's case, to the level of waking nightmare. Equally obvious was an element of strain between Rikka and Sommers that hadn't been there before, a certain stiff, self-conscious separateness in the way they sat side by side.

"This meeting," Ynaathar began, "has been convened at the request of the commanding officer of Task Force 86."

That was First Grand Wing's designation within the organizational context of Eighth Fleet. Rikka had accepted it with every appearance of good grace, and Ynaathar was certain it had nothing to do with whatever was bothering the Crucian. It was certainly an appropriate designation, given the sheer size of Eighth Fleet, and the warmaster had clearly recognized the need to fully integrate his own command into the far larger Allied force structure in a way which would minimize communications and command bottlenecks.

At the same time, Ynaathar was beginning to realize that the Crucian "task force" was a strategic asset whose value far exceeded its mere tonnage. The SBMHAWK bombardment of the Anderson One warp point fortresses had reduced them effectively to rubble, and no major Bug fleet units had been committed to the defense of the system. But that didn't mean they'd been unopposed, and the gunboats and kamikaze shuttles based on Harnah had swarmed to meet them. The Crucian fighter pilots were eager to upgrade to the specially modified F-4s the Federation was already putting into production to suit their own life support and body form requirements, but what they could do with the "obsolete" F-3s was an eye opener. They'd cut their way through the Bug gunboats and small craft like a laser scalpel, and Ynaathar knew their efforts had substantially reduced the casualties Eighth Fleet would otherwise have suffered.

Which made Rikka's obvious unhappiness even more distressing to the fang. He watched the warmaster's folded wings quivering, as if he was constantly forced to restrain their need to unfold in agitation, and hoped this meeting wasn't going to be as bad as he feared it might.

"As all of you know," he continued after a moment, "our recon fighter screen has reported that the only starships still in Aaahnnderrssson One are the thirty warp point defense cruisers in orbit around the planet." He neither named Harnah nor indicated the blue globe floating serenely in the screen behind him as he went on. "Our sensors have confirmed that the starships are tied into the planetary defense nets, which, of course, means they would be able to use the planetary point defense installations to support their own anti-missile defenses if we should decide to attack them in a . . . conventional manner."

He paused, considering his circumlocution, and decided it was time to stop worrying about awakening ghosts.

"Now, in the absence of a thorough reconnaissance of this system we have no way to be certain that there really are no additional Bahg starships in it. They could be lying in cloak, waiting to come in behind us. And ever since our experience in Operation Pessssthouse, we have known better than to discount the threat of Bahg traps."

An uncomfortable muttering ran through the room, but Ynaathar had expected it and continued calmly.

"As we all know, Second Fleet did not bombard Harnah when it passed through this system in the course of Operation Pessssthouse-and we all know the reason why. That reason has lost none of its force. But that was before we knew what the abrupt annihilation of a large Bahg population does to the remaining Bahgs in the local planetary system. In light of what we now know, we must seriously consider the possibility of exercising what has become known as the 'Shiiivaaa Option.' "

Ynaathar gestured toward the commander of Task Force 82.

"Fifth Fang Shiiaarnaow'maazaak has proposed that, after taking out Harnah's orbital fortresses and cruisers, we position SBMHAWK carrier pods in a dense orbital pattern around the planet, to be activated if we come under attack from additional, heavy Bahg mobile forces, searing the surface clean of life and thereby stunning and disorienting our attackers."

He ran his eyes over the room. It held a variety of expressions.

"Needless to say, the ethical implications cannot be ignored. I am sure Fifth Fang Shiiaarnaow is as sensible of them as any of us." Actually, Ynaathar wasn't sure of any such thing. Shiiaarnaow was a reactionary who fancied himself a warrior of the old school. "But before we turn to this issue, I invite Warmaster Rikka to address the meeting."

"Actually, First Fang, it was on this very issue that I wished to make my views known."

Rikka straightened up and, in the very limited space available to him, fluttered his folded wings back and forth a few times in what Ynaathar suspected was the equivalent of a Human or an Orion drawing a deep breath.

"I first learned of the 'Shiva Option' while at Alpha Centauri," the warmaster began. "When we entered this system and I learned there was a Demon planetary population of billions here, I asked one of my human liaison officers why we even hesitated to use it. That was how I learned . . ." All at once, Rikka's self-control gave way and he whirled on Sommers. "Why did you never tell us?"

Sommers stared back at him for several agonizing seconds, then spoke from the depths of obvious misery.

"I didn't know myself, until our return to Alpha Centauri. Oh, there'd been rumors about Harnah, just before my survey flotilla departed. But that was all: rumors!"

"You could have shared those rumors with us."

"I didn't really believe them . . . because I couldn't let myself believe them! Remember, there are human colonies that have been under Bug occupation since the early days of the war."

"But after we arrived at Alpha Centauri, you learned that the rumors had been true all along, and still you said nothing!"

"All right, damn it!" flared Sommers. "Yes, I could have told you. But would you really have wanted to me too? Are you sure you really would have wanted to know? You . . . and Garadden?" A low sound escaped the Telikan warmaster. Ynaathar's interpreter earpiece-aside from the personnel of the original SF 19, no one in the Alliance had had time to learn Crucian, so SF 19 had downloaded its own translation software to the flagship's computers-didn't translate it. But Sommers needed no translation, and something seemed to go out of her.

"Cancel all that bullshit," she muttered. "Yes, I should have told you. Call me a coward if you want to. I can't argue."

Rikka also subsided.

"I, too, have been uttering grazing-animal excrement. I understand why you didn't tell us, and it has nothing to do with cowardice-a thing no one in the Star Union would ever accuse you of. No, you knew only too well how we would react. You knew how you yourself had reacted, knowing that the Demons had held certain Human worlds for a few of your years. And you thought to yourself: 'But a hundred years. . . ?' "

Ynaathar had been getting ready to reprove Rikka and Sommers for the impropriety of their exchange. Now he felt no inclination whatsoever to do so. For he, too, understood.

He cursed himself for not understanding sooner.

He had no excuse. He'd reviewed Sommers' report, and talked to the Crucian representatives. So he'd known, as a matter of dry historical fact, the way the First Crucian-Arachnid War had ended, a century before. He'd even known-on the same bloodless level-that the closed warp point through which the Crucians had withdrawn had been located in the home system of the Star Union member-race known as the Telikans. He'd known all that. He'd just never felt it.

What is wrong with me? he wondered. Have the last nine years so surfeited us with horror that we have lost the capacity to notice it? That one who calls himself a warrior of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee could not even think about the implications . . . or realize how any being sworn to the defense of his-or her-people would react to such news?

If so, that is not the least of the things the Bugs have robbed us of.

Garadden's hands twisted together. They were surprisingly humanlike-the most humanlike thing about her. To Humans, she resembled an animal known as a koala bear-sheer coincidence, for the koala was a mammal, while the Telikans laid eggs-but with arms that hung almost to ground level when she stood up to her full 1.7-meter height. Humans, Ynaathar had heard, regarded koalas as irresistibly cute. There may have been some, although he hadn't met any, who thought that about Telikans. But nobody thought it of Garadden.

"One of the children the retreating Crucian fleet evacuated from Telik was my direct maternal ancestor," she said without looking up, in a voice of acid-etched lead. "When those children were thought old enough for the truth, they were told what everyone in the Star Union believed to be the truth. That is the myth that has sustained us ever since: our families purging the planet's databases of all reference to the closed warp point,leaving us and the rest of the Star Union safe to someday avenge them, and then sitting down to wait for the Demons to arrive, bringing a death which, however obscene, was at least quick."

Garadden rose to her feet, gray fur bristling, and her voice grew louder and harsher. No, not cute at all, thought Ynaathar.

"Now we know the real truth. We know the agony went on for generation after generation. We know that Telik today is not a world of honored ghosts, but of meat animals that know. And that those meat animals are our cousins!"

Garadden looked like she was going to be sick. In any other circumstances, it would have astonished anyone who knew her. But Ynaathar didn't find it incongruous at all. He belatedly recalled-as I have been belatedly recalling a great many things, he reproached himself-that the Telikans were herbivores. Garadden had been speaking of things even more horrifying and revolting for her than they would be for an omnivorous Human, and far more so than for a carnivorous Orion.

Rikka also stood, a diminutive form beside his massive second in command, but radiating no less horror . . . or fury. He glared around the room, letting his eyes linger on every other officer present before he finally brought them to rest on Ynaathar.

"All members of the Star Union-not just Telikans-are as one on this point. We cannot countenance the idea of killing the Demons' victims along with the Demons. Nor can we allow ourselves to be associated with such an act!"

Ynaathar met the Crucian's eyes. Rikka had retained enough diplomatic poise to not state the obvious corollary of his own words: that the alliance had no future if Ynaathar did this thing. And Ynaathar, of course, could hardly utter it aloud either.

"Thank you for your forthright expression of the Star Union's position, Warmaster Rikka," he said instead. "For my own part, I regret the breakdowns of communication and failures of sensitivity that led us to this unfortunate misunderstanding. Now that I understand your viewpoint, and appreciate the horror that lies behind it, I fully accept your argument."

Rikka and Garadden resumed their seats amid a general relief that was as palpable as it was unvoiced, and Ynaathar turned a subtly pointed look on the Task Force 82 commander.

"Fang Shiiaarnaow, I presume you will wish to withdraw your proposal."

Shiiaarnaow hesitated, and for a horrible instant Ynaathar was afraid the crusty warrior was going to ruin everything. Traditionally, the honor code of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee had held that, while it was the duty of the warrior caste to defend the Khanate's civilian populace, even some of those citizens were expendable if the harsh necessity of war required it to defend the Khanate as a whole. And Shiiaarnaow was just the being to indulge in some totally inappropriate huffiness along those lines at this of all moments. But when he finally spoke, it was with his very best attempt at diplomacy.

"Of course, First Fang. We all share our allies' fury and revulsion at what these chofaki have done. And, at any rate, the issue is hardly a vital one here in Harnah, where there is no major enemy fleet element to oppose us. But . . ."

Again, Shiiarnaow paused. Then he spoke unswervingly, and Ynaathar found himself reluctantly recalling the Human expression big brass ones.

"There will be other systems where populations like the Harnahese-and, yes, the Telikans-still exist in their millions among the Bahg billions. What if we encounter a massive concentration of defensive power in such a system? Are we to unconditionally deny ourselves the option of disorganizing and befuddling the Bahgs in such a situation? Will our Crucian allies insist that we abide by their principles at any cost, no matter how many avoidable casualties it entails?"

"I respect your viewpoint, Fang," Rikka replied heavily. "But you must respect the fact that for us this is more than a 'principle,' which is how my translator renders your term. It is a cultural and religious imperative!"

"But," TF 85's Vice Admiral Samantha Enwright protested in a deeply troubled voice, "we're talking about beings degraded almost below the level of sentience, Ambassador. They're the end products of generations of ruthless selection in favor of individuals willing to go on living and reproducing in the full knowledge of what awaited them and their children. Forgive me, Warmaster Garadden, but might death not be a mercy for them? A release?"

"I will not accept that death or continued animalism are their only alternatives," Garadden ground out. "They can be . . . rehabilitated. And no, I don't expect it to be easy. It will take a heartbreaking effort. But we must make that effort!"

The commander of Task Force 81 looked up, and his expression surprised Ynaathar. Admiral Francis Macomb was what one might call a human equivalent of Shiiarnaow, and Ynaathar would have expected him to give the Orion his full-throated support. But he looked uncharacteristically troubled.

"Warmasters, I understand what you're saying. From the bottom of my heart, I understand it! But how can we liberate a subjugated population on a world like this?" Macomb's usual persona returned with a bark of scornful laughter. "When Admiral Antonov first discovered Harnah, there was a lot of talk about some kind of gene-engineered bioweapon that would wipe out the Bugs without harming the native life forms. Typical! As far back as the twentieth century, we humans got into the habit of expecting a high-tech 'silver bullet' for every dilemma. But it came a cropper in the end."

There was much nodding of heads, and the various nonhuman equivalents thereof. In retrospect, the failure of the bioweapons research was no surprise. Galactic society was far less advanced in that area than a twentieth-century Terran would have expected. The reason was simple: fear. The kind of fear that had assumed the stature of a full-blown cultural taboo. Everyone knew that tailored microorganisms could mutate beyond their creators' control faster than you could say "Frankenstein." Humans knew it in their forebrains, from theoretical studies and computer models. Orions knew it in their guts . . . from what had actually happened to their original homeworld.

"So," Macomb continued, "if we want to selectively exterminate the Bugs on a planet like Harnah while sparing the natives, we're going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: put our Marines down into the mud. Now, the only time we've gone toe-to-toe against the Bugs on the ground was during Admiral Murakuma's counteroffensive in the Romulus Chain. I've talked to General Raphael Mondesi, who commanded the landing force-he's at Alpha Centauri now, in a staff billet. So I have some conception of what it's like."

Macomb hesitated, and sought for the words that would give these people a glimpse of the hell Mondesi had evoked for him. In the end, he knew, no one who hadn't seen it for himself could possibly grasp the full implications, but he went ahead and tried anyway.

"It's not like fighting a normal enemy, one whose spirit you can break by hurting him enough," he said. "It's more like fighting a force of nature-like a hurricane or a tidal wave, but one with a brain. One that can think and plan and adjust its responses in the face of resistance. One made up of millions of units that individually just don't care whether they live or die! And it's not just the warriors. They can use the workers to screen their warriors' assaults-to soak up our fire until they can get across any kill zone we could set up. And on a planet like Harnah, there are billions of them. Billions! Do you have any idea what that means? Any idea of the losses our Marines would take?"

There was a dead silence as everyone in the room tried to see through the eyes of those Marines-necessarily limited in numbers, for even the Grand Alliance's spacelift capacity was finite. It would be like staring up at a towering tsunami of malignant, insensate protoplasm.

"The position is, undeniably, a difficult one, First Fang," Rikka said into the silence at last. "We fully grasp the implications of what we're insisting on-the sacrifices we're asking of your personnel. And we are prepared to make you an offer as an earnest of our commitment."

"An . . . offer?"

"Yes First Fang. I make it in my capacity as ambassador. But Warmaster Garadden has asked to speak for me-as, I believe, is fitting."

Garadden stood up again.

"Our proposal is this," she said. "If the other members of the Grand Alliance will pledge to refrain from bombarding Demon-occupied planets with subjugated native populations on their surfaces, the Star Union will pledge in return to furnish a minimum of fifty percent of the ground-assault forces necessary to take any such planets."

At first, Ynaathar wondered if the translator software had rendered the Telikan's words correctly.

"Ah, Warmaster, did I understand you to say-?"

"You did, First Fang. I refer not to a ceiling, but a minimum of half the total landing force for the entire Alliance for every planet like Harnah."

Sommers stared up at Garadden. Clearly, this was news to her.

"But . . . but the Star Union Ground Wing is far smaller than either the Federation's Marine Corps or the Khanate's Atmospheric Combat Command-much less both of them!" she protested, her expression horrified. "And it consists overwhelmingly of racial Telikans, drawn from the small refugee population base. Garadden, were you listening to Admiral Macomb? Do you realize we're probably talking about millions of casualties?"

"Yes," Garadden replied simply. Her muzzle wrinkled in her race's smile. "You see, we take our convictions in this matter very seriously."

Silence fell yet again. A different sort of silence, this time.

"As far as the Grand Alliance as a whole is concerned," Ynaathar said at last, "this will of course have to be ratified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But pending their decision-as to which I have little doubt-I undertake on my own initiative to abide by the agreement you have proposed. In other words, there will be no bombardment of Harnah by Eighth Fleet." He looked around the very subdued conference room, letting his gaze linger pointedly on Shiiarnaow. "Is there any further discussion?"

There was none.

"Good," said Ynaathar with finality, "for we must turn to other matters. In particular, I fear the unanticipated lack of opposition in this system may have disturbing implications. Indeed, it may invalidate some of the basic assumptions behind our entire joint operation with Seventh Fleet."

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: "I suppose we must approve. . . ." | Shiva Option | * * *