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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: "I feel them still."

KONS Eemaaka loped across the last few light-seconds to her destination, and Admiral Raymond Prescott stood silently on her flag bridge with Zhaarnak'telmasa and watched his vilkshatha brother with carefully hidden concern. The Kweenamak-class battlecruiser was a lowly vessel to fly the lights of not one, but two, fleet commanders, but she was also one of the minority of Seventh Fleet's units to escape Operation Ivan completely undamaged. With so much of the rest of the fleet down for repairs, Eemaaka at least offered the advantage of availability. She was also fast enough for Prescott and Zhaarnak to make this trip within the time constraints the repair and refitting of Seventh Fleet imposed. And it was entirely appropriate for them to use an Orion vessel.

Neither of them was particularly happy about leaving the responsibility for the necessary repairs in other hands, even when those hands belonged to their own highly trained and reliable staffs. But neither of them had even considered not making this trip, either. The request for their presence had come directly from Third Great Fang Koraaza'khiniak, and although it wasn't an order, it had carried an honor obligation which would have made any possibility of refusal unthinkable.

Yet now that they were here, Prescott felt the waves of remembered pain radiating from his vilkshatha brother, and he reached out to lay his flesh and blood hand on the Orion's furred shoulder.

The CIC master display was configured in astrographic mode, showing the layout of an entire star system. The portion of that star towards which Eemaaka was headed was dotted with the frosted light icons of a massive military fleet, but it wasn't those light codes which held Zhaarnak's attention, and Prescott heard him draw a deep breath as his eyes rested upon two other icons. They were the symbols for two oxygen-nitrogen planets, well within the liquid water zone of the brilliant white system primary, but they weren't the welcoming green of the habitable worlds they ought to have been. Instead, each planet was represented by a small, blazing red sphere of light surrounding the four interlocked triangles which served the Orions as the ancient trefoil symbol served humanity.

The symbol which would mark those planets on Tabby astrogation charts for the next several thousand years.

"I feel them still," Zhaarnak said, very quietly, and Prescott's grip on his shoulder tightened. "Four billion. Four billion civilians."

"I know," Prescott said in the Tongue of Tongues, his voice equally quiet. "I hear them, as well. But you had no choice, Zhaarnak. You know that as well as I do . . . just as you know how many other lives you saved by falling back."

"Perhaps." Zhaarnak gazed down at the Orion-style flat-screen display for several more seconds, then shook himself. "You speak truth, brother," he said then, "although you would be more accurate if you added the modest part you played in stopping the Bahgs in Alowan and in retaking Telmassa. Yet there are times when truth is cold comfort, and I wonder what the ghosts of Kliean would say of my decision to leave them to the Bahgs."

"They are the ghosts of Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee," Prescott replied, "and they know what choice you had to make and how much it cost you. Just as they know there was no way you or anyone could have predicted what the Bugs would do when they retreated from this system."

"I think you may be too kind to me," Zhaarnak told him with a small ear flick of grim amusement. "The Bahgs had not bombarded planets into nuclear cinders in the past, true, but that was only because they had never been given the opportunity to destroy what were obviously major industrial and population centers which they could not retain in their possession. No, Raaymmonnd." He shook his head in a human gesture of negation he'd picked up from his vilkshatha brother. "Whatever the rest of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee may think, I knew when I ordered Daarsaahl to fall back from Kliean what would happen to the planets here. I think that I tried to fool even myself into believing we could retake the system before the Bahgs could . . . devour more than a small percentage of the total population. But that was a lie I told myself because I had to."

The Orion inhaled again, then turned his back resolutely upon the display and met the human admiral's eyes levelly.

"You are correct, of course, Raaymmonnd. I had no choice, not with so many more billions of civilians behind me, but I knew I had signed the death warrants of Zhardok and Masiahn when I withdrew from the system. I could not have prevented their destruction if I had not withdrawn. I know that, too. But there are times even now when they come to me in the night and I wish with all my heart that I had died with them."

"It may be selfish of me," Prescott said after a moment, "but I, for one, am delighted you did not. It would be a colder and a lonelier war without your claws to ward my back, Clan Brother."

"Or without yours to ward mine," Zhaarnak agreed, reaching up to rest one clawed hand briefly and lightly upon the human hand on his shoulder. "And do not mistake me, Raaymmonnd. I know full well that the dead who reproach me live only in my own heart and mind. They are the scars of my soul, and I must bear them, as a warrior bears the scars of his flesh-without ever forgetting, but without permitting sorrow and grief to paralyze me or prevent me from making other decisions out of fear." His ears flicked again, this time in an expression of wry irony. "I think, perhaps, only Vahnessssssa could truly understand."

"You may be right," Prescott replied after a brief, thoughtful pause, still speaking Orion. "I never really considered her stand at Sarasota and Justin from that perspective." He waved one hand. "Oh, I knew there had to be at least some 'survivor's guilt,' but I was like everyone else. I saw only the lives she saved and how hard-how brilliantly-she fought to retake Justin. But she sees it from the other side . . . just as you see it here. She sees the lives she could not save, and it is that which puts the ghosts in her eyes."

"We have each of us paid our own tolls to loss and grief and regret, brother," Zhaarnak said. "This is not a warrior's war. Not one in which one may take honor from matching strength to strength against a foe worthy of respect. It is a war against a plague, a pestilence. Against creatures who massacre entire worlds . . . and who give us no choice but to do the same to them. I cannot forgive the Bahgs for that, and most of all, I cannot forgive them for filling me with the hatred which makes the 'Shiiivaaa Option' something to be embraced."

* * * | Shiva Option | * * *