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CHAPTER THIRTY: Unfinished Business

"Actually, First Fang," Kthaara'zarthan said, "this is unexpected. When I requested that Waarrrmaaaasterrr Rikka return to Alpha Centauri for consultation, I never meant to imply that you needed to accompany him. Evidently I failed to express myself with sufficient clarity."

Ynaathar'solmaak gazed at the uncharacteristically flustered Chairman of the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff from across the latter's desk.

"You made yourself pellucidly clear as always, Lord Talphon. But Waarrrmaaaasterrr Rikka is one of my task force commanders-one in whom I have absolute confidence. As a matter of honor, I feel obligated to stand beside him if he is to be summoned onto the rug, as the Humans say."

"That's 'called on the carpet,' " Sky Marshal Ellen MacGregor supplied from her chair to Kthaara's left. "And he hasn't been!"

"Absolutely not," Kthaara agreed emphatically. "I remind you, First Fang, that Waarrrmaaaasterrr Rikka is more than merely the commanding officer of one of Eighth Fleet's task forces. He is also the de facto representative of an allied power to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is in this latter capacity that I have requested his presence here to discuss questions of strategic coordination, so that he can convey our concerns to the Star Union's Khan."

"The Rhustus Idk," the subject of the discussion corrected, shifting his folded wings back and forth a couple of times with a soft rustling sound. "And he is in no sense a monarch, but rather a chief executive chosen by the Niistka Glorkhus-the legislature."

"Sort of like the Federation prime minister," Aileen Sommers chimed in helpfully, earning a glare from the MacGregor for her pains.

"Thank you, Waarrrmaaaasterrr, Ahhdmiraaaal," Kthaara said with an urbane inclination of his head. "At any event, I hope you will be able to make him understand our position on the projected Telik operation."

"I surmised that Telik was to be the subject of this conference, Lord Talphon," Robalii Rikka sat up straighter on the species-compatible chair that had been provided. "That was the reason I asked Rear Admiral Sommers to accompany me in the hope that she can help me make you understand the . . . unique significance this objective holds for us. Unfortunately, it was out of the question for me and my second-in-command, Wingmaster Garadden, to simultaneously absent ourselves from First Grand Wing-excuse me, from Task Force 86. As a racial Telikan, she could have offered a valuable perspective."

"No doubt. However, I am already conversant with the history involved. Be assured that I and the other Joint Chiefs fully appreciate what the liberation of Telik has meant to the Star Union for a standard century."

"Ah, but you may not be aware of our excitement when you shared your most recent astrogation data-the data you'd acquired since Admiral Sommers' departure-and we saw the Franos System. What we were looking at wasn't immediately apparent to us. Only when we correlated your data with our own did the identification leap out at us. For we know the systems around Telik, the battlegrounds of our first war with the Demons."

Kthaara nodded in a very Human gesture which had become second nature to him after his long association with the species. It was more than merely habit in this instance, however, for it was a gesture he was confident Rikka would recognize after his long association with Aileen Sommers, whereas the ear-flick his own species used might not yet have acquired that ease of recognition.

Now that the Alliance had finished comparing the Crucians' astrogation data bases with its own, as well, the same correlation had become clear to its astrographers. Given that Raymond Prescott and Zhaarnak'telmasa hadn't had any of that data at the time, their decision not to advance from Franos to Telik had been perfectly logical. Unaware that there was any . . . domesticated species in the system to rescue-had the Alliance at the time had any policy for dealing with such situations in the first place-they'd seen no reason to divert from their main axis of advance against a warp point whose defenses they knew to be quite formidable.

Of course, they hadn't known about the closed warp point connection to the Star Union, either.

"For generations," Rikka went on, leaning forward with an intensity which caused the highest officers of the Grand Alliance to recoil almost physically, "we've lived with the knowledge that we could put a fleet into Telik at any time, without having to fight our way through a defended warp point . . . and that the risk was so terrible that we didn't dare to. Now we do!"

Kthaara gave the low, fluttering purr that meant the same as a human's nervous throat-clearing.

"Yes, of course, Waarrrmaaaasterrr. We are aware of Telik's history, and share your excitement over the new strategic possibilities. After all, we knew we were going to have to deal with the unfinished business of Telik sooner or later. The more economically it can be done, the better."

"But," MacGregor put in, "Telik isn't going anywhere."

"That is the essence of our position," Kthaara agreed. "There is no need to launch the attack immediately. Not while the Star Union is still heavily committed to our joint campaign against the home hive systems-and to the reduction of Rabahl."

Rikka's wings folded momentarily a little tighter in his equivalent of a Human's wince. There seemed no end to the task of cutting out the cancerous ulcer in the Star Union's vitals that was Rabahl, nor to the flow of blood from that surgery.

"It is precisely that type of wastefully brutal warp-point warfare that we plan to avoid in Telik, Lord Talphon," he said.

"But why not wait? There is no urgency. Wait until elements of the Allied fleets are available to reinforce you."

For a space, Rikka seemed to be organizing his thoughts-though the others hadn't known his race long enough to be sure. When he spoke, only Sommers recognized the effort he was putting into keeping his tone level.

"There may seem no urgency to you. You cannot understand what Telik means to us. It's too foreign to your experience, for which you should count yourselves fortunate. And I appreciate your offer of support. More, I realize that your concern and desire to minimize our own casualties by asking us to wait until you can provide that support is entirely sincere. But, as you yourselves have in effect admitted, that would take time, given your priorities. Those priorities are entirely understandable-that's your war. And we are more than willing to join in it, as my command has done and will continue to do. But Telik is part of our war-a war that began long before yours."

"But do you have the strength to reduce Telik on your own?" MacGregor asked bluntly.

"Our heaviest forces are, as you've pointed out, engaged against Rabahl or assigned to my Grand Wing. But we've built up a reserve of carriers and lighter battle-line units. We'd planned to use them in the Rabahl campaign. But knowing what we now know, we've assigned them to Wingmaster Shinhaa Harkka's Fifth Grand Wing, to be used against Telik . . . immediately."

Aileen Sommers looked back and forth between Rikka-calm as stone and just as immovable-and the two across the desk, who were visibly searching for the combination of words that would move him. She swallowed a time or three, then cleared her throat diffidently.

"Sky Marshal, Lord Talphon, I believe we must respect the Star Union's position on this."

They stared at her-the totally unofficial "ambassador" who still personified the Terran Federation in Crucian eyes-and she hurried on before they could remember she was also a mere rear admiral.

"It goes beyond military calculations. I know we've all heard about their century-old pledge to the Telikans. But I wonder if any of us really grasp what it means. It's . . . it's . . ."

What do I think I'm doing? she wondered desperately. I'm a Survey officer, not a philosopher!

"Lord Talphon, I'm sorry to say that I'm not really sufficiently familiar with Orion philosophy to find an exact parallel, but it's like our Human idea of the 'social contract.' It's central to their vision of what they are-what they mean-as a society. Now that they believe they have a fighting chance to redeem that pledge, they have to try. To do otherwise would be to . . . betray themselves."

In the hush that followed, Sommers felt oddly calm. What the hell? Considering how far I've wandered from the orthodox career pathway over the last few years, they'll never promote me again anyway. She waited for Kthaara or MacGregor to speak. But to her surprise, it was Ynaathar's snarling, skirling Orion voice that broke the silence.

"I agree with Ahhdmiraaaal Saahmerzzz. She suffers from that curious Human reluctance to speak openly of honor which has sometimes misled the less perceptive members of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee, to their subsequent regret. But honor is precisely what we are dealing with here, and unlike the Ahhdmiraaaal, I am sufficiently familiar with the philosophy of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee to find the parallel she seeks."

The First Fang, the highest ranking serving officer of the Khan's unified military services, looked Kthaara'zarthan straight in the eyes.

"It is a matter of shirnask," he said. "Not of the Star Union as a government, but of its warriors-and of all of its citizens-as individuals."

Kthaara sat back suddenly, and MacGregor's expression changed abruptly. Sommers was much less familiar with the precepts of the Orion honor code than the Sky Marshal had become over the last half decade, but even she knew that shirnask-the absolute, unwaveringly fidelity to his sworn word-was the ultimate and fundamental bedrock of any Orion's personal honor. To be called shirnowmak, or oath-breaker was perhaps the second worst insult any Tabby could be offered.

"We do not ask them to violate their oaths, First Fang," Kthaara said very quietly, "and if by any word, deed, or expression it has seemed that such was my intention, then for that insult to our Allies' honor, I offer personal apology. Our concern is solely that it is not possible for us to provide them with the heavy battle-line support we deem necessary for the liberation of Telik at this time, and we fear that without such support, their losses will be heavy. It is as farshatok to farshatok we speak, urging only that they hold their claws until we may strike at their side."

"I understand that, Lord Talphon," Ynaathar replied gravely, while Rikka and Sommers sat silent. "And I believe Waarrrmaaaasterrr Rikka also understands it. Yet their oath does not bind them to act when they may do so safely. It binds them to act as soon as they can. To delay beyond that moment would open them not only to the charge of shirnowmak but also to the charge of embracing theermish."

If MacGregor's face had stiffened when Ynaathar mentioned shirnask, it went absolutely expressionless when he said the word "theermish." Theernowlus, which Standard English translated as "risk bearing" was the fundamental Orion honor concept which went so far to explain the near fanaticism with which the Tabbies embraced the strikefighter. Theernowlus required that any Orion expose himself to the risk involved in the execution of any plan or strategy he might have devised. To send others to bear that risk while he sat by in safety was the ultimate betrayal of the farshatok bond. There might be instances in which the orders of a superior or some other obligation or insurmountable physical obstacle prevented him from doing so, and in those instances he was not personally guilty of theermish-or "risk-shirking"-but even in those instances, his honor code denied him any credit for the success of that plan or strategy, however brilliant it might have been.

"And finally," Ynaathar went implacably onward, "the oath each officer of the Star Union swears when accepting his commission requires him to embrace any sacrifice to liberate Telik at the earliest possible moment. And so, Lord Talphon, any delay on their part if they believe-in their own considered judgment-that they have the capacity to reclaim that star system at last, would be to commit hiri'k'now."

The First Fang said the final word in an absolutely neutral tone, but MacGregor inhaled audibly, and Kthaara flinched. Hiri'k'now was the violation of hirikolus, the liege-vassal military oath which bound every serving Orion officer personally and directly to his Khan. There was no worse crime an Orion could commit. Anyone guilty of it became dirguasha, "the beast not yet dead"-a clanless outcast and an animal who might be slain by anyone in any way.

"I tell you this," Ynaathar went on, "not to charge you with urging the Waarrrmaaaasterrr to commit such offenses, but because I believe you were not aware of all of the implications inherent in any consideration of the liberation of Telik. I was not myself aware of them, of course, before the Waarrrmaaaasterrr became farshatok as a task force commander in Eighth Fleet. The Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee paid a heavy price-and, knowingly or unknowingly, gravely insulted the honor of the Humans-by failing to grasp the complexities of their honor code or its points of congruity with our own when first they were our enemies, and then our allies. I will not be guilty of the same blindness where the Star Union is concerned."

Kthaara and MacGregor looked at one another, and then, in unison-almost as if it had been rehearsed-the Human shrugged ever so slightly and the Orion's tufted ears flicked straight out to the sides. Then Kthaara looked back at Ynaathar and Rikka.

"Thank you for explaining the aspects of the situation which our ignorance had prevented us from fully considering, First Fang," he said gravely, and then gave his race's tooth-hidden carnivore smile, to which decades of association with Humans had lent a new and very individual quality. "And whatever our concern over the possible casualties of an ally might have been, we can scarcely prevent the Star Union from taking any action it pleases, can we? Telik, as Waarrrmaaaasterrr Rikka has reminded us, is part of their war. We can only attempt to urge caution, and if caution is secondary-or tertiary-to the requirements of the situation, let us turn to the practicalities of how we can contribute to maximizing the operation's chances of success."

"First of all," MacGregor, said "we need on-scene Alliance liaison with the Crucian attack force."

"No problem there, Sky Marshal," Sommers grinned. "As you know, the old Survey Flotilla 19 is scattered all around the Star Union to serve as training cadres and technical support. We've got people with Wingmaster Harkka at Reymiirnagar. They're headed by one of my best officers: a survey specialist who's developed some new sidelines. She's very junior for the job, as most of our people are. But her family name is one to conjure with in the TFN."

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