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CHAPTER SIX: April Fool!

KONS Celmithyr'theaarnouw hovered motionless in space while the units of Sixth Fleet gathered about her in ponderous ranks of destruction. The superdreadnought was once again the fleet flagship, for Sixth Fleet was going back to Home Hive Three, and that meant Zhaarnak'telmasa was once again its commander.

Zhaarnak sat in his command chair, watching the quiet, efficient bustle of his staff, and allowed himself once more to feel that pride in his warriors which only an Orion-and, he reminded himself, one or two very special Humans-could truly understand. Since Raymond Prescott had changed his perception of all things Human, Zhaarnak had attempted to make up for the many years he'd lost in understanding the virtually hairless, naked-skinned, flat-faced aliens who once had humbled almost a thousand of their own years of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee's pride and were now their allies. The demands of the war had left him precious little time for his studies, but his vilkshatha relationship with Prescott had compensated by giving him a priceless and unique perspective. And because he'd gained that perspective, he was aware of the difficulty inherent in correctly translating the term farshatok into Standard English. The best the Humans had been able to do was a mere literal rendering: "warriors of the fist." So far as it went, that was a fair enough translation, but the full concept-the concept of a group of warriors so finely and completely integrated as to represent the individual fingers which combined into a lethal weapon as their commander's fist was closed-carried connotations and implications few Human analysts had ever truly grasped. There were levels of mutual commitment, strands of trust and courage, a willingness to sacrifice everything for victory-or for one another-and a fine fusion of efficiency in it which seemed to have eluded even some of the best Humans who had considered the concept.

Perhaps that was because so few Humans truly understood the full implications of the Farshalah'kiah. Raymond did, of course, but, then, Raymond was an extraordinary individual, whatever his birth race. Most Humans, though, Zhaarnak knew, viewed his own species' concept of honor through a veil woven of obstacles that ranged from the same sort of stereotypical contempt he himself had once had for the ill-understood concepts of Human honor, to simple incomprehension which strove with genuine open-mindedness to cross the gap between two very different races . . . and failed. He knew that many-perhaps most-Humans found his own people unreasonably touchy in matters of personal honor. That they found the notion that the only truly honorable form of combat required a warrior to risk his own life bizarre and vainglorious, and that many of them believed the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee never truly bothered to think at all, because it was so much simpler to react as an honor-bound automaton.

Perhaps that was chauvinistic of them, but he'd been more than sufficiently chauvinistic himself in his time. And, although he might not particularly care to admit it, there were those among the Khan's warriors who fit that stereotype depressingly well. But what those Humans missed was the absolute centrality of an Orion warrior's sense of honor to the way in which he defined himself. It was that sense of honor which told him who he was, which linked him to all of the generations of his fathers and mothers in honor and charged him never to disgrace them. It gave him the ability to know what his Khan and his people expected of him, and-even more importantly-what he expected of himself as his Khan's representative in the defense of his people. And so, in a way he sometimes wondered if even Raymond fully recognized, it was that sense of honor which tied a species of fiery individuals, with all of the natural independence the Humans associated with the Terran species called "cats," into the unified cohesion of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaiee and had launched them into the creation of the first interstellar imperium in recorded history.

It was what made all of his people, warriors and civilians alike, farshatok in a greater sense, and he wished he could find the way to explain that side of them to their Human allies.

But perhaps it is not something which can be "explained," he thought, watching the icons of Sixth Fleet settle into their final formation in his plot. Perhaps it is something which may only be demonstrated. Yet whether it can be explained or analyzed or not, it can certainly be shared, for surely each and every one of the warriors of this Fleet, whatever their races, have become farshatok.

It was almost time, and he made himself lean back in his command chair. He felt the tips of his claws gently kneading in and out of its padded armrests, and his mind went back to that moment when the awareness of the many strands of honor which bound this force together had suddenly flowed through him.



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