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CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Blood of Warriors

The surge of the electromagnetic catapult, the queasiness of departure from the ship's artificial gravity, the indescribable twisting sensation of passage through the drive field, the instant of disorientation as "up" and "down" lost all meaning in the illimitable void of space (lacking even the reassuring reference point of a sun in this segment of nothingness men had labeled "QR-107"), the familiar grip of the fighter's drive as it assumed control of acceleration and inertia-all were behind him now. Kthaara'zarthan stretched out as far as the confines of the Human-designed fighter's cockpit allowed, then relaxed, muscle by muscle, and heaved a long sigh of contentment.

The Humans had modified the cockpit of this fighter to accommodate him and link with his Orion-designed life support suit months before. He had taken her on practice runs in Redwing until she responded like an extension of his own body, with a smoothness of control that could hardly have been bettered by that "direct neural interfacing" of which the Khan's researchers (and, he had been amused to discover, the Humans', as well) had blathered for centuries without ever quite overcoming those irritating little drawbacks which would kill a pilot outside the safe confines of a laboratory. Especially in the stress of battle.

He snorted into his helmet-a very Human sound of amused disgust that ended in a high-pitched sound no Human could have manufactured. He would believe in neural interfacing when one of those droshokol mizoa-haarlesh who preached its virtues were willing to risk their own pelts flying it in combat. Which, he reflected, nudging his controls with sensual pleasure, was not to say he would welcome it, for it was difficult to believe anything could equal the sheer delight of holding his fleet little vessel's very soul between his claws. Yet not even this pleasure could substitute for personal combat against his cousin's killers. Even the Humans-some of them, at least-could understand that.

Humans. Kthaara gave the clicking sound equivalent of a man's rueful headshake. Who could understand them? He had seen them in battle, and he would have words for the next cub of his clan who called them chofaki. Yes, and more than words, if more was required. But the fact remained that there was no understanding them, with their wildly inconsistent ethics and their seemingly limitless capacity for self-deception. Howard Anderson had once quoted to him from a Human philosopher: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." A great philosopher indeed, Kthaara had acknowledged. Truly, Humans were a race forever at war with themselves-at once the source of their unique vitality and the price they paid for it. The Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee, knowing precisely who and what they were, could see the universe precisely as it was; their follies resulted from inability to subordinate their innermost nature to some bloodless balancing of advantage and disadvantage, and not from the strange tendency of most Humans to painstakingly construct an unreal universe and base their actions thereon. Not all Humans-certainly not Ivan Antonov.

There was, of course, another barrier to empathy with Humans which no well-bred Orion would ever dream of revealing to them. Besides, Kthaara was a cosmopolite; he had long since learned to overcome the physical revulsion any normal mind must feel in the presence of such a species. But it was hard. It would have been better if they were completely hairless; their spotty, patchy growth made them look diseased. It was fortunate they had the decency to keep their bodies covered with fabric . . . most of the time.

He had learned that since their industrial revolution they had abandoned their nudity taboos. Well, most of them had, at any rate, he amended, marveling anew at the multiplicity of utterly incompatible value systems Humanity embraced. It was maddening. Each time he thought he had brought a definitive idea of what Humans believed within claws' reach, he discovered yet another level of disagreement within their complex melange of cultures. He still couldn't imagine how they kept track of it, much less how any rational species could be expected to do so. And those who had discarded the traditional religious view of the naked human body as an obscene sight were actually proud of themselves. Kthaara couldn't imagine why.

Yet the faces were the worst, flat, without the slightest trace of a muzzle, with eyes and mouth surrounded by bare and unmistakably wet-looking skin. The males, in obedience to the dictates of current fashion, made it even worse by shaving what facial hair they did possess in an odd and perverse throwback to primitive self-mutilation.

But give them their due: though they might not be aware of their own ugliness, they at least recognized the handsomeness of the Orions-which must, he reflected, be intrinsically obvious to any truly sensitive mind! He had, however, been taken aback to learn that the Human reaction to his own species was due in part to a pleasing and comforting resemblance to a Terran domestic animal!

He shook loose from the thoughts as he maneuvered his fighter into place in the strike formation. Excessive concern with appearances was an adolescent characteristic few Orions completely outgrew until old age. But it, too, could be overcome. He reflected on the insignificance of the physical body that housed an Ivan Antonov, and thought back to the staff conference that had led to his presence here. . . .



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