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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Broken Claws

Fourteenth Great Claw of the Khan Zhaarnak'diaano glowered into the small holo tank of his repeater plot. The worthless planets of the uninhabited Telmasa System orbited their K4 primary with a bland uselessness which mirrored his own mood all too accurately. Clan Diaano had once been famed for the warriors it produced in the Khan's service, but that had been before the Wars of Shame. It was not his clan's fault no chance had arisen to win back the honor lost in those disastrous wars, yet every one of his ancestors seemed to prowl the back of his mind, muttering balefully over their descendant's failure to seize glory by the throat in this war. For more than a full human year-almost two Orion years-it had raged, and still he sat tethered as a "rear area security umbrella" designed only to reassure civilians!

He growled and kneaded his claws in and out of his chair's padded armrests. Of course, very few of the Khan's warriors had so far been given the chance to measure themselves against these new foes-these "Bugs." Fang Anaasa and his pilots had won enormous renown for their rescue of the Human Fifth Fleet in the Third Battle of Justin, but no more of the KON's units had been rushed forward . . . for reasons which were one more ember in Zhaarnak's seething disgust.

Technology. Technology and experience. The Humans' RD had-once more-outpaced the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee's, and so they were better equipped than the Khan's Navy. They had begun the war with better shields, better armor . . . better weapons. Even now their technical missions were busy throughout the Khanate, working to upgrade the KON's technology as if the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee were cubs who must be led by the hand. And though the Federation's last major war was an Orion century old, it remained more recent than anything the Khanate could claim. Antipiracy operations, the suppression of a slaving outbreak in the Khithaar Sector, the short confrontation when District Governor Maashaar defied the present Khan's sire . . . those were all the "wars" the KON had fought since the Third Interstellar War, and so the Grand Alliance had agreed the Humans should lead the battle in the Romulus Cluster.

The great claw bared the tips of his fangs. Deep inside, a part of him acknowledged that it was the Humans who had first been attacked. Their warriors' blood had been the first shed, their civilians the ones butchered, and so it was right that they be given the honor of facing the foe. Yet another, deeper part of him could not accept that. Humans were chofaki. They had no honor. They were clever, yes, and skilled in the cold blooded execution of maneuvers, yet they lacked the warrior's fire. He had heard the arguments-Valkha, but he had heard them!-since the Theban War. Minisharhuaak! Of course they had shouldered their obligations in that war, but they had done so out of fear, Zhaarnak thought. It was they who had given the crazed Thebans technology in the first place, and they'd feared Liharnow the Great would loose the Navy upon them if they did not "step forward." And they had shown themselves chofak yet again in this war. What true warrior would have fallen back again and again, abandoning millions of his own civilians to certain death-to being eaten like so many marhangi?

He made his claws retract, and his mind replayed the official briefings like some endless, meaningless chant. The Humans had had no choice but to fall back. They had fought again and again, and not even Zhaarnak could deny the damage they had inflicted-assuming the reports were accurate. Yet that was the point. If the reports were accurate, then why had they been forced back? Almost four hundred superdreadnoughts-that was how many capital ships the Humans' Fifth Fleet claimed to have destroyed. Four hundred! The entire Orion Navy contained only four hundred and six starships, including even destroyers! Was he to believe the Humans had destroyed thirty times the KON's total tonnage without even slowing their enemies?

Ridiculous! Such inflated claims were the proof they were chofaki, dirt-eaters, beings so lost to honor they could not even recognize it as a concept! According to those same intelligence packets the Humans' ships were faster, their weapons longer ranged, their defensive technologies and datalink superior, and they had fighters! If they had destroyed so many ships, if they held such a tremendous tactical advantage, then why were they on the defensive? Oh, true, they had retaken Justin-finally, with Fang Anaasa's help-yet did they truly expect Zhaarnak to believe any opponent could absorb such losses and continue to attack?

He shook himself and rose. Softly, Zhaarnak, he told himself. Softly. Whatever you may think, it is your duty not to show your officers your disgust. And be truthful. Would you be so ready to believe them chofak had they not brought such dishonor upon your clan?

He twitched his ears brusquely, angry with that last thought, yet he could not quite reject it. His clan fathers had charged into battle in the Orion way in the Wars of Shame . . . and the Humans had slaughtered their commands in the chofak Human way. Perhaps the Terran Navy had taught the KON how wars were won, but what of honor? What of the battle sagas chanted when warriors were laid to rest? The Wars of Shame took those things from his clan, and even the meager redemption Clan Diaano had won in the Third Interstellar War had come on Human terms. It was the Humans who shared the strikefighter technology with the Khanate even before the Rigelians turned on the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee. It was the Humans whose industrial might had built entire starships for the Khan. Even Varnik'sheerino, the greatest fang of the last three centuries, had been forced to dance to Human terms, coordinate his plans with theirs!

Be honest. Be honest, Zhaarnak. Chofak Humans may be, yet what you truly hate is that they never let your clan regain honor from them-only with them. There is no Human blood upon your claws, and you hate them for it.

Well, perhaps that was truth, but truth was a bitter herb, and whatever cause he had to hate them, their showing in this war was cause enough for contempt.

He snorted and stepped into the intraship car. If he could not take his battlegroup to war, at least he would not sit here on his flag bridge like some clawless cub and watch an empty plot!



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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