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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN "It is about honor."

The command balcony of the great orbital station looked out over an expanse of control consoles and computer terminals. Beyond them was a great, curving transparency showing the sun of Idnahk, its glare suitably stepped down. It was by the reflected light of that sun that Tenth Great Fang of the Khan Koraaza'khiniak, Khanhaku Khiniak, could see with naked eyes the ships of his command-that which was to be the Grand Alliance's Third Fleet.

Those ships had been straggling in since shortly after the ships of the enemy the Humans called Bugs had entered the Kliean System with their cargo of nightmare. The Navy had begun assembling all available ships here at the sector capital immediately after Zhaarnak'diaano sent forth the alarm. Then, with the delay built into all interstellar communications, had come the response of the Grand Allied Joint Chiefs of Staff. They'd recognized at once that the war had acquired a second front even more squarely within the domain of the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee than the original one was within Human space. So a new Fleet-a fleet of the Khanate, just as Admiral Murakuma's was a fleet of the Federation-had been added to the Alliance's organizational structure, and the Khan had honored Koraaza by entrusting him with its command.

Still, he reflected, it would have been nice if Third Fleet had been anything more than an organization chart when he arrived here. The ancient Terran military theorist Sun Tzu-who had finally won acceptance in Koraaza's service despite the seeming contradictions between his precepts and Farshalah'kiah-had observed that numbers alone confer no advantage in war, and the ever-increasing number of ships whose flanks reflected the light of Idnahk's sun had built up to an impressive total-essentially everything in the sector capable of movement-but had never functioned as a fleet before. His hastily assembled staff would have been lucky to get all of them moving in the same direction on the same day, and any sort of coordinated maneuvers would have been impossible without the merciless exercises Koraaza had laid on. But those indispensable exercises had required still more time, and time was precisely what Zhaarnak'diaano-and, to an even greater extent, the civilians of Hairnow and any surviving Telmasans-did not have.

It was, thought Koraaza, who was something of a military history enthusiast, a lesson the Terrans had taught the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee in the Wars of Shame. His people, too long accustomed to expanding at the expense of unworthy opponents and therefore inclined to take the old hero-sagas literally, had thought of ships as individual swords to be wielded by the champions who commanded them. They had forgotten the long-term coordinated training necessary to provide the fleet and squadron organization which was to a navy as tempering was to a blade.

The thought of Terrans brought a smile to Koraaza's lips. He knew Zhaarnak'diaano, and when he'd heard that the first, crucial reinforcements that could be gotten to the great claw were Terran units, he'd seen disaster looming. Zhaarnak might not be quite so reactionary as his father in most things, but he seemed determined not to excel the old Khanhaku Diaano in unreasoning hatred of Humans-which would have been impossible-but to equal him. Koraaza had known, with a horrible sinking certainty, that Zhaarnak would not only bring about military calamity but also dishonor the Khan by insulting an ally. The latter had worried the great fang almost as much as the former, for however much he consciously rejected the narrow and rigid Farshalah'kiah of his ancestors in favor of modern rationalism, he could no more free himself of it than he could free himself of those ancestors' genetic legacy.

So it had been with incredulous relief that Koraaza had read Zhaarnak's last few reports, with their steady change in tone. He was looking forward to meeting this Human great claw (or rear admiral as they called it in their unpronounceable tongue) who had brought about that which he would once have unhesitatingly declared impossible, and in little more than three local days, he and Third Fleet would set out to do just that.

The communications officer broke in on Koraaza's thoughts. "Your pardon, Great Fang," said the young son of the khan (lieutenant commander, Koraaza thought, his mind continuing to crank out title equivalencies in the outlandish Terran rank structure), "but Governor Kaarsaahn requests a moment of your time."

Koraaza's whiskers twitched with annoyance. As long as Third Fleet was located within the Idnahk Sector, and most especially while it was assembling at the sector's capital, a degree of jurisdictional friction between the fleet commander and the sector governor was inevitable. In this case, differences in temperament made the situation worse than it had to be. He turned resignedly to face the holo imager, and moved within the pickup, "Put him on," he ordered, and the governor of the Idnahk Sector seemed to flash into existence.

"Governor Kaarsaahn," Koraaza greeted, touching clenched fist to chest in salute.

The huge orbital station could accommodate the bulky holo imager for which warships had too little space to spare, but it was in geostationary orbit around Idnahk. About a quarter of a second passed while the message came and went, imposing a delay which was barely noticeable, yet spoiled the illusion that Kaarsaahn was here on the command balcony rather than in his palace on the surface. He responded to Koraaza's salute with a courtesy that verged on unctuousness.

"Greetings, Great Fang. I have no wish to disrupt your busy schedule, but I have not yet received confirmation that you have dispatched to Great Claw Zhaarnak the orders we agreed on. I'm sure you have done so . . . as we agreed," he added with pointed repetition. "But I felt obliged to confirm it personally."

Koraaza sighed inwardly. He had agreed, albeit with a reluctance that had caused him to put off actually keeping his promise. "Your pardon, Governor, but the press of my duties has prevented me from actually sending the dispatch. I have, however, prepared the necessary orders to Great Claw Zhaarnak: stand on the defensive in Alowan, attempting no counteroffensive before I arrive." He drew a breath. "Governor, I will of course send the orders if you insist on holding me to my promise. But perhaps we should reconsider. Remember, every day the enemy is left undisturbed in Telmasa is another opportunity for him to discover the Hairnow warp point. Some aggressive raiding, at Zhaarnak's discretion, might distract the enemy from survey activities."

Kaarsaahn's habitual blandness was beginning to look a little frayed around the edges. "As I argued at our previous discussion, Great Fang, we have no way of knowing that the enemy has not already discovered the Hairnow System. More to the point, until Third Fleet arrives in Alowan, Great Claw Zhaarnak's force is the sector's only defense. It cannot be hazarded on premature adventures. And, while I have hesitated to raise this point before, I fear Zhaarnak's 'discretion' cannot be relied on in this matter." He hastily raised a clawed hand. "Yes, I know you are honor-bound to defend a fellow officer. It does you credit. But consider: his withdrawal from Kliean and Telmasa flew in the face of his temperament as well as Farshalah'kiah. The fact that he had no choice cannot possibly compensate in his own mind. He is bound to be biased towards reckless displays of courage, seeking to wipe out the stain-however illusory-on his honor. Under the circumstances, the knowledge that your command will soon depart Idnahk may well goad him into such an action-independently-rather than encourage him to hold fast."

Koraaza opened his mouth to hotly declare that Zhaarnak, like all officers of the Khan, was well aware of his paramount duty to defend the race's inhabited worlds . . . then snapped it shut. For Kaarsaahn, damn him, had a point. Zhaarnak was aggressive by nature, and any imagined disgrace would make him even more so. He might not do anything culpably stupid, but he might well overestimate his own strength in order to rationalize his need for action. And according to the latest reports, that strength was insufficient for any serious attempt on Telmasa.

No, Zharnaak's guilt over the worlds he had been forced to leave to their deaths could not be allowed to imperil still more worlds. It was a truth to which the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee had never really become reconciled: the higher one climbed on the ladder of rank, the more often honor had to be sacrificed on the altar of duty. Koraaza himself had yet to accept it gracefully.

"Your points are well taken, Governor," he said leadenly. "I will send the orders."



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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