CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO Questions of Command
Kthaara'zarthan gazed at his vilkshatha brother, and shook his head slowly in what he'd learned was a gesture reflecting sorrowful contemplation of the depths of Human evil.
"I fear you have let it go to your head, as you Humans say, Eeevahn'zarthan."
Ivan Antonov grinned at him. Kthaara's pronunciation of his first name certainly came closer than the butchery-roughly, EYE-van-committed by native speakers of Standard English. "Come, Kthaara Kornazhovich," he said in a mollifying tone. "You know me better than to think I'd let my head be turned by this 'Grand Alliance Commander in Chief' nonsense. The only advantage it has is that, because some people are stupid enough to take it seriously, it lets me cut through the bureaucratic shit and get some things done more expeditiously than I used to as simple chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
"Like appointing yourself to command the offensive to be launched from Zaaia'pharaan," Kthaara accused.
Antonov smiled. "Be honest, Kthaasha. Is it the Khan's agreement to cede Zephrain?" (He used the human compromise with the impossible handle Maariaah'sheerino had given the system.) "Is that what's really bothering you?"
"It is not my place to question the Khan's decisions," Kthaara huffed. Then he relaxed with the suddenness that could still catch Antonov by surprise after sixty years. "And besides, I have to admit that this one makes sense. It is just so . . . well, unprecedented."
Antonov nodded, understanding Kthaara's feelings. The Orions were a conservative lot. And the agreement was extraordinary. But so was the dilemma the Khan and his advisers had found themselves in. Their very genes-to say nothing of the white-hot memory of Kliean-had cried out to them to use Zephrain for an offensive into what was clearly part of the Bug industrial heartland. But with the thought of Kliean had come the chilling realization of what could happen if a Bug counterstroke penetrated to Rehfrak. And the Khanate, unlike the Federation, could not spare the industrial capacity to undertake a massive new program of defensive construction.
So the Khan had stunned his Terran allies by offering to cede Zephrain to them in fee simple, in exchange for their pledge to fortify it-and also Rehfrak itself-beyond any reasonable possibility of danger should the offensive go awry. The Federation had accepted, and agreed to postpone the attack until the work of castramentation was complete. And so the freighters had begun to ply the route to Zephrain, laden with modular components of Fortress Command's prefabricated orbital weapons platforms and with the myriads of cheap but lethal mines that would envelop the crucial warp points with clouds of death. Those freighters' databases, like those of all Allied ships that would operate in Zephrain space, were innocent of all knowledge of the warp link to Rehfrak; secrecy, as much as firepower, would shield the Khan's subjects.
The titanic project was by no means complete, but it was far enough along for Antonov and his staff to begin planning the offensive that would set out from an impregnable Zephrain. And to name that offensive's commander . . .
Antonov smiled again. "Don't mope, Kthaasha. You know I wouldn't do it if I didn't have you to leave here as acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs. As it is, I know I won't have anything to worry about." (Kthaara gave the brief low-pitched growl that was the equivalent of a human snort.) "And besides, you ought to be happy with my choice for a battle-line commander."
The ebon Orion brightened slightly. "Ah, yes: Least Fang Raaaymmonnd'pressscott-or Raaaymmonnd'telmasa, as he is now entitled to be known. A most impressive officer . . . for a Human. And one with whom you should feel something in common."
"True. Not every human has sworn vilkshatha." In point of fact, aside from Antonov himself, Prescott was the only one who had. That had been just before he'd left for Alpha Centauri, to recover from his wounds and provide Grand Fleet with the benefit of his experience. So, unlike his vilkshatha brother, he'd missed the brutal slugging match of Second Kliean, when Lord Khiniak had retaken the system . . . and a remark Antonov had made during the Theban War had come back to haunt him. "Even a small planetary population is hard to completely extirpate, short of rendering the planet uninhabitable," he'd said, and the Bugs evidently agreed, because that was precisely what they'd done-and the population of Kliean had been far from small. All at once, the Khanate of Orion had lost interest in counting the cost. The Bugs had found that out when they'd returned to Kliean two and a half months later.
Third Kliean had been a see-saw exercise in mutual slaughter, with Third Fleet stopping the attempted reconquest and following the defeated Bugs back to Shanak. The Gorm, no less than the Orions, had felt the need to avenge the ghosts of Kliean; they had volunteered to take their first newly produced gunboats into Shanak in simultaneous transits-the first time the Allies had used that mad tactic. But Third Fleet, weakened by short-range plasma-gun fire and wholesale suicide attacks, had lacked the strength to seize Shanak and hold it against newly arriving Bug reinforcements. So the war in the Kliean chain had settled into the kind of standoff that Vanessa Murakuma already knew only too well.
There was no longer any serious debate in the Grand Alliance over the reimplementation of General Directive 18-the genocide directive that had been invoked only once before. The screech of static that had answered Third Fleet's communications hails in Kliean had put an end to all such debate in the Khanate, and the few human dissenters like Bettina Wister were now isolated even within their own Liberal-Progressive Party. The only problem had been the lack of any apparent way to effectuate the directive with the war stalemated on both fronts . . . until the discovery of Zephrain.
Antonov shook free of his thoughts. "Da, you're right. Vice Admiral Prescott and I share something unique among humans. And we also share something else: frustration. You know how much it's galled him to be absent from the battles at Kliean."
"Naturally." Kthaara nodded-a Human habit that had become second nature to him. "Anyone worthy of being asked to swear vilkshatha can only feel like a caged zeget when wounds or duty keep him from his vilkshatha brother's side in a desperate battle."
"There's more to it than that," Antonov said grimly. "He felt his place was at the head of his own personnel at Second Kliean. When he learned Rear Admiral Jackson had died there . . . well, there's a common phenomenon called 'survivor's guilt.' "
"It is not unknown among my own race," Kthaara remarked. "But we tend to deal with it by seeking vengeance against the killers of whomever we feel somehow died in our place. Least Fang Pressscott should find no lack of opportunities for vengeance when we launch our offensive from Zaaia'pharaan against these . . . these . . . I will not even call them chofaki, for it does them too much honor and dilutes a perfectly good insult." The Orion's voice remained so controlled that few humans would even have realized he was controlling it. But Antonov did, and he didn't interrupt the few heartbeats of silence that followed. Then Kthaara smiled his teeth-hidden carnivore's smile. "And now, back to business. I believe we are due at the staff conference soon."