Eight years of spacecraft building, dogfighting, bombing, and firefights on the ground yielded nothing but death and poverty. No system had surrendered, no ceasefire had been ordered, no spacefleet had stopped attacking and no defenders had stopped repelling them. Against an enemy that had to squeeze its attackers through a 200-meter-wide hole in single file, any system could dig in and hold its own forever.
Any system that had an enormous military when the Pentagon War started out, anyway.
Human-Centauri's defenses had begun to fail over the last two years. Even without the inherent waste of mounting incursions against their neighbors, the attacks against Human-Centauri's forces had been whittling them down faster than Human-Centauri could rebuild them. A year ago, a wide enough crack had emerged in their defensive planes for Sirius to lob antimatter bombs on the New France and New Mars asteroids, along with a few smaller asteroid colonies. While the death tolls on New France and New Mars had been stultifying enough, the smaller, lower-population colonies had been destroyed utterly. The year since then had been too chaotic, too frought with little skirmishes from both of Human-Centauri's hostile neighbors; there had been no opportunity to lick their wounds and reinforce their crumbling Defense Force. Now, another such attack might get through at any time, and when it did . . .
The Sirius bombing raid had convinced a frightened Human-Centauri citizenry that it was time to form an alliance with CN Leonis. Yukariah Heap had almost won CN Leonis's approval, except for one cricual detail. The asteroids of the Human-Centauri system most well-equipped to house military bases were, unsurprisingly, on its five biggest and most populous asteroids. Before the Leonians would agree to lend military aid to Human-Centauri, they insisted on being allowed to put their bases of operation on Human-Centauri I, III, and IV. The problem was, these asteroids were all Citizen Areas. Every square meter of their surfaces, and every underground tunnel and centrifuge, was completely off limits to outsiders. It was how Human-Centauri had always kept out the Emotional Plague. Every HCDF analyst was convinced that their only hope for survival lay in securing CN Leonis as an ally, but allowing them to run amok in a plague-free zone? Few Human-Centauri citizens were willing to make such a terrible sacrifice. Surely, there must be another way. Surely, the HCDF could learn from the mistakes of the New France/New Mars assault, and pull off the miracle of an unbreachable defense. Surely, there must be some way for Human-Centauri to survive as a nation without polluting the youngest generation with the CN Leonis version of the Emotional Plague!
Now, though, the need for an alliance was overwhelming. Yukariah Heap, still chairholder of Human-Centauri after all these years, would have to make the final plea on the Leonians' home turf. The aging Centaurian's personal limo had been granted safe passage to CN Leonis II, and had docked at one of the planet's many orbital transfer stations a couple of hours ago. The Leonian diplomatic landing bus that had taken Yukariah and staff down to the surface — or, rather, to the subsurface, safe from CN Leonis's unpredictable flares — had been in surprisingly good shape for its age, but had had no accomodations at all for human passengers. The three human members of the chairholder's staff had had to stand while holding whatever railings they could find. Which didn't surprise any of them; when those same humans had come aboard, the landing bus's all-Centaurian crew had oozed nothing but contempt for the bipeds, palpable through language and species barriers alike.
In the tunnel ride from the spaceport to the capitol, the train's conductor had made sure to slow down while they passed through one neighborhood in particular, to give them all a good view out the windows. Even with their limited view, they could see the abject squalor. A few humans could be glimpsed scurrying about, most of them naked and all of them covered in rock dust. One fell behind the others, then shrieked as a Centaurian rolled up to him and jabbed him with what looked to be a cattle prod. These local humans were being herded. This place had to have been one of the Leonians' human slave pens. The conductor had taken its sweet time lingering there, letting all the passengers take in as much of this horrid sight as was practical, then had calmly twisted the throttle and sped onward as though nothing had happened.
Now that Yukariah thought about it, having a conductor in the train at all was a bit odd. Automatic trains were everywhere, and an S.I. could avoid accidents better than a live operator. Then Yukariah remembered that it was thinking like someone who'd lived among humans all its life. Humans had a knack for the kind of abstract thinking that had made artificial intelligence and automatic control systems a reality, and they made far better software engineers. But it was a lot harder to make a human fix bugs or lay down new digital circuits, under a slave driver's whip. The Centaurians who ran CN Leonis would not only have lacked the same access to such human skills, they might not have even thought in terms of automation.
And now, Yukariah was about to meet face-to-face with Krammer for the second time since the start of the War, this time in CN Lenonis II's underground capitol. The chairholder was not at all looking forward to this meeting.
The final doors slid open, revealing Krammer standing in a kind of surround station with a raised floor. Four other Centaurians stood behind it, down at the normal floor level; two of them were armed. Krammer made no move to leave this post. Were it human, Yukariah would have accused it of sitting on a throne. And with Krammer's portly build — wide enough to hide a pregnancy — the effect approached that of ancient Earth's King Henry the Eighth.
"Come in, come in!" Krammer said in Centaurian, making sure to pronounce each vowel as ostentatiously, and with as many mouths, as possible. It glanced at Yukariah's entourage, and pointed one eye levelly at the three humans among its staff. "And bring your monkeys with you."
Regina Plow, Yukariah's chief diplomatic aide and one of the three "monkeys," understood spoken Centaurian. She leaned over the chairholder's eye stalk, and whispered into the ear-hole, "Uh, we could stay outside if you —"
Yukariah cut her off with a pushing-away gesture; the Centaurian "no." "You'll all come in with me," its closest mouth whispered back in the same English. "These four-arm supremacists need to have free humans shoved in their faces more often."
They filed in with as much dignity as they could manage, and arranged themselves in a kind of arc with the chairholder at the center. There were no seats for the humans, nor had they expected any.
Krammer started in immediately with the verbal jabs, never switching out of Centaurian. "Still calling yourself 'Yukariah Heap' instead of just 'Yukariah', eh?"
"You know Human-Centauri doesn't have a ruling clan," Yukariah replied in English. "The chairholder is an elected position."
Krammer briefly tilted away in a Centaurian shrug. It still managed to make the gesture look as smug and arrogant as could be. "Alpha Centauri has elections too, at least officially. Doesn't keep them from having a ruling clan. Let me guess, a single leader instead of a leading clan is an idea your human citizens came up with, am I right?"
Krammer wasn't "guessing" at all, of course, and Yukariah knew it. It switched to Centaurian: "We're not here to give you a history lesson, Krammer."
Krammer seemed to draw a degree of satisfaction in getting the visiting head of state to stop speaking in human-talk. "No, but I do find it fascinating just how many of these human customs you've embraced. Not only have you acceeded to being elected as an individual rather than as a clan, but you didn't appoint a single member of the Heap clan onto your own cabinet!"
Yukariah did its best to keep from growling. "Some of my clanmates do have expertise in areas that would work on the chairholder's cabinet," it kept its voices low and level, "But none of them were the best the population had to offer."
Krammer made a gutteral snort with two mouths. "That never stopped your great grandmother."
Krammer had hoped that this latest jab would provoke Yukariah into blowing its top. Instead, the chairholder seemed to grow a little bit smug itself. "Actually, that particular decision by Cronazza Heap as chairholder — to stack the cabinet with as many of its clanmates as possible — is something I consider one of its failings."
"Be that as it may," Krammer replied coolly, "We both know why you're here."
Yukariah flashed a quick tentacle-finger upward, the way a human might nod. "We're still interested in that alliance with you against Sirius. We'd still like CN Leonis to stage military operations against Sirius from within Human-Centauri space. But we also, still, have tremendous trepidations about allowing your military personnel into our Citizen Areas. There must be something Human-Centauri can offer your military instead. You could park your spacecraft in orbit around the main citizen asteroids, or even dock them with our orbital transfer stations. We could resupply you with anything you need from the surface. We'd even use our own landing freighters to provide this resupply, so you wouldn't need to spare your own cargo carriers or spend your own fuel."
Krammer held up an open hand and made a brief pushing-away gesture. "You know how bad the turn-around time can be, between making a request for goods and having them delivered to orbit — especially when you have to tell somebody what you want instead of picking it out yourself. Every miscommunication will turn into an intolerable delay. Our military logistics will operate a lot more smoothly if they're interacting with your civilian suppliers directly."
"You know," Yukariah said with a sly edge, "Many of our civilian suppliers are going to be humans. I get the distinct impression that your troops have only dealt with humans as . . . shall we say, creatures of lower status than themselves. They're not going to have much experience dealing with humans that they can't subjugate. In fact, I'd be surprised if many of your troops could even speak English. If tempers flare, the situation could turn ugly, both for us and for them."
"Oh, don't worry," Krammer replied, "We'll be bringing along our own humans, too."
Krammer puzzled at this for an instant. Then all three eye stalks shot forward and fixed Krammer squarely in their gaze. "You're talking about your Fanatic Brigade!"
Krammer made a quick backwards shrugging gesture. "They're some of our best warriors."
"They're suicide troops!" Yukariah snapped back. "You twist them into balls of crazy from birth, and then keep them twisted up for their entire lives! Allowing your normal soldiers into the Citizen Areas would be bad enough, but allowing those outright psychotics to mingle with our citizenry is out of the question!"
Krammer snorted, then looked at Human-Centauri's chairholder with feigned pity. "Are you really so scared that the big, bad Emotional Plague is going to besmirch your oh-so-delicate citizens?"
"As a matter of fact," Yukariah said, "I am."
Krammer made a gutteral snort with two mouths, the Centaurian version of a chuckle. This one was a sour, contemptuous chuckle. "And to think, Holsteader set off this whole War by calling me the hopeless one . . . when he had you right there in the same room."
Yukariah didn't flinch.
"If you want us to help you fight the Sirians," Krammer said, and tones of its voices were flat and hard, "You'll give up your religous worship of that ridiculous utopianism, that 'Emotional Plague' bugaboo of yours, and grant unfettered access to all of our troops — regulars and fanatic brigade alike."
Yukariah prepared to make one last counteroffer . . . then stopped itself, and stared at Krammer with one eye. Now it understood. Krammer wasn't looking out for CN Leonis's best interests. Krammer wasn't even looking out for its own best interests. It was intent on hurting Human-Centauri. No — worse — it was intent on hurting the culture of Human-Centauri. Maybe it felt threatened by the notion of the Emotional Plague. Maybe something about the Plague, something it couldn't admit even to itself, resonated with it. Or, maybe, it just hoped its offer of "help" to a nominally enemy nation would ultimately destroy them from within.
Yukariah looked away at nothing in particular, and mulled over the cold, gut-twitching calculus. If Human-Centauri accepted CN Leonis's help, on Krammer's terms, it might poison everything Human-Centauri stood for. But without CN Leonis's help, the next major attack from Sirius might not leave a Human-Centauri to do any standing for anything. It was a choice between possible death of the spirit, and possible actual death.
The chairholder of Human-Centauri slowly raised one finger in a "yes" gesture, and with aching resignation, said "I accept your terms." Then, more firmly, "I remind you that per Human-Centauri's Constitution, a deal this big will not be final until it's subjected to a popular vote. But the voting process will be quick."
Krammer growled. "Ugh. You can't just declare an emergency and bypass all that red tape?"
"It's amazing your little asteroid colony can get anything done at all," Krammer chided. "All right then, we can at least hammer out the details first. That way that you can present our . . . 'proposed' agreement to your populus as one big package deal."
Yukariah stood at stiff, muscle-locked rest in its limo's surround workdesk, barely noticing its staff. They were pulling away from the spaceport at a Centaurian standard 0.8 g of acceleration, so it would take some hours to reach the CN-Leonis/Human-Centauri hyper hole. In the meantime there were a dozen documents Yukariah needed to prep, all concerning this deal with the Leonians. But it couldn't make itself start in on even one of them. It felt dead inside, as though it had just mortgaged its lifelong dream.
No other options were left. Perhaps the century-and-a-half of weeding out plague behavior had made the citizens strong enough to repel such an infection. Perhaps the Leonians stationed in Human-Centauri wouldn't interfere with life as much as everyone had feared.
The Pentagon War is continued in chapter 13.
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