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The staff conference room had a wall screen. Antonov had decreed that it be left on, and eyes kept straying to the planet Harnah-everyone was calling it that by now, even though this system had officially been named Anderson Two. Beyond the world's blue curve was the bone-white crescent of its moon. That moon, like the oxygen-rich atmosphere, represented a triumph over the odds. Harnah orbited just outside the zone in which the orange sun's tidal force would have stopped the planet's rotation and stripped away any natural satellites, but close enough to that relatively feeble fusion furnace for water to exist as a liquid in which life could arise.

And why do you keep letting your mind wander into this astronomical blagadarnost, Vanya? Antonov unflinchingly answered his own question: Because you'd rather think about that, or anything at all, than about what you've found here on this lovely blue planet.

Things had gone according to plan. Task Forces 21 and 23 had herded the Bugs out of the system with relentless fighter strikes. They'd never broken that dense defensive formation, but the Bugs had withdrawn minus a quarter of their capital ships and most of their light cruisers. Better still, the warp point through which they'd done their withdrawing had been pinpointed and was now heavily guarded against any counter-stroke. Meanwhile, TF 22 had proceeded behind a cloud of recon drones, following the spoor of that which the Grand Alliance had condemned to death.

They'd been prepared for swarms of gunboats to rise from the planet in suicidal fury . . . yet none had. There were only orbital defenses-fortresses and the kind of elaborate military/industrial faculties one would expect around a highly developed planet. Antonov had waited until some of the other task forces' carrier formations had joined him, then finished off the orbital works with SBMHAWK bombardments and fighter strikes. And the planet had lain open to them with its two or three billion Bugs . . . and something else.

The wait for the carriers hadn't been a very long one, but it had allowed time for an extensive survey of the surface. In the course of mapping targets, one of Midori Kozlov's subordinates had noticed vast enclosures that were clearly stockyards for meat animals-six-legged vertebrates like all the planet's higher land fauna. But something had bothered him, a wrongness he couldn't quite put his finger on. Kozlov hadn't been able to put her finger on it either, at first. She'd demanded greater and greater magnifications of the imagery. . . .

No one could ever forget the moment when the screen had shown one of the meat animals, the foremost third of its body held erect, making marks on the wall of a shed with a crude implement held in one of its forefeet.

After the planet's sky had been cleared of all opposition, more detailed reconnaissance had commenced, using aural sensors that were the highly evolved descendants of an earlier century's shotgun mikes. And they'd all watched the meat animals, most of them almost reverted to a hexapedal habit, go about their rudimentary socialization under the leadership of the class that had somehow halted their degradation just short of the loss of writing. The computers were still trying to crack the spoken language, and had analyzed a few of the sounds. One of those sounds was "Harnah" for "world," and so it had become in the minds of the horror-stricken humans who gazed at the overgrown ruins of what had clearly been cities, occasionally adorned with sculptures of the proud centauroids who'd built them.

Kozlov's self-consciously flinty voice roused Antonov from his reverie. She hadn't been the only one to turn green around the gills as realization dawned. In retrospect, perhaps, the discovery was inevitable; in every other sense it had been unthinkable. Justin and Kliean had told the Grand Alliance the Bugs regarded them as food sources, yet some deep-seated part of the Alliance's analysts had seen that as an act of opportunity, like the pre-space practices of strip-mining or clear-cutting watersheds. The notion that even Bugs would actually raise sentient beings as a self-sustaining herd of meat animals had not occurred to them . . . perhaps, Antonov reflected grimly, simply because it was so utterly unacceptable.

"There's no room for doubt," Kozlov was telling the staff and various senior officers. "They're the descendants of the city builders, the original inhabitants of Harnah. Indications are that their civilization was no more advanced than early twentieth-century Earth's. Vacuum tube electronics and hydrocarbon-burning internal combustion engines. They never stood a chance when the Bugs arrived."

Raymond Prescott shook his head slowly. "Are you sure? I mean . . ." He gestured vaguely, and they all knew what he meant, for they'd all watched the occupants of those vast, fetid, dung-choked pens as they shuffled listlessly about.

"Quite sure, Admiral Prescott. Granted, they're incredibly degraded. We have no way of knowing how long they've been . . . livestock. Quite a while, from the condition of the ruins. But they're still sentient-they haven't had time to evolve away from it, even though the capacity to feel such things as rebelliousness must be decidedly contra-survival in their circumstances."

"So," Stovall said in the voice of a man trying to awake from nightmare, "they know that they're going to be . . . ?"

"Yes." Kozlov nodded jerkily. Her color was poor, and her voice was that of a machine. "There will have been a strong natural selection in favor of those willing to go on living-and bringing forth offspring-as a domesticated food source."

They were all silent for a few heartbeats, each of them alone in hell with the new-found knowledge that there are worse things than extinction. But they weren't really alone at all, for the human inhabitants of the Bug-occupied worlds seemed to fill the room.

Finally, Antonov cleared his throat. In that silence, it was like a thunderclap. "Thank you, Commodore Kozlov. And now, ladies and gentlemen, we must consider the effect of these findings on our plans to carry out General Directive 18."

De Bertholet's head jerked upward, as though emerging from his private vision of horror. "Ah, Admiral, I don't understand. Surely no one can now doubt the wisdom of reactivating the Directive." The sick look on his face began to give way to one of fury. "The universe must be cleansed of these monsters! We're dealing with an abomination beyond humanity's conception of evil. By comparison, Hitler was a naughty boy, the Rigelians mildly maladjusted!"

"Agreed, Commander. But the Harnahese present a complicating factor. There are, Commodore Kozlov estimates, several million of them scattered among the Bug billions. It isn't always easy to tell just where they are, for the 'ranches' where they're bred are interspersed with those devoted to raising other, lower animal species native to this planet." He leaned forward, and his voice dropped to a basso fit for a Mussorgsky chorus. "I am under orders to exterminate the Bugs wherever I find them. But I am neither ordered nor authorized to commit genocide upon another sentient race. And I am disinclined to do so-especially in this case." He smiled slightly. "The older one gets, the harder it becomes to believe in any kind of universal ethical balance-divine justice, if you will. But one doesn't like to take chances! And should I happen to be wrong in my skepticism . . . well, if anyone in the universe has suffered enough, the Harnahese have."

Stovall broke the awkward silence that followed. "Admiral, the fact remains that we, like all Alliance forces, are subject to the general order to extirpate all Bug populations. And the Harnahese presence here poses a moral dilemma only if we limit our tactical options to scorching the surface clean of life. Perhaps there are other alternatives."

"I've considered those alternatives, Commodore. General Nagata, please summarize our discussion on the subject."

Brigadier Heinrich Nagata, the senior Marine officer embarked with Second Fleet, came unconsciously to a seated position of attention. "Sir, ever since Justin we've known how tough the Bugs can be in a ground action. And this is the first time we've ever contemplated fighting them on the surface of a long-established planet of theirs, with hundreds of millions of workers available to soak up fire." He paused awkwardly, unaccustomed to presenting arguments against going in. But he plowed ahead. "Second Fleet as presently constituted doesn't even incorporate a real landing force. We didn't anticipate needing one. With the reactivation of General Directive 18, it was assumed that any Bug-inhabited worlds would simply be smashed from orbit. All I've got are the ships' regular Marine detachments. There's simply no way I could hope to go down there and selectively wipe out three billion Bugs while preserving the Harnahese."

Kozlov looked up in agony. "We're only two transits from Alpha Centauri, three from Sol. Maybe we could bring in more surface forces-"

"You're talking about Marines, Commodore!" Nagata snapped. "Do you have any conception of how many of them would die, even if we brought in the whole damned Corps?"

"I'm sorry, Brigadier. I know what they'd have to face. But what else are we to do?"

Antonov's voice cut the exchange off like a battleaxe. "That cannot be our decision. A policy is going to have to be hammered out for dealing with this world-and others like it. Our surprise is merely a result of wishful thinking; we should have anticipated such situations."

"How coulddd we hhhave, Admiral?" Taathaanahk asked quietly. "Admittedly, we hhhave alll haddd to accussstom ourselves to whattt the Buggsss do to the inhabitants of conquereddd worrrlds. But the nnnotion of sssentient beingsss rrraised from birthhh as . . ." He couldn't continue. It was the first time any of them had seen the avian lose his composure.

"I suppose," Raymond Prescott grated, "we've simply assumed-had to assume-that the Bugs gorged on the conquered human populations until they'd finished them off. We never let ourselves consider that they were keeping some as . . . as breeding stock. Children, probably . . ."

A low sound, more primal than any spoken language, suffused the compartment. Antonov cut it off.

"For present, I have decided how we will proceed." They all noticed the loss of definite articles; a few knew him well enough to realize the stress level that implied. "Commodore Stovall, I want staff to plan surgical strikes aimed at destroying all spaceport facilities and major industrial centers and military installations on surface, as well as any remaining space-based industry. And no, I don't expect you to guarantee these strikes won't kill a single Harnahese; only a politician could be so fatuous. We'll strand Harnah's Bug population on planet, where it can be left to await Alliance's decision. Our next courier drone will inform Centauri of this course of action-and of my assumption of full responsibility for it."

He stood up abruptly and stalked out of the room before the rest of them could rise. They were left staring at the view screen, at the lovely blue planet.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE "What else are we to do?" | In Death Ground | * * *