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Out of the Dark: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 21:02 EDT



    The gathering in Star of Empire’s conference room consisted of Thikair’s three squadron commanders, his ground force commander, Ship Commander Ahzmer, and Ground Base Commander Shairez. Despite the fact that Shairez was technically junior to Ground Force Commander Thairys, she was the expedition’s senior ground base commander, and as such she, too, reported directly to Thikair.

    At the moment, the flagship, along with the rest of the fleet, lay on the far side of KU-197-20’s single large moon from the planet. Only the highly stealthy scout ships had been permitted to approach closer to the objective than that, and all but two of them — one in each polar position — had since been withdrawn, leaving even less easily detected remote platforms to continue the monitoring function.

    Rumors about those scout ships’ findings had spread, of course. It would have required divine intervention to prevent that! Still, if it turned out there was no landing after all, it would scarcely matter, would it?

    “What’s your interpretation of the scout ships’ data, Ground Base Commander?” Thikair asked Shairez without bothering to call the meeting formally to order. Most of them seemed surprised by his disregard for protocol, and Shairez didn’t look especially pleased to be the first person called upon. But she could scarcely have been surprised by the question itself. Unlike most of the Hegemony’s other species, the Shongairi had little use for xenoanthropology. Still, at least some expertise in dealing with other races was necessary if one was going to manage them efficiently. One of the main reasons Shairez was the expedition’s senior ground base commander was her experience in dealing with and studying the Empire’s subject species, which made her the closest thing to a true xenologist Thikair had.

    “I’ve considered the data, including that from the stealthed orbital platforms, carefully, Fleet Commander,” she replied. “I’m afraid my analysis confirms Ship Commander Ahzmer’s original fears. I would definitely rate the local civilization at Level Two. A surprisingly advanced Level Two, in some areas, in fact.”

    Unhappy at being called upon or not, she hadn’t flinched, Thikair thought approvingly.

    “Expand upon that, please,” he said.

    “Yes, Sir.” Shairez tapped the virtual clawpad of her personal computer, and her eyes unfocused slightly as she gazed at the memos projected directly upon her retinas.

    “First, Sir, this species has developed nuclear power. Of course, their technology is extremely primitive and it would appear they’re only beginning to experiment with fusion, but there are significant indications that their general tech level is much more capable than we would ever anticipate out of anyone with such limited nuclear capacity. Apparently, for some reason known only to themselves, these people — I use the term loosely, of course — have chosen to cling to hydrocarbon- fueled power generation well past the point at which they could have replaced it with nuclear generation.”

    “That’s absurd!” Squadron Commander Jainfar objected. The crusty old space dog was Thikair’s senior squadron commander and as bluntly uncompromising as one of his dreadnoughts’ main batteries. Now he grimaced as Thikair glanced at him, one ear cocked interrogatively.

    “Apologies, Ground Base Commander,” the squadron commander half growled. “I don’t doubt your data. I just find it impossible to believe any species that stupid could figure out how to use fire in the first place!”

    “It is unique in our experience, Squadron Commander,” Shairez acknowledged. “And according to the master data banks it’s also unique in the experience of every other member of the Hegemony. Nonetheless, they do possess virtually all of the other attributes of a Level Two culture.”

    She raised one hand, ticking off points on her claws as she continued.

    “They have planet- wide telecommunications. Their planetary data net, while still rudimentary in a technical sense, is planet- wide, as well. And, to be honest, our initial probes confirm that their security measures are surprisingly good.

    “Although they’ve done little to truly exploit space, it isn’t because of any inherent inability to do so. They have numerous communications and navigational satellites, what appear to be quite competent orbital astronomy platforms, and at least one crude space station. Their military aircraft are capable of trans-sonic flight regimes, they make abundant use of advanced — well, advanced for any pre-Hegemony culture — composites, and we’ve observed experiments with early- generation directed energy weapons, as well. They have not established a unified planetary government as yet, which is virtually unheard of for a species at this level of advancement, but there are indications that they are headed in that direction at this time. And while their technological capabilities are not distributed uniformly about their planet, they’re spreading rapidly and should achieve that level of distribution within the next generation or two. Indeed, they might manage it even sooner, if their ridiculous rate of technological advancement to this point is any guide!”

    The silence around the conference table was profound. Thikair let it linger for several moments, then leaned back in his chair.

    “How would you account for the discrepancy between what we’re now observing and the initial Survey report?”

    “Sir, I can’t account for it,” she said frankly. “I’ve double-checked and triple-checked the original report. There’s no question that it was accurate at the time it was made, yet now we find this. Every projection says this species ought to be experimenting with muzzle-loading black powder firearms and crude steam engines. Instead, its has somehow made the jump from animal transport, wind power, and muscle-powered weapons to what’s clearly a Level Two culture more than three times as rapidly as any other species. And please note that I said ‘any other species.’ The one I had in mind were the Ugartu.”

    The fleet commander saw more than one grimace at that. The Ugartu had never attained Hegemony membership . . . since they’d turned their home star system into a radioactive junkyard first. The Council of the time had breathed a quiet but very, very profound sigh of relief when it happened, too, given that the Ugartu had been advancing technologically at twice the galactic norm. Which meant these people . . .

    “Well, I suppose that explains how Survey’s estimate of their tech level could be so far off,” Jainfar said dryly. “Now if we only knew why it’s happened!”

    “Is it possible the initial survey team broke procedure, Sir?” Ship Commander Ahzmer asked, his expression troubled. Thikair glanced at him, and his flagship’s commander flicked both ears. “I’m just wondering if the surveyors might inadvertently have made direct contact with the locals? Accidentally given them a leg up?”

    “Possible, but unlikely, Ship Commander,” Ground Force Commander Thairys said. “I wish I didn’t have to say that, since I find this insanely rapid advancement just as disturbing as you do. Unfortunately, the original survey was conducted by the Barthoni.”

    Several of Thikair’s officers looked as if they’d just smelled something unpleasant. Actually, from the perspective of any self-respecting carnivore, the Barthoni smelled simply delicious. But the timid plant-eaters were one of the Shongairi’s most severe critics. And the reason the miserable little centaurs were so heavily represented in the Hegemony’s survey forces, despite their inherent timidity, was because of their fanatic support for the Council regulations limiting contact with inferior races.

    “I’m afraid I agree with the Ground Force Commander,” Shairez said.

    “And it wouldn’t matter if that were what had happened,” Thikair pointed out. “The Constitution doesn’t care where a species’ technology came from. What matters is the level it’s attained, however it got there.”

    “That, and the way the Council would react to finding out about it,” Jainfar said sourly, and ears moved in agreement all around the table.

    “I’m afraid Squadron Commander Jainfar has a point, Sir.” Thairys sighed heavily. “It was hard enough getting approval for our other objectives, and they’re far less advanced than these creatures have turned out to be. Or I hope to Dainthar’s Hounds they still are, at any rate!”

    More ears waved agreement, Thikair’s among them. However aberrant, this species’ development clearly put it well outside the parameters of the Council’s authorization. However….

    “I’m well aware of just how severely our discoveries have altered the circumstances envisioned by our mission orders,” he said. “On the other hand, there are a few additional points I believe bear consideration.”

    Most of them looked at him with obvious surprise, but Thairys’ tail curled up over the back of his chair, and his ears flattened in speculation.

    “First, one of the points I noticed when I reviewed the first draft of Ground Base Commander Shairez’ report was that these people not only have remarkably few nuclear power stations, but for a species of their level, they also have remarkably few nuclear weapons. Only their major political powers seem to have them in any quantity, and even they have very limited numbers compared to their nonnuclear capabilities. Of course, they are omnivores, but the numbers of weapons are still strikingly low. Lower even than for some of the Hegemony’s weed-eaters at a comparable point in their development. That becomes particularly apparent given the fact that there are military operations underway over much of the planet. In particular, several more advanced nation-states are conducting operations against adversaries who obviously don’t even approach their own capabilities. Yet even though those advanced — I’m speaking relatively, of course — nation-states have nuclear arsenals and their opponents, who don’t, would be incapable of retaliation, they’ve chosen not to employ them. Not only that, but they must have at least some ability to produce bioweapons, yet we’ve seen no evidence of their use. For that matter, we haven’t even seen poison gas or neurotoxins!”

    He let that settle in, then leaned forward once more to rest his folded hands on the conference table.

    “This would appear to be a highly peculiar species in several respects,” he said quietly. “Their failure to utilize the most effective weapons available to them, however, suggests that in some ways they haven’t advanced all that greatly since the Barthoni first visited this world. In fact, it suggests they’re almost as lacking in… military pragmatism as many of the Hegemony’s weed-eaters. That being the case, I find myself of the opinion that they might well make a suitable client species after all.”

    The silence in the conference room was absolute as the rest of Thikair’s listeners began to realize what Thairys had already guessed.

    “I realize,” the fleet commander continued, “that to proceed with this operation would violate the spirit of the Council’s authorization. However, after careful review, I’ve discovered that it contains no specific reference to the attained level of the local sapients. In other words, the letter of the authorizing writ wouldn’t preclude our continuing. No doubt someone like the Barthoni or Liatu might choose to make a formal stink afterward, but I rather suspect they would . . . find their allies thinner on the ground than they might anticipate in this case, let’s say.”



    Ahzmer cocked one ear questioningly, and Thikair flipped both of his own in an answering shrug.

    “What I’m about to say is not to be shared with anyone not currently sitting around this table without specific authorization from me,” he said. “Is that clear?”

    Every set of ears indicated assent, and he let the very tips of his canines show.

    “The truth is,” he told his senior officers, “that the Council is . . . concerned about these ‘humans.’ Or perhaps it would be better to say its oh-so-noble members are disgusted by them. Possibly even appalled. All of you, I know, have seen the visual and audio records the original survey team brought back from KU-197-20. I’m sure all of you were as disgusted as I was by the sheer military ineptitude displayed in those records. The weed-eaters, on the other hand, were horrified not by the natives’ appalling lack of skill, but by their ferocity. I’m sure many of the Council’s members doubt they would ever survive to achieve hyper-capability without blowing themselves up. I think others, though, are afraid they might. That the Hegemony could find itself faced with a second Shongair Empire.”

    He let more of his canines show in reaction to that thought, and saw his own response mirrored by his subordinates. The Shongair Empire had no intention of allowing any rivals to arise. Not that anyone as pathetic at using its own military resources as this species could ever challenge the Empire, of course.

    “Before our departure on this mission, it was suggested to me by the Imperial Minister for Colonization that the Council sees authorizing our colonization of KU-197-20 as a means of striking down two prey with a single claw. First, it gives us a toy to keep us satisfied and occupied, poor primitive creatures that we are. Second, it presumably short-circuits this species’ probable self-destruction and also eliminates any threat to the Hegemony’s peace it might someday pose. In fact, while the Council would never admit it openly, it was clearly intimated to Minister for Colonization Vairtha by none over than Vice- Speaker Koomaatkia that the Council has determined that something needs to be done about these creatures, and that… fewer questions than usual will be asked about our tactics in KU-197-20’s case.”

    Several of his subordinates pricked their ears at that sentence, and his own flipped in a grim smile. Koomaatkia was a Kreptu, and the Kreptu were one of the Hegemony’s original founding members. They’d also been among the Shongairi’s more persistent critics, although never to the same degree as the Barthoni and Liatu, yet they were famed for a certain pragmatism, as well. No doubt the notion of using one problem to solve or prevent another one would appeal to them. And they were a highly consensual species. No Kreptu as prominent as Clan Lady Koomaatkia’n'haarnaathak of Chorumaa would ever have breathed even a hint of such a thing to Minister for Colonization Vairtha if it had not, in fact, embodied the Council’s consensus. And that meant….

    “I’m sure,” Thikair continued, “that she and some of the Council’s other members hope these creatures will prove sufficiently difficult for us to manage that we’ll find ourselves forced to slow our own rate of colonization and expansion. They’d all like that, whether they ever admitted it or not. But most importantly of all, to their thinking, our conquest of these creatures’ homeworld will keep them from becoming a problem to the rest of the Hegemony in the fullness of time.

    “And that, of course, was their thinking when they had no idea of how insanely rapid these ‘humans’ rate of technological process might become. Let’s not forget the Ugartu. Is there any officer sitting at this table who believes the Hegemony Council didn’t feel deeply relieved when the Ugartu self-destructed?” His lips wrinkled back from his teeth in contempt. “All the weed-eaters — and most of the omnivores, too, for that matter — are far too hypocritical, far too aware of their own towering moral stature, to ever admit anything of the kind, but we know better, don’t we?”

    His officers looked back at him in equally contemptuous agreement, and his ears flipped another shrug.

    “So even if this is a Level Two civilization, some members of the Council would shed no tears if the ‘humans’ were to find themselves subordinated to the Empire. They’d see it as the lesser of two evils, I think. As I said, the Barthoni and Liatu might disagree, but less vehemently than usual this time. And even if they did, it seems clear from Vice-Speaker Koomaatkia’s comments to the Minister that they would find themselves with fewer allies than they’d probably expect. Against that background, I think it might be well for us to consider the possible advantages of proceeding despite the Constitutional protections normally extended to a Level Two civilization.”

    “Advantages, Sir?” Ahzmer asked, and Thikair’s eyes gleamed.

    “Oh, yes, Ship Commander,” he said softly. “This species may be bizarre in many ways, and they obviously don’t understand the realities of war, but clearly something about them has supported a phenomenal rate of advancement. I realize their actual capabilities would require a rather more vigorous initial strike than we’d anticipated. And even with heavier prelanding preparation, our casualties might well be somewhat higher than projected. Fortunately, Ground Force Commander Thairys has twice the normal ground force component thanks to our follow-on objectives in Syk and Jormau. That means we have ample force redundancy to conquer any planet-bound civilization, even if it has attained Level Two. And to be honest, I think it would be very much worthwhile to concentrate on this system even if it means writing off the seizure of one — or even both — of the others.”

    One or two of them looked as if they wanted to protest, but he flattened his ears, his voice even softer.

    “I realize how that may sound, but think about this. Suppose we were able to incorporate these creatures — these ‘humans’ — into our labor force. Remember, preliminary physiological data suggests it may be possible to neurally educate them, so they could be rapidly integrated. But suppose we were able to do even more than that with them. Put them to work on our research projects. Suppose we were able to leverage their talent for that sort of thing to quietly push our own tech level to something significantly in advance of the rest of the Hegemony. The weed-eaters are content with the technology they have, and so are most of the omnivores. They’re stagnant — we all know that. Our programs are already giving us a small edge over their technology base, but let’s be honest among ourselves — it’s taking longer than we’d like, and so far our advances have been only incremental. These creatures might very well give us the opportunity to accelerate that process significantly. Possibly even suggest avenues of development we haven’t even considered yet. How do you think that would ultimately affect the Emperor’s plans and schedule?”

    The silence was just as complete, but it was totally different now, and he smiled thinly.

    “It’s been three standard centuries — over six hundred of these people’s years — since the Hegemony’s first contact with them. If the Hegemony operates to its usual schedule, it will be at least two more standard centuries — over four hundred local years — before any non-Shongair observation team bothers to visit this system again. That would be — what? Twenty of these creature’s generations? More? And that will be counting from the point at which we return to announce our success. If we delay that return for a few decades, even as much as a standard century or so, it’s unlikely anyone would be particularly surprised, given that they expect us to be gathering in three entire star systems.” He snorted harshly. “In fact, it would amuse the weed-eaters to think we’d found the opposition more difficult than anticipated! But if we chose instead to spend that time subjugating these ‘humans’ and then educating their young to Hegemony standards, who knows what sort of R&D they might accomplish before that happens?”

    “The prospect is exciting, Sir,” Thairys said slowly. “Yet I fear it rests on speculations whose accuracy can’t be tested without proceeding. If it should happen that they prove less accurate than hoped for, we would, as you say, have violated the spirit — the official spirit, at any rate — of the Council’s authorizing writ for little return. Personally, I believe you may well be correct and that the possibility should clearly be investigated. Yet if the result is less successful than we might wish, would we not risk exposing the Empire to retaliation from other members of the Hegemony?”

    “A valid point,” Thikair acknowledged. “First, however, as I say, the Council’s attitude towards the humans is somewhat more . . . ambivalent than usual. Second, even if the Barthoni and their weed-eater fellows were able to muster support for a vote of censure from the Council, the Emperor would be able to insist — truthfully — that the decision was mine, not his, and that he never authorized anything of the sort. I believe it’s most probable the Hegemony Judiciary would settle for penalizing me, as an individual, rather than recommending retaliation against the Empire generally. Of course it’s possible some of you, as my senior officers, might suffer as well. On the other hand, I believe the risk would be well worth taking and would ultimately redound to the honor of our clans.

    “There is, however, always another possibility. The Council won’t expect a Level Three or a Level Two civilization any more than we did. If it turns out after a local century or so that these humans aren’t working out, the simplest solution may well be to simply exterminate them and destroy enough of their cities and installations to conceal the level of technology they’d actually attained before our arrival. Given the Council’s evident attitude towards the original survey reports and — especially — Vice- Speaker Koomaatkia’s . . . encouragement, I suspect the Hegemony would be less brokenhearted over such an outcome than they might have been in another case, not that any of them would ever be honest enough to say so. In fact, it’s possible they might well choose not to look all that carefully at the evidence of the locals’ actual technological level lest unpleasant questions about their own attitudes and behaviors be raised. So while it would be dreadfully unfortunate, of course, if one of our carefully focused and limited bioweapons somehow mutated into something which swept the entire surface of the planet with a lethal plague, the Council might prove surprisingly… understanding in this instance. After all, as we all know” — he bared his canines fully — “accidents sometimes happen.”

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