Part 1 of 2
Copyright © 1992
Globin had been the human leader of a band of Khalian pirates on Barataria, leading his Weasel crews against humans of any political stripe.
Globin had become the head of a vast trading combine and the architect of Khalian integration into the human-dominated Alliance—not because he wanted to, but because it was the only route to survival for the one-time outlaws who depended on him.
Now Globin was old and tired. Well, not really old, considering that he was only eighty, and humans of his day regularly lived to the age of 130, remaining in full vigor past their centennials—but he felt old. And weary. And, most especially, bored.
He was satisfied that he had established a stable government on Barataria that would continue to be viable and democratic without him, and he was certain that he was no longer necessary to anyone, least of all himself.
Then the voice of Plasma, his secretary, sounded from the desktop speaker. “Globin.”
Globin gave the grille a jaundiced glance, then sighed as he felt the weight of his office settle again. “Yes, Plasma?”
“A new ship has appeared at the Galactic West frontier, Globin—a ship of a type that has never been seen before. To demands that it identify itself, it responds with unintelligible gibberish.”
Globin frowned. “Interesting, but scarcely vital to the welfare of Barataria.”
“True, Globin. I thought it might be of interest to you personally.”
Globin smiled; Plasma had been his aide for most of his adult years, and knew that inside the statesman’s hide lurked the scholar that had never quite been buried under the avalanche of bureaucracy. “You thought correctly. From which direction does it come?”
“From the interior of the galaxy, Globin.”
“The interior! This could be interesting! Is there any video feed yet?”
“None for the public.” Plasma’s voice hid amusement.
It was well founded; so far as they knew, the Alliance was still blissfully unaware the Baratarians had long since gained access to their sentry system’s scramble code.
“Relay it to my screen.” Globin swiveled about to the wall in which his view-screen was embedded, a meter high and two wide.
The screen darkened, showing night pierced with the sparks that were stars. One glowed much brighter than all the rest, and Globin reached for his controls, keying in the code for expansion. The brightest spark loomed larger and larger until it filled the screen—a collection of cylinders bound together with a coil, looking like nothing so much as a collection of ancient tin cans tied together with baling wire. And they did seem ancient—scarred and pitted by collisions with countless meteorites, splotched by mysterious burns. That spaceship had come a long, long way—and at a guess, the aliens hadn’t wanted to spend much energy on force-field screens.
Either that, or they didn’t know how to make them.
Voices accompanied the picture, the voices of the sentry who had spotted the ship and his senior officer.
“You’re getting what?”
“An outrageous radiation reading, Captain. I’d guess their shielding broke down.”
Or, thought Globin, they hadn’t had any to begin with—like the early torch-ships, which had shielding only between the engines and the ship itself. Why shield empty space from radiation?
“Could be they’re using really raw fuel,” a more mature voice answered.
Globin nodded slowly. If this species hadn’t bothered developing more advanced engines, they might even be using U-235. Why go after higher elements, when the lower would do?
Had they even thought of fusion?
But surely they had to, if they had come so far.
Something else bothered him. Why five separate cylinders? Perhaps one for the engines, but why the other four?
A niggling suspicion joggled his brain. Could there be more than one life-form aboard? Could they need separate environments for separate species? Or perhaps...
He felt the compulsion seize him, the hunger for knowledge, and knew it wouldn’t go away until it was fulfilled. He would study everything he could about these aliens, at every odd moment, until he was satiated. It was the old, old hunger that had driven him into scholarship, and was akin to the lust for revenge that had driven him to find the Merchant worlds. It was the same driving appetite that had led him to learn as much as he could about the commerce of the Alliance, and had allowed him to hew out a niche for Barataria.
He hoped this hunger would work for the good of his adopted people, too.
An hour later Plasma came in with some papers needing signatures and found Globin still staring at the screen, listening to the voices, ideas whirling in his head.
The conference was over; the delegation from Khalia filed out, their leader pausing to chat a little longer with Globin before they left. As soon as he was out the door, Plasma was in. “The aliens have docked at a western sentry station, Globin! I have been recording it for two hours! They are attempting to communicate!”
Globin stared, changing frames of reference in his mind. Then he frowned. “Alien! With so many races in the Alliance, how can you speak the word ‘alien’?”
“Truly alien, Globin! Like no creatures we have ever seen before!” The secretary turned to the wall screen, keyed it in, and selected a channel.
Globin turned back to his desk. “Let us see it as it is now, Plasma! I will view the beginning later!”
He dropped into his chair to see the collection of cylinders, scarred and pitted. It was held to the dock by magnetic grapples only—of course; there was no guarantee that an oxygen atmosphere would not hurt its occupants, so there could be no boarding tube yet.
Behind him, Plasma said, “Fighters came out to inspect, and found an alien floating at the end of a tether with his arms up and hands spread open. They took that as the sign of peace, and towed the ship back to the station. I am sure there are a triad of blast cannon focused on it even now.”
And a projectile rifle aimed at each alien, Globin guessed, for the top of one of the giant tin cans had opened downward, and four spacesuited figures stood on it. One was more or less anthropoid, standing on two limbs and having two others just below the sphere of the helmet—but it was broad and swollen, so much so that Globin had a fleeting notion that its suit was inflated, with nothing inside. Another stood on four legs with two more limbs extended for grasping, and a long extension behind that was probably a tail.
A tail? On a sentient being? How could its race not have evolved past the need for one?
Another alien stood on six, and one on none. All had extensions that looked like arms, though it was hard to tell in a spacesuit—but only the bearlike one had anything resembling shoulders. The one without legs was smallest, scarcely a meter long—and long it was, for its suit stretched out horizontally, floating in midair by some kind of field effect that was presumably built into the suit.
“Detail!” Globin pressed a ruby square on his desktop, and the picture enlarged. He maneuvered a joystick set next to the ruby square, and one single helmet filled the meter-wide screen. It was heavily frosted on the outside, but one square area was kept clear, presumably by heating. Reflection made the face within difficult to see, but Globin could make out a muzzle and large warm eyes. The face looked like that of a bear, but a very warmhearted bear. Globin knew it was completely illogical, but he felt himself warming to the alien.
He pushed the joystick to the right, and the bear-face slid out of the screen as the helmet of the centauroid slid in. Globin could make out sleek, streamlined jaws, and atop them eyes that were only dim glints, but enough to make Globin shiver—the creature might be sentient, but it was far from human.
He pushed the joystick once more, and shuddered again. The six-legged creature’s helmet was in front of its body, not on top, and the face within bore clear convex lenses for eyes four inches across, fangs and hair shrouding everything else—at least, Globin thought it was hair; it was hard to tell through the frost.
All this time, he’d been absorbing the audio. A commentator, carefully neutral, was saying, “The ursine creature has presented a diagram of an oxygen atom; the centauroid and arachnid have presented similar diagrams of methane molecules. All have made sounds as they pointed to the diagrams, and the computer has associated those sounds with the names of the compounds. From this, we surmise that the ursine is an oxygen breather, though judging from the frost on its suit, it is accustomed to a much warmer median temperature than any Alliance species.”
Globin pushed the joystick down and over—and received a shock. The horizontal alien had no helmet—only two clear bulbs, within which were antennas. They did not move; the creature might have been an inert lump. But one of the “arms” held a diagram of an oxygen molecule—no, two diagrams, Globin saw. He frowned and expanded the view, and recognized the second diagram—it was a silicon atom.
“The meaning of the second diagram held by the fourth alien is unclear,” the commentator said.
But it was very clear, to Globin. The creature lived in an oxygen atmosphere, but was made of silicon. He felt a prickling creep up across his back as he stared at it—a living, organic computer.
Then he remembered that that was what he himself was, that and considerably more, and the prickling went away. Still, how much he could learn from the study of such a creature!
The bearish alien touched its own chest and chuckled something that sounded, to human ears, like “Gerson. Gerson.”
“The alien seems to be naming itself,” murmured the commentator. “But is ‘Gerson’ its name, or the name of its species?”
The centauroid was touching its chest now, fluting “Silber.” The six-legged alien gestured toward itself and said, in tones like metal scraping, “Itszxlksh.” Then another voice, rich and resonant, thrummed, “Ekchartok.”
Globin frowned, and peered more closely. The arm of the horizontal alien had begun to move toward itself—but slowly, very slowly. He wondered what means it had employed to generate the sound.
He was still watching its movement as the picture disappeared, and the commentator himself came onto the screen. “Since this scene was recorded, the aliens have been in constant contact with a growing team of Alliance scientists. They have established a very basic vocabulary...”
The picture dissolved back into the first.
“...by associating sounds with pictures of basic objects,” said the commentator’s voice, “then with sketches of simple action verbs. With a thousand such words entered, the translation computer has been able to enter into dialogue with the aliens, exchanging descriptions and explanations of more complex terms. With five thousand words learned by both teams, meaningful dialogue has begun to take place.”
Globin nodded, so intent that he scarcely saw his secretary. The procedure was correct—in fact, it was classical. But what had they learned from their communication?
“The four aliens are representatives of four different species,” the commentator explained, “and our computers have learned four different languages, plus a fifth that is apparently a lingua franca. According to the visitors’ report, they are only four of a score or more of races that inhabit the stars near the galactic core.”
Globin stared. Just how far had those visitors come, anyway?
Thirty thousand light-years. Of course. He knew that. Approximately. Give or take a thousand light-years.
A spacesuited human stepped into the picture, asking, “Why have you come here?” The translation computer issued a combination of growls and whistles that Globin presumed constituted the same idea in the aliens’ lingua franca.
In answer, the bearish alien growled and barked. The computer translated, “We were attacked by alien beings.” He pressed the top of his card, and the diagram of the oxygen atom disappeared. The card flickered and darkened into a picture of ships in space—a vast flotilla, without any apparent organization, though Globin felt instinctively that the pattern was there, if he could only take the time to seek it out. He keyed his controls to expand that picture on the “card” and found that the ships were of a design not even remotely familiar, with a strangeness about it that somehow grated, arousing apprehension and dread in equal measure.
“They came from the northwest spiral arm,” the computer stated to the accompaniment of the bearish one’s growls. “All efforts to communicate with them have failed; they make no response at all. We call them ‘Ichtons’; in our communal language, it means ‘the destroyers.’ ”
The picture faded away and returned—but now it showed the strange ships descending toward a tawny planet. “At first,” said the computer, “they settled on several uninhabited worlds. They had tenuous oxygen atmospheres and some primitive plant life, but had never evolved sentient forms. Accordingly, we left them alone, but set probes to keep watch on them. Within a decade, we saw that their planets had become overcrowded with billions of Ichton workers. The soil had been torn away to bedrock, refuse had been piled high, and all forms of life had been exterminated.
“Then they left these used-up planets and attacked worlds inhabited by sentient races.”
The picture dissolved into a scene of battle, showing a horde of insectoid creatures engulfing a band of desperate reptilian creatures who bore weapons that looked like muskets modified to fit an allosaur, but that fired blasts of light. The view narrowed, one single attacker swelling in the screen even as its image froze. Globin shuddered; the creature looked like the result of an unnatural coupling between a locust and an iguana. The trunk of the body was covered by a hard exoskeleton made up of sliding plates. This carapace extended over the top of its head. It stood on four legs and used a third pair in front to hold a weapon that seemed to be little but a tube with a squeeze bulb on the end—but the chitinous claw rested on a button, not the bulb. There were three of those claws on each “hand.” The head looked like a locust’s, except for the eyes, which were much smaller than those of the terrestrial insect.
It was not so much that the creature looked fearsome, as that it was utterly, totally in contradiction of everything he had ever thought of as a sentient being—and from the silent ferocity with which it had attacked, it seemed completely soulless and mechanical.
The creature shrank back into the middle of its swarm; the tableau thawed, motion restored, and Globin watched the pocket of reptilians being engulfed by the horde. They streamed by, chitinous thoraxes and threshing legs and whipping tails, and when they had passed, there was not a trace of the reptilians.
“These are only a very few of a relatively small band of Ichtons,” the Gerson explained, “but even so, they were enough to overwhelm the reptilian colony on what was once a lovely and fertile planet. The same has since happened to the home planet, and to those of three other species. On any world they conquer, the Ichtons exterminate all higher forms of life, especially sentient species, then begin exploiting the planet’s resources.”
The picture rose, looking out over miles and miles of barren sand.
“Where the horde has passed,” the Gerson growled, “nothing remains; all life is erased.”
The screen darkened; Globin moved his joystick to show him all four aliens again. The fluting voice of the Silber said, “We four races have joined together to protect our worlds. Together, we halted the Ichton advance, but only at grievous cost in lives and resources. We knew we could not hold them off for long without assistance—so we dispatched dozens of ships like this one, each with environments for representatives of each of our four species, to seek out aid for our home worlds and colonies. The Ichtons seem to have realized our goal, for they pounced on our ship as we fled our home planet. The battle was short and vicious, and our ship was damaged in the course of it, but we won free, and have come to you from the Core in only four months.”
“Four months?” said Plasma. “Was their drive damaged, that they could not shift in weeks?”
“I think not,” said Globin. “They seem almost to boast, as though they think four months to be excellent time. It is only conjecture, but I think their FTL drive is very primitive. After all, stars crowd densely at the Core; what need for a sophisticated FTL drive when you need never travel more than a few light-years?”
“We ask your aid,” thrummed the Ekchartok, “not only for ourselves, but also for you. We believe that the Ichtons have conquered all the habitable planets of their spiral arm; if they conquer the worlds of the Core, they will begin to move out into other spiral arms. It may take a century or a millennium, but they will find your worlds, too—and then they will be virtually unbeatable; there will not be billions of them, but billions of billions. We appeal to you to fight this cancer and excise it now, while it is still far distant from you—and in the process, to aid four species who have been long blessed with peace, and have ceased to study the ways of war.”
But the humans and Khalia had not succeeded in studying war no more, Globin reflected. Far from it.
He didn’t bother following the debate that ensued in the Alliance Council; it had a foregone conclusion. So he was not at all surprised when Plasma burst into his office three days later, crying, “Globin! It is war!”
Globin stared, frozen for a moment. Then he snapped, “The screen! At once!”
“At once, Globin!” Plasma ducked back into the outer office, and the screen lit up with a view of the Alliance council chambers, with men in grim and very orderly debate.
“The Senate met in executive session as soon as the preliminary reports had been presented,” the commentator said. “In view of the sufferings and peril of the Core races, they have decided to lend what aid they can against the Ichtons.”
Globin smiled a small and cynical smile. “It is scarcely sheer altruism,” he said.
“Truly,” Plasma agreed. “Who does not know that the Fleet, idling in peacetime, is not always the best of neighbors? I certainly would not care to have a base on Barataria, with Fleet law virtually excluding our own government.”
“Never,” Globin agreed, “though we have more reason to dislike the notion than most. And there is a burden of support that accompanies a Fleet base—not to mention making your world a target for enemies, if war comes again.”
“But what can they do?” Plasma wondered. “They cannot release millions of personnel into the labor force; that would cause a depression that would drain the Alliance’s economy even more than the expense of maintaining the hundred thousand ships of the Fleet. They are allowing attrition to reduce the size of the burden, by refusing to replace ships that wear out, and refusing to replace personnel who retire or die—but they cannot forget that they came close, very close, to losing their war with us!”
Globin nodded. “It was almost impossible to supply so vast a force, so far from its base.”
“What can they do, then?” Plasma wondered. “Create bases in the Core?”
But an admiral was standing before the Assembly, resplendent in battle ribbons and braid. “We propose to build a number of mobile bases. Each base would be capable of repairing, maintaining, and even constructing warships, on a limited basis. They would be moved by the most massive warp engines and gravitic drives ever built, and would be capable of accelerating at nearly half the speed of a destroyer. Their mass would allow them to pass through gravitic disruptions such as stars, while still in warp. Disruptions of this magnitude would tear apart a smaller field. Such battlestations would be so large as to form their own ecosystems, making them self-sufficient for food and water, and their closed environments would be capable of sustaining their inhabitants indefinitely.”
“He speaks of artificial planets!” Plasma murmured in awe.
But a Senator was on his feet already, interrupting the Fleet spokesman. “That would be prohibitively expensive, Admiral! Just building such a battlestation would be a horrible drag on our already sagging economy—and maintaining it would bankrupt the Alliance!”
“The station would be self-sustaining, as I’ve said, Honorable,” the admiral answered, “not just in material resources, but economically. Raw materials would be obtained locally by merchant corporations. To accomplish this, sections of the stations would be leased to mercantile corporations, and even to independent traders.”
“Globin!” Plasma cried, and Globin stiffened, feeling the thrill pass through him.
“We would construct only one battlestation at this time,” the admiral was saying. “It would be the prototype, and we would dispatch it to the Core, to aid these embattled species who ask our help. We would equip the station with a hundred ships and all their crews, plus the crew and support personnel necessary to operate the station itself. Existing, but aging, spacecraft could be cannibalized for the construction of the mobile base. Current Fleet holdings in the Alliance worlds would thereby be diminished by nearly ten thousand ships and twenty percent of total personnel.”
A murmur passed through the hall, as politicians glanced at one another and calculated how much of the problems caused by the peacetime Fleet could be alleviated—and how many jobs the building of the station would supply.
“The enemy would be defeated far from home,” the admiral concluded, “and an Alliance presence established among friendly species in the Core.”
The Assembly chamber disappeared from the screen, replaced by the commentator. “The Privy Council continued in emergency session,” he said, “and the president came forth today with an astounding conclusion.”
A picture of the president of the Senate replaced that of the commentator. He was standing in front of the titanic surrealist sculpture that housed the Alliance’s civilian government, its lighted windows refracted through the waterfall that covered the front of the building. It was an extremely dramatic background for announcements, as Globin suspected it had been intended to be.
“We have determined to respond to the Core’s plea for help,” the president said, “but in moderation—we will send only one mother ship.”
Globin frowned. A token indeed.
“But that ship,” said the president, “will be the size of a small moon, and will contain half of the current Fleet personnel. It will also house a substantial proportion of the Fleet’s smaller vessels.”
Globin’s eyes fairly glowed.
“Such a vessel will of course have to be built,” the president responded. “It will be named the Stephen Hawking. The cost will be as astronomical as its destination, but the Alliance government will pay only a fraction of it.”
Globin noticed that he didn’t say how large a fraction he had in mind.
“Many universities have already petitioned the Council to find room on the Fleet ships for their astronomers, physicists, and xenologists,” the president went on. “They have indicated a willingness to assume the cost of their support.”
Of course, most of those universities were supported at least partly by government funds, one way or another—but Globin nodded; the Alliance wouldn’t have to contribute anything additional. The universities would take the money out of their research funds. They would ask the Alliance for more money, of course, but they were very unlikely to receive it.
“However, we anticipate that the major portion of the funding will come from mercantile companies,” the president wound up. “The galaxy is huge, and may contain many new and valuable commodities; merchant companies will wish to explore and exploit. Several of the largest companies have already been in touch with the Alliance, asking for rights to exploit new goods the Fleet may discover. The Alliance has refused, of course, since we are committed to free trade—and therefore, no monopolies will be granted. But any merchant company that wishes to lease space on the new supership will be allowed to do so, though the rate will be very high—and from the proceeds, we anticipate being able to finance the greater portion of the cost of the expedition.”
“Should we be interested, Globin?” Plasma asked. When there was no answer, he turned, demanding, “Should we show an interest?”
He saw Globin sitting frozen at his desk, eyes huge and glowing, lips slightly parted.
The Council of Barataria was in an uproar. Half of them were on their feet, gesticulating wildly. The other half were making more coherent demands, some of which Globin could actually hear from his seat at their head.
“What do you speak of, Globin? How can you resign completely from the Council?”
“How can the Council function without you, Globin?”
“How can Khalia endure without you?”
Globin sat still, trying to keep his face from showing how touched he was, reminding himself that the Council had become a prison to him. When they quieted, he began to speak, some inconsequential remarks at first, but they all quieted completely as he began to speak. Then, more loudly, he said, “It is not easy for me to leave you, my friends, but it is necessary. The glory of Khalia must be increased; the prosperity of Barataria must be continued. As you all know, our trade with Khalia has become a major element in their economy; without us, they would suffer economic disaster. But Barataria cannot merely continue as it is—it must grow or diminish, for all things change, and a people, like a single life-form, must build or decay. If other companies gain access to new resources and new markets, and Khalia does not, we will lose our share of the Alliance’s commerce; our trade will eventually die.”
“Surely, Globin! But does not this require that you continue to lead us?”
“Other leaders have grown up among you.” Globin could see the gleam begin in the eyes of the party leaders. “The old must give place to the young—and it is for the old to lend their vision and experience to the beginning of new ventures. It is my place to lease factory and offices on the Stephen Hawking, and to organize and equip the exploration party that will travel aboard it, to walk new worlds and gaze into new skies—and discover new and precious substances.”
The clamor began again.
When it quieted, they tried to talk him out of it, but Globin remained firm—and bit by bit, he caught them in his spell, communicated his zeal, his fascination to them. First one caught fire with the wonder and challenge of it, then another, then three more, then a dozen.
In the end, they voted unanimously to accept his resignation, call for elections, and invest in the Stephen Hawking.
* * *
“I don’t like it, Anton!” Brad Omera, the civilian administrator of non-Fleet personnel, glowered at his military counterpart. “They can call themselves merchants if they want to, but if you scratch a Baratarian, you’ll find a pirate!”
“That may be true, Brad,” Commander Brand allowed, “but they pay good money, and they’re hardy explorers. On a mission like this, I’d rather have a Baratarian pirate beside me than a squadron of Marines.” He didn’t mention that he’d far rather not have that pirate against him.
“But the Goblin, Anton! The Goblin himself! The arch-villain of the Alliance! The Pirate King!”
“He’s a former head of state of a member planet.” Brand put a little iron into his voice. “And he’s a human.”
“Human renegade, you mean! He’s a traitor to his species, and he always will be!”
Brand didn’t deny it; he only said, “He’s a very skillful leader and an excellent strategist.” But inside, he was fiercely determined to make sure Globin stayed in his own quarters.
* * *
It was two years between the vote in the Senate and the day the Baratarian liner matched velocities with the completed battlestation, coming to rest relative to the huge maw of the south pole port. It drifted up into that vast cavern and over near a boarding tube. It stopped itself with a short blast from the forward attitude jets. The tugs answered with brief blasts of their own, bringing the mouth of the tube to fasten to the coupling around the liner’s hatch.
Inside, Globin watched the process on the ship’s screens, and his lips quirked in amusement. “How fitting! The back door!”
“I see no ‘back door,’ Globin.” Plasma frowned. “It is the southern pole of a huge sphere, nothing more.”
“The huge port in the south pole, yes! The back door, for tradesmen!” Globin chuckled, aware that long ago, he would have been hurt and dismayed by the discourtesy. Now, though, it only gave him amusement, and aroused a bit of contempt for the Fleet officers who governed the ship. He knew his own worth—and had a notion of how quickly the Fleet’s men would come to value their Khalian bedfellows.
The hull rang with the coupling of the huge boarding tube, and a voice from the Stephen Hawking advised them, in carefully neutral tones, that air was filling the lock at the end of the tube, which would soon be ready for their new passengers.
Globin rose and stretched, scarcely able to contain the excitement bubbling through him. He felt as though he were thirty again. “Tell the captains to prepare to disembark, Plasma. We’ve come to our new home.”
With his hundreds of eager trader-warriors in their quarters, and their titanic stock of provisions, Baratarian gems, and electronic components stored, Globin was ready to face the necessary ritual of greeting the Stephen Hawking’s commander. Of course, many of those gems and electronic components could be fitted together to make devastatingly powerful weapons, and each Khalian had his own arsenal among his personal effects—but the Stephen Hawking did not need to know about that, and Globin felt no need to mention the issue in his upcoming conference with Commander Brand.
He was vastly amused at the size of the sign on the door that led to the lift tube that communicated to the world outside the decks leased to Barataria, Ltd. In Terran Standard and Khalian script, it warned AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Plasma frowned at the inscription. “Do they think we cannot read their words?”
“For myself, I have no trouble,” Globin assured him. “Loosely translated, it means ‘Pirates Stay Out.’ ”
The door irised open, keyed by his thumbprint—he was the only Baratarian who was authorized—he stepped in with Plasma only one step behind him. As they rode through the light show adorning the walls of the tube, Globin found time to wonder if the humans had already christened his decks “The Pirates’ Nest,” or if that was yet to come.
They stepped out into a reception that was so stiff and cold, Globin wondered how long it had been dead.
“Chief Desrick.” Commander Brand bowed—at least inclined—his head. “I greet you in the name of the Stephen Hawking.”
Behind him, his first officer glowered, simmering.
Globin blinked in surprise; it had been so long since he had used his human name that it took him a moment to realize the man was talking to him. He noted the Khalian idiom “I greet you,” though, and chose to take it as a compliment, though he knew it was intended as an insult—he was pointedly not being told he was welcome. Slowly, he returned the bow, actually tilting his torso forward an inch—not enough to honor the admiral as his senior, only enough to show him how it was done properly. “I greet you, Commander Brand. We of Barataria are honored by our place in the Stephen Hawking.”
Anton Brand understood the rebuke, and reddened. He looked as though he would have liked to refute what Globin had just said, but every word had been technically correct—the Baratarians did have a physical place in the Stephen Hawking, though not a metaphorical one. Instead, Brand only said, “I do not think we will have occasion to meet very often, Chief Merchant, barring incidents between personnel.” His tone implied that Globin had damn well better make sure there were none. “So let us agree that you will work only within the framework of the Stephen Hawking’s mission, and will give advice only when it is asked.”
“Indeed,” Globin murmured. “Such were the terms of our contract, and we will of course abide by them.”
“Then we need speak no further.” Commander Brand gave him a curt bow. “May you fare well on the journey, Chief Desrick.”
Globin returned the bow in millimeters, stifling a smile. He turned away, trying to catch Plasma’s eye, but failing—the warrior was staring at the first officer, his lip twitching as though he were fighting the urge to smile.
“Plasma,” Globin murmured, and the Khalian broke his stare reluctantly and turned to follow Globin to the drop shaft, every muscle stiff with the suppressed urge to fight.
The lift shaft doors closed behind them, and Globin began to chuckle. The light show gave an eerie cast to his features as they sank down, and the chuckling swelled into full, hearty laughter.
Plasma stared, scandalized. “How can you laugh, Globin? When he has virtually insulted you!”
“No, he has not quite,” Globin gasped, letting the laughter ease away. “No, he meant to, I am sure—but he succeeded only in showing what a boor he was. Let it pass, Plasma—he has little understanding, and less true honor.”
Plasma stared in bewilderment as Globin, smiling, shaking his head, chuckled again. He was thinking of the upcoming, and no doubt similar, meeting with Administrator Omera.
The days passed quickly, and the weeks. They might have dragged, but Globin saw to it that his lieutenants kept their men busy with fighting practice and lessons in business and accounting. He often stopped by the practice cavern to watch the training, and took his turn in the classroom, explaining the intricacies of finance to a group of youngsters who hung on his every word. Their excitement, their enthusiasm, their restlessness, made him feel years younger. He had recruited a force of young Baratarian Khalians who did not remember the Family war, except as stories their grandsires told them—but those tales had filled them with a burning desire for glory, and their youthful lust for females stirred them with ambition for reputation and wealth, that they might each attract the female he longed for, and have the right to mate. Globin watched them hone themselves in mind and body, and beamed with pride upon them.
They asked him to teach unarmed combat as well as commerce, but he declined on the grounds of age. Still, they did notice that he practiced, too, and they strove all the harder to emulate him in both book and boot.
“But how shall we need skill in combat as well as commerce, Globin?” Plasma asked him. “Must we fight even as we bargain?”
“We must be prepared to do so,” Globin answered. “We must be prepared for anything, for there is no predicting the customs of truly alien species.”
Privately, though, he doubted that they would encounter any completely incomprehensible behavior. He had a notion that the principles of commerce were as inherent and universal as those of physics. He was eager to find out if he was right.
The personnel of the Stephen Hawking were all subdued and angry at the horrors they had just seen, as the battlestation accelerated and made the transition back into warp drive. They had expected to find a thriving planet, geared for war, perhaps even under attack by an Ichton horde—but they had not expected to find the barren cinder of a planet that had once been the Gerson home world. The Ichtons had come and gone, and where they had passed, only rubble remained.
In the caverns devoted to their own environment, the Gerson envoy moved in a daze, seeking to help the few dozen survivors the Hawking’s people had discovered. Elsewhere in the ship, all the other inhabitants of the battlestation discussed what they had seen, in tones of outrage.
“How vile can they be, Globin! How insentient!” Plasma was beside himself, burning in agitation.
“It is thoroughly inhumane,” Globin agreed, his face stony. “The planet completely bald! Scarcely a living being left!”
“And the Gerson emissary is a noble being,” Plasma snapped, “good-hearted and valiant. How foul to exterminate so fine a race!”
“At least a few survived, and had the sense to activate their beacons when they saw our scouts.” Privately, though, Globin wondered how many more survivors had not dared take the chance, and still hid on the remains of the Gerson planet, doomed to slow starvation. Certainly Brand had not taken any great amount of time to search for survivors; he had been too angry, too eager to go seek out the battle. “How are the men enduring?”
“In rage and ranting, Globin. They are young, they are warriors—and they are furious that they were not allowed to join the expedition down to the surface.” He snorted with exasperation. “What did Brand think we would do—steal?” He turned to glare at Globin. “Could we not have invoked our contract, and insisted on our right to visit any planet at which the Hawking stops?”
“We could,” Globin admitted, “but it did not seem politic, to seem to think of gain in the midst of such tragedy. That is, after all, the reason behind that contractual right—to search for marketable commodities.”
“Commodities!” Plasma snapped, exasperated. “On a world milked dry, shorn clean, picked bare? What could we have found there?”
“Survivors,” Globin muttered. He did not mention that he himself had been too stunned by the enormity of it, the scale of the inhumanity of the Ichtons.
But then, they were inhuman, were they not?
A new word was needed—“insentient.” Any species capable of such unfeeling destruction could barely make claim to sentience itself. It was more like a natural force, a climactic disaster, unfeeling and uncaring for anything but its own goals. Globin began to wonder if “sentience” involved more than intellectual capacity.
Beside him, Plasma shuddered. “The tales those survivors tell! The vastness of the machines of destruction, the rolling mines and refineries, that gobbled up every trace of their civilization, all their antiquities, all their greatest works!”
“And the complete lack of feeling with which they treated the Gersons.” Globin’s mouth tightened. “To not even bury the dead! To do nothing but hurl them into those all-devouring machines! What do the young warriors say of this, Plasma?”
“What would you think they would say, Globin? They are unnerved, as are we; they are angered and appalled, as any feeling being might be! They speak already of revenge, Globin, though it is not their own race that has suffered!”
“Well, we can all see something of the best of us in the Gersons’ emissary,” Globin allowed, “and the fate of his home world has too many echoes of the defeat of Khalia; we cannot be surprised if they feel the need for revenge as though it were their own.”
* * *
The Stephen Hawking dropped out of warp drive, slowed over a period of days, and swung into orbit around the planet Sandworld (a very rough translation from the tongue of its dominant—nearly only—species, the Ekchartok). And they seemed to be not only the sole species of their world, but also the sole survivors of that species.
The alien emitted a high-pitched, keening sound as the screens of the Hawking’s briefing room showed them view after view of a barren, featureless plain.
“This is not as your world always was, then?” Captain Chavere, the chief of the Fleet xenologists, tried to word the question as gently as possible.
“No, never!” answered the flat, bland tones of the translator, though the sounds the Ekchartok were emitting were ragged as gravel, and its surface vibrated with contrasting wave patterns. “There were mountains at this latitude, with lakes and streams.”
There was no water visible any longer, no mountains, and only vast raw gouges of valleys here and there, where titanic machines had chewed away bedrock to break out minerals. And nothing moved.
“The Ichtons have been and gone,” the centauroid, amphibious Silber said. “Nothing survives in their wake; all life is eliminated, all growing things are eaten. They have scoured this world to draw from it every ounce of mineral they seek. Even their own body wastes have been processed to draw from them every molecule they can use; all that is left is the waste of their waste.” It pointed, almost touching the screen where a flat, dark surface glimmered with sunlight.
“We must land and search,” Chavere said, his face grim. “There may be an individual, perhaps a dozen, even a hundred, who have escaped the Ichtons’ notice.”
“There will be nothing, nothing!” the Ekchartok keened. “The Ichtons miss nothing; every gram, every grain, will they have sought out.” Then suddenly it went rigid, totally quiescent.
The Silber stepped forward, reaching out a hand, then drew it back. “It is quiescent,” said the translator. “Its suit will provide for it.”
Captain Chavere hovered, almost frantic, at a loss. “What’s the matter with it?”
“Shock,” Globin answered. “It has gone into its equivalent of a coma, and the suit’s life-support systems will sustain it.”
Chavere favored him with a glare. “How would you know? This is not your field!”
“Personal experience,” Globin returned. “I recognize the stimulus, and the symptoms.”
Chavere reddened, but “It is logical,” grated the arachnid alien, and the captain had to suppress his annoyance.
“We must search the planet! We must do that, at least!”
“Indeed,” Globin murmured. “Indeed we must.”
Chavere rounded on him. “You have no business in this affair, Chief Merchant! You will remain aboard ship!”
Globin had finally had enough. “I invoke the Landing Option clause in our contract, Captain. According to the terms of the agreement, when there is no condition of battle, we have the right to accompany every expedition to the surface of every planet visited by the Hawking’s personnel, for the purpose of investigating resources for trade.”
Chavere’s eyes narrowed. “Your contract? Why, what would you do on this planet?”
“Why, as our contract says,” Globin murmured, “search for resources.”
“But there are no resources left!”
“Nevertheless, we have the right to search,” Globin reminded him.
Chavere locked gazes with him. Globin stared back, unperturbed. Finally, Chavere turned away with a snarl.
Globin permitted himself a small smile, gave a minuscule bow, and turned away to the drop shaft, Plasma behind him, showing the snarl that his chief suppressed.
As the door closed behind them, Globin said, “Select a landing party.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
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