Out Of The Dark – Snippet 06

Chapter .II.

The attention signal whistled on Fleet Commander Thikair’s communicator. He would remember later how prosaic and . . . normal it had sounded, but at that moment, as he looked up from yet another ream of deadly dull paperwork, when he still didn’t know, he felt an undeniable sense of relief for the distraction. Then he pressed the acceptance key, and that sense of relief vanished when he recognized his flagship commander’s face . . . and worried expression.

“What is it, Ahzmer?” he asked, wasting no time on formal greetings.

“Sir, we’ve just received a preliminary report from the scout ships. And according to the message, they’ve made a rather… disturbing discovery,” Ship Commander Ahzmer replied.

“Yes?” Thikair’s ears cocked inquisitively as Ahzmer paused.

“Sir, they’re picking up some fairly sophisticated transmissions.”

“Transmissions?” For a moment or two, it didn’t really register. But then Thikair’s eyes narrowed and his pelt bristled. “How sophisticated?” he demanded much more sharply.

“Very, I’m afraid, Sir,” Ahzmer said unhappily. “We’re picking up digital and analog with some impressive bandwidth. It’s at least Level Three activity, Sir. Possibly even” — Ahzmer’s ears flattened — “Level Two.”

Thikair’s ears went even flatter than the ship commander’s, and he felt the tips of his canines creeping into sight. He shouldn’t have let his expression give so much away, but he and Ahzmer had known one another for decades, and it was obvious the other’s thoughts had already paralleled his own.

The fleet’s main body had reemerged into normal-space barely four day-twelfths ago, after eight standard years, subjective, of cryogenic sleep. The flight had lasted some sixteen standard years, by the rest of the galaxy’s clocks, since the best velocity modifier even in hyper allowed a speed of no more than five or six times that of light in normal-space terms. The capital ships and transports were still two standard months of normal-space travel short of the objective, sliding in out of the endless dark like huge, sleek hasthar, claws and fangs still hidden, while the medical staffs began the time-consuming task of reviving the thousands of ground personnel who would soon be needed. But the much lighter scout ships’ lower tonnages made their drives more efficient in both n-space and h-space, and he’d sent them ahead to take a closer look at their target. Now he found himself wishing he hadn’t.

Stop that, he told himself sternly. Your ignorance wouldn’t have lasted much longer, anyway. And you’d still have to decide what to do. At least this way you have some time to start thinking about it!

His mind began to work again, and he sat back, one six- fingered hand reaching down to groom his tail while he thought.

The problem was that the Hegemony Council’s authorization for this operation was based on the survey team’s report that the objective’s intelligent species –“humans,” they called themselves — had achieved only a Level Six civilization. The other two systems on Thikair’s list were both classified as Level Five civilizations, although one had crept close to the boundary between Level Five and Level Four. It had been hard to get the Council to sign off on those two. Indeed, the need to argue the Shongairi’s case so strenuously before the Council was the reason the mission had been delayed long enough to telescope into a three-system operation.

But a Level Six culture was primitive enough for its “colonization” to be authorized almost as an afterthought, the sort of mission any of the Hegemony’s members might have mounted. And in this particular case, authorization had been even prompter than usual. Indeed, Thikair knew some of the Council’s omnivores — even some of its herbivores — had actually given their approval where KU-197-20 was concerned with hidden satisfaction. The visual and audio recordings the original survey team had brought back had horrified the vast majority of the Hegemony’s member species. Even after making all due allowance for the humans’ primitivism, most of the Hegemony had been none too secretly revolted by the bloodthirstiness those recordings had demonstrated.

Thikair’s species wasn’t revolted, which was one of the reasons those hypocrites on the Council had taken such ill- concealed satisfaction in turning KU-197-20 over to the Shongairi. Despite that, they’d never agreed to the conquest of a Level Three civilization, far less a Level Two! In fact, anything which had attained Level Two automatically came under protectorate status until it attained Level One and became eligible for Hegemony membership in its own right or (as a significant percentage of them managed) destroyed itself first.

Cowards, Thikair thought resentfully. Dirt-grubbers. Weed-eaters!

The epithets his species routinely applied to the Hegemony’s herbivorous member races carried bottomless contempt, which was fair enough, since that emotion was fully reciprocated. The Shongairi were the only carnivorous species to have attained hyper-capability. Indeed, before them, the prevailing theory among the various Hegemony members’ xenoanthropologists had been that no carnivorous species ever would attain it, given their natural propensity for violence. Over forty percent of the Hegemony’s other member races were herbivores, who regarded the Shongairi’s dietary habits as barbarous, revolting, even horrendous. And even most of the Hegemony’s omnivores were . . . uncomfortable around Thikair’s people.

Their own precious Constitution had forced them to admit the Shongairi when the Empire reached the stars, but the Shongairi were still the Hegemony’s newest members, and the other species had never been happy about their presence among them. In fact, Thikair had read several learned monographs arguing that pre-Shongairi xenoanthropological theory had been correct; carnivores were too innately self-destructive to develop advanced civilizations. His people’s existence (whether they could truly be called “civilized” or not) was simply the exception which proved the rule — one of those incredible flukes that (unfortunately, in the obvious opinion of the authors of those monographs) had to happen occasionally. What they ought to have done, if they’d had the common decency to follow the example of other species with similarly violent, psychopathically aggressive dispositions, was blow themselves back into the Stone Age as soon as they discovered atomic fission.

Unhappily for those racist bigots, Thikair’s people hadn’t. Which didn’t prevent the Council from regarding them with scant favor. Or from attempting to deny them their legitimate prerogatives.

It’s not as if we were the only species to seek colonies. There’s the Shentai and the Kreptu, just for starters. And what about the Liatu? They’re herbivores, but they’ve got over fifty colony systems!

Thikair made himself stop grooming his tail and inhaled deeply. Dredging up old resentments wouldn’t solve this problem, and if he were going to be completely fair (which he didn’t really want to be, especially in the Liatu’s case), the fact that some of those other races had been roaming the galaxy for the better part of seventy-four thousand standard years as compared to the Shongairi’s nine hundred might help to explain at least some of the imbalance.

Besides, that imbalance is going to change, he reminded himself grimly.

There was a reason the Empire had established no less than eleven colonies even before Thikair’s fleet had departed on its current mission, and why the Shongairi’s Council representatives had adamantly defended their right to establish those colonies even under the Hegemony’s ridiculous restrictions.

No one could deny any race the colonization of any planet with no native sapient species, but most species — the Barthoni came to mind — had deep-seated cultural prejudices against colonizing any world which was already inhabited. Unfortunately, there weren’t all that many habitable worlds, and they tended to be located bother somely far apart, even for hyper-capable civilizations. Worse, a depressing number of them already had native sapients living on them. Under the Hegemony Constitution, colonizing those worlds required Council approval, which wasn’t as easy to come by as it would have been in a more reasonable universe.