Out Of The Dark – Snippet 09

Chapter .IV.

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to approach closer to the objective than that, and all but two of them — one in each polar position — had since been withdrawn, leaving even less easily detected remote platforms to continue the monitoring function.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.”