Out Of The Dark – Snippet 10

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.”