Out Of The Dark – Snippet 13

Chapter .VII.

So, Ground Base Commander. You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, Fleet Commander.” Shairez’s ears moved in a subtle expression which mingled agreement and respect, and Fleet Commander Thikair waved her into one of the empty chairs around the briefing- room table.

“Should I assume this means you have that interim report for me?” he asked as she obeyed the unspoken command and seated herself.

“Yes, Sir. I’m afraid it’s a bit more ‘interim’ than I’d hoped, however.”

“Oh?” Thikair’s ears lifted interrogatively.

“Yes, Sir.” Shairez sighed. “Certain generalities are clear enough by now, but these creatures — these humans — are . . . confusing. Or perhaps perplexing would be a better word.”

“How so?”

“To be perfectly honest, it may be that one reason I find them that way is because of my own preconceived ideas of what they ought to be,” the ground base commander confessed. “Their technology level is high enough for my preconceptions to persist in trying to think of them as a single, unified worldwide civilization. Which, manifestly, they are not. We’re simply not accustomed to seeing something as archaic as competing nation-states persisting at this level of technology. Our own people were slower than almost all of the Hegemony’s other species to create a planetary state, and even we had completed that process well before we reached the level of technology these humans possess. I find it difficult to resist the temptation to hammer my observations of so many disparate cultures into a single, cohesive interpretation.”

“I see,” Thikair said, although, if he was going to be honest with himself, he suspected the base commander was overly concerned by those preconceptions” of hers. Admittedly, the humans were more advanced technologically than anyone could possibly have expected, but they were still a planet-bound civilization, and the fact that they still had all of those competing nation-states she’d just mentioned only underscored their societal immaturity, as well. In the long run, it didn’t really matter if Shairez missed some of the finer nuances. The humans were simply and completely outclassed by the capabilities of his fleet and its ground combat elements and bombardment capability. And whether they had a unified culture or not at the moment, they’d damned well have one after he got done hammering them flat and explaining their new status as clients of the Shongair Empire to them!

“Having said that, however,” Shairez continued, “I have reached certain conclusions. I’ve written all of them up in my formal report, which you’ll find in your in-box. There are a few points, though, which I wanted to discuss with you before you read the entire report.”

“Such as?” Thikair tilted his chair back comfortably and began idly grooming the tip of his tail.

“Most of the human nation-states, at least the more developed ones, have significant military capability,” Shairez said. “I’m speaking in terms of their own known threat environment, of course, not in comparison to our capabilities. Three of them stand out as preeminent, however one of them, the one known as the ‘United States,’ is in a class of its own. Its total military forces are smaller than those of the ones known as the ‘People’s Republic of China,’ and the ‘Russian Federation,’ but it has by far the largest navy on KU-197-20, and its general combat capabilities appear to be far greater than anyone else’s. Technically speaking, at least.” She wiggled her ears in a grimace of distaste. “It obviously has no clue how to properly employ those capabilities, however. If it did, it would have settled matters in the region called ‘Afghanistan’ long ago. Nor would it be tolerating the present state of tension between it and ‘Iran,’ whose capabilities are laughable in comparison with its own.

“The other two major military powers are ‘Russia’ and ‘China.’ All three of them possess sizable fleets of aircraft in addition to large numbers of armored vehicles and foot soldiers. There are several second-rank powers, as well. Not primarily because of any inherent technological inferiority to the major powers, but simply because they lack the numbers of the United States, Russia, and China. And then there are the other nation-states, most with lower indigenous technology bases than the major and secondary powers, whose capabilities range all the way from moderate to negligible. All of them, of course, are technologically inferior to us, but given their cumulative numbers they might well prove capable of inflicting significant casualties on our own ground combat forces. A large enough mob armed with nothing but sharp rocks could endanger a rifle-armed soldier, after all, and these creatures have rather more sophisticated weapons than rocks.”

“Ground Force Commander Thairys and I have already accepted that we’ll probably need a more extensive prelanding bombardment than usual,” Thikair said. He shrugged. “We can always expand on our current plans. Kinetic weapons are cheap, when all’s said.”

“Agreed, Sir. I simply wanted to draw the point to your attention. In addition, though, I’m somewhat concerned over what sort of contingency plans these creatures may have. The sheer number of nation-states and the levels of tension between them suggest to me that their leaders have probably made at least some emergency plans against attacks by their fellows. Shongairi in their position certainly would have, and while their planners couldn’t possibly have allowed for the threat our arrival represents, it’s still possible they could have a few potentially nasty surprises tucked away. I’m concerned, in particular, about the United States. Given its general greater level of military capability, it’s my opinion that contingency planning on its part would be most likely to pose a potential threat to us. I think we need to remember that however crude their technology, these creatures do have nuclear weapons, for example, and the United States clearly has the most sophisticated means of delivering them. According to what we’ve been able to pick up from their news media the major powers — or, at least, the United States and Russia — are supposed to be keeping one another fully informed about their nuclear arsenals.” Her ears cocked in an expression of contemptuous disbelief. “I don’t understand that particular level of lunacy on their part, but I think we need to assume they aren’t really stupid enough to give their enemies completely accurate information on a subject like that.”

“No, I don’t suppose they are,” Thikair agreed slowly. And the ground base commander had a point, he thought. Despite the manifest incompetence demonstrated by the absurd way they’d chosen to handicap themselves in dealing with their primitively equipped adversaries, it would never do to assume that even “Americans” were that stupid.

Although it’s certainly possible they really are judging by some of their other actions… or inactions, he reflected, thinking about what could have been accomplished by simply bombarding their adversaries’ positions with sufficient concentrations of a suitable neurotoxin.

“Another point, and one which relates to my concerns over their possible contingency planning,” Shairez continued, “is their computer networks’ resistance to our penetration.” She wrinkled her muzzle. “Their cyber technology, especially in their ‘First World’ nations, is even further advanced than other aspects of their technology. Gaining access to their ‘Internet’ is absurdly easy, and it’s difficult for me to believe, even now, how little thought
they appear to have given to genuine security measures. Or, rather, I find it
hard to understand how they could have failed to recognize the necessity of restricting certain types of information, rather than making it generally available.

“It’s become apparent to me and to my teams, however, that it really is blindness to the importance of securing information, not the absence of the ability to secure their systems. Indeed, despite the foolish manner in which they make so much vital information public, they also maintain a large number of truly secure databases, both government and private. Apparently, there’s a lively, ongoing background level of cyber war, as well. Some of those involved are clearly competing nation-states, trying to compromise one another’s secure systems. Other participants appear to be financial entities, attempting to ferret out one another’s secrets or, in some cases, to penetrate the nation-states’ systems in order to obtain what they call ‘inside information’ on financial regulatory decisions and processes. Still others appear to be groups of individuals unaffiliated with any nation-state or financial entity. Indeed, some of them — possibly even the majority of them — appear to be single individuals bent on penetrating various systems for reasons of their own.”

“And the reason you mention this is –?” Thikair asked when she paused.

“My teams believe they can penetrate virtually all of the cyber defenses we’ve so far identified, Fleet Commander, but they’re limited by their instructions to remain covert. Those defenses and intrusion detection systems are much more capable than we’d originally hoped — presumably as a direct result of the humans’ own ongoing cyber warfare — and it’s unlikely we could break into their systems without being detected.”

“How likely would they be to realize the attack was coming from someone other than another human group?”

“That’s impossible to say, Sir. Obviously, their security people are well versed in other human techniques, and if we were to attack them directly using our own technology, I think it’s quite possible they’d realize they were looking at something entirely new. On the other hand, they don’t know about us and we’ve gained quite a lot of familiarity with their own technology. We could probably disguise any penetration of their secure systems by using their own techniques, and in that case the natural reaction for them would be to assume it was, in fact, one of those other human groups rather than leap to the conclusion that ‘aliens’ were trying to invade their systems.”

Thikair flexed his ears slowly, grooming his tail more thoughtfully as he considered what she’d just said. She was right that they needed to discover anything they could about “contingency plans.” It was unlikely that anything the humans might have come up with could constitute a serious threat to his own operations, but even primitive nuclear weapons could inflict stinging casualties if he got careless. And while he himself was inclined to discount the possibility that anyone as manifestly stupid as humans would realize they were under cyber attack by “aliens,” it wasn’t outright impossible.

Of course, even if they realized the truth there was precious little they’d be able to do about it, unless Shairez’ teams discovered something truly startling.

Stop right there, Thikair, he told himself. Remember, however stupid these creatures are and however crude their technology may be, they aren’t weed-eaters, and you’re talking about a planet with billions of them crawling around on its surface. And the last time anyone in the entire Hegemony actually fought anyone much more sophisticated than these humans were when the Barthoni first visited them was — what? Close to a standard millennium ago — over two thousand of KU-197-20’s local years. In fact, it was us, fighting each other before we ever encountered the Dainthar-damned Hegemony. So even though Shairez probably is being overly cautious, a little excess caution in a situation like this is unlikely to hurt anything, whereas too blithe an assumption of superiority might well get hundreds of your warriors killed. So you do need to find out what their “contingency plans” are, and you need to do it in a way which will let you spend a few days considering what you discover before you have to attack. But how to do that?

He thought about it for several moments, then looked back across the briefing room table at Shairez.

“I strongly suspect Ground Base Commander, that you’ve already considered possible solutions to your problem.” His ears rose in a half smile. “You’re not the sort to simply tell a superior you can’t do something.”

“I try not to be, at any rate, Sir,” she acknowledged with a smile of her own.

“So, tell me, would your solution to this one happen to be launching your attack through one of their own groups?”

“Yes, Sir. It would.”

“And which of their groups did you have in mind?”

“I’ve been considering the nation-state called ‘Iran,’ Sir. Its relations with most of the First World nation-states are extremely tense and strained. In fact, according to what I’ve been able to discover, those relations have become progressively much worse over the last few local years. Apparently, internal unrest has been a problem for the current régime, and its opponents haven’t approved of the techniques it’s used to control that unrest.” Her ears twitched derisively. “These creatures’ insistence on forms and proper procedures is ridiculous, yet even allowing for that it seems apparent the régime has singularly failed to identify the true leaders of the unrest. Either that or, despite its opponents’ condemnation of its ‘extremism,’ it’s failed for some reason known only to itself to act effectively against those leaders and compel their submission.

“In the meantime, however, the hostility existing between it — and especially between it and the United States — could well be made to serve our purposes. Iran’s technical capabilities are generally much inferior to those of the United States, but there are specific areas in which those capabilities are rather more sophisticated. Given its relations with the United States and the ‘West’ in general, a cyber attack coming out of Iran would surprise very few of the human governments. The sophistication of the attack might well surprise them, but I believe they would automatically assign responsibility for it to Iran and simply order investigations into how Iran might have acquired the capability to launch it. And given the régime’s apparent propensity for routinely misrepresenting inconvenient truths, no one is likely to believe any denial it might issue in the wake of our attack.”

“I see.”

Thikair thought about it briefly, then flipped his ears in agreement.

“I think all of your points are well taken, Ground Base Commander,” he said approvingly. “And I quite agree that it would be well to discover everything we can about any ‘contingency plans’ the humans might have in place. For that matter, it’s probable that there’s quite a bit of generally useful information in those secure systems of theirs, and it would be wise of us to acquire as much as possible of it while the computers in which it’s housed still exist. One never knows when that sort of data might become useful.

“As for the possibility of using this ‘Iran’ as a mask, I approve entirely. Meet with your team leaders and come up with a plan to implement your suggestion as soon as possible.”