But Everyone Calls their Planet Dirt!
"We'll want to minimize the amount of our tech they can get their hands on before full capitulation," Intelligence Officer Rouel noted. "To go from undetectable from a distance to an orbital communications relay network in only five hundred years suggests a remarkably high innovation score."
Admiral Crassock flicked an ear tuft and nodded. "The less we give them to reverse engineer, the less we'll bleed. Are there any other warning flags?"
"No, sir," Rouel answered. "They launch their satellites with chemical rockets. Even first generation counter-grav is more cost effective, so we can reasonably assume they don't have it. Since you can't do FTL R&D on a planet's surface without destroying it, no counter-grav means no FTL, which means no reinforcements. A separatist colony would have retained enough tech for an outward facing system defense network; a penal colony would have an inward facing one. Since this system has neither, this must be this species's homeworld."
"Has there been any change in the habitability report since the original survey?" the admiral asked. CRX-4 sat right in the sweet spot of the habitability assessment, with most of its landmass in the subtropical zones, but enough temperate and arctic real estate to ensure that over 90% of galactic species could live there with only adornment grade protective clothing. Only a handful of the most extreme outlier species would need more than class three environmental gear to survive somewhere on the planet. The only reason no one had snapped it up when it was first discovered was that its location was simply too remote to be practical. But borders had expanded in the intervening centuries, and now the Wingover Heromancy was close enough to claim the planet and defend that claim against any contenders.
"Surprisingly little," the intelligence officer answered. "They must have had their industrial revolution at an atypically low population benchmark, and learned how to clean up after themselves fairly quickly. Another indication that they have an abnormally high innovation score."
"What about their physiology?" Admiral Crassock asked. "It won't constrain their combat effectiveness as much as it would for a less innovative species, but it must still influence their tactics."
Intelligence Officer Rouel nodded. "Here, we have visuals on them." He flicked a command to the display, but then began reading off the data anyway. "Mammalian bipeds, hair sparse except on the top of the head and a few other locations that vary by individual. Moderate sexual dimorphism--subtle but enough to render co-ed sports competitions impractical for any but strictly recreational purposes. Very conflicting reports on strength and stamina, suggesting that they have a use-it-or-lose-it physiology. Atypically high resting metabolic rates, even for endotherms."
"Meaning that a middle of the sleep cycle surprise attack will have to be perfectly executed in order to retain the advantages of a surprise attack?" the admiral interjected.
"Precisely," Rouel answered. "Viviparous with a gestational period of nearly a year and roughly two decades to maturity. Birthrate appears to inversely correlate with wealth, which suggests a lack of innate control over their reproduction. It's difficult to determine their typical lifespan--hereditary and environmental factors apparently can alter it by as much as 50%; the current primary suppression of their life expectancy appears to come from a tendency toward extreme recklessness in their adolescent males."
"That will make ground combat...interesting..." Admiral Crossack said. "I think i'll tell the training officers to put their most creative minds on designing the practice scenarios for the ground units."
"With a combination of innovative and reckless, i'd suggest putting the truly diabolical minds on the air unit training scenarios," Captain Hussend said, his reptilian muzzle parting in a grin of malicious glee.
"Looking for an excuse to pull out that black box scenario?" Admiral Crossack asked the captain of his fleet's contingent of planetary troops. Returning his attention to the intelligence officer he asked, "Do we have to worry about attempted MAD?"
"FTL research is noisy enough that we'd detect it long before they managed to weaponize it." Rouel answered. "As much easier as that is than using it for travel, it's still far from easy. They do have fission reactors providing some of their power. There's no evidence that they ever tried to weaponize that technology, however; we'd see fallout scars if they'd done any testing. I'd still recommend seizing those nuclear power plants and any fuel processing facilities as quickly as possible."
Admiral Crossack nodded. "Unless you find something else before we arrive within targeting range of the planet, i think we'll remain in stealth mode until we're in position to take out all of their satellites simultaneously. Their ground based sensors should be sufficient for them to realize we have orbital superiority. If that isn't enough to make them surrender, it will be Captain Hussend's turn to call the shots. Do we know what they call themselves? If we're going to demand that they surrender sovereignty of their home planet, we can at least do them the courtesy of using their name for it."
"They call themselves 'humans'," Intelligence Officer Rouel answered. "The planet they call Ferrari. Oddly, it's the same in all twelve of their languages; perhaps it was inherited from some archaic language that is no longer used."
The initial attack went off perfectly. All of the satellites around Ferrari disintegrated within a few seconds of one another, with no wasted shots from the WHN ships. Almost as soon as they realized that all of their satellite communications were down, the humans began evacuating their civilians toward a series of massive underground bunkers.
"I can't tell if that's an overpowered communications laser, or a weapons test modulated to carry data to give them plausible deniability if it fails," the Communications Officer reported when the humans finally replied to the Wingover Heromancy's surrender demands.
"Retaliation will make them assume their weapons are strong enough to damage our ships," Captain Hussend predicted.
Intelligence Officer Rouel concurred. "My recommendation would be to politely ask them to dial back the power on that laser as it's clearly intended for communication over much longer distances. Imply that it's merely signal degradation due to overexposure, not anything that threatens to actually damage our receiver."
Admiral Crossack considered the suggestion for a few moments and then told the communications officer, "Do it."
After some negotiation with the humans over optimal signal strength, the transmission settled on the image of a human in what appeared to be their civilian formal wear. "President Chen, of the Faction Arbitration Council," the human identified himself. "Since you're asking for our surrender rather than simply glassing the planet, you must want it intact, which means you're going to have to come down here and take it. It would be easier to negotiate a land for tech swap--except that none of us has the authority to order everyone else to stand down. You'd have to negotiate with each faction separately if you want the whole planet. And since you opened with an attack, even if it was just on infrastructure and not personnel, rather than a diplomatic contact, half of them are going to insist that you're nothing but thieves and bullies, no matter how big an empire you might happen to have behind you.
"The short version," President Chen continued. "If you want this planet, you're going to have to come down here and take it."
"If we refrain from firing on your evacuating civilians, will you refrain from salting the Ferrari?" Admiral Crossack asked.
"Salting the--?" the human President's forehead wrinkled as he tried to puzzle out the phrase. "You mean, 'salting the earth'?"
"Isn't that what i said?" Admiral Crossack asked. "I understand that the connotations of synonymous words can vary, but the denotation should be similar enough for understanding. And every terrestrial species calls their planet some cognate of Fertile Soil or Solid Ground. It requires relatively advanced astronomical knowledge to realize that the planet beneath one's feet has anything in common with the wandering stars in the night sky, after all."
The human's eyes widened, and then his face went curiously blank. He just figured something out, and he's weighing the tactical considerations against the strategic ones, Rouel guessed silently.
"We won't start an atrocity contest as long as you don't," President Chen said. "Not all of our cultures agree on what does and what does not constitute war crimes, but as long as you refrain from targeting civilians and don't use biological or chemical weapons, they should all remain within the parameters of what most warriors consider an acceptable level of occupational hazard."
"What's the most common opinion on eating your kills?" Captain Hussend asked, displaying his mouthful of large reptilian teeth.
"In extremis only," President Chen answered. "There are a few superstitions that hold that eating hearts or certain other organs can be a way to appropriate your enemy's virtues, but far more of us regard it as a way of declaring your enemy to be an animal rather than a person. Cannibalism as a last ditch alternative to death by starvation will generally be overlooked, but ritual practice is not tolerated."
Captain Hussend nodded. "That is a common consensus among most polities and species as well. I suppose that any trophy taking would best be justifiable as preserving DNA samples to determine who is dead and who is missing once the war ends?"
"Oh, the nerds are going to love you," President Chen muttered. "Is there anything else we need to discuss, or is it time for you to either reconsider your invasion or else 'bring it on'?"
"My troops are already dropping," Captain Hussend answered with another toothy grin.
"Woah, hey, there's no need to get nasty," Pedro said as his eyes locked onto the tray of surgical implements. "I'm a civilian. I've got no reason not to spill the beans."
"Civilian," the mantis looking interrogator scoffed. "You killed at least forty of our soldiers, and crippled over a dozen more."
"I'm just a guy trying to defend his home. If your people had just obeyed the 'no trespassing' signs, nobody would have died," Pedro responded.
"In any case, it's your medical condition that's responsible for any nastiness," the interrogator informed the human captive. "The squad that dug you out from under that landslide thought they were recovering a corpse for autopsy. Growing replacement organs for your ruptured ones was straightforward enough, but your species is violently allergic to all of our existing bone glue formulations, so your broken bones are going to have to heal the slow way. I'm told that broken ribs are even more painful than a fractured thoracic plate."
"Convenient," Pedro said. "You get to dose me with enough painkillers to keep me from guarding my tongue and still claim you're just trying to help me."
"Quite convenient," the interrogator agreed. "Also a useful argument against those who claim that compassion is nothing but a waste of resources. May i have your full name for the next exchange of survival records?"
"Pedro Fook. I'm seriously tempted to give you the correct spelling instead of the one English speakers will pronounce correctly, but i'm too tired for that game."
The interrogator paused to listen to what the linguist was telling him through his earpiece and then clacked in amusement. "Very droll. I can accept that a civilian would have sufficient motive for attacking our troops, but i find your effectiveness implausible."
Pedro answered, "Why? Hunting the free-range livestock gets us kill training. Paintball games give us tactical training against opponents as smart and creative as we are. Wilderness hiking and camping gets us survival training. And VR lets us familiarize ourselves with the stuff that would be too dangerous to do for real."
"But how are you coordinating your attacks?" the interrogator asked.
"We aren't," Pedro answered. "We're spread out enough that we aren't likely to get in each other's ways; and we all grew up reading the same books, watching the same movies, and playing the same games, so we all have fairly similar ideas as to what tactics are likely to work in what situations. We don't need to win, we just have to keep harassing your people enough to prove we haven't abandoned our claim until the military gets here. If you had a prior claim, you should have planted a flag or left a beacon in orbit or something, so we'd have known we needed to negotiate instead of just moving in."
"Habitable planets are far to precious to be left in the hands of those who can't defend them," the interrogator replied. "There are a few interstellar species so xenophobic that they will glass a planet that someone else beat them to. If you can't keep us from taking it when we want to preserve it, you'd have no hope of keeping them from destroying it."
"You still could have tried negotiating first and attacking second," Pedro replied angrily. "Counter-gravity tech would be well worth sharing a planet over. Possibly even giving one up if we could have come to an arrangement regarding the people who have put down roots too deep to be willing to move to a different one. Too late for that now, though."
"You have no FTL," the interrogator said. "How would you leave, and how could you have come here from somewhere else."
"Why do you think we--ohhhhhh..." Pedro suddenly realized, "You never did solve the energy discharge from getting it almost right problem. You had counter-grav, you could just do your research and development in deep space where failures wouldn't destroy your planet. We had to focus on miniaturization instead, so the energy release was small enough to contain, until we could consistently get it right. Then we scaled back up until we had something suitable for a mass transit system. By the way, the emergency evacuation portals can be weaponized, so i'd advise against backing us into any corners. And our home planet isn't on this network, so even if you manage to capture a control unit intact, you can't get all of us!"
"Do you know where it is, in spatial terms?" the interrogator asked.
Pedro started to shrug and them stopped when his ribs objected. "Galaxy cluster on the other side of the Great Attractor from here, if i remember correctly. We've got at least a hundred planets scattered across a dozen different galaxies, as best the astronomers can tell. There's one that's suspected of not even being in the same universe."
"What does Ferrari translate as," the interrogator asked.
"Did anyone notice that paved track with the freestanding garage near my house?" Pedro responded. "That car in there, that's a Ferrari."
The translator listened to something on his earpiece and then said, "Four-wheeled ground vehicle, internal combustion engine--used for recreational racing?" Getting a nod from Pedro he went on, "The car is named after the planet?"
"No," Pedro answered. "The planet was named after the car; the car is named after the guy who founded the company that originally manufactured it. No clue what the etymology on his family name is."
"I see," the interrogator said. His insect-like anatomy and stridulatory vocal apparatus didn't prevent him from being noticeably disturbed by what he'd learned.
"But everyone calls their planet 'Dirt'," Admiral Crossack objected once he finished watching the recording of the interview.
"But they're not from here," Captain Hussend said. "It would have been obvious, except their method of getting here flies in the face of everything we know about FTL tech. We've got enough seismic surveys now to know those bunkers are nowhere near big enough to hold everyone who went into them. Not even with true stasis tech or physiology that would allow for adult cryofreeze. Can't swear on the former, but we know they don't have the latter."
"A pity this Pedro never studied enough physics to explain how their portals work. He can tell us what they do, but not why," Intelligence Officer Rouel said. "They probably sent anyone who did have that knowledge home in the first wave of evacuations. A pity we didn't know to stop them."
Captain Hussend disagreed. "Just as well we didn't. If that portal tech really does have the same energy discharge problem as conventional FTL, they have at least planetary, and possibly system scale, MAD. Firing on evacuees would have been a disaster."
"And Pedro thinks they've sent enough shuttle parts through that portal for them to reverse engineer the counter-gravity tech," Admiral Crossack said glumly. "Doesn't know enough to guess how long that will take, or which direction they'll try to hit us from once they have it. I suppose i can't really blame him for not bothering to study astrography with the way their portal network ignores physical distance, but it's blasted inconvenient for us."
"And President Chen still insists that negotiation is impossible until their military arrives in force--no one currently on planet has the authority or the firepower to force all factions to abide by any agreement," Rouel noted, equally glum. "We need to crack one of those bunkers open, see what's in there."
"Already in planning," Captain Hussend said. "And i just ordered it moved to the top of the priority list."
That was when the bunkers in question exploded. A number of blunt conical projectiles erupted from each site, propelled by an unholy mixture of chemical rockets and conter-grav.
"Those missiles have shields," one of the point defense sensor techs reported.
Captain Hussend's pupils went to full dilation and he lunged for the fleet wide communication toggle. "All personnel, stand by to repel boarders. Projectile loadout, not concussion."
Admiral Crossack stared at the captain in consternation. "That firefight is going to be a nightmare for damage control."
"If they can survive that kind of acceleration," Hussend waved a hand at the display that was tracking the missiles' progress, "and be able to fight afterwards, then while concussion injuries may still be a nightmare for the survivors' nearest and dearest to deal with, they won't do us any good."
"Notify me as soon as all of these presumed boarding missiles have either docked or been destroyed," Admiral Crossack told the sensor officer sorrowfully. Then he turned to the main console and began reciting a lengthy series of authorization codes, concluding with, "Assimilator boarding protocol to standby."
"You think they're that dangerous, sir?" one of the other ship commanders asked on a private channel.
"MAD only works if it truly is mutual," Admiral Crossack explained. "We don't know how many planets these humans have or where they are; we cannot allow them to have that information about ours. A species that scores as high as this one for both aggression and innovation is not something we want to have to fight a defensive war against."
Even with the deranged acceleration produced by the hybrid drive systems, it was several long minutes before the boarding missiles began impacting against the orbiting ships. The smaller, faster ships had been sent racing away from Ferrari. Half of them immediately headed to various WHN stations to relay the information acquired so far; half of them loitered on the fringes of the system to see how events played out. The larger ships, however, needed too much time to bring their main engines up to full thrust to escape the attack via distance.
The human soldiers from the last of the boarding missiles to arrive were greeted by an automated sounding, "Assimilation boarding protocol activated. Detection of any breaching charge will activate the self-destruct on all WHN ships within one astronomical unit."
"What did we do that spooked them that bad?" a human from a different boarding party wondered.
"If that translated correctly," the squads senior member answered, "they're using a protocol intended for somebody else. Still, we must have spooked them at least a little to go with one that all-or-nothing."
"I'm getting painted with a sensor laser," a third man reported. "Can they eavesdrop on us without cracking the radio encryption?"
Admiral Crossack figured it was time to offer his proposal. "If you refrain from penetrating any further into our ships, we will withdraw to the fringes of this system until we can negotiate terms for retrieving our planet-side personnel as well as your own return. We will also order our ground troops to return to and remain in the currently existing fortified positions for so long as there are no attacks on those positions. Is this cease fire acceptable?"
"You will refrain from attacking the positions we currently hold?" one of the human boarders asked.
"We will," Admiral Crossack answered.
Negotiations went as well as could be expected when the humans were reluctant to allow enough Heromancy shuttles near the planet to lift all of their personnel at once and the WHN officers were reluctant to leave a contingent of the size they could lift at one time on the planet alone. The boarding parties, in contrast, had been returned as soon as the humans could satisfy themselves that the shuttle was not booby trapped--neither they nor the WHN was happy about the active self-destruct contingency.
Eventually a compromise was reached in which the last of the Heromancy bases on Ferrari was to be converted into an embassy. It wouldn't actually attain that status under Heromancy law until the Council of Winglords formally recognized at least one of the human governments, and required a Winglord's presence to attain at least consulate status--but nothing prevented the humans from granting it formal diplomatic recognition in the meanwhile.
President Chen and Admiral Crossack sat facing each other in one of the lounges of the future embassy. "Exactly how much authority do you have to negotiate?" President Chen asked.
"Officially, none," Crossack answered. "Treaties must be ratified by the council and negotiated by a Winglord. Unofficially, i should be able to give you reliable guidance as to what terms will be acceptable and what will not. How much of a courtship dance will be required to get those terms accepted, i can't guess until i know which Winglord will be conducting the official negotiations."
"Seems strange to give you the authority to start a war, but not to finish it," Chen observed.
"Ordinarily," Crossack explained, "a Winglord would have been dispatched as soon as we realized the situation was anomalous. However, they happen to be in the middle of the once a decade Grand Conclave, the one time when Winglords whose disputes cannot be reconciled by legal means are permitted to seek normally illegal forms of redress. Any Winglord not participating still wants to be there to keep an eye on those who are."
"Normally illegal...such as dueling?" Chen guessed.
"Precisely. I was able to attend the last Conclave, and the preparation rituals, intended to preclude cheating, are so humiliating that it can be safely assumed that the participants were not going to be satisfied by anything less than blood." Crossack added, "Technically it's not limited to Winglords, but the requirements for ordinary citizens to challenge anyone are much more stringent. The conventional wisdom is that the less one has to lose, the less likely one is to be deterred by death and dishonor."
"Hmm, i suppose i can see the logic in that." A communication device pinged, and President Chen looked at the display. "What is a Voice, among your people?"
Admiral Crossack's ear tufts straightened. Finally, for good or for ill, he would know what was to be. "Both a courier and a seal of authentication. They make no decisions, but they speak with the authority of the full Council of Winglords. They are generally superlative specimens of species that have powers of persuasion or coercion, which is another reason they are so rigorously trained to be bearers of law only and never lawgivers."
"I see," Chen said slowly. "If she's coming with an arrest warrant, like you were speculating about a few days ago, we're willing to offer you asylum."
"I find exile more unpalatable than death and dishonor combined, but i am honored by your willingness to have me," Admiral Crossack said. "I am a bit puzzled by it, however. I was the one who ordered the attack on your world, after all."
President Chen shrugged. "You only fought with those who wanted to fight, and the conter-grav tech we captured is more than adequate compensation for the infrastructure damage. And the special ops teams that boarded your ships were flattered by the fact that you felt you had to pull out your worst case scenario contingency to stop them. The penultimate contingency apparently wasn't good enough. Er, i hope that was your worst case contingency."
"Worst case for contingency triggers," Crossack agreed. "There's self-destruct every ship in the system now, and trigger a system sterilizing solar flare, but those are direct triggers, and the latter is for scenarios that so far remain purely hypothetical. And the problem was that your people only needed to capture one ship, while i had to keep every single one out of their hands."
"Your people haven't figured out that the counter to a gray goo scenario is to build nannites that eat nannites?" Chen asked rhetorically. "What are the Assimilators, anyway?"
"The reason we don't do implanted technology unless there's no viable alternative medically and keep augmented reality to the absolute minimum needed for non-lethal training," Crossack said. "As best anyone has been able to tell, the Assimilators started as a faction in a VR role playing game. Somewhere along the line the species that originally created the game switched from external device full immersion VR to cyborg tech augmented reality and the players started LARPing. Sometime after that, they stopped their practice of only cyborg modding volunteers who wanted to join their club and started modding anyone they could catch."
Crossack grimaced and continued, "As long as they needed a full surgical suite to perform the modifications, they were strictly a law enforcement problem. Unfortunately, before the last of them could be hunted down, they got their hands on some kind of replicant nano-tech that lets them infiltrate a neural link into a person without that person's knowledge."
"There's no such thing as a person with a direct brain-computer interface who isn't one of these Assimilators," Chen asked for clarification.
"No," Crossack sighed. "Any network they manage to link into, any person directly connected to that network immediately gets converted. How they do it, we're not sure; the leading hypothesis is that they've managed to create a computer-based intelligence with persuasive or coercive powers of a type and power that require a person to either take the Voice's Oath or else accept lifetime quarantine. But we just don't know. The good news is that as long as you keep your tech at arms length, it's perfectly safe, or at least they can't do anything that a conventional hacker couldn't. But it does mean that we can't infiltrate their network to figure out what in the seven blue perditions is going on with them. There are some aspects of a neural link that an external interface just can't mimic."
"That could be a problem," President Chen said. "Thankfully, we can't run cable through a portal--it gets cut anytime there's a power blip--but we've got way too many people with medical implants. Your people don't happen to know how to repair spinal cord injuries, do they?"
"Some species yes, others no," Crossack answered. "In our efforts to provide medical care to POWs of your species, we found that the treatment had to be provided immediately to be effective, and that which treatment protocol would work varied by both the cause of the damage and idiosyncratic factors. We had to guess right on the first try for treatment to work."
"Figures," Chen said. "Any vaccine for their nannite infiltrators?"
"A vaccine...for nannites?" Crossack asked in surprise.
"Why not?" Chen asked. "Any sufficiently advanced nano-tech is indistinguishable from biology; so why not borrow a page from the bio-control handbook?"
"I don't believe there's any such thing," Crossack answered slowly. "Many species can induce sufficient sensitivity to trigger a lethal allergic reaction, but that means walking around with a lethal allergy to many common structural and medical materials."
"That would be problematic," Chen agreed. "I need to pass this information about the Assimilators along as quickly as possible. Excuse me for a few minutes."
"Of course," Admiral Crossack said. Once President Chen had left the room he stood and began pacing. Curiously, knowing that a Voice was en route and that he would not have to wait much longer to have his hopes and fears regarding his future resolved was making the delay harder rather than easier to endure. After a few laps of failed attempts to resign himself to further waiting, he went to the door and asked the officer guarding it to find out how soon the Voice was expected to arrive.
"The Voice's shuttle has landed and the humans are trying to figure out what size and type of escort is appropriate to her rank," the officer reported. Then he blinked and flicked his tail in confusion. "Sir, a Voice is her own escort, isn't she?"
"The humans don't know that. A Voice speaks with the authority of the full Council of Winglords, but the humans have no official relationship to the Wingover Hegemony until the Voice delivers her words--assuming she has been given words to that effect."
"Precisely, Winglord Crossack."
Crossack turned to face the new arrival. The female was tall and so ethereally slender that she was nearly translucent. "Voice Laurelliana,"
Admiral Winglord Crossack said, having met this particular Voice before. He started to bow, but then the implications of her greeting caught up to him and his ear tufts straightened so hard they nearly snapped. "Wait, what--?"
"For recognizing that the impossible was possible in time to avert disaster, for valuing the welfare of the Heromancy above your own pride, for a lifetime of exemplary service, you have been granted the title of Winglord and a seat on the counsel."
Admiral Winglord Crossack needed some time to reply as he first had to persuade his throat to stop trying to swallow itself. At last he said, "I am well aware of how badly things could have gone if i had been any slower to admit that the humans must have some other, unknown means of bridging the distance between worlds--but i would have thought that barely enough to buy me an honorable retirement, given that i lost a war i chose to initiate. Then too, i would never have arrived at that understanding so quickly without Captain Hessend and Intelligence Officer Rouel, and their many subordinates who had the wisdom to recognize which reports required immediate attention."
"You followed standard procedure to the letter until it was made clear that you were not dealing with the kind of situation which that procedure was intended to cover. You therefore cannot be faulted for initiating the conflict. You were also able to admit that the inconceivable had occurred. To not only be able to stretch your thinking to accommodate what was previously unknown and unimagined, but to do so in time to keep defeat from becoming disaster--this is a capacity much needed in a Winglord, and rarest to find. Many prepare for the impossible; but how can anyone prepare for what he cannot imagine?"
Crossack nodded, conceding the point, and the Voice continued, "Many admirals find it almost physically painful to yield overall command to the captain of their ground forces and be relegated to providing fire support. Many of those who have no difficulty yielding command are reluctant to reclaim it when the priority returns to space-side operations, preferring to avoid responsibility. But you have never shown any hesitation in either direction, preferring to let the responsibility rest where it can best be fulfilled."
Crossacck shifted and flicked an ear tuft and said, "It helps that i trust Captain Hessend's judgement."
"And you never once have tried to claim the credit for your subordinate's efforts," Voice Laurelliana smiled at Crossack.
"Eh, stolen honor is not," Crossack replied.
"Many say it," the Voice said. "Few live it. The appropriate commendations for those you cited credited with identifying the anomalies here have already been issued. The Vaerins claim to have solved the regeneration resistance problem in draeliks; if Hero Hessend chooses to risk the as yet inadequately tested treatment, the Council will cover his expenses."
Hero fits a lot better on him than Winglord sits on me, Crossack thought. "I can't predict whether Hero Hessend will take that offer. He keeps his own counsel when it comes to his injuries."
"Is something wrong?" Voice Laurelliana asked President Chen, who'd returned partway through her conversation with Crossack and had been staring at her ever since.
"You look much like the description of some of our more insidious legends," Chen told her bluntly. "As unlikely as it is to be anything other than coincidence, it is still difficult to keep the resemblance from inducing significant levels of paranoia."
"At least you prefer to lance the boil at once rather than dance around the issue while it festers ever deeper," Laurelliana said, dropping her gaze to indicate that she was speaking as herself and not as a Voice. "Long and long ago, or so it is said, while we were still planet-bound, mine and certain of the other will-bending species dealt with those who abused their powers by exiling them to another world. Your portal network suggests that this is not so impossible as we had thought. If your species has suffered from predation by one of our outcasts, i wouldn't blame you for being paranoid where my kind is concerned."
"The conspiracy nuts are going to have fun when they hear that," Chen said with a sigh.
Voice Laurelliana lifted her head again. "The council wishes to extend formal diplomatic recognition to your people, but we are suffering from some confusion as to which entity we should be extending that recognition to. Some clarification as to your political structure is needed."
"Ah," President Chen said. "I can see how it might. Each of the factions on this planet is considered a sovereign nation, although they're a bit more easy-going about their borders than was, or for that matter still is, customary back on earth. The Faction Arbitration Council is precisely what the name says, a neutral forum in which the factions can hash out their differences and save face by accepting a compromise suggested by a neutral party instead of their opponent. We have no real authority, but we do provide a place where you can address all of the factions at once."
"It sounds as though you have all of the responsibility of a Winglord, and none of the power," Voice Laurelliana said.
Chen shrugged. "I may only have the authority of a debate moderator, but most of the time that's all i need. As for the times when it is not sufficient, well, the prospect of imminent destruction tends to have a remarkably clarifying effect on everyone's priorities."
"I suppose it would," the Voice said. "Whose military did you call in?"
"The Liberation Hegemony doesn't claim sovereignty over any but it's native States, but they do provide military protection and economic assistance to anyone who abides by what they regard as the minimum standard of human rights. Which usually works out in practice to 'you can have whatever laws you want as long as you make it easy for people who don't like your laws to leave'. Which is why you never see a planet on the Hegemony network with fewer than seven factions--easy to leave requires that there be a compatible place for you to go."
"So we can treat with your Faction Arbitration Counsel as a planetary power, and this Liberation Hegemony as a regional one?" Voice Laurelliana asked, and then added "--to the extent that that's a coherent concept with the way your portal network allegedly ignores distance."
"Yes," President Chen said. "There's also the Golden Bureaucracy Bloc. Don't buy anything from them without reading the fine print, and never take out a loan from them. The only reason they aren't ruling us all is that the Hegemony is perfectly willing to apply Alexander's solution to Gordian red tape."
"Cultural reference," the Voice said. "Not clear from context."
"Sorry," President Chen replied. "Gordias was some guy who tied a really complicated knot and said that the man who untied it would rule the world. Alexander came by a while later, looked it over, and used his sword to cut it apart. After he went on to conquer a larger chunk of the world in less time than anyone before him, the locals where Grodias left the knot decided that this counted as 'untying' it."
"So keep it simple, and in good faith, when dealing with the Hegemony, because you never know what they might decide is underhanded enough to void the contract?" Crossack guessed.
"This system of yours...works?" the Voice asked uncertainly.
"As well as anything else we've tried," Chen answered. "Mostly due to the fact that most of us have gotten too lazy to want to bother proving that we could run other people's lives better than they can. MAD helps keep the peace, too, of course. Although, the fact that exile is always an option does tend to leave people favoring lethal forms of self-defense."
"Now that would explain a lot," Winglord Crossack said. "I should go mention that detail to Hero Hessend--he's a bit sore over the fact that it was your civilians bleeding his men so hard."
submitted by Petrified_Lioness