TPhai approached the Tophet Embassy Suite with a strange mixture of curiosity and dread. As much as he yearned to be sent home so that he could once again embrace his children, he would also have to face the possibility that his mate, LWhar, was still missing or even presumed dead.
The motion sensors of the two CHAS units posted on either side of the main door to the embassy eyed TPhai impassively as he approached. The heads of the robotic sentries swiveled slighty, silently double-checking their security protocols. Yes, there was a delegate scheduled to enter the embassy and it had arrived within an acceptable time frame. The Cybernetic Humanoid Assault Systems let TPhai pass between their steady gaze and enter the air-lock. The Skinnie was expected, nothing worth shooting at.
TPhai waited patiently for the air-lock to hum and hiss through its decontamination cycle. The inner door finally opened to reveal a surprisingly lavish room (at least by Skinnie standards) which sported a high vaulted ceiling and a tiled floor. There were two posts in the center of the room just the right distance apart to sling a hammock, and there were even hooks rooted in the posts for just such a purpose.
The only thing resting between the posts now was a small portable stool which was currently occupied by a Skinnie in full dress uniform. The uniforms ornamentation (which would appear as no more than a fancy abstract pattern to an untrained eye) informed TPhai that the Skinnie was from a small province on the southern side of the mountains from the village were TPhai had spent most of his youth. The rank insignia on the shoulder pads had been replaced by strange SICON symbols which TPhai did not recognize.
Greetings. I am Ambassador KelRae. I have been appointed by the Strategically Integrated Coalition Of Nations to speak for our people. Do you accept this rank?
I do, said TPhai without hesitation.
Thank you, Colonel TPhai, and welcome. Please make yourself comfortable. The air is cold in here, but it is easy to breathe. The Humans contend that we stand upon the soil of Tophet itself while we are inside this room, but I suspect they are misinformed.
TPhai stood at ease and carefully removed his helmet. The air circulating through the room stank of carbons and oxides, but it was nice to be able to breathe freely for a change. It was the first time he had been able to remove his helmet since the Roughnecks had set foot on the planet Earth. He placed the helmet on a shelf next to the door, a shelf, he noticed approvingly, which had been installed at the proper height for Skinnie arms and hands. With his view no longer obstructed by the heads-up display gleaming across the inside of his face-plate, he now noticed that the right side of the other Skinnies face was blackened as if it had been exposed to extreme cold. TPhai would learn later that, in the chaos of battle, the Ambassadors skin had been exposed to the freezing vacuum of space and would marvel that the poor creature had survived at all.
I would offer you a seat, said KelRae, But I have none to offer but my own.
That is quite all right, assured TPhai, surprised by how glad he was to be able to finally speak to someone in his native language after all these months. I did not enlist in order to sit comfortably.
Very well, let us proceed with more important matters.
TPhai had planned to ask of news concerning LWhars whereabouts, but decided it could wait. By all means, please proceed as you wish.
First and foremost, it is my duty to inform you that your children are safe and well, but that your mate, LWhar, has not yet been located.
Not sure if he should feel elated or worried about this unexpected answer to the the most dire question on his mind, the most official-sounding response TPhai could think of was, Thank you for indulging your humble servant.
Many of the mine shafts in the northern province have collapsed entirely and Im told it is difficult to find volunteers willing to search through the rubble in such deep underground places. I am sorry that I have no further information, said KelRae.
I understand, thank you again for showing such an interest in my family.
My main interest is in you, Colonel TPhai. I understand that you were the first of our kind to encounter the Humans on our home world. You have had more interaction with Humans than any other Skinnie alive. I have many questions.
I will do my best to answer, said TPhai, growing apprehensive at the sudden change of topic.
You are familiar with the human called Carl Jenkins?
TPhai groaned inwardly. Carl Jenkins was the telepathically gifted member of Alpha Squad who now displayed strange and fearsome telekenetic abilities. For reasons TPhai didnt want to get into just now, he had not exchanged a single word with Jenkins ever since the Human had unexpectedly returned from his extensive medical leave. Luckily for TPhai, Jenkins had bunked in separate quarters from the rest of the sqaud the past few nights. TPhai had been partially responsible for Jenkins prolonged absence and it had been a sore spot with the other Roughnecks for some time. TPhai knew that he was no substitute for Carl Jenkins. Was that why he had been called here, to be informed that he was no longer needed by Alpha Squad now that Jenkins had returned?
All TPhai managed to say was a quiet, Mmmm.
Is it true that he can cause Bugs to explode using only his mind? asked KelRae.
This was an unexpected question, but T'Phai was relieved that it had a simple enough answer.
"Yes," T'Phai confirmed.
One of the most unnerving things T'Phai had ever witnessed was the site of Royal Guard Bugs, their brain cases suddenly exploding for no apparent reason, gobs of green goo splattering at the feet of Carl Jenkins whose eyes stared straight ahead...seeing, yet...not-seeing. It made T'Phai shudder just thinking about it.
"Do you think the Humans would be willing to teach us this new skill?" asked Kel'Rae.
T'Phai certainly hoped not. "I do not know if what you are suggesting is possible," T'Phai replied honestly, "I do not know if any of our race possesses the potential for such powers."
Kel'Rae was obviously disappointed. "I tried to summon Carl Jenkins here to investigate the matter myself, but my request was denied. Is not Jenkins a member of your squad? You must come into contact with this Jenkins person on a daily basis. Will you please inquire on my behalf, and on behalf of our people, whether such a project might be possible?"
I will, T'Phai promised, though he had no idea how or when.
"Fine and good," said Kel'Rae, "I look forward to a report on your progress in this matter. Now let us speak of future things. There are two other matters of great import which have burdened my mind ever since I was appointed to this post. Both matters concern what actions the Humans will take now that the Bug Wars seem to be coming to an end. Most of my time living amongst Humans has been spent in the confinement of hospital rooms, so I'm afraid my insight into Human behavior is somewhat limited. Lacking such insight, I have not been able to come to any satisfactory conclusions. You see now why I require your expertise in such matters."
"I will do my best to answer" T'Phai repeated.
"Very well," Kel'Rae paused, gathering his thoughts before plodding on, "As you are probably aware by now, the Dark Zone no longer poses any danger to our people," Kel'Rae referred to the specter of darkness which hovered around the equator of the planet Tophet. The Skinnie race had long assumed that their world was hemispherical and that the world dropped off into nothingness at the equator. Now, having fought on several other worlds that were obviously complete spheres, the Dark Zone remained a mystery, but no longer a such a foreboding one.
"Yes," affirmed T'Phai.
"I have reason to believe that the Humans already inhabit the Dark Zone," said Kel'Rae after another dramatic pause.
T'Phai blinked with astonishment, "How can this be?"
"I think the Humans came to our world specifically to establish a base in the Dark Zone. Imagine that the Humans were offered an opportunity to establish a base on a world were the Bugs only occupied half the planet. The Dark Zone on the underside of our world is no doubt a lifeless, frozen lump of rock. Perhaps there are mineral deposits buried deep down that the Bugs would find of interest, but why mine through all that rock when the other side of the planet is constantly boiled away by the heat of the Suns, exposing veins of the precious Xylonite the Bugs so dearly crave? I think the Humans would have found the Dark Zone to be an ideal site for a military base. It would allow them to hide in the Bugs own back yard,' as the Humans would say."
"Mmmm," T'Phai commented. He could see the logic in the Ambassador's thinking, and yet...
"I have no knowledge of such a base," T'Phai added to his earlier comment.
"Nor do I," admitted Kel'Rae, "But I still suspect that it is there. The Earth-Tophet Treaty stipulates that SICON forces may utilize our planet as a staging area in the Humans' war against the Bugs, and yet I am told that fewer and fewer Starships visit out homeworld these days. Now that the Bugs' strangle-hold on our race has been broken, the Humans seem to have lost interest in our world. Most of the Human personnel have withdrawn to fight battles in other star systems. Perhaps the tactical importance of our world has changed in SICON's view, or perhaps it has not changed at all and the Humans operate in secret deep inside the Dark Zone."
"Have any Skinnies thought to actually visit the Dark Zone themselves to ascertain the truth?" T'Phai asked reasonably.
"Again, I suspect not," said Kel'Rae, "I have not been able to return home since I became a SICON recruit, but consider, we have possessed exo-suit technology for several years now, and yet it never occurred to us that we could simply cross into the the Dark Zone via the protection of our exo-suits. When I was a child, I was taught to regard the Dark Zone as a forbidden realm, a danger to anyone who strayed too far from the correct path. Those who have never left the planet's surface, those who have never gazed upon the sphere of our world from the portal of a Starship, they no doubt still believe such stories."
"Mmmm. I concede your point. But would not the Humans have informed us of such a base?"
"You know the Humans much better than I do. You have fought along side them, lived with them. What if the Humans are relying on our people's misplaced fear of the Dark Zone to cloak their actions? My question to you is this; would the Humans do such a thing?"
T'Phai considered the terrible secrecy surrounding Carl Jenkin's extended medical leave. One of the reasons Carl's absence had been such a grating concern on the rest of the squad was because there had never been any news from SICON of Carl's whereabouts, or even any news that he was still alive. What if SICON Intelligence had been lying to the Roughnecks when they were told that Jenkins comatose body had been transferred to a medical asteroid? What if Jenkins had never even left the planet Tophet after he had been psychically wounded, but instead been secreted away to a hidden base somewhere deep in Tophet's foreboding dark underbelly? Carl had refused to disclose any details of his absence to any of his team-mates, not even to his closest friends. To answer Kel'Rae's question, there could only be one true answer.
"Yes," said T'Phai, "The Humans even keep secrets from each other. They would continue to operate such a base as long as it remained a secret."
"I comprehend. Thank you," said Kel'Rae. "I intend to plead with the Council of Elders that we begin to set up secret bases of our own inside the Dark Zone. It may be easier to persuade them to do this if they can be convinced that the Humans have already done so. If I were to call upon your testimony for such an occasion, could I count on your support?"
"Yes," said T'Phai.
"Fine and good. The final matter we must discuss is the most important of all. You are no doubt aware that our race is utterly dependent upon the Humans to transport our kind amongst the stars. This is unacceptable. If another invader were to threaten our very existence, as the Bugs have, our kind must be able to escape to a refuge of our own choosing. We must not only obtain a Hyperdrive engine, we must also learn the operating principles behind this wondrous device. Now that the Bug Queen is destroyed, the Humans may no longer have a need for our services. I'm not even sure they ever required our assistance in the first place. But if we do not continue to fight and risk our lives for the good of the Human race, we cannot hope to become Citizens of the Federation. We owe the Humans an unpayable debt for coming to our aid, but must we also become the indentured servants of Humankind in order to win our freedom amongst the stars? We were enslaved by the Bugs for many years on our world. I do not know if our people are prepared to shoulder the burden of servitude for much longer. I have been thinking on this dilemma for some time, and no solution has presented itself. But hear this, we must acquire this Hyperdrive technology for ourselves, no matter the cost, even by force if necessary. Do you concur?"
T'Phai thought carefully before voicing an opinion. The Ambassador was clearly prepared to make sweeping decisions governing the ultimate fate of the entire Skinnie race based on whatever T'Phai said next. It was a giddy feeling to have so much weight hanging on your every word. He must advise caution.
"I concur," said T'Phai, "that it is within the best interest of our people to obtain this Hyperdrive technology, but I would strongly advise against any action which would result in an open conflict with the Humans. In the long run, they would crush us, as they crush the Bugs."
"I concede your point," said Kel'Rae, "but how then shall we proceed?"
It was an honest question that deserved and honest answer, but T'Phai honestly didn't know what to say. T'Phai was a soldier, not a diplomat. So think, T'Phai, what is your nearest opportunity for retreat? Opportunities. What were the available opportunities? He had been speaking with someone about opportunities just the night before. Ah yes, something unusual had happened yesterday. T'Phai's name had been shouted out during mail-call. It was the first time T'Phai had ever received mail of any kind since he had enlisted as a SICON recruit. And it hadn't been just one letter, but rather an entire bag-full.
Pvt. Higgins had been kind enough (or snoopish enough?) to help T'Phai sort through his huge pile of mail. The young lad had tried for hours on end to explain the various "opportunities" the mail claimed to offer (it turned out most of the claims were false). Some of the packages contained music or literature some odd breed of people who called themselves "Critics" wanted T'Phai to sample and respond to. Higgins had set most of those aside for later reading and concentrated on the boxes which contained several food items unsuitable for Skinnie metabolism. T'Phai had been a big hit with rest of the squad that night because he had given all of the foodstuffs away to his team-mates.
Higgins had explained further that all of the Roughnecks had been receiving tons of back-logged "junk mail" ever since their return to Earth, but he had seemed especially excited that T'Phai had been offered something called "Endorsements" from strange beings called "Sponsors." Sponsors! Of course! A wild and wacky plan jolted through T'Phai's Skinnie brain with such clarity he had a sudden urge to write it down, but of course he would have to explain it to the Ambassador first. But how did one begin to explain?
Ambassador KelRae, TPhai stammered, wondering how much time had elapsed since he had failed to answer the Ambassadors question, Were you given a tour of the base shortly after you arrived?
Yes, quite a pointless exercise, I assure you.
Imagine, if you will, TPhai pressed on, giving a Human emissary a similar tour of your home town on Tophet, only instead of just one Human tagging along, there are several. And these several Humans are the first group of many in a long line of groups, a line stretching all the way back to Earth. And this line only represents the number of Humans who wish to go on your tour for the first year that you start giving tours. Every year after that the number increases two-fold, ship after ship dropping off and picking up Human passengers, all of whom wish to take a tour of your humble home.
What sort of nonsense is this, Colonel TPhai? What are you getting at?
Please bear with me a moment, Ambassador. I have not had much opportunity to study Human history, but I do know that the primary industry of the Human race before the Bug Wars began was a peculiar activity called Tourism. This was a strange custom of traveling from planet to planet for tours of other dwellings, even though they were only the dwellings of other Humans. Wealthy Humans paid large sums of money just to visit each others dwelling places on other planets. Imagine what price the Humans might be willing to pay to visit exotic dwellings which are completely alien to theirs!
Im still not sure I follow, said KelRae, Youre saying that the Humans will pay us large sums of money to tour our humble villages, simply because they are not Human villages?
Precisely! TPhai enthused, Now imagine how we are going to feed and house all those visitors.
Indeed! But we wont even have to do this, Sponsors will do it for us!
What are Sponsors?
Ah! If only Higgins were here! He was so much better at explaining things. Sponsors, TPhai plunged ahead, are...Humans...or perhaps groups of Humans, Im not sure...these Humans will provide the touring visitors with food and clothing and hotels and restaurants, and...well, whatever else the visitors require.
I see, but why would these mysterious Sponsors be willing to do such a generous thing?
Because we will invite them to, and because we can limit the number of Sponsors who will reside on Tophet. Wait. Was that how the system really worked? Yes...the Sponsors will compete with one another to become our exclusive guests! As a member of SICON, we will be allowed to define the borders of our own nation. The Sponsors will have little choice but to come to us...to come to you directly Ambassador...to negotiate terms of residence. The Sponsors will not be able to land on our world unless you allow them too. And each and every one of them will clamor to do so, simply to gain an edge over their competitors.
Rays of recognition dawned on KelRaes face. Sponsors competing with other Sponsors to placate the needs of the other whats-its, the touring nomads...
Tourists, TPhai corrected.
Tourists, KelRae tried to let these new concepts of Tourists and competing Sponsors sink in a bit before he asked, You are certain that the Humans would really want to visit our homelands that badly?
Yes, said TPhai, The Humans searched in vain for races alien to their own long before they first encountered the Bugs. And then they found us. And we can speak their language and do not wish their immediate extinction, so they have a strong preference for our company.
Of course. I can see how this Tourism might be a profitable venture, but what has this to do with obtaining a Hyper...drive...Oh, I see.
You see! exclaimed a triumphant TPhai, In a matter of a few short years, our people could earn enough Federation credits to actually *purchase* a Starship!
And the military leaders of SICON would allow such a thing? For an alien race to possess the primary secret of Human interstellar flight?
Mmmm. I believe, though I claim no certainty, that as more and more Skinnies become Citizens of the Federation, the Human military leaders will have less and less say over what is permissible and what is not.
Ah yes, the Rights and entitlements of Citizenship of which they speak so highly.
Yes, said TPhai, And even in a worst case scenario, one could utilize the Human computer networks to bid anonymously on public auctions. The SICON leadership need not be aware of such a purchase. I have seen such a transaction take place with my own eyes. Higgins had even been eager to show TPhai how to do it.
Interesting, mused KelRae, Very interesting...but stupid. I find it difficult to believe that the Humans would let their secret of star flight pass so easily into our hands.
One can always rely on Human beings to act in what they perceive to be their self interests. What their self-interests actually are, and what they perceive them to be, are not always the same thing. Human beings are like that, said TPhai.
Now it was KelRaes turn to say, Mmmm.