A galactic empire of various species has kept peace for centuries, but something is amiss
She turned away from the bright, pale red sky and looked once more around the dark stone cell that had been her entire world for the last five days. The log fire blazed warmly. She watched it for a while as it flickered and fluttered about like a living thing. Eeva was a little afraid to be so close to real flames. It was not something she had often encountered – this was a primitive world she had come to. In her own home on Tau Ceti VI, electric heaters inside the walls balanced the temperature to a constant pleasant level.
She heard a knock at the wooden door and looked up. The silent guard in metal armour and a helmet opened it from the outside. He stepped back and moved his spear aside to let a furry rodent servant come past. Eeva was not tall for a human, but this creature was shorter still. He had long white whiskers and a pointed sandy snout. He wore a black two-piece outfit made from some animal pelt, covering him all the way down to his two small, sharp, pink feet. His beady black eyes peered at her cautiously as he crept forwards to the wooden table bearing a metal jug.
"The interrogator will be along shortly," he squeaked, and the words were instantly translated in Eeva's ear. He walked carefully over the black tiled floor and placed the water on the table. The servant came in regularly to bring water and food and to keep the fire burning, but he never responded to Eeva's attempts to chat. She had given up trying to talk to him, or to the guard.
“Thank you,” replied Eeva. She did not speak the words as she would normally, the rodent would not have understood. Instead she thought the words into the translator in her head – an act of mental dexterity that took weeks of practice. The machine told her phonetically the sounds she needed to make and she mimicked them. It caused her to speak slowly with a heavy accent but it at least made communication possible.
The servant nodded, then backed out of the room as he had come in. He doesn't dare turn his back to me, thought Eeva. Is that just a custom, or does he think I'll attack him? She considered growling at him to see his reaction, but thought better of it. As soon as he disappeared, she could hear his clawed feet pattering as he scampered off down the corridor. The door slammed shut.
These Nachorians are a fearful people. She never had trouble with them on her previous trips. It had taken her completely by surprise when she had arrived to meet her contact to find herself ambushed by a dozen of the little creatures in full armour. Small but dangerous, like steel rats. She had willingly obeyed their commands to hand over everything she had – including her weapon. They wouldn't know how to activate it, she assured herself, not without her own finger on the trigger. It was one of the many rules about bringing weapons to primitive worlds that they had to be fingerprint-activated. For once she was grateful to whichever bureaucrat invented that particular rule.
Before long the interrogator arrived. Norgad wore an elaborate uniform, with embroidered gold pentagonal symbols on the chest and shoulder, and a triangular brown hat on his head. He carried a parchment and some kind of scratching pencil. His fur appeared a little greyer than the servant's, but otherwise it was hard to tell them apart. I must pay more attention, thought Eeva. I might have to recount this scene one day.
“Same as usual,” joked Eeva as she sat down opposite him and brushed her long red hair away from her face.
“You will not be freed until we know why you are here,” explained Norgad.
“I've already told you why.” Four times in four days.
“Name?” demanded the rodent, ignoring her comment.
She sighed. “Eeva Scarlett.”
Eight hundred and seventy four Earth years, thought Eeva, before focusing on the answer she intended to give. “Thirty-two,” she replied.
Norgad scribbled on his paper. “Sex?”
“Place of origin?”
Tron Colony, Tau Ceti VI, she thought instinctively. She forced herself to think of the answer she had prepared. “The town of Garrond on the southern continent of Orora,” she answered.
“What is the reason for your journey to Nachoropolis?”
“To trade in arcossan bark.” That at least was true. The most potent narcotic in this part of the galaxy grew naturally in enormous quantities in the primeval forests of Nachor.
“Have you been here before?”
“What would you trade for the bark?”
“I bring precious metals, which I heard are prized here.” Some blocks of silver from one of the mint moons. It cost almost nothing compared to the value of what she hoped to buy.
“Who was your contact in Nachoropolis?”
“Noraldan the merchant.”
“Do you have his address?”
“37, Way of the Lumbermen.”
The interrogator stopped and paused. Eeva knew what was coming – a mystery question. Every day they were the same up to this point, but after asking the merchant's address he would try a different approach to see if he could trip her up.
“Do you have a husband? You did say that you are female, didn't you?”
Eeva took a deep breath and tried not to take it as an insult. I find you physically repulsive too, she thought. The first day he had asked her why she did not grow hair on her face, and she had nearly burst out laughing. Only the seriousness of the situation had prevented her. Getting to know other intelligent species was usually more fun than this. “I am an unmarried female,” she replied, keeping a straight face.
“Where did you sail from?”
This was a part of the story she hadn't worked out fully, so she hoped he wouldn't pry too deeply. “My friend has his own ship. We sailed from Garrond to the town of Nerion, then I took a wagon up here.”
“How many days were you at sea?”
“Seven.” She hoped that was a good guess.
“How large was the ship?”
“It had forty sailors.”
“No, how large was it? How many hands?”
“Oh!” Hands must be a unit of measurement. After a quick calculation and a look at the rodent's own paws, she answered. “About two thousand hands long, if I had to guess.”
“That is a large ship!” The interrogator stared at her for a long while, before continuing. “I know for a fact that you are lying about sailing from Orora.”
“What makes you say that?” Eeva responded as calmly as she could. What was it? she thought. The two thousand hands? Please don't tell me you found my actual 'ship' in the forest.
“Our own expedition has recently returned from that distant land. They have told us some fantastic tales. The continent is inhabited by exotic Nachorian people and many fantastic creatures, but nobody has ever heard of a hairless monster such as you.”
“I'm quite unique,” she said. “We all are. I mean, my whole species.” She kept quiet, realising that talking more wasn't helping her cause.
“Do you still claim that you are from the continent of Orora?”
“I do not believe you,” Norgad said.
“Maybe your expedition didn't look around the whole continent. It is very large.”
“They spent months circumnavigating the landmass, visiting all the major ports. But there is another reason for me to doubt you.”
“Oh?” Eeva said. What else now? Inside she felt resigned to whatever fate awaited her.
”We recently received a guest from beyond the sky – a reptilian creature. He tells us that you are also not of this world.”
Eeva looked at the interrogator in horror, and for the first time she saw him move his mouth in what could only be a smile. Even with the gulf in understanding between them, she realised that there could be no doubt about the expression on her face. He knows that I'm afraid.
Eeva stood alone in her cell. The interrogator had been gone for hours now. The fire had burned low, but she barely noticed. She looked out of the window over the empty forest far below, deep in her thoughts. The dragons must be hiding, she thought.
If the interrogator had told the truth, then a Lazovan had flown down to meet the rodent species. It had to be a Lazovan, she thought. No other reptilian species in The Order had the capability to fly here.
It raised more questions. The Lazovans were one of the founding members of The Order. They understood the treaties limiting activity on all the non-spacefaring worlds within the vast empire. They even helped to write them! Why would they break them so brazenly? she wondered.
The arcossan bark trade created great wealth, but the Lazovans were not excluded from it. The only restrictions came in doing the most dangerous part of landing and the actual transaction. When making contact with less advanced life forms, rules stated that one species at a time could interact with the natives. If things went badly, others from The Order might be allowed to try.
As far as she knew, no member of The Order had ever landed on a primitive world and declared that they came from 'beyond the sky'. It violated every rule.
The door creaked open again, and the servant crept in with a dish of food. He put it on the table and backed out of the room.
Eeva examined the meal prepared for her. It was different from the previous ones, and consisted of mostly leaves, with some unknown grilled white meat beside it. She nibbled at it carefully, using the two-pronged forks they had provided. It tasted of spiced nuts and wood. She imagined the rodents might enjoy it, but to her it was bland.
She removed her long boots and lay down on the soft feather bed and decided to sleep for the rest of the day.
There was another knock at the door and a stranger came in. The Lazovan. She glimpsed him from where she lay.
He reached such a height that he had to bend down to fit through the doorway. From her vantage point he looked gigantic. His skin shone a dark moss green, from his ridged head to his long tail. The front part of his neck and torso was a lighter hue, and much of his body was hidden beneath a white toga. His eyes were large and yellow and unblinking. When his mouth opened it revealed rows of sharp teeth and a thin red tongue.
Eeva felt instinctively uneasy when his eyes looked straight at her. She jumped to her feet and greeted the reptilian in her own language. As a Lazovan, he must also have a translation unit in his head.
"Hello, Eeva," he slurped in Lazovan. "My name is Relgar." He sat down at the table, letting his tail snake across the floor behind him.
"You shouldn't be here," said Eeva, remaining upright. Without her boots on she didn't even reach his shoulder. She could look him directly in the eye while he was sitting down.
"Nevertheless, here I am. The Nachorians have welcomed me, unlike you. I hear they have confined you to this hole." He pointed around the room.
"I was following the rules. We're not supposed to reveal we're from outer space."
"And look where that got you. You may be an ace pilot but you can't fly your way out of this."
Eeva couldn't be sure but she thought that the lizard was gloating.
"What did you tell them?" she asked.
"I merely told them that I come from beyond the sky. Even a simple creature can understand that."
"Do they think you're a god?"
"No," Relgar waved his arm dismissively. "I made it clear that I am not. I even offered them a small advance in technology."
Eeva put her hand on her forehead in despair. "You're not supposed to..." she began. "What did you give them?"
"Electricity," said the Lazovan. "It will benefit their whole kind."
"It's wrong. They might have taken hundreds of years to discover that. They won't be ready for it. If you share that knowledge with only one nation, you'll create an imbalance of power which could affect their whole future."
"I could share the technology with the other nations too."
"That's not the point. These rules are there for a reason." Eeva seethed. The words didn't sound right coming from her own mouth. Usually she despised the endless bureaucracy of The Order. "What did you get in return?"
"Full control of the arcossan trade," Relgar widened his mouth without opening it. Eeva knew what a Lazovan smile looked like. She realised she wouldn't be able to persuade him to change his mind.
She sat down at the table and put her head in her hands. "Can you get me out of here?" she asked.
"Of course," Relgar smiled wider, revealing some teeth. "In fact, I have already arranged for you to be transported on board my ship as a prisoner."
"And when we get back to The Order..."
"When we get back to The Order, we will see what we will see. We cannot let you go squealing to the authorities about your precious rules. We only let you other species have them to give you the impression you are a part of our glorious Empire. I understand The Order employ you on a binding contract due to a previous...misdemeanour of yours."
Eeva nodded. How did he find that out?
"Perhaps we could come to an agreement. If you work for us, then your contract with The Order could be annulled."
"I'm not sure it can be. Can it?"
"The Lazovans are the most ancient and powerful member of The Order. If we say it can be done, then it can be done."
"How do I know you have the authority to offer this?”
“It is my only offer. I hope you enjoy the Nachorian prison food. Currently, you have one of the more pleasant guest cells, usually reserved for wayward dignitaries. If you are found guilty of spying and being a monster, you won't have a window or any of these luxuries. And I don't think that you will be rescued."
She stared at the floor in defeat. The Order wouldn't leave me here, she thought. But what had he said about the Lazovans really controlling The Order? If I am imprisoned deep in a dungeon, what could anyone do?
“What about my ship?”
“We can arrange to have that recovered. We wouldn't want the Nachorians to stumble across it.”
Eeva sighed and looked at the remain of the fire. It had stopped burning, and the embers glowed orange like the sun of her home world.
"I guess I have no choice," she said glumly. "I accept."
"Excellent," purred Relgar, rubbing his claws together.
Meezar slowly opened his eyes to an uncomfortable ringing noise. "Oh no!" he wailed. He had been dreaming about a black and white female he used to know with beautiful yellow eyes and amazing whiskers.
He stretched his stiff limbs, arched his back and took in a deep breath. Somehow he found the will to stand up on his two hind legs.
White light slowly bathed the room, causing his eyes to shrivel away. He rubbed them and stretched again.
On a wallscreen he pushed a button to view his day's schedule. Nine o'clock meeting with a pre-hyperdrive species, that should be interesting. Hrrrr, a member of the council will be there – I'd better be sharp. Then nothing until thirteen o'clock when I have to meet Jargo from Accounting. Sssss!
He stumbled the short distance into the bathroom, showered and trimmed his whiskers. He put on a black one-piece suit and checked his appearance in the mirror. Very smart, he thought.
Meezar walked the three steps to the kitchen and gobbled down a whole tin of vat-grown meat for breakfast.
He took one last look in the mirror, and noticed a stain on his chest that hadn't been there earlier. He flicked it with his paw to clear away most of it. Nobody will see that. A speck of food landed on the white floor. I'll order the apartment to clean itself later. He continued out of the front door and closed the electronic lock with his paw print.
Vast transparent windows rose high around him as he walked along the Hub 3 space station. The yellow sun shone brightly in the black sky high up to his right. The large icy moon of Herontia began to heave into view far below it, a huge white circle mostly in shadow.
A ship docked upside-down above him, and Meezar saw two observers nearly fall over as they strained to watch.
He sauntered towards the moving walkways amid a bustle of other pedestrians. He reached it at the same time as another Cat, and he smiled politely and waved to let her go first. She ignored him. Hrrrrr, she smells good, he thought, trying to keep himself under control.
He rested his paw on the handrail and turned around. A human stood behind him, looking up at him curiously. Meezar could never read human expressions well, but he liked the funny pink hairless beings.
He had heard that humans on their homeworld often kept a cat-like species as pets, which was both endearing and insulting. In ancient history, Cats had kept monkeys as pets on their own planet too – usually only royalty or the very wealthy could afford to. In later centuries, the practice became vulgar and uncommon, and by the time the Cats sent rockets into space the monkeys had become extinct.
By an unusual coincidence, the common human word for cat sounded very similar to the Cat's own word for themselves – Kattava. The humans and Cats had always been fond of each other, thought Meezar. Even during the Cat Wars, when the felines warred with the rest of The Order, the humans had been the eventual peace brokers.
It was interesting how nature always produced the same forms, Meezar pondered.
His reverie broke abruptly when he realised he had passed the stepping off point for his office. Cursing and sputtering, he vaulted over the barrier and landed on all fours on the other side.
Sensing a commotion, he calmly stood up on his hind legs and hoped that nobody noticed. As he glanced behind him, it became clear that everyone on the walkway had seen him. He shrugged it off and continued on his way to the office with his head held high.
Meezar picked up the cup of red berry coffee and took a sip. The hot liquid flowed down his throat and he could feel his brain moving up a gear.
Across the kitchen he saw one of his human colleagues. “Hi, Penton,” he called out.
“Hello, Meezar,” replied the man. His hair shone slickly and his suit looked immaculate. It appeared multi-layered but a single tone, and Meezar found it baffling. Why not just wear a one-piece?
“Hey, have you seen that video show about these people trapped on an asteroid? It's called Asteroid, and they have two of each of the five main Order species – one male and one female. They have to survive as long as possible.”
“Sorry, Meezar,” Penton said. “I don't watch video shows.”
“Not at all?”
“I usually work late. When I leave work I go straight home and sleep.”
“That doesn't sound much fun.”
“It isn't, but it's the only way to get ahead. Honestly, you should try it if you don't want to stay at your level forever.”
“My level?” Meezar mewled. What is that supposed to mean? He had been at level 2 for years, but he didn't like to think about it.
Penton produced a strange smile that Meezar couldn't work out. “Never mind. Anyway, meeting now.” They both walked down the corridor to a room where a large Lazovan sat waiting for them.
“Hello Marla,” said Penton, taking a seat.
“Hi,” waved Meezar.
The lizard turned to the Cat with a frown. “You have a stain on your chest,” she said.
Meezar gave the smudge a wipe and smiled. “It's fine,” he said.
Marla glared at him for a minute, then returned to her screen. She was a creature of great bulk, hidden in undulating bulges under the conventional Lazovan attire that composed a single, clean white sheet. Her smooth, round green head poked out on top of her long neck like a fat antenna, split almost in two by her sharp mouth. Her tail had the same width as Meezar's torso. She is a fearsome lizard, he thought.
He and Penton logged into the consoles in front of them.
Marla explained that an ambassador from the Gongarans would join them. They were a space-faring ape species who had belonged to The Order for nearly a thousand years.
“We suspect what they will ask,” she spluttered. “It is the same question they ask every few decades – whether they can have access to hyperspace technology.”
“I thought they already have access,” said Meezar. “I've seen Gongarans on holiday in Dentrill 3. How do they get there without hyperdrives?”
“I won't ask what you were doing on Dentrill 3, it has something of a reputation,” sneered Marla. “Gongarans are allowed to be transported there if they obtain the relevant permissions. They are simply not allowed to construct their own hyperspace-capable ships.”
“Oh,” he purred. “I didn't know that.”
“Read the outline next time,” Marla snarled.
Penton spoke. “I assume that The Order will reject their request.”
“You assume correctly, unless council member Harban decides otherwise. He will join us after we have spoken to the ambassador.” She paused for a while. “Are there any questions?”
Meezar shook his head.
“Are you sure, Meezar?” asked Marla. “I don't want you causing a diplomatic incident.”
“When have I ever done that?” smiled the Cat.
“If you're all ready then, I'll ask him to come in.”
The Gongaran stalked into the room, skinny arms swinging by his knees. His lanky body swaggered as he walked, balancing perfectly on his long wiry limbs. Thick cinnamon-coloured hair straggled over his head and hands. He fit snugly into a black and white suit.
He clambered aboard a seat at the end of the table and greeted the others.
“Hello,” he said nervously, “My name is Ronol, I am the Gongaran ambassador to The Order.”
“Welcome,” smiled Marla, showing rows of fine white teeth.
“My people have been loyal members of The Order for two thousand years – that's Gongaran years. We have taken part in the Interstellar Telescope project, the New Star Fusion project, in pirate suppression missions, in the Joint Interstellar Fleet exercises, in the Cross-Species Educational Attainment study, in...”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Marla. “You are a valued member of The Order. You don't need to list all your achievements.”
The ape sat in silence for a moment, looking around the table. “I have a detailed speech. Should I finish it?”
“Get to the point, this meeting is just preparation. Save the speech for when the council member is here.”
Ronol nodded. “To summarise then, it doesn't seem fair that only five species are allowed full access to hyperspace technology. The other twelve species who have reached into space by ourselves remain bound to our own star systems, relying on the generosity of the Big Five when we need to fly somewhere else and can afford to pay them.
“From what I understand, only two of those five species invented hyperdrives by themselves. The other three learned it from the Lazovans. If you have shared the technology before, why not do it again?
“All I ask is that you consider the proposal seriously. Our president gained re-election a year ago on a promise that he would do his best to bring this technology to the Gongarans. We have many good engineers and I know we can use it responsibly.”
Marla smiled at the ape. “That was well spoken. You make some good points. It is true that only the Lazovans and Zandans discovered hyperdrives. The humans, Cats and Bappomolomans received it as a gift in the early days before The Order grew into the organisation it is today. We look back on that as a mistake. It is often a good idea to share technology in the spirit of friendship, but not with hyperspace capability.
“It is not like any other technology. It is a major barrier to a species' development and expansion. It is not something to be shared lightly, and we regret that we did so in the past.
“Also, your internal politics are irrelevant. That will not sway The Order. How you govern your planet is your own business. Your president made a poor promise if he thought he could bring hyperspace tech to the Gongaran.”
“He didn't promise to bring it,” said Ronol awkwardly. “He just said he would try.”
“Even so, he should not have,” the lizard said. “If that is all, then council member Harban shall join us shortly, and you may give your full speech to him directly. I expect he will respond the same way I did.”
“Thank you,” said the ambassador.
“Did you get all that, Meezar?” asked Marla.
“All recorded,” replied the Cat.
“Good. Penton, any legal issues?”
“Then let's have a break. We return here in thirty minutes.”
Meezar sat in the lounge enjoying another cup of coffee. Across the table from him sprawled what looked like a fish in a spacesuit full of water. Bulbous white eyes peered out through the glass screen in the helmet full of sloshing liquid. Below the gills its body hid inside the suit, of an uncertain shape but roughly humanoid.
“Last night the Lazovan male had to leave,” enthused the Cat. “He was so exhausted from eating nothing but space weevils.”
“I will try to watch it,” blubbered the fish-like creature, his big orange lips barely moving. “You are not the first to recommend that video show to me, but I must find time.”
There was a pause.
“Do you know that Cats eat fish?” Meezar smiled and licked his lips.
“I am a Bappomoloman,” replied the creature.
“Our main diet is fish, we eat them all the time, but here you are, a big intelligent fish.”
“We are amphibians.”
“I know you're not really fish, but you look like one. When I see you I can't help thinking of food. You look tasty.” The bulbous white eyes looked at him silently. “Don't worry, I would never eat you,” Meezar added.
“That is reassuring.”
“It's a positive thing.” He scratched his whiskers. He was hungry again. “I know it sounds strange, but I mean it well.”
“I know,” said the amphibian, blowing bubbles. “How are things at work?”
“I don't know, Blubb. I'm bored. I need something more exciting. Sitting in meetings isn't for me, they always seem to drag on. I don't know how much longer I can stand this job.” He scratched himself again. “I know, I sound like a typical Cat.”
The fish creature made more bubbles in his suit. Meezar thought he might be laughing.
“I have known some very bureaucratic Cats,” said Blubb. “It might surprise you to know.”
“Oh yes! I admit it is not common. Maybe it is because you are the only carnivorous species in the Big Five.”
“Yeah, we do love our anarchy.”
“I have a proposal for you. As you know, I am responsible for a department here at The Order for keeping an eye on primitive worlds, studying them and trading with them. Does that sound like something that interests you?”
“It could be fun. Is it dangerous?”
“Not really. If we didn't think you were capable, we wouldn't put you in the situation. Although it can be dangerous at times. One of our operatives recently went missing on a rodent planet trying to obtain arcossan bark.”
“Oh, that sounds like my kind of work,” grinned Meezar. He had spent his last holiday chewing arcossan on the tropical paradise planet of Dentrill 3. His doctor had recommended that he cut down but he found it difficult. He had been told that it was probably why he couldn't concentrate well.
“She was a highly skilled agent, one of our best. She will be missed, if she doesn't get back alive. You wouldn't get to do such a dangerous mission right away, of course. However, there is something you could do for us if you are interested and can get away from work soon.”
“What is that?”
“The archives on Lazova are only accessible to The Order's level 2 workers and above. A researcher in my department has some questions he needs answering.”
“Oh? What sort of questions?”
“About alien probes. It is a puzzle really. In the twenty thousand or so explored stars of The Order we know of over fifty space-faring species, living and extinct. All of them have sent probes out. We have found hundreds of them throughout the galaxy. Most species never develop hyperdrive capability by themselves, and that leaves them stranded on their own world.”
“Don't they try to colonise other stars?”
“They do, but it usually ends in failure at sub-light speed. Imagine a ship being sent across the vast emptiness of space. It may set off with the planet's greatest minds and strong-willed people. But we see them fail time and time again. After a hundred generations of stagnation, by the time it reaches its destination, its people will be shadows of the pioneers who set out. The enclosed environment leaves them weak, superstitious, with a closed mentality.
“With luck they may be able to land successfully and form a self-sufficient colony. But most perish within a few years. Those that aim at worlds which are not habitable are almost doomed to fail. Those who land on worlds that already support life will face difficult problems that require careful solutions.
“Throughout known history, we have seen sixty-three attempts at sub-light speed colonisation. Of those, many missed their target entirely, and of those who made it, we have only seen two colonies form successfully this way. In both those cases the species gained access to hyperdrives before the colony reached its destination. Without that advantage they may also have died.
“If a species could master hibernation then it may be possible, but we have never seen that either. Perhaps if the tortoise people of Delta Hexoni ever leave their millenia-long steam age and enter space, they could be the first to do it. But they will probably die out before that happens. Their pollution is killing them.
“So far as we know, only the Lazovans have ever developed hyperdrives, out of all the known species which exist or have existed. The Zandans claim to have developed it themselves, but they probably stole it from the Lazovans.
“Yet we see the remains of probes all around us. Most species will explore their own solar system, send a few probes across the void, then get stuck. Some destroy themselves, many others will stagnate on an overcrowded planet.
“The Lazovan archives contain details of every probe they have ever found, and they have seen more star systems than the rest of us. But there is a discrepancy between the many thousands of probes they claim to have found and the amount we know about.”
“Why is that? Are they hiding something?” said Meezar.
“Probably not. We need to check the original data. It isn't the most exciting mission but I can guarantee you good pay, and it would be safe.”
“I'm in. But it does make me wonder, if it's so important, why haven't you sent someone already?”
“It only came up last month. We need someone fairly low level, an unknown, with good credentials, so as not to arouse suspicion. But it has to be someone who can do the basic research. You would be perfect.”
“Really?” Meezar grinned widely, baring his sharp fangs.
“Please, show less teeth,” burbled Blubb. “They scare me. I am sorry to tell you that your fondness for the Bappomoloman species is not mutual.”