PARDON OUR CONQUEST
ALAN DEAN FOSTER
Alan Dean Foster is the bestselling author of several dozen novels, and is perhaps most famous for his Commonwealth series, which began in 1975 with the novel Midworld. The most recent in that series, Quofum, was published in 2008, and a new Commonwealth book featuring the popular characters Pip and Flinx— Flinx Transcendent —should be out around the same time as this anthology. Also forthcoming is The Human Blend, the first book of a new SF trilogy for Del Rey. Foster’s short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and in magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, and Jim Baen’s Universe. A new collection, Exceptions to Reality, came out in 2008.
Like the forthcoming Flinx Transcendent, this story takes place in Foster’s Commonwealth milieu. Foster said it was inspired by the idea that there are various ways to conquer. “Sometimes simply persuading an opponent that your way is better can achieve the desired end,” he said. “I always thought killing an opponent was a poor way of convincing him of the rightness of your argument.”
Admiral Gorelkii shifted his seat on the meter-thick, jewel-encrusted, ceremonial golden cushion that rose behind the sweeping transparent arc of the solid crystal crescent moon, and fumed. His substantial pale gray bulk was draped in a bloom of multihued embroidered standards, each one representing one of the ancient Great Hordes that together comprised the Empire of the Three Suns. They weighed on him physically as well as historically. The wearing of the standards was a great honor accorded to a select few only on the most extraordinary occasions.
Unfortunately for him, today’s extraordinary occasion was one of surrender.
His courage and willingness in accepting the responsibility for heading the disagreeable negotiations was recognized on all five inhabited worlds of the three systems that comprised the Empire. That did not mean he looked forward to the impending ceremony. What the exact details would consist of he did not know. What specific protocol was to be followed he did not know.
No doubt the conquerors of the Empire would be enlightening him in due course.
The Falan had never been a species to hesitate. Imbued with the heady wine of discovery and an assurance of their own superiority, they had looked forward to the steady expansion of their Empire in the direction of the arm of the galaxy that held a greater density of star systems than their own immediate vicinity. Following initial exploration they had discovered, explored, charted, and engaged in the successful colonization of two new habitable systems.
Then they had found Drax IV.
So it was called by the short, multi-legged, hard-carapaced creatures who inhabited the cities and towns they had excavated beneath its jungles and forests. Mild in temperament, absurd in appearance, they claimed to be part of a vast interstellar dominion called the Commonwealth. Vast, small, or imaginary, their polite insistence did nothing to deter the aggressive Falan. It was announced that the system of Drax would be incorporated into the Empire forthwith, and any foolish resistance met with fire and destruction on a planetary scale. Declaring war, the Falan proceeded to open hostilities by unleashing a small example of their firepower on a little-populated corner of the planet.
Subsequent to this ferocious demonstration, the inhabitants requested some time to contemplate their limited alternatives. While any military prowess on their part remained undetermined, they proved expert in the arts of obfuscation and delay. Eventually the patience of the Falan, never extensive to begin with, ran out.
This happened to coincide with the arrival of a fleet of fifty warships, which was considerably more than the two dozen or so the Empire could muster. When informed that this was a scouting force sent to determine the precise nature of the threat that had been levied against Drax, and that the main armada of the so-called Commonwealth had not even been assembled, consternation and despair among the Falan was followed by reluctant but unavoidable capitulation.
Gorelkii and his frustrated fellow career officers would have preferred to test the strength of the enemy warships in battle. As for the claim that they represented only a scouting force, such alien assertions could not be verified. They might be composed of nothing more than bluster on the part of the inhabitants of Drax. But Gorelkii and his comrades had been overridden by the Polity of the Three Suns, whose fear of utter annihilation if hostilities commenced was a realistic extrapolation based on their own fractious racial history.
“The Falan must be preserved,” he had been informed solemnly. “We will build our strength in secret, improve our weapons, advance our science. In time we will throw off the yoke of the enemy and carry the battle to its homeworlds.”
Fifty warships, he thought as he sat behind the glittering crescent moon. Scouting force. It was scarce to be believed. When queried, the inhabitants of Drax IV had declined to elaborate on the actual size and extent of their mysterious “Commonwealth.” Though not looking forward to negotiating the formal terms of surrender, Gorelkii knew that it would buy the Falan time to learn exactly what they were up against. Learning that, they would be able to prepare their inevitable unstoppable response.
Adjutant Bardanat entered through the wide, arched entrance of rippling metal. The muscles of his heavy bipedal form bulged beneath his gleaming uniform and his small black eyes glittered beneath a single thrust of projecting bone. One tri-fingered hand snapped ceilingward in salute. His tone was its usual clipped, wholly professional self, save for what Gorelkii took to be a touch of bemusement.
“The diplomatic representatives of the Commonwealth are here, Grand Admiral.” Bardanat hesitated and his voice lost some of its formal stress. “They are . . . they are . . . ”
“Well, pour it out, Adjutant! What are they?”
Bardanat’s fleshy eyefolds contracted in his species’ equivalent of a blink. “Not what I expected, Admiral.”
Gorelkii snorted through the single large respiratory opening set high in the center of his chest and below his thick neck. The nostril was framed by ribbons of valor that had been permanently encased in gleaming protective transparencies. The color tint of each transparency indicated the level of accomplishment that accented each ribbon.
“It doesn’t matter what you expected, or I. We must deal with them.” He gestured with a powerful, double-jointed arm. “Admit them.”
He readied himself. Though his people had been defeated without a shot having been fired, a missile being unleashed, or an energy beam deployed, he would attempt to bargain as an equal. The Admiral could rant and rave with the most voluble politician. He could be out-argued, but he could not be intimidated. It was one of the reasons he had been chosen to head the negotiations. It was universally conceded among the Polity that no one in the Empire was likely to obtain better terms than Grand Admiral Gorelkii.
Steeping to the left, Adjutant Bardanat assumed a position of ready respect. Legs contracted, upper body straight and stiff, eyes forward, he would hold that position until his muscles screamed for relief or Gorelkii directed him to stand down.
Two shapes were approaching from the far end of the formal antechamber, walking toward him from the towering main entry arch. Gorelkii could not keep from tensing. What would they demand? How would they treat him personally? What kind of confrontational species had the resources to send forth a force of fifty warships merely to scout a confrontation?
When at last the pair finally halted before the curve of the crescent moon, he was shocked by their size. The spindly, big-eyed one he knew from images sent back from Drax. Presently standing on four limbs with another four upraised, it inclined feathery antennae in his direction. A bright blue-green in color, it looked fragile and harmless.
Though bipedal like the Falan, the creature standing beside the thranx appeared even less threatening. So soft was it that one could actually see bits of its exposed flesh moving after it had come to a stop. A strange white growth emerged from the top of its skull and also covered much of the lower half of its face. It would take little effort, Gorelkii thought, to crush them both, splintering the thranx-thing and smashing its taller companion to a pulp.
Should he give in to the natural impulse, however, he knew it would put something of a damper on the forthcoming negotiations. He forced down his instinctive feelings and kept his massive three-fingered hands locked together in front of him.
Lumbering forward, Bardanat checked to make sure the translator positioned in front of his cutting teeth was operational before he began to declaim forcefully without looking to left or right. “I present to you Grand Admiral Gorelkii-vant, Destroyer of Worlds, Sovereign of the Nation-Clan Hasekar, Supreme Commander of the First Fleet Majestic, Defender of Empire, Scion of the Second Sun!”
His soft mouth parting to reveal tiny white teeth behind his own hair-thin translation device, the white-haired biped stepped forward and thrust a limb across the crystal arc in Gorelkii’s direction. “Hi, I’m Bill. William Chen-Khamsa, but my friends all call me Bill.” Gesturing at his hard-shelled companion, he added, “That’s the Eint Colvinyarev. He’s from Hivehom and I’m from Earth.”
Scuttling sideways, Adjutant Bardanat leaned slightly toward his commander and whispered. “The extended limb of the human creature, Grand Admiral. I believe you are supposed to make contact with the end.”
Baffled but adaptive, Gorelkii reached out with a massive hand. Unable with his more numerous but much smaller fingers to envelop it all, the human creature took two of the three thick proffered fingers and shook them up and down several times. Releasing its lightweight but assured grasp, it then stepped back.
“Pleased to meet you, Admiral.” Gesturing with its head, the being indicated Gorelkii’s expansive torso. “Are those awards on your chest? I don’t know their individual significance, of course, but even a visitor like myself can see that they’re very impressive!”
Flattery as an opening ploy, Gorelkii told himself. Somewhat unexpected, given that he was the supine party. He would not succumb to it of course. Still, there was no harm in utilizing his personal history to make an impact on this unimposing pair. He proceeded to do so.
When he had finished, the thranx dipped its head and antennae low in his direction. “Most impressive! I can see that the Polity of the Three Suns chose from among the best of your kind to represent them.”
“The Polity makes no mistakes!” Gorelkii’s voice reverberated through the vaulted, effusively decorated audience chamber. “Though we have surrendered to your forces, we have not been defeated, as no actual combat has taken place.”
“We agree absolutely.” Though massing far less than the average Falan, the human’s eyes were the same size. The Bill’s were blue, a color that fascinated Gorelkii. All Falan eyes were black or shades of very dark gray. “We consider ourselves fortunate to have escaped your wrath.”
Intriguing though the diversion was, Gorelkii ceased musing on the startlingly bright color of alien eyes. “Excuse me?”
“Clearly after learning more about you and your kind, any conflict between our three species would have resulted in terrible losses on our side. We would have been devastated! We are so very grateful that you have deigned to refrain from destroying us.”
“Yes, ccr!lk.” Folding its forelegs beneath its abdomen, the thranx executed a deep bow. “Gratitude compels us to abase ourselves before you.”
What was going on here? Gorelkii thought confusedly. What kind of game were these representatives playing at? He bemoaned his ignorance of the culture of the triumphant species. He did not know enough to recognize if he was being mocked. In the absence of such data he could only improvise his responses.
“Yes—well, the casualties the combined fleets would have wreaked on your forces would have been terrible!”
“Truly, we are aware.” The thranx rose out of its forward-inclining stance to regard the Admiral with golden compound eyes. “It is out of this awe and respect that we most cordially invite you to bring the Empire of the Three Suns into the Commonwealth.”
Ah, there it was, at last! Gorelkii told himself with satisfaction. Couched in respectful, almost deferential terms, but unmistakable none the less. On familiar rhetorical ground once again, he immediately challenged.
“You propose to absorb us into your own federation! Well I can tell you, both as an Admiral of the Falan and as . . . !”
“No, no, you’ve got it all wrong!” So absurd a picture did the human present, with its waving little arms and wide eyes, that Gorelkii did not take exception to the clumsy interruption. “Colvinyarev speaks honestly when he says it’s an invitation. If it so wishes, the Empire can go on its happy way with as little or as much contact with the Commonwealth as it desires. There is no compulsion to participate of any kind.”
The thranx gestured first-degree concurrence, though the elaborate gesticulations of foothands and truhands meant nothing to the Admiral. “Many intelligent species besides our own are members of the Commonwealth. Some in full, some only in part. The only thing we have in absolute common is sentience. Several participate actively in decisions of Commonwealth policy, others tend to their own world or worlds and leave policy making to the rest.” A small truhand gestured. “The Falan would surely rank among the most impressive species ever to join.”
Despite the resolve with which he had determined to enter into the negotiations, Gorelkii found himself slightly dazed. Nothing was proceeding as expected. He resolved to force matters back onto a familiar keel.
“It is for the Polity and not me to consider such topics. I sit before you only to settle formal matters of surrender.” He leaned forward, his massive bulk greater than that of human and thranx combined, his jet black eyes glittering challengingly. “First we will dispose of the matter of reparations . . . ”
Human and thranx looked at one another. “What reparations?” The human turned back to face the Admiral. “A couple of your ships inflicted some minor damage on Drax IV. Nothing that can’t be fixed. Forget about it. What’s a little petty devastation between friends?”
Once again Gorelkii’s eyepads performed the Falan blink. “No reparations?”
The human showed its teeth again. “No reparations.”
“Very well then.” The Admiral drew himself up. “We will proceed to the highly sensitive matter of disarmament, which I assure you the Polity will regard with the most . . . ”
This time it was the thranx who broke in. “You can keep and maintain all of your ships.”
“All of them?” the Adjutant blurted. “All three fleets?” It was an outrageous breach of protocol, but Gorelkii could hardly chastise Bardanat for speaking out. The Admiral was equally shocked
“Well, of course,” the human replied cheerfully. “They’re your ships, after all.”
“Restriction of movement, then.” Recovering, Gorelkii cast a warning look in Bardanat’s direction to remind the Adjutant who and where he was.
“No restrictions.” Instead of meeting the Admiral’s eyes, the human was leaning forward to examine the arc of the crescent moon. “This is really beautiful workmanship. I can’t find a single flaw or inclusion. I know that the crafts folk who fashioned it would find ready acceptance on many worlds of the Commonwealth. As I said, they’re your ships.”
Gorelkii’s thoughts were awhirl. “Commonwealth military garrisons on the five worlds. How extensive?”
The human looked again at his thranx companion. “Why would we want to establish a military presence on any of your worlds? You’re not part of the Commonwealth. Yet, anyway.”
“But,” the thranx added, “we would be flattered if you would situate some of your forces—completely independent, of course—on several of our worlds. Given the impression the Falan have made on the peoples of the Commonwealth, I’m certain their presence would be both welcome and admired.”
“Wait . . . ” Gorelkii struggled to gather himself. “You want us to establish a military presence on some of your worlds?”
The human’s head bobbed lightly up and down. “Would you do us that honor?”
Honor. No reparations. No disarmament. Everything the two representatives had said so far was suggestive of craven cowardice. Or . . . ?
Gorelkii was a soldier. He knew how to fight. He even knew how to surrender. His long and distinguished career had prepared him for both eventualities. But nothing he had experienced or studied had prepared him for negotiations like this.
“I am sure,” he said quickly, “that the Polity would be most pleased to place representatives of the Empire’s military on as many of your worlds as would be allowed.”
“Excellent!” As far as Gorelkii could ascertain, the human’s expression of delight was sincere. “We would be pleased to engage in cultural and commercial exchanges as well. According to whatever procedures and restrictions your government decides to impose.”
“Yes, well, as I have already mentioned, I am not empowered to negotiate such matters.”
The human’s head moved again, the white growth covering part of his face bobbing with the movement. “I’m positive others can work out the details.” He looked to his colleague. “I think that’s about it, Col.”
“Yes,” the thranx agreed. He eyed the Admiral. “Is there anything else you would like to discuss, your excellency? If you have the time, we would be flattered to invite you to a reception to be given aboard our ship, currently in stationary orbit above this city. You may of course bring with you any relations or friends that you would like. As our food synthesizers are programmed to satisfy the nutritional requirements of many species, I am sure they can create victuals that you would find of culinary interest, srral!k.”
Gorelkii hesitated. The negotiations had gone well. No, amazingly well. Far, far better than even the most pessimistic member of the Polity could have imagined. He considered the thranx’s offer. Refusing an invitation might be construed as an affront. It would be foolish to risk all that had been attained over such a slight request. Besides which he could not deny holding a personal interest in learning as much as he could about these obscenely deferential creatures.
“I accept your invitation.” He indicated the stiff-legged Bardanat. “My Adjutant will handle the details. But I warn you,” he added, “the details of these proceedings have been exhaustively recorded by multiple concealed sources. Any attempt at a future date to alter the terms of surrender will be met with—”
The visitors’ penchant for interruption struck yet again. “Oh, let’s not call it that,” the human insisted. “ ‘Surrender’ is such an unsociable term. I believe the official documents to be agreed upon are titled ‘Instruments of Eternal and Lasting Friendship between the Commonwealth of the Humanx and the Grand and Indivisible Empire of the Three Suns.’ They are already being communicated to your Polity for formal final review and execution.”
Gorelkii tapped his translator. In the course of negotiations he had fully expected to hear the term “execution” employed, but before now, and not in relation to bureaucratic formalities.
“We do have one last request.” The human was eyeing him thoughtfully.
Here it comes, Gorelkii thought. He steeled himself for whatever last-minute ultimate demand might be forthcoming. “Which is?”
Raising a spindly arm, the white-haired human pointed at the Admiral. “Would you wear that magnificent uniform, or whatever you call your current attire, when you attend our reception? I know that all of our military as well as diplomatic people will be as impressed by it as Col and I have been.”
Gorelkii found himself gesturing automatically. “Yes. Yes, that can be arranged.”
“Splendid!” Stepping forward, the human extended his arm once more. This time Gorelkii knew how to respond. They shook hands, gray enveloping beige. As the alien biped retreated, his thranx colleague advanced, dipped his head, and brushed the Admiral’s still extended trio of fingers with his antennae. The contact was negligible.
“We are most grateful for your hospitality,” the hard-shell murmured. “I personally look forward to greeting and entertaining you and your companions on board our vessel.”
Gorelkii sat in silence for a long time after the two Commonwealth diplomats had departed. Only an involuntary and irrepressible grunt of pain from Bardanat reminded the Admiral that his Adjutant was still locked in the ritual pose of Formal Reception.
“Straighten,” he told Bardanat.
“Gratitude, Admiral.” The Adjutant was relieved. “I . . . ” He hesitated, then asked the question that he could not suppress. “It is not for me to determine, but from what I was witness to I am presuming that according to the hopes and expectations of the Polity and of your personal self, the negotiations went well enough?”
“You may presume correctly, Adjutant.” Gorelkii was gazing down the arched Corridor of Mortality through which the diplomats had taken their leave. “There’s just one thing of which I remain uncertain.”
Bardanat stared back at the Grand Admiral, Destroyer of Worlds, etc. “What is that, Excellency?”
Gorelkii looked over at him. “Remind me again: this war. We lost—didn’t we?”