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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 3: Encyclopedic

 

The meeting started normally enough. A large rectangular table filled the middle of the room. A large screen (no 3D stage projectors in sight) occupied one end and a bank of computer control panels the other. Allie, two assistants to her right and Sahsha to her left, took one side of the table.

Walter, Jerry and his assistant Phil McIntyre took the opposite side. Marc and Jen sat at the foot of the table. Allie's security was noticeably absent, but they knew that they were just outside. Bill was at the head of the table fiddling with the controls of the video screen.

"All right," Bill said when everyone had settled in, "I think we can start with the meeting. For the record, this meeting, since it is dealing with matters of grave importance to the System, will be kept confidential, per the new Official Secrets Act. The Secretary-General has so agreed. We will start with a summary of what we've found out about our nearest neighbors that we have been able to gather mainly through the intercepts we've been getting of their communications via Phase-Wave. I've brought Commander Bhavnani-Singh and Commander McIntyre to discuss this with you, as they are the ones who have been the most involved with our Phase-Wave intercepts. I've also brought two members of the CETI Council to observe and help clarify matters of relevance to this meeting. So, let's begin. Jerry, I think you had better start the discussion."

"Thank you, Bill," Jerry said, standing up. He walked over to the screen and punched in some instructions. A map of the galaxy sprang up with the area around the Earth magnified.

"Earth and her system are about here occupying about this much space, about eighteen thousand, three hundred-plus million kilometers from edge to edge. A fairly average-sized system as we now know from the information we have at our disposal." He pressed a button and the area turned into a bright yellow.

"Our nearest neighbors are about ten light years from us, as measured from their nearest inhabited world." He pointed at an area near a trailing edge of the galaxy. He pressed some buttons and the group of stars turned bright red.

"We have found out that these neighbors of ours are not of a single race but a conglomeration of different races. They control a vast area of space and are technologically more advanced than us. Phil?"

"That's what we think," Phil continued. "We get very few intercepts from them. It was as if they were constantly restricting their communications, almost like in a state of siege. It's hard to get a clear picture, but I think we've pieced together the basic stuff."

Jerry continued. "They call their territory the Tiros Empire, apparently after the home world of the dominant species, the Tirosians, and are comprised of about fifty different races, where Tirosian is naturally the most common language. They have a semi-feudal sort of society, the upper castes being land or property owners and the masses the 'tillers of soil,' the peasants." He looked pained. "At least we think so."

"What's the problem?" the Secretary-General asked.

Phil took up the question. "If looked at superficially, it seems that way," he said, "but Ms. Priestley’s cultural analysts and sociologists believe that they are a dictatorial society, with the dominant race holding the rest of the empire in thrall. We are not sure, but we have had strange intercepts that came from that region of space. Professor Priestly can explain it better."

Jennifer took up the discussion. She laced her fingers under her chin. "We sociologists," she began in her best professorial tone, "are always on the lookout for cultural indicators, cultural landmarks, if you will, that give us hints as to their cultural norms and values. And what better cultural indicator than language. Do you know that we have so far not found any Tirosian equivalent for the word 'friend' or 'please?' That is, however a minor thing. But such things cannot be denied as hard evidence of very basic cultural differences between them and us.

"Furthermore, from the transmissions we've gotten, we've often heard 'slave' associated with some species name or other. Also, the commander has been getting numerous transmissions that deal with the movement of 'cargo' that often mean weapons: huge fleets of spacecraft ferrying huge loads of weapons from one planetary system to another, from one trouble spot to another; it seems that they often have rebellions, at least one major revolt every few years or so. We've also been intercepting numerous transmissions about punitive raids and attacks on outlying worlds by the Tirosians. Planetary studies of their industries also seem to indicate that as much as seventy percent of their resources are poured into the military. They have a staggering military potential, out of proportion even to their vast size."

They pondered this in silence.

"Yes," the Secretary-General said, "that is troubling. But, you say that they are more than ten light-years away from us. I don't think any problems these Tirosians have would affect Earth. Besides, what possible interest could they have with us? We're only one planetary system, after all. Surely they have other things to occupy their time."

"They have true space travel, Ma’am. Their Empire extends more than five thousand light-years from end to end, which they travel as easily as we travel from Earth to Pluto Base. So distance doesn't really count.

"Also," continued Jennifer, "they're expansionary. But their idea of colonizing is by conquering. You know, war and glory, that kind of thing. Their sociological profile seems to indicate that they are from a ruthless race that prides themselves with their power over others. By our lights, of course. I doubt if they'd leave us alone if they ever find out about us. And I doubt if we will survive such an encounter."

"Yes, I see," Allie said, subdued. She turned and faced Jennifer. "How sure are you of your facts, Jennifer?"

"As sure as we can be, Madam Secretary. Like the commander said, the intercepts that we have been getting are not enough to be able to put together a complete picture."

"But the council has known about this?"

Marc answered, "Yes, madam, ever since Dr. Steele alerted us to it."

"And you have kept it from the public."

"You must see why," Bill said. "We can't afford panic among the masses, especially now. This is a bad time for us. It's only now that the people are getting over the paranoia and violence of the war. But there's more. Would you continue, Jerry?"

Jerry thumbed some controls. "Aside from the Tirosian problem, there's another one."

The picture on the screen shifted to show a belt of stars adjacent to the Tiros Empire but further into the galaxy. Jerry pressed some buttons and they turned a bright blue. It bordered the Tirosian planets on its outer edge. Earth was towards its tail end but it was sandwiched between the two groups of stars. The red-tinted and blue-tinted stars bracketed Earth’s tiny yellow.

"As you can see, we are surrounded on all sides by these two star groups in our spiral arm. This new group of stars is the territory of what the inhabitants call the Galactic Federation of Free Races, a rather blown-up name considering that they occupy only a comparatively small part of the galaxy. Their nearest inhabited planet is fifteen light-years from us, and the Federation is made up of about seventy to eighty different races.

"We know a hell of a lot more about them than we do the Tirosians because we get more intercepts. Anyway, to summarize what we know of them, these planets owe allegiance to a major governing body, the Federation Senate, if we can call it that. Planetary governments work under this governing body but maintain jurisdiction in their own systems. We can see some parallels to our own U.N. here. These races engage in free trade with each other but specific trade relations vary from planet to planet, depending on the local customs and situations.

"Militarily speaking, their potential is about equal to the Tiros Empire. They are, however, at a disadvantage in that the military forces of the local governments are not under the direct control of the Senate. Now, as regards specific information: we have put together a more-or-less complete backgrounder on some of the major races, the Elyrans, for one. We can even speak some of their languages now. Bill is becoming very fluent in Elyran, I believe."

Allie turned to Bill. "Is that true, William? Can we hear something in Elyran?"

Bill smiled. "Well, maybe later. When we finish all this. Jerry?"

"Okay. To continue then, with the sponsorship of a present-member race, membership to the Federation is granted upon application and evaluation of the applying species. Rarely is membership of a species actively solicited, but there are no restrictions on who can apply."

"I gather then, Commander," Allie said, "that you want us to apply for membership. Is that it?"

"Well, yes, Ma’am," Jerry said, "but I doubt if we'll be able to pass the test."

"What?"

"From our information, their screening is pretty tough," Bill said. "Random samplings of the people have to undergo sophisticated tests, as well as a review of their science and a scrutiny of their customs and history. Even so, that is not the difficult part. If it were only that, then I suppose the human race would pass, even if not with flying colors.

"There are powerful races among the Federation who seem to have this conviction, almost a matter of religious faith, that true civilization only comes with time. A species needs to be old enough to join them and, by their standards, we are barely old enough to be considered even just intelligent animals. Our oldest fragments of artifacts suggesting the beginnings of human civilization can only be traced back to maybe a hundred thousand years, whereas the recorded histories of the youngest members of the Federation can be traced back up to a hundred times that. In fact, in the past, wars have been fought for the right to an audience. The right to membership is a very important matter.

"There is another thing. How shall I say it... the mercenary aspect of it. More often than not, the races that are admitted have technology that approaches, or is at parallel to, the aggregate technological level of the Federation. It is simpler to say that such advancement translates to the ability for true space travel. After all no Federation member race would be willing to support an outsider race with technological and resource assistance just to help them become self-supporting and would rather leave them alone until they become beneficial members of the Federation their on. "

"Are there rules to this effect?" asked the secretary-general.

"Well, no, but few have really tried and came ahead. There are only two species that we know of that won membership in spite of this prejudice. One was the Arachnians - that's just what we call them; the real name is hard to pronounce as most of their language is composed of clicks and whistles. These Arachnians didn't have space travel but they were beyond a doubt civilized. They more than held their own in their “Senate.” After a while, the Arachnians developed faster-than-light travel on their own. Membership was granted retroactively.

"The other race was the Elyrans. These people were just a few hundred millennia old, mere babes, but they were granted membership. Many of their colony worlds were in the path of commercial travel routes. No doubt that gave them the edge. And now, there is no denying that the Elyrans have become one of the most important races in the Federation. As an indication of this, their language is the single most widely spoken language among all the planets."

Allie thought for a while. "Yes, I can see the trouble there. But, is it really a problem? For us, I mean. Why don't we just ignore them? It's not as if we need them: We can survive on our own."

Marc sighed. "If it were only that, it would be fine. But there's more." He stood up and approached the video screen. He contemplated the image on the screen silently.

"Relations between the Empire and the Federation are, shall we say, less than amicable. In fact, the only reason war hasn't broken out is because the Tirosians have so far meticulously avoided open hostilities. That, of course, doesn't rule out sneak attacks and raids on the Federation's outlying planets. Skirmishes between planetary defense fleets and Tiros raider ships are almost commonplace. It is only a matter of time before war breaks out.

"What is more troubling is that sooner or later, we believe sooner, either the Tirosians or the Federation will discover us. Right now, Tiros survey and colony ships have been extending their area of exploration closer and closer to our system. Perhaps next year or the year after, they'll stumble over us, and we're going to be dragged into a war that we didn't ask for."

"If we were involved in such a war," Allie asked, "how would we fare?"

"Phil, you have the hard facts for that. How would we cope?"

Phil rustled some papers in front of him. "From what we've gathered, we are about on the same level as them so far as basic technology goes. Of course, we don't have star-travel and they do. But we do have Phase-Wave, and it appears that they don't. Resource-wise, we are all right, but since we are trapped in our one system, it would be like a siege."

Allie frowned. "No one in the Federation has ever discovered Phase-Wave?"

"So far as we can tell. The Tirosians, too. They seem to rely on message carriers and shuttles to handle their communications across the interplanetary void. That’s not too surprising - it took a few propitious accidents and a lot of guesswork on the part of Bill and his staff that we have Phase-Wave at all.

"To summarize then: One, we are at a disadvantage with space travel and star-mapping. Two, they have the slight edge over us with anti-gravity and related technology. But, three, we do have it over them with Phase-Wave, and, four, we are more advanced in terraforming technology, food production and synthesis and life support, as well as computer and superconductor technology, nuclear technology, aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. Finally, five, we are about equal in weapons technology. But, of course, we only have this one planetary system to our name, and therefore have only a limited source of raw materials and energy.

"If it ever came down to it, I believe that we can probably hold our own for about a year. Beyond that, I don't know."

Allie was silent. "Your people paint a grim picture, William."

"Yes, it looks bad, doesn’t it? But I think we've found a solution."

"I thought you might have something up your sleeve," Allie smiled. "Go ahead, spill it."

Bill smiled as well. "Well, it's something like this: I propose to set up a new group, one that will find the solution to the hyper-light issue, a group whose sole task is to find a workable faster-than-light propulsion system so that, if it ever came to it, we can at least defend ourselves better. And, I hope, have an ace up our sleeve if we have to choose sides and need to sue for membership in the Federation.

"Parallel to this, I also propose to set up a research group - one that will go over all intercepted broadcasts and try to piece together everything we can concerning our alien neighbors, from their latest technological advances to anything and everything about their culture. I want us to know enough that we won't be overmatched if we come face to face with them, or at least know enough that we don't throw bricks around when we get invited to a party. The third item I..."

Allie raised a hand. "Hold on, William, hold on. These are all well and good. But what leads you to believe that these things will be easy to do? For one thing, we've been trying to develop such a contraption for a long, long time. What makes you think we can do it now? Another thing is this research group. It will take a lot of resources and many people to do this. I don't believe the U.N. will stand for such an expense. Even now, I've had to fight for your budget from some people who believe that the money could be better spent elsewhere. You've got to give me a plan, William. This just won't stand up."

"A good point, Allie. I was just getting to that. One way to get the budget and resources for something like this would be if we had a central military arm under the jurisdiction of the U.N. I mean, the resources are there, manpower, money, material. The only hitch is that they're under the control of different national and territorial governments. If we were somehow able to pool them together into one big resource under direct U.N. control, then maybe it would just be possible to make this work. An added bonus there is that we'd have a ready-made fighting force that we can mobilize in case we need it.

"Anything is possible, really. The only key here is cooperation. Look at what we've been able to accomplish with CETI. With all the nations contributing, we've been able to do in a year what it would have taken decades to accomplish otherwise. It's a miracle, really. If we can pull that off again, we'd have another miracle on our hands. One that we hope can save us from another war."

"I can see the practical values of that. But what makes you think that the U.N. would be willing to do it? National interests, priorities and pride are things that cannot be easily overlooked."

"I know, Allie, I know. But we are sure of two things - this interstellar war is inevitable, and that we will be involved. We need to be prepared for the coming storm. There is no choice."

After a moment, Allie nodded to for Bill to continue.

"The trick here," Bill continued, "is to motivate the people into wanting this thing. To do that, I have something else up my sleeve. What I want to do is to send a transmission to the Federation central worlds, sort of announcing our existence. The transmitter is almost finished, and the message that we'll be using to send the transmission was finished just an hour ago. If and when we do this, there won't be any choice. Either we choose up sides or we face the galaxy alone. And if the people realize that we are committed, then at least we are following a course that we determined on our own, a future that we have a measure of control over instead of just leaving it to the fates and to the sensibilities of alien minds."

Allie laughed. "Blackmail, huh?"

Bill waved that down. "We have to be sure that the Federation will receive it. But, when they do, we can also be sure that the Tirosians will hear of it, too. We're fairly certain that there is an underground network of Tirosian spies within the Federation, and these spies will surely get word to the Empire about us.

"To stack the cards in our favor, the transmission should not dwell on specifics, and, as much as possible it should confuse the issue. The way we want to appear to these people is that we're better than we really are. With help from our small research group here, we've been able to put together something like that. If it meets with your approval, then this is what we will broadcast."

Bill pressed some keys and the screen blanked out.

A title page appeared. Printed in bold white letters over the blue-and-white U.N. logo, it said, "Proposed Extra-Solar Broadcast of the Species Homo Sapiens." Just below and to the left was the smaller CETI logo. This faded out and was replaced by a map of the galaxy, as seen from above the galactic plane.

"The original was voiced over in Elyran," Bill was saying, "We dubbed it with English just for this meeting."

As Bill said, a voice accompanied the film. In the background could be heard the muted Elyran version. The video started with a static shot of the galaxy. Then it started to zoom in and re-focus on the area of the Solar System. The voice introduced the species Man and started to explain the location of the system in relation to various reference points, such as the positions and periods of pulsars as they are perceived from Earth and Elyra.

The picture continued to zoom in, with the voice explaining what was happening. Soon, the Solar System was in focus, as seen from above the ecliptic plane. The orbits of the planets was greatly apparent because of the speeded up picture: the planets described stately round circles around the Sun while the outermost pseudo-planet Pluto (as well as the other dwarf planets), continued on its maverick course, departing widely from the Solar plane and then swinging back.

The picture rotated so, instead of being seen from the top, the view of the system was edge-on.

Classical music accompanied the film, changing the very dry computer-generated video into something majestic. The picture zoomed in further with the viewer's point of view passing close to the planets and satellites. The music started off with the mournful tones of a Mahler symphony. It faded away to be replaced by the rich and colorful music of Brahms and then by the more popular creations of Beethoven as the picture seemed to closely skim the outer planets' moons, with many glimpses of colonies and pressure domes on the surface.

The "camera," for it seemed that they were looking through the lens of an old 20th-century movie camera instead of computer graphics, skimmed the surface of giant Jupiter, passing directly over the famous "Great Red Spot," that centuries-old cyclonic storm that had persisted ever since man discovered it. They "oohed" and "ahhhed" as their “camera” skimmed the moons of Saturn and then flew through the fine snowflake-like mist of the planet's rings and the sparse scattered rocks of the Asteroid Belt.

As they neared Earth, more and more spaceships were in evidence. None in the room were that familiar with ship designs and spacecraft so no one noticed the completely bogus ships that appeared to be flying by their camera. Bill smiled to himself and hoped that the aliens' reactions would be the same as those in the room.

New music faded into the picture as they neared the Earth, with the relatively newer compositions of twentieth century artists like Charles Ives and the neo-classic jazz influences of Louis Gruenberg.

They passed just inside the orbit of Phobos and came up on the moon. The night side lunar base was clearly seen just as a conventional cargo rocket was taking off. The enormous base was momentarily spotlighted in the flickering light of the rocket's exhaust and showed the extensiveness of the base before it shifted to its anti-gravity engines. The camera continued and flew over the landing site of the old Apollo mission. The aliens would probably miss the sight but no human would. Bill was subtly gratified by the recognition of Allie and the rest. John Williams' much commercialized music replaced the atonal melodies of Gruenberg, yet its symphonic tones lent the video an air of grandeur.

The angle shifted again to put the Earth at the center of the picture. It was bright blue against the inky background, with drifts of clouds lazily floating over its face. The camera shot into the atmosphere with the sound of air whistling passed.

They skimmed the surface, passing over continents and vast oceans. As the speed slackened, they were able to pick out several ships, cities and planes flying just below them in the now sparsely clouded sky.

They were slowing down even further and were approaching the coastline of a large continent, zooming passed a great green-and-gray statue of a woman holding aloft a burning torch. It was the rebuilt Statue of Liberty, they knew, yet the effect was still very powerful.

The picture continued to close in onto the shore. It focused on the tall U.N. Secretariat Building, its many Crystalline windows reflecting the Sun's rays like a multi-faceted jewel. In the foreground were the Library Building, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, and the U.N. General Assembly Building, with national flags, the colors of the different races of man, waving gently in a curving line in front of them. A silvery fountain in the middle of the courtyard splashed merrily.

The camera's angle shifted and they found themselves looking down onto the open space between the buildings. People were going about their daily lives. Small electric vehicles whizzed by carrying passengers on their daily errands.

The focus shortened until they could see individual faces. The computer rendering was so realistic that they thought that they were really looking at a real afternoon downtown street scene. The picture centered on a little girl holding a balloon as she watched the gurgling fountain. She seemed to sense someone looking at her and she looked upward at the camera.

It was a pretty, dark-haired girl in pigtails. Surrounded by the fine sparkling mist of the fountain, she smiled widely and waved at the camera.

With a final burst of music from John Williams' interpolated version of "When You Wish Upon a Star," the picture faded away.

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About the author

Bobbi-C

  • Washington DC
  • Mistress of Confusion

Bio: Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.

Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.

Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.

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