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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 5: Long Distance Call

 

The princess walked briskly across the high-vaulted main hall of her keep despite aching muscles fresh from gladiator practice. The heels of her riding boots, much smudged from a day of tromping on hard, dusty earth, made rhythmic tapping sounds on the polished green-marble tiles. Her mail battle skirt made a rasping noise on the balustrade as she wearily climbed the stairs. Her valet hastened to give her a helping hand.

The princess pulled back her arm. "I'm all right!" she barked and glared at her valet, her solid-crystal blue eyes shiny with fatigue.

Lena drew back. "As you wish, My Lady," she said.

Abashed, the princess smiled a little bemusedly. "I beg your pardon, Lena. My mood is always foul when I'm tired."

"Quite understandable, My Lady."

"Ahhh, for a hot bath and a long nap." She topped the stairs and turned to her lounge. "Is Ren up?" she asked.

"Yes, My Lady. The Prince has been up since morning, awaiting your return."

"Then, I shall not keep him waiting any longer. You may go."

Lena bowed and went back downstairs.

Elyrans, for the most part, looked just like the humans of Earth, except for the four-fingered hands and the solid-colored eyes. The Elyrans were also a trifle shorter than humans, but aside from these minor characteristics, both races looked practically identical. Because of this, it would lead many of the less informed from both races to believe that the two races came from a common ancestor, or were distant cousins, species-wise.

Tasha gripped the large crystal doorknob to her royal bedchamber and swung open the door. She threw her broadsword and shield on the bed even though she knew Ren hated it; she was too tired to care.

"Ren?" she called, "Are you there?"

Ren came in, looking especially handsome in a new silver suit with ruffles at the cuffs and neck. She smiled and clapped her hands.

Ren smiled and pirouetted in display.

"You look wonderful, Darling," she said, taking him in her arms and kissing him strongly.

"How was your day?" he asked.

"Fair to middling," she replied. "I only won two out of three practice duels in the field."

"Lost only one. And to you, that is only 'fair to middling.'"

"Well, you know how I am." They both laughed at their private joke. "Would you be a dear and draw a bath for me while I change?"

Ren went to the bathroom and turned on the taps. Tasha came in as the tub was filling, casually nude with a towel over her shoulder. Ren looked up and sighed exasperatedly.

"Tasha, I just got dressed," he complained. Tasha started unbuttoning his vest.

"Well, you can always dress again." She threw his jacket and vest towards the bedroom.

"But the others will be coming, and ..."

"Let them wait." She pulled off his shirt and ran her hand through the fine curls on his chest.

"But..." She stopped further protests by kissing him and dragging him to the tub.

-----

The first to arrive were the outworlder rulers. And, by Ren's count, almost all the outworlders were there, save two or three. They all had their assistants or personal secretaries with them. Not all of them were female, and that made Ren feel a little better. The other ducal rulers were trickling in. Of the seven major fiefdoms on the planet, six were already there, with the seventh just walking in. Ren directed them to their seats around the great marble table.

Some of those who didn't know him were a little scandalized to find a man doing a woman's job, and were even more so when they found out that Ren was also the personal assistant and secretary of the princess, Tasha Liaran-Kerr.

The other more liberal-minded ladies were more tolerant and passively went to their seats. Indeed, some of them had men in their retinues as well.

It was a sign of the changing times.

After seating them, Ren went over to the massive computer console at the end of the room and switched it on to give the vacuum tubes time to warm up. Tasha was very proud of the castle’s computer systems. It was quite an achievement for her. The Liaran-Kerr's house computer system was the largest and most powerful on the planet and the other fiefdoms, and it had cost the clan a great deal to design, build and program. A great artificial cavern was hollowed out under the castle to hold the rest of the massive memory banks in a controlled environment. The castle staff held a complete team of specialists on hand to maintain the system. The vacuum tubes were very notorious for their propensity for burning out and needed constant supervision. Only about half of the circuitry of the castle's new system used vacuum tubes. The rest was made out of printed circuit boards and expensive integrated circuits, making the system faster and more reliable than most.

Ren patted his still-damp hair and smoothed down his deep-blue shirt. He fervently hoped that he didn't look disheveled. “It's Tasha's fault,” he thought. “She didn't have to drag me in and ruin my new shirt.” He picked up a sheaf of papers, went over to the table and stood by his princess's chair. He scratched his finely powdered jawline with lacquered nails and surreptitiously daubed some cologne on his neck.

He breathed a sigh of relief when the princess came out, striding in her familiar, firm manner, her short dress sword jingling and swaying against her mail skirt. She gave her mate an assuring smile and sat down.

She gestured to the goblets in front of them and all the representatives raised them and drank the symbolic drops of wine, as tradition required, before the beginning this important transaction.

The discussion began with an introduction of everyone present. There was Princess Mara Dorian-Kerr, a distant relative of the Liaran-Kerrs of the Great Northern Kingdom, heading the eight major-power kingdoms on the planet. The Northern Kingdom was one of the most powerful, second only to the Great Plains Territory of the Liaran-Kerr and Tevann-Reshanii clans.

The unlikely marriage of Tasha and Ren had forged their two separate kingdoms into the Great Plains Territory, which changed the balance of power on the planet. Princess Mara was far from happy with this arrangement but law and tradition dictate that she accede to this set of circumstances, the only alternative being that of open warfare.

Besides, the people had a great love for tradition.

Twelve of the sixteen outworlder fiefdoms were represented by their rulers, the others by their royal ambassadors.

After the lengthy introductions, the subject matter of the meeting was broached. Tasha asked Ren for a short summary.

"Great rulers, noble born," he began, "As some of you may know, one year and two months ago, a very powerful signal of unknown origin blanketed the communication networks of many of the Federation planets. The sheer power of this signal blanked out most communication grids from here to Dixx, all of the commercial and regular wavelengths being affected."

He walked over to the computer console and switched on the screen. He gestured to a family retainer and she brought out two reels of recording tape. Ren inserted them into a cavity in the console and the screen came to life.

"By chance, a number of radio receivers all over the Federation were tuned into the proper frequency and some managed to record the transmission." He gestured to the screen. On it was a picture of the galaxy, as seen from above its plane. The galaxy looked like a silvery-white drop of milk in the dark fabric of space. The angle shifted until they were looking at their spiral arm. They knew, more from inference than recognition, that it was their arm. The picture shortened its focus until they were looking at a small pinprick of light.

Ren lowered the volume of the console speaker into a muted murmur so that their discussion could go undistracted by the voice-over and music coming from the video.

"The purpose of the transmission," Ren said, "is very obvious. The people responsible for it, the people of the planet Earth, were announcing their presence to all of us in the Federation - a previously unknown race. Many of our scientists and analysts have been pondering it, and the answers the transmission brings to light have given us new data on this part of space, not to mention a look at these Earth folk. What is troubling is that, even as it gives us answers to unasked questions, new questions seem to present themselves. And these have given rise to many grave implications for us and the Federation."

Most of the women were paying more attention to Ren than to what he was saying, which irritated Lady Mara obscurely. "What are these implications, specifically," Mara said, interrupting Ren.

One of the outworlder ambassadors took up the question. "If I may, My Lady," Ambassador Fal of the First Colony said, "One of the reasons that I am here instead of my Princess is so that I could bring up these questions in full council." She gestured to her personal secretary, also her mate, to pass around copies of the papers she had.

"I have been appointed by My Princess to be our colony's ambassador to the Federation, and I have recently sat in on a conference at Colossus about this same mysterious transmission. The group has come up with some conclusions." She nodded for Ren to continue.

"Consider these facts, my ladies," Ren said. "The broadcast is accompanied by a narration. In Elyran, no less." He increased the volume slightly and they could hear the voice and the music.

"The fact that they know Elyran indicates a deep knowledge of us and the Federation: for example, from all the dominant languages in the Federation, they knew enough to pick the most used language in the Arm.

"The message of the broadcast itself is not straightforward,” Fal continued. “As the Prince said, it raises new questions even as it answers others. Also the manner of the speech. It is very literate and fluent, and the accent is correct. They have an in-depth knowledge of the language, even to the use of grammatical subtleties.

"Consider also that they were able to send the signal in the first place. None in the Federation can do that. We employ couriers and messengers to carry our messages across the void yet they could do it via a transmission. Many of the Federation’s top minds are even now trying to find out how they were able to do that.

"It all points to a very technologically advanced race. The images themselves are an indication of this. Though they look very realistic, analysts at Colossus are fairly sure that these were completely artificially generated.

"The images themselves support this hypothesis of a more advanced technology," Ren said, and gestured at the screen. "Of their eight planets, we gather from the tape that they have settled on all of them, or their moons, meaning a sizable population, and industries of a very high level just to maintain it.

"My ladies, these beings will no doubt have a great impact on the Federation as a whole but, to us Elyrans as a race, there is more. Please look at these final images of the transmission."

On the screen was a picture of an alien blue sky, brighter than it could ever be on Elyra. The images moved until it zoomed into a picture of an immense statue standing in the bay of an alien city: that of a woman holding up a torch, her head crowned by a spiked corona. They gasped. "By the Gods," murmured one of the outworlder princesses. Clearly, she hasn’t seen the video yet.

The view swooped past the towering statue and focused on a brightly shining glass building, pennants flying at its forecourt - pennants presumably representing the tribes of the race, as the building looked like an important meeting place for the people. Then the focus shortened even further until they were looking at the upturned face of a young girl in the middle of a bustling crowd, looking up at them.

"By the Gods, it cannot be," Mara exclaimed, for she, like most of those on Elyra, had not seen the video part of the transmission yet. She looked at Tasha. "Elyrans?"

"Perhaps," agreed Tasha, softly.

The young girl smiled and waved and the picture stopped.

"Five fingers," muttered Mara. She looked at her own four.

The image slowly faded as the video ended, but it stayed lingering in their minds.

"If I may continue," Ren said after a moment. Tasha nodded.

"We then have the following facts." Ren ticked them off on his three fingers.

"We have a highly advanced technological race, perhaps Elyran - we are not sure - with a very large population. If our estimates and the film are to be believed, they are about forty-five billion in that system of theirs," he said, using the Elyran Base-8 counting system.

"Second, this race, these Earthers, have an in-depth cultural knowledge of the Federation, perhaps even us, specifically. Third, these Earthers also possess a very high military potential. That much is obvious from the recording. And they have the numbers to make this potential a reality.

"However, other facts have given us worries." Ren punched up new instructions into the console. The after-images of that familiar-looking alien child slowly disappeared and were replaced by a set of figures and a small astrogation map at the bottom, with a small blinking arrow.

"They are twenty-two Elyran light-years straight-line distance from the nearest Federation planet," Ren said, using the Elyran Base-8 system, "toward the end of the arm, and on the galactic plane. That means that they are in extremely close proximity to the declared boundary of the Tiros Empire."

This was greeted with silence.

"But we are sure that they are not in alliance with the Tirosians, are we not?" asked Princess Elaan, ruler of the Everon Colony, the largest of the Elyran outworlder colonies.

"We are relatively sure of that, My Lady. Our spies on Detterex have said that they are not."

"Well, then, there is no problem."

"But there is, My Lady. When they sent the transmission and blanketed many of the Federation's communications networks, its sheer power would almost assure its reception in the Tirosian sphere of influence, if just the fringe planets. And reports from our spies have indicated that there is something afoot in the Great Halls. Almost assuredly, this is about the broadcast."

"Hmm, I see."

"Now," Ren said, "its relative nearness to our planets could provide a good strategic base of operations for the Tirosians. On the other hand, it could provide the Federation with the same advantage against them. Given that we could persuade them to become Federation members, of course."

Mara shook her head and everyone turned to her. "You are being an alarmist," she said. "It would be years before this Earth system could be prepared as a military base, not to mention that such an operation would be very conspicuous and very expensive. The Tirosians cannot do such a thing without all the planets finding out about it."

"As I said before, My Lady," Ren argued, "they have a very high military potential, we suspect even higher than our best estimates. Also, they have that huge population on hand, ready to make any massive project feasible. The Tirosians need not exert that much effort to make this a reality."

Ambassador Fal of the First Colony shook her head. "Poor Earth," she muttered.

"To summarize, then," Tasha continued for Ren, "it would pose a grave direct threat to us if these people were ever turned against us. Is that correct?"

"Quite correct, My Lady," Ren answered. "It is therefore a priority for us to send an emissary to Earth, to convince them to become part of the Federation."

"Is that not a task for the Council?" Princess Elaan of Everon said. "We should not decide and act for them. This is premature."

"I agree," Tasha said. "However, we have anticipated their decision and have therefore prepared accordingly."

"You have, eh?" Mara said suspiciously.

"Yes. If the Federation governing council agrees to send an emissary, then they would be glad of our quick thinking and quick action."

"And if they decide not to?"

"Then we still go ahead. May I remind you, this is a question of war? As it is, we are on the brink. Something like this will surely overbalance the scales of fate and we will have to do battle with the Enemy regardless. This Earth may prove very valuable in this coming war."

Mara folded her arms over her breasts. "I am not convinced that it will," she said.

"Fortunately, it does not matter whether you are or are not," Tasha said. "The Great Plains Territory will continue with this, regardless. The Dixx and Arachnian nations are supporting us completely, and are sending their own people to join our expedition."

Tasha rose and faced the rest. "The reason for this conference was partly to inform you of this project, and perhaps to ask you to join us. We are not too proud to say that whatever assistance you may give will not be of help. The Great Plains people invite you to join. What do you say?"

Ambassador Fal stood. "I have informed my Princess of this and have been given authority to commit my people to any decision I was to make here. But I had made up my mind long before I arrived. For myself there is only one decision. Indeed, for any Elyran." She nodded toward Ren. "Would you project that last frame again, please?" Ren fast-forwarded the recording until the last image of the girl was on the screen, and froze it there.

Fal contemplated the smiling picture for a moment, and faced the rest.

"The Prince made an allusion to the importance of the coming of these people to the Elyran race. But, so far no one else has commented on it, though I know that it has never left your minds. If I may, my ladies, I will quote from the Holy Book of the Ages.

"'And a great warrior race,' it is said, 'made in thy image, will come from over the horizon, to herald the coming of war, and do battle against thine enemies. Kingdoms will be cast asunder. Fire and destruction will rain from the heavens, but the righteous will survive. Woe to those who stand against the light, for they will be cast in eternal darkness. And from their ashes they will let emerge a new age, renewing the eternal cycle, and these Warriors will protect thee from those who would harm thee, until the coming of the Great Ones.'"

Fal gestured at the picture. "These, my ladies, may be the fabled warrior race that our ancestors have been awaiting for uncounted eons. True, it is but a legend, and no one can really be sure. But the possibility cannot be overlooked.

"It is true that, in the past, our ancestors mistook the Detterex for this legendary race, and this error has cost the people much. It is but a natural mistake as everyone knows that the Detterex are actually Elyrans, descendants of some lost tribe.

But the possibility cannot be ignored now, as it could not be ignored then.

"Because of the arguments presented here, but more because of the legends of our race, do I commit the people of the First Colony to this enterprise: We, too, shall join this expedition."

"And my people, also," Princess Thalassa of Harcon exclaimed, and stood. Her kingdom was the third most powerful on the planet, and her word carried great weight with the others.

"And mine," cried Princess Radha of Petri. Soon, it was unanimously decided, though Mara was one of the last to agree.

By the end of the meeting, it was decided that an expeditionary force of five battleships of Elyra would join the four of Dixx and Arachnia at a predetermined time and set of coordinates. From there they were to proceed directly to Earth.

At the meeting's conclusion, the customary wine was drunk and most of the dignitaries left, at their lead the Princess Mara Dorian-Kerr, her head held haughtily high and proud.

After she had left, Ambassador Fal went over to Tasha and bowed. Tasha acknowledged her and both gripped sword-arms, as was the custom between friends among the royalty.

"How has life been treating you, Fal?" Tasha said.

"I cannot complain My Princess, although I am getting on in age." She was more than fifty-two standard years, roughly equivalent to sixty in Earth years but, in age, about as old as an eighty-year old Earthwoman: She was past her prime, and she showed it.

"I fear that I must retire soon," she said.

"Nonsense," Tasha said. "You are still as strong as you ever were."

"Thank you for saying so, My Princess, although I cannot believe it."

"You should," Tasha said, and led her friend out of the hall. Ren followed a few discreet steps behind them with Micah, Fal's mate. They left the others to their lackeys.

Princess Thalassa and Elaan joined them as they walked back to the castle's library, and paid their respects.

"It seems that you have stepped on the Northern Princess' toes, My Lady," Elaan said jokingly.

"Well, she does have eight of them, after all," Tasha said with a laugh.

They walked through the Liaran-Kerr family’s Hall of Gifts, where numerous family heirlooms and trophies won in battle were displayed. Many were hundreds of thousands of years old.

"And you have stepped on them before," Thalassa observed as she stopped before a full suit of tenth-millennium armor and studied the fine tooling on the metal. "Many times. Tell me, how do your people take this growing feud between you and the Northern Kingdom?"

"We of the Plains do not put much stock in what the Northerners think. There is nothing anyone can do, after all.” She led them to some other displays in the room.

"A very admirable view. And one that leads away from battle. But really, how are your relations with them?"

"Well, ever since I won Ren over Mara, relations have been less than amicable, blood ties or no blood ties. But as they say, that is life."

"I really am not surprised," Thalassa said. "Your Ren is quite handsome. You are very lucky."

Ren nervously coughed behind them. The ladies turned and smiled at the blushing prince.

"Pardon us, Ren," Tasha said. "Just some women-talk."

Ren bobbed his head, blushing furiously.

"If you like, perhaps you can take Micah on a tour of the castle grounds?"

"As you wish, My Princess," Ren said, and left the room taking Micah with him.

Tasha shook her head in fond exasperation.

"Forgive the interruption," she said. "But you know how men are." They laughed and continued walking.

"How is the prince?" Elaan asked.

"I would hardly talk about My Prince as if he was just a fine Ro'an," the princess said, referring to that breed of animal they used as beasts of burden in the olden days. "At least, not in polite company." They laughed. "He has recently been taking linguistic lessons. Broadening his horizons, he says."

"Any heirs in the offing?" Elaan asked.

"Alas, no," Tasha answered. "But soon, we hope. Ren's mother always comes down from the palace to ask whether I am with child or not. The queen is impatient for new children to mother. 'Soon,' I always tell her."

She looked at Elaan. "But perhaps now is not the time for children. Battle seems just over the horizon, and I do not relish the thought of raising children in times of war. It is one of the reasons that I decided to continue with this little expedition of ours, that my children need not look forward to such a future."

They walked on in silence.

"Have you heard from the Federation council, Fal?" Tasha asked the ambassador of the First Colony.

"No, My Princess, I haven't. But the outlook is not favorable. With the Dravidians in power, the best that we can hope for is a formal addressing of the question of an expedition. But our furry friends are not noted for their imagination nor initiative. We can expect them to decide against such an expedition, with many rationalizations as to why not, which will sound reasonable to the present council members."

"Do you have any ideas what these will be?"

"Any loophole they can find in the Federation charter, I suppose. All in the name of saving money. They would probably even bring up the Laws of Membership."

Elaan snorted. "I don't think the council would accept that as justification. The Earth transmission would make any question of these people being 'civilized' even less than an academic discussion."

"Yes, I know," answered Fal. "Even so, bureaucracy will still have its way. They will still be required to pass the prescribed tests."

Tasha waved her hand. "Still, everyone knows that the tests do not mean much in the long run. It is the opinion of the Council of Custodians that counts. And space-faring races are more or less acknowledged as 'civilized', excepting, of course, the occasional Arachnian or two. The Custodians have virtually admitted to this belief of theirs."

"True, My Lady, true," Fal agreed, "but do we know that they are star-travelers?"

"You saw the tape!" Tasha exclaimed.

Fal raised a placating hand. "Yes, My Lady, yes, I saw. Space-farers, true, but star-travelers? Consider: they had to resort to this message. Why not come here personally?"

They all walked in silent consideration of this thought.

"Yes," Tasha finally agreed, "I recognize the remote possibility of that, but it's so far-fetched ..."

"Yes, My Lady, far-fetched. But, these are the things that the Dravidians may use in their defense. Another good reason for us to go without the official blessings of the Federation Governing Council."

-----

COLOSSUS, the great artificial planet that housed the government of the Galactic Federation of Free races and Federation Garrison spun slowly on its axis. The Federation Governing Council (or “Senate”) and the people from the official embassies of all the member races of the Federation, and, of course, the office of the Council of the Custodians, whose job it was to approve, disapprove, remove, suspend and reinstate planetary membership to the Federation, as well as the collection of taxes - they all went blithely about their business as Colossus slowly turned.

It was the pride of the Federation, this technological miracle. It had the equivalent size of a small moon though not shaped like any natural space body - it was like some immense gray tube.

It had taken the resources equivalent to a planetary system to build. It wasn't as massive as a real moon, of course, so it had to be spun to induce artificial gravity. Modified anti-grav engines as used in Federation spacecraft would have been better but to constantly operate these devices on such a massive scale would be hellishly expensive. It had been decided that centrifugal pseudo-gravity would suffice.

The spin wasn't that much of a problem for the temporary inhabitants. The down-is-out orientation was not apparent because the whole base was sealed and the view to the outside was restricted to small viewports in special habitat blisters on the station's surface, or portholes on what would be the floor. The Coriolis Effect within the station was something that one could quickly get accustomed to and easily ignored - the skill of keeping one’s glass of krahnng from slopping over was an easy skill to develop, especially because of the practice one gets from frequent diplomatic receptions. (Because of its tubular construction and precise spin control, the Coriolis force was kept constant.) And the station was large enough so that the curvature of the decks was not too bad.

The central core was where the massive power generators were housed. Half of the power was generated from the monoatomic hydrogen constantly being collected and ferried to the station and into magnetic holding tanks. Almost all of it came from the solar receptacle-panels on the skin of the station soaking up the output of stray atoms of the nearby yellow star.

Immediately surrounding the core was the hydroponics area. This gave Colossus literally hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of greenery to supply the inhabitants with breathable air (almost all Federation member species were oxygen breathers. Those who were not had special sections of the deck closed off to house their own kind of plants, or other suitable life forms, or machinery to generate the appropriate atmosphere in their special living sections).

The next tubular deck around the main core housed the station utilities. Most of this deck was given over to machinery for recycling the station's garbage and waste. The rest were for miscellaneous things like storage, equipment and the production of essential consumables.

The next ten decks were where the offices and quarters were housed. The outermost deck, which was just below the outer skin of the station, and on its flat northern and southern areas, were for spacecraft hangars and defense stations, as well as the rocket thrusting spin-stations that spun Colossus at the rate of fifteen rotations per Elyran hour, and where VIPs had their living quarters with their highly sought-after viewports.

It was within this deck where the Princess Losira had her private chambers, where she was currently pacing with barely-controlled impatience. She waited for Ambassador Bilar as patiently as she could, but she was not known for her capacity for patience, nor her ability to keep still for any reasonable length of time. Two traits that did not make her fit for her present role as Ambassador for the Elyran race. But she asked for this. Fal had not given up her place so easily, but royalty did have its privileges.

She heard a soft muffled knock and her valet went to see who it was. Shortly she announced Bilar, Ambassador of the Dixx nations, a few moments just before the Dixx rushed in.

"Sorry I'm late," she said as she puffed in short whistling gasps. "Too few scooters available so I had to fly over." She folded her wings into a small lump on her back and gratefully plunked down onto a couch.

"T'chahn, my friend," she greeted the newcomer. The princess smiled and let her friend rest and cool off. Like most Avian races with their faster metabolisms, Bilar needed a rest and a stiff belt of krahnng, which she kept in stock just for her avian friend. The Dixx drank the glucose-rich wine like water.

Losira patiently listened to Bilar's chatter as the Avian gulped her krahnng. It was solely for her friend that she kept the drink in stock in her chambers, though it was hard to get them, with their propensity for fermenting too quickly and becoming completely unpalatable to Dixx taste buds. She and her fellow Elyrans did not tell their Dixx friends, of course, what they did with their krahnng after it went bad, though informal parties were rather frequent at the Elyran embassy offices.

After a while, Losira raised her hand. "If I may, my friend, may I inquire about the meeting?"

Bilar shook her head, a habit she picked up from Losira and the Elyrans. "No results worth speaking of. Am greatly disappointed."

The Dixx was, of course, not really a She, for she was both male and female. But other delegates who had two or more sexes found it convenient to refer to them in the female gender, and the Avians didn't really mind.

Bilar pulled a folded memorandum out of her jumpsuit and tossed it to Losira. "That is the access code for what the Council has called 'Project Earth'. And getting it was no easy matter. Dixx, Arachnians and Elyrans have been denied access to it."

"What?" Losira exclaimed. "By the Lords, how can they do that? What about Councilor Reger and the First Ambassador? What of them?"

"Councilor Reger was the one, in fact, who proposed to the Federation Assembly to send an expedition to Earth. But Dixx are not known for their speaking ability. Assembly has decided to defer decision to Federation Council."

"What about the First Ambassador? What did he say, and how did the others take it?"

"The Arachnian did his best, but I’m afraid Council decided against him."

"Damnation!" she exclaimed. "Then our meeting is on?"

Bilar nodded yes.

"We might as well get it over with." She went to her desk and got her dress-sword and dagger. Bilar hurriedly downed her krahnng and followed Losira out to the hallway. There they jumped into a waiting scooter that took them to a shuttle station. From there they transferred to a shuttle that whisked them to the Council Chambers in a matter of minutes. These shuttles, unique to the station, were attached via rails to the surface of Colossus. It quietly streaked on its rails, the sun-shield automatically snapping down as they passed the terminator into the dayside.

The shuttle rapidly decelerated, its rockets blazing, and deposited them in the Council shuttle station. They got off and quickly walked to the Council Chambers. She had to let Bilar lead the way as she followed, out of breath. Like many Elyrans who served on Colossus, she was still not used to the Galactic-normal gravity. It was about ten percent stronger than that of her home planet.

Losira and Bilar entered the room with time to spare. Most of the others were still just coming in, but they spotted the First Ambassador patiently waiting and cleaning the feathery tip of his left antenna, much as an Elyran (or an Earther) would twiddle her fingers or drum them on a table’s surface.

The white-and-orange Arachnian politico waved his four upper arms in the complex traditional welcome of his people. Losira satisfied herself with a short nod.

"How has the meeting been going, Ambassador?" she asked as they were led to their places around the large conference table made of very expensive polished granite.

"Terrible, I'm afraid," he said as he settled into his saddle. He wore a bulging pouch on his thorax, which everyone knew to be an aural translator. With such races as the Arachnians, whose language consisted mostly of clicks and whistle-sounds, many of the delegates found it useful to have these expensive Arachnian devices and avoid misunderstandings during important meetings and discussions - one of Arachnia’s more popular export items.

Losira, Bilar and the First Ambassador were very good linguists, and didn't need such devices. The First Ambassador only used it out of deference to the other delegates.

Losira and Bilar found seats beside the Arachnian and waited for the other delegates to settle. The First Ambassador swung his armored head and surveyed the incoming delegates. He couldn't see them very well, but he had other senses that worked far better in the slightly dim reddish light the others preferred.

Losira and Bilar, on the other hand, had superb eyesight and could see them clearly. Losira's solid ruby eyes, characteristic of Elyran royalty, identified the others as she sipped at the wine left in front of her: There were the Axons, the Daemons, Erocii, Kembels, those from Star 453-A, and the Dravidians. Along with the Elyran, Dixx and Arachnian representatives, the people in the room represented a sizable chunk of the most powerful members of the 74 member races in the Federation: a sign of the importance the Assembly gave the issue to be discussed here. Even the representative from Star 453-A, a well-known member of the Council of Custodians, condescended to appear.

When they were all settled, the chairman, a large bear-like Dravidian, called the meeting to order. It was conducted in Elyran, as most meetings were. Councilor Cor's short fur was reddish-brown, marking him as one of royal lineage. The Dravidian did not mince words and got down to the matter at hand.

"As I was saying before the recess, my colleagues," he said, continuing the meeting, "the real point of contention is this proposed expedition to the newly-discovered planet of Earth. Some of us," he glanced meaningfully at Losira, Bilar and the First Ambassador, "have been pushing for this ill-timed expedition, while those of us with more sensible dispositions have decided to defer it for a later, more opportune time. We-"

The First Ambassador interrupted. "If I may, Councilor," he said. The red "activate" lock of his translator flashed in cadence with the electronic voice. Cor signaled his consent. "That is all very clear. What is not clear are the objections raised against the expedition in question."

"You are forcing me to repeat myself, Ambassador," Cor said and sighed (or, more properly, wheezed) for dramatic effect. "We have covered that area at great length in the previous meetings."

"If I am, my apologies," he answered, and moved his arms in the traditional gesture for sarcasm mixed with humor, though it was lost with Cor and the others. "But even so, would you be so kind as to forgive my rudeness and refresh my memory."

Ambassador Cor sighed again. He gestured to another Dravidian. "Sel," he said, calling another Dravidian. "Please summarize for the Ambassador the points that have been raised.”

"Certainly," he said and referred to his recording tablet (it was one of the more expensive ones that was just a couple of inches thick). He toggled it back a few pages and quoted from his notes.

"It has been argued that such a project is non-essential and of low priority at this time, with other Federation projects needing funding more urgently. Secondly, such an expedition has been considered by the majority of those present as a premature move, in view of the fact that the Xenological Committee is yet to put the matter on their agenda, much less consider this new race worthy of an expedition.

"Thirdly, it is the considered opinion of the majority of those present that such an expedition would gain the Federation very little and is not worth the expenditure and effort, not to mention a possible political incident if this were known to the Tirosian Government."

Bilar smiled a small non-believing smile and rapped the polished granite.

"To me," she said mildly, "is pointless to ask who specifically in this group raised these points."

She shifted to the dry and rumbling style of Cor. "To the question of whether expedition is worth trouble and expense, beyond any doubt it is. Technological benefits would gain us more than mere credit."

"And what makes you think that they have these to give?" said the Erocii representative, her spiny antenna bobbing up and down, translator light winking.

"Is obvious from message alone. If half of the things that it hinted at were to be believed, we are talking of the discovery of a race that has surpassed any other single race of Federation in material and technological achievements, which hasn’t happened for a very long time. Taking this as working assumption, am extremely sure that they are an advanced culture that is more than ready for membership."

"Supposition on a supposition," exploded the Erocii, "Are we then to undertake this project on blind faith? I find this totally absurd."

Bilar glared at the arthropod, using her larger frame to intimidate the smaller alien. The Erocii shrank back on her saddle.

"To me," Bilar said, "conclusions that those opposed to this project have formed are equally absurd." Bilar was half out of her seat.

A shy Elyran male silently entered and handed a small envelope to Losira. She read the note inside and smiled. She dismissed the aide with a whispered message and tried to catch the First Ambassador's attention.

Bilar continued, almost shouting. "Evidence is clearly against you. Does not take a lot of intelligence to see this. Anyone with common sense can see."

Losira put a restraining hand on the tall Dixx's arm and pulled her back. Losira nodded to the First Ambassador and smiled. The Arachnian gestured the sign for victory and agreement.

"My friends," the First Ambassador said as Losira gently pulled Bilar down, "there is no point in bickering amongst ourselves. We should not let our differences get the best of us.

"Now," he said, "the issue at hand can be parsed down to a question of priorities. Everyone agrees that the project could be undertaken provided that other projects were forgone or postponed.

"And," he said meaningfully, glancing at the Dravidians, "none of you are willing to do that." He turned to Cor.

"Councilor Cor," he said, "would not want to halt his favorite project, that of the installation of satellite beacons near the Inner Rim. Of course it is for the good of the Federation, this aid to interstellar navigation. It is just a happy coincidence that Dravidian commercial spacecraft are the ones who most frequently ply those routes.

"Of course no Erocii would dream of halting the geoforming project on Eros Nine. True it would yield substantial amounts of refined metals for the Federation. And who are we to begrudge Erocii from making large profits from the tourist and commercial trade this would bring.

"And, of course none in the military," he said, as he glanced at the many military insignia that adorned many of the councilors' clothes, "would want to reduce the armed forces budget for newer battleships and weapons. The protection of Federation planets cannot be ignored!

"Let us face it," he said, "there is nothing neither I nor my friends can do to change that. But one wonders why these people cannot change their minds when my government diverted a substantial portion of its meager budget from the ice-towing project my people needed so badly, as the drought continues on Arachnia unabated, so that they could assist in this expedition. One also wonders how the Dixx could likewise compromise their reforestation project, knowing how essential that is in maintaining their ecosystem. All in the name of our Federation and its charter.

"There is no question how this will turn out," he said. "And seeing how everyone is so anxious to conserve Federation time and money, I and my friends will cease to bother this so-honored Council, though I and my colleagues would recommend that this council review the Federation Charter.

"Princess Losira has received a special communiqué that I hope you will find interesting." He gestured to Losira.

"I have just received a message from Elyra," she said. "My people wish me to announce the following: 'We, the peoples of Elyra, Dixx and Arachnia,'" she quoted, "'inform the honored Councilors of the Galactic Federation governing body, that we have decided, in the event of a decision that agrees with the forming of a xenological expedition to the newly-discovered planet of Earth, we offer our own resources in this venture, which includes nine fleet ships and a full complement of explorers.

"'However, if such an expedition is not forthcoming, we want it known that we will continue with an expedition of our own, regardless, following the Federation policies and regulations for establishing contact with new races.

"'We hope that the Federation may join us on this enterprise, in keeping with the spirit and ideals on which the Federation was founded, and the spirit of its noble charter. By the Elyran Council for Government, the Arachnian People's Government and the Dixx Ruling Council."

Losira folded the paper with a sharp crease and strode out of the chamber, followed by Bilar and the First Ambassador.

The councilors followed them out with their eyes (and other equivalent senses), and then their attention was turned to Losira's seat. They saw the ceremonial goblet. All of them had chalices, or their equivalents, in front of them, an adaptation of the Elyran custom. All of them were in place except Losira's: she had tipped it over and the wine had collected into a puddle on the granite table's surface.

They knew that such a gesture meant many things, according to Elyran custom. And they knew that one of them was contempt. Cor and the others had the grace to blush (or its equivalent) in shame. With the automatic recorders, they knew that their actions here were now part of the official records. Only time would tell how history would regard their actions. However, the representative from the Council of Custodians smiled a little and silently wished these young upstarts well.

-----

IN THE IMPERIAL CASTLE of Tiros, seat of the Tiros Star Empire, a meeting of the Supreme Ministry was about to start.

Any meeting of the Ministry was always presided over by the Emperor himself, or by his Detterex Prime Minister. This time, both were to attend. The Prime Minister was already at her post, standing to the left of the Emperor's throne. She made sure her battle dress was spotless and her dress sword was in place. She also made sure that her sidearm was ready. Being the lone Detterex in a room full of the reptilian Tirosians, it was best to be sure. She snapped her fingers and a diminutive Tirosian female slave wiped the moisture collecting on the polished wood of the emperor's throne.

Like any Detterex, the prime minister looked just like an Elyran, and like all Detterex, she was taller than any Elyran ever was. No surprise, really, since both races were actually the same, biologically speaking. Up 'til now, many of their historians were still trying to find out where their culture diverged into two, and how they ended up in different planetary systems.

The two ceremonial guards by the great iron doors, brown rust covering them in spots, raised their crossed spears and allowed the Emperor to walk through.

Around his neck was the heavy green emerald Star, the symbol of his seat of power. He wore a heavy purple cape that set off his greenish scaly skin, mottled by many leprous yellow spots - a sign of full maturity.

He walked in his familiar arrogant manner, thrusting his waist forward, displaying his enormous erect phallus, a gesture viewed as a display of strength and arrogant pride in his virility - proper court behavior.

The Prime Minister bowed and waited while the emperor sat on his throne. He coiled his tail under him, arranged his cape around his shoulders and nodded for the meeting to start.

Although Detterex held a sizable chunk of the Empire, seldom were any of their representatives present in council, and none were around now, except for the Prime Minister. The Detterex were satisfied with allowing the lizard-like Tirosians to manage the Empire but did insist that they be represented. They would not admit that their reputed slow-wittedness did not allow them to meet with Tirosians without a loss of face, nor concede the fact that Tirosians were better at political infighting than they.

However, in recent years, their primary representative, by dint of enormous ability, persistence and, most especially ambition, was appointed by the emperor himself to the position of prime minister of the Empire.

Though it was undeniable that the prime minister was more than capable, her appointment was largely a shrewd political move by the emperor in order to placate the growing resentment of the empire's Detterex citizens.

Besides, it didn't really affect anything - the prime ministership was there only for show, a necessary inconvenience to prevent the smaller annexed Detterex Empire from seceding.

When the Emperor was seated, the others around the huge hardwood table sat. Though the humidifiers were working, the furniture had no collected moisture. The Prime Minister had seen to that.

The Emperor reclined in his throne, adjusting his tail to be more comfortable. He gestured to his minister. "Speak," he hissed.

The Prime Minister bowed and activated the projector suspended overhead. The now-familiar images of the Earth transmission cast themselves on the screen above the great table. "Governors," the Prime Minister said without preamble, with only a trace of an accent, "Tiros ground stations received this broadcast one and a half years ago. We still have to trace from where this broadcast originated, but at this point that is purely academic. From our findings, we have also determined the target of the signal was undoubtedly the Federation planets. We only intercepted the fringes of the signal, hence its fragmented reception. Here is the full version."

The thirty sector governors watched the recording. Some were only feigning ignorance: the Prime Minister knew that some have already seen the recording. She was more or less sure of the network of spies within the Castle - she and the Emperor had spies of their own.

As the tape wound down to its final seconds, the Prime Minister began again.

"You then see the implications of this," she said. "An un-allied race with superior technological and material resources. Perhaps a great military asset, if handled correctly."

"Pardon me for the interruption, My Lord," Governor Drishnak of the outer sectors interjected. The Prime Minister had a reputation for being quick to anger, which those who had tested her patience before knew from personal experience, but she did her best to hide her irritation now.

The Emperor raised a hand to forestall an argument and nodded for Drishnak to go on.

"Thank you, Excellency," he said and turned back to the prime minister. "You have shown us the recording and all can see the importance of it. No need for the coy introductions, My Lady. I trust that you have a purpose for calling us to this meeting? I suggest we go directly to that. Surely this is not about just another raiding expedition?"

The Prime Minister bowed. "As you wish, Governor Drishnak. No, this is not just another raiding party."

She turned to the other governors. "Our strategists, both Detterex and Tirosian, believe that an expedition to this system by the Galactic Federation is imminent. Our Detterex spies on Elyra tell us that an agreement between the Elyran, Arachnian and Dixx governments was formed a few months ago, which was about just such an expedition.

"Our strategists believe that this expedition will be carrying envoys to this Earth, perhaps to open diplomatic relations. And if that should happen, we'll have a lot of problems that may be difficult to resolve."

She punched up an interstellar map on the overhead screen and continued. "Their system is within striking distance of our boundaries, and is between the bulk of the Empire and Federation planets. It is composed of eight major planetary satellites orbiting a medium-sized yellow primary. If the recording is to be believed, they have fully colonized all of their planets, except of course the outer gas giants. But even there, they have colonized the giants' minor satellites. This shows us that they have mastered geoformy, enabling them to restructure a planetary ecology to suit their needs."

She turned back to the map. "What interests us most is the fact that they are a scant few light-years from the Federation. Earth could become an ideal military outpost for them. But what is more important is that they are also close to several of our population centers, meaning that they are also strategically very important to us."

The Emperor broke in with a stomp of his foot on the marble floor. Everyone turned to him. He cleared his throat.

"Some of our spies," he said, "have informed us that a large force has already been launched from Elyra. This may well be their expeditionary force to Earth. We do not have time to lose."

He rapped on his throne's armrest with his claw-hand. "Admiral Hanoch!" he hissed.

"My Lord," Hanoch replied and stood.

"I order you to launch a strike force to this planet Earth. You are to obliterate these Federation ships and subjugate this new system and annex it as a territorial planet of the Empire."

"As My Lord commands," he said and bowed.

"Minister!"

The Prime Minister approached the throne and bowed. "My Lord."

"No less than five heavy cruisers are to be provided by the other sector governors. You are to order the Detterex fleet commander to provide the Admiral with ten extra cruisers, outfitted with a full complement of attack infantry."

"Yes, My Lord."

The Emperor rose, a signal that the meeting was over. He strode quickly out of the chamber, not even acknowledging the others, but stopping in front of Hanoch. "Do not fail, Hanoch," he said, almost in a whisper.

Hanoch bowed, and the Emperor strode out of the room.

The governors gathered their things and prepared to leave, but Hanoch was ahead of them. He knew that if he did fail his Emperor, his life was forfeit.

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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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