This story originated from a silly discussion I had with a friend at Redemption '11, about the sort of problems aliens would have if they chose to start their invasion at a science fiction convention. I wrote it and got a couple of dozen copies printed, and left them hanging round at Olympus, the 2012 EasterCon.
"This is Gavin Hanrahan reporting for BBC London at the 2012 Eastercon. Back to you in the studio."
The director muttered, "cut," and waved his hand across his neck. The reporter lowered his microphone and the cameraman stopped recording. "Great, thanks everybody," he said. He turned to the shortish man with the greying beard just out of shot from the reporter. "Thank you, too. We'll get that back to the office and it'll go out this evening. You can tell that lot they can go back inside now."
"Not a problem, thank you for coming," the convention's publicity officer replied, and headed off through the car park.
"Bunch of weirdos," the director muttered, having one last look at the group of people in indecipherably-sloganed T-shirts, long leather coats of varying shades, and in at least two cases some sort of shiny jumpsuit, that were milling about in front of the hotel doors. "Come on, let's get out of here. It's Friday afternoon - traffic back into town's going to be hideous." As they turned away, the shortish man with the greying beard began waving the non-smokers in the crowd back into the hotel.
Roughly 1500 miles away, straight up, Fleetlord Zapash, C-in-C of the Third Shortak Imperium Fleet had just finished giving his final briefing. The two Warlords, twelve Over-Warleaders, thirty-six Warleaders and one hundred and eight Sub-Warleaders (who were present on screen only), stood and saluted their commander. He returned the salute and strode out of the briefing room. The fifty officers actually there slumped out of attention, and began filing out of the room to shuttle back to their own ships and prepare. One of the Over-Warleaders took one of the Warleaders aside and spoke to him. "Listen, Kethrik, the old man's right about primitives being more dangerous than we sometimes think. Now, I know that this is your first invasion operation, so I want to make sure you impress upon the troops you select for the operation that caution is underrated, and they must, repeat must, exercise it when performing their insertion. This is a standard secure-and-expand operation, but things can still go wrong with even the simple plans - the rulebook is there for a reason, but it doesn't cover all eventualities, so make sure the ones you send can use their initiative, alright?"
"Well, yes sir, of course. But Sub-Warleader Hortlock will be picking the first teams down, she's closer to them, knows them better."
"Of course, but I still want you there when she briefs them, to cover any omissions, got that?"
"You know what happened on Platicon Five?"
"Yes sir. An entire Wargroup was wiped out by atmospheric craft and missiles."
"Yes, we had to irradiate half the planet to subdue them, and can still only go there in protective suits. The natives here have similar technology - our defensive measures have been improved since Platicon, but, frankly they're rather shaky. Don't take any chances, and make sure their airborne defence systems are priority targets."
When Warleader Kethrik got back to his command ship, he was met by Sub-Warleader Hortlock. "Welcome back sir. I took the liberty of listening in on your conversation with Over-Warleader Nabbar."
"And I have already selected some troops for your approval - here are their files, sorted by squad." She handed over three datapalms.
"Only three teams?"
"There are only three competent Commanders of commandos in the entire Wargroup. We're light on special forces out here, and those are the only three with any sort of battle experience."
"Alright." He glanced through the three reports. "Do you have a personal recommendation?"
"Commander Shasharr, sir. He was at Platicon Five as a Sub-Commander, was on medical leave for radiation sickness for two years afterwards."
"He's made a full recovery?"
"Then I expect to brief them in a partition." He handed the datapalms back. "Any sign of an insertion point yet?"
"We're still looking for one."
"Report the moment we find one. Carry on."
Some time later, Sub-Warleader Hortlock finished briefing Commander Shasharr's squad, and stepped aside for Warleader Kethrik to add a few words based on Over-Warleader Nabbar's advice. He had just finished when a call came through.
"Sub-Warleader? Sorry to disturb you, but we've monitored a transmission from the planet that we think gives us a possible insertion point."
"We'll be right there. Sir?"
"Lead the way, Sub-Warleader."
They made their way to the bridge and found the Under-Combatleader who'd called. "Well?"
"Here's the transmission, sirs." He pressed a button and a video began to play, showing a man holding a microphone talking to a shorter man with a greying beard outside a large building, near which a dozen or so other natives stood. "I'm sorry there's no sound, we haven't been able to fully synchronise our transmission protocols yet. It appears to show a large building with many secluded areas and good communication facilities. Surveillance have managed to pinpoint the building, and it appears to be a very short distance from a major atmospheric transport centre and several large open spaces. Less than ten thelrens away is a collection of longline transport termini, and the area is positively littered with major and minor overland transport routes. The whole lot is on the edge of a major urban area with very little apparent military presence, near the southeast corner of an island at the northwest edge of the major landmass on the planet." "Did the transmission originate from there?" asked Hortlock.
"There, or very near there. There's a lot of low-level EM activity indicating comms traffic coming from the area, but there's a noticeable spike over the location in this transmission."
"Sounds excellent," said Kethrik. "Send the team down as soon as practical."
"Sir, there might be other potential sites."
"I know, Hortlock, I know. But Fleetlord Zapash wants this operation complete in a tenday, and if we are to exercise as much care as Over-Warleader Nabbar insists on, we don't have any time to waste. This site is as good as any - Commander Shasharr and his men will deploy there as soon as practical."
"Could you define practical, sir?"
"When it's the start of a new rotation at the site, and the Commander and his men have got full stomachs and a good night's sleep. That should give us time to get the translator units calibrated at the very least, and it's always handy to speak the native language when gathering intelligence."
"We look nothing like them, though," she objected, "you can't expect the team to blend in."
"I'm not - I'm expecting them to take prisoners for interrogation, and questions often get better responses than torture and truth drugs. Now - you have your orders, see that they're carried out."
For the tech crew, things started really going wrong on the Saturday morning. And not just in the normal way that tech-y things go wrong (such as people asking for kit five minutes before a programme item, microphones deciding not to work, and no fresh coffee delivered when it was asked for), but really, seriously, badly fucked up. Some sort of freak whirlwind took out most of the Radisson Non-Euclidian's aerials, leaving wifi slow, mobile phone reception poor, and - perhaps most importantly from the tech crew's point of view - disconnecting the satellite dish which was going to be used for a live interview with Neil Gaiman in the afternoon. Consequently, most of the senior tech crew and some of the hotel staff spent most of the morning following wires between the main hall and the roof, swearing, and trying to get the bloody thing to work again.
This meant that Commander Shasharr's squad had to wait until they stopped before disembarking, because the dish, instead of their landing craft's comm array, was picking up the remote link to the mothership, and they had to go out and fix it before they could start their recon mission. Finally, at one o'clock local time, Commander Shasharr of the Shortak Imperium Armed Forces, reviewed his troops in a maintenance cupboard that now had a rather larger window than yesterday. He was pleased with his second in command, Combatleader Fisstek, another veteran of Platicon Five, but the rest... Well, the best that could be said of them was they took things seriously, and had passed the advanced training needed to be a commando. Unfortunately, they had all taken that training straight out of boot camp, and none of them had seen any action. Perhaps the best of them was Under-Combatleader Sillen, the only woman on the squad, who felt she had something to prove. Frissik knows why, he thought, half the brass are female. Next would be Sub-Combatleader Jerren, third in command if you didn't count attached specialists, but notoriously slow on the uptake. His low scores on the academic tests were more than made up for by his high scores on the physical tests, though, so at least he'd be useful for something. Then there were the three Warriors, Lushvik, Anrang, and Pilret. In the Commander's opinion, between them they could just about be trusted to kill someone before they themselves got killed - and if they were lucky, it would be an enemy they killed. However, they were enthusiastic and fast learners, and would one day probably have an heroic death in the finest traditions of the Over-Battlegroup.
"Right, listen carefully," he growled. "This is a recon mission to see if the area's suitable for an invasion landing zone. Therefore we're leaving all our grenades and n-beamers in the lander, and only taking light armour and the electro-guns. Now, we've had time for our translators to calibrate properly, so we shouldn't have any problems interacting with the natives. And by 'interacting', I mean 'interrogating'. But do it subtly, without causing too much fuss, we don't want any alarm to be spread for a while yet. We stun a couple of natives, drag them back to the ship, ask them what we want to know, and if they don't co-operate, Sub-Commander Vessik gets to play with their nervous systems."
"Standard opening, Commander?" asked the Combatleader.
"Yes, Fisstek, standard opening. Rig for flashbangs, door opens, one round each, switch to stun. We've no idea what's on the other side of that door, so we're going to go through hard, scatter anything in our way, and regroup at the northern end of the building before starting our sweep for subjects southwards. We should be back at the lander in one partition with at least two natives, got that?"
"Yes Commander," chorused the squad.
"Good. Kit check: Suit telemetry?" He waited while the check was carried out and each member of the squad raised a hand in confirmation. "Personal comms?" Another wait. "Spare charges?" Pause. "Electro-guns?" Seven hands raised for the final time. "Right. Combatleader - positions."
The squad took up positions facing the door, aiming their guns towards it, Shasharr behind them. Fisstek positioned himself by the doorframe and prepared to kick the door open. Shasharr made one last check, and satisfied, nodded and held up three fingers. He counted them down, and Fisstek booted the door open. The squad fired, a veritable fireworks display went off in the corridor outside, there were a series of clicks as they re-set their weapons, and ... applause?
"Awesome effects, guys!"
"Bloody hell! Brilliant!"
Shasharr lowered his gun. This wasn't the normal reaction to an opening salvo. The rest of the squad followed his lead. One of the watchers hurried up to them.
"Fantastic entrance guys! Where'd you come from? That was awesome! Here have some tokens, you all look great, share them out between you." He pushed a handful of slips of paper into Shasharr's automatically extended hand and went on his way. A couple of others also handed over the mysterious bits of paper and headed off.
There was an awkward pause. Most natives held up little boxes that flashed at them a few times, then went on their way. "Combatleader?"
"No idea, sir."
"Me neither. Holster arms, move out. We'll try again later."
The squad put their guns away and fell in behind the Commander as he led the rather embarrassed commandos in a random direction down the corridor, followed by a native holding up a box. They turned a corner, Jerren hissed at the native to stop him following them, and the squad found an alcove, which they crowded into.
"What the Frissik is going on, sir?" demanded Jerren. "They're not supposed to react like that."
"Buggered if I know, Sub-Combatleader. We need to rethink our tactics. Any ideas, Combatleader?"
"I've never seen anything like it, sir, and I've done more invasion ops than I can remember." The Combatleader shook his head. "It's almost as if they were welcoming us, or expecting us, or something."
"Why would they be welcoming us?" asked Lushvik.
"I'm more worried about them expecting us," said Sillen. "Do you think our shrouds have been compromised?"
"I doubt it, not even the Fellbarns can penetrate them, and they've been holding back our expansion for the past eighty years."
"Well, what are going to do, sir?"
Shasharr heaved a breath. "We continue the mission. We'll start the sweep from here, and move fast, straight back to the ship. There's plenty of natives around, we should just be able to grab a couple and disappear. Weapons ready!" The squad drew their weapons again. "Move out!"
They had barely moved out into the corridor again when a group of four Klingons came round the corner. At Shasharr's frantic gesture they all ducked back into the alcove until they'd gone past.
"What the Frissik were they?" hissed Jerren. "They're not natives!"
"I don't recognise them from anywhere!" Fisstek answered.
"Nor me," Shasharr added.
"I thought we were the first ones here?"
"There isn't another civilisation within twenty lightyears that has a similar technology level to us. They must be from right out on the rim or something."
"No wonder the natives weren't scared by our entrance."
"Alright!" Shasharr silenced them. "Back to the lander, we'll contact command with this development. Double!"
The squad fell in again and doubled after their leader. They went into the maintenance cupboard, through the window, Shasharr thumbed the open signal on his collar, and they climbed the steps up to the lander. They were met by a surprised-looking Sub-Commander Vessik.
"You're back early, Commander, I thought you'd be at least a partition. Do you have prisoners?"
"No. Have you been scanning?"
"Well, we've got company."
"At least, probably from somewhere out on the rim. Is the securecom working?"
"Yes. The rim?"
"There are non-natives already here, and the natives weren't worried by the opening salvo."
"That's what's I thought."
Sub-Warleader Hortlock received the call. When she'd heard the report, she patched in Warleader Kethrik and made Commander Shasharr repeat it. "Wait, Commander, we'll get back to you."
The screen with the Commander blanked off. "What do you think, sir?" asked the Sub-Warleader.
"I think we have to pass this up the chain of command."
"To Over-Warleader Nabbar?"
"I'm thinking all the way to Fleetlord Zapash. This could land us in another war, which we really can't afford right now."
"Do you want me to accompany you, sir?"
"Yes. Meet me in the shuttlebay immediately, with the latest intel and survey reports."
Half an hour later, the two of them were standing in Fleetlord Zapash's office. "It's already occupied by another power?" he asked.
"We don't think so, Fleetlord," Warleader Kethrik replied. "None of our contact probes found any evidence of other civilisations in the area, and we've not picked up anything in orbit."
"And yet there is another power here, and the population are used to their presence – and it must be a multi-racial power, too. What's the latest impression reports?"
"We've made none," Hortlock answered. "They don't know we're here, we're positive of that. We're also sure there's nothing shrouded in the area - every shroud gives off tell-tales, from which a really good sensor tech can find a shrouded object. We've noticed nothing but a gaggle of outdated comm satellites and a few primitive and tiny temporary habitats."
"What about their comm traffic? Anything on it yet?"
"Well, we've made no progress interpreting their ideograms, and we wouldn't expect to until after a full landing anyway. As for their popular broadcasts, going by the number of them, even in quite small areas, each political entity is in constant all-out propaganda civil war with itself and each other."
"What about content?"
"Well, the contact team reports their translators are working fine, but we can't get any sound from the natives' transmissions. We're not sure why, it may be because of the sheer amount being broadcast, it may be because of the planetary radiation belt, or it may simply be due to fundamentally incompatible technologies."
"Alright." The Fleetlord sat in thought for a few minutes. "Very well. The insertion team is to blend in and continue on their reconnaissance. They are to find out as much as they can, unobtrusively - that means no removing people for interrogation. Mix with everyone - natives and potential hostiles as well. I expect a report by the same surface time next rotation."
"And the overall schedule?" asked Kethrik.
"Put it back by one rotation. At least one rotation. I want to know if someone's got a prior claim on this place before we take any action. And if there is, what sort of tech do they have, what sort of weapons?"
Commander Shasharr closed the comm link from Warleader Kethrik and turned to his squad. "Right, we've got new orders. What's the local time?"
"No idea, we've still not made progress with their ideograms. Blank time, it's about a partition-and-a-half from dusk."
"Right. Good enough. They'll all be eating and such if they're any sort of civilised, so we'll move out in one partition."
"Continue the sweep, sir?"
"No. We're to mingle with everyone and gather intel."
"Mingle?" Sub-Combatleader Jerren asked. "Us? We look nothing like them - the natives or the others!"
"They don't seem bothered about that, do they, though?" Under-Combatleader Sillen reminded him. She turned to Shasharr. "What is it, sir, unobtrusive tactical recon and intel collection?"
"Basically, yes. The brass want to know as much about the full situation as we can tell them before they make a decision about going ahead with the invasion. We managed to get hold of a schematic of things that are happening here - no idea what the things actually are, but it'll give us an idea of how many people will be at each. So we'll split up, and try and get everything done before they disperse for sleep. Vessik, stay with the ship."
"Fisstek, you'll be our outside base. Stay in that room where we first entered with commo and backup rigs. Relay status reports to Vessik for collation and forwarding upwards later, and keep me in the loop as well."
"Sillen, Lushvik, Anrang - I want you to go to this big long event here," he gestured at the pilfered programme book. "It goes on for five blocks, so it must be important."
"Pilret, you're going to go to this room here. It's got odd timeslots compared to the others, so stay alert and stay there until they finish."
"Yes sir. Where are they?"
"No idea. Ask a native where an event is, we've got time to copy this thing so you can all point at where you want to go."
"Sub-Combatleader, there're refreshment vendors in the building. Pick one and hang out there until they close."
"I'll be moving around, keeping myself busy, trying to engage with the people who aren't at anything specific. All of you, don't be afraid to ask questions. If you're questioned, try to avoid giving direct answers. Don't tell them where we're from either, but for fuck's sake, don't go all military! We still need to remain undetected, and giving out your name rank and number'll give the game away. Understand?"
"Yes sir!" they chorused.
"Good. I want us all back by midnight blank time, so we can compile the reports so far and get some sleep before we start again in the morning."
Vessik stepped forward. "I've run astronomical calibrations for our chronometers, sir. We've got just over five partitions until midnight blank time."
"How does it compare to the native's chronometry?"
"I've been unable to get a definite reading sir, but I think their midnight will be a little before blank midnight."
Shasharr nodded. "Satisfactory. All right, you lot. Stand down for one partition."
"Did you see the show earlier?"
"What show, Ken, there's about a dozen events a day in each of a dozen rooms, so you'll need to be a little more specific?"
Ken wiped his hands on his trousers and reached for one of the sarnies on the tray that had recently been deposited next to the tech tower. "The one with the pyros and that group of aliens."
"Pyros? What pyros? There's nothing in the programme with pyros today."
"It wasn't a programme item, it was a publicity stunt or something. Awesome costumes and effects."
"Where? When?" The head of tech dropped their own sarnie back on the tray.
"In the corridor up near the toilets, 'bout ten this morning."
"Someone was letting pyros off there? What the Hell happened?"
"I just said, it was a publicity stunt or something. They came out of a door letting off the pyros, did a pose with their guns, then disappeared. No-one's seen them since, but everyone's talking about them."
"Bunch of arseholes! Letting pyros off without warning, they could have injured someone. Who were they?"
"I dunno. Well, they disappeared before anyone could get close to them, didn't they?"
"Well, what'd they look like? If anyone complains, it'll be us who gets it for letting them have pyros, and we didn't, so we need to go shoot them so they don't do it again."
"I wasn't there, so I don't know, but I heard someone say they looked a bit like The Mekon, but paler and with a smaller head."
"So – not like the Mekon, then."
"And they were all wearing beige jumpsuits and had super-soakers, or something."
"Kelley!" someone called. "Where're the multiways?"
The head of tech called back, "in the big yellow tub!"
"I've looked they're not in there!"
The head of tech's shoulders slumped. "If you see them again, let me know," they said, before heading over to find the wayward multiways.
Combatleader Fisstek roused the grunts by prodding them in the small of the back with his boot. "On yer feet, geckos! We've got work to do."
"We 'ave, you mean," Pilret replied. "You get to stay in that cupboard and listen to the radio."
"I'd hardly call your recon sitreps entertaining. Certainly not in the same league as the music channel."
"You could try and listen to the native radio," Lushvik suggested.
"I'd be listenin' to static, we can't pick up audio for some reason, remember?"
"Meh, bloody primitives."
"Ready to go, Combatleader?" Shashtarr asked, appearing at the hatchway.
"Just about, sir," Fisstek replied.
"Right. You all know your assignments. Get going." He disappeared back into the corridor. The grunts were chivvied out by the Combatleader and followed him. Ten minutes later, they were all assembled in the cupboard again. "Slip out one-by-one," the Commander ordered. "Sillen, take your group first, make sure the corridor's relatively empty before you go."
"What interval, sir?" asked Jerren.
"Just any time the corridor's empty." He pressed his ear to the door. "Sounds quiet enough now. Okay, Under-Combatleader, off you go." He opened the door, and Sillen led her small team out. They followed the general flow of natives along the corridor towards a wider space, turned left into a sort of verandah, only it wasn't outside, then right up a short flight of stairs to a much bigger space that had what appeared to be a small lake in the middle, with a V-shaped bridge over it.
"Nice place," Anrang commented. "How come we didn't find this earlier?"
"Because we turned right at the end of the corridor last time," Sillen said, keeping her eye on the pool.
"No we didn't, we went straight on."
"There wasn't a straight on," Lushvik pointed out as they began their slow advance towards the bridge. They'd seen the layout diagram in the booklet the timetable came in, and they reasoned that the big long event would be in the biggest room, which was on the other side of this space.
"Well, there must have been. 'Cos we went down it."
"We couldn't have done."
"Will you two shut up!" Sillen hissed. "You'll draw attention to us. Now, look at the water."
The squad peered into the shallow depths. "There are immobile animals in there."
Sillen nodded, solemnly. "Petrified from life, by the looks of it. That's dangerous technology. Probably borrowed from the other extra-planetaries."
"Report this back, Under?"
"Go ahead, Lushvik. But discreetly." Lushvik nodded and thumbed the transmit button on the radio unit hidden inside his collar, and muttered his report under the cover of his hand. "I said discreetly, Lushvik. You look like you're trying for the finals of how to look suspicious. Catch us up." She gestured Anrang after her and walked over the bridge. From the room beyond the small refreshment booth ahead came the sound of some sort of music playing loudly. People were milling around, buying drinks, talking, and completely ignoring the commandos.
"Under, have you seen how many species there are?" Anrang asked.
"This planet must be on a major trade route, or something," she speculated, "there's no way a single empire could support this many differing species without breaking down into civil war over who gets to be dominant."
"What about a coalition?"
"They never last long," Sillen dismissed the idea. "It's either a trade hub, or neutral territory. The first is good for us, the second really really bad."
Lushvik caught them up. "Com confirms report received, Under."
"You two, keep an eye out each way. I've got a report to make." She leaned up against the back wall of the refreshment booth and thumbed her radio. Lushvik sidled over to Anrang. "We sure this is the right place?"
Anrang fished out the copied programme booklet. "Reckon so," he said. "Look, that must be the place with the pond and the petrified animals, here's the big room, and it makes sense the big event happens there."
"Well, what does that time table say?"
Anrang flipped the page over. "Here – we reckon that must be it. That ideogram there is what it's called. And it looks like they've got big copies of this on the doors." They wandered over to the nearest set of doors and compared ideograms.
"That looks the same," Lushvik confirmed.
"What are you two idiots doing over here? I told you to keep an eye out!"
"We were making sure we're going to the right place."
"And are we?"
"Pretty sure, yeah."
"Right. Well, let's go in, then."
Warrior Pilret was trying to follow the layout schematic in his copied programme book. He couldn't make head nor tail of it, bits of the building appeared to be separate from others, the corridors seemed to wind all over the place, and the ideograms marked on things were just confusing. Natives were wandering around the corridors in much fewer numbers than they were in the rest of the place, and some of them were beginning to look at him a bit too closely for his liking. He decided to backtrack to the open space near the middle and try again.
Sub-Combatleader Jerren managed to find the main refreshment vending area on this floor with little problem. Among the first things he saw were the group of the big, dark-skinned warriors in silver armour with the lumpy foreheads that they had hidden from earlier in the day. They each had a container of some darkish liquid in their hand. He squared his shoulders and went up to them. "Hello there, what's that you're drinking? Recommend it?"
"Yeah, Spitfire, it's not bad."
"Cheap too, so it's running out quick. They'll need to order more of it for next time."
Jerren hesitated. Neither he nor Shasharr had thought of money. "I haven't really got room to carry much in this outfit," he managed, "I'll just have to stand around."
"You around tomorrow?"
"Ah right, well, we'll find you tomorrow and get it off you then. You going to the SCA demo?"
"Er, I think so..."
"Here you go, then." One of the Klingons passed over a fiver.
Jerren looked blankly at the scraggy bit of paper now in his hand. "Thanks?" he hazarded. The Klingons didn't seem to take this negatively, so he went to the bar and waited until someone ended up in front of him.
"Certainly, sir." Fifty seconds later a pint of the dark liquid was placed in front of him, and he handed over the fiver. He picked up his pint and turned back to the Klingons. They were talking about military hardware.
"There's nothing wrong with the SA-80, per-se, but it's just not powerful enough to drop a man in one hit."
"Not that the SA-80 ever fires one shot at a time. And it's not the gun itself, it's the bullet."
"True, the five point five-six just doesn't have the same punch as the seven point six-two."
"Your change, sir!"
Jerren turned uneasily. His unease dissipated when he saw the barman holding a handful of coins out to him. "Thanks." He took them and passed them back to the Klingon who'd given him the fiver. "Here you are."
"Cheers. Russian ammo's got better stopping power, they use a longer cartridge."
"Quality's lower though. If you fire an AK on auto, you'd be lucky to hit the side of a barn at twenty yards. The SA-80 can hit it at twice that distance."
Jerren decided that this was a conversation he could contribute to. "That doesn't sound like very good shot grouping."
"It's not bad for suppressing fire, though. I mean, if you've got a bunch of Taliban hiding behind some rocks and you can't hit them, you can at least keep their heads down while you call in an airstrike."
"What about destroying the rocks?"
Jerren hesitated. It had been a while since he'd had to use chemical-based weapons. "Grenades?"
"Taliban aren't stupid enough to engage at throwing range."
Commander Shasharr nodded acknowledgement of Under-Combatleader Sillen's report. Personally, he thought she might be over-thinking things, but there were things here that didn't make sense on the face of it. "Alright, Combatleader, I'm off now. Keep an ear open."
He headed out into the corridors, and aimed for the big open space. There must be a lot of people hanging around there, he reasoned, bound to be something useful to eavesdrop on. Plus he could have a look at these supposedly petrified-from-life aquatic animals. He came to a junction, where the corridors seemed to branch off at almost random. He consulted the map in his copied programme book, but before he could decide on a path, someone shouted at him.
"You there! Green-ish alien guy!"
Shasharr dropped the programme and his hand went automatically to the butt of his gun. He looked up at who had identified him and froze. Approaching him was a figure wearing sturdy boots, a wide-skirted red-and-white checked dress, with hairy limbs and a shoulder-length growth of hair around 360º of its' head. Only the direction of the boots and a headset microphone presumably in front of the mouth gave any indication of which way it was facing. This was obviously another visitor species to this planet. Better not give too much away, he thought. "Yes?"
The apparition stomped up in front of him. "Are you one of the idiots who set off the pyros this morning?"
Shasharr rallied slightly. "My squad followed procedure."
"Your squad? You're in change of them, then?"
"Yes. What of it?"
"You're not to set off any more pyros, even if you do fill in the paperwork. This place is just across the road from an airport, and they can pretty jumpy about things like that, you know."
"So? Do you know who I am?"
"I'm Kelley - the Head of Tech, and it's my job to make sure any effects used are safe. Yours weren't, so you're not to do them again. You're lucky you've not been asked to leave."
This conversation was rapidly sliding away from Shasharr's grasp. "Well, no-one wants that, do they?"
"No, we're all here to enjoy ourselves. But you can't endanger the public in the process."
"Good." Kelley walked off, turning down a corridor away from where Shasharr was headed. After a few seconds of cautious observation of the creature's retreating back, Shasharr picked up the map again, and checked his position. He turned sharp left into a sort of indoor verandah, then right and up the stairs to the ornamental courtyard.
There were a fair number of people there, undisturbed by the thrum of the music penetrating the wall of the big room on the far side of the space. They were milling around chatting, sitting on the sofas drinking, hovering around the refreshment vending stalls, and crowding up the bridges. Of course, "people" included not only natives, but also representatives of several species, of all different ranks and professions. There were a disturbing number of people in some sort of uniform or another, which hinted at the military presence of several powers.
He made his way to the bridge and had a look over the side. Sure enough, there were aquatic animals frozen in stone in the lake. It was hard to make out details, but it certainly looked as though the natives – or maybe one of the visiting races – had petrified them from life and sold them to the venue to … what? Make this artificial environment seem more realistic? Signify their mastery over prey? Indicate the presence of food nearby?
Shasharr shrugged and gave up. He'd never understand the thinking patterns of other species, no matter how many extra-curricular learning programs he went on. He decided to try a bit of eavesdropping on some of the nearby conversations. He looked around and picked a group of four-ish at random, and headed over to them.
Sillen and the others were standing along the wall of the big room, trying to acclimatise to the loud music and work out what the Frissik was going on. They were well away from the source of the music, a set of speakers positioned around a large open area of hard floor. Many natives and plenty of visiting species were standing or jumping on this area, moving rhythmically in time to the music. Many more were sitting at the tables that were scattered around the other half of the room, talking and drinking the dark-ish liquid that seemed to be popular.
"Whatever's going on, it must be some sort of relaxation-aiding event to help the people here unwind after whatever they're doing here during the daytime," she decided. She had to shout her words to the other two, who just stood there grinning inanely until she made sure they heard.
"I agree," Lushvik eventually replied. "Very civilised of them. Very regimented."
"Do you think they're a militaristic society, then?" Anrang asked, again, after a couple of repetitions. Lushvik shrugged.
"I don't think it matters if they are," Sillen said, "they're not a match for us."
After a few minutes, and a change in the style and rhythm of the music, Anrang asked what they would do now.
"Do?" Sillen asked. "Follow orders, idiot!"
"What? Stay here and watch their ritual relaxations for four partitions?"
"Watch and observe," the Under-Combatleader corrected. "They must take their relaxation seriously, if they assign this much time to it. And from the booklets, the rest of the day is full of meetings to go to, so they must need all of it."
Lushvik leant back against the wall, winced, and shifted his mini-stunner holster back to the side of his hips, then leant back again. "So, we're observing here, right?"
Sillen snarled at them. "No, here we're just watching."
"So how is that different from observing?"
"Get up there and … dance!"
There had been hardly anyone in the corridors for some time, and Pilret still wasn't where he was supposed to be. He peered at the map in the booklet, hoping it would shed some light on where he was. He looked around him, and tried to match what he saw to what was on the map. He thought he found something. He strode confidently forward and opened a door. It opened onto a much smaller corridor than those he'd been in so far, un-carpeted, harshly lit, with bare white walls, ceiling and floor. He stared down it, puzzled for a few moments, then decided that it was probably a place not meant for public use. Since where he wanted to be was a public room, it probably couldn't be found down this corridor. He closed it and turned back to face the carpeted hallway. He glared at the map. He turned it the other way up and looked at it again. Deciding that maybe this was the right way up, he determined on a new direction to try, and strode confidently forward.
"No, see, superiority of weapons is no guarantee of success," Jerren explained to the Klingons. "You must have the warrior spirit as well, and ingenuity to make best full use of all your … things … assets."
"Oh yes, of course," one of the Klingons agreed, "but you must admit that superior weapons help a hell of a lot."
"Oh, obviously," Jerren agreed right back at him. He was starting to like these people. "But under the right circumstances, such as knowledge of the local terrain that the enemy doesn't have, or fanatical devotion to a cause, then merely sufficient weapons can do the job."
"Right – like in Afghanistan."
"Or Platicon Five."
"Yeah, it was a right fuck-up, barely got out of there ..." he tailed off, realising that maybe he'd said too much.
"I don't know Platicon – is it one you went to like that?" the Klingon gestured at Jerren's uniform.
"Um – oh, yeah. We, er, didn't practice enough. It was a while back."
The Klingon nodded. "Yeah. So, what happened there?"
Jerren hesitated. He couldn't tell them about what really happened at Platicon Five. This damn Spitfire stuff must have affected him somehow … Of course! "Er, well, I'm not sure I can remember it right," he said, hefting the remains of his pint, "it's a tricky thing to get right." He had another brainwave. "Plus, y'know I'm not really supposed to talk about it – y'know, secret stuff and all that." He thought a wink would be a nice touch, so he did one.
"Ah – so you're part of a pre-release publicity thing, then?" another Klingon asked.
"Something like that."
"Is it a book, then? Or a movie?"
"Probably both, at some point," he replied, not knowing what either of them were.
"Can you tell us anything about it?"
"Yeah, what it's called, at least?"
"Shortak Imperium," Jerren replied. "And I shouldn't really have told you that, we're trying to keep it mysterious for a bit."
"Closer to release date?"
"Yes," Jerren nodded. It would be a long while before the Imperial Secrets Edict released information on the Platicon Five expedition to the general public, and much longer until foreign nationals could know the full details.
"Aw, come on. You've got us interested now!"
There is nothing more disconcerting than a Klingon trying to do puppy dog eyes.
Unlike those under his command, Commander Shasharr was engaging in conversation to attempt to actively gain the requisite information to complete their mission.
"So, you're saying this happens every two years?"
"No, every year. But because it's so big and takes so long to organise, you get different people organising it each year."
"But I thought you said they did it two years ago?"
"Yeah, the people who are doing this one did it two years ago, and two years before that."
"Ah, I see. Then how is it decided who does which year?"
"We vote on it."
"Vote?" Shasharr tried to put all the withering scorn he had for anything that required a vote into his voice. The Shortak Imperium voted on nothing.
"Yeah, tomorrow, just after lunch. Whoever wants to run it in two years time will make their bid, and anyone here can vote on it."
"I see. I wouldn't have thought that something that important would be left to a vote, though."
"It's the fairest way."
Shasharr thought that was a rather silly way of doing things. If untrained people had a say in how something was done, anything could happen! There was nothing worse than untrained people making decisions they weren't trained for. That was the sort of thing that could lead to troops being killed for no gain, to veterans not being cared for, or to allow situations where the only outcome would be ignominious defeat. He decided to change the subject. "What about the guests? Leaders in their field, obviously, but are they all that there are?"
"We've got to leave some for next year!"
Lushvik and Anrang were lumbering around the dancefloor in an attempt to observe more effectively. They had rhythm, but little idea of how to use it, what with their military training forcing them to use one rhythm all the time. Consequently, instead of observing the culture and habits of the natives, they were observing the natives themselves to try and learn how to dance to the alien music. Sillen watched from the sidelines, running her eyes round the room occasionally to try and gauge whether the two Warriors were successfully blending in. The fact that no-one had yet pointed and started shouting at them, and that their uniforms still seemed to be in place, were good signs.
"Nice rack, alien girl!"
Sillen stiffened, and turned to face the person who'd spoken to her, hand moving to the butt of her gun. "What did you say?"
The man held up his hands in a submissive gesture. "Sorry, no offence. But you must admit, that's one hell of a tight catsuit, and you're not exactly Keira Knightley, are you?"
Sillen glanced down at herself, and realised he must be referring to her figure – she would be in the fertile part of her cycle now, wouldn't she? - in her light armour jumpsuit. At least the native's remark didn't seem to be focused on the fact she was an alien. She looked at him and removed her hand from her gun to point at the armour. "This is a suit of light combat armour, rated to deflect low-energy coherent-light weapon attacks, capable of partial shrouding, and usable as an emergency low-pressure environment suit. And yes, it is tight."
"Wow, you're really in character, aren't you?"
"Probably. What is a Keera Nytlee?"
"Keira Knightley – Pirates of the Caribbean?"
This made no sense to Sillen, other than possibly being some sort of elite military unit, but she could tell the man expected her to know about it, so she played along. "Ah, yes! Of course. Why is that significant?"
"Oh come on, she's got about as much chest as I have. I like bit of curve upstairs, myself."
This was also a little baffling. The elite military unit was now singular – perhaps a ship? - but why would a ship have a chest to be compared to that of the native male who was talking to her, and how was it obvious she wasn't one of these Keera Pyrats? "Oh, good." She managed.
The native appeared to brighten up a bit. "Buy you a drink? Maybe we can have a talk, somewhere a bit quieter?"
This appeared to be closer to what she was supposed to be doing. "Yes alright. Something not too toxic please, I like to keep a clear head. I'll be waiting over there." She gestured to one of the tables furthest away from the dancefloor.
"Lemonade?" She nodded, not recognising whatever it was. "Okay, see you in a few minutes." The native headed off. She stared after him for a few seconds, trying to make further sense of what he'd said to her. Bits of it made sense, but the rest must have been so crowded with native idiom that it'd take a language specialist tendays to untangle. She shrugged and headed for the table.
This was unfortunate, as if she'd been watching the dancefloor, she would have seen Lushvik attempt to up his dancing and bust out some moves. Which, by the time she sat down, had resulted in him being dragged from the dancefloor by a seriously impressed Sailor Moon. By the time the Under-Combatleader thought to check and see how her two-man squad was doing, it had become a one-man squad.
Pilret opened the door at the end of the last flight of stairs. The corridor beyond was empty, but carpeted (unlike the stairs). This was a good sign. Unfortunately, the map showed at least two doors in close proximity to the stairs, and there were none visible on this corridor. He closed the door and decided to try heading up the stairs this time.
"Koi Kahless, koo klod,
Koi puqbe poo,
Yach-bo mach-bo zhashui,
Say moc chu may oo.
Mashoov manong, eh mash shov choo,
Nebey in mach a wov koo,
Bat ma cheg bet, ej zho ki-ah, vavpoo ma mimah,
Par-rek sa ma tav too,
Mamev ko mo-shoo tark, ma ovvvv!"
Commander Shasharr had found a quiet corner and was reporting back what he'd found out so far to Fisstek. "It's some sort of major intelligence service and trade conference, combined," he was saying. "It's a regular occurrence, and they have keynote speakers from among the best in the field to give personal briefings. The place is a trade hub for a – well, they call it an Empire, but it's unlike any we've ever come across. Their glory days are gone, when they were more like a proper Empire, these days they're more into utilising the talents of their subject peoples to further the whole cause."
"That sounds like a painfully ridiculous process," Fisstek put in.
"It probably is," Shasharr replied. "I do know that they've degenerated into voting for who gets to run these things each year."
"It gets worse – what we've seen here so far are apparently less than a tenth of the representative species that turn up. I think most of them must be outsiders, not citizens or subjects of the Empire, but still, that means it's a whole new slew of worlds and cultures that we weren't aware of before. Some of them are scary, too – the Tek, for instance, they're powerful enough to have some sort of arms limitation treaty on this planet, their top half is all fur, and the head of the delegation here is fucking scary! Oh, it's going to completely upset policy and planning for everyone from War to Diplomacy to Resources! And some of them have technology that we're not familiar with, or is just plain bizarre! I mean, some representatives are of a similar technology level to us, some are of the primitive level we expected of this planet, and some – like the guy who told me about it being an Empire – have stuff that shouldn't, by what we know now, be able to actually work! I mean, he had a stun gun powered by what he called clockwork, which is basically just cogs and springs – how the Frissik does that work?"
"Dunno. Maybe a charging device? Capacitor?"
"Maybe. Anyway, it's a complete fuck-up. The whole thing's … pointless! It'd be pointless to invade, there's hundreds of worlds that turn up to these things, we'd get swamped in tendays. We should be asking to join, or for a non-aggression pact, or something."
"Sorry Commander, hold that thought. Lushvik's suit telemetry just went down!"
"What?" Shasharr started moving back towards their cupboard.
"Appears to be non-hostile termination – checking the logs … fairly normal, maybe a little exertion, oh, then a peak of exertion, down to a plateau for a bit, then climbs a little before dropping out."
"Commlink's in his suit, if telemetry's down, so's the link."
"Do you have a location for him?"
"Affirmative. Last known location is one level up, north, about half a lergren."
"That would put him at the extremity of the complex. I'm coming back to pick up some ordnance, you can give me a map and I'll go fetch him."
The Sailor Moon had stopped screaming. She was huddled up in the corner as far away as possible from Warrior Lushvik, her gloves on the floor, next to the bow from the front of her outfit, and her long fake pigtails. He was trying to get, at the very least, his undersuit back on, with its' all-important translator unit. He wouldn't bother with the telemetry until he'd calmed the situation down, and the armour could wait until he was leaving. He finally got the suit fully on, and tapped the translator. A beep let him know it was working.
"Look, I'm really, really sorry," he said, advancing slowly and holding his hands out to be non-threatening. "I did try and stop you. I mean, I didn't realise what you were trying to do until you got me here – I'm new here, I didn't understand most of what you said."
"You really are an alien?" she quavered.
"Yes. Incompatible biologies, probably. Among other things."
"I thought it was a costume. I thought you were part of a promo gig, or something?"
"No. Sorry." He got close enough to kneel down in her eyeline. "Look, if I'd've worked it out sooner, I'd've made an excuse and slipped away. I'm not at my best on alien worlds, and the words you were saying didn't make contextual sense."
"So – what are you?"
"I'm not supposed to tell you. I'm in the military, I think that much is obvious, and at the moment our mission is observation and reconnaissance."
"And when that finishes?"
"I'm not allowed to talk about it."
"Oh Christ! Oh shitting shitting fuck! I find a real alien, a real, Godamned fucking alien, nearly give him a blowjob, and he as good as tells me he's going to invade the planet!"
"Are you shitting me? Please, please tell me you're having me on? That, that it's all an act, and that's some really fucking thorough prosthetics you're wearing, and your real name's something like Jamal ab Farook from Pakistan or something. And if it is, you've got a really fucking sick sense of humour, Lishvuk!"
"I'm sorry, I can't answer that."
They looked into each others' eyes for a few seconds. "Oh fuck!" She buried her face in her hands and started crying. "I just tried to give a real alien a blowjob!"
"If it helps, if we had compatible biologies, I'd be more than happy to repay the favour."
She snapped her head up and glared daggers at him. "Not in a million years, Kunzite!"
Lushvik backed off, holding up his hands to ward her off. "Okay, sorry! Look, um, if it's any consolation, these days we don't tend to go for population annihilation unless they're really troublesome, and it's looking like it'd be unwise to invade anyway. Sorry for ruining your evening. I'll, er, let myself out." He stood up and turned to pick up the rest of his kit.
"You're … you're not going to kill me? Or brainwash me? Or something? I mean, I know you're here now..."
"Probably not. Leaks always happen on ops like this, and if we don't take punitive action to limit exposure, the native populace usually respond better to-" he cut himself off from finishing that quote from the latest edition of the Imperium operational and ideological handbook. The female was probably not in the best state of mind to receive it.
He pulled on his armour, checked his weapons, checked that nothing else had been dropped, and headed for the door. He opened it at the exact same time that Commander Shasharr was preparing to kick it open from the other side.
There was a whimper from Sailor Moon in the corner.
"Warrior Lushvik! Are you alright? What's going on? Who's the native?"
Lushvik took in the Commander's readied heavy n-beamer, the stun bombs and flashbangs on his crossbelts, and decided that he'd better explain quickly and privately.
The native came back with two glasses of bubbling liquid in his hands. He sat next to Sillen and placed the glass of clear liquid in front of her. "Thank you," she said. Unsure of protocol, she waited for him to make the first move.
The native took a sip of his own drink. "Not thirsty?"
"Oh! No, I'm just wondering where my colleague went."
The native's brows furrowed and he looked around. "Colleague?"
"Yes – I last saw him dancing with our other man, and then he vanished."
Sillen shook her head. "We didn't bring them on this mission," she said, referring to the troops' name for the short-lived but effective personal shroud fields.
The native laughed. "Nice one! I'm Pete, by the way." He held out his hand.
Fortunately Sillen had seen this gesture earlier, and shook it with her own. "I'm Sillen."
"Real name, or character?"
Pete nodded. "Nice. Asian or Scandinavian? It's hard to tell with your costume on."
She didn't know what he was talking about again. "A bit of both," she told him, and finally took a mouthful – too large a one, it turned out. Bubbles went up her nose, she gagged, managed to swallow, sneezed, and bent over coughing. Pete put his drink down and slapped her on the back. Surprised that anyone would do this to a trained soldier, Sillen grabbed his wrist on the second slap, spun, and twisted his arm up his back. "I can fight my own drinks, thank you," she told him, eyes watering. Her nose twitched twice, and she let go just as she sneezed again.
"Are you winning?" asked Pete, a huge grin on his face.
Sillen twitched her nose again and sat down. "Just about. Now – you were saying?"
Pete went briefly blank. "Um – Scandinavian and Asian? That's an unusual combination. Mind if I ask the details?"
"Yes." Pete immediately looked down and sucked his top lip in. "It's embarrassingly sentimental," she told him, hoping that would be sufficient to get him talking again without giving him the chance to enquire too deeply into things she wasn't allowed to tell him.
"Ah, right. Must have been an interesting childhood, at least?"
Sillen, who had been reared in a military creche since birth, gone to the three stages of military academy in sequence with her creche-mates, and been automatically enlisted along with 60% of the population that year, nodded. "Colourful," she added, thinking of the various injuries she'd witnessed. "Noisy," she expanded, thinking of the weapons training. "Fun," she finished with a grin, still thinking of the weapons training, in particular the day when she'd managed to sneak a k-bomb off the range and detonate it under the illicit still the senior class had hidden in the mess kitchen.
"Bit like mine, then," Pete said. "My dad's a graphic designer, and my mum's a musician – plays jazz flute in half the pubs in London."
"Skilled work, I take it."
"Well yeah – it takes talent to play jazz without sounding like you're making it up as you go along, even if you are!"
"Ah. I see. I think." She risked another, smaller, mouthful of lemonade.
"So – that costume. Home-made?"
"No - issued as standard."
"It's pretty thorough. So what does that mean? Yourself and, what, two others?"
"There are eight of us deployed here, six actively, three on this assignment."
"Okay, so your rather attractive self and seven others got kitted out with these amazing costumes, with full accessories – nice blaster, by the way – on behalf of … what?"
"The Shortak Imperium."
"Is it for a movie? You eight, you're part of a promotional exercise for an upcoming movie?"
"Something like that, yes," Sillen agreed. There would certainly be movement in the future, and if she had anything to do with it, a promotion to officer rank at some point.
"Right. When's it coming out?"
"Great! Who's in it?"
Sillen hesitated. This was beginning to get into forbidden territory again. "Some of the biggest names in the arena."
"Ooh, a teaser! Okay, who's directing?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
"Okay. A new director, that the studio doesn't quite trust, but they love the script and think it'll be a box-office smash. Interesting..."
"I can see you've been thinking about this," Sillen said, a little worriedly. If this Pete was just asking questions out of interest, she shouldn't say any more. If he was some sort of intelligence analyst, she'd already probably said too much. For inspiration to find something else to talk about she glanced around, and saw something. It was a long shot, but – well, she was in the fertile part of her cycle, it might work. "Listen, Pete," she said, putting her drink down firmly and leaning towards him, "do we have to talk about this sort of thing now? I mean this is supposed to be relaxation time, and," she leaned further forward and dropped her voice a little, "there must be other, more interesting things to talk about?"
"Such as?" he responded, leaning in towards her.
"Well, maybe some, pressing personal matters?"
A light seemed to glint in Pete's eyes. "Pressing where?"
"Oh, I'm sure you can think of somewhere," Sillen said, not knowing exact details, but knowing they'd be different to those of her own species.
Pete's eyes gravitated to the prominent objects at the front of her armour suit. "I'm sure I can."
"And, there must be ways to, bring those pressing things to the surface?"
"Really?" Pete looked back up. "You know, if you weren't in costume, this'd be about the time I told you you had beautiful eyes."
"I could tell you you had beautiful eyes, if that would help?"
"Worth a try."
"You have beautiful eyes."
"Thank you." He returned his beautiful eyes to her chest.
Since his attention seemed to be back in the right place (weird arousal rituals they have here, she thought, must be a species thing), she tried again. "So, are there any pressing things you'd like to bring to the surface?"
"I can think of a couple."
Two!? They had two? What would he do with the second one if- She clamped down on that thought. This was a distraction, not an attempt to actually intimately fraternise with a native of a (possibly) soon-to-be-conquered planet. "Would you, er, like to do it now?"
"Do it now?"
"Bring them to the surface?"
Pete's hands moved from the table to hover in front of her body. "Now? Are you sure?"
"Yes." This wasn't according to any script she knew – but then, she'd never taken any exobiology courses, she didn't have any idea how alien arousal might work. The second one would be a bit unsightly for her, but she figured she'd be able to tune that out for the few minutes it'd be necessary to play this out for.
"Well, it's – it's not how I usually like to do this sort of thing, but – if you're sure?"
His hands moved forward and closed on what appeared to be the rather full breasts of a young woman in costume. Unfortunately, that's a rather more intimate act for a Shortakian than Pete could have known. The, what appeared to be a young woman in costume, but was actually a non-commissioned officer in the Shortak Imperium Armed Forces, rose to her feet, shocked, embarrassed, and outraged. Her uppercut flung him off his chair to the floor, and then she was striding out of the room as rapidly as she could manage and still hold her composure.
Warrior Pilret tried this door. Aha! The doors were in the right places compared to on the map! He went out into the corridor and looked around, to make sure that the walls weren't moving, and wouldn't hide his target while he was confirming his location. He glared at the floor plan in the booklet, compared it to where he was, good. He glared at the itinerary, and compared the ideograms in it to the ideograms on the doors in front of him. The one on the right seemed to match best. He went in.
Inside were several rows of chairs, mostly empty, but with maybe half a dozen occupied. At the front of the room was a large viewscreen, relaying what appeared to be a series of disjointed images. Pilret went quietly up to one of the room's occupants and tapped him on the shoulder. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Fan made Star Wars," was the answer.
"Sorry, what?" That sounded exceedingly dangerous.
"You know, the remake of Star Wars by fans. A load of fans from all over each filmed a few seconds, and some guy put it all together to make a new version of the whole film."
"Ah, I see." That sounded slightly less dangerous. He sat down. A history of probably the first interstellar conflict this planet had been involved in, which had been so well-made that it, the history not the war itself, had enthusiasts, who were committed enough to remake it as best they could, and show it at – what? Gatherings like this, obviously. Well, this should certainly be relevant to the mission, and very militarily valuable. He thumbed on his transmitter and sent the code for surveillance recording, then settled back to watch.
"So, then what did *hyip* Kay-less do?"
The Klingon grinned blearily at him and slapped his hand onto Jerren's shoulder. "Then, my friend, Kahless wrestled his brother for twelve days and twelve nights in the wilderness. *hic* Until the metter was sattled."
"Because of the *hyip* dis-nonner he'd brought on himself, on each other?"
There was a pause as Jerren considered the implications of this. "Woah."
After Lushvik had explained what had happened, Commander Shasharr shot the woman with his stunner. He then ordered Lushvik, since this was obviously a catered guest-barracks, to get some intoxicating beverage from somewhere, pour it away, and leave the container in view. As Lushvik rifled the cupboards, Shasharr removed most of the Sailor Moon costume and dumped the woman's mostly-naked body under the top layer of fabric on the bed. After a quick relayed call to Vessik, a brief wait, then a quick application of the terminals of his stunner charge unit to a specific place on the woman's skull, he then gave Lushvik further orders, to the effect that if they were to meet again, he was thoroughly biologically native, they had been intimately fraternising, it had been very pleasant, but he'd prefer not to do it again as his long-term companion back home might object if she found out. He then stalked out, in a bad mood. His report and train of thought had been interrupted, his intelligence-gathering mission was compromised, and at least one member of his team had gone seriously off-mission. Okay, he hadn't fully understood what was going on due to miscommunication, but he could have reacted quicker, and in fact shouldn't have left his assigned duty in the first place, even if it was in pursuit of the "close observation" the mission now called for.
Lushvik didn't find anything readily resembling an intoxicating liquid container. However, this was, as the Commander had pointed out, a catered guest-barracks of some kind, and intoxicating liquids were being vended elsewhere in the complex, so...
He eventually worked out what the telephone was, and called room service.
"I'd like a bottle and two drinking vessels, please."
"A bottle of what, sir?"
"Something …" He didn't know the names of any native drinks. "Something intoxicating and seductive."
"Yes, that'll do fine, thanks."
"What room, sir?"
"Er – hang on." He put the receiver down on the desk and hurried to the door. He opened it long enough to check the number, realised he couldn't read the ideograms and had no idea how to pronounce them in the native tongue anyway, gibbered in panic for a few seconds, then had a brainwave and went back to the phone. "Sorry – I'm a bit worse for wear already, and the other person here's temporarily unavailable. Can you bring it to the last room on the left at the north of the building, one floor above the room with the water and the bridges in it, please?"
"Err, yes sir, I think we can find that. Thank you, your order will be with you shortly."
"Thank you." He replaced the receiver. He looked at the unconscious woman in the bed. It probably would have been nice, and she, along with every other female, native or visiting, appeared to be in her fertile period, if the biologies were compatible, of course. Must be something in the water, he thought, to bring them all to fertility at the same time. Careful planning, possibly by the government, or just a biological proximity response? He'd never know, exobiology wasn't in his field of interest. Exoflora on the other hand – an enemy native can be killed in oh so many different and effective ways, but an unknown venomous plant or something could kill him just as quickly, and he might not have an effective counter. Extra-curricular education modules for purposes of self-preservation – probably not what the Imperium had envisaged them for, but it's what he used them for at any rate.
Sillen found her way to a females-only privacy and ablutions area, still shocked. Okay, she had been asking for it, but that? That had been intimacy-chamber stuff! You didn't do that sort of thing in any sort of public space, even if you were the worst kind of unlicensed prostitute! What Pete had done was the last step before intercourse, not the first step on the fraternisation path! She stopped in front of a sink, looked at herself in the mirror, slapped her hands to her temples, and spat, "Males!"
"I know, honey, they're all bastards."
Sillen snapped her head round. A few sinks along, Power Girl was touching up her makeup. "Sorry, didn't see you there."
Power Girl glanced over. "You look a bit shaken up. And through that costume, that means you're really freaked. What happened? Someone take liberties through your catsuit?"
"Oh yes, someone took liberties all right."
"Well, I hope you kneed them in the balls for their trouble, right?"
"Uppercut to the chin," Sillen replied with satisfaction, "put him on the floor."
"Nice," Power Girl said approvingly. "Might cause trouble if you go that far each time, though."
"If he goes that far each time, he's got no excuse."
"Yeah, I know." She gestured down. "I mean, look at these! They're natural, they're large, and because of the suit, quite a bit of them are on display. But that doesn't give every horny perv in the hotel a licence to grope 'em, does it?"
"Well, no, it doesn't." Sillen could tell what the speech meant, even if some of the words were still a little hazy in their interpretation. "Does it happen a lot?"
"For me? Oh, you'd be amazed at the number of times a guy 'accidentally' brushes them with his hand. I don't mind them looking – I wouldn't be wearing this if I did – but touching is strictly out unless I give permission."
"As it should be." Sillen hesitated. "You – do you have a choice about wearing that?"
"Yeah! It's not like I'm going to go to MacDonald's dressed like this, is it?"
"No. It'd be fun to see the reactions of the guys behind the counter, but I'm not here to tease teenagers, I can do that at home. And hey, with boobs this size and my figure, it was either this or Seven of Nine, and I'm not keen on catsuits. Props to you for wearing one, though, but I don't like them."
"Er, yes." Sillen was confused again. Was this an undercover agent? A freelance operative? "You, er, you have a choice of ..?" She didn't know how to phrase the next bit without sounding alien or foolish, or both. Fortunately, Power Girl seemed to know what she was thinking.
"Outfit? Barely. Like I said, Seven of Nine or this, or civvies, and I don't think that's the point of coming to these events. You wear civvies every day, here, you let your hair down."
"Yes. Of course." So, a freelance operative of some kind with undercover duties, and who needed to advertise her allegiance or trade when she came to events like this, in order to keep getting work contracts.
"What are you lot promoting anyway? I've seen a bunch of you around, and your costumes are fantastic! A fan-film? Or something big and secret and bankrolled by Hollywood?"
Sillen turned back to the sink. "Sorry, I'm off duty right now."
"Right, sorry. I'll ask you tomorrow, then. See you!" Power Girl slipped her compact into her cleavage, gave a little wave, and walked out.
Sillen stared into the mirror and leaned heavily on the edge of the sink. "Females!"
"It was this way, wasn't it?"
"No, no, this way!"
The Klingons were taking Jerren back to one of their rooms to show him something they called a video of great Klingon moments in the star trek, which was obviously another manifestation of the warrior-poetic language they were so fond of using. Unfortunately, they were all rather drunk, and, as Warrior Pilret had already found out, the hotel's corridors were rather confusing to navigate.
Commander Shasharr entered the maintenance cupboard. Fisstek stood up and saluted immediately upon seeing his superior's expression. "Report!"
"You were the last one to submit any intelligence, sir," the Combatleader said. "Warrior Pilret is transmitting a surveillance record of something, but no actual reports. Sub-Combatleader Jerren appears to be inebriated, but considering the assignment you gave him, that's understandable, and it's within tolerances. It's getting close to their midnight, and the only thing of significance is that Warrior Lushvik's telemetry is back up."
"It had better be, after what I found there." Shasharr hissed to himself in frustration. "Any analysis?"
"Nothing's come back, sir, but the Sub-Commander thinks your assessment of an intelligence services conference is accurate. He thinks it may be dangerous to remain in the field under these conditions, there's no knowing how good they are, and what trivial bits of information they can use to gain an understanding of our forces."
Shasharr nodded. "Agreed." He thumbed his transmitter to all-call. "Mission assignment terminated. Return to base at earliest opportunity."
It was the next morning. Commander Shasharr reviewed his troops in disgust. What there were of them. "Where are Warriors Anrang and Pilret, and Sub-Combatleader Jerren?"
"Local comms traffic picked up massively a partition ago, no idea why, so we can't get an exact fix on them, but their last known locations were according to their mission assignments," Fisstek explained. "Anrang was in the big area with the water and the bridges, Pilret was still at his surveillance station, and Jerren appears to be in one of the private rooms with the Klingons."
"Those big guys with the lumpy foreheads we ran into first thing yesterday."
"Right. What's he doing with them?"
"He reported in just before you did, sir. He said he was getting friendly with the Klingons, and they were telling him lots."
"Right. Is he conscious?"
"Asleep, I'm afraid. The other two appear to be conscious, but exhausted."
"Right. Okay. Fisstek, get on the comms, and try and snap Pilret out of his daze and bring him back here. Shout into the microphone if necessary. Luskvik, you're with me – we're going to get Anrang, then the three of us will collect Jerren - Fisstek, you'd better have Pilret awake by then, 'cos I want directions to where he is!"
Shasharr rounded on Sillen. "As for you, you're to stay here and help Sub-Commander Vessik compile the reports for forwarding to the fleet. After your verbal report to me, I don't think the natives will be too pleased to see you for the moment. Consider this a reprimand for disobeying the order to remain unobtrusive!"
Shasharr nodded. "Right. Move out!"
Anrang was sitting on one the sofas in the atrium, with a bunch of people who, like him, had been on the dancefloor all night. They were watching cat videos on youtube. Anrang was mesmerised, although that could just have been the fatigue.
The Warrior started, then jerked up to attention. "Sir!"
"I don't know, sir!"
This was sufficiently non-standard to make Shasharr pause. "Why don't you know?"
"I'm too tired to think straight, sir!"
"As long as you're not too tired to march straight. Fall in! We've got to pick up Jerren."
"Probably literally," Lushvik added. Shasharr glared at him. The two Warriors fell in behind their Commander, and they marched off.
"I hope you were actually gathering intel there, Warrior Anrang?"
"Yes sir, I think so. It provided great insight into their forms of entertainment," he said, thinking as quickly as he could, while moving images of cats chasing laser pointers and investigating tortoises danced behind his eyes.
"Right. And were you doing that all night?"
"No sir – until about a partition ago I was experiencing an endurance test that some of them undergo for recreation. A test of rhythmic movement to audio cues throughout the night."
"Why the Frissik would they do that for recreation? Especially when they're intelligence operatives and analysts?"
"Intelligence operatives?" Anrang was surprised. "Since when?"
"Since always, probably. That's what I found out last night while you were enduring audio cues."
"Oh. Ah. Well, sir, I don't think I said much to them. None of us spoke much at all during the test. Some of them chanted, but not conversationally."
"It was mostly the catvideos of yoo-choob."
"I see. Fisstek! Where are we?"
"Sorry, Commander. Warrior Pilret reports he's on his way back now, but he may be some time."
"Fine. Which way to the Klingons' quarters?"
"Turn right, right again, then left. Buzz me then, and I'll count you down to the room."
ThumpThumpThumpThumpThumpThumpThump … Click crackle, click crack. Fzzzzt!
A small puff of smoke erupted from the lock of the door, a fraction of a second before it opened. Commander Shasharr stood and re-inserted his stunner's charge pack, as the other two went inside. The four Klingons and Sub-Combatleader Jerren were asleep, two on the beds, two on chairs, one the floor. The two Warriors hauled the Sub-Combatleader to his feet and held him up. Shasharr stalked up to him and swatted him round the face a couple of times. Jerren remained dead to the world.
"I don't want to wake the Klingons up. Get him outside." The Warriors draped the Sub-Combatleader's arms around their shoulders and walked him out into the corridor. Shasharr looked around, found something that looked like writing implements, and scrawled the emblem of the Shortak Imperium. Then he left, and pulled the door closed behind him. "Lie him down." Shasharr took something off his belt and wedged it under Jerren's. "Right pick him up, you're going to carry him back to base. Vessik can wake him up." The two warriors got into position at his shoulders and ankles, and lifted the Sub-Combatleader between them. Shasharr leaned over and pressed a button on the box, and all of them disappeared. Half a second later, Shasharr reappeared walking down the corridor. "Now remember, don't jolt him, and don't bump into anyone. We don't want the natives, or any of the visitors, to realise we've got portable shrouds. Clear?"
"And don't talk, either!"
Silence. Commander Shasharr was not sure whether this was a good or a bad sign.
They made it back to the ship without incident. Shasharr made good on his threat to let Sub-Commander Vessik, who had received training as a medical and interrogations specialist, wake up the inebriated Jerren. Once that was done, the Commander paraded his troops.
"You, are a shambles. A disgrace! We were picked to come down here and do a reconnaissance because we are the best! And what happens? Combatleader Fisstek – you land on some piece of equipment, and we have native technicians crawling all over us for half a rotation! We find out that we're not their first contact with aliens, the mission gets revised, and we split up to get things done quicker, more discreetly, more unobtrusively, more efficiently! Sub-Combatleader Jerren – you were ordered to stay at a refreshment vendors' until they closed, and yet you disappear with some off-worlders before local midnight! Disappear drunk! And pass out in their quarters!
"Under-Combatleader Sillen – you were in charge of a team of three, attending the main event of the evening. Within two partitions you separated from the rest of your squad, tempted a native into sexually assaulting you, then assaulted him back, and ran off to hide in the ablution suite, where you report what happened, not to me or the Combatleader, but to a native undercover operative!
"Warrior Lushvik – you allowed yourself to be separated from your squad by a native female, and were so slow on the uptake you didn't realise she wanted to screw you until she had your armour off! Not only were you vulnerable, your telemetry went down, and you revealed our presence to a native, which required crude memory-modifying action to make her forget what she saw in your uniform!
"Warrior Anrang – you didn't do too badly, actually. You continued in your duty of observation and information gathering, at your assigned post, until well after the event officially ended, and spent the following time in the company of some of their hardiest intelligence workers. But that meant you disobeyed my order to terminate and return to base! And you didn't actually learn anything useful from all that time you spent in their company!
"Warrior Pilret, wherever the fuck he is, is almost as bad! He took two partitions to get to his duty station, and immediately sent us a surveillance transmission of an enthusiasts' version of the record of an historically important conflict. When that finished, there was a record of early bio-engineering projects going wrong, and another of extreme astronomy. Trouble is, we have no reference points, he didn't bother asking anyone else viewing these records for context, and the dozy bastard still hasn't found his way back here!
"I hope you are all feeling lucky. If you are, then we may, just may be allowed to continue as commandos. We may be allowed to spearhead the capture of this complex, we may get to actually achieve something when the brass upstairs finish reviewing the information we've collected and decide to do something! If you're not feeling lucky, all we'll be allowed to do is find that idiot Pilret, and take him back with us to face joint court martials for dereliction of duty, failure to obey orders, and endangering the Fleet!"
The Commander seethed for a moment, then started handing out punishments – menial or humiliating duties or routines that were appropriate to their blunder. He hoped that with Fisstek's assistance it wouldn't be long before Pilret got back so he could shout at him too.
Pilret was making good progress with Fisstek's voice constantly rabbiting at him to guide him through the maze of twisty passages that were the hotel's corridors. He'd got to a bit he recognised as being on the main floor at least, and was now close to base. He wasn't particularly keen on getting back there, as the Combatleader had warned him about the Commander's bad mood. Well, he'd have to face it some time, wouldn't he? And there was-
"Hey! Excuse me! Hey! Alien guy! Shortak!"
Pilret froze. He muttered, "I think our cover's blown," into his comm before turning in the direction of the shout. "Yes?"
Someone was bearing down on him who looked official. They had a conspicuously bright shirt with an ideogram across the front and an icon in one corner, the same icon that had been on the front of the itinerary, he had more ID cards hanging round his neck than the average person here, and he was carrying what looked like an early comm unit. "Is that right? You one of the Shortak Imperium guys?"
"Er, yes? How do you know about that?" In his ear, Fisstek was replaced by Shasharr.
"Some of you were mentioning it in conversation yesterday, apparently. Being very mysterious about it. Now look, as long as you've got your membership and you're not upsetting people or interrupting programme items, you can do whatever promotional stuff you come up with. It would have been nice to have been notified that there was something going on, we maybe could have found time for a programme item if you'd wanted, or something. But any more assaults on anyone, and we'll bar the whole lot of you, understand?"
"Assaults? What do you mean?"
"One of your team, the woman, she decked someone last night at the disco. Now, I don't know what it was about, and for all I know the guy had it coming, but we must insist that there be no repeat. The only reason the police aren't involved is because we've only had reports from witnesses, the guy himself hasn't made a complaint."
Shasharr rattled out something in Pilret's ear. "Well, if he hasn't made a complaint he was probably the first offender."
"Yeah, maybe. But I want you to pass it on to the rest of your little team, that any more violence, or anything dangerous – I heard about your big entrance too – and you will all be asked to leave, immediately."
"They will be informed."
"Right, thank you."
The official turned away and headed back into one of the side rooms. Pilret spoke into his comm unit. "Did you copy that, sir?"
"Affirmative. Get back here ASAP. Fisstek!"
Fisstek replaced Shasharr. "Okay, Pilret, keep going the way you were."
When Pilret got back to the ship, trying to avoid looking at Sillen standing guard in the cupboard in just her underthings, Shasharr debriefed him. Pilret then went to the mess to get some breakfast, and found Anrang cleaning it with a toothbrush. Shasharr gathered Fisstek and Vessik for a planning session.
"Have we got all of Pilret's surveillance sent up?"
"Yes sir," answered Vessik. "Fleet intel are analysing it now."
"What about our reports so far?"
"Everything's been sent up, including a recording of that incident with Pilret just now, but not your debrief of him."
"Okay – so what are the brass doing about it? Do they have enough information? Are they analysing what they have, or just sitting on it? Are we going to be sent out again?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but all the response I get is to stand by for further instructions."
"'Stand by for further instructions'," Fisstek moaned. "Isn't that what they say to a squad when the brass don't know what to do with it 'cos of an imminent fuck-up?"
"Probably," Shasharr said grimly. "It's what they said to us halfway into Platicon Five's atmosphere."
"Might this turn out to be another Platicon Five after all?" asked Vessik.
"I hope not," Shasharr replied, "but we just don't know. What we've seen of their technology – well, our preliminary scans indicated that they were at least six hundred years behind us, with no interstellar commerce, but their allies – or visitors, or whatever they are – they range from easily our equals, to completely different base schools of thought with comparable capabilities, and some are far in advance. Whether they have any sort of mutual protection pact, or this is neutral territory, or it's a full alliance, we don't know. And whatever it is, we don't know how well they fight together, whether they'll fight together, or whether, by attacking, we'd provoke a regional power into war."
"And we can't afford another one at the moment," Visstek pointed out, "not with the Fellbarns being as belligerent as they are."
"And I'm sure the brass know that," Shasharr told him. "We'll just have to wait and see what our orders are."
They waited nearly the whole day. It was in fact dark outside when the orders came in.
"Commander Shasharr, good to see you." It was Warlord Fissath himself.
"We've been analysing all your reports and data, and collecting information of our own. We've made little progress with their transmissions, but the bulk of the evidence seems to back up what you've provided us with."
"Thank you, sir. And the conclusion?"
"This planet is a trade hub, neutral territory, and hallowed ground. It was once the centre of a great Empire, now a ceremonial capital of a Federation of allied worlds, made up of former subject peoples. Anyone in the Federation is welcome here at any time – for certain values of 'welcome' – and obvious outsiders are shunned, usually violently. The natives are diplomats, traders, and mercenaries – we think that's how they managed to control an Empire. They talked or bribed their way into control of other territories, and used their fiercely loyal and efficient warriors to maintain control and put down any uprisings of subjugated peoples. They've had their share of Platicon Fives as well, but mostly... well, the general opinion is that both us and the Fellbarns working together might just be able to eventually wipe them out. They're good at subjugating others – or they were – but if anyone tries to subjugate them... bad idea, basically. Even if it means driving themselves to the point of tactical impossibility or strategic weakness, they simply will not allow anyone other than themselves to rule them."
"So, what now then, sir?"
"I have to commend you on a good job well done. This could have been potentially much worse than Platicon Five. You're to cover your presence and return to the Fleet before daylight."
"Yes sir. Will there be diplomatic moves following this?"
The Warlord shook his head. "Unlikely. This area is just too busy – if one thing isn't kicking off, it's another. If we want allies, they'd be unable to commit sufficient resources. If we seek a non-aggression pact, they're going to want us to join their Federation. If we limit ourselves to declared neutrality and trading pacts, they'll insinuate themselves and we'll end up joining their Federation anyway."
"I see," Shasharr said, without really. "Are they really that fearsome a military force, though?"
"We've picked up transmissions of some natives punching their way through bits of construction material for fun. They are a brutal, bloodthirsty and ingenious people, and they have no qualms about expressing it. The Fleetlord, myself and Warlord Hissar all concur that we cannot afford to reveal ourselves to them formally or informally at this strategic time, much less risk engaging them in a war of attrition across we-don't-know how much space with an as-yet undetermined number of technologically-advanced allies. Even an invasion of overwhelming force, which we cannot afford to deploy at the moment, would not be guaranteed to succeed."
"So we just turn away and pretend we were never here?"
"We just turn away and pretend we were never here. It's better than staying here until the end of the universe as corpses."
"Understood, sir. Thank you."
"Thank you, Commander. Fissath out."
The screen blinked off.
On Monday morning, the tech crew were not happy. Sometime on Sunday night another freak whirlwind had struck, knocking out most of the repairs they'd made on Saturday. Still, at least it was the last day, and they didn't have to be unhappy about it for long.
© Brian Wakeling