Duke K’thkryli of the Chul Hoch Empire, captain of the interstellar dreadnought Swift Retribution, drifted serenely in his tank, tentacles curled under his massive head-body. Yet the Ztarrian crew knew his eyes watched their every move, his vast, cool, unsympathetic intellect searching for even the slightest violation of protocol. Yet the crew could do nothing, except their duty: chitinous digits tapped crystalline controls, multifaceted eyes scanning sensor readouts for the slight anomalies that could indicate enemy activity.
One scanner clicked his mouthparts, and then thoughtspoke to the captain: Your Grace, a momentary blip in Quadrant QJP-210-982.
Show me. The scanner sent a replay of the “blip” to the Duke’s console, and waited nervously. To waste the Duke’s time risked disciplinary action, but to let the enemy slip by the blockade risked far, far worse …
The Duke’s tentacles uncurled, slithered sinuously over the console. All scanners, focus on Quadrant QJP-210-982, he thoughtspoke to the entire ship. All Hydthrik to battle stations. Re-energize sub-light drives and compute trajectory for intercept. The empathic subchannel of the Duke’s thoughtspeech betrayed neither fear nor excitement as his crew, Ztarran and Hydthrik alike, quickly followed his commands.
Commander Alaurin of the Sarannian League’s Bright Angel closed his eyes for a moment and grimaced, as his lieutenant reported the gravitational wave. He knew what it meant: a warship powering its sub-light drives. “Get a fix on it,” he sighed. “Tell me what we’re facing.”
“It’s a dreadnought class, Chul Hoch design.” The lieutenant’s startlingly blue eyes went wide. “Sir, it’s the Retribution!”
Alaurin ran a pale hand through his platinum hair. His emerald eyes stared intently into his lieutentant’s for a moment, and he said, “If the Great Designer wills us to battle the Retribution, we shall. He guides our steps, Jala. He knows we come to rescue six billion souls from ignorance and suffering, and he will not let our mission fail.”
Alaurin stood and addressed his crew, men and women at the peak of physical, mental, and spiritual perfection who risked their extraordinarily long lives for something far greater. “We serve the Great Designer, and the League which carries his Enlighenment to those oppressed by the Empire and its allies. We will not fail. We cannot fail. For all that we do, we do for the Great Cause!”
“The Great Cause!” shouted the crew.
“Now, let’s see what this Duke of the Empire can do …”
The Swift Retribution’s last boarding party returned from the Angel’s twisted wreckage, bearing the last few survivors who hadn’t made it to the escape pods in time.
The Duke swam through the water-filled portion of ship’s passages to reach the airlocks. He could have Gated directly from the bridge to the airlocks, but he liked the exercise, and the delay served several purposes. One purpose was to converse with the sergeant of the Hydthrik marines, who walked beside him on the other side of a force-field, pumped full of the hot, dry air the Hydthrik preferred.
“You are certain no one else survived,” the Duke said, in Hydthrik. The Hydthrik could not thoughtspeak; a ring around one of the Duke’s tentacles translated thoughspeak to vibrations in the water that, through the forcefield, mimicked Hydthrik coughs and rasps.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“And you recovered the bodies?”
“Most of them, my lord. Some were little more than charcoal flakes.”
“That will have to do.” Neither the Hydthrik nor the Chul Hoch had funeral customs; in ancient times the Hydthrik let the deserts bury their dead, and the Chul Hoch either ate them – no sense in wasting protein – or left them for other predators. They knew the Sarannian people cared very much for their dead, more than their living sometimes, and “rescuing” their dead for official disposal gave them one less thing to complain about.
“And their leader?”
“He was in the first pod. His name was …” – the sergeant tried to remember the unfamiliar sounds – “A-Dau-Din.”
The Duke stopped dead in the water. “Alaurin!? Again?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
The Duke began swimming again, lost in thought. In their travel, the Chul Hoch had noted the same forms appeared throughout the galaxy, over and over. On the beautiful but benighted planet he was protecting, there were non-sapient but brainy creatures like him; creatures like the Hydthrik dominated in its distant past, also non-sapient, and remnants still flourished. The place even teemed with tiny creatures vaguely like Ztarrians, albeit with woefully inadequate nervous and circulatory systems. Yet its only truly sapient species resembled the Sarranians, and were, if possible, even more absurd. At least the indigenous people of the blue planet, being abysmally ignorant and unable to venture far outside their gravity well, were nowhere nearly as dangerous as the accursed Sarranians.
The door irised open, and a bubble of water containing the Duke detached from the flooded side of the corridor. The sergeant followed, although he was poised to leap in front in case the prisoners tried one last futile gesture. A hundred years ago the Hydthrik Autarch and most of the Council died because a Sarannian assassin detonated a nuclear grenade implanted in his chest.
The dozen Sarannian prisoners in the corridor stopped whispering among themselves and glared at the Duke as he approached. At the head of the line stood Alaurin, each of his arms gripped in the scaly talons of Hydthrik marines. He caught sight of the Duke and sneered. “We finally meet, Duke of the foul Empire. Have you come to gloat about your wholesale murder of twenty-eight Sarranian innocents?”
The Duke had only gills, but somehow his synthesized voice sounded like it wanted to sigh. “Only nine, by out count; the rest are in regeneration tanks. They should recover.”
The other prisoners wailed. “Monster!” spat Alaurin. “Not only did you kill their souls, you condemn their bodies to walk again and serve you! To what depths will you not sink?!”
“They will awaken alive and whole, and they can serve whom they choose. Although, knowing your people’s strange beliefs, they might be better off requesting asylum from us.”
“Why do you persecute us? What have we done to you, filthy spawn of the Chul Hoch?”
“To us, none. We execute Directive Seven of the Galactic Federation, which prevents biological, technological, or cultural contamination of sapient species at or below Stage Two. That includes the planet you attempted to infiltrate.”
“We are One People! We assert our right to bring the Peace of –” His lips kept moving, but no sound came out. After a few seconds, he stopped and glared at the Duke, outraged.
“Enough. I am aware of your claims. The inhabitants of Earth evolved there, and are demonstrably not a lost colony. As for your ‘peace’ … the poor fools have enough delusions to stunt their progress without your religion to trigger another round of atrocities.” The Duke hovered closer. “If I were at your mercy, you would do far worse than silence me. You are fortunate we of the Chul Hoch are a civilized people.”
The Duke moved backward “Sergeant, take them to the holding cells. Make sure they are comfortable, until we can Gate them back to Central.” He turned and let the Hydthrik do their jobs.
Back in his quarters, Duke K’thkryli released a selachian to trap and feed on, and marvelled at the persistence of patterns.
The Federation included four mollusc species, all patient and thoughtful, of which the Chul Hoch Empire were the second least advanced. Of the seven reptillian species, only three were capable of violence, and the Hydthrik only hurt others when there was no logical alternative. The five insectoid species tended to be meticulous and orderly, although the Ztarrians phenomenal ability to recognize patterns also made them a little flighty. Perhaps that explained how they composed such interesting operas.
But the humanoids … Every cycle of so, the Sarannians tried to unleash their version of “wisdom” and “enlightenment” on unsuspecting primitives who superficially resembled them, as if propagating their psychotic vision somehow validated it. Every demi-cycle some idiot Nalleni travelled hundreds of light years to play some sort of practical joke on Earthlings, from creating circles in grain fields to some perverse violation of humanoid dignity. One would think their bulbous gray heads could comprehend a Galactic Directive.
And then there were the Earthlings themselves.
The same forms repeated over and over, K’thkryli reflected. The humanoid form, it seemed, required two arms, two legs, and an abundance of stupidity and madness.