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Authors: John Scalzi

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General

The Back Channel

The Human Division #6:

The Back Channel

John Scalzi


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The Human Division
as a whole is dedicated to:

Yanni Kuznia and Brian Decker, two of my favorite people;


John Harris, for his wonderful cover art for this and other Old Man’s War books.


Additionally, this particular Episode is dedicated to:

Jonathan Coulton


Title Page

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Also by John Scalzi

About the Author


Episode Six: The Back Channel

“General, let us return to the matter of humans,” Unli Hado said.

From her seat on the podium behind General Tarsem Gau, leader of the Conclave, Hafte Sorvalh sighed as quietly as possible. When the Conclave was formalized and the Grand Assembly was created, with representatives from every member of the Conclave crafting the laws and traditions of the newly-emerging political entity comprising more than four hundred separate races, General Gau promised that every Sur—every forty standard days—he and those who followed him as executive would stand in the well of the assembly and answer questions from the representatives. It was his way of assuring the Conclave members that the leadership could always be held accountable.

Hafte Sorvalh told him at the time that as his trusted advisor, she thought it would be a way for the grasping, ambitious members of the assembly to grandstand and otherwise in all senses be a waste of his time. General Gau had thanks for her candor in this as in all other things and then went ahead and did it anyway.

Sorvalh had come to believe this was why, at these question-and-answer sessions, he always had her sit behind him. That way, he would not have to see the
I told you so
expression on her face. She had one of those now, listening to the tiresome Hado, from Elpri, pester Gau yet again about the humans.

“Return to the matter, Representative Hado?” Gau said, lightly. “It seems from these sessions that you never leave the matter alone.” This received various sounds of amusement from the seated representatives, but Sorvalh marked faces and expressions in the crowd that held no levity in them. Hado was a pest and held a minority view, but it was not to say the minority he was part of was entirely insignificant.

Standing at his bench assignment, Hado moved his face into what Sorvalh knew was a configuration expressing displeasure. “You jest, General,” he said.

“I do not jest, Representative Hado,” Gau said, equally lightly. “I am merely well aware of your concern for this particular race.”

“If you are well aware of it, then perhaps you can tell me—tell the assembly—what plans you have to contain them,” Hado said.

“Which ‘them’?” Gau said. “You are aware, Representative, that the human race is currently divided into two camps—the Colonial Union and the Earth. The Earth is not a threat to us in any way. It has no ships and no way into space other than what the Colonial Union, from which it is now estranged, allows it. The Colonial Union relied on Earth for soldiers and colonists. Now that supply has been cut off. The Colonial Union knows that what soldiers and colonists it now loses, it cannot replace. This makes it cautious and conservative in its expenditures of both. Indeed, it has been said to me that the Colonial Union is now actually attempting diplomacy on a regular basis!” This received more sounds of amusement. “If the humans are actually attempting to get along with other races, my dear representative, it is an indication of just how cautious they are at this point.”

“You believe, General, that because they play at diplomacy that they are no longer a threat,” Hado said.

“Not at all,” Gau said. “I believe that because they cannot threaten as they have, they now attempt diplomacy.”

“The distinction between the two escapes me, General,” Hado said.

“I am well aware of that fact, Representative Hado,” Gau said. “Nevertheless, the distinction exists. Moreover, the main portion of the Colonial Union’s attention at the moment is in a rapprochement with Earth. Since you ask what I plan to do to contain the humans, I will note to you what you should already know, which is that since the Conclave trade fleet carrying Major John Perry appeared over Earth, we have maintained an active diplomatic presence on Earth. We have envoys in five of their major national capitals, and we have made the governments and people of Earth aware that should they choose not to reconcile with the Colonial Union, there is always the option of the Earth joining the Conclave.”

This caused a stir among the assembly, and not without reason. The Colonial Union had destroyed the Conclave war fleet over Roanoke Colony, a fleet comprising a ship from each member race of the union. There was not a member race in the Conclave that had not suffered a wound from the humans, or that was not aware how perilously close the Conclave came to collapse in the immediate aftermath of that particular fiasco.

Representative Hado seemed especially incensed. “You would allow into the Conclave the same race who tried to destroy it,” he said.

Gau did not answer the question directly. Instead he turned and addressed another representative. “Representative Plora,” he said. “Would you please stand.”

Representative Plora, an Owspa, shambled up on its spindly legs.

“If memory serves, Representative Hado, in the not too distant past, the Elpri and the Owspa shed a significant amount of their blood and treasure trying to eradicate each other from space and history,” Gau said. “How many millions of each of your citizens died because of the hatred between your races? And yet both of you are here in this august assembly, peaceable, as your worlds are now peaceable.”

“We attacked each other, not the Conclave,” Hado said.

“I believe the principle still applies,” Gau said, with a tone that suggested he had a hard time believing Hado attempted to make that argument. “And in any event, it was the Colonial Union which attacked the Conclave, not the Earth. To blame the Earth, or the humans who live on it, for the actions of the Colonial Union is to misapprehend how the Earth itself has been used by it. And, to your point, Representative, the longer we may through diplomacy keep Earth from allying itself with the Colonial Union—or joining the Colonial Union outright—the longer we keep the humans from doing any sort of mischief at our door. Is that not what you are asking for?”

Sorvalh watched Hado fidget. It wasn’t at all what he was asking for, of course. What he wanted was the Conclave to expunge the human race from every crevice it clung to. But it looked for the moment as if Gau had walked him into a corner. Which, Sorvalh supposed, was one of the reasons he had these ridiculous question-and-answer sessions in the first place. He was very good at walking his opponents into corners.

“What about the disappearing ships?” came another voice, and everyone, including Sorvalh, turned toward Representative Plora, who had remained standing after it had been called on. Plora, suddenly aware that it was the focus of attention, shrank back but did not sit. “There have been reports of more than a dozen ships that have disappeared from systems where Conclave territory borders human territory. Is that not the work of the humans?”

“And if it is, why have we not responded to it?” Hado said, now out of his corner.

General Gau glanced back to Sorvalh at this point. She resisted giving him her
I told you so

“Yes, we have lost several ships in the last few Sur,” General Gau said. “They have largely been merchant ships. These are systems where piracy is not entirely unknown, however. Before we leap to the assumption that humans are behind this, we should explore the more likely explanation that raiders—ostensibly citizens of the Conclave—are the cause.”

“How can we know for sure?” Hado said. “Have you made it a priority to know, General? Or are you willing to underestimate the humans for a second time?”

This quieted the assembly. Gau had taken responsibility for the debacle at Roanoke and had never pretended other than that he was responsible. But only a fool would press him on the subject, and it appeared that Unli Hado was that fool.

“It is always a priority for our government to find those of our citizens who are lost to us,” Gau said. “We will find them and we will find whoever is behind their disappearance—whoever they are. What we will
do, Representative Hado, is use the disappearances of these ships to launch into a fight with a people who have shown how committed they are to trying to destroy us when they feel they are cornered and have no choice left but to fight. You ask me whether I am willing to underestimate the humans. I assure you that I am not. What I am wondering, Representative, is why
seem so determined to do so.”

Sorvalh visited General Gau later in his personal office. It was cramped, even if one was not a Lalan, who were a tall species, and Hafte Sorvalh was tall for her species.

“It’s all right,” Gau said, from his desk, as she ducked through the door. “You can say it.”

“Say what?” Sorvalh asked.

“Every time you crouch through the door of this office, you come in, you straighten up, and you look around,” Gau said. “Every time you get an expression on your face that looks like you have bitten into something slightly unpleasant. So go ahead and say it: My office is cramped.”

“I would say it is cozy,” Sorvalh said.

Gau laughed in his fashion. “Of course you would,” he said.

“It’s been commented on by others how small this office is, considering your position,” Sorvalh said.

“I have the large public office for meetings, and to impress people when I have to, of course,” Gau said. “I’m not blind to the power of impressive spaces. But I’ve spent most of my life on starships, even after I began to build the Conclave. You get used to not a lot of space. I’m more comfortable here. And no one can say that I give more to myself than to the representatives of any of our member races. And that, too, has its advantages.”

“I see your point,” Sorvalh said.

“Good,” Gau said, and then motioned to the chair that he clearly had brought in for her, because it matched her physiology. “Please, sit.”

Sorvalh sat and waited. Gau attempted to wait her out, but waiting out a Lalan is a bad bet on a good day. “All right, say the
thing you’re thinking,” Gau said.

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