Read The Back Channel Online

Authors: John Scalzi

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General

The Back Channel (2 page)

“Unli Hado,” Sorvalh said.

“One of the graspingly ambitious types that you warned me about,” Gau said.

“He’s not going to go away,” Sorvalh said. “Nor is he entirely without allies.”

“Very few,” Gau said.

“But growing,” Sorvalh said. “You have me with you for these sessions to count heads. I count heads. There are more of them each session who are either in his orbit or drifting toward him. You won’t have to worry about him this time, or the next, or possibly for several sessions down the line. But if this goes on, in time you will have a faction on your hands, and that faction will be agitating for the eradication of the humans. All of them.”

“One of the reasons we formed the Conclave was to rid ourselves of the idea that an entire people could or should be eradicated,” Gau said.

“I am aware of that,” Sorvalh said. “It was one of the reasons why my people gave you and the Conclave their allegiance. I am also aware that ideals are hard to practice, especially when they are new. And I am also aware that there’s not a species in the Conclave who doesn’t find the humans…well…
is likely the most polite word for it.”

“They are that,” Gau said.

“Do you really believe that they would be that hard to kill?” Sorvalh asked.

Gau presented an unusual face to Sorvalh. “An unusual and surprising question, coming from you of all people,” he said.

“I don’t wish them dead, personally,” Sorvalh said. “At least, not actively. Nor would the Lalan government support a policy of extinction. But you suggested to Hado they would be a formidable opponent. I am curious if you believe it.”

“Are the humans able to stand against us ship to ship, soldier to soldier? No, of course not,” Gau said. “Even our defeat at Roanoke, with over four hundred ships destroyed, was not a material blow to our strength. It was one ship out of dozens or hundreds that each of our members had in their own fleets.”

“So you don’t believe it,” Sorvalh said.

“That’s not what I said,” Gau said. “I said they can’t stand against us ship to ship. But if the humans go to war with us, it won’t be ship to ship. How many human ships went against us at Roanoke? None. And yet we were defeated—and the blow was immense. The Conclave almost fell, Hafte, not because our material strength had been compromised, but because our psychological strength had. Those ships were not what the humans were aiming for. Our unity was. The humans almost shattered us.”

“And you believe they could do it again,” Sorvalh said.

“If we pressed them? Why wouldn’t they?” Gau said. “Throwing the Conclave nations back into war with each other is an optimum result for the humans. It would keep all of us occupied while they rebuild their strength and position. The real question is not whether the humans—the Colonial Union—could attack and possibly destroy the Conclave, if pressed. The real question is why they haven’t tried to do it since Roanoke.”

“As you say, they have been busy trying to bring the Earth back into the fold,” Sorvalh said.

“Let us hope it takes them a long time,” Gau said.

“Or perhaps they have started making war on the Conclave,” Sorvalh suggested.

“You’re talking about the missing ships,” Gau said.

“I am,” Sorvalh said. “As tiresome as Representative Hado may be, the disappearance of so many ships near human space is not to be dismissed out of hand.”

“I don’t dismiss it,” Gau said. “The representative-major for the fleet has our investigators scouring the scenes and the nearby populated worlds for information. We have nothing so far.”

“Ships rarely disappear so comprehensively,” Sorvalh said. “If there’s no trace, that in itself says something.”

“What it doesn’t say is who is responsible, however,” Gau said, and then raised a hand as Sorvalh moved to comment. “It’s not to say we don’t have our intelligence net within the Colonial Union working overtime trying to find connections between the humans and the disappearances. We do. However, if we find it, we will deal with it discreetly, and without the sort of open warfare that Hado and his friends in the assembly so want us to have.”

“Your desire for subtlety will frustrate them,” Sorvalh said.

“I am fine with them being frustrated,” Gau said. “It’s a small price to pay for keeping the Conclave intact. However, it is not the discussion of the disappearing ships that is the reason I asked you here, Hafte.”

“I am at your service, General,” Sorvalh said.

Gau picked up a manuscript sheet on his desk and handed it to her.

She gave him a curious look as she took it. “A hard copy,” she said. Her assignments from him were usually offered on her computer.

“It’s not a copy,” Gau said. “That sheet you have is the only place in the entire Conclave where that information is recorded.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“It’s a list of new human colonies,” Gau said.

Sorvalh looked at Gau, genuinely shocked. The Conclave had forbidden any unaffiliated races from colonizing new planets. If they tried, the new colonies would be displaced, or destroyed if the colonists would not leave. “They can’t truly be that stupid,” she said.

“They are not,” Gau said. “Or at least, officially, the Colonial Union is not.” He pointed at the sheet. “These are what the humans call ‘wildcat colonies.’ It means that they are not sanctioned or supported by the Colonial Union. Most of these sorts of colonies are dead in a year.”

“So nothing we could call out the Colonial Union for,” Sorvalh said.

“No,” Gau said. “Except for this: We have rumors that the Bula found humans attempting a wildcat colony on one of their worlds, and that at least a few of the colonists were Colonial Defense Forces members. The Colonial Union attempted to extract the colony and were discovered doing so by the Bula. It had to part with a substantial ransom to retrieve its citizens and buy the Bula’s silence.”

“These wildcat colonies aren’t actually unofficial at all, then,” Sorvalh said. “And we’re back to the question of whether they are truly that stupid.”

“It’s a fine question, but one that is tangential to my real concern,” Gau said.

Sorvalh waggled the sheet in her hand. “You’re worried that Hado and his friends will find out about these.”

“Precisely,” Gau said, and pointed at the sheet again. “That’s the only written-out list, and it’s written out only once to avoid it slipping out easily into the universe. But I am not stupid, nor do I believe my intelligence gatherers talk only to me. Hado and his compatriots will find out. And if they find out and if these colonies really do have Colonial Defense Forces members within them, then we have no choice but to remove the colony. If the colony won’t be moved, we’ll have to destroy it.”

“And if we destroy it, we’ll be at war with the Colonial Union,” Sorvalh said.

“Or something close enough to it,” Gau said. “The humans know they are in a bad position, Hafte. They are dangerous animals on the best of days. Poking at them right now is going to go poorly for everyone involved. I want this problem solved privately before it becomes a public problem.”

Sorvalh smiled. “I imagine this is where I come in.”

“I’ve opened up a back channel to the Colonial Union,” Gau said.

“And how did you do that?” Sorvalh asked.

“Me to our envoy in Washington, D.C.,” Gau said. “Him to John Perry. John Perry to a friend of his in the CDF Special Forces. And so on up the chain of command, and back down again.”

Sorvalh gave a motion of assent. “And my job is to meet with the back channel.”

“Yes,” Gau said. “In this case it will be someone of lower rank than you—apologies for that, the humans are twitchy.” Sorvalh offered up a hand expression signaling acceptance and lack of concern. “It’s a Colonel Abel Rigney. He’s not of especially high rank, but he is very well placed to get things done.”

“You want me to show him this list and let him know we know about the CDF soldiers,” Sorvalh said.

“What I want you to do is scare him,” Gau said. “In your own special way.”

“Why, General,” Sorvalh said, and gave the appearance once more of being shocked. “I have no idea what you mean.”

General Gau smiled at this.

“Well, he was certainly a tall fellow, wasn’t he?” Sorvalh said, looking up at the statue in the Lincoln Memorial.

“Tall for a human, yes,” Colonel Rigney said. “And especially tall for his time. Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States well before humans made it out into the universe. Not everyone had good nutrition then. People tended to be shorter. So he would have stood out. Among your people, Councillor Sorvalh, he’d be considered something of a runt.”

“Ah,” Sorvalh said. “Well, we are generally considered tall for most intelligent races we know of. But surely there might be some humans as tall as a Lalan.”

“We have basketball players,” Rigney said. “They are very tall for humans. The tallest of them might be as tall as the shortest of you.”

“Interesting,” Sorvalh said, and kept looking at Lincoln.

“Is there someplace you would like to go to talk, Councillor?” Rigney asked, after allowing Sorvalh her moment of contemplation.

Sorvalh turned to the human and smiled at him. “I do apologize, Colonel. I realize you are indulging me by meeting me here at a tourist attraction.”

“Not at all,” Rigney said. “In fact, I’m glad you did. Before I left Earth I lived in this area. You’re giving me an excuse to visit old haunts.”

“How wonderful,” Sorvalh said. “Have you seen any of your family and friends while you’re here?”

Rigney shook his head. “My wife passed on before I left Earth, and we never had children,” he said. “My friends would all be in their eighties or nineties now, which is old for humans, so they’re mostly dead, and I don’t think the ones that are living would be too pleased to see me bounding in, looking like I was twenty-three years old.”

“I can see how that might be a problem,” Sorvalh said.

Rigney pointed at Lincoln. “He looks the same as when I left.”

“I would hope so!” Sorvalh said. “Colonel, would you mind walking as we talk? I walked down the Mall before I got here and I passed someone selling something called ‘churros.’ I should like to experiment with human cuisine, I think.”

“Oh, churros,” Rigney said. “Good choice. By all means, Councillor.”

They walked down the stairs of the Lincoln Monument and toward the Mall, Sorvalh walking slowly so as to keep Rigney from having to jog to keep up. Sorvalh noticed other humans looking curiously at her; aliens on Earth were still a rarity, but not so rare now in Washington, D.C., that the people there would not attempt nonchalance. They stared equally at the green human next to her, she noted.

“Thank you for meeting me,” Sorvalh said to Rigney.

“I was delighted to,” Rigney said. “You gave me an excuse to visit Earth again. That’s a rare thing for a CDF member.”

“It’s convenient how the Earth has become a neutral ground to both of our governments,” Sorvalh said.

Rigney winced at this. “Yes, well,” he said. “Officially I am not allowed to be pleased by that particular development.”

“I understand entirely,” Sorvalh said. “Now then, Colonel. To business.” She reached into the folds of her gown and produced the manuscript and handed it to Rigney.

He took it and looked at it curiously. “I’m afraid I can’t read this,” he said, after a moment.

“Come now, Colonel,” Sorvalh said. “I know perfectly well that you have one of those computers in your head, just like every other Colonial Defense Forces member. What is the ridiculous name you call them?”

“A BrainPal,” Rigney said.

“Yes, that,” Sorvalh said. “So I am confident that not only have you already recorded the entire content of that paper into the computer, it has also rendered you a translation.”

“All right,” Rigney said.

“We aren’t going to get anywhere, Colonel, if you are going to insist on fighting me on even the simplest of things,” Sorvalh said. “We would not have opened up this back channel if it were not absolutely necessary. Please do me the courtesy of presuming I am not on my first mission of diplomacy.”

“My apologies, Councillor,” Rigney said, and handed back the document. “I’m in the habit of not revealing everything. Let’s just say my automatic reflexes kicked in.”

“Very well,” Sorvalh said, took the manuscript and then placed it back into the folds of her gown. “Now that you’ve undoubtedly had time to scan the translation, you can tell me what was written on the document.”

“It was a list of uninhabited planets,” Rigney said.

“I question that modifier, Colonel,” Sorvalh said.

“Officially speaking, I have no idea what you are talking about,” Rigney said. “Unofficially, I would be very interested in knowing how you developed that list.”

“I am afraid I must keep that a secret,” Sorvalh said. “And not just because I was never told. But I assume now we can dispense with the polite fiction that there are not, in fact, ten human colonies where they should not be.”

“Those aren’t sanctioned colonies,” Rigney said. “They’re wildcats. We can’t stop people from paying spaceship captains to take them to a planet and drop them there without our permission.”

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