Read The Back Channel Online

Authors: John Scalzi

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General

The Back Channel (3 page)

“You could, I am certain,” Sorvalh said. “But that’s not the issue at the moment.”

“Does the Conclave blame the Colonial Union for the existence of these wildcat colonies?” Rigney asked.

“We question that they are wildcat colonies at all, Colonel,” Sorvalh said. “As wildcat colonies typically do not have Colonial Defense Forces soldiers in their mix of colonists.”

Rigney had nothing to say to this. Sorvalh waited a few moments to see if this would change, and then continued. “Colonel Rigney, surely you understand that if we had wanted to vaporize these colonies, we would have done it by now,” she said.

“Actually, I don’t understand,” Rigney said. “Just as I don’t understand what the gist of this conversation is.”

“The gist, as you say, is that I have a personal message and a bargain for the Colonial Union from General Gau,” Sorvalh said. “That is to say, it comes from General Gau in the capacity of his own person, and not General Gau, leader of the Conclave, a federation of four hundred races whose combined might could crush you like a troublesome pest.”

Colonel Rigney’s face showed a flicker of annoyance at this assessment of the Colonial Union, but he quickly let it go. “I’m ready to hear the message,” he said.

“The message is simply that he knows that your ‘wildcat’ colonies are no such thing and that under different circumstances you would have received notice of this knowledge by having the fleet show up at their doorstep, followed by other reprisals designed to strongly dissuade you from further colonization attempts,” Sorvalh said.

“With respect, Councillor,” Rigney said, “the last time your fleet showed up at our doorstep, it didn’t end well for your fleet.”

“That was the second-to-last time,” Sorvalh said. “The last time a fleet of ours showed up at your doorstep, you lost the Earth. Beyond that, I think you and I both know that you will not get a chance to repeat your exploits at Roanoke.”

“So the general wishes to remind us that normally he’d vaporize these colonies,” Rigney said.

“He wishes to remind you of it to make the point that at this time he has no interest in doing that,” Sorvalh said.

“And why not?” Rigney asked.

“Because,” Sorvalh said.

“Really?” Rigney said, stopping his walk. “‘Because’ is the reason?”

“The reason is not important,” Sorvalh said. “Suffice to say the general doesn’t want to have a fight over these colonies at the moment, and it’s a good guess that you don’t, either. But there are those in the Conclave who would be delighted to have a fight over them. That’s something neither you nor the general wants, although almost certainly for different reasons. And while right now the only two people in the Conclave political caste who know of the existence of that list are the general and me, I have no doubt that you know enough about politics to know that secrets don’t stay secret long. We have very little time before the content of that list makes its way into the hands of those in the Conclave who would be thrilled to take a torch to your colonies, and to the Colonial Union.” Sorvalh started walking again.

After a moment, Rigney followed. “You say we have very little time,” he said. “Define ‘very little.’”

“You have until the next time General Gau is required to take questions from the Grand Assembly,” Sorvalh said. “By that time, the warmongers of the assembly will almost certainly know of the existence of at least some of the colonies, and that CDF soldiers are at them. They will demand the Conclave take action, and the general will have no choice but to do so. That will happen in thirty of our standard days. That would be about thirty-six days on your Colonial Union calendar.”

“So much for the message,” Rigney said. “What’s the bargain?”

“Also simple,” Sorvalh said. “Make the colonies disappear and the Conclave won’t attack.”

“This is easier said than done,” Rigney said.

“This is not our concern,” Sorvalh said.

“Supposing that there were Colonial Defense Forces soldiers at these colonies,” Rigney said, “wouldn’t simply removing them be sufficient?”

Sorvalh looked at Rigney as if he were a slow child. Rigney understood enough of the look to put up his hands. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t think it through enough before it came out of my mouth.”

“These colonies aren’t supposed to exist,” Sorvalh said. “We might have been willing to overlook them if they had genuinely been wildcat colonies, at least until they got too large to ignore. But these are known to have CDF soldiers in them. They will never not be targets for the Conclave. They have to be gone before we have to officially take notice of them. You know what the consequences are otherwise, for both of our governments.”

Rigney was silent again for a moment. “No bullshit, Councillor?”

Sorvalh didn’t know the word “bullshit” but guessed at the context. “No bullshit, Colonel,” she said.

“Nine out of ten of those colonies won’t be difficult to evacuate,” Rigney said. “Their colonists are standard-issue disgruntled Colonial Union citizens, who have vague ideas about freedom from the tyranny of their fellow man or what have you, or simply don’t like other people enough to want to have the company of more than about two hundred other of their own kind. Six of these colonies are near starvation anyway and would probably be happy to escape. I would, in their shoes.”

“But then there is this other colony,” Sorvalh said.

“Yes, then there is this other colony,” Rigney said. “Do your people have racists? People who believe they are inherently superior to all other types of intelligent people?”

“We have some,” Sorvalh said. “They’re generally agreed to be idiots.”

“Right,” Rigney said. “Well, this other colony is made up almost totally of racists. Not only against other intelligent races—I shudder to think what they would think of
you
—but also against other humans who don’t share their same phenotype.”

“They sound lovely,” Sorvalh said.

“They’re assholes,” Rigney said. “However, they are also well-armed, well-organized, well-funded assholes, and this particular colony is thriving. They left because they didn’t like being part of a mongrel Colonial Union, and they hate us enough that they would probably get off on the idea that by going down in flames, they would consign us to hell as well. Extracting them would be messy.”

“Is this actually a problem for the CDF?” Sorvalh asked. “I don’t wish to be unpleasantly blunt about this, but the CDF is not known for being an institution that cares deeply about those whom they crush.”

“We’re not,” Rigney said. “And when it comes down to it, we’d get them out, because the alternative would be grim. But in addition to being well armed, well organized and well funded, they’re well connected. Their leader is the son of someone high up in the CU government. They’re estranged—she’s mortified that her son turned out to be a racist shithead—but he’s still her son.”

“Understood,” Sorvalh said.

“As I said, messy,” Rigney said.

They had arrived at the churro stand. The churro vendor looked up at Sorvalh, amazed. Rigney ordered for them, and the two of them continued walking after they had received their pastries.

“These are lovely!” Sorvalh exclaimed, after the first bite.

“Glad you think so,” Rigney said.

“Colonel Rigney, you’re worried that the only way to get these racist, intractable,
asshole
colonists is through bloodshed,” Sorvalh said, after she took another bite.

“Yes,” Rigney said. “We’ll do it to avoid a war, but we’d like a different option.”

“Well,” Sorvalh said, around her churro, “inasmuch as I am asking you to do this, it would be wrong of me not to offer a possible solution to you.”

“I’m listening,” Rigney said.

“Understand that what I am going to suggest will be one of those things that never happened,” Sorvalh said.

“Since this conversation isn’t happening either, this is fine,” Rigney said.

“I will also have to ask you to do one other thing for me first,” Sorvalh said.

“And what is that?” Rigney asked.

“Buy me another churro,” Sorvalh said.

“Take another step, xig, and I’ll blow your head off,” said the colonist directly in front of Sorvalh. He was pointing a shotgun at her chest.

Sorvalh stopped walking and stood calmly at the frontier of the colony of Deliverance. She had been walking toward it for several minutes, having had her shuttle land at the far reach of a broad meadow on which the colony had situated itself. Her gown swished as she moved, and the necklace she wore featured audio and visual devices feeding back to her ship. She had walked slowly, in order to give the colony enough time to muster a welcoming party, and for another purpose as well. Five heavily armed men stood in front of her now, weapons raised. Two more that she could see lay on colony roofs, zeroed into her position with long-range rifles. Sorvalh assumed there were more she couldn’t see, but they didn’t concern her at the moment. She would be aware of them soon enough.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said. She gestured to the markings on their skin. “Those are lovely. Very angular.”

“Shut up, xig,” said the colonist. “Shut up and turn around and get back in that shuttle of yours and fly off like a good bug.”

“My name is Hafte Sorvalh,” she said, pleasantly. “It’s not ‘Xig.’”

“A xig is what you are,” said the colonist. “And I don’t give a shit what you call yourself. You’re leaving.”

“Well,” Sorvalh said, impressed. “Aren’t you
fierce
.”

“Fuck you, xig,” the colonist said.

“A bit repetitive, however,” Sorvalh said.

The colonist raised the shotgun so that it was now pointing at her head. “You’ll be going now,” he said.

“I won’t, actually,” Sorvalh said. “And if you or any other member of your merry band tries to shoot me, you’ll be dead before you can manage to pull the trigger. You see, my friend, while I was walking toward your compound, my starship orbiting above this location was busy tracking and marking the heat signatures of every living thing in your colony larger than ten of your kilos. You’re now all entered into the ship’s weapons database, and about a dozen particle weapons are actively tracking twenty or thirty targets each. If any one of you tries to kill me, you will die, horribly, and then everyone else in the colony will follow you as each individual beam cycles through its target list. Every one of you—and your livestock, and your large pets—will be dead in roughly one of your seconds. I will be a mess, because much of what is inside of your head right now will likely get onto me, but I will be alive. And I have a fresh change of clothes in my shuttle.”

The colonist and his friends stared at Sorvalh blankly.

“Well, let’s get on with it,” Sorvalh said. “Either try to kill me or let me do what I came here to do. It’s a lovely morning and I would hate to waste it.”

“What do you want?” said another colonist.

“I want to talk to your leader,” Sorvalh said. “I believe his name is Jaco Smyrt.”

“He won’t talk to you,” said the first colonist.

“Why ever not?” Sorvalh asked.

“Because you’re a
xig,
” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“That’s really unfortunate,” Sorvalh said. “Because, you see, if I am not talking to Mr. Smyrt in ten of your minutes, then those particle beams I mentioned to you will cycle through their targets, and you’ll all be dead, again. But I suppose if Mr. Smyrt would rather you all be dead, it’s all the same to me. You might want to spend those moments with your families, gentlemen.”

“I don’t believe you,” said a third colonist.

“Fair enough,” Sorvalh said, and pointed to a small enclosure. “What do you call those animals?”

“Those are goats,” said the third colonist.

“And they are adorable,” said Sorvalh. “How many can you spare?”

“We can’t spare any,” said the second colonist.

Sorvalh sighed in exasperation. “How do you expect me to give you a demonstration if you can’t spare a single goat?” she said.

“One,” said the first colonist.

“You can spare one,” Sorvalh said.

“Yes,” the first colonist said, and one of the animals exploded before he had even finished saying the word. The rest of the goats, alarmed and covered in gore, bolted toward the farthest reaches of the enclosure.

Four minutes twenty-two seconds later, Jaco Smyrt stood in front of Sorvalh.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, to him. “I see you go in for angular markings as well.”

“What do you want, xig?” Smyrt said.

“Again with the ‘xig,’” Sorvalh said. “I don’t know what it means, but I can tell you don’t mean it nicely.”

“What do you
want
?” Smyrt said, through gritted teeth.

“It’s not what I want, it’s what you want,” Sorvalh said. “And what you want is to leave this planet.”

“What did you just say?” Smyrt asked.

“I believe I was perfectly clear,” Sorvalh said. “But allow me to give you additional context. I am a representative of the Conclave. As you may know, we have forbidden further colonization by humans and others. You are, at least to a certain approximation, human. You’re not supposed to be here. So I’ve arranged for you and your entire colony to go. Today.”

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