Tilting The Balance

Tilting The Balance

For nostalgia’s sake, Fleetlord Atvar called up the hologram of the Tosevite warrior he had often studied before the invasion fleet actually reached the world of Tosev 3. Nostalgia was an emotion that came easily to the Race: with a unified history of a hundred thousand years, with an empire that stretched over three solar systems and now reached out to a fourth, the past seemed a safe, comfortable place, not least because it was so much like the present.

The hologram sprang into being before the fleetlord: a stalwart savage, his pinkish face sprouting yellowish hairs, clad in soft iron mail and woven animal and plant fibers, armed with spear and rust-flecked sword, and mounted on a Tosevite quadruped that looked distinctly too scrawny for the job of carrying him.

Sighing, Atvar turned to the shiplord Kirel, who commanded the 127th Emperor Hetto, bannership of the invasion fleet. He stabbed a fingerclaw at the image. “If only it had been so easy,” he said with a sigh.

“Yes, Exalted Fleetlord.” Kirel sighed, too. He turned both eye turrets toward the hologram. “It was what the probe led us to expect.”

“Yes,” Atvar said sourly. Preparing in its methodical way for another conquest, the Race had sent a probe across the interstellar void sixteen hundred years before (years of the Race, of course; Tosev 3 orbited its primary only about half as fast). The probe dutifully sampled the planet, sent its images and data back Home. The Race prepared the invasion fleet and sent it out, certain of easy victory: how much could a world change in a mere sixteen hundred years?

Atvar touched a control in the base of the holographic projector. The Tosevite warrior disappeared. New images took the Big Ugly’s place: a Russki landcruiser, red star painted on its turret, lightly armed and protected by the Race’s standards but well-designed, with sloped armor and wide treads for getting over the worst ground; an American heavy machine gun, with a belt full of big slugs that tore through body armor as if it were fiberboard; a Deutsch killercraft, turbojets slung under swept wings, nose bristling with cannon.

Kirel pointed toward the killercraft. “That one concerns me more than either of the others, Exalted Fleetlord. By the Emperor” – both he and Atvar briefly cast down their eyes at the mention of the sovereign-”the Deutsche did not have that aircraft less than two years ago, when our campaign began.”

“I know,” Atvar said. “All their aircraft – all Tosevite aircraft then – were those slow, awkward things propelled by rapidly rotating airfoils. But now the British are flying jets, too.”

He summoned an image of the new British killercraft. It didn’t look as menacing as the machine the Deutsche made: its wings lacked sweep and its lines were more graceful, less predatory. From the reports Atvar had read, it didn’t perform quite as well as the Deutsch killercraft, either. But it was a quantum leap better than anything the British had put into the air before.

Fleetlord and shiplord stared glumly at the hologram. The trouble with the natives of Tosev 3 was that they were, by the Race’s standards, insanely inventive. The social scientists attached to the fleet were still trying to figure out how the Big Uglies had gone from barbarism to a full-grown industrial civilization in the blink of an historical eye. Their solutions – or rather, conjectures – had yet to satisfy Atvar.

Part of the answer, he suspected, lay in the squabbling multiplicity of empires that divided up Tosev 3’s meager land surface. Some of them weren’t even empires in the strict sense of the word; the regime of the
SSSR
, for instance, openly boasted of liquidating its former ruling dynasty.

The idea of impericide was enough to make Atvar queasy.

Empires and not-empires had competed fiercely among themselves. They’d been fighting a planetwide war when the Race arrived. Doctrine from earlier conquests said the Race ought to have been able to take advantage of their factionalism, play off one side against another. The tactic had worked now and again, but not as well and not as often as doctrine suggested it would.

Atvar sighed and told Kirel, “Before I came to Tosev 3, I was like any sensible male: I was sure doctrine held all the answers. Follow it and you’d obtain the results it predicted. The males who designed our doctrines should have seen this world first; it would have broadened their horizons.”

“This is truth, Exalted Fleetlord,” the shiplord said. “One thing Tosev 3 has taught us is the difference between precept and experience.”

“Yes. Well put,” Atvar said. The last world conquest the Race had undertaken lay thousands of years in the past. The fleetlord had pored over the manuals of what had worked then, and in the Race’s previous victory, even more thousands of years before that. But no one having had any practice using what was in the manuals.

The Tosevites, by contrast, conquered one another and dickered with one another all the time. They made deception and deceit into an art, and were perfectly willing to educate the Race as to their use. Atvar had learned the hard way how much – or rather, how little – Big Ugly promises were worth.

“The other trouble is, they make war the same way they conduct the rest of their dealings with us: they cheat,” Atvar grumbled.

“Truth again, Exalted Fleetlord,” Kirel said. The fleetlord knew it was truth. Machine against machine, the Big Uglies could not match the Race: one landcruiser Atvar commanded, for instance, was worth anywhere between ten and thirty of its Tosevite opponents. The Big Uglies fought back with everything from mine-carrying animals trained to run under landcruiser tracks to set off their explosives to attacks that concentrated so many of their inferior weapons against the Race’s thin-stretched resources that they achieved breakthrough in spite of lower technology.

Kirel might have plucked that thought from Atvar’s head. “Will we resume our assault on the city by the lake in the northern section of the smaller continental mass? Chicago, the local name is.”

“Not immediately,” Atvar answered, trying to keep from his voice all the frustration he felt at the failure. Taking advantage of Tosev 3’s truly abominable winter weather, the Americans had broken through the flanks of the assault force, cut off the lead element, and wrecked most of it. It was the worst – and most expensive – embarrassment the Race had suffered on Tosev 3.

“We do not enjoy as many resources as we would like,” Kirel observed.

Now Atvar had to say, “Truth” The Race was careful and thorough: the weapons they’d brought from Home would have conquered a hundred times over the Tosev 3 they thought they would find, very possibly without losing a male. But on the industrialized planet they discovered, they’d taken major losses. They’d inflicted far worse, but the Big Uglies’ factories kept turning out weapons.

“We need to keep working to co-opt as much of their industrial capacity as we can,” Kirel said, “and to wreck that part which persists in producing arms used against us.”

“Unfortunately, the two goals often contradict each other,” Atvar said. “Nor is our progress in destroying their fuel sources as great as they would wish us to believe, though we persist in those efforts.”

The three males who had bombed the refineries at Ploesti, which supplied the Deutsche with much of their fuel, were convinced they’d wrecked the place. Since then, a pall of smoke had continuously lain over it, making reconnaissance difficult.

For as long as he could – for longer than he should have – Atvar believed with his, pilots that that smoke meant the Deutsche could not control the refinery fires. But it wasn’t so; he couldn’t make himself think it was any more. The Big Uglies were shipping refined petroleum out of Ploesti every way they knew how: by water, by their battered rail network, by motorized conveyance, even by animal-drawn wagon.

The story wasn’t much different at the other refinery complexes scattered across Tosev 3. They were easy to damage, hard to eliminate; since they were huge fire hazards just by existing,

the Big Uglies had built them to minimize danger from explosions. They ferociously defended them and repaired bomb damage faster than the Race’s alleged experts had thought possible.

Atvar’s phone squawked at him. He welcomed the distraction from his own gloomy thoughts. “Yes?” he said into the speaker.

Exalted Fleetlord, the male Drefsab awaits your pleasure in the antechamber,” an aide reported.

“I am still conferring with the shiplord Kirel,” Atvar said. “Tell Drefsab I shall see him directly when I’m finished.”

“It shall be done, Exalted Fleetlord.” The aide switched off.

Being reminded of Drefsab did nothing to improve Atvar’s mood. “There’s something else that hasn’t worked as well as I’d hoped,” he complained.

“What’s that, Exalted Fleetlord?” Kirel asked.

“The whole problem with that vile Tosevite herb, ginger,” Atvar said. “Drefsab recently tracked down and eliminated the Big Ugly who was a major supplier of the horrid drug, and I had hoped that would help us control our addicted males’ demand for it. Unfortunately, a thicket of smaller dealers has sprung up to take the exterminated major supplier’s place.”

“Frustrating,” Kirel observed, “to say nothing of dangerous to our cause.”

Atvar swung one eye turret toward Kirel in a sidelong glance of suspicion. The commander of the bannership was the second highest ranking male in the fleet, his body paint less elaborate only than Atvar’s own. If Atvar’s policies led to disaster, he was the next logical choice as fleetlord. He was stable and conservative and had always acted loyal, but who could say when the fangs of ambition would begin to grow? Any remark that sounded like criticism made Atvar wary.

Not that ginger wasn’t a problem. One more thing we didn’t learn from the probe, Atvar thought. The cursed herb made males feel they were brighter and stronger than they really were; it also made them want to recapture that feeling as often as they could. They’d do almost anything to get ginger, even trade weapons and information to the Big Uglies.

“With the problem ginger poses to our security, it occurs to me that we may have been lucky the Big Uglies succeeded in blowing up the ship which carried the bulk of our nuclear weapons,” the fleetlord said. “Otherwise, some male seeking pleasure for his tongue might have sought to convey one to the Tosevites in exchange for his precious herb.”

“There’s a pleasant thought!” Kirel exclaimed. “The Tosevites are barbarians without care for tomorrow – they would not hesitate to ruin their own planet if it meant defeating us.”

“Truth,” Atvar said glumly. After initial in-atmosphere bursts to wreck Tosevite communications with electromagnetic pulse (unsuccessfully, because the Big Uglies’ electronic devices were too primitive to use solid-state components), the Race had expended only two nuclear devices: against Berlin and Washington, centers of local resistance. But resistance had continued anyhow.

“Ironic that we have a greater obligation to maintain this world as nearly intact as possible than does the species that evolved on it,” Kirel said. “Of course, the Tosevites are not aware our colonization fleet is on the way behind us.”

“Indeed,” Atvar said. “If it arrives and finds Tosev 3 uninhabitable, we will have failed here, no matter what else we accomplish.”

“We also have to bear in mind that the Big Uglies are engaging in nuclear weapons research of their own, certainly with the material their guerrillas captured from us in the
SSSR
and, the evidence would suggest, with projects altogether their own as well,” Kirel said. “Should one of those projects succeed, our problems here will become measurably more difficult.”

“Immeasurably, you mean,” Atvar said. The Big Uglies would not worry about what they did to Tosev 3, as long as that meant getting rid of the Race. “Deutschland, the
SSSR
, the United States, maybe those little island empires, too – Nippon and Britain – we have to keep both eye turrets on every one of them. The trouble is, a planet is a very large place. Their projects will not be easy to track down. But it must be done.” He spoke as much to remind himself as to tell Kirel.

“It shall be done,” the shiplord echoed loyally. It had better be done, they thought together.

The horse-drawn wagon pulled to a stop in New Salem, North Dakota. Sam Yeager looked around. As a seventeen-year veteran of bush-league baseball and its endless travel, he was a connoisseur of small towns. New Salem might have had a thousand people in it; then again, it might not.

He scrambled out of the wagon. Barbara Larssen handed him his Springfield. He took the rifle, slung it over his shoulder, then held out a hand to help Barbara down. They clung to each other for a moment. He kissed the top of her head. The ends of her dark blond hair still showed traces of permanent wave. Most of it was straight, though; a long time had gone by since she’d got a permanent.

He didn’t want to let her go, but he had to. He grabbed the rifle again, pointed it at the wagon. Military routine, he thought, and then, military fiddlesticks. But since he wore a corporal’s stripes these days, he played the game by the rules. “Come on out, boys,” he called.

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