Timby looked over the reports of the Xiq advance.
The insectoids had appeared a hundred light-years north of Shirex territory a year ago and were advancing steadily, settling on uninhabited rocky planets everyone else considered uninhabitable. They hadn’t been considered a threat until they systematically wiped out mining colonies on some of the nearer worlds. By then it was too late.
The Xiq had taken over those ricky planets, rich in metals as well as lighter elements, those required for life. They were also rich in another substance, Tao, which interacted with the N-Force, a mysterious physical force that drove mathematicians mad in their attempts to comprehend it.
The well-known physical forces—gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces—were described by relatively simple mathematical constructs. Gravity any high schooler could understand. Electromagnetism is comprehensible by college students in the subject. The weak and strong nuclear forces can be grasped by post-graduates, though they bend the minds of most. With each step, mathematicians provided ever more complex concepts which were basic and obvious sorts of things to them, and had the almost magical properties of perfectly describing some physical property. Inverse-square laws, symmetry through translation and rotation, conservation, relativity—each of these were simple properties that when applied to the real world extracted understanding.
Then came the next set of concepts: N-Force, hyperspace. Mind-bending ideas with astonishing implications for physics, engineering, and space travel—if people would wrap their minds around the subject without losing their sanity. Mathematicians and physicists who attempted it and failed were locked up in insane asylums. Those who attempted it and succeeded, and tried to communicate their discoveries to others were also locked up in insane asylums.
Eventually each race found individuals capable of comprehending N-Force, and set them free. They sent geologists looking for a peculiar substance, Tao. On some planets they were lucky: they developed superluminal travel and went to the stars.
Through some fate of chance, or stellar physics, Tao was not evenly distributed through the galaxy. Out beyond Shirex space, planets were rich in Tao, but these were barren, lifeless worlds. Rocky and hostile, too far from weak suns to support life or industry. Tao was precious, the core of starships.
And now the Xiq owned the sources of Tao for the races of the Zulu Sector.
The Xiq were like wasps: striped, winged, and mean.
Taller than most bipeds, their antennae often brushed against bulkheads and hatches. They stood on two hind legs and had four arms with which to manipulate things, usually weapons. On their heads they carried two large iridescent segmented eyes, which seemed to change color with emotion. They often expressed red, which meant what most people thought it did. Their mouth parts were ghastly. Few people wanted to go to dinner with Xiq.
Their bodies were creepily like those of their tiny cousins: fuzzy thoraxes and smooth, yellow-striped abdomens tipped with an angry-looking stinger. Yellow-and-black stripes were commonly used to indicate danger from such things as edges, vehicles, and heavy doors prone to closing rapidly. The Xiq reinforced that innate fear-reaction.
Xiq tended to move about in groups of six, with any number of their three classes: priest, warrior, worker. Priests were the best educated and usually the most intelligent. They always won philosophical discussions, which were usually about the truth of the existence of their gods. If they lost an argument on logical grounds, they typically won it on the point of a warrior’s abdomen.
The Xiq sting was notorious. They assured that it does not kill. They also assured that anyone so punished would surely wish to have been killed instead. Victims of more than one sting generally suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, so word spread quickly to never, ever cross a Xiq.
The Xiq took slaves. Their civilization and cultures were based on a fifty thousand year tradition of keeping slaves. They have refined the techniques to the point that most of their slaves would not trade anything for their freedom. They received all the basic needs for living: air, water, food, clothing, shelter, family or other social grouping, physical training, education, medical care, weekends and holidays off, and eventual retirement. Participation in government and policy-making was not something the Xiq would ever consider leaving to their slaves. They prided themselves in providing all their slaves’ needs, no matter what sort of animal the slave was: housecat, lapdog, hunting dog, food beast, or intelligent worker.
Perhaps of greatest consternation was that they claimed the Rshast as their rightful slaves. Six thousand years ago, according to them, a population of Rshast escaped the Core and settled the Annulus. There they enslaved local inhabitants, various cetacean species, and built their own Rshast Dominion, a corrupt government based on bureaucracy where everything could be done with the proper permit, license, or bribe. Interaction with Rshast was tedious and error-prone, especially in the Dominion, where a misplaced letter on an application form could cost one a fine and the ignominy of having to fill it out again, usually in five copies. Carbon paper cost extra.
The consternation was caused by the Xiq demanding to enslave the entire Rshast population. Irritating as they were to do business with, they did offer profit in trade and their currency was accepted at banks on every planet, and despite their tendency toward corruption, they were sentient beings who deserved the same basic civil rights as any other sentient species.
Their tendency to maximize profit from every interaction led them to some very problematic deals. During the Shedarian-Shydarian war, a long and bloody civil war that eventually led to the foundation of the Commonwealth of Independent Systems, the Rshast profited from both sides. They permitted one of the combatants to lease one of their smaller planets as the base for Black Gazza, a notorious secret prison in which the worst of criminals and political prisoners would be kept. Conditions were brutal and appalling, leading to many escape attempts by prison guards.
Timberwoof Lupindo had been a prisoner there. His crime was to be the victim of a database schema mismatch between the Rshast Dominion and their neighbors the Kratif. Timby was supposed to have been held over for trial, but the prison system took him in as a convicted pirate. Soon upon his arrival he had been shaved and tattooed black prison stripes. The pigment cells in his skin produced a strong black pigment. During the summer, his coat became brown or gray striped with black. During the winter, his coat became black striped with black. About a year later, his classification pending, he had been involved in a fight in which at least one other inmate was killed. Immediately he was classified as violent. He was shaved again and the other color of his stripes tattooed everywhere: bright iridescent blue. If the first tattooing was painful, so was the second. It took weeks to recover from the pain, and he never recovered from the frightened reactions his striped fur evoked from puppies.
Timby had no love for the Rshast. When the Xiq announced heir intentions to enslave them all, he found himself in cognitive dissonance resolved in an uncomfortable direction by his learned prejudice against the Rshast.
When the Xiq advanced toward Spectre Space, there was a generalized panic as waves of refugees arrived and had to be turned away. There was no good place for them to go. Surf could not accommodate them; it just didn’t have the required land surface area. Turf was a rocky, uninhabited planet ideal for a race like the Xiq. The ship of Shirex refugees was a tragedy, for their reputation as merciless religious zealots who cut off the faces of nonhumans had preceded them … and this shipload was not fanatics, but heretics who wished to renounce their beliefs.
Finally the Xiq arrived. Freighters and passenger ships orbited casually, ready to run, knowing full well that getting caught would mean becoming a slave and running would attract lethal attention.
Emissaries from the Xiq Hives met with the Council of Elders. Either security was astonishingly good or the negotiations themselves revealed such threatening consequences that no one dared publicize them. The resulting agreement was that Xiq would inhabit half of Spectre Station and assist in station operations. All Rshast employees were evaluated for honesty and fitness for duty. After a few bureaucrats were publicly and messily removed and dismembered for impeding paperwork, the bureaucracy they had operated became surprisingly efficient. People would go to the DMV to renew drivers licenses they could never use on a space station just because the experience was so pleasant. Just watching the Rshast bureaucrats work to move everyone efficiently, courteously, and pleasantly through the process made for an entertaining way to spend an afternoon off.
The Xiq were fearsome creatures. Even Timby’s acquaintance Paladin Kae-Eskk, who had learned to tolerate the occasional jostling in public places and who grudgingly accept the rule of no stinging for the first blasphemy offense, raised Timby’s hackled when they met.
How Timby became Kae-Eskk’s acquaintance is the matter of other stories involving heroism, commandeered starships, epic battles, nuclear weapons, and a stolen planet. It is rumored that this alone earned Timby’s home planet an exception from the Xiq expansion program. (Nevertheless, Tinby sent frantic and urgent messages home, urging the government to clean up its act, let the Xiq decide they could govern Woofheim better.)
So it was that with trepidation, Timby knocked on the door of Paladin Kae-Eskk, Emissary of Hive Orruz.
“Timber Lupindo, honored guest. Please come in. Would you like some tea?”
“Thank you, Kae, yes, please. But before your workers make preparations, I need to speak with your priest.”
“I should remind you that though you are an honored guest here, it is beyond your station to request the services of my priests.”
“Yes, Kae, and I apologize for my breach of protocol. However, I suspect that if I explained it all to you … and your soldiers … that you would then have me explain it all to the priests anyway.”
“You are lucky that Her Highness has taught us all temperance when it comes to dealing with offworlders. And you have this charming way of directness. Having dealt with politicians of many worlds, I find it refreshing. Priest, please attend.”
The soldiers retreated to their positions in the shadows. The priest appeared. He looked no different than the others of the cohort, aside from a black prayer shawl decorated with inscrutable Xiq pictographs. Timby tried not to squint and imagine what they would look like through segmented eyes.
“What troubles you?”
“There is a hole in my mind.”
Both the Xiq did doubletakes and communicated with one another through hisses and antenna-waves.
“You ave our attention.”
“I discovered something about … Hell. Please only one of you sting me when I say this. I have discovered something about your Gods, something world-shaking.”
The Xiq eyes glowed red and their lower hands went to weapons.
“What have you discovered? As you are an honored friend, I promise to end you swiftly and with a minimum—”
“Kae, I don’t know. The Dynatic have blocked it from my mind.”
“I went to them for advice. The imprisoned me for my knowledge.”
“But you are here now.”
“Yes. Ah. Okay, Please put down your weapons. Boot rescued me. He sent me here.”
“This is either a nefarious trick of that imp or it is an honest plea for help. We will help you. And if this turns out to be a betrayal, I will end you, and it will not be pleasant.”
“Kae, cool it. You need to know this.”
“Why didn’t you come to me before?”
“Your constant threats on my life have something to do with it.”
“I see. There is logic to that. So what do you want us to do?”
“I think I need some Tea, and to share my vision with you.”