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THE ROAD NOT TAKEN - Harry Turtledove

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Feb 26th, 2011
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  1. THE ROAD NOT TAKEN - Harry Turtledove
  2. =====================================
  6. Captain Togram was using the chamberpot when the Indomitable broke out of hyperdrive. As happened all too often, nausea surged through the Roxolan officer. He raised the pot and was abruptly sick into it.
  8. When the spasm was done, he set the thundermug down and wiped his streaming eyes with the soft, gray-brown fur of his forearm. "The gods curse it!" he burst out. "Why don't the shipmasters warn us when they do that?" Several of his troopers echoed him more pungently.
  10. At that moment, a runner appeared in the doorway. "We're back in normal space," the youth squeaked, before dashing on to the next chamber. Jeers and oaths followed him: "No shit!" "Thanks for the news!" "Tell the steerers -- they might not have got the word!"
  12. Togram sighed and scratched his muzzle in annoyance at his own irritability. As an officer, he was supposed to set an example for his soldiers. He was junior enough to take such responsibilities seriously, but had had enough service to realize he should never expect too much from anyone more than a couple of notches above him. High ranks went to those with ancient blood or fresh money.
  14. Sighing again, he stowed the chamberpot in its niche. The metal cover he slid over it did little to relieve the stench. After sixteen days in space, the Indomitable reeked of ordure, stale food, and staler bodies. It was no better in any other ship of the Roxolan fleet, or any other. Travel between the stars was simply like that. Stinks and darkness were part of the price the soldiers paid to make the kingdom grow.
  16. Togram picked up a lantern and shook it to rouse the glowmites inside. They flashed silver in alarm. Some races, the captain knew, lit their ships with torches or candles, but glowmites used less air, even if they could only shine intermittently.
  18. Ever the careful soldier, Togram checked his weapons while the light lasted. He always kept all four of his pistols loaded and ready to use; when landing operations began, one pair would go on his belt, the other in his boottops. He was more worried about his sword. The perpetually moist air aboard ship was not good for the blade. Sure enough, he found a spot of rust to scour away.
  20. As he polished the rapier, he wondered what the new system would be like. He prayed for it to have a habitable planet. The air in the Indomitable might be too foul to breathe by the time the ship could get back to the nearest Roxolan-held planet. That was one of the risks starfarers took. It was not a major one -- small yellow suns usually shepherded a life-bearing world or two -- but it was there.
  22. He wished he hadn't let himself think about it; like an aching fang, the worry, once there, would not go away. He got up from his pile of bedding to see how the steerers were doing.
  24. As usual with them, both Ransisc and his apprentice Olgren were complaining about the poor quality of the glass through which they trained their spyglasses. "You ought to stop whining," Togram said, squinting in from the doorway. "At least you have light to see by." After seeing so long by glowmite lantern, he had to wait for his eyes to adjust to the harsh raw sunlight flooding the observation chamber before he could go in.
  26. Olgren's ears went back in annoyance. Ransisc was older and calmer. He set his hand on his apprentice's arm. "If you rise to all of Togram's jibes, you'll have time for nothing else -- he's been a troublemaker since he came out of the egg. Isn't that right, Togram?"
  28. "Whatever you say." Togram liked the white-muzzled senior steerer. Unlike most of his breed, Ransisc did not act as though he believed his important job made him something special in the gods' scheme of things.
  30. Olgren stiffened suddenly; the tip of his stumpy tail twitched. "This one's a world!" he exclaimed.
  32. "Let's see," Ransisc said. Olgren moved away from his spyglass. The two steerers had been examining bright stars one by one, looking for those that would show discs and prove themselves actually to be planets.
  34. "It's a world," Ransisc said at length, "but not one for us -- those yellow, banded planets always have poisonous air, and too much of it." Seeing Olgren's dejection, he added, "It's not a total loss -- if we look along a line from that planet to its sun, we should find others fairly soon."
  36. "Try that one," Togram said, pointing toward a ruddy star that looked brighter than most of the others he could see.
  38. Olgren muttered something haughty about knowing his business better than any amateur, but Ransisc said sharply, "The captain has seen more worlds from space than you, sirrah. Suppose you do as he asks." Ears drooping dejectedly, Olgren obeyed.
  40. Then his pique vanished. "A planet with green patches!" he shouted.
  42. Ransisc had been aiming his spyglass at a different part of the sky, but that brought him hurrying over. He shoved his apprentice aside, fiddled with the spyglass' focus, peered long at the magnified image. Olgren was hopping from one foot to the other, his muddy brown fur puffed out with impatience to hear the verdict.
  44. "Maybe," said the senior steerer, and Olgren's face lit, but it fell again as Ransisc continued, "I don't see anything that looks like open water. If we find nothing better, I say we try it, but let's search a while longer."
  46. "You've just made a luof very happy," Togram said. Ransisc chuckled. The Roxolani brought the little creatures along to test new planets' air. If a luof could breathe it in the airlock of a flyer, it would also be safe for the animal's masters.
  48. The steerers growled in irritation as several stars in a row stubbornly stayed mere points of light. Then Ransisc stiffened at his spyglass. "Here it is," he said softly. "This is what we want. Come here, Olgren."
  50. "Oh, my, yes," the apprentice said a moment later.
  52. "Go report it to Warmaster Slevon, and ask him if his devices have picked up any hyperdrive vibrations except for the fleet's." As Olgren hurried away, Ransisc beckoned Togram over. "See for yourself."
  54. The captain of foot bent over the eyepiece. Against the black of space, the world in the spyglass field looked achingly like Roxolan: deep ocean blue, covered with swirls of white cloud. A good-sized moon hung nearby. Both were in approximately half-phase, being nearer their star than was the Indomitable.
  56. "Did you spy any land?" Togram asked.
  58. "Look near the top of the image, below the icecap," Ransisc said. "Those browns and greens aren't colors water usually takes. If we want any world in this system, you're looking at it now."
  60. They took turns examining the distant planet and trying to sketch its features until Olgren came back. "Well?" Togram said, though he saw the apprenice's ears were high and cheerful.
  62. "Not a hyperdrive emanation but ours in the whole system!" Olgren grinned. Ransisc and Togram both pounded him on the back, as if he were the cause of the good news and not just its bearer.
  64. The captain's smile was even wider than Olgren's. This was going to be an easy one, which, as a professional soldier, he thoroughly approved of. If no one hereabouts could build a hyperdrive, either the system had no intelligent life at all or its inhabitants were still primitives, ignorant of gunpowder, fliers, and other aspects of warfare as it was practiced among the stars.
  66. He rubbed his hands. He could hardly wait for landfall.
  69. Buck Herzog was bored. After four months in space, with five and a half more staring him in the face, it was hardly surprising. Earth was a bright star behind the Ares III, with Luna a dimmer companion; Mars glowed ahead.
  71. "It's your exercise period, Buck," Art Snyder called. Of the five-person crew, he was probably the most officious.
  73. "All right, Pancho," Herzog sighed. He pushed himself over to the bicycle and began pumping away, at first languigly, then harder. The work helped keep calcium in his bones in spite of free fall. Besides, it was something to do.
  75. Melissa Ott was listening to the news from home. "Fernando Valenzuela died last night," she said.
  77. "Who?" Snyder was not a baseball fan.
  79. Herzog was, and a California to boot. "I saw him at an old-timers' game once, I remember my dad and my grandfather always talking about him," he said. "How old was he, Mel?"
  81. "Seventy-nine," she answered.
  83. "He always was too heavy," Herzog said sadly.
  85. "Jesus Christ!"
  87. Herzog blinked. No one on the Ares III had sounded that excited since liftoff from the American space station. Melissa was staring at the radar screen. "Freddie!" she yelled.
  89. Frederica Lindstrom, the ship's electronics expert, had just gotten out of the cramped shower space. She dove for the control board, still trailing a stream of water droplets. She did not bother with a towel; modesty aboard the Ares III had long since vanished.
  91. Melissa's shout even made Claude Jonnard stick his head out of the little biology lab where he spent most of his time. "What's wrong?" he called from the hatchway.
  93. "Radar's gone to hell," Melissa told him.
  95. "What do you mean, gone to hell?" Jonnard demanded indignantly. He was one of those annoying people who thought quantitatively all the time, and thought everyone else did, too.
  97. "There are about a hundred, maybe a hundred fifty, objects on the screen that have no right to be there," answered Frederica Lindstrom, who had a milder case of the same disease. "Range appears to be a couple of million kilometers."
  99. "They weren't there a minute ago, either," Melissa said. "I hollered when they showed up."
  101. As Frederica fiddled with the radar and the computer, Herzog stayed on the exercise bike, feeling singularly useless: what good is a geologist millions of kilometers away from rocks? He wouldn't even get his name in the history books -- no one remembers the crew of the third expedition to anywhere.
  103. Frederica finished her checks. "I can't find anything wrong," she said, sounding angry at herself and the equipment both.
  105. "Time to get on the horn to Earth, Freddie," Art Snyder said. "If I'm going to land this beast, I can't have the radar telling me lies."
  107. Melissa was already talking into the microphone. "Houston, this is Ares III. We have a problem--"
  109. Even at lightspeed, there were a good many minutes of waiting. They crawled past, one by one. Everyone jumped when the speaker crackled to life. "Ares III, this is Houston Control. Ladies and gentlemen, I don't quite know how to tell you this, but we see them too."
  111. The communicator kept talking, but no one was listening to her anymore. Herzog felt his scalp tingle as his hair, in primitive reflex, tried to stand on end. Awe filled him. He had never thought he would live to see humanity contact another race. "Call them, Mel," he said urgently.
  113. She hesitated. "I don't know, Buck. Maybe we should let Houston handle this."
  115. "Screw Houston," he said, surprised at his own vehemence. "By the time the bureaucrats down there figure out what to do, we'll be coming down on Mars. We're the people on the spot. Are you going to throw away the most important moment in the history of the species?"
  117. Melissa looked from one of her crewmates to the next. Whatever she saw in their faces must have satisfied her, for she shifted the aim to the antenna and began to speak: "This is the spacecraft Ares III, calling the unknown ships. Welcome from the people of Earth." She turned off the transmitter for a moment. "How many languages do we have?"
  119. The call went out in Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, even Latin. ("Who knows the last time they may have visited?" Frederica said when Snyder gave her an odd look.)
  121. If the wait for a reply from Earth had been long, this one was infinitely worse. The delay stretched far, far past the fifteen-second speed-of-light round trip. "Even if they don't speak any of our languages, shouldn't they say something?" Melissa demanded of the air. It did not answer, nor did the aliens.
  123. Then, one at a time, the strange ships began darting away sunward, toward Earth: "My God, the acceleration!" Snyder said. "Those are no rockets!" He looked suddenly sheepish. "I don't suppose starships would have rockets, would they?"
  125. The Ares III lay alone again in its part of space, pursuing its Hohmann orbit inexorably toward Mars. Buck Herzog wanted to cry.
  128. As was their practice, the ships of the Roxolan fleet gathered above the pole of the new planet's hemisphere with the most land. Because everyone would be coming to the same spot, the doctrine made visual rendezvous easy. Soon only four ships were unaccounted for. A scoutship hurried around to the other pole, found them, and brought them back.
  130. "Always some water-lovers every trip," Togram chuckled to the steerers as he brought them the news. He took every opportunity he could to go to their dome, not just for the sunlight but also because, unlike many soldiers, he was interested in planets for their own sake. With any head for figures, he might have tried to become a steerer himself.
  132. He had a decent hand with quill and paper, so Ransisc and Olgren were willing to let him spell them at the spyglass and add to the sketchmaps they were making of the world below.
  134. "Funny sort of planet," he remarked. "I've never seen one with so many forest fires or volcanoes or whatever they are on the dark side."
  136. "I still think they're cities," Olgren said, with a defiant dance at Ransisc.
  138. "They're too big and too bright," the senior steerer said patiently; the argument, plainly, had been going on for some time.
  140. "This is your first trip off-planet, isn't it, Olgren?" Togram asked.
  142. "Well, what if it is?"
  144. "Only that you don't have enough perspective. Egelloc on Roxolan has almost a million people, and from space it's next to invisible at night. It's nowhere near as bright as those lights, either. Remember, this is a primitive planet. I admit it looks like there's intelligent life down there, but how could a race that hasn't even stumbled across the hyperdrive build cities ten times as great as Egelloc?"
  146. "I don't know," Olgren said sulkily. "But from what little I can see by moonlight, those lights look to be in good spots for cities -- on coasts, or along rivers, or whatever."
  148. Ransisc sighed. "What are we going to do with him, Togram? He's so sure he knows everything, he won't listen to reason. Were you like that when you were young?"
  150. "Till my clanfathers beat it out of me, anyway. No need getting all excited, though. Soon enough the flyers will go down with their luofi, and then we'll know." He swallowed a snort of laughter, then sobered abruptly, hoping he hadn't been as gullible as Olgren when he was young.
  153. "I have one of the alien vessels on radar," the SR-81 pilot reported. "It's down to 50,000 meters and still descending." He was at his own plane's operational ceiling, barely half as high as the ship entering atmosphere.
  155. "For God's sake, hold your fire," ground control ordered. The command had been dinned into him before he took off, but the brass were not about to let him forget. He did not really blame them. One trigger-happy idiot could ruin humanity forever.
  157. "I'm beginning to get a visual image," he said, glancing at the head-up display projected in front of him. A moment later he added, "It's one damn funny-looking ship, I can tell you that already. Where are the wings?"
  159. "We're picking up the image now too," the ground control officer said. "They must use the same principle for their in-atmosphere machines as they do for their spacecraft: some sort of antigravity that gives them both lift and drive capability."
  161. The alien ship kept ignoring the SR-81, just as all the aliens had ignored every terrestrial signal beamed at them. The craft continued its slow descent, while the SR-81 pilot circled below, hoping he would not have to go down to the aerial tanker to refuel.
  163. "One question answered," he called to the ground. "It's a warplane." No craft whose purpose was peaceful would have had those glaring eyes and that snarling, fang-filled mouth painted on its belly. Some USAF ground-attack aircraft carried similar markings.
  165. At last the alien reached the level at which the SR-81 was loitering. The pilot called the ground again. "Permission to pass in front of the aircraft?" he asked. "Maybe everybody's asleep in there and I can wake'em up."
  167. After a long silence, ground control gave grudging ascent. "No hostile gestures," the controller warned.
  169. "What do you think I'm going to do, flip him the finger?" the pilot muttered, but his radio was off. Acceleration pushed him back in his seat as he guided the SR-81 into a long, slow turn that would carry it about half a kilometer in front of the vessel from the spacefleet.
  171. His airplane's camera gave him a brief glimpse of the alien pilot, who was sitting behind a small, dirty windscreen.
  173. The being from the stars saw him, too. Of that there was no doubt. The alien jinked like a startled fawn, performing maneuvers that would have smeared the SR-81 pilot against the walls of his pressure cabin -- if his aircraft could have matched them in the first place.
  175. "I'm giving pursuit!" he shouted. Ground control screamed at him, but he was the man on the spot. The surge from his afterburner made the pressure he had felt before a love pat by comparison.
  177. Better streamlining made his plane faster than the craft from the starships, but that did not do him much good. Every time its pilot caught sight of him, the alien ship danced away with effortless ease. The SR-81 pilot felt like a man trying to kill a butterfly with a hatchet.
  179. To add to his frustration, his fuel warning light came on. In any case, his aircraft was designed for the thin atmosphere at the edge of space, not the increasingly denser air through which the alien flew. He swore, but he had to pull away.
  181. As his SR-81 gulped kerosene from the tanker, he could not help wondering what would have happened if he'd turned a missile loose. There were a couple of times he'd had a perfect shot. That was one thought he kept firmly to himself. What his superiors would do if they knew about it was too gruesome to contemplate.
  184. The troopers crowded round Togram as he came back from the officers' conclave. "What's the word, captain?" "Did the loaf live?" "What's it like down there?"
  186. "The loaf lived, boys!" Togram said with a broad smile.
  188. His company raised a cheer that echoed deafeningly in the barracks room. "We're going down!" they whooped. Ears stood high in excitement. Some soldiers waved plumed hats in the fetid air. Others, of a bent more like their captain's, went over to their pallets and began seeing to their weapons.
  190. "How tough are they going to be, sir?" a gray-furred veteran named Ilingua asked as Togram went by. "I hear the flier pilot saw some funny things."
  192. Togram's smile got wider. "By the heavens and hells, Ilingua, haven't you done this often enough to know better than pay heed to rumors you hear before planetfall?"
  194. "I hope so, sir," Ilingua said, "but these are so strange I thought there might be something to them." When Togram did not answer, the trooper shook his head at his own foolishness and shook up a lantern so he could examine his dagger's edge.
  196. As inconspicuously as he could, the captain let out a sigh. He did not know what to believe himself, and he had listened to the pilot's report. How could the locals have flying machines when they did not know contragravity? Togram had heard of a race that used hot-air balloons before it discovered the better way of doing things, but no balloon could have reached the altitude the locals' flier had achieved, and no balloon could have changed direction, as the pilot had violently insisted this craft had done.
  198. Assume he was wrong, as he had to be. But how was one to take his account of towns as big as the ones whose possibility Rarisisc had ridiculed, of a world so populous there was precious little open space? And lantern signals from other ships showed their scout pilots were reporting the same wild improbabilities.
  200. Well, in the long run it would not matter if this race was numerous as reffo at a picnic. There would simply be that many more subjects here for Roxolan.
  203. "This is a terrible waste," Billy Cox said to anyone who would listen as he slung his duffelbag over his shoulder and tramped out to the waiting truck. "We should be meeting the starpeople with open arms, not with a show of force."
  205. "You tell 'em, Professor," Sergeant Santos Amoros chuckled from behind him. "Me, I'd sooner stay on my butt in a nice, air-conditioned barracks than face L.A. summer smog and sun any old day. Damn shame you're just a Spec-1. If you was President, you could give the orders any way you wanted, instead o' takin' 'em."
  207. Cox didn't think that was very fair either. He'd been just a few units short of his M.A. in poli sci when the big buildup after the second Syrian crisis sucked him into the army.
  209. He had to fold his lanky length like a jackknife to get under the olive-drab canopy of the truck and down into passenger compartment. The scats were too hard and too close together. Jamming people into the vehicle counted for more than their comfort while they were there. Typical military thinking, Cox thought disparagingly.
  211. The truck filled. The big diesel rumbled to life. A black soldier dug out a deck of cards and bet anyone that he could turn twenty-five cards into five pat poker hands. A couple of greenhorns took him up on it. Cox had found out the expensive way that it was a sucker bet. The black man was grinning as he offered the deck to one of his marks to shuffle.
  213. Riffff! The ripple of the pasteboards was authoritative enough to make everybody in the truck turn his head. "Where'd you learn to handle cards like that, man?" demanded the black soldier, whose name was Jim but whom everyone called Junior.
  215. "Dealing blackjack in Vegas." Riffff!
  217. "Hey, Junior," Cox called, "all of a sudden I want ten bucks of your action."
  219. "Up yours too, pal," Junior said, glumly watching the cards move as if they had lives of their own.
  221. The truck rolled northward, part of a convoy of trucks, MICV's, and light tanks that stretched for miles. An entire regiment was heading into Los Angeles, to be billeted by companies in different parts of the sprawling city. Cox approved of that; it made it less likely that he would personally come face-to-face with any of the aliens.
  223. "Sandy," he said to Amoros, who was squeezed in next to him, "even if I'm wrong and the aliens aren't friendly, what the hell good will hand weapons do? It'd be like taking on an elephant with a safety pin."
  225. "Professor, like I told you already, they don't pay me to think, or you neither. Just as well, too. I'm gonna do what the lieutenant tells me, and you're gonna do what I tell you, and everything is gonna be fine, right?"
  227. "Sure," Cox said, because Sandy, while he wasn't a bad guy, was a sergeant. All the same, the Neo-Armalite between Cox's boots seemed very futile, and his helmet and body armor as thin and gauzy as a stripper's negligee.
  230. The sky outside the steerers' dome began to go from black to deep blue as the Indomitable entered atmosphere. "There," Olgren said, pointing. "That's where we'll land."
  232. "Can't see much from this height,'' Togram remarked.
  234. "Let him use your spyglass, Olgren," Ransisc said. "He'll be going back to his company soon."
  236. Togram grunted; that was more than a comment -- it was also a hint. Even so, he was happy to peer through the eyepiece. The ground seemed to leap toward him. There was a moment of disorientation as he adjusted to the inverted image, which put the ocean on the wrong side of the field of view. But he was not interested in sightseeing. He wanted to learn what his soldiers and the rest of the troops aboard the Indomitable would have to do to carve out a beachhead and hold it against the locals.
  238. "There's a spot that looks promising," he said. "The greenery there in the midst of the buildings in the eastern -- no, the western -- part of the city. That should give us a clear landing zone, a good campground, and a base for landing reinforcements."
  240. "Let's see what you're talking about," Ransisc said, elbowing him aside. "Hmm, yes, I see the stretch you mean. That might not be bad. Olgren, come look at this. Can you find it again in the Warmaster's spyglass? All right then, go point it out to him. Suggest it as our setdown point."
  242. The apprentice hurried away. Ransisc bent over the eyepiece again. "Hmm," he repeated. "They build tall down there, don't they?"
  244. "I thought so," Togram said. "And there's a lot of traffic on those roads. They've spent a fortune cobblestoning them all, too; I didn't see any dust kicked up."
  246. "This should be a rich conquest," Ransisc said.
  248. Something swift, metallic, and predator-lean flashed past the observation window. "By the gods, they do have fliers, don't they?" Togram said. In spite of the pilots' claims, deep down he hadn't believed it until he saw it for himself.
  250. He noticed Ransisc's ears twitching impatiently, and realized he really had spent too much time in the observation room. He picked up his glowmite lantern and went back to his troopers.
  252. A couple of them gave him a resentful look for being away so long, but he cheered them up by passing on as much as he could about their landing site. Common soldiers loved nothing better than inside information. They second-guessed their superiors without it, but the game was even more fun when they had some idea of what they were talking about.
  254. A runner appeared in the doorway. "Captain Togram, your company will planet from airlock three."
  256. "Three," Togram acknowledged, and the runner trotted off to pass orders to other ground troop leaders. The captain put his plumed hat on his head (the plume was scarlet, so his company could recognize him in combat), checked his pistols one last time, and ordered his troopers to follow him.
  258. The reeking darkness was as oppressive in front of the inner airlock door as anywhere else aboard the Indomitable, but somehow easier to bear. Soon the doors would swing open and he would feel fresh breezes riffling his fur, taste sweet clean air, enjoy sunlight for more than a few precious units at a stretch. Soon he would measure himself against these new beings in combat.
  260. He felt the slightest of jolts as the Indomtable's fliers launched themselves from the mother ship. There would he no luofi aboard them this time, but musketeers to terrorize the natives with fire from above, and jars of gunpowder to be touched off and dropped. The Roxolani always strove to make as savage a first impression as they could. Terror doubled their effective numbers.
  262. Another jolt came, different from the one before. They were down.
  265. A shadow spread across the UCLA campus. Craning his neck, Junior said. "Will you look at the size of the mother!" He had been saying that to the last five minutes, as the starship slowly descended.
  267. Each time, Billy Cox could only nod, his mouth dry, his hands clutching the plastic grip and cool metal barrel of his rifle. The Neo-Armalite seemed totally impotent against the huge bulk floating so arrogantly downward. The alien flying machines around it were as minnows beside a whale, while they in turn dwarfed the USAF planes circling at a greater distance. The roar of their jets assailed the ears of the nervous troops and civilians on the ground. The aliens' engines were eerily silent.
  269. The starship landed in the open quad between New Royce, New Haines, New Kinsey, and New Powell Halls. It towered higher than any of the two-story red brick buildings, each a reconstruction of one overthrown in the earthquake of 2034. Cox heard saplings splinter under the weight of the alien craft. He wondered what it would have done to the big trees that had fallen five years ago along with the famous old halls.
  271. "All right, they've landed. Let's move on up," Lieutenant Shotton ordered. He could not quite keep the wobble out of his voice, but he trotted south toward the starship. His platoon followed him past Dickson Art Center, past New Bunche Hall. Not so long ago, Billy Cox had walked this campus barefoot. Now his boots thudded on concrete.
  273. The platoon deployed in front of Dodd Hall, looking west toward the spacecraft. A little breeze toyed with the leaves of the young, hopeful trees planted to replace the stalwarts lost to the quake.
  275. "Take as much cover as you can," Lieutenant Shotton ordered quietly. The platoon scrambled into flowerbeds, snuggled down behind thin treetrunks. Out on Hilgard Avenue, diesels roared as armored fighting vehicles took positions with good lines of fire.
  277. It was all such a waste, Cox thought bitterly. The thing to do was to make friends with the aliens, not to assume automatically they were dangerous.
  279. Something, at least, was being done along those lines. A delegation came out of Murphy Hall and slowly walked behind a white flag from the administration building toward the starship. At the head of the delegation was the mayor of Los Angeles: the President and governor were busy elsewhere. Billy Cox would have given anything to be part of the delegation instead of sprawled here on his belly in the grass. If only the aliens had waited until he was fifty or so, had given him a chance to get established--
  281. Sergeant Amoros nudged him with an elbow. "Look there, man. Something's happening--"
  283. Amoros was right. Several hatchways which had been shut were swinging open, allowing Earth's air to mingle with the ship's.
  285. The westerly breeze picked up. Cox's nose twitched. He could not name all the exotic odors wafting his way, but he recognized sewage and garbage when he smelled them. "God, what a stink!" he said.
  288. "By the gods, what a stink!" Togram exclaimed. When the outer airlock doors went down, he had expected real fresh air to replace the stale, overused gases inside the Indomitable. This stuff smelled like smoky peat fires, or lamps whose wicks hadn't quite been extinguished. And it stung! He felt the nictitating membranes flick across his eyes to protect them.
  290. "Deploy!" he ordered, leading his company forward. This was the tricky part. If the locals had nerve enough, they could hit the Roxolani just as the latter were coming out of their ship, and cause all sorts of trouble. Most races without hyperdrive, though, were too overawed by the arrival of travelers from the stars to try anything like that. And if they didn't do it fast, it would be too late.
  292. They weren't doing it here. Togram saw a few locals, but they were keeping a respectful distance. He wasn't sure how many there were. Their mottled skins -- or was that clothing? -- made them hard to notice and count. But they were plainly warriors, both by the way they acted and by the weapons they bore.
  294. His own company went into its familiar two-line formation, the first crouching, the second standing and aiming their muskets over the heads of the troops in front.
  296. "Ah, there we go," Togram said happily. The bunch approaching behind the white banner had to be the local nobles. The mottling, the captain saw, was clothing, for these beings wore entirely different garments, somber except for strange, narrow neckcloths. They were taller and skinnier than Roxolani, with muzzleless faces.
  298. "Ilingua!" Togram called. The veteran trooper led the right flank squad of the company.
  300. "Sir!"
  302. "Your troops, quarter-right face. At the command, pick off the leaders there. That will demoralize the rest," Togram said, quoting standard doctrine.
  304. "Slowmatches ready!" Togram said. The Roxolani lowered the smoldering cords to the toucholes of their muskets. "Take your aim!" The guns moved, very slightly. "Fire!"
  307. "Teddy bears!" Sandy Amoros exclaimed. The same thought had leaped into Cox's mind. The beings emerging from the spaceship were round, brown, and furry, with long noses and big ears. Teddy bears, however, did not normally carry weapons. They also, Cox thought, did not commonly live in a place that smelled like sewage. Of course it might have been perfume to them. But if it was, they and Earthpeople were going to have trouble getting along.
  309. He watched the Teddy bears as they took their positions. Somehow their positioning did not suggest that they were forming an honor guard for the mayor and his party. Yet it did look familiar to Cox, although he could not quite figure out why.
  311. Then he had it. If he had been anywhere but at UCLA, he would not have made the connection. But he remembered a course he had taken on the rise of the European nation-states in the sixteenth century, and on the importance of the professional, disciplined armies the kings had created. Those early armies had performed evolutions like this one.
  313. It was a funny coincidence. He was about to mention it to his sergeant when the world blew up.
  315. Flames spurted from the aliens' guns. Great gouts of smoke puffed into the sky. Something that sounded like an angry wasp buzzed past Cox's ear. He heard shouts and shrieks from either side. Most of the mayor's delegation was down, some motionless, others thrashing.
  317. There was a crash from the starship, and another one an instant later as a roundshout smashed into the brickwork of Dodd Hall. A chip stung Cox in the back of the neck. The breeze brought him the smell of fireworks, one he had not smelled for years.
  320. "Reload!" Togram yelled. "Another volley, then at 'em with the bayonet!" His troopers worked frantically, measuring powder charges and ramming round bullets home.
  323. "So that's how they wanna play!" Amoros shouted. "Nail their hides to the wall!" The tip of his little finger had been shot away. He did not seem to know it.
  325. Cox's Neo-Armalite was already barking, spitting a stream of hot brass cartridges, slamming against his shoulder. He rammed in clip after clip, playing the rifle like a hose. If one bullet didn't bite, the next would.
  327. Others from the platoon were also firing. Cox heard bursts of automatic weapons fire from different parts of the campus, too, and the deeper blasts of rocket-propelled grenades and field artillery. Smoke not of the aliens' making began to envelop their ship and the soldiers around it.
  329. One or two shots came back at the platoon, and then a few more, but so few that Cox, in stunned disbelief, shouted to his sergeant, "This isn't fair!"
  331. "Fuck 'em!" Amoros shouted back. "They wanna throw their weight around, they take their chances. Only good thing they did was knock over the mayor. Always did hate that old crackpot."
  334. The harsh tac-tac-tac did not sound like any gunfire Togram had heard. The shots came too close together, making a horrible sheet of noise. And if the locals were shooting back at his troopers, where were the thick, choking clouds of gunpowder smoke over their position?
  336. He did not know the answer to that. What he did know was that his company was going down like grain before a scythe. Here a soldier was hit by three bullets at once and fell awkwardly, as if his body could not tell in which direction to twist. There another had the top of his head gruesomely removed.
  338. The volley the captain had screamed for was stillborn. Perhaps a squad's worth of soldiers moved toward the locals, the sun glinting bravely off their long, polished bayonets. None of them got more than a half-sixteen of paces before falling.
  340. Ilingua looked at Togram, horror in his eyes, his ears flat against his head. The captain knew his were the same. "What are they doing to us?" Ilingua howled.
  342. Togram could only shake his head helplessly. He dove behind a corpse, fired one of his pistols at the enemy. There was still a chance, he thought -- how would these demonic aliens stand up under their first air attack?
  344. A flier swooped toward the locals. Musketeers blasted away from firing ports, drew back to reload.
  346. "Take that, you whoresons!" Togram shouted. He did not, however, raise his fist in the air. That, he had already learned, was dangerous.
  349. "Incoming aircraft!" Sergeant Amoros roared. His squad, those not already prone, flung themselves on their faces. Cox heard shouts of pain through the combat din as men were wounded.
  351. The Cottonmouth crew launched their shoulder-fired AA missile at the alien flying machine. The pilot must have had reflexes like a cat's. He sidestepped his machine in midair; no plane built on Earth could have matched that performance. The Cottonmouth shot harmlessly past.
  353. The flier dropped what looked like a load of crockery. The ground jumped as the bombs exploded. Cursing, deafened, Billy Cox stopped worrying whether the fight was fair.
  355. But the flier pilot had not seen the F-29 fighter on his tail. The USAF plane released two missiles from point-blank range, less than a mile. The infrared-seeker found no target and blew itself up, but the missile that homed on radar streaked straight toward the flier. The explosion made Cox bury his face in the ground and clap his hands over his ears.
  357. So this is war, he thought: I can't see, I can barely hear, and my side is winning. What must it be like for the losers?
  360. Hope died in Togram's hearts when the first flier fell victim to the locals' aircraft. The rest of the Indomitable's machines did not last much longer. They could evade, but had even less ability to hit back than the Roxolan ground forces. And they were hideously vulnerable when attacked in their pilots blind spots, from below or behind.
  362. One of the starship's cannon managed to fire again, and quickly drew a response from the traveling fortresses Togram got glimpses of as they took their positions in the streets outside this park-like area.
  364. When the first shell struck, the luckless captain thought for an instant that it was another gun going off aboard the Indomitable. The sound of the explosion was nothing like the crash a solid shot made when it smacked into a target. A fragment of hot metal buried itself in the ground by Togram's hand. That made him think a cannon had blown up, but more explosions on the ship's superstructure and fountains of dirt flying up from misses showed it was just more from the locals' fiendish arsenal.
  366. Something large and hard struck the captain in the back of the neck. The world spiraled down into blackness.
  369. "Cease fire!" The order reached the field artillery first, then the infantry units at the very front line. Billy Cox pushed up his cuff to look at his watch, stared in disbelief. The whole firefight had lasted less than twenty minutes.
  371. He looked around. Lieutenant Shotton was getting up from behind an ornamental palm. "Let's see what we have," he said. His rifle still at the ready, he began to walk slowly toward the starship. It was hardly more than a smoking ruin. For that matter, neither were the buildings around it. The damage to their predecessors had been worse in the big quake, but not much.
  373. Alien corpses littered the lawn. The blood splashing the bright green grass was crimson as any man's. Cox bent to pick up a pistol. The weapon was beautifully made, with scenes of combat carved into the grayish wood of the stock. But he recognized it as a single-shot piece; a smallarm obsolete for at least two centuries. He shook his head in wonderment.
  375. Sergeant Amoros lifted a conical object from where it had fallen beside a dead alien. "What the hell is this?" he demanded.
  377. Again Cox had the feeling of being caught up in something he did not understand. "It's a powderhorn," he said.
  379. "Like in the movies? Pioneers and all that good shit?"
  381. "The very same."
  383. "Damn," Amoros said feelingly. Cox nodded in agreement.
  385. Along with the rest of the platoon, they moved closer to the wrecked ship. Most of the aliens had died still in the two neat rows from which they had opened fire on the soldiers.
  387. Here, behind another corpse, lay the body of the scarlet-plumed officer who had given the order to begin that horrifyingly uneven encounter. Then, startling Cox, the alien moaned and stirred, just as might a human starting to come to. "Grab him; he's a live one!" Cox exclaimed.
  389. Several men jumped on the reviving alien, who was too groggy to fight back. Soldiers began peering into the holes torn in the starship, and even going inside. There they were still wary; the ship was so incredibly much bigger than any human spacecraft that there were surely survivors despite the shellacking it had taken.
  391. As always happens, the men did not get to enjoy such pleasures long. The fighting had been over for only minutes when the first team of experts came thuttering in by helicopter, saw common soldiers in their private preserve, and made horrified noises. The experts also promptly relieved the platoon of its prisoner.
  393. Sergeant Amoros watched resentfully as they took the alien away. "You must've known it would happen, Sandy," Cox consoled him. "We do the dirty work and the brass takes over once things get cleaned up again."
  395. "Yeah, but wouldn't it be wonderful if just once it was the other way round?" Amoros laughed without humor. "You don't need to tell me: fat friggin' chance."
  398. When Togram woke up on his back, he knew something was wrong. Roxolani always slept prone. For a moment he wondered how he had got to where he was... too much water-of-life the night before? His pounding head made that a good possibility.
  400. Then memory came flooding back. Those damnable locals with their sorcerous weapons! Had his people rallied and beaten back the enemy after all? He vowed to light votive lamps to Edieva, mistress of battles, for the rest of his life if that were true.
  402. The room he was in began to register. Nothing was familiar, from the bed he lay on to the light in the ceiling that glowed bright as sunshine and neither smoked nor flickered. No, he did not think the Roxolani had won their fight.
  404. Fear settled like ice in his vitals. He knew how his own race treated prisoners, had heard spacers' stories of even worse things among other folk. He shuddered to think of the refined tortures a race as ferocious as his captors could invent.
  406. He got shakily to his feet. By the end of the bed he found his hat, some smoked meat obviously taken from the Indomitable, and a translucent jug made of something that was neither leather nor glass nor baked clay nor metal. Whatever it was, it was too soft and flexible to make a weapon.
  408. The jar had water in it: not water from the Indomitable. That was already beginning to taste stale. This was cool and fresh and so pure as to have no taste whatever, water so fine he had only found its like in a couple of mountain springs.
  410. The door opened on noiseless hinges. In came two of the locals. One was small and wore a white coat -- a female, if those chest projections were breasts. The other was dressed in the same clothes the local warriors had worn, though those offered no camouflage here. That one carried what was plainly a rifle and, the gods curse him, looked extremely alert.
  412. To Togram's surprise, the female took charge. The other local was merely a bodyguard. Some spoiled princess, curious about these outsiders, the captain thought. Well, he was happier about treating with her than meeting the local executioner.
  414. She sat down, waved for him also to take a seat. He tried a chair, found it uncomfortable -- too low in the back, not built for his wide rump and short legs. He sat on the floor instead.
  416. She set a small box on the table by the chair. Togram pointed at it. "What's that?" he asked.
  418. He thought she had not understood -- no blame to her for that; she had none of his language. She was playing with the box, pushing a button here, a button there. Then his ears went back and his hackles rose, for the box said, "What's that?" in Roxolani. After a moment he realized it was speaking in his own voice. He swore and made a sign against witchcraft.
  420. She said something, fooled with the box again. This time it echoed her. She pointed at it. "'Recorder,'" she said. She paused expectantly.
  422. What was she waiting for, the Roxolanic name for that thing? "I've never seen one of those in my life, and I hope I never do again," he said. She scratched her head. When she made the gadget again repeat what he had said, only the thought of the soldier with the gun kept him from flinging it against the wall.
  424. Despite that contretemps, they did eventually make progress on the language. Togram had picked up snatches of a good many tongues in the course of his adventurous life; that was one reason he had made captain in spite of low birth and paltry connections. And the female -- Togram heard her name as Hildachesta -- had a gift for them, as well as the box that never forgot.
  426. "Why did your people attack us?" she asked one day, when she had come far enough in Roxolanic to be able to frame the question.
  428. He knew he was being interrogated, no matter how polite she sounded. He had played that game with prisoners himself. His ears twitched in a shrug. He had always believed in giving straight answers; that was one reason he was only a captain. He said, "To take what you grow and make and use it for ourselves. Why would anyone want to conquer anyone else?"
  430. "Why indeed?" she murmured, and was silent a little while; his forthright reply seemed to have closed off a line of questioning. She tried again: "How are your people able to walk -- I mean, travel -- faster than light, when the rest of your arts are so simple?"
  432. His fur bristled with indignation. "They are not! We make gunpowder, we cast iron and smelt steel, we have spyglasses to help our steerers guide us from star to star. We are no savages huddling in caves or shooting at each other with bows and arrows."
  434. His speech, of course, was not that neat or simple. He had to backtrack, to use elaborate circumlocutions, to playact to make Hildachesta understand. She scratched her head in the gesture of puzzlement he had come to recognize. She said, "We have known all these things you mention for hundreds of years, but we did not think anyone could walk -- damn, I keep saying that instead of 'travel' -- faster than light. How did your people learn to do that?"
  436. "We discovered it for ourselves," he said proudly. "We did not have to learn it from some other starfaring race, as many folk do."
  438. "But how did you discover it?" she persisted.
  440. "How do I know? I'm a soldier; what do I care for such things? Who knows who invented gunpowder or found out about using bellows in a smithy to get the fire hot enough to melt iron? These things happen, that's all."
  442. She broke off the questions early that day.
  445. "It's humiliating," Hilda Chester said. "If these fool aliens had waited a few more years before they came, we likely would have blown ourselves to kingdom come without ever knowing there was more real estate around. Christ, from what the Roxolani say, races that scarcely know how to work iron fly starships and never think twice about it."
  447. "Except when the starships don't get home," Charlie Ebbets answered. His tie was in his pocket and his collar open against Pasadena's fierce summer heat, although the Caltech Atheneum was efficiently air-conditioned. Along with so many other engineers and scientists, he depended on linguists like Hilda Chester for a link to the aliens.
  449. "I don't quite understand it myself," she said. "Apart from the hyperdrive and contragravity, the Roxolani are backward, almost primitive. And the other species out there must be the same, or someone would have overrun them long since."
  451. Ebbets said, "Once you see it, the drive is amazingly simple. The research crews say anybody could have stumbled over the principle at almost any time in our history. The best guess is that most races did come across it, and once they did, why, all their creative energy would naturally go into refining and improving it."
  453. "But we missed it," Hilda said slowly, "and so our technology developed in a different way."
  455. "That's right. That's why the Roxolani don't know anything about controlled electricity, to say nothing of atomics. And the thing is, as well as we can tell so far, the hyperdrive and contragravity don't have the ancillary applications the electromagnetic spectrum does. All they do is move things front here to there in a hurry."
  457. "That should be enough at the moment," Hilda said. Ebbets nodded. There were almost nine billion people jammed onto the Earth, half of them hungry. Now, suddenly, there were places for them to go and a means to get them there.
  459. "I think," Ebbets said musingly, "we're going to be an awful surprise to the peoples out there."
  461. It took Hilda a second to see what he was driving at. "If that's a joke, it's not funny. It's been a hundred years since the last war of conquest."
  463. "Sure -- they've gotten too expensive and too dangerous. But what kind of fight could the Roxolani or anyone else at their level of technology put up against us? The Aztecs and Incas were plenty brave. How much good did it do them against the Spaniards?"
  465. "I hope we've gotten smarter in the last five hundred years," Hilda said. All the same, she left her sandwich half-eaten. She found she was not hungry anymore.
  468. "Ransisc!" Togram exclaimed as the senior steerer limped into his cubicle. Ransisc was thinner than he had been a few moons before, aboard the misnamed Indomitable. His fur had grown out white around several scars Togram did not remember.
  470. His air of amused detachment had not changed, though. "Tougher than bullets, are you, or didn't the humans think you were worth killing?"
  472. "The latter, I suspect. With their firepower, why should they worry about one soldier more or less?" Togram said bitterly. "I didn't know you were still alive, either."
  474. "Through no fault of my own, I assure you," Ransisc said. "Olgren, next to me--" His voice broke off. It was not possible to be detached about everything.
  476. "What are you doing here?" the captain asked. "Not that I'm not glad to see you, but you're the first Roxolan face I've set eyes on since--" It was his turn to hesitate.
  478. "Since we landed." Togram nodded in relief at the steerer's circumlocution. Ransisc went on, "I've seen several others before you. I suspect we're being allowed to get together so the humans can listen to us talking with each other."
  480. "How could they do that?" Togram asked, then answered his own question: "Oh, the recorders, of course." He perforce used the English word. "Well, we'll fix that."
  482. He dropped into Oyag, the most widely spoken language on a planet the Roxolani had conquered fifty years before. "What's going to happen to us, Ransisc?"
  484. "Back on Roxolan, they'll have realized something's gone wrong by now," the steerer answered in the same tongue.
  486. That did nothing to cheer Togram. "There are so many ways to lose ships," he said gloomily. "And even if the High Warmaster does send another fleet after us, it won't have any more luck than we did. These gods-accursed humans have too many war-machines." He paused and took a long, moody pull at a bottle of vodka. The flavored liquors the locals brewed made him sick, but vodka he liked. "How is it they have all these machines and we don't, or any race we know of? They must be wizards, selling their souls to the demons for knowledge."
  488. Ransisc's nose twitched in disagreement. "I asked one of their savants the same question. He gave me back a poem by a human named Hail or Snow or something of that sort. It was about someone who stood at a fork in the road and ended up taking the less-used track. That's what the humans did. Most races find the hyperdrive and go traveling. The humans never did, and so their search for knowledge went in a different direction."
  490. "Didn't it!" Togram shuddered at the recollection of that brief, terrible combat. "Guns that spit dozens of bullets without reloading, cannon mounted on armored platforms that move by themselves, rockets that follow their targets by themselves... And there are the things we didn't see, the ones the humans only talk about -- the bombs that can blow up a whole city, each one by itself."
  492. "I don't know if I believe that," Ransisc said.
  494. "I do. They sound afraid when they speak of them."
  496. "Well, maybe. But it's not just the weapons they have. It's the machines that let them see and talk to one another from far away; the machines that do their reckoning for them; their recorders and everything that has to do with them. From what they say of their medicine, I'm almost tempted to believe you and think they are wizards -- they actually know what causes their diseases, and how to cure or even prevent them. And their farming: this planet is far more crowded than any I've seen or heard of, but it grows enough for all these humans."
  498. Togram sadly waggled his ears. "It seems so unfair. All that they got, just by not stumbling onto the hyperdrive."
  500. "They have it now," Ransisc reminded him. "Thanks to us."
  502. The Roxolani looked at each other, appalled. They spoke together: "What have we done?"
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