PRICE OF ALLEGIANCE
“Mr. Tobin, there is a Cicada here to see you.”
Alastair Tobin, Earth’s ambassador to the Galactic Union, was more than a little surprised. In his eight years of service he could count on one hand the number of times anyone had visited his office on Union Central Station. On the rare occasion when an alien had business to conduct with the humans, theythe alien sent him a message. For a member of the Union’s oldest and most influential species to show up at his doorstep was unprecedented.
“Ask it in,” Tobin responded via the intercom.
An alien walked in, folding its wings. It was short, corpulent, and had thin, veined wings extending from its midsection.
Tobin said, “Welcome, on behalf of humanity. I’m honored by your presence.” A wall panel emitted a series of high-pitched sounds, translating the traditional greeting into the guest’s native language.
“Thank you. On behalf of the Union, I’m honored to be here,” said the Cicada.
On behalf of the Union, Tobin thought. The visitor was indicating that it was here on official Union business, rather than representing the interests of its own species.
“Your people,” said the Cicada without any preamble, “have been restless. They wish for more access to the Union database.”
Uncertain of the visitor’s intentions, Tobin chose his words carefully. “It’s tough being at the bottom of the heap.”
Galactic Union facilitated the exchange of art and technology among intelligent species. Each race contributed its best advances in everything from physics and philosophy to music and architecture. Members were allowed to benefit from others’ knowledge, but only based on the value of their own contributions.
This was a sore point for Tobin and for humanity. As one of the most junior members, Earth had precious little new knowledge to contribute and was, therefore, given few of the Union’s scientific wonders in return.
“There is no hurry,” said the Cicada. “Have we not provided for your most urgent needs?”
“You have. We are immensely grateful for the medicines and agricultural technologies the Union has supplied. We’ve cured the worst of the diseases that plagued us, and solved world hunger. But you must understand that humans are an ambitious and impatient people. Our inability to earn much credit toward new technologies is,”—Tobin searched for the right word— “frustrating.”
“There may be an opportunity that is uniquely suited for your people’s competitive mentality,” said the Cicada. “The Union finds itself in need of peacekeepers.”
“Soldiers?” asked Tobin. “Forgive me, but we’ve been repeatedly told that there has never been an interspecies war, not even before the Galactic Union was initially formed half a million years ago.”
“It is true that there has never been such a conflict in our recorded history,” said the Cicada. “Until now.”
After years spent at Union Central, Earth gravity took a little getting used to. Being the center of attention in a room full of the most powerful people on the planet didn’t help matters either. Tobin shifted, his feet protesting against carrying what felt like an added thirty pounds.
“So what you’re saying, Mr. Tobin,” said the Chinese prime minister, “is that the Galactic Union wants to use humans as cannon fodder.”
“It shouldn’t come to that, sir,” Tobin countered quickly. “They’re merely asking us to guard some of the planets deemed as likely invasion targets. It is hoped that a show of strength will deter an attack.”
“Then why don’t they just do it themselves,” grumbled the Brazilian foreign minister just loudly enough for the assembly to hear him.
“Because when shit hits the fan, which it almost certainly will,” said the president of Russia, “humans are violent enough to actually fight it out. Most other races don’t have the spine for it. Sometimes literally.”
“It’s true that we were asked to help because humanity hasn’t bred out all of its violent instincts yet,” said Tobin. “Their words, not mine. We’re not the only ones involved. Several of the other young races are being asked to contribute, for much the same reason.”
“This is an incredibly dangerous proposition,” said the American vice president. “We’re being asked to possibly engage in a war with a violent alien race–something that has never been done before, I might add. What if they decide to take the conflict to us directly, by attacking Earth?”
“These particular aliens are causing havoc on the other end of the galaxy,” said Tobin. “Union scientists assure us that the aggressors don’t have the technology to traverse these kinds of distances. This is yet another reason we were among the races asked to volunteer.”
“Our own technology is hardly up to Union standards either,” pointed out the Brazilian. Indeed, human space-faring technology was barely good enough to get admitted into the Union but embarrassingly inadequate when compared to most other races. Tobin was taxied to Union Central by an Ellerian shuttle; it would have taken him twenty years to get there on a human ship.
“That’s just it,” said Tobin. “The Union will provide transportation and share a number of interesting gadgets with us to make this mission work. We also stand to earn a generous credit toward accessing the Union information bank if we succeed. We’ll gain a hundred years’ worth of technological advancement in just a few months.”
“That is alluring,” admitted the Chinese prime minister. “Yet how many men must we send to be slaughtered in exchange?”
It was going to be a long meeting.
By the time human defense forces arrived at their first designated planet, it was already too late.
General Amadou Kolingba, decorated hero of the Thailand Pacification and the Second Iranian War, stood on the hill overseeing the alien settlement, or what was left of it. The settlement was blasted from orbit and thoroughly destroyed. Smoldering skeletons of structures and upturned roads were all that remained. There were no survivors. The general, who grew up in the Central African Republic and was no stranger to violence, was shaken by the view.
“Excuse me, sir,” called out an adjutant. “There is an alien here claiming to be an envoy for the invaders, and he wants to speak to you.”
The envoy was bipedal, about five feet tall and vaguely humanoid in appearance. It reminded the general of all the rubber-faced imaginary aliens from the previous century’s science fiction TV shows.
“My name is Ki’Rtaa and my people are called the N’Ga,” said the alien. “I understand you are the leader of the Human regiment here.”
The general gaped at Ki’Rtaasaying. According to Union strategists, the N’Ga should not have been aware that humanity existed, let alone be prepared for their arrival.
“May I presume by your reaction that you are disconcerted by my knowledge of your species and ability to speak your language?” Ki’Rtaa was half right. Only after Ki’Rtaa said so did the general realize that the envoy did not appear to be using a translation device.
“Please do not be concerned. Our intentions are to offer your people an alliance.”
“An alliance did not seem to work out well for those guys,” said the general, pointing at the ruins below.
“The Shezraat that started a colony here were not offered an alliance by the N’Ga,” said the envoy. “In fact, they were warned against expanding into our territory, but elected to colonize anyway. Our harsh subsequent action was necessitated by their choices.”
No translation device? The bastard speaks better English than I, thought the general.
“Surely it wasn’t necessary to annihilate them,” said Kolingba. “There are so many viable planets out there; it hardly makes sense to fight over any one of them.”
“That is precisely the kind of propaganda the Galactic Union utilizes to justify their policies. Just like your people, the N’Ga recently joined the Union. We were fortunate to quickly discover important secrets the older races are keeping. As a sign of good faith, I will share some of this information with you.”
“Go on,” said General Kolingba cautiously.
“The most crucial detail you need to know is that desirable planets are, while plentiful now, not nearly as inexhaustible as the Union would have you believe. Computer models show that every viable planet in our galaxy will be colonized in the next thousand years.
“Space colonization works on an exponential growth principle. Every colony you establish today will develop the resources and population necessary to expand and colonize several new planets within decades. Therefore, if the Union manages to delay the expansion of species like yours by even a few years, it will cost you thousands of colony planets at the endgame.”
Ki’Rtaa pointed toward the destroyed settlement. “Species like the Shezraat and the Cicadas set up the Union to extract maximum benefit from younger races and annex as many planets as they can while feeding us mere crumbs of their technology. When my people learned the truth, we would not stand for this. We declared a modest sector of space directly adjacent to our home planet closed to colonization by other species. The Union refused to recognize our claim, so here we are, forced to defend our territory by whatever means necessary.”
“We have a number of allies and supporters among the Union,” Ki’Rtaa continued. “That is how we learned of its plan to deceive other young races into going to war against us. I hope to convince you to ally with us instead.”
General Kolingba listened intently as Ki’Rtaa laid out the basis of the proposed alliance.
“I’m not authorized to make any sort of deals,” the general finally said. “But I’ll bet my superiors would love to talk to you.”
This was only the second time Tobin had visited the secretary general’s office. The first time was when he got appointed as Earth’s ambassador to the Union. That earned him a brief meeting with his boss’s boss for some encouragement and a shot of obnoxiously expensive Cognac. The secretary general’s office hadn’t changed much in eight years, except that this time around Tobin was unlikely to be offered a beverage or any kind words.
Secretary Singh paced in front of the jumbo-sized window overlooking the Manhattan skyline.
“I’m very disappointed in you, Tobin,” he said. “You’ve been making quite a nuisance of yourself lately. Whispering dissent in all the wrong ears and spreading disinformation.” Singh was working himself up to one of his infamous rants. “They say that when the French ambassador’s office wouldn’t schedule a meeting, you accosted the ambassador in front of his mistress’s apartment building. You’re acting like some sort of a lobbyist or, worse yet, a journalist with an axe to grind. This kind of behavior is way beyond your mandate.”
“With all due respect, Secretary General,” said Tobin, “the subject at hand falls precisely within my mandate. Decisions are being made that will affect Earth’s relationships with all the other intelligent races in the cosmos. Relationships on which, like it or not, I’m your top expert. I’m convinced that we are moving in a very dangerous direction, and I will talk to as many politicians as I have to in order to help them see that.”
“Making decisions is our job,” snapped Singh. “Your job is to put a positive spin on them afterward. You don’t get to influence policy, and you certainly don’t get to sabotage the peace talks.”
“Peace talks? When the N’Ga asked us to kindly stay out of their space, those were peace talks. When Earth agreed to stand down and not interfere with N’Ga expansion within their own corner of the galaxy, that could also be considered peace talks. But providing materiel and logistical support in their war against the Union in exchange for whatever technology their shadow allies might pilfer from the Union database–that really can’t be called peace talks anymore, not even by a politician!”
Strangely, Tobin’s outburst appeared to calm Singh rather than anger him further.
“I don’t understand you. For years, you whined in your reports about how slowly the Union feeds us anything useful. How inconsequential Earth’s position is in the galaxy. The N’Ga are willing to treat us like equals and share far more technology than the Union ever did, and you turn up your nose at them.”
“I don’t trust them,” said Tobin. “This Ki’Rtaa character is like some kind of a devil. He pushes us deeper and deeper into a half-baked rebellion. The Union may not have made it too easy for us, but we can thrive within it, given enough time.”
“Perhaps you’ve spent too much time off world,” said Singh. “Rubbing shoulders with aliens. Coming around to their way of thinking. I hope that you remember where your true loyalties lie, when it matters.”
Tobin looked his superior straight in the eye. “We may disagree on the methods, sir, but rest assured that our goals and loyalties are the same. I’ll do whatever is necessary to protect Earth’s interests. Always.”
“This,” Tobin laid a small suitcase on his desk, “is what we call a Trojan Horse.”
Back at his office on Union Central, Tobin asked the Cicada to meet him and it obliged.
“The reference eludes me,” said the Cicada.
“It’s a military strategy from my people’s past. It involves sneaking a weapon into the enemy stronghold, in order to launch an attack from within. In this particular case, it’s a bomb powerful enough to destroy Union Central. Having me, a known Union sympathizer, bring it aboard appealed to my superiors’ finely tuned sense of the clandestine.”
The Cicada examined the suitcase.
“Do you intend to detonate this?” it asked.
“I started out in the military,” said Tobin. “My superiors could always count on me to carry out direct orders, regardless of my personal beliefs.” Tobin pushed the suitcase toward the Cicada. “Not this time. The bomb is tuned to my DNA and is not set to go off until I’m a safe distance away from this station. I’ll remain here for as long as it takes your security experts to disarm the device. Meanwhile, there are other things you need to know.”
Tobin spoke for a long time, detailing the growing alliance between the humans and the N’Ga. He told the Cicada about how Ki’Rtaa dangled offers of enticing technology, and how there were always those in the human government willing to take another step further over the line. Tobin also explained how the Earth government agreed to help destroy Union Central in exchange for a princely prize–a copy of the entire Union database.
“Please understand,” Tobin continued, “that most people on my world are not complicit in this conspiracy. An overwhelming majority of them don’t even know the N’Ga exist. A handful of our leaders have been seduced by their rhetoric, but most humans would be appalled to learn what sort of business their government is willing to get involved in.”
The Cicada studied the human closely. “An ambassador to the Union is a very important post. One is chosen carefully for such a position. I’m sure your leaders had no doubt whatsoever of your loyalty when they sent you here. Why do you choose to betray their trust?”
Tobin had thought of little else in days. “I’m intensely loyal to humanity,” he said with conviction. “I believe it is our leaders who are betraying the rest of us through their actions. Having spent eight years on Union Central, I firmly believe that the Union is exactly what it claims to be—a major force for peace and stability in our galaxy. I would not see it harmed, even at great personal cost to me and my people.”
“Congratulations,” said the Cicada. “You passed. Your leaders may have failed our test, but at least one human has passed—a human placed in position of great responsibility. Believe me when I say that this matters a great deal.”
“A test?” Tobin was dumbfounded. “What do you mean?”
“You see, Mr. Ambassador, N’Ga are a loyal member of the Union, and there was never any rebellion. They showed your people some ruins and told them some stories. You believed what you chose to believe.”
“But –” The office was spinning in front of Tobin’s eyes. “Why would you do this?”
“As I stated, this was a test. A test of allegiance. Once a young species is ready, we provide them with increased access to the Union database. Much more of the Union technology is then at their disposal. We must make sure that we don’t grant this power to those who are not yet prepared to wield it. Thus, every species is tempted to see if they might place their own advancement above the well-being of the Union. N’Ga passed their allegiance test only a few decades ago. This was humanity’s turn and humanity was performing very poorly, until your personal act of courage has somewhat redeemed your people.”
“What would have happened had I remained silent?”
“It’s best not to dwell on that,” replied the Cicada firmly.
“And now?” Tobin pressed.
“Now your people get another chance. We will test them again, in time. We will, of course, expect you to keep this conversation private. As far as your leaders are concerned, your explosive had failed to detonate. Word will shortly reach them that the N’Ga were defeated by the other young races. Earth will remain a junior member of the Union and you personally will continue to be frustrated at how little new technology and information your people are provided with. But Earth will get another chance someday to prove that humanity has matured beyond its current state.” The Cicada turned to leave.
Alistair Tobin, traitor to humanity and its savior, sat alone in his Union Central office. He had to believe that humanity’s better angels would prevail the next time around. People of Earth would pass the Union’s next test and realize their full potential.
Until then, it was going to be a slow couple of decades.
Food for Thought
What is loyalty? How does one weigh loyalty against the overall benefit of his people, and the difference between allegiance and obedience.
About the Author
Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 80 of his short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction. He is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories and his steampunk humor novella H. G. Wells, Secret Agent were both published in 2015. His website is www.alexshvartsman.com
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