"Speak another word in my presence and I will rip your tongue out with my pincers," Imperator Kagorda spun in Silkspeak.
"Forgive me, your Excellency," Lawrence Salvino spun in Silkspeak, using thick, formal language threads and webs. "I forgot myself temporarily."
Inwardly he cursed himself for accidentally addressing Kagorda in English when he arrived moments earlier. Under normal circumstances saying anything could be ground for losing a limb or even possibly his life. Human speech irritated the Metoklos both physically and psychologically.
Salvino remained silent and looked around at Imperator Kagordaís throne room. It was a tall, hot hive shaped like a waspís nest and strung wall-to-wall with strands of language silk. Kagordaís personal servants skittered along the amber walls. They looked like a cross between spiders and horseshoe crabs and they gave Salvino the creeps no matter how many times he saw them.
"I have summoned you here for a most important task," Kagorda spun.
"I await your command eagerly," Salvino spun.
"There are a group of humans on the planet Colista who have refused to join our society. Ordinarily I would simply have them liquidated and fed as tribute to my lower hives, but unfortunately we only discovered their colony after we defeated your planetís forces. And our war franchise did not cover their conquest."
"A most regrettable shame." Salvino bit his lip. Deep down he was glad that some humans still lived in an unmodified state, outside the control of the Metoklos Imperium. But he doubted that it would last for very long.
"I have appealed to the Intergalactic Consortium of Controlled Warfare and they have refused my requests for conquest and elimination of these other humans. According to them, our race has exceeded the number of enemy casualties stated in our original contract and has failed to provide adequate compensation for allowing us to defeat your race and take control of your mineral resources."
"That is a most grievous error on their part, your Excellency."
"Yes, but unfortunately I cannot go against their wishes without incurring their wrath. However they have given me an alternate proposal. If you can convince the humans on Colista to leave the planet voluntarily and convert to our way of life, then the Consortium will allow me to use all of the planetís resources to pay off the debt we have incurred."
"And you wish for me to convince these humans to join our way of life?"
"Yes. As an archivist, it will also give you a chance to record and preserve the last of your distasteful heritage of spoken languages. You can bring a holocube to show them what has happened to them and their people."
"Your Excellency, I am not certain that the unchanged will accept our ways," Salvino spun. "As wise and benevolent as they are."
"They had better," Kagorda spun. "Otherwise some other stronger and less merciful species will receive exclusive franchise rights to seize the planet and dispose of its current population however they see fit. Also I will be extremely displeased if I lose that planet because of you."
Salvino swallowed hard and bowed his head. If he failed, then heíd be lucky if Kagorda killed him quickly. More than likely heíd be tortured slowly over several weeks.
"Rest assured, your Excellency, I will not fail in my mission," Salvino spun. "When will I be leaving for Colista?"
"Immediately. A larvaship is already docked in the upper hive. You are dismissed."
"Thank you, your Excellency." He squirted one last strand of blue tribute silk to Kagorda, then turned and climbed up the wall with his sticky hands and out of the chamber.
One week later the massive, semi-organic larvaship emerged from hyperspace and flew down to the terraformed surface of Colista. Along the way Salvino popped naked and slimy out of the suspension cocoon where he had been stored during transit and vomited clear jelly. Blue helper beetles crawled down from the walls, ate the remaining bits of sticky cocoon and slime off his skin and brought his jumpsuit to him. He slipped it on and thanked the little guys with a squirt of edible silk from his spinneret.
Salvino climbed up the amber walls to the larvaís semi-transparent observation port and looked out. The ship was approaching the planetís main colonial base and would land in a few minutes. The base had a large steel dome with several smaller trapezoidal buildings surrounding it in a circle. All the outer buildings were connected to the dome via surface tunnels.
Salvino smiled at the sight of human habitation. It had been almost five years since he had seen a human-made building and his heart sank at the idea of having to convince his own race to leave this world. But then humans had always been adaptable creatures, and Salvino felt certain that they would see the reason in leaving.
The larvaship landed a thousand meters from the outskirts of the base and Salvino slipped out through the main airlock. He walked over to the trapezoidal building nearest him, shivering from the cold winds and rain that poured down from the gray sky.
The main door to the building was locked, so Salvino climbed up the buildingís wall to the nearest window, smashed it open and slipped inside. An old man with gray hair and yellow teeth saw him as he dropped to the floor of a large generator room. He looked at him once, did a double take at his human-insectoid appearance and stumbled back.
"Please, donít hurt me," the old man said.
"Itís all right, donít be afraid," Salvino said, putting his hands up. "Iím not here to hurt you. My name is Lawrence Salvino and I need to speak with the person in charge."
"What the hell are you?"
"Iím a human envoy for the alien species known as Metoklos. Some of my genes have been altered to allow me to adapt to their society."
"Look, Iím just a technician," the old man said. "I just check the pumps to make sure theyíre running smoothlyó"
"Whatís your name?"
"Colkern, Felix Colkern."
"Whoís in charge of this base and planetary operations?"
"Administrator Jacinta Nequeda. She runs the base."
"Can you get in touch with her for me? Itís a matter of life and death."
"Like I said, I just check the pumps."
"Then canít you point me in the right direction at least?"
"In theÖthe main dome. Down the tunnel."
Salvino nodded to Colkern, then slipped through the next door leading out of the generator room and down the chrome-colored tunnel. The colonists there flashed horrified looks at Salvino. Civilians and technicians screamed and cowered and ran away.
"I donít mean any harm," Salvino said to them several times. "I just need to talk with Administrator Nequeda."
A team of security guards in silver and gray body armor and helmets rushed down the tunnel and cut him off halfway down. They carried shock rifles and shields.
"Hold it right there," the captain of the guard said.
Salvino put his hands up and said, "I donít mean any harm. I just want to talk with Administrator Nequeda."
"Down on the floor now."
"Yes, of course Iíll comply. But can I just speak with heró"
The men fired their shock rifles at Salvino at once and he blacked out.
Salvino awoke with a splitting headache and found himself locked inside a transparent cage in the middle of a chrome-walled room. The floor was cold metal. A tall, beautiful Latina in a charcoal gray business suit stood outside the cage. She had cafť au lait skin and long black hair that was slightly gray around the edges. Security guards, scientists and other people flanked her.
Salvino rubbed his aching head and said, "Administrator Nequeda, I presume."
"Thatís correct," the woman said. She put her hands behind her back and stood straight as a redwood.
"You call this a warm welcome?"
"Who or what are you?"
"My name is Lawrence Salvino. Iím a genetically-modified human and representative of the alien species known as Metoklos."
"What exactly do you represent?"
"The Metoklos have conquered Earth and almost all of its subsidiary colonies in a consortium-franchised war. We are a conquered people."
Nequeda gasped and the guards chatted nervously to each other. A moment later Nequeda held up her hand and the men grew silent.
"How do we know that youíre telling the truth?" Nequeda said.
"Have you received any messages from Earth or any neighboring colonies in the past few years?"
"No, but that doesnít mean anything. We were a self-sustaining colony of fifteen thousand when we left Earth and messages can take years to reach us."
"I have brought proof of what I say. Do you have the cube I brought with me?"
"Have you examined it?"
"Weíre testing it to make sure itís safe."
"It is a holocube that will outline our history with the Metoklos. I can show you how to use it."
Nequeda didnít look convinced, though.
"I promise it wonít hurt you. Just let me show you what happened."
Nequeda spoke quietly with her people for a few minutes, then turned back to Salvino and said, "Very well."
Nequedaís people brought the cube and he showed them how to use it. An hour later she shut off the cube, looking even more stern than when she had first stood outside his cage. She held up the cube and said, "Assuming this everything Iíve seen is true, what do you want?"
"The Metoklos wish to have all of you humans voluntarily evacuate the planet immediately so they can colonize this world for themselves and excavate its varied mineral resources to pay off their war with Earth."
Nequeda rubbed her head. "Let me get this straight. You want us to just hand over everything weíve worked at building for almost a century to these aliens."
"Yes. And in exchange, they will provide you with the physical and genetic modifications to allow you to integrate in their society, as well as special hives in which to live. I can also help by preserving our spoken languages and teaching you to communicate using the Metoklosí own language, known generally as Silkspeak."
Nequeda frowned. "Like hell weíll give up our world. Our ancestors spent their lives building this colony from the ground up and Iíll be damned if weíre just going to give it away to a bunch of stinking bugs."
"Please. Listen to reason."
"No, you listen. Weíre not giving up our home. And you can go back to your masters and tell them that."
"If I go back and tell them that, theyíll kill me."
"Then donít go back. We can protect you in exchange for information about your so-called masters and how to defeat them."
"Listen, you donít understand. The Metoklos canít invade your planet. It wasnít listed on their war franchise contract, so they will have to leave you and your planet alone."
"So whatís the problem?" Nequeda spread her hands.
"The problem is that any other species with a legitimate claim can petition the Intergalactic Consortium of Controlled Warfare and ask for the franchise rights to seize your planet and do whatever they want with you. They can kill you, enslave you, torture you or do whatever they please."
"Then weíll fight whomever comes at us. If we have to, then weíll fight down to the last colonist."
"That wonít work, though. The Consortium has an ironclad monopoly on all military actions in the seven galaxies and practically all forms of war are corporate now. And if you try to fight any species or group without their permission and without signing a franchise contract first, then they will decimate you."
"Their technology is sophisticated enough so that they can undermine any species who goes against them and insure victory on the side whoís signed with them. They donít care about your reasons for war or whether itís even just or not. All they care about is making a profit."
"So if we want to protect ourselves, we have to get their approval. Is that it?"
"Thatís right. But they wonít approve you."
"Because you canít win. They only sign on with species they feel certain can win and who will pay them a minimum ten percent of all profits stemming from a successful conquest. However if you agree to join with the Metoklos, they can protect you. This planet and its resources will give you some power in future negotiations."
"And all we have to do is give up our home, our humanity and everything weíve worked for?"
"Itís better than losing your lives."
"I donít think so." Nequeda folded her arms.
"Please, listen to me. I donít like this plan anymore than you do, but itís your only chance to stay alive. Iím a human too and I accepted their rule. Itís really not as bad as you might thinkó"
"And now look at you. Youíre like a bug in a cage."
Salvino frowned, feeling hurt. "I played it smart and stayed alive. And in the end, isnít that whatís most important? Staying alive no matter what?"
"Not always." Nequeda frowned.
Salvino scratched his mandibles. Deep down he hated Nequeda, yet at the same time he couldnít help but admire her determination.
"Go back to your masters and tell them that we wonít accept your offer," Nequeda said. "And if anyone tries to conquer us, theyíd better be prepared to lose a lot. Because we wonít give up."
"Think about your children and your elderly. Do you want them all to die?
"Iíd rather have them die than become slaves." Nequeda turned to her people. "Take him out of here now."
"Yes, maíam," the captain of the guard said.
"Please wait," Salvino said. "Iím trying to help you." He pounded his fists against the cage and it wobbled slightly.
"Listen to me. I justÖ"
One of the guards pressed a button and the electrified floor zapped him back into unconsciousness.
Salvino awoke once again on the ground, his head aching even more than it had before. He pushed up from the ground, looked back at the colony and frowned. Now that they had said no, he didnít see what else he could do.
If he went back to try and negotiate with Nequeda and her people, he figured theyíd either imprison or kill him. And if he went back to Kagorda and told him that he had failed, heíd do worse. He considered running away, but he didnít see where he could go. Sooner or later Kagorda would realize that he failed and come after him.
He kicked up some dirt and looked around.
There has to be something else I can do, Salvino thought. But what? I donít know.
He walked back to the larvaship and boarded it. When he checked the shipís scanners on the bridge, his worst fear had been realized.
A rival scout ship from the Gramossa Empire was approaching the planet and he figured it could be for only one thing: to survey the planet for future conquest. Although the Gramossa were a lot like the Metoklos, even down to living in hives and using Silkspeak, they hated Salvinoís masters with a passion.
But as he watched the ship, an idea came to him. It was a longshot, but it was about the only thing he could think to save both himself and the colony.
He dusted off from the planet surface and flew into space to intercept them.
Less than an hour later the ships met in space. Officially they were not supposed to have any contact with each other, but Salvino felt certain that the Gramossa would be curious to know what a Metoklos larvaship was doing near the planet. Sure enough the other ship contacted them over the comline moments later and he answered. A Gramossa answered the line and appeared on the holoscreen. The Gramossa looked like silver praying mantises crossed with caterpillars and creeped Salvino out more than his masters.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" the Gramossa spun in Silkspeak.
"My name is Lawrence Salvino and I am but a humble servant of the Metoklos," he spun. "Might I ask who you are?"
"I am Chakame, nest leader of this vessel, and I demand that you explain your presence."
Salvino remained nonchalant as he begun to spin his web of lies. "I have just concluded successful negotiations with my fellow humans on the planet. They have agreed to turn over their planet peacefully to the Metoklos in exchange for their protection and I was just heading back to deliver the good news to my masters."
"What?" Chakame scratched his forelegs rapidly, indicating extreme anger. "You cannot do that."
"Why not?" Salvino struggled not to show any fear, hoping that the Consortium hadnít already approved their request to take over the planet.
"This planet is being targeted for conquest by the Gramossa and you cannot have it. We have already filed a war franchise claim for the planet."
"And I take it this offer has already been approved?"
"It will be quite soon."
"Unfortunately as soon as I deliver the information back to my masters, they will contact the Consortium and receive the franchise before you."
"Suppose you never get back there?"
Salvino swallowed hard. He was afraid that Chakame might destroy him. He raced for something to tell them.
"If you wish to dispose of me, then you may do so," Salvino spun. "But if I do not return, my masters will eventually send another scouting party to this planet to find out what happened to me. Also I am not sure how you can explain an unauthorized hostile action on your part to the Consortium."
Chakame scratched his forelegs even faster, looking irritated. Salvinoís heart raced. If Chakame called his bluff and headed down to the planet, then he didnít know how he could stop them. Perhaps it would just be better to run. But he decided to play his hand to the end.
"Then perhaps you might be persuaded to voluntarily hold your course, at least until we can contact the humans down there with our own representative and make them a better offer," Chakame spun.
"I am not certain that they will accept," Salvino spun. "My masters have made quite a generous offer to them. They have allowed them to keep their planet and remain as workers in exchange for receiving for fifty percentage of the planetís mineral resources."
"That is absurd. Under us, they would be lucky to be alive."
"Yes, well, the Metoklos have found that in this case they can achieve more through negotiation and cooperation than through aggression." If only that were so, Salvino thought. "And once they have acquired this worldís vast fortunes, then they will achieve as many great conquests as your own empire. Perhaps even more. Now if youíll excuse me, I must head back to my masters."
He reached slowly to terminate the comline, but Chakame spun, "Wait. Do not leave. Surely there is something that we can do to convince you to remain and renegotiate with the humans in our favor."
Salvino stopped and spun, "Perhaps if you allowed the humans to retain full control of the planet and sought only a twenty-five percent collection of mineral resources, then they would be amenable to the idea."
"That is ridiculous."
"I agree, but our masters are offering them full control of the planet and taking fifty-percent."
"They must be insane. We will go back to the Consortium and demand to know why they have been allowed to control this planet."
Salvinoís heart jumped with terror. He could not let them go back to the Consortium and ask, lest his bluff be called. But he had no weapons and no way to prevent them from leaving. He had to think of something fast to stop them. His mind raced, but he could think of nothing that would work. Suddenly an idea came to his mind. It was an extremely dangerous gamble, but it was the only thing he could think of.
"I hesitate to mention it, but my masters have already filed claim for another war franchise against your own species. Once they have secured this world, they will come after you. They believe you are weak and easily conquerable."
Chakame hissed and smashed one of his pinchers through a control board.
"Those arrogant pus bags," Chakame spun, thrashing his limbs angrily. "They could not hope to defeat us in a million years. We have the strength of thousands and they are nothing."
"Far be it from me to argue with you. But they will soon receive approval."
"Then they must not have Colista. We will accede to the humansí offer and give them what they want. And I will personally give you your own ship if you can ensure that the humans accept our offer."
Great, Salvino thought. Now all I have to do is convince Nequeda and her people to go along with it. Which will be a lot easier said than done.
"I will see what I can do," Salvino said. "If I could have a contract to present them, it would be of immeasurable value."
"You shall have it within the hour. Just make sure that they agree."
"It will be done."
He clicked out and headed back down to the planet, unsure how to convince them.
A half an hour later Salvino arrived back outside the base. He crawled back through the window and found a new, younger technician with black hair and a goatee. He turned and ran screaming.
Salvino sighed and walked back down the tunnel, fearing that this would be his last walk anywhere. This time some of the civilians had plasma pistols and rifles of their own and they started firing at him.
Salvino threw himself down on the floor and said, "Donít shoot, please. Iím surrendering."
A security team ran down the tunnel moments later and Salvino felt like he was trapped in a causality loop. This time the team fired a net gun at him and he remained trapped in a tight bundle of nano-fibers.
"I want to see Administrator Nequeda again," Salvino said. "I have a better offer for her."
"Shut up," the captain of the guard said.
A few minutes later Nequeda appeared again, looking annoyed yet slightly amused.
"You just donít know when to give up, do you?" she said.
"The last thing I wanted to do was come back here, believe me," Salvino said. "But Iíve made a better deal with another group of aliens called the Gramossa."
"Oh, and what are they going to do if we agree to their terms? Take us offworld and stick us in slave labor camps?"
"No, theyíre willing to let you remain free on the planet and protect you as long as you give them ten percent of the planetís mineral resources in exchange. From what I see, you donít even have much of a mining operation down here."
"I thought you said other species were going to enslave or kill us."
"They would. But I told them that you had already agreed to the Metoklos proposal."
"So you lied to them."
"Only in your interest. To get you a better deal. Please, I came here unarmed. Just at least look at my offer before you get rid of me."
"And how do I know we can trust you?"
"Because any deal the Gramossa make with the Consortium will ensure your protection. As long as they stand to make a profit, both sides will abide by their agreement."
"But itís under false pretenses."
"But the Gramossa donít know that. And as long as you stay quiet about it, there shouldnít be any problem." Salvino took out his contract. "Please, at least consider it."
Nequeda hesitated, but then she gestured for her guards to release him. One of them took the contract cube from him.
"Iíll meet with the Council and discuss this matter," Nequeda said. "In the meantime Iíd appreciate it if youíd wait outside the colony. I donít want my people even more scared than they already are."
"Escort him out."
The guards escorted Salvino back to his ship. Eight hours later, after much nervous pacing, Salvino saw a convoy of hovercars race out from the base. They stopped in front of the larvaship. Nequeda got out of the car with his contract, handed it to him and said, "You have your deal. Just make sure that the Gramossa hold up their end of the bargain."
Salvino struggled not to jump for joy. "They will have to, unless they want the Consortium on their backs." He smiled. "Thank you."
"Youíre welcome." She got back in her car and the convoy drove back to the dome.
Salvino ran back onto his ship, flew back to Chakameís ship in orbit, contacted them and spun, "They agreed."
"Excellent. Transmit the contract to us and I will send an electronic copy to the Consortium."
Salvino did so. While he waited for the Consortiumís approval, Salvino received a signal from Kagorda.
"Have you gotten them to approve our rule yet?" Kagorda spun.
"No, your Excellency," Salvino spun. "I am still trying to convince them. Perhaps if you allowed them to maintain their human form and speakó"
"I will not allow them to continue to communicate in their wretched verbal languages under any circumstances. Make it clear what is at stake for them and insure that they will be destroyed eventually if they do not accept my terms. I expect you to have them agree in the next week. Otherwise I will have to send someone more persuasive to relieve you. Is that clear?"
"Yes, your Excellency. Quite clear."
He signed off.
You better hurry, Salvino thought.
Three days later they received confirmation from the Consortium. They agreed to the contract between the Gramossa Empire and the humans on Colista. Colista was now officially under the protection of the Gramossa. If anyone tried to invade the world, they could be destroyed.
Salvino wanted to sigh with relief, but the Metoklos still presented a problem. If they ever found out about his subterfuge, they would seek to annul the decision. And they could win. Somehow he had to prevent that from happening. Plus most of humanity was still under Metoklos rule. After giving the matter much thought, he contacted Chakame and laid out a plan.
Chakame eagerly accepted the idea and chirped with pleasure.
The day before Salvinoís time limit was up, he contacted Kagorda and spun, "Good news, your Excellency. The humans have agreed to your terms. But there is only one thing they ask."
"What is that?" Kagorda spun.
"They have formally requested your presence."
"Why not sign it for us?"
"Humans enjoy formality and I believe a display of our military might would make an imposing presence at the signing."
"Yes, you are right. They need to see that coming with us is the only choice they can make. I will send seven of my finest ships to the planet along with my own flagship. We shall be there within the week."
"Very good, your Excellency. I look forward to your arrival."
Kagorda signed off and Salvino contacted Chakame.
"They are on their way," Salvino spun. "Will you give the other humans back their worlds once the Metoklos are taken care of?"
"As long as they pay us at least forty percent of their worldsí mineral resources and pledge loyalty to our empire, I see no reason why we canít tolerate their presence," Chakame spun.
Once the trap was set, Salvino sat back and waited anxiously. One week later Kagorda arrived with his ships. Only to find a Gramossa blockade that contained over fifty ships that were armed and ready to fire. Chakame came on the line and demanded to know why the ship had violated their planetary space.
"Your space?" Kagorda spun. "This planet will soon be oursó"
"This planet already belongs to us, per Consortium rule," Chakame spun. "And you are violating its sovereignty with your obviously aggressive military presence."
"Whereís the proof that you own Colista?"
Chakame transmitted the Consortium contract and Salvino couldnít help but smile as he watched Kagorda scrape his pincers together nervously.
"Very well, we will withdraw from your space immediately and consult the Consortium to contestó" Kagorda spun.
"Iím afraid itís not that simple. You see, youíve already violated our territory. So we have every right to destroy you and seize your conquered worlds and people as our own. And we shall exercise those rights now."
But just before they cut the com signal, Salvino appeared onscreen and said in English, "You should never have threatened to rip my tongue out, Kagorda. Because now youíre royally fucked."
Kagorda barely had time to spin an angry strand of silk when a barrage of missiles and plasma blasts blew his ship to pieces.
x x x
Sneaky is as sneaky does, they say. I like the twists and turns this weave of a story makes as it scuttles to its conclusion. Blowing arachnids to bug-juice appeals to me as well (sorry about that any spider lovers out there). Spin your comments about this tale to our BBS.