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Foreign Legion

Hal Colebatch and Matthew Joseph Harrington



Augustus, A.V.C. 832

Jegarvindertsa gestured with two of their arms at small details in the center of the picture the ship's roving cameras presented. Another of their arms enlarged the section, filtering out the vast plume of black smoke and ash clouds.

Under the organization of uniformed members of their own species, the surviving bipeds from the towns the volcanic eruption had destroyed were lining up to receive food.

Others, with weapons and without, were setting up temporary wood and fabric dwellings with material being unloaded from primitive oar- and sail-powered sea vessels and beasts of burden. Some bipeds, evidently injured, were being carried on litters. Details could be seen clearly.

In the days of their trade empire the Jotoki had dealt with many worlds, and not all the knowledge of sapients' behavior which they had accumulated then had been lost in the generations of long and terrible war. Following age-old procedures that had become almost reflexive, they had sent down camouflaged cameras and listening devices among the aliens, had translated their speech and recorded their organization, economics, sociology. There were still a few among the Jotoki remnant whose trades included the once-proud occupation of alien sociotechnician. Despite these beings' unpleasantly suggestive appearances and primitive technology, it was obvious to the watchers what was going on.

"They cooperate. They have organized disaster relief as well as a military caste. This is a civilization."

Jufadirvanlums's mouths formed into shapes venomous with disapproval: "You would still have us recruit more alien mercenaries." It was a statement. An accusation, not a question, part of a long-going debate.

Jegarvindertsa raised themselves on two arms. Their gesture was in the affirmative. "What else are we to do? Half the gun mountings in our fleet are unserviced. Our asteroid miners can still fabricate infantry sledges, and we have no infantry. Do you think we can fight a war against the cursed ones without troops to ride them into battle? A war of machines? Have our failures shown you nothing?"

"And have you learnt nothing? 'The finest security force the spiral arm can give,' our ancestors said when in their mad folly they trained the cursed ones."

"These are different."

"How can another Iron-level culture whose members revel in killing one another be different? They even look enough like the cursed ones to suggest they come from the same spores!"

"These are omnivores. They have cities of a sort. And laws."

"So had the cursed ones, when those-whose-names-are-obliterated first recruited them, to our ruin."

"These are, we maintain, different. See how these organized ones even seem to feed their own poor and unfortunate. They have rudimentary medicine and public works. Like our own ancestors, they are seagoing, and you will observe that some of those ships, at least, are built for carrying cargo—they are for trade, not war."

"They have no shortage of war."

"What use would they be to us if they were herbivorous pacifists? But their military culture is not only tough and versatile, it's well disciplined. Institutionally disciplined. The fact they have uniforms shows that: Their ranks are indicated and they depend on more than mere physical strength to see orders are obeyed. They give their slaves rights: They cannot be killed or mutilated without process of their courts."

"In theory!"

"In theory, at least. They have art and poetry—a little—that is more than merely battle songs." Their voice changed as another segment took up the argument. "Also, they have administrative ability, unlike the cursed ones."

"All of which will make them more dangerous enemies, when they turn against us."

"Have you no more sense than when you were tadpoles? Our progenitors dealt with many races in peace, successfully and to the benefit of all. Our civilization was not for us alone. And long it endured. Here, on a barbaric planet, we see others who have a civilization." They fiddled with the viewer. "Now there is something interesting!"

They increased the magnification: "You see those beings that have a place of honor, the trumpet players. What is it they wear about their upper segment? The skin of a creature that bears a strong resemblance to a certain other creature we know too well."

"You would have us risk too much. Better to flee at once with all of our kind that are left."

"We have no choice. We must have more troops! We have fought for millennia as the cursed ones gathered strength, suffering defeat after defeat, losing planet after planet. Only the size of space has saved our remnant so far. Our whole civilization trembles on the verge of extinction. And we, we are its trustees!" Their arms waved in frustrated anger. "Look at this ship! How many dry and empty breeding and sleeping ponds does it contain? How many of our guns and machines are working with jury-rigged servomechanisms? We expect mechanisms to make combat decisions! Our machines can build us more ships, as long as computer memories function and there are planets and asteroids with metal in them. We cannot reproduce so easily, or train tadpoles in a single cycle! We spread ourselves thinner and thinner among our escorts, our gun turrets, our fighters. We are a fleet of shell crews propped up by mechanisms."

"If we had the Trade Council—"

"The last of the Trade Council, may we remind you, has long been eaten. We and our dwindling armsful of worlds remain. The last of the Jotoki to stand."

"The last we know of."

"It comes to the same thing. What choice do we have?"

"And do you think iron-using primitives can help us in space battles?"

"Eventually, yes. We also need to hold planets as well as take them. That means infantry, and it is infantry that we lack."

"If we must take them, we must take them from somewhere remote. Leave no witnesses to tell the cursed ones when they come of our presence."

Jegarvindertsa gestured at the scenes of devastation the cameras were still recording.

"Did you see the boat that was nearly destroyed when it rowed too near the eruption? It was one of their more elaborate and ornate craft. Were those on board actually investigating the eruption from abstract curiosity? The one who went ashore from it, who walked toward the eruption and died on the beach: He was richly dressed by their standards, and had attendants. We wish we had picked up his last words . . . Did we see a primitive martyrdom for science?

"They fight wars to stop barbaric customs among the tribesmen on their own frontiers," they continued. "They actually expend their own soldiers for an abstract idea of civilization."

"And enslave those they conquer."

"Doesn't every intelligent race before it learns economics? But they allow some of their slaves freedom eventually. They are traders, like us. Real traders. Merchant ships, warehouses, currency, courts. We say these beings actually care about civilization."

"They care about gold."

"So do we. So do you. Those who care about gold we can deal with. But we will say another thing. These beings are resilient. Their barbarians beat them occasionally but they always come back. We have a little time. We can watch them awhile."

Both Jotoki entities were using all five of their linked brains. The argument went on, as the world turned beneath them.

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