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Black Sun



“There was a time when none of this was here,” Darden said, waving his hand in an arc to indicate the city.  “Just miles and miles of flat prairie.  Now look at it.”

     “Your city is indeed impressive,” Sakumi agreed.  They were alone on the balcony mid-way up the side of the hotel.  All around them were tall buildings of shining glass, glistening chrome, polished stone.  Everything in the city seemed to have a reflective surface.  Unlike the people of Sakumi’s own world, the citizens of this planet seemed shallow, their lives far too busy for proper introspection.  The surface of the mirror was as deep as they probed.  “It is surprisingly large,” he added.  “I do not understand why a Rym world would feel the need for such compactness when there is still so much empty space around us.”

     Darden appeared puzzled.  “You mean between the buildings?” he asked.  “We have to have room for the cars.”

     “That is not what I meant,” Sakumi said, though the reason for the traffic did puzzle him.  The air was practically filled with vehicles of all shapes and sizes.  Where could so many people be going all the time?  “I have seen open-air architecture on many worlds.  I was thinking of the empty land outside the city.”

     “The flats?  Well, I suppose the city will grow out that way sooner or later.”

     “But why construct so high and live so closely when you could spread out?  You could do so, yet you choose to remain in close proximity to one another.”

     Darden laughed.  “It’s our nature,” he said.  “I guess we’re a lot more social than you Menondites.”

     Sakumi bristled.  “You speak in error,” he protested.  “The people of the Menondite Consortium are the most sociable of all human communities.  We live in tightly interwoven groups with extended familial bonds.  I have seen nothing like it on the Rym Worlds or anywhere else I have visited thus far.”

     “You live that way because you have to,” Darden said, grinning.  “Population density is the fuel that drives you social interaction.”  He pulled away from the railing and moved closer to Sakumi.  The Menondite reflexively stepped back.

     “See,” Darden said, grinning.  “Our personal boundaries are tighter.  You have no more room on your planets for open spaces.  Here, we huddle together because we like it.”

     Sakumi looked away, trying to shake off the unease brought on by the violation of his personal boundaries.  It was another reminder of how far from home he really was.  The Menondite Consortium was ancient, its people complacent and resistant to change.  Rym worlds like this one were vibrant, alive with the frenetic promise of growth.  The buildings were separated by gulfs of emptiness, connected to one another by soaring bridges at many heights.  Most looked like gossamer threads floating on the distant air.  The vehicles dashed about crazily, careening around corners, darting to and fro seemingly at random, but there was never a collision.  Overhead, the sky was an intense blue shot through with streamers of white clouds.

     It had a strange beauty to it.  The carefully structured asymmetry was at once captivating and disturbing.  “Perhaps,” he said aloud, “you only live this way because you also have no choice.”  He smiled.  “We are less the pilots of our destiny than we are passengers, I think.”

     Darden was nodding.  “You’re probably right,” he said.  “In any case, I’m not going to argue about which way is best.  To each his own, I always say.  In any event, I’m very proud of my world and our way of life.  I wish everyone could live this way.”

     Sakumi suppressed a frown and the sour thoughts that accompanied it.  An air car flashed by nearly close enough to touch.  The normally invisible shield surrounding the balcony turned light yellow as it strengthened automatically, protecting the men from the vehicle’s backwash.  It happened too quickly for Sakumi to react.  He turned a surprised look on his host as the shield’s luminescence vanished.

     “There’s nothing to worry about,” Darden assured him.  “The cars are flown by onboard computers linked to the city’s traffic control system.  It’s illegal to pilot your own car inside the city.”

     “Do your people do nothing which is not legal?” Sakumi asked with a sarcastic grin.

     Darden laughed.  “Of course,” he admitted.  “All societies have crime.”

     “Yes.  Of course they do.” Sakumi wiped moisture from his face.  “I believe I have had enough of the out of doors.  Shall we go in?” Darden bowed politely and turned, leading the way back into the apartment.  They passed through another energy screen, this one providing a filter between the balcony and the interior.  Sakumi did not like it.  The screen rippled across his skin, penetrating his clothes invasively.

     The apartment was large, even by local standards.  His quarters on his homeworld were a tenth this size, and he had learned many people here lived in places much larger.  It seemed to be an exorbitant waste of viable space, but space was the one thing these people had in abundance.  They were rich beyond their understanding, squandering their luxury without considering what they possessed. 

     The room next to the balcony was a sitting room with many chairs and sofas.  Darden lowered himself adroitly into an overstuffed chair, smoothing the wrinkle-free fabric of his clothing.  Sakumi chose a sofa a discrete distance away.  The cushions sighed as he settled his weight onto them.  His own clothing adjusted itself, stretching where needed, tightening slightly in other places.  He noticed a tiny frown appear on Darden’s face when the other man noticed how Sakumi’s clothes worked to keep the Menondite comfortable.  There were dozens of differences between the two of them, almost all of them technological.  But scientific advances, Sakumi knew, came most rapidly from those who still contested their will against the forces of nature, and in that regard he considered Darden’s people to have the advantage despite the myriad gadgets his own people took for granted.

     “There’s another reception tonight,” Darden announced once Sakumi was settled.  “I know you’ve been kept busy in the week since you arrived, but are you up for another dinner party?”

     “What an odd question,” Sakumi said, pushing himself deeper into the cushions.  “Is it a peculiarity of your culture that orients all good things in a vertical direction?”

     Darden laughed.  “I’ve never thought of that,” he said.  “But I suppose it’s true.”  He shrugged as if to say the matter held no real interest for him.  He stared at Sakumi unabashedly.  The Menondite realized suddenly that his host was waiting for an answer.

     “Of course, I shall attend,” he said with a sigh.  “Will anyone of importance be there?  It seems I have met everyone in your government by now.”  What he really longed for was to meet more of what Darden called the “common folk,” the citizens of the Rym who were not participating in the political arena.  That, he knew, was where the real heart of a culture could be found.  True, he had been able to corner a few servants here and there, but for the most part he had been carefully shepherded by a string of governmental flunkies of which Darden was the most recent.

     “The usual lot,” Darden said about the party.  “Not the Prelate, though.  She’s busy today.  The Ecotian Navy is launching a new battleship out on Thur.”  Thur was the larger of Ecotia’s two moons.  It was lightly populated, mostly by scientists, and Sakumi was not supposed to know that inside it was hollow and was the nerve center of the Navy.  The official shipyards lay behind the moon inside one of its LaGrange points.

     “Ah, yes,” Sakumi said.  “I had nearly forgotten.  How long has the conflict between the Rym and the Federation been brewing?”

     “Forever.  We’ve already fought two wars with them in the last hundred years.”  Darden appeared at ease talking about it, as though the threat of eminent war was of no consequence.

     “And what has brought the animosity to the fore this time?” Sakumi asked.

     “It’s complicated,” Darden replied evasively.  “Summed up, it’s a matter of local politics.  The Federation hasn’t been the same since the President was executed by the revolutionaries.  These days it’s more a den of thieves and smugglers than anything else.  I understand Menondites don’t have wars.”

     Sakumi smiled at the man’s transparency.  “We are pacifists,” he said.

     “How have you managed that?  I mean, it always seemed to me that pacifists could only exist within a society that was strong enough to protect them.  Aren’t you open to attack all the time?”  Darden’s face was friendly, but Sakumi saw a gleam in the man’s eyes.  After a week among the people of the Rym, he had learned quite a bit about them in spite of their best efforts.  Like unsatisfied children, they always desired what belonged to others.

     “When was the last time you heard of someone attacking the Consortium?” he offered.  “Not in two thousand years have we had to defend ourselves.”

     “So, you do fight then?”

     Sakumi laughed.  “No.  We invest our efforts into defense.”  He let it stay at that, unwilling to help Darden too much.  He was well aware of his position here.  The Consortium was respected everywhere, and on each world Sakumi visited he was accorded deferent treatment.  That did not, however, mean his hosts were not constantly on the watch for a weakness they could exploit.

     “Naturally, I don’t expect you to reveal your secrets,” Darden said, as if following Sakumi’s thoughts.  “But you have to understand, everyone’s curious about you, about the Menondite worlds.  What kind of technology do you have?  What miracles have you brought to trade?”

     Sakumi found himself laughing.  “Ah!  The most popular question of all. Tell me, Darden, what was your position again?”

     “Undersecretary to the Minister of Science,” the Ecotian replied.  His eyes were shining, eager.

     “I suppose you have been wanting to ask that question ever since you met me,” Sakumi commented.  “Reveal to me what you hope I bring.”

     Darden leaned back into his chair.  “We’ve all speculated,” he said.  “No one ever trades with the Consortium, so we’ve always believed your technology was so much higher than ours that we had nothing you wanted.”

     “I would not be so quick to decide that.  We are not as advanced as some of your scientists dream.  I can not, for example, give you the secret of teleportation for we can not do that.  Nor would we be willing to give you anything that might be used as a weapon.”

     “That’s a given,” Darden nodded.  “See, we aren’t so different after all.”

     “There are more differences than you can see,” Sakumi said.  “It is more than the dissimilarities of our cultures.  It goes much deeper than that.”

     “Well,” Darden said, unwilling to agree, “we’re both human, aren’t we?”

     “Are we?” Sakumi wondered.  “I sometimes think we left our humanity in our past.”

     Darden had no response for that.  These people, Sakumi noted, did not like to dwell on the melancholy.  He found the call button in the arm of the sofa and pressed it.  A moment later a servant appeared.  “I am interested in tasting something new,” Sakumi said.  “Nothing too sweet, preferably effervescent.  And non-alcoholic.  What do you recommend?”

     The servant, a boy in his teens wearing a bright white uniform, stared at Sakumi dumbly.  “A sandcrawler,” Darden suggested.  “Make it two.”  The boy smiled and curtsied before hurrying away.  Sakumi shook his head.

     “You know,” he said, “we don’t have servants in the Consortium.”

     “Oh?” Darden replied, gazing at the Menondite with a peculiar gleam in his eyes.  “Why’s that?  I suppose you use robots for everything and nobody has to work.  A regular Utopia, eh?”

     “I am not familiar with that word,” Sakumi said, recognizing the sarcasm in his host’s voice.  “Everyone works in Menondite society.  It takes much effort to ensure we remain totally self-sufficient.  I only meant to point out that we do not have people whose sole task it is to be subservient to others.”

     Darden snorted.  “Everyone’s got a boss,” he said.  Sakumi shrugged, not deigning to argue the point.  Like all Outsiders, Darden had only surface conceptions of Menondite society.  He would be shocked to learn what Sakumi knew about the Rym.  The servant returned bearing a tray with their drinks.  A sandcrawler turned out to be a slender flute filled with a fizzing cream-colored mixture.  It was pleasantly sour to the taste.

     “Truthfully,” Sakumi said, putting his half empty glass on the low table beside him, “I’m not sure there’s anything we would want to trade for.  I suppose you could call this a good-will visit.”

     “How many other systems have benefited from Menondite goodwill?”

     “All of them, at some point or another.”  Sakumi eyed his glass but did not reach for it.  There was a strange tickle in his stomach suggesting that there was something disagreeable in the liquid.  “We have particular interest in the Rym at this time.”

     Darden was studying him closely.  “That’s news,” he said distantly.  “You were studying us.  How do we merit special treatment?”

     “You’ve been aggressively exploring lately.  One would think you were looking for colony worlds.”

     “As you’ve seen,” Darden said, spreading his hands, “we have plenty of room.”

     “Expansion is not the traditional reason a government expends so much resource in exploration,” Sakumi pointed out.  The rumble in his stomach was diminishing.  The room seemed to dim in his left eye and symbols began to appear in his vision as the medibots in his bloodstream made their report.  Not a poison, he saw, but a narcotic.  Effectively neutralized.  So much for diplomacy.  The Ecotians had grown tired of plying their visitor with polite questions and had chosen to extract the information more vigorously.

     Darden was scowling, evidently expecting Sakumi to be sedated by now.  “Are you a spy?” he asked suddenly.  Sakumi laughed.

     “A spy?  What would I be spying on?”

     Darden’s frown deepened.  He reached for the timepiece on his wrist and squeezed it.  Sakumi heard the whispery click of the door lock engaging.  At the same time, the doorway to the balcony became opaque as the shield there intensified.  Sakumi tried not to appear surprised, though he was.  “Is there something wrong?” he asked.

     “Not anymore,” Darden responded.  His demeanor had changed.  His friendliness had evaporated.  He rose and crossed quickly to the communications device inset in the wall.  It hummed to life, a gray haired woman appearing in the viewing screen.  “What is it?” the stern face demanded.

     “He’s neutralized the phenodrine in his drink,” Darden reported bluntly.  Sakumi looked on in disbelief, amazed that the Ecotians, after so much subterfuge, would reveal themselves so openly now.

     “Are you certain?” the woman asked.  Darden stepped aside and gestured toward Sakumi sitting up alertly on the sofa.  “I see.  I’ll be there in a moment.”  The screen went dark.  Darden turned away smirking.

     “Do not be so self-congratulatory,” Sakumi warned.  “I am not a spy.”

     “Of course you are,” Darden sneered.  All trace of his geniality was gone.  “Phenodrine is a powerful sedative.  You must have implants in your stomach to guard against poisons and drugs.  You’re a spy, all right.”

     Sakumi laughed heartily.  “My dear man,” he said, “did it not occur to you that a traveler might have taken precautions against something more mundane like dysentery?  Besides, I know you’ve scanned me a number of times since my arrival.”

     “You shouldn’t know that either,” Darden accused.  The door clicked and slid open allowing several soldiers to crowd through.  The gray haired woman followed, another stern looking man at her heels.

     “We were just discussing advanced technology,” Sakumi said, addressing Darden.  “How do you think I knew?”

     “We have many theories,” the woman said.  She halted a few paces into the room and adopted a dominating stance, hands on her hips and looking down her nose at the offworlder.  “Bioengineering, perhaps.  Or nanotechnology.  The why, at this point, is inconsequential.  I don’t think you’re stupid.  Your people would not have selected you to come to the Rym alone if they mistrusted your judgement.  What do you think is going on?”

     Sakumi glanced at the soldiers.  They looked very imposing in their bodyarmor, faces hidden behind reflective shields.  The weapons they held trained on him were unfamiliar, but looked dangerous all the same.  “I don’t think I know your name,” Sakumi said.  He leaned back on the sofa wearing a forced smile.  All he could think was that he had wasted an entire week on Ecotia if it was all going to come to this.

     The woman bristled, managing to look a bit stiffer.  “I am Commander Inise of the High Command,” she said.  Behind her, Darden leaned close to whisper something to the unnamed man.

     “Well, Commander.  If we are to reveal what we know, then let us be blunt.”  He paused to take a deep breath.  The Commander cut her eyes sharply at Darden who had moved up beside her, eager to listen.  “The Menondite Consortium does not make a habit of involving itself in the political machinations of other worlds.  Occasionally, though, we do send out emissaries to see just what is going on along our borders.  We have noted your explorations, and we have seen that you are not looking for new planets to colonize.”

     Inise smirked.  Sakumi decided it was a cultural mannerism he did not like.  “Of course we are,” she said.  “We have a rapidly expanding population.  We need breathing room.”

     “You have plenty of room on this planet.”

     “Your ignorance is forgivable,” Inise said.  “Menondites live a very different lifestyle than the rest of the populated worlds.  You can’t expect us to crowd together like you do.”

     “What you are saying is non sequitur,” Sakumi responded.  “If you are having population problems, attempting to conquer another heavily populated world is not the answer.  No, I believe you are after something else.”

     “What does it matter what you think?” Darden snarled.  “You’re our prisoner now.  Our reasons don’t matter, not to you.  Not anymore.”

     Inise gave him a sharp look but did not contradict him.  Sakumi felt a vague unease settle over him.  Inside, he knew the medibots would respond to that.  More symbols appeared in his vision, a message from his Ship.  It had been surrounded by troops and weaponry.  He sent a signal to it as his sadness deepened.  Departure, then, would not be without difficulty, and it would have to happen very soon.

     “So, what do you plan to do?” he asked.  Inise gestured to the man standing behind her.  He stepped forward brandishing a hypodermic filled with a viscous yellow fluid.

     “Don’t move,” one of the guards warned, his voice emerging from his armor with an electronic growl. 

     Sakumi raised a hand, motioning for the man with the needle to stop.  He did, and the guards tensed suddenly.  Their weapons began to whine.  “I had hoped,” he said, “to establish relations with your people.  There is so much we could have given you.”

     “Don’t fret,” Darden said.  “We’ll get it all anyway.”

     “No, you won’t,” Sakumi replied quietly.  “We know about the battlefleet you have near Rigel.  And the bases you have established near other stars.  What do you think you are achieving by conquest?”

     Inise shrugged.  “To be prepared for war is the most effective way of preserving the peace,” she said.  “The people need something to focus aggression on.”

     So it came down to politics after all.  Inise nodded to one of the guards, and Sakumi felt a tingle in his spine.  They were hitting him with some kind of stunner, but his body shield held it away.  Darden lifted his wrist to his ear, listening.  “Commander,” he said, his voice resonating urgency, “there’s a problem.”

     “I see that, you fool,” the woman hissed, staring daggers at Sakumi.

     “Not that!”  Darden was visibly upset.  “His ship has just left the docks.”

     Inise turned on him angrily.  “What?  I though he was the only one who came.”

     “It must be on automatic.  It’s…” he paused, listening again.  His eyes grew wider.  “It’s coming this way.  High velocity.”

     Sakumi’s implants told him it was true.  The Ship had lifted off without harm and was making best speed toward him despite the thickness of the air car traffic.  He was sure the city’s computerized system would help the ship avoid any needless collisions.  Above all, the ship would not take life, even to save Sakumi’s.

     Inise whirled on the Menondite, white with rage.  “Kill him,” she ordered, backing away.  Before Sakumi could react, the room filled with thunder.  The soldiers unleashed the fury of their weapons, pounding their target with a quick volley.  When he rose from the sofa apparently unharmed, they fired again, a constant barrage of energy that dissolved the sofa and much of the surrounding furniture.  Inise and Darden cowered near the door, watching the assault with incredulity.

     He wished he could say something to comfort them, but the noise of the weaponry drowned out all other sound.  There was nothing more to say anyway.  He received the signal he had been waiting for.  He smiled, meant to show he did not blame them for acting according to their nature, and moved toward the opaqued balcony doorway.  The shield collapsed as he neared it, and two of his Ship’s attendants appeared.  They were thin of body for easy storage, but each was stronger than a man.  The Menondites were very good at robotics.  Each had four arms and two legs with hand-like appendages at the end of each limb. Their heads were oblong cylinders, faceless and smooth, bearing the faint marking of a numeral which was their only distinguishing characteristic.

     Each attendant projected a shield behind Sakumi, closing off all attack.  The Ship hovered motionless beside the balcony.  A third attendant had removed a portion of the railing and helped Sakumi aboard.  By the time he had settled into the pilot’s chair, the attendants had hopped aboard and sealed the hatch.  “Orbit,” Sakumi told the Ship.  It obeyed instantly, leaping away from the city.  He was not sad to see it diminish behind him.

     The Ship had no windows, but clever sensors in the skin relayed images from the outside which were projected against the inside of the cabin.  Sakumi felt as if he was surrounded by the limitless expanse of sky.  All around he saw air glowing orange with fire, lit by the ferocity of the Ship’s passage.  Blue became a black filled with stars as he left the atmosphere.

     And he found himself suddenly at a loss as to what he should do next.  Certainly, the mission to Ecotia was a failure.  Or, in a sense, it was not. At least he could report that the Ecotians were still not ready to be civilized.

     An idea occurred to him.  “Ship, scan the broadcast frequencies.  Locate a wavelength with Darden’s voice.”  Having constantly monitored everything Sakumi heard, the ship already had Darden’s voiceprint to make a match with, and almost instantly a static filled the air with the man’s voice clearly distinguishable.

     “…didn’t fire a single shot.  All the wounds were from friendly fire.  Medics report no serious injuries though.”

     “That’s good to hear,” Sakumi said, cutting in.  “I was worried you might have hurt yourselves.”

     “Sakumi?” Darden sounded incredulous.  “How did you…?  Never mind.  Listen, why don’t you come back and let’s discuss this?”

     “Discuss how you tried to kill me?  That conversation would be pointless.”  The ship overlay the view of the stars with a schematic detailing the course back to the Consortium.  He nodded his assent and the ship banked sharply.

     “Let’s be realistic,” Darden said after a long pause, probably consulting with others.  “You’re a pacifist.  Your people won’t fight us, so they’re going to loose.  You could give us information that could minimize collateral damage.”

     “I beg to differ,” Sakumi argued.  “Tell me, Darden, how old is Ecotia?”

     The question caught the man off guard.  “What?  Eh, about four hundred years old.  What does that…”

     “Ecotia was settled as a colony from Eridan in 4664,” Sakumi recited smoothly.  “In 4992, you broke free of the Earth Alliance.  Do you know when the first Menondite colony was established?  2190.  Over twenty-five hundred years ago.  We were pacifists from the very beginning.  You are not the first ones who sought to conquer an easy prey, but in all that time we have never lived a single day under another’s rule.”

     The Ship beeped softly for attention.  On the screen, a star was highlighted by a glowing circle.  Sakumi squinted at the symbols displayed beside it.  It was an Ecotian warship moving to intercept him.

     “Even if you get away to warn your planet,” Darden said after another pause, “it won’t matter.  Our ships are already on their way.”

     “You still fail to understand,” Sakumi said.  He touched a few of the controls, urging the Ship to stay on course.  “There are plenty of non-lethal ways to disable your vessels.  You called yourself more social than us, but you have no idea what it’s like to live on a world with ninety billion people.  Life is that precious to us.  We certainly would not risk giving it up easily.”

     He stretched and leaned back in his chair, glad to feel something conform to him appropriately after a week of sitting on mindless Ecotian furniture.  “You know we started with cities like yours.  Now each of our worlds has only one city, and it covers the planet.  A labyrinth of halls and highways, living spaces, parks, factories, everything one might need and all of it repeated thousands of times.  And over it all a planetary shield powered by energies your scientists have not even guessed at.  Your attack will fail.”

     The warship was drawing closer steadily.  Sakumi could begin to make out structural details.  It was a sleek craft, shiny and new, dwarfing the Menondite craft twenty times over.  He was sure it bristled with weapons, through he was unable to identify any by sight.  The screen flared white momentarily as an energy beam struck him, then the viewer compensated for the new spectrum and returned to normal.

     “If you were so certain,” Darden said, sounding doubtful, “you wouldn’t be working so hard to convince me.  Only the weak would brag so much.”

     “Brag?” Sakumi echoed, surprised.  “I assure you such was not my intent.  I have been an emissary for a long time.  I suppose it has become a habit to negotiate.”  He touched the controls again.  Sensors reached out with delicate fingers, probing the warship.  Only thirty lifeforms aboard.  Not a full crew.  This, then, was the newly launched battleship that Darden had spoken of.  It would make an excellent example.

     There was another long silence from Darden.  Sakumi was surprised that the Ecotians had not commandeered the conversation by now.  No doubt they had many experts listening attentively for any information Sakumi might let slip.  The warship launched something at him, probably a missile.  The Ship tracked it for a few seconds then neutralized it.  The missile, its drives dead and warhead inert, sailed wide of the Menondite craft.

     “Darden?” Sakumi prompted.

     “I’m here.”

     “I am about to pass one of your navy vessels.”  The warship was a black mass quickly filling the veiwscreen.  “Relay an order for the crew to abandon it.”

     There was another lapse.  “What?” Darden said after a few minutes.  The babble of many voices could be heard in the background.  “Why would we do that?  You’re not going to do anything aggressive.”

     “True,” Sakumi said, “but my ship has a mind of its own.  It has been fired upon.  I fear my Ship is a little angry.”  It was a lie, of course, but he knew the Ecotians were ignorant of Menondite technology.  They had seen the Ship’s attendants in action and might fantasize any sort of scenario in their paranoia.

     “What are you planning, Sakumi?” Darden demanded, his voice tense with uncertainty.

     “I plan to do nothing more than journey home and make my report,” Sakumi replied.  “I do not wish to leave death in my Ship’s wake.”

     In truth, the Ship could take a great many courses of action entirely on its own, but the Menondites would never arm their craft.  Not for any reason.  Nor would they allow the ship’s programming to include anything which would make it take a life.  To the Ecotians, defense meant first strike capability.  Menondite defense meant the ability to take a beating and remain unscathed.

     “Well?” he prompted.  There was no reply from Darden.  Ship’s sensors, however, detected a shift in the warship’s energy pattern.  It launched a flurry of missiles at him, equally ineffective.  Minutes later, with Sakumi bearing down on it quickly, escape pods began to eject from the battleship like seeds cast to the winds.

     There was less static in the communication now that atmosphere was so far behind.  “You win, you bastard,” Darden snarled.  “This time.  Go on home, coward.  You think you’re superior to us, but you aren’t.  Go hide on your crowded little world.  Why did you even come here, anyway?”

     “Curiosity, I suppose,” Sakumi said.  The Ship was tracking twenty pods now with only one lifeform left aboard the ship.  “I talked to a great many Ecotians during my stay.  They will repeat what I said to them.  The seed I planted will germinate and grow over time.  There’s hope for you yet.”

     “What are you talking about?  We recorded everything you said.”  Darden was upset, his voice cracking under the strain.  Sakumi felt a stab of pity for the man.  “Is that why you came?  To spy and spread subversion?”

     Sakumi laughed.  “Actually,” he said, “I was to make certain offers to your government.  Offers you are not ready to accept.  I am afraid you are not quite civilized enough.”

     He was passing over the warship, quiet now.  He touched the controls again.  The Ship lanced out with its probes, found the warship’s power center and quelled it.  It was only a hunk of chilling steel now.  The last lifeform on board departed moments later.

     “You’re insane,” Darden accused.  “All of you Menondites are insane.”

     “By whose standards?” Sakumi asked.  “By your own, doubtlessly so.  Did you know there are ninety-two human communities spread among the stars?  Yours is one of the last truly aggressive ones.  There comes a point when technological advances nullify evolution.  Only our societies evolve now.  I am not so vain as to believe we have reached the ultimate model, but I know that being truly civilized means we are no longer molded by our environment.  Instead, we adapt the world to suit our needs.  We have been on that road since humanity first left the trees.

     “Perhaps there is no pinnacle of form to achieve, only individual lives unfolding beneath the banner of peace.”

     “But without challenge, mankind will stagnate,” Darden argued.  “We need conflict.  It’s the drive to survive that defines us.”

     “Then we need a new definition.”  Sakumi released the controls and leaned back in his chair.  The Ship would handle it from here.  “You must stop thinking of humanity as a whole.  Such a concept is abstract and erroneous.  We are individuals, and for most of us living is challenge enough.”

     There was no reply.  Sakumi waited as long as he could.  The Ship signaled its readiness.  It was time to go.  “I suppose we shall not speak again, you and I, Darden,” Sakumi said.  “Perhaps I will speak with your descendant one day, a century or two from now.”  There still came no reply.  Sakumi sighed resignedly.  Doubtlessly, the Ecotians had been given much to think about.  He signaled to the ship and felt the rumble of the stardrive coming to life.

     “Farewell, Ecotia,” he said.  “May you one day know peace in your lives and in your hearts.”

     The Menondite Ship flared brightly as the stardrive engaged.  It shimmered, for a moment frozen against the tableau of stars, then it vanished, diving into the ether between realities.  Briefly, it left a hole in space, and those who watched saw the warship drawn into it like a leaf fluttering down a drain.  It twisted savagely, breaking apart and falling in on itself.  The wreck struck the remnant of the wormhole and vanished in a blaze of radiant energy.

     When the light faded, nothing remained but the cold and lonely stars.  The blue and green marble that was Ecotia spun dizzily into darkness.  And down deep beneath the comforting layers of atmosphere, Darden sat in a chair staring at the images delivered by holographic projectors.  Talking to Sakumi had pushed him past his limits, and a passing medic had felt it necessary to sedate him.

     He had watched the fate of the warship dreamily.  Ecotia’s mightiest, newest, most advanced weapon reduced to high energy particles whizzing through the vacuum of far flung space. There was a thought nagging him, tugging at the edges of his fraying mind.

     “True civilization,” the Menondite had said.  Ecotians were civilized, obviously, as were all human communities.  Barbarians were relics of the ancient past.  Did that mean there were new definitions needed?  A sort of grading scale where not being civilized enough meant you were not civilized at all?

     “No,” he said aloud, gripping the armrests of his chair until his knuckles were white.  A few nearby technicians looked at him when he spoke, then turned back to their tasks.  Darden could hear the babble of many voices, like the droning of obsolete machinery.  So many people discussing the same thing.  The target of their efforts was elusive.  Where now to aim their arrows?

     Perhaps, Darden reasoned with himself, Ecotians were barbarians after all.  Starships and missiles were no better than horses and spears.  They were still hurling stones at city walls.  But barbarians had brought down civilizations before, only to be absorbed by their own rise to city-dwelling status.

     What, then, if the civilization was unbreachable?  The Menondite had been untouchable, and Darden now believed Sakumi had spoken truly about his world’s invulnerability.  History was a good teacher, for all that had come before repeated itself in each person’s future.  Civilizations fell because they clung to the dream of peace, while barbarians lived by fire and sword.  But if the lessons of history no longer applied, if true strength lay not in the sword but in the open hand…

     It meant humanity was moving into a future that was no longer predictable, and that thought was too terrifying for the barbarian mind to contemplate.

Darden forced his eyes to close and silently wept.