Authors: Chris Bunch
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
who’ve made life a lot easier:
Erin and Ed Jr.
Before battle, meditate on the thirteen ways of fire:
Consider well the ways of fire, its masks and tactics, then make war with its soul in your belly.
— Maxims for a Lone Warrior,
Fighting Against a Host
by Lai Shi-Min, later
The Emperor T’ai Tsung
(ca. 630 CE)
Starships snapped into real space, slashed toward the system’s fourth planet. As they closed, bays slid open, and small C-shaped fighting ships, the lethal
, darted out and held close formation on their mother ships.
It could have been an attack, but was not.
The Musth clanmasters were assembling to decide what might be done with the humans occupying the far-distant Cumbre system.
Or, at least the clanmasters who felt the matter of interest or value; perhaps twenty percent of the Musth clans, no more. Others might choose to involve themselves later, might remain neutral.
To the Musth, 4Planet was held, in mythology, to be the homeworld, although most of their scientists believed the race had simultaneously evolved on a dozen, perhaps more, planets; proof the universe belonged to them, buttressed by the ease with which they had conquered their home cluster and expanded beyond.
4Planet was temperate, with large continents, low mountains, lakes, much of the land covered with veldt, grassy plains interspersed with small forests. The sun was G-type, but the light was starker, more blue, than a Terran would feel comfortable under. Its climate was a bit chill for man, although it seldom snowed. Rainfall was seasonal, sparse but heavy when it came.
It had not always been like that. Over the millennia, it’d been plowed, mined, deforested, and built up, and then the Musth had gone out to the stars.
4Planet, almost abandoned, was encouraged to revert to its natural state. Cities were leveled, and the ravaged land contoured and planted, polluted rivers and lakes made to run clean, and the world was as it had been, at the dawn of Musth time.
With population pressure gone, the few million Musth who chose to remain on 4Planet built semi-underground villages, one clan holding each settlement.
Only one small continent still showed the Musth’s technocracy. Here were military bases, great landing fields, roboticized factories and yards, and the slender bureaucracy the Musth needed to administer their thousand thousand worlds. This was Gathering.
In the center of it all was a two-kilometer-wide cylinder with a domed rotunda. This building, three hundred meters high, was where the Musth came to deal with problems beyond the immediate reach of a clanmaster, or to settle a feud when one or another of the warring groups requested intervention.
The building had no name, which the Musth found logical. As the only one in their empire used for these purposes, it needed none.
There was a wry Musth proverb: “The only reason we Musth do not rule All-Cosmos is we need one eye for our race’s future, one eye for our personal destiny, and one eye to guard our backs, and the First Cause only gave us two eyes each.”
In the cylinder’s walls were suites, each with a small landing platform wide enough for a pair of ships. A clanmaster could arrive, well guarded, and conduct whatever business was necessary without leaving his suite, using the elaborate electronics array. Each suite was completely independent, with its own power generator and available air supply for those who were worried about an enemy trying to gas them.
If the controversy was solved, then the masters, their subordinates, delegates or relatives, could choose to meet in the flesh.
There were almost five hundred clanmasters assembling. Some ruled several worlds, some controlled a trade or craft, others commanded fighting fleets.
banked and circled overhead watchfully like Earth swallows, the clanmasters entered the building, each computer-routed so no enemies would find themselves sharing airspace and seizing the moment.
They came out of their small flits arrogantly, as befitted a master race; two meters tall, more when they reared back on their small tails, their coarse, yellow to reddish brown fur gleaming, small heads peering about on long, snakelike necks, quick in their motions as they moved into their quarters.
All wore weapons belts, none of their armament ceremonial in nature.
That night, before the assemblage began, coms flashed to and fro as strategies, tactics, and ideas were sent back and forth.
At sunrise, the meeting began.
Wallscreens opened, dividing as necessary as clanmasters appeared on them. Other masters activated their monitors but preferred to remain invisible.
Aesc, former “ambassador” to the Cumbre system, presented the Musth’s case. There’d always been tension between the humans and Musth, but within the last time sequence, it had exploded into violence as what he called the lesser beings, the ‘Raum, slightly smaller and darker than other humanoids, had revolted against their masters. And they’d attacked the Musth.
“Why?” a clanmaster asked. “I know little of humans, barely enough to loathe them. But I thought our differences were settled, at least in their eyes, when we made peace before.”
“The ‘Raum,” Aesc explained, “have a common belief, that they are destined to rule not merely their race, but all space, all time, all beings.”
There were noises of amusement, somewhere between purrs and growls. Someone said “heresy,” and there was more mirth.
“Leader Wlencing had the opportunity to fight them on occasion,” Aesc went on. “Once in league with the human army.”
“Your views, Wlencing,” a clanmaster, Keffa, requested.
“The ‘Raum are what the humans call,” and Wlencing used a Terran word, “ ‘wormsss,’ or slime beings. Cowards, who avoid face-battle, not much in the way of warriors when they’re driven to combat. But they were able to hurt us quite badly when they sent a manned suicide bomb into our mining headquarters on the third world.”
“That,” Aesc said, “sparked our withdrawal, as the documents provided show.”
“I have read them,” Keffa said. “And you intervened when Wlencing had not finished my question. I care little of these fools who believe themselves superior, especially when you say they have been destroyed.”
“Not destroyed,” Wlencing said. “Defeated, driven back into their warrens.”
“By the human army, which is my main interest and which my question was about,” Keffa said. “What of them?”
Wlencing considered, head darting from side to side.
“As warriors, some fight very well, especially those who have been trained to seek personal battle. As an army, in prolonged war, I have less information. The fighting with the ‘Raum was little better than a series of skirmishes.
“Against us? Since the Confederation that we once fought against seems to have withdrawn their support for this sector, their fighters are unsupported, frequently forced to improvise or do without. I will admit one advantage humans, or at least some humans, seem to have over our race is being able to find alternative solutions quite readily.”
“Perhaps,” an older clanmaster, Paumoto, said, “because their tools are so frequently inadequate to the task.” There was a ripple of agreement.
Paumoto spoke for the most militant of the Musth, those who wanted to devote all the race’s energy to obliterating the stumbling block of humanity. Only Man had presented a threat to the Musth, and vice versa. Other intelligent races encountered were either unambitious, not imperialistic, far less advanced or, most commonly, not oxygen-based, and therefore welcome to the worlds Man and Musth found harsh, uninhabitable.
Thus far, Paumoto had gained only marginal support, most of his race either having no contact and hence no interest in humanity, or believing Mankind was a tottering, dying race that would vanish of its own stupidity.
One of Paumoto’s strongest allies was Keffa, who unfortunately had far too much wealth and too little seasoning.
“That may be true,” Wlencing said once the amusement died down. “But I do not take our enemies lightly. Still, I have full confidence that we can destroy them if we fight cleverly.”
“I admire you, War Leader,” Paumoto said, “and your more perceptive fellows, for realizing what I’ve been warning for half a generation is the truth, that we must confront Mankind, on our terms, as soon as possible.
“This galaxy, and the ones around it, can support only one master, and we must put Man in his place before he can grow stronger! The perhaps-chaos of their Confederation offers us the perfect opportunity.”
“Thank you,” another clanmaster, Senza, said, “but I must remind you what happened to make some of us worry about Man.”
Thirty-five E-years earlier, the Musth had sent a major colonization group into a mineral-rich cluster both races had discovered. They took over worlds already claimed by Man, began to exploit the system. The Confederation struck back hard, destroying most of the Musth force, and made a harsh treaty requiring them to cede half a dozen systems in the sector to the humans, as well as the systems that sparked the war.
The clanmasters shifted uncomfortably, some ears cocking in anger. No Musth liked to be reminded of the past, especially if it smelled of failure.
Senza was generally regarded as unbalanced, even a calamity bringer, and probably would have been brought down if he wasn’t extraordinarily careful about his personal safety.
He was also grudgingly accorded respect because he was the unquestioned head of the ubiquitous and vital
, or “Reckoners.” The
were a unique clan, able to recruit from any other of the Musth, since they were the race’s diplomats and lawyers, the lubricant that kept the race from perpetual civil war.
Unlike most of the other Musth, Senza had voluntarily visited Man’s worlds and returned impressed. He thought each race had much to learn from the other, and might consider an alliance rather than enmity. His views were popular only with the young Musth who could break from tradition, or the more radical elements of the clans, those who wanted change from the existing order.
“The past is dead,” growled Keffa.
Senza moved a paw diagonally, signaling doubt.
“It is,” Paumoto said with finality, “as far as this debate. The question now is, what to do about the men in the Cumbre system? This moment, this chance. Suggestions?”
“We should return with warriors, not miners,” War Leader Wlencing insisted. “Hit first, hit hard, and the system is ours. We already have listeners in place, so we shall face few surprises. If the Confederation still exists, they’ll be faced with a done deed. If they do not” — he held out a paw, extended its claws — “we will have returned to our former path of conquest. There does not seem to be another option, nor, if we take this way, the risk of us suffering any real damage.”
“What of the humans who don’t conveniently die,” Senza asked. “Should we set stinging-ones on them?” These near-insects were part of one of the Musth’s less pleasant hand weapons. Held unconscious in grenades, they swarmed anything moving when the grenade burst.
“We are not monsters,” Wlencing said. “I would hardly kill cubs or breeders without provocation. We could not allow them to escape after our victory, for fear they’d bring back the Confederation.
“But isn’t there always a place for workers, doing tasks we would rather not? In the mines or even as serving class? Those who survive, and have no desire to oppose us again, might be more useful to us alive.”
“No!” Keffa snarled, eyes reddening in anger. “When a Musth cannot do his own labor, whether it’s clean or filthy, when we think ourselves too good for work, we are ready to pass on, to allow a stronger, more virile race to rule! Senza may have thought he was jesting, but I think he has the correct solution. Brutality now would prevent future complications.”
“Keffa certainly has confidence,” Senza said. “As yet, we have mounted no campaigns, and already we are discussing the spoils and how we shall murder those we’re too stupid to deal with in other ways.”
“Do you doubt our ability to conquer?” Paumoto demanded.
“Certainly not,” Senza said. “If, and I emphasize
we decide on war. Let me ask, before the words become more fiery, just how many of the clanmasters here want a fight with Man?”
“We’ve hardly begun to talk about — ” Keffa said.
“That, certainly, is the direction of this meeting, so I think the amount of interest in such an extreme passage would be interesting. I call for such a consensus.”
That was Senza’s right, and paws touched sensors in each suite.
Seconds later, a screen showed the tabulation:
About a third in favor, a third against, a third undecided.
race,” Senza said, putting slight emphasis on great, “hardly seems to perceive Wlencing, Paumoto, and Keffa’s destiny as obvious.”
“Are you saying we should accept our defeat?” Aesc said. “Accept being driven from Cumbre?”
“According to the documents, you and War Leader Wlencing chose to withdraw, in order to consult with us. That is hardly being driven anywhere.”
“How do you think the humans will perceive it?” Aesc hissed.
Now there were rumblings throughout the building.
“I do not care how the humans perceive it,” Senza said. “What they are is what they are. I happen to have far greater faith in the destiny of our race to worry overmuch about humans.
“I will also add I am not impressed by your performance, Aesc, nor you, Wlencing. You involved yourselves in what was a most minor operation, seeing no doubt great advancement therein.
“I do not see many riches having been gained through your actions.
“Now, you want to increase our involvement in the system. I think this is foolish. I think we should pursue one of two courses, which I suggest to this gathering.
“First, we permit your involvement with the Cumbre system to continue, but with no greater commitment than before. I enter this for a vote at this time, but request my fellow clan leaders wait until my second suggestion is offered.
“That is that we retreat from the Cumbrian system entirely and restrict our presence there to a purchasing team or two, and trade for the minerals the system has.
“It is perhaps inevitable we shall encounter other races than the ones we have to date, races which are as ambitious as we are and who also share the same carbon-based cycle.