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After the Coup
By John Scalzi, John Harris
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2008 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
"How well can you take a punch?" asked Deputy Ambassador Schmidt.
Lieutenant Harry Wilson blinked and set down his drink. "You know, there are a number of places a conversation can go after a question like that," he said. "None of them end well."
"I don't mean it like that," Schmidt said. He drummed the glass of his own drink with his fingers. Harry noted the drumming, which was a favorite nervous tell of Hart Schmidt's. It made poker games with him fun. "I have a very specific reason to ask you."
"I would hope so," Harry said. "Because as conversational ice breakers go, it's not in the top ten."
Schmidt looked around the Clarke's officer lounge. "Maybe this isn't the best place to talk about it," he said.
Harry glanced around the lounge. It was singularly unappealing; a bunch of magnetized folding chairs and equally magnetized card tables, and single porthole from which the yellowish green limb of Korba-Aty was glowing, dully. The drinks they were having came from the rack of vending machines built into the wall. The only other person in the lounge was Lieutenant Grant, the Clarke's quartermaster; she was looking at her PDA and wearing headphones.
"It's fine, Hart," Harry said. "Enough with the melodrama. Spit it out already."
"Fine," Schmidt said, and then drummed on his drink some more. Harry waited. "Look, this mission isn't going well," he finally said.
"Really," Harry said, dryly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Schmidt said.
"Don't get defensive, Hart," Harry said. "I'm not blaming you."
"I just want to know how you came to that conclusion," Schmidt said.
"You mean, how did I come to that conclusion despite the fact I'm this mission's mushroom," Harry said.
Schmidt frowned. "I don't know what that means," he said.
"It means that you keep me in the dark and feed me shit," Harry said.
"Ah," Schmidt said. "Sorry."
"It's fine," Harry said. "This is a Colonial Union diplomatic mission, and I'm Colonial Defense Forces, and you don't want me seen by the Korba because you don't want my presence to be interpreted as provocation. So while the rest of you head down to the planet, and get to breathe real air and see actual sunlight, I stay up here in this latrine of a spaceship, training your technicians to use the field generator and catching up on my reading. Which is going well, incidentally. I just finished Anna Karenina."
"How was it?" Schmidt said.
"Not bad," Harry said. "The moral is to stay away from trains. The point is, I know why I'm kept in the dark. Fine. Fair enough. But I'm not stupid, Hart. Even if none of you tell me anything about the mission, I can tell it's not going well. All of you deputies and assistants come back to the Clarke looking like you've had the crap beat out of you all day long. It's a subtle hint." He picked up his drink and slugged some back.
"Hmm. Anyway, yes," Schmidt said. "The mission isn't going well. The Korba haven't been nearly as receptive to our negotiations as we thought they might be. We want to try something new. A new direction. A new diplomatic tack."
"A new tack that is somehow focused on me getting punched," Harry said, setting his drink back down.
"Maybe," Schmidt said.
"Once or repeatedly?" Harry asked.
"I think that would depend on your definition," Schmidt said.
"Of 'once'?" Harry asked.
"Of 'punched,' actually," Schmidt said.
"I already have very deep reservations about this plan," Harry said.
"Well, let me give you some context," Schmidt said.
"Please do," Harry said.
Schmidt produced his PDA and began to slide it over to Harry, then stopped midway through the motion. "You know that everything I'm about to tell you is classified."
"Good lord, Hart," Harry said. "I'm the only person on the Clarke who doesn't know what's going on." Harry reached over and took the PDA. On its screen was the image of a battle cruiser of some sort, floating near a skyscraper. Or more accurately, what was left of a skyscraper; it had been substantially destroyed, likely by the battle cruiser. In the foreground of the picture, small, vaguely-humanoid blotches seemed to be running from the ruined skyscraper. "Nice picture," Harry said.
"What do you think you're seeing there?" Schmidt said.
"A strong case for not letting trainees drive a battle cruiser," Harry said.
"It's an image taken during the recent Korban coup," Schmidt said. "There was a disagreement between the head of the military and the Korban civilian leadership. That skyscraper is — well, was — the Korban administrative headquarters."
"So the civilians lost that particular argument," Harry said.
"Pretty much," Schmidt said.
"Where do we come in?" Harry asked, handing back the PDA. "Are we trying to restore the civilian government? Because, to be honest about it, that doesn't really sound like something the CU would care about."
"We don't," Schmidt said, taking back the PDA. "Before the coup, the Korba were barely on our radar at all. They had a non-expansionist policy. They had their few worlds and they'd stood pat on them for centuries. We had no conflict with them, so we didn't care about them. After the coup, the Korba are very interested in expanding again."
"This worries us," Harry said.
"Not if we can point them toward expanding in the direction of some of our enemies," Schmidt said. "There are some races in this area who are pushing in on us. If they had to worry about someone else, they'd have fewer resources to hit us with."
"See, that's the Colonial Union I know," Harry said. "Always happy to stick a knife in someone else's face. But none of this has anything to do with me getting punched in the face."
"Actually, it does," Schmidt said. "We made a tactical error. This mission is a diplomatic one, but the new leaders of Korba are military. They're curious about our military, and they're especially curious about our CDF soldiers, whom they've never encountered because our races have never fought. We're civilians; we don't have any of our military on hand, and very little in terms of military capability to show them. We brought them that field generator you've been training our technicians on, but that's defensive technology. They're much more interested in our offensive capabilities. And they're especially interested in seeing our soldiers in action. Negotiations up to this point have been going poorly because we're not equipped to give them what they want. But then we let it slip that we have a CDF member on the Clarke."
"We let it slip," Harry said.
"Well, I let it slip, actually," Schmidt said. "Come on, Harry, don't look at me like that. This mission is failing. Some of us need this mission to succeed. My career's not exactly on fire, you know. If this mission goes into the crapper, I'm going to get reassigned to an archive basement."
"I'd be more sympathetic if saving your career didn't require blunt force trauma for me," Harry said.
Schmidt nodded, and then ducked his head a little, which Harry took as something akin to an apology. "When we told them about you, they got very excited, and we were asked by the Korbans' new leader — a direct request from the head of state, Harry — if we would be willing to pit you against one of their soldiers in a contest of skills," Schmidt said. "It was strongly implied it would make a real difference in the tenor of the negotiations."
"So of course you said yes," Harry said.
"Let me remind you of the part where I said the mission was going into the crapper," Schmidt said.
"There is a small flaw in this plan," Harry said. "Besides the part where I get the crap kicked out of me, I mean. Hart, I'm CDF, but I'm not a soldier. I'm a technician. I've spent the last several years working in the military science division of the Forces. That's why I'm here, for God's sake. I'm training your people to use technology we developed. I'm not training them to fight, I'm training them to twirl knobs."
"You've still got the CDF genetic engineering," Schmidt said, and pointed to Harry's sitting form. "Your body is still in top physical shape, whether you use it or not. Your reflexes are still fast as ever. You're still as strong as ever. Look at you, Harry. There's nothing flabby or squishy about you. You're in as good a shape as any soldier on the line."
"That doesn't mean anything," Harry said.
"Doesn't it?" Schmidt said. "Tell me, Harry. Everyone else on this mission is an unmodified human. Is there any one of us that you couldn't take in hand to hand combat?"
"Well, no. But you're all soft," Harry said.
"Thanks for that," Schmidt said. He took a sip of his drink.
"My point is whether or not I'm engineered for combat, I haven't been a soldier for a very long time," Harry said. "Fighting isn't like riding a bicycle, Hart. You can't just pick it up without practice. If these guys are so hot to see CDF in action, send a skip drone back to Phoenix and request a squad. They could be here in a couple of days if you make it a priority request."
"There's no time, Harry," Schmidt said. "The Korba want a combat exhibition tonight. Actually," — Schmidt checked the chronometer on his PDA — "in about four and a half hours."
"Oh, come on," Harry said.
"They made the request this morning, Harry," Schmidt said. "It's not like I've been keeping it from you. We told them about you, they made the request and ten minutes later I was being hustled off to the shuttle back to the Clarke to tell you. And here we are."
"What is this 'skill contest' they want me to have?" Harry asked.
"It's a ritualized combat thing," Schmidt said. "It's physical combat, but it's done as a sport. Like karate or fencing or wrestling. There are three rounds. You get scored on points. There are judges. From what I understand it's mostly harmless. You're not going to be in any real danger."
"Except for being punched," Harry said.
"You'll heal," Schmidt said. "And anyway, you can punch back."
"I don't suppose I can pass," Harry said.
"Sure, you can pass," Schmidt said. "And then when the mission fails and everyone on the mission is demoted into shit jobs and the Korba ally themselves with our enemies and start looking at human colonies they can pick off, you can bask in the knowledge that at least you came out of this all unbruised."
Harry sighed and drained his drink. "You owe me, Hart," he said. "Not the Colonial Union. You."
"I can live with that," Schmidt said.
"Fine," Harry said. "So the plan is to go down there, fight with one of their guys, get beat up a little, and everyone walks away happy."
"Mostly," Schmidt said.
"Mostly," Harry said.
"I have two requests for you from Ambassador Abumwe," Schmidt said. "And she said for me to say to that by 'request,' she means that if you don't do them both she will find a way to make the rest of your natural existence one of unceasing woe and misery."
"Really," Harry said.
"She was very precise about her word use," Schmidt said.
"Lovely," Harry said. "What are the requests?"
"The first is that you keep the contest close," Schmidt said. "We need to show the Korba from the start that the reputation the CDF has is not undeserved."
"Not knowing what the rules of the contest are, how it's played or whether I'm even physically capable of keeping up with it, sure, why not, I'll keep it close," Harry said. "What's the other request."
"That you lose," Schmidt said.
* * *
"The rules are simple," Schmidt said, translating for the Korban who stood in front of them. Normally Harry would use his BrainPal — the computer in his head — to do a translation, but he didn't have access to the Clarke's network to access the language. "There are three rounds: One round with Bongka — those are like quarterstaffs, Harry — one round of hand-to-hand combat, and one round of water combat. There are no set times for any round; they continue until all three judges have selected a victor, or until one of the combatants is knocked unconscious. The chief judge here wants to make sure you understand this."
"I understand," said Harry, staring at the Korban, who came up, roughly, to his waist. The Korba were squat, bilaterally symmetrical, apparently muscular, and covered by what appeared to be an infinite amount of overlapping plates and scales. What little information Harry could uncover about the Korban physiology suggested that they were of some sort of amphibious stock, and that they lived some of their lives in water. This would at least explain the "water combat" round. The gathering hall they were in held no obvious water sources, however. Harry wondered if something might not have been lost in translation.
The Korban began speaking again, and as he spoke and breathed, the plates around his neck and chest moved in a motion that was indefinably strange and unsettling; it was almost like they didn't quite go back in the same place they started off at. Harry found them unintentionally hypnotic.
"Harry," Schmidt said.
"Yes?" Harry said.
"You're all right with the nudity?" Schmidt asked.
"Yes," Harry said. "Wait. What?"
Schmidt sighed. "Pay attention, Harry," he said. "The contest is performed in the nude so that it's purely a test of skill, no tricks. You're okay with that?"
Harry glanced around the gymnasium-like room they were in, filling up with Korban spectators, human diplomats and Clarke crew members on shore leave. In the crowd of humans he located Ambassador Abumwe, who gave him a look that reinforced her earlier threat of unending misery. "So everyone gets to see my bits," Harry said.
"Afraid so," Schmidt said. "All right, then?"
"Do I have a choice?" Harry asked.
"Not really," Schmidt said.
"Then I guess I'm all right with it," Harry said. "See if you can get them to crank up the thermostat."
"I'll look into it." Schmidt said something to the Korban, who replied at length. Harry doubted they were actually speaking about the thermostat. The Korban turned and uttered a surprisingly loud blast, his neck and chest plates spiking out as he did so. Harry was suddenly reminded of a horny toad back on Earth.
From across the room another Korban approached, holding a staff just under two meters in length, with the ends coated in what appeared to be red paint. The Korban presented it to Harry, who took it. "Thanks," he said. The Korban ran off.
The judge started speaking. "He says that they apologize that they are unable to give you a more attractive Bongka," Schmidt translated, "but that your height meant they had to craft one for you specially, and they did not have time to hand it over to an artisan. He wants you to know, however, that it is fully functional and you should not be at any disadvantage. He says you may strike your opponent at will with the bongka, and on any part of the body, but only with the tips; using the unmarked part of the bongka to strike your opponent will result in lost points. You can block with the unmarked part, however."
"Got it," Harry said. "I can hit anywhere? Aren't they worried about someone losing an eye?"
Schmidt asked. "He says that if you manage to take an eye, then it counts. Every hit or attack with a tip is fair." Schmidt was quiet for a moment as the judge spoke at length. "Apparently the Korba can regenerate lost limbs and some organs, eventually. They don't see losing one as a huge problem."
"I thought you said there were rules, Hart," Harry said.
"My mistake," Schmidt said.
"You and I are going to have a talk after all of this is done," Harry said.
Schmidt didn't answer this because the judge had started speaking again. "The judge wants to know if you have a second. If you don't have one he will be happy to provide you one."
"Do I have a second?" Harry said.
"I didn't know you needed one," Schmidt said.
"Hart, please make an effort to be useful to me," Harry asked.
"Well, I'm translating," Schmidt said.
"I only have your word for that," Harry said. "Tell the judge that you're my second."
"What? Harry, I can't," Schmidt said. "I'm supposed to be sitting with the Ambassador."
"And I'm supposed to be in a bunk on the Clarke reading the first part of The Brothers Karamazov," Harry said. "Clearly this is a disappointing day for both of us. Suck it up, Hart. Tell him."
Schmidt told him; the judge started speaking at length to Schmidt, chest and neck plates shifting as he did so. Harry glanced back over to the seating area provided the Colonial Union diplomats and Clarke crew, who shifted in their rows. The stands were half-sized for humans; they sat with their knees bunched into their chests like parents at a pre-school open house. They didn't look in the least bit comfortable.
Good, thought Harry.
The judge stopped speaking, turned toward Harry, and did something with his scales that caused a wave-like ripple to go around his head. Harry shuddered involuntarily; the judge seemed to take that as a response. He left.
Excerpted from After the Coup by John Scalzi, John Harris. Copyright © 2008 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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