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The Human Division #3
We Only Need the Heads
By John Scalzi
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 John Scalzi
All rights reserved.
We Only Need the Heads
Hart Schmidt went to Ambassador Abumwe's temporary office on Phoenix Station when she pinged him, but she wasn't there. Schmidt knew that the ambassador not being in her office wasn't a good enough excuse for him not to be in her presence when commanded, so he did a hasty PDA search on his boss. Three minutes later, he walked up to her in an observation lounge.
"Ambassador," he said.
"Mr. Schmidt," the ambassador said, not turning to him. Schmidt followed her gaze out the wall-sized window of the observation deck, to the heavily damaged ship hovering at a slight distance from the station itself.
"The Clarke," Schmidt said.
"Very good, Schmidt," Abumwe said, in a tone that informed him that, as with so many of the things he said to her in his role as a functionary on her diplomatic team, he was not telling her anything she didn't already know.
Schmidt made an involuntary, nervous throat clearing in response. "I saw Neva Balla earlier today," he said, naming the Clarke's executive officer. "She tells me that it's not looking good for the Clarke. The damage it took on our last mission is pretty extensive. Fixing it will be nearly as expensive as building a new ship. She thinks it's likely they'll simply scrap it."
"And do what with the crew?" Abumwe said.
"She didn't say," Schmidt said. "She said the crew is being kept together, at least for the moment. There's a chance the Colonial Union may just take a new ship and assign the Clarke's crew to it. They might even name it the Clarke, if they're going to scrap this one." Schmidt motioned in the direction of the ship.
"Hmmmm," Abumwe said, and then lapsed back into silence, staring at the Clarke.
Schmidt spent a few more uncomfortable minutes before clearing his throat again. "You pinged me, Ambassador?" he said, reminding her he was there.
"You say the Clarke crew hasn't been reassigned," Abumwe said, as if their earlier conversation hadn't had an extended pause in it.
"Not yet," Schmidt said.
"And yet, my team has," Abumwe said, finally looking over at Schmidt. "Most of it, anyway. The Department of State assures me that the reassignments are only temporary — they need my people to fill in holes on other missions — but in the meantime I'm left with two people on my team. They left me Hillary Drolet, and they left me you. I know why they left me Hillary. She's my assistant. I don't know why they chose to take every other member of my team, assign them some presumably important task, and leave you doing nothing at all."
"I don't have any good answer to that, ma'am," was the only thing that Schmidt could say that wouldn't have immediately put his entire diplomatic career in jeopardy.
"Hmmmm," Abumwe said again, and turned back to the Clarke.
Schmidt assumed this was his cue to depart and began stepping back out of the observation deck, perchance to avail himself of a stiff drink at the nearest commissary, when Abumwe spoke again.
"Do you have your PDA with you?" she asked him.
"Yes, ma'am," Schmidt said.
"Check it now," Abumwe said. "We have new orders."
Schmidt drew out the PDA from his jacket pocket, swiped it on and read the new orders flashing in his mail queue. "We're being attached to the Bula negotiations," he said, reading the orders.
"Apparently so," Abumwe said. "Deputy Ambassador Zala ruptured her appendix and has to withdraw. Normally protocol would have her assistant step up and continue negotiations, but Zala's plank of the negotiations hasn't formally started, and for protocol reasons it's important for the Colonial Union to have someone of sufficient rank head this portion of the process. So here we are."
"What part of the negotiations are we taking over?" Schmidt asked.
"There's a reason I'm having you read the orders, Schmidt," Abumwe said. Her tone had returned. She turned to face him again.
"Sorry, ma'am," Schmidt said, hastily, and gestured at his PDA. "I'm not there yet."
Abumwe grimaced but kept whatever comment about Schmidt that was running through her head to herself. "Trade and tourism access to Bula worlds," she said instead. "How many ships, how large the ships, how many humans on the ground on Bulati and its colony worlds at one time, and so on."
"We've done that before," Schmidt said. "That shouldn't be a problem."
"There's a wrinkle that's not in your orders," Abumwe said. Schmidt looked up from his PDA. "There's a Bula colony world named Wantji. It was one of the last ones the Bula claimed before the Conclave told the unaffiliated races they could no longer colonize. They haven't put any of their people on it yet because they don't know how the Conclave would react to that."
"What about it?" Schmidt asked.
"Three days ago, the CDF received a skip drone from Wantji with an emergency distress message in it," Abumwe said.
Why would the Bula on an officially uninhabited planet send the Colonial Defense Forces a distress message? Schmidt almost asked, but didn't. He realized it was exactly the sort of question that would make the ambassador think he was even more stupid than she already believed he was. Instead he attempted to figure out the question on his own.
After a few seconds, it came to him. "A wildcat colony," he said.
"Yes," Abumwe said. "A wildcat colony that the Bula don't appear to know anything about at the moment."
"We're not telling them it's there?" Schmidt asked.
"Not yet," Abumwe said. "The CDF is sending a ship first."
"We're sending a warship into Bula territory to check on a human colony that's not supposed to be there?" Schmidt said, slightly incredulously. "Ambassador, this is a very bad idea —"
"Of course it's a bad idea!" Abumwe snapped. "Stop informing me of obvious things, Schmidt."
"Sorry," Schmidt said.
"Our job in the negotiations is twofold," Abumwe said. "We negotiate the trade and tourism rights. We also negotiate them slowly enough that the Tubingen is able to get to Wantji and pluck that wildcat colony — or what's left of it — from the planet."
"Without telling the Bula," Schmidt said. He kept the skepticism from his voice as politely as possible.
"The thinking is that if the Bula aren't aware of it now, there is no point in making them aware," Abumwe said. "And if they become aware, then the wildcatters will have been removed before they present a genuine diplomatic issue."
"As long as they overlook a CDF ship having done time over their planet," Schmidt said.
"The thinking is that the Tubingen will be long gone before the Bula know they're there," Abumwe said.
Schmidt refrained from saying, It's still a bad idea, and chose something else instead. "You said it's the Tubingen that's heading to this colony planet," he said.
"Yes," Abumwe said. "What about it?"
Schmidt accessed his PDA and searched through his message queue. "Harry Wilson was attached to the Tubingen a few days ago," he said, and turned his PDA to the ambassador to show her the message Wilson had sent him. "Its CDF platoon lost their systems guy on Brindle. Harry was stepping in for their current mission. Which would be this one, wouldn't it."
"Yet another team member of mine farmed out," Abumwe said. "What is your point?"
"My point is that it could be useful for us to have someone on the ground on this," Schmidt said. "You know we're getting dealt a bad hand here, ma'am. At the very least Harry can tell us how bad of a hand it actually is."
"Asking your CDF friend for information on an active military mission is a fine way to get yourself shot, Schmidt," Abumwe said.
"I suppose it would be," Schmidt said.
Abumwe was silent at this for a moment. "I don't think you should risk being caught doing something like that," she said, eventually.
"I understand you entirely, ma'am," Schmidt said. He turned to go.
"Schmidt," Abumwe said.
"Yes, ma'am," Schmidt said.
"You understand that earlier I was implying that they left you with me because you were largely useless," Abumwe said.
"I got that, yes," Schmidt said, after a second.
"I'm sure you did," Abumwe said. "Now. Prove me wrong." She returned her gaze to the Clarke.
Oh boy, Harry, Schmidt thought as he walked away. I hope you're having an easier time of things than I am right now.
* * *
The shuttle from the Tubingen hit the atmosphere of the planet like a rock punching into an earthen dam, throwing off heat and rattling the platoon of Colonial Defense Forces soldiers inside as if they were plastic balls in a child's popper.
"This is nice," Lieutenant Harry Wilson said, to no one in particular, then directed his attention to his fellow lieutenant Heather Lee, the platoon commander. "It's funny how something like air can feel so bumpy."
Lee shrugged. "We have restraints," she said. "And this isn't a social call."
"I know," Wilson said. The shuttle rattled again. "But this has always been my least favorite part of a mission. Aside from, you know. The shooting and killing and being shot and possibly eaten by aliens."
Lee did not look impressed with Wilson. "Been a while since you've dropped, Lieutenant?"
Wilson nodded. "Did my combat time and then transferred into research and technical advising for the diplomatic corps. Don't have to do many drops for that. And the ones I do come down nice and easy."
"Consider this a refresher course," Lee said. The shuttle rattled again. Something creaked worryingly.
"Space," Wilson said, and sank back into his restraints. "It's fantastic."
"It is fantastic, sir," said the soldier next to Lee. Wilson automatically had his BrainPal query the man's identity; instantly, text floated over the soldier's head to let Wilson know he was speaking to Private Albert Jefferson. Wilson glanced over to Lee, the platoon leader, who caught the glance and gave another, most infinitesimal of shrugs, as if to say, He's new.
"I was attempting sarcasm, Private," Wilson said.
"I know that, sir," Jefferson said. "But I'm being serious. Space is fantastic. All of this. It is awesome."
"Well, except for the cold and vacuum and the unbearable silent death of it," Wilson said.
"Death?" Jefferson said, and smiled. "Begging the lieutenant's pardon, but death was back home on Earth. Do you know what I was doing three months ago, sir?"
"I'm guessing being old," Wilson said.
"I was hooked up to a dialysis machine, praying I would make it to my seventy-fifth birthday," Jefferson said. "I'd already gotten one transplant, and they didn't want to give me another because they knew I was going to leave anyway. Cheaper to hook me up. I barely made it. But I got to seventy-five, signed up and a week later, boom. New body, new life, new career. Space is awesome."
The shuttle hit an air pocket of some sort, tumbling the transport before the pilot could right the ship again. "There's the minor problem that you might have to kill things," Wilson said, to Jefferson. "Or get killed. Or fall out of the sky. You're a soldier now. These are the occupational hazards."
"Fair trade," Jefferson said.
"Is it," Wilson said. "First mission?"
"Yes, sir," Jefferson said.
"I'll be interested to know if your answer to that is the same a year from now," Wilson said.
Jefferson grinned. "You strike me as a 'glass half-empty' kind of guy, sir," he said.
"I'm a 'the glass is half-empty and filled with poison' kind of guy, actually," Wilson said.
"Yes, sir," Jefferson said.
Lee nodded suddenly, not at Wilson or Jefferson, but at the message she was getting from her BrainPal. "Drop-off in two," she said. "Fire teams." The soldiers formed up into groups of four. "Wilson. You're with me." Wilson nodded.
"You know, I was one of the last people off, sir," Jefferson said to Wilson a minute later, as the shuttle zeroed in on its landing site.
"Off of what?" Wilson said. He was distracted; he was going over the mission specs on his BrainPal.
"Off of Earth," Jefferson said. "The day I went up the Nairobi beanstalk, that guy brought that alien fleet into Earth orbit. Scared the hell out of all of us. We thought we were under attack. Then the fleet started transmitting all sorts of things about the Colonial Union."
"You mean, like the fact it had been socially engineering the Earth for centuries to keep it a farm for colonists and soldiers," Wilson said.
Jefferson snorted quietly. "That's a little paranoid, don't you think, sir? I think this fellow —"
"John Perry," Wilson said.
"— has some explaining to do about how he managed to head up an alien fleet in the first place. Anyway, my transport ship was one of the last out of Earth dock. There were one or two more, but after that I'm told the Earth stopped sending us soldiers and colonists. They want to renegotiate their relationship to the Colonial Union, is how I've heard it."
"Doesn't seem unreasonable, all things considered," said Wilson.
The shuttle landed with a muted thump and settled into the earth.
"All I know, sir, is I'm glad this Perry guy waited until I was gone," Jefferson said. "Otherwise I'd still be old and missing my kidneys and probably near death. Whatever's out here is better than what I had there."
The shuttle door cracked open and the outside air rushed in, hot and sticky and rich with the scent of death and decomposition. From the platoon came a few audible groans and the sound of at least one person gagging. Then the platoon began its disembarkment by fire teams.
Wilson looked over at Jefferson, whose face had registered the full effect of the smell coming off the planet. "I hope you're right," Wilson said. "But from the smell of it, we're probably near death here, too."
They stepped out of the shuttle and onto a new world.
* * *
The Bula sub-ambassador looked not unlike a lemur, as all Bula did, and carried the jeweled amulet that signified her station in the diplomatic corps. She had an unpronounceable name, which all things considered was not unusual, but insisted that Abumwe and her staff call her "Sub-Ambassador Ting." "It is close enough for government work," she said, through a translator device on her lanyard as she shook Abumwe's hand.
"Then welcome, Sub-Ambassador Ting," Abumwe said.
"Thank you, Ambassador Abumwe," Ting said, and motioned for her, Drolet and Schmidt to sit across from her and her two staff at the conference room table. "We are delighted that someone such as yourself was available for these negotiations on such short notice. It is a shame about Katerina Zala. Please send her my regards."
"I shall," Abumwe said. She sat.
"What is this 'appendix' she ruptured?" Ting asked, sitting herself.
"It's a vestigial organ attached to the larger digestive system," Abumwe said. "Sometimes it gets inflamed. A rupture can cause sepsis and death if not treated."
"It sounds horrible," Ting said.
"It was caught early enough that Deputy Ambassador Zala was in no real danger," Abumwe said. "She will be fine in a few days."
"That's good to hear," Ting said. "Interesting how such a small part can threaten the health of an entire system."
"I suppose it is," Abumwe said.
Ting sat there for a moment, companionably silent, and then with a start grabbed the PDA her assistant had laid before her. "Well, let us begin, shall we. We don't want our diplomatic system grinding to a halt because of us."
* * *
The hand-tooled sign at the edge of the colony read, "New Seattle." As far as Wilson could see, it was the only thing in the colony that hadn't burned.
"Teams, report in," Lee said. There were no teams other than her own near her; her voice was being carried by BrainPal. Wilson opened up the general channel in his own head.
"Team one here," said Blaine Givens, the team leader. "I've got nothing but burned huts and dead bodies."
"Team two here," said Muhamad Ahmed. "I've got the same."
"Team three," said Janet Mulray. "More of the same. Whatever happened here isn't happening now." The three other teams reported the same.
"Anybody finding survivors?" Lee asked. Responses came in: None so far. "Keep looking," she said.
"I need to get to the colony HQ," Wilson said. "That's why I'm here."
Lee nodded and moved her team forward.
"I thought we weren't colonizing anymore," Jefferson said to Wilson as they moved into the colony. "The aliens told us they'd vaporize any planet we colonized."
"Not 'the aliens,'" Wilson said. "The Conclave. There's a difference."
"What's the difference?" Jefferson asked.
"There are about six hundred different alien races we deal with," Wilson said. "Maybe two-thirds of them are in the Conclave. The rest of them are like us, unaffiliated." He routed around a dead colonist who lay, charred, in the path.
"And what does that mean, sir?" Jefferson asked, routing around the same body but letting his eyes linger on it.
"It means they're like us," Wilson said. "If they colonize, the Conclave will blast the crap out of them, too."
"But this is a colony," Jefferson said, turning his eyes back to Wilson. "Our colony."
"It's a wildcat colony," Wilson said. "It's not sanctioned by the Colonial Union. And this is someone else's planet anyway."
Excerpted from The Human Division #3 by John Scalzi. Copyright © 2013 John Scalzi. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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