"Ensign Pursang. Assessment. Tell me what the hell that object is?"
Jared Pursang, newly-minted officer in the exploration corps studied his sensors. It's big, Commander. Mass, twenty-thousand metric tones. Metal shell, composition unknown."
Commander Korell ordered. "Stop the buggy. Camouflage mode. All systems, active and passive off. Visual only. Lieutenant. Weaponry evaluation of our visitor?"
The hum from the six-electric drivers wound down. The Greep came to a halt and settled into the surface of the planet. Photocells absorbed and mimicked the surrounding rocks and foliage.
"Substantial if commensurate with its size, sir."
Korell slid open the viewing slit. Sunlight illuminated the now-quiescent cabin of the ground-exploration vehicle. The sun eclipsed as the leading edge of the intruder passed over.
Jared counted in his head until the shadow passed. Fifteen seconds. He was right. Huge.
Korell expelled his breath. "I guess we're not alone on this ball of dirt after all." He opened a second slit pointed in the direction of the unknown vessel's retreat. "We'll hightail it back to the shuttle once it's out of sight. If they registered us, apparently they're not hostile."
They waited in silence, each man, like Jared, evaluating how much earth's exploration agenda had just changed. A first contact. Or at least, a first encounter. No contact yet.
Korell closed the slit. "Let's make tracks."
"Speaking of tracks. Wouldn't they have seen our tracks?"
"If they did, they didn't care to acknowledge us. At this point, that's fine by me. Let the diplomats figure it out. Our job is to report the presence of another someone or something."
The Greep retraced her path and two hours later, they reached their camo'd ship. Commander Korell slid the hatch open. "Man your stations aboard."
The earth shivered under Jared's feet. He whirled in the direction they'd come. The vessel returned, a single blue beam emanated from the nose of the ship. Smoke and fire belched from the surface beneath the beam.
"Sweet mercy. It's melting the crust." Korell ordered, "Leave the Greep. More important to relay our news." His next command never came. A streak of molten rock arced over the tree tops and sliced their escape in two.
Jared was moving instinctively without orders, putting distance between himself and the larger targets of the ship and the greep. The others, including Commander Korell did the same.
The vessel never changed course but continued its path past them by five or six kilometers.
The team regrouped. "All accounted for?"
"Missing two Commander. Evans and deGaulle were aboard the ship."
"Check inside the remains, Lieutenant. Ensign Pursang, send a warning signal to fleet. Use the radio in the greep. The rest of you, salvage what you can from the ship. We'll be here a while."
Jared asked. "Distress call as well, Commander?"
"They'll come soon enough. I want them prepared for that crust-carver or whatever it is."
"I don't think they even knew we were here, Commander. It could be unmanned."
"It could be. But manned or not, benign or not, it's a hell of dangerous machine. Put your training to use while we wait it out, Ensign. Design us a counter-weapon."
It took Pursang twelve years and three ascensions in rank to complete and test his counter-weapon. Korell hadn't made it off the unnamed planet of first encounter with the Kym, as they became known.
"Lieutenant Commander Pursang reporting to the bridge, Captain Asario."
"Glad to have you and your armament aboard, Pursang. We've got the Kym cornered on that planet you discovered them on a dozen years ago."
"We named it Walburg, sir. After Commander Korell's home town. Why are they there, any idea?"
"Don't know, don't care. Scouting indicates at least three of those crust carvers are building an inland sea of substantial size."
"Good guess. Mine too. If your rig succeeds, the Kym'll saved us a lot of work. We'll be there in fourteen hours. Make yourself at home and make sure your gun's working."
"Aye aye, sir."
One shift later, Jared was back on the bridge, watching the approach of the site of his first battle. He hadn't called it that, but the force's official spin concentrated on the one-sidedness of the encounter. Motivation for it not to repeat.
"Closing on orbit, Captain. No sign of any other orbital vessels."
"Located the carvers?"
"Yes sir. Bringing up the image now."
Jared inhaled with a whistle. Two of the discs circled in unison, flame belching from underneath them as they blasted a massive crater out of the planet's crust. A third carver straight-lined from the coastline of the major southern hemisphere's ocean. "The conduit."
"Tell us where we need to be, Lieutenant Commander."
Pursang took a seat at the navigation center. "Let's try for the lone carver first. We need to be in front of it at…" he fingered the screen at his fingertips, "…this angle. We refract their own beam directly under the carver. I saw what the molten crust did to Korell's ship. We're confident it can do the same to theirs."
The minutes passed as the ship settled into position. Captain Asario said, "No hostiles in orbit?"
"Clear sir. Outer system sensors indicate no activity. All right, weave your voodoo, Pursang."
Pursang linked to the technical team. "Tracking carver optimum reached, lock on. Commence."
The screen view highlighted the blue beam from the carver.
"I don't see any alteration," Asario said.
"Coming up in a few seconds, Captain."
The blue beam quivered and took on a pinkish hue. It didn't bend The pink color changed to dark crimson and the magma plume soared straight for them.
Asario didn't bother to issue the command to retreat, he pounded his override and the ship lurched out of the path of the molten rock. Almost. The ship listed on edge before the automatic gyros took control. It righted but corkscrewed down into the atmosphere.
Jared brought up the ship's vitals. They were done. He was to be marooned on Walburg a second time.
"Abandon ship. I can hold it with full power to starboard for five minutes, no more. All hands to the lifeboats."
Asario's officers and crew were well-disciplined. As one, they ran from the bridge. Jared hesitated. "Captain?"
"Get the hell from my bridge, Lieutenant. Tell those idiots at home to give this one up. Our line in the sand just moved back a few lightyears." Asario gripped his command chair with one hand while he manipulated the ship's controls with the other. The deck lurched under Jared. He followed orders.
Admiral Jared Pursang scowled at his reflection once again. He turned the star on his collar slightly. Finally, it suited him. He stood away from the mirror and looked at his watch. The Kym would arrive in a few minutes.
"Admiral, will you stop primping. You're not being inspected by Fleet Admiral Vol. One would think you lost the battle for Walburg's planet, instead of the Kym."
Jared looked at the other man in the room. Ambassador Dreyfus. Here to fuss over the surrender. As if a man who just won a planet couldn't ensure the niceties of proper documentation. Jared said, "I am anticipating, not primping. I'm curious to meet the Kym commander we finally defeated."
"You want to gloat. I hope to establish a dialog between races which will avoid future military conflict. This could be third time luck. At least your fastidiousness shows respect. The Kym apparently like that."
Jared looked at his watch again, "I respect their apparent ruthlessness. I've been on the losing side twice, at the whims of overpowering machines. Unaware of our existence, if I didn't know better." He inhaled deeply, pushing his chest out. "I prefer victory. I savor absolute victory."
"Your reports had a hint of the Kym hardly noticing your forces until it was too late. They were distracted by another agenda?"
"We'll see. Walburg's a beach head. I was ordered to take it and I have. The fact that it is the scene of my previous clashes against the Kym is rewarding. Their defeat may not be an aberration. Maybe we've learned how to beat them. If so, you'll be negotiating for the next system and the one after that." Jared paused and went over to the window, looking down the mountain slope to the village below. "It's been too long since my counterpart was in an inferior position. This will give me satisfying closure."
"Has it stopped raining?"
Jared stared through the viewindow, ignoring the white-bearded reflection of himself in the glass. He wasn't looking directly outside, he knew that. The Kym headquarters was well fortified. This view was relayed by sensors. "Yes." He turned to see Dreyfus raising his feet in the chair. "You look comfortable. Are you going to sit there when he arrives?"
Dreyfus closed his eyes. "These chairs are marvelous. Considering the difference in human and Kym physiologies, I am amazed how successfully their furniture adapts to us. I shall ship one home with me." Dreyfus raised his head and looked around the room. "This post is unchanged from the moment the Kym commanders apparently fled under your barrage. I think you'll find it as comfortable to your command as I do this chair to my backside."
Jared clasped his hands behind his back and moved away from the window. He stopped next to a small sculpture. It was a figurine on top of a white pillar. The miniature depicted a Kym on one knee, its long arms flung forward in an arresting pose of both conquest and defiance. Jared said, "Yes, you are right, I fit well here. Three decades of service and I can finally put my demons to rest."
He caressed the statue. It looked like metal but it was not cool to the touch. "I see something new in this sculpture every hour."
"Interesting position, looks as if he is pleading and throwing a curse at the same time."
Jared spun it around on the pillar and shook his head. "No, I think the subject sees a new perspective and is revising his decisions." Jared looked at his watch again. "He should be here in five minutes. Are the Kym punctual?"
Dreyfus kept staring at the sculpture. "Their punctuality or lack of it is one of the many areas of knowledge we lack. You probably know as much about them as we do."
"Great, you're supposed to be my resource person. I only know how they fight and up until now, it's been damn well."
Dreyfus said, "I'm here to observe the transition of power and to learn what I can about the Kym. I want to find out what we can do the next time we encounter them and avoid your job entirely."
"A diplomatic solution. Incomplete success." Jared shuddered.
"If we can. If not, it may turn out like Walburg's for them again."
Jared paced by the viewindow. "The Kym did not flee under my attack. They left an opening in their defenses that was a onetime mistake. I did not expect it then and I doubt it will be repeated."
Jared studied the holo of the Kym command center in his field camp. The enemy's stronghold provided an excellent view of the native village below. He addressed his team of officers. "Observations? Is it as impenetrable as it looks?"
His second-in-command, Captain Luyenbrock, took the lead as usual to get the others to start thinking out loud. "No obvious weakness. They're shielded above and they have full view of all inferior approaches."
"We draw them out."
"Or prepare for a long siege."
Suggestions began to flow freely from Jared's officers and he listened intently, waiting for the ideas to cease.
"Hold the village hostage."
"Infiltrate the keep with a traitorous local."
"Hold a villager hostage and send in a relative to sabotage."
"The Kym'll be expecting something like that."
"Suicidal, but it might work with enough troops."
"What's the latest update on the storms?"
Jared said, "Good question. Eagle, you're the weather expert."
The officer replaced the holo of the Kym headquarters with a further view of the ocean beyond. Half a dozen circular cloud systems hid the view of the water surface. He said, "Each system is driven by the others. The first will hit land early tomorrow."
"Close to any of the villages?"
"Not within thirty kilometers. But the rains will precipitate flooding all along the coast and that'll threaten the villages. I've seen little evidence of evacuation planning, just minor flood preparations."
Another officer said, "We've seen evidence of the Kym personally observing in the field."
Jared said, "Well, they've a lot at stake." He moved the first picture back to main view. "Prepare to attack when the storms close on the keep. Ready your men at Luyenbrock's signal."
Fourteen hours later, Jared huddled with his own elite squad preparing for their assault. He watched the visual feed from orbit. Luyenbrock said, "The crest is coming faster than the locals predicted."
Jared said, "You're closer to the Kym base. Any sign they are distracted?"
"There's some activity now, Admiral."
Jared watched the new picture. "I see moving lights. Amplify." A yellow tinge provided more contrast at the higher magnification.
"Machinery. Large machinery. A crust-carver?"
"I've seen them before, Captain. We are prepared. They're coming out with two of them."
Luyenbrock directed his troops. "Get moving. If they catch us standing still with that, we'll be part of the rock."
Jared was on his feet, signaling his own men. He watched the picture on his face shield. Luyenbrock's group was heading for the gap in the trees where the crust-carvers would come through. Jared said, "Don't alert them to your presence. Hold fire unless they attack us." He watched the two large machines drift over his men. The noise of them came through his head gear and was amplified by the trembling of the ground. The carvers were heading down slope, away from his attack force. Jared yelled to his men, "They're going to help the natives divert the flooding rivers."
Luyenbrock radioed, "We're in."
"We're on your tail. Prisoners?"
"No one here. Watch your back, Admiral."
Twenty minutes later Jared was sitting in the command room of the Kym post. Luyenbrock was in contact with the rest of the squads. "The Kym have indicated the battle is over. The crust carvers have completed their task. The Kym were on the ground, directing the locals during the storm. They will not engage us. Their commander will formally surrender two days hence but not to expect to hear from him in the meantime. They're intermingled among the locals."
"Strange protocol," Jared observed. "Uncharacteristic of the Kym to hide. Remain on full alert until the surrender is executed. Ambassador Dreyfus is due tomorrow. God, what were the Kym doing, leaving these quarters so vulnerable?"
Luyenbrock said, "Diverting the flood waters from the villages. They're out there still, cutting new rivercourses."
Jared said, "All forces to remain on high alert. The carvers are a threat."
"Shall we demand them as reparation, sir?"
"Leave that to Dreyfus."
A rap turned Jared's attention to the door, away from sculpture. It brought Dreyfus to his feet.
The door opened and Luyenbrock stepped in, "Kym representative Obiesse, Admiral Pursang."
The blue-skinned Kym looked tall even from across the room. Jared strode quickly to him, his right hand raised, palm outward. The Kym stepped back at his approached and glanced between Jared and Dreyfus.
"Commander Obiesse, I am Jared Pursang, this is Ambassador Arn Dreyfus."
The Kym stopped his retreat. "I was never a Commander, I was Observer Obiesse. I am now Citizen Obiesse."
"I am sorry to be the one responsible for your demotion, Citizen. The vagaries of battle."
"Citizen is not a demotion, Admiral Pursang. It is a Kym's highest rank."
Dreyfus said, "Will you be seated, Citizen Obiesse?" He offered the chair he had been seated in earlier.
"I will stand. These are your quarters now."
Dreyfus remained standing as well. "We thank you for agreeing to this amicable turnover."
The Kym did not reply but moved to the viewindow. Jared came beside him and looked at the village and lands below, water glistening in temporary lakes everywhere. "It is an excellent location, strategic and naturally secure."
"Strategic?" the Kym paused. "Ah, yes. A military reference. We found it a good place from which to observe. We spent many years preparing this world for its transplanted refugees. A vanity to continue our scrutiny after the major work was completed."
Dreyfus said, "Admiral Pursang refers to the advantageous location of Walburg's planet as well."
"This planet is called G'er L'iss by its inhabitants. It fulfills a need for your civilization? It was important to us, too. A world to harbor the L'issans when we discovered their home planet was doomed. A pre-space culture we wanted to preserve. I hope your race will see fit to honor their singularity. I have duties below with the L'issans before tomorrow's departure. Do you require my presence further?"
Jared said, "Only a short time longer. Ambassador Dreyfus wishes you to sign this." He placed the surrender on the Kym's own desk. "You keep referring to yourself as an observer, yet your influence on the locals is noticeable."
"We do not follow a policy of selective non-interference, we try to help. As we did in the floods." The Kym handed the executed document to Jared. "When you took possession of this post."
Dreyfus said, "The battle for Walburg, I mean G'er L'iss, is over. We are ready to negotiate now."
"There is no need. We will withdraw."
Dreyfus' role evaporated in three simple words, Jared thought. "At least grant us time for a request or two."
"Ask what you will."
Jared said, "For myself, I wanted to meet you in peaceful circumstances." A glance from Dreyfus kept him from expanding his point. "As one commander to another, good luck." He held out his palm again.
Obiesse hesitated a moment, then returned the gesture. "Goodbye."
"A further moment," Dreyfus said. "We would like to study your crust carvers."
The Kym lowered his head. "You would convert them to weaponry. They have been destroyed."
"I assure you, our curiosity is in the technology of those machines but I won't insult you by denying a military interest. A peace accord between earth and Kym would guarantee no military use could ever be employed against either side."
"Destruction is our guarantee. I must leave if you have nothing further to ask."
Dreyfus regained his diplomatic calm. "Are there any personal items you wish to recover?"
Obiesse stopped to survey the room. His gaze focused on the sculpture. He walked to it and picked it up gently with both hands.
"From your homeworld? Someone famous?"
"No, Ambassador Dreyfus, it was created by a resident of the village below. An artist named H'an L'ler."
Jared said, "Please, take it."
Obiesse held it. "As we learned from them, they learned from us. The figure is of no one individual of my race, yet it expresses our individual yearnings quite well. I've never had a visitor who wasn't moved by it. Thank you, I will carry it with me on our departure tomorrow." The Kym nodded his head and left.
Dreyfus sat back in his chair. "I'm glad he didn't ask for this. Well, did you get what you wanted?"
Jared stared at the vacant pedestal, trying to recreate the image of the sculpture but could not. "No. He didn't act like a loser. I am going to talk to him again tomorrow at the departure. Maybe Citizen Obiesse won't be so cocky when he realizes the Kym presence on Walburg is truly finished. The next sculpture made by this local craftsman will be of a human. I will pay a visit to H'an L'ler this afternoon."
Dreyfus put his hands behind his head and sighed. "I've got the formal surrender and a new chair. I'm happy. But I'll join you if you've no objection."
Jared's translator, Eagle, returned to the armored carrier containing Jared, Dreyfus and two other guards.
"He says the studio of H'an L'ler is over one street and half-a-something that way."
Jared said, "Thank him and offer to pay him to lead us there."
Eagle nodded and called to the native who in return shouted a reply.
"He says our transport won't fit the lane."
Jared said, "The empty streets are making the Ambasssador nervous. Relax Dreyfus, the L'issans don't have the necessary attitude to set a trap. We can walk from here."
"Shouldn't we leave a guard?" Dreyfus asked.
Eagle said, "No need, it won't be touched."
Jared was already out of the vehicle. "Let's go."
The group followed the local around a corner and down a narrow lane shadowed by unbroken walls four meters high on each side. Jared said, "The silt mark from the flood is a full third the way up."
Dreyfus looked where he was pointing at the change in the shadow's tint. "Strong walls," he said.
The men reached the next street and the guide pointed to a yellow and blue banner above a small door less than thirty meters distant.
Jared said, "Pay him, Eagle."
"He accepts no payment for obligation."
Jared looked at Dreyfus for guidance. The ambassador merely shrugged.
Jared instructed the guards, "Remain outside, Ambassador Dreyfus and I will call you if H'an L'ler does not speak universal."
The two walked past shops spewing exotic smells and odd noises. Signs of quick recovery after the storm's damage. They entered the artist's workshop. There was no one in sight.
"It's dazzling," Jared said.
"The colors are surprising," Dreyfus said. "I haven't seen the natives wearing anything this vivid."
Decorating the walls of the atelier were fabric bolts of bright yellows, soft blues, rich purples and glowing reds. Jared said, "I thought H'an L'ler was a sculptor."
"I am that too, good sirs."
Jared turned to the owner of the voice. A large native had entered through a curtain in the back of the shop. "H'an L'ler, you speak our language well. I am Admiral Pursang and this is..."
H'an L'ler finished the introduction himself. "Ambassador Dreyfus. Welcome to my studio."
"You know who we are, do you know why we are here?"
The pale-skinned artist said, "I know who you are only because the Kym explained it to us and you have been in the streets asking for me. I am not a seer so I do not divine the reason for your presence. Come into my compound and we will share R'inge."
Jared said, "Your offer is kind, I would like to see your sculpting workshop but I..."
Dreyfus interrupted before Jared could refuse the R'inge, whatever that was. "We would be honored to share R'inge with such a multi-talented artist." Dreyfus nudged Jared's ribs as he spoke.
They passed through the curtained doorway and found themselves in a sunlit compound, shaded by a brightly striped awning.
Jared examined the sculptures in various stages of completion while H'an L'ler fusssed with a pot suspended above a glowing fire. Jared said, "You were fortunate to keep your firewood dry in the floods."
H'an offered Jared a steaming cup of brew. "Alas, I could not, but the Kym were here after the crest and dried my fuel store for me." He sat on a bench and Jared and Dreyfus did the same.
Jared tasted the R'inge. It wasn't too hot, despite the steam, and reminded him of tomato and cinnamon. "A piece of yours is, or rather was, in the observation post."
"Citizen Obiesse," H'an said.
"It's a beautiful word of art. Could you sculpt one for me?"
The native put his cup aside and walked around Jared. "I haven't the right piece of freestone at the moment. But I will let you know if I find a suitable one."
Jared put his cup down firmly.
Dreyfus placed a hand on Jared's arm and spoke first, "How long did it take to find the right piece for Citizen Obiesse?"
Jared realized what Dreyfus had done and relaxed, grateful for the diplomat's intervention.
H'an replied, "Nearly a year."
"There. You see, Admiral? It could be a year before you get your sculpture started. Now that H'an appreciates your keen interest, I'm certain a retainer will keep him looking."
Jared felt controlled enough to speak. "Your fabrics are very vivid, why do we not see them worn?"
H'an glanced inside his shop and them back at them. "It's the wrong time of year. We publicly display ourselves in the colors of rejoice only during planting month and final harvest. You might see them at other times, if you were invited into one of our homes. Some L'issans wear them privately." H'an paused and then added, "Though many are currently still in mourning."
"The floods?" said Dreyfus.
"The departure of the Kym."
Jared finished his drink and stood. "It was an honor to meet you, H'an L'ler. I look forward to our next meeting when you have the freestone." He passed a folded piece of Command Currency to him.
The L'issan didn't accept the retainer. "The honor is mine, Admiral, Ambassador. Good day to you both."
Outside, in the street, Jared said, "A year? Why couldn't he use one of the pieces he had lying around?"
Dreyfus said, "Artists. You get the same attitude everywhere. No deadlines. Why don't you ask Obiesse is he has changed his mind about taking the figure with him? I'll go with you tomorrow."
Jared shook his head, "No, I want to see him alone." He tried to picture a statue of himself on the pedestal but the image would not come.
Jared and Eagle forged a path through the multitude of L'issans crowding the Kym departure pad. He could see a few scattered Kym towering above clusters of villagers. He looked at his watch. A quarter hour to lift-off. They should be boarding.
Obiesse was surrounded too when Jared spotted his back moving toward the departure ship.
"Stay here," Jared ordered his men. He headed for the Kym ship.
He and Obiesse arrived at the same time. "Good day, Citizen." Jared remembered the proper address. "There are more of your fellows than we knew left on Walburg." Jared pointed to the forty or so Kym now converging on the ship.
"Many of my fellow Observers were scattered across the planet."
"I will soon be sending out scouting missions myself. With the cooperation of the L'issans to spread the news of the transfer of power."
"Do not approach from the air. The L'aquoy in particular distrust aerial travellers, though they've had the technology for glide flight for five generations."
"Thank you, I will consider your advice. We'll set up a planet-wide communication network to eliminate the need for much personal travel. Come back in two years and you won't recognize the progress we will have made."
The noon chime sounded and the Kym began entering the ship. Jared watched each one touch the ground with their hand before disappearing inside.
Obiesse waited until the last one had gone. "We won't return to G'er L'iss in two years, Admiral. Or two thousand. The Kym will not remain in any system in contact with your race. There will be no further encounters."
Jared said, "Our purpose is not to drive you away. With your technology, there are worlds uninhabitable to us that you could make suitable."
"The Kym purpose is far removed from yours. We do not seek to tame and change places to suit us. We are quarantining ourselves from you. Permanently. Excuse me, Admiral Pursang, it is my turn."
Obiesse turned and walked to the ramp base. He touched the ground with one hand, then the other. With one knee touching G'er L'iss' surface he held out his arms in imitation of the sculpture he had retained. He bowed his head to the natives then ascended inside the ship.
Jared stood back to watch the ship depart. Dreyfus appeared beside him.
"I couldn't resist seeing them leave. Did you find your answer?"
Jared said, "No. An ephemeral victory. I've a feeling we lost more than we'll ever know." His words were drowned out by the noise of lift-off.
This story originally appeared in Visions VI Galaxies edited by Carrol Fix.