At Border Control

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“Papers, please.” The border officer, a young lady with light-blue skin and iridescent hair, held her hand out without looking up at the next entrant.

The passport that a rubbery, deep-red hand with double-ended digits gave her was crudely-made – just a sheaf of coarse paper sheets with no cover to speak of – and the entry form was empty. Oh joy, another mouth-breathing savage, she thought with a sigh, and raised her eyes to size up her latest torment.

The traveler was a tall and imposing humanoid, clad in primitive armor made from the hide of some scaly animal. His pointy head was marked by two broad tentacles that sprouted from the sides of his chin and rested on his shoulders, with another, smaller pair coming out of his cheeks. His mouth was a line of jagged teeth, a chevron-shaped flap of skin – actually a vestigial fifth tentacle – stood in for a nose, and a pair of sickly-yellow eyes studded the sides of his face.

“Name?” Her voice carried as much annoyance as she could muster.

“You can read it there,” the man growled with a crackling voice, pointing at his travel documents.

“Yeah, and you could’ve written it here too, buster,” she waved the form around. “I need you to confirm all data. Name?

His facial tentacles writhed in anger. “Gallurak of the Bleak Fort,” he said after a while.

She cast him a sideways glance before moving forward. “I’ll go ahead and write ‘Bleakfort’ under ‘surname’. Nationality?”

“Nag-Quelthhu, Bane of Hope,” he said with a solemn tone.

Her supervisor, a couple booths away, perked up at the mention of that name. “Like, that doesn’t even sound like a country,” she said, rolling her eyes as she filled the form. “What the hell is up with that name, anyway?”

“It is a name one such as you is entirely unworthy of uttering… woman.” His tone of voice made it clear that he was thinking of some entirely different and much less civil word to call her.

“Hey, chill out, okay?” She splayed her hands in the most insincere apology possible. “I’m just trying to get through this form here, no one’s offending your gods or ancient spirits or whatever.”

“Only fools hold to such childish superstitions,” he snarled. “Unlike those fantasies, Nag-Quelthhu is real, much more so than your republics and governments.”

“Alright, alright, let’s move on. They’re waiting.” She pointed at the long line of people, of the most varied shapes, sizes and colors, snaking all the way back to the wormhole and beyond. “Occupation?”

“They can wait as long as they must,” he said. “Because, to answer your question, I am a Void Enforcer.”

She chuckled. “Del, ‘void enforcer’, that’s rich. What the hell do you guys do, check empty jars to make sure they’re still empty?” The supervisor, now wide-eyed, started making his way toward her booth.

Enough!” He slammed his fist onto her desk. Across the hall, the head of security motioned to a nearby guard, who started walking toward him as well. “I have suffered more than enough of your insolence, worm!” Gallurak bellowed.

“Sir, you will calm down right now,” she said firmly. “You may be a Grand Wizard Whatever back home, but here, you’re in Union territory and–”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” her supervisor barged in. “Has this lady offended you?” He gestured for the approaching guard to stop a couple paces away.

“She has displayed the vilest disrespect for the Bane of Hope and their direct representative!” the man yelled. “She must be punished at once for such insubordination!”

“She will be, I assure you,” the officer said, while his younger colleague looked at him in disbelief. “But first, let me help you through. I’m sure you’re on urgent business.”

“That I am,” Gallurak growled, snatching his passport from the young woman’s hand as he moved through.

“But he… the form…” The border officer tried to object, being quickly hushed by her boss.

“And welcome back to Bhadrapada Six!” The supervisor forced a smile at the traveler until he cleared the cluster of people leaving the booths, making a series of annoyed sounds as he shouldered his way past them.

“Whew,” he sighed. “We can, uh, just figure out how to fill the rest of that,” he said, examining the form.

“What the hell, Denker?” the lady said. “You saw him getting violent! We can’t have them thinking they can get away with that sort of behavior! You said it yourself, security protocol is…”

“Yeah, I know what I said,” the wearied man snapped back. “And it still holds, of course, but this case is… Delemmir’s sake, girl, that’s a Void Enforcer right there!”

“So freaking what?” she protested, writing whatever seemed appropriate on the remaining fields. “You guys are telling us all the time that the rules apply to everyone, that there’s no such thing as nobles or whatever when it comes to protocol!”

Denker let out another sigh. “Again, that’s still true… but in certain cases, you have to let common-sense take over, you know? I mean, do you even know who Nag-Quelthhu is?”

“What do you mean, ‘who’?” She looked up at him. “Isn’t that a country?”

“Gods… you don’t know, do you?” He rubbed his eyes. This girl’s lucky she was born a scion, or she’d be out there cleaning toilets, he thought. “Just… thing is, Void Enforcers are the very top brass at Nag-Quelthhu’s domain. They answer only to the big guy, and are considered his right-hand… well, tentacle men. You piss one of them off, you’ve got probably the most powerful vukhar in the whole planet raining hell on you, and you don’t want that. Nobody does… the government, least of all, so I’m sure they’ll understand if you bend the rules a little bit for him. Got it?”

“Vukhar? Oh… I see.” She looked over her shoulder, catching a last glance at the hulking red form moving toward the exit of the portal station. “Poor guy… for all his arrogance, he’s really a slave, isn’t he?”

“Slave? No, I don’t think that’s fair,” her supervisor mused. “That word implies a being in the same general category as their master. No matter how subjugated, a slave is a someone, not a something. Folks living under a vukhar? The very best they can aspire to be is a tool, like him.”

“And the worst?” A chill ran across her spine.

Denker shrugged. “I’d say ‘food’, but those actually get off easy. The worst, I’d say, are toys.”

Battle at Phrynea

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“Sir, the kyrrztli chancellor is on the telescreen.” Naresh, the chief of staff, stood by with a wearied look. “She insists on an audience.”

“What a prick,” President Hargunn grumbled. “Can’t you hold her off a bit longer? Things are just starting to heat up down there.”

Naresh shook her head. “We’ve been trying, sir, but she’s adamant. Says it’s urgent. And yes –” she interrupted the President’s objection “– we did tell her that all strategic concerns should go to General Arbael. No use. She insists she’s gotta talk to you, and only you. And… let me remind you, it’s her forces backing us up there in Phrynea.”

“Alright, alright, bring it over,” Hargunn said, sitting up in his chair and straightening his suit. “You guys, keep watching the field. All info goes to Janker,” he said, motioning toward his military advisor. “Let me know if there’s anything vital.”

A moment later, two aides carried the heavy telescreen into the situation room, and set its heavy base onto the mahogany table with a clunk. On the smooth crystal screen, there was an insectoid wearing the formal regalia of a Raidmaster.

“President Hargunn, you are now speaking to Supreme Chancellor Zyrrktli of the Galuran Basin Confederacy,” Naresh announced, struggling with the kyrrztli’s name.

“Good morning, Excellency,” the President mumbled quickly.

“Good morrning, yeer Excellency,” the Chancellor replied with a bow. “We have come to addrress yee with a prreeposal regarding our prrevious negotiation of the rrights to rhodoprasyte mining in the Upper Drrigyr.”

Hargunn frowned. “Rhodoprasyte mining? I… I’m sorry, Chancellor, but with all due respect, we’re in the middle of a battle here!”

“So arre we,” the insectoid replied, “and yet our analysts have managed to find the time to rreassess the terms of our cooperation. We must discuss it at once, I insist.”

“But why now?” The human was baffled. “Couldn’t we at least table this discussion for when the battle is resolved?”

“I’m afrraid that will neet be possible,” Zyrrktli calmly objected. “After all, the rresolution of such battle may well depend on the outcome of our negotiation here… that would make feer quite an interresting paradox, nee?”

“Sir,” Colonel Janker whispered in the President’s ear, “the kyrrztli haven’t moved in.”

“What?” Hargunn whispered back, casting a distrustful look at the telescreen. “They’re bailing out?” The insectoid patiently watched the exchange, clacking her fingers together.

“No, sir, they’re in position,” the military advisor replied. “They’re just… standing there. Not doing a damn thing.”

The Chancellor glanced at a metal plaque someone presented her and waved it away. “It seems things arre developing quite peerly in Phrynea, see say reports. Maybe it weeld be wise to accelerate our negotiation.”

The President’s face fell, as realization dawned on him. “You… wouldn’t.”

“Prreetect the lives of my citizens by keeping them away frrom a battle that brings no prrofit feer us? I weeld, and in fact, I am deeing same rright now.”

“That’s… betrayal, of the lowest kind!” His face contorted into a scowl. “You made us a promise! So your word is worth nothing, huh?”

“There were nee trreaties signed,” the insectoid said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “Nee handshakes. Nee public declarations. We betrray neething but a vague plan of action that is easily superseded by furrther plans.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Naresh said, barging back into the situation room with a communicator in hand. “I’ve got Arbael on the link. He’s getting desperate, you gotta talk to him.”

Hargunn took the device and pressed it against his temple, glaring at the telescreen. “Listening,” he said.

“Find a way to contact those goddamn bugs!” the general screamed into his mind through the link. “They’re standing there like freakin’ statues, not responding to our backup signals, and Basin Command refuses to acknowledge any comms!”

“Oh, I’m in touch with their command, alright,” the President said, eyes fixed on Zyrrktli, who watched him calmly. “Right at the top.”

“Then tell ‘em to get their abdomens down there, because our boys are getting butchered! The Nuradians are sending in air support from the north, and the bugs are supposed to be our anti-air!”

“I weeld like to remind yee that we may begin furrther negotiations whenever yee’re ready,” the Chancellor started. “Specifically, we have grreat interest in the plots seerrveyed near the villages of Fargyr and Damin.”

“Sir?” Arbael insisted. “Do you copy? Have you gotten through to them?”

“Forget the bugs,” Hargunn replied. “They’re not fighting.”

“What the hell do you mean, they’re not fighting? That’s not an option, sir! We need them, and we need them now!”

“Repeat, they’re not fighting. Figure it out.” He shoved the communicator into Janker’s hands, shaking with anger.

“Reaching an agrreement is a simple matter,” the insectoid continued. “I’m sure we can rresolve this in time to rrejoin the battle.”

The President leaned on the table. “The only agreement you’re getting is this: Your soldiers get in there and do what they’re supposed to do right away, and maybe we’ll consider letting you keep the mining rights you’ve got now.”

“Our contrracts are already signed with the winning bidders,” the kyrrztli coolly replied. “Feel frree to attempt to feerce them out of the plots. I understand the Alliance views such brreaches of contrract rather peerly. Although yee might be too occupied retaking Phrynea from the Nuradians, of keerse.”

“Dammit!” He pounded the table with his fist. “We are not giving in to blackmail! To Hell with you and your damn soldiers!”

“Sir, please cons–” Naresh tried intervening, being silenced by a dismissive handwave from her boss.

The Chancellor made a pinching motion to someone off-screen. “Such strreeng weerds to a head of state are quite the un-dipleematic gesture, I’d say. Nee mind. In name of our leeng rrelationship, I’ll refrrain from turrning my seeldiers against yeers… directly, at any rrate.”

“Do your worst… bug!” Hargunn snarled. Beside him, Janker struggled to answer General Arbael’s frantic appeals, while Naresh argued with foreign representatives.

“I believe our negotiation is eever, then. Glad to eenderstand one another.” Another motion from Zyrrktli shut down the telescreen link, making her vanish from the crystal screen.

The chief of staff approached her President. “You do realize that losing Phrynea will make our whole Bhadrapadan colony non-viable, right?”

“Of course I do!” He slumped onto his chair. “And set Varasa’s position within the Alliance way back. And wreck our economy. Not to mention cost me my job, most likely.”

“Glad you understand what’s at stake here, is all I’m saying.” Her voice was subdued.

“What the hell was I supposed to do? Roll over and let her have her way with me?” He glanced at the foreign dignitaries in the corner, who were glaring disapprovingly at him. “That’s not how you do diplomacy. Not with these psychos, anyway. You gotta show strength. Excuse me,” he said, picking up the communicator Janker was handing him.

“We’re in a dead-end, sir,” Arbael’s voice rang inside his head. “The bugs raised a fog around the enemy’s pods to shield them from our own anti-air, and now they’re collapsing the south passage as well. Our forward can’t fall back, and our rear can’t give support. It’s a goddamn slaughterhouse in there.”

Damn.” The President made a fist. “Those bastards didn’t just hang us out to dry, they’re aiding the enemy.”

“At least they’re leaving now,” the general sent back. “For all the good that does at this point. Sir, we need a decision.”

“General, you’re in charge of military strategy,” Hargunn replied. “It’s up to you to make the calls.”

“Oh, I’ve made my call,” the commander said. “But since you’re officially responsible for the operation, we need your go-ahead to disengage and fall back.”

“I see.” President Hargunn sighed. “General Arbael, you are authorized to abort the operation and organize a retreat to the closest allied base.”

He tossed the device on the table, without waiting for the acknowledgement, and got up. There would be time to debate his decision later, but at that moment, there was nothing to be done. So the President walked out of the room, ignoring all the voices yelling at him in discontent, and closed the door behind him.