This is the fourth installment of "New Management", a fanfic prequel to Isaac Asimov's early blood-and-thunder space opera "Black Friar of the Flame". The first three installments can be found here, here, and here.
"There is a tendency," said Admiral Roh, "to view the past through the lens of the present. Indeed, there are some who argue that that is the only way to view it; that one cannot understand an event in the past unless one has an analogous event in the present to compare it to."
William McInnis had concluded that even if you didn't already know that Roh had been an academic before the war, listening to him would have been evidence enough. How many times, McInnis wondered, had Roh made this same speech before the students at his military history lectures at New Beijing University? Dozens, he guessed.
"But the people of the past had their own reasons," Roh continued, "and it is up to us to see their world through their eyes, not just through our own. Consider the Terrestrial explorers who first encountered the Vegans two hundred years ago. When they established their policy of noninterference, it was not just of the Vegans they were thinking. Remember, interstellar travel was only fifteen years old then, and here they were, making first contact with an alien civilization only twenty-five light years from Earth. 'Surely,' they said to themselves, 'if we have come across another intelligent race so close to us in space, there must be a multitude of others yet undiscovered.' It was for these hypothetical other alien races, more than for the Vegans themselves, that they established the policy."
"And yet," Dr. Hartz answered him, "even if they had known that our Galaxy contained only themselves and the Vegans, I think they would still have adopted the policy. Without it, there was always the danger that mankind would regard the Vegans simply as a resource to be exploited, and not as fellow sapients deserving of the chance to be left alone to work out their own destiny for themselves."
There was a surreal quality to the scene, McInnis felt. Around them were the streets of Lhasinu, capital city of the island Kingdom of Lhasi. The bright glare of Vega was shielded by an overcast sky that threatened imminent rain. They passed through crowds of Vegans, looking almost -- but not quite -- human as they argued, gossiped, bargained, flirted, boasted, and otherwise interacted with each other. Here in Lhasi their fine scales were a golden yellow hue, though elsewhere on the planet you could find Vegans who were green, or blue, or red. The buildings had the unplanned, slapdash look that you only found here on Vega VI, or among the ancient cities of Earth. The streets wound among them wherever the Vegans had thought it might be convenient to walk, rather than being laid out beforehand by a planning commission or a real-estate developer.
In the midst of the brawling Vegan city, the small group of humans looked as out of place as a Vegan equinox-festival procession would have looked among the spotlessly clean shopping arcades of New Hamburg. At the head of the short column were Roh and Hartz carrying on their debate, the former accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Nguyen Cong Danh, the latter by Lieutenant Kovarik. The Sirian officers were guarded by two of their marines, while the whole party was flanked by four of Kovarik's security people. And, of course, there was McInnis himself, lodged in the middle of the group. Roh and Danh were wearing Sirian Navy dress uniforms, which McInnis had no trouble recognizing as near-duplicates of 21st century Royal Navy uniforms. The Sirian Marines were also in dress uniforms, also apparently modeled after 21st century British military uniforms. Kovarik and his security team were wearing their usual khaki uniforms, while Hartz wore a broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and ankle-length skirt. McInnis, as he usually did out in the field, wore a similar hat and shirt, along with a knee-length kilt and plenty of sunscreen on his legs. Since kilts were common male attire among the Vegans, it helped him to blend in with the locals.
The humans were on their way to an audience with Carg Jendo Porga, the King of Lhasi. Roh would be attempting to persuade King Carg to allow Vegans to serve in the Sirian military, while Hartz would be attempting to persuade him not to. McInnis would serve as translator, and Danh, a linguist who specialized in Lhasinuic, would be on hand to keep McInnis honest. While the two leaders continued their debate, McInnis fell in beside Danh and spoke in low-pitched Lhasinuic. "Does your chief talk like that all the time?"
"You can take the man out of the university," Danh responded in the same language, "but you can't take the university out of the man."
"What do you think of the idea of recruiting people?" People, of course, being the only Lhasinuic word for Vegan.
"I think the chief is right. We need soldiers, and the world has plenty of soldiers to spare." The world, of course, being the only Lhasinuic word for Vega VI.
"How good can they be?" McInnis wondered. "They don't have any machines more complicated than a catapault."
"You don't have to know how to build a sky ship to be a good soldier," said Danh. "All you have to know how to do is wield a weapon and obey orders, and the people are good at both."
That was true enough. If there was one thing the Vegans excelled at, it was fighting each other.
The group passed through the flagstoned square opposite the main gateway of the Royal Palace, and drew up in front of the two Vegan guards who stood flanking it. The gates, of stout wood crossed with iron bands, stood open. The Vegans, in mail shirts and iron helmets, clashed their spears onto the flagstones, and the one on the left called out loudly, "Who approaches the palace of Carg Jendo Porga, beloved of the Gods, King of the Lhasi and defender of his people?"
That was McInnis' cue. Stepping forward from the group, he responded equally loudly, "It is the learned Nelda Hartz of the sky people, friend of His Majesty, in the company of her countrymen. The learned Nelda Hartz has sent word to His Majesty seeking an audience, and His Majesty in his beneficence has seen fit to grant it. We come now in response to His Majesty's summons."
"Not bad," Danh said quietly in English.
"We recognize the learned Nelda Hartz, friend of His Majesty. Enter, then, by His Majesty's leave." The two guards raised their spears from the ground, expertly swung them in unison, and planted them again, this time points down. McInnis stepped back in among the other humans, and followed as Dr. Hartz led them through the gateway and into the palace grounds.
(to be continued)