Wednesday, March 13, 2019


     [A short story for you today. It’s a twist on an old story by Christopher Anvil, “Mission of Ignorance,” which can be found online. -- FWP]

     Maxim Tsipayev endured the chafing from his pressure suit as stoically as he could. The Solar Federation’s notoriously laconic Port Authority would allow the Hegemony’s embassy ship no closer than the edge of the heliopause and its ambassador no closer than Titan. He took consolation from the knowledge that it had been over nine billion seconds since an emissary from the Hegemony had been permitted to enter Sol’s heliopause.

     Two previous attempts to enter without the Federation’s leave had been reduced to subnuclear particles. The weapon by which they’d been quarked was among the reasons for the urgency of Tsipayev’s embassy. The principle was unknown to the Hegemony. The Hegemon wanted it badly.

     At least the walk to the meeting room is a short one.

     Two large, pressure-suited guards toting threatening-looking weapons flanked the outer door of the airlock. Their vitrine face shields concealed their expressions. The one on the right held silently out a hand for Tsipayev’s credentials. He plucked them from an external pocket of his suit and handed them over. The guard studied them briefly, handed them back, and pressed a button on the control panel behind him. The door opened, the guard gestured him inside, and the door closed behind him.

     Tsipayev’s suit monitored the rising air pressure in the chamber. When his instruments reported a safe partial pressure of oxygen, he put his hands to the clamps of his helmet, intent upon removing it as he’d been instructed. He was halted by a voice of thunder that seemed to issue from deep within his brain.


     But why? I’m as human as any Solon.

     He voiced the objection, but received no reply.

     The airlock’s inner door opened. A third armed guard, this one in a lightweight, indoor-caliber pressure suit, awaited him. The guard gestured with his weapon that Tsipayev should follow him.

     The corridor brought them to a modest-sized room that contained a small conference table and a few chairs. No technological elements were present. Immediately across from the entrance stood a pressure-suited figure of average height and build. The figure gestured to Tsipayev that he should sit, and then took his own seat.

     The cold voice inside Tsipayev’s brain sounded afresh.

     What does the Hegemony want with the Solar Federation, Ambassador Tsipayev? Think your desires plainly and unambiguously.

     It was the most unwelcoming welcome Tsipayev could have imagined. It threw him all at once into a state of uncertainty.

     You need have no fear for yourself. Remain calm. Simply think your desires.

     “Well...uh...we want to know why we of the Hegemony aren’t allowed normal interaction with Sol?”

     We fear you, and you have nothing we lack that we would benefit from acquiring.

     “But why do you fear us? We’re—”

     That is not a desire. Think only of your desires. I have not been prepared to respond to any other kind of inquiry.

     I’m communicating with a machine intelligence. Is the figure across from me an android...or an empty pressure suit?

     “Uh...we want to know why you fear us.”

     Your society is incompatible with ours.

     “How so? Aren’t both our systems based on the consent of the governed?”

     That is not a desire. Think only of your desires. I am not prepared to answer any other kind of inquiry.

     This is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.

     “We want to know why you find our political systems incompatible.”

     We do not find your system incompatible with ours. We find its results incompatible with ours.

     “We want to know the reasoning behind that statement.”

     The four thousand, seven hundred thirteen worlds controlled by your Hegemony are only cosmetically governed by consent. It is a facade engineered by your techniques at secrecy, media manipulation, and electoral fraud. The Hegemon does not recognize any bounds to its authority.

     It’s time to go on the offensive.

     “We want to know why you believe such an obvious falsehood.”

     It is not a falsehood. Our sources within the Hegemony have reported on the state of affairs there reliably and consistently for three centuries. While they continue to do so, we will be accurately informed of affairs within your polity.

     Tsipayev had known that Sol had agents within the Hegemony, but he had not expected Sol to admit it.

     “We want to know why you permit emigration but not immigration.”

     Migrants from your society could reintroduce to Sol the concepts that have produced your Hegemony. Those concepts have proved far too seductive, and far too destructive, for Sol to tolerate them. However, because we recognize the right to pursue one’s own vision of happiness, any citizen of Sol Federation is free to emigrate if he pleases. A few do so, each year. Once he has emigrated, he is not permitted to return.

     “We want free movement between our societies.”

     Denied. It would not benefit Sol in any way.

     “We want to know why your government believes that.”

     Sol’s productivity and technology have advanced far beyond that of the Hegemony.

     “We want to know why, if you recognize a right to trade freely within your Federation, you deny your citizens the right to trade with those outside it.”

     We do not deny them that right.

     “But...” Tsipayev halted himself and struggled for clarity. “We want to know why none of your citizens ever exercise that right.”

     Those who might wish to exercise it lack any means by which to do so.

     “We want an explanation for that state of affairs.”

     Trade requires intercourse between the traders. Your subjects are not permitted into the Solar heliopause. Citizens of Sol who exit the heliopause are not permitted to return. Thus, the only way to effectuate an exchange of goods between them would be by robotic transport. Practical considerations render that method infeasible.

     “But we must make some things you don’t, that you would like to have for yourselves!” Tsipayev caught himself before he could lose control. He forced himself to relax. “We want to know why you believe that free trade would not benefit both our societies.”

     Trading with the Hegemony would benefit only the ruling class of the Hegemony.

     “We want to know why you believe that.”

     The record on trade between free societies and tyrannies is explicit and unmarred by exceptions.

     “The Hegemony is not a tyranny!” In the confines of his suit, Tsipayev’s shout all but deafened him. “Our political system is just like yours, based on...”

     The tears dripping down his cheeks rendered him incapable of proceeding. The failure of his mission was too plain to doubt. He rose and indicated to the guard that he was ready to depart.

     He trudged back to his shuttle overwhelmed with the sense of failure.


     Charles Lawton removed his headset, set it down on his desk, and sat back with a sigh of relief.

     They’re so much easier to deal with when you don’t let them soliloquize.

     “Well?” August Carling leaned forward. “Do you regret it?”

     “Only the waste of my time,” Lawton said. “He was sufficiently off-balance from being forced to phrase everything as a ‘we want’ that he could never get started on anything more complex than a sentence. It’s a good approach. But I see no reason to permit any further embassies unless the Hegemony is overthrown—and with a subject population completely without weapons, that’s not bloody likely.”

     He rose, stretched, and contemplated the lawn behind the White House. “It’s a pity. I know we can’t free them—even with our military tech, one solar system with a total population of only ten billion isn’t going to do it for four thousand plus planets of helpless subjects—but the temptation is still there to ‘see what we could do,’ you know?”

     “I do, Mr. President,” the Secretary of State said ruefully. “We’ve known for a long time that a slave population must free itself, but a good man will always wonder if something might be possible, just this once, to nudge it along.”

     “Slaves, August?” Lawton said. “Not quite. More like serfs. Or villeins.”

     “I don’t know that word, Mr. President.”

     “No reason you should,” Lawton said. “It’s from feudal Europe. A villein was an agricultural laborer who was attached to a plot of land and the noble who had royal title to it. He had an obligation to the lord to yield up a certain amount of produce every season, regardless of any other consideration. He was forbidden to work for anyone but his lord. In the worst forms, there was no relief from the condition. No buying oneself out of villeinage. Worse yet, if he fathered any sons, they were immediately made villeins themselves.”

     “It sounds almost as bad as outright slavery.”

     “It was,” Lawton said. “Add to that having to farm with nothing but hand tools. The members of the Hegemon live really well, you know. They get nearly everything that’s available in their society at virtually no cost. Outside the Hegemon, life’s a lot tougher, a lot more meager. There’s no future for a villein.”

     “And yet every one of those planets was settled by emigrants from Earth,” Carling said. “A lot of them were Americans, once. How could they have precipitated themselves into such bondage?”

     Lawton grinned wanly. “The way our people nearly did so. They gimme’d. They demanded ‘rights’ to government-provided largesse. Every time they got what they thought they wanted, the Hegemon imposed another obligation and gained a little more power over them. Today they have only one right we would recognize: the right to die whenever they wish, if they can bear the thought that their burdens will fall the more heavily on their progeny. All the rest have disappeared into the Hegemon’s maw.” He turned a face of stone to his Secretary of State. “We can’t let them reinfect us with that noise, August. The price of expunging it the first time was much too high. No immigrants, no matter how we sorrow for them.”

     “How long, do you think,” Carling said, “will it be before they beg us to allow another embassy?”

     “Not long, I imagine,” Lawton said. “But the answer was no for several decades before this. I expect it will be no for several decades hence.” He resumed his seat. “The policy concerning uninvited visitors will remain as it is.”

     “You don’t think it’s a bit...wholesale?”

     “Oh, I agree that it is,” the president of the Solar Federation said. “But it certainly gets their attention. And it prevents the use of any of the trickery the first two ‘ambassadors’ were equipped with. Hard to deploy offensive nanotech from outside the heliopause, and after the disruptors have spoken...” A spasm crossed his face. “The first of those unwanted ambassadors was a woman, you know.”

     Carling nodded. “It must have hurt President Korbel.”

     “I’m sure it did. The records make Korbel out to be a very warm and tender-heated woman. Simpatico. But it didn’t hurt the ambassador at all. One moment she was alive and full of excitement about being the first Hegemon representative ever allowed into Sol; the next she was fundamental particles. No pain and no anticipation of pain. Of that, at least, we can be certain.”

     “She might not have known that her ship had been nano-weaponized.”

     “She probably didn’t, August. That would have changed nothing. No entrance allowed except by the express permission of a two-thirds majority of Congress plus the concurrence of the president. They want our tech badly enough to do anything for it. Especially our weapons tech and our digital telepathy. Imagine what sort of unopposable totalitarianism they could impose with those. Besides, their ideas about ‘balancing individual rights against social needs’ are too seductive. We can’t allow them a second chance to corrupt our people.” Lawton looked aside. “We know our hardware is orders of magnitude beyond theirs, but their persuasion tech...” Lawton shuddered. “I don’t know and I don’t want to know. From the very beginning of this Federation, each of my predecessors pledged his life that there shall be no villeins in Sol, August. I’ve pledged the same. And thus it shall remain.”

     Carling bowed his head.


     (Copyright © 2019 by Francis W. Porretto)


Pascal said...

Brilliant allegory of an "if only." I also approve of the state desires only approach. Rather than merely much easier to deal with when they're unable to soliloquize, let me be more blunt -- pretty much screens out dissembling. 5 stars Fran.

Linda Fox said...

The more truthful the speculative fiction, the more depressing.

BTW, thanks for the mention of Anvil - I found the site where his stories are located, and I'm looking forward to reading all of them.

Probably SHOULDN'T thank you, though. I'm trying to get the taxes done.

John said...

Very nicely done. Better than Ayn.