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The Hostile Stars

XI. Presence

Tlienjpraviashav stood up impatiently as the trooper entered the cabin. "Report!" he barked.

"Yes, nobly born." The trooper gulped nervously, and then continued. "We have been attacked in several places by the Imperials. Our casualties are light so far."

"There shouldn't be any casualties at all! Why are the Imperials attacking?"

"My lord, I do not know. Their attacks have been...well planned."

Tlienjpraviashav probed the man's mind, savagely, without warning. "They have attacked at the proper point each time, without warning. They have killed many officers. Our resistance is becoming disorganized." He released the trooper from the mind probe, and the man staggered back, nearly collapsing to the floor. "Go," said Tlienjpraviashav. He sat back down behind a computer console and tried to activate it. Nothing happened; they still had not raised the ship's main computer.

"Lord?" Plieznabr linked minds with him. "Shall I begin interrogation of the prisoners again?"

"No, my child. Come into the cabin. I need to talk to you."

The young Intendant appeared in the doorway. "Yes, Lord?" he said.

Tlienjpraviashav smiled at the young man, tall and fair, with a head of dense blond hair and flashing gray eyes. "What is your opinion of the nature of the Imperial attacks?"

"I lack the information to make an intelligent assessment, my Lord. Perhaps...you could show me?"

Tlienjpraviashav smiled. Intendants often tried to get their superiors to open their minds to them. There was little risk that he would expose anything to the boy, but there were always interesting things to be found floating unaware in the minds of others...normally, he might even have given into the boy's request. The strain of the last few hours had nearly exhausted him, and the intimacy of sharing minds, especially one as supple and powerful as the boy's, would be a relief. But war, among other things, is a great schoolmaster; and there were always lessons to learn.

"No, Intendant. You must learn to make decisions based on what people report, not by sifting their thoughts."

"But you probed the Color-Sergeant!"

"You felt that? True, I did. I should not have. It was demeaning to his honor. Even with our need so great, it should not have been done."

"But it was more efficient."

"Yes; and it is more efficient to attack a world from space with nuclear weapons and slaughter the whole population, rather than fight their armies on the ground. Yet we do not do so, even after four years of war. Why?"

"I think I see," said Plieznabr. "You are saying that we must act with honor, even to our detriment."

"Yes. Do you know that the Imperials believe that they are the most honorable humans in Charted Space?"

"Them? But their minds are so filled with petty deceptions, lies, half-truths, even self-delusions!"

"True. But you forget that they have no access to the minds of others. Is it any surprise that their own minds are mysterious to them?"

"Ah. Like when you learn a foreign language. I never understood Zhodani until I had to learn Old Viepchakliashtie."

"Yes. And so these poor barbarians must rely totally on what other people say. Their entire government is based on keeping one's word. Yet they remain so ignorant of other people's intentions that the most horrible crimes are common among them.

"Do you know that on many worlds of the Imperium, people routinely lock the doors of their dwellings so that other people do not enter them and take their goods? There is a whole body of law relating to a word of theirs that we no longer use-theft."

"Can that really be true? I had heard that it was so, but-wouldn't any society like that inevitably collapse? How can they allow such antisocial behavior?"

"They know no better, and refuse to learn."

In our worlds, if a person wanted to commit theft the Thought Police would detect it, and cure him of his aberrations."

"They consider the cure to be an even greater crime." He could detect the pity flowing from the young man. Good. The Intendant already knew how to fight the enemy. Now he understood them even better, could actually feel for them. He would not be the unthinking automaton that so many of the Imperials were. Once more he felt pride for his subordinate.

"Our society," he continued, "is the happiest and most stable in the history of all the human worlds. But it only has become that way because of our honor and our openess."

"I see," said Plieznabr. "When you probed the Sergeant, you were doubting his honesty, implying he was lying."

"Yes. There are practical concerns as well. Our power is not unlimited, even with drugs. One should not use it thoughtlessly."

"There is another reason why we do not destroy worlds," said Plieznabr, softly.

"What is that?"

"We do not try to win our wars."

"You are mistaken," Tlienjpraviashav said coldly. The boy was no traitor! What did he mean?

"Perhaps. But consider: we have fought four wars previously with the Imperium, all of them unprovoked attacks."

"Unprovoked? They were encroaching on our territory!"

"Yes, but each time we fired the first shot. We lost the First war, but the cost to the sector was high, and the coreward regions of the Imperium provided little help. This convinced the leading Imperial admiral that a change of administration was in order. He murdered the Empress and started eighteen years of civil war.

"As our greatest enemy was destroying itself, we attacked once more-and again lost. The victorious sector admiral marched on Capital and eventually became Empress.

"But the Civil War had done so much damage to the Imperium that it had to turn inward, towards rebuilding its society, rather than outward, towards expansion. When, three hundred years later, we attacked again, it exposed the weakness of the reigning Emperor and brought a younger, more aggressive Emperor to the throne who became engaged in a disastrous war across the Imperium with the Solomani. Once again, though we gained little in the war, we conquered the peace."

"So you think that we do not wish to win these wars? That we waste the lives of our sons and daughters on nothing?"

"Not on nothing. As long as the Imperium knows we will fight, suddenly, without provocation, they will resist expanding into our territory. Do you doubt that they could crush us, if they gathered all their strength?"

"You are mistaken," Tlienjpraviashav said again. But the child was more perceptive than he knew. There were the fringes of Consular secrets in his theory.

Re-education of nobles was rare, but not unknown. It bothered him that it might be necessary in the boy's case. He would miss the uniqueness of his mind.

An alarm in his handcomp went off, and a breathless voice came over its communications circuits. "We're under attack in Engineering, Lord. We've had to fall back. The Imperials are hitting us hard. Most of our officers are dead."

Tlienjpraviashav paused for a moment. "Continue to fall back." He needed an officer to take command done there, coordinate the resistance, raise the morale of the soldiers by his very presence.

"I'll go," said Plieznabr.

Damn. He must have lowered his guard for a moment, and the boy had picked up on his need.

But there were no other psionic officers available.

But he was so inexperienced! So ... so naive!

"Go," Tlienjpraviashav said, sensing the boy's rising eagerness. "Report back to me when you arrive. Take an escort, no more than two troopers."

War was a great teacher, he thought as the Intendent left. Which one of them would be the student this time?

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