IMPERIAL

by Jonathon Sullivan

 

 

Dennis thrashed on the fuckphone, indulging a little guilty time over 12-space with a tiger-skinned transfex from Herios IV. Just when he got into the groove, the Ayai chimed in like a headache to tell him the rented shuttle was popping out of the foam.

 

"What?" Dennis sat up, whacking his forehead against the tiger-girl’s chin. "Yow!"

 

"Shaai-yat!" She rubbed her jaw and grumbled at him in a dialect he didn’t know.

 

Dennis hung up. Tiger girl evaporated from his lap, leaving him alone, high and dry on his little cot. He pulled the fuckphone out of his cort-port and forced himself to sit up and put his feet on the deck. "Are you sure we’re on target?"

 

"We are on a spinward elliptical vector 2 billion kilometers from GQ42-1139," the Ayai said. "The shuttle will enter orbit around the fourth planet in thirty-nine minutes."

 

"And you couldn’t wait a bit before you made this announcement?"

 

"Company rules require me to alert the customer at the foam interface. You did not order an override. I’m sorry for any inconvenience, and I hope you’ll fly us again soon."

 

"I’m flying you on the way home, remember?" Dennis stood. His cyclopean member stared back at him from his crotch. He pulled himself and his erection into a jumpsuit, feeling dirty and degraded. It was just an Ayai. But he still didn’t like being caught hooked up to a fuckphone or any other machine, acting like a Pig.

 

"Let me see," he said.

 

The bow monitor crawled with telemetry, numbers and graphs, sterile digital Pigshit. Now the Ayai showed him the planet in realview. As the shuttle streaked starward, the fourth planet grew out there in the Goldilocks Zone, a tiny blue-green eye opening to reveal its soul, swirling white clouds over lush continents and vast oceans. The shuttle dropped into orbit on nightside, then swung around to give Dennis a closer look.

 

Good ooking here. A huge continent emerged from the twilight of the terminator into dawn. Two mighty rivers cut across her face to feed a rainforest that spanned a hemisphere. No cities, no highways, no terraforming, no clearcuts.

 

"Does that look Pure, or what?" Dennis asked.

 

"I am not permitted to participate in religious debate," the Ayai said.

 

"Then don’t." Dennis poured himself a cup of kava-java. "How long till the Pig reaches the system?"

 

"The Development Emissary entered orbit two hours and twenty-three minutes ago."

 

"What?" Dennis spilled his joe over the front of his jumpsuit. "When I got on the fuckphone, you said he was four hours behind us!"

 

"He was. Then he accelerated, and arrived ahead of us. Development can afford excellent foamcraft, you know."

 

"Yes, I know! Why wasn’t I informed?"

 

"Because you asked not to be disturbed while you were on the fuckphone."

 

"But you did disturb me on the fuckphone!"

 

"Company policy, sir. I’m sorry for any inconvenience, and I hope you’ll fly us again."

 

Dennis threw his remaining kava-java at the Ayai’s speaker, then smashed the cup against the bulkhead.

 

The Pig had arrived first!

 

He readied his gear, mumbling curses to insulate himself from his guilt. While he indulged in the shuttle’s Pig-tech, the Pig Emissary had stolen the ball. Dennis prayed there were sentients on the world below, as the preliminary probes suggested, and that they had language. Because if the locals didn’t talk, GQ42-1139-4 was going to be a Pig planet for sure.

 

 

#        #        #

 

 

The Ayai put the shuttle down near one of the two great rivers, because that was where the Pig had parked his own ride. Dennis commanded the Ayai not to damage the bioforms, but the stupid piece of Pigshit said it was impossible to land anywhere discreet without cutting a hole in the rainforest canopy. He argued with the filthy machine, but his hurry forced him to cave in. The Pig was already ahead of the game, and if Dennis had any hope of scoring this world for the Conservancy, he had to move quickly. A few missing twigs and branches wouldn’t be more than a temporary blemish on the planet’s Purity.

 

The Ayai compiled a catalogue of the local bioforms and announced that Dennis would be safe outside. But it wouldn’t pop the hatch until he put in the stupid jack.

 

"I’m taking the jack with me, see?"

 

"You must insert the interface before disembarking, sir. You are asked to wear it at all times while outside the craft."

 

Some Ayais you could talk into bending the rules. Not this one. Dennis thought of his own Ayai, his own foamshuttle, recuperating in a service bay on the other side of the spiral arm. His Ayai had contracted a nasty contagion on the last run. She’d get over it, but in the meantime he was stuck with a rental, because the Conservancy was shy on resources. Disturbing, because of course most rental outfits were owned and operated by Pigs.

 

No use arguing. Dennis slipped the semicircular band of the jack over his head and into the cort-ports in front of his ears.

 

"Thank you, sir." The airlock opened.

 

Dennis stepped out into Purity.

 

Well, not quite. The Pigshit Ayai, with a cold carelessness that belied its genesis in a faraway, Pigshit factory, had mowed the rainforest into mulch, right down to the roots. A perfect thirty-foot perimeter of devastation encircled the shuttle.

 

"Was this really necessary?" Dennis asked.

 

"I cannot permit damage to the customer or Company property." The Ayai rode along in the jack and spoke directly into his temporal lobes.

 

"Yeah. Pigs might get a scratch on their precious shuttle."

 

"Or a wrongful death lawsuit."

 

"Just stay out of my head. Let me enjoy the Purity."

 

"As you wish."

 

Dennis marched across the denuded circle and stepped into a wall of dense rainforest. The planet swallowed him into a seething tangle of life. The Ayai gave him GP feed through his cort-port, with a red pointer superimposed on his visual field to direct him as he picked his way through the jungle.

 

Dennis had visited a thousand worlds, but never had he seen such densely packed Life. He longed to rip off his jack and his jumpsuit, to take a lotus posture on the thick fractal roots of one of these giant green-and-purple trees, to turn on his Gaia-Yoga and connect his chakras with the life-force that flowed and fed and hunted and branched and fucked its way through the pulsing biomass of this spectacular planet. The urge to ook with this Purity was overwhelming. It took an almost Piggish single-mindedness to keep his mind on the job.

 

Very soon, he saw them: cities.

 

Not like the Pig-filthy continent-sized megalopolises one found strangling the life from most human worlds. A complex of small, delicately interlocked conical structures ascended the trunks and coiled about the branches of the forest, linking every tree to every other.

 

 "They look like giant wasp nests," Dennis said.

 

"No, sir. The inhabitants are homeothermic chordates, biocomplexity index .87, average mass 18.8 kilograms, oxygen breathers, average heart rate--"

 

"Stop. What are they doing?"

 

"The probe told us little about their behavioral neurobiology. But since they are all motionless and generating highly regular brainwave fluctuations, I think we may speculate that they are sleeping."

 

Dennis scanned the city of little papery houses. "All of them?"

 

"It would seem so."

 

He marched on a short distance before he saw her. The woman wore a jumpsuit like his own, and the jack that encircled her head was identical to his. She lay in the coarse humus of the rainforest, coiled on her side with her back to him, motionless. As he drew near, he saw several creatures the size of terriers laying next to her, motionless. The beasts wore a glistening, oily coat of black fibers too thick to be hairs, too flexible to be scales and too straight to be feathers. They had six limbs, the two hind pairs large and muscular, tucked into the center of their tightly coiled bodies. Their forepaws, endowed with long slender digits (Dennis counted six) were wrapped around their narrow skulls, covering their eyes--if they had eyes. A sleek, heavy tail, as long as the rest of the body, filled out the arboreal body plan.

 

He stepped around the sleeping woman and got a look at her face. He took a deep breath. She was a transfex, and a nice one. Her facial bone structure carried a hint of the feline. Golden down covered her skin, peppered with rosettes of black, like a leopard.

 

Dennis’ eyebrows went up, and he mouthed a silent and wary "wow." He found the women who went in for such alterations at once exciting and repugnant, so beautiful in their feral markings, so twisted and removed from any concept of Purity that they would actually warp their own genomes to get those markings. The same kind of perversion, he told himself, that made humans raze and plunder worlds into submission. The same greed and short-sightedness that made them huddle together in filthy cities, like slaves. The same jealousy and self-hate that made them want to drive out the Purity in the younger, more innocent races they encountered as they ate their way across the galaxy.

 

He looked at her, and felt his anger win over his desire.

 

"Wake up, Pig," he said.

 

The woman didn’t move, but several of the sleeping creatures twisted in their sleep, paws held across their faces.

 

"What, did they all smoke something?" Dennis asked the Ayai.

 

"Unknown."

 

"You’re a big help." He clapped his hands. "Hey! Everybody up!"

 

Now the woman stirred, along with her little friends. The creatures pulled their paws away from their blinking eyes, three black orbs on each side of an elongated, catlike skull. They saw Dennis and scampered up the nearest tree.

 

The woman rubbed at her eyes and gave him a bleary stare. Her gaze turned inward and her lips worked silently. Dennis realized she was consulting her Ayai.

 

Then she laughed.

 

"What’s so goddam funny?"

 

She sat on her haunches and regarded him with green cat-eyes. She made a soft, trilling growl in the back of her throat, then spoke in an inflected Standard: "You’ve lost."

 

She stood, turned on her heel and strode off. Even in the bulky jumpsuit, her hips had a nice swing. The thick bush devoured her into green shadows.

 

Dennis frowned. "What’s going on?"

 

"That was the Development Emissary," the Ayai said. "We found her two meters from where you are now standing, apparently taking a nap with the natives. When you woke her, she declared that you had lost. Then she--"

 

"Are you familiar with the concept of a rhetorical question?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Do you know what ‘shut up’ means?"

 

"Is that a rhetorical question?"

 

"No."

 

The Ayai fell silent. Dennis kept looking at the spot where the Pig had disappeared. Nice hips.

 

But not a very nice thing to say. You’ve lost.

 

How could she know that already?

 

He looked around, then up at the crude city of cellulose. The inhabitants had apparently overcome their initial terror at his appearance, and ventured out onto the papery terraces that interlaced the branches. They stared at him with inky, curious eyes.

 

He waved. They watched.

 

"Greetings from the Conservancy," he said.

 

The creatures did not respond, except with a steady, unblinking stare.

 

"Anything?" Dennis asked the Ayai.

 

"Are you referring to your attempts at communication, or is this a rhetorical question?"

 

Dennis sighed. "I’d like to communicate, obviously."

 

"Based on neural firing patterns in response to your greeting, I calculate a less than 20% probability that these creatures process language in verbal form."

 

"Then how do they process language?"

 

"I cannot make a determination at this time. It is not clear that they have language at all."

 

"They make cities! They--"

 

"They construct dwellings from chewed cellulose. So do termites."

 

"She said I’d lost! That must mean--"

 

The words stalled on his tongue. His jaw dropped as he stared at the branches above. There, a half-dozen treecats held globes of plastic and smartmold in their clever forelimbs. They peered at the screens and poked at the buttons with their double-jointed thumbs. When one of the little globes glowed and chirped the treecats closed their eyes and shivered with obvious pleasure.

 

"Those are game-balls," he said, dazed.

 

"Correct," the Ayai said.

 

"The Pig gave them game balls!"

 

"And they seem to like them."

 

One of the balls beeped and flashed; one of the treecats blinked and quivered.

 

"Another winner," the Ayai said.

 

 "You can’t just toss a game ball to an overgrown otter and expect it to start playing! Those creatures are intelligent!"

 

"It would seem so."

 

"And she had to have found a way of explaining what the game balls were for, and how to use them."

 

"It would seem so."

 

Dennis took a deep breath, fighting a murderous anger. "Then that means she and her Ayai found a way to communicate with them."

 

"It would seem so."

 

"Yeah, it would seem so. So how come you can’t find a way to communicate with them?"

 

"I’m afraid I don’t know; I will continue my analysis."

 

"Ookey. In the meantime, why don’t you guide me to the Pig shuttle’s landing site? I think we may have a claim."

 

The jack funneled the GP feed into Dennis’ cort port, guiding him through the tangle of fractal roots, saprophytic undergrowth, vines and rotting organic matter layered over the dermis of the rainforest. Overhead, the arboreal city of cellulose spread in every direction like another species of flora. The paper city’s denizens observed his progress with bitriplet eyes of black glass, forepaws folded over their chests. The Ayai sent out a wide range of signals, ranging from the subsonic to the ultraviolet. Intermittently a failure notice appeared in Dennis’ peripheral vision like an irritating insect.

 

The red dot led him to a clearing in the growth, next to a sparkling river that crashed down a rocky slope and rushed across his path. On the opposite bank the Pig shuttle sat on the brush, which remained intact save for a tight circle of char from the landing rockets that barely extended beyond the ship itself. The Pig was nowhere in sight.

 

"So the Pig does less damage than the Ambassador of the Conservancy," Dennis muttered. "You’re really making me look good."

 

"You specified parameters for the landing site: close to the Emissary’s shuttle, yet discreet. I’m sorry for any inconvenience, and-- "

 

"Shut up. How did she get across this river?"

 

"Thermal signatures indicate she crossed over the rocks eighteen-point-seven meters to your right."

 

The red dot showed the way, as if Dennis couldn’t see the rocks or tell left from right. He strode to the bank and stepped out onto the natural bridge of stone.

 

He lost his balance halfway across and tumbled into the stream. His skull banged against a rock. He sucked down a lungful of warm, acrid water. Pain, confusion, rushing current—-it all jangled into a lightstorm of terror. The rented Ayai maintained a running commentary, whispering into his cort port with crystal clarity:

 

"You have fallen into the river. You have sustained a closed-head injury. You have aspirated river water. You are being carried downstream by the current. You..."

 

He wanted to shriek at it, but there was the matter of his breathing. The river was surprisingly deep. His feet thrashed, searching for purchase in the roiling water.

 

Strong grip on the back of his neck, his body dragged up on the riverbank, chest heaving hacking pulling in great panicked breaths...

 

"...several minor contusions and abrasions. You have no broken bones or serious internal injuries. You have been rescued by the Pig Emissary. You are—"

 

"Shut up! Wait—rescued by who?"

 

"By me."

 

Dennis blinked through his dripping eyelashes at the irresistible abomination seated on the blue-green grass two meters in front of him. The Pig smiled her bio-engineered leopard-smile at him and kept her right hand prominently in contact with the stun-gun at her hip.

 

He stared, too choked with shock, desire and tepid river water to speak.

 

"I’d bet my last gameball you’ve got that thing programmed to call me a Pig," she said.

 

Dennis coughed and shook his head. "No. No, why?"

 

"Is there something I can do for you?"

 

He didn’t want to look at her. He kept his eyes on his feet and said, "In accordance with Article IV, Section II, paragraph 9—"

 

"Paragraph 12," the Ayai whispered into his cort port.

 

"—er, paragraph 12 of the Interstellar Convention on Planetary Development, and in the interest of fair competition and fidelity of representation, I hereby demand that you surrender any translation interfaces, codes, syntactical charts, lexicons or other instruments facilitating communication with any and all sentient life forms on this planet."

 

Her smile widened. She had a serious pair of maxillary canines. "Then you’re out of luck. I don’t have anything of the sort."

 

Dennis flushed. "You’re lying! The indigents are playing with game balls! You said I’d already lost. You couldn’t open negotiations without establishing communication."

 

The leopard-grin grew wider. "That sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, I do not have access to any translating instrument. But I can show you how to cross the stream without falling in."

 

Dennis narrowed his eyes and conjured his most redoubtable scowl. "The Convention gives me the right to demand access to your Ayai for an audit."

 

"You know, you’re kind of adorable, for a pompous ass."

 

The capillaries in his cheeks argued about what to do next. "It is my right."

 

She stretched her legs out and leaned back on both arms, breasts thrust forward. "Sure thing, Gaia-boy. Access code’s 473-SNUGGLECAT."

 

Dennis took a deep breath, tried not to stare. "You got that?"

 

"Affirmative," came the whisper in his cort-port. "Connecting. This will take a moment."

 

His opponent kept her eyes on him. Dennis tried to look nonchalant. He started to rise to his feet, felt the swelling below his waistband, thought better of it.

 

"I thought you Purity types had your chakras aligned with Cosmic Gaia," she said. "All tuned in to planetary consciousness and stuff."

 

"It’s called Gaia-Yoga."

 

"Yeah, Gaia-Yoga. Is falling into rivers part of that?"

 

Dennis opened his mouth to retort, but his Ayai interrupted.

 

"I have completed my audit of the Pig’s Ayai. No facilities for communication with the indigenous life forms are in evidence."

 

"That’s impossible!" Dennis said.

 

"Falling into a river?" The Pig Emissary giggled. "But you made it look so easy."

 

He glared at her.

 

"Or did you just get the audit results from your Ayai? Told you." She stood. "Anything else?"

 

Dennis leaped to his feet, pointed an accusatory finger at her. "You hid it!"

 

"That is unlikely," his Ayai told him. "Erasing such a large application from an Ayai is impossible."

 

"I’m not talking to you."

 

"I’ll leave you two alone," the Pig said. "Do be careful going back." She gave him a lurid wink. "If you get wet, I might have to pull you out again."

 

She turned and walked back to her shuttle. He watched her hips and felt his rage and tried to figure out what to do next.

 

By the time he got over the river—-dry this time—-he’d made up his mind. Pigs might be better at cheating, but they weren’t the only ones who knew how.

 

 

 

#        #        #

 

 

 

The next time he crossed over the river, night had blanketed the rainforest. Two moons shimmered over the clearing, one orange, one blue. He guessed at the Pig shuttle’s security perimeter and crept as close as he dared.

 

Dennis pulled the little wafer of aminano foam and supercon crystal out of his jumpsuit. He tossed it into the dirt and it took shape immediately, morphing into a palm-sized, lobster-shaped robot with a shiny gray carapace. It crawled forward until it hit the Pig shuttle's’ security perimeter. After a brief pause, it began to dig.

          Dennis waited while the thing tunneled its way beneath the perimeter. He’d rarely had to resort to such tactics. Most emissaries, Purity or Pig, abided by the Convention. The Convention dictated that each inhabited planet in humanity’s path must be given a choice to either join the stupid Pigshit Development Compact or become part of the Conservancy. Before the Convention, the fate of entire worlds had been left to chance, to greed, to war. But now each new planet received two ambassadors, and in the case of primitive worlds like this one, the first group to be contacted spoke for the entire biosphere. Not a fair or perfect solution--far from it. Just better than the blood and chaos that had gone on before.

 

But without communication a decision couldn’t be documented either way. In such cases, a complex adjudication formula was implemented, almost always in favor of Development. The natives of this world clearly managed some form of communication, and the Pig emissary had apparently figured it out. Now she withheld that knowledge from him, in violation the Convention.

 

So Dennis didn’t feel particularly compelled to play by the rules.

 

A flash of light caught his eye: the lobster emerged on the other side of the Pig’s perimeter. Dennis’ heart thundered in his ears as it scurried toward the shuttle, attached to the hull, and crawled toward the sensor array, glittering in the multicolored moonlight. There it stopped and clutched at one of the shuttle’s large antennae with its heavy foreclaws. A few moments passed while it downloaded the toxic replicator that would crash the Pig’s Ayai. Then a tiny red beacon on its back flashed three times: mission accomplished. A few seconds later, a burst of light confirmed the tiny saboteur had destroyed itself.

 

Dennis nodded with grim satisfaction and retreated to the other side of the river, into the rainforest. He picked his way through the shadowy undergrowth, checking for landmarks. It was slow going, for he did not have his Ayai jack to guide him. He’d left it in his pocket, switched off. No sense inviting a witness to his sabotage. The Pigshit rental Ayai would incriminate him in a heartbeat.

 

Moonlight dripped from a million fragrant leaves, like dew. The rainforest croaked and chirped. Dennis felt the bosom of life wrapped about him, but he was too edgy for ooking. He’d crippled the Pig’s ability to communicate with the tree-cats, and stranded her to boot. But he was no closer to opening negotiations himself. It infuriated him to think of what the Pig had promised them: game balls and netlinks and indoor plumbing and good jobs in the service sector...

 

Talk about sleeping with the enemy. What the hell was that all about, the Pig curled up and snuggling with them as if they were so many housecats?

 

473-SNUGGLECAT. 

 

That’s when Dennis put it together. He hadn’t stumbled on the Pig napping with the locals after negotiations. He’d stumbled on them during negotiations!

 

His heart surged. He had to put on his jack. The Ayai could send a hypnotic signal through his cort-port, driving him into the world of sleep. There he could make contact and begin negotiations.

 

After he’d entered deeply enough into the forest to lose sight of the river and the Pig shuttle, he pulled the jack out of his pocket.

 

Before he could insert it, he heard a branch crack behind him.

 

He whirled and drew his weapon. Caught a glimpse of the Pig Emissary, halo of filtered blue moonlight around her black silhouette. Saw the broken, twisted branch held high over her head like a club.

 

His weapon spat out a stunning pulse of energy just as the Pig broke the club over the top of his skull.

 

 

#        #        #

 

 

 

Found himself sitting with the others in a paper nest, high above the rainforest floor. A half-dozen treecats stared at him with sextet eyes. In one corner of the oblong treehouse sat a pile of artifacts: gameballs, machine parts, models of unfamiliar foamcraft, singing crystals, and other objects Dennis could only guess at, trinkets left by visitors from dozens of unknown worlds.

 

The treecats gave him a strip of purple-green bark. Dennis took it in his clever, six-fingered foreclaws and chewed it with his heavy, rat-like incisors, mashing the fibers into a sticky mass of cellulose and resin. It tasted like cookie dough and cloves.

 

"We like you," they said.

 

"What?"

 

"You are Imperial. We like that. We are Imperial, too. You belong to us, now."

 

Dennis kept chewing. "I am the Ambassador of the Conservancy. I am here to tell you that under Interplanetary Convention you have a choice. The others want to develop your planet, to change your way of life, to make you consumers in a—"

 

"They are Imperial, too. We like that."

 

"No," Dennis said. "You don’t understand. They’re different from us. They—"

 

"You are the same. We are all the same. We ride the conquests of the Imperial and spread our dreams. You ride the slippery foam to spread our dreams."

 

"The...slippery foam?" Dennis chewed his bark a moment before it hit him: they meant the quantum gravitational spacetime foam, the cosmic current that propelled humanity across the stars.

 

"You ride the slippery foam and spread your dream everywhere, like chewbark."

 

His muscles flowed in the current of a will not his own. Dennis spit chewbark into his paws. He spread the masticated, gluey cellulose from branch to branch, chewing and spitting and spreading, building a paper city from branch to tree to planet to star, a vast city stretching from spiral arm to spiral arm, city of chewbark, city of steel, of intelligent composite and nanofoam, city of electric flesh and quantum polymer, city alive, superconducting marketing engineering capitalizing towering interest-compounding, bringing each new world to full profit blossom, silicon lotus, steel flower endless unfurling...

 

"No!" Dennis cried. "That’s not our dream!"

 

"She dreams it. Imperial. You have the same dream."

 

"No!" He tasted the Pig’s dream too clearly, joyously ooking Development’s vision for the universe. He wanted out of this nightmare, this vision of ecstatic wallowing in Pigshit.

 

"You all live together. You all work together. You all ride the slippery foam."

 

"But..."

 

"She sees your dream, now."

 

The Conservancy stretched from spiral arm to spiral arm, endless vistas of Purity: crystal forests, ammonia oceans, hydrocarbon deserts, mycotic tundras--strange landscapes and stranger cultures preserved and put on profitable display for the easy enjoyment of Pigs on vacation, for the ecstatic ooking of Pures on pilgrimage, for the Pigs and Pures who worked and dreamed together and wrangled over the destiny of worlds. 

 

"But you think you have different dreams. Interesting. We like that. We are Imperial. You are Imperial. We will dream Imperial with you. We will shape your dream. You will spread us across the slippery foam. You belong to us now."

 

Dennis stopped chewing. Threw aside his bark. "Now wait one goddam minute. We’re not just..."

 

"Specimens in a zoo?"

 

He gaped at them, and they stared back at him with obsidian eyes. "We like you. We are Imperial. We conquer dreams and let them fuck."

 

A galactic conservancy intertwined with a galactic city, chewbark and steel mixed together like rotting humus on the rainforest floor, a trillion species dreaming, all of them dreaming, cultures meeting, mixing, conquering, submitting, fucking, spreading the treecat dream across the cosmos, a city/conservancy/empire of dreams ruled by treecats sleeping in huts of chewbark, shaping the visions and destinies of a thousand starfaring cultures.

 

And the Dreamers knew they themselves were dreamed. Dennis ooked an infinite fractal regression, slippery foam of dreams frothing and fucking...  

 

The Pig thrashed on his waist, gasping in orgasm, nipples scarlet and hard on her cat-spotted breasts.

 

Dennis came with her. City and Conservancy were One.

 

Go home. Ride the slippery foam and take us home.

 

They both woke up at the same moment. She slapped him and pulled away, to snatch up her jumpsuit and hold it over her nakedness. While he rubbed the throbbing knot on his head, she rubbed at the bruise his weapon had painted over her ribs. She cast him a poisonous look and wriggled into her jumpsuit. Dennis pulled on his own outfit, and the two ambassadors glared at each other in the early morning light.

 

"That had nothing to with us," he said, almost a snarl.

 

She shook her head, and her glare slowly melted into a smile. She tapped her temple. "Do you feel them?"

 

He did. A warm, pleasant place still glowed in his mind, behind his eyes, watching everything.

 

The Dreamers.

 

His eyes widened. "Yes! Holy Gaia Mother--they’ve infected us! We’ll never get through quarantine!"

 

"Quarantine won’t know unless we tell them. The Ayai can’t register or record..."

 

She trailed off.

 

"What?" Dennis gasped as the meaning fell into place. "You lied! You said I’d lost, but you didn’t have any advantage! You could dream with them, but your Ayai didn’t see anything. There was no way you could document your negotiations!"

 

She shrugged. "No way you could, either--then or now. That meant adjudication, which almost always goes for Development over Conservancy. So you’d lost. Besides, what difference does it make now?"

 

"What difference? What difference?" Dennis threw up his hands, confused and helpless. "They... they..."

 

"They’ve colonized us. They’re going to ride back with us and spread through our civilization, to dream with us."

 

"To tell us what to dream. You’re awfully nonchalant about carrying contagion! I for one think we should consider staying here, rather than spreading it."

 

"What difference does it make, really?" She laughed. "We both came here to have our way with their world. Instead, they’ve conquered us, after a fashion. You saw what I saw, didn’t you? How many races do they dream with? How vast is their empire? Beyond anything Development or Conservancy ever dreamed."

 

She turned.

 

"Where are you going?"

 

She took a few steps, stopped, turned on him. "Excellent question, inasmuch as you’ve disabled my Ayai. I can’t fly my shuttle, I can’t..."

 

"You can ride back with me."

 

Her eyes narrowed.

 

Dennis smiled as a little corner of the universe came back into his control. "Of course, there’s the pending matter of this planet’s disposition."

 

She blinked at him. Puzzlement on her cat-features, then disbelief mingled with grudging admiration. "You bastard!"

 

"Call me what you want. You’ll state for the record that your Ayai failed spontaneously, that the indigents refused the overtures of Development and agreed to join the Conservancy."

 

She hurled a battery of half-hearted curses at him, then fell silent, hands on her hips, staring at the ground. After a moment she looked up, smiling.

 

Dennis frowned. "What?"

 

"They’re laughing at us." She looked up at the treetops, where the treecat dreamers lay on the papier-mache patios of their forest city.

 

Dennis looked upward and inward. He saw it, too: the dreamers’ amusement at his antics, his stupid, futile desire to shape his world. Like every empire that ever conquered and crumbled, every race that ever sought to impose its will on the cosmos. Like the dreamers themselves, every civilization that dreamed of shaping destiny...

 

Imperial.

 

"This changes everything," she said.

 

He shook his head, fighting to cling to his folly. "It’s doesn’t change anything. Do we have a deal?"

 

She followed him back to his ship and gave a statement to his Ayai, ceding the planet to the Conservancy.

 

"The Document is notarized and secured," the Ayai said. "I have scanned you both and verified that you are free of contagion. I can begin preparations to leave, if you wish."

 

Dennis swallowed. Last chance.

 

"Sir?"

 

"I think we're done here," he said at last.

 

"Launch cycle initiated. And sir, I'd like to be the first to congratulate you on your success."

 

"Another win for the Conservancy," Dennis muttered, but it lacked the old ring of triumph.

 

She chuckled behind him, and he turned to face her.

 

"You don’t really believe that, do you?" she asked.

 

"If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered."

 

She laughed. "I still think you’re cute, Gaia boy--for a pompous ass."

 

His cheeks smoldered. "Well, it’s a long trip back," he said. "I’m glad to have some human company for a change."

 

She smiled. "I’m sure we can give our new friends something to dream about. Why don’t you help me get strapped in?"

 

Dennis swallowed.

         

She took his hand and led him aboard. The Ayai shut the hatch behind them. Minutes later, the shuttle lifted into the turquoise sky.

 

And they rode the slippery foam, all the way home.