Today marks the publication of the first of our top five stories in the 7th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, Peter Ruhren’s “Peace Sells.” The theme of this year’s contest was customs, and Peter’s science fiction story, according to our judge, “asks the important “what if” questions that shed light on those ideas we may not be able to see clearly in the moment.” We hope you enjoy it!
My rapid breathing fogged up the glass visor of my suit as I descended the steps of my OrbitPod, legs shaking slightly. To be this deep in a Chitarin space sector was one thing, but being sent alone was another. Reflecting on the thoughts crowding my head of Admiral Hutangg sitting back in ISCPF territory, most likely enjoying a fine bottle of Gurgle with his fellow officers, waiting patiently for news on the negotiations, I was looking forward to getting this over with.
Reaching the hangerbay floor, I turned towards the formation of Chitarin warriors approaching. In the center stood the tallest of the aliens, his rocky carapace a darker red hue compared to the others. That must be the general, I thought. As they approached, I reached out my hand to the General and began, “Cartarr Xen’fluum, of the Inter-Space Control and Protection Federation. I have come here to represent humanity and to negotiate the ter-”
I stammered and stopped, as the General of the Chitarins central eye twitched disgustedly, looking down at my hand. “The Chitarin people have no need for hand shakes” it interrupted as it drew a finger once over its left chest plate. “The two scrape greeting is advisable for such a situation as I am of a higher rank than you. A greeting of one scrape is meant for a subordinate while a scrape of three is meant for an equal.”
“Yeah whatever” I replied, “Shall I continue?”
“No it is impolite to discuss matters until after sustenance is obtained” The General criticized as it began walking the way it came. I went to walk beside it, but the General let out a grunt preceding another look of disgust. “Lower rated beings shall walk behind those of higher standing.” I went to protest, stopped, and fell back to the end of the formation.
As we exited the main hanger and entered a hallway, I stated, “I don’t think I got your name.” I was met with no reply, which could have been in part due to their disgusting, insectoid legs which created a loud ringing noise as they marched through the metallic hallways. Either way their arrogance and lack of manners were getting on my nerves.
We reached a door, which slid open as we approached, and the formation entered a small room, separated by a glass panel. Each side of the room had a table made out of highly reflective Masha Steel and a single chair of the same material.
“We have prepared the proper atmosphere on the other side of the panel for you to eat in, simply pass through that vacuum chamber to the right and prepare for sanitation.” I complied, entering the vacuum chamber and taking off my suit. There was a rush of some cold mist spraying on me from above which startled me. It gave my skin a numb-tingling sensation.
I breathed in the air for the first time. It had a smell of mothballs, and left my mouth feeling dry and hands feeling clammy. I stepped into the room on the other side of the glass, being met by a similar smell. I sat down in the chair and looked down at the plate of what may be considered food.
Over the intercom system I heard, “Tonight we will be eating Zoog meat, with a side of calcdec and shratie sauce.” Great, space rat, I thought with a grimace. The General must have noticed an expression on my face as he continued, “Although Zoogs are more common near your home world, but out here they are not. The war has stopped trade of Zoog meat so we had to ration what we had left. As such, it is a delicacy.”
Before I began eating, I clutched the brass pendant around my neck, muttering a prayer under my breath as I pressed it against my forehead. I prayed for the peace treaty to end the war, for all of my fallen allies to find a higher purpose in the light of the Beyond and for safety and health for my wife and daughter.
“I didn’t know there were any more Spark Singers.” the General noted. “I was sure such an archaic form of worship was all but eliminated by now in human society.” I ignored him, choosing instead to hesitantly eat.
I had had my fair share of zoog meat in the past, during my time serving on the Moon, although none of it had a taste like this. The sweet shratie sauce blended well with the salty, earthy tones of the meat, and the calcdec gave a texture that the rest of the plate would be lacking without it. I had to keep my eyes down at the plate, as the way the Chitarin mandibles tore at the flesh reminded me of my time on the battlefield. Overall, the meal was a treat after living off of dehydrated food on the long trip.
“The food was adequate” I proclaimed. “But I’m really looking to get this treaty signed and get back to the higher ups.” I was more looking forward to seeing my family. My daughter was about to start her first year in high school and I was hoping to be a bigger part in her life than I had been when the war was still in full swing.
“I have looked over the treaty and have sent my comments to the Hive King, we will have confirmation shortly” Great, more waiting I thought. It continued, “My name is Zjiju’Dimgm. I am a Secondary Negotiator of the Chitarin Galactic Imperium. The Chief Negotiator was unavailable due to. . . other reasons. I have taken his place.”
Huh, that’s strange, I thought. Just like me, Zjiju was stepping in for the more qualified officials. It was nice to see the fate of the Trillium Universe was put on such high regard. You’d think a treaty that could stop a war that has lasted almost a century would have had every person of interest on both sides on their toes.
“Walk with me human -no- Cartarr. I wish to get my mind off of the anticipation.”
I entered the vacuum chamber once more, donned my protective suit and visor and reestablished the oxygen passage with the tank on my back. We exited the dining room and headed down another hall. After a moment of walking I noticed that none of the guards were joining us. We continued on through a portion of the hallway with glass walls on either side. Stopping to look out the window, Zjiju began to talk, “Cartarr, do you see that monument in the center of that park.” I did. It was a series of spiraling cylinders creating a conical shape pointing up at the stars. “It is supposed to represent the souls of the Chitarin soldiers who have died in the many battles we have fought. It is one large hand, reaching up towards the sky, towards freedom. I imagine you humans have similar monuments?”
I thought back to a trip I took with my wife to Washington, D.C. before I was enlisted. Looking at the Iwo Jima memorial, the Washington monument and the many other artifacts of past triumphs of human soldiers, I was filled with a somber pride. “Yes, we had many. From this war and from past ones too.”
“Yes. I wonder if we will ever reach a time when we will stop building memorials for those lost for peace, freedom and prosperity. How many of these wars could have been avoided if we had no differences?”
“Well I think such ideas are impossible. A world without variability is a world not worth living in” I remarked.
“Hmm. That thought hasn’t crossed my mind. The Chitarins are taught from a young age to identical to that of the Hive King, as he is the ideal form of life. We do not have much say, and those who achieve the most likeness rise faster in the ranks. As such, the Chitarin people lack interracial conflicts that seem to permeate humanity’s history.” Zjiju continued walking down the hall. I hesitated a moment longer, reminiscing on old memories.
We continued down the hall, turning down a new hallway to the left. Zjiju stopped for a moment, his antenna twitching. I had heard that the Chitarin could communicate via miniscule vibrations which they pick up on their antenna, but had never seen it up close before. A complex mix of emotions danced across Zjiju’s face as he opened a door, ushering me back into the hanger. I stepped into the hanger bay, seeing my ship on the other side where I left it. I turned back to face Zjiju, not quite ready to end our conversation.
“I am sorry Cartarr, the Hive King has turned down the peace treaty.” A wave of dismay flowed through me, as my knees weakened. Zjiju raised his hand, dragging it across his right breastplate three times. “It appears that our differences are too many for the Hive King to back down. For the first time in my life, I. . . I disagree with him.”
I stared up at Zjiju, mortified as two Chitarin guards grabbed my arms, placing heavy energy manacles on my wrists and neck.
“It was nice to dine with you, Cartarr.”