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by Geoff Hart
The meeting of the ministers-designate from the Amicable Brotherhood of the United Societies of Earth had been called with little warning, as the serious nature of the impending crisis had only become apparent upon analysis of the most recent monthly reports. “Gentlemen,” the Chief of Mission proclaimed softly, so as not to wake the dozing, soon-to-retire Minister for Minority Rights, “we have a problem. These damned Wogs simply don’t seem to want to become assimilated on schedule.”
An efficient-looking young man chose this moment to clear his throat. “Sir, might I remind you that you’ve developed a distressing habit of using a proscribed racially explicit epithet? The Procedures Manual expressly mandates the use of indigene for all unassimilated native populations, with the adjectival form indigent. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently create a diplomatic incident that would undo all our hard work here, would we?”
The Chief shot a black glance towards the younger functionary. “Quite right, Achmed, quite right. It’s just that the present situation has me a bit upset, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. My boss and yours, the Ambassador Extraplenipotentiary, has just given me a stern dressing-down for being so far behind schedule in the assimilation process. After all, with the 17th Intragalactic Congress only a year away, these indigenes of ours show no signs of ever being ready for presentation at that august body. I don’t think I need to remind you how that will look on all our records when promotion time rolls around again.”
The collective glum silence bore adequate testimony to the truth of this statement. “As I’m sure that all of you are as dutiful as I am when it comes to reading the monthly reports,” he paused, clearing his throat theatrically, “I’ve called this meeting so that each Minister can sum up the progress that his department has made. That way, we can reassess the situation and pool our expertise. Why don’t you start the ball rolling, Ronald?”
The Minister for Homogeneous Proteinaceous Substances, not a lightweight individual even on Earth, got slowly to his feet in the 1.2-g field of the planet, and cleared his throat with the noise of a plugged drain pipe being reamed out. “I’ll start off with the bad news first. Our sales of Kobyashi Maru fast-food franchises have not risen to meet the economists’ projections... in fact, sales are nonexistent to date. It seems that whereas the abos were more than willing to eat our free samples, not a one of them seems to believe that anyone would actually pay for the stuff. As a result, we’re out several million credits in freebies that we’d hoped to recover with franchise royalties. But there is good news,” he beamed somewhat insincerely. “We should be able to cover the loss out of A-base funding with a little creative accounting and some belt-tightening. One of my brighter young accountants has been able to write off the loss by attributing it to our need to use sturdier, more expensive, paper cups to withstand the higher local gravity.” At a scowl from the Chief, the Minister sat down slowly, his chair protesting quietly in the air-conditioned hush of the boardroom.
The Minister for Forests, who was next in line, looked around nervously and stood up, perspiring visibly. “Along those lines, I’m afraid that we haven’t had much more success with our pulp and paper projects. The Pinus irradiata plantations just don’t seem to be living up to the expectations of the agronomists. The climate seems ideal, but there’s just something missing... one of our older researchers recalled something about soil surveys and ‘mycorrhizae’, and she’s looking into this, but as she’s rather near retirement, we don’t place too much stock in what she’s been saying.” He glanced nervously towards the Minister for Minority Rights, who remained safely asleep. “We’ve also been having troubles with a particularly voracious local insect, which seems to consider our expensive pines to be a rare delicacy. Worse yet, the local weed species are outgrowing anything we can plant."
He licked his lips. "However, the good news is that we have a substantial surplus in our inorganic pesticides budget, and if we can find a combination of chemicals that will knock back both the bugs and the weeds, we should be able to get back on track. Actually,” he essayed a weak grin, “the really positive thing is that even if we have trouble finding the right mix of chemicals, we should eventually be able to set up a profitable pesticides industry here.” He sat down, his grin slowly broadening into a smile of incipient triumph, and nudged the bearded, bespectacled gentleman beside him.
That worthy, the Minister for Cultural Redevelopment, rose gracefully from his seat, surveying his colleagues with an amused and slightly contemptuous gaze before clearing his throat. In a beautifully modulated voice, he began reading from a large sheaf of papers held before him. “Regrettably, the natives seem to lack even the most primitive icons or statues of religious significance. That means that there is nothing concrete (ahem) to ship back to the Multinational Geographic Society museums. Our Religion boys are out there trying to inculcate some vestiges of Christianity into the heathens, but with little success so far. On the positive side, they do seem to enjoy our classical music—quite a bit, actually. By our latest projections, this means that we should be able to move them on to rock and roll, music videos, and mass marketing far sooner than we’d originally expected. There’s good news from our Merchandizing division too. Sales of televisions are booming, with the popularity of the Leave it to Beaver and Mr. Rodgers reruns in large part responsible. However, the follow-up introduction of Gilligan’s Island has been a bit of a flop, so our promotion of more modern programming will be delayed another few months at least. But by and large, I’d have to say we’re ahead of projections.” He shuffled his papers ostentatiously, casting a particularly disparaging glance at the Minister for Homogeneous Proteinaceous Substances, and sat down as gracefully as he had risen.
The Minister for Commerce rose to deliver his report, the wrinkles vanishing from his NeverIron suit, the envy of his less prosperous or less budgetarily astute colleagues. “Fortunately for us, we have a rich field to plow. The local economy is in a shambles: the budgets remain rigidly balanced, inflation is nonexistent, and there’s virtually 100% employment! All this despite our best efforts to offer economic development loans at embarrassingly low rates of interest. We just can’t understand what makes these people tick—if an indigent wants to purchase one of our electronic wonders, why then, he simply works an extra ten hours a week until he can afford to pay cash! Universal Express took a really big bath, profit-wise, when they printed up those ten million plastic cards before conducting a proper market analysis. But at least there’s a silver lining—not to say a gold one: with all that overtime work, the Gross Domestic Product has increased ten percent since we’ve been here. Once we get a better handle on these people, I anticipate even better progress.”
The Minister for War reported next, rising cautiously to avoid entangling his office’s ornate ceremonial katana in his chair. “I’d like to go on record as stating that we could solve all of your economic problems with a good old-fashioned war, if only the policy boys upstairs would let us. Fortunately, the people seem to be naive to an unprecedented degree, and correspondingly trusting and obedient, so they take very naturally to military discipline. Add to this their phenomenal strength—I personally saw one lift a 40-kg sack of flour, and this in a 1.2-g field!—well, they’ll make simply marvelous soldiers. If only we could get them to learn to give orders to each other as well as following blindly the orders they’re given. They seem to enjoy loud noises, so we’ve replaced laser cannon with primitive artillery, and we now have a 2-year waiting list for spaces in the artillery brigade. And you wouldn’t believe the accuracy of their gunners! Why, without so much as a ballistic computer, they have an accuracy of more than 70% on the first salvo.” Overcome by this long speech, the Minister gratefully took the opportunity offered by the Minister for Education, and sat down, tangling his sword briefly and spectacularly in the chair.
His colleague mopped at his forehead with a cheap linen handkerchief and began without rising from his seat. “I can confirm that anecdote of yours, Martin. These people are unquestionably idiots-savant. They show no ability whatsoever to operate even the most user-friendly computer. They insist on doing everything on paper or—get this!—with an abacus or a slide rule!” At the blank looks from his colleagues, he smiled. “Primitive mechanical computers. I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of them.” He dabbed at his forehead once more, then proceeded. “They memorize everything with astonishing ease and excellent recall, but they are wholly unable to master the comparatively simple act of a database search in the online Encyclopaedia Galactica. Despite this, they retain a remarkable proportion of what we teach them in the schools. They seem particularly fond of Earth history, though they’ve developed a regrettable tendency to giggle. If it weren’t for our increasing attendance records, I can tell you that our own monthly reports would need a good deal of padding!”
The Minister for Technology stood a little too fast, tottered, regained his balance, and clutched at the table. “This learning disability seems to extend to all things technological. Their agriculture is hopelessly primitive. They use the local equivalent of oxen to till their fields, and they use only natural-source fertilizers! They never invented the internal combustion engine, and seemed completely horrified when we explained the idea and offered to provide a demonstration. On the other hand, they do use hydroelectric power, and with a sufficiently high level of demand for electricity, we might just bypass internal combustion entirely and get them using fission plants by the end of the next fiscal year. You boys in Commerce will have to get going on the introduction of small consumer appliances before we can saturate the existing power grids and make them want more.” He shot a vengeful look at his colleague and sat down cautiously. That worthy considered replying for a moment, caught the Chief’s eye, and thought the better of it.
The Minister for Health also remained seated, as he’d already broken several bones in the high gravity. “I’m afraid that I’m quite at a loss. We’ve constructed no fewer than twenty hospitals, one per province, yet we’ve had no more than two dozen customers in each to date. It’s incomprehensible to me how they can live on a high-fiber, low-fat diet of unprocessed purely native foodstuffs, wholly without synthetic supplements, and still remain healthy. They even retain the barbarous habit of breastfeeding their children.” He repressed a shudder of distaste more successfully than most of the other Ministers, but then he’d received an extensive medical orientation lecture in preparation for his posting. “At least that means we can expect a greater incidence of infectious diseases, which means that sales of milk formula can be expected to boom. Considering the amount of strenuous exercise they do, we’d also anticipated a significant proportion of athletic injuries, but no such luck. I have one of my more promising interns researching the physical fitness craze of late-20th-century Earth to see what stopped the fad in its tracks, so we can implement the same strategy here. I hope to have more to report at the next meeting. Perhaps we can even introduce some specialized exercise equipment to improve their fitness level, albeit at the cost of repetitive strain injuries. One can hope.”
The Minister for Politics was plainly upset, as evidenced by the absence of his usually lengthy preamble and the fact that he too forgot to rise. “I’m afraid that the news I bear is no better than the rest of you. Our attempts to instill some form of representational government in these people have been cursed with the most abject failure. There seems to exist some informal variant of proto-socialist government, possibly post-industrial socialism, if you’ll pardon my use of jargon—but I’ll be damned if I can identify any capitalist counterculture. As a result, my class-struggle teams have their work cut out for them. We can’t discredit socialism until we can get some of them to embrace capitalism. I’m afraid that I really must agree with the Minister for Education. These people are lamentably slow learners.”
He sat down amidst a gloomy, defeated silence, broken at last by the Chief of Mission’s deep sigh. “Well, fellows, when we entered the Foreign Service, they warned us that alien cultures would be... well... alien. I admit that, like the rest of you, I’d assumed they just said that to inspire us in the face of inevitable setbacks, and now we see the truth of the matter. But we’re not beaten yet; indeed there are several distinct signs of hope amidst your reports. A little more hard work and we should begin to see the results we’ve achieved in the past with other cultures, including our own. If each of us could only put in those extra ten hours a week that the natives do, maybe even bring the work week up to 35 or 40 hours for a brief period, I’m sure we’d be able to report more progress by next month.” The assembly greeted that last suggestion with a groan, but it was a groan that carried with it the implicit recognition that the success of their monthly salary re-evaluation reports could well hinge on the extra work.
The Chief rose to his feet and stared out a heavily tinted window at a magnificent sunset, tears of deep emotion gathering in his eyes. “We mustn’t look on this as an unfair burden imposed on us by our superiors at HQ. Remember, friends, when you begin to feel overcome by your own burdens, how heavy must be the burdens of those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s our moral duty to share the blessings of our advanced civilization with them, at whatever personal cost. For my own part, I shall look on the additional work as a labor of love for our fellow sentients.”
This story was inspired by Keith Laumer’s series of tales about Jaime Retief, the James Bond of interstellar diplomats, in a skewed and often very funny universe in which Earthmen blunder around trying to do good and succeeding only through the efforts of the few competent souls like Retief who somehow manage to elude the bureaucracy. I have some vague notion that this will serve as the preface and mise en scène for a short novel on colonialism (and specifically “cocacolonization”), and what happens when the indigenous peoples turn the tables on the colonizers. At the moment, it’s only really a scene rather than a fully conceived story.
A "wog" is a derogatory term for "Westernized oriental gentleman", though other interpretations have been offered; it's intended to describe someone trying to rise above their station and achieve something (i.e., the status of a white man) denied to them by their skin color, religion, class, or other accident of birth. Although the term has lost none of its patronizing tone, many white folk have forgotten its origins and don't recall the offensive connotation. "Abo" (short for aboriginal) is about as bad. The complete absence of any alien viewpoint characters (or any women) is not an accidental omission; on the contrary, it says much about this society. The Kobyashi Maru is a training exercise from the Star Trek universe, conducted in a simulator, that is designed to be impossible to survive; its goal is to test the student's character. The infamous James T. Kirk is the only cadet in Starfleet Academy's history to beat the scenario, and he does it by cheating (reprogramming the computer). Pinus irradiata is a play on Pinus radiata, a fast-growing species of pine tree often used to establish plantations in tropical climates. "Mycorrhizae" are fungal symbiotes that live in the soil and colonize the roots of many (perhaps most) terrestrial plants; without them, some species cannot survive, let alone grow well, so if they're not native to an ecosystem, you have to import them with the exotic plants you're hoping to establish. Their absence from the soil is likely to be a real and serious issue for future attempts to colonize uninhabited planets.
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