Mercy at Eltshan-time
by Stewart C Baker
Blessed be the Empress's name, and may this letter find you and your father in good
How are things at home? I know the days before Eltshan are a busy time, but I hope you
are not overly neglecting your studies to decorate our home or go skating on the river which runs
through the city.
Today we arrived in the system we have been sent to pacify. Just as our scouts reported,
the fifth planet is surrounded by a graveyard of ships, each painted a ghastly crimson by the light
of the system's dying red star.
Fleet Command is pleased: there are at least three dozen types of ship, none of which
match any exot species we have encountered before. This alone, they say, is worth our two-year
journey to this desolate star. Once we decode their secrets, we might learn of their origins and
visit upon them the mercy of the Empress's peace.
And so, as ordered, I led my squadron of fire-spitters into the largest of the ships, a
bulbous, segmented, shimmering hulk, which might once have been beautiful. In the swollen
star's light, it looked strange and unnatural.
Inside the ship, we found death, but not the violent, battle-scarred death we had expected.
Short, pale-furred exots with snouts like dogs and multi-jointed arms lay unmoving in every
corridor. They looked almost peaceful, save for their eyes, which--to a one--had burst.
(I must insert, here, a reply to your father's inevitable complaint about the content of this
letter. Your father thinks you too young to know the dangers of planets the Empress's mercy has
not yet pacified. He does not want you scarred, he says, by the threat exot cultures pose to our
peace and our safety.
Your father lives softly. Do not hate him for his fears. But a year from now you will be
old enough to enlist in the Empress's ranks, and if you aspire to a command like mine you must
know what we face.)
Fortunately, we had been following proper protocol, and none of us were exposed to
whatever killed these creatures. Xenolinguist Ye, however, was unable to learn a single thing
about the exots' origins. The ship's computers were all destroyed, their memories purged and
their interfaces pulverized. At the center of one room, we found a pile of ash which Ye speculates
might have been their printed records.
The squads which went to other ships reported different kinds of exot, from bird-like
creatures with iridescent scales to women who looked disturbingly like us, save for their limbs,
which were themselves as long as your father is tall. Everything else was much the same: Death
and the complete destruction of anything written. The only thing we discovered of what had
happened to them all was a single block of text, scratched on the walls of the smallest ship in the
graveyard. An illustration accompanied it, a crude drawing of what appeared to be some kind of
bug, standing on the planet below the ship with its legs raised, strange lines emanating from its
outstretched tarsal claws.
Although our xenolinguists still struggle to make sense of the words, it is clearly a
warning. Although the state of the sun makes the system unsuitable for resettlement, Fleet
Command has ordered me to lead my squadron on an expedition to the surface and determine if
the planet holds clues as to what killed the exot ships. Perhaps what killed them is something we
can learn from or use.
I must go now and prepare my women for landing. I will write you again when I can.
With love and endless glory to the Empress,