This prompt was about order and balance. My mind immediately went on a sinister twist…

Image from WikiMedia Commons by
Stiller Beobachter

We knew there was other intelligent life out there. Stands to reason, right? And we had protocols in place for when we met them, out in the vastness of space.

Instead, they found us. On our first colony, barely hanging on, a tiny cluster of domes on a desolate moon. They had a protocol, too, it turned out. Which involved, among other things, the composition of the visitors. Two equal groups, from two alliances, both with a handful of species in them.

The groups approached us together, offering a clearly memorized greeting that one representative started, and another finished. We were welcome to remain separate from either, but equally welcome to join an alliance. Each could offer advances in technology, employment opportunities on settled planets, and a wealth of cultural knowledge.

Sapients for Optimal Protocol included several species like us–thick skinned, armed with sharp teeth or claws, boasting a tail. That endeared them to us from the start, to see ourselves mirrored in their eyes.

The others, The Independent Cooperative, called the Sapients something like ‘stick-spines,’ or, perhaps ‘rigid.’ They called themselves Indies, or Coops, or something untranslatable about light refracting prisms.

The Sapients called the Independent Cooperative the Independent Cooperative. 

The Cooperative was… strange. We didn’t warm to them at first. They had one species much like ours, but also a strange tailless biped that completely lacked scales, or hide, except for a small amount perched ridiculously atop its head like a hat. Another traveled in a semi-transparent envelope, flooded with a murky blue-green gas, with glimpses of chitinous limbs that triggered hatchling horrors of spiders. We didn’t study them closely.

We spoke to both alliances, of course. The Sapients offered lists of the technology we would access, and descriptions of the habitats of the worlds they claimed–some even with atmosphere we could breathe, unlike the moon we currently stood on. Reams and reams of data, enough to take days to wade through.

The Cooperative seemed less organized. They had a presentation, in more general terms, of the good they could offer. But strangely, they focused on their interpersonal arrangements. How they worked together, adjusting for each species’ needs. How strengths could balance out a weakness.

Their species that resembled us, the Thritek, had small scales in a mottled green pattern they told us matched the vegetation of their homeworld. When they saw that we were most comfortable with those like us, they drew us aside, to tell us a story.

On their planet of origin, they had an embarrassment of riches. Dense foliage, plants that grew to towering heights we could scarce believe, more water than we could imagine, and so much life. Burrowing life under the dirt, life scurrying along the ground, life climbing the tall plants, life flying between the branches, life in the large flowing waters and pools.

Pools of water so big you could not see across them. We thought that must be a lie, but the Thritek showed us image after image, until we conceded it might be true. 

From this teeming life emerged not one, but three intelligent species. The Thritek, from a large, scaled ground carnivore, the Qhel, from a small, flying insectivore, and the Braxar, from a medium, furred ground omnivore. 

There was a Qhel, among the representatives of the Cooperative. They were not very small, by our reckoning, being about two thirds our height, with wings far larger than us. There were no Braxar. Not in the group, or anywhere else. None living anywhere.

This information sent a ripple of dread through us, and we wondered why the Thritek had chosen to tell us such a tale. But we listened, still.

The three species had cooperated well enough, with the Braxar and Thritek developing the closest rapport, because they didn’t have to compete for resources. The Thritek ate very little that wasn’t meat, and the Braxar ate very little that wasn’t vegetation, so they could share the excess of their hunting or farming, and be content.

When approached, as we had been, the Qhel chose to strike out on their own with the Cooperative, and the Thritek favored, as we did, the Sapients and their technological focus. Their partners the Braxar came with them, to work together in a better future.

But there was, the Thritek said, tail drooping, a reason so many of the Sapients resembled each other. They believed in order. Uniformity. Efficiency. In finding the best option for the greatest number, and in mass production of whatever goods or process they found optimal.

On their homeworld, the Thritek hadn’t thought much of how the Braxar varied from them. Larger, with more joints on their hands, and much a different ocular apparatus. Before, the two species had worked well, side by side, though often with specialized tools.

The complaints of the Braxar had seemed petty at first. They were a patient people, and both species were used to cooperation, to helping each other. The Thritek made the new technology work. But when the Braxar were paired with other Sapients, no accommodations were made.

Rules would be followed, strictly.

So, there were accidents. A slow, but steady, attrition.

Finally, the Braxar’s patience was exhausted. They wished to be free of oppressive rules. The rules required that species who separate from the Sapients must leave as they came. Surrender each piece of technology, each bit of stored supplies. The Cooperative and the Sapients are allies, but not particularly friendly ones.

For all their lives lost, the Braxar felt owed something. No matter the rules. 

The Sapients disagreed.

In the aftermath, the Thritek couldn’t remain with the Sapients. They struggled, for a time, alone, and then the Qhel coaxed them to the Collective, where they found less technological wonders, but a warmer welcome.

We listened to the end of this story in silence. We knew one of us must speak. Glances exchanged, heads cocked, tails swished. The shorthand of a species.

“That is… a great loss.” I said, feeling the inadequacy of the words. “One we can confirm?”

Someone hissed behind me, but the words had been said.

“Of course, easily done.” The Thritek said, unbothered. “It’s part of their history. Other species have made the same… they call it an error. Or theft. It’s quite rare, and they are proud of that fact.”

“What has your story to do with us?” My partner asked. “You say your species blended well. Would we not do the same?”

“You’re like them, but no two species are identical. We only wish to ensure you understand what you’re being offered. And what you will need to do in return. The Sapients integrate and homogenize. They embrace order, unity, and law, with very little flexibility. Consider that, as you decide.” 

“A valid point,” my partner conceded. This new information would alter the debate going forward, if confirmed.

About Caitlin Stern

I have a MA in English, and have so many fantasy/urban fantasy WIPs it's not even funny. I'm an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, biography, fiction, and anything else that catches my interest. I collect books, and bookmarks I find that are visually appealing and useful.

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