Welcome to the Federation
by Mark OnspaughGird Mackel was dreaming of happier times when the loud, shrill alarm of his Happy Tone clock-radio assaulted him into wakefulness.
Gird had owned ten clock-radios in his life, and the first nine had been sensible enough to break when he hurled them across the room.
The Happy-Tone merely bounced off the wall and continued to bray at him. It seemed indestructible. His assistant Huri had selected it on the basis of durability when she had purchased the cursed thing at Gal-Mart (“Where the Galaxy shops!”).
Gird rubbed his eyes and got out of bed, gasping when his bare feet hit the cold floor.
The heat was out again.
Gird sighed and shambled to the bathroom, mentally going over his agenda for the coming day.
The bathroom faucets belched out brown water for a good three minutes before clearing. The water got progressively colder, even though Gird had the hot tap turned up as far as it would go.
Gird cursed the plumbing, something that had become a morning ritual, then splashed cold water on his face. He desperately wanted a shower but was afraid the frigid water might give him a heart attack. He tried shaving, but his Gal-Mart Shave-a-tron 5000 shorted out with a spectacular burst of sparks and smoke. He settled for splashing his face with the aftershave his son Nuul had sent him for the Blessing of the Fish and Waters Festival last year.
It was a scent called Starduster, and it burned his face.
Gird put on his suit and chose a clip-on tie from a rack in the closet. He had never mastered the art of tying the damn things. Traditionally the men of Covalla had kept their neck and chests bare, to show that they were honest and that their twin hearts beat true.
That was before the visits from the Federation of Worlds and the Kregaash Empire. Covalla, a tiny planet in an unremarkable system, had never had visitors from other worlds, let alone two massive collectives that spanned whole galaxies.
The Federation of Worlds had been founded by Earth and a handful of sentient worlds long before Gird’s great-great-great-grandfather had been born. Because the founding worlds were on the opposite side of the galaxy, Covalla had been ignored for millennia.
Then the Kregaash Empire had conquered a neighboring galaxy known to the Covallans as Pa-uul-ahuhuyan, or “The Great Oar of Pa-uul”. This region was known to the Federation as “The Large Magellanic Cloud” and to the Kregaash as “The Kregaashian Birthright”. Running low on races to subdue and abuse, the conquest-happy Kregaash had been looking to expand their empire, and their reptilian eyes had fallen on Covalla.
Once the Kregaash Empire began making overtures, the Federation of Worlds decided they were interested in Covalla, as well.
Both groups sent dignitaries and presents, and both sides told the Covallans how important they were. As a welcoming gesture, Gird’s grandfather Murr had led the boats out and caught a giant tren, a meaty fish large enough to feed the village and the dignitaries.
Both sides seemed to appreciate the feast, though much of their portions of tren was later found in napkins stashed under the table. Both seemed to enjoy the traditional dancing and entertainment, though the wait staff later revealed that the Federation representative had actually been asleep and the Kregaashian was surreptitiously playing something called a “video game”.
The Covallans were a good-natured and forgiving people, and they shrugged off these insults. Their world was pleasant, the seas were bountiful, and they loved sharing.
If only we had been a little meaner, thought Gird.
His car was still in the shop, so Gird waited for the bus to take him from the Presidential Palace to his office. In his great-grandfather’s time, all had lived in open huts on the beach. The leader, selected by rotation, showed his or her temporary position by hanging a white shell in the entrance.
Gird missed living on the beach. He missed the scent of the ocean, the cool breezes and light rains that soothed and lulled you to deep and restful sleep. He missed racing out to the boats in the morning, bringing in the catch and laughing, singing and dancing into the night.
Most of all he missed making masks and costumes for the festivals and Sagas-by-Avatar. He had been very good at it before the Federation had banned such festivals as uncivilized. They’d appointed him President for Life after his father died.
The bus arrived belching smoke, and Gird greeted the driver and the other passengers. Nobody smiled at him. They blamed him for all the changes that had come to Covalla.
Gird sighed, and took a seat near the back. It was a half hour ride to New Paris, and he had forgotten both his paper and book of crossword puzzles.
The bus went along Coastal Route 24, a four lane highway that the Federation had built to replace the first Federation road, a two-lane thoroughfare they had named Sea Front Road. In pre-Federation time it had been a small and lovely path called Minoh-Ul-kjavallah, or “The Trail Minoh the Sea God Took to Court Mother West Wind”.
You couldn’t see much of the ocean, any more. The clear areas had become the sites of barracks for a proposed Federation base. The enormous base had been half completed when war had broken out near Antares, and all available Federation soldiers and engineers had gone to fight the good fight.
Gird’s son Nuul was out there somewhere, fighting with the other fifteen young men and women deemed draftable by the Federation Infantry.
Gird wiped his eyes thinking of Nuul. In the old days the boy would have been married and he and his wife would be part of the leader rotation. Nuul would steer his own boat and invite his parents over for tren and palm wine.
Nuul departure for the Federation war had been the last straw with Asj, Gird’s wife. The moment her son had shipped out, Asj had moved back to the other side of the cove with her mother and younger brothers. A Presidential Palace, even a tiny one, is a very lonely place without a wife.
Gird wished for the thousandth time he could go back in time and advise his grandfather Fuuw not to join the Federation. They might have been conquered by the Kregaash, but Gird wondered if that would be any worse.
The bus arrived in New Paris, a collection of dun colored buildings built around a central square. In the square was a statue of Gird’s grandfather Fuuw shaking hands with Colonel Benjamin Breckenridge, the first Federation member to set foot on Covalla. Gird had always thought the sculptor had taken liberties, making Breckenridge look god-like while his grandfather looked doddering and servile.
He noted that someone had thrown eggs at the statue again.
Gird thanked the driver and got off the bus. A balled-up candy wrapper hit him in the back of the head, but he didn’t turn around.
The Office of Covallan Administration and Enforcement was directly across from the spattered statue. It was marked from the other buildings by a large and stylized shell of purest white nacre, a touch that the Federation architect thought honored the tradition of the Covallans, but which most locals found ostentatious and vulgar.
Huri, his assistant, was at her desk when he arrived. She smiled when she saw him, then clucked her tongue and stood up. Crossing to him with a small shake of her head, she straightened his clip-on tie.
“Can’t even master this child’s formal wear,” Gird said.
“You have one of the most honest and handsome chests in all of Covalla,” she said, “you should be able to bare it properly.”
“Federation dress code,” he began.
“Federation dress code,” she repeated with venom, “designed by pale, recycled-air breathers.”
Gird admired Huri’s fire. She was one of the few who hadn’t made him the planetary scapegoat.
“Anything pressing?” he asked.
“Five more calls for you to go back where you came from.”
Gird’s family had helped settle the planet Covalla many millennia before, when the great god Pa-uul had guided their sky-ships to this new world. It was so long ago that Covallans had lost the technology necessary for interstellar exploration. It didn’t matter, they had always had just what they needed. Gird’s ancestor Ma’aluu had been the pilot of the very first ship. That Gird was now perceived as some Federation mole and sycophant was ridiculous and hurtful.
“Anyone important wishing to deport me?”
“The Minister of Fishing and...” She hesitated, not wanting to hurt him.
“Go ahead, Huri, I’m getting used to being unpopular.”
“My...” He shook his head. “How can my own mother accuse me of being a Federation shill?”
“She theorizes the Federation took her real son and left you in his crib. She says...” Huri paused, her eyes now a bit moist.
He motioned for her to continue.
“She says no son of hers would send his only son and the youth of Covalla to fight in a distant war that has nothing to do with us.”
Gird had no answer for that one, he merely nodded and went into his office with the tall windows that looked out over the statue of his much-despised grandfather.
He spent the first part of the morning going over various reports and complaints. A study by a student marine biologist showed that the tren population was in decline, largely because of pollutants from the two power plants the Federation had constructed near the beaches. Gird’s grandfather had been among those who had said that the Covallans did not need a power plant, let alone two, but the Federation execs had smiled knowingly and continued bulldozing mylin palms.
The student hoped her report would be forwarded to the Federation Council on Indigenous Fish and Game. Gird smiled sadly at her youthful enthusiasm. Had he ever been that young, that full of fire and passion? Of course he had. He put her report into a sub-space packet to Outer Worlds Administration, knowing it would never be read. At least he could tell her honestly that it had been sent.
The sanitation workers were on strike, largely because they resented cleaning up after everybody else. In the old days, each Covallan was responsible for the area in and around his hut, and a stretch of beach five feet wide. In this way the villages and oceanfront stayed clean and free of parasites. Now many Covallans seemed to follow the Federation example, which was to leave your trash wherever you felt like it.
Gird sighed. In the old days everything had been biodegradable, there had been no need for landfills and dumps. In fact, the Covallans had no words for such things, and now had to use the fed-lac equivalents.
Gird started to read a report of children hurt playing in the partially-completed Federation base when he felt his breathing become restricted and a familiar pain in his chest. It had happened enough that he now recognized it as mere anxiety, what the Federation doctor had called a “panic attack”. The doctor prescribed Ree-Lax, a sedative carried at Gal-Mart. Gird, like many of his generation, was the first in his family to take any sedative other than warm uluunut juice.
Gird checked to make sure Huri wasn’t watching, then popped two Ree-Lax from a bottle he had hidden in his desk under a spare shirt and clip-on.
Once his heart rate had slowed and he was breathing normally, he told Huri to put a call through to the Galactic Administration Annex on Munbara IV.
A graphic showed a small silver sphere, his call, being routed and bounced from department to department as he attempted to reach someone higher up the galactic ladder.
At last the Gird-sphere stopped at a box labeled Outer Commerce, Curios and Vending Machines. The box then resolved into a frowning male from Nnnn III. The Nnnn were a race utterly lacking in compassion, which some thought made them ideal bureaucrats and loan officers.
Gird knew this because Huri had gotten him a used copy of “A Child’s Guide to the Founding Worlds of the Federation” by Uqqq’ll & Crockett. Gird’s office had been due for a whole slew of information on the other worlds of the Federation, but then war had broken out with Rigel and his world was deemed too close to the Kregaash Empire for such sensitive information.
Still, the children’s book had been helpful. It had told him that it would be easier to dance naked on the surface of the sun than to get an Nnnn to smile or laugh.
“How can I help you, Governor Nnnnmackel?” The Nnnn also liked to preface all surnames with their own. An old Nnnn saying went “Everybody follows the Nnnn, and we mean Nnnneverybody.”
“Sir, I’m not sure why I was transferred to you. I have been dealing with the Bureau of Outer Worlds and Independent Plutoids.”
“Have you been paying the taxes on sales of your indigenous arts and crafts?”
“No, we haven’t sold any arts and crafts since initial contact.”
The Nnnn scanned a screen with one of its eyestalks while the other kept a baleful gaze on Gird. “I see here that Covalla still owes thirty-seven fedcreds in taxes from the sale of a clay pot during initial contact.”
“I believe that was leftovers from our welcoming feast that we gave to Colonel Breckenridge, so that was a gift.”
“Mmmm-hmm.” The Nnnn checked more records. “My records indicate that Colonel Nnnnbreckenridge said he paid five-hundred fedcreds for that pot. It’s on his expense report.”
“Well, he was lying. My great grandmother gave him a pot she had received from her great grandmother when she was a girl. It was quite old and cherished by my family.”
“I’m sure it was,” said the Nnnn, his expression indicating that he was either growing bored or suffering from dyspepsia. “Still, if you feel the report was in error, your people should have filed a complaint immediately.”
“How could we? This is the first we’ve heard of it.”
The Nnnn shook his head. “My records indicate much of your earliest records took the form of songs and puppet shows.”
“We call them ‘Saga-by-Avatar’.”
“I’m sure you do. Isn’t it likely you people lost some of valuable records over the years when some puppet went missing or the puppeteer died?”
“Our records have always been impeccable. In fact, we didn’t have any trouble until the Federation insisted we go to computers.”
“So you did have trouble.”
Gird realized he had walked into a bureaucratic language trap. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Did you have trouble with the initial computer switch-over or not?”
“Well, yes, but I can assure you that...”
“Fines and penalties bring the current balance to...” The Nnnn did some calculating. “Eight hundred trillion, five hundred and thirty million and twenty-seven fedcreds.”
Gird gaped at him. If they sold the planet and everything on it they could not raise such a sum.
“Sir, there is no way...”
“Will there be anything else, Governor Nnnnmackel?”
“I need to speak to the person responsible for the construction of Federation troop bases.”
Now the Nnnn’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why?”
“Because those half-completed eyesores are ruining our view, and the power plants supplying them with unneeded power are polluting our waters, and the buildings erected for us native Covallans have neither clean water nor adequate heat, which we wouldn’t need if your rape of our planet hadn’t altered the fleeking climate!”
It was the first time in years he had dared to tell a Federation official what he really thought.
“Governor Nnnnmackel, there’s a war on. You’re just not that important.” The Nnnn terminated the call.
Gird picked up a Lucite paperweight that had been Colonel Breckenridge’s gift to Gird’s grandfather. It was a model of the ship Breckenridge had come down in, and was made in some exotic locale known as Hallmark.
Gird threw it across the room. It broke a window with a cacophonous din and sailed into the square. From the clanging he heard, Gird assumed he had hit the statue.
Huri came running in, sure he had jumped out the window.
Gird looked at her, face red and twin hearts pumping.
“Huri, get me the Kregaash Empire!”
It took Huri two hours to get the call through.
Varv Smensgssh, Pain-Giver First Class of the Imperial Kregaashan Fleet appeared on the screen. Three of his eyes had patches over them, each bearing a medal. The other six eyes regarded Gird and then broke into a smile filled with file-sharpened teeth and viscous saliva.
“Gird! Gird Mackel! How are you, you old fish fondler?” It was the politest term the Kregassh had for Covallans.
“Pretty good, Varv Smensgssh.”
“Aw, call me ‘Smensgy’, old buddy.”
“Okay, ‘Smensgy’, congratulations on making Pain-Giver First Class.”
“Well, it’s mostly an honorary title these days. What can I do for you, Gird?”
“We changed our minds.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We revoke the Federation charter. We want the Kregaash Empire to invade.”
“Is this a joke, Gird?”
“No, sir. We want the Kregaash to step on our backs as they establish a foothold in this quadrant.”
Varv Smensgssh looked down a minute, embarrassed. When he looked up, Gird could see he had flushed a deep lavender.
“Gird, we don’t do that any more. Conquer, I mean.”
“We had an epiphany. Some guy — famous, lots of teeth — went through our system about ten years ago with this religion called The Niceties. You know, stuff like ‘it’s nice to be nice to the nice’.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It took!” Varv Smensgssh exclaimed. “I still don’t know how... In fact, every time I try to wrap my head around it I get a splitting headache. One of those up-all-night-drinking-fermented-dakka-pancreas kind of headaches.” Varv Smensgssh winced and rubbed his temples. “But it works! We returned all our conquered worlds to an autonomous status and have spent the last five years knitting hats and gloves for various harvest festivals around our quadrant.”
Gird pleaded with him. “Just tell the Federation you’ve taken over. Tell them we’re part of the Kregasshian Empire.”
“No can do, my fish-fondling friend. ‘Nicety #84: It’s not nice to lie, so don’t even try’.”
Gird sighed. “Okay. I understand.”
“Hey, Gird, do you guys still make that appetizer with the strip of kutrr meat wrapped around a mylin nut?”
“No, Federation took our kutrrs to Antares and chopped down all the mylin palms.”
“Too bad. I loved those things.”
“You can get something similar at Gal-Mart. Part of their ‘Almost Like Home World Cookin’!’ line of frozen foods.”
“Gal-Mart?” Varv Smengssh made a face. “Last time I ate something there they had to pump out my nutrient sacs.”
Gird nodded, grateful to talk to a friend. A friend, it’s true, who had once promised to roast Gird’s hearts with his death-dealer and eat them still popping and smoking, but a friend nevertheless.
As they were saying their goodbyes, Gird had an idea.
“You guys used to threaten us with tales of the Ptaak. What were they like?”
Varv Smensgssh went pale.
“The Ptaak? Trust me, Gird, you don’t want to have anything to do with them.”
The call from Covalla started at Outer Commerce, Curios and Vending Machines, then was bounced to Outer Worlds Administration and was deflected (hurriedly and with many blanched and pale faces) to the Offices of Star Command, Federation Fleet Admiral Benjamin Breckenridge IV.
Various Generals and Admirals from the Founding Worlds were rounded up into the main conference room. The Covallan Emissary and the Federation Ambassador to Covalla were both summoned, and there was a monumental outburst of swearing from Breckenridge when it was discovered that neither post existed.
The Fleet’s finest took their seats and the west wall became a translucent screen.
The call from Covalla was put through.
Accounts differ on the initial reaction to the first glimpse of xCxz, Ruler of Ptaak. Some claim that several of the top brass fled from the room, some to be physically sick and others to hide while they wept like little babies. Other reports say that the military men and women stood their ground, exclaiming slogans once attributed to Captain John Paul Jones (“I have not yet begun to fight!”) and General Anthony McAuliffe (“Nuts!”).
It is agreed that Breckenridge himself stayed in his chair. Whether he soiled himself is still a matter of debate.
Regardless, the screen showed the ruler of the Ptaak at the desk of Governor Gird Mackel. No one had ever seen a Ptaak, and it was later agreed they were one of the ugliest races ever. “Face like a Ptaak” became an insult on hundreds of worlds.
“Members of the Federation of Worlds,” xCxz spat, “we of the Ptaak Infestation claim Covalla as our world. It is our first foray into your loathsome quadrant, and we will be studying the local indigenous bipedal vertebrates to determine the most effective means of torture and the most painful method of harvesting their organs for snack cakes and children’s toys. Anyone who opposes us will meet the fate of Gird Mackel, their pitiful excuse of a leader.”
With that, xCxz held up Gird’s smoking, severed head and shook it at the viewers. Gird’s expression was one of dull surprise.
Then the screen went black.
The room erupted into an uproar of righteous indignation and more catchy phrases.
Gird Mackel was reaching to shut off his clock radio when the Presidential Palace began to shake. Gird assumed that Mu’uuu’uuu-ahah, the Volcano Goddess, was making herself heard after many centuries of silence.
He and Huri went out onto the front lawn.
The sky was black, but not with smoke.
Warships and cruisers of every type filled the skies. Gird’s neighbors fled back into their homes, sure that someone meant to put poor Covalla out of its misery.
Several shuttles began to land on the lawn.
“You burned that mask, didn’t you?” he asked Huri.
“Yes, and your poor severed head. That’s what really gave me the creeps,” Huri said.
Admiral Benjamin Breckenridge IV was the first to step out onto Gird’s lawn, squashing some hgu lilies in the process.
“I’m here for the Ptaak,” he said menacingly, holding both a ceremonial sword and a phasing blast pistol. His first words had been carefully crafted on the journey to Covalla, beating out “Show yourselves, alien scum!” and “Who wants some?”.
“As soon as they saw you coming they ran,” said Gird nervously.
A victory cry went up, cut short when Breckenridge raised his hand. “And just who might you be?”
“Gird Mackel, brother of the late Governor,” Gird said.
“I thought the dead Governor was Gird Mackel,” said Breckenridge, puzzled.
“All my brothers are named Gird Mackel.”
Admiral Breckenridge nodded paternally, accustomed to the simple ways of indigenous people out on the Wrong Arm of the Galaxy.
It was the shortest-won victory in Federation history, and one of the most lasting.
The Federation did face a PR nightmare when reporters, conservationists and Federation-founding philanthropists demanded to know who had polluted Covalla’s once blue sea and skies, who had blighted the landscape, and who was accountable for the lack of clean, hot water at the Sheraton-Galacticus. Gird saved the Federation’s bacon by claiming all these ills were the result of the cruel and inhuman Ptaak Infestation. As a gesture of good will the Federation forgave the Covallans their longstanding debt and pledged to keep the tiny world safe.
The citizens of the Federation cried for poor Covalla to be restored to its pristine state, and their government was quick to oblige.
The first building to go was the Gal-Mart (“Where the galaxy shops!”), and many Covallans not only volunteered but paid to be on the demolition team.
Within three years all traces of “Ptaakan Infestation” had been removed. The seas were almost clean and the tren were again plentiful.
By this time war had broken out in the Sagittarian Phalanx, and the Federation could not afford to leave personnel behind to watch for the return of the hated Ptaak. Gird’s suggestion to bring home the sons and daughters of Covalla for this important task was quickly embraced. It was a proud day for Gird when his son Nuul was appointed Captain of the Federation Fleet, Covallan Theater.
When the final Federation ships left Covalla, they were heavily-laden with chunks of concrete, clock radios and ten-speed blenders, frozen cocktail wieners and underarm deodorant.
That was the day the Covallans held The Feast of the Burning of the Neckties.
The crying of his son Fuuw woke Gird Mackel. He went to the child’s crib and picked him up.
“How about a walk on the beach, little guy?” he asked.
Fuuw cooed and gargled that this was a peachy idea.
Gird kissed his son’s head and took him out, careful not to hit his head on the white shell hanging at the entrance of his hut. Temporary Chief Huri was out on the beach, discussing the coming Feast of Plenty with some of the elders. She waved and blew her husband and baby a kiss.
After the Federation had left, the people asked Gird to consider becoming Chief for the remainder of his life. He politely refused and recommended the rotation be reinstated. When it was proposed a statue be erected in his honor, he instead asked that an offering be made to the sea on behalf of the three men and women who had been lost in the Antarean Conflict.
Nowadays, Covalla’s only contact with the Federation was a coded report the reigning Chief had to send in once a month, a report that said “All is well”.
Declared a Primitive Cultural Treasure by the Department of Vacations, Cruises and Xeno-morbidity, Covalla was declared off-limits to all tourists and traveling sales-entities. Gird was able to get a special exemption for Varv Smensgssh and his family, who loved to lay on the beach and fish for tren with Gird and his son Nuul. Gird told his good friend Smensgy they were always welcome as long as they left their religious pamphlets and tracts at home with their Pre-Nicety pain-givers and molar-extractors.
And to most of the Federation Covalla was just too far away and at the wrong end of the galaxy, and that was the way Gird liked it.
Now he gazed out at the sea, his baby warm and snug in his arms.
“Remember, Fuuw,” he said, kissing the babbling baby’s head, “in the galactic scheme of things it’s good to be important...”
But not too important.