Short Story: Water and Salt

High Admiral Qoggoth Klkagin of the Million Suns glared at the bridge’s viewscreen. He had sent the Most Glorious Emperor’s message to these “Earthlings” over three cycles ago and had yet to receive a response. He was instructed to wait seven more, according to official protocol. Qoggoth hated waiting. He was of an older, more conservative school of thought in the Empire; that homeworlds of vanquished foes should be glassed, then methodically disassembled to create more fleets for the Empire’s endless wars of conquest and honor. This is how it has been done for thousands of years. Qoggoth’s ancestors had personally destroyed hundreds of such worlds over the ages. But this new Emperor, Glory To His Name And Family Forevermore, had other ideas. He deemed endless warfare unnecessary; instead, he decreed that worlds should be allowed to surrender first, with a token offering of water and salt presented to the local fleet’s commander. Which would be strange enough, except he also insisted that worlds be given ten cycles to deliberate. It would seem that as the Emperor’s Family Forevermore gets farther from the Great Patriarch himself, they tend to get…. softer.

Qoggoth shook the thought out of his head. It would not do to think of treasonous thoughts while orbiting an enemy world. That is a bad path to travel. Instead, he busied himself with the minutae of running a ten thousand ship fleet. He swiped through the mining reports on the local homeworld’s only moon on his data pad, noting the amount of iron and titanium in its composition. He would need those metals for construction materials when he finally was allowed to land on this wretched world and…

Qoggoth was interrupted by the faint glowing signal pinging on his data pad. He grunted at it, then stood, stretching his frame upwards. The new Emperor Forevermore’s “Diplomatic Protocol” demands that all foes be received with at least a modicum of honor. That meant standing. Qoggoth inwardly grunted again, not believing that vanquished foes should receive any honor. They lost. They must pay the price. That is all they are good for. The fact that these Earthlings, these tiny “Humans”, fought to the last man and woman on each of their fledgling colonies mattered not.

But, alas, Qoggoth is not Emperor. He sighed, flicking the pinging symbol on his datapad to the screen and stood up straight, lest one of the Emperor’s Eyes report he did not follow this “Protocol”. Rebellious thoughts are not allowed in the Empire.

The screen switched from a view of orbit, smoke trails and fire on the surface visible even from space, to that of a small Human. Judging from what Qoggoth saw on the screen, he would barely reach Qoggoth’s hip. Data maps on the screen showed the computer’s estimations of biological state; he was tired, hungry, and his stress hormones were at maximum. This is what the Humans could offer the Empire? This is their leader? A wretch that wouldn’t last a day in the Emperor Forevermore’s mines? Qoggoth sighed internally, wishing he could squeeze this man’s head between his hands and be done with it all.

“Yes, I said, Omega Alpha Protocol Seven is authorized,” the human whispered offscreen, translated instantly by the ship’s computer. He appeared caught off-guard by the response to his ping. He looked to the screen and smiled, blinking unevenly. The dark bags under his eyes were evidently a sign of extreme exhaustion, per the ship screen’s monitoring systems. His uniform looked cobbled together, and dirty. He had patches of unkempt hair on his head, both above and below his face. He appeared to be inhaling smoke from a white cylinder in his mouth. The building he was in appeared to be in a darkened bunker. Red alert warnings were flashing in the background, casting red light everywhere. The attendant he was speaking to scampered off into the darkness behind him, apparently in a rush.

Qoggoth was not impressed. Nevertheless, he began his speech, per the Diplomatic Protocol. He trusted the ship would translate his words into whatever mewling gibberish this human understood. “I am High Admiral Qoggoth Klkagin of the Chosen Honor Fleet. I am an Emissary,” Qoggoth said, stumbling over the unfamiliar word, “of the Million Suns. I bring a single message from our Emperor Forevermore: He has decreed that you may become a protectorate of our Empire, a servant of the Million Suns, and allowed to keep your homeworld, this… ‘Earth’,” He growled this odd, alien sounding name at the image on his screen, ” in exchange for the wholesale deconstruction of the remainder of your solar system, and all of your previously held colony worlds. You will not be allowed any future colonies. You will not be given permission to leave your system. But you shall live, and your sun shall not be snuffed out. All that we ask is a token offering, that of salt, and of water, to our Emperor Evermore. If you do not agree to these terms, your planet will be annihilated from orbit, and the materials of your planet’s core will be used to build more fleets for the Empire. As His Emissary, I am ready to receive your offer of submission and surrender.” Qoggoth ended his speech, still standing, and looking at the image of this disheveled primitive on his screen.

The human blinked again, flicking his eyes left, offscreen, as if reading something that distracted him. What could be more important than deciding whether your world lives or dies? “Ah, yes, hello there. Um, one moment,” said the human, turning to type something on a terminal, then hitting the last key with a flourish. A flash of white and blue light flashed just out the range of the viewport. He turned back to the screen, smiling again. These humans smiled too often for Qoggoth’s taste. He didn’t like it. Defeated species should be groveling, not smiling. The human began speaking.

“I am General Gabriel Klingsmith, most recently the last ranking commander of Earth’s remaining defense forces, which you seem to have defeated rather handily, so I’m running a bit threadbare. My reports indicate your forces have completely leveled most of our capital cities, so we had to figure out who was in charge once you stopped bombing us. You missed most of Switzerland, though, so… here I am, 38th in line of succession,” the man said, smiling tiredly.

Qoggoth stared at the little man as he oddly explained his governmental cohesion problems. This is not something that should concern Qoggoth, and really, what sort of Emperor shows his weaknesses as a sign of greeting? No wonder their colonies were so small, they obviously couldn’t hold even a basic government together. It also explains why fleet losses were a pittance.

“This is none of my concern,” Qoggoth replied, trying to control his temper. “Are you, or are you not, the current leader of your species?”

“Well, I suppose…. yes, I suppose I am, aren’t I? King of Earth!” Gabriel laughed, apparently amused by his new title. “There isn’t much of the Earth left, thanks to you guys, but I guess I’ll represent us, sure.”

“Do you understand the terms of your surrender?” Qoggoth asked, looking unwaveringly at this tired, small, annoying human.

“Oh yes, I understand them just fine,” replied Gabriel.

“And do you accept them as your fate?”

“Oh, no, I don’t think we will.”

Activity on Qoggoth’s bridge stopped momentarily, as everyone looked at the screen, not sure of what they heard.

Qoggoth furrowed his brow ridge. “I do not think you understand the terms then, human. Refusal to offer us the tokens of salt and water mean that your planet will be annihilated from orbit, and the materials of your planet’s core will-“

“-be used to build more fleets for the Empire. Yeah, I heard you the first time,” Gabriel said, interrupting him. He focused on the cylinder in his mouth and inhaled deep, letting smoke trickle out of his small, bare nose.

Qoggoth could not believe what he had heard. He glowered at the little man, working to remember the next steps in the Diplomatic Protocol. “You do not accept the terms?”

“I have a question for you, Admiral. Why salt and water?” Gabriel asked.

Qoggoth paused. “Because it is the Emperor Forevermore’s Decree.”

“Yeah, but… why?”

Qoggoth considered this. “It is simply material that every form of life in the galaxy needs to survive on a basic level. In his Infinite Wisdom, the Emperor Forevermore realizes this, and thus makes it a symbol of submission, that the Empire is necessary for continued survival.” Qoggoth hoped the Emperor’s Eyes were watching, as he thought that was a good and proper answer.

“I see,” Gabriel said, looking over to his left again, and nodding just before another burst of blue and white light flashed off to the side. He laughed to himself, shaking his head. “Do you know any chemistry, Admiral?”

“The arts and sciences are for the other castes, human, not for warriors,” Qoggoth sneered, gripping the edge of his console to contain his rage. Had the Emperor’s Patriarch still been alive…

“Yeah, I got a B- in it at Academy, myself,” replied Gabriel. Another functionary ran into view, clutching something, and hurried offscreen to the left. Gabriel reached over and hit a key on his console, and another blue and white light flashed. “We have some fine chemists, though, here at CERN. Those eggheads have been doing remarkable research the last few decades. And funny enough, they have been focused on salt.” The red lights in the background of Gabriel’s bunker were gone, Qoggoth noticed. So was the smoke.

“As you said, salt is necessary for life. So is water. So when the geniuses here started playing around with exotic particles, they chose those two as a good starting point. Might as well start at the bottom of the periodic table and work your way up, right?” Said Gabriel, taking a long pull from the whitened cylinder. He blew smoke into the air. More humans scurried behind him, towards the left. Flashes of the strange light were happening more often.

“Human, your time draws short. This is your final decision. Submit, or die. Salt, or death,” Qoggoth said, through clenched teeth. He glanced down at his terminal and began punching in fire authorization codes.

Qoggoth didn’t notice that Gabriel’s uniform looked less dirty than before.

“So anyways,” Gabriel continued, “eventually our scientists started hitting little salt crystals with supercharged isotopes of uranium at high speeds. Lots of energy, right?. So much energy, it turns out, that, we accidentally created a tiny hole in the universe. Not really a black hole, you see, but something like a wormhole. A path elsewhere. I wasn’t very good at math in the Academy either, so sorry if I missed a few details.”

Qoggoth caught several brighter flashes of light in his peripheral vision. He looked up, and noticed Gabriel was standing now, in a well-lit room. The smoke was gone. The alarms were gone. Gabriel’s white mouth cylinder was nowhere to be seen. A small crew of other humans were manning consoles that Qoggoth had sworn were destroyed just moments before. Gabriel’s uniform shifted visibly, stuttering between various fabric and clothing styles. What was this trickery? Were the humans mocking him?

“Unfortunately, your Empire of a Million Suns showed up at the edge of our claimed space a few months later, and, well, you know the rest, as you caused most of it firsthand. Death, destruction, hollowed out planets, colonists turned into nutrient paste. We’ve been trying to fight you for years, but you’re just too big, too powerful. We honestly didn’t stand a chance. And here you are, demanding salt and water, of all things, at our last planet, the cradle of our species, on the eve of our assured destruction.” Gabriel chuckled at himself as he began pacing around the cleaned up bunker. Terminals that were once smoking debris seemed to rebuild themselves, reconfiguring their shape and size as the human general walked by.

“Human Gabriel, I am required, per our Diplomatic Protocol, to give you one final chance to accept surrender. Salt and water, or the termination of your species. Choose.”

Gabriel continued on, apparently ignoring him. “Once you reached the Kuiper Belt, one of our scientists discovered we could actually send objects through this hole in space. When you reached Neptune, he figured out how to determine where we were sending objects, although it wasn’t so much where, as when. We had discovered a way to travel back in time! Unfortunately, only a one way ticket, and we had no control over when exactly that object arrived. But we’ve been getting… confirmation that objects sent back were affecting future events.” The scene shifted again as Qoggoth watched, almost imperceptibly at first. Suddenly, Gabriel was no longer in a bunker at all, but in an office, then in an room surrounded by glass. The scene changed more drastically as the glass walls showed a stark-white facility, with hangars going as far as the ship’s screen could see. The hangars were filled to the brim with ships that shifted shapes and armaments. Occasionally, the colors on the walls would flicker, from white, to red, to green, to camoflage, but eventually settled on a light grey. Lettering on displays shifted fonts, languages, symbols at a frightful pace.

“By the time you turned Mars into slag,” Gabriel continued, in a slightly different accent, more clipped this time as the ship computer struggled to keep up with inflection and accent change, “our team had figured out a way to send people back too. And that changed everything, if you’ll pardon the pun. With people, even though we couldn’t control when they were going, we knew that if they survived, they would change our timeline’s history. Inventions and discoveries happened earlier, sometimes by thousands of years. Whole societies and empires changed. And as you may have noticed, we got a little stronger and resilient to your supposed Empire of the Million Suns.”

On screen, Gabriel smiled warmly as his disheveled beard disappeared. His uniform was now a bright blue, emblazoned with medals of valor. Qoggoth punched in the firing authorization codes on his terminal and barked at his communications officer to send the fleet his orders.

“Gwagketh, you have my authorization codes. Send them to the fleet. Fire at will,” growled Qoggoth.

“I’m sorry sir? Why would we attack Earth?”

“Because it is an ORDER!” Bellowed Qoggoth as he whirled around, ready to strike the officer for his insolence, but instead fell over in shock as his communications officer was not Gwagketh, but a human named Jameson. “What is this? What have you done? Where is my crew?” Qoggoth cried. He looked around and saw his bridge filled with aliens. Morgons, The Balth, Sing-tongs, and half a dozen other species, members of races Qoggoth had spent his career exterminating. He looked up at the screen, horrified, at Gabriel, still smiling warmly at him. “It turns out, if you send enough people back in time, you can start to affect the timeline of not just Earth, but the galaxy too.”

Qoggoth began to stand, his angular uniform flickering before his eyes, as it slowly stuttered into the same bright blue uniform that his commanding officer, President-General Gabriel Klingsmith, wore, albeit with less medals.

“And that is why, Admiral Qoggoth, we offer water and salt to all new species we encounter, as an offering of peace and prosperity.”

“I understand, sir, thank you for the history lesson. My species has always wondered that, since you arrived on our world decades ago. I will begin the fleet preparations to explore the sectors the council has deemed necessary as soon as possible.”

“Thank you, Admiral Qoggoth.”, said Gabriel, adjusting his uniform.

“Thank you, sir. Please tell your wife my family-pod sends its greetings.”

“Of course, General. May peace reign forever.” Klingsmith’s image smiled again, as his image disappeared on screen.

“May peace reign forever,” said Qoggoth, getting back to the business of running his exploration fleet on his terminal.