(In which nearly everyone's ox is gored.)
The sign outside translates into English as "Primitive Alien Improvement Corps" and we follow two silvery-uniformed creatures past it and into the barracks dome: a tall, languid, vaguely reptilian humanoid, and a short, stocky, tough-looking gray biped with very large, black eyes, a small mouth and no visible nose, carrying an object the approximate size and shape of a clipboard..
As the two enter the dome, a buff-appearing gray creature in a similar silver onesie with simpler insignia leaps to his feet and shrieks, "Officer on the deeeeeeck!"
The assorted beings who have been variously lounging, sprawling, gaming, smoking, sparring, levitating and, in one instance, glowing bright green immediately stop whatever it is they were doing and leap to their feet and/or pseudopods, standing strangely braced in two facing rows and doing their best to look serious, alert, focused and neutral.
The tall lizardoid waves a hand, "At ease, at ease." There's a shuffling and shifting as the group adopts poses marginally less strained. "Gentlebeings. And, erm, PFC Glorpt. As you know, this unit is undergoing millennial review and I have to tell you -- I have to tell you -- High Command are not best pleased." His eyes scan over them, moving independently, each silver-uniformed being near-quivering with earnestness under their gaze. "Well. Your efforts to date with the bug- er, mammalians on this planet, this-- aha, 'Dirt' have not met effectiveness standards. Aha. Not at all. Therefore, you have been assigned to a new NCO, who will be reviewing your performance and, ah, suggesting better approaches. SSGT Xlmnt, here, will be replacing SGT Mohenjo-Ashurbopanipal, effective immediately." The officer turns to the short, mean-looking gray alien who accompanies him, "SSGT, I leave them to you." And with that, he teleports out.
As the officer evaporates, the troops let out a collective exhalation (and/or glow, blip or exudation) of relief. SSGT Xlmnt gives them a glare and seems to grow to twice his size. "Atten-shun! Not one of you critters has been dismissed."
A shudder passes down the ranks and suddenly, you could hear a scale drop -- in fact, one does, half-way down the line, tink. Xlmnt glares it at and those nearest swore later they could see it shrivel. He transfers his glare back to the troops. "I have been going over your after-action reports and by my sainted aunt's second-best mammalian-species immobilizer probe, you silver shitheads have made a right cock-up of this bunch of primitive sophonts from Century One right down the line. I'm gonna hit the highlights and I doubt anyone could explain to me just how is it High Command expends billions of ergs sending supposedly highly-trained cultural reprogrammers to this overlooked spawn-sac in the vestigial ovipositor of Nowhere and gets repaid with the kind of screwed-up results you insults to the silver you wear have produced."
Xlmnt inclines his head to the infopad in his hand. "CPL Enlil? And your squad, PFCs Enki and In'anna?" A hooved soldier with a vaguely goaty face and scaly skin salutes and takes a step forward, followed by a short, muddy-looking biped with a clanking tool belt and a taller creature who, other than a faint glow, bears a remarkable resemblance to a young and curvaceous human female. "First of all, Corporal, who is this 'Ninlil,' and by whose authority did you ignore the very clear regs against fraternization? --No, no, don't answer me now, there's plenty more. Enki?" Xlmnt holds up the infopad, covered in spiky-looking writing, "Is this not the imprint of the handle of your species' toothbrush?" The muddy-looking tech looks at the floor. "Don't look away. I see they called you 'The Confuser of Languages.' Did you turn a neural scrambler on these primitives?" Enki nods, sending a small spatter of mud floorwards. "I hope you had very good reason. Now, In'anna-- Miz In'anna. At least Corporal Enlil confined his attentions to just one of them. And not for money. I was opposed to adding highly-gendered species to the Service back when they first did it and soldiers like you prove me right. Shameful." Her glow dims, purples. Xlmnt shakes his head, more-in-sorrow-than-anger. "Just shameful, the lot of you. At least you got them looking at the stars and counting but you messed up even that. Base twelve math...? For creatures with ten manipulating digits...? Didn't you bother to check? Back in the ranks."
"So, the next place you tried was that little pointy section. The reports say Sergeant Mohenjo-Ashurbopanipal figured the mountains to the north kept it isolated. Corporal Krish? You were in charge. Step forward." A handsome, blue-skinned humanoid of above-average height takes a step, as do a handful of others, one with a long, prehensile limb on its face. "I see here you and your squaddies had a few fights. In heavier-than-air vehicles. In plain view of the locals. With thermonuclear weapons." Xlmnt wags his head. "Nice job. Oh, cle-ver. Taught them a little math, I see, and then you divided them up by occupation and told them no cross-fraternization? And why?"
The blue-skinned trooper briefly looks truculent and thinks better of it, "Um, Sarge? After 'Anna and Enlil...?"
Xlmnt cuts him short. "I don't think so. You just wanted to make them easier to manage and breed. 'All PAIC troops are silver,' but the trouble I have had with the blueish-silver ones... Step back, you; the knots you left behind may never get untied. Certainly not by our next wonder-boy. Gautamama? Is that how you pronounce it?"
There's a flickering at the end of the row, as a hazy outline shifts shapes and settles on a cloudy approximation of a human, drifts out a pace from the row and emits, "Sir!"
"You don't call me sir you call me Sergeant Xlmnt and that is exactly the kind of poor form I should expect from you. Your then Sergeant sent you down there, to the very same place as Krish's crew, with a simple job: clean up the mess. Untangle it. Simplify. Step in to replace an addled 'noble' who died fasting under a tree. How hard could it be? And what did you do?" He looks again at the infopad. "Oh, yes, here it is: you told them all reality was illusion, that to live was to suffer and the very best thing to do was, let me paraphrase, 'tune in, turn on, drop out.' And you proceeded to spend the better part of a hundred of their years doing just that. I'd ask you what you were smoking but the latest guidelines from High Command define that as racist when applied to cloudforms. Step back and thicken up, son, someone missed a whole lot when they trained you."
The troops are fair squirming by now. Xlmnt favors them with another unblinking, unreadable stare. "And now we come to more recent times. 'Tell them about the High Command,' Sergeant Mohenjo-Ashurbopanipal decided, 'but do it in terms they will understand.' Enlil, you helped work that out, didn't you? It's still not clear what you told that old shepherd, but the genetic modding is pretty obvious. Your former Sergeant managed to muddy the waters over just how that native ended up on a mountain-top waving a knife at his kid but I recognize that kind of low humor and you are all very fortunate you thought better of it at the last minute. --And that reminds me of something I need to get out of the way, will the groups assigned to the middle and southern portions of the ocean-isolated continents please step forward?"
A large, feathered, sinuously-columnar being moves forward, tiny wings fluttering briefly for balance, followed by a dozen other highly-assorted silver-uniformed soldiers. It barks, "Sergeant-I-take-full-responsibility-Sergeant!"
"Yes, Medic Qxtl, I'll just bet you do. I will just bet. Fat lot of good it did the locals! Open-heart surgery? Really?" Xlmnt taps the surface of his infopad. Qxtl and the rest of his group fade out as Xlmnt grins a tiny, evil grin at the remaining beings. "They're gonna be patrolling the event horizon of a black hole for a long, long, long time. Let that be a warning to the rest of you. Don't try to play the flying snake with me. You will lose. --But back to the shepherd. You kept on messing with that poor man and his offspring, didn't you?" Xlmnt flicks the work surface of his infopad. "My, my. Plagues, floods, rules, pacts, tablets, electrostatic shock-- What didn't you do to 'em, that's what I wonder. Cookouts every week? Led them into the wilderness and fed PAIC emergency rations to them? --I'll get back to this. Just in case, you decided to run an alternative in the nation next door. A-10 was in charge, I see. A-10? Roll the golden boy forward."
A shining, yellow, smooth, manlike, metallic form steps out. "That is anti-mechanist, Sergeant."
"Is not. That was last year. A-10, you need to download the High Command updates more often -- when you're not too busy getting a king to relocate his capital city to the middle of the broiling desert, that is. There's only one sunlight-powered intelligent species and it would be yours, not theirs. Also, son, that is not how monotheism is supposed to work. Didn't your Basic Training tapes on that topic take? Nice work on the civil engineering side, total failure at all the rest of it. Step back. Next, next-- Back to the old shepherd's kids, I suppose you all know that Jess is still in sick bay and the doctors say he'll pull through, no thanks to you. And that mess eventually derailed the Romans, didn't it? Most hopeful-looking civilization on that planet 'til then and you barely noticed when you shot it down. Dark Age, knowledge lost... That means we move on to, oh, yeah. The 'write' being. Hey, Red? Yeah, with the wings-- Did you not check what that ignorant desert savage was writing down? And just the one guy? Did you not even realize he was illiterate?"
A tall, winged biped with red hair like a living fire has stepped forward. He shrugs. "I gave him rules to pass along. They were air-tight. They were specific. Legal checked them out. I thought they couldn't possibly screw this up and after what happened to Jess, I was not going to--"
"Shaddup. Excuses, excuses. Step back. Morony? Corporal Morony? Look, I have been over this six times and there is no way you did not hand one of the locals your official PAIC virtual-reality rig. 'Gold spectacles?' 'Reading rocks?' Excuse me? Those things are not ever supposed to leave this base and it appears -- it appears the entire rig is still locked up somewhere down there. What's your excuse, PFC? Didn't want to get tripped up by that literacy thing again? I don't care. I don't want to know, I want to see that equipment back here by the end of the week and there had better not be even a blip from the natives, not a peep, do you understand Private?"
Morony's another of the winged beings, though his hair is golden, a glowing nimbus rather than a flame. He's blinking fiercely and may even be on the verge of tears.
Xlmnt is unimpressed. "Leaking? Are you-- crying? There's no crying in Primitive Alien Improvement, man." He mutters, apparently to himself, "I was better off supervising the unhatched." He looks the group up and down. "You have a simple mission: haul these apes up to civilization. Get them interested in space, get them to build a modern industrial base so they are of some damn use. I have never seen such a series of screw-ups. And on the subject of screwups-" He looks at his infopad. "Rawn? Al-Rawn?" A portly, spiny being takes a half-step. "You were the latest hope. Take over for a pulp writer, kick them down the path towards simple rockets, inculcate rationality, encourage them to better themselves--" Xlmnt sighs. It's theatrical; his species doesn't actually do that but the simple flaring of membranous head-crest tissues that serves the same purpose is too easily misunderstood. "So, Al-Rawn, just why did you keep on writing that...'scientifiction' crap and what's with the phony machine? And why'd you let the solid-fuels expert blow himself up? 'A guy could make a lot of money founding a religion,' is it?" The being seems to be about to speak. "No, don't bother, you can't unring a bell."
Xlmnt looks them over, silent at last, and the silence goes on and on, the soldiers looking increasingly sheepish. Finally, he says, very quietly, "I'm going leave you collection of losers to think this mess over tonight. By chowtime tomorrow, I'd better hear just how you think you're going to set this right, you had all better at least show willing and no excuses. You've left these people in a helluva muddle and High Command says we will be needing this sector in less than two hundred years. That isn't very long and you're not much to work with. I will make you do it with ear-brushes if I have to but it will get done. Dis-missed!"
And he stomps though the middle of them, all the way to his private quarters at the back of the barracks dome, glaring at them as they stand speechless and clueless, and slams the door behind himself.
...And then my alarm clock went off. No more late-night pineapple pizzas!
(More of my SF at I Work On A Starship.)
(Left on the cutting room floor: "Soldier, choke yourself. No! Not like that, you idiot. With my mind. I'm finding a distinct lack of faith here." Also: "The best part of you is in a tin on a shelf in a genetic-sampling vault marked, 'Defective. Do Not Reuse.'")
T. R. MCELROY'S STREAMLINED TELEGRAPH KEYS
7 months ago