The vast Ossinian sea, empty and calm, spread out before me in all directions. The cloudless sky was brilliant blue. And alone I rode, on the back of a creature the size of a small house.
But this amazing animal was no mere brute. It was a professional transport, capable of communication. In fact, I had spoken to it, though I was certain my words had offended it. And now it swam stubbornly onward, ignoring my frequent hails.
My original destination had been an island called Lath. But my transport was now taking me elsewhere, though I did not know where, or even why. I was certain, however, that the change of plans was connected to my offending comments.
I should have known better than to speak my mind.
The leaders of the planet of Ossine had applied for membership into the Planetary Commerce Sphere. But there was little published information available, so I had been assigned by my employer to research the planet’s native culture, and assess its prospects for setting up a mining operation. A professional assessment required that I remained objective and emotionally detached. That I keep my personal opinions to myself.
My lapse in professionalism had been compelled by this creature’s subservience. The creature not only accepted the mastery of the Ossinians, the planet’s dominant race, but served them enthusiastically. It was the enthusiasm I found disturbing.
I looked at the creature’s huge head, partially submerged as he plowed through the sea, and called. But as before, I was ignored.
I had no choice but to wait, look out over the featureless ocean, and think back over the sequence of events that led me here.
A few days earlier, I had taken a surface shuttle down to Ossine’s only spaceport, joined by an engineer and a surveyor, who were working for separate companies. After disembarking and passing through customs, we exited the barrier dome surrounding the facility and I got my first look at the surface of Ossine. The spaceport was considered a technology enclave. Advanced technology, available to all civilizations that belonged to the Planetary Commerce Sphere, was allowed inside the dome, while the rest of the planet was forbidden access. But the port’s bland, familiar features were much less interesting than the Ossine landscape, which I now surveyed with pleasure. Mounds of reddish soil, glowing in the late sun, dotted the plain that surrounded the dome. Scattered between the mounds were gray-colored plants that sent sword-like shafts towering into the air. A hard-packed dirt road wound among the mounds and into the distance. Austere but beautiful.
“Now, how are we supposed to ride this thing?” asked the engineer. We stood on a simple wooden platform, awaiting our transport to the capital.
“You’ll see,” replied the surveyor, a veteran of four previous trips. “There’s a place on the back of the creature where we can all sit. Plenty of room for our bags.”
It surprised me that the Ossinians relied on animal transport. It was true that their culture was relatively primitive, yet they possessed a basic electrical grid and even state-sponsored research facilities. Why not mechanical modes of transport?
I was listening to the surveyor describe the wiggly creatures that inhabited the red mounds, when a loud snort cut him off mid-sentence. We turned toward the dirt road and watched a bulbous, lumbering, four-legged beast approach the platform. It was nearly ten meters long, with a massive head angled slightly upward, and alert, expressive eyes. Powerful muscles were visible beneath its skin, which was covered with a fine gray fur.
It positioned itself so that its body was parallel to the platform, and shifted its bulk laterally toward the platform’s edge. No one was guiding the creature.
The surveyor propped a movable metal staircase against the brute’s side and climbed up. We followed him and stepped down into a recessed cavity located in the middle of the animal’s broad back. The curve of its spine protruded below our feet, and a wooden bench was attached along the side of the cavity, large enough to seat all three of us. I looked over the edge of the recess and watched the creature ease away from the platform and, keeping its back remarkably level, amble away at surprising speed. I could feel the creature’s muscles working as I leaned back against the interior wall of the recess.
After half an hour, during which time the beast kept up its pace without pause, we passed a cluster of buildings and I got my first glimpse of the native Ossinians. They were humanoid beings with large heads and shoulders, and short necks. Their rough-looking yellowish skin was laced with a spider web of black cracks. Tufts of coarse jet-black hair formed extravagant eyebrows above their eyes and goatees under their chins, but their crowns were bald. They gaped at our group as we came galloping by, but offered no gestures of greeting.
The buildings were constructed of a reddish wattle, apparently made from the same soil that comprised the abundant red mounds. The structures were narrow and tall, many of them three stories high.
I waved at another group of locals walking beside the road, but again received no acknowledgment.
“These Ossinians don’t seem to be very friendly,” I said to the surveyor.
“They don’t like outsiders,” he said. “Personally, I think they’re a bunch of assholes. They tolerate our presence only because they have to. That’s my take, anyway.”
I looked up to see another great brute like the one we were riding go galloping by in the opposite direction. It was pulling a wagon loaded with red adobe bricks. I saw no back cavity. Instead, it had huge muscular shoulders around which the wagon’s harness was attached. The creature had no driver.
I shook my head in wonder. “It amazes me that no one needs to guide these animals.”
“Their whole relationship with the Ossinians is fascinating,” replied the surveyor. “They are used for brute labor, to plow fields, even to rotate electric generators.”
We watched another great beast speed by.
“They are called Moohee,” continued the surveyor. “The Ossinian breeders have been able to modify their form. Some have hollowed out areas like this one, others have huge muscles for pulling carts.”
“Is this relationship unique?” I asked. “Or have the Ossinians domesticated other species?”
“A few, for livestock. But their relationship with those animals is nothing like what they have with the Moohee. They’re indispensable to the Ossinians.”
“What about higher races on the planet? I mean, besides the Ossinians.”
“Higher? You mean higher intelligence? The ability to reason?”
“That’s right. I read there was a history of warfare with beings of another culture. Was this other race destroyed?”
The surveyor leaned back and patted the creature’s fur. “No, Mr. Lader. They weren’t destroyed. In fact, you’re riding one!”
I looked down at the creature in amazement. “This brute is intelligent?”
The surveyor nodded.
I realized I’d been listening to a melodious sound for some time, barely discernible over the rushing wind. But now I gave it my full attention. It was a beautiful and haunting song, full of sadness. I watched the head of the creature and could see its mouth moving. My transport was singing! The words were in a tongue I didn’t know, but the music moved me.
I was fascinated by this revelation, but uncertain what to think about it. Were these Moohee simply a service race, employed by the Ossinians? Or were they enslaved, subjugated by the Ossinians as a result of war and forced to do the Ossinians’ bidding? That was something I would have to find out.
The capital was clean and orderly, with dense clusters of the narrow reddish buildings. The streets and alleys were wide, presumably to allow room for the large Moohee creatures, which I saw everywhere carrying Ossinians or pulling loaded wagons.
My companions and I were taken to the residence compound provided by the Ossinian authorities, where we went to our separate living quarters. I found them spartan but comfortable. As I was eager to get started, I dumped my belongings and took the short walk to the Ossinian administrative complex to introduce myself to the commercial liaison.
“I’m the envoy from the Cygna Mining Corporation,” I told the individual attending the front desk of the commercial ministry. He nodded and motioned toward a nearby waiting area.
I took a seat and looked around. Seated near me were off-worlders, no doubt working with the other companies setting up shop for Ossine’s assessment period, during which Ossine’s application to the Planetary Commerce Sphere would be evaluated. I was more interested in the Ossinians themselves as they shuffled in and out of the lobby area. They walked with stiff, upright postures and their eyes were dark and expressionless, giving their visages a reptilian character. The genders were similar in appearance, each sporting bald pates and distinctive black and bushy eyebrows and goatees, but the female Ossinians were smaller, with large breasts pushing against their tunics.
After what seemed an excessive wait, a female Ossinian approached. She was dressed in the typical coarsely woven tunic, but the neckline and shoulders of her garment were decorated with small colorful stones. Her awkward smile bunched up the black lines that reticulated her yellow face. Her dark eyes did not reflect her smile.
“Mr. Lader? I am Murlemi. I’ve been assigned to your company as official liaison.”
She led me to a nearby nook which offered a bit of privacy. There, we exchanged a few pleasantries and then she asked about my duties.
“In order for my company to set up shop on your planet, we will need to thoroughly research your world,” I replied. “It’s my task to familiarize myself with all aspects of your culture. Therefore, I request permission to travel throughout the planet. I am interested in meeting with labor leaders, managers of production facilities and the common workers in your factories. I want to know what they think about the Planetary Commerce Sphere, and about off-planet companies like Cygna.”
“I see. You want to determine if we are…acceptable.” The words were uttered slowly, her lips pursed. I sensed my mission displeased her.
I nodded. “You could say that. At least suitable for our business interests.”
“You will have free access,” said Murlemi. “I’ll assign you a competent guide who will arrange all the…”
“If it’s allowed,” I interjected, “I’d prefer to travel alone. Approaching workers with a government official at my side may influence their responses.”
“It’s allowed,” replied Murlemi. “But it’ll be more difficult to arrange your transportation. Is this really necessary?”
“I would prefer it. I apologize for the added inconvenience.” Surely she realized my concern was valid.
“It will be as you ask.”
“Thanks for your cooperation. I’m sure that Ossine and the Cygna Mining Corporation can work together in a seamless and mutually profitable manner.”
At this remark, Murlemi scowled, as if she had eaten something unpleasant. “Your company, and others like them, will exploit the resources of our planet, while we receive a mere nine percent of the profits. I make this clear to you up front. We do this for one reason and one reason only—arrangements of this kind are required for membership in the Planetary Commerce Sphere. We believe the technology ban is audacious and a violation of our autonomy. We don’t understand why we Ossinians, who are the unquestioned masters of this planet, are forbidden access to technology commonly available to hundreds of other cultures. The sooner we go through these motions and—how else can I say it—pay for our improved status, the better.”
Although there was some merit to her view, my company didn’t make the rules. I politely nodded. “I appreciate your transparency. It is unfortunate that your people must follow these tedious guidelines. But at least this phase of the assessment period lasts only two years.”
“Treatment of this kind, no matter how short in duration, is an insult to our culture.”
“And a quite remarkable culture it is, I must say,” I said, hoping to steer the conversation down a more positive track. “This city and surrounding areas seem exceptionally clean and well-maintained.”
“Thank you. We keep all production sites and their unhealthy emissions far from our living areas. Workers commute to offshore facilities.”
“A thoughtful setup. And I reviewed the cultural items your leadership submitted with their application for membership. I was especially impressed by the art and poetry. Absolutely beautiful.”
Murlemi bowed her head.
“And the relationship your people have with those Moohee creatures is fascinating. I am told they are intelligent beings, and I see them everywhere in the service of your people.”
“Without access to technology allowed to other cultures, the Moohee must be used for menial labor. Our one-time enemies recognize their place and have dedicated themselves to the Ossinian race.”
“They are not forced into their servitude?”
“Not at all.”
“It seems unprecedented.”
“I suppose what seems natural to us may be viewed differently by outsiders,” said Murlemi. “It may interest you to know that our two races waged a series of wars lasting over a century. It’s all ancient history now. Our race ascended to our proper station and the Moohee, to their credit, chose to cooperate with their superiors rather than face extinction.”
I tapped my chin with my finger. “Please help me understand. Why are you considered their superiors?”
Murlemi shrugged, an awkward gesture given her short neck. “Did we not conquer them?”
I decided to begin my investigation at offshore production facilities. I was interested in seeing how the Ossinian managers employed the Moohee in their mines and factories. With the technology quarantine in effect during the assessment period, my company would have to use those same creatures to set up shop.
I had Murlemi arrange the details and went to the passenger docks early the next morning to await the arrival of a seafaring Moohee. As I stood waiting at the passenger wharf, I watched other Moohee transports as they swam up to the loading docks, where Ossinian workers unloaded freight from the cavities on their backs. These sea-based creatures were larger than their land-based brethren, with huge, rotund bodies that floated high in the water. And judging from the substantial amounts of cargo I saw stacked by the loading ramps, their recessed compartments were quite commodious. I marveled once again at how highly adapted the Moohee were to the needs of Ossinian society.
A rather short Ossinian holding a clipboard approached me. “Mr. Lader, I presume.”
“Your transport should arrive shortly. And have no concerns about crossing the ocean. They are nearly always calm. And the Moohee are excellent swimmers. He will transport you to your first destination, an island called Lath, a few hundred miles from the coast.”
At that moment, the harbor official pointed to the entrance of the sheltered harbor, and I spotted a smaller Moohee enter and head in our direction. As before, no one was guiding it.
I turned toward the harbor official. “I am amazed these Moohee are so cooperative. Do they ever disobey?”
“The Moohee know their place,” he replied, his reptilian eyes reflecting no emotion.
“Yes, but why are they so willing to serve? Do you pay them well?”
The official glanced back over toward the loading ramps and motioned for two workers to come over with the wave of his hand. He looked back at me. “We allow them to live. And we give them what they need.”
“It seems puzzling.”
“I suspect it is because it gives them a higher purpose—to serve their betters.”
I turned to hide my frown and watched the newly arrived Moohee position itself adjacent to the wharf where I was standing.
“This Moohee will take you to Lath,” said the harbor official. He directed the two workers to prop a mobile staircase next to the creature and carry up my luggage and supplies. Then he motioned for me to go up the ladder. “The trip to Lath takes just one day. You should have everything you need.”
I waved farewell to the official, who made no return gesture, and climbed down into the Moohee’s passenger area and took a look around. Toward the back of the recess was a covered area containing supplies and some simple furniture, including a wooden table and a cot. It was a cozy little spot to spend a day traveling.
I felt movement, and watched attentively as the Moohee glided away from the loading dock and began moving its muscular limbs in a rotating motion. Though the creature worked up to a brisk pace, the passenger area remained steady.
A light sea spray made its way into the cavity, but the sun was warm and the mist refreshing. I sat down and leaned back against the creature’s thin fur. It felt warm and gave off a slight and not unpleasant odor. I took in the blue sky and the Ossine harbor shrinking in the distance and pondered the plight of my transport. I wondered what sort of being would so willingly give up on their freedom. In the beginning, just after they were conquered, I could see it. But now? Was it still fear that drove their cooperation? Or was it just the weight of history? Their fathers and fathers’ fathers had served willingly, so perhaps it didn’t even occur to them to plot their own path in life.
After an uneventful hour, I dug into the supply containers and was helping myself to breakfast when a melodious tune reached my ears. I climbed up on the edge of the passenger recess and looked down at the head of the Moohee, which it kept mostly out of the water as its buoyant body swam along. As I had expected, it was the Moohee singing the song. The words were, on the whole, unfamiliar, but I caught a fragment of a phrase commonly used in Engliss, an ancient language I had studied at the Academy.
I knew these beings were intelligent, but wondered whether it would communicate.
“Hello. Can you speak?” I asked in the ancient language.
The creature stopped swimming and angled its massive head in my direction, scanning me with one eye. “If I could speak, what would you have me say?” asked the Moohee, the words coming slowly.
For a moment I just stared, lost for words.
“You do talk!” I managed. “You speak Engliss.”
“It’s not our natural tongue, but that of old Earth poets. One must understand the mother tongue before one can understand the mind.”
“I agree,” said the Moohee. “I’ve never spoken with an off-worlder. My name is Loomso.”
“I’m honored to meet you, Loomso. It’s not often one gets to converse with their means of transport. I’m Mark Lader, a researcher for the Cygna Mining Corporation.”
“Ah, a man of intellect. I, too, am honored.”
“Thank you. So tell me, how do you come to be a transport craft?”
“I was born into the role,” the creature said. “Just like my parents, and their parents.”
“To serve the Ossinians?”
“All Moohee serve the Ossinians. It is our place.”
“Do you get compensated in some way?”
“The essentials. And we are allowed to live. What more could a being require?”
I frowned. “What about your own interests? And those of other members of your race? Or your family? Do you have families?”
“I have fathered three, though families are lost to the past. Our Ossinian masters take care of such matters.”
It seemed a one-sided arrangement. “You give yourself over to the Ossinians to a great extent. My Ossinian liaison gave me the impression that your race is not forced to serve the Ossinians. That you do so willingly.”
“We accept our destiny. We are Moohee. We create art. We sing songs. And we serve the Ossinians. That is what we are.”
As before, I struggled to make sense of the arrangement. Many dominant races had forced their subjugated enemies into servitude. That was slavery and it was something I could understand. But this, it was different. There was no compulsion, no threat of harm. I found it distasteful.
“To willingly serve your conquerors without reservation… it seems undignified.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted uttering them. No matter how disturbing I found Loomso’s unquestioning acceptance of his subservience, he seemed a noble and kind being, and I was certain my words were offensive. And there was the matter of my professional mission on Ossine. I was to objectively observe and report, not to judge or interfere.
Loomso didn’t reply but faced straight ahead and recommenced swimming. I sat down on my chair and kicked myself for opening my big fat mouth.
Eventually I finished off what remained of my breakfast. I resumed my seat at the edge of the passenger compartment and waited quietly.
Loomso resumed his plaintive song, but after a few minutes he stopped swimming. The creature again angled his head back to look at me.
“Your words sting my heart.”
“I’m sorry, Loomso. Please forgive my rudeness. I know nothing of your plight.”
“That is true. Would you like to learn?”
It was likely that my company would need to employ the Moohee in its mining operations, so an understanding of the history of the Moohee could be of value. “Sure,” I said.
“Long ago, the Moohee and the Ossinians battled one another. Our masters love war and revel in victory. We Moohee prefer peace. One by one, our mother islands were lost until, after our defeat at the Battle of Gildenmor, we became utterly subjugated.
“We decided to become as useful to the Ossinians as possible. Today, due to Ossinian modifications, few of my brethren resemble our ancestors. I, for example, am several times larger. Others have been given muscles with which to pull large loads.”
“I understand,” I said, trying to be agreeable. “You had to cooperate. Or you would’ve been destroyed.”
Loomso didn’t respond at first. His large eye looked me over carefully.
“In the beginning, we were less…cooperative. We rebelled after our subjugation. Many Moohee were lost, including our greatest poet, Dilino Ust, along with many of his works. We keep what remains alive through our songs. The one you just heard was based on his poem about the unbroken spirit of the Moohee.”
“It’s a beautiful tune.”
“But do you, my dear passenger, believe that the Moohee spirit is unbroken?”
I looked down at the placid sea. It occurred to me the Ossinians might have bred the Moohee to be docile and cooperative. “It’s not my place to judge. I’m not a Moohee.”
“You are not of our race. But I would know how others, not of this world, think.”
“All right. What I think is that all intelligent races are valuable in their own right, and should have autonomy. The Moohee are not enslaved, I know that. But you have right to plot your own course in life, independently of the needs of the Ossinians.”
“A noble thought,” said Loomso.
“I can’t help but believe that the Moohee see themselves through the lens of the Ossinian-dominated society, and so they see themselves as inferior.”
“An interesting conjecture.”
“Yes, but to shrug off these long-entrenched constraints would require fundamental social change, a difficult road.” I rubbed my chin and looked off toward the distant horizon. “However…”
“My passenger has a thought?” asked Loomso.
“It could be that your situation will improve in the near future. Once Ossine’s application for membership into the Planetary Commerce Sphere is accepted, commonly available off-world technologies would be introduced. The Ossinians would be able to construct a multitude of mechanical contrivances and would no longer need to exploit the Moohee. Over time, these changes should free the Moohee from social bondage. You could acquire a more respectable place within Ossinian culture.”
Loomso’s eye narrowed. “How do you know this?”
“What? About the new technology? Like I said, I’m an employee of the Cygna Mining Corporation. We are here to set up mining facilities as part of the evaluation period. If Ossine is successful, and I would be surprised if it weren’t, this planet will undergo a technological revolution in a short amount of time.”
“Once this…evaluation period is complete, the Ossinians would no longer require us?”
“It could mean the social liberation of the Moohee. But of course, cultural change can take a long time. There will likely be decades of discrimination while the Moohee slowly…”
“I am disturbed,” interrupted Loomso. The creature closed its eyes and did not speak for several minutes. Finally, he looked at me again. “I am sorry, dear passenger. I cannot take you to Lath, but must head north.”
“North? What do you mean? I have to go to Lath.”
Loomso didn’t answer, but lowered his head and began swimming once again, this time with greater exertion. I heard him sing no more.
So I became a captive on the peaceful Ossinian Sea. Loomso continued to ignore my hails, but swam on relentlessly. Eventually, the sun set behind the sharp horizon and the cool of night sent me to the cot, where I wrapped myself up in a blanket. I was anxious and uncertain, but the swaying of Loomso’s steady strokes and the sound of his even breaths eventually lulled me to sleep.
The next morning, my rest was broken by a biting chill. I wrapped my blanket tightly around me and climbed up on the edge of the passenger recess just as day broke over the quiet sea. My breath cast out billows of condensation into the frigid morning air. Here and there, small pieces of ice floated on the slight crest of the sea. I had no idea where I was going or why. Loomso swam tirelessly onward, ignoring my efforts to communicate. Guilt continued to haunt my thoughts.
After a few hours of scanning the empty horizon, I spotted a dark speck dead ahead and it became clear that we were heading toward an island. Soon, I was able to make out the nature of its coast—craggy cliffs broken with inlets and small bays. As we approached, we passed through a large crack in the cliffs and entered a wide, enclosed harbor.
“This is Slingafol,” said Loomso, catching me off guard. “According to our mothers, it is the home of the Moohee. Few of us live here now.”
“Loomso!” I cried. “I demand that you take me to Lath immediately.”
“There is no reason. But do not fear. You will not be harmed.”
“What the hell is this? Aren’t you my transport?”
“Sorry, dear passenger. Soon you will understand.”
Inside the harbor, the expanse of water was perfectly still, broken by boulders and pinnacles of various shapes, all of which were encrusted with ice. The quiet beauty, sparkling in the morning sun, moved me. I felt lighter, less fearful.
Loomso wove among the rock obstacles as he swam toward the opposite side of the harbor. We passed between two distinctive pinnacles and through the entrance of a large sea cave set into a sheer rock headland that abutted the shore. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the relative darkness, but enough light filtered in from above to illuminate the expansive interior of the cave—a wonderland of cobalt-green water, stalagmites, and sparkling icicles. Among the larger boulders and the patches of sand that circled the perimeter of the cave were intricate creations of carved stone. There were hundreds of them, each one about the size of a man. The forms of most of these sculptures were abstract, but I saw several that seemed to represent beings of some kind, beings that had a passing resemblance to the Moohee.
The style of the art was familiar to me and I suddenly remembered where I had seen others like them.
“These sculptures, they resemble the ones the Ossinians sent as part of their application to the Planetary Commerce Sphere.”
“The Ossinians do not sculpt.”
“And the wonderful poetry they sent?”
“The Ossinians do not write poetry.”
“The Moohee serve the Ossinians in many ways,” said Loomso. “We are their brute muscle, but we are also their creative spirit. They use our culture to elevate their own.”
It seemed wrong that the Ossinians would not only subjugate the Moohee race and alter their physical form, but that they would also take credit for their artistic achievements. I was beginning to take a dim view of the Ossinians.
Movement on a small beach on the far side of the cave caught my eye, and I made out several gray figures. Loomso swam toward them. As I got closer, I could see that they resembled Loomso, but they were not nearly as large and had no cavities in their backs, though they had the same thick, pudgy bodies. One was sitting on its back haunches and was in the process of using its agile front limbs, resembling flippers, in a most humanoid fashion. I realized the creature was creating a sculpture similar to those that populated the cave, its paws easily grasping its tools. Two other Moohee were leisurely reclining along the water’s edge, their bodies partially submerged in the icy water.
Loomso spoke to the sculptor in an unfamiliar tongue. After a brief exchange, their conversation became animated and continued for several minutes. Then both were abruptly quiet. Loomso looked back at me. “This is Iglum, the Father Elder of the Moohee race. He welcomes you to Slingafol and apologizes that you were forced to come.”
I nodded at Iglum and he returned my gesture. He then turned to the two Moohee lying at the water’s edge and spoke to them. They submerged into the blue-green water and swam away.
“These others are part of his family—the only ones that have escaped the Ossinian breeders,” added Loomso. “At one time, every Moohee looked as they do.”
I heard splashes from several directions and saw a number of other Moohee, previously camouflaged by the shadows and stone, launch into the water.
“There are seventeen in Iglum’s family,” said Loomso. “They will alert the others. In the meantime, please be our guest.”
“Alert the others for what?” I asked. “What is going on?”
Loomso didn’t respond to my questions, but exchanged a few more quick sentences with Iglum, who then returned to his work on the sculpture, voicing another song characteristic of the others I had heard the Moohee sing—haunting and plaintive, with swaying melodies in minor keys. I still had no idea what was in store for me, yet I was not afraid. The serene visages of these creatures eased any concerns I had about my welfare. Loomso swam toward another area of the sea cave.
“There is a dry nook ahead. There you will wait. If you wish, you may climb up to the island’s surface. Take your ease, and soon I will convey you to wherever you would like.”
“I want to go to Lath.”
“If you wish. But there is no point.”
“But why not? Tell me what’s happening.”
Loomso’s large body positioned itself next to a flat shelf of rock that extended out over the water. I could see a dry area behind the shelf.
“The news you bought us is concerning to all Moohee. Iglum’s family, strong swimmers all, have been sent out to all corners. Many Moohee will quickly assemble here. We must decide our future, and whether to end the Ossinian mastery over the Moohee.”
“What are you going to do? Surely not a rebellion, not now? Just when social change is on the horizon. And you said yourself, the Ossinians are warlike and revel in victory. Has any of that changed? You would be slaughtered.”
I began unloading my supplies onto the sand, stepping from Loomso’s back directly onto the edge of the rock shelf. “Loomso, please listen,” I said, working as I spoke. “I have a tendency to speak my mind, even when I shouldn’t. Please ignore my stupid remarks.”
“You are concerned?”
“Concerned? Yes. The Ossinians control all the resources of Ossine society. And the Moohee are…well, I hate to say this, but a race of conveyances. No disrespect. It’s hard to see how a rebellion could succeed.”
“I am touched,” replied Loomso. “But do not trouble your heart. You and I will speak on this further. But now I must leave you. There is much to do.” Loomso immediately pushed away from the ledge and submerged out of sight.
I sat with my furniture and supplies in the sandy enclave and waited several hours at the water’s edge, using the blanket against the chill of the cave’s interior. But as I saw no sign of any Moohee, I decided to climb up a rock fall toward the back of the enclave and check out the island proper. On the surface I found a jumble of boulders and reddish hills, with a few of the Moohee’s distinctive sculptures scattered around. I did find patches of sparse trees and other vegetation along a freshwater stream that tumbled down from on high, but it was clear that no one lived on the surface of the island. As darkness approached, the temperatures dropped significantly, so I returned to the relative warmth of the interior of the cave.
I lay on my cot and thought about the Moohee. It didn’t seem probable that an offensive comment from a single offworlder could cause a rebellion. Yet, something was clearly afoot, something related to my words. I didn’t relish the idea that I had somehow triggered the events taking place.
I could certainly understand the desire to rebel, to cast off the shackles of servitude. But there seemed such small prospect for success. Could the Moohee have trained an army, or concealed caches of weapons during their years of servitude? Given how their Ossinian overseers controlled everything, even down to their families, it did not seem possible.
The demise of the Moohee seemed inevitable.
The next morning was quiet, although I spotted a few gray bodies swimming at the opposite end of the sea cave. They didn’t respond to my hails. I had food left, and retrieved fresh water from the stream above, but as the day wore on, I became increasingly anxious.
As I sat glumly on the sandy ledge, a large form emerged from the blue water. Loomso tilted his back, dumping out water from the cavity, and edged up to the ledge.
“Come,” he said. “The Father Elder wishes to speak to you.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Come, and you will see.”
I climbed onto his back, and Loomso swam through the sea cave and out into the boulder-strewn harbor. There, in the bright sunlight, I saw an incredible vision. All around the harbor, sitting on boulders, pinnacles, and the edges of the harbor, were thousands of Moohee. I was amazed at their variety of forms. Vehicles of every sort were there, ranging from big brutes to smaller, sleek Moohee, all designed, no doubt, to be useful to the Ossinians in their various ways.
And then, in perfect unison, they began to sing one of their distinctive songs. The cumulative effect of this amplification was overwhelming. At that moment, I could feel the deep pain of the Moohee subjugation, and was overwhelmed with sympathy for the plight of their nation.
The death of a race was tragic. Yet it occurred to me at that moment that perhaps life under the weight of ignominy was worse. When the Ossinians conquered the Moohee centuries ago, they hadn’t destroyed them, but neither had they stopped at mere enslavement. The Moohee were not dumb brutes, but intelligent beings with artistic impulses. Yet their breeders had manipulated the genetic make-up of these beings. They had taken the identity of the Moohee and transformed them into a race of artifacts—mere tools for use of the Ossinians.
If the distortion of one’s identity was indeed worse than annihilation, should I begrudge them the opportunity to try to shake off the shackles of domination? Even at such a risk? Perhaps the Moohee viewed their doomed effort as a great catharsis? The sadness was exquisite.
Loomso glided his huge mass next to one of the exposed boulders, where I recognized the seated form of Iglum. I climbed onto the boulder as Iglum began speaking to Loomso.
“Iglum says he is glad you are here to witness this. It is an important moment for the Moohee.”
“I’m amazed,” I said, looking around the harbor. “There are so many of you. How did they arrive so quickly?”
“The sea is our natural home. Despite Ossinian breeders, we remain strong swimmers.”
“I see. I take it this gathering was for deciding a course of action.”
“Yes. We discussed the information you brought us and the time is ripe. We end centuries of humiliation. We move against our masters.”
“No, no, Loomso, please don’t do this! Tell Iglum that a rebellion is ill-timed. As I said before, once Ossine is admitted into the Planetary Commerce Sphere, new technologies will catch on like wildfire. The Moohee will no longer be needed for manual labor. It will be your chance to break free of your subservient role.”
“Ah, dear passenger, but that is why we must act.” Loomso looked around the bay and expelled a long sigh. “During the war, our leaders gathered here, on Slingafol, as our island homes became lost. This island is too far north to be comfortable for the Ossinian race. Here in this very harbor, our fathers and mothers created a new strategy. We would submit to our cruel enemy. Only by serving the interests of the Ossinians could our plan succeed.”
“Yes. And as the lives of Moohee came and went, the plan was passed down from old to young. Our strategy, dear passenger, was to become so useful to the Ossinians that they would come to rely on our kind and to trust our intentions. Now is the time for our sacrifice to bear fruit. We have to act now. Once the Ossinians have new technologies, their reliance upon us will be lost. Our opportunity will be out of reach.”
Iglum spoke to Loomso in their native tongue, and then Loomso turned once again to me.
“Iglum believes peace is always preferable to war and death, and asks if it is my opinion that once the Ossinians acquire new technologies, they would welcome the Moohee into their society as equals.”
I thought about what I knew about the Ossinians and their attitudes toward the Moohee.
“Probably not,” I conceded. “At least not for a long time.”
“Then there must be war. Will the members of the Planetary Commerce Sphere intervene?”
“No, not a chance,” I said. “The culture on Ossine is still designated as nascent. While that designation is in place, Ossine will be left alone to sort out its differences without outside influence.”
“Then we have won,” said Loomso.
“I don’t see it,” I said. “How can a swarm of, well, how else can I say this, tuneful vehicles do battle with the Ossinians and win?”
“We are artists, Mr. Lader. And art can be found in surprising places, including as part of a war strategy. The Moohee do all the menial work for the Ossinian people. We transport their goods and workers. We generate their electricity with our muscle-power. Production facilities have been relocated to off-continent areas so that their living conditions remain pristine. This we have done for centuries. More recently, massive storage silos have been placed on offshore islands. From them, we willingly transport food and manufactured products across the sea, and then haul the loads to Ossinian cities.
“Their reliance upon the Moohee is complete. Without us, they have no access to food. And before the Ossinians can grow more, they will starve.”
“But if the storage facilities are just off shore, couldn’t they gain access to them?”
“They will try,” said Loomso. “This swarm of tuneful vehicles, as you call us, will soon be on its way to the shores of the Ossinian cities, and to alert thousands of other Moohee who could not make it here today to do the same. When the Ossinians build and launch hastily constructed vessels to reach the food supplies, we must sink them.”
What had seemed impossible to me just minutes before began to make sense.
“Winter soon approaches,” continued Loomso. “It will be terrible for the Ossinian population. They will become weak and vulnerable. Many will become sick. Many more will starve to death. It is a cost that must be paid. For though we value the right of the Ossinians to live, we also value our right to equality. Perhaps, by taking this path, all will be put back into proper balance.”
Iglum walked up to me and extended one of his front paws and shook my hand. “Thank you for alerting us, Mr. Lader,” he said, in heavily accented Engliss.
He turned and began speaking loudly in his native language to the assembled mass of Moohee. They began splashing into the water and leaving the harbor.
I pondered the implications of this rebellion. Of course, the application for membership into the Planetary Commerce Sphere was kaput, not to mention my company’s new business venture. And if my involvement in the Moohee rebellion were discovered, it could mean the end of my career as a commercial attaché, although, in my defense, all I had done was to reveal to the Moohee the pending influx of new technologies, something they would have eventually discovered on their own. Yet, as I thought about the history of Ossinian culture and the willingness of the Ossinian race to degrade the Moohee, I couldn’t help but warm to the Moohee cause. It was true that the suffering of the Ossinian race would be great. And that those Ossinians alive today had not set up the current arrangement with the Moohee. Yet, they willingly perpetuated it. The prospect of the Moohee emerging from centuries of ignoble servitude seemed just, even at a great cost.
Loomso angled his head toward me. “I must swim my assigned area. But first, I will take you where you like. The shuttle port, perhaps?”
“Yes. If you please.”
“Will you tell your leaders about the war? And let them know the Ossinians are no longer our masters?”
“It is my duty as an objective observer to convey the facts,” I replied. “I’ll report these developments to the governing board of the Planetary Commerce Sphere. I should mention that a rebellion, successful or not, implies instability. It will be a long time before the board considers another application for membership.”
I climbed back into Loomso’s passenger recess, and soon we were back on the placid sea, now dotted here and there with the figures of the other Moohee swimming toward their respective assignments.
I sat at my familiar place on the edge of the recess and took it all in. It seemed incredible that a race of beings, as part of a strategy to overcome their conquerors, would endure centuries of total subjugation. Yet the Moohee had done just that. And now that I understood, I had little doubt they would succeed. Without the Moohee to assist them, the Ossinians were extremely limited in their means of fighting back.
I wondered what role the surviving Ossinians would play in the new world order. For centuries they had humiliated the Moohee without hesitation, merely to serve their own ends. So perhaps it was just that they, in return, would be treated in similar fashion by the Moohee. Yet I did not think that would happen. From my interaction with Loomso and his kind, I was inclined to believe that they would carefully craft a new society, one in which all beings would be valued. I wasn’t sure exactly what I based that belief on. More a feeling than anything else, but the feeling was strong.
Loomso began to sing another beautiful melody. But this time, there was none of the plaintive sadness of the other tunes. As I listened to the song, I felt the rushing wind blowing through my hair and the brisk spray upon my face, and smiled. Despite the pain and suffering that was to come, I felt certain the planet was in good hands.
Abruptly, the sun dipped below a bank of low ranging clouds and cast a golden hue upon the world of Ossine.