ELEVEN PIPERS PIPING

1) Night Time Blackout

Yarith Sluktor trudged through the cold, dark streets of Rokire City, the third largest settlement on the planet Sithesti, one of over one hundred planets settled by the species which had spawned on the planet Nisala several millennia ago. The streets were almost deserted. Curfew was due to start in half a dup (diurnal unit period) and the streetlights were already at their dimmest settings before being blacked out completely when curfew commenced. It still puzzled Yarith that such precautions were necessary. The defence cannons, produced at the factory in which he worked, ringed Rokire City and, it was said, could produce such firepower that the City would be almost roofed in lead projectiles and energy beams at the mere flick of a switch. The curfew order came from Sithesti's governor and could not, would not, be disobeyed. Air raids and orbital bombardments from the Third Worlders, against which species war had raged for several centuries, were not common against Sithesti, but the risk could not be ignored. The citizens of Rokire City, and other Sithestan settlements, took such precautions as a necessary inconvenience against Third Worlder aggression.

Yarith reached his apartment structure. He had quite a nice dwelling about midway up the twenty storey building. He nodded to the building's night-shift supervisor and entered the elevator cage at the end of the foyer. The ride up to his floor would take a while as the gearing in the lift mechanism was in need of repair. While slow, at least the lift still functioned and spared Yarith the laborious hike up ten flights of steps.

He caught sight of his reflection in the polished bronze of the lift walls. Of average height for a Nisalan male, but somewhat more bulky than was healthy (or so his last physician's opinion had been), Yarith's body was a roughly cylindrical mass of translucent bluish protoplasm. As the light caught his body, his internal structures for digestion, reproduction and sentience could be seen as vague shadows within the slowly churning fluids. The upper end of his body was domed and the lower split into two locomotory pseudopods. Common to all Nisalans, his sensory orbs were located just below the sentience structure, and the oral orifice sat centrally just beneath the sensory orbs.

Just above the centre of each of Yarith's flanks were two sets of tentacles, each as long as he was tall. Yarith's lower-left tentacle, however, was stunted and shrivelled, the result of an accident many sops (standard orbital periods) ago. He had endured much taunting and teasing by healthier young Nisalans but had risen above his contemporaries due to his intellectual faculties and had made his way through life on his wits and intelligence. Most of his contemporaries had been drafted into the armed services and Yarith wondered how many of those who had bullied him were still alive.

Yarith trudged into his dwelling, turned on the luminators at their dimmest setting so no light leaked past the curtains and broke the blackout rules, then slumped onto the couch in front of the TV set. TV, short for Tri-dimension Video, was a relatively new technology, and Yarith was only allowed to have such a gogglebox due to his administrative job in one of the most productive armaments factories on the planet Sithesti. He touched a tentacle-tip to the remote control and tuned to the news channel.

The TV tank - not a physical tank, like those for keeping pet aquatic species - but a volume of air above the gogglebox (which was, itself, a black plastic box) displayed the usual lightning-streaked static before resolving into the three dimensional image of Kala Phasrilis, the lead anchor-being of the prime news programme, SECTOR NEWS.

Yarith watched, fantasised (and occasionally drooled) about, the gorgeous Kala, as she launched into her news round-up for the sector. Surely those pseudopods are enhanced, Yarith thought, with somewhat lustful ideas swirling around his sentience organ.

Dateline Navato

"The third planet of the aggressive Sol system has attacked the peaceful agri-world of Navato. The Third Worlder expansionists cited the possibility that Navato could be a base for our attacking their ninth (so-called) 'planet'."

Phasrilis bracketed the word "planet" with a condescending wave of her lower tentacles. In Nisalan society, that would have bordered on insulting.

How can she put such humour into a news report that implies several thousand sentients are going to die? Yarith wondered. At the same time, he was worried that he, too, would be drafted. A call up he had dodged three times already because of his shrivelled lower-left tentacle. That counted him as disabled and, therefore, a non-combatant. But if the clashes of the Third Worlders and the Nisalan Homeworld continued, how long would it be before every able-bodied - or even semi-able-bodied - Nisalan male would be called upon to fight? The bulk of protoplasm that constituted most of Yarith's body squirmed in discomfort.

Dateline Assaykim

"The Great General Nysgha is pleased to report that the Third Worlder colony on the planet we call Assaykim has been annihilated. Goods and resources from that plentiful and beautiful world are being shipped to the Homeworlds as we speak."

Phasrilis oral orifice smiled in a sensuous manner at the mention of Great General Nysgha.

Hussy, thought Yarith.

"Breaking News," Phasrilis screeched.

"Supreme President Athusk has just announced a great military breakthrough against the Third Worlders. We cut directly to the Presidential Fortress at ...", a burst of static before the words "LOCATION REDACTED FOR SECURITY REASONS" scrolled through the TV tank.

Yarith watched the tank burst into a swirl of monochrome static for a few seconds until the image resolved into the resplendent figure of the Nisalan President Athusk Oroughden The Third. He could tell that the President had undergone several rejuvenation sessions during his term in office. For one thing, the President's gut channel should be a much deeper shade of purple for a Nisalan of his supposed age. And there were many fewer wrinkles under the upper tentacles than there would normally be in a Nisalan of the President's age.

Phony, thought Yarith.

"My Fellow Nisalans," began the President. "It is with great pleasure that I announce the victory of our people versus the Third Worlders on the desert planet of Echumorm. With this victory safely under our navel-cinches, we will press forward, deep into the Sol sector, past the so-called ninth planet towards the Third World homeworld itself.

"While I announce this victory with great pleasure, it is not without a sense of sorrow. For I must demand that every Nisalan of fighting age report forthwith to his local recruitment centre. We have the Third Worlders on the back limb with this victory and must press them to ultimate defeat.

"250000 Nisalans are required for this, the Final Push. With the drive, tenacity and bravery for which we Nisalans are rightly famed, we will be feasting in LunDun by Exmass! We begin this glorious recruitment drive on the planet Sithesti."

Oh pudu! thought Yarith. His time was up. He would never avoid the draft this time.

There had to be another way! Yarith's sentience organ pulsed with a mixture of exasperation at the stupidity of both species - who had been close allies several centuries ago - and fear of his almost certain death on some hideous battlefield unknown parsecs from home.

2) Working for the Company

With heavy cardiac-structure, Yarith made his way to the office the following morning. He laboured over the production reports, the factory was performing well, as usual, a task which should have been quick and easy but which took much longer than usual due to his distracted mind-state, and submitted them to his line manager.

"I hear the recruitment agents are visiting the factories at Nalendransulsay and Perb today," the manager said. "They are likely to be here tomorrow." The manager, an impressively bulky Nisalan male with a greenish tinge to his upper tentacles, had seen service in the ground forces several years ago. He still bore the scars and service medals with some pride. "It'll be your chance soon, lad."

Yarith felt his digestive tract constrict but managed a vague smile in reply. "Oh, I'm sure they could find many people better suited to the glories of combat than me, sir." He waved his shrivelled lower-left tentacle feebly.

"Nonsense, boy. Fighting ability's not the only thing the agents are looking for. Your organisational skills alone would make you a fine recruit. No-one better than a gifted organiser to make sure all the troops go over the top in good order." The manager paused for a moment, savouring the memories of his first taste of combat against the Third Worlder barbarians. "Of course, being able to break those hard bony things of a Third Worlder is useful too. I mean, what sort of species has ossified tissue clogging up their internals? Strange. Weird. Downright alien, if you ask me."

What? thought Yarith, as the manager's anti-Third Worlder rant continued for several more minutes. Condemn 250000 Nisalans to destruction just because I can push bits of paper around? This whole planet's gone mad!

Yarith made his excuses and left the manager's office. Something nagged at the back of his sentience organ. There had to be another way! he stormed inwardly. But how? Where? Then it hit him. The Repository.

The large building was only a short stroll from the munitions factory. Yarith packed a briefcase of obscure paperwork, old reports and calculation tables to make it look like he was off to research a productivity upgrade, and hastened from the office to the Repository.

3) The Repository

When he needed to think, or at least to calm his mental processes to the point where he could think straight, Yarith took refuge in the Repository. Although little-used in this day and age - most Nisalans got their information from the TV and news channels - it served the city as an archive of facts and information, useful when the news channels were off-air (usually for "security reasons") or some obscure facts needed double checking. Yarith's position as administrator at the munitions factory allowed him access to the Repository. There had been times where he needed to check historical records to see just how a particular 0.1% increase in weapons production had been achieved, so such process improvements could be made to current production methods.

Yarith made himself comfortable at one of the terminals and plugged in. He started with the basics. It took several hours of conscientious searching, cross-referencing, re-indexing and filtering but Yarith found what he was looking for.

What drives the Third Worlders?

The Third Worlders, who call themselves Human Beings, are not the murderous, destructive creatures the news channels portray them as, although they are guilty of many such acts. While driven by the biological imperative to reproduce, as are all species, and in doing so, to protect their young until they mature and can fend for themselves, Human Beings seem to have one other, overriding need. The need to compete. Something in their genetic or psychological make-up drives them to prove they are equal to, or better than, any obstacle they encounter. The obstacle can be environmental, social, political or the result of aggression. It does not seem to matter because the result is the same: humans will rise to the challenge and succeed or die trying. This does not make Human Beings evil per se, although they are more than capable of such acts, they are simply highly motivated individuals who, when united in a common goal, can achieve what many species would consider impossible.

When did the Nisalans and Third Worlders first meet?

The first documented encounter between Nisalan and Human occurred two thousand sops ago. It seems that the encounter was fruitful in that a trading relationship was established. Nisalan manufacturing processes produce a hydrocarbon by-product (the Humans termed "black gold" or some similarly absurd name) which the Humans required in vast amounts. Humans are notoriously inventive and their technological products were traded for the black gold. It seems everyone was quite content with this trading arrangement and, over the sops, partnerships for exploration and colonisation were established.

Perhaps we just got lucky? Yarith thought, somewhat glumly. If that first contact had been with a Third Worlder military expedition, our people could have been blown to slime-sludge.

Why did the Nisalans and Third Worlders fall out?

They disagreed over something obscurely called "the Offside Rule". Yarith had never heard of such a law but reasoned it must have been important to trigger a galaxy-wide war between the species.

What do our species have in common?

Yarith reasoned that, aside from trade, there must have been some common ground between the two species. Money isn't everything, after all, so there must have been something else which fuelled the inter-species partnerships. There his researches hit a brick wall. Interesting articles ended in dead ends. Opinion pieces from knowledgable commentators were simply conjecture. More recent articles were little more than warmongering.

With his train of thought derailed at this point, Yarith began idly paging through random files and articles. He stopped on one describing an old sokker match, the Grand Cup Final of 2234, between Ransul City and the Archipelago of Vesemo. Ransul won 3-2 after extra time periods were appended to what was, by all accounts, a hard-played but very entertaining match.

Sokker was a game that had not been played in Nisalan society for several centuries. In fact, the game was almost outlawed as a "useless waste of time and resources" (to quote a reputable news channel of the time) and that all sensible Nisalans should be joining the war effort against the Third Worlders, rather than indulging in frivolous pastimes such as sokker, arrers, rugga and even crikket.

As a distraction, Yarith dialled up an article on the Rules of Sokker. Two teams in the play area. Eleven players per side. The objective was to control the game sphere by means of the lower pseudopods (using the upper sets of tentacles was forbidden except under certain circumstances) and direct the sphere into the scoring area of the opposing team. Such an act was called a "goal" and often led to much cheering and celebration on the part of the scorer's team and supporters. Play lasted roughly one and a half dups, divided into two halves each approximately three-quarters of one dup in duration. The winning team would be the one which had scored the most goals at the end of the designated time period.

His interest piqued again, Yarith recalled a brief reference to the Third Worlder game of "football", which seemed fundamentally similar to Nisalan sokker. Where had he seen it?

Yarith trawled back over his previous researches. There! He jabbed a tentacle at the screen. Ancient Third Worlder history. A conflict they termed the First World War. That in itself was depressing, thought Yarith. I mean, in calling it the First World War, it's as if they expected the Second, Third and Fourth, or however many, World Wars to happen sometime in the future. He was all for preparation and organisation but naming your planetary wars in advance was extreme even for Yarith! He followed a link in the page which flashed up the message "File Not Found. The missing article may reside in the physical archives. Please request security clearance."

He was not going to give up so easily. Yarith hastily packed his briefcase and loaded all his research notes thus far onto a portable memory cell. Then he made his way down several flights of steps into the bowels of the Repository where the physical archives were located. Fortunately, Yarith's position granted him sufficient privilege to gain entry to the archive room. He was waved through by a bored-looking security guard, who returned his attention to a holographic celeb-rag, and busied himself with his researches.

The physical archives smelled of dust and the various mould species that were quietly feeding on the ancient paperwork held on the shelves. Yarith checked the reference and hurried along the aisles between the shelves. Some of the documents here were not Nisalan in origin. In fact, the article he was looking for was from the Third World, dating back to a time when Nisalans and Human Beings were still on amicable terms. They had exchanged various cultural gifts in those years and it was one of these Yarith was interested in. He hefted the heavy volume of papers, bound in the tanned hide of some Third World animal, from the shelf and carried it back to his desk.

He opened the book and gingerly leafed through the yellowed, ancient pages.

The Times, 30th December 1914

Reports have arrived from the front that a temporary, unofficial ceasefire was declared along sections of the battle lines. During this time - which was sanctioned in no way by allied high command - soldiers from His Majesty's armies met, conversed and swapped Christmas gifts with enemy soldiers. One report even suggests that an informal game of football was played. Of course, the British soldiers roundly trounced the Boche 7-2, a score which, if translated to battlefield successes, indicates that the war should be over by Easter. The ceasefire ended on Boxing Day, with a thunderous artillery barrage.

Yarith stared in wonder at the page. Football had brought bitter enemies together in a friendly game amidst the carnage. Could it do so again?

4) Take it to The Boss

Yarith could barely contain his excitement as he arrived for work the following dup. He had taken all his notes and researches back to his dwelling the previous night and reordered and collated his findings into a sensible and reasoned report which he would present to his line manager along with the usual production statistics. He rattled off the overnight report in double-quick time and fidgeted at his work station until his scheduled meeting with his manager.

Ightbelu Quakim had been Yarith's manager for nearly five sops. He had been invalided out of the armed services after a vicious skirmish on the planet Belyrad, a few light-sops from the outskirts of the Third Worlder domain. He had taken out an enemy auto-laser nest in a stupendously brave solo attack that had turned the tide of the skirmish in the Nisalans' favour but had cost him his right pseudopod. The mangled and cauterised appendage had been amputated and he now trundled around in a motorised, wheeled chair.

Quakim scanned the production report and was, as ever, pleased with Yarith's thoroughness and insightful suggestions for further improvements. "Good, good. Well done, Yarith." He looked up from the report. He could see Yarith's gut-area twitching. The lad looked nervous, for some reason.

"Th ... There's something else, sir," Yarith stammered. When his manager looked intrigued, Yarith swallowed his nerves and pressed on. "This." He passed his personal report to Quakim. "I didn't know who else to bring it to, sir."

Nisalans rarely worked on their own initiative, except under extreme conditions, such has his own actions in the war. Yarith was an exception within the administrative departments of Nisalan society. Quakim began to page through the report. Initially intrigued, Quakim's interest turned to disbelief. This is preposterous, he thought, as his internal fluid pressure began to increase to dangerous levels.

Quakim could scarcely believe what he was reading. From one of the most trusted administrators in the factory, if not the whole of Sithesti, this was madness. He had been puzzled by a few of Yarith's reports in the past but the lad had always clarified his conclusions and any production changes had been implemented. Perhaps Quakim had simply misinterpreted Yarith's ideas this time. "You are seriously suggesting we back down from our assaults on the Third Worlder domain and challenge them to a game of sokker instead?" the manager said, as slowly and calmly as possible.

"Football, sir," Yarith replied, brightly, earnestly. "It differs from sokker on a few minor points but nothing we can't adapt."

"Adapt? We do not adapt to the Third Worlders. We aim to subjugate them!" He tried to rise from his chair but instead settled for waving his tentacles in a disbelieving manner. Yarith's report rustled in his grasp, shedding pages in all directions. The manager flipped to the conclusions in Yarith's report. "You say we should challenge them to a game of sokker and the winner takes the planet on which the game is played?"

"Not the entire planet, sir. Just the primary exploitation and trade rights to the planet's resources. Most worlds can be inhabited as shared territory, you see, but the winners get the major resource rights." He was so caught up in his own reasoning, so certain that his ideas were right, that he had failed to realise the risks of his proposals.

Long hours, the stresses and strains of the job had pushed him to the brink and now the lad has gone insane, Quakim thought. He tried one last time to see Yarith's reasoning. "Our entire civilisation has been fighting the Third Worlders for generations, Yarith, and now you want to play games with them?"

"Not games, sir," Yarith pressed. "Think of it as more of a business plan," he finished, quite brightly. Without me having to sacrifice 250000 Nisalan lives, he didn't add.

Quakim dropped Yarith's report back onto his desk. He regarded the document warily, as if it might explode if he started to take its contents seriously. "And what do you want me to do with, with ... this?" he indicated the report with a dismissive wave of his lower right tentacle.

"I'm just a lowly administrator, sir, but you know people, sir," Yarith replied, eagerness still in his voice. "People who can make it happen."

"Well, leave it with me," Quakim said in a low tone of voice that Yarith took as thoughtful, rather than dangerous. Damn right I know people, the manager was thinking. "I'll see what I can do. But Yarith. Mention this to no-one, do you hear me?"

Yarith beamed. "I understand sir," he said with wide ocular-orbed innocence.

Quakim waited until Yarith had left his office, then reached for his desk telecom unit. "Sergeant Kerisorm, please," he said to the receptionist. There were several clicks and buzzes as his call was put through. When a gruff voice answered, Quakim went on. "Keri? Is that you? Yes, it's me, Quaker, you remember, from the trenches at Belyrad. Yes. Yes. I'd love a couple of strong ones with you some night soon. That would be great." The banter of the old trench-mates continued for some time before Quakim broached the sensitive topic. "Listen, Keri. I need your help with a little something."

4) Here come the Men in Black

Yarith finished his day's work with little further incident. His manager visited the administrative section on a couple of occasions and kept his conversations with Yarith brief and businesslike, which vaguely disappointed Yarith. He had hoped for a conspiratorial wink or tentacle gesture indicating that things were in progress. Perhaps that was his military training, Yarith thought, being able to keep secrets and not leaking sensitive information. That thought satisfied the Nisalan. He trusted his manager.

His journey home was routine, as ever. Curfew and blackout were a short time away as Yarith entered the foyer of his apartment structure. He had expected the usual cordial greeting from the night-shift supervisor but the office was empty. The "super" was probably out on a maintenance call, Yarith thought. He rode the elevator up to his floor and fumbled for his keys as he walked to his apartment door.

Ever a creature of habit, Yarith opened his apartment door and fumbled for the luminator switch with his upper right tentacle as he stepped through the door. The apartment remained in darkness. Pudu, Yarith cursed inwardly. Power outage. Maybe that's why the super hadn't been in his office. Fortunately, Yarith knew the layout of his dwelling intimately, so he nudged the door shut behind him with a deft flick of a tentacle and made his way to the kitchen area where he kept a torch. Then the lights came on.

The building night-shift supervisor was sitting on the couch holding a large-bored incredibly ugly-looking pistol pointed squarely at Yarith's centre-of-mass.

Dumbstruck, Yarith stared blankly at the supervisor as he rose to his pseudopods, all the while keeping the gun aimed steadily level. "What ...?" Yarith managed but the supervisor cut him off.

"Yarith Sluktor, you have been charged with sedition and the publication of treasonous documents. There is no trial for such crimes. You have been found guilty."

The supervisor pulled the trigger and the pistol discharged with a scream from the pit of hell.

5) In the Army Now

Yarith woke at reveille, as he had for the last eight weeks. The siren wailed across the camp like a prelude to an air attack but that was far from likely. Planet Kasesu was a bare ten light-sops from the Nisalan homeworld and was largely immune to attack from ravaging Third Worlders. Military doctrine, however, dictated that all Nisalan worlds were considered at risk while there was still one Third Worlder drawing breath, so such precautions were a necessary fact of life. Private Sluktor of the Third Administrative Division, Nisalan Central Command, went through his usual morning ablutions with the usual questions flowing through his sentience structure.

As ever, he recalled the last meeting with his line manager of the munitions factory on Sithesti. He had felt sure his report was in safe appendages. Then to return home after a day's work to find the building supervisor pointing a gun at him! Why was the building super even there? He hadn't reported any problems with his dwelling. And of course, that hideous gun. Then: the terrifying shot; the excruciating pain; the nightmare-ridden blackout.

How long he was unconscious was still uncertain, try as he might to piece together a time line based on current news reports, standard time parts and even astrogeography (which had never been his strong suit). The minutiae of space-time distances and even the relatively simple matters of local day lengths and axial rotations had flummoxed Yarith. Standard orbital periods be damned, he had thought, before his life had been overtaken, submerged, in fact, under a tidal wave of military discipline, combat training, physical exercise, indoctrination ("all for the Glory of Nisala the Magnificent") and endless parade-ground drill sessions.

There he was. Drafted. His worst nightmare come true in a blinding flash and hellish sound.

Basic military training had lasted what seemed a lifetime. His dups - such as they were - consisted of 36 mini-dup stretches with perhaps two mini-dup sleep periods, if he was lucky. Now he was fully conversant in the six main weapons, rifles, pistols, rockets and grenades amongst them, with which Nisalan combat troops were routinely equipped. In one-tenth of a mini-dup, he could field-strip, clean and reassemble an automatic slugthrower (so called because the ammunition actually consisted of greasy black gastropodal life forms native to one of the Nisalan core-worlds which had been chemically treated to an almost armour-piercing level of hardness). Detailed alien-biology sessions had taught him exactly where on a Third Worlder to aim if his goal was to incapacitate, cause incredible pain, or simply to kill with a single shot - though it had to be said, most of the lessons focussed on this third goal to the exclusion of all else. Even tentacle-to-hand combat had been impressed upon him. In training, he had snapped one of the ossified structures - an ulna, perhaps? - found in Third Worlder internal construction. And physical training. Oh how that had nearly destroyed him! His weakened, shrivelled lower-left tentacle put him at a distinct disadvantage in these situations but the instructors (or slave drivers, depending on one's viewpoint) had shown him no mercy and pushed him as hard as the other recruits. Many times he had returned to barracks, bruised, lacerated and aching in places he was not sure he had ever had places in which to ache before.

But did all this make him a soldier? No.

One fine morning, when reveille blew, he was not pushed straight onto the assault course for a brisk morning exercise session. Nor was he sent to the ranges to practice ranged fire. Nor even onto one of the artificial environments to gain combat experience in urban, desert, icefield, ship-boarding, radiation swamps or even hard vacuum. Neither was he directed to the lecture halls for "How to dismember a Third Worlder - Part Ten of Ten". No. That morning was the graduation ceremony.

It had been a huge parade of over one thousand Nisalan recruits, in their full military regalia and grandeur. Though they were not recruits, now. They were soldiers. A stirring speech from the Academy's Commandant and an exhortation to fight for the Glory of Nisala the Magnificent. Then the assignments were received.

Fully ninety percent of graduates were assigned straight to front-line combat duties. Of the remaining ten percent, some went to mechanical or medical duties and a tiny fraction of the remainder, Private Yarith Sluktor amongst them, were assigned to rear-echelon managerial functions. Yarith became a REMF.

That morning, Yarith made his way to the administrative offices of Central Command. He supposed his was a cushy job and certainly less terrifying and life threatening than front line combat. His responsibilities were for logistics support. The paperwork needed to move an army from planet-to-planet, warzone-to-warzone, was quite frankly staggering, even to one as experienced as Yarith. The materiel of combat - ships, combat mechs, weapons, ammunition, medicines, food, communications gear and countless other items - all followed the simple laws of supply and demand, resource allocation and prioritisation, laws which Yarith knew inside-out and back-to-front. He knew which laws could be circumvented, side-stepped or even broken outright in order to complete the deployment. Handled in the abstract, moving materiel was an intricate thought exercise and resource balancing act that Yarith managed with great skill and precision.

It was moving the men that Yarith found most difficult. These were not mere playing pieces on an eight-by-eight squared board. These were people, Nisalans with real lives, hopes, fears and families, who had been committed to battle by Central Command to fight for some obscure goal on the ground. Yarith still felt the guilt when he had signed the order sending the Seventeenth Combat Rifles - some of whose members he had trained with at the Academy - into the warzone around Brabur VII. That had been on his second dup in this post and it had been confirmed two dups later - fortunately from a staffer of the Second Administrative Division whose job was to record the casualty tolls - that the ship on which the Seventeenth had been travelling had been ambushed by Third Worlder frigates as it dropped from ultraspace. The ship had been vapourised and the Seventeenth had never even made planetfall. And it had been his signature on the deployment papers.

Each day for Yarith was a skirmish, not through ruined buildings or a jungle clearing, but through a mountain of paperwork with the constant gut-channel-tightening fear, not of death, but that he would be the one to authorise the Final Push.

His first order of business that morning was, as ever, to check the progress of his current deployments. Over the previous few dups he had dispatched ten units - and a "unit" in the parlance of military logistics could be anything from a combat platoon of infantry up to a capital class starship - to various locations and was pleased to see the progress they were making. One unit in particular, the medical frigate Star of Iada, was in orbit around the planet Irgarvor, the scene of much bloody conflict in recent dups, and Yarith was glad the hospital ship was in the warzone, receiving casualties and saving the lives he had committed to the same battlefield. Iada's arrival eased his sense of guilt somewhat as he collated the progress reports and turned to his next task.

Yarith looked warily at the in tray labelled New Orders. A sheaf of papers, thankfully much thinner than he had seen over the past two weeks, seemed to taunt him. "Yes. We're here," they seemed to say. In the back of his sentience structure, the papers had a whispering, rustling quality to their voice but one which dripped vindictiveness. "One of us could order the Final Push. Do you feel lucky?"

The first two orders in the pile were fairly routine, moving materiel, rather than people, and the third, in fact, was a source of relief for Yarith. A combat unit was being rotated back from the front line at Arisy for some rest and recuperation on what had been the holiday planet of Dynum. Now, Dynum was under military control and used to rest and replenish combat regiments before throwing them back into the fray. It was a small mercy, Yarith realised, but one he was happy to make a priority for his fellows. He processed this order with some relish and turned back to the in tray.

There it was. Yarith looked with horror at the innocuous grey folder labelled "POLIMKIN: PROJECT FINAL PUSH". The micro-dup stretched to infinity as Yarith stared blankly, as through a tunnel of boiling black fog, at the folder. The lives of 250000 Nisalan soldiers were in his tentacles, now.

Could I just bury it? Yarith wondered. Paperwork went missing all the time in Central Command's immense bureaucracy. It would not be the first time orders had been misfiled, delayed, relayed incorrectly or just plain lost. He had never made such procedural errors and regarded such mistakes as professional incompetence of the highest order but, he thought, perhaps just this once? A simple accident, a spilled beaker of water, maybe, and the whole folder could be consigned to his waste bin, there to be shredded and recycled, never to be seen again. At least, it would never be seen by him again. The gears of Central Command's bureaucracy turned slowly but Yarith was sure the orders would resurface sometime, perhaps in front of one of the more warlike members of the Third Administrative Division, some of whom took a perverse pleasure in sending troops to the warzones in order to "stomp some Third Worlder scum". No, Yarith reluctantly conceded. Better the Final Push was processed by him. At least he could prioritise support deployments, particularly medical and evacuation resources, and thereby make sure that as many Nisalan lives as possible could be saved if the Final Push went horribly wrong.

With shaking tentacles, he reached for the folder. It was by far the largest such deployment document he had yet seen, over fifty pages, just judging by the sheer weight of the folder. Yarith opened the folder, and promptly dropped it on his desk, where it made a resounding thud.

The first page of the deployment order was not any form of military document he had ever seen. The title read "FOOTBALL: AN ALTERNATIVE". It was his! The report he had written for his line manager in which he set out his ideas for a sports challenge, as an alternative to outright war. It was even printed in the same letter style and was tagged with his name (in much smaller print at the foot of the page).

Yarith tried to calm his racing thoughts. If this was his original report, the next page would have been left intentionally blank. He turned the page. The page was not blank. Instead, written by tentacle in plain, well-proportioned lettering, was a simple message:

"Yarith. You are not alone."

How many emotions was it possible for Yarith to feel in such a short time? His despair at having to process the Final Push had been washed away in a tide of jubilation. His report! Someone had paid attention. Then, suspicion. How had the writer come by his original report? And it certainly was the original, he was sure, having checked the watermark and chemical traces which indicated the paper had come from the munitions factory. Had someone rifled through his line manager's waste bin to find the original? Suspicion mutated into paranoia. Who could have known? Was he being watched?

Training, remember your training, Yarith frantically thought to himself. Don't panic!

Coolness under fire had been drilled into him early in his time at the Academy. The training had consisted of him and several other recruits standing in a dugout while the instructors had opened fire with automatic weapons, peppering the sandbags and other parts of the barricade with lead projectiles and red laser bolts. The first to take cover failed the exercise and would be required to repeat the test, with double duration and incoming firepower, until they learned to stand their ground or a projectile penetrated the barricade and injured (or even killed) the recruit. Yarith had taken the test five times before he finally passed.

Now he buried his trepidation and looked casually about the department. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Yarith slowly let his ocular orbs rotate as much as they could. He was almost able to see behind him. All around, his fellow REMFs busied themselves with their own assignments, seemingly oblivious to Yarith as he sat there confused and somewhat scared.

He turned his attention back to the folder for the Final Push. A rapid flip through the pages confirmed that there was only one page from his original report, so he settled down for a more detailed read of the entire document. Now his emotions were back under a semblance of control, Yarith read the orders dispassionately. Two fleets of transport vessels were to assemble at Tanezi, having ferried their passengers from ten other planets. The transports were to rendezvous with battle fleet Tonkal and supporting elements from two other fleets. Then a thirty-dup ultraspace jump to the planet Polimkin where, intelligence analysis conjectured, a large Third Worlder base had been established in the nearby system of Yerull, and scout parties had already been sighted on Polimkin's three moons. As ever, Yarith was disappointed that no medical or evacuation resources were to be attached to the Nisalan fleet, though perhaps he could do something about that.

He read over the description of Polimkin. A reasonable mean surface temperature, with abundant water and atmospheric oxygen. No sentient life forms. Mineral resources included fossilised hydrocarbon fuels, metal ores of several types and non-metallic and metalloid deposits in large quantities. In short, Polimkin was a habitable treasure trove of resources both species would covet. Who ever controlled the planet would become immensely rich.

So the Final Push would start on Polimkin. Control of that planet's resources would power the controller's industries, allowing more ships, weapons, ammunition and equipment to be produced. War materiel in vast quantities. Yarith could vaguely see the logic behind the President's rhetoric of many dups ago. Polimkin's resources would feed the next stage of the war, perhaps even the Final Push to end the war entirely.

To Yarith, it was not worth 250000 lives. And that casualty count was infantry only. Space based forces were also in the firing line. A standard Nisalan stellar frigate had a crew of over five thousand and at least twenty such ships were in battle fleet Tonkal and its support elements. The casualty count would be catastrophic and Yarith could not, would not, live with that on his conscience.

His attention drifted back to the front page and he gazed his own report's title for some while. Someone believed in what he had written. He kept that small crumb of comfort, a slight hope that some common sense might prevail eventually, as he began to process each section of the Final Push deployment orders.

6) The Government Agent

Yarith had known nerves, stress and worry before but never like this. The remainder of his dup was spent on routine administrivia, all the while looking around, watching to see if he was being watched. His gut-channel twisted. He couldn't eat and could barely keep liquids in his system. Try as he might, however, Yarith could see no sign he was under surveillance and that left him feeling alone, isolated and scared.

At the end of his shift, Yarith made his way back across the base to his barrack block, five storeys of dull grey, ballistic-padded blocks, designed to withstand most small arms fire and minor explosive impacts. Though if the Third Worlders launched a concerted air attack, the entire base would likely be levelled and only the underground bunkers would survive.

As he began keying in the barrack's entry code the door opened and another Nisalan male appeared in the doorway. This was not a soldier, Yarith could tell, immediately. He was not armed, for a start, and carried himself with a certain air of authority derived from corridors of power that were not military. "Private Sluktor," the male began, it was not a question. "Walk with me."

"Who are y ..? " Yarith began but was cut off when the other waved his upper tentacles in a gesture for silence.

"Not here, Private," he said, and began walking towards the main gate of the camp.

Intrigued, Yarith followed. The gate guards saluted the other Nisalan as he left the camp and almost completely ignored Yarith, as was usual for one of such low rank.

After walking for some time in silence, the other Nisalan introduced himself. "I am Jimorden Lereq, advisor and consultant in the Department of Commerce." When Yarith failed to answer, beyond a mystified spluttering, Lereq went on. "I work closely with the Minister for Active Acquisitions and it seems your business plan has attracted some attention."

"Business plan?" asked Yarith. "You mean ..?"

Again the tentacle-wave for silence. "Yes. That business plan," Lereq confirmed, with a conspiratorial wink of his left ocular orb. "Now. Silence, please, until we are in a more secure location."

The office was sumptuously furnished. Softly padded armchairs surrounded a large desk made of black stone, polished to a mirror shine, on which a desk computer and elaborate communication console were set. Yarith's original report on Third Worlder football was lying in the centre of the desk. The whole office was dimly lit with orange glow-globes. Yarith was given a warm cup of the herbal infusion favoured on Kasesu which he held in a shaking tentacle. He could barely lift the cup to his oral orifice without risking spilling the drink, so he kept the cup balanced on his lap. Lereq stood to one side of the desk and politely introduced his superior.

"Private Yarith Sluktor, Third Administrative Division, you have the pleasure to be in the presence of Minister for Active Acquisitions, Thrait Odaraquai. We are here to discuss the business plan to see if we might move forward and bring your concept to fruition."

Frankly stunned, Yarith managed to murmur a thanks before the Minister began speaking.

"Private Sluktor, as you know we are at war with the Third Worlders and have been for generations. War, like many things, is a business, where profit and loss are everything." The Minister sighed. "Let me be blunt. The loss, the deficit, on our side far outweighs the profit. Casualty figures are massaged, reduced where necessary, and presented in the best possible light over the news channels and TV. Victories, such as they are, are exaggerated into system-wide territorial gains. A sad state of affairs, I'm sure you'll agree."

Yarith nodded slowly. He could feel a creeping horror beginning to churn in his fluids.

The Minister went on. "Our projections show that it is only a matter of time before the deficit becomes self-sustaining and all Nisalans will become casualties. For our society, indeed our species, time is running out."

Yarith spoke up. Here, he was on firm ground. "We are over committing military resources. Medical supplies are becoming scarce. Industrial output is slowing. We're even recruiting non-able-bodied Nisalans into the forces now." He waved his shrivelled lower-left tentacle. "But I still do not see what my business plan can do to help."

"It will help because it is an inspired piece of psychological business theory," the Minister replied. "You have identified the Third Worlders' needs better than any of our military analysts. We share common resource and environmental requirements but it is their drive to compete that may prove to be their weakness. You may have missed one point in your research, however."

This revelation shocked Yarith so much that he flinched and almost spilled his drink. What had he missed? How? He was almost insulted by the Minister's statement. He never missed even the smallest details in his work.

Odaraquai noted the look on Sluktor's face. The Private's psychological reports said that he did not take professional criticism at all well. "And it's not surprising you did not highlight this point. After all, generations of warfare have coloured our perceptions of the Third Worlders and many of our intelligence analysts have also overlooked the possibility."

Barely restraining his frustration, Yarith managed: "What did I miss, sir?"

"A sense of fair play, Yarith. Not a lot in the scheme of things, I admit, but it seems many Third Worlders want a fair fight and regard some of their recent victories over us as little more than stealing treats from a new-bud."

"Yes, but getting one of them to listen to this sense of fair play strikes me as absurd," Yarith blurted, before pulling himself back from the brink of an argument and stammering "... er ... sir."

The Minister sat back in his chair and laughed, a low, cheerful rumble, which had the effect of setting Yarith at ease. He knows something, thought Yarith.

"Wars are not just fought on the ground, or in space, Private Sluktor," Lereq the consultant chimed in. "There are several back channels we use to communicate with the Third Worlders and we are in touch with a number of their people who feel the same way as you."

"Spies," Yarith muttered with some distaste, his military indoctrination rising unbidden to his oral orifice. Spies were to be rooted out, caught and terminated with extreme prejudice, or so his trainers had drummed into him. Spying was the lowest form of warfare, lower even than sabotage and assassination.

Lereq joined in with the Minister's laughter. "Espionage is an effective means to an end, Yarith. Why risk ten thousand troops in a battle they cannot win when effective intelligence would inform the commanders on the ground to outflank the enemy with only two thousand troops?" Lereq let his point sink in. "Eight thousand troops who need not die in a full frontal assault against a heavily defended position. Surely you, Yarith, can see the sense in that?"

Yarith had to admit Lereq had a point. "Sorry, sir," he apologised.

"Without going into the details," the Minister said, "we have contacts in the Third Worlder hierarchy who are willing to, if you pardon the pun, play ball. Negotiations are progressing nicely, in fact. And that, Private, is where you come in."

"Me, sir?" Yarith almost choked.

"You are, after all, the man with the plan," the Minister replied. "Your researches were, as with everything you did at school, college and in employment, incredibly detailed. Most importantly, you presented your findings as a credible business opportunity, rather than some touchy-feely, give peace a chance claptrap."

Yarith could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "What do you want from me, sir? Manage our sokker team?"

"No," the Minister answered. "There are far too many people who want the glory of leading our team to victory. Most of these have political and business connections which far outweigh even mine. So no, we do not want you to manage, captain or even play in the team. You have such an intimate understanding of the rules, including this strange Offside Rule that ..."

The Minister paused, his own experience as political orator coming to the fore and left his audience, Yarith, dangling, agog, waiting for the climax. The Private's expectations were high and they were on the brink of deflating when the Minister finished.

"... we want you to be the referee."

7) The Eleven Pipers of Polimkin

Yarith sat in the passenger seat of a jetcar as it flew a broad circle over the Polimkin Stadium. A magnificent structure, capable of seating nearly 150000, it had been built in less than ten dups by a combination of Nisalan and Third Worlder engineers and construction robots. The stonework was native to the planet and all the plastics for the seating and stands had been moulded from Polimkin's own hydrocarbon reserves. The only discrepancy was the pitch. Native Polimkin grasses were unsuitable - being largely too long and sharply pointed - so a combination of simple algae and worts had been laid. Tests of the pitch surface by experienced Third Worlder footballers had been successful. It was not quite up to the standard of their fabled Wembley turf (wherever that was, Yarith had thought) but was passable for most First Division games (again, this remark had mystified the Nisalans). Over fifty robotic cameras, mounted on anti-gravity platforms, swarmed above the pitch to capture the action. The match would be transmitted live on both species' primary TV services and relayed to the furthest corners of their respective galactic territories with real-time ultraspace relays. It meant that inhabitants of every Human or Nisalan planet would be able to watch the match in near real time. The technical logistics of that feat astounded Yarith.

Yarith had watched the Nisalan team in training several times and was impressed with their stamina, speed and determination. Their close control of the ball was second-to-none. Nisalans were, on average, shorter than Humans, which gave them a lower centre of gravity and the ability to turn on the spot much more quickly without losing balance. Their "long ball game", however, left something to be desired. Human ocular organs were closely set, giving them excellent depth perception, which Nisalans found hard to imitate. It was in defense that Nisalans excelled. Their goalkeeper, having four upper limbs, had a distinct advantage over the Third Worlder keeper, with only its two upper appendages. A squad of twenty Nisalans had been selected from various military posts. Of these, eleven would be selected to form the starting team, with three substitutes "on the bench". The Eleven Pipers of Polimkin would play for the pride of their species and, of course, the primary resource rights to the entire planet. After all, Yarith had thought, who needs a stupid gold cup to show they had won?

Of the Third Worlder players, Yarith knew little. The Humans had drawn their squad of twenty from all walks of military and civilian life. It was rumoured that they even had professional footballers on some of their planets. People who made their living playing games was a level of absurdity most Nisalans found difficult to comprehend but Yarith had some understanding of Third Worlder psychology and knew that their "need to compete" manifested itself in many ways and football was just one of them. That point worried Yarith. The Humans might be tempted to field a team of what they colloquially referred to as "ringers", professionals masquerading as amateurs, whose skills on the pitch would then far outstrip the Nisalans' own team of spirited players.

That was not Yarith's concern. His job was to referee the match in an impartial and fair manner. He would be aided by two assistant referees who would run along the side lines of the pitch. The assistants would be Human and Nisalan. In the first half there would be one Human, one Nisalan, with the Nisalan assistant being replaced with a Human for the second half. This was to maintain an official species-balance during the game.

The game was now only one dup away and Yarith had a lot of last micro-dup preparation to complete. He needed to review the Offside Rule, historically an ossified structure of much contention in Third Worlder games, so its interpretation needed to be crystal clear. A meeting with his other match officials was scheduled for later in the day to resolve any last micro-dup issues, of which, Yarith hoped, there would be few or preferably none. Lastly, Yarith had to be fitted with his "strip".

The traditional all-black strip that identified referees and their assistants was, of course, rather difficult for Nisalans to wear. The concept of clothing was alien to most Nisalans. Headgear, accessories and jewellery were commonly worn in civilian life and the military, of course, made use of equipment pouches, bandoliers and webbing to carry ammunition, weapons, provisions and communications gear. However, certain members of the celebrity set had taken to intra-dermal dyes as a fashion accessory. Injected just under the surface of the protein-based outer dermis, the dye would colour the internal lipid layer, sometimes in quite exotic patterns. The inner dermis, a protein-polysaccharide layer, would prevent the dye mixing with internal body fluids. If a change of "clothing" was desired, the dye could be flushed with a bleaching injection before a new coloured dye was applied.

All in all, the process seemed unnatural and somewhat distasteful to Yarith though the simple black dye for his strip was infinitely preferable to the red-and-white stripes the Nisalan players would have to endure.

Yarith and his team of assistants stood in the tunnel which led from their dressing rooms (though the need for such in Nisalan society was moot) to the pitch. He would be the first to run out, leading his team, onto the hallowed turf. This was in honour of his idea to compete on the pitch, rather than on the battlefield. The Minister for Active Acquisitions had been quite strenuous in pushing for Yarith to be granted this honour.

As he emerged onto the pitch, the yells and cheers from all around the stadium were almost deafening. Bright red-and-white and black-and-white scarves were being waved by the respective - and sizeable - contingents of supporters from both species. He jogged to the centre circle with his assistants and they stood, looking around and basking in the applause for several moments. Clearly, even the Human line staffers were moved by the sense of occasion and the sheer volume coming from the supporters. Yarith shook hands with the Humans and dispatched them to the side lines, then rubbed tentacles with the Nisalan line staffer who would be covering the second half. The Nisalan jogged back to the officials' dugout near the entrance tunnel.

The teams ran out next, simultaneously and in good order. This had been decided earlier. There should be no appearance of favouritism in allowing one species onto the pitch ahead of the other. The teams lined up on either side of the centre line. In a state of awe, Yarith walked between the two lines, appraising both Human and Nisalan players. Their strips were brand new, the numbers stitched or dyed onto their backs glinted with gold, and their boots, or the hardened pseudopod caps worn by the Nisalan team, were polished glossily. It rather reminded Yarith of the Academy graduation ceremony. Which, in a way, it was. These were the best players each species could field, the risk of "ringers" notwithstanding, and they had been chosen to compete, not with guns, grenades and even sharp sticks, but with a gas-filled sphere covered in the tanned hide of a native Polimkin herbivore.

Inspection complete, the captains dispatched their teams to their starting positions. Yarith noted the classic 4-2-4 formation used by the Polimkin Pipers, combining a strong attack with a strong defence. The Humans were arrayed in a 3-5-2 deployment. Clearly they expected a hard slog in the midfield and planned for lighting attacks on the break, which uncannily mirrored their approach to warfare.

The referee called the team captains to him at the centre spot. They shook hands and exchanged tentacle rubs before Yarith spoke, quietly but with a calm authority, as several public-speaking training sessions with Lereq the consultant had helped him achieve. His voice was carried by radio microphone to the stadium's speaker system and also relayed to the robot cameras. What he said next would be carried to the furthest corners of the galaxy in near real time. He kept it simple.

"Gentlemen, this is an historic occasion for us all. Let us play with the strength and tenacity for which both our species are renowned. And let us all keep a sense of fair play in this contest. Yes?" He looked at both captains, who nodded and shook appendages again.

"Now," Yarith went on, as he displayed a metal disc at the tip of his upper left tentacle. The disc was stamped on one side with the head of a Third Worlder sculpted in profile. On the other, Nisalan tentacles were folded in an intricate knot. "Call it. Heads or tails."

"Heads." The Nisalan captain called it right and elected to take the kick off.

The teams readied themselves and, with a shrill blast from Yarith's whistle, history began its next chapter.

8) The Beautiful Game

Kala Phasrilis, lead anchor-being of SECTOR NEWS, stood in the dressing room of the Nisalan team. The game had been a hard-fought 2-2 draw, even after extra time periods had been played.

The dressing room was in turmoil, a chaotic mixture of celebration, commiseration and hormone-fuelled hi-jinks amongst the Nisalan team members. Towels were thrown across the dressing room. The players were laughing and telling stories of "how I tackled that Human, nearly broke his lower limb, ha ha ha!". Then the counter-story of how the speedy Human winger had broken down the left and almost slotted home the winner. Congratulations then came from all quarters and the Nisalan goal keeper took a gracious bow. All of this was caught on camera, live across the galaxy.

She turned to the captain, who, for some reason, had a towel wrapped around his midriff. Nisalans had nothing to hide in that region of their anatomy, so the towel seemed somewhat superfluous. Still, the reporter waved a microphone in front of the captain's face, smiled brightly back at the camera and said, "I'm here with Haq Uskeor, captain of our glorious team. So, Haq, how do you think it went?"

"Well, Kala, it's a funny old game. At the end of the day, and all that, it's a game of two halves. We played hard in the first but they just wouldn't back down would they? We held them off, though. I think they deserved that equaliser late in the second. I'd have vomitted like a talking avian if they'd scored a winner in extra time."

Phasrilis was about to ask a follow up question - though she secretly suspected the captain's vocabulary had been just about exhausted in his last answer - when the dressing room door burst open. In poured the Human team. They were similarly half covered in towels and carried green glass bottles which they shook and sprayed white foam across the dressing room. The Human captain staggered over to where his Nisalan counterpart was standing.

"Here you go, mate. Get your laughing gear round this!" He handed one bottle to Haq and took a swig from his own champagne bottle.

Phasrilis recovered her poise and turned to the Human captain. "Captain John Smith - I have pronounced that right, haven't I? - of the Human team. How do you think it went?" To Phasrilis, Smith looked like he was considering what to say before answering. After all, the slightest wrong word could cause a diplomatic incident, if not a resurgence of hostilities.

Smith belched. "All I can say it that it was a bloody good game. Some good plays from both sides, a good old midfield tussle. Me and the lads are all looking forward to the replay next week." He turned to Haq. "We'll get you next time, man."

The two captains clinked bottles and drank heartily.

And thus began an era of new co-operation between the two species. Matches were arranged on the most heavily contested planets first, in an effort to quell the simmering hostilities on the front lines. Losing forces withdrew in good order, always vowing to try harder in the replays.

A league system was drawn up, bringing in competitors from all corners of the galaxy. The League champions got to choose which planet they would occupy and gain resource rights to. Every four sops (standard Third World orbital years in Human parlance) the Galactic Cup would be played, not for territory or resource rights, but for the sheer pleasure of playing what both species called The Beautiful Game.