“Commander!”

Soderquist sighed and reached for the headset on his ansible. “Is that you, Karlsson?” he said.

“Yes, it’s me. Something…something’s happened on Xyvatba!”

Xyvatba. Pronouncing the name was enough to generate a headache measurable on the Richter scale, and the thought of dealing with its indigenous Xusargt inhabitants was enough for another. Of all the species in the universe whose biochemistry was similar enough to humans’ to make communication possible, they had to be the most irritating.

“Let me guess,” said Soderquist. “You lost another translator unit to religious fanatics who think that communicating with artificial spores violates some deeply-held tenet of their religion.” The Xursargt, who had evolved from a long series of vaguely fungoid creatures in symbiosis with ambulatory herbivores, communicated entirely with modified spores that were released into the ambient environment.

“Sir, I think-” Karlsson sounded more panicked than normal, but he tended to call for support from Soderquist at the sector level every time the Xusargt secreted spore-impregnated psuedo-mucus on him (even though he had been assured that it was sterile and a form of endearment).

“Or did they start preaching at you again? Trying to secrete the sacred spores of Ebzhyna in your direction and not taking no for an answer?” Soderquist snorted derisively. Ridiculous superstitions like that had been proscribed on Earth for centuries now, a fact the commender thanked his lucky stars for (just as a figure of speech, since actually appealing to any stars, lucky or not, would be illegal).

But that fact made species like the Xursargt all the more anxious to proselytize. Their spores largely fell on deaf mechanical receptors, though an anthropology team–which Karlsson served as a liaison and security chief–had cataloged the Xusargt belief system in nauseating detail. Soderquist had reviewed their reports in the course of his duties, about Ebzhyna the Merciful and Loving, the Great Spore who Reigns on High with Barigt the Sporefather, he of the Redeeming Spores who would one day return to assume His true believers heavenward as clouds of pure and holy spores.

If he never had to read about it again, it would be too soon.

“Commander-!”

“Spit it out then, Karlsson,” said Soderquist.

“They’re gone, sir,” Karlsson said. “All gone! Our Xursargt escort turned to spores and vanished, and now dark bloodspores are raining from the heavens! There are earthquakes, and the men have been reporting a glowing Xursargt approaching our position! What should we do?”

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