“I hear that, despite that fact that the people on the other side are rustic at best, they actually war no more than we do. Possibly less.”
“You don’t say.”
“That, and they don’t have the means of killing massive numbers of people at a time either. They aren’t anywhere close, in fact.”
“Of course. Are you coming to some kind of point?”
“Well, yes, sir. It’s just that… will we really be seen as the light of civilization? Will conquering them really seem like we’re doing them a favor? It’s possible that they’re more civilized, in truth, than we are.”
“Are you really that naive, son? Do you think we really give two fucks about enlightening those savages? We’re going over there for cheap labor and resources. Those bleeding-heart tree-fuckers can go and teach and preach civilization all they want over there once we’re done, but at the end of the day they’ll be our slaves just as surely as we’ve made slaves of them here. As if we would ever step down and treat them as equals, no matter how educated they may get.”
“Of course, sir. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I was just wondering if we can expect those, ah, bleeding-hearts to make some move against us”
“Don’t you worry about them, son. They may be hopeless idealists, but they’re Elves all the same. When the humans try to rise against us violently they’ll fight with us, just you wait and see.”
“I hope I never do, sir.”
The human had been born into this work, it seemed. It was his life, as surely as it was the life of horses to be ridden and pigs to be slaughtered. Strange, then, that he couldn’t quite accept it.
At least, his fellows thought so. They called him Ren which, he supposed, was short for Renegade. It wasn’t the name his father had given him, but it would do. It was a word in the common language of humans, which few Elves would admit to knowing, and it was a shorthand besides. Still, the elves could see Ren’s rebellious streak too, which was good because otherwise all his efforts would have been wasted.
Ren didn’t always immediately try to infuriate his masters, though. It was only when they were stupid that he would turn his attention to mucking up their operations. Sure he’d get lashed, sure he’d get time in isolation, and sure he’d end up at a worse assignment… but it was worth it to be transferred.
He could count the number of good supervisors he’d worked with on one hand. Unfortunately, those good ones would eventually get promoted or transferred, and Ren would be reassigned once again.
Ren knew he was approaching the bottom of the barrel when he started working for the military. That was ten years ago, as soon as he came of age by the Elves’ human standards. Nothing under the age of twenty could possibly possess any sort of mental ability, much less be entrusted to army detail. So thought these creatures, who lived an eternity and a half. But Ren knew better. He knew he was smarter than most of them, but last time he suggested it he was flayed to within an inch of his life.
So here he was, the bottom of the barrel, looking for a new half-decent master to spend a few years with, perhaps a decade if Ren was lucky.
He wasn’t likely to find it here, though. This work was overseen by Stem Officers. A Stemo only looked up. A Stemo was one step away from Brancho, and from there a Limbo, and from there a Trunko, and so on. Always the next promotion, and even the biggest ‘tards made it to Brancho.
So Ren barely paid his new supervisor any attention at all, just went right to work with his shovel. Poking, prodding, feeling around at the dirt of this pit they were digging up. That Stemo wasn’t worth toying with, but Ren would be damned if he was going to shovel those big rocks around if he didn’t have to.
But then one of the prods felt different.
Ren looked down at the spot he had just poked with his shovel. Nothing, just a regular hole, an up-turned smile like the shovel usually leaves in the ground. Still, he could have sworn it had pushed the shovel back up at him.
Ren noticed his supervisor approaching. Coming to tell me to get to work, Ren thought. But then he felt a slight rumble at his feet, and looked down at the hole he made.
“What-” started the supervisor, using the common, human, language. But Ren interrupted, speaking fluent Elven.
“This hole, I think there’s something strange about it,” he said. The supervisor stopped and blinked.
Here it comes, thought Ren. “No speak man-talk,” he would say. Or maybe he’ll just hit me for daring to speak their pure and beautiful language with my unclean, savage mouth. The Elves were racist in general, but the military ones could be th most cruel about it.
To Ren’s surprise, though, the supervisor’s surprise was replaced by curiosity instead of anger. “What do you mean by strange?” Elven, directed to me, a human? Well, that’s got to be a first.
Before Ren could explain, though, the hole suddenly erupted into a geyser of dirt and small rocks. Ren and the supervisor jumped back, protecting their faces from the debris. The dust blew out for several seconds, wafting toward a group of workers, sending them into a coughing fit.
Then it was over, and Ren went to have a closer look. The hole had widened, perhaps two hand spans in diameter. What’s more, the hole was gushing out
“Air?” said the supervisor, running his hand back and forth above the hole. It was very cool air, and it was streaming out quickly.
“Where is it coming from?” said Ren aloud. Is this land over an air pocket of some sort, or…?”
The supervisor glanced at Ren, looked back at the hole, and nodded. “I think you’re right. Something is under here, and the air coming out doesn’t smell like natural gas. It smells… breathable.”
The supervisor (“Han,” his namebadge said) marched off without another word.
Ren stood there somewhat dazed. First spoken to in Elven by an Elf, then complimented and left alone next to some weird hole in the ground he accidentally discovered?
The bottom edges of Ren’s vision wavered a bit, like his world was trying to flip upside down or something.
He decided to get back to work and act like nothing happened. He’d had enough rebellion for one day.