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art by Richard Gagnon


Robert Reed has sold a couple hundred stories and won a Hugo among myriad other honors. This is his third story for Daily Science Fiction.

Ask people what they believe. Approach them on the street or at work, or better yet, visit their homes at dinnertime. Carry clipboards and tablets along with bright unthreatening smiles. Beg for a moment of their time and some careful thought. Tell them that you are doing a survey, and when they seem agreeable, pose one question.
"What would it take to conquer the world?"
At this point, the average person will beg for directions. He or she would prefer their choices narrowed. Who is doing the conquering? And does it happen today or in a hundred years? Don't relent. Tell them that they can choose the conqueror, advocate any timetable. Steering them into imaginative states is the goal. Let them talk about images and emotions. Nod on occasion, and throw in a strategic wink or two. They will explain what comes first and second and third in their minds, and none of it will be particularly interesting.
Aliens will be common. Subjugating the planet takes determination and evil talents, and most of the hypothetical aliens will arrive inside enormous spaceships or some other cliché. Citizens of the industrialized world will invoke lasers and nuclear bombs along with scary plagues, since these tools are only decades old and impressive on movie screens. Meanwhile people from the Third World slums and cassava villages--supposedly unsophisticated people--are far more willing to unleash magic in its myriad forms.
This activity is a game, first and always. There is no correct answer, and you are within your rights to tell them so.
Eventually the images of warfare will run dry.
And at that point, you need to remind the participants that the world has to be subjugated. Mushroom clouds and zombies are all well and good, but in the end, the world must belong to a single authority or power, which begs the question:
"What does conquest look like?"
Again, answers will cluster around a few reliable themes. The dominance that humans inflict upon other humans will be the basic model. Armored robots will patrol every major city. Great lidless eyes will hang in the dangerous skies. Most dreamers will lecture about tyranny and calibrated levels of cruelty, though a few radicals might suggest that the new overlords prove decent and noble, or at least usefully indifferent to the little beasts now scurrying about inside the world-sized cage.
At this point, put down your clipboards and tablets, and smiling coyly, thank them for their time and consideration.
And if anyone imagines the truth, tell them so.
You have our permission.
If so much as one citizen of the earth offers a clear vision of what is to come, you may shake his hand or her hand, admitting, "You are right, right, right. Congratulations to you."
But nobody will be right.
One day--on a day chosen with care--humanity receives word of its total conquest.
No flash and boom scenario is in play. What disturbs people for days and for years is the epic matter-of-factness of the event. Words are what obliterate the old order. Words appear where none existed, and nobody can see an author's hand. Wherever there is at least one person, the words arrive in the form of placards. The placards are usually rectangular or square, though every simple geometric shape is represented. Stone walls are popular sites, when available, but concrete and wood and indoor plaster and even empty billboards are used with great success. Every surface is instantly dressed with a clear declaration, written in the local dialect, often but not always with what looks like a scribe's neatest penmanship. No ink is involved, and no paint. Subsequent research determines that the letters are formed by many means, but always by reconfiguring the bonds of the existing minerals and molecules. How such an act can be achieved in an instant, not just in a thousand places but in millions, is a huge unyielding mystery. A few people suggest that the words were always there, prepositioned and hidden until they were unveiled. This intriguing possibility might lead in fruitful directions, but of course the conquered are primitive souls lacking in the technologies necessary to investigate any farther.
Never more than a few hundred words long, the announcement can be read aloud in less than two minutes.
The earth has been conquered, the placards say.
Every aspect of life has been taken over.
Freedom is lost, and free will has been shackled in the most subtle ways.
The world is told that there is no chance for rebellion or effective resistance. No event that happens today or during the next billion years will happen by accident. From this moment on, every event is preordained. Tiny incidents are just as managed as giant happenings. What people eat tonight is part of the plan, or they won't eat and that is also part of the plan. And while governments and corporations might think that they are acting for themselves, independence is an illusion, and time will soon prove just how thin that illusion is.
There is no mention of whom or what is doing the planning.
Early guesses invoke aliens in various guises. The Internet and the news networks are full of speculations and false sightings and insights and idiocy. Scientists of every flavor go to work, hunting for agents that might be responsible for the ongoing chaos. And then as weeks pass and no starships are spotted, speculation turns to new candidate Planners: It is the Chinese, or the Americans, who have found the means to take over the world. Or the Internet itself is intelligent and working some magic. Or the Old Gods, like Satan or Jesus, are finally grabbing up a world that has foolishly turned its back on God.
People gather in public places. They talk with loud shrill frightened voices, trying to decide what is next and what is best.
Urban Chinese march in the streets, welcoming the new emperor. Beijing responds with violence. Or the Planners order tanks and machine guns into the street. Either way, China descends into a gruesome civil war. Outside observers spend months looking for the logic in the conflagration. Was the strife inevitable? Were the politics selected long ago? And are the Planners responsible for every bullet and every dead child?
Whatever the cause, the world's largest economy is ruined, and that is before the Politburo orders the nuclear incineration of five breakaway cities.
By then, twenty more wars have been launched. Martial Law is declared in the United States and Europe. Then, two days after the French premier declares his disdain for any mysterious Planners, machine or alien, a nuclear reactor on the Atlantic suffers a fire and partial meltdown. Coincidence is a possible culprit, but that leaves few people satisfied. Clearly higher forces are at work, and even the most lucid citizen has to wonder who moves his or her hands and if the terrible thoughts inside their heads are truly their own.
And the miserable decades have only just begun.
Of course, the old order was fragile at best. A strong case can be made that the world had too many people and too few resources facing old grudges and fresh jealousies. For decades, the Earth was a sleeping firebomb, and even without a few authorless words, the population was destined to suffer a sudden collapse.
Yet there has to be an author to the mayhem, doesn't there?
Some mind or power or cold intellectual monster could have seen the inevitable and callously placed its stamp on every misery that was to come.
Six billion are dead. Most governments have died. Little wealth remains, and every great religion and dogma is left poisoned and frail.
This is the moment when you again take up clipboards and sharpened pencils. This is when you show up at the doors of the bunkers and walk down the middle of the tent cities. Meet the people wherever grim greasy stews bubble in the common pot. Honesty deserves rewards; you promise them candy treats and pickled herrings. As always, smiles are useful, but nobody believes in easy joy anymore. Show your audiences suffering diluted by tempered gladness, and then ask:
"In your heart, what do you believe will make your masters happy?"
Ask that question too soon, and your audience will become angry, demonstrative and perhaps even rebellious against the invisible masters. Not that they can do anything but hurt one another, of course. And if you wait too long, they will have already begun the heavy work of recovery and rebirth, and the miracle will belong entirely to them. But there is a ripe perfect sterling moment. It waits at the lowest ebb. You stand among them as one of them, asking about their hearts and their hearts will answer, each word dressed in emotion, perhaps even in passion, and what matters is that they listen to their own voices and each other, discovering a shared wisdom.
From there, civil society rebuilds.
No force or godly mind can know exactly how the new world will look. Too many factors are at play, too many variables. What matters is that people make improvements and take precautions, and with the past looming over them--for the next thousand years, and maybe forever--they will transform one battered world into a solar system filled with rich vibrant worlds that the masters, whoever they are, would find acceptable.
Placards and fake surveys are no longer necessary.
Humans are free to call themselves lucky slaves, trivial possessions, or meaty automatons driven by greater powers. Self-mythologies only accent the results. After its long hiatus, science will learn how to bottle up stars, and those bottles will fly to the stars. And just as critical, researchers on Earth will work with the surviving placards, finally deciphering the magic that made them appear on command--a few convincing parlor tricks, which naturally is the point.
Living worlds will be found among the stars, and on some of them, young societies struggling to survive. The tug of the masters and their own wise natures will make people think carefully and do nothing except watch and wait, knowing better than to contact those who aren't ready. But there will be days and dangers that anyone with experience can see coming. At some point, using borrowed techniques as well as their own, a few people will dress in trusted smells and unobtrusive colors, crawling their way into the mother-nests to sparkle questions about the nature of conquest and survival after conquest.
This is the way it has always been.
The fewest possible words applied at the ideal moment, and when stability returns, it belongs to the Masters.
This is how every world will be subjugated.
And someday the final triumph will come. Fully mature, settled and wise, the galaxy will be in our hands, and maybe that is when the First Master will be revealed. But what form will it take? As an ancient species that rules All? Or better, as a trillion trillion signposts wrapped in a new magic, offering nothing but another grand puzzle, and beyond the signs, an entire universe begging to be possessed.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012
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