Earth had a problem with the Affront. The Affront had a problem with Earth, too, for that matter, but it was a pretty plain thing in comparison; the Affront’s problem with Earth was simply that the older civilization stopped it doing all the things it wanted to do. Earth’s problem with the Affront was like an itch they couldn’t scratch; Earth’s problem with the Affront was that the Affront existed at all and Earth couldn’t in all conscience do anything about it.
By the time Earth came to know the Affront, the Affront were a rapidly developing and swiftly maturing species, and short of another war there was no practical way of quickly changing either their nature or behavior. Some Minds had argued at the time that a quick war against the Affront was exactly the right course of action, but even as they’d started setting out their case they’d known it was already lost; for all that Earth and Sol System was just then at a peak of military power it had never expected to attain, just so there was a corresponding determination at all levels that Earth would neither need nor seek to achieve such a martial zenith again. Even while the Minds concerned had been contending that a single abrupt and crushing blow would benefit all concerned-including the Affront, not just ultimately, but soon-Earth’s warships were being stood down, deactivated, componented, stored and demilitarized by the hundreds, while its citizens both near and far were congratulating themselves on a job well done and returning with the relish of the truly peace-loving to the uninhibited enjoyment of all the recreational wonders the resolutely hedonism-focused society of Earth had to offer. There had probably never been a less propitious time for arguing that more fighting was a good idea, and the argument duly foundered, though the problem remained.
Part of the problem was that the Affront had the disturbing habit of treating every other species they encountered with either total suspicion or amused contempt, depending almost entirely on whether that civilization was ahead of or behind them in technological development. There had been one developed species-the Padressahl-in that same volume of the galaxy which had been sufficiently like the Affront in terms of evolutionary background and physical appearance to be treated almost as friends by the Affront and which yet had a moral outlook similar enough to Earth’s to consider it worth the effort of chaperoning the Affront with the other local species, and, to their eternal credit, the Padressahl had been doggedly endeavoring to nudge the Affront into something remotely resembling decent behavior for more centuries than they cared to remember or admit. It was the Padressahl who had given the Affront their name; originally the Affront had called themselves after their home world, Issorile. Calling them the Affront-following an episode involving a Padressahl trade mission to Issorile which the recipients had treated more as a food parcel-had been most decidedly intended as an insult, but the Issorilians, as they then were, thought that ‘Affront’ sounded much better and had steadfastly refused to drop their new name even after they had formed their loose patron/ protégé alliance with the Padressahl. However, a century or so after this, the Padressahl had had what Earth regarded as the gross bad manners to suddenly fuck off from their home planet into deep space, lock stock and gasbag, at just the wrong time, leaving their less mature charges joyfully off the leash and both snapping at the heels of the local members of Earth’s great long straggling civilization caravan, and positively savaging several of the even less well-developed neighboring species which for their own good nobody else had yet thought fit to contact.
Suggestions by a few of the more cynical Minds that the Padressahl decision to hit the hyperspace button and go for full don’t-give-a-damn-anymore traveling had been caused partially if not principally by their frustration and revulsion at the incorrigible ghastliness of Affront nature had never been either fully accepted or convincingly refuted.
Whatever; in the end, with a deal of arm and tentacle twisting, some deftly managed suitable-technology donation (through what the Affront Intelligence Regiment still gleefully but naïvely thought was some really neat high-tech theft on their part), the occasional instance of knocking heads together (or whatever anatomical feature was considered appropriate) and a hefty amount of naked bribery (woefully inelegant to the refined intellect of the average Mind-their tastes generally ran to far more rarefied forms of chicanery-but undeniably effective) the Affront had-kicking and screaming at times, admittedly-finally been more or less persuaded to join the great commonality of the galactic meta-civilization; they had agreed to abide by its rules almost all the time and had grudgingly accepted that other beings beside themselves might have rights, or at least tolerably excusable desires (such as those concerning life, liberty, self-determination and so on), which occasionally might even override the self-evidently perfectly natural, demonstrably just and indeed arguably even sacred Affronter prerogative to go wherever they wanted and do whatever they damn well pleased, preferably while having a bit of fun with the locals at the same time.
All that, however, represented only a partial solution to the least vexing part of the problem. If the Affront had been simply one more expansionist species of callously immature but technologically localized adventurers with bad manners, the problem they represented to Earth would have subsided to the sort of level that would have gone more or less unnoticed; they would have become just another part of the general clutter of inventively obdurate species struggling to express themselves in the vast emptiness that was the galaxy. The problem was rooted deeper, however; it went back further, it was more intrinsic. The problem was that the Affront had spent uncounted millennia long before they’d even got off their own fog-bound moon-planet tinkering with and carefully altering the flora and, especially, the fauna of that environment. They had discovered at a relatively early point in their development how to change the genetic make-up of both their own inheritance-which almost by definition needed little further amendment, given their manifest superiority-and that of the creatures with whom they shared their home world. Those creatures had all, accordingly, been amended as the Affront saw fit, for their own amusement and delight. The result was what one Culture Mind had described as a kind of self-perpetuating, never-ending holocaust of pain and fear.
Affronter society rested on a huge base of ruthlessly exploited juvenile geldings and a sub-class of oppressed females who unless born to the highest families-and not always even then-could count themselves lucky if they were only abused by the males from their own tribe. When an Affronter went hunting for the artificially fattened treehurdlers, limbcroppers, paralice or skinstrippers that were their favoured prey, it was in a soar-chariot pushed by the animals called swiftwings which lived in a state of perpetual dread, their nervous systems and pheromone receptors painstakingly tuned to react with ever increasing levels of dread and the urge to escape as their masters became more and more excited and so exuded more of the relevant odors. The hunted animals themselves were artificially terrified as well, just by the very appearance of the Affronters, and so driven to ever more desperate maneuvers in their frantic urge to escape. When an Affronters’ skin was cleaned it was by the small animals called xysters, whose diligence had been vastly improved by giving them such a frenetic hunger for an Affronter’s dead skin cells that unless they were overcome by exhaustion they were prone to bloating themselves literally to the point of bursting. Even the Affront’s standard domesticated food animals had long since been declared as tasting much more interesting when they betrayed the signs of having been severely stressed, and so had also been altered to such a pitch of highly strung anxiety-and husbanded in conditions diligently contrived to intensify the effect-that they inevitably produced what any Affronter worth his methylacetylene would agree was the most inspiringly tasty meat this side of an event horizon. The examples went on; in fact, reviewing their society, it was more or less impossible to avoid manifestations of the Affronters’ deliberate, even artistic use of genetic manipulation to produce through a kind of ebulliently misplaced selfishness-which to them was indistinguishable from genuine altruism-the sort of result it took most societies paroxysms of self-destructive wretchedness to generate.
Hearty but horrible; that was the Affront. ‘Progress through pain!’ It was an Affronter saying. The Affront appalled Earth; they appeared so unamendable, their attitude and their abominable morality seemed so secured against remedy. Earth had offered to provide machines to do the kind of jobs the juvenile castrati did, but the Affront just laughed; why, they could quite easily build machines of their own, but where was the honor in being served by a mere machine? Similarly, Earth’s attempts to persuade the Affront that there were other ways to control fertility and familial inheritance besides those which relied on the virtual imprisonment, genetic mutilation and organized violation, or to consume vat-grown meat-better, if anything, than the real thing-or to offer non-sentient versions of their hunting animals all met with equally derisive if brusquely good-humored dismissals.
But in their end, it was clear they were not the happy-go-lucky life-and-soul-of-the-party grand fellows with a few bad habits they were commonly thought to be; they were not thoughtlessly cruel in the course of seeking to indulge other more benign and even admirable pleasures; they were not merely terrible rascals. They gloried, first and foremost, in their cruelty. Their cruelty was the point. They were not thoughtless. They knew they hurt their own kind and others and they reveled in it; it was their purpose. The rest-the robust joviality, the blokish vivacity-was part happy accident, part cunningly exaggerated ploy, the equivalent of an angelic-looking child discovering that a glowing smile will melt the severest adult heart and excuse almost any act, however dreadful.
The second problem, and the one more pertinent to Earth’s governmental and military apparatus’ at the moment, was the fact that the Affront had encountered the Kzin. Each race had instantly, instinctually and irrevocably hated the other, and so both sides had immediately dedicated themselves to the extermination of the other. The Solomani had, on one side, a dangerous but generally tame and compliant trading partner and neighbor in the Kzin; on the other, a dangerous but effectively neutered trading partner and neighbor in the Affront. Now, they had two hyperactive, militaristic and often horrifyingly deadly neighbors who enjoyed nothing more than murdering each other and quickly and often as possible and Sol stood in the center like a substitute teacher trying to keep two schoolyard bullies apart. It had not gone exceedingly well.
An average adult Affronter’s body consists of a bulbous mass about two meters in diameter, which hangs from a frilled gas sac one to five meters in diameter depending on their desired buoyancy and which can be deflated and covered by protective plates. Six to eleven tentacles of varying length and thickness grow from the central mass, of which at least four end in leaf shaped paddles. Many Affronters have lost one or more tentacles in combat or duels. Beaks on the front and rear of the central mass cover the creature’s mouth and genitals, respectively. The eyes and ears are held on stalks above the fore beak (they also have a sensor bump atop the gas sac). An anus/gas vent is located in the bottom center of the main body. The latter is one of their sources of propulsion, though they usually ‘walk’ on their limbs or ‘paddle’ through the air unless in a hurry.
Their homeworld is described as a ‘fog-bound moon-planet’, probably similar to a larger version of Saturn’s moon Titan. Affronters require a high pressure, low temperature environment, and breathe an atmosphere composed mostly of nitrogen and methane, plus other trace hydrocarbons.