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The planet Zarti was peaceful at one time. The most advanced race was a species of gentle, long-necked herbivores who had no greater ambitions than full bellies. These Zarticku banded together in herds for protection from predators and eventually devised simple methods of communication to exchange basic ideas among themselves.
Without warning, the Offasii came. This space-faring race arrived en masse at Zarti, hundreds of millions of them--conceivably the entire Offasii population--in ships that were each several miles in diameter. They swarmed down like locusts upon this idyllic planet and irrevocably changed the course of life there.
First they formed zoos, gathering up specimens of each major species of animal they could find. These specimens were tested, probed and prodded in every conceivable manner for reasons too subtle to comprehend, The Zarticku passed the test and were kept, while the others were returned to their natural environments.
There was a planet-wide round-up. All the Zarticku that could be captured were placed in special pens; the ones who couldn't be captured were killed outright. Then the tortures began. Many Zarticku. were killed and dissected. Some others were not so lucky--they were cut open alive so that their systems could be observed in action. The screams of those poor creatures were allowed to filter down into the penned herds, panicking other animals and causing still more deaths.
No Zarticku were allowed to breed normally. Specially selected sperm and ova were matched by artificial insemination, while the Offasii calmly recorded the results of these breedings for three generations. When their computers had enough data, they began altering the DNA structure of the Zartic gametes. Genes they disliked were removed. New ones were substituted to see what effects they would have on the new generation. Some of these new genes also proved to be undesirable. They were eliminated in subsequent generations.
After twenty Zartic lifetimes, a generation was born that matched the Offasii ideal. When this generation had been raised to maturity all remaining members of preceding generations were put to death, leaving none but this new breed of Zarticku to inherit the world.
These new creatures were substantially different from their ancestors who had roamed free in the forests of Zarti. They were bigger, stronger and healthier. Their eyesight was keener. The tough, matted hair that had been on their backs had become thin armor plating. The little appendages at the shoulders that had originally served to steady tree branches while eating had been developed into full-grown arms, ending in six-fingered bands with two opposable thumbs that could grasp and manipulate objects. Their average lifespan had been doubled. And, most importantly, they were far smarter than their ancestors had been. Their intelligence level had been quadrupled at the very least.
They also possessed a legacy from their predecessors. Stories of the Offasii tortures had been passed down over the years by word of mouth, with each generation adding its new tales of horror. Stories grew in the retelling, and the mythos of Offasii cruelty increased.
Now that they had apparently gotten what they wanted, the Offasii proceeded to use--and abuse--their subjects. The Zarticku became slaves to the older race, used in the most menial and routine of tasks. They were chained to watch machines that required no supervision, forced to take part in rituals that served no purpose, made to disassemble machines only so that other Zarticku, could put them together again. They could be hunted and killed for sport by the Offasii. Sometimes they were pitted in arenas against wild animals or even others of their own species. Although copulation was permitted, the choice of mates was made by the Offasii, and followed no pattern that was discernible to the Zarticku.
The period of slavery lasted for about a century. During this time, the face of the planet changed. Every square inch of arable land was turned to good use by the brutally efficient Offasii. Cities arose, planned and engineered to perfection. Systems of transportation and communication were universal.
Then one day the Offasii left. It was an orderly and well-planned exodus, without a word spoken to the startled Zarticku. One moment the Offasii had been running the world in their usual brisk fashion, the next they calmly walked into their enormous spaceships--which had sat dormant since the day of their landing--and took off into space. They left behind them all their works, their cities, their farms, their machines. Also abandoned was a race of very stunned, very perplexed former slaves.
The Zarticku could not at first believe that their masters had really departed. They huddled in fear that this might be some new and devious torture. But weeks passed, and there was no sign anywhere of the Offasii. Meanwhile, there were crops and machines that required tending. Almost by reflex, they went back to their accustomed tasks.
Several more centuries passed and the Zarticku turned their specially-bred intelligence to their own use. They examined the machines that the Offasii had left behind and discovered the principles of science; from there, they improved and adapted the machines to their own purposes. They developed a culture of their own. They used their intellect to build philosophies and abstract thought. They devised their own recreations and enjoyments. They began to live the comfortable life of an intelligent species that has mastered its own planet.
But beneath the veneer of success was always fear--the fear of the Offasii. Centuries of cruel oppression had left their mark on the Zartic psyche. What if the Offasii should someday return? They would not take kindly to this usurpation of their equipment by upstart slaves. They would devise new and more horrible tortures and the Zarticku, as always, would suffer.
It was this atmosphere of fear and curiosity that nurtured the boldest step the Zartic race had ever taken--the Space Exploration Project.
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