a tale of the far future by David Wingrove
The Governor turned in his high-backed chair and looked out through the open French windows and across the green. There was the solid thwack of willow against leather and a ripple of applause as the two ungainly batsmen took a single. On the far side of the green there was brief movement beside the scoreboard as the slates were changed. 108 for 4 it read now. The Governor smiled then turned back, facing his aide.
"They're doing well. Moving Davenport-Adams up the batting order has made all the difference, don't you think?"
"Indisputably," the aide replied, his face-mask twitching. He stood there on the far side of the great oak and walnut desk, straight-backed, waiting, a leather-bound folder beneath his arm.
The Governor leaned back in his chair and smoothed the ends of his waxed moustache. "You know, George, there are some who think that the real purpose of the game is to contain one's opponent, to prevent him from playing, but I've always argued that one should take the game to him, aggressively and with style."
The aide smiled weakly. He had heard it all a hundred times. "Undoubtedly, sir. But this other matter..."
The Governor sat forward slightly, nodding his long, high-domed head. "Ah yes, the matter of the trader. Damned awkward, what?"
"Damned awkward, sir."
"He's here now, I take it, wanting to see me."
"That is so, Excellency. However, I thought there were one or two things you ought to know before you saw him. For instance, we have now had the opportunity to examine his ship."
The aide looked down briefly. It was only in circumstances like this that one found out the limits of one's superiors. The Governor was a good, solid man, there was no doubting that, but when it came to responding to a situation of this kind...
He looked up. "It's a standard bulk cargo trader. A very old model, so I'm told. Sub-light speed. There are one or two minor embellishments but basically nothing unexpected. There's an old-fashioned cloning cabinet, for instance, the genetic material of that matches the blood sample we took from the trader. All pretty much as one might expect from a barbarian race."
"I see. And what do you think he wants?"
"To trade, sir."
The Governor sat back, considering, the long fingers of one hand smoothing the tip of his moustache once more. "Hmm. How odd."
Odd indeed. It had been nearly four thousand years since they had last traded with anyone.
From the green outside came the distinct whack of willow against leather, followed by a ripple of applause.
"You've traced where it came from, I assume."
"We have indeed, sir."
The aide hesitated. Already the Governor's attention was wandering; returning to the match outside; to the steady accumulation of runs, the erratic taking of wickets. "It came in from the dark regions. From one of the uncolonised worlds."
"Ah..." The Governor nodded, for a moment watching the flight of the ball, the trajectory of the bat, the scurrying of fielders dressed in perfect whites. For a moment longer he was silent, and then he turned back.
"And the trader himself? Is it safe for me to see him?"
The aide laughed politely. "Forgive me, sir, but as you'll see, he's built like a child. So small. And his muscles..." The aide shook his head dismissively. "No, sir. He's no threat."
"Good." And the Governor sat back, steepling his long fingers, returning his attention to the cricket match. "Good... Then you'd best send him in."
The Trader stood in the doorway a moment, looking about him, taking it all in. A strange light glinted briefly in his violet eyes, then went out. Giving a rough bow to the one whom called himself George, he moved towards the desk, conscious of the Governor rising to greet him.
Not for the first time since he had landed, he had an oppressive sense of his own physical smallness. Standing, the Governor was twice his height, his ungainly, straight figure bent slightly forward, his long, masked face inclined towards him, its painted expression of cultivated boredom barely distinguishable from that of his aide's.
"Please come in, Mister..."
"Ka-Ta," the Trader answered, ignoring the proffered hand; conscious of how raw and guttural his voice sounded beside the polished tones of the Governor's.
"Well, Mister Carter, it's jolly nice to meet you. I understand that you wish to apply for a trading licence."
For a moment he simply stared back at the Governor, noting his brilliantined green hair, the white gloves that masked his over-long fingers, the heavily-reinforced stays at each side of his black tailcoat. Yes, it was just as they'd thought. Exactly as they'd expected.
He turned, looking past the Governor at the huge French windows and the green beyond. Out there, to one side of the playing field, in the shade of a majestic oak, sat one of their ships, matt black and massive, like a giant beetle.
The Governor turned, following his gaze. "Do you like cricket, Mister Carter, or don't they play it on your world?"
Cricket... The Trader turned abruptly, the sight of all that open, sunlit space making him feel queasy despite the drugs.
"I come to trade," he said, ignoring the Governor's questions. "You wish to see my goods?"
The Governor was still looking out at the green, a sudden tenseness to his stance. Something was happening out there. "Damn," he said, after a moment. "Just as they were doing so well. Still, Collingwood's not a bad fellow with the old willow. And there's a good hour before tea." He turned back. "Now what were you saying?"
"These," the Trader said, holding out one hand, palm up, displaying the tiny trinkets. "This is what I trade. You like them?"
The Governor came closer, bending his long, stiff body to examine the tiny jewelled artefacts, his great compound eyes glittering through the peepholes of the mask. There was the slightest fluttering of the wing cases beneath the reinforced cloth of his shirt - a clear indication of his excitement - and then he moved back again, composing himself, straightening his mask.
"Excellent. Quite excellent. That one there. The red one. My wife..."
The Trader took the ring and handed it to him. "Here. A gift for her."
The Governor held the ring close to his face, examining it through one of the peepholes. "Capital. Just capital. As for your license. Well, I'm certain we can come to some arrangement, eh?"
The Trader nodded.
"Good. Then you'll come to dinner tonight, I hope. We eat at eight, on the dot. Or you could join us in church before, if you like. We have our own pew. The service begins at seven, so you'd best be there at five-to."
"I'd like that," Ka-Ta answered, his violet eyes glinting momentarily. "Yes. I'd like that very much."
The church stood at the head of the valley, overlooking the village. It was a solid-looking building with a tower at one end. Inside, stone pillars formed a line to either side, while overhead huge beams of oak formed a kind of rib cage. Like props, Ka-Ta thought, holding back the weight of the stone. Seeing them, he smiled inwardly, feeling more at home, then followed the Governor and his wife down the aisle, taking his seat beside them in the massive pew.
He looked about him as the service began and the great building echoed with the reedy voices of the congregation. At the far end of the church, beyond the altar, a single window filled the wall. Its coloured segments depicted a tall figure on a cross, its long face drawn back in agony, its red compound eyes raised to heaven. Nails penetrated its thorax and wing cases in several places, pinning it to the wood. Above the figure, framed between its two antennae, were the letters I.N.R.I.
Ka-Ta shivered and lowered his eyes, staring at the back of the pew in front of him. There, carved into the wood, were myriad interlocking shapes, the great swarm stylised to form a regular pattern. He turned, glancing up at the giant figure sat beside him. The Governor had changed his mask. Now his painted face expressed a bland devotion, the peephole eyes raised to heaven. Beside him his wife wore a similar mask, the cheeks rouged, thin eyebrows pencilled above the eyes.
They were singing about a place called Jerusalem. About a green and pleasant land called England. Ka-Ta frowned, not understanding. Then, taking the hymnbook, he raised his voice, joining it with theirs.
Afterwards he stood outside in the graveyard, looking about him. Most of the stones seemed new, their hard, chitinous surfaces untouched by time, but in one corner were a group of smaller stones, untended, the grass grown long and wild about them. He went across and studied them, drawing back the grass, trying to make out the long-faded inscriptions, then reached out, tracing the indented letters with his fingers, but the ancient marble flaked beneath his touch.
It had been too long. Almost ten thousand years...
He tensed, listening, sniffing the air, then relaxed, his eyes going to the bird in the branches overhead, surprised to find it uncaged.
Ka-Ta turned, nodding briefly, then glanced back at the stones, wondering if they were real. Maybe they had been buried beneath the surface when it had happened. Perhaps they had unearthed them when digging the foundations of the church. It was possible. The Exops had a healthy regard for death. But it was hard to tell. Nothing here was what it seemed.
Beyond the giant lych-gate, the Governor and his wife were waiting, talking to friends. Further on, out on the roadway, a number of well-dressed couples, their face-masks variations on the theme of devotion, were climbing into their carriages, the big four-legged animals that pulled them waiting patiently in harness. As he walked towards them he could hear the Governor's voice, talking about the game.
"165 all out. Davenport-Adams was superb. 42 not out at close. But it was a damn good show all round. If Marchant's in form we should have a good chance tomorrow of bowling them out by lunch."
They turned, facing him as he approached. "Well, Mister Carter, as you see, we do things properly here or not at all." The Governor moved back slightly, putting out a white-gloved hand to indicate the couple to his right. "This here is Pickering, by the way, and this is his charming wife, Maud. I've invited them to dinner tonight."
Ka-Ta bowed his head slightly, acknowledging the two tall figures. The husband was dressed like the Governor in top hat and tails, the wife in a crinoline and bonnet, her mask, like that of the Governor's wife, distinguished chiefly by its rouged cheeks and pencilled eyebrows. But beyond the masks the faces were identical, their antennae clipped back and hidden by their wigs.
The Manor House was across the road from the church. Servants greeted them at the doorway, taking their masters' hats and canes. Ka-Ta followed them inside, his eyes taking in everything. Old photographs and painted portraits adorned the walls, the masked figures of ancestors following the turn of the great stairway. He reached out, touching the dark wood of a chair back, then raised his fingers to his nose, sniffing. Again, it was as he'd thought. It only seemed like wood. Like all else here - like the mock stone of the church, the glass, the leather and the numerous varieties of cloth - it was made of chitin.
Inside the drawing room they sat about a low table, drinking tea. Ka-Ta sat on a footstool at the Governor's side, holding the big, heavy cup in both hands, careful not to spill the foul-smelling liquid in his lap. The chitin of the cups had the fine delicacy of china, but he was not fooled. He looked down, studying the rose willow pattern intently, listening to their talk.
Just now they were discussing the fine workmanship of the jewellery he had brought, the Governor's wife showing off her gift. Ka-Ta looked up, his eyes tracing the circle of their masks, seeing how they watched him from behind their peepholes. He smiled reassuringly and lifted the cup to his lips, forcing himself to drink.
As he lowered the cup from his lips, Pickering leaned towards him.
"I know it's perhaps impolite to ask, Mister Carter, but what exactly is it you're looking to trade for these items?"
"Knowledge," he said after a moment. "You see, my people are rich in material ways, but culture... well..."
The Governor nodded several times. "Of course, old chap. We understand. Wealth... well, that's easily come by. But culture..." And he sat up even straighter than before, one white-gloved hand patting the front of his dress jacket. "Ours is an old colony and, though we're on the edge of things out here, we pride ourselves on the standards we set. Culture. It's what distinguishes us from the brutes."
There was a murmur of agreement from around the table.
"Why, when we first came to this planet it was little more than a ball of ash and fused glass. We rebuilt this place. Took its riches and harnessed them. Made a world of it. And now..." His chest swelled out with pride. "Well, suffice to say that I think we've done a good job of it. A damnably good job!"
"Hear, hear!" said Pickering, lifting his cup in a toast.
"Forgive me," Ka-Ta said, setting his cup down beside his stool and getting to his feet. "If I might..."
The Governor leaned towards him a moment, then, sudden understanding dawning on him, he nodded. "Why, of course... It's upstairs. The servant will show you where."
He inclined his head to the two ladies, then turned, leaving the room. Outside a servant showed him up the stairs, then left him, his mask - of abject servitude - concealing a face no different from his master's.
It was a big, echoing room, the fake copper cistern at the end like one of the great servomechanisms they had on the long-haul ships. To one side was a giant bath, almost as wide as it was long, while at the far end of the white-tiled chamber was the urinal. Ka-Ta stood there a moment, staring down into it. It was like a long porcelain tomb, the waste hole at the far end of it enlarged, snaking back down into the floor beneath. He shuddered, imagining the narrow, snake-like abdomen of the alien pushing down to fill that long dark tube, then turned away, the taste of the tea sour in his mouth.
At the door he paused, listening, then went out, moving across the hallway quickly, quietly. On the far side was a bedroom. He went inside, going straight to the wardrobe. Yes. If he needed any confirmation of the fact, here it was. Every shirt, every jacket, was strengthened at the back and sides; a necessity if they were to restrain the powerful wing cases of the creatures. He stood there, his decision made. And then he heard a sound. The flutter of wings. A faint, inhuman mewling.
He went back out into the hallway. To his right, on the far side of the landing, was a smaller room. He went across and stood there, looking in.
It was a nursery.
Ka-Ta stepped inside, the hairs rising at the back of his neck. There was a child's wallpaper on the walls - a light blue paper with a teddy bear motif. On all sides the floor was littered with toys: with headless dolls and broken machines. The cot was on the far side of the room, the wooden bars strangely reassuring, as if they tapped some distant racial memory in him, yet as he crossed the room he felt fear mount in him.
He closed his eyes, then forced himself on. When his hand brushed against the bars he stopped and opened his eyes again, looking down into the cot.
It was sleeping; its long, insectile body tucked deep inside the burrow. He studied it a moment, filled with loathing, then looked across at the ragged teddy bear that lay nearby. For a moment everything seemed normal; then, as he watched, a tiny grub pushed out from the soft fur of the bear's well-rounded stomach, followed a moment later by a second.
He held on to the rail of the cot a moment, steadying himself, fighting the fear that had been bred into him, then, knowing what he had to do, pulled himself up over the side and crouched beside the hole, drawing the long knife from his boot.
It was a lie. Every last bit of it. Especially that part about them finding this world in a ruined state. They had done that. The Exops. They had sent one of their number down here, supposedly to trade, but in reality it had come to learn about the state of Earth's defences. Then, when it knew enough, it had slipped away in the night, ignoring the decoy ship it had left them guarding, using a cloak of a special material made by a race they had conquered millennia before to beam it back aboard their flagship. That ship was one of a fleet of eighty parked in Earth orbit, shielded from Earth's defensive probes by technology stolen from yet another race.
He nodded to himself. This here - this obscene parody - was something he had seen on many worlds now. For the Exops - exopterygotes - were really little more than a sophisticated form of parasite: the locusts of the galaxy. First they would destroy the indigenous culture and then they would replace it, mimicking the forms they destroyed, assimilating the culture.
He felt the bile rise in his throat, then lifted the long knife and thrust it down into the creature's head, leaning his whole weight on it as the creature woke and struggled to push up out of its burrow. For a brief while longer it struggled silently, its artificial larynx severed, its brain leaking vital fluids, and then, with a shudder that ran right up his arm, it died. Ka-Ta twisted the knife savagely, then stood back from it, breathing heavily.
It was unnecessary, dangerous even, yet he felt much better for it. Clambering back over the bars, he hurried across the room, then down the stairs, hearing their chatter from the drawing room as he crossed the long hallway, heading for the front door.
Outside it was dark, the church vaguely outlined against the star-strewn sky. Further down the lane a solitary gas lamp threw its light across the front of a cottage. Down there was the ship he'd come in, but he didn't need it now. He leaned forward, popping the light filters from his eyes, then took the neatly folded cloak from the inside pocket of his jacket.
For a moment he simply stood there, looking all about him. It had been hard, even with the filters, being out there in the open daylight. Despite the drugs, some part of him had ached for the closeness, the darkness of his ship's warrens, the feel of other bodies crawling over his. As he began to unfold the cloak, Ka-Ta smiled, recalling his race's past.
U-mans, they called themselves. Distant ancestors of the people who had set out from this world ten thousand years ago, long before the Exops had come. For five hundred years they had sailed the stars until an Exop patrol ship had captured them and taken them back to their home planet near the galaxy's centre. There, for almost nine thousand years, they had lived as slaves, working in the mines that stretched six and sometimes eight miles into the planet's surface, extracting the ores that went to make the aliens' spacecraft. Until, steeped in the lessons of survival, they had turned the tables on their masters and eradicated them.
That had been six hundred years ago. Since then they had travelled across the galaxy, moving slowly out from the Exops' home world, descending on each of their colony worlds like a plague, stripping it bare before moving on.
He flapped out the cloak then pulled it round him tightly, activating the button at the neck. For a moment he seemed to glow, then, with a sudden in-rush of air, he was gone.
Above the Earth the U-man fleet waited, a hundred thousand strong, their distinctive long-winged shapes shielded from the defensive probes of the planet below by technology a million years old. In the flagship Ka-Ta knelt before his Commander, giving his report. Five minutes later it began.
They had learned their lesson well; had assimilated all that the Exops could teach them about war. As their ships descended, blackening the sky, there was the sound of giant wings beating. When they rose again, an hour later, there was nothing beneath them but a glowing ball of fused glass.
In the snug darkness of his warren, Ka-Ta lay beside the wall screen, watching the dark shapes of their ships swarm across the bright circle of the dying planet, then turned to face his wife, Li-Li. He reached out, taking the egg of their son from her and hugging it close, sharing his warmth with it and feeling its responsive movements beneath the hard leathery shell.
He looked up into Li-Li's compound eyes and smiled. It was almost time.
© David Wingrove 1998
This story appears here for the first time.
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