The World Before
an extract from the novel
found F'nar an extraordinarily awkward city. It was chaotic, disorderly
and full of stairways. Isenj weren't built for steep stairs.
The treads were too narrow for him to place his whole bulk on them
and he found himself tottering, trying to find purchase with his rear
and side legs and failing. Bipeds never had to worry about such things.
"I suggest we stay at ground level," said Ralassi.
"If I'd known our stay would be extended, I would have brought more
supplies with us."
"The next shuttle will drop off some food, Minister. Do you want to
"And do you intend to return to Umeh?"
"You think I can remain here?" Ual hadn't expected this. He had anticipated
the rage of his opponents -- in government and among the electorate
-- but he had not foreseen Eqbas dispatching a vessel to Umeh. "I've
probably made a disastrous mistake, but I must try to salvage something."
The Eqbas ship hadn't landed. It was just orbiting and gathering data.
It was the worst possible situation. How could he now expect isenj to
accept the assistance of the wess'har with one of their ships looking
like a potential aggressor?
Now he had neither his bargaining chip, as Eddie called it, nor a receptive
audience for his plan. The first isenj ever to visit the enemy on a
peaceful mission had got it badly wrong. Ual knew he would go down in
history and memory as a fool rather than a visionary.
But he had come this far. The cycle of resentment and decline and sporadic
fruitless war had to be broken. He made his way back down the passage
to the Exchange of Surplus Things and tried to find a corner in which
to be inconspicuous.
Wess'har came to look at him, or so he thought; but they appeared to
be spending as much time sorting through containers of food as studying
him. They were all tall and irregularly shaped -- vertically symmetrical,
yes, but all gangly limbs and long faces.
Eddie, with his talent for comparing all beings to species on his own
world, called them sea horses. There were no longer other animal species
on Bezer'ej and there hadn't been for many, many generations. Ual had
nothing in his environment that he could compare to the wess'har. It
was the first time he had thought about the sadness inherent in that.
But some wess'har were shorter than him. A small one with a plume of
stiff gold hair across the top of its head, just like the big females,
approached him and stood far too close to him. He was a government minister.
He'd earned the right to a little more personal space.
"You're in trouble," said the wess'har in perfect English. "I'm Giyadas.
Nevyan took me as her daughter."
Ual decided she was an infant. As with isenj, it was hard to tell a
wess'har's age by their size: but wess'har had no genetic memory to
make them wise from birth, and none of the social restraint that adult
isenj learned. Adult wess'har seemed as outspoken as young ones, often
to the point of offense.
It was his first impression of them -- big, gold, shiny, and rude.
They would never show the self-control needed to cope with living at
close quarters like his own people.
"Yes, I'm in a great deal of trouble," said Ual.
"Have the gethes shafted you?"
"What does that mean?"
"Put you into a difficult position and then abandoned you." The child
looked up at him, tilting her head this way and that. "Eddie taught
me the word."
Ah. Eddie's accent was discernible. "If you mean that the humans
can do nothing more to aid us in exchange for the things we have given
"You're hard to understand."
He was a minister of state yet he was reduced to chatting to a small
alien child. This wasn't how Eddie's shuttle diplomacy was supposed
"My people won't like it at first, but I think we will fare better
by cooperating with your people than by fighting them. There is an ...
inevitability about wess'har."
"You mean that we can take you any time we want."
Ual repeated the phrase to himself, appalled. Yes, it was true. And
now the Eqbas were involved it would happen, sooner or later. Sooner
and peacefully struck him as better than a long noble fight to the last
isenj. They had made that boast before and lost. And there had been
no last isenj, just millions more. "More words that Eddie taught you?"
"Shan Frankland said it."
He had heard small snatches of information about Shan Frankland and
was trying to piece them together. Even dead, she seemed still to be
pivotal for the wess'har. "The dead officer."
"No, she lives."
Ual decided to let the comment go unquestioned. Humans had some eccentric
beliefs about noncorporeal existence and it seemed that Giyadas had
been exposed to them.
"And what do you think of your cousins from Eqbas Vorhi?"
Ual was being sociable. There was no harm in indulging the child of
a potential ally. Giyadas took his arm and tugged a little more forcefully
than he imagined such a small creature could.
"I want you to meet someone," she said.
Ual followed her patiently, maneuvering his bulk around crates and
containers while wess'har stood back to let him pass. They didn't attack
him or even hurl abuse. He was the enemy, the ancient enemy, and he
knew what would have happened if a wess'har had arrived on Umeh. Isenj
felt the old injustices as vividly now as their forebears did in the
days of Mjat.
But there was no hostility. If anything, they seemed no more than mildly
curious. He almost tripped over a strange cylindrical fruit on the floor
but a wess'har reached down and removed it from his path.
I don't understand them at all. Rude and considerate; peaceful
and extravagantly violent; technologically sophisticated and yet living
a primitive rural life. And they have never threatened Umeh.
Ual had come to negotiate, not to learn, but learning was overwhelming
him. No isenj could have any idea what they were dealing with.
He shuffled out into the sunlight of a gloriously clear day quite unlike
any on polluted Umeh. The alleys and small courtyards that made up the
tangled ground level of terraced F'nar were fiercely illuminated by
the reflection from the pearl surfaces, the polar opposite of Jejeno
in every way he could imagine. Giyadas trotted ahead, stopping every
so often to check he was keeping up.
"Here," said Giyadas. She tilted her head and clasped her hands, a
miniature of the adult matriarchs. "He wanted to see you. He says he's
never met an isenj who wasn't trying to kill him or who he wasn't trying
A huge alien that looked more human than anything stepped out in front
of him. He had a face that was all harsh angles, and liquid dark eyes
like the soldier Barencoin except that there was far less white visible
in them. He wasn't wess'har, and he wasn't human. Ual couldn't identify
The creature flicked a long dark braid of hair over his collar and
sniffed the air.
"I'm the Destroyer of Mjat," he said in immaculate English. "I'm Aras
Eddie Michallat said there were monsters in human history, and that
humans often speculated on how they would exact their social revenge
if they met these long-dead criminals. But this monster was not long
dead; and now he was simply an extraordinary creature for whom Ual could
suddenly feel nothing but ... astonishment.
This wess'har, or whatever he had become, was more than fifty generations
old. And he had survived being an isenj prisoner of war, a very bitter
war indeed. Ual was glad his political rivals weren't there to hear
The first thing that came into his head was hardly what they would
have wanted. But he said it anyway.
"I'm truly sorry for what we did to you in captivity," said Ual.
Aras was completely still. Ual wondered if it was a preparation to
spring forward and attack like a ussissi, but the Destroyer of Mjat
simply stood there and didn't even blink.
"And I regret that I had to kill so many of you," he said. "I remember,
you see. I caught my c'naatat parasite from your people when they cut
me and tore me. So now I have your genetic memory, and I know what it
is to stand outside myself and see me as I am."
"A rare gift," said Ual. "And perhaps one we should all seek. Knowing
what you do, then, would you destroy us again?"
"Under the same circumstances?" Aras tilted his head sharply and Ual
could clearly see the wess'har in him now. "Yes, of course I would."
Ual took care not to touch him, but he approached close enough to make
it clear that he would follow him to talk further.
"Let us look for different circumstances," he said.
© Karen Traviss 2005, 2006.
The World Before was published in November 2005 by Eos.
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