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The World Before

an extract from the novel
by Karen Traviss

The World Before by Karen TravissUal 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 eat now?"

"Later."

"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 them, yes."

"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 to work.

"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?"

"They're different."

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 to kill."

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 his species.

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 Sar Iussan."

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 him.

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.

...continues


© Karen Traviss 2005, 2006.
The World Before was published in November 2005 by Eos.

The World Before by Karen Traviss
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