The first of the two suns was just setting as Anurag walked up the slope, his boots crunching on the cinder. Once, he’d have stopped to watch the sunset, marvelling at the green flush that spread across the sky, from emerald to a fading turquoise where it met the creeping dusk in the east. But that was a long time ago. Anurag had been on this planet too long to be impressed now, by the sunset or by anything else.
Well, he thought to himself, at least I won’t be here much longer. There’s that at least.
Something the size of a cat scuttled across his path on many legs, almost close enough to touch. One of the miniature worker castes, perhaps; he didn’t know all the castes, and there was no longer much point in trying to know.
The huge mass of the Colony rose above him, a titanic pillar of cinder and clay, surmounted by the conical roof like a monstrous mushroom. Now that the first sun had set, it was only lit by the dull glow of the second, the dim red giant. It gave the Colony a menacing air, throwing parts into shadow and painting the rest the colour of clotting blood.
As always, Anurag stopped by the split rock to look back down into the valley at the base and at his ship. It was a compulsion, he’d realised, but one he was utterly unable to resist. He needed the reassurance of knowing the ship and the base were there and waiting, before he entered the Colony.
Not that there was any danger in the Colony, of course. The HaKuru knew well enough not to pick a fight with men. He knew that, but it was still something he had to do, like touching a lucky charm before starting on a difficult job. But then, he reminded himself again, it was for the last time.
The Colony’s entrance was a low, rounded hole in the base of the immense pillar. One of the two soldiers on guard came out to him at the sound of his boots, blocking the way with its immense head.
He identified himself, speaking the code words slowly and clearly, so the soldier could understand. Instead of stepping aside, though, it came closer, its vast head thrust so close that Anurag could smell it, the faint odour of pheromones drifting off its armour plates. Knowing what was coming, he suppressed the instinct to flinch as he felt the whisper-light touch of the soldier’s vibrissae flicking across his face and body as the creature felt him, making a touch-image. This happened each time a new set of guards was posted, one that he’d not encountered before; once the touch-image matched the one it had been given, the beast should step aside and let him through.
Instead, though it stepped back a couple of paces, it didn’t clear the way. The other soldier, on some signal, slipped back into the entrance and disappeared, leaving Anurag and the soldier with each other.
“What’s going on?” Anurag asked the soldier. “You’ve got to let me through. I have the right to enter. I’m the accredited...” He gave up, realising it would do no good. The soldier simply stood there, its huge eyeless head blocking his way. He knew well enough not to try to get past it. Blind or not, the soldier would know exactly what he was doing, and he’d seen for himself, many times, how fast the caste could move.
Once again he realised just how ugly the HaKuru were. The soldiers were the worst. This one, for instance; its gigantic head was so large it was amazing the rest of the body could even support it. The intricate carvings on its carapace would indicate its clan, sub-clan, name and place in the hierarchy, but Anurag had long ago given up trying to decipher them. All the carvings did was make the beasts even uglier to his eyes.
The other soldier emerged from the Colony entrance, leading a Sniffer. The Sniffer came up to Anurag, the long tube at the end of its globular head whiffling at his odour as it analysed his scent. Finally, it stepped back, and, without a further sign, went back the way it had come.
At last the two soldiers moved away, opening the entrance for Anurag. They were armed, he saw now; on the backs of their huge heads, each had a quiver full of weapons. Something was wrong, he realised. Something was very wrong.
He met ShidarPrahal just inside the entrance. The HaKuru was hurrying up the tunnel, as fast as his limbs could carry him, and almost bumped into the man. He stopped so quickly that a shower of gravel scraped and skittered across the floor.
“Your pardon, Ambassador,” he said in his crackling voice, each word bitten off by his beaky mandibles. “I was just informed that you had been stopped at the entrance. I was coming to order you to be allowed to pass – but I see that you have already.”
“Yes, a Sniffer came up and passed my scent.” Anurag frowned at the Mediator. “What is going on? How dare you stop me?”
“Come down inside,” the Mediator said, “and we’ll talk.”
Anurag followed ShidarPrahal down the passage. The tunnel was filled with soldiers; they rustled and clicked and passed by on all sides, popping out of side tunnels only to disappear again. Normally these reaches should have been filled with the worker castes, but today there was hardly any in sight.
“So you’re leaving us?” ShidarPrahal asked conversationally. “You said last time that your stint here was almost at an end.”
“Yes. I’ve just come to turn in my implant and take the formal farewell.”
“That’s a pity,” ShidarPrahal said. “I have always enjoyed talking to you, Ambassador. Do you have any idea of when your replacement will arrive?”
Anurag shook his head. “There won’t be a replacement. We’re closing the embassy and pulling out. The rest of the staff is already gone. You may’ve seen their ship taking off. I’m the last one left, I am leaving at dawn tomorrow, and that’s that.”
“Oh?” The Mediator fell silent for a while as he digested this information. They were now moving down passages lit by dim yellow glow-globes set in the ceiling. Around them the soldiers crawled and clattered. “May I ask why?”
“There’s no point to this embassy. Your planet has nothing to trade, no resources Earth might want. It’s not even strategically sited. Nor do your people pose any kind of military threat to us. You’re not even, biologically, interesting enough to spend time researching further. After all, even Earth has colonial life forms as complex as you.” He waved a hand. “So there’s really no point to Earth’s maintaining this embassy, with all the expenses that come with it. That’s all.”
“So what you’re saying is that we’re too insignificant to be worth your notice.” If the Mediator’s clicking could convey emotion, it might have been filled with dry amusement.
“You can put it that way if you want.” At this level, deep inside the Colony, the walls were smooth-packed and hard, and the lighting was brighter. They were approaching the luxury areas, reserved for the upper castes. “Of course, being beneath Earth’s notice isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
“That’s one way of thinking about it, certainly.” Down here the guards were so huge that they could not walk on their own; they blocked tunnel entrances with their monstrous heads. ShidarPrahal rapped on a blind carapace and it heaved slowly out of the way, allowing them to pass. “Of course, you leave us at a bad time.”
“And what is that about?” Anurag stopped. “I’m not going any further until you tell me what’s going on. What are all these soldiers doing around us, and why was I stopped at the entrance? I demand an answer.”
“Come in here, please.” ShidarPrahal indicated a small ovoid room carved out of the side of the tunnel. Anurag didn’t recall having seen it before, but then the inside of the Colony was being constantly rearranged and modified. As soon as they’d entered, a guard sealed the entrance with its head. “We can talk privately in here.”
“Privately?” Anurag glanced around the room. It was totally bare of any kind of decoration, the walls and roof glass-smooth. The only furnishing, apart from a fabric-covered hump to one side, was a glow-globe set on the floor on a pedestal. “Do you have secrets?”
“Secrets, yes...” the Mediator’s four pairs of round black eyes studied Anurag carefully, as if trying to judge his reaction. “The clans are going to war,” he said.
“War? Against whom?”
“The other Colonies – they’ve made an alliance against us. They have agents inside here as well. Last night there was an attempted coup.”
“What?” Anurag said blankly. “A coup?”
“Yes, they tried to assassinate the Great Mother herself. Fortunately the attempt failed, but now war is inevitable.” ShidarPrahal waved a forelimb. “So you see why these things are going on that so disturbed you, and why the guards took no chances at the entrance.”
“And you think – you think you can win this war?”
“Well,” SidarPrahal said, “we’re outnumbered and they have better weapons. You see, we’ve been too dependent on our higher status and bigger Colony. They were the savages who lived by fighting, we were the sophisticated ones who were above all that.” He made a motion that might have been a shrug. “And so, this is where it brought us.”
“I see,” Anurag said thoughtfully. “What’s the war about?”
“About? Food. Water. What little we have in the way of metals.” The Mediator gestured with a claw. “You know as well as I do that this is a dying planet. Nothing’s left. Maybe you’ve seen the ruins of our ancient cities? They were great once, but they crumbled when they ran out of food and water and began fighting amongst themselves. Then we went back to burrowing under the ground and building up Colonies. Now the cycle is just being repeated. It’s our turn.”
“Perhaps.” Anurag nodded. “In any case, there’s nothing I can do about that. Earth’s policy is never to get involved in native politics.”
“Unless there is some advantage to Earth in getting involved,” the Mediator replied drily. “But then we have nothing to offer Earth on this dying planet, do we?”
“No – you don’t.” Anurag drew back the sleeve of his robe and pulled at his implant of accreditation. It came loose from his flesh with a slight sucking sensation. “I ought to hand this to the Great Mother in person, oughtn’t I?”
“Theoretically, yes, but I’m afraid the Great Mother is currently inaccessible,” ShidarPrahal said. “After last night’s attempt we’ve relocated her to a secure chamber under total isolation. But don’t worry, I’ll return it to her personally.” There was a brief pause. “You’ll be glad to leave us, I suppose?”
“I won’t be at all sorry, that’s true enough. I’ve had enough of this planet.”
“And where will you go, back to Earth?”
“I wish I could.” Anurag sighed despite himself. “If I had money enough, I’d have retired. Unfortunately, all that will happen is I’ll be reassigned to another dead planet somewhere, forced to interact with another race of stinking...” he stopped abruptly.
“...bugs,” the Mediator finished smoothly. “That’s what you humans call us among themselves, isn’t it? Don’t worry, Ambassador, we don’t mind being called that. As far as we’re concerned it’s just a word. But you want to go back to Earth for good, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Anurag confessed. “I’ve had enough of space. I’m homesick for blue skies and warm breezes, for waves washing up on a sandy shore, for the tickle of grass and the touch of rain. I want to be among people I can talk to.”
“I’ve often heard you talk of this Earth,” the HaKuru Mediator replied. “I know how much you long for it.”
“Yes. But there’s no point thinking about it, is there? It won’t happen. I’ll never earn enough. That’s what they never tell you when they recruit you to the Imperial Space Service.”
“But if suppose...” The Mediator hesitated and drew close. “If it so happened that you suddenly had enough to be able to go back permanently, to quit your job and live the rest of your life in comfort. Would you?”
“What are you talking about?”
The alien’s heavy triangular head tilted, his array of eyes gleaming in the light of the glow globe. “We’re going to lose this war. And when we lose, along with us goes the last vestiges of culture and hope the HaKuru have. The other colonies are little better than savages. Once they destroy us they’ll fight among each other until nothing is left. And what with the situation of food and water, it won’t be long after that that the race will be extinct.”
“This. You’re going off planet tomorrow, Ambassador. You’re going to be the last opportunity we have to preserve our people.”
In answer, the Mediator walked to the hump near the wall and stripped off the fabric. There were two crudely hewn metallic boxes, dull silver and coppery. He picked one up gingerly.
“In this,” he said, “are the eggs of all the castes of the Colony, including future Great Mothers. It’s the entire genetic heritage of our race.”
“If our species is to survive, we have to get off this planet. We don’t need much; any world with oxygen and liquid water will do. All I’m asking is that you find any such planet – any at all – and unload these eggs there, somewhere on land near water. Nature will take over after that.”
“That’s all. Hatching should occur soon, and the babies will find their own way.”
Anurag stared at the box. “And what do I get in return?”
“This.” The Mediator picked up the other box. “We may be out of resources,” he said. “But these were from centuries ago, when our mines weren’t worked out and our cities hadn’t died. Take our eggs along, and these are for you.”
“What are they?” Anurag asked.
“Jewels.” ShidarPrahal put the box down. Something inside rattled faintly. “You can take both boxes back and examine them at leisure. Just say yes or no.”
Anurag opened one of the boxes. Rows and rows of rough, glassy balls filled it, gleaming dully in the globe’s light with the faint iridescence of rainbows. He opened the other one. The spheres inside, the size of marbles, caught the light and threw it back in a thousand shades of green and dazzling gold.
“Well?” the Mediator asked, watching. “Yes or no?”
“Yes, of course,” Anurag said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Anurag sat back in his captain’s chair and felt the straps automatically tighten around him, holding him down gently. In the viewscreen, the HaKuru planet was a fading greenish-red disc.
“Captain to ship,” he said conversationally. “Override coordinates. Set course for Earth, with flyby of the red giant.”
“Confirming override of coordinates,” the ship’s computer said. Rocket tubes set in the hull fired brief bursts, nudging it into a new course. “Course set with flyby of red giant.”
Anurag smiled thinly. By his hand, strapped down to the table, was the box filled with the green and gold glimmering spheres. He’d loaded the box with the rough glassy orbs in the disposal chute long before launching from the planet. And it was without the slightest compunction that he now pushed the button that sent the little package spiralling down towards the swollen disc of the red giant.
“The universe has far too many bugs anyway,” he said, and patted the coppery box.
“But never jewels enough,” he murmured to it, or perhaps to himself. “Never jewels enough.”
“You,” the Great Mother said severely, moving her enormous bulk, “are evil. Totally and absolutely evil.”
ShidarPrahal moved his mandibles deprecatingly. “Evil is a strong word, Great Mother. I did what had to be done.”
“But to put on such a charade – just to get this human to take the eggs off planet! It’s wicked, that’s what it is.”
“What else would you have me do, Great Mother?” ShidarPrahal peered up at the Great Mother’s expanse of whitish, rippling flesh. “It was our one and only chance to get the eggs to another planet, to make sure our species survives. I couldn’t appeal to the human’s better nature. I’d got to know him well enough to be aware that he had none.”
“But you tricked him.”
“Not at all.” ShidarPrahal moved his forelimbs in negation. “I paid him in full, enough so that he’ll be able to go home to his Earth and never have to work again. All he has to do in return is...”
“To drop the eggs on a planet that’s got water and oxygen, yes.” The Great Mother bent her head to peer at the Mediator. “Do you really think he will?”
“In all probability,” ShidarPrahal said, “the answer is no. But I knew that when I gave them to him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just this.” ShidarPrahal clacked his mandibles. “I didn’t tell him which box was which. And he did not ask.”
The Great Mother began to say something and fell silent.
“If he had any plans to do as I’d asked, he’d have made double certain that what he thought were eggs were actually eggs, and the other one were jewels. But he didn’t. And I’m sure he was planning to get rid of what he’d thought were the eggs at the first opportunity.”
“So,” ShidarPrahal said, “if he keeps his word and drops the eggs on an oxygen and water planet, everything’s fine. He gets to keep the jewels and is rich for life. They’re immensely valuable, for all that they’re so rough and colourless. Any geologist could tell him that. On the other hand, if he throws away what he thinks are the eggs...” He paused. “I watched him which he was looking into the boxes. At this moment, the box of jewels is probably drifting in space somewhere, and he’s on his way to Earth with the eggs.”
“And Earth is a water and oxygen planet, isn’t it?” the Great Mother asked. “Rather a warm and fertile one, as far as I know.”
“Absolutely.” If ShidarPrahal could have grinned he would have. “I wonder how long they’ll take to hatch?”
“And you know how...hungry...the newborns get, and how fast they eat.” The Great Mother shook her head. “Really, ShidarPrahal...”
“All he has to do is carry out his own promise,” the Mediator protested. “If he doesn’t, whatever happens is his fault, not mine.”
“You’re still evil,” the Great Mother said severely. “Utterly and totally evil.”
“I know,” the Mediator said, waving his limbs in apology. “I know.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015