For the eleventh time, Ussakk the Astronomer pored over the most recent collated readouts while trying to decide how best to kill himself. Whichever method he chose, it would be faster and cleaner than what was coming. While the last time the Iollth had ravaged Hyff had been well before his birth, abundant records were available to illustrate in gruesome detail their appetite for destruction. Given the history of their visitations to Hyff, it was remarkable that any of the populace would continue to resist. Yet invariably, outraged at the periodic demands for tribute and treasure, some did. And just as invariably, they died deaths that were as horrible as they were futile.
That much could be tolerated, if not for the disagreeable Iollth habit of slaughtering out of apparent boredom the occasional batch of innocent civilians.
Ussakk felt he would be as fated to be among the latter—that is, if the authorities did not kill him outright as the bearer of bad news. He sympathized in advance with their probable reaction. There was always the hope among his people that the Iollth would tire of their cyclical visits to Hyff, that they would seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others elsewhere and leave the Hyfft to their peaceful, widespread communities and to the tending of the crops of which they were so proud.
A fool’s dream, Ussakk knew. So long as the Hyfft fashioned beautiful objects out of rare materials, so long as their mines produced rare and unsynthesizable raw materials, the Iollth would return: to plunder, and not to buy.
The astronomer knew they could not be put off with excuses. A hundred years ago, the Great Government had decreed that the production of objects of beauty and the mining of gems was to cease. Despite the temporary harm this inflicted on Hyfftian culture, it was hoped the absence of such things would discourage the Iollth. After all, one cannot ransack that which does not exist. It was a defensive maneuver predicated on a rational reaction.
Unfortunately, the Iollth did not respond in a rational manner. In their fury and frustration, their unopposed ships laid waste to a dozen of Hyff’s largest communities. Tens of thousands died. After that, there were no more attempts to discourage the visitors with clever subterfuges.
Occasionally, there came together bands of Hyfft who were still determined, somehow, to resist. Sadly, having evolved from sedate bands of farmers who had known nothing but greater and greater cooperation that had eventually resulted in the development of the present state of high culture, the Hyfft were emotionally and psychologically ill-equipped for warfare. Even thoughts of acquiring an armed starship from one of the other space-traversing species who paid the occasional rare visit to Hyff fell by the wayside when none among the Hyfft could be found who were bold enough to leave the Nesting World long enough to travel between the stars to arrange the actual acquisition.
Though technologically advanced, the Hyfft could not find it within themselves to manufacture weapons. Psychologically crippled, they could not muster enough individuals to make use of such weapons even if they managed to buy them from elsewhere. Located far from the fringes of galactic civilization, they did not attract the attention of those who might have offered them protection.
Besides, it was rationalized, the Iollth did not threaten genocide. They came only to plunder and ravage, and that only once every hundredth-passing or so. Hardly sufficient reason for distant species with a surfeit of their own problems to take the time and expense to interfere. Especially when most of Hyff never even suffered beneath the heavy foot of the visitors, except to witness and weep over their sporadic depredations via relayed images.
That the fast-moving signatures Ussakk had detected emerging from deepspace belonged to the Iollth there was no question. The infrequent and uncommon traders or explorers who occasionally found their way to Hyff always arrived singly. There was one atypical report from three hundred-passings ago of two such vessels arriving simultaneously in orbit around Hyff, but that was only the result of coincidence. They had not been traveling in tandem, and were as surprised by each other’s appearance in Hyfftian space as were the Hyfft themselves.
No, without question, a triple signature could signify the imminent arrival of nothing other than the dreaded Iollth.
As the senior astronomer on duty, he had the obligation to deliver the bad news to the local Overwatch, who would then pass it along to all the individual elements of the Great Government. Composed of hundreds of local Overwatches, the Great Government would then dictate an appropriate response. The best that could be hoped for, Ussakk knew, was that the Iollth would take what they wanted, murder for entertainment as few citizens as possible, and be on their way after causing a minimal amount of damage to Hyfftian civilization. It might be, he reflected as he began to make inviolable recordings of the relevant readouts, that with luck he would not be expected to kill himself.
As soon as the necessary recordings had been prepared, he stored them in his body pouch and prepared to leave his post. There was no thought of transmitting such sensitive information electronically. It was his responsibility, his personal cura, to deliver it in person. Coworkers were bemused by his nonresponsiveness as he departed. Such glumness was not usually associated with the bright and chipper senior astronomer. But no one pressed the limits of what was culturally acceptable. Though concerned, they left him to his private dejection. That was just as well, since if they had asked what was troubling him, he would have been compelled to answer.
Let them dwell in happiness and contentment a little while longer, he decided as he exited the observatory and ambled toward the nearest conveyor. Horror was now in the neighborhood and would arrive on their mental doorsteps soon enough.
The Escarpment of Lann dropped away behind him and his speed increased as the terrain leveled out. Racing toward the city, he was forced to slow repeatedly as his vehicle bunched up behind other conveyors. Each held, at most, no more than a single family. Hyfft did not travel in groups. On a world as heavily populated as theirs, even though that population was evenly dispersed, personal privacy was at a premium. So was courtesy, which was why the anxious Ussakk waited his turn until one by one, those in front of him reached their exit points and left the main conveyor route. Only then did he accelerate again.
There was no road, the conveyor route being only a line on a map that was duplicated in actuality by perfectly spaced sensors buried in the ground. The route Ussakk was following ran through fields of pfale, whose dark green fruit burst from the center of a spray of bright blue-green leaves. Enormous in extent, this particular field was nearly ready for harvesting. For a moment, the color and anticipation took his mind off the dreadful news he was about to deliver. Pfale was famed for its piquant taste, and for the ability of master cooks to turn it into a variety of elegant dishes usually supplemented with a quartet of semell condiments. Descended from wholly herbivorous ancestors, the Hyfft were masters of vegetarian cuisine.
An alien observer might have wondered why the agitated astronomer did not simply accelerate his levitating personal conveyor and pass the slower travelers in front of him. He could easily have done so, to the right or to the left. But such a move would have been an unforgivable breach of manners. On Hyff, one politely waited one’s turn. The queue was a way of life, and woe betide any who vio-lated it. Rules such as waiting for those in front to finish whatever they happened to be doing were not merely a matter of unspoken courtesy; they had been officially codified.
Exceptions were tolerated only for extreme emergencies. Unable to see how delivering his bad news a few morning-slices earlier would make things any better, Ussakk preferred to take his time and follow custom. Officialdom might soon berate him as the harbinger of doom, but no one would be able to accuse him of being impolite as part of the process.
The family ahead of him finally turned off, allowing him to accelerate afresh. Once within the outskirts of the city, he was able to take advantage of the much greater multiplicity of available conveyor routes. Like most urban concentrations on Hyff, Therapp was not large. With few exceptions, the majority of structures were built low to the ground in traditional fashion. Such buildings might cover considerable stretches of ground, but that was how the Hyfft preferred it. They did not like heights, and they favored open spaces.
Therapp’s administrative center was housed in one such complex, which extended for several midds from the center of the city and across the meandering river that cut through it. Slotting his conveyor in a public receptacle, he quickly swapped it for its much smaller in-house counterpart. Within the vast structure, municipal workers dashed to and fro along clearly designated routings, never so much as nudging any of the pedestrians they passed. Without the internal conveyor, it might take him half a day to walk to the sector he sought.
Like the spokes of a wheel, the adjuncts to the office of Overwatch Delineator fanned out around a central core. As custom dictated, there were twenty-four such offices. Today the office of Delineator was held by number nine. Tomorrow it would be ten, and so on until next-month changeover. In this way the city’s administration had twenty-four heads, among whom both responsibility and credit could be divvied up collectively. With only one day in charge each next-month, no one official had time to accumulate power over another. Occasionally, number twelve might swap day-work with the official occupying office twenty-one. Like everything else on Hyff, the system made for an administration that was both civil and efficient.
Today’s Delineator was Phomma, of office nine. An unlucky number, Ussakk reflected as he stepped off his conveyor and snapped it into the nearest unoccupied recharger. Unlucky, because she would be the one to have to receive and deal with the dreadful news he carried with him.
When he entered, office nine was occupied by a pair of subordinate administrators engaged in debating the merits of expanding the city’s southernmost recreation facility. Both looked up at his entry.
“Devirra li Designer,” declared one. “Zubboj vi Procurer,” added her companion.
“Ussakk ri Astronomer,” he responded. While on business, the Hyfft did not waste time on extended formalities. They were an efficient folk. “To see today’s Delineator.”
The Designer’s reply was prompt and inflexible. “Delineator Phomma qi Administrator sa Nine is not seeing visitors or supplicants until last two afternoon-slices. We respectfully suggest you return to request a meeting at that time.” Small, dark, fast-moving pupils regarded him hesitantly. “Unless you already have arranged a meeting time for this morning.”
“No, I haven’t,” he replied, “but I must see the Delineator immediately. It is a matter of global importance.”
“Global?” Long, feathery white whiskers twitching to emphasis his amusement, the Procurer eyed his fellow subordinate administrator. “From an astronomer I would expect nothing less than galactic.” They shared a casual touch, he clicking his prominent incisors against hers.
Ussakk was as well-mannered as the next person, but today he had no time for sarcasm. “You are more right than you say. The Iollth are returning to Hyff, and will be here within a two-day.”
Later, though he could easily justify it, he regretted his bluntness.
A look at his face—eyes staring evenly, whiskers unquivering, short round ears perfectly erect and forward facing—being all that was necessary to convince them that the visitor was not joking, the change in attitude among the pair of subordinate administrators was shocking in its abruptness. The Designer’s hairless eyelids fluttered once, twice, before she collapsed. Trembling visibly, the Procurer bent over her and began to tug on her short arms in an attempt to reestablish normal breathing. He was so badly shaken he could not sustain his grip, leaving it to Ussakk to take over and maintain the procedure until the psychologically stunned female finally regained consciousness.
“I apologize,” he murmured. “I did not mean to cause shock. That is why I did not use public channels to communicate the information, for fear it might get out before it could be appropriately reviewed. But it must be delivered now, here, so that means of dissemination to the rest of Hyff can be decided upon, and propagated accordingly.” His tone, normally relaxed and carefree as that of any of his kind, was unnaturally solemn.
His seriousness seemed to steady the Procurer. “Go on in, quickly,” the subordinate administrator told him as he resumed working the Designer’s upper arms.
With an acknowledging twitch of the whiskers to the right of his nose, Ussakk hitched up the cross-straps of his formal work attire, turned, and strode toward the inner wall. Sensing his approach, number nine of twenty-four ceremonial panels slid aside to admit him to the circular inner office.
It was beautifully appointed, the citizens of Therapp and the surrounding district being proud of their accomplishments and those of their local artisans. A conical central skylight of synthetic crystal flooded the interior with sunshine lightly tinted gold by the swirling, stained panel attached to it. Directly beneath the skylight, a round desk sat embedded in the mosaic stone floor. There the Delineator of the Day of Therapp sat and worked. Placing the desk slightly below floor level compelled each of them to look up at approaching citizens. In this manner, humility was enforced on the Overwatch’s principal public servant.
Delineator Phomma qi Administrator sa Nine looked up and chittered a polite traditional greeting, followed by, “I specifically asked staff to grant me a two day-slice period of privacy. You must have considerable influence to have gained admittance in spite of that.” Her long, drooping whiskers inclined toward him as she spoke, the aggressiveness of their posture belying the civility of her words. Unusually, he noted, they were tinted a pale red.
“I am Ussakk the Astronomer, and I have no influence: only bad news.”
“Proceed forward.” Rising from her seat, she stepped away from the trio of readouts that floated in the air before her. They started to follow obediently until she thought to wave them away. “What news can simultaneously be so bad and so influential?”
He descended the six short ceremonial steps, each corresponding to one of the whiskers that dominated the Hyfftian visage. “This morning I regret to say that I was forced to reconfirm certain previous significant observations made by my facility’s instrumentation. Three starships have entered our system from deepspace. Though it has not happened in my lifetime, I know from history that infrequent visitors to our world invariably arrive in only one such vessel. One time, by coincidence, two such marvelous craft arrived at Hyff.” He blinked meaningfully. “The presence of more than that can mean only one thing.”
As an educated person, the Delineator Phomma knew what it meant, too. To her credit, she neither fainted nor shook. But moisture did begin to appear at the lower edges of both eyes. She wiped it hurriedly away.
“This leaves no time for advance lamenting. That will have to come later.” Turning, she moved purposefully back to the seat she had been occupying when he had arrived. Her hovering tripartite readouts had to move fast to hold their positions in front of her eyes. This time she did not dismiss them. “The Great Government must be notified immediately. You will provide all details. Work must be started to minimize the inevitable panic that will greet the official announcement.” As her hands moved, the four short fingers on each waving instructions at the readouts, she glanced over at him. “Who else knows?”
Ussakk considered for a moment. “Only the two sub administrators whose permission I had to seek to enter here. Their personal reactions,” he added thoughtfully, “were as might have been expected. Otherwise, not even my colleagues at the observatory know. Yet.”
She chirruped an acknowledgement. “Then this can be handled appropriately. Or at least, as well as can be hoped.” He thought he saw tears begin to rise again, but the Delineator shut them down before they could dampen the neatly trimmed brown fur under her eyes. Leastwise, the formal face paint that streaked and speckled her plump cheeks did not run.
“If you do not require my presence any longer,” he murmured, “I should be getting back to my work.”
She replied without looking up at him, her hands busy with the readouts. “Your work is here now. As Delineator of the Day for the Overwatch of Therapp, I am requisitioning your services to city administration. When your coworkers have been notified, they can monitor the approach of the . . .” She could not choke the name out, did not want to get the name out. “Of the incoming vessels,” she finally finished.
Ussakk was appalled. “I am an astronomer, not a bureaucrat or civil servant. I answer to the Great Science, headquartered in Avvesse. Of what possible use could my extended presence be to the city government of Therapp?”
She paused in her work to study him. His whiskers quivered slightly under her suddenly intense stare, but he held his ground. “It is clear you are not a politician, either. Very well; if you need a reason, I feel that your continued presence in an urbanized area will in itself help to provide some small modicum of reassurance to the general populace.”
His small black nose twitched. “How can that be?”
“By showing that you have not run away.” She returned to manipulating the readouts. “In the coming days, that may prove critical. I don’t suppose you can tell by the angle of approach of the Iollth ships where they intend to put down on Hyff?”
He reminded himself that this was not a fellow scientist he was talking to. “Angle of approach means nothing. They may decide to go into extended orbit around Hyff before choosing a place to—put down. Or they may decide to land at three different places. History shows that—”
“I know what history shows,” she barked irritably. He took no offense at the sharpness of her response. Helplessness bred frustration, and frustration bred anger. He felt like doing some yelling and screaming himself. As a scientist, he realized the futility of such reactions better than most.
A tenth of a day-slice later, she waved both hands simultaneously, and the readouts that had been hovering before her vanished. With a weariness not even her elaborate ceremonial makeup could dispel, she turned back to him.
“The appropriate authorities have been advised. The Great Government is now in motion.” Eyes as red as her whiskers met his. “All continental representatives are to meet here tomorrow. That is as fast as travel allows. Each of the eight continental Overwatches will determine how best to respond should an Iollth vessel set down in their territory. If all three approaching craft send their landers to one place, a worldwide response will be coordinated.” The tearing started again, and this time it did not stop. “As we have throughout our history, we can only hope to minimize the destruction.”
Stepping forward, Ussakk took her in his arms. The fact that she was the day’s Delineator and he a research astronomer, and that they had never met before this moment, meant nothing. The Hyfft were a species as emotional as they were demonstrative, among whom close physical contact was not only commonplace but expected. Anyway, Ussakk was glad of the opportunity to embrace someone.
He needed the warming physical contact as badly as she did.
From the Hardcover edition.