Read Inferno: A Chronicle of a Distant World (The Galactic Comedy) Online
Authors: Mike Resnick
A Chronicle of a Distant World
by Mike Resnick
There is a parable that Ugandans, white and black alike, sometimes tell when they sit around a campfire at the end of the day.
It seems that there was a scorpion who wished to cross a
river. He saw a crocodile floating a few feet away and asked
to be carried across the river on its back.
"Oh, no," said the crocodile firmly. "I know what you
are. As soon as we're halfway across the river you'll sting
me and I'll die."
"Why would I do that?" scoffed the scorpion. "If I sting
you and you die, I'll drown."
The crocodile considered the scorpion's answer for a
moment and then agreed to ferry him across the river. When
they were halfway across, the scorpion stung the crocodile.
Fatally poisoned, barely able to breathe, the crocodile
croaked, "Why did you do that?"
The scorpion thought for a moment, and then, just before
he drowned, he answered, "Because it's Africa."
I have exercised my author's prerogative and related this anecdote to you only because it is an amusing story. It obviously has nothing at all to do with this novel, which is about the mythical world of Faligor rather than the very real nation of Uganda.
You wonder how these things happen.
You walk down the blood-drenched streets, make your way between the skeletons of burnt-out buildings, try not to stare with ghoulish fascination at the broken bodies littering the landscape, and you keep repeating to yourself: This is not what civilized beings do to each other.
You say it again and again, but the reality gives lie to it. This is precisely what civilized beings have done to each other. In fact, it is what they have done to themselves.
An infant wheezes in the shadows. It no longer has the strength to scream. It is half-buried beneath the twisted corpse of its mother, and since you are a doctor, you walk over and tend to it as best you can, but you know it will be dead in another ten minutes, half an hour at most. You estimate that it has been lying beneath its mother's body for two days, possibly three, given the state of its dehydration, and you should be shocked and repelled, but it is nothing compared to the sights you have already seen on this world, this beautiful green and blue planet that once held such promise.
You treat the worst of the infant's wounds, and since you have nothing to feed it, you lift it in your arms and carry it along with you, trying to make its last moments of life minimally more comfortable. Eyes, alien but sentient, peer out at you from behind broken doors and shattered windows. The figure of a looter darts through the shadows, realizes that you have seen it, and vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
The other members of your team begin gathering, their faces pale and grim. You hear the hum of a laser rifle a few streets away, then a scream, and then all is silence again.
"God!" says your commanding officer, as he rejoins the group. "How did it get this far out of hand?"
You notice that the infant has died, and you gently place it on the ground, in the shade.
"This is not what sentient beings do to one another," you repeat numbly.
"The Diamond of the Outer Frontier," mutters another officer. "Isn't that what they used to call it?"
"Once," answers your commanding officer. "A very long time ago."
You look up and down the blistered streets of the shattered city and shake your head in puzzlement. They were an ancient and civilized race, the inhabitants of this world. They loved the land, cherished the family, revered life. It has been said that they had codified the laws of their society when Man was still living in caves and hunting his dinner with wooden clubs and stone axes. They had happily joined the community of worlds and willingly vowed to adhere to its principles.
So you ask yourself again: How did they get from there to here?
And because in your entire experience, you have never seen a charnel house such as this, and devoutly hope never to see one again, you make it your business to find the answer.
Three hundred dead kings waited with eternal patience as the khaki-clad woman approached the enclosure. Six hundred sightless eyes watched as she came to a halt before their successor. A slight breeze caused some of their weapons to rattle, some of their robes to stir, as they stood, silent and unmoving, the harsh sentinels of the current ruler's ancestral court, mute possessors of the accumulated wisdom of their race.
The emperor, his golden fur rippling in the bright sunlight, sat on a tall wooden stool, observing the woman. He displayed no fear, no apprehension, merely curiosity. A withered advisor stood directly behind him, while on each side of him, clad in brilliantly-hued ceremonial armor and feathered headdresses, were some fifty warriors, their axes at the ready, motionless as statues. They had formed an aisle for her approach, and now they closed ranks and formed a circle to contain her.
The woman bowed from the waist. The warriors tensed at the sudden motion, but the emperor merely inclined his head slightly.
"I have observed your progress for many hours," he said at last. "Who are you, and why have you come to the land of the Enkoti?"
"My name is Susan Beddoes," answered the woman, "and I come in peace. I carry no weapons."
"I know," he answered. "If you had brought weapons with you, you would not have lived to reach my kingdom." He paused. "Why did your ship land so far away?"
"I did not wish to frighten you."
"We have seen a ship before. It belonged to another, similar to you, but taller, who visited us many years ago."
Beddoes nodded. "His name was Wilson McConnell."
"He gave us many gifts."
"I have brought gifts as well. They are in my ship."
"How is it that you speak the language of the Enkoti?"
"I do not speak it," she replied, indicating a tiny device that pressed against her larynx. "What you hear is not my voice, but the voice of the mechanism that translates your words into my language and my words into yours. Though I hope, before long, to be able to converse without it."
"Ah," he said noncommittally.
"You do not seem impressed," said Beddoes.
The emperor shrugged, his golden fur rippling and reflecting the sunlight. "Why should I be? It is just a toy."
"You've seen one before?"
The old advisor leaned forward and whispered something, and the emperor nodded almost imperceptibly.
"Let me tell you this, Susan Beddoes," continued the emperor. "I come from an unbroken line of 300 sitates, and the most ancient of them had created codes of law and behavior for the Enkoti and imposed order upon our domain when the great river that flows to our west was little more than a stream. Neither I nor my people are children; we will not be treated as such."
"That was never my intention," answered Beddoes.
"I am the Sitate Disanko, the three hundred and first in my dynasty. I will be treated with the respect due my position."
"I meant no offense," said Beddoes. She gestured to the three hundred dead Enkoti, each perfectly preserved. "Are these your forebears?"
"That is correct." Disanko stared at her. "Wilson McConnell told me that you buried your dead in the ground. How can you pay respect to them when their bodies are eaten away by worms and insects?"
"That's a good question," admitted Beddoes.
"Then perhaps you will answer it."
"My race venerates the spirit, rather than the flesh that houses it."
"It is indeed the spirit that sets us above the animals," said Disanko, "but the spirit must have a home, or the Maker of All Things would not have provided each spirit with one."
"An interesting concept," said Beddoes. "I will think upon it."
"McConnell was an explorer, and a mapmaker," said Disanko, seeming to tire of the subject. "Are you also here to make maps?"
"No," she replied. "I am an exoentomologist."
"I do not understand the word."
"An entomologist studies insects," explained Beddoes. "An exoentomologist studies insects that live on worlds other than her own."
"You have come all this way to study insects?" said Disanko with an air of disbelief.
The sitate paused and stared at her through oblique, sky-blue eyes. "There are insects all over the planet. Why have you come to the heart of my kingdom?"
"I will need help with my field work," she replied. "McConnell's reports say that the Enkoti are the most powerful race on Faligor, so I have sought you out. I am willing to pay for your assistance."
"With what will you pay?"
"I have a line of credit at the Bank of Rockgarden," she replied. "I can pay in credits, New Stalin rubles, Maria Theresa dollars . . ."
Disanko's thin lips pulled back from his teeth in what Beddoes hoped was a smile.
"Wilson McConnell explained money to me when he was here. It is a foolish concept."
"It is a concept that is in practice upon more than 50,000 worlds," said Beddoes.
"That does not make it less foolish, only more widespread," answered Disanko. "Why should anyone work for something that has no value in itself?"
"It has value to
," she said.
The withered old advisor leaned forward and whispered to Disanko again. The sitate answered, the old advisor shook his head vigorously and said something more, and finally Disanko turned back to Beddoes.
"What have you to trade for our help?" asked the sitate.
Beddoes smiled, relieved. "I have medicines, and machines that will make your work easier. I have translating devices so that you can speak to members of other races. I have mutated seeds that will double your crop production. I have communication devices that will make it unnecessary for you to send a runner from one village to another with messages. I have gadgets that will tell you if there are rocks beneath a field before you break your plows on them." She paused. "I have things you've never dreamed of, Sitate Disanko."
"Do not be so certain that your trinkets are greater than a sitate's dreams," he cautioned her.
"If I have offended you, it is due to my ignorance of your customs, and I beg your forgiveness and understanding," said Beddoes.
"We will eat now," announced Disanko. "Then you will tell me exactly what your work entails, and how many of my people you will require, and for how long, and what you will trade for their services. Then I will consult with my ancestors, and we will eat and sleep again, and tomorrow morning I will give you my answer."
"That will be acceptable," said Beddoes.
Disanko stared at her again. "I do not recall asking if it was acceptable. Your kingdom is many stars distant from here; you are in my kingdom now."
Beddoes bowed again. "I must return to my ship to get the goods I wish to trade. I can be back before dark."
"First you will eat with me," said Disanko firmly. "If it requires an extra day for me to make my decision, the insects will still be there."
Beddoes shrugged. "As you wish."
He shook his head. "As I
"When do we eat?" asked Beddoes.
"Soon," said Disanko. He stood up, and suddenly Beddoes became aware of the sounds of the village, the laughing and playing of children, the comings and goings of laborers, and she realized for the first time that her meeting with the sitate had taken place in total silence. "You may look around first, if you wish," said the sitate.