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The Children of the Skyby Vernor Vinge
How do you get the attention of the richest businessperson in the world?
Vendacious had spent all his well-remembered life sucking up to royalty. He had never dreamed he would fall so low as to need a common merchant, but here he was with his only remaining servant, trying to find a street address in East Homes factory district.
This latest street was even narrower than the one they had left. Surely the worlds richest would never come here!
The alley had heavy doors set on either side. At the moment, all were closed, but the place must be a crowded madness at shift change. There were posters every few feet, but these were not the advertisements they had seen elsewhere. These were demands and announcements: WASH ALL PAWS BEFORE WORK, NO ADVANCE WAGES, EMPLOYMENT APPLICATIONS AHEAD. This last sign pointed toward a wide pair of doors at the end of the alley. It was all marvelously pompous and silly. And yet … as he walked along, Vendacious took a long look at the crenellations above him. Surely that was plaster over wood. But if it was real stone, then this was a fortified castle hidden right in the middle of East Home commercialism.
Vendacious held back, waved at his servant to proceed. Chitiratifor advanced along the alley, singing praise for his dear master. He had not quite reached the wide doors when they swung open and a hugely numerous pack emerged. It was nine or ten and it spread across their way like a sentry line. Vendacious suppressed the urge to look up at the battlements for signs of archers.
The huge pack looked at them stupidly for a moment, then spoke in loud and officious chords. “Employment work you want? Can you read?”
Chitiratifor stopped singing introductory flourishes, and replied, “Of course we can read, but were not here for—”
The gatekeeper pack spoke right over Chitiratifors words: “No matter. I have application forms here.” Two of it trotted down the steps with scraps of paper held in their jaws. “I will explain it all to you and then you sign. Tycoon pay good. Give good housing. And one day off every tenday.”
Chitiratifor bristled. “See here, my good pack. We are not seeking employment. My lord”—he gestured respectfully at Vendacious—“has come to tell the Great Tycoon of new products and opportunities.”
“Paw prints to suffice if you cannot write—” The other interrupted its own speech as Chitiratifors words finally penetrated. “Not wanting to apply for work?” It looked at them for moment, took in Chitiratifors flashy outfit. “Yes, you are not dressed for this doorway. I should have noticed.” It thought for a second. “You are in wrong place. Business visitors must visit to the Business Center. You go back five blocks and then onto the Concourse of the Great Tycoon. Wait. I get you a map.” The creature didnt move, but Vendacious realized the pack was even more numerous than he had thought, extending back out of sight into the building; these Easterners tolerated the most grotesque perversions.
Chitiratifor shuffled back in Vendacious direction, and the nearest of him hissed, “Thats a two-mile walk just to get to the other side of this frigging building!”
Vendacious nodded and walked around his servant, confronting the gatekeeper directly. “Weve come all the way from the West Coast to help Tycoon. We demand a courteous response, not petty delays!”
The nearest members of the gatekeeper stepped back timidly. Up close, Vendacious could hear that this was no military pack. Except at dinner parties, it probably never had killed a single living thing. In fact, the creature was so naive that it didnt really recognize the deadly anger confronting it. After a moment, it reformed its line, and said “Nevertheless, sir, I must follow my orders. Business visitors use the business entrance.”
Chitiratifor was hissing murder; Vendacious waved him quiet. But Vendacious really didnt want to walk around to the official entrance—and that wasnt just a matter of convenience. He now realized that finding this entrance was a lucky accident. Woodcarvers spies were unlikely this far from home, but the fewer people who could draw a connection between Tycoon and Vendacious, the better.
He backed off courteously, out of the gatekeepers space. This entrance would be fine if he could just talk to someone with a mind. “Perhaps your orders do not apply to me.”
The gatekeeper pondered the possibility for almost five seconds. “But I think they do apply,” it finally said.
“Well then, while we wait for the map, perhaps you could pass on an enquiry to someone who deals with difficult problems.” There were several lures Vendacious could dangle: “Tell your supervisor that his visitors bear news about the invasion from outer space.”
“The what from where?”
“We have eyewitness information about the humans—” that provoked more blank looks. “Damn it, fellow, this is about the mantis monsters!”
* * *
Mention of the mantis monsters did not produce the gatekeepers supervisor; the fivesome who came out to see them was far higher in the chain of command than that! “Remasritlfeer” asked a few sharp questions and then waved for them to follow him. In a matter of minutes, they were past the gatekeeper and walking down carpeted corridors. Looking around, Vendacious had to hide his smiles. The interior design was a perfection of bad taste and mismatched wealth, proof of the foolishness of the newly rich. Their guide was a very different matter. Remasritlfeer was mostly slender, but there were scars on his snouts and flanks, and you could see the lines of hard muscle beneath his fur. His eyes were mostly pale yellow and not especially friendly.
It was a long walk, but their guide had very little to say. Finally, the corridor ended at a member-wide door, more like the entrance to an animal den than the office of the worlds richest commoner.
Remasritlfeer opened the door and stuck a head in. “I have the outlanders, your eminence,” he said
A voice came from within: “That should be ‘my lord. Today, I think ‘my lord sounds better.”
“Yes, my lord.” But the four of Remasritlfeer who were still in the corridor rolled their heads in exasperation.
“Well then, lets not waste my time. Have them all come in. Theres plenty of room.”
As Vendacious filed through the narrow doorway, he was looking in all directions without appearing to be especially interested. Gas mantle lamps were ranked near the ceiling. Vendacious thought he saw parts of a bodyguard on perches above that. Yes, the room was large, but it was crowded with—what? not the bejeweled knickknacks of the hallway. Here there were gears and gadgets and large tilted easels covered with half-finished drawings. The walls were bookcases rising so high that perches on ropes and pulleys were needed to reach the top shelves. One of Vendacious stood less than a yard from the nearest books. No great literature here. Most of the books were accounting ledgers. The ones further up looked like bound volumes of legal statutes.
The unseen speaker continued, “Come forward where I can see you all! Why in hell couldnt you use the business visitor entrance? I didnt build that throne room for nothing.” This last was querulous muttering.
Vendacious percolated through the jumble. Two of him came out from under a large drawing easel. The rest reached the central area a second later. He suffered a moment of confusion as Chitiratifor shuffled himself out of the way, and then he got his first glimpse of the Great Tycoon:
The pack was an ill-assorted eightsome. Vendacious had to count him twice, since the smaller members were moving around so much. At the core were four middle-aged adults. They had no noble or martial aspect whatsoever. Two of them wore the kind of green-tinted visors affected by accountants everywhere. The other two had been turning the pages of a ledger. Pretty clearly he had been counting his money or cutting expenses, or whatever it was that businesscritters did.
Tycoon cast irritated looks at Vendacious and Chitiratifor. “You claim to know about the mantis monsters. This better be good. I know lots about the mantises, so I advise against lies.” He pointed a snout at Vendacious, waving him closer.
Treat him like royalty. Vendacious belly-crawled two of himself closer to Tycoon. Now he had the attention of all Tycoons members. The four small ones, puppies under two years old, had stopped their pell-mell orbiting of the accountancy four. Two hung back with the four, while two came within a couple feet of Vendacious. These pups were integrated parts of Tycoons personality—just barely, and when they felt like it. Their mindsounds were unseemly loud. Vendacious had to force himself not to shrink back.
After a moment or two of impolite poking, Tycoon said, “So, how would you know about the mantis monsters?”
“I witnessed their starship Oobii descend from the sky.” Vendacious used the human name of their ship. The sounds were flat and simple, alien. “I saw its lightning weapon bring down a great empire in a single afternoon.”
Tycoon was nodding. Most East Coast packs took this version of Woodcarvers victory to be a fantasy. Evidently, Tycoon was not one of those. “Youre saying nothing new here, fellow—though few packs know the name of the flying ship.”
“I know far more than that, my lord. I speak the mantis language. I know their secrets and their plans.” And he had one of their datasets in his right third pannier, though he had no intention of revealing that advantage.
“Oh really?” Tycoons smile was sharp and incredulous, even unto his puppies. “Who then are you?”
An honest answer to that question had to come sooner or later, fatal though it might be. “My lord, my name is Vendacious. I was—”
Tycoons heads jerked up. “Remasritlfeer!”
“My lord!” The deadly little fivesome was clustered around the only exit.
“Cancel my appointments. No more visitors today, of any sort. Have Saliminophon take care of the shift change.”
“Yes, my lord!”
Tycoons older four set their ledger aside and all of him looked at Vendacious. “Be assured that this claim will be verified, sir. Discreetly but definitively verified.” But you could see Tycoons enthusiasm, the will to believe; for now, the puppies were in control. “You were Woodcarvers spymaster, convicted of treason.”
Vendacious raised his heads. “All true, my lord. And I am proud of my ‘treason. Woodcarver has allied with the mantis queen and her maggots.”
“Maggots?” Tycoons eyes were wide.
“Yes, my lord. ‘Mantis and ‘maggot refer to different aspects of the same creatures, humans as they call themselves. ‘Mantis is the appropriate term for the adult. After all, it is a two-legged creature, sneaky and vicious, but also solitary.”
“Real mantises are insects, only about so tall.” One of the puppies yawned wide, indicating less than two inches.
“The mantises from the sky can be five feet at the shoulder.”
“I knew that,” said Tycoon. “But the maggots? They are the younglings of the grown monsters?”
“Indeed so.” Vendacious moved his two forward members confidingly close to the other pack. “And here is something you may not know. It makes the analogy nigh perfect. The actual invasion from the sky began almost a year before the Battle on Starship Hill.”
“Before Woodcarver marched north?”
“Yes. A much smaller craft landed secretly, thirty-five tendays earlier. And do you know what was aboard? My lord, that first lander was filled with maggot eggsacks!”
“So that will be the real invasion,” said Tycoon. “Just as insect maggots burst from their eggsacks and overrun the neighborhood, these humans will overrun the entire world—”
Chitiratifor popped in with, “They will devour us all!”
Vendacious gave his servant a stern look. “Chitiratifor takes the analogy too far. At present, the maggots are young. There is only one adult, the mantis queen, Ravna. But consider, in just the two years since Ravna and Oobii arrived, she has taken control of Woodcarvers Domain and expanded it across all the realms of the Northwest.”
Two of Tycoons older members tapped idly at an addition device, flicking small beads back and forth. A bean counter indeed. “And how do the mantises—this one Ravna mantis—manage such control? Are they loud? Can they swamp anothers mindsounds with their own?”
This sounded like a testing question. “Not at all, my lord. Just like insects, the humans make no sounds when they think. None whatsoever. They might as well be walking corpses.” Vendacious paused. “My lord, I dont mean to understate the threat, but if we work together we can prevail against these creatures. Humans are stupid! It shouldnt be surprising since they are singletons. I estimate that the smartest of them arent much more clever than a mismatched foursome.”
“Really! Even the Ravna?”
“Yes! They cant do the simplest arithmetic, what any street haggler can do. Their memory for sounds—even the speech sounds they can hear—is almost nonexistent. Like insect mantises, their way of life is parasitic and thieving.”
All eight of Tycoon sat very still. Vendacious could hear the edges of his mind, a mix of calculation, wonder, and uncertainty.
“It doesnt make sense,” Tycoon finally said. “From my own investigations, I already know some of what you say. But the mantises are superlative inventors. Ive tested their exploding black powder. Ive heard of the catapults powered by that powder. And they have other inventions I cant yet reproduce. They can fly! Their Oobii may now be crashed to earth, but they have a smaller flyer, barely the size of a boat. Last year it was seen by reliable packs just north of town.”
Vendacious and Chitiratifor traded a glance. That was bad news. Aloud, Vendacious said, “Your point is well taken, my lord, but there is no paradox. The mantis folk simply stole the things that give them their advantage. I have … sources … that prove theyve been doing that for a very long time. Finally, their victims tired of them and chased them out of their original place in the sky. Much of what they have, they do not understand and cannot re-create. Those devices will eventually wear out. The antigravity flier you mention is an example. Furthermore, the creatures have stolen—and are continuing to steal—our own inventions. For instance, that exploding black powder you mentioned? It might well have been invented by some creative pack, perhaps the same one who truly invented the cannon catapults.”
Tycoon didnt reply immediately; he looked stunned. Ever since Vendacious had heard of Tycoon, hed suspected that this pack had a special secret, something that could make him a faithful supporter of Vendacious cause. That was still just a theory, but—
Finally, Tycoon found his voice: “I wondered.… The blasting powder and the catapults … I remember…” He drifted off for a moment, splitting into the old and the young. The puppies scrabbled around, whining like some forlorn fragment. Then Tycoon gathered himself together. “I, I was once an inventor.”
Vendacious waved at the mechanisms that filled the room. “I can see that you still are, my lord.”
Tycoon didnt seem to hear. “But then I split up. My fission sibling eventually left for the West Coast. He had so many ideas. Do you suppose—?”
Yes! But aloud, Vendacious was much more cautious: “I still have my sources, sir. Perhaps I can help with that question, too.”
Copyright © 2011 by Vernor Vinge
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