Never Jewels Enough
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
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
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
[ Continue to page 2 ]