Not Like an Angel
by Paul Lang
part 1 of 2
“ I will surely not let you go until you bless me.”
The native carrion bird sang its shrieking song.
I looked into the dragon-red plate and tried to find a pair of eyes I could meet. There were no eyes. The red steel was cut carefully, welded over by a master smith or a highly advanced mechanism; it had to be with the kind of craftsmanship it was displaying. It looked like a big antique. Just one of these things could probably sell for hundreds of thousands down on Earth. Thick, black curves like outlines rode along each of the shape’s edges. A yellow design, a sun with six rays culminated in the center just below where the visor was open. It was like some kind of medieval football helmet. There was no face for me to look at, but something was looking at me.
“Don’t stare at them. They consider it to be impolite,” old Dr. Fields explained from behind me.
The red plate creaked and then twisted to the left as though to look away from me.
“They have eyes. We just can’t see them.”
“Well... sorry,” was all I could say, and I tried to look somewhere else. My eyes left the Gurhan knight in front of me and jumped to the one at my left hand. They were all around me — how was I supposed to keep from looking at them? Why was I being polite to them? I was the one who’d just crawled out of a blazing wreck.
“You don’t want to offend them before you’ve even had a chance to talk. Just stick close and listen to me. I’ve learned worlds about them in the past three months... well, Earth months, years for them. Technically I’ve been their prisoner, but I have been treated well.”
“Oh, okay.” I took a step backwards and tried to look at Mr. Fields instead of any one of the five colorful metallic Gurhan aliens that stood around me “Wait... why were you a prisoner?”
“I was living with the Tarquillo before, their enemies.”
“I think we have a lot to catch up on.”
“Will these... people mind?”
“No, they are very patient,” Fields chuckled, “very patient indeed. Now... where shall I begin... you see, the Tarquillo-”
“Beautiful, really beautiful.” I heard the ding of clanging metal followed by the din of Dr. Hansen’s voice. I turned my head and saw her stumbling down the hall behind us, half-tripping over an amber-plated knight that was standing sentry in the corner. “Are you seeing this, Warren? Are you seeing this? Walking armor, walking weapons! I’ve never seen anything like it! It’s beautiful!” She stumbled over the butt of a spear handle and just barely caught her balance again. Her eyes lit up brightly as they followed the butt to the point. “It comes with a javelin! This is better than that military history museum in California!”
The aqua-colored Gurhan that stood at my back put its gauntlet to its sword handle and marched toward my dazzled assistant. Her face blushed with an almost romantic love when the monster drew the polished silver, double-bladed scimitar with the black cloth handle and the slick, curved edge.
I think the warrior had hoped to ward her off, but this display of shiny metal only whetted her appetite for more. “Warren! Do you see this sword? Warren! What kind of metal is this? Is it the same thing the armor’s made of? It’s beautiful! Really beautiful!”
I turned my eyes away and prayed a halfhearted prayer that she wouldn’t get herself killed. Lovely, dark-haired assistants with a religious obsession were hard to come by. I had to block her out now. She could go on like this for over an hour.
“Um... what were you saying Mr. Fields?”
“Oh, yes. As you’ve no doubt learned by now, you’ve landed in Netz, a territory under the rule of the spear-toting Gurhan race.”
The floor we were standing on was soft, like a mattress; that seemed uncharacteristic.
“The Gurhan are the smaller of the two reigning powers on Fezzilh. The greater are the Tarquillo.”
The walls looked like they were carved from some kind of apricot-colored stone. No, it looked more like Styrofoam.
“As far as I can tell, the Gurhan and the Tarquillo have been at war for at least fifty years... fifty earth years, I mean. I learned about it when I was under the guard of the Tarquillo Magoat Scholars in Alpaj.”
“Could you cut down on the extras please?” I cut in. “I’m a weapons dealer, not a linguist.”
A sound like the beat of a drum came from the next hall and our group started to move. So the Gurhan weren’t all that patient after all. I had to make sure to get all the necessary info I could out of Fields before I met their king, which I could tell might be hard. The old coot seemed to love showing off what he’d learned in kindergarten. Otherwise I could end up at the wrong end of one of those “beautiful” spears.
It happened to unescorted dealers like me all the time: you’d run into some set of aliens that wanted to bash each other’s brains out and have your goods stolen. Sometimes the dealers made it back to tell the tale; most of the time they didn’t. That was why I’d wanted N.A.P.A.L.M to hire more guards. The two or three mounted cannons they had super-glued to the side of my ship weren’t much use now that I was stranded in a medieval dump.
“Looks like you might have to go and speed it up,” I urged in a less than urgent voice.
“Yes, yes. As far as I can decipher, the Gurhan served the Tarquillo for many years.”
“Served?” I feigned interest.
“I may be mistaken, but it’s possible that the Tarquillo created the Gurhan... like... machines with wills of their own.”
“That’s always a good idea.”
Our little chain gang procession marched through a room full of artsy furniture I could only assume was used for torture. I sighed in relief when we didn’t stop.
“Eventually, some violation of the Nar-O caused a group of frustrated Gurhan to break off and burn the city of Gabbia. This forced the Tarquillo to crack the whip even harder than before, and the Gurhan in response, under the command of General Moatose Green-Hammer, sacked and pillaged the three farming villages of Pecoran, Pollo and Cahpra... and—”
“I think it’s some kind of set of rules, a kind of honor code. I cannot stress to you how important it is to the Gurhan; it’s almost like a religion.”
“Okay, so we’re dealing with crazy zealots made of metal.”
“Don’t be so narrow-minded. The Gurhan, like the Tarquillo, have a beautiful culture, though the Gurhan are much more... rough around the edges.”
“You’ll have to remember, they were created to be warriors. They are combative, practical and hard. The Tarquillo on the other hand have spent most of their existence feeding off of the peaceful life afforded to them by this servitude and the servitude of other smaller races. They are soft, learned and somewhat... effeminate. The kingdom of the Tarquillo is a kingdom of wisdom and scholarly learning, while the rule of the Gurhan is harsh and militaristic.”
I gazed over at a particularly scary looking steel beast with an iron morningstar. “If that’s the case, then why haven’t the metal guys won yet?”
“Now now, the Tarquillo are not to be underestimated either. Not only do they have greater territory and more numerous allies, but they fight with a strange kind of martial arts, something called Fi-Uccello. It’s a very advanced form of warfare that involves moving air particles. That’s what I’ve come to understand anyway.”
Our procession stopped when we came to a ten-foot tall arch-shaped door that seemed to be made either of bronze or some other alloy that had been rusted over. The toy soldiers halted.
“All right, this is the main hall.” Fields was now in a rush. He ran his left hand through the end of his white beard. “Remember to be respectful. I’m afraid you’re going to have to bend over backwards.”
“Yeah, I was kinda guessing that by now.”
“No, I mean literally. The proper greeting from a visitor to the ‘High Footman’ involves the visitor sitting on his knees and bending backwards... it’s easier for them than it is for us.”
“Hey, I’m not a contortionist. How exactly does that make sense? They make the visitors from another world do something that’s easy for them but hard for everyone else? Wait—”
“But you still must try.... Miss Hansen. Can I count on you?”
“Huh?” Dr. Hansen raised herself up from her position on the dusty ground where she had been flicking the amber knight’s metal foot and listening to the plinging sound it made “Oh, yeah.”
“Just let me do the talking, got it?” I ordered her.
“You’re the boss.” She saluted me, and the bronze double door slowly creaked open. As far as I could tell it opened on its own, without any help.
Fields stepped out in front of me, a slightly ominous look on his face. “And one more thing. I think it would be wise for you two to remember that right now, you aren’t just representatives of N.A.P.A.L.M, but the fragile carriers of your own lives.”
The old man’s menacing words shook me up, and they shook up Dr. Hansen too — so much so that when we were finally introduced to the “High Footman” we were so terrified that we forgot.
The Footman was a black and silver Gurhan that stood a full half size taller than any of the others. He had a red tassel on his head and a red carpet of a cape on his back. To imagine the effect this colossus had on our weak human minds, try imagining that the statue of liberty suddenly tore itself loose from its platform and started dancing the Can-Can.
The whole chamber of knights waited for what seemed like hours, probably in hopes that we would eventually succumb to their ridiculous tradition, but we weren’t that smart. Finally, they gave up and the High Footman gave us the ending half of the honorable greeting by spinning his helmet-head 360 degrees in a circle. I hoped that that was what it meant, and that it wasn’t just something he did out of frustration.
After all that was done, he sat down on his hard knees and beckoned for us to do the same. This tradition I followed, since by now my legs had already all but turned to jelly. The knight disconnected his megaton-heavy shield from his left arm and placed it upside down on the stone floor. Next he began to pound on the shield with his fist. The sound it made was the worst I’d ever heard.
“The honorable High Footman Norgal would like to welcome you Earth people to his fiefdom,” Fields said, taking his place next to the King, in front of a small metal shield of his own. “He hopes that you and he can be friends.”
I didn’t answer but just kept staring over into the nonexistent face of the gigantic, animated piece of hardware.
“He wishes to express his deepest sympathies for your current condition.” Fields translated the ringing sounds of the gauntlets and the shield. “He says that what the Tarquillo did to your ship is unforgivable, a blasphemous breach of Nar-O.”
“The Tarquillo?” I muttered to myself.
“Tarquillo,” Dr. Hansen parroted me.
The Footman gnashed his steel kneecap against the stone and made me jump. His blood-red cape jumped up behind him like a red tidal wave.
“The High Footman is willing to offer you protection...”
Dr. Hansen sighed deeply behind me.
“But in return he wants your help.”
I bit my tongue. I thought this might be coming.
“My help?” Suddenly I felt my fear and uncertainty drift away as it always did when my trade was involved.
The Norgal thing paused for a second, then pounded out a long message. Fields waited until it was complete before translating any of it. “That the Tarquillo shot down your ship with their Fire Bird was indeed a shame. The High Footman would never wish that upon you or anyone for any price. But...”
I clenched my fist.
“He also says that the way you fell was not as a victim but as a savior. You are like gods, angels. You alone can save the Gurhan from their dishonorable oppressors.
“No doubt the Tarquillo shot at you with purpose in their hearts. The military technology of your Earth is far greater than even the weapons they possess. Without a doubt, they were aiming to steal these weapons and use them to end the war. Your seventy-two Scorpion cannons and your thirty-eight Nautilus cannons were meant to land in Govaask, next to the Tarquillo city of Tulipanoe, but fortune dropped you with their enemies.”
“How does he know our stock so well?” I glared at Fields and the massive black knight in turn.
Copyright © 2011 by Paul Lang