The person responsible for my becoming an anthropologist was
Morarji Desai, Prime Minister of India between 1977 and 1979. I vividly
remember watching a TV documentary about the man when I was off
school with a badly-inflamed armpit1. There was nothing else on at the
time, and to be honest I wasn't initially very interested in The Morarji
Desai Story either until the moment when it was suddenly revealed that he
drank a pint of his own urine every day.
I don't know what impressed me the most about this: the fact that he actually drank his own urine, or the fact that he could down a pint of it at once. His teeth must have been in a terrible state, and as for his breath - arrgh! The programme never revealed whether he let it cool down first, which in retrospect I would have liked to have been told because it has put me off for life holidaying in Cornwall at any of those farms which proudly boast fresh milk daily, warm from the cow. Other than that, though, I found the remainder of the documentary intensely interesting.
The thing was, I couldn't envisage the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ever even contemplating such a beverage, and yet Morarji Desai was absolutely open about it. "Never do anything you're not ashamed to talk about," he said, which is sound advice but should have been qualified in his case by "and never talk about it over lunch". Clearly there was something different between British and Indian culture, though, and this fascinated me. What other societies were there out there, and how differently did the people in them view the world?
I resolved there and then to become an anthropologist.
When my armpit returned to normal, I went back to school and told my friend Greg about the programme. "Morarji Desai drinks a pint of his own urine every day!" I said. "What do you think of that?"
"It's all right for him," answered Greg, "but I wouldn't do it."
"But you might if our culture allowed it..?" My first anthropological question!
"No, I still wouldn't. No way would anyone get a pint of Morarji Desai's urine down my throat!"
Morarji Desai went on to live to be 99, which many people attributed to his daily pint of urine. I agree with them: if he hadn't insisted on drinking the stuff, he'd probably have made it past 100.
I recounted my experience of the CHAtren on my next trip to MIkuMIku. Mike Froggy knew of the "marvel", but because it whipped itself up somewhere between MIkuMIku and the mountains he hadn't himself had the pleasure of experiencing it. I assured him it was something not not to be missed...
One of the objects that Mike kept in his office to remind him of the fact that there was more to the world than MIkuMIku was a globe. I always found it fascinating, because despite the fact that I was millions of light years from home I was always surprised to notice that it wasn't of Earth. The green and brown and blue patchwork looked similar at a distance, but close up the continents became smaller, and more island-like. The land masses of Earth and Virginia are similar in total area, but Virginia doesn't waste half its space with a Pacific Ocean, and it has about as much real estate in its Southern hemisphere as in its Northern. The result is that both planets have roughly 70% of their surface covered by ocean, but the land is distributed rather better on Virginia.
I was looking at the globe when a thought occurred to me. "Mike, how come there are so many different varieties of orc?"
Mike shrugged. "Since when was I a biologist?"
"I just wondered if you knew. There are Northern Orcs, and there are Equatorial Orcs, and there are Mountain Orcs, and there are Desert Orcs, and there are orcs all over the place. Why so?"
"Well the orc-like answer would be to say that that's where they live, but I guess you're really asking why they alone among the indigenous peoples are spread all over the planet."
I nodded. "They must have been there for an awful long time to have adapted to local conditions. Equatorial Orcs are much darker than Northern Orcs, for example."
"That's only because they live where the sun shines a lot. Humans who live near the equator are darker than ones who live in the Far North. Take a human or an orc further from the sunny places and after a while they begin to lighten. Except that with an orc you can't always tell because of the grime."
"You're explaining that to me as if you know something about Earth that isn't true here..."
"I know that on Earth you have different races of people, rather than different species, yes. Are you aware of the play Othello by the playwright Shakespeare?"
Shakespeare? I was rocked by one wave of surprise upon hearing that Mike knew about the bard, followed swiftly by a second when I realised that he wasn't sure that I also knew.
"Y - yes," I stammered. "Shakespeare is regarded as Earth's greatest ever dramatist; his works are still performed to this day. I hadn't really expected that you'd know about him here, though."
"Oh, one of the colonists brought over a box of First Folio editions. I think he intended to build a theatre or something. Some Puritan he turned out to be..."
"A box? Wait! An entire box full of First Folios? That would be worth a fortune on Earth!"
"It's worth a fortune on Virginia! But that's how we know about Shakespeare, and that's how we know about Othello, and that's how we know that on Earth there are people with black skin. Oh, and of course we saw half a shipload of them when you lot came through and started shooting big guns at us."
"Ah, yes, well I'm sure we don't need to get into a discussion about that. So getting back to orcs, then, if they're all basically the same race then that means the different ethnic designations must be basically cultural rather than physical in nature, sort of like Scottish and Irish."
"I'll take your word for it, since I've never met a Scottishman or an Irishman."
"Well if you do, offer them some orc whisky and they'll be your friend for life. Coming back to the subject, though, why are there orcs all over the planet, then? Why did they spread all over when everyone else didn't?"
"I don't think they spread," replied Mike, thoughtfully. "I think they were spread. The other peoples used them as slaves."
I felt an irresistible urge to slap my forehead. Of course! I'd learned from the Governor in MEKTO that orcs had been enslaved, and that the ones who weren't slaves had eventually taken to stomping around attacking their tormentors in an effort to make them stop (and a largely successful effort it was, too). This was quite obviously the "time of darkness" to which the HA referred.
But hold on...
"I realise that this sounds like blind prejudice, but I can't say that my experience of orcs indicates that they would make particularly good slaves."
Mike sighed. "And you're an anthropologist? Maybe the way they act now has something to do with the fact that for three thousand years they were enslaved by trolls and ogres and traded across the globe as commodities? They're entitled to feel stroppy!"
"But why enslave orcs? Were other peoples enslaved? Clearly not in such quantities, or they'd be everywhere too: this was slavery on a commercial scale! Yet if I wanted someone to till my fields, I'd go for a giant or an ogre, not an orc."
"And if you wanted someone to add up?"
I didn't say much to SKUP on the ride back from MIkuMIku, because my head was awhirl with thoughts following my conversation with Officer Froggy. SKUP didn't mind, since his head was also awhirl, although in his case it was with SHEPKATmiMEK whisky resulting from the conversion of his weekly pay into a bottle of it.
The fact that HA wives can have multiple husbands must be an echo from when they were subjected to breeding programs as slaves. Women who objected to having children by a variety of fathers would have been punished, so in order to avoid this they took as mates several men whom they found reasonably acceptable, even if they didn't actually go so far as to love them. Thus, by the time the barbaric practice of enslavement was ended, the HA had grown so accustomed to having many partners that it was accepted practice and they therefore retained the system.
Other little facts which had been niggling at me began to fall into place, too. Suppose a slave was raped by an owner (which happened all too often in the case of African slaves in the Americas, so might be supposed to have happened on Virginia, too). An orc crossed with a dwarf or a goblin might not look too much like an orc, so some means would have to be adopted of identifying it. Plantation managers in the Caribbean used to brand slaves; perhaps on this planet the custom was to slit their slaves' noses to make them bigger and more orc-like? Maybe that's why to this day the HA applied this form of disfigurement to children born out of wedlock?
I found I was becoming increasingly annoyed with myself. I really should have seen all this before, but I'd been guilty of gross ethno-centrism of the worst kind. If I'd found evidence of nose-slitting as a practice among a tribe on Earth, I'd have pounced on it, and wouldn't have rested until I'd discovered what was behind it. Here, though, I'd fallen into the same "orcs are ... orcs" trap that Officer Jute had exhibited months previously when I pointed out that she hadn't provided any orc academics for us to gawp at. Orcs don't do something simply because they're orcs, any more Belgians do anything simply because they're Belgians (well, apart from being rude about the French). Dismissing seemingly inexplicable observed behaviour as just another of those wacky things that orcs do was very unprofessional of me.
Worse, though, I knew in my heart that my erstwhile attitude smacked severely of racism.
I was rather depressed over the next few days, and even SKUP noticed it. He tried to cheer me up by comically wringing the neck of a pigeon then holding the deceased bird under his arm and making out it could talk, but I just wasn't in the mood.
I asked myself why the HA had been chosen by the Virginian authorities as a worthy culture for Earthly humans to study. I had been under the impression that the whole point of this anthropological exercise was that Earth would learn more of Virginia, and (later) vice versa, but this nowhere collection of orcs? It didn't make sense. Had they been selected at random? It would be equivalent to a Virginian anthropologist's being sent to study some tribe in Central Africa: interesting and worthy, but it doesn't tell you a great deal regarding the people who have power (except inasmuch as it teaches you how they treat less advanced societies). By spending six months living in brushland eating lizards you certainly wouldn't learn much about whether or not your capital city was likely to have a nuclear missile fired at it, which I understood to be the point of this exercise.
The choice of subject matter was, I decided, probably something to do with the fact that the HA were once slaves. Of course, many orc tribes would satisfy that same criterion, but with the HA there was some additional detective work involved, and therefore any anthropologist who sniffed around enough to figure out the slave connection might reasonably be expected to feel rather chuffed. That in turn would ensure that slavery got a substantial write-up in the ethnography, which meant the Virginian humans would benefit from good press for having put an end to the practice.
The fact that it was the human Governor of this province who had first mentioned to me that the orcs had been enslaved was further evidence of conspiracy. Perhaps even Mike Froggy had been briefed on the matter, too? I didn't want to think ill of someone whom I regarded as a friend, but if they'd tricked him such that he thought he was helping me, well, anything was possible.
So to summarise, it seemed like I'd been set up. I had only been sent to study the HA so that I could discover they had once been slaves. As liberators, the Virginian humans were therefore obviously on the side of goodness and light, and clearly weren't to be feared or mistrusted at all.
I decided that if this was the way the Virginians wanted to play it, I'd better just accept the idea. Throwing a tantrum wasn't going to get me anywhere, and I still had a lot of loose ends to tie up before my research was complete. I wasn't happy, though: I felt that I'd lost heart in what I was doing, and that I would thenceforth serve out my tenure on Virginia simply going through the motions, producing a competent but dry report and letting the politicians have their way.
How wrong I was...
I tested the HA sense of humour by trying out the following joke on them, which I specially composed to suit the local conditions.
A blind man challenges a sighted man to a fight, betting him 10 sovereigns that he'll win. The sighted man, laughing, agrees. "When do you want to fight?" asks the sighted man. "Oh, I don't mind," replies the blind man. "Any night will do."2
Here's a HA joke...
"When I heard my Uncle REKa was killed by a dead squirrel falling from a tree, I just laughed and laughed. What the squirrel didn't know was that Uncle REKa had a bad heart and was going to be dead in under 66 days anyway! That stupid squirrel gave up its life in vain!"
I decided that the HA sense of humour was rather idiosyncratic...
Call me Sherlock, but I knew there was something amiss when I noticed the half-dead rat at the entrance to Lakka's compound. Had I seen Lakka's cat torturing it with a series of blows of the paw as it tried to drag itself to safety, I would have thought nothing of the scene; however, Lakka's cat had apparently been spirited away before it could make a meal of the creature. Now why would that be..?
I had my suspicions. Whenever anything of local significance was happening, Lakka called a conference of the senior orcs in the village. Those who bothered to show up went with him into his hut, and deep deliberation ensued (followed, I had no doubt, by deep inebriation). Of course, who knows what manner of evil magic might be employed by enemies to influence such obviouslyimportant discussions? A certain degree of protection is always prudent.
So it was that every time Lakka wanted to talk things over with his friends, he grabbed hold of his cat, tied its paws and feet together, and hung it upside-down on a pole outside his door. This would stop evil spirits from wreaking their havoc because they'd have to get past the cat first, and hey, who'd want to harm a cat?
I sneaked up to Lakka's door, and listened. Judging by the resigned expression on the cat's face, the meeting hadn't been going for very long, so with any luck they hadn't opened the whisky yet and I'd maybe hear something coherent.
I could make out Lakka's voice. "Well it's my rubbish, and if we're going to burn him on it then I want his socks!"
So, someone had died, then! Ah, but who was it? I could hear MOllok being sarcastic about Lakka's rubbish being complete rubbish, so I knew it wasn't him. Should I check my census and see if I could determine who was missing?
Nah, easier if I just asked someone! Now where was SKUP?
Fortunately, SKUP was not the corpse.
Unfortunately, JaSEP, the (former) second-oldest male orc in OLtic, was.
It was generally agreed that JaSEP's death was caused by his advanced old age - he was 61 - although I personally felt that it was probably more to do with the five-metre fall from the tree where he was trying to collect honey. Nevertheless, despite his overtly cantankerous ways, most villagers were genuinely sad to learn of his demise (although those who were in possession of his favours were necessarily more so).
Having not attended a HA funeral, I had no idea what their burial rites involved, save what I had overheard at Lakka's hut concerning cremation. Anthropologists can often make an educated guess at the nature of any ceremony involved, based on their knowledge of the culture's religious beliefs, however if I'd learned anything during my stay with the HA it was that the normal rules of ethnology do not apply, at least at the superficial level. Nevertheless, I wouldn't have been too surprised to discover that the treatment of the body had some reverberation from the time when the HA were slaves.
I also made a mental note to stand well back from the funeral pyre, given the likely effect that six decades worth of whisky would have on JaSEP's combustibility.
SKUP gave me the basic run-down of what I could expect to happen. JaSEP's oldest nephew would hammer a spike into the body's chest, to make sure that JaSEP was dead. A fire would be lit. Four of the deceased's dearest friends would each take a limb and throw him onto the fire. The mourners would watch him burn, thinking fond thoughts of him as his flesh was consumed. When all that remained was bone, they would then eat cooked meat in his honour. After, the women would go home and the men would drink whisky until they fell over.
To be honest, I had already speculated that the event would end in that particular manner.
As to when all this would take place, well that was up to the chief and the senior male orcs to decide. Had JaSEP been female, it would have been the chief and the senior female orcs. I think that this was more to do with how many people could fit in a hut than anything deep-rooted, though.
It turned out that JaSEP would be incinerated the following day, since there was a good two hours' worth of work needed to build a bonfire. The meeting had decided that the fire would be built on some land owned by one of JaSEP's alleged sons, who wanted the ashes to use to enrich his soil. Well, want not waste not, and he had been promised by JaSEP once. What a thoughtful, caring father the old orc had been.
The ceremony began at nightfall. I hypothesised that this was because in slave times the owners wouldn't let them off work until then. JaSEP's body was brought out, already stripped naked, and placed next to the pile of rubbish which was to be ignited shortly. Close relatives, including JaSEP's eight remaining living wives and ex-wives, stood around him in a circle, most of them sobbing. I found it quite emotional myself, too, since they were all clearly full of genuine grief.
The eldest nephew, MinnOSH, one of the biggest orcs in the village, stepped forward with his stake and a wooden mallet. The mourners parted, still full of tears. Solemnly, MinnOSH knelt by his dead uncle's body. He placed the wooden point above JaSEP's once-beating heart, and hammered it through. Reverently, he then arose, and, taking his mallet with him, joined the rest of JaSEP's close kin in the circle.
I wasn't too sure of the relevance of this act, but again it could conceivably have been enforced by slavers to make sure that no-one would risk faking death to escape their bondage.
It was now time for the fire to be lit. Lakka, his head bowed, approached the heap of rubbish. He turned, raised his arms, and, addressing the whole of the village, shouted, "Anyone got a light?"
There followed a brief interlude while people patted their pockets, muttered about maybe having something in their hut, and generally criticised the lack of forethought of their glorious chief.
Eventually, a light was found, and Lakka got the fire started. It didn't take long for it to catch, and soon the blaze was deemed good enough to throw the body onto. The throwers were called, and I felt a brief pang of poignancy as I realised that MOllok was leading them. The four men stood around JaSEP's body, bent down together to take a limb, and, on MOllok's signal, lifted together.
Or at least they tried to. MinnOSH had made such a good job of hammering in his spike that JaSEP wouldn't budge, and it took a bit of to-ing and fro-ing for the throwers to work him loose. Finally, though, with a cracking of dead ribs, they succeeded, then had immediately to put the corpse down so they could get their breaths back. A minute or two later, just as people were beginning to get impatient, they picked up the arms and legs again, and began to swing the body backwards and forwards. On the third swing, they all let go, sending JaSEP's remains into the raging flames.
"Sleep well, old friend" said MOllok, sadly.
Stillness descended on the onlookers. Everyone was staring at the bonfire as it did its work, their faces aglow with its flickering, orange light, and warmed by its CHAtren-like heat. They remained like that for perhaps ten minutes, each recalling their own memories of the man who had died, with only the crackling of the fire and the occasional sob to break the silence.
At length, Lakka clapped his hands. "Right!" he shouted. "Nobody else had better die for the next few weeks, because I'm clean out of rubbish. Now let's cook that meat!"
A cheer went up, not least from me, since the HA rarely bothered with such indulgences. Today, though, they had a fire which it seemed a shame to waste, so they stood in line, removed their individual chunks of meat from a bowl held by one of JaSEP's widows, and took them over to the fire. Naturally, I joined them, in an earnest attempt to perform some participant observation (and to remind my stomach how to digest food that was warm for reasons other than having recently been killed). I chose a lean-looking lump of something, took my long stick, approached the fire as closely as I could while yet retaining my eyebrows, and char-grilled whatever it was they'd given me.
I recovered the meat a minute or so later, deftly hooking it out with my stick. It certainly looked well done, and it was definitely hot enough that I had to wait for it to cool down before I could try it. When I did, though, it was delicious! Almost pure charcoal, just like on my father's barbecue when I was a young lad.
Ahh, good old-fashioned home cooking. It beats REKchit any day!
Here's a joke I made up for the HA which they did laugh at, although probably for the wrong reason:
Back on Earth, I have this big, big dog, and I take it for walks across a busy road. The are lots of cattle and goats and carts on the road, and even motorcycles and cars, and they're going past all the time. People ask me if it's dangerous, but I say no: not since I had its testicles cut off, it isn't.
Over the next few days, I had a series of short but interesting conversations with SKUP. My aim was to discover what the HA thought other tribes thought of them, and how they (the HA) might believe these other tribes formed such opinions.
"Reading all those case studies for your law course must give you quite a perspective on what lies out there beyond the orc lands," I began.
"What?" SKUP replied. He'd have said that no matter how I'd opened.
"Well, most of the HA have never been out of these mountains; it's only those with exceptional resolve who even visit MIkuMIku."
"So you read all this material from elsewhere on Virginia, and it must seem very alien to you, compared to OLtic."
"It's like listening to stories: you have to make pictures in your mind to suppose what it might all be like. I know it won't really be as I imagine it, of course, but one day I hope to go beyond MIkuMIku, when I'm a lawyer."
"Where would you like to go?"
"New Dulwich," he answered, firmly.
"I've been to New Dulwich myself; I was very impressed."
"I would like to see it, too."
"You'd have a lot to learn if you wanted to live there, though. It's very different from OLtic."
He frowned. "I wouldn't want to live there. People would laugh at me."
"They would? Why would they do that?"
"Because I'm an orc."
Damn, if only he wasn't right...
"I was thinking, SKUP, about what you said yesterday. Doesn't it annoy you that the other peoples of Virginia regard orcs as something of a joke?"
"Why should it? To them, we are something of a joke."
"But having lived among you for, what, nearly five months - "
" - for 147 days, I now understand that you're actually bright, friendly, helpful people."
"Fine, but who else is going to spend 147 days living among us so they can reach the same conclusion."
"People can be influenced, SKUP. It only takes one success to show everyone what can be done."
"You don't think that people might treat me differently, because I am an orc?"
"No, of course not."
"Then shall I go to Earth?"
Damn, he's right again...
"SKUP, what do you know about history?"
"Not much. It's about things that happened a long time ago, isn't it?"
"Yes. What do you think happened in the period of darkness?"
"We all had a rotten time of it, I guess."
(Deep breath). "Do you know that many orcs, possibly including the HA, were once slaves?"
"We were? Well, that explains the period of darkness, then, doesn't it?"
Quite. "It may do, yes, but doesn't it make you angry? To know that your ancestors were once hunted by trolls and ogres and sold to work in fields and mines and places where there's a lot of adding up to do?"
"Why should that anger me? I'm not a slave; no orcs are slaves any more. Are they?"
"But surely there must be some bitterness?"
"Bitterness? You mean some of those slavers are still alive out there?"
"I don't expect so, I don't know how long ogres live. Elves can live for centuries, though, there are maybe a few still alive who once owned orcs."
"Well, I expect they didn't used to know any better. They do now."
"But SKUP!" I was getting a little exasperated. "Don't you see? Your present situation, living out here miles from civilisation with hardly two pennies between you, is as a direct result of your ancestors' enslavement. You should be compensated."
SKUP was shaking his head, looking serious. "RICHard," he said. "I think you should stop trying to turn me against people because of the sins their fathers' fathers committed against my fathers' fathers."
Ogres and trolls don't live on this continent in large numbers. Ogres live on the continent to the East, and trolls mainly on the continent to the Southeast. To take slaves, they must have raided orc settlements in ships, seizing individuals and transporting them back across the sea to their homelands.
No wonder a good many orcs took a disliking to water.
That week, on my trip to MIkuMIku, disaster struck.
I was trundling along on my trusty motorbike when a large deer suddenly appeared ahead of me. I had to swerve to avoid hitting it, and instead ran into a boulder. SKUP and I were thrown from the saddle, and landed in a heap on the ground. The crack I heard from my jacket pocket was, I realised immediately, from my reading glasses breaking.
The HA had found my glasses rather amusing. They'd seen such things before: Professor Charles Bosun, the geologist who taught SKUP English, had worn a pair all the time. Nevertheless, it was always a cause for merriment if I had to "put my eyes on" to write something down, then look over the rim to observe the world about me. It was also apparently quite funny to send a small child to my hut while I was asleep to replace the glasses with a large but dead lizard, but that's by the by.
Obviously, I had to have my glasses repaired. I couldn't work without them, and didn't have a spare pair (well, I did have a spare pair, but it was in the bureau in my study back home). Did MIkuMIku have an optician's? Sure, right next to the boulangerie Parisienne and the Ferrari franchise. Sigh.
My bike wasn't damaged, as there had been no tactical nuclear missile released in the vicinity, so after checking that SKUP was also in one piece I continued our journey. SKUP hassled me the entire time, complaining that I should have flattened the deer and taken it back to the village, and it was therefore a cause of some relief to me when the outskirts of MIkuMIku finally came into view.
I related my story to Margaret Froggy as she made me the nice cup of tea which all English people feel is a necessary first step on the road to recovery after some momentous calamity. She was very sympathetic, as usual, but had to tell me that there were no opticians for miles and miles and miles. The best I could do would be to head for MEKTO and hope that some of the bigger towns on the way had the necessary facilities. MEKTO itself was host to several opticians, she informed me, but it was rather a long drive to get there.
Long drive or no long drive, I needed my glasses fixed. Both lenses were cracked in several places, and I doubted that I would be able to soldier on with them for very long. I knew, of course, that I had only a month or so left to me with the HA before I would have to return to Earth anyway, and bearing that in mind it did seem perhaps a little excessive to go all the way to MEKTO and spend a day or two waiting for replacement lenses to be fitted. However, I had an idea that this might well be a cloud with a silver lining, as I could perhaps use the time profitably to discover more about the history of the HA from the official records of their period of darkness. There were bound to be some somewhere in the city.
Mike was out performing some military inspection or other, so I couldn't solicit his opinion regarding the likelihood of my being able to find any information in MEKTO concerning the background of the HA. Margaret was her usual optimistic self ("I'm sure that someone will know exactly where to look." - yes, but will anyone know where to look to find such a person?); she said she'd speak to Mike when he got back in the evening, and he'd try to contact the authorities in MEKTO to warn them that I was coming. Even Margaret had to concede, though, that merely telephoning the correct person in the correct building didn't necessarily mean that "the authorities" would ever get to know.
Consequently, I took SKUP back to OLtic a little earlier (and therefore a little more sober) than usual, and made preparations to visit MEKTO two days later (to give the gist of Mike's call a little extra time to crawl to the relevant people). I made sure that Lakka knew I would be back within a week, just in case he got any ideas about moving a new wife into my hut while I was away...
MEKTO! City of bright lights and bustling street-life!
Well, compared to OLtic it was, anyway.
I'd passed through a town on the way which boasted a shop that sold ready-made spectacles, so I'd stopped and bought a pair. They weren't ideal, particularly since the bridge was meant to fit orc noses and not human noses, but they'd be enough to help me read any documents I needed to in MEKTO, assuming I found any. So what if I looked like a nerd?
It was rather an odd feeling to be back in somewhere vaguely civilised, although of course I hadn't thought of the city that way the first time I'd passed through. It was comforting nevertheless to see streets with cars in them; come to that, it was comforting just to see streets.
I found the hotel in which I had stayed on my first visit, and booked in again (on the "better the devil you know" principle). I asked someone wandering around the lobby in a uniform if she knew where the nearest optician's was, and she said she did, thank you very much, before swiftly disappearing behind some door marked Staff Only.
I wandered over to the front desk, but no-one was there. I rang the bell; no-one answered. I rang it again; still no-one came. I picked up the bell, put it in my pocket, and made for the exit.
"Hey! You! Bring back that bell!" shouted a voice.
I stopped and turned round. "Me?" I said, trying to sound surprised.
"Yes, you, I saw you, you just took the bell!" The speaker was a middle-aged orc with dark, heavy brows; he was wearing a black suit and black neck-tie-thing.
"What bell?" I put my hand in my pocket and removed the object in question. I shook it. It went ding. "Well how about that, it is a bell! I thought it was a cup."
"A cup?" The orc laughed. "It looks nothing like a cup! You ought to get your eyes tested, pal!"
"Ah, now it's funny you should say that..."
The optician agreed to see me without an appointment. I took this as a courtesy, although if his receptionist was anything like the others in MEKTO there was a fair chance that he was obliged to dispense with the basic formalities of an appointment system anyway.
I was led into a large room with a chair in the middle. The optician appeared: he was perhaps in his mid-30s, and he wore a coat which could generously be called white. He was very excited when he saw his patient.
"Human eyes!" he exclaimed. "This is going to be so good!"
"Before we start," I said, hesitantly, "you weren't tormented by hideous dreams of human eyes as a child, were you?"
"No, no," he replied, "it's just that I don't get to do many humans. It's orcs, orcs, orcs in here. You can see your reds better than we can, can't you?"
"I don't know, I'm just visiting. I'm long-sighted; I need something to help me read."
"You can't see heat, though, can you?" He bent over and lifted up one of my eyelids. "No, that's dwarfs, I thought so. They have this inner eyelid that's transparent to normal light but opaque to heat. They keep it down in sunlight, and raise it in darkness. Then, these pigments on their retinas can pick up warmth."
"You're rather well-informed," I said, approvingly. My confidence in this orc was growing by the second.
"Oh, I always remember that bit about dwarfs," he smiled. "That's what I failed my third year optician's course on. Now, let me get a light..."
"Wait, wait! You mean you're not qualified?"
"Well, I suppose not, but I am experienced." He removed a small torch from a drawer.
"17," he answered.
"17 what?" He was advancing on me with the torch. "Years? Months? Weeks?" Surely not, "Days?"
"Customers, including you," he replied, and shone the torch into my left eye. "What do you see?"
"Well, nothing really, just a pale, blue circle."
"Ah." He switched the instrument off. "It's elves who can see ultra-violet, then. I suppose we'll have to do the rest of this test really quickly, now, before that eye starts to hurt."
I left the optician's sporting an ill-fitting Captain Hook style eye patch, vowing that the moment I had my new glasses I'd return it to the optician in such a manner that he'd have to wait for his digestive system to process it before he could get it back. I'd been told that grinding lenses to fit my frames would take two days, which meant it would be at least three before I need bother asking how everything was getting along. Three days in MEKTO... Great...
I strolled back to my hotel, noting along the way how easy it is to walk into overhanging branches when stereoscopic vision is not available. Well, I was a little preoccupied, too, I guess: where was I likely to find 300-year-old documents that might shed light on the history of the HA?
Let's suppose that my conspiracy theory was right. If that were the case, then Mike Froggy's telephone call would have been dealt with promptly, and access to the necessary papers would be already discreetly arranged for me. All that I would have to do would be to make contact with someone who could plausibly direct me to the appropriate library in a manner contrived not to rouse my suspicions.
They'd probably expect me to go to the governor. Very well, that's what I'd do.
I opened the door of the administrative centre, and walked up to the receptionist. She opened a drawer, looked inside, and said, "Oh."
"You're supposed to say, `Go Away'," I apprised her, helpfully.
She reached into her drawer and pulled out three cards. She looked at them.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Dr Richard Bartle," I replied.
She put down the top card, and looked at the other two. She placed one of these face down, and said, "The Governor is waiting in his office." She then tossed this card and the first card into a waste basket, and put the other card back in her drawer.
I had the feeling that I was expected.
GAEva was standing at the top of the stairs, a thoroughly bored expression on her face. "He's in the room at the end, on the right," she said, as if it was a supreme physical effort for her to do so.
"Thank you," I said, then froze. She hadn't said, "He's in the room at the end, on the right". She had said "MakIPLA kem SNAlav BITHganavA SHES, gezapt PREB VAla." I hadn't said, "Thank you". I had said, "FAL DAMarGA."
"He's in the room at the end, on the right," she repeated, this time in English.
"I know he is, you just told me. But why did I understand you? You're not HAish - you don't even look like a HA."
"Dr Bartle!" It was the governor's voice. "Come through here, I have something to show you."
With great suspicion, I followed the governor into the room at the end, on the right. It was lined with cabinets filled with old, leather-bound tomes, and there were a number of tables with wide, long drawers in them like in the map rooms of the British Museum.
"GAEva just said something to me in some kind of orcish, and I understood her," I said.
"She was probably just trying to be awkward3." He noticed my eye patch. "When did you decide to become a pirate?"
"Oh, earlier, in a moment of light-headedness."
"Don't you think it shows a lack of vision? Never mind, come and look at this..."
He took me over to a stand where he had placed a large book, open at a page somewhere in the middle.
"When word reached me this morning that you might be paying us a visit, I had a sift through the archives. This is what I found. What do you make of it?"
"Well I'm no expert, but it looks to me like a book."
The governor sighed. "Day in, day out, I have to put up with GAEva and the other orcs here making remarks just like that. It seems you've been living among the HA for long enough that the habit has rubbed off on you, too..." He flipped the book over to its cover. "See? It's a historical you're going to tell me you don't read deltoid script, aren't you?"
In my pocket, I had the 63-CrICH coin that MOllok had loaned me some time ago; the lettering it bore was the same.
"No, I don't read deltoid script, but my guess is that it's what the orcs used to use several hundred years ago, before they were enslaved."
"Near enough," smiled the Governor. "In fact, the orcs have used this for many, many hundreds of years; some estimates place its origins two thousands years ago. It did, however, stop being used in this part of the world when the orcs freed themselves from their tormentors."
Now that wasn't what I had expected to hear from the Governor. The orc history stuff, sure, he was trying to feed me with information, but `the orcs freed themselves'? If the Virginian humans weren't claiming the credit for ending the enslavement of these orcs, why then had they sent me to study the HA? There were bound to be examples of cases where they had put an end to the practice. Maybe the choice of tribe I'd been assigned really was random?
"So how come you can read the book?" I asked.
The Governor laughed. "Part of the job specification! Prior to coming here, I had to learn to speak and read the local language, although, as I'm sure you've noticed, a lot of the orcs in MEKTO are fluent in English anyway."
"And how did you find the right book so quickly?"
"My, you are suspicious of something. Look, every day I come to this office to work, and yet seldom does work manage to find its way to me. I soon discovered this library, and have spent many an hour here occupying myself while my staff strive to beat their own records for most documents mislaid in a morning. I wouldn't even have known you were coming if the army commander hadn't sent someone round to deliver the message personally."
"Fair enough." I may as well get on with the charade. "Well, what's so special about this book, then?"
"Ah. It's a historical record of the proceedings of the conclave held in MEKTO in the year... that would be... 1588. The chiefs of all the orc tribes of this continent met to determine the future of their peoples. They had won a great victory against their oppressors, and had successfully demanded and obtained the release of enslaved orcs from far and wide. However, they had yet to decide where to put them. Those orcs who wanted to rejoin a particular tribe were welcome, of course, but many were second-generation slaves or more, and wanted some land where they could be their own masters."
"And the land they were granted was up in the Northern mountains, right?"
"That was one of the places, yes. Your HA are freed slaves."
"And because these slaves came from far and wide, they all spoke different languages and dialects. In order to communicate, they had to choose a single language and all learn that. They chose the one that most of them spoke, which originated where most of the slaves were taken from, which was MEKTO's hinterland. Hence, I can understand GAEva, but I can't understand the SHEPKATmiMEK when they only live down the road4 from the HA."
"I expect so, yes; the book here doesn't mention anything like that, though."
"Well thank you, Governor, you've been very helpful."
Too helpful, perhaps?
Obviously, GAEva had been told to speak her brand of orcish in my hearing with a view to supporting the information that the Governor wished to convey to me. However, that bit two ways: not only did I now know that I could understand the local orcs, but I also knew that they could understand me. I still had at least two and a half days left in MEKTO, and I did not intend to waste them looking at the sights...
So, the HA were nameless because their tribe really didn't have a name. Their culture exhibited echoes from their time in slavery because that would be the one unifying cultural experience that most of them shared. As for language, well although I had understood GAEva, she hadn't spoken quite like the HA do. It wasn't like the difference between Earth English and Virginian English; the analogy which probably works best is that if she had spoken German, the HA would have spoken Yiddish.
So, the HA were a melange; but why didn't they know they were a melange? And what, if anything, did the Virginians want me to find out about them?
1 Cause: unknown. The only advice the doctor could give me was not to scratch it, or I might from a distance look like a monkey.
2 It's funnier if you recall that Virginia has no moon, so the nights are incredibly dark by Earth standards. Honest.
3 He may have meant this as a weak pun, awkward/orcward. Ha ha ha.
4 I use the term road only figuratively.
21st January 1999: ltlwo8.htm