Yohn was the second-best southgoer in our group. He couldn't compete with Simmon, the best of all, but Yohn could write his name on the picket fence several slats further than I. Over some weeks I'd strained to hold my breath longer and longer, and my marks had been creeping closer to his. So he must have been secretly practicing. He'd run too far from the breath of the aeoli. I could imagine him gasping, letting his mouth open and sucking in air with the sour bite of the interzone, trying to go back but stumbling with the toxins, the lack of clean oxygen. He might have been down, unconscious, breathing that nasty stew for minutes.
'They brought him to me,' the man said again. I made a tiny noise as I suddenly noticed that, half-hidden by a huge ficus, something was moving. I don't know how I'd failed to see it.
It was a Host. It stepped to the centre of the carpet. I stood immediately, out of the respect I'd been taught and my child's fear. The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forked skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and reclenched a limb. I thought it was reaching for me.
'It's waiting to see the boy's taken,' the man said. 'If he gets better it'll be because of our Host here. You should say thank you.'
I did so and the man smiled. He squatted beside me, put his hand on my shoulder. Together we looked up at the strangely moving presence. 'Little egg,' he said, kindly. 'You know it can't hear you? Or, well... that it hears you but only as noise? But you're a good girl, polite.' He gave me some inadequately sweet adult confection from a mantlepiece bowl. I crooned over Yohn, and not only because I was told to. I was scared. My poor friend's skin didn't feel like skin, and his movements were troubling.
The Host bobbed on its legs. At its feet shuffled a dog-sized presence, its companion.
The man looked up into what must be the Host's face. Staring at it, he might have looked regretful, or I might be saying that because of things I later knew.
The Host spoke.
Of course I'd seen its like many times. Some lived in the interstice where we dared ourselves to play. We sometimes found ourselves facing them, as they walked with crablike precision on whatever their tasks were, or even running, with a gait that made them look as if they must fall, though they did not. We saw them tending the flesh walls of their nests, or what we thought of as their pets, those whickering companion animal things. We would quieten abruptly down in their presence and move away from them. We mimicked the careful politeness our shiftparents showed them. Our discomfort, like that of the adults we learned it from, outweighed any curiosity at the strange actions we might see the Hosts performing.
We would hear them speak to each other in their precise tones, so almost like our voices. Later in our lives a few of us might understand some of what they said, but not yet, and never really me.
I'd never been so close to one of the Hosts. My fear for Yohn distracted me from all I'd otherwise feel from this proximity to the thing, but I kept it in my sight, so it could not surprise me, so when it rocked closer to me I shied away abruptly and broke off whispering to my friend.
They were not the only exoterres I'd seen. There were exot inhabitants of Embassytown - a few Kedis, a handful of Shur'asi and others - but with those others, while there was strangeness of course there was never that abstraction, that sheer remove one felt from Hosts. One Shur'asi shopkeeper would even joke with us, his accent bizarre but his humour clear.
Later I understood that those immigrants were exclusively from species with which we shared conceptual models, according to various measures. The indigens, in whose city we had been graciously allowed to build Embassytown, Hosts were cool, incomprehensible presences. Powers like subaltern gods, that sometimes watched us as if we were interesting, curious dust, that provided our biorigging, and to which the Ambassadors alone spoke. We were reminded often that we owed them courtesy. Pass them in the street and we would show the required respect, then run on giggling. Without my friends though I couldn't camouflage my fear with silliness.
Excerpted from Embassytown by China Mieville. Copyright © 2011 by China Mieville. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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