DEUS EX MACHINA
His name was D'Artagnan. It was a very old style of naming, little-used now, when nobody cared whether your ancestors had been dogs, humans, or little wall-eyed turtles; in fact, with the perversity of history, the archaic underpeople's prefixes had come to be used almost as a badge of rank by older-established families.
True Men (though they rarely referred to themselves as such) were careful not to call the cat-, dog-, bear- and other animal-derived folk underpeople any more, either. That brought them too close to remembering the atrocities, even though they lay centuries in the past; True Men were acutely embarrassed by their ancestors' exploits.
Not that D'Artagnan had adopted that name out of anything as simple as pride; not that anyone in several millions would even have known its source, since reading was viewed as a rather eccentric way of passing time, even in tolerant New Wessex after the Rediscovery of Man.
The name had nothing to do with his canine ancestry: it was, purely and simply, a joke. Although D'Artagnan's friend Cato, whose name was also a joke (of a less subtle sort), was fond of saying that most True Men had become so careful about not giving offence that making fun of them was too easy to be either amusing or worth the effort.
It should be said that Cato, D'Artagnan and their colleagues were not precisely conformists. When non-conformity was the norm, though, such old-fashioned interests as they pursued were regarded as deliberately perverse.
What, after all, was the point of digging up some old ruin when all you needed to do was plug into your simbox to see what it looked like a thousand years ago?
New Wessex, despite its name, covered most of the southern part of the country once known as England; as did ancient oaks, both pedunculate and sessile. The silence of the forests reigned there once more, and only grassy hummocks spoke of the remains of settlements: humps turned, over the years, to green-furred shapes with blurred edges. Thrushes spoke in the trees, and skylarks in the air. When the earth was turned, it was rich and friable, brown as chocolate, and smelled of the year's rebirth.
In the clearing where the little group patiently worked, dusting aside the soil from stones with little brushes made of hair, João had found a primrose. He didn't know it was a primrose, but he was sketching it carefully, the yellow chalk tiny in his massive hand. A short way off, the other three were uncovering a patterned pavement. When they had done that they planned to open the large lumpy mound to the west.
The sun was almost directly overhead when Cato stood up and stretched with the grace of a jaguar, running her hands through her fall of hair as black as tar.
"Lunch break," she announced.
"You'll get no argument from me," said D'Artagnan. "Jenneth?"
"Mm?" asked the human girl absently, lost in the inscription she was deciphering.
"Time for lunch," said Cato again.
"I'll get João," called D'Artagnan, loping over to him.
Jenneth-from-the-House-of-the-Rose got to her feet with no less grace than Cato and dusted the knees of her coveralls: as her hands were dark with earth this made very little difference. She looked towards their approaching companions, and nudged Cato with a smile: "Don't you think they look alike?"
"Alike?" repeated Cato with some amusement. "A bear and a dog?" But she looked at them for Jenneth's sake, and had to admit that there was a certain resemblance. D'Artagnan was tall and thin, almost attenuated, and João huge as a rock, but they shared some things: the breeze ruffled long greying hair on both heads, and two pairs of large brown eyes were mild and patient as each other.
"Well, what have you found today?" enquired João in his rumbling voice.
"A plaque," replied Jenneth. "I think we've got another of those churches. Look, it's about this God again . " She knelt once more and indicated the worn lettering, brushing it gently with one hand: T TH GR T R GLO Y O GOD. João balanced a pair of spectacles on his nose and bent ponderously.
D'Artagnan said, "So the big hump might be the bottom of another tower."
"I wish we knew who, or what, this God was," said João somewhat wistfully. "It might give us a clue to the ancients' culture."
"But we know lots about their culture!" put in Cato . "It's their ways of thought we don't know about, and without that we're really only pissing in the dark."
"It's not so much their way of life, so much as how they buried their dead," said D'Artagnan.
"What do you mean?" asked Jenneth.
"Well..." He scratched his head. "They buried them all around these church buildings; surely that should tell us something."
"For protection?" suggested João.
"From what?" said Cato impatiently.
"I don't know," said D'Artagnan. He picked up a stick and drew absently in the dust: a cruciform shape. "If this is a church , and inside it is God -- why should God surround itself with dead men?"
"Perhaps God needed a dead army."
"No, Cato, that can't be it. There's nothing to suggest that God ever did anything, or that it'd need protection, even if the church is its house."
"What if--" began João, and turned pink as they all looked at him. The delicate flush sat incongruously on his big, genial face. "What if it was the other way round? If God were the protector, guarding all the dead people from harm?"
"I like that idea," said Jenneth thoughtfully.
"Let's have lun--" Cato said, as a sudden concussion of air, more like an implosion than a soundless explosion, knocked the four of them flying, slamming even João into a tree. Twigs and last year's acorns rained down on him, and he sneezed.
"What in Jestocost's name was that?" exclaimed D'Artagnan when he got his breath back.
Cato extricated herself from the pile of new-turned earth in which she'd landed and, a little fastidiously, tried to dust herself off. God in a spacecraft," she suggested facetiously.
João's face lit up. "D'you really think it was a spacecraft?" he asked. "An -- alien spacecraft?"
"Who said the word 'alien'?" said Cato crossly. D'Artagnan pulled Jenneth to her feet.
"Ours don't sound like that," said João. "They glide quite silently, out from the Up-and-out."
"Let's go and look!" exclaimed Jenneth. "I think it came from over there."
"All right, but let João and me go first. We're bigger than you two."
They hiked through the oakwood, all children of Earth, the dog-man and the bear first, followed by the cat-girl and the red-haired human. Men had spread out among the stars over the millennia, in sailships, in seedships, from the days of the scanners, the sailors, the pinlighters; had met strange and stranger things, many of which had, in fact, once been human, been True Men; but encounters with aliens, real aliens, had always been few and far between. So the exploring quartet can be forgiven their enthusiasm. Who knew what queer stellar tides could cast up their flotsam on Manhome at last?
It was, perhaps inevitably, D'Artagnan who saw the trail first: broken branches in the high summits of the oaks to begin with, tracking lower as the falling trajectory of the visitor's craft headed for impact. He winced to see the trees' wounds, but held out for caution: when they found the crash site, he and João went on alone.
Bizarre, he thought; the craft could not be other than alien. So ornate it was almost beautiful, with shining cogs and oiled levers gleaming, and the humanoid figure slumped within it, clad in strange garments of hairy cloth.
Their long unruly grey hair teased by the wind, D'Artagnan and João approached tentatively, watched from the trees by Cato and Jenneth.
Waking, the man fumbled with some mechanism and staggered out of his craft, and stopped in dismay, seeing them.
"Morlocks!" cried the Time Traveller, and fainted dead away.