Long ago, the great god Popacapinyo made the world. First, he made the wolf and the hawk, and he made them swift and deadly. Then, he formed the bear and the badger, who are strong but slow. And then he made the cunning snake and the ape, who lie in wait for the foolish and the weak.
Then Lord Popacapinyo turned his hand to the world, filled as it was with tricks and traps, and he made other animals, the ones that eat grass instead of meat. To all these creatures he gave a gift, so that they would evade capture and live to breed again. Some were quick, some strong, some crafty, but he saved the greatest gift of all for last: the Spirit of Sacrifice.
That gift he gave to the lemming.
And he took the lemmings in his hand and spoke:
‘You, and only you, will never know fear or cowardice. You will never stand alone, because you will all run together. You will have what all other races lack, and that will make you greatest of all. You have Lemming Spirit.
‘All the world will be your foe, Rodents of a Thousand Enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. So you must catch them first. Attack all the world, lemmings, and show them terror, for they are weak and afraid. Show them your lemming spirit, and then kill them all!
‘Dar huphep, huphep Yullai!
‘For glory, the glory of the Yull!’
* * *
At 08.30, Greenwich Galactic Mean Time, a staff car and troop lorry rumbled into the remains of the British Quarter. The lorry rolled between the shells of buildings, past the broken sheds and abandoned allotments, the Yullian flag fluttering from its radio antenna. Foliage covered the cab roof. Half a dozen severed heads hung on a chain across the front grille like beads on a necklace.
It stopped in Coronation Square. A huddle of beetle people waited; as the lorry drew to a halt they pushed their young to the rear of the crowd, out of sight.
Lemming men jumped down from the back of the lorry, their new rifles gleaming, and fanned out in a glittering circle of bayonets as Colonel Fremcar Nonc stepped out of the staff car. He looked from side to side, taking in the dilapidated buildings and the empty pole from which the Union Jack had once flown, and smiled.
Nonc was new to this region but rumours of his prowess had already spread. He was, by all accounts, paranoid, self-important, unbearably pompous and sadistic to the point of lunacy, which made him fairly typical for a soldier of the Divine Amiable Army of the lemming men of Yull.
A semicircle of cringing natives awaited their new master. One of the beetle people scurried forward to welcome Nonc.
‘All hail, noble Yullian warlord,’ it chirped. ‘We thank you for liberating us, and welcome –’
‘Silence, slave,’ said Colonel Nonc, casually bashing him over the carapace with his walking stick. ‘I do not bandy words with savages. Where is the human?’
‘The woman waits in the potting shed, honoured master. She is bound, as you requested –’
‘Enough! Conversing with you besmirches me. Lead the way to the prisoner.’
‘Please, gracious master, follow me.’
Nonc followed, scowling. Four of his toughest warriors accompanied him. The beetle led them around the side of the governor’s house, through the crater-ridden vegetable garden. The offworlders had left in a hurry, Nonc reflected: they had not even bothered to pick their sprouts. One good charge from the Yull and the cowardly humans had fled. Somewhere to the north they were still trying to fight, it seemed: the last death throes of their weakling empire. They had forgotten how to be rulers, how to act with wisdom and justice.
He belted the beetle with his stick. ‘Piss off now, barbarian!’
The five lemming men stomped into the governor’s potting shed. It was large and clean, lit with electric lights. In the middle of the room were two chairs, and on one of them sat a woman in British army uniform, her hands behind her back and a rope around her waist.
Nonc sat down opposite and pulled a table over. He reached into his sash and took out a pack of cigarettes.
‘Hello,’ the woman said.
Nonc frowned, wondering how to break the ice.
‘Shup!’ he screamed, and he slapped her across the face. ‘Ugly weakling flat-snout pig-monkey coward, your war of aggression is over and your verminous slave race must all die slow! Cigarette?’
‘I don’t smoke,’ she said.
‘Oh.’ Nonc had been looking forward to telling her that she couldn’t have one. ‘Now then,’ he began, cracking his knuckles, ‘you have nothing to fear from me, offworlder scum. So let us have a little chat, eh?’
One of his men pulled down the blinds.
‘I understand you were captured by the beetle-things yesterday, on the outskirts of the town. I also understand you are of the Deepspace Operations Group, fools who presume to fight our glorious, entirely lovable empire.
For you are she who wields the knife, consort of the ghost-warrior Wainscott – may a thousand demons chew out his wretched heart. You are his witch-woman, the banshee-warrior, she who is called… Susan.’
The woman said nothing. Nonc took a deep drag on his cigarette. Thoughtfully, he tapped the ash away and touched the glowing end to the tabletop. He turned it slowly, a smile creeping across his face as the formica began to scorch.
‘Offworlder, you will tell me where I can find this so-called Wainscott. The Greater Galactic Happiness and Friendship Collective is most troubled by his continuing resistance to our grand plan for the betterment of the galaxy and wishes only to benevolently torture him to death.’
‘I can do better than that,’ the woman said. ‘I’ll show you where he is.’
© Toby Frost 2014