Up until now, it’s been cruisy, but you get the sense things are beginning to turn.
For starters, there’s the discomforting recognition that, for all the bonhomie still somehow coursing your veins, you’re not here by choice. You’ve been abducted. You, of all people. For long enough now, that your chin has started to stubble. And you notice, too, which you somehow hadn’t before, that your hosts are, to put it mildly, butt-ugly. And then some.
Then there’s the fact you can understand them at all, like just now when the Xardril hand-signs another question to you. In fact, what you feel goes beyond mere understanding: you comprehend them, in the sense of—somehow—knowing that the broad-snouted, blister-hided, rhino-built Xardril (now taking its obligatory puff at the co-stick it’s sharing, toke-like, with its Belberi counterpart) is called a Xardril to begin with, because the word’s not been spoken or referenced in any fashion; of knowing that it’s male, though the gender is never acknowledged; of knowing that it (he) is post-sexually mature; of knowing that it is a plains herbivore hailing, like its small carnivorous Belberi offsider, from a planet 62.5 parsecs from here, though others on this vessel are from yet more remote locations; and of further knowing that this is just the merest tip of the seemingly endless information-iceberg which has somehow embedded itself in your being. And the question you ask yourself—taking precedence for the moment over the Xardril’s latest question, for all the latter’s accompanying gestures of urgency; taking precedence, even, over the how and why of your own presence on this ship—is how did all that information get there, in your head? How do you suddenly come to know such a vertiginous stack of, of stuff about all this? About the details of your current location: near Earth orbit, shielded, secure, unseeable; and all the background? About the whole shebang?
It’s obvious they—the Xardril, the Belberi, and all the other weird alien types in this Consortium they refer to—have changed you in some way. Because for all that you are, let’s be honest, a pretty sharp guy, there’s no way you knew all this stuff yesterday, before they picked you up …
It better not, and you start to feel edgy here, sweat and gut-roil, better not be some motherfucking pill they’ve made you swallow, none of that bullshit, because that’d just be too far. Totally. No fucking question. Let’s face it, you hate that shit, and if any slimefucking bastard alien has been messing with your head in that manner, you’ll … well, the question’s immaterial, because you can sense, when you think it through, that they haven’t. It’s revealed knowledge, that’s all.
Revealed knowledge. Hell, you can live with that. You can work with that. And you even allow yourself a grin, ’cos it’s such an altogether reassuring thought, mellowing. It’s as if it’s stuff you’d always known, and had chosen merely to forget. Until now.
So that’s cool.
And yes, it has been pleasant, in its way. You’d been thinking how sweet it could be if your friends could see you here. You’re not sure if this is something you’ll be able to tell them about, and you hope they’re not worried. They shouldn’t be worried, because you’re fine. But if this all goes on too long, best to ask the Belberi—she’s the more approachable of the two, for sure, though the dynamic between them is difficult to read. Knowledge, background, accumulation of details—you’ve got that in spades, but the interpretation, the colouring, no, not so much—anyway, this goes on too long, maybe you’ll mention to the Belberi that there are people you’ve gotta connect with, else they’ll worry. David, and a few others. Coupla important calls expected in the next few days, too, some projects in the pipeline maybe. Paramount and all that.
Jeez, you’re starting to ramble.
But maybe something’s begun to wear off, because there’s the edge again. And the Xardril’s latest question, still unanswered.
Better leave the self-reflection until later.
“What do you mean, our belief systems?” you ask. Opting to ignore what you know—protocol—you stare full into the Xardril’s butt-nosed face. Because, dammit, they need to understand you’re not going to be played with. I mean, hell, do they know just who you are? You’re not just some average guy off the street, you are one seriously connected dude, and you deserve a little more respect than this punked-up space rhino’s been showing you—
Its blunt, broad-toothed mouth opens in displeasure, while its comm hand scrawls a response in the air to its right. All in silence, although the sense it’s shouting is palpable. And that mouth—that mouth is not to be trifled with, any more than the rest of the beast. Being. Intelligent alien lifeform. You shift your gaze to read the Xardril’s signing, still slightly agog that you ‘remember’ so fucking much about it, about all this. The Consortium is concerned at the multiplicity and mutually contradictory nature of your society’s belief systems, it explains. So. Simple repetition of its previous statement, obviously the Xardril equivalent of talking loudly and slowly so the natives will ultimately understand, because that’s what always works, isn’t it?
Typical aliens. Always making crappy blanket generalisations.
Thankfully the Belberi negotiator, seated on the small dais off to the Xardril’s left—and you can’t help but think ‘meerkat’ for the Belberi, even though the similarity in her case is no more appropriate than ‘rhino’ is for the Xardril, in much the same way that although they’re both gray, they’re different colours of gray, if that makes any sense—is more forthcoming. She speaks, and after a few seconds the table’s translation device offers its interpretation of her calls, redundant because you’ve already understood. That revealed-knowledge thing again, doing its stuff. Jeez, whatever technique they’ve used—even if it makes you feel that slightest bit uneasy to think of it as a technique, like it was a treatment or something—whatever, it’d be an amazingly powerful tool for an audit. Which in its own way is maybe what this is … “It’s accepted that religion is an inevitable side-effect of the evolution of intelligence,” the Belberi says, revealing a disconcerting set of sharper-than-a-serpent’s teeth, then pausing to take a breath through the co-stick. (They’ve kept the carbon monoxide level low as a courtesy to you, but even so there’s a taint of resentment in the manner they adopt, in the way they both keep drawing sullen succour from the stick.) “Everyone within the Consortium—” and here she throws a sidelong glance, politely brief but unmistakable, towards her Xardril counterpart, “understands that any society comes to us with a history, a lineage that includes religious belief in some facet, whether animistic, deistic, holistic, nurturing, proselytising, aloof, secretive or whatever.” She takes another small breath from the slender tube, sharp eyes dilating slightly with the welcome rush of CO-heavy air. “We accept this as part and parcel of our heritage, your own heritage, as intrinsically intelligent beings.” She inhales once more from the tube, then passes the co-stick to the Xardril.You think her words through. There’s something you’re not getting. “So what’s the beef?” you ask. The translation device, no larger than the latest E-meters and obviously more for their benefit than yours, has some difficulty with this, and the herbivorous Xardril’s eyes quickly take on an alarmed flare. As though someone had just jabbed it in the butt. “I mean, is there some kind of problem?” you amplify. “Are you saying some part of one or other of Earth’s religions is a threat to the Consortium? Or maybe to one of its member races?”
The Xardril begins signing again, co-stick wedged in its mouth like a cigarillo, at just the same moment that the Belberi negotiator starts up again. Several of the large herbivore’s hand gestures are too fast for you to follow—you may feel damn near omniscient today, but you’re no speed-reader—but you catch the unmistakeable symbols for ‘bloodthirsty’ and ‘unreliable’.
The Belberi explains, meanwhile, “Quite the contrary. There is no particular problem with any one of your race’s beliefs, though admittedly some of them do appear exotic in the extreme. But the issue we have is with the profusion of such beliefs—” At this point she pauses to reclaim the co-stick from her neighbour, who takes the opportunity, having ceased its signalling a few seconds earlier, to clearly carve in the air the sign for ‘omnivores’ with what you just know is a flourish of disgust. “The profusion,” the Belberi continues, “and the often militant manner in which these beliefs are followed, is a source of grave concern to the Consortium, and indeed presents us with an unprecedented problem. I do not think the annals of the Galaxy’s recorded history contain such a clear example of a race which has attained recognisable interplanetary capability, and the capacity for interstellar broadcast, while carrying such a luggage of, for the most part, outmoded, simplistic, and quite frankly dangerous beliefs.”
“Baggage,” you mutter.
I beg your pardon? the Xardril’s hand asks, in a way that’s anything but polite enquiry. You really don’t get the interplay between this pair, and it grates. Like, you think you’re talking to one, and the other one responds. Offputting, much?
You bite your tongue. “Bug in the translation process,” you explain, which you just know, after that ‘beef’ bit, isn’t going to go over at all. And it doesn’t. “But anyhow, what’s with the omnivores bit?”
“Your type are—well, not unique, but certainly unusual by way of niche. Most of our consortium members are feeders exclusively either on fauna, on flora, or on energy-rich inorganics. Some derive their sustenance directly from photonic sources. But a being that lives on nutrition from such a wide variety of sources, it is not a promising candidate for long-term sentience in our experience, nor therefore of admission to our Consortium. I myself,” the Belberi confides, “partake only of the flesh of three species of what you would call rodents.”
You knew that. But you didn’t know you knew that, until just now. “And this is a problem for you, how?”
No, this is not a problem for us, signs the Xardril. But there has been speculation among our associates that your omnivorous nature might be connected to the problem with which you present us.
“Which is?” Your neck’s getting sore with all this to-fro bullshit. If you’d wanted to watch a tennis match, you could’ve stayed home. That is, if they’d presented you with any kind of fucking choice in the first place.
The Belberi negotiator takes it up, just like you knew she was going to, baring her small, sharp teeth in the process. Canines and incisors, all the way back. “We are faced with a difficulty in the interpretation of your circumstances. One which we are at a loss to resolve from an external viewpoint. Baldly, you have too many beliefs. Far too many beliefs. They are inconsistent even amongst themselves, to the extent that their persistence within your society is incomprehensible. Clearly the vast majority of them must be incorrect. And yet you people cling to them all, one or another. Beliefs do not linger in this way. They wither, they perish, as any truly intelligent society matures. Yours have not.”
“You want us to deny our faiths,” you say. “Well, dammit, at least have the guts to say that! Look, obviously there’s been a lot of bullshitting down through our history, on Earth I mean, people spreading lies and just, well, total gibberish in the name of eternal truth and all that shit, but you’ve got to see, that’s part of what makes us human! It’s part of who we are. You’ve got to understand, I, we, we just won’t stand for someone coming in from outside, telling us to fucking change the way we think, dammit! You want to pick apart our mental state, you and Pumbaa here had better just find yourself another fucking planet. Because this really pushes all my—I mean, we just won’t fucking tolerate that… that bullshit. You can’t fucking expect us to just—”
I think perhaps you misunderstand us, the Xardril signs, silently as always but with sufficient force that you shut up, fast. (You were getting kinda loud there. But—) And that’s it, for now, because they stand up. They stand up and walk out of the room. No fanfare.
Without the Xardril, the chamber is suddenly cavernous and far too white, with you its sole occupant.
That can’t be good.
You wonder if, and exactly how, you’ve overstepped the mark—after all, you didn’t ask to be appointed as some kind of spokesman for humanity, however much you might have always wondered at this kind of stuff, particularly over the past couple of decades; and you’re coldly, deeply aware of the knowledge that this Consortium has, across eons past, taken decisive and brutal action against societies with which it fell into dispute. There are fragments of the revealed knowledge that deal with this. You know, at this moment, about whole races of long-dead beings who were summarily exterminated by this Consortium, hunted down and extinguished to the last individual, for reasons not sufficiently important to have been recorded. The small simple craft in which you’re currently housed—imprisoned?—is, you have no doubt, fully capable of global destruction: not necessarily quick, not necessarily clean. The fire in the pit of your stomach is instantly quenched, iced over at the thought. There’s your children, for starters. You need to turn this around, to avoid this cascading into some war-of-the-worlds scenario.
Or maybe not. They’re back, already.
They’re back, and they seem not to be acting any more hostile than before, although they’re still butt-ugly. More so, if that’s possible. The Belberi says, “There is no smoke without fire.”
To which you say “What?” Because you’re surprised, at more than its sudden grasp of idiom.
The Belberi explains. And she’s right. It makes sense. So much so, that you wonder how you haven’t managed to see it this way, yourself, before now.
It’s the final, the ultimate piece of revealed knowledge, and it is sweet beyond measure. You know, and you know that they don’t. This Galaxy-spanning civilisation, this grand Consortium, and there’s something they’ve lacked all this time. There’s been a hunger. A void. They need something from you.
You almost laugh, though this is far too important an issue for such a dangerous response. Instead, you take your first sip of the glass that’s been in front of you all this time—and it is water, pure clean water, just like they’d said—and you say, trying the difficult trick of meeting both sets of butt-ugly eyes at once, “It’s true, we do have many faiths, many codes. But that’s entirely because, as you suggest, they’re bad copies of the original, and, frankly, they’re dangerous. I don’t blame you guys for being concerned about them because, hell, they’re just wrong. On so many levels. It’s only the original truth which has remained uncorrupted, and luckily for you I can put you perfectly straight on that. Just how Earth got to be the font of universal knowledge, and of its twisted mis-telling and deception, I can’t really tell you right now, though I reckon some of my friends back home probably could. But you’re right to deduce that our religious side has persisted because we knew the truth, even if so many versions of it got so badly corrupted. But fortunately for you, and me…well. I can honestly say that my friends and I represent, by, well, by several trillions of years, the oldest, and, uh, the only true record of perfect understanding that you’ll find on Earth. Or, from the sound of it, from anywhere in the Galaxy.”
You pause, for more than simple breath, or the need for another sip of water, though you take both. You pause, because that’s what the script would demand, and you know about scripts, and how to play them. You pause, primarily, for effect, and for just one more slice of self-reflection. Because you’re at the nub of something so momentous, so life-changing, for everyone you know—and so many you don’t—that it’s truly, terrifyingly humbling. John would be so much better at this, you think—the physical presence thing, although you’re not sure if that works the same way with aliens. Or if not John, then Kirstie. Or even maybe Mimi, who back in the day had been so persuasive.
But they’re not here. It’s you. It falls to you, to explain the secrets of the Universe—the truth, if they can handle it—to these ancient and immensely cultured beings. And to reap whatever near-limitless rewards might ultimately flow from this one chance encounter. Because, even though in one sense, this is nothing more than a small conversation, between you and a couple of weirdly-shaped guys, in another sense, it’s obviously so much more. Bigger than Ben Hur, indeed. Hell, bigger than anything you’ve ever appeared in, yet. Risky business, and then some.
“Well,” you say, worlds—and more—riding on your shoulders. You’re just one man, but right now, you’re the man. The top gun. You clear your throat.
You clear your throat, and you smile your best shark-mouth grin. “The name might not work for you guys. Few too many syllables, could be a bit of a mouthful. And you may not want to call it a ‘church’, which we only did because it sort of smoothed the way some. But really the label’s not that big a deal, we can change that to something makes more sense for you. What is important, what’s central, and what you need to understand beyond everything else, is the story with the thetans …”
Copyright © Simon Petrie 2012
Born on the South Island of New Zealand and now living on the North Island of Australia, Simon Petrie is a Canberra-based research scientist and writer of speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, and occasionally horror). Since 2007, his stories have appeared in magazines such as Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Aurealis, Borderlands, Kaleidotrope, Sybil’s Garage and Yog’s Notebook, webzines such as Redstone Science Fiction, AntipodeanSF, Ticon4 and Semaphore, and anthologies such as Masques (ed. Polack & Hopkins, CSFG), Destination: Future (ed. Adani & Reynolds, Hadley Rille Books), and Belong (ed. Farr, Ticonderoga Publications). His first collection of short fiction, Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables (Peggy Bright Books) published in March 2010, was shortlisted for a Sir Julius Vogel award in the Best Collection category. A novella double, Flight 404 / The Hunt for Red Leicester (Peggy Bright Books), was released in September 2012.
Simon is an active member of the Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and the SpecFicNZ core collective. For Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, he has acted as editor of issues 35 (May 2008), 40 (August 2009), 51 (June 2011) and 54 (June 2012). He co-edited Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear (Peggy Bright Books, 2012) with Edwina Harvey, and is currently co-editing the upcoming CSFG anthology Next with Robert Porteous. He has served on three different judging panels for the Aurealis Awards, in the SF Novel, Anthology & Collection, and Fantasy Short Story categories. In August 2010, he was awarded Best New Talent in the Sir Julius Vogel awards.
He can be found online at http://simonpetrie.wordpress.com/