Sister Amphong stood farthest from the rest of us, nearest the open grave. The prairie grasses we had planted outside the fences of our village undulated as far as one could see, their seeds blown in every direction by the winds of Terrarium. At least that was the name we gave the planet. We did not know what they called it. The grasses’ movement was like the white cloak the Sister was clothed in, and like her too their sound was soothing.
“Eighteen years ago we were forced into slavery on Terrarium by the Alien. Wren was with us, taken from her home and family on Godsend at the age of fifty. She was a mother and a wife both there and here. Before the war, Wren’s work was as a mining ship captain. As a volunteer, she took part in the heroic assault on Neumann VI. For us she was a strong and intelligent village leader. She was a friend and a firm believer in her God, which is why we bury her today as her beliefs demand, atop this hill, symbolically closer to heaven.’
‘If you believe in a god or gods, or any higher power that you can speak to on her behalf, join me in the Lord’s Prayer, a perennial favorite of her church: Our Father, who art in heaven…”
But we could no longer hear her. Barely three kilometers distant, a spaceship of our overseers’ was descending to the surface, the thunder of its rockets shaking our very bones.
* * *
Because I was a former military intelligence officer whose specialty had been Alien communications technology (and how to disrupt it), the village had immediately elected me to receive instructions from them. As a result, eighteen years of practice had made what was once a hair-raising event – communications with the first known extraterrestrial sentient life form – an ordinary, even dull, duty. I simply wrote down their instructions for our village and gave them the statistics and assessments gathered by the other villagers that they requested.
There were perks to the job, however: I knew far more than we ever did during the war: that each superorganism spoke a dialect of a language common to a group of Alien superorganisms. That even within a specific superorganism (if one cared to make this often useless distinction), the different castes of drones spoke nuanced “accents” of the local dialect. I knew that their communications relied not only on the sonic utterances they could produce by forcing air from behind their eye sockets, but probably more heavily on pheromones, a phenomenon they translated to us in written Universal Language as “jiving.”
I now knew that they would wait within their spacecraft for me to come to them. Aside from a potential spurious boost to their collective egos, they probably did this for two reasons. First, because they did not wish to contaminate the biosphere of Terrarium with any bit of life from their own home world. Second, because they cogitated best in a sessile state which took some time to come in and out of for the reason that it required the physical reconfiguration of thousands of drones. I often wondered if any of my comrades who escaped the early battles had later discovered these things. Had the knowledge helped to turn the war against the Alien? I would never know, though it seems we did eventually win. The Alien told us the war had ended, that the humans had crushed them in a major battle in the Verdance asteroid belt. Both sides were exhausted. A truce had been signed. We were left in the hands of the enemy.
Though no one knew the overarching reason the Alien had begun to raid human settlements for slaves, here on Terrarium the local reason was obvious: we were to be the stewards of a new Earth. After the Alien had captured the genetic materials lab onboard a human colony ship intact, they had found a terrestrial planet within their borders, probably orbiting 4th Home, as they called the star in our Universal Tongue. It wasn’t quite big enough for our gravitational needs, so they had it bombarded the planet with thousands of asteroids and comets to add mass. To be sure nothing was left alive on the surface, they had refocused the pole of a pulsar onto the planet, bathing it in radiation for a few days. This had been one of the inventions the Alien had contrived during the war, a sort of ultimate weapon deployed in the later days as the humans began to gain ground. Last I had heard, we had no idea how they did it.
Once they were sure that the planet was completely sterile, they gave it an atmosphere and put us on it, gave us enough food and supplies until we could start growing our own. They took only those of us young enough to bear children either immediately or eventually; the rest we never saw again. Men had it better than women: for ten years after a woman here turned eighteen, she was expected to produce one pregnancy a year. Men had to eat medicines that made us stronger workers but reduced our lifespan by several years. Women couldn’t take this because it would cause them to spontaneously abort; a painful lesson of Alien experimentation. When we weren’t growing our food or copulating or making things, our job here as slaves was to monitor and spread Earth’s biosphere over the planet: apparently the Alien thought they might have a use for our DNA and RNA-based life.
Our village consisted of 257 individuals; we were supposed to keep going until we got to 1,000. When we reached that number, we would give up 500 individuals to the Alien, presumably for relocation to another area of Terrarium. No one was allowed to stray more than 500 miles from our village. We knew we were not the only village on the planet: at our boundaries, we often saw groups of humans similarly constrained by the rules of our overseers to the other side of the line. We believed that small villages probably dotted the surface of the planet, providing the knowledgeable oversight that only humans could for their biosphere. The Alien knew enough not to try growing our ecologies themselves: thorough understanding of Earth biology, like any known late phase biology, takes decades of careful research.
The day we buried Wren, we thought the Alien were being extra-finicky about numbers in our region. It was an unscheduled visit. My guess was as good as anyone’s: perhaps the microbe ratios in the water samples we gave them last report had turned up funny and they wanted an explanation, or maybe they were concerned about insect mutation levels. They wanted to introduce another tier of consumers soon; bats and lizards, goats. Perhaps a wolf or two. This would depend on the current population levels of the prey they would be consuming: the Alien seemed to have an elaborate idea about the ideal sustainable levels for each population. Population oscillations in our biology were aberrant to their own, and their biologists were still having trouble adjusting their expectations. If they had come for an extra visit just to make sure things were still on course, that we weren’t secretly sabotaging their plan (how could we, since we needed the ecology to survive and didn’t even know what they wanted from it?), it would have been fairly routine. Dull even. This was not the case.
We finished our ceremony after the ship had set down, waited for an hour while the brush fires from their landing thrusters died out. Old farmer Everett took me out to the ship in the shotgun seat of his truck, its outsized tires crossing the rolling countryside easily. It was evening as we pulled up to the spaceship, the sun setting in the southeast, a gray-pink orb blinking through the blades of grass and shining off the ship’s silvery hull. The ramp came down and I went across the cindered ground up into the behemoth, imagining not for the first time that I had a bomb strapped on; that I would avenge the evils we had suffered at their hands. Of course the ship had scanners that would detect this kind of simple plan easily; the engineered amoeba lying dormant inside of me would receive a signal and start replicating madly, producing toxic byproducts that would kill practically every kind of cell in my body. I would be reduced to a carcass in seconds, bleeding through every pore and orifice, convulsing with what would be left of my muscles. Slaves had no doubt served as excellent test subjects in the honing of that weapon; thankfully I had never lived in a slave colony consigned to that fate.
If the Alien had told us the truth, they were in peaceful contact with other extraterrestrial civilizations beyond humankind’s present reach; perhaps these species were investigating humanity’s fate even now, gathering an interstellar coalition to punish the imperialist aggressors.
A more likely scenario, if they existed at all, was that they were completely unaware of the true nature of the war between humanity and the Alien, victims of some expert PR campaign on the part of our aggressors. Another maddening unknown – I was consigned by fate to an experiment for the rest of my life, deliberately bottled up and sealed off from the rest of the universe. Intolerable for someone who had made communication his vocation.
At the top of the ramp, several drones appeared, inching toward me from a white mist, a breather adapted for the ship’s environment that would fit my face. To the human eye, calibrated through millions of years of terrestrial evolution, the Alien inevitably appeared likesomething from Earth’s menagerie. Most people described them as cat-sized flatworms with a reddish-brown tegument, and physiologically this was roughly what they were, on the individual level. A few differences: they had multiple simple eyes that ran the length of their notochord both ventrally and dorsally. Their bodies incorporated several orifices and protrudances that allowed them to interlock with each other for various functions required of them as parts of a superorganism. They smelled like a musty bouquet of flowers – a result of the pheromonal “jiving” that was ever ongoing amongst them. Inside their heads, which sported primitive cartilagineous braincases, an organ similar to the ampullae of Lorenzi found in sharks sat, providing the Alien with its primary sense. Using this, a drone literally saw right through you, as well as most barriers between you and itself, for about a dozen feet. It was probably used for other things as well; no one was sure.
Alone a single drone was about as strong as a cat or small dog and about as smart as a stupid monkey. When it started working with other drones it got sharper and stronger. Each one had a small sucker appendage to the right of its mouth that granted it a minimum of manual ability; this ability naturally increased when more drones started linking together. The superorganism taken as a whole was worth about two bright human intelligences and about a hundred men’s strength. As a sessile thinking superorganism in the rough figure of a two-story mushroom, it figured out complex ballistics trajectories on the fly, navigated almost any maze correctly the first time, designed extremely efficient particle accelerators at speeds human military researchers found very difficult to keep up with, and played a very good game of chess. Configured as mobile colonies, the Alien found it very easy to slip through any space large enough for a single drone to pass in minutes, manipulate squads of war machines in concerted attack formations, and construct or break down complex machinery at breathtaking speeds, provided it had time to think about it in a sessile state before it began. Fortunately for our species, there were only several billion of them whereas humankind numbered about eighteen billion at the start of the war.
The Alien had come from a world in which superorganisms were especially prevalent; they found our ants and bees laughably simple. They had risen above their evolutionary competitors in two fundamental ways: First, they had stopped competing between superorganisms as ants do between hives. In fact, drones from one colony often were exchanged with another colony as the most efficient way of transferring information from one to another or replenishing a colony that had lost members in combat. Second, they had crossed the emergent threshold for sentience, though no centralized consciousness was to be found. The superorganism alone was a predicting, modeling, creating, conniving machine in the way our nervous systems are. Like humans, each superorganism could be expected to live two hundred years, which provided them with enough time to learn and make use of that knowledge.
<<When one of your brains dies, you commonly gather all the other humans around and submerge the corpse in the earth, or immolate it, or place it inside a house for the dead.>>
The words, dictated onto the screen of a communications console situated on a pedestal at waist-height, came from the Alien. There was only one of them aboard the ship, and as always within ships, it was configured in a sessile state. To me the communiqué was quite ordinary. Alien never suffered perfunctory greetings, always getting right to the point. And for some reason, the Alien had a penchant for directing their conversations not at the human being as a whole, but at their brain. Apparently they had trouble differentiating between organism and organ. To them, the brain was the sessile thinking creature being carried about in another quite distinct symbiotic body-creature, the both of them composed of sub parts which might also be considered worthy of address. When Harris had cut off Tapotec’s arm five years ago during a psychotic break, the Alien had expressed utter confusion when we told them we did not believe Harris to be a murderer. To them, the arm’s death was just as terrible as the destruction of an entire person. In the end they killed him despite our wishes, not willing to let the poor madman get in the way of our progress.
<<We have seen other slaves do this as well. Because collusion between groups has been ruled out, we deduce that this behavior is likely derived from previously learned behavioral patterns which fall under the rubric of ‘religion.’>>
I peered over the top of the computer console into the white mist beyond, barely making out the mass of squirming, cogitating worms. This Alien moved and smelled differently than our usual overlords; a dialect that I had never encountered before. What was it up to?
<<We have never had religion. When one of us dies, its passing is mourned because we are no longer able to interact with that prized companion, but we do not suppose the existence of another world in which all who have died coexist in another form, often as ‘souls;’ the ‘essence’ of the person who once lived.>>
“You’re talking in generalities about us,” I said testily. I might be a slave, but I wasn’t going to let them walk all over human culture without first trying to explain it to them. “Some religions don’t even have an afterlife like that. Some do, but they don’t believe in souls. And some of us don’t believe in either.”
<<Let us talk in specifics then,>> the screen read after a brief pause. <<The female slave you just buried – Wren. Her brain was a Catholic Christian. Our encyclopedias tell us Catholics, and many other denominations of Christianity, believe not only in a soul, but also in several types of afterlife. They also commonly believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, benevolent, eternal and sentient being called God. In the case of the Catholics, they believe God to be composed of three parts in one, a concept others apparently find incoherent but which we find easy to accept.>>
“It depends on what your view of personhood is,” I replied. This was getting boring again. Sometimes the Alien interrogated me in this fashion. They already knew everything I had to say; they could look it up in the enormous database of human information they had been given before the outbreak of hostilities between our two species.
<<This skein of conversation is tangent to our primary interest in this exchange.>>
“What is it you want to know then? About why we have religion and you do not?”
At this point they were asking me to be the mouthpiece of God. From slave to exalted, I could take it all in stride. Without thinking, I tossed of an answer.
“Well, we got Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed, you didn’t. Tough luck: I guess your slaves are the chosen people of the universe.”
<<We have seen this pattern in the human religious teachings you gave us before the war. If what you say is true, then your beliefs will you to spread the word to the unbelievers.>>
I turned to look back at the fields behind me, the twilight casting a ghostly paleness over all. I felt unsettled. They had obviously been thinking about this for some time; done all their homework. And they had taken the trouble to come down in a spaceship and talk in person rather than rely on radio transmission. Getting religion was important to them, but why? I could see two possibilities: that the Alien were interested in the possible effects of religion on human social cohesion (they could be having trouble with slave colonies elsewhere), or they suspected religious traditions to be a kind of subversive element of their slave population - one that might have to be suppressed should it prove too dangerous.
To me, the second option was distinctly more likely. The Alien had carefully mixed their slave populations so that any abnormalities in one group of captures would be distributed amongst all groups, the better to streamline their system of slave care. Religious sentiment would therefore in all likelihood be about the same in every population. Thus the Alien would not be so interested in the potential social benefits of allowing their slaves to practice religion, unless they were trying to weigh potential benefits against a predetermined detriment to establish their next course of action.
Careful, I told myself. Let’s not start them thinking we pose any more of a threat than they already might.
“That certainly has been the trend, hasn’t it? But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think you’ll have to worry too much about it as a threat, even though it’s true many religions denounce slavery.”
Almost immediately, the mount of flatworms in front of me wriggled, hissed, and spat out another body of text on the communications screen.
<<Perhaps. The manner in which we keep the human colonies separated will not permit you to form an effective “crusade” or “jihad” against us. All the same, the supernatural presents threatening prospects for the sinner: the annihilation of the soul, eternal damnation, reincarnation into lesser forms, long terms of excruciating punishment. Though we are aware your species has never scientifically proven the existence of a spiritual realm or an eternal god or gods, your dogged belief over the course of eons with nothing more to go on than blind faith is impressive in its own way. It is a common saying in our species that when many brains believe something for many cycles, chances are that belief has a basis in fact.>>
“Either that, or those brains are evolutionarily hard-wired to believe in it.”
<<Which may or may not point to the existence of an all-orchestrating creator who wanted the brains of the chosen race to believe in him.>>
“You sound more like a true believer every minute.”
<<What does that mean?>>
“Never mind. Anyway all I’m saying is that you might want to reserve any actions based on the supposed reality of religious belief systems until more satisfying evidence comes in.”
<<It is becoming dark, which means your species will require sleep for several hours to come. We will not have you stay up because we want you to be in the best of shape for this conversation. But before you rest, you will go fetch one or two more from your group that you think might be able to aid us in our conversation. Our data suggests one “Sister Amphong,” as you call her brain and body, might be helpful because she was leading the burial rites today. Do not tell anyone except the people who are to come with you what is happening on pain of death.>>
I was ushered out by several of the drones As I moved across the threshold of the airlock back into Terrarium’s clear, windy night, I could feel a slight static tingle all over my body. This was the ship’s sanitizer field, making sure no microscopic particulates crossed from the environment within the ship to the environment outside the ship without their permission. The ramp closed and I was alone. Off in the distance the lights of the colony were the only visual indication of an earth beneath me other than the immense blackness in the void it created; starless counterpart to the multitudinous firmament above.
They were right – Sister Amphong would be good counsel. She knew more about the subject than probably anyone else in the colony. Problematically, however, she would not admit the possibility that no supernatural existed – at least not vocally. I suspected that like everyone else, she doubted from time to time. I was cynical, then. Most of us were. But the Alien had given me an opportunity to seek the help of a second person of my choosing. That would have to be Dr. Verochas. He was the colony’s resident biology expert; the Alien had been very particular about spreading the scientific talent evenly through their colonies. Actually, Manuel Verochas had been completing his doctorate in exobiological evolution, focusing on the isomorphisms between evolutionary histories of different planets. Because he had been enslaved halfway through that project, Manuel wasn’t really a doctor. But the man exuded a professional erudition best complimented by that epithet, so he had been Dr. Verochas from the beginning of our acquaintance. I needed him because I knew he was ardently agnostic - a fitting counterpoint to Sister Amphong’s inclusive but unsuspecting religious sentiments. Not to say there were no other agnostics in the colony, but Dr. Verochas had a knack for lucidity. He seldom seemed at a loss for simple – but not overly simplifying – summarizations of otherwise impenetrable subjects. Had he not been shut within the Terrarium, he might have made an excellent instructor in the pan-colonial university circuit.
Everett was still waiting for me, sitting in his truck and chewing on a stalk of the prairie grass. I slapped a mosquito perched on his shoulder, partially as an instinctive reaction to parasites and partially to snap the old man out of his reverie.
“What’d they talk about in there?” He asked once he had the truck moving.
“Not allowed to say. But I’m going to need Sister Amphong and Doctor Verochas to come with me tomorrow. The Alien told me I might need them.”
“Well, it was hardly considerate of them to interrupt our funeral. Doesn’t feel like we gave Wren a proper burial.”
I nodded, too absorbed in my consideration of the current conundrum to weigh in on Everett’s complaint. We drove the rest of the way in silence. The old farmer dropped me off in front of Sister Amphong’s hut. It was a small mud and straw building like all the others in our village, the only abundant architectural materials available on the plain. To the south several dozen kilometers ran a river which we called the Chain because it ran to a reservoir in the lowlands known as Ball Lake. The river had a forest around it, but the Alien allowed only a certain percentage of the forest to be taken for lumber, a small amount better used in the manufacture of tools than as a building material.
I called for the Sister. Inside, I could hear the sounds of her two babies starting to cry as she woke and dressed. It was impressive that she managed to raise the two of them on her own while continuing to serve in the fields and the chapel. A strong woman, she had submitted to the outrage of her celibacy in order to live, but not a fraction more. She had not engaged in sexual intercourse or taken a husband. Under the circumstances, she was confident that God would understand. I hoped her children would too, when they were older. When she came to the door I told her briefly what had transpired.
“Do you need me now?” She asked, a child in each arm and clad in a nightgown, all of her usual soothing personality hidden under a more pragmatic, tired exterior.
“Yes, if at all possible,” I told her. “They will be expecting us early tomorrow, and I would like to have some time to discuss the matter before we submit ourselves to the grand inquisitor, so to speak.”
“We are already enslaved without hope of escape. You say they do not fear a religious uprising, and they already have all the knowledge they need in their encyclopedias. Why should we lose sleep over their whims?”
“Strange words coming from a woman who believes her god calls her to spread the good news.”
“My God never told anyone to spread the word to animals.”
“Humans are animals,” I countered testily.
“Don’t give me trouble, Sam. You know I’m talking about whether or not they have souls. Why are you so anxious to please them? Don’t forget it was their policies that got Wren killed.”
“I know, and I have the same reservations as you. But I think this is more than a whim. When have they ever bothered us for information they already had before? I don’t think they’re here to drill us on religion. I think this is their way of opening up some sort of negotiation.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure. But I think they want something from us that they can’t get by force. They’re here to ask for something, which means we’ve got some leverage, some means of bettering our situation.”
“Perhaps. It’s worth a shot. But first we have to take Mary and Nathan over to Chandra’s house. She is sick and unable to work in the field for now, but will be happy to care for them until we return.”
I agreed to this, and we made our way down the main avenue of the village to Chandra’s, then to the eastern end where the Verochas family lived. By now Terrarium’s moon had risen far enough over the horizon to cast our star’s light over the landscape, making it easy going. Soon Doctor Verochas was standing out in the humid night with us, a short, bearded Hispanic man of some fifty years.
“So the Alien want to get religion, eh? Just one in a long line of dubious ideas they’ve had.”
“That’s my hunch, yes. And I don’t think we should treat it as a bad idea. This might be a way to better our condition here, to gain some leverage with our masters.”
Dr. Verochas, who liked to affect the anachronism of a pair of spectacles, pushed them up the bridge of his nose as he always did when beginning a thorough inspection.
“So why do you want me at this hour?”
Was no one else eager to pounce on this opportunity? I sighed exasperatedly and explained as we walked into the town square, a small open space which was little more than the intersection of the two main avenues that defined the shape of our village.
“So you want me to tell you and the good Sister how the Alien’s biophysiology might affect any proceedings which may occur tomorrow?”
I nodded. Dr. Verochas pushed up his spectacles again and thought for a moment, sitting down in the dirt as he did so. Sister Amphong and I followed suit.
“The most obvious thing I can see is that they’ve got no central nervous system as you or I have, and religions have basically been using the identity of this system to define the identity of a person,” Dr. Verochas began.
“Hardly so simple as that,” Sister Amphong scoffed. “Leave it to the scientist to generalize when it comes to religion or anything else that doesn’t easily fit in with his view of a quantifiable universe. Some religions think the identity of a person lies with the identity of the central nervous system, while others use the identity of the body as a whole. Then you’ve got those religions which believe in reincarnation or life after death which find it necessary to explain our identity with souls or some other form of supernatural phenomenon. And some don’t believe in the existence of identifiable persons at all.”
“They already know these minutiae!” Dr. Verochas protested. “I was just trying to point out that I don’t think you could teach them that they are individuals in the ways many religious philosophies naively assume you can identify individuals.”
“Well I completely agree with that,” Sister Amphong said. “Sam, this is what I was talking about earlier. Because the Alien are made up of many smaller creatures both mentally and physically, it is difficult to see to which creature of the group should be considered to have a soul or comprise the identity of a single Alien. And they just divide instead of having sex; that makes of one of humanity’s more common religious rites – marriage – a non-sequitur.”
“I’m not bothered so much by that, actually, since really our religions have the same problem with human beings as it is.”
Sister Amphong frowned at him, but Dr. Verochas continued unabated.
“I mean, our brains are nothing but a collection of individually stupid neurons. There is no single ‘master neuron’ to which we can assign a soul or grant the mantle of personhood. Even if we accept that perhaps you can grant a soul or personhood to a group of living things, I was more concerned with the problem of memory. Scientifically, it has been in vogue for some time now to see a continuing stream of memory as representative of a person. Switch their bodies or their brains around, download them into a computer, do what you will – as long as all the memories remain intact and interacting as they were before, you’ve got the same person.”
“Ok,” I said. “Not sure how this is problematic with the Alien.”
“Well, it’s quite problematic because while we differentiate between individual Aliens by calling cooperating groups of them a superorganism, the truth is that you’ve got all this mixing and matching of members between them. One little worm might spend some time in dozens of different superorganisms over the course of its short lifespan, and preliminary studies have shown that it probably takes a considerable amount of memory along with it. So these creatures are constantly shifting parts of what modern human science would consider their ‘selves’ between each other. Insofar as memory is concerned, where one individual Alien begins and another ends is a fractal problem, defined only for the sake of simplicity.”
“Either way, Sam,” Sister Amphong interjected, “I think the dilemma we’re arriving at here is that no matter what they want from us tomorrow, we aren’t sure about how to relate human religion to them because our theologies have never contemplated the existence of beings like the Alien. I believe in a good God, and I don’t think he would have left such a lacuna in His teachings if the Alien were meant understand his faith.”
“As far as I’m concerned we should just tell them what our sciences have come up with so far – that no evidence exists in favor of gods, souls, or any of that religious bit,” Dr. Verochas added.
I couldn’t suppress a frown of displeasure. Was I being irrational? Both the experts I had consulted were telling me in their own way that communicating the idea of human religion to these Alien was a bad idea. But they wanted it, didn’t they? We had assumed this was what they were after, but really we had no idea. But what else could they want us for, since they already had access to the databases we had supplied them? I was almost certain of it: they wanted us to act as their spiritual advisors. Why this colony? Why now, instead of when they had first learned of the human religions?
There were too many unknowns for us to arrive at any kind of real consensus tonight. In order to get anywhere positive, I would have to assume that what I had been assuming was true and plan from there. Following this stratagem, we would at least have one potential scenario all worked out.
“Ultimately, I don’t think any of that matters,” I told the Sister and the Doctor. “If we take for granted what we have been thinking – that they want us to advise them on their quest to find religion – then we have a bargaining chip. We should make stuff up along the way, if we have to, in exchange for any kinds of benefits we can squeeze out of them.”
Sister Amphong pursed her lips. “You expect a woman of God to turn false prophet just so an evil race of slaving worms can be sate their curiosity. I think you have my answer.”
Dr. Verochas cleared his throat. “My boy, we would be better served by offering them our frankest scientific evidence and educating them in the manner of an agnostic or atheist, since they are the only opinions with any legs to stand on that we know of. If we attempt to pander to their naïve interests now in the hope of saving ourselves some trouble, then when they run into the same quandaries of belief that have plagued religious earthlings for so long, they may feel as though we have betrayed them. Retribution could be harsh.”
“I’ve already told them the general scientific consensus on the matter, but they didn’t seem interested,” I protested, my voice loud enough to elicit groans of displeasure from nearby huts. I felt a tingle of fear run up my spine: hopefully they had not heard much, or I was likely to face painful admonishment, maybe even death.
“All the same, I won’t risk being disingenuous with our masters.”
“Alright. I can see I won’t have any help in this. Will you two at least come with me tomorrow when I have to discuss this with them? It seemed as though they wanted you there. Who knows, maybe they’ll listen to both of your concerns.”
“I wouldn’t dream otherwise,” Dr. Verochas said congenially, though I thought I detected the hard edge of a threat underneath. “We can hardly risk leaving it all up to you, especially since it seems like of the three of us, you have the fuzziest idea about what to do when the sun rises.”
Sister Amphong nodded in agreement, her familiar softness returning. “So long as you have to do this, we should share the burden.”
We parted and I went home for what remained of the night. My wife and boys were already asleep, even the child within her. A tiresome working day for all of them, and anyway the Alien often kept me for days without warning: no use worrying about what you didn’t know for sure. I told myself the same thing, and my body was all too eager to comply. I lay down on my grass mat and slept immediately.
* * *
Dawn of the next day, I waited by the village well until my companions joined me. Wordlessly, we all piled into the farmer’s truck and made the journey out to the spaceship, its silvery exterior glistening in the morning dew. As we approached, the landing ramp opened to reveal three of the worms standing in a row behind the ship’s antimicrobial energy field, each of them holding a facemask for one of us. When we disembarked, I turned to the other two.
“Let me do the talking until it specifically asks for your input. As far as I know, it only requested that you be present to advise me, so you might not get to talk to it at all.”
“And if we think you’re making a terrible mistake?” Dr. Verochas asked.
“Well, you can tell me so. Just don’t try to talk to it. No reason to test its patience with us any more than I am sure it will be tested today."
The two of them looked at me warily but said nothing. We took the facemasks from the drones and they scurried before us, leading the way to the audience chamber where I had been yesterday. For whatever reason, there was substantially less fog in the room this time. We could see the large mound of worms, arranged in a vaguely fungus-like mass, situated in the center of the room and rising about ten meters above the floor to a series of control surfaces at the apex of a domed ceiling. A small sessile colony for the Alien, probably consisting of no more than several thousand worms, and likely used to keep the size of this spacecraft small. Their most sophisticated communications technology allowed for small colonies like this to remain just as intelligent as their larger and more complex brethren by staying linked in a simulated jive with other small colonies nearby, so long as the distance between them didn’t make signal delay a significant problem. Human beings had tried similar technology during the war, trying to neurologically link whole battlegroups of pilots, soldiers, and their robots together so they could act as a conscious whole. As far as I knew, the program had met with only limited success. Human brains were not modular like the Alien; they could not be scaled up or down, or easily synched with partners.
Wishes are vain in the moment of truth, but all the same I couldn’t help thinking about how much a functioning neural web between we three slaves would help right now. Anything to remove the anxiety of singular responsibility. Walking up to the communications console, I could feel the Doctor’s and the Sister’s eyes staring at the back of my head, watching my every move. The superorganism squirmed.
<<You have selected the brains we predicted you would select. Were they helpful?>>
“We have had some difficulties coming to an agreement, because we were not entirely sure what you would ask us to do for you.”
<<Don’t be afraid. Before we begin, it has been decided that you should know things which have been kept from you for some time now. You should know that we, the ‘Alien’ as you call us, have been fighting two wars. The first and most devastating you already know of: our species calls this the Slave War. The other, secret conflict has been internecine. Its cause was the discovery of your religions.>>
The Alien paused here, probably a calculated move on its part designed to compensate for decreased processing in my brain as it struggled to apprehend this new information in full. Whether they were using their ampullae or a more sophisticated scanner built into the spacecraft I did not know, but they held their silence as I motioned for the Sister and Doctor to come see what had been written. This information was far too important to leave to myself. I heard both of them gasp softly as they read it. I didn’t need the shark’s organ to feel them bristle with anxiety. Now we all knew that this conversation would almost certainly be the most important of our lives.
Barely able to speak, I managed “this changes…all of it,” my mind still racing as the next lines of text appeared.
<<This war has not been made public, but it is responsible for many of the gains made by your species in the later months of our conflict. Ultimately the faction in favor of religion won. This is why we have come to visit you today. There is so much to discuss.>>
When I had called them ‘true believers’ yesterday, I could not have known how close to the truth I was. They had already committed the sin and sacrifice of war; died for the spiritual teachings of another race entirely - at the cost of their own expansion.
And yet we were still slaves.
<<But before we begin you should know something else. We need your help in order to fulfill the plan we feel a higher power has laid before us.>>
I glanced back at Sister Amphong and Dr. Verochas, giving them a knowing look. Whatever the implications of the conversation so far, at last we had come to the point I had been counting on.
“What do our masters desire,” I asked, kneeling before the Alien.
<<As the first species to discover Homo sapiens, we feel as though a higher power has called us to be the proselytizers of your religion: its apostles, if you will. We feel the burning desire to spread the words of your religions to the other species of the galaxy, to lead them to the harmonious path of spiritual wisdom. To accomplish our missionary purpose, we will require humans with a pure heart and an honest dedication for our cause to journey with us on our long crusade. The spiritual betterment of all sentient beings is at stake.>>
“You want volunteers,” I said, realizing what they were getting at.
Immediately, Sister Amphong crossed herself and stepped forward, a gleam in her eyes. The effect of her impulse was like taking a hammer to all the fear and uncertainty crystallized within us, held immobile by the merest surface tension of resolve. Before she could speak, Dr. Verochas muscled past me and threw her against the wall.
“Listen!” He shouted at the now-quivering mass of worms, “This is all wrong! Have you even considered the problem of evil? The difficulties of bending our religious beliefs to your culture, your biology? How do you know that this ‘higher power’ even exists?”
Afraid that the situation was rapidly escaping my control, I struck Dr. Verochas on the back of his head as hard as I could. He lurched into the communications console and then rolled off it onto the floor. The strength of my blow, augmented by years of muscular supplements fed me by the Alien, had knocked him unconscious immediately. I stared for a moment, shocked, but quickly recovered and raced to the console. The Alien had extended a pseudopod of drones to a panel hiding the gun which would activate the killswitch for the amoebas in our bodies. It hovered there, unsure of what we would do next in our agitated state. On the console was a line of text:
<<The brain of Dr. Verochas is heretical and will not be tolerated.>>
“Don’t kill him, please!” I begged, struggling to shore up my reserves of sensibility as adrenaline tore them apart. “He was only trying to help.” A hard thing for me to say when he had potentially sabotaged our only bargaining chip. But it did get the Alien to retract its pseudopod. The situation stabilized for the moment, I helped Sister Amphong up.
“What happened to all your doubt yesterday?” I whispered as I set her on her feet.
“I was wrong, I see that now. Who but a being with a soul could feel the desire of charity? They need our help. My help.”
“Just wait,” I whispered, glad that the Alien’s hearing was not the strongest of their senses. “If you volunteer now, they might not need anything from us anymore. Just wait until we’ve leveraged this for all it’s worth.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Sister rebuked, raising her voice. “The good among them have won. They will free us now, as soon as is practical. Don’t let your selfish desires get in the way of the greatest salvation of souls since Christ!”
I could feel my face clouding over. “You don’t know any of that! They were just about to kill Verochas! Don’t you think it’s a little premature to conclude that they’ve fully invested themselves in a message of compassion, tolerance and sacrifice?”
Her face was a blank. I didn’t wait for her to decide.
“As you can see, we’re not completely in agreement as to how to proceed,” I said, feeling the sting of that understatement immediately but moving quickly on. “We do realize how critical it is that you bring along members of the species that is responsible for teaching you about religion. Without us, the rest of the galaxy might doubt your veracity and good intentions. The problem is, we do not feel that we could join your mission in the purity of heart and dedication that you request.”
The drones squirmed at high frequency, a phenomenon I had come to recognize as unease. I had seen this before, when the Alien had detected trace amounts of bacteria from their homeworld in the dirt of Terrarium. The odor of their jiving became slightly less pleasant; the stench of rotting fruit faintly added to the bed of decayed flowers.
<<Is there a problem with the mission as we have described it?>>
“No, let us begin immediately!” Sister Amphong cried, running toward the Alien with her arms outstretched. As she ran by I grabbed an arm and shouted at her.
“Shut up will you!”
Sister Amphong turned to unhand herself from me, but the Alien had already decided which of us was causing the trouble. A huge tentacle-like pseudopod from the Alien plunged between us, sweeping me against the wall and pinning me there. My head had struck the wall and I was feeling dizzy and breathless, unable to speak. I could make out Sister Amphong fuzzily - she seemed to have drawn a blank again. She stood listlessly where I had stopped her, staring at me. Was I bleeding…had it finally gotten through to her? The danger of this whole situation?
Somewhere far above in a realm of bright light, I saw another pseudopod reaching up, pulling something from a panel. The gun. Sister still stood immobilized, but I could see Dr. Verochas beginning to stir, tugging at her robe weakly.
Make up your mind. The right way I thought weakly.
I didn’t pass out, but for a few moments I wasn’t aware of much. Things felt very bad. Then I could feel that I was on the floor, holding my ribs, and I opened my eyes to see Dr. Verochas being carried away on a medical stretcher by some of the drones. He was looking intently at me and when he saw me moving about, he smiled. A rather generous mood for a man I had so recently struck unconscious, but then he might not actually be aware of that yet.
Sister Amphong was by my side now, tears on her face. She lowered her head to my ear.
“We will do it your way, carefully. But I feel I must go with them, to teach them how to spread the word properly, peacefully.”
Then she turned away from me. “There is a problem, actually,” the Sister said, a quaver in her voice. “Before we can teach the rest of the galaxy religion together, we need to agree on how every sentient being should be treated, based on the morality these religions teach.”
As I heard her words, I grimaced wryly. Good luck with that - we’d been trying for thousands of years. Some, like Dr. Verochas, had all but given up, preferring instead to ignore the whole venture. But Sister Amphong was beginning to pray, and the Alien had placed two pseudopodia together in front of it in a giant mimicry of her meditative position.
Soon the stretcher-bearing worms returned to bring me to the ship’s sick bay for treatment. I didn’t want to go, but the pain in my chest made it hard for me to argue. As I was carried out of view of the two supplicants, I found myself beginning to smile more genuinely, suppressing a cough that was actually the first laugh I had had since my capture. True or not, messy or not, superstitions had a way of burrowing under your skin.