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Denizens: 25 - Council

...Bill spoke up. “Why don’t we just talk out loud?”

’Tau glanced at the members of the council, then back at the four. [I regret that that will not be possible. Quite apart from the fact that we could not speak each other’s languages, my people lost the power of speech several millennia ago].

Now it was the astronauts' turn to register shocked surprise, and ’tau went on. [As the ability to mind-speak evolved within us, there was less and less need for us to actually speak aloud to each other. A few tried to keep the tradition alive; there was even, for a while, a department at the university that dealt exclusively with speech, but over the centuries the practice died out. Finally, there was no one left who remembered how. Eventually, people began being born with either stunted vocal cords or none at all, until we became as we are today]....

Humans and aliens meet, assessing their differences. If this is your first encounter with Brian William Neal's mind-blowing story please click on Denizens in the menu on this page, and begin reading at Chapter 1. Allow yourself the delight of being caught up and swept along by the irresistible tide of a great story.

After the sunlight of the outside, albeit weak, it took several seconds for the travelers' eyes to adjust to the different lighting inside the building. It was no stronger than the natural light, but was more of a soft glow that surrounded them. They looked for but could not find the source of the light, and after a few moments began to take in their surroundings.

They appeared to be in an impossibly large room, if indeed it was a room. It did not seem to have a ceiling or, if it did, it was so high as to be out of sight in the gloom. The distant walls were a bland, gray color, as was the floor. As they followed their guide, Cal noticed that the air had become noticeably cooler than outside, perhaps by as much as ten degrees.

The building appeared to serve no purpose that they could see, unless it was to house the objects they occasionally passed, which might have been works of alien art. For the most part, the building was empty, like a huge, deserted warehouse; the floor was metal, but strangely soft, and they walked on a strip about six feet wide, which was a slightly lighter shade of gray than the rest of the floor. The only sound as they walked was the low hum of Jonathan’s wheelchair, and Cal found himself wishing for a splash of color in this drab place.

Walking beside the Englishman, Karen continued to watch Jonathan carefully, but he showed no signs of distress, and remained his usual calm self. There had been no recurrence of the pain he had suffered on the Hermes, and he was still taking the medication she had prescribed for him. Still, she decided, she would continue to monitor him closely.

’Tau led them on through the massive structure, past huge statuary and strange art, always keeping to the path defined by the different shading. Cal wondered briefly what would happen if they stepped off the path, and decided he didn’t want to know. He was tired and hungry, and so many things had happened in such a short time that he felt close to sensory overload. He kept his head down and followed the leader.

Gradually, they drew near to a wall, and stopped when they reached it. There was a door, resembling the one they had entered from outside, gray and featureless, and they waited while ’tau stopped before it. After a few seconds, it slid aside to reveal a soft bluish light showing from within, the first snatch of color they had seen since entering the building. ’Tau motioned them forward, although he himself hung back, allowing them to precede him.

Cal, who had moved up to be first in line behind their guide, squared his shoulders and marched resolutely through the doorway. Then came Jonathan and Karen, with Bill bringing up the rear. Once they were all inside, ’tau also entered and the door slid shut behind him. The four looked around the room, which was about fifty meters square. They craned their necks upward but could see no ceiling, only a bluish-green haze that seemed to go on forever. Apart from themselves and their guide, the room appeared to be empty. Cal turned to the alien.

“I thought we were going to meet some of your people,” he said, beginning to feel a little uneasy. ’Tau regarded him for a moment, then sent, [And so you are. They are here now].

At that moment, a door at the far end of the room that had not been visible before slid open, and five robed figures moved into the room. Then Cal noticed, for the first time, a raised dais he would have sworn was not there when they had entered, and the five figures filed behind it and sat.

At a gesture from ’tau, the four moved to the center of the room and sat on several of the cushions that were scattered around. They were large and comfortable, and reminded Karen of the bean bags that she and her family used to sit on when they had visited her grandparent’s house. It was impossible to tell what was inside them, but they were as light as feathers, soft and luxurious, and molded themselves to their bodies.

When they were seated, ’tau remained standing, with his hands clasped in front of his face in a curious gesture. He stayed that way for about five minutes, while the silence grew in the room, and the astronauts sat still, saying nothing.

During this time, during which they assumed ’tau was in communication with his people, Cal studied the five figures behind the rostrum. They reminded him of pictures he had seen of the Supreme Court Justices in Washington, with their robes and their somber, judicial air. After a few moments, he noticed that only four of the figures were concentrating on ’tau; the fifth, a bearded, glowering individual, was glaring at the astronauts with an undisguised, unmistakable hatred. His eyes glowed like large black coals as he fixed them with his burning gaze.

During a tour of duty in the Middle East when he was still in the Air Force, Cal had met and spoken with some of the fundamentalist Arab leaders. The fanatical fervor of those people was as nothing alongside the waves of unmitigated rage he felt pouring from the alien figure on the dais. A shiver ran through him and he felt, on the edge of his consciousness, a flicker of prescience that gave him a momentary feeling of foreboding. Then the feeling passed, and his attention was claimed by ’tau.

[My apologies], the alien sent. [I realize this must be difficult for you, but it was necessary for me to communicate to the council all that has happened since we met. Because you cannot receive my thoughts or theirs when they are not directed specifically at you, I must act as interpreter when the council wishes to address you. It is cumbersome, but I see no other way for us to communicate].

Cal, observing him, noted that the alien was calm and unruffled; if he had picked up the on the fifth council member’s menace, he gave no sign of it.

Bill spoke up. “Why don’t we just talk out loud?”

’Tau glanced at the members of the council, then back at the four. [I regret that that will not be possible. Quite apart from the fact that we could not speak each other’s languages, my people lost the power of speech several millennia ago].

Now it was the astronauts' turn to register shocked surprise, and ’tau went on. [As the ability to mind-speak evolved within us, there was less and less need for us to actually speak aloud to each other. A few tried to keep the tradition alive; there was even, for a while, a department at the university that dealt exclusively with speech, but over the centuries the practice died out. Finally, there was no one left who remembered how. Eventually, people began being born with either stunted vocal cords or none at all, until we became as we are today].

’Tau turned back to the council, obviously conversing again. Then he again addressed the four.

[The council elders appreciate that you must have many questions, which they, through me, will do their best to answer. But first, they would like to know more of your world, and of your journey, and how you came to our world].

The four looked at each other, then Karen, Jonathan and Bill all looked at Cal. The American shrugged, and directed his reply towards the five robed figures behind the dais.

“Sure, I guess so. Hell, why not? I think this is a little outside the jurisdiction of earth security. There can’t possibly be any threat to our home, since it doesn’t exist, so I guess it’s okay. Shoot.”

The aliens looked confusedly at each other, and ’tau sent, [Shoot? I have interpreted this correctly? What does it mean?]

Cal smiled at him. “It means all right, go ahead, ask your questions.”

Immediately, Cal was aware of another presence in his mind, an older, calmer intelligence. He had an impression of great age, and of a wisdom far surpassing anything he had ever known before. There was a moment when his skin tingled, and he had a feeling of something leaving him, like the air out of a balloon, then it was gone. He stared up at the five figures; it was impossible to tell how many of them had been in his mind, one or all. Then he was aware of ’tau sending again.

[Please forgive us if you were startled. We find it far more efficient to simply take the information required from your minds, rather than ask a lot of questions that may not be….interpreted correctly]. He paused, and a look of concern crossed his face. [I trust you were in no way distressed? You did, after all, give your permission].

Cal hesitated, then exhaled the breath he had just realized he had been holding. “No, I guess I don’t really mind. I would have liked a little more warning of what to expect, though.”

’Tau studied the earth man for a moment, then sent, [I see what is troubling you. Please rest assured that nothing other than the information requested was taken from your minds. To do otherwise would constitute an extremely serious impropriety, and a major breach of our most fundamental ethics].

Mollified, Cal gave in. Trust has to start somewhere, he thought. Might as well be here. Besides, he reasoned, it wasn’t as if the memories had been taken from him. He still had them, intact; the aliens had merely made a copy. The ethics of telepaths seem to be pretty constant, he thought, recalling the light speed beings’ consideration before taking information from Karen.

’Tau faced the dais again and was silent for a few minutes while he communed with the council. Then he turned to the astronauts and sent, [You are bid welcome by the council elders, and are invited to stay among us for as long as you wish. Rooms are being arranged for you, and I will take you there shortly].

He paused, and the travelers could clearly detect a hesitancy in his manner as he sent, [There is something the council has instructed me to ask you. Since they order it, I will comply, but I have made it clear to them that I do so under protest at this time. I have made it clear that I feel it is not appropriate to trouble you with this matter now, before you have rested. It will wait until tomorrow].

Bill glanced at Cal and raised an eyebrow. What the hell? Cal shrugged, and said nothing. Then ’tau rose and motioned them to do the same. The door through which the council members had entered slid open, and the four followed ’tau out of the room. Once more, Cal led the way, with Bill bringing up the rear.

They followed their host through a maze of corridors. Finally, they stopped outside another door, exactly the same as all the others, and the alien sent, [Through this door you will find rooms and facilities suited to your needs. I will leave you now; you must be tired after all that has happened today].

He turned to leave, and Cal asked, “What time is it outside, day or night?”

The alien turned back and answered. [It is evening, just past the meal hour. You will also find food in your rooms. Your physiology is similar to ours, and you should find its nutritional content satisfactory]. He gave them a thin smile. [I cannot, however, vouch for the taste. That, I fear, will be very much up to the individual]. He turned away again, and as he left, sent, [I will return in the morning to present the council’s request. Until then, I wish you a good night’s rest].

Saying no more, he left them. They turned their attention to the door, and Karen said, “I wonder how we’re supposed to get in?”

Jonathan moved his chair up to the door. “Allow me, Karen,” he said, and placed his hand on a panel beside the door. It slid aside, and with a smile, the Englishman activated his chair and swept inside, leaving the others to follow.

The rooms were of the highest order of luxury, and a quick inspection revealed that there were four suites, each self-contained. Cal suggested they all choose a room, get cleaned up and bring some food back to this, the room nearest the main door, which he claimed for himself.

They all agreed, and left to find their rooms. Bill volunteered to help Jonathan with his bath, and Karen was invited to scrub Bill’s back, which she declined. As they left, the sound of Bill’s cheerful laughter followed them out.


*

An hour later, Bill and Jonathan entered Cal’s rooms to find Karen already there. She and Cal had prepared a table, and the latecomers placed the food they had brought on it. Then they all sat at the table in comfortable, high-backed chairs.

Peering uncertainly at the food, Cal lifted a cover from a dish and said, “Well, it smells good, anyway. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m starved.” With that, he ladled large helpings from each bowl and set to. The others followed suit, and for fifteen minutes there was no conversation, except for the occasional exclamation of delight as they discovered some new dish, some untried delicacy.

There were steaming bowls of strange vegetables, platters of unknown meats, breads and dishes of exotic fruits. They ate heartily; none of them knew the source of the food, but they were so hungry, not just for the food but also for the comfort of home, that they decided they didn’t really care. If their new hosts were cannibals, then so be it.

Finally, they sat back, replete. Cal filled a tall glass with a clear liquid that turned out to be a local wine, and took a mouthful before speaking.

“Well, this is the situation as I see it. We’re marooned on an alien world, our ship’s gone, we have no way of getting to Earth, and we have no idea whether or not our hosts are benevolent. For all we know, they could be fattening us up for the local version of Thanksgiving.”

Bill chuckled, and Karen tossed her napkin on to the table in disgust. “You don’t mean that, surely!” she exclaimed.

Jonathan said nothing, but took a sip of his wine, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses.

Cal smiled. “Well, if they fed us like this every day, it’d almost be worth it.” Then he sobered. “Whatever the case, we have a few decisions to make.” He poured a small quantity of a thicker, honey-colored liquid that they had discovered was far more potent than the wine, and took a cautious sip. “I don’t know what the rest of you think, but the way I see it, we have to face the fact that the mission is over. The ship is lost, and we can’t get back to Earth. Even if we could, it’s not the earth we left.”

Jonathan said, “What about the ship, though? If the aliens really can raise it, as ’tau said, could we not try to salvage it?”

Both Cal and Bill shook their heads, and the engineer said, “No, Prof. Total immersion in sea water will have ruined too many circuits and components for us to ever get it going again. Besides, there would have been a few pockets of air left in it when it reached the bottom, and the depth of water that it’s lying in would have crushed it severely, if we could even get to it. Sorry.”

There was silence around the table as they digested this, then Karen asked, “Jonathan, do you have a more accurate idea of how far back in time we’ve gone? You were working on that, weren’t you?”

The Englishman nodded, dabbing at his lips with a napkin. “Yes, I was. My best estimation is that we have traveled back to about twenty to thirty years before the birth of Christ. I’m sorry I can’t be any more accurate than that.”

Karen nodded, then asked, “So, what’s happening on earth right now?”

Jonathan looked at the ceiling for a moment, the brought his total recall to bear on what he knew of history. “Well, the Roman Empire rules the world, Britain” – he glanced at Karen – “has been conquered by Julius Caesar, Greek civilization is alive and well, and all of those nations are completely unaware of the rest of the world.”

They were quiet again, then Cal asked, “Jonathan, have you had any more thoughts on just why we went so far back in time, or even why we went back at all?”

Jonathan took another sip of his wine, and nodded. “Yes, I have formed a theory of sorts. Try to think of time as being an infinite rubber band, with us on the end of it. Now, as we approached light speed, time outside the ship slowed; then, at the barrier, there was one immeasurable instant when time stood still. Then, when we went through the barrier, as it were, time began to run backwards, although at a much faster rate than before. Thus, in the twenty one minutes and seventeen seconds we were in excess of the speed of light, we traveled back, not only the time we had gained while just under light speed, but also another thousand years.”

Cal interrupted. “Thousand years? Don’t you mean two thousand, Jonathan?”

The Englishman shook his head. “Ah, you’re forgetting we went to light speed twice; once going out, and once coming back.”

They thought about this for a moment, then Bill said, “So you’re telling us that if we had known the effects of light speed travel in advance, we might have been able to…I don’t know…somehow calibrate our velocity so as to end up back in our own time?

Jonathan nodded. “Yes, that’s it, Bill. If we know how far we will go into the future, relative to space outside the ship, we then can determine how long we have to spend at light speed to get back to the point in time at which we started. Look,” he said, guiding his chair closer to the table, “say a ship travels out from earth and accelerates up to about 99.9% of the speed of light, and stays there for a certain time. Then time on earth will pass much faster than time on the ship. If they reduce speed and return to earth without passing the light barrier, they will find that several hundred years have passed on Earth.

“So, if they go through the barrier, and spend X minutes at super-lightspeed, time will run backwards, reversing the effect and sending them back into the past. Which is Earth’s present. Time speeds up, time slows down, and they end up back where they started.”

Cal stared at him. “And the way to the stars is open,” he said. “If only we’d known about that before. We’d have been able to spend more time just under light speed and get back to our own time.” He looked glumly around the table; they were all thinking the same thing. If Only. Aloud, he said, “Well, Jonathan, I wish I’d had a teacher like you at school. I’d have paid a little more attention to my physics lessons if I’d been able to understand them.”

Jonathan flushed, and said, “Well, thank you, Cal, but it really is pretty simple once you know about the effects velocity has on time on either side of the barrier. Hindsight has a very singular clarity about it.”

They were silent again, then Cal said, “Well, it’s not all doom and gloom. We knew the risks when we signed on for this mission, and we may just have lucked into a situation here that we really had no right to expect. If you have no home to go to, there are worse places that I can think of to end your days than somewhere like this.”

Bill spoke up, pouring another glass of the potent liquor and inhaling its honey like aroma appreciatively, “Let us not forget, pilgrims, that cryptic little comment our host left us with. I suspect that these folks may yet want some form of payment for their hospitality.”

Cal nodded. “Yes, I hadn’t forgotten,” and Karen asked, “What do you suppose they might want?”

Heads were shaken around the table, but no one offered an opinion. They talked for a little while longer, mostly small talk, then Jonathan announced he was tired, and was going to bed. The others agreed, and the dinner party broke up. After arranging to meet back at Cal’s for breakfast, they went off to their own rooms.

Just before he drifted off to sleep, warm and very comfortable in the soft bed, a thought occurred to Cal. Apart from their guide and the five council members, they had not seen another living soul all day. Too tired to ponder what it meant, he pushed the thought temporarily aside and slept, under an alien roof and under an alien sky.


***

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