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Denizens: 26 - Exodus

Cal and the crew of the spaceship Hermes, which has crashed into the sea on an alien planet, learn of another amazing civilisation - then they are charged with a special mission.

Brian William Neal's mighty sci-fi adventure produces yet more startling revelations.

To read Brian's great novel from the beginning please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

The next morning, they met again in Cal’s rooms for breakfast, and they had just sat down when there came a soft chime at the door.

“What’s that?” asked Karen.

“Sounds like the doorbell,” said Bill, his mouth half-full of some kind of herb bread. “Get that, will you, honey?” he said. While Cal and Jonathan stifled grins, Karen made a ‘very funny’ face at them and went to the door. She placed her palm on the panel by the side of the door, and it slid aside to reveal ’tau. Karen asked him in and the alien entered.

Cal invited the alien to sit with them; ’tau did so, and accepted a slice of the bread with a kind of buttery spread on it, and a mug of cold, bluish “milk”.

After a few moment’s silence, during which ’tau seemed reluctant to begin, Cal decided to take the initiative.

“Last night,” he said, “you mentioned that there was something the council wanted you to ask us. Something you were personally opposed to, at least at that time. Would you like to elaborate on that now?”

’Tau placed his mug on the table and wiped his lips fastidiously with a napkin. [Yes], he sent, sweeping them all with his gaze. [There is nothing to be gained by delaying any longer]. He looked at them for a moment, then went on.

[As you have no doubt noticed, there is a scarcity of inhabitants in this city. It cannot have escaped your attention that I and the five council members are the only people you have encountered or, I suspect, even seen, during your short time here. You might reasonably have expected to find, in a city this size, a great many more, even if only servants to prepare your meals and draw your baths].

He paused for a moment, looking around the group, then went on, and his thoughts took on an even more somber tone. [The truth of the matter is that, apart from a relatively small number of my people, we are alone. This planet is all but deserted].

This revelation was greeted around the table by a stunned silence. Then Jonathan asked, “Am I correct in assuming that you wish us to perform some task or service for which you no longer have the resources or personnel to carry out yourselves?”

’Tau smiled. [As I observed when we met, you are wise, Jonathan], he sent, as if they were old friends. [I will come to the council’s request in a moment. First, I want to ask you something that has puzzled me ever since your arrival on my world. I understand that your affliction might make it more practical for another to lead in a time of physical crisis, but why do you continue to take a subservient role now that you are safe, here in the city?]

Jonathan looked uncomfortable, and Cal made to interrupt, but the Englishman went on hurriedly. “No, no, it’s all right, Cal.” He looked at the alien, who sat with a calm, inquiring expression on his face.

“I am not the leader of our expedition,” said Jonathan. “That honor belongs to Colonel Ferguson.” He indicated Cal, but the alien did not even glance in the American’s direction; instead, he continued to address Jonathan.

[But you are clearly the superior intellect here], he sent, with a puzzled frown. [Why do you not lead?]

The astronauts looked at each other with a mixture of embarrassment and amusement, and Karen said, “In our society, the greatest intellect is not always the best leader. There are other factors to be considered; resourcefulness, and the ability to motivate others chief among them.” She looked apologetically at Jonathan, then looked away quickly when she saw Cal grinning at her.

The alien looked from one to the other. [And Colonel Ferguson, called Cal, has these qualities in greater abundance than Jonathan? Pardon me, but I think not. Given your mind, Jonathan, I would never underestimate your resourcefulness or determination].

Jonathan blushed, and said, “We have traveled a long way for a long time, almost two of our years. When we set out, we had no real idea of where we were going, or what we would encounter. Because Cal had experience in leadership as a member of our world’s military forces, he was chosen to lead us.” He glanced quickly around the table. “It is something we are all agreed upon.” The others, catching his drift, nodded assent, and Jonathan continued.

“We are each of us specialists in our fields, but Cal is the only professional soldier among us, the only one of us with military experience. Therefore, he leads.” He sat back in his chair and folded his arms, ignoring the indignant look he received from Bill O’Rourke.

Karen continued. “I am a medical doctor, Cal is a soldier and a pilot, Jonathan is a physicist, and Bill an engineer. We each have – had – our own area of expertise on board the Hermes, but I suppose that’s over with now. However, if our small skills can be of any use to you or your people, you need only ask. We would be happy to do anything we can to help you, to return your hospitality.”

’Tau regarded her with respect.[In some quarters of our society, females are not encouraged to have such opinions, or even to think.] Seeing the beginnings of Karen’s reaction, he went on hastily. [However, that is not a custom with which I always have found agreement].

Cal smiled. “Neither does our society, ’tau. That’s why Karen is the mission doctor, and not just an attractive piece of excess baggage.” He shrugged apologetically at Karen, and she regarded him coolly, taken a little aback by his admission that he found her attractive. The others nodded agreement, and Cal spoke again to the alien.

“Now that the question of our hierarchy has been settled, can we move on to your council’s request?”

’Tau sat back in his chair and sent to them all.[Let me state first of all that, when I said I was opposed to this, it was only the timing I found inappropriate. The favor we are asking is something that I believe passionately in, and want desperately to happen. There are, on our world, many forms of life that are not found on your own planet. We know this because, like yourselves, we were once a space faring race. In fact, the rest of my people still are].

This enigmatic disclosure was greeted around the table by confusion, and Cal said, “Perhaps you’d better just give us the whole deal, ’tau.”

The alien nodded once, slowly and deeply, then began.

[First, I think it is appropriate that you know something of the history of my world and my people, and the similarities we share with your race, as well as the differences. We are an old people, older than are you. In fact, you of the third planet are one of the youngest races in the galaxy, certainly the youngest we have encountered].

Jonathan interrupted. “Are there many forms of life in the galaxy?” he asked excitedly.

[Yes. And they all have one characteristic in common, a similar lack, if you will. None of them are humanoid. They are many and varied, but apart from ourselves, you are the only humans we have met. Over the millennia, we have had contact with fifteen different life forms from fifteen different star systems, and they all appeared very unlike ourselves. But all of them were, like ourselves, telepathic].

Karen said, “If we are as young as you say, then maybe there is hope for us yet. Maybe telepathy is something that evolves over time. More time, perhaps, than we have so far had.”

’Tau nodded. [That may well be so], he sent, then continued with his strange, silent narrative.
[Until approximately five hundred of your years ago, trade with these civilizations flourished. There was no conflict, no war; only peace and a prosperity that had lasted for fifty millennia].

His face took on a look of genuine sadness, and Karen asked quietly, “What happened?”

’Tau visibly composed himself, and went on. [As you know, our world is much further from the sun than yours, and in order for it to support life, there must be an alternative source of heat. There is, and it comes from the planet itself. For eons, this warmth has sustained us. It warms the surface of the planet to a height of one thousand meters; above that, the temperature drops rapidly, far more quickly than on your world].

Jonathan asked, “Have you been to our world, ’tau, to Earth?”

The alien inclined his head. [Not personally, no. We of the Astronomer Guild prefer to look at other worlds from afar. We feel it gives us a broader perspective. But others of my people have visited your world, many times, to observe and monitor your race’s progress.]

[Five hundred years ago, our scientists discovered an anomaly in the core of our planet. We conducted tests, long and exhaustive, and in the end, the conclusion was inescapable; the core was heating up. The mean temperature of the core, and therefore of the surface, was rising].

[After a long series of further tests, we accepted that there was nothing we could do to halt the build-up, so we took the only step left to us. We began constructing vessels, spacecraft large and numerous enough to move an entire planetful of people across space to another world, one discovered by my guild. It was about eight light years away, and would take our ships, which did not have your faster-than-light drive, two hundred years to reach it].

[Fortunately, we are a long-lived race, far more so than yourselves, and the journey could be made well within our lifetimes. The first ships left one hundred and fifty years ago; the last, just fifty].

He paused, and Jonathan asked the question that had occurred to all of them. “What about you, ’tau? If you could, as you say, make the journey within your lifetime, why did you not go? Why are you still here, if your world is doomed?”

’Tau gave one of his rare, melancholy smiles. [Those who remained behind did so for one of two reasons. Some, like myself, stayed because they would not survive the interstellar journey]. He smiled again, a smile at odds with the sadness in his eyes. [Ah, I see by your faces that you have been deceived by my appearance. I am not as youthful as I must appear to you].

[I have said that we are long-lived, and that is true. However, when we do finally age and die, as all living things must, we do it quickly. I myself am, by your reckoning, eight hundred and fifty seven years of age, and I have only another fifty or so years left to me. In the final year of my life, I will rapidly come to look and feel my age. According to our scientist’s latest estimates, both my world and I could well cease to be at approximately the same time, although I am hoping I will see the end]. He gave a dry chuckle, the first time they had heard him laugh. [In that respect, I think we have it better than you. We only have to endure being aged and infirm for a very short time, in the context of our overall life span].

“But,” Karen interrupted, “you also know, when you begin to age, that you only have one year of life left to you. We, on the other hand, can live one third of our lives as elderly people, and seldom know the time of our death, however impending.”

’Tau considered this for a moment. [And you truly believe this to be a more acceptable alternative?]

“Yes, we do,” Karen replied. Then she glanced at the others, and said, “Well, I do.”

’Tau made no comment, and Bill said, “I think maybe your professional ethics, along with the old Hippocratic Oath, are clouding your judgment on this, Karen. As a doctor, you’re bound to preserve life for as long as possible, even where no real life exists, such as in brain damaged vegetable cases, or hopeless quadriplegics.” He glanced apologetically at Jonathan. “No offense, Prof, but you know what I mean.” Then he addressed Karen again. “Seems to me these guys have got it right. Live your life to the full, then when it’s time to go, you go. No fuss, no muss, no hanging on. Is that about it, ’tau?”

The alien inclined his head. [What Doctor O’Rourke, called Bill, says is true, according to our way of thinking. The ethics involved in such a fundamentally different ending to life as yours are truly alien. I wish I had more time to study them].

Cal spoke up. “You said the first ship left a hundred and fifty years ago. You would have had more than two hundred years left back then. Why didn’t you go?”

’Tau considered a moment before replying. [If I had gone on the first ship, I would have had perhaps twenty or thirty years on the new world. I preferred to have all of my remaining years on this one, no matter what the outcome, rather than spend most of them in space flight]. He paused, then sent, [Unfortunately too, cryogenic suspension was only perfected sixty years ago, so it was of little use to me by then].

Jonathan looked keenly at the alien. “Cryogenic suspension? You mean your science has a method of keeping a living being alive in suspended animation, and reviving it later?”

[Yes].

“How much later?”

[Unlimited, so far as we know].

“And there are no ill-effects? The body suffers no degeneration?”

[No].

Jonathan sat back, deep in thought, and said no more. Meanwhile, Cal said, “You’ve told us that your people remained behind for one of two reasons. What was the second?”

’Tau’s face took on an even more serious expression than usual. [There were some that disbelieved what the scientists said, and who claimed that they were wrong. In the five hundred years since the first announcement, there had until recently been only a relatively small increase in the surface temperature of the planet, and some doubted the wisdom of our flight. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, some opted to remain, and not take to the stars. Leaving behind all they had ever known for a journey to another world an unimaginable distance away seemed, to them, an act of folly].

The alien’s voice in their minds took on a sad and bitter tone. [There was a civil war, the first in recorded history. Millions were killed before the rebels were driven into the mountains, away from the cities. They are there still, although we have no contact with them].

[In total, there were only about one million who stayed on the planet, for whatever reason. The first few decades were wonderful. Imagine having the resources of an entire planet, compiled to serve the needs of billions, suddenly being available to just one million].

He sighed, remembering. [Those were heady days. But, as has become all too common since the war, there were those for whom an equal share was not enough, who desired control of vast areas of land, and the resources contained therein. They were the ones who believed that the scientists were wrong, that our people would one day return from the stars, and who were not about to give up their new-found empires lightly].

’Tau turned to Cal. [I have seen the question in your mind, regarding one of the council members. His name is ’klor, and he is suspected by some to be in contact with the rebel forces. He follows dark and dangerous paths, and would make a bad enemy].

[I do not know his plans, but he has no love for you, I fear. However, he will not act against the wishes of the council. They have welcomed you here and, for the moment at least, you are safe].

[It was rumored, although never proven, that he was behind the first attacks that led, ultimately, to the war. That he acted as the rebel’s agent within. The evacuation of my people to the new world continued under the supervision of the Guild of Peacekeepers. Even so, there were still attacks on our spaceports, and some ships were destroyed. However, there were enough ships and to spare; in fact, several vessels still remain here, due to the number who remained behind]. Cal looked up sharply at this, his eyes fixed on the alien, who went on, seeming not to notice.

[Of those who remain, none now wish to leave. We have spent our entire lives here, and it is too late, even if we did want to go. But to return to the request of the council. As I have said, there are, on our world, many life forms not found on your world, and a few not found anywhere else in the known galaxy. These are life forms that we wish to see perpetuated, and not die with the destruction of our planet. The ships that left here took many samples with them in cryogenic suspension, but the world to which they traveled does not have the…environmental conditions necessary to the survival of some of the others].

He looked at them all keenly. [However, your world does].

Jonathan spoke up for the first time since the revelations regarding the cryogenics. “Why did your people not simply go to earth? There was a perfect world for you, I should have thought, with little civilization and no technology.”

The others nodded, and ’tau sent, [There were some who advocated this. However, to do so would violate our most basic principles of contact with other species. Your world had civilizations, however primitive. We could not just walk in and take over, no matter how convenient it might have seemed].

Bill smiled. “The old Prime Directive, huh?”

’Tau thought for a moment, evaluating Bill’s comment, then nodded seriously. [That is a fair approximation of the principle involved.]. He looked around the table again. [But let me return to the matter at hand. If I understand you correctly, you are from a technological era of your world, and have traveled back in time, due to exceeding the speed of light]. The astronauts indicated that this was so, and he continued. [You also say, and we confirm, that your world is now at a stage where there are only the very beginnings of civilization, and no technology at all]. Again, there were nods around the table.

[The life forms of which I speak would not be seen by anyone on your world, due to the environment they inhabit. Also, they are in no way dangerous, and would present no threat to your people]. He swept the table with his gaze, and fixed on Cal.

[If you will agree to take samples of these life forms with you, frozen cryogenically in embryo form, we will provide you with a ship that will enable you to reach your home world].

While Cal and the others sat stunned at this announcement, ’tau went on. [I see in your minds that you are a compassionate people who would not knowingly do harm to another species. I therefore beg you to do this for us. The survival of these creatures depends on it. If you wish, I will take you to see them in their natural environment. Then you will see what wondrous beings they are, and when you do, I am sure you will agree to take them.]


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