CRUEL MIRACLES (Chapter MORTAL GODS)
THE FIRST CONTACT was peaceful, almost uneventful: sudden landings near government buildings all over the world, brief discussions in the native languages, followed by treaties allowing the aliens to build certain buildings in certain places in exchange for certain favors--nothing spectacular. The technological improvements that the aliens brought helped make life better for everyone, but they were improvements that were already well within the reach of human engineers within the next decade or two. And the greatest gift of all was found to be a disappointment--space travel. The aliens did not have faster-than-light travel. Instead, they had conclusive proof that faster-than-light travel was utterly impossible. They had infinite patience and incredibly long lives to sustain them in their snail's pace crawl among the stars, but humans would be dead before even the shortest space flight was fairly begun.
And after only a little while, the presence of aliens was regarded as quite the normal thing. They insisted that they had no further gifts to bring, and simply exercised their treaty rights to build and visit the buildings they had made.
The buildings were all different from each other, but had one thing in common: by the standards of the local populace, the new alien buildings were all clearly recognizable as churches.
Mosques. Cathedrals. Shrines. Synagogues. Temples. All unmistakably churches.
But no congregation was invited, though any person who came to such a place was welcomed by whatever aliens happened to be there at the time, who engaged in charming discussion totally related to the person's own interests. Farmers conversed about farming, engineers about engineering, housewives about motherhood, dreamers about dreams, travelers about travels, astronomers about the stars. Those who came and talked went away feeling good. Feeling that someone did, indeed, attach importance to their lives--had come trillions of kilometers through incredible boredom (five hundred years in space, they said!) just to see them.
And gradually life settled into a peaceful routine. Scientists, it is true, kept on discovering, and engineers kept on building according to those discoveries, and so changes did come. But knowing now that there was no great scientific revolution just around the corner, no tremendous discovery that would open up the stars, men and women settled down, by and large, to the business of being happy.
It wasn't as hard as people had supposed.
Willard Crane was an old man, but a content one. His wife was dead, but he did not resent the brief interregnum in his life in which he was solitary again, a thing he had not been since he came home from the Vietnam War with half a foot missing and found his girl waiting for him anyway, foot or no foot. They had lived all their married lives in a house in the Avenues of Salt Lake City, which, when they moved there, had been a shabby, dilapidated relic of a previous century, but which now was a splendid preservation of a noble era in architecture. Willard was in that comfortable area between heavy wealth and heavier poverty; enough money to satisfy normal aspirations, but not enough money to tempt him to extravagance.
Every day he walked from 7th Avenue and L Street to the cemetery, not far away, where practically everyone had been buried. It was there, in the middle of the cemetery, that the alien building stood--an obvious mimic of old Mormon temple architecture, meaning it was a monstrosity of conflicting periods that somehow, perhaps through intense sincerity, managed to be beautiful anyway.
And there he sat among the gravestones, watching as occasional people wandered into and out of the sanctuary where the aliens came, visited, left.
Happiness is boring as hell, he decided one day. And so, to provoke a little delightful variety, he decided to pick a fight with somebody. Unfortunately, everyone he knew at all well was too nice to fight. And so he decided that he had a bone to pick with the aliens.
When you're old, you can get away with anything.
He went to the alien temple and walked inside.
On the walls were murals, paintings, maps; on the floor, pedestals with statues; it seemed more a museum than anything else. There were few places to sit, and he saw no sign of aliens. Which wouldn't be a disaster; just deciding on a good argument had been variety enough, noting with pride the fine quality of the work the aliens had chosen to display.
But there was an alien there, after all.
"Good morning, Mr. Crane," said the alien.
"How the hell you know my name?"
"You perch on a tombstone every morning and watch as people come in and go out. We found you fascinating. We asked around." The alien's voicebox was very well programmed--a warm, friendly, interested voice. And Willard was too old and jaded with novelty to get much excited about the way the alien slithered along the floor and slopped on the bench next to him like a large, self-moving piece of seaweed.
"We wished you would come in."
Now that the question was put, his reason seemed trivial to him; but he decided to play the game all the way through. Why not, after all? "I have a bone to pick with you."
"Heavens," said the alien, with mock horror.
"I have some questions that have never been answered to my satisfaction."
"Then I trust we'll have some answers."
"All right then." But what were his questions? "You'll have to forgive me if my mind gets screwed around. The brain dies first, as you know."
"Why'd you build a temple here? How come you build churches?"
"Why, Mr. Crane, we've answered that a thousand times. We like churches. We find them the most graceful and beautiful of all human architecture."
"I don't believe you," Willard said. "You're dodging my question. So let me put it another way. How come you have the time to sit around and talk to half-assed imbeciles like me? Haven't you got anything better to do?"
"Human beings are unusually good company. It's a most pleasant way to pass the time which does, after many years, weigh rather heavily on our, um, hands." And the alien tried to gesture with his pseudopodia, which was amusing, and Willard laughed.
"Slippery bastards, aren't you?" he inquired, and the alien chuckled. "So let me put it this way, and no dodging, or I'll know you have something to hide. You're pretty much like us, right? You have the same gadgets, but you can travel in space because you don't croak after a hundred years like we do; whatever, you do pretty much the same kinds of things we do. And yet--"
"There's always an 'and yet,' " the alien sighed.
"And yet. You come all the way out here, which ain't exactly Main Street, Milky Way, and all you do is build these churches all over the place and sit around and jaw with whoever the hell comes in. Makes no sense, sir, none at all."
The alien oozed gently toward him. "Can you keep a secret?"
"My old lady thought she was the only woman I ever slept with in my life. Some secrets I can keep."
"Then here is one to keep. We come, Mr. Crane, to worship."
"Worship, among others, you."
Willard laughed long and loud, but the alien looked (as only aliens can) terribly earnest and sincere.
"Listen, you mean to tell me that you worship people?"
"Oh, yes. It is the dream of everyone who dares to dream on my home planet to come here and meet a human being or two and then live on the memory forever."
And suddenly it wasn't funny to Willard anymore. He looked around--human art in prominent display, the whole format, the choice of churches. "You aren't joking."
"No, Mr. Crane. We've wandered the galaxy for several million years, all told, meeting new races and renewing acquaintance with old. Evolution is a tedious old highway--carbon-based life always leads to certain patterns and certain forms, despite the fact that we seem hideously different to you--"
"Not too bad, Mister, a little ugly, but not too bad--"
"All the--people like us that you've seen--well, we don't come from the same planet, though it has been assumed so by your scientists. Actually, we come from thousands of planets. Separate, independent evolution, leading inexorably to us. Absolutely, or nearly absolutely, uniform throughout the galaxy. We are the natural endproduct of evolution."
"So we're the oddballs."
"You might say so. Because somewhere along the line, Mr. Crane, deep in your past, your planet's evolution went astray from the normal. It created something utterly new."
"We all have sex, Mr. Crane. Without it, how in the world could the race improve? No, what was new on your planet, Mr. Crane, was death."
The word was not an easy one for Willard to hear. His wife had, after all, meant a great deal to him. And he meant even more to himself. Death already loomed in dizzy spells and shortened breath and weariness that refused to turn into sleep.
"We don't die, Mr. Crane. We reproduce by splitting off whole sections of ourselves with identical DNA--you know about DNA?"
"I went to college."
"And with us, of course, as with all other life in the universe, intelligence is carried on the DNA, not in the brain. One of the byproducts of death, the brain is. We don't have it. We split, and the individual, complete with all memories, lives on in the children, who are made up of the actual flesh of my flesh, you see? I will never die."
"Well, bully for you," Willard said, feeling strangely cheated, and wondering why he hadn't guessed.
"And so we came here and found people whose life had a finish; who began as unformed creatures without memory and, after an incredibly brief span, died."
"And for that you worship us? I might as well go worshiping bugs that die a few minutes after they're born."
The alien chuckled, and Willard resented it.
"Is that why you come here? To gloat?"
"What else would we worship, Mr. Crane? While we don't discount the possibility of invisible gods, we really never have invented any. We never died, so why dream of immortality? Here we found a people who knew how to worship, and for the first time we found awakened in us a desire to do homage to superior beings."
And Willard noticed his heartbeat, realized that it would stop while the alien had no heart, had nothing that would ever end. "Superior, hell."
"We," said the alien, "remember everything, from the first stirrings of intellect to the present. When we are 'born,' so to speak, we have no need of teachers. We have never learned to write--merely to exchange RNA. We have never learned to create beauty to outlast our lives because nothing outlasts our lives. We live to see all our works crumble. Here, Mr. Crane, we have found a race that builds for the sheer joy of building, that creates beauty, that writes books, that invents the lives of never-known people to delight others who know they are being lied to, a race that devises immortal gods to worship and celebrates its own mortality with immense pomp and glory. Death is the foundation of all that is great about humanity, Mr. Crane."
"Like hell it is," said Willard. "I'm about to die, and there's nothing great about it."
"You don't really believe that, Mr. Crane," the alien said. "None of you do. Your lives are built around death, glorifying it. Postponing it as long as possible, to be sure, but glorifying it. In the earliest literature, the death of the hero is the moment of greatest climax. The most potent myth."
"Those poems weren't written by old men with flabby bodies and hearts that only beat when they feel like it."
"Nonsense. Everything you do smacks of death. Your poems have beginnings and endings, and structures that limit the work. Your paintings have edges, marking off where the beauty begins and ends. Your sculptures isolate a moment in time. Your music starts and finishes. All that you do is mortal--it is all born. It all dies. And yet you struggle against mortality and have overcome it, building up tremendous stores of shared knowledge through your finite books and your finite words. You put frames on everything."
"Mass insanity, then. But it explains nothing about why you worship. You must come here to mock us."
"Not to mock you. To envy you."
"Then die. I assume that your protoplasm or whatever is vulnerable."
"You don't understand. A human being can die--after he has reproduced--and all that he knew and all that he has will live on after him. But if I die, I cannot reproduce. My knowledge dies with me. An awesome responsibility. We cannot assume it. I am all the paintings and writings and songs of a million generations. To die would be the death of a civilization. You have cast yourselves free of life and achieved greatness."
"And that's why you come here."
"If ever there were gods. If ever there was power in the universe. You are those gods. You have that power."
"We have no power."
"Mr. Crane, you are beautiful."
And the old man shook his head, stood with difficulty, and doddered out of the temple and walked away slowly among the graves.
"You tell them the truth," said the alien to no one in particular (to future generations of himself who would need the memory of the words having been spoken), "and it only makes it worse."
It was only seven months later, and the weather was no longer spring, but now blustered with the icy wind of late autumn. The trees in the cemetery were no longer colorful; they were stripped of all but the last few brown leaves. And into the cemetery walked Willard Crane again, his arms half enclosed by the metal crutches that gave him, in his old age, four points of balance instead of the precarious two that had served him for more than ninety years. A few snowflakes were drifting lazily down, except when the wind snatched them and spun them in crazy dances that had neither rhythm nor direction.
Willard laboriously climbed the steps of the temple.
Inside, an alien was waiting.
"I'm Willard Crane," the old man said.
"And I'm an alien. You spoke to me--or my parent, however you wish to phrase it--several months ago."
"We knew you'd come back."
"Did you? I vowed I never would."
"But we know you. You are well known to us all, Mr. Crane. There are billions of gods on Earth for us to worship, but you are the noblest of them all."
"Because only you have thought to do us the kindest gift. Only you are willing to let us watch your death."
And a tear leaped from the old man's eye as he blinked heavily.
"Is that why I came?"
"I thought I came to damn your souls to hell, that's why I came, you bastards, coming to taunt me in the final hours of my life."
"You came to us."
"I wanted to show you how ugly death is."
And, seemingly eager to oblige them, Willard's heart stopped and he, in brief agony, slumped to the floor in the temple.
The aliens all slithered in, all gathered around closely, watching him rattle for breath.
"I will not die!" he savagely whispered, each breath an agony, his face fierce with the heroism of struggle.
And then his body shuddered and he was still.
The aliens knelt there for hours in silent worship as the body became cold. And then, at last, because they had learned this from their gods--that words must be said to be remembered--one of them spoke:
"Beautiful," he said tenderly. "Oh Lord my God," he said worshipfully.
And they were gnawed within by the grief of knowing that this greatest gift of all gifts was forever out of their reach.
CRUEL MIRACLES.Copyright 1990 by Orson Scott Card