Free Story

A Star in the East 

a Christmas tale
by Hans Hergot

(Published in Firstborn & Other Stories)

The hero. A metaphor. Trope. As many myths as there are worlds. And we had visited most. The paper Dilma and I produced would be the final authority on the subject. Only Kagpha, our erstwhile intern, had taken it seriously. Correlated the data. Developed models. Had I ever been that naïve? The look of eager expectation on his face as the cosmos whirled into the future taxing even our complex computational systems was almost religious. I almost envied him. But as his teacher, I must prune flowery delusions to make room for a practical garden of ideas.

“A galactic savior assumes something to save, Kagpha,” I said. “Individuals suffer, planets die, systems break apart, and all across such distances of time and space as precludes a single heroic figure.”

“Yes, Bada Dakharida,” Kagpha replied thoughtfully, “but these are only obstacles to one confined by such.”

Kagpha acted so polite, never neglecting the honorific. But I recognized my mate’s teaching. Dilma, my too-kind companion, encouraged his foolish notions. She had a mystic streak.

“Let me know when you find one unconfined by the laws of nature,” I told him. “Dilma, you might as well teach him magic.”

Perhaps Kagpha did believe in magic. Part of his usefulness as an intern lay in direct proportion to how his perspective differed from ours. As soon as he started aping our opinions, it would be time for Kagpha to go — out an airlock preferably. Dilma would not approve. Ever the nepotist, she had hired our own child.

I had given him access to our mainframe while there was important work to do. That was Dilma’s influence again, no doubt. But if I could not work, I could at least keep myself entertained at his expense.

“What is it you expect?” I asked Kagpha. “The stars to line up like a landing strip?”

“He is quite inventive,” said Dilma, conciliatory as usual.

Kagpha blushed at the compliment. Flattery. The young lack the pure logic of self-perception. What imaginations they have.

Again I prodded him, “What kind of technology could tumble the universe like a lock?”

“One with the key, I suppose,” said Kagpha. There, he had forgotten the title of respect owed by student to teacher, but as I turned triumphant to correct him I saw his distraction.

The model ticked away. Too complex now to continually track the flow of the galaxy, it staggered in intermittent stop motion bursts. How absurd that to the long lived like us, those few seconds should

seem

eternal.

“I do not believe it,” I said.

“We knew that already, Dakharida,” said Dilma, her doe eyes alight with mirth.

Yet there it was. Plain as the long nose on Kagpha’s face. It could not have been more obvious. A gaseous cloud in the shape of an arrow would have been more subtle.

“Everyone will see it.” I said.

“Yes,” replied Dilma. “It seems an open invitation.”

“Perhaps we are the first,” I thought out loud, “and in time to reach it. We would have a two-thousand year head start at least.”

“Possibly,” she said thoughtfully, “thanks to Kagpha.”

Kagpha. He had not yet moved or shown any outward indicia of acknowledgment. Struck dumb.

“Well?” I asked, “I suppose you want credit for doing the obvious? A footnote perhaps?” Had this concession meant nothing? He remained passive.

“Kagpha?” I raised my voice. “Wake up and set the course.”

At this, our calf actually clapped his hooves as though still an yearling.

“Thank you, Bada Dakharida, right away!” He moved to the controls.

“Thank me? Why should my intern thank me?” I asked.

“I didn’t know if,” he caught himself.

“If out of pride I would deny your heart’s desire to meet your hero face to face?” I shook my head. “Kagpha, your feelings are irrelevant. Only science matters.”

“And credit,” added Dilma smiling.

***

“A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years a day,” said Kagpha staring dreamily as time and stars raced in relativistic speed past the viewfinder.

I had discovered that text on a dustbowl of a planet. It sounds different when you are the translator. The spiritual implications are subsumed by technical immediacies. The subtleties nag at the mind. For sentient communication, i.e. parlaying with the locals, I borrow symbols from the listener’s mind. “And each heard as if in his native tongue while others heard only babble,” as one ancient text reads. But archives must at some point be reduced to a set of data, a series of binary switches. The responsibility for exactitude is overwhelming, little Kagpha. The possibility of being misunderstood rises almost to certainty. Will you be prepared for the challenge? I wonder.

***

We arrived a bit outside the star’s gravitational pull, as was our habit. The nasty little gambit of hyper-jumping bombs directly into planetary cores caused some systems to be justifiably paranoid. I preferred to play it safe.

“The usual broadcast on all frequencies,” I said.

Kagpha padded dutifully away at the instruments.

“Dilma,” I said, “recount what you have learned.”

“Eight planets and the usual flotsam orbiting a young star. Nothing habitable outside the third maybe fourth planet,” She replied.

“Bada Dakharida!” Kagpha’s voice was strained.

“What is it?” I asked “A death threat? Happens all the time!”

“No, Bada, nothing.”

“What do you mean, child?” Dilma shuffled to look over Kagpha’s hairy shoulder

“He’s right,” she acknowledged. “No orbital or planetary receivers in sight. No recognizable signals of any kind. It is silent.”

“Ha!” I crowed. “Where is your lord of space-time now Kagpha?”

“New data. On the third planet. Life. But no fission. No electricity. Their most advanced technology,” Dilma reported, “is fire.”

“Bada Dilma, the city layouts indicate higher math,” said Kagpha hopefully.

“Zero plus zero is zero,” I added. “There is nothing here.”

“But the signs,” Kagpha implored.

“Not nothing,” said Dilma, “an undiscovered, inhabited planet. It could be of interest to our guild. And to us, perhaps another story. A new myth?”

Dilma knew me well. Well enough to know she was playing on my practicality. Well enough to know I would not resent it. This could add novelty to the publication. Another angle. Increased readership. Greater fame.

“No legacy defenses?” I asked.

“None detected,” she replied.

“We would not want to waltz into a death trap set before they fell back into the stone age,” I cautioned.

“Nothing on our sensors,” she said.

“Then we proceed according to plan,” I ordered, “for now.”

***

After the sterility of space, dropping into a planet is like diving into a septic tank. The skin crawls at the thought of foreign microbes. On a civilized world we might never leave the ship, handling all information clinically from the cold comfort of vacuum.

Dilma assured me that, not only was the planet safe, according to her study, there were creatures there much like us. Kagpha wondered whether our species were compatible. But he would. To him, intergalactic romance seemed a novelty, not the nightmare it really is. To me, it meant we would not have to disguise ourselves or risk shocking the locals. There is the off chance on a rural planet like this that the natives might mistake one for a deity. Tempting, if one is into ant farms.

Kagpha set our landing craft down in what Dilma thought the cradle of civilization. It must have been an alcoholic pregnancy. We were not too near a major population center but within walking distance of a group of natives. They were naked. So we must be as well. I found this lacked the propriety of a first contact. But I would not let Kagpha see my discomfort for all the oats on Orion.

The natives for their part took absolutely no notice as we approached. Not one head turned.

“Perhaps they have a peaceful world with nothing to fear from strangers,” suggest Dilma, ever the utopian.

“Greetings,” I said.

Nothing.

I tried again. “Peace.”

No response.

“Well, Kagpha, I believe you will find a complimentary mate here,” I snorted.

The natives stood in a circular grouping, neither including nor excluding us, occasionally eating or defecating but otherwise docile and completely disinterested.

“Or perhaps these are defective,” said Dilma, “excluded from the rest due to mental incompetence or genetic disorder or sickness.”

“Perfect,” I said. “Well, what next Dilma? Shall we walk to the nearest village?”

“Bada Dakharida, look at the sky,” Kagpha interrupted. “That star in the east.” Its brightness exceeded its neighbors tenfold. A supernova.

“What of it?” I asked.

“A beacon,” exclaimed Dilma.

“A what?”

“Visible only planet-side. Remarkable,” she continued.

“So we follow it?” Would someone give me a straight answer?

“No need, we are quite close,” said Dilma. “Well done again, Kagpha.”

Kagpha beamed. He would get a bigger head, were that possible.

It probably didn’t occur to him that a solar system had died to create that beacon. I had the ship run the math. The star that died was in the Phoenix Nebulae. Those shameful propagandists. Well, at least it was nobody that would be missed. One of the slave rebellions must have finally gotten serious.

“Hello?”

A tiny voice startled us, especially as it did not come from one of the natives but below and to the right from behind a scrub brush. A small figure emerged. It walked on only two legs and looked like gravity’s joke, all thin and pulled. Even the face was grotesquely flat.

“Do you speak?” I asked.

“Better than the camels” it said.

“Camels?” asked Kagpha.

The creature pointed to our terrestrial doppelgangers. I gave Dilma the look.

“These little ones clothe, feed, clean, and house the ‘Camels.’ I thought them servants or slaves,” explained Dilma. “Obviously I misinterpreted the data.”

“Obviously.” I said.

“Are you d’jinn?” the creature asked, “disguised as camels?”

“D’jinn?” said Kagpha. Must he repeat everything?

“Mystical gift givers,” I interpreted, “Capricious.”

“I saw your burning lamp fall from the sky,” it said.

“Our what?” asked Dilma.

“Our landing craft must remind it of a native story,” I explained. “Tell me,” I said.

“If you find the d’jinn’s lamp it must grant your every whim,” it explained shuffling its feet.

“Do not lie,” I rebuked it. “I can see inside your mind.” I could see some symbols. It was mostly a bluff.

“Ah! D’jinn!” the miserable creature threw itself to the ground. “I tried to deceive, and now I must pay.”

“What the devil is it talking about?” asked Dilma.

“It thinks we are the devil, dressed up like these camels,” I spat in the direction of our dumb twins. “And according to its version of this classic tale, you will remember it best from Rigel Nine, a deal can be made, but he must outwit us or instead of reward, face ruin.”

“Best be wary,” chuckled Dilma.

I thought us quite secure in that regard, but it did give me an idea.

“Creature,” I addressed it.

“Enoch,” it said.

“Very well. Enoch, if you will assist us, we will grant you three wishes.”

“I wish,” it began.

“Not now, after,” I explained.

It sat still on the ground. Finally, looking up it asked, “What guarantee that afterwards I receive nothing?”

It had foresight. Good. We needed its help. We could not speak directly to the natives without suspicion or, worse, superstition.

“Very well,” I conceded, “two now, one later.”

“I wish,” it said, “for unlimited wishes.”

“Done,” I agreed.

Enoch jumped around on its spindly little legs, its meager mind awash in joy.

“But we will only grant three,” I continued. “You have two left.”

Its body slumped. But showing some resilience, it squatted to the ground and plucked at some stones.

“I wish,” it said, “for wealth equal to that of Solomon at the height of his kingdom.”

It was a decently framed request. Enoch was a quick study. However, as I did not know to whom he was referring nor what constituted wealth, I said, “You must be more specific. What items do you want?”

“Gold!” it said. “Frankincense! Myrrh!”

Rare elements or molecular combinations, no doubt.

“Very well,” I agreed, “But you must show us a sample for us to reproduce.”

He obviously thought this another trap. I did not blame him.

“My mother has a gold coin buried,” it said.

“We promise not to steal it,” I assured him. “Lead the way.”

“My camels,” he protested. “Father will beat me if anything happens to them.”

The beasts seemed safe enough in their complacency, still I told Kagpha to erect a fence. A translucent blue barrier enveloped the scraggly herd. A simple manipulation of the lander’s protective field with a lighting effect for deterrence. Kagpha had improvised the last bit — a nice touch.

Enoch at first was transfixed. Then he ran in circles round and round the barrier muttering “d’jinn” and “magic.”

“We are powerful mages,” I confirmed, “who can as easily grant the faithful’s wishes as destroy the disobedient.”

“Yes, Magi,” it said and led us toward the village.

***

As we walked, Dilma plied the ignorant thing with questions. Did it know of the upcoming event? Had it met the hero? Of what meaning was the recent population shift? Was it connected to the singularity? The calf (it called itself a man) was worse than useless. The recent travel was ordered by someone for some reason. The village was full of travelers and long lost cousins. Perfect camouflage for us. He had no knowledge of the pending cosmic convergence. Apparently Enoch had never learned to read the stars he spent every night underneath.

He compensated for his general ignorance with an inordinate amount of information on camels. In summary, they were at best sources of labor and at worst food and fur. Kagpha wretched, the honeymoon officially over.

Shortly we reached another group of creatures guarded by another man. Enoch bade us keep silent while he greeted his counterpart, as if we were as vapid as his normal charges and needed his guidance.

“Peace, Aaron,” Enoch said.

“Enoch? What are you doing wandering the hills at night?” asked Aaron. “And where’s the rest of your herd?”

“The others are penned in a ravine,” said Enoch, “These three ate my blanket and got sick.”

The boy was also quick with a story.

“Stupid, aren’t they?” said Aaron, “they do look, and smell, a bit off.” It examined us cursorily. “Should I send my brother to look after your herd?”

“No,” Enoch replied quickly. “I won’t be long”

“Aaron, who’s that?” a voice came from over the next hill.

“It’s Gil and his boys,” said Aaron with disgust. “Please let him go away,” he added, looking up.

Inwardly I agreed.

“Peace, Gil,” called Aaron. “Enoch was just on his way with some sick camels. Best stay back. They’re a mess coming and going, if you know what I mean.”

Apparently Gil did not.

“Let me have a look,” said Gil, “Save you a trip and a beating.”

“Earn you one more like,” muttered Aaron.

My patience was fast expiring. Circling in on Dilma, Kagpha, and Enoch I laid out a very simple plan, one that did not involve being violated by this yokel.

“When I count to three,” I said, “run. Scatter and meet back at the road outside the village.”

“Easy now big fella,” said Gil coming at me.

“One.”

“Whoa, hey boys. I think I see your problem, Enoch.”

“Two.”

“Let me just reach up here.”

“Three!”

I turned to run but found myself facing another man where none had previously been. He shone with all the energy of the universe. It was impossible to look directly at the creature, not only because of the brightness, but because it was never quite where it should have been. Imagine blinking alternate eyes a thousand times a second. It was unbalancing, overpowering. I fell to my knees. Kagpha rolled on his side. Dilma, I could not say. Then it spoke. But this time the symbols were ripped from my own mind.

“Fear not,” it said, looking straight at me. “I bring good news to the universe. The savior you seek was born today in the village. You will recognize him because he will be wrapped in a rough cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”

While it was speaking, I had begun to reorient myself to its version of up and down. To the space-born such comes naturally. I began to feel steady.

Then all heaven broke loose.

A disorienting rift in the sky opened with blinding luminescence and rapturous song. In that undulating light pulsed a menagerie of creatures and geometric patterns. Little plump men inside circles within circles dancing together with winged beasts, some with too many faces, others with no face at all, only eyes. They sang in chorus, “All glory to the creator, and peace to all creatures he loves.” Their meaning I grasped but the song itself, the tones ran in mathematical patterns too complex to recall more than a hint of the infinite formula. Then they vanished. If pressed, I could only say, up.

The afterimage burned into my retinas. The suddenly dark night was occluded by a green patch that remained even with my eyes shut. Was it permanent?

“Dilma?” I cried out.

“Here,” she said.

The old cow stood perfectly upright above me. How, I never asked. She was the sort never ruffled by the unexpected because she always did.

“Bada, what was that?” asked Kagpha.

“Angels,” replied Aaron.

“Our speech does not bother you?” I asked.

“Balaam’s ass spoke,” he shrugged. “Why not a dumb camel.” He strode off herding his flock toward the village.

“Dilma, what was that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“A dimensional rift?” I speculated. “The black hole hypothesis?”

“Will have to be revised.” She quoted, “For there is no darkness at all, only light.”

“Our ship, what data?” I asked.

“None,” she said, “our sensors saw nothing.”

“I saw it,” I insisted. “Something made that.”

“Dakharida, dear,” she quoted a slip of a translation, “the worlds were framed by the word so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible.”

“Then it was not natural? Nonsense.” I said.

“Spiritual realities for the spiritual,” she quoted again, “the natural cannot ken.”

“But what does it mean?” I said, becoming more agitated.

“It means,” she said, touching my foreleg calmly, “that Kagpha’s little lord of space-time is just over there. Shall we pay our respects?”

“Let’s!” cried Kagpha, following after her and the rest. I allowed myself to move with them. Enoch’s small hand rested reassuringly on my right haunch.

I had read of such occurrences, written about them, but as myth. And now? Was I as ignorant of this as Enoch of energy fields? Was this at last magic? Had I seen but a poor reflection as in a mirror?

I thought of nothing. I was like a calf, a yearling, and a little child led me.

***

When we came to the place where the baby lay, we were quite welcome and comfortable. The dwelling was constructed for us, not them. The village must indeed be full. Considering all that had happened, the baby, red and wrinkled, did not look like much. The father and mother were kind to Enoch, Aaron, and even to Gil and his dubious parenting advice. The father seemed happy but not altogether surprised about the story of the angels. The mother was reserved.

We did not linger. The baby was hungry and the mother tired.

***

“The universe groans and suffers in childbirth,” Dilma said quietly as we returned, “awaiting the redemption of the sons of man.”

I had translated that, too. Though how, without understanding, I do not know.

Back at the lander, I turned to Enoch. “Your task is complete,” I said. “What is your last wish?”

He toed the dirt, introspective. “First, the wealth I asked for. I would give it to the child.”

“Gold, frankincense, myrrh? What use has a baby for these things?” I asked him.

“Perhaps when the child’s a bit older,” Dilma intervened.

“Very well, what else?” I asked.

“I wish,” he said looking up at me, “to go with you.”

“Done,” I agreed.

“Really?” asked Enoch.

“Really?” echoed Kagpha and Dilma. They must have thought he had indeed outwitted me or that I was out of my wits. But, no, Dilma, you do not know me as well as you used to. And as for you, Kagpha, perhaps you are better prepared than I suspected.

“We will not leave this planet for some time,” I explained. Not till I understood this story fully. “And we will need an agent.”

Enoch nodded seriously.

“I do not promise to take you when we do leave,” I continued, “But if you can learn and obey, we shall see. Till then you are Kagpha’s charge.” A turnaround for herdsman and intern alike.

“Kagpha?” the boy looked up in awe at our intern.

“That’s Bada Kagpha to you,” he replied.

Our calves, Dilma. They grow up so fast.